Tag Archives: Innovation

Rebooting Justice

In 2017, I read a WSJ review of Rebooting Justice by Barton & Bibas:

When it comes to securing justice in an efficient and affordable fashion, lawyers can in fact be the primary obstacle. … Even basic legal services at small or mid-size firms may cost more than $200 an hour, placing meaningful legal representation beyond the reach of many Americans. … Why … costs of legal education and guildlike restrictions on entry to the profession … increasing complexity of legal processes, … choosing to represent oneself is … on the rise … [but puts one] at a severe disadvantage. … There’s no reason that paralegals, notaries, social workers and others with relevant training could not [help]. … inexpensive, downloadable forms to cover basic legal matters, like living wills or articles of incorporation. … computer-assisted mediation … Their more radical suggestion is to restructure the system so that many processes are specifically designed to omit lawyers. … The biggest obstacle to such reforms could well come from the legal profession itself.

This book was also reviewed in the New York Times:

In many contexts the presence of more lawyers actually reduces the speed and effectiveness of achieving justice. …
Few realize that the long-accepted understanding that courts have the final say on the interpretation of laws in general is not explicitly established by the Constitution. … State courts have simply asserted that they have “inherent authority” over the administration of the legal system. Under this view, rules governing lawyers, as “officers of the court,” and the practice of law in theory are “not subject to legislative reversal or encroachment.” … [Lawyers] benefit from a secretive disciplinary process that almost never results in penalties or expulsion, combined with aggressive policing of the “unauthorized practice of law” … The most powerful innovations documented in “Rebooting Justice” appear to have sprung from the creative minds of nonlawyers.

Every review I’ve found has been positive. Yet the book only got 6 reviews at Amazon (all 5 star), and only 2 at Goodreads. I bought the book back then, but only now just finished it. So the book is far from a page turner, and obviously didn’t sell many copies. But all reviews I’ve seen say it is basically right:

It is hard to argue with most of the arguments in this book: the present legal system is predicated on the assumption of litigants with relatively equal legal representation; however, in the modern age, this is all too frequently an unmet assumption. (more)

One review argued that deregulating who can practice law won’t be enough:

It is far from clear that it is the high cost of legal services—driven by alleged overregulation—that is preventing Americans from obtaining legal assistance. A recent study … found that cost explains the decision to not seek legal assistance in less than a fifth of civil justice situations. … In several states, one can become a lawyer without attending an ABA-accredited law school; some do not require attending a brick-and-mortar law school at all. … The United Kingdom began allowing corporations, known as alternative business structures (ABS), to own law firms and offer legal services since 2007. … not led to the collapse of the legal system. But … also not had an appreciable effect on access to justice.

Which is probably right. But no review disputed the book’s most radical suggestion: switch to an inquisitorial legal system, wherein judges take the initiative. From the book:

We can learn from the American system of administrative law judges and from European courts. We can adapt the inquisitorial system, in which court officials actively investigate the facts and probe the evidence instead of relying on the parties’ lawyers. That approach can cut through distracting procedural games to focus on the facts and issues at the heart of a case. Though inquisitorial judging sounds like an exotic foreign transplant, American administrative agencies already use similar methods to adjudicate unemployment and Social Security disability claims, and so do small claims courts. … Most courts in the world, including virtually all of the courts in continental Europe and most of the courts in Asia, South America, and Africa, run on an inquisitorial system.

This system is not only used in most of the world, in US administrative law, and in our small claims courts, it was also the main legal system in ancient societies, and it is used today by most non-government dispute-resolution systems, such as in churches, schools, firms, and families. This system is usually paired with a less precedent-based and more text-based system for deciding are the legal rules.

We in Anglo societies are often told that our different more adversarial and precedent-based system is superior, because it less allows corrupt judges. But as the book says,

[In a precedent based legal system] exceptions and balancing tests offer judges great discretion to adjust the law to reach almost any set of facts. They also create a massive amount of uncertainty in the system.

And if the main issue were corrupt judges, we could easily spend far more on that. For example, allow entrapment and pay many to try to bribe judges. Make 10% of court cases be fake cases designed to test judges. Often have several judges review the same case independently, and compare judge ruling stats. Monitor judge activities full time. Billion dollar bounties to those who prove corruption. Death penalties for the guilty.

Today most people simply can’t afford to use the courts to sue, and if accused of a crime they must mostly settle as if guilty, even if they are innocent, all because the system is now crazy expensive. (It didn’t use to be.) Inquisitorial judges would change that, and give most people meaningful access to a legal system to defend themselves.

By the way, requiring legal liability insurance would be another way to make sure both sides have equal access to effective lawyer support.

Here are a few more interesting quotes from the book: Continue reading "Rebooting Justice" »

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Classic Style Intellectual Worlds

The photo above is one I recently took at the Vatican. For me, it illustrates some key principles of classic artistic style. This style tends to be a fractal collection of structures at different scales, structures that frame spaces of many different sizes. Each structure doesn’t use up all local space, but instead leaves open holes for other works of art. Most all space is used by art of some sort, but items that help define larger structures are more homogeneous.

For example, the key arches in this picture have some patterns within them, but these vary less in texture, style, color, and theme, so that the arch itself can be more clearly visible. A similar pattern happens for the art in the spaces between the arches: works in larger spaces can be more complex, with more variations in textures, styles, colors, and themes. In contrast, works in smaller spaces are more constrained to fit well into the patterns around them.

Higher status artists are allocated to fill the larger spaces, where artists are allowed more discretion. This is a sense in which status is correlated with creativity. But its not at all that all artists are being as creative as they can, with the highest status artists capable of the most creativity. Instead, artists are only allowed to be more creative when they are higher status. That is, we don’t so much like high status because that indicates an ability to be creative, we instead like to see creativity because that indicates that the creator was high status.

Now consider this as a metaphor for academia and related intellectual worlds. These worlds make many products that fit into many structures on many different scales, including fields, subfields, topics, theories, and methods. Imagine that the world mainly wants all these products to fit into a pleasing aesthetic structure with an overall classic artistic style. When an individual makes a product and proposes to put it in some particular place within this overall structure, that proposal is accepted or rejected largely on the basis of how well it improves the overall artistic composition.

If so, most individuals will be rewarded for making impressive small variations. For example, if lots of people are talking about how AI will soon take all the jobs, and how a UBI could solve that, then aspiring intellectuals are rewarded for talking about modest variations on such topics. It is not that hard to be very critical of such scenarios, or to talk about very different future problems and solutions. And yes that might create more social value in terms of intellectual progress. But talking about those things clashes with the rest of the conversation, and so doesn’t make as aesthetically pleasing a whole. So you’ll instead want to be the most witty, clever, articulate, inspiring, rigorous person who talks about relatively small variations on what others are talking about.

That is, as an aspiring intellectual, you should mainly imagine yourself bidding to make one of the tiny artworks in the picture above. You’ll need to both stand out in some way, but also make something that fits very closely with nearby works. You may be capable of far greatly creativity, which could lead to greater intellectual progress. At least if anyone were to listen to you, and be tempted to build on your work. But if you aren’t one of the most impressive people doing lots of stuff that fits aesthetically with what others are doing nearby, its quite likely that no one will listen to you.

If you succeed on that usual path, you may someday be allowed more creativity, to contribute something bigger. Perhaps even something that produces real intellectual progress. And then future historians may say yay, what a great system that gives the biggest rewards to the most creative, surely it must be designed to maximize intellectual progress. Which if you are paying attention, you’ll know to be bull. Though you’ll probably also know to keep quiet about, as most everyone around you prefers a more flattering view of how their world contributes to intellectual progress.

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Enforce Common Norms On Elites

In my experience, elites tend to differ in how they adhere to social norms: their behavior is more context-dependent. Ordinary people use relatively simple strategies of being generally nice, tough, silly, serious, etc., strategies that depend on relatively few context variables. That is, they are mostly nice or tough overall. In contrast, elite behavior is far more sensitive to context. Elites are often very nice to some people, and quite mean to others, in ways that can surprise and seem strange to ordinary people.

The obvious explanation is that context-dependence is gives higher payoffs when one has the intelligence, experience, and social training to execute this strategy well. When you can tell which norms will tend to be enforced how when and by whom, then you can adhere strongly to the norms most likely to be enforced, and neglect the others. And skirt right up to the edge of enforcement boundaries. For weakly enforced norms, your power as an elite gives you more ways to threaten retaliation against those who might try to enforce them on you. And for norms that your elite associates are not particularly eager to enforce, you are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt, and also second and third chances even when you are clearly caught.

One especially important human norm says that we should each do things to promote a general good when doing so is cheap/easy, relative to the gains to others. Applied to our systems, this norm says that we should all do cheap/easy things to make the systems that we share more effective and beneficial to all. This is a weakly enforced norm that elite associates are not particularly eager to enforce.

And so elites do typically neglect this system-improving norm more. Ordinary people look at a broken system, talk a bit out how it might be improved, and even make a few weak moves in such directions. But ordinary people know that elites are in a far better position to make such moves, and they tend to presume that elites are doing what they can. So if nothing is happening, probably nothing can be done. Which often isn’t remotely close to true, given that elites usually see the system-improving norm as one they can safely neglect.

Oh elites tend to be fine with getting out in front of a popular movement for change, if that will help them personally. They’ll even take credit and pretend to have started such a movement, pushing aside the non-elites who actually did. And they are also fine with taking the initiative to propose system changes that are likely to personally benefit themselves and their allies. But otherwise elites give only lip service to the norm that says to make mild efforts to seek good system changes.

This is one of the reasons that I favor making blackmail legal. That is, while one might have laws like libel against making false claims, and laws against privacy invasions such as posting nude picts or stealing your passwords, if you are going to allow people to tell true negative info that they gain through legitimate means, then you should also let them threaten to not tell this info in trade for compensation.

Legalized blackmail of this sort would have only modest effects on ordinary people, who don’t have much money, and who others aren’t that interested in hearing about. But it would have much stronger effects on elites; elites would be found out much more readily when they broke common social norms. They’d be punished for such violations either by the info going public, or by their having to pay blackmail to keep them quiet. Either way, they’d learn to adhere much more strongly to common norms.

Yes, this would cause harm in some areas where popular norms are dysfunctional. Such as norms to never give in to terrorists, or to never consider costs when deciding whether to save lives. Elites would have to push harder to get the public to accept norm changes in such areas, or they’d have to follow dysfunctional norms. But elites would also be pushed to adhere better to the key norm of working to improve systems when that is cheap and easy. Which could be a big win.

Yes trying to improve systems can hurt when proposed improvements are evaluated via naive public impressions on what behavior works well. But efforts to improve via making new small scale trials that are scaled up only when smaller versions work well, that’s much harder to screw up. We need a lot more of that.

Norms aren’t norms if most people don’t support them, via at least not disputing the claim that society is better off when they are enforced. If so, most people must say they expect society to be better off when we find more cost-effective ways to enforced current norms. Such as legalizing blackmail. This doesn’t necessarily result in our choosing to enforce norms more strictly, though this may often be the result. Yes, better norm enforcement can be bad when norms are bad. But in that case it seems better to persuade people to change norms, rather than throwing monkey-wrenches into the gears of norm enforcement.

So let’s hold our elites more accountable to our norms, listen to them when they suggest that we change norms, and especially enforce the norm of working to improve systems. Legalized blackmail could help with getting elites to adhere more closely to common norms.

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Conditional Harberger Tax Games

Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann … transformed Paris with dazzling avenues, parks and other lasting renovations between 1853 and 1870. … Haussmann… resolved early on to pay generous compensation to [Paris] property owners, and he did. … [He] hoped to repay the larger loans he obtained from the private sector by capturing some of the increased value of properties lining along the roads he built. … [He] did confiscate properties on both sides of his new thoroughfares, and he had their edifices rebuilt. … Council of State … forced him to return these beautifully renovated properties to their original owners, who thus captured all of their increased value. (more)

In my last post I described abstractly how a system of conditional Harberger taxes (CHT) could help deal with zoning and other key city land use decisions. In this post, let me say a bit more about the behaviors I think we’d actually see in such a system. (I’m only considering here such taxes for land and property tied to land.)

First, I while many property owners would personally manage their official declared property values, many others would have them set by an agent or an app. Agents and apps may often come packaged with insurance against various things that can go wrong, such as losing one’s property.

Second, yes, under CHT, sometimes people would (be paid well to) lose their property. This would almost always be because someone else credibly demonstrated that they expect to gain more value from it. Even if owners strategically or mistakenly declare values too low, the feature I suggested of being able to buy back a property by paying a 1% premium would ensure that pricing errors don’t cause property misallocations. The highest value uses of land can change, and one of the big positive features of this system is that it makes the usage changes that should then result easier to achieve. In my mind that’s a feature, not a bug. Yes, owners could buy insurance against the risk of losing a property, though that needn’t result in getting their property back.

In the ancient world, it was common for people to keep the same marriage, home, neighbors, job, family, and religion for their entire life. In the modern world, in contrast, we expect many big changes during our lifetimes. While we can mostly count on family and religion remaining constant, we must accept bigger chances of change to marriages, neighbors, and jobs. Even our software environments change in ways we can’t control when new versions are issued. Renters today accept big risks of home changes, and even home “owners” face big risks due to job and financial risks. All of which seems normal and reasonable. Yes, a few people seem quite obsessed with wanting absolute guarantees on preservation of old property usage, but I can’t sympathize much with such fetishes for inefficient stasis. Continue reading "Conditional Harberger Tax Games" »

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Distant Future Tradeoffs

Over the last day on Twitter, I ran three similar polls. One asked:

Software design today faces many tradeoffs, e.g., getting more X costs less Y, or vice versa. By comparison, will distant future tradeoffs be mostly same ones, about as many but very different ones, far fewer (so usually all good features X,Y are feasible together), or far more?

Four answers were possible: mostly same tradeoffs, as many but mostly new, far fewer tradeoffs, and far more tradeoffs. The other two polls replaced “Software” with “Physical Device” and “Social Institution.”

I now see these four answers as picking out four future scenarios. A world with fewer tradeoffs is Utopian, where you can more get everything you want without having to give up other things. In contrast, a world with many more tradeoffs is more Complex. A world where most of the tradeoffs are like those today is Familiar. And a world where the current tradeoffs are replaced by new ones is Radical.  Using these terms, here are the resulting percentages:

The polls got from 105 to 131 responses each, with an average entry percentage of 25%, so I’m willing to believe differences of 10% or more. The most obvious results here are that only a minority foresee a familiar future in any area, and answers vary greatly; there is little consensus on which scenarios are more likely.

Beyond that, the strongest pattern I see is that respondents foresee more complexity, relative to a utopian lack of tradeoffs, at higher levels of organization. Physical devices are the most utopian, social institutions are the most complex, and software sits in the middle. The other possible result I see is that respondents foresee a less familiar social future. 

I also asked:

Which shapes the world more in the long run: the search for arrangements allowing better compromises regarding many complex tradeoffs, or fights between conflicting groups/values/perspectives?

In response, 43% said search for tradeoffs while 30% said value conflicts, and 27% said hard to tell. So these people see tradeoffs as mattering a lot.  

These respondents seriously disagree with science fiction, which usually describes relatively familiar social worlds in visibly changed physical contexts (and can’t be bothered to have an opinion on software). They instead say that the social world will change the most, becoming the most complex and/or radical. Oh brave new world, that has such institutions in it!

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Most Progress Not In Morals

Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best. Herodotus 440bc

Over the eons, we humans have greatly increased our transportation abilities. Long ago, we mostly walked everywhere. Then over time, we accumulated more ways to move ourselves and goods faster, cheaper, and more reliably, from boats to horses to gondolas to spaceships. Today, for most points A and B, our total cost to move from A to B is orders of magnitude cheaper than it would be via walking.

Even so, walking remains an important part of our transport portfolio. While we are able to move people who can’t walk, such as via wheelchairs, that is expensive and limiting. Yet while walking still matters, improvements in walking have contributed little to our long term gains in transport abilities. Most gains came instead from other transport methods. Most walking gains even came from other areas. For example, we can now walk better due to better boots, lighting, route planners, and paved walkways. Our ability to walk without such aids has improved much less.

As with transport, so with many other areas of life. Our ancient human abilities still matter, but most gains over time have come from other improvements. This applies to both physical and social tech. That is, to our space-time arrangements of physical materials and objects, and also to our arrangements of human actions, info and incentives.

Social scientists often use the term “institutions” broadly to denote relatively stable components social arrangements of actions, info and incentives. Some of the earliest human institutions were language and social norms. We have modestly improved human languages, such as via expanded syntax forms and vocabulary. And over history humans have experimented with a great range of social norms, and also with new ways to enforce them, such as oaths, law, and CCTV.

We still rely greatly on social norms to manage small families, work groups and friend groups. As with walking, while we could probably manage such groups in other ways, doing so would be expensive and limiting. So social norms still matter. But as with our walking, relatively little of our gains overtime has come from improving our ancient institution of social norms.

When humans moved to new environments, such as marshes or antic tundra, they had to adapt their generic walking methods to these new contexts. No doubt learning and innovation was involved in that process. Similarly, we no doubt continue to evolve our social norms and their methods of enforcement to deal with changing social contexts. Even so, social norm innovation seems a small part of total institutional innovation over the eons.

With walking, we seem well aware that walking innovation has only been a small part of total transport innovation. But we humans were built to at least pretend to care a lot about social norms. We consider opinions on and adherence to norms, and the shared values they support, to be central to saying who are “good” or “bad” people, and who we see as in “our people”. So we make norms central to our political fights. And we put great weight on norms when evaluating which societies are good, and whether the world has gotten better over time.

Thus each society tends to see its own origin, and the changes which led to its current norms, as enormously important and positive historical events. But if we stand outside any one society and consider the overall sweep of history, we can’t automatically count these as big contributions to long term innovation. After all, the next society is likely to change norms yet again. Most innovation is in accumulating improvements in all those other social institutions.

Now it is true that we have seen some consistent trends in attitudes and norms over the last few centuries. But wealth has also been rising, and having humans attitudes be naturally conditional on wealth levels seems a much better explanation of this fact than the theory that after a million years of human evolution we suddenly learned how to learn about norms. Yes it is good to adapt norms to changing conditions, but as conditions will likely change yet again, we can’t count that as long term innovation.

In sum: most innovation comes in additions to basic human capacities, not in tweaks to those original capacities. Most transport innovation is not in improved ways to walk, and most social institution innovation is not in better social norms. Even if each society would like to tell itself otherwise. To help the future the most, search more for better institutions, less for better norms.

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Open Policy Evaluation

Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue. La Rochefoucauld, Maximes

In some areas of life, you need connections to do anything. Invitations to parties, jobs, housing, purchases, business deals, etc. are all gained via private personal connections. In other areas of life, in contrast, invitations are made open to everyone. Posted for all to see are openings for jobs, housing, products to buy, business investment, calls for proposals for contracts and grants, etc. The connection-only world is often suspected of nepotism and corruption, and “reforms” often take the form of requiring openings to be posted so that anyone can apply.

In academia, we post openings for jobs, school attendance, conference attendance, journal publications, and grant applications for all to see. Even though most people know that you’ll actually need personal connections to have much of a chance for many of these things. People seems to want to appear willing to consider an application from anyone. They allow some invitation-only conferences, talk series, etc., but usually insist that such things are incidental, not central to their profession.

This preference for at least an appearance of openness suggests a general strategy of reform: find things that are now only gained via personal connections, and create an alternate open process whereby anyone can officially apply. In this post, I apply this idea to: policy proposals.

Imagine that you have a proposal for a better policy, to be used by governments, businesses, or other organizations. How can you get people to listen to your proposal, and perhaps endorse it or apply it? You might try to use personal connections to get an audience with someone at a government agency, political interest group, think tank, foundation, or business. But that’s stuck in the private connection world. You might wait for an agency or foundation to put out an open call for proposals, seeking a solution to exactly the problem your proposal solves. But for any one proposal idea, you might wait a very long time.

You might submit an article to an open conference or journal, or submit a book to a publisher. But if they accept your submission, that mostly won’t be an endorsement of whether your proposal is good policy by some metric. Publishers are mostly looking at other criteria, such as whether you have an impressive study using difficult methods, or whether you have a book thesis and writing style that will attract many readers.

So I propose that we consider creating an open process for submitting policy proposals to be evaluated, in the hope of gaining some level of endorsement and perhaps further action. This process won’t judge your submission on wit, popularity, impressiveness, or analytical rigor. Their key question is: is this promising as a policy proposal to actually adopt, for the purpose of making a better world? If they endorse your proposal, then other actors can use that as a quality signal regarding what policy proposals to consider.

Of course how you judge a policy proposal depends on your values. So there might be different open policy evaluators (OPE) based on different sets of values. Each OPE needs to have some consistent standards by which they evaluate proposals. For example, economists might ask whether a proposal improves economic efficiency, libertarians might ask if it increases liberty, and progressives might ask whether it reduces inequality.

Should the evaluation of a proposal consider whether there’s a snowball chance in hell of a proposal being actually adopted, or even officially considered? That is, whether it is in the “Overton window”? Should they consider whether you have so far gained sufficient celebrity endorsements to make people pay attention to your proposal? Well, those are choices of evaluation criteria. I’m personally more interested in evaluating proposals regardless of who has supported them, and regardless of their near-term political feasibility. Like how academics say we do today with journal article submissions. But that’s just me.

An OPE seems valid and useful as long as its actual choices of which policies it endorses match its declared evaluation criteria. Then it can serve as a useful filter, between people with innovative policy ideas and policy customers seeking useful ideas to consider and perhaps implement. If you can find OPEs who share your evaluation criteria, you can consider the policies they endorse. And of course if we ever end up having many of them, you could focus first on the most prestigious ones.

Ideally an OPE would have funding from some source to pay for its evaluations. But I could also imagine applicants having to pay a fee to have their proposals considered.

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News Accuracy Bonds

Fake news is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. This false information is mainly distributed by social media, but is periodically circulated through mainstream media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing, and Internet click revenue. (more)

One problem with news is that sometimes readers who want truth instead read (or watch) and believe news that is provably false. That is, a news article may contain claims that others are capable of proving wrong to a sufficiently expert and attentive neutral judge, and some readers may be fooled against their wishes into believing such news.

Yes, news can have other problems. For example, there can be readers who don’t care much about truth, and who promote false news and its apparent implications. Or readers who do care about truth may be persuaded by writing whose mistakes are too abstract or subtle to prove wrong now to a judge. I’ve suggested prediction markets as a partial solution to this; such markets could promote accurate consensus estimates on many topics which are subtle today, but which will eventually become sufficiently clear.

In this post, however, I want to describe what seems to me the simple obvious solution to the more basic problem of truth-seekers believing provably-false news: bonds. Those who publish or credential an article could offer bonds payable to anyone who shows their article to be false. The larger the bond, the higher their declared confidence in their article. With standard icons for standard categories of such bonds, readers could easily note the confidence associated with each news article, and choose their reading and skepticism accordingly.

That’s the basic idea; the rest of this post will try to work out the details.

While articles backed by larger bonds should be more accurate on average, the correlation would not be exact. Statistical models built on the dataset of bonded articles, some of which eventually pay bonds, could give useful rough estimates of accuracy. To get more precise estimates of the chance that an article will be shown to be in error, one could create prediction markets on the chance that an individual article will pay a bond, with initial prices set at statistical model estimates.

Of course the same article should have a higher chance of paying a bond when its bond amount is larger. So even better estimates of article accuracy would come from prediction markets on the chance of paying a bond, conditional on a large bond amount being randomly set for that article (for example) a week after it is published. Such conditional estimates could be informative even if only one article in a thousand is chosen for such a very large bond. However, since there are now legal barriers to introducing prediction markets, and none to introducing simple bonds, I return to focusing on simple bonds.

Independent judging organizations would be needed to evaluate claims of error. A limited set of such judging organizations might be certified to qualify an article for any given news bond icon. Someone who claimed that a bonded article was in error would have to submit their evidence, and be paid the bond only after a valid judging organization endorsed their claim.

Bond amounts should be held in escrow or guaranteed in some other way. News firms could limit their risk by buying insurance, or by limiting how many bonds they’d pay on all their articles in a given time period. Say no more than two bonds paid on each day’s news. Another option is to have the bond amount offered be a function of the (posted) number of readers of an article.

As a news article isn’t all true or false, one could distinguish degrees of error. A simple approach could go sentence by sentence. For example, a bond might pay according to some function of the number of sentences (or maybe sentence clauses) in an article shown to be false. Alternatively, sentence level errors might be combined to produce categories of overall article error, with bonds paying different amounts to those who prove each different category. One might excuse editorial sentences that do not intend to make verifiable newsy claims, and distinguish background claims from claims central to the original news of the article. One could also distinguish degrees of error, and pay proportional to that degree. For example, a quote that is completely made up might be rated as completely false, while a quote that is modified in a way that leaves the meaning mostly the same might count as a small fractional error.

To the extent that it is possible to verify partisan slants across large sets of articles, for example in how people or organizations are labeled, publishers might also offer bonds payable to those than can show that a publisher has taken a consistent partisan slant.

A subtle problem is: who pays the cost to judge a claim? On the one hand, judges can’t just offer to evaluate all claims presented to them for free. But on the other hand, we don’t want to let big judging fees stop people from claiming errors when errors exist. To make a reasonable tradeoff, I suggest a system wherein claim submissions include a fee to pay for judging, a fee that is refunded double if that claim is verified.

That is, each bond specifies a maximum amount it will pay to judge that bond, and which judging organizations it will accept.  Each judging organization specifies a max cost to judge claims of various types. A bond is void if no acceptable judge’s max is below that bond’s max. Each submission asking to be paid a bond then submits this max judging fee. If the judges don’t spend all of their max judging fee evaluating this case, the remainder is refunded to the submission. It is the amount of the fee that the judges actually spend that will be refunded double if the claim is supported. A public dataset of past bonds and their actual judging fees could help everyone to estimate future fees.

Those are the main subtleties that I’ve considered. While there are ways to set up such a system better or worse, the basic idea seems robust: news publishers who post bonds payable if their news is shown to be wrong thereby credential their news as more accurate. This can allow readers to more easily avoid believing provably-false news.

A system like that I’ve just proposed has long been feasible; why hasn’t it been adopted already? One possible theory is that publishers don’t offer bonds because that would remind readers of typical high error rates:

The largest accuracy study of U.S. papers was published in 2007 and found one of the highest error rates on record — just over 59% of articles contained some type of error, according to sources. Charnley’s first study [70 years ago] found a rate of roughly 50%. (more)

If bonds paid mostly for small errors, then bond amounts per error would have to be very small, and calling reader attention to a bond system would mostly remind them of high error rates, and discourage them from consuming news.

However, it seems to me that it should be possible to aggregate individual article errors into measures of overall article error, and to focus bond payouts on the most mistaken “fake news” type articles. That is, news error bonds should mostly pay out on articles that are wrong overall, or at least quite misleading regarding their core claims. Yes, a bit more judgment might be required to set up a system that can do this. But it seems to me that doing so is well within our capabilities.

A second possible theory to explain the lack of such a system today is the usual idea that innovation is hard and takes time. Maybe no one ever tried this with sufficient effort, persistence, or coordination across news firms. So maybe it will finally take some folks who try this hard, long, and wide enough to make it work. Maybe, and I’m willing to work with innovation attempts based on this second theory.

But we should also keep a third theory in mind: that most news consumers just don’t care much for accuracy. As we discuss in our book The Elephant in the Brain, the main function of news in our lives may be to offer “topics in fashion” that we each can all riff on in our local conversations, to show off our mental backpacks of tools and resources. For that purpose, it doesn’t much matter how accurate is such news. In fact, it might be easier to show off with more fake news in the mix, as we can then show off by commenting on which news is fake. In this case, news bonds would be another example of an innovation designed to give us more of what we say we want, which is not adopted because we at some level know that we have hidden motives and actually want something else.

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Aaronson on Caplan

Scott Aaronson just reviewed Caplan’s Case Against Education. He seems to accept most of Caplan’s specific analysis and claims:

It’s true that a large fraction of what passes for education doesn’t deserve the name—even if, as a practical matter, it’s far from obvious how to cut that fraction without also destroying what’s precious and irreplaceable. He’s right that there’s no sense in badgering weak students to go to college … we should support vocational education … Nor am I scandalized by the thought of teenagers apprenticing themselves to craftspeople. … From adolescence onward, I think that enormous deference ought to be given to students’ choices.

And yet he can’t endorse Caplan’s recommendation:

I’m not sure I want to live in the world of Caplan’s “complete separation of school and state.” … There’s not a single advanced country on earth that’s done what he advocates; the trend has everywhere been in the opposite direction. … Show me a case where this has worked. … In any future I can plausibly imagine where the government actually axes education, the savings go to things like enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.

You gotta distinguish Caplan’s favorite option, which is extreme, from the obvious cautious advice based on his book. Maybe huge school cuts haven’t been tried, but small cuts are being tried all the time, and the data Caplan points to suggests that we suffer little harm from those. Its overwhelmingly obvious that most such small cuts are not mainly spent “enriching the leaders’ cronies and launching vanity wars.” They are put toward all other government spending, and rebated to taxpayers. So the obvious advice here is to try somewhat bigger cuts, and slowly increase them as as long as things seem to be going okay.

Aaronson is also reluctant to cut school funding for fear of destroying innovation:

OK, but if professors are at least good at producing more people like themselves, able to teach and do research, isn’t that something, a base we can build on that isn’t all about signalling? And more pointedly: if this system is how the basic research enterprise perpetuates itself, then shouldn’t we be really damned careful with it, lest we slaughter the golden goose? …

It’s easy to look at most basic research, and say: this will probably never be useful for anything. But then if you survey the inventions that did change the world over the past century—the transistor, the laser, the Web, Google—you find that almost none would have happened without what Caplan calls “ivory tower self-indulgence.” What didn’t come directly from universities came from entities (Bell Labs, DARPA, CERN) that wouldn’t have been thinkable without universities, and that themselves were largely freed from short-term market pressures by governments. …

I work in theoretical computer science: … the stuff we use cutting-edge math for might itself be dismissed as “ivory tower self-indulgence.” Except then the cryptographers building the successors to Bitcoin, or the big-data or machine-learning people, turn out to want the stuff we were talking about at conferences 15 years ago. … There’s also math that struck me as boutique scholasticism, until … someone else finally managed to explain … [that its] almost like an ordinary applied engineering question, albeit one from the year 2130 or something.”

Yes of course, where government supports most basic research, most good work is funded by government. But this hardly implies that basic research is crucial, or that enough wouldn’t happen without government support. And as US governments spends roughly 25 times as much on schools as on basic research, we could double basic research funding while cutting school funding by only 5%, and have plenty left over. And even today 56% of U.S. basic research is funded outside of government.

More important, my reading of the innovation literature is that high prestige academics tend to vastly exaggerate the economic value of their work. Most economically-relevant innovation is not driven by basic research, and observed variations in basic research funding don’t much predict variations in rates of innovation. Cuts to government funding would move some basic researchers to private funding, and some to other activities. This wouldn’t hurt economic growth much, and might even help it.

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Harnessing Polarization

Human status competition can be wasteful. For example, often many athletes all work hard to win a contest, yet if they had all worked only half as hard, the best one could still have won. Many human societies, however, have found ways to channel status efforts into more useful directions, by awarding high status for types of effort of which there might otherwise be too little. For example, societies have given status to successful peace-makers, explorers, and innovators.

Relative to history and the world, the US today has unusual high levels of political polarization. A great deal of effort is going into people showing loyalty to their side and dissing the opposing side. Which leads me to wonder: could we harness all this political energy for something more useful?

Traditionally in a two party system, each party competes for the endorsement of marginal undecided voters, and so partisans can be enticed to work to produce better outcomes when their party is in power. But random variation in context makes it harder to see partisan quality from outcomes. And in a hyper partisan world, there aren’t many undecided voters left to impress.

Perhaps we could create more clear and direct contests, where the two political sides could compete to do something good. For example, divide Detroit or Puerto Rico into two dozen regions, give each side the same financial budget, political power, and a random half of the regions to manage. Then let us see which side creates better regions.

Political decision markets might also create more clear and direct contests. It is hard to control for local random factors in making statistical comparisons of polities governed by different sides. But market estimates of polity outcomes conditional on who is elected should correct for most local context, leaving a clearer signal of who is better.

These are just two ideas off the top of my head; who can find more ways that we might harness political polarization energy?

Added 28Sep: Notice that these contests don’t have to actually be fair. They just have to induce high efforts to win them. For that, merely believing that others may see them as fair could be enough.

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