Tag Archives: Politics

Radical Markets

In 1997, I got my Ph.D. in social science from Caltech. The topic that drew me into grad school, and much of what I studied, was mechanism and institution design: how to redesign social practices and institutions. Economists and related scholars know a lot about this, much of which is useful for reforming many areas of life. Alas, the world shows little interest in these reforms, and I’ve offered our book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, as a partial explanation: most reforms are designed to give us more of what we say we want, and at some level we know we really want something else. While social design scholars would do better to work more on satisfying hidden motives, there’s still much useful in what they’ve already learned.

Oddly, most people who say they are interested in radical social change don’t study this literature much, and people in this area don’t much consider radical change. Which seems a shame; these tools are a good foundation for such efforts, and the topic of radical change has long attracted wide interest. I’ve tried to apply these tools to consider big change, such as with my futarchy proposal.

I’m pleased to report that two experts in social design have a new book, Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society:

The book reveals bold new ways to organize markets for the good of everyone. It shows how the emancipatory force of genuinely open, free, and competitive markets can reawaken the dormant nineteenth-century spirit of liberal reform and lead to greater equality, prosperity, and cooperation. … Only by radically expanding the scope of markets can we reduce inequality, restore robust economic growth, and resolve political conflicts. But to do that, we must replace our most sacred institutions with truly free and open competition—Radical Markets shows how.

While I applaud the ambition of the book, and hope to see more like it, the five big proposals of the book vary widely in quality. They put their best feet forward, and it goes downhill from there. Continue reading "Radical Markets" »

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A Pullable Thread of the Social Fabric

Political polarization has been long increasing in the U.S., where it also seems unusually high for a rich nation. As one side has dominated the heights of tech, culture, media, law, and academia, and our urban centers of wealth, the other has felt neglected and dissed. So they elected Trump, at least partly knowing his faults, to send a clear signal of their unhappiness.

And so a key question has become: has electing Trump somewhat satisfied his supporters’ desire for recognition, or are they instead emboldened to demand more? This is closely related to the question: is the other side now inclined more toward appeasement, or toward doubling-down on the conflict? Had the other side given them Trump, that could be seen as appeasement, plausibly inducing more conciliation from the Trump side. But I expect Trump supporters now mostly see the other side as having offered little appeasement, and instead escalating the conflict. From which I weakly predict that polarization will get worse before it gets better.

My tweet summarizing my recent post on Two Types of Envy induced a hostile tweet storm, one that offers weak clues on future polarization. In the post I riffed on recent attention to “incel” complaints that they suffer a lack of sex, and noted that one could see this as a concern about sex inequality comparable to the concern others express regarding income inequality. I noted that while the two groups focus on different axes of inequality, they each organize to induce envy and identity with a deprived status, to hint at the possibility of violence, and to lobby for “redistribution”, meaning a change in the distribution along their axis. And I was struck by the puzzling lack of overlap between the two groups.

A few engaged this in a more appeasement-like mode, accepting that many people are unhappy and expressing a willingness to consider redistribution policies like better training, legalizing prostitution, targeted cash transfers, or stronger promotion of monogamy. But the vast majority were quite hostile, rude, and insulting, wishing terrible things upon me and saying they’d work to get me fired and arrested. Though I’ve repeatedly denied supporting any redistribution policies, for income or sex, most presumed that not only did I support sex redistribution, I instead supported raping women! Most who admitted I didn’t support rape demanded I provide a detailed redistribution plan to critique. And most who admitted that I wasn’t supporting any policy still called me evil for even comparing sex and income inequality.

Those who argue against redistributing income often complain of the direct coercion that distribution can involve, and say the poor are largely responsible for their own problems. Some even say the world would be better off if the poor just died and didn’t leave descendants. People arguing against sex redistribution made the same arguments. In addition, they said that this is all about men repressing women, that sex is about people while income is about things, that you can’t die from a lack of sex, and that no one really cares much about sex so complainers must really have other agendas. Some said sex inequality is impossible because sex isn’t a commodity, or that it exists but policy can’t influence it because feelings and personal choices are involved.

Most ancient societies had policies that influenced the distribution of sex. Some strongly promoted monogamy, and as a result reduced sex inequality. Which to me suggests that policy can in fact influence sex inequality, and that many people have cared about this kind of inequality. Even if the exact package of sex, romance, respect, etc. that people care about is complex and hard to define. You may think you have good moral arguments why such policies are bad. But as with income inequality, you should admit that people who feel envious and empowered to push policy may not be much influenced by your moral arguments.

Perhaps I’m too close to this to be a good judge, but the extremity and one-sidedness of this reaction seems to me more than typical in what are framed as left responses to right proposals, such as regarding immigration. And this weakly suggests to me that this issue could be an especially potent “loose thread” of our social fabric, that could be pulled toward our unraveling. This hasn’t yet been a big issue on the right, but were they to embrace it, the left seems even less likely than usual to seek compromise or offer appeasement. If so, a big question becomes: how inclined is the right today to embrace a cause just to pick a fight, just to show their defiance? Another is: how inclined is the left to go out of their way to goad the right into such a position to start a fight?

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Study Resistance To Widened Political Polarization

Tyler Cowen today:

Consider how an economy might work if buying decisions were made on a consistently ideological basis. Imagine a “right-wing” supermarket chain and a “left-wing” alternative. … The history of Northern Ireland shows a great many retailers, from funeral parlors to bars, that served either a largely Protestant or a largely Catholic clientele. Maybe people felt better about these exclusive commercial affiliations, but it didn’t do the economy any favors to stifle competition, and it may have helped drive political polarization too.

Two days ago an economics professor mentioned to me that he was taking a class on how to mix drinks in part because that is a relatively unpoliticized sphere of life. While there are different drink philosophies, so far none have obtained strong political connotations. It seemed to him, and to me, that in many areas of life substantial fractions of people actively resist allowing different standard views there to collect political connotations.

Of course in a rising tide of polarization, more and more spheres of life may drown in political floods. Once major divisions within an area are seen as political, outside political allies may be drawn into a bitter fight, which one political side may win, enabling it to take over that area of life. But it is worth noticing that some social processes actively resist such widened polarization. (Or more precisely “pillarisation“.)

We would do well to study such processes. To identify which areas of life are now fighting how hard to resist being caught up in political polarization. Then to theorize on what causes this extra willingness to resist. Such theories may help resisting areas to better coordinate to resist polarization. Yes, many political groups are now organizing to infect more areas with political polarization. But there seems room for more coordination against such widened polarization. If only we understood at least the basics of what is going on here.

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Beware Covert War Morality Tales

For years I’ve been saying that fiction is mainly about norm affirmation:

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice. In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on. (more)

People fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying. Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. (more)

Our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence. (more) Continue reading "Beware Covert War Morality Tales" »

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Exclusion As A Substitute For Norms, Law, & Governance

Hell may not be other people, but worry sure is. That is, what we worry most about is what other people might do to us. People at the office, near our home, at the store, on the street, and even at church.

To reduce our worries, we can rely on norms, law, and governance. That is, to discourage bad behavior, we can encourage stronger informal social rules, we can adopt more formal legal rules, and we can do more with complex governance mechanisms.

In addition, we can rely on a simple and robust ancient solution: exclusion. That is, we can limit who is allowed with the circles we travel. We can use exclusion to limit who lives in our apartment complex, who shows up at the parties we attend, and who works in a cubicle near us.

Now the modern world tends to say that it disapproves of exclusion. The bad ancient world did much gossiping about what types of people could be trusted how, and then it relied a lot on the resulting shared judgements within their norms, law, and governance. We today have instead been trying to expunge such judgments from our formal systems; they are supposed to treat everyone equally without much reference to the groups to which they belong.

In addition, we’ve become more wary of using harsh punishments, like torture, death, or exile.  And we are more wary of using corruptible quick and dirty evaluations within our norms, law, and governance. For example, we have raised our standards for shunning neighbors, pulling over drivers, convicting folks at court, and approving large bold governance changes. And people today seem less willing to help the law via reports and testimony. Oh we may be more willing to apply norms to people we read about on social media; but we apply them less to the people we meet around us.

As a result of these trends, many people perceive that we have on net weakened the power of our systems of norms, law, and governance to constrain bad behavior. In response, I think they’ve naturally increased their reliance on exclusion. They look more carefully at who they allow into their schools, firms, apartments, and nations. And they are less willing to give a marginal person the benefit of the doubt.

Since we don’t want to look like we are excluding on the basis of simple group affiliations, we instead try to rely on a more intuitive and informal aggregation of many weak clues. We try to get a feel for how much we like them or feel comfortable with them overall. But that need not result in more mixing.

For example, colleges that admit people just on GPA and test scores can be more open to lower class students than colleges that require applicants to have adopted the right set of extracurricular actives, and to have hit on the right themes in their essays. Lower class people can find it is easier to get good grades and scores than to track the new fashions in activities and essays.

Similarly, Tyler Cowen makes the point somewhere that when firms had simple and clear rules on dress and behavior, someone with a low class background could more easily pass as high class; they just had to follow the rules. Today, without such simple rules, people rely more on many subtle clues of clothes, conversation topics, travel locations, favorite music and movies, and so on. Someone with a lower class background finds it harder to adopt all these patterns, and so is more obviously outed and rejected as not one of us.

The point seems to apply more generally. The net effect of our today relying less on norms, law, and governance, and avoiding simple group labels in exclusion, is that we rely more on exclusion based on an intuitive feel that someone is like us.

This may be a cause of our increasing class and political polarization, at home and work. Feeling less protected by norms, law, and governance, and shy of using simple group identifiers, we are more and more surrounding ourselves with others who feel comfortably like us. We can tell ourselves that we aren’t excluding Joe or Sue because they are Republicans, or don’t have a college degree. Its just that those sort of people tend to give off dozens of other off-putting signs that they are just not people like us.

We would call it an outrage if society as a whole excluded them explicitly and formally because of a few simple signs. Only ignorant and rude societies do that. But we feel quite comfortable excluding them from our little part of the world based on our just not feeling comfortable with them. Hey, as anyone knows, in our part of the world it is just really important to have the right people.

Consider this another weak argument for relying more on stronger norms, law, and governance. That could let us rely less on exclusion locally. And mix up a bit more.

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Capturing The Policy Info Process

Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles’ book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality came out November 10. Steven Pearlstein titled his review “What’s to blame for slower growth and rising inequality?” Robert Samuelson says:

As societies become richer, so does the temptation for people to advance their economic interests by grabbing someone else’s wealth, as opposed to creating new wealth. … This sort of economy may be larger than you think. That’s the gist of the provocative new book …

And so on. The book’s marketing, intro, and reviews all suggest that the book is about who to blame for bad trends. And on how exactly (i.e., via what bad policies) bad guys have achieved their nefarious ends. Which to my mind is a dumb topic. Yes, it is what everyone wants to talk about for moral posturing purposes. But it is a far less useful topic than what exactly are the fundamental causes of our problems, and what we could do to address them.

However, sometimes when people play dumb, and observers treat them as dumb, they are not actually dumb. And this book in fact contains a brief but thoughtful analysis of the political obstacles to solving our many policy problems. It also suggests solutions. The problems: Continue reading "Capturing The Policy Info Process" »

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Dealism, Futarchy, and Hypocrisy

Many people analyze and discuss the policies that might be chosen by organizations such as governments, charities, clubs, and firms. We economists have a standard set of tools to help with such analysis, and in many contexts a good economist can use such tools to recommend particular policy options. However, many have criticized these economic tools as representing overly naive and simplistic theories of morality. In response I’ve said: policy conversations don’t have to be about morality. Let me explain.

A great many people presume that policy conversations are of course mainly about what actions and outcomes are morally better; which actions do we most admire and approve of ethically? If you accept this framing, and if you see human morality as complex, then it is reasonable to be wary of mathematical frameworks for policy analysis; any analysis of morality simple enough to be put into math could lead to quite misleading conclusions. One can point to many factors, given little attention by economists, but which are often considered relevant for moral analysis.

However, we don’t have to see policy conversations as being mainly about morality. We can instead look at them as being more about people trying to get what they want, and using shared advisors to help. We economists make great use of the concept of “revealed preference”; we infer what people want from what they do, and we expect people to continue to act to get what they want. Part of what people want is to be moral, and to be seen as moral. But people also want other things, and sometimes they make tradeoffs, choosing to get less morality and more of these other things. Continue reading "Dealism, Futarchy, and Hypocrisy" »

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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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Forager v Farmer, Elaborated

Seven years ago, after a year of reading up on forager lives, I first started to explore a forager vs. farmer axis:

A lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways, with forager ways slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution. It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when richer we feel we can afford to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace domination and ranking, are required to generate industry-level wealth. (more)

Recently I decided to revisit the idea, to see if I could find a clearer story that accounts better for many related patterns. Here is what I’ve come up with.

Our primate ancestors lived in a complex Machiavellian social world, with many nested levels of allies each coordinating to oppose outside rival groups of allies, often via violence. Humans, however, managed to collapse most of those levels into one: what Boehm has called a “reverse dominance hierarchy.” Human bands were mostly on good terms with neighboring bands, who they met infrequently. Inside each band, the whole group used weapons and language to coordinate to enforce shared social norms, to create a peaceful egalitarian safe space.

Individuals who saw a norm violation could tell others, and then the whole band could discuss what to do about it. Once a consensus formed, the band could use weapons to enforce their collective decision. As needed, punishments could escalate from scolding to shunning to exile to death. Common norms included requirements to share food and protection, and bans on violence, giving orders, bragging, and creating subgroup factions.

This worked often, but not always. People retained general Machiavellian social abilities, and usually used them covertly, just out of view of group norm enforcement. But sometimes the power of the collective waned, and then many would switch to acting more overtly Machiavellian. For example, an individual or a pair of allies might become so powerful that they could openly defy the group’s disapproval. Or such a pair might violate norms semi-privately, and use a threat of strong retaliation to dissuade others from openly decrying their violations. Or a nearby rival group might threaten to attack. Or a famine or flood might threaten mass mortality.

In the absence of such threats, the talky collective was the main arena that mattered. Everyone worked hard to look good by the far-view idealistic and empathy-based norms usually favored in collective views. They behaved well when observed, learned to talk persuasively to the group, and made sure to have friends to watch and talk for them. They expressed their emotions, and acted like they cared about others.

When they felt on good terms with the group, people could relax and feel safe. They then become more playful, and acted like animals generally do when playful. Within a bounded safe space, behavior becomes more varied, stylized, artistic, humorous, teasing, self-indulgent, and emotionally expressive. For example, there is more, and more varied, music and dance. New possibilities are explored.

A feeling of safety includes feeling safe to form more distinct subgroups, without others seeing such subgroups as threatening factions. And that includes feeling safe to form groups that tend to argue together for similar positions within talky collective discussions, and to disagree with the larger group. After all, it is hard for a talky collective to function well unless members are allowed to openly disagree with one another.

But when the group was stressed and threatened by dominators, outsiders, or famine, the collective view mattered less, and people reverted to more general Machiavellian social strategies. Then it mattered more who had what physical resources and strength, and what personal allies. People leaned toward projecting toughness instead of empathy. And they demanded stronger signals of loyalty, such as conformity, and were more willing to suspect people of disloyalty. Subgroups and non-conformity became more suspect, including subgroups that consistently argued together for unpopular positions.

And here is the key idea: individuals vary in the thresholds they use to switch between focusing on dealing with issues via an all-encompassing norm-enforcing talky collective, and or via general Machiavellian social skills, mediated by personal resources and allies. Everyone tends to switch together to a collective focus as the environment becomes richer and safer. (This is one of the many ways that behaviors and values consistently change with wealth.) But some switch sooner: those better at working the collective, such as being better at talking and empathy, and those who gain more from collective choices, such as physically weaker folks who can’t hunt or gather as well. And also people just generally less prone to feeling afraid as a result of ambiguous cues.

People who feel less safe are more afraid of changing whatever has worked in the past, and so hold on more tightly to typical past behaviors and practices. They are more worried about the group damaging the talky collective, via tolerating free riders, allowing more distinct subgroups, and by demanding too much from members who might just up and leave. Also, those who feel less able to influence communal discussions prefer groups norms to be enforced more simply and mechanically, without as many exceptions that will be more influenced by those who are good at talking.

I argue that this key “left vs. right” inclination to focus more vs less on a talky collective is the main parameter that consistently determines who people tend to ally with in large scale political coalitions. Other parameters can matter a lot in different times and places, but this is the one that consistently matters. This parameter doesn’t matter much for how individuals relate to each other personally, and at smaller social scales like clubs or firms, coalitions form more via our general Machiavellian abilities, based on parameters than matter directly in those contexts. But everyone has an intuitive sense for how much we all expect and want big issues to be handled by a talky collective of “everyone” with any power. The first and primary political question is how much to try to resolve issues via a big talky collective, or to let smaller groups decide for themselves.

This account that I’ve just outline does reasonably well at accounting for many known left-right patterns. For example, the right is more conscientious, while the left is more open to experience. The left prefers more varied niche types of sports, movies, and music, while the right prefers fewer standardized types. Artists, musicians, and comedians tend to be on the left. Right sports focus more on physical strength and combat, stronger men have stronger political opinions, and when low status they favor more redistribution. People on the right are less reflective, prefer simpler arguments, are more sensitive to disgust, and startle more easily.

Education elites are more left than business elites. In romance and spirituality, the left tends to favor authentic feelings while the right cares more about standards of behavior. The left is more spiritual while right is more religious. Left jobs focused more on talking and on a high tail of great outcomes, while right jobs focus more on avoiding a low tail of bad outcomes.

The left is more okay with people forming distinct subgroups, even as it thinks more in terms of treating everyone equally, even across very wide scopes, and including wide scopes in more divisive debates. The right wants to make redistribution more conditional, more wants to punish free riders, and wants norm violators to be more consistently punished. The left tends to presume large scale cooperation is feasible, while right tends to presume competition more. The left hopes for big gains from change while the right worries about change damaging things that now work.

Views tend to drift leftward as nations and the world get richer. Left versus right isn’t very useful for predicting individual behavior outside of politics, even as it is the main parameter that robustly determines large scale political inclinations. People tend to think differently about politics on what they see as the largest scales; for example, there are whole separate fields of political science and political philosophy, which don’t overlap much with fields dealing with smaller scale politics, such as in clubs and firms.

I shouldn’t need to say it but I will anyway: it is obvious that a safe playful talky collective is sometimes but not always the best way to deal with things. Its value varies with context. So sometimes those who are more reluctant to invoke it are right to be wary, while at other times those who are eager to apply it are right to push for it. It is not obvious, at least to me, whether on average the instincts of the left or the right are more helpful.

I’ve noted before that if one frames left attitudes as better when the world is safe, while right attitudes as better when world is harsh, the longer is the timescale on which you evaluate outcomes, the harsher is the world.

Added 9Sept: This post didn’t say much directly about farmers. In the much larger farmer social groups, simple one layer talky collectives were much less feasible. Farmer lives had new dangers of war and disease, and neighboring groups were more threatening. The farmer world more supported property in spouses and material goods and had more social hierarchies, farmer law less relied on a general discussion of each accused, and more reliable food meant there was less call for redistribution. Farmers worked more and had less time for play.  Together, these tended to reduce the scope of safe playful talky collectives, moving society in a rightward direction relative to foragers.

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Why Ethnicity, Class, & Ideology? 

Individual humans can be described via many individual features that are useful in predicting what they do. Such features include gender, age, personality, intelligence, ethnicity, income, education, profession, height, geographic location, and so on. Different features are more useful for predicting different kinds of behavior.

One kind of human behavior is coalition politics; we join together into coalitions within political and other larger institutions. People in the same coalition tend to have features in common, though which exact features varies by time and place. But while in principle the features that describe coalitions could vary arbitrarily by time and place, we in actual fact see more consistent patterns.

Now when forming groups based on shared features, it make senses to choose features that matter more in individual lives. The more life decisions a feature influences, the more those who share this feature may plausibly share desired policies, policies that their coalition could advocate. So you might expect political coalitions to be mostly based on individual features that are very useful for predicting individual behavior.

You might be right about small scale coalitions, such as cliques, gangs, and clubs. And you might even be right about larger scale political coalitions in the ancient world. But you’d be wrong about our larger scale political coalitions today. While there are often weak correlations with such features, larger scale political coalitions are not mainly based on the main individual features of gender, age, etc. Instead, they are more often based on ethnicity, class, and “political ideology” preferences. While ideology is famously difficult to characterize, and it does vary by time and place, it is also somewhat consistent across time and space.

In this post, I just want to highlight this puzzle, not solve it: why are these the most common individual features on which large scale political coalitions are based? Yes, in some times and places ethnicity and class matter so much that they strongly predict individual behavior. But even when they don’t matter much for policy preferences, they are still often the basis of coalitions. And why is political ideology so attractive a basis for coalitions, when it matters so little in individual lives?

I see two plausible types of theories here. One is a theory of current functionality; somehow these features actually do capture the individual features that best predict member positions on typical issues. Another is a theory of past functionality; perhaps in long-past forager environments, something like these features were the most relevant. I now lean toward this second type of theory.

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