Tag Archives: Politics

Grabbing Now Versus Later

Today and yesterday’s Democratic debates suggests a big recent bump in tastes for regulation and redistribution, in order to lower the status of big business and the rich, and to spend more on the needy and worthy causes. South Korea, which I’ve just visited, sees a similar trend, as does Europe:

Europe’s mainstream parties are going back to the 1970s. In Germany, the U.K, Denmark, France and Spain, these parties are aiming to reverse decades of pro-market policy and promising greater state control of business and the economy, more welfare benefits, bigger pensions and higher taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Some have discussed nationalizations and expropriations. It could add up to the biggest shift in economic policy on the continent in decades. (more)

While I often hear arguments on the moral and economic wisdom of grabbing to redistribute, I rarely hear about the choice of whether to grab now versus later. The issues here are similar to those for the related choice in charity, of whether to give now versus later:

Then Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias got up and just started Robin Hansonning at everybody. First he gave a long list of things that people could do to improve the effectiveness of their charitable donations. Then he declared that since almost no one does any of these, people don’t really care about charity, they’re just trying to look good. … he made some genuinely unsettling points.

One of his claims that generated the most controversy was that instead of donating money to charity, you should invest the money at compound interest, then donate it to charity later after your investment has paid off – preferably just before you die. … He said that the reason people didn’t do this was that they wanted the social benefits of having given money away, which are unavailable if you wait until just before you die to do so. And darn it, he was totally right. Not about the math – there are severe complications which I’ll bring up later – but about the psychology. (more)

Others … argue that giving now to help people who are sick or under-schooled creates future benefits that grow faster than ordinary growth rates. But … if real charity needs are just as strong in the future as today, then all we really need [for waiting to be better] are positive interest rates. (more)

You may be tempted to move resources from the rich and business profits to the poor and worthy projects, because you see business exploitation, you see low value in the rich buying mansions and yachts, you see others in great need, and you see great value in many worthy projects. But big business doesn’t actually exploit much, the consumption of the rich is less of real resources, and the rich tend to consume less relative to investing and donating.

So instead of grabbing stuff from the rich and businesses today, consider the option of waiting, to grab later. If you don’t grab stuff from them today, these actors will invest much of that stuff, producing a lot more stuff later. Yes, you might think some of your favorite projects are good investments, but let’s be honest; most of the stuff you grab won’t be invested, and the investments that do happen will be driven more by political than rate-of-return considerations. Furthermore, if you grab a lot today, news of that event will discourage future folks from generating stuff, and encourage those folks to move and hide it better.

Also, the rich put much of what they don’t invest into charity. And there’s good reason to think they do a decent job with their charity efforts. Most have impressive management abilities, access to skilled associates, and a willingness to take risks. And they can more effectively resist political pressures that typically mess up government-managed projects.

Finally, when the rich do spend money on themselves, much of that goes to paying for positional and status goods that generate much less in the way of real wastes. When they bid up the price of prestigious clubs, real estate, colleges, first-class seats, vanity books and conference talks, etc., real resources are transferred to those who get less prestigious versions. And our best model of status inequality says that allowing more of this doesn’t cause net harm.

So the longer you wait to grab from the rich, the longer they will grow wealth, donate it well, and transfer via status goods. Just as it is dangerous to borrow too much, because you may face big future crises, it can be unwise to grab from the rich today, when you could grow and farm them to create a crop available to harvest tomorrow. South Korea would have been much worse off doing big grabs in 1955, relative to waiting until today to grab.

Added 29June: Some people ask “wait how long?” One strategy would be to wait for a serious crisis. This is in fact when the rich have lost most of their wealth in history, in disasters like wars, pandemics, and civilization collapse. Another strategy would be to wait until there’s so much capital that market rates of return fall to very low levels.

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Libertarian Varieties

Here at GMU Econ we tend to lean libertarian, but in a wide range of ways. For example, here are two recent posts by colleagues:

Don Boudreaux:

The economy is an emergent and dynamic order that was not, and could not possibly be, designed – and, hence, that cannot possibly be successfully engineered. … the economy is not a device or an organization with a purpose. It is, instead, the result of the multitude of interactions of hundreds of millions of diverse individual entities – persons, households, firms, and governments – each pursuing its own purposes. …

Competent intro-economics professors keep their aspirations modest. In my case, these are two. The first is to impress upon my students the full weight of the fact that the economy is an inconceivably complex order of interactions that cannot possibly be engineered. The second is to inspire students always to ask questions that too often go unasked – questions such as “From where will the resources come to provide that service?” “Why should Sam’s assessment of Sally’s choices be regarded more highly than Sally’s own assessment?” “What consequences beyond the obvious ones might result from that government action?” And, most importantly of all, “As compared to what?”

Students who successfully complete any well-taught economics course do not have their egos inflated with delusions that they can advise Leviathan to engineer improvements in society. Quite the opposite. But these students do emerge with the too-rare humility that marks those who understand that the best service they can offer is to ask penetrating and pertinent questions that are asked by almost no others. (more)

I’m a big fan of learning to ask good questions; it is great to be able to see puzzles, and to resist the temptation to explain them away too quickly. However, I’m less enamored of teaching people to “ask questions” when they are supposed to see certain answers as obvious.

And the fact that a system is complex doesn’t imply that one cannot usefully “engineer” connections to it. For example, the human body is complex, and yet we can usefully engineer our diets, views, clothes, furniture, air input/outputs, sanitation, and medical interventions.

Yes, most students are overly prone to endorse simple-minded policies with large side effects that they do not understand. But I attribute this less to a lack of awareness of complexity, and more to an eagerness to show values; they care less about the effects of polices than about the values they signal by supporting them. After all, people are also prone to offer overly simple-minded advise to the individual people around them, for similar reasons.

Dan Klein:

Government is a special sort of player in society; its initiations of coercion differ from those of criminals. Its coercions are overt, institutionalized, openly rationalized, even supported by a large portion of the public. They are called intervention or restriction or regulation or taxation, rather than extortion, assault, theft, or trespass. But such government interventions are still initiations of coercion. That’s important, because recognizing it helps to sustain a presumption against them, a presumption of liberty. CLs [= classical liberals] and libertarians think that many extant interventions do not, in fact, meet the burden of proof for overcoming the presumption. Many interventions should be rolled back, repealed, abolished.

Thus CLs and libertarians favor liberalizing social affairs. That goes as general presumption: For business, work, and trade, but also for guns and for “social” issues, such as drugs, sex, speech, and voluntary association.

CLs and libertarians favor smaller government. Government operations, such as schools, rely on taxes or privileges (and sometimes partially user fees). Even apart from the coercive nature of taxation, they don’t like the government’s playing such a large role in social affairs, for its unhealthy moral and cultural effects.

There are some libertarians, however, who have never seen an intervention that meets the burden of proof. They can be categorical in a way that CLs are not, believing in liberty as a sort of moral axiom. Sometimes libertarians ponder a pure-liberty destination. They can seem millenarian, radical, and rationalistic. …
But libertarian has also been used to describe a more pragmatic attitude situated in the status quo yet looking to liberalize, a directional tendency to augment liberty, even if reforms are small or moderate. (more)

Along with Dan, I only lean against government intervention; that presumption can be and is often overcome. But the concept of coercion isn’t very central to my presumption. At a basic level, I embrace the usual economists’ market failure analysis, preferring interventions that fix large market failures, relative to obvious to-be-expected government failures.

But at a meta level, I care more about having good feedback/learning/innovation processes. The main reason that I tend to be wary of government intervention is that it more often creates processes with low levels of adaptation and innovation regarding technology and individual preferences. Yes, in principle dissatisfied voters can elect politicians who promise particular reforms. But voters have quite limited spotlights of attention and must navigate long chains of accountability to detect and induce real lasting gains.

Yes, low-government mechanisms often also have big problems with adaptation and innovation, especially when customers mainly care about signaling things like loyalty, conformity, wealth, etc. Even so, the track record I see, at least for now, is that these failures have been less severe than comparable government failures. In this case, the devil we know more does in fact tend to be better that the devil we know less.

So when I try to design better social institutions, and to support the proposals of others, I’m less focused than many on assuring zero government invention, or on minimizing “coercion” however conceived, and more concerned to ensure healthy competition overall.

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Understandable Social Systems

Brennan and Magness’ book Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education reviews many ways that colleges overpromise, and fail to deliver. It confirms (with Caplan’s Case Against Education) a picture wherein ordinary people are pretty clueless about a big institution in their lives. This cluelessness also seems to apply to many other life areas, such as medicine, charity, politics, etc. In each area, most people don’t seem to understand very basic things, like what exactly is the product, and what are the incentives of professionals?

That is, we each live in many complex social systems, such as political, transport, medical, religious, food, and school systems. Due to our poor understanding of such systems, we have low abilities to make intelligent personal choices about them, and even worse abilities to usefully contribute to efforts to reform them. This suggests a key criteria for evaluating social systems: understandability.

When we don’t understand our social systems, we can be seen as having little agency regarding them. They are like the weather; they exist, and may be good or bad, but we are too ignorant to do much about them. If a situation is bad, we can’t work to make it better. Some elites might have agency re such institutions, but not the rest of us. So a key question is: can we reform or create social institutions that are more understandable, to allow ordinary people to have more agency regarding the institutions in their lives?

One possible solution is to use meta-institutions, like academia, news media, or government regulators, that we may better understand and trust. We might, for example, support a particular reform to our medical system based on the recommendation of an academic institution. Our understanding of academia as a meta-institution could give us agency, even when we were ignorant of the institutions of medicine.

As an analogy, imagine that someone visits a wild life refuge. If this visitor does not understand the plants and animals in this area, they might reasonably fear the consequences of interacting with any given plant or animal, or of entering any given region. In contrast, when accompanied by a tour guide who can advise on what is safe versus dangerous, they might relax. But only if they have good reason to think this guide roughly shares their interests.  If your guide is a nephew who inherits your fortune if you die, you may be much less relaxed.

So here’s a key question: is there, at some level of abstraction, a key understandable institution by which we can usefully choose and influence many other parts of our social world? If we think we understand this meta institution well enough to trust it, that could give us substantial agency regarding key large scale features of our social worlds. For example, we could add our weight to particular reform efforts, because we had good reasons to expect such reforms to on average help.

Alas, academia, news media, and government regulators all seem too complex and opaque to serve in this key meta role. But three other widely used and simpler social mechanisms may be better candidates.

  1. Go with the majority. Buy the product that most other people buy, use the social habits that most others use, and have everyone vote on key big decisions. When some people know what’s best, and others abstain or pick randomly, then the majority will pick what’s best. Yes, there are many topic areas where people don’t abstain or pick randomly when they don’t know what’s best. But if we can roughly guess which are the problematic topics, then in other areas we may gain at least rough agency by going with the crowd.
  2. Follow prestige. Humans have rich ancient intuitive mechanisms for coordinating on who we find impressive. These mechanisms actually scale pretty well, allowing us to form consensus on the relative prestige of nations, professions, schools, cities, etc., and via these proxies, of individuals. Related ancient mechanisms let us form consensus on elite opinion, i.e., on what prestigious people tend to think on any given topic. Yes, elites are biased toward themselves, and to express opinions that make them seem impressive. Still, we can do worse than to follow our best.
  3. Embrace Winners. Nations, cities, firms, professions, teams, media, clubs, lovers, etc. often compete, in the sense that some grow at the expense of others that shrink or disappear. Often they compete for our personal support. And often we see judge that the competition is roughly “fair” and open to many potential competitors. In such cases, we may embrace the winners. For example, we may try many competitors, and stick with those we like best. Or we may go with the lowest price offer, if we can control well enough for quality variations.

Each of these big three mechanisms has limits, but they do seem to satisfy the requirement that they are very simple and many ordinary people can at least roughly understand why they work, and where they run into problems. Together they may cover a pretty wide range of cases. In addition, we can augment them with many other approaches. For example, we can just expose ourselves to choices and follow our intuitions on which are best. We can follow choices by those we know and trust well, those who seem to know more about a topic, and those who seem more honest in their evaluations. Together all these tricks may give us substantial agency re the social institutions in our lives.

Yet those examples of how badly most people misunderstand school, medicine, etc. suggest there is vast room for improvement. And so I look for ways to do better. Not just at designing institutions that actually work, in the sense of producing efficiency, equity, generality, robustness, evolvability, etc. Not just at designing meta-institutions with these features. And not just at gaining the support of majorities or elites, or at winning many fair competitions in the world. I seek meta-mechanisms that can also be simple and clear enough to their advantages be understandable to many ordinary people.

This is the context in which I’d like you to see my highest hopes for prediction markets. I offer them not just as mechanisms that actually work, producing and aggregating info at a low cost. After all, there may be other complex and subtle mechanisms that experts expect to achieve similar or even somewhat better results. But the problem in that case is that ordinary people may wonder how well they can trust such expert judgements.

No, I’m interested in the potential for prediction markets to serve as a simple understandable meta-institution, on par with and at the level of going with the majority, following prestige, and embracing winners. Simple enough that many ordinary people can directly understand why they should work well in many applications, and also to understand roughly where their limitations lie. Yes, not everyone can understand this, but maybe most everyone could know and trust someone who does understand.

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Low Prestige Hurts More

It can feel terrible to feel unwanted. Unwanted by schools, labor markets, sport teams, music bands, acting troupes, or romantic partners. We feel bad when we feel unwanted, and we often pity others to see them unwanted. Though we don’t usually pity enough to actually choose them over alternatives. And they can feel even worse to see our pity, as it affirms the visibility of their rejection.

Ever since we were foragers, humans have distinguished two kinds of status: dominance and prestige. Dominance is illicit, and we have norms saying to prevent and resist it, while prestige is not only allowed but encouraged. So one way to sympathize with and support someone who is unwanted is to frame their rejection as illicit dominance.

Since rich folks and big for-profit firms are easily portrayed as illicit dominators, it is easy to blame their illicit dominance when they reject people. So many people like to support those rejected by firms, such as for jobs at firms or loans from banks, by blaming firm dominance. Big firms can also be blamed when the products and services they sell explain why people are rejected by others. E.g., video games, tobacco, and payday lending.

This all helps explain why so many are so quick to blame “capitalist” firms and a larger culture and “system” of capitalism, such as for many kinds of discrimination leading to unfair rejection. Such blamers can then self-righteously sympathize with the rejected without having to actually choose them.

Note that economists often blame public pressures to cut firm rejections for bad economic effects, such as high unemployment in Europe where it is hard to fire workers, and excess home loans to risky households before the 2008 financial crisis.

This perspective also helps explain why people are reluctant to blame their “systems” of romance, friendship, conversation, sport, music, arts, which also result in rejections that make so many feel unwanted. Those systems tend to be associated more directly with prestige, and lack identifiable villains to blame for dominance. Except when big business gets involved. Rejection there can also be blamed on a larger “capitalist” culture causing discrimination, such as re sexual preferences or gender identities.

But here’s the thing: even without any illicit domination, some will have lower prestige than others, and that will hurt. Badly. In fact, it probably hurts even more than having low dominance, as that can be self-righteously blamed on others’ illicit pursuit of high dominance. Being low prestige, in contrast, elicits little sympathy from others, as showing sympathy toward such folks risks being pushed to not reject them, and being seen has having poor evaluation abilities regarding prestige.

The only simple solutions I see are an easy one, ignore it all, and a hard one: sometimes actually and honestly sympathize with the low in prestige. And let them see that sympathy. Which yes, will sometimes lead you to make “pity” choices you might not otherwise make. Do it because it hurts. (Some propose more complex solutions; they must wait for another post.)

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Expand vs Fight in Social Justice, Fertility, Bioconservatism, & AI Risk

Most people talk too much about values relative to facts, as they care more about showing off their values than about learning facts. So I usually avoid talking values. But I’ll make an exception today for this value: expanding rather than fighting about possibilities.

Consider the following graph. On the x-axis you, or your group, get more of what you want. On the y-axis, others get more of what they want. (Of course each axis really represents a high dimensional space.) The blue region is a space of possibilities, the blue curve is the frontier of best possibilities, and the blue dot is the status quo, which happens if no one tries to change it.

In this graph, there are two basic ways to work to get more of what you want: move along the frontier (FIGHT), or expand it (EXPAND). While expanding the frontier helps both you and others, moving along the frontier helps you at others’ expense.

All else equal, I prefer expanding over fighting, and I want stronger norms for this. That is, I want our norms to, all else equal, more praise expansion and shame fighting. This isn’t to say I want all forms of fighting to be shamed, or shamed equally, or want all kinds of expansion to get equal praise. For example, it makes sense to support some level of “fighting back” in response to fights initiated by others. But on average, we should all expect to be better off when our efforts are on averaged directed more toward expanding than fighting. Fighting should be suspicious, and need justification, relative to expansion.

This distinction between expanding and fighting is central to standard economic analysis. We economists distinguish “efficiency improving” policies that expand possibilities from “redistribution” policies that take from some to give to others, and also from “rent-seeking” efforts that actually cut possibilities. Economists focus on promoting efficiency and discouraging rent-seeking. If we take positions on redistribution, we tend to call those “non-economic” positions.

We economists can imagine an ideal competitive market world. The world we live in is not such a world, at least not exactly, but it helps to see what would happen in such a world. In this ideal world, property rights are strong, we each own stuff, and we trade with each other to get more of what we want. The firms that exist are the ones that are most effective at turning inputs into desired outputs. The most cost-effective person is assigned to each job, and each customer buys from their most cost-effective supplier. Consumers, investors, and workers can make trades across time, and innovations happen at the most cost-effective moment.

In this ideal world, we maximize the space of possibilities by allowing all possible competition and all possible trades. In that case, all expansions are realized, and only fights remain. But in other more realistic worlds many “market failures” (and also government failures) pull back the frontier of possibilities. So we economists focus on finding actions and policies that can help fix such failures. And in some sense, I want everyone to share this pro-expansion anti-fight norm of economists.

Described in this abstract way, few may object to what I’ve said so far. But in fact most people find a lot more emotional energy in fights. Most people are quickly bored with proposals that purport to help everyone without helping any particular groups more than others. They get similarly bored with conversations framed as collecting and sharing relevant information. They instead get far more energized by efforts to help us win against them, including conversations framed as arguing with and even yelling at enemies. We actually tend to frame most politics and morality as fights, and we like it that way.

For example, much “social justice” energy is directed toward finding, outing, and “deplatforming” enemies. Yes, when social norms are efficient, enforcing such norms against violators can enhance efficiency. But our passions are nearly as strong when enforcing inefficient norms or norm-like agendas, just as a crime dramas are nearly as exciting when depicting the enforcement of bad crime laws or non-law vendettas. Our energy comes from the fights, not some indirect social benefit resulting from such fights. And we find it way too easy to just presume that the goals of our social factions are very widely shared and efficient norms.

Consider fertility and education. Many people get quite energized on the topic of whether others are having too many or not enough kids, and on whether they are raising those kids correctly. We worry about which nations, religions, classes, intelligence levels, mental illness categories, or political allegiances are having more kids, or getting more kids to be educated or trained in their favored way. And we often seek government policies to push our favored outcomes. Such as sterilizing the mentally ill, or requiring schools to teach our favored ideologies.

But in an ideal competitive world, each family picks how many kids to have and how to raise them. If other people have too many kids and and have trouble feeding them, that’s their problem, not yours. Same for if they choose to train their kids badly, or if those kids are mentally ill. Unless you can identify concrete and substantial market failures that tend to induce the choices you don’t like, and which are plausibly the actual reason for your concerns here, you should admit you are more likely engaged in fights, not in expansion efforts, when arguing on fertility and education.

And it isn’t enough to note that we are often inclined to supply medicine, education, or food collectively. If such collective actions are your main excuse for trying to control other folks’ related choices, maybe you should consider not supplying such things collectively. It also isn’t enough to note the possibility of meddling preferences, wherein you care directly about others’ choices. Not only is evidence of such preferences often weak, but meddling preferences don’t usually change the possibility frontier, and thus don’t change which policies are efficient. Beware the usual human bias to try to frame fighting efforts as more pro-social expansion efforts, and to make up market failure explanations in justification.

Consider bioconservatism. Some look forward to a future where they’ll be able to change the human body, adding extra senses, and modifying people to be smarter, stronger, more moral, and even immortal. Others are horrified by and want to prevent such changes, fearing that such “post-humans” would no longer be human, and seeing societies of such creatures as “repugnant” and having lost essential “dignities”. But again, unless you can identify concrete and substantial market failures that would result from such modifications, and that plausibly drive your concern, you should admit that you are engaged in a fight here.

It seems to me that the same critique applies to most current AI risk concerns. Back when my ex-co-blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky and I discussed his AI risk concerns here on this blog (concerns that got much wider attention via Nick Bostrom’s book), those concerns were plausibly about a huge market failure. Just as there’s an obvious market failure in letting someone experiment with nuclear weapons in their home basement near a crowded city (without holding sufficient liability insurance), there’d be an obvious market failure from letting a small AI team experiment with software that might, in a weekend, explode to become a superintelligence that enslaved or destroyed the world. While I see that scenario as pretty unlikely, I grant that it is a market failure scenario. Yudkowsky and Bostrom aren’t fighting there.

But when I read and talk to people today about AI risk, I mostly hear people worried about local failures to control local AIs, in a roughly competitive world full of many AI systems with reasonably strong property rights. In this sort of scenario, each person or firm that loses control of an AI would directly suffer from that loss, while others would suffer far less or not at all. Yet AI risk folks say that they fear that many or even most individuals won’t care enough to try hard enough to keep sufficient control of their AIs, or to prevent those AIs from letting their expressed priorities drift as contexts change over the long run. Even though such AI risk folks don’t point to particular market failures here. And even though such advanced AI systems are still a long ways off, and we’ll likely know a lot more about, and have plenty of time to deal with, AI control problems when such systems actually arrive.

Thus most current AI risk concerns sound to me a lot like fertility, education, and bioconservatism concerns. People say that it is not enough to control their own fertility, the education of their own kids, the modifications of their own bodies, and the control of their own AIs. They worry instead about what others may do with such choices, and seek ways to prevent the “risk” of others making bad choices. And in the absence of identified concrete and substantial market failures associated with such choices, I have to frame this as an urge to fight, instead of to expand the space of possibilities. And so according to the norms I favor, I’m suspicious of this activity, and not that eager to promote it.

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Identity Norms

Over the weekend I did a series of Twitter polls on identity. Seeing a survey showing that 74% of blacks but only 15% of whites find race to be central to their identity, I asked if this attitude is good for either group, and found that 83% saw it as bad for both groups. Asking a similar question on sex, answers were more split, with 50% saying it is bad for both and 43% saying it is good for both. In both the race and sex cases, less than 8% said it was good for one group but bad for the other.

I then picked 16 features and asked which one is best for most people to treat as most central to their identity. I got these relative weights: personality 28%, family 14%, smarts 8%, fav hobby 8%, ideology 7%, job 7%, age 6%, religion 5%. gender 4%, class 3%, race 2.2%, urban area 1.6%, fav fiction 0.7%, looks 0.7%.

Finally, I asked if seeing someone else treating a feature as a central to their identity tempts you more (or less) to treat it as central to your identity, and how that depends on if they have same or different value of that feature from you. I found that for features we approve of for identity, like personality, family, or favorite hobby, people think they’ll make a feature more central when they see others treat it as central, and that happens more when those others share their feature value. But for features we disapprove of for identity, like race, gender, or class, it was the opposite; seeing others treat it as central makes them less likely to treat it as central, an effect that is stronger when those others have a different feature value.

To make sense of these results, let me invoke two theories of identity, and two relevant social norms.

One theory is that identity is a way to simplify ourselves to be more easily understood and predicted:

We are built to find a simple story we can project about who we are that will let others predict us well. This story includes what we like, what we are good at, how we decide who we are loyal to, and so on. Such stories are naturally more than a few stats but less than all our details. … Early in our lives we search for a story that fits well with our abilities and opportunities. In our unstable youth we adjust this story as we learn more, but we reduce those changes as we start to make big life choices, and want to appear stable to our new associates.

Another theory is that identity is a way to coordinate on our social/political coalitions; we ally with folks like us. Sarah Constantin:

Dasein is … self-definition with respect to a social context. Where do I fit in society? Who is my tribe? Who am I relative to other people? What’s my type? “Identifying as” always includes an element of misdirection. Merely describing yourself factually (“I was born in 1988”) is not Dasein. Placing an emphasis, exaggerating, cartoonifying, declaring yourself for a team, is Dasein. But when you identify as, you say “I am such-and-such”, as though you were merely describing. …

One of the qualities of Dasein is that it’s very very stealthy, and it wants everything to be about Dasein, so it winds up muddying the waters, even when you don’t intend it to. … Dasein can mess up the attempt to solve social problems. … Sexual harassment gets perceived as a flag for pink-flavored people to wave, and if you’re not pink-flavored, you’re not the target market, so you don’t take it seriously.

One common human norm is that sub-group coalitions are mildly illicit. We aren’t supposed to break into factions that fight other factions; we are supposed to all work together toward common goals, and treat each other as individuals. As with other norms against fighting, it is more okay for a group to defend itself against attacks from others, but you aren’t supposed to start a fight.

This norm against factions explains a lot of the above poll data. Regarding what features to have as central to your identity, we approve of features which are actually useful to predict individual behavior, features where people with different feature values tend to complement each other, and features which are hard to use for coalitions because they are too granular (e.g., families). In contrast, we disapprove of features that could more easily be used, and that have recently been used, as the basis of factional fights.

People who treat less approved features as more central to their identity compensate by claiming that there is already a pre-existing faction fight along that feature in which they are they underdogs; the other side started the fight, and isn’t fighting fair (e.g, via dominance and not prestige). They invoke our common human norm that requires independent observers to support the side of a fight that is favored by justice and fairness.

Combining these theories and norms we can say that we have a licit and an illicit reason to choose identities: simplifying ourselves and joining coalitions. We often pretend to do the former while we actually do the latter. And when it gets too obvious that we are doing the latter, we try the excuses that they started it or that they aren’t fighting fair.

From all this I conclude that we have a limited tolerance for identity politics. The more different features that become a basis for explicit coalitional fights, the less happy we will all become, and the less tolerance we will have for each fight. We can together only handle a few big factional fights at any one time, and so we’ll have to set a high bar for how clear is the evidence in each case that they started it and are not fighting fair. And when we do see justice and fairness as clearly favoring one side of a fight, we’ll want to aid that side, make justice happen, and then end the fight.

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Revolt of The Public

Martin Gurri’ book The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium has gotten *lots of praise. For example, Tyler:

I am reading this splendid book for the first time. It basically explains why Brexit and Trump won, and what will happen next. Due to social media, we are disillusioned with our elites, and that will prove hard to reverse. (more)

Here is a summary by Arnold Kling:

The insiders operate within formal organizational structures, such as corporations, universities, and government agencies. These organizations have regular processes for setting goals and making decisions. There is a formal hierarchy, … The outsiders operate without formal organizational structures. They have no planning process. Their tactics are ad hoc. … The outsiders’ credentials, if they even have any, have little relevance. …

Activists who wanted to foment demonstrations against the government had to form organizations and distribute newsletters, where today they can instigate flash mobs using text messages. … Insiders see the existing order as something to preserve and improve upon. Their proposals for reform are limited and specific. They take into account constraints imposed by economic and political realities. …

Outsiders can only articulate what they are against. They can identify flaws in the existing order. But they lack a vision for reform or the skills to govern. … the dominant strategies of insiders and outsiders will lead to an outcome in which government performance worsens, legitimacy declines, and conflict increases. (more)

And one by Noah Smith:

Social media has empowered the public, and that the public is using its newfound power to attack – but not to replace – the dominant institutions of society. … Gurri defines the public as the set of people who are interested enough in a particular issue to pay attention and get involved. … Social media, … freeing [public] from the control of centralized, hierarchical push-media. …

The newly empowered public, he argues, has not focused on building things up, but on breaking them down. The public’s goal is negation – denunciation of respected leaders, derailment of political programs, overthrow of parties or governments, discrediting of institutions, etc. Gurri worries that this constant anti-everything attitude will descend into “nihilism”, and that weakened institutions will be trapped in an eternal stalemate with an eternally raging public. (more)

Here is Gurri himself:

We stand at the earliest moment of what promises to be a cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technologies: the fifth wave. … The fourth wave, now nearly spent, was that of mass media. Its organization was industrial, its orientation commercial or propagandistic, but its most radical innovation – the difference between what transpired before and after – was the demand for a silent public. … That has changed forever. … The public … has largely stopped listening, and it has started talking back. …

The question is what happens … fragmentation, leading almost to disintegration. The mass public was an invention of the mass media. What actually exists is a variegated patchwork of people and groups … Countries not burdened by the despot’s choice have seen the public assume a fractured shape consistent with its actual preferences. In the US, it is probably more accurate to speak of the public in the plural: many publics, speaking with many voices. …

Marginal players have seized on the new technologies to increase their audience and influence – only to collide with political and professional hierarchies horrified by such barbarian invasions into their proprietary fiefs. … The end can only be the discrediting of authoritative elites, … the new technologies have given the power of speech to a silent public, to players marginalized by the media monopoly over the information space. … It’s early days. … Digital natives, riding the fifth wave, will then burst upon the world as breakers of governments and overturners of elites. (more)

The meat of the book is a half dozen case studies of protest movements in the early 2010s, from around the world, wherein vocal & active but otherwise ordinary people complained loudly about a failure they attributed to official institutions. As such protesters were reluctant to create or endorse formal organizations or parties, and were much less interested in policy details, they mostly had limited impacts such as getting people to quit or reversing recent policy changes.

Gurri’s day job is intelligence analyst, and he seems good at that. That is, he’s good at describing concrete events in ways that give the impression that he understands what is going on and could roughly predict what will happen next. Though hard to be sure of that, as he offers no track record of predictions. But the more Gurri generalizes, the more doubts I have. And as the above quotes suggest, he goes quite far in generalization.

First, Gurri claims that the pattern of these early 2010s events shows a fundamental social change from previous decades. But he doesn’t actually show this. He only discusses one prior event, Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs scandal, where he notes that the media and public mostly forgave Kennedy. Yet the public doesn’t scream about most things authorities do today; that doesn’t show a change.

Second, Gurri attributes the changes he sees to lower costs of sharing information. Clearly this is right at the finest scales, in the sense that in these events social media often allowed a very rapid transition from a few people complaining online to large groups shouting in big plazas together. But it is much less obvious that cheaper info is the key cause of a less docile, more complainy, less organized public that is less supportive of formal hierarchies. I do find it plausible that the public is getting more polarized, egalitarian, and complainy over decades, but I see other plausible causes of such trends, if in fact these are real trends. Gurri didn’t convince me that info costs are more than a minor contributing factor here.

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Can We Trust Deliberation Priests?

In Science, academic “deliberation” experts offer a fix for our political ills:

Citizens to express their views … overabundance [of] … has been accompanied by marked decline in civility and argumentative complexity. Uncivil behavior by elites and pathological mass communication reinforce each other. How do we break this vicious cycle? …

All survey research … obtains evidence only about the capacity of the individual in isolation to reason about politics. … [But] even if people are bad solitary reasoners, they can be good group problem-solvers … Deliberative experimentation has generated empirical research that refutes many of the more pessimistic claims about the citizenry’s ability to make sound judgments.

Great huh? But there’s a catch:

Especially when deliberative processes are well-arranged: when they include the provision of balanced information, expert testimony, and oversight by a facilitator … These effects are not necessarily easy to achieve; good deliberation takes time and effort. Many positive effects are demonstrated most easily in face-to-face assemblies and gatherings, which can be expensive and logistically challenging at scale. Careful institutional design involv[es] participant diversity, facilitation, and civility norms …

A major improvement … might involve a randomly selected citizens’ panel deliberating a referendum question and then publicizing its assessments for and against a measure … problem is not social media per se but how it is implemented and organized. Algorithms for ranking sources that recognize that social media is a political sphere and not merely a social one could help. …

It is important to remain vigilant against incentives for governments to use them as symbolic cover for business as usual, or for well-financed lobby groups to subvert their operation and sideline their recommendations. These problems are recognized and in many cases overcome by deliberative practitioners and practice. … The prospects for benign deployment are good to the degree that deliberative scholars and practitioners have established relationships with political leaders and publics—as opposed to being turned to in desperation in a crisis.

So ordinary people are capable of fair and thoughtful deliberation, but only via expensive processes carefully managed in detail by, and designed well in advance by, proper deliberation experts with “established relationships with political leaders and publics.” That is, these experts must be free to pick the “balance” of info, experts, and participants included, and even who speaks when how, and these experts must be treated with proper respect and deference by the public and by political authorities.

No, they aren’t offering a simple well-tested mechanism (e.g., an auction) that we can apply elsewhere with great confidence that the deployed mechanism is the same as the one that they tested. Because what they tested instead was a mechanism with a lot of “knobs” that need context-specific turning; they tested the result of having particular experts use a lot of discretion to make particular political and info choices in particular contexts. They say that went well, and their academic peer reviewers (mostly the same people) agreed. So we shouldn’t worry that such experts would become corrupted if we gave them a lot more power.

This sure sounds like a priesthood to me. If we greatly empower and trust a deliberation priesthood, presumably overseen by these 20 high priest authors and their associates, they promise to create events wherein ordinary people talk much more reasonably, outputting policy recommendations that we could then all defer to with more confidence. At least if we trust them.

In contrast, I’ve been suggesting that we empower and trust prediction markets on key policy outcomes. We’ve tested such mechanisms a lot, including in contexts with strong incentives to corrupt them, and these mechanisms have far fewer knobs that must be set by experts with discretion. Which seems more trustworthy to me.

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To Oppose Polarization, Tug Sideways

Just over 42% of the people in each party view the opposition as “downright evil.” … nearly one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.” … “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?” Some 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans do think [so]. … “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3% of Democrats and 13.8% of Republicans said [between] “a little” to “a lot.” (more)

Pundits keep lamenting our increasing political polarization. And their preferred fix seems to be to write more tsk-tsk op-eds. But I can suggest a stronger fix: pull policy ropes sideways. Let me explain.

Pundit writings typically recommend some policies relative to others. In polarized times such as ours, these policy positions tend to be relatively predictable given a pundit’s political value positions, i.e., the positions they share with their political allies relative to their political enemies. And much of the content of their writings work to clarify any remaining ambiguities, i.e., to explain why their policy position is in fact a natural result of political positions they share with their allies. So only people with evil values would oppose it. So readers can say “yay us, boo them”.

Twelve years ago I described this as a huge tug-o-war:

The policy world can thought of as consisting of a few Tug-O-War “ropes” set up in [a] high dimensional policy space. If you want to find a comfortable place in this world, where the people around you are reassured that you are “one of them,” you need to continually and clearly telegraph your loyalty by treating each policy issue as another opportunity to find more supporting arguments for your side of the key dimensions. That is, pick a rope and pull on it. (more)

To oppose this tendency, one idea is to encourage pundits to sometimes recommend policies that are surprising or the opposite of what their political positions might suggest. That is, go pull on the opposite side of a rope sometimes, to show us that you think for yourself, and aren’t driven only by political loyalty. And yes doing this may help. But as the space of political values that we fight over is multi-dimensional, surprising pundit positions can often be framed as a choice to prioritize some values over others, i.e., as a bid to realign the existing political coalitions in value space. Yes, this may weakens the existing dominant political axis, but it may not do much to make our overall conversation less political.

Instead, I suggest that we encourage pundits to grab a policy tug-o-war rope and pull it sideways. That is, take positions that are perpendicular to the usual political value axes, in areas where one has not yet taken explicit value-oriented positions. For example, a pundit who has not yet taken a position on whether we should have more or less military spending might argue for more navy relative to army, and then insist that this is not a covert way to push a larger or smaller military. Most credibly by continuing to not take a position on overall military spending. (And by not coming from a navy family, for whom navy is a key value.)

Similarly, someone with no position on if we should punish crime more or less than we currently do might argue for replacing jail-based punishments with fines, torture, or exile. Or, given no position on more or less immigration, argue for a particular new system to decide which candidates are more worthy of admission. Or given no position on how hard we should work to compensate for past racism, argue for cash reparations relative to affirmative action.

Tugging policy ropes sideways will frustrate and infuriate loyalists who seek mainly to praise their political allies and criticize their enemies. Such loyalists will be tempted to assume the worse about you, and claim that you are trying to covertly promote enemy positions. And so they may impose a price on you for this stance. But to the extent that observers respect you, loyalists will pay a price for attacking you in this way, and raising their overall costs of making everything political. And so on average by paying this price you can buy an overall intellectual conversation that’s a bit less political. Which is the goal here.

In addition, pulling ropes sideways is on average just a better way to improve policy. As I said twelve years ago:

If, however, you actually want to improve policy, if you have a secure enough position to say what you like, and if you can find a relevant audience, then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways. Few will bother to resist such pulls, and since few will have considered such moves, you have a much better chance of identifying a move that improves policy. On the few main dimensions, not only will you find it very hard to move the rope much, but you should have little confidence that you actually have superior information about which way the rope should be pulled. (more)

Yes, there is a sense in which arguments for “sideways” choices do typically appeal to a shared value: “efficiency”. For example, one would typically argue for navy over army spending in terms of cost-effectiveness in military conflicts and deterrence. Or might argue for punishment via fines in terms of cost-effectiveness for the goals of deterrence or rehabilitation. But all else equal we all like cost-effectiveness; political coalitions rarely want to embrace blatant anti-efficiency positions. So the more our policy debates emphasize efficiency, the less political polarized they should be.

Of course my suggestion here isn’t especially novel; most pundits are aware that they have the option to take the sort of sideways positions that I’ve recommended. Most are also aware that by doing so, they’d less enflame the usual political battles. Yet how often have you heard pundits protest that others falsely attributed larger value positions to them, when they really just tried to argue for cost-effectiveness of A over B using widely shared effectiveness concepts? That scenario seems quite rare to me.

So the main hope I can see here is of a new signaling equilibria where people tug sideways and brag about it, or have others brag on their behalf, to show their support for cutting political polarization. And thereby gain support from an audience who wants to reward cutters. Which of course only works if enough pundits actually believe a substantial such audience exists. So what do you say, is there much of an audience who wants to cut political polarization?

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Consider Reparations

First … ally of President Trump’s. “We are in a civil war,” he said. “The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over. . . . It’s going to be total war.” The next day … Trump critic … agreed with him — although she placed the blame squarely on the president. Trump, she said, “greenlit a war in this country around race. (more) 

Frequently in human history, one party has complained about how they’ve been treated by another. Typically, the first party suggests that the issue be resolved in particular ways, and the second party tries to avoid giving in to such demands. To pressure the other party to give in, such parties often act less cooperatively toward one another, and try to enlist allies to assist in this stance. Such conflicting coalitions can grow large, and the resulting feuds can be quite destructive, sometimes escalating into full scale war.

The larger society has an interest in resolving such disputes fairly, as the expectation of fair future resolutions can encourage better behavior. But that larger society has an even stronger interest in just resolving disputes somehow, anyhow, to prevent the accumulation of destructive feuds. So for roughly a million years, humans have used informal group norm enforcement. If a forager had a complaint about someone else, they could tell their band, and that band would discuss it and come to a consensus on how to resolve the issue. The band would then apply increasing pressures to get the disputing parties to abide by their decision, and to stop any feud.  

During the farming era, we formalized this practice as law, which lowered costs of making and enforcing group decisions on how to resolve particular conflicts. But the key idea remains: prevent escalating feuds via having relatively independent judges declare resolutions, and pressuring parties to respect them. Hopefully fair resolutions, but more importantly clear and widely accepted ones. Pressure parties and their allies not only to do what resolutions say, but also to publicly accept such decisions as resolving their conflicts. 

That is, we want people who have been loudly declaring their dispute to publicly put it behind them. For example, by treating ex-cons as “having paid their debt to society”. We’d like these legal resolutions to be reliable and predictable, to give people incentives to behave well and not do things that cause disputes. And when disputable events happen, we want the involved parties to have incentives to quietly make a deal to resolve them, so as to avoid larger social conflict and the need for a formal legal resolution. 

For a very long time, most legal conflicts have been resolved via cash transfers. Not always, of course; crimes often need more punishment than fines can produce. (At least without selling people into slavery or requiring crime insurance.) But cash makes many things easier, including trade and charity. Yes, cash doesn’t always make the best symbolic statement. Even so, law usually uses cash because it is an admirably robust measure of value across a wide range of groups and social contexts.  

Which brings me to the current US political conflict, and the topic of reparations for slavery and racism. Our political climate seems today to be drifting toward a war-like lack of restraint. And “grievances” seem an important part of this conflict. One side at least claims to represent wronged parties, parties whose wrongs have not been adequately addressed. And one especially big and long-lasting grievance has been about our history of raced-based slavery, and related racism. Many say that we have not adequately addressed this complaint. 

My main point here is that cash reparations for past slavery and racism harms make a lot of sense in the context of the general history and purpose of law. We have been suffering from a costly long-standing political feud, a law-like resolution could help us resolve and get past that feud, and cash transfers are our standard go-to way to resolve law-like conflicts.

I’m not going to argue for any particular level of compensation, nor for any particular interpretation of particular cases of precedent. I can believe that precedent isn’t clear here, and that many issues and complexities are in play. But complexity needn’t prevent resolution; we rely on law all the time to resolve complex disputes. In fact, in terms of avoiding wider social conflict, law is probably more socially valuable in more complex cases. 

Yes, reparations today for wrongs from long ago does require some form of vicarious liability, wherein the people who lose and those who gain from a cash transfer aren’t the same as those who did wrongs and who were harmed. But we actually use many forms of vicarious liability in law today, and ancient societies used it a lot more.  

Some fear that even after paying reparations, racism-complaint-based conflict would persist unabated. Others fear the opposite, that many would feel that we could cut back on other responses to racism, such as affirmative action, and “put the issue behind us”, risking complacency on future problems. Here I must come down strongly in favor of risking complacency. 

One of the main goals of law, and of humanity’s more ancient norm enforcement, has been to try to get disputes resolved, to give them a better chance of fading away. Yes, it remains possible that past wrongs will be repeated in the future. But to always presume that is to never allow disputes to be resolved, and to instead accumulate escalating complaints and feuds until war becomes nearly inevitable. 

If our national legal system isn’t up to the task of resolving this conflict, or isn’t seen as neutral enough by important audiences, I have a simple proposal: randomly pick 13 adults from the whole world, let them each pick one legal advisor, then isolate them all in a room and have them work together as a jury to pick a resolution. When they must pick a number, let them just use a median vote (each submits a number, the median of which is the answer). Finally, let the whole world apply social pressure to get everyone to accept this as the most neutral and independent resolution likely to be available anytime soon. Accept it, implement it, and then let it go. (If you worry about one side betraying the resolution later, consider spreading cash payments out over a long time period.) 

When conflict appears in a marriage, the couple sometimes seeks a counselor, who often offers neutral independent advice on how to resolve their conflict. Which is helpful when partners actually do want to resolve a conflict. But sometimes they prefer war, and the marriage ends. Similarly an independent reparations recommendation can’t force us to resolve our conflict over racism and slavery, if what we really want is all out war. But as with a feuding couple, if we think there’s still a chance that we’ll want to stay together, we might still give the independent counselor thing a try.  

Yes, like you I hear of many who seem eager for all-out war, as they feel confident they will win. For example, some intend to crush all opposition within the elite professions that they expect to dominate, such as journalism, academia, government, social media tech, and even law. But while such people do exist, social media exaggerates their numbers. It is not yet too late to step back from the brink, and reconcile. Via something like law. 

In a recent Twitter poll, I found that 800 respondents favored cash reparations (CR) 4-1 over affirmative action (AA) as a way to deal with past and present racism, including race-based slavery:


My 73 facebook poll respondents favored CR over AA 87% to 13%. Yes, there are reasons to doubt a wider public shares this judgment, but three different polls find at least that majorities of blacks favor cash reparations. The idea isn’t crazy.

Added 3pm: Over the weekend, I paid for nationally representative surveys via Google Surveys. When I asked the above question except with “just show results” replaced by “I don’t know” (IDK), then out of 220, IDK got 77%, AA 14%, and CR 9%. I initially paid for a much bigger survey, but bailed when I saw so many IDK. I tried again without the IDK option, and out of 1154, AA got 53% and CR 47%. I agree that these stats aren’t very supportive of a majority favoring CR over AA.

I interpret these stats as Google Survey respondents trying to answer as fast as they can to get paid more faster, and so only giving accurate opinions when such can be generated very quickly. If the question looks at all complex, then they pick an IDK or “none of the above” if they see one, and otherwise pick randomly. I’d pay a lot more for surveys where the same person is asked the same question a week apart, and only gets paid if their answers match.

Added 6Mar: Almost all responses are critical, from folks who apparently don’t want any reparations. They mainly complain that this case would be difficult to judge from a legal precedent point of view. But we almost never refuse to have a legal proceeding on the basis of difficulty of judging. If it seems plausible that a judge might find for the plaintiff, the case goes forward. A judge might then rule for the defendant because it seems too hard to find a clear enough reason to rule otherwise. But that’s after a proceeding, not before. I’m okay if the jury of 13 that I suggested picks, after much deliberation, a median compensation of zero; no reparations.

Added 8Mar: David Brooks comes out in favor of reparations:

Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

George Will opposes reparations because they’d be complicated.

Added 10Mar: A Postily poll of 283 finds 28% prefer AA, 36% prefer CR, 36% say IDK. Non-whites like CR more across the board, but even whites favor it 33% to 27%. Masters degrees & higher prefer AA. Democrats prefer AA over CR 45% to 26%. Oddly, all regions but the South preferred AA over CR.

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