Tag Archives: Politics

I’m Not Seaing It

Imagine you run a small business in an area where a criminal organization runs a protection racket. “Nice shop here, shame if something were to happen to it.” So you pay.

Someone tells you that they’ve never seen payment demanded from the homeless guy who sells pencils on the corner. Nor the shady guy who sells watches in the alley. And maybe not even from food trucks.

So this person suggests that you relocate your small business to a truck. Or at least a trailer park. Because then criminals might not bother you. And if they do you can more easily move to another town. You should also move your home to an RV, or a trailer park, for the same reason.

Enough of you together might even create whole mobile towns that better evade both local criminals and local governments. If locals don’t treat you right, you’ll be outta there. Your group could then govern itself more, instead of having to do what locals say. And that would create more experiments in governance, which would help the world to innovate and improve our mechanisms of governance.

This isn’t fantasy because trucks, RVs, and trailer parks already exist. Oh and have you heard of all the great ideas for improving trucks? There are ideas for how trucks could be used to make energy, food, and potable water, and how they could clean up pollution and pull CO2 from the air. Anything you think is expensive on a truck might soon be cheap. What are you waiting for!?

Not persuaded? That’s how I feel about Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman’s new book Seasteading: How Floating Nations will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians.

They argue that cruise ships and oil rig platforms prove that we already know how to live on the ocean. And we have so many great new related ideas — there are ways to make ocean houses, things ocean machines could do, and products and services that ocean living people could sell. The book is mostly about all those great ocean ideas, for food, energy, clean water, CO2, etc.

Presumably, in time the usual profit motives would get all that ocean tech developed without your help. The reason Quirk and Freidman say they wrote this book, to entice you to help, is because they think sea-living folks could create more experiments in governance, because nations don’t officially claim control over people far from shore. And offshore mobility would enable a different better set of experiments. They are hoping you care enough about that to go live on the ocean.

In 366 pages the authors are careful to never say which particular governance variations they are so eager to try, variations that are today blocked by all land governments everywhere. Somewhat suspiciously like blockchain folks eager for “commerce” without government interference. (They just want to trade “stuff,” okay?)

The book talks about seeking approval from governments for early experiments, and wanting to keep good relations with neighboring nations. Seasteads won’t be used to evade taxes, they say. And whatever products and services they sell to land-based customers must meet regulations that those customers must live by.

Long ago people who didn’t like local governments tended to head for mountains and jungles, where they were harder to find and tax. That doesn’t work as well today, as governments can now find people much more easily, even on the ocean.

The book suggests that seastead mobility would make governance different and better for them. But one must pay a big added cost for mobility, both on land and sea. And the cost of moving large seasteads seems to me comparable to the cost to move a home or business located in a trailer on land. Yet the existence of trailer parks hasn’t obviously unleashed much great land governance.

The book claims that nations won’t interfere w/ seasteads because “China has not invaded Hong Kong. Malaysia has not invaded Singapore .. The Cayman Islands .. adopts a spiteful stance toward US and EU regulator policies” (p.270). Yet as recently as 1982 an international treaty UNCLOS extended national powers out to 200+ miles, within which nations “reserve the right to regulate `artificial islands, installations, and structures.’” (p.13) It seems to me that when there is enough economic activity in the oceans, nations would get around to trying to control it.

Yeah nations can be slow to act, so maybe there’d be some interim period when seasteads could experiment. But even then I find it hard to imagine that seasteads would substantially increase the total governance experimentation on Earth, even for an interim.

The world is full of families, firms, clubs, churches, group homes able to try many governance variations. Apparently, “there are close to 600,000 cities, towns, villages, hamlets etc. in the world.” Some of these are “intentional communities” that experiment with many social variations, in far easier environments than the ocean.

Yes, many governance variations do not seem to have been tried much, but that seems mostly due to a lack of interest. I can’t get people to do futarchy experiments, even though it could be tried in organizations of most any size. Scholars have proposed many as-yet-untried governance mechanisms, such as voting rules, that could also be tried in organizations of any size. US libertarians can’t even get enough of them to move to New Hampshire to make a big governance difference there.

Yes, there are far fewer such polities in the world that could try experiments on governance issues that only apply to polities containing at least a million people. But I find it hard to imagine a million people all going to live on the sea just so they can do experiments at that scale. And even if they did, it would only create a small percentage change in the number of such polities.

Maybe if ocean tech advances as fast as some hope, many will eventually live on the ocean, just for the economic benefits. But in that case I expect the usual nations to extend control over this new activity. And any new governance units that do form would only add a small fraction to Earth entities able to experiment with governance variations.

My guess is that the real appeal here is related to why people find pirate stories “romantic.” They just like the abstract idea that pirates are “free”, even if they don’t have any particular forbidden action in mind to do as a pirate. And just as most who enjoy reading pirates stories would never actually choose to be a pirate, most seastead supporters like the idea of supporting sea “freedom”, even if no way they’d go live on the ocean, and even if they have no particular usually-forbidden thing they want “free” sea folks to try.

Seasteading, I’m just not seaing it.

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What TED Needs

Most people want, and gain value from, religious-like communities, strongly bonded by rituals, mutual aid, and implausible beliefs. (Patriotism and political ideologies can count here.) I once embraced that deeply and fully. But then I acquired a strong self-identity as an honest intellectual, which often conflicts with common religious practices. However, I get that my sort of intellectual identity is never going to be common. So religion will continue, even with ems. Realistically, the best widespread religion I’m going to get is one that at least celebrates intellectuals and their ideals, even if it doesn’t fully embrace them, and does so in a form that is accessible to a wide public.

I’ve given four TEDx talks so far, and will give another in two weeks. Ten days ago I had the honor of giving a talk on Age of Em at the annual TED conference in Vancouver (video not yet posted). And I have to say that the TED community seems to come about as as close as I can realistically expect to my ideal religion. It is high status, accessible to a wide public, and has a strong sense of a shared community, and of self-sacrifice for community ideals. It has lots of ritual, music, and art, and it celebrates innovation and intellectuals. It even gives lip service to many intellectual virtues. If borderline religious elements sometimes make me uncomfortable, well that’s my fault, not theirs.

The main TED event differs from other TEDx events. Next year the price will be near $10K just for registration, and even then you have to submit an application, and some are rejected. At that high price the main attendees are investors and CEOs looking to network with each other. As a result, it isn’t really a place to geek out talking ideas. But that seems mainly a result of TED’s great success, and overall it does seem to help the larger TED enterprise. Chris Anderson deserves enormous credit for shepherding all this success.

The most encouraging talk I heard at TED 2017 was by David Brenner on his efforts to disinfect human spaces. Apparently there are frequencies of ultraviolet (UV) light that don’t penetrate skin past the top layer of dead skin cells, but still penetrate all the way through almost all bacteria and viruses in the air and on smooth-enough surfaces. So we should be able to use special UV lights to easily disinfect surfaces around humans. For example, we might cheaply sterilize whole hospitals. And maybe also airports during pandemics. This seems an obvious no brainer that should have been possible anytime in the last century (assuming they’ve done penetration-depth vs. frequency measurements right). Yet Brenner has been working on this for five years and still seems far from getting regulatory approval. This seems to me a bad case of civilization and regulatory failure. Even so, the potential remains great.

The most discouraging talk I heard was by Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group. He talked about how he fought the World Bank for years, because they insisted on using cost-effectiveness criteria to pick medical investments. He showed us pictures of particular people helped by less cost-effective treatments, daring us to say they were not worth helping. And he said people in poor nations have status-based “aspirations” for the same sort of hospitals and schools found in rich nations, even if they aren’t cost-effective, and who are we to tell them no. Now that he runs the World Bank (nominated by Obama in 2012), his priorities can now win more. The audience cheered. 🙁

All strong religions seem to need some implausible beliefs, and perhaps for TED one of them is the idea we need only point out problems to good people, to have those problems solved. But if not, then what I think TED audiences most need to hear are basic reviews on the topics of market failure and regulatory costs.

At TED 2017 I heard many talks where speakers point out a way that our world is not ideal. For example, speakers talked about how tech firms compete to entice users to just pay attention to them, how cities seem to be spread out more than is ideal, and how inner city grocery stores have less fresh food. But speakers never attributed problems to a particular standard kind of market failure, much less suggest a particular institutional solution because it matched the kind of market failure it was to address. While speakers tend to imply government regulation and redistribution as solutions, they never consider the many ways that regulation and redistribution can go wrong and be costly.

It is as if TED audiences, who hear talks on a great specialized many areas of science and tech, were completely unaware of key long-established and strongly-relevant areas of scholarship. If TED audiences were instead well informed about institution design, market failures, and regulatory costs, then a speaker who pointed out a problem would be expected to place it within our standard classifications of ways that things can go wrong. They’d be expected to pick the standard kind of institutional solution to each kind of problem, or explain why their particular problem needs an unusual solution. And they’d be expected to address the standard ways that such a solution could be costly or go wrong. Perhaps even adjust their solution to deal with case-specific costs and failure modes.

None of this is about left vs. right, it is just about good policy analysis. But perhaps this is just a bridge too far. Until the wider public becomes informed about these things, maybe TED speakers must also assume that their audience is ignorant of them as well. But if TED wants to better help the world to actually solve its problems, this is what its audience most needs to hear.

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Imagine Philosopher Kings

I just read Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0 (reviewed here by Alex). Heath is a philosopher who is a big fan of “reason,” which he sees as an accidentally-created uniquely-human mental capacity offering great gains in generality and accuracy over our other mental capacities. However, reason comes at the costs of being slow and difficult, requiring fragile social and environmental supports, and going against our nature.

Heath sees a recent decline in reliance on reason within our political system, which he blames much more on the right than the left, and he has a few suggestions for improvement. He wants the political process to take longer to consider each choice, to focus more on writing relative to sound and images, and to focus more on longer essays instead of shorter quips. Instead of people just presenting views, he wants more more cross-examination and debate. Media coverage should focus more on experts than on journalists. (Supporting quotes below.)

It seems to me that academic philosopher Heath’s ideal of reason is the style of conversation that academic philosophers now use among themselves, in journals, peer review, and in symposia. Heath basically wishes that political conversations could be more like the academic philosophy conversations of his world. And I expect many others share his wish; there is after all the ancient ideal of the “philosopher king.”

It would be interesting if someone would explore this idea in detail, by trying to imagine just what governance would look like if it were run similar to how academic philosophers now run their seminars, conferences, journals, and departments. For example, imagine requiring a Ph.D. in philosophy to run for political office, and that the only political arguments that one could make in public were long written essays that had passed a slow process of peer review for cogency by professional philosophers. Bills sent to legislatures also require such a peer-reviewed supporting essay. Imagine further incentives to write essays responding to others, rather than just presenting one’s one view. For example, one might have to publish two response essays before being allowed to publish one non-response essay.

Assume that this new peer review process managed to uphold intellectual standards roughly as well as does the typical philosophy subfield journal today. Even then, I don’t have much confidence that this would go well. But I’m not sure, and I’d love to see someone who knows the internal processes of academic philosophy in some detail, and also knows common governance processes in some detail, work out a plausible guess for what a direct combination of these processes would look like. Perhaps in the form of a novel. I think we might learn quite a lot about what exactly can go right and wrong with reason.

Other professions might plausibly also wish that we ran the government more according to the standards that they use internally. It could also be interesting to imagine a government that was run more like how an engineering community is run, or how a community of physicists is run. Or even a community of spiritualists. Such scenarios could be both entertaining and informative.

Those promised quotes from Enlightenment 2.0: Continue reading "Imagine Philosopher Kings" »

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When Does Evidence Win?

Consider a random area of intellectual inquiry, and a random intellectual who enters this area. When this person first arrives, a few different points of view seemed worthy of consideration in this area. This person then becomes expert enough to favor one of these views. Then over the following years and decades the intellectual world comes to more strongly favor one of these views, relative to the others. My key question is: in what situations do such earlier arrivals, on average, tend to approve of this newly favored position?

Now there will be many cases where favoring a point helps people to be seen an intellectual of a certain standing. For example, jumping on an intellectual fashion could help one to better publish, and then get tenure. So if we look at tenured professors, we might well see that they tended to favor new fashions. To exclude this effect, I want to apply whatever standard is used to pick intellectuals before they choose their view on this area.

There will also be an effect whereby intellectuals move their work to focus on new areas even if they don’t actually think they are favored by the weight of evidence. (By “evidence” here I also mean to include relevant intellectual arguments.) So I don’t want to rely on the areas where people work to judge which areas they favor. I instead need something more like a survey that directly asks intellectuals which views they honestly think are favored by the weight of evidence. And I need this survey to be private enough for respondents to not fear retribution or disapproval for expressed views. (And I also want them to be intellectually honest in this situation.)

Once we are focused on people who were already intellectuals of some standing when they choose their views in an area, and on their answers to a private enough survey, I want to further distinguish between areas where relevant strong and clear evidence did or did not arrive. Strong evidence favors one of the views substantially, and clear evidence can be judged and understood by intellectuals at the margins of the field, such as those in neighboring fields or with less intellectual standing. These can included students, reporters, grant givers, and referees.

In my personal observation, when strong and clear evidence arrives, the weight of opinion does tend to move toward the views favored by this evidence. And early arrivals to the field also tend to approve. Yes many such intellectuals will continue to favor their initial views because the rise of other views tends to cut the perceived value of their contributions. But averaging over people with different views, on net opinion moves to favor the view that evidence favors.

However, the effectiveness of our intellectual world depends greatly on what happens in the other case, where relevant evidence is not clear and strong. Instead, evidence is weak, so that one must weigh many small pieces of evidence, and evidence is complex, requiring much local expertise to judge and understand. If even in this case early arrivals to a field tend to approve of new favored opinions, that (weakly) suggests that opinion is in fact moved by the information embodied in this evidence, even when it is weak and complex. But if not, that fact (weakly) suggests that opinion moves are mostly due to many other random factors, such as new political coalitions within related fields.

While I’ve outlined how one might do a such a survey, I have not actually done it. Even so, over the years I have formed opinions on areas where my opinions did not much influence my standing as an intellectual, and where strong and clear evidence has not yet arrived. Unfortunately, in those areas I have not seen much of a correlation between the views I see as favored on net by weak and complex evidence, and the views that have since become more popular. Sometimes fashion favors my views, and sometimes not.

In fact, most who choose newly fashionable views seem unaware of the contrary arguments against those views and for other views. Advocates for new views usually don’t mention them and few potential converts ask for them. Instead what matters most is: how plausible does the evidence for a view offered by its advocates seem to those who know little about the area. I see far more advertising than debate.

This suggests that most intellectual progress should be attributed to the arrival of strong and clear evidence. Other changes in intellectual opinion are plausibly due to a random walk in the space of other random factors. As a result, I have prioritized my search for strong and clear evidence on interesting questions. And I’m much less interested than I once was in weighing the many weak and complex pieces of evidence in other areas. Even if I can trust myself to judge such evidence honestly, I have little faith in my ability to persuade the world to agree.

Yes if you weigh such weak and complex evidence, you might come to a conclusion, argue for it, and find a world that increasingly agrees with you. And you might let your self then believe that you are in a part of the intellectual world with real and useful intellectual progress, progress to which you have contributed. Which would feel nice. But you should consider the possibility that this progress is illusory. Maybe for real progress, you need to instead chip away at hard problems, via strong and clear evidence.

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Why We Mix Fact & Value Talk

For a while now I’ve been tired of the US political drama, and I’ve been hoping that others would tire of it as well. Then maybe we could talk about something else, like say, my books. So I was thinking of writing a post reminding folks about futarchy, saying that politics doesn’t have to be this way. That is, we could largely (if not entirely) separate the political processes that deal with facts and values. In this case, even when there’s a big change in which values set policy, the fact estimates that set policy could remain the same, and be very expert.

In contrast, most of our current political processes mix up facts and values. The candidates we vote for, the bills they adopt, and the rulings that agencies make, all represent bundles of opinions on both facts and values. As a result, the fact estimates implicit in policy choices are less than fully expert, as such estimates must appeal to the citizens, politicians, administrators, etc. who we choose in part for their value positions. And so, to influence the values that our systems uses, we must each talk about facts as well, even when we aren’t personally very expert on those facts.

On reflection, however, I think I had it wrong. Most of those engaged by the current US political drama are enjoying it, even if they say otherwise. They get a rare chance to feel especially self-righteous, and to bond more strongly with political allies. And I think the usual mixing of facts and values actually helps them achieve these ends. Let me explain.

For the purpose of making effective decisions, on average the best mix of fact vs. value in analysis has over 90% of the attention go to facts. Yes, you need to pay some attention to values, but most of the devil is in the details, and most of the relevant details are on facts. This is true at all levels, including personal, family, firm, church, city, state, and national levels.

However, for the purpose of feeling self-righteous and bonding with allies, value talk is much more potent than fact talk. You need to believe that your values are superior to feel self-righteous, and shared values bond you with allies much more strongly than do shared facts. Yet even for this purpose, the ideal conversation isn’t more than 90% focused on values; something closer to a 50-50 mix works better.

The problem is that when we frame a debate as a pure value disagreement, we actually find it harder to feel enough obviously superior, and to dismiss the other side. We aren’t really as confident in our value positions as we pretend. We can see how observers might perceive a symmetry between us and our opponents, and label us unfair if we just try to crush the other side to achieve our values at the expense of their values.

However, by mixing enough facts into a value discussion, we can explain to ourselves and others why crushing them is really best for everyone. We can say that they just don’t understand that global warming is a real thing, or that kids really need two parents to grow up healthy. It is the other side’s failure to accept key facts that can justify to outsiders our uncompromising determination to crush them for a total win. Later on they may see we were right, and even thank us. But even if that doesn’t happen, right now we can feel justified in dismissing them.

I expect this dynamic plays out not only in national politics, but also in firm, church, and family politics. And it helps explain our widespread reluctance to adopt prediction markets, and other neutral fact estimation methods such as experiments, in relatively political contexts. We regularly want to support decisions that advance the values we share with our political allies, but we prefer the cover of seeming to be focused on estimating facts. To successfully use facts as a cover for values, we need to have enough fact issues mixed into our debates. And we need to avoid out-of-control fact estimation mechanisms that lack enough adjustment knobs to let us get the answers we want.

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Status Hypocrisy

Humans (and some other animals) recognize two kinds of status: good and bad. Good status is “prestige” while bad status is “dominance.” Here is Trump today saying the US wants to be high status in the world, but only via good status:

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow. (more)

Many animals have a local “pecking order” set by winners of pair-wise physical fights. In some animals, rank is also influenced via prestige elements. For example, babbler birds rise in rank by doing good things for their local group, such as by sharing food and warning against predators. These things count for rank even when gained via violence, such as by fighting other birds for the best places to look out for predators, and by forcing food down the throat of other birds.

Human foragers have strong norms against using or threatening force, and even against bragging about such serious abilities. Hunters may exchange arrows to disguise who deserves credit for good hunts. But foragers are okay with communities having a shared sense of who are better sources of advice, and who are better to emulate and associate with. And it can be okay, in play mode, to brag about play abilities like singing or joking. In The Secret Of Our Success, Joseph Henrich says human cultural evolution was promoted by our tendency to copy behaviors of prestigious people.

Today we tend to say that our leaders have prestige, while their leaders have dominance. That is, their leaders hold power via personal connections and the threat and practice of violence, bribes, sex, gossip, and conformity pressures. Our leaders, instead, mainly just have whatever abilities follow from our deepest respect and admiration regarding their wisdom and efforts on serious topics that matter for us all. Their leaders more seek power, while ours more have leadership thrust upon them. Because of this us/them split, we tend to try to use persuasion on us, but force on them, when seeking to to change behaviors.

You can see this split in typical motives of heroes and villains in fiction, and in how such characters treat their subordinates. It also appears often in war propaganda, such as in accusations about different leadership styles of Trump and Clinton in the US last election.

Firm bosses today tend to be reluctant to give direct orders to subordinates, and prefer a general impression that they have their position mainly because of how much everyone respects their wisdom and effort. Bosses also prefer the impression that their main task is to collect information, apply wisdom, and make good decisions in the firm interest. Subordinates often go along with this story, as they don’t like to publicly accept domination. Employees can just conveniently decide that they respect their boss, and are persuaded by his or her arguments. And firms pay extra for the pretty dynamic bosses to which employees less mind submitting, even if those are worse at making key decisions.

Modern folk often don’t understand how the ancients could have tolerated not having democracy, as we us tell ourselves today that democracy is why we are not dominated by leaders. But while the ancients saw rival nations as under the thumb of tyrants, they themselves had kings whose virtues proved that they deserved their position. And we today look away from evidence that our leaders win elections via illicit means (such as personal connections etc.); our elected leaders are often far from the most prestigious people available. Even if we see most politicians as corrupt, we see our personal politicians as much less so. US residents look away from evidence that the US is not just high status in the world due to its good advice and general helpfulness; the US also uses force, bribes, etc.

Clearly, while there is some fact of the matter about how much a person gains their status via licit or illicit means, there is also a lot of impression management going on. We like to give others the impression that we personally mainly want prestige in ourselves and our associates, and that we only grant others status via the prestige they have earned. But let me suggest that, compared to this ideal, we actually want more dominance in ourselves and our associates than we like to admit, and we submit more often to dominance.

In the following, I’ll offer three lines of evidence for this claim. First consider that we like to copy the consumer purchases of people that we envy, but not of people we admire for being “warm” and socially responsible. I suggest that relative to us, the latter group has prestige while the former has dominance.

Second, consider the fact that when our bosses or presidents retire and leave office, their legitimate prestige should not have diminished much. That is, such people have about the same wisdom and good advice, and they remain as useful a model for copying behavior. Yet others usually show far less interest in associating with such retirees. This suggests that what people really want in associating with bosses is their dominance powers, not their prestigious advice.

For my third line of evidence, consider our differing preferences for short vs. long term mates. We are much more publicly associated with our long term mates, and so we naturally care more about what other people think of them. Their prestige will bleed over onto us. In contrast, short term mating is often done in secret. Thus we should care more about prestige in long term mates, and dominance in short term mates, even if we don’t admit this consciously.

For short term mates, humans seem to mainly care about physical attractiveness. This is in contrast to long term mates and non-sexual short term associates. Women also care about men having a deep voice, and if men are relatively attractive, women like them to show off luxury goods. Women may like creative intelligence in men, but while we can infer overall intelligence quickly and reliably from faces, that just doesn’t much influence how attractive they seem.

While there is a lot of complexity in mating preferences, and we still don’t understand it all, it seems to me that one important component is that for long term mates we more care about prestige features that are good for the group, but for short term mates, we care more about dominance features that are more directly useful to us personally. Physical attractiveness (and a deep voice) shows off capacities for violence and fertility, both of which are useful powers.

Overall intelligence can be good for the group, but for our ancestors it was much less useful to individuals. This may be part of why IQ matters more for national than individual income. We humans may have long known that smarts is good for our groups, and yet made it less of a priority in our selfish choices of associates.

Added 21Jan: The two kinds of status have different kinds of status moves. For example, you look directly at someone prestigious, but avoid looking directly at a dominator.

Added 22Jan: This can help explain why smart & sincere tend to go together.

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When Is Talk Meddling Okay?

“How dare X meddle in Y’s business on Z?! Yes, X only tried to influence Y people on Z by talking, and said nothing false. But X talked selectively, favoring one position over another!”

Consider some possible triples X,Y,Z:

  • How dare my wife’s friend meddle in my marriage by telling my wife I treat her poorly?
  • How dare John try to tempt my girlfriend away from me by flirting with her?
  • How dare my neighbors tell my kids that they don’t make their kids do as many chores?
  • How dare Sue from another division suggest I ask too much overtime of my employees?
  • How dare V8 try to tempt cola buyers to switch by dissing cola ingredients?
  • How dare economists say that sociologists keep PhD students around too long?
  • How dare New York based media meddle in North Carolina’s transexual bathroom policy?
  • How dare westerners tell North Koreans that their government treats them badly?
  • How dare Russia tell US voters unflattering things about Hillary Clinton?

We do sometimes feel justly indignant at outsiders interfering in our “internal” affairs. In such cases, we prefer equilibria where we each stay out of others’ families, professions, or nations. But in many other contexts we embrace social norms that accept and even encourage criticism from a wide range of sources.

The usual (and good) argument for free speech (or really, free hearing) is that on average listeners can be better informed if they have access to more different info sources. Yes, it would be even better if each source fairly told everything relevant it knew, or at least didn’t select what it said to favor some views. But we usually think it infeasible to enforce norms against selectivity, and so limit ourselves to more enforceable norms against lying. As we can each adjust our response to sources based on our estimates of their selectivity, reasonable people can be better informed via having more sources to hear from, even when those sources are selective.

So why do we sometimes oppose such free hearing? Paternalism seems one possible explanation – we think many of us are unreasonable. But this fits awkwardly, as most expect themselves to be better informed if able to choose from more sources. More plausibly, we often don’t expect that we can limit retaliation against talk to other talk. For example, if you may respond with violence to someone overtly flirting with your girlfriend, we may prefer a norm against such overt flirting. Similarly, if nations may respond with war to other nations weighing in on their internal elections, we may prefer a norm of nations staying out of other nations’ internal affairs.

Of course the US has for many decades been quite involved in the internal affairs of many nations, including via assassination, funding rebel armies, bribery, academic and media lecturing, and selective information revelation. Some say Putin focused on embarrassing Clinton in retaliation for her previously supporting the anti-Putin side in Russian internal affairs. Thus it is hard to believe we really risk more US-Russian war if these two nations overtly talk about the others’ internal affairs.

Yes, we should consider the possibility that retaliation against talk will be more destructive than talk, and be ready to forgo the potentially large info gains from wider talk and criticism to push a norm against meddling in others’ internal affairs. But the international stage at the moment doesn’t seem close to such a situation. We’ve long since tolerated lots of such meddling, and the world is probably better for it. We should allow a global conversation on important issues, where all can be heard even when they speak selectively.

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Beware Futurism As Political Allegory

Imagine that you are junior in high school who expects to attend college. At that point in your life you have opinions related to frequent personal choices if blue jeans feel comfortable or if you prefer vanilla to chocolate ice cream. And you have opinions on social norms in your social world, like how much money it is okay to borrow from a friend, how late one should stay at a party, or what are acceptable excuses for breaking up with boy/girlfriend. And you know you will soon need opinions on imminent major life choices, such as what college to attend, what major to have, and whether to live on campus.

But at that point in life you will have less need of opinions on what classes to take as college senior, and where to live then. You know you can wait and learn more before making such decisions. And you have even less need of opinions on borrowing money, staying at parties, or breaking up as a college senior. Social norms on those choices will come from future communities, who may not yet have even decided on such things.

In general, you should expect to have more sensible and stable opinions related to choices you actually make often, and less coherent and useful opinions regarding choices you will make in the future, after you learn many new things. You should have less coherent opinions on how your future communities will evaluate the morality and social acceptability of your future choices. And your opinions on collective choices, such as via government, should be even less reliable, as your incentives to get those right are even weaker.

All of this suggests that you be wary of simply asking your intuition for opinions about what you or anyone else should do in strange distant futures. Especially regarding moral and collective choices. Your intuition may dutifully generate such opinions, but they’ll probably depend a lot on how the questions were framed, and the context in which questions were asked. For more reliable opinions, try instead to chip away at such topics.

However, this context-dependence is gold to those who seek to influence others’ opinions. Warriors attack where an enemy is weak. When seeking to convert others to a point of view, you can have only limited influence on topics where they have accepted a particular framing, and have incentives to be careful. But you can more influence how a new topic is framed, and when there are many new topics you can emphasize the few where your preferred framing helps more.

So legal advocates want to control how courts pick cases to review and the new precedents they set. Political advocates want to influence which news stories get popular and how those stories are framed. Political advocates also seek to influence the choices and interpretations of cultural icons like songs and movies, because being less constrained by facts such things are more open to framing.

As with the example above of future college choices, distant future choices are less thoughtful or stable, and thus more subject to selection and framing effects. Future moral choices are even less stable, and more related to political positions that advocates want to push. And future moral choices expressed via culture like movies are even more flexible, and thus more useful. So newly-discussed culturally-expressed distant future collective moral choices create a perfect storm of random context-dependent unreliable opinions, and thus are ideal for advocacy influence, at least when you can get people to pay attention to them.

Of course most people are usually reluctant to think much about distant future choices, including moral and collective ones. Which greatly limits the value of such topics to advocates. But a few choices related to distant futures have engaged wider audiences, such as climate change and, recently, AI risk. And political advocates do seem quite eager to influence such topics, due to their potency. They seem select such topics from a far larger set of similarly important issues, in part for their potency at pushing common political positions. The science-fiction truism really does seem to apply: most talk on the distant future is really indirect talk on our world today.

Of course the future really will happen eventually, and we should want to consider choices today that importantly influence that future, some of those choices will have moral and collective aspects, some of these issues can be expressed via culture like movies, and at some point such issue discussion will be new. But as with big hard problems in general, it is probably better to chip away at such problems.

That is: Anchor your thoughts to reality rather than to fiction. Make sure you have a grip on current and past behavior before looking at related future behavior. Try to stick with analyzing facts for longer before being forced to make value choices. Think about amoral and decentralized choices carefully before considering moral and collective ones. Avoid feeling pressured to jump to strong conclusions on recently popular topics. Prefer robust and reliable methods even when they are less easy and direct. Mostly the distant future doesn’t need action today – decisions will wait a bit for us to think more carefully.

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Careful Who You Call ‘Racist’

Imagine that you manage a restaurant, and suddenly during the evening shift a middle-aged woman stands up, points to another diner, and yells “Murderer!” She loudly appeals to everyone to help her restrain and punish this supposed murderer. (Think Catelyn seizing Tyrion in GoT.) When other diners are shy, she demands that you expel this murderer from your restaurant. She says that in a civilized society it is every good person’s duty to oppose murder, and explains her belief that her husband went to an early grave because this older man, her boss, worked him too hard. Sure her husband could have quit his job instead, but he just wasn’t that sort of person.

Will you expel this customer as requested? Probably not. Yes there is a plausible meaning of the word “murder” that applies, but the accused must satisfy a narrower meaning for such an appeal to move you. In this post I will suggest that we take a similar restricted attitude toward “racism” in politics. Let me explain.

Humans have many ways to persuade one another. We can make deals, or we can appeal to self-interest, mutual reciprocity, or shared loyalties. In addition, we can appeal to shared moral/social norms. This last sort of appeal draws on our unique human capacity to enforce what Boehm calls a “reverse dominance hierarchy.” Foragers coordinated to express norms, to monitor for violations, to agree on who is guilty, and then to punish those violators. Such norms covered only a limited range of behaviors, those worth the trouble of invoking this expensive, corruptible, and error-prone mechanism.

With farming and civilization we have introduced law. With law, we added a formal specialized process to support a subset of our especially shared, important, clear, and enforceable norms. Foragers would entertain most any argument against most anyone that most any behavior was a norm violation. For example, a band could declare a disliked forager guilty of using sorcery, even if no concrete physical evidence were offered. But farmer law usually limited accusations to clearly expressed pre-existing law, and limited the kinds of evidence that could be offered.

For example, multiple witnesses were often required, and instead of relying on median public opinion a special judge or jury looked into more detail to make a decision. Negligence levels are made extra forgiving due to the chance of honest mistakes. To be a good candidate for enforcement by farmer law, a norm needed especially wide support, and to be especially clear and easy to prove even by those unfamiliar with the details of a particular person’s habits and life. And the norm needed to be important enough to be worth paying the extra costs of legal enforcement, including a substantial expected level of error and corruption.

In the last few centuries governments have mostly taken over the “criminal” area of law, where it is now they who investigate and prosecute accusations, and punish the guilty. Because such governments can be more corruptible, error-prone, and inefficient, the criminal law process is only applied to an especially important subset of law. And even more restrictions are placed on government law, such as juries, statutes of limitations, prison as punishment, proportionate punishment, and a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof. To avoid costs of error and enforcement, we often try to catch fewer violators and punish them more strongly to compensate.

Today, many kinds of political arguments are offered for and against people, organizations, and policies. While many arguments appeal to self-interest and shared loyalties, others demand priority because of norm violations. The claim is that whatever other different interests we may have and pursue, it is essential that we set those aside to coordinate to punish key norm violations. And since many of these norms are, for various reasons, not enforced by formal law, we depend on other good people and organizations to respond to such moral calls to action.

And this all makes sense so far. But in the last half century in the West, preferences against “racism” have risen to at least near the level of moral norms. (We have related feelings on “sexism” and other “isms” but in this post I’ll focus on racism for concreteness.) Whatever else we may disagree on, we are told, we must coordinate to oppose racists, boycotting their businesses and drumming them out of public office. Which could make sense if enough of us agree strongly enough to make this a priority, and if we share an effective way to collectively identify such violations.

One problem, however, is that our commonly used concepts of “racism” seem more appropriate to ordinary conversation and persuasion than to usefully enforceable strong norms and law. Some favor concepts where most everyone is at least a bit racist, and others concepts based on hard-to-observe dispositions. But while such concepts may be useful in ordinary conversation or academic analysis, they are poorly suited for enforcing strong norms and law.

For example, many today claim that Trump is clearly racist, and invoke a shared norm against racism in their appeal for everyone to oppose Trump. No good person, they suggest, should cooperate in any way with Trump or his supporters. A good person can’t treat this as politics as usual, not when a norm violator stands among us unpunished! It is even hinted that people with positions of influence in important institutions, such as in media, academia, journalism, law, and governance, should deviate from their usual practice of following institutional norms of political neutrality, and instead tip the scales against Trump supporters, now that everything is at stake.

But as Scott Alexander recently tried to argue, the evidence offered for Trump racism doesn’t yet seem sufficient to hold up in a legal court, not at least if that court used a “racism” concept of the sort law prefers. If your concept of “racist” applies to a third of the population, or requires a subjective summing up of everything you’ve ever heard about the accused, it just won’t do for law.

Yes, people are trying Trump in a court of public opinion, not in a court of law. But my whole point here is that there is a continuum of cases, and we should hold a higher more-restrictive more-law-like standard for enforcing strong norms than we should in ordinary conversation and persuasion. Higher standards are also needed for larger more varied communities, when there are stronger possibilities of bias and corruption, and when the enforcing audience pays less attention to its job. So we should be a lot more careful with who we call “racist” than who we call “hot” or “smart”, for example. For those later judgements, which are not the basis of calls to enforcement of shared strong norms, it is more okay to just use your judgement based on everything you’ve heard.

Now I haven’t studied Trump or his supposed racism in much detail. So maybe in fact if you look carefully enough there is enough evidence to convict, even with the sort of simple clear-cut definition of “racism” that would make sense and be useful in law. But this appeal to norm enforcement should and will fail if that evidence can’t be made clear and visible enough to the typical audience member to whom this appeal is targeted. We must convict together or not at all; informal norm enforcement requires a strong consensus among its participants.

Maybe it is time to enshrine our anti-racism norm more formally in law. Then we could gain the benefits of law and avoid the many costs of informal mob enforcement of our anti-racism norms. I really don’t know. But I have a stronger opinion that if you are going to appeal to our sense of a strong shared norm against something like racism, you owe it to us all to hold yourself to a high standard of a clear important and visible violation of a nearly-law-appropriate concept. Because that is how law and norm enforcement need to work.

Yes we are limited in our ability to enforce norms and laws, and this limits our ability to encourage good behavior. And it may gall you to see bad behavior go unpunished due to these limitations. But wishes don’t make horses, and these costs are real. So until we can lower such costs, please do be careful who you call a “racist.”

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Dial It Back

In a repeated game, where the same people play the same game over and over, cooperation can more easily arise than in a one-shot version of the game, where such people play only once and then never interact again. This sort of cooperation gets easier the more that players care about the many future iterations of the game, compared to the current iteration.

When a group repeats the same game, but some iterations count much more than others, then defection from cooperation is most likely at a big “endgame” iteration. For example, spies who are moles in enemy organizations will usually hide and behave just as that organization wants and expects, waiting for a very big event so important that it can be worth spending their entire career investment to influence that event.

Many of our institutions function well because most participants set aside immediate selfish aims in order to conform to social norms, thereby gaining more support from the organization in the long term. But when one faces a single very important “endgame” event, one is then most tempted to deviate from the norms. And if many other participants also see that event as very important, then your knowing that they are tempted more to deviate tempts you more to deviate. So institutions can unravel when faced with very big events.

I’ve been disturbed by rising US political polarization over recent decades, with each election accompanied by more extreme rhetoric saying “absolutely everything is now at stake!” And I’ve been worried that important social institutions could erode when more people believe such claims. And now with Trump’s election, this sort of talk has gone off the charts. I’m hearing quite extreme things, even from quite powerful important people.

Many justify their extreme stance saying Trump has said things suggesting he is less than fully committed to existing institutions. So they must oppose him so strongly to save those institutions. But I’m also worried that such institutions are threatened by this never-compromise never-forget take-no-prisoners fight-fight-fight mood. If the other side decides that your side will no longer play by the usual institutional norms of fairness, they won’t feel inclined to play fair either. And this really all might go to hell.

So please everyone, dial it back a bit. Yes, if for you what Trump has already done is so bad that no compromise is tolerable, well then you are lost to me. But for the rest of you, I’m not saying to forgot, or to not watch carefully. But wait until Trump actually does something concrete that justifies loudly saying this time is clearly different and now everything is at sake. Yeah that may happen, but surely you want Trump folks to know that isn’t the only possible outcome. There need to be some things Trump folks could do to pursue some of their agendas that would be politics as usual. Politics where your side doesn’t run the presidency, and so you have to expect to lose on things where you would have won had Clinton become president. But still, politics where our existing institutions can continue to function without everyone expecting everyone else to defect from the usual norms because now everything is at stake.

Added 21Nov: Apparently before the election more people on Trump’s side were talked about presuming the election was rigged if their side lost. Without concrete evidence to support such accusations, that also seems a lamentable example of defecting from existing institutions because now everything is at stake. HT Carl Shulman.

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