Tag Archives: Politics

Sloppy Interior Vs. Careful Border Travel

Imagine that you are floating weightless in space, and holding on to one corner of a large cube-shaped structure. This cube has only corners and struts between adjacent corners; the interior and faces are empty. Now imagine that you want to travel to the opposite corner of this cube. The safe thing to do would be to pull yourself along a strut to an adjacent corner, always keeping at least one hand on a strut, and then repeat that process two more times. If you are in a hurry you might be tempted to just launch yourself through the middle of the cube. But if you don’t get the direction right, you risk sailing past the opposite corner on into open space.

Now let’s make the problem harder. You are still weightless holding on to a cube of struts, but now you live in 1000 dimensional space, in a fog, and subject to random winds. Each corner connects to 1000 struts. Now it would take 1000 single-strut moves to reach the opposite corner, while the direct distance across is only 32 times the length of one strut. You have only a limited ability to tell if you are near a corner or a strut, and now there are over 10300 corners, which look a lot alike. In this case you should be a lot more reluctant to leave sight of your nearest strut, or to risk forgetting your current orientation. Slow and steady wins this race.

If you were part of a group of dozens of people tethered together, it might make more sense to jump across the middle, at least in the case of the ordinary three dimensional cube. If any one of you grabs a corner or strut, they could pull the rest of you in to there. However, this strategy looks a lot more risky in a thousand dimensions with fog and wind, where there are so many more ways to go wrong. Even more so in a million dimensions.

Let me offer these problems as metaphors for the choice between careful and sloppy thinking. In general, you start with what you know now, and seek to learn more, in part to help you make key decisions. You have some degree of confidence in every relevant claim, and these can combine to specify a vector in a high dimensional cube of possible beliefs. Your key choice: how to move within this belief cube.

In a “sloppy interior” approach, you throw together weak tentative beliefs on everything relevant, using any basis available, and then try to crudely adjust them via considerations of consistency, evidence, elegance, rhetoric, and social conformity. You think intuitively, on your feet, and respond to social pressures. That is, a big group of you throw yourselves toward the middle of the cube, and pull on the tethers when you think that could help others get to a strut or corner you see. Sometimes a big group splits into two main groups who have a tug-o-war contest along one main tether axis, because that’s what humans do.

In a “careful border” approach, you try to move methodically along, or at least within sight of, struts. You make sure to carefully identify enough struts at your current corner to check your orientation and learn which strut to take next. Sometimes you “cut a corner”, jumping more than one corner at a time, but only via carefully chosen and controlled moves. It is great when you can move with a large group who work together, as individuals can specialize in particular strut directions, etc. But as there are more different paths to reach the same destination on the border, groups there more naturally split up. If your group seems inclined toward overly risk jumps, you can split off and move more methodically along the struts. Conversely, you might try to cut a corner to jump ahead when others nearby seem excessively careful.

Today public conversations tend more to take a sloppy interior approach, while expert conversations tend more to take a careful border approach. Academics often claim to believe nothing unless it has been demonstrated to the rigorous standards of their discipline, and they are fine with splitting into differing non-interacting groups that take different paths. Outsiders often see academics as moving excessively slowly; surely more corners could be cut with little risk. Public conversations, in contrast, are centered in much larger groups of socially-focused discussants who use more emotional, elegant, and less precise and expert language and reasoning tools.

Yes, this metaphor isn’t exactly right; for example, there is a sense in which we start more naturally from the middle a belief space. But I think it gets some important things right. It can feel more emotionally “relevant” to jump to where everyone else is talking, pick a position like others do there, use the kind of arguments and language they use, and then pull on your side of the nearest tug-o-war rope. That way you are “making a difference.” People who instead step slowly and carefully, making foundations they have sufficient confidence to build on, may seem to others as “lost” and “out of touch”, too “chicken” to engage the important issues.

And yes, in the short term sloppy interior fights have the most influence on politics, culture, and mob rule enforcement. But if you want to play the long game, careful border work is where most of the action is. In the long run, most of what we know results from many small careful moves of relatively high confidence. Yes, academics are often overly careful, as most are more eager to seem impressive than useful. And there are many kinds of non-academic experts. Even so, real progress is mostly in collecting relevant things one can say with high enough confidence, and slowly connecting them together into reliable structures that can reach high, not only into political relevance, but eventually into the stars of significance.

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Two Types of Future Filters

In principle, any piece of simple dead matter in the universe could give rise to simple life, then to advanced life, then to an expanding visible civilization. In practice, however, this has not yet happened anywhere in the visible universe. The “great filter” is sum total of all the obstacles that prevent this transition, and our observation of a dead universe tells us that this filter must be enormous.

Life and humans here on Earth have so far progressed some distance along this filter, and we now face the ominous question: how much still lies ahead? If the future filter is large, our changes of starting an expanding visible civilization are slim. While being interviewed on the great filter recently, I was asked what I see as the most likely future filter. And in trying to answer, I realized that I have changed my mind.

The easiest kind of future filter to imagine is a big external disaster that kills all life on Earth. Like a big asteroid or nearby supernovae. But when you think about it, it is very hard to kill all life on Earth. Given how long Earth as gone without such an event, the odds of it happening in the next millions years seems quite small. And yet a million years seems plenty of time for us to start an expanding visible civilization, if we were going to do that.

Yes, compared to killing all life, we can far more easily imagine events that destroy civilization, or kill all humans. But the window for Earth to support life apparently extends another 1.5 billion years into our future. As that window duration should roughly equal the typical duration between great filter steps in the past, it seems unlikely that any such steps have occurred since a half billion years ago, when multicellular life started becoming visible in the fossil record. For example, the trend toward big brains seems steady enough over that period to make big brains unlikely as a big filter step.

Thus even a disaster that kills most all multicellular life on Earth seems unlikely to push life back past the most recent great filter step. Life would still likely retain sex, Eukaryotes, and much more. And with 1.5 billion years to putter, life seems likely to revive multicellular animals, big brains, and something as advanced as humans. In which case there would be a future delay of advanced expanding life, but not a net future filter.

Yes, this analysis is regarding “try-try” filter steps, where the world can just keep repeatedly trying until it succeeds. In principle there can also be “first or never” steps, such as standards that could in principle go many ways, but which lock in forever once they pick a particular way. But it still seems hard to imagine such steps in the last half billion years.

So far we’ve talked about big disasters due to external causes. And yes, big internal disasters like wars are likely to be more frequent. But again the problem is: a disaster that still leaves enough life around could evolve advanced life again in 1.5 billion years, resulting in only a delay, not a filter.

The kinds of disasters we’ve been considering so far might be described as “too little coordination” disasters. That is, you might imagine empowering some sort of world government to coordinate to prevent them. And once such a government became possible, if it were not actually created or used, you might blame such a disaster in part on our failing to empower a world government to prevent them.

Another class of disasters, however, might be described as “too much coordination” disasters. In these scenarios, a powerful world government (or equivalent global coalition) actively prevents life from expanding visibly into the universe. And it continues to do so for as long as life survives. This government might actively prevent the development of technology that would allow such a visible expansion, or it might allow such technology but prevent its application to expansion.

For example, a world government limited to our star system might fear becoming eclipsed by interstellar colonists. It might fear that colonists would travel so far away as to escape the control of our local world government, and then they might collectively grow to become more powerful than the world government around our star.

Yes, this is not a terribly likely scenario, and it does seem hard to imagine such a lockdown lasting for as long as does advanced civilization capable of traveling to other stars. But then scenarios where all life on Earth gets killed off also seem pretty unlikely. It isn’t at all obvious to me that the too little coordination disasters are more likely than the too much coordination disasters.

And so I conclude that I should be in-the-ballpark-of similarly worried about both categories of disaster scenarios. Future filters could result from either too little or too much coordination. To prevent future filters, I don’t know if it is better to have more or less world government.

Added: After a two month civility pause, I wrote a long detailed post on this topic.

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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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