Tag Archives: Politics

What Do We Owe The World?

We each owe some degree of consideration to our close associates, and to larger groups with which we associate. But what do we owe the larger world and universe?

Some of us think we should each put in some effort to improve that universe. Not just that this would be nice, but that we are morally obligated to do so. But how should we think about this obligation?

We could try to collect a long list of specific things different people should do for the world, and how those things vary with context. But is there a simpler more general way to describe these obligations?

We can think of ourself as made up of many smaller selves, at each moment in time, and in each possible world. And then standard expected utility theory says that we maximize a weighted sum across these many sub-selves. So a natural way to include the rest of the universe is to expand this weighted sum to include every other creature, and their many component selves.

The relative weight we put on others might vary with their distance in spacetime, and with their similarity to us. But a general problem with this approach is that in many scenarios we will either want to do near nothing or near everything. If we consider some large group of others, then as we increase the weight we put on members of that group, at first we will want to do very little for them, and then as the weight passes a key threshold we suddenly switch to wanting to put most all of our efforts into helping them. The weight must be finely tuned to induce intermediate efforts.

If intermediate levels of help sound more reasonable, one way to get that is to talk in terms of a budget: we might each have an obligation to spend at least some fixed fraction of our resources helping the world. Resources such as money, time, reputation, etc. The simplest version of this would require the same fraction for everyone, though more complex versions could make this vary with context.

Bryan Caplan’s new book is titled How Evil Are Politicians?, based on this essay wherein he seems to embrace something like a budget obligation story, except with politicians having much larger budget obligations:

If you’re in a position to pass or enforce laws, lives and freedom are in your hands. Common decency requires … politicians to make … intellectual hygiene their top priority. Until they calmly recuse themselves from their society and energetically weigh a wide range of moral arguments, they have no business lifting a political finger. At this point, the iniquity of practicing politicians should be clear. How much time and mental energy does the average politician pour into moral due diligence? A few hours a year seems like a high estimate. They don’t just fall a tad short of their moral obligations. They’re too busy passing laws and giving orders to face the possibility that they’re wielding power illegitimately.

To check on all this, I did a series of Twitter polls asking what fraction of their resources different kinds of people are obligated to spend trying to help the world. Here are the resulting (median of lognormal-fit) % estimates:

The basic % of budget moral framing seems confirmed by many answering these questions and few complaining about the framing. Furthermore, respondents do seem to think this budget varies with type of person, and agree with Caplan that politicians have much higher obligations.

However, respondents had enormously divergent opinions on what is that obligation budget % (median standard dev. is a factor of ~18), and even the middle estimates in the chart above seem to me to vary way too much across types of people. It seems to me unfair to demand far more efforts by others than you are willing to make. And it seems disrespectful to demand far less from other kinds of people, as if you don’t see them as sufficiently human to hold them to moral standards.

This looks to me more like a status story, wherein we try to hold higher status people to higher moral standards, as some sort of “progressive taxation” of status. And while progressive taxation might make sense for governments, having moral obligations vary this strongly with status just doesn’t make much sense of my moral intuitions. We should all try to help others, at least to some similarly modest degree.

Added 10a: The prior numbers in the table were wrong due to a math mistake, now fixed.

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Friends, Factions, And Status

We have three different kinds of reasons to favor others: friends, factions, and status. First, we favor those to whom we have relatively direct connections: friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, sport teammates, church-mates, etc. Second, we favor other members of our self-promoting groups, where each such group makes up a substantial fraction of our relevant society. Such as groups who share gender, ethnicity, education level, or religion. Third, we favor people we see as having prestige or dominance, and are thus accepted by most everyone as being better than others.

Over time, groups can move between these roles. For example, Christianity started out as small groups who favored each other due to their direct connections. Then it became a repressed minority faction within the Roman Empire, then a large faction, and then the largest dominant fraction, where it repressed others. Over the following centuries Christianity became so dominant, at least in areas near Europe, that it became part of the local concept of status; Christians were higher status than heathens or atheists, and status within Christianity counted as social status more generally. Lately, Christianity has retreated to become more of a strong faction.

Similarly, science started out as small community, then became a minor faction, but by now has become entrenched and dominant in our society. That is, most everyone accepts that being more scientific is better overall for your status. Anti-science factions are repressed factions, when they are allowed at all. For example, we fight over if economics is “science” as a way to fight over it s status.

Another example is prestigious college degrees. Once these were an optional and contested status marker, but now they are almost universally seen as a powerful marker, quite often required for any elite position.

Over the last few centuries, “liberation” movements have succeeded in moving some group differences in the other direction, from status to faction. For example, regarding aristocrats, ethnicities, gender, and sexual preferences. Previously these were all widely accepted as status markers, with some types better than others, but recently they have come more to be seen as just more ways that people can be different. Some now try to induce similar changes in how we treat looks, age, and urban/rural, but they have so far largely failed.

Humans have long worried that allegiances to friends or factions would interfere with loyalty to other shared units. So regarding friends and family favoritism, firms limit nepotism, judges recuse themselves when they have personal connections, and teachers aren’t supposed to grade their friends, family, or lovers.

Regarding faction favoritism, humans have long had neutrality norms to limit such favoritism. As a result, faction favoritism is a common “hidden motive” to which we are often consciously blind, like other hidden motives we discuss in our book Elephant in the Brain.

For example, you are supposed to set aside faction allegiances when you rule as a judge, or grade as a teacher, or review a journal article. As a firm representative or responsible professional, you aren’t supposed to give better or cheaper service to customers who share your factions. In a firm, you are supposed to argue for choices of personnel, projects, or policies based on what is good for the firm as a whole, not for your within-firm factions.

Some legal rules of evidence, and common norms of good debate, can be seen as trying limit factional support. For example, rules against hearsay can discourage factions from getting their members to lie for each other, and rules against revealing prior criminal convictions to jurors may prevent conviction-correlated faction action. And debate norms that discourage group-based insults or appeals to authority or popularity can also discourage factional coordination.

In most ancient societies, there was usually a single dominant power coalition, and this still holds for most democratic cities today. The founders of US democracy worried a lot about democratic polities plagued by factions. They thought they had a fix (many small ones), but they were wrong; in larger democratic polities, we’ve often seen a consistent split into two main roughly-equally-strong political factions.

Which subgroups comprise these two factions changes during rare “political realignments.” And in such polities, people like judges, teachers, or generals who represent the polity as a whole are usually expected to set aside their affiliations with these two political factions when making key decisions.

In such polities, it is more okay to say that you favor particular political candidates because they favor your factions. But even there we prefer factions to say that they are trying to do good for the polity as a whole. Valid factions, we say, merely hold different opinions on what is good for us all.

Yes, we are aware that factions may hypocritically pretend to serve the general good while actually serving themselves. We are also aware that high status groups like the top-college-educated may in part just be self-favoring factions so powerful that they suppress any substantial opposition. Even so, we prefer hypocrisy to more overt factional self-dealing, and we prefer to suppress the factions that we can suppress rather than to suppress none at all.

In the U.S. since WWII, we have seen increasing and now record “polarization” between the main two political factions. And recently we’ve seen the relatively new phenomena of “reverse discrimination”, whereby some groups which were first seen as low in status, and then second were supposed to be treated neutrally as just another faction, are now third to be treated in key selection processes as if they were actually higher in status, to correct for their past lower status. Is this a new political realignment?

I actually think it is even bigger; we are now seeing a political faction make a bid for promotion, from faction to status. They want most everyone to accept that their side is just morally better. This faction has come to dominate the most prestigious high ends of many social high grounds: tech, academia, media, civil service, finance, charity, and more. And this faction has induced those arenas to set aside their usual professional neutrality norms regarding political factions, to strongly favor this faction.

In wider public discourse, this faction has used direct control over media and tech, and also the threat of punishment in other arenas it controls, to silence disliked parties and points of view. The opposing faction now mainly retains control of roughly half of top political positions, of peripheral locations of all sorts, and of professions like construction, engineering, and the military wherein they still proudly apply professional norms of factional neutrality. Which looks to me like a weak and losing position.

The main thing I can see that could derail this fast strong train is factional infighting. Such as between those focused on anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism, and pro-immigration. There are plausible cleavages there, but I don’t see them opening much anytime soon; this alliance really does show extreme ideologue/religion/etc levels of passion and bonding. Which has long been the origin of new empires in history.

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Can We Tame Political Minds?

Give me a firm spot on which to stand, and I shall move the earth. (Archimedes)

A democracy … can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. (Tytler)

Politics is the mind killer. (Yudkowsky)

The world is a vast complex of interconnected subsystems. Yes, this suggests that you can influence most everything else via every little thing you do. So you might help the world by picking up some trash, saying a kind word, or rating a product on Yelp.

Even so, many are not satisfied to have some effect, they seek a max effect. For this reason, they say, they seek max personal popularity, wealth, or political power. Or they look for the most neglected people to help, like via African bed nets. Or they seek dramatic but plausibly neglected disaster scenarios to prevent, such as malicious foreigners, eco-apocalypse, or rampaging robots.

Our future is influenced by a great many things, including changes in tech, wealth, education, political power, military power, religion, art, culture, public opinion, and institutional structures. But which of these offers the strongest lever to influence that future? Note that if we propose to change one factor in order to induce changes in all the others, critics may reasonably question our ability to actually control that factor, since in the past such changes seem to have been greatly influenced by other factors.

Thus a longtime favorite topic in “serious” conversation is: where are the best social levers, i.e. factors which do sometimes change, which people like us (this varies with who is in the conversation) can somewhat influence, and where the effects of this factor on other factors seem lasting and stronger than reverse-direction effects.

When I was in tech, the consensus there saw tech as the strongest lever. I’ve heard artists make such claims about art. And I presume that priests, teachers, activists, and journalists are often told something similar about their factors.

We economists tend to see strong levers in the formal mechanisms of social institutions, which we happen to be well-placed to study. And in fact, we have seen big effects of such formal institutions in theory, the lab, and the field. Furthermore, we can imagine actually changing these mechanisms, because they tend to be stable, are sometimes changed, and can be clearly identified and concisely described. Even stronger levers are found in the higher level legal, regulatory, and political institutions that control all the other institutions.

My Ph.D. in social science at Caltech focused on such controlling institutions, via making formal game theory models, and testing them in the lab and field. This research finds that institution mechanisms and rules can have big effects on outcomes. Furthermore, we seem to see many big institutional failures in particular areas like telecom, transport, energy, education, housing, and medicine, wherein poor choices of institutions, laws, and regulations in such areas combine to induce large yet understandable waste and inefficiency. Yes institutions do matter, a lot.

However, an odd thing happens when we consider higher level models. When we model the effects of general legal and democratic institutions containing rational agents, we usually find that such institutions work out pretty well. Common fears of concentrated interests predating on diffuse interests, or of the poor taxing the rich to death, are not usually borne out. While the real world does seem full of big institutional problems at lower levels, our general models of political processes do not robustly predict these common problems. Even when such models include voters who are quite ignorant or error prone. What are such models missing?

Bryan Caplan’s book Myth of the Rational Voter gets a bit closer to the truth with his concept of “rational irrationality”. And I was heartened to see Alex Tabarrok [AT] and Ezra Klein [EK], who have quite different political inclinations, basically agree on the key problem in their recent podcast:

[AT:] Mancur Olson thought he saw … more and more of these distributional coalitions, which are not just redistributing resources to themselves, but also slowing down… change. … used to be that we required three people to be on the hiring committee. This year, we have nine … Now, we need [more] rules. … we’ve created this more bureaucratic, kind of rule-bound, legalistic and costly structure. And that’s not a distributional coalition. That’s not lobbying. That’s sort of something we’ve imposed upon ourselves. …

[EK:] it’s not that I want to go be part of slowing down society and an annoying bureaucrat. Everybody’s a hero of their own story. So how do you think the stories people tell themselves in our country have changed for this to be true? …

[AT:] an HOA composed of kind of randos from the community telling you what your windows can look like, it’s not an obvious outcome of a successful society developing coalitions who all want to pursue their own self-interest. … naked self-interest is less important than some other things. And I’ll give you an example which supports what you’re saying. And that is, if you look at renters and the opinions of renters, and they are almost as NIMBY, Not In My Backyard, as owners, right, which is crazy.… farmers get massive redistribution in their favor. … But yet, if you go to the public … They’re, oh, no, we’ve got to protect the family farm. …

[EK:] a lot of political science … traditionally thought redistribution would be more powerful than it has proven to be … as societies get richer, they begin emphasizing what he calls post-materialist values, these moral values, these identity values, values about fairness. (More)

That is, our larger political and legal systems induce, and do not fix, many more specific institutional failures. But not so much because of failures in the structure of our political or legal institutions. Instead, the key problem seems to lie in voters’ minds. In political contexts, minds that are usually quite capable of being reasonable and pragmatic, and attending to details, instead suffer from some strange problematic mix of confused, incoherent, and destructive pride, posturing, ideology, idealism, loyalty, and principles. For want of a better phrase, let’s just call these “political minds.”

Political minds are just not well described by the usual game theory or “rational” models. But they do seem to be a good candidate for a strong social level to move the future. Yes, political minds are probably somewhat influenced by political institutions, and by communications structures of who talks to and listens to whom. And by all the other systems in the world. Yet it seems much clearer how they influence other systems than how the other systems influence them. In particular, it is much clearer how political minds influence institution mechanisms than how those mechanisms influence political minds.

In our world today, political minds somehow induce and preserve our many more specific institutional failures. And also the accumulation of harmful veto players and added procedures discussed by [AT] and [EK]. Even so, as strong levers, these political minds remain gatekeepers of change. It seems hard to fix the problems they cause without somehow getting their buy-in. But can we tame politician minds?

This is surely one of the greatest questions to be pondered by those aware enough to see just how big a problem this is. I won’t pretend to answer it here, but I can at least review six possibilities.

War – One ancient solution was variation and selection of societies, such as via war and conquest. These can directly force societies to accept truths that they might not otherwise admit. But such processes are now far weaker, and political minds fiercely oppose strengthening them. Furthermore, the relevant political minds are in many ways now integrated at a global level.

Elitism – Another ancient solution was elitism: concentrate political influence into fewer higher quality hands. Today influence is not maximally distributed; we still don’t let kids or pets vote. But the trend has definitely been in that direction. We could today limit the franchise more, or give more political weight to those who past various quality tests. But gains there seem limited, and political minds today mostly decry such suggestions.

Train – A more modern approach is try to better train minds in general, in the hope that will also improve minds in political contexts. And perhaps universal education has helped somewhat there, though I have doubts. It would probably help to replace geometry with statistics in high school, and to teach more economics and evolutionary biology earlier. But remember that the key problem is reasonable minds turning unreasonable when politics shows up; none of these seem to do much there.

Teach – A more commonly “practiced” approach today is just to try to slowly persuade political minds person by person and topic by topic, to see and comprehend their many particular policy mistakes. And do this faster than new mistakes accumulate. That has long been a standard “educational” approach taken by economists and policy makers. It seems especially popular because one can pretend to do this while really just playing the usual political games. Yes, there are in fact people like Alex and Ezra who do see and call attention to real institutional failures. But overall this approach doesn’t seem to be going very well. Even so, it may still be our best hope.

Privatize – A long shot approach is to try to convince political minds to not trust their own judgements as political minds, and thus to try to reduce the scope for politics to influence human affairs. That is, push to privatize and take decisions away from large politicized units, and toward more local units who face stronger selection and market pressures, and induce less politicized minds. Of course many have been trying to do exactly this for centuries. Even so, this approach might still be our best hope.

Futarchy – My proposed solution is also to try to convince political minds to not trust their own judgements, but only regarding on matters of fact, and only relative to the judgements of speculative markets. Speculative market minds are in fact vastly more informed and rational than the usual political minds. And cheap small scale trials are feasible that could lead naturally to larger scale trials that could go a long way toward convincing many political minds of this key fact. It is quite possible to adopt political institutions that put speculative markets in charge of estimating matters of fact. At which point we’d only be subject to political mind failures regarding values. I have other ideas for this, but let’s tackle one problem at a time.

Politics is indeed the mind killer. But once we know that, what can we do? War could force truths, though at great expense. Elitism and training could improve minds, but only so far. Teaching and privatizing are being tried, but are progressing terribly slowly, if at all.

While it might never be possible to convince political minds to distrust themselves on facts, relative to speculative markets, this approach has hardly been tried, and seems cheap to try. So, world, why not try it?

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Brainwashing is Sorcery

Can’t bring yourself to slaughter a nearby village, or a long-time associate? Mysticism can help you believe they already attacked you first, and that the stakes are so much higher than your personal gain. (More)

Most states have breach-of-the-peace laws that criminalize … obscene or abusive language in a public place, engaging in noisy behaviors, fighting in a public place, resisting lawful arrest, and disrupting a lawful assembly or meeting. … vagrancy, loitering, and public intoxication. (More)

Most laws are defined in relatively objective ways, so that society can truthfully say “no one is above the law”. Those who violate the law can be found guilty and punished, while others remain free.

But most societies have also included a few less objective and more “flexible” offenses, flexible enough to let the powerful more arbitrarily punishment disliked parties. For example many ancient societies let you retaliate directly against someone who previously attacked you via “sorcery”. And many societies today allow punishment for vague crimes like “vagrancy” and “loitering”.

The key difference is that such “flexible offenses” tend to be defined more in terms of how someone important doesn’t like an outcome, and less in terms of what specifically someone did to induce that resulting dislike. And a big problem is that this flexibility often lies dormant for long periods, so that those offenses don’t appear to be applied very flexibly in practice. Until, in a new period of conflict, potential flexibility gets realized and weaponized.

Our world of talk, conversation, and debate are policed by some official laws, such as on “fraud” and “libel”, and by many more inform norms. These norms are often complex, and vary in complex ways with context. We academics have an especially rich and powerful set of such norms.

While most of these norms are relatively objective and helpful, we also seem to include some more flexible offenses, such as “brainwashing”, “propaganda”, “manipulation”, “deception”, “misinformation”, “harassment”, and “gaslighting”. Again the key is that these tend to be defined less in terms of what exactly was done wrong, and more in terms of a disliked result. For example, someone is said to be “brainwashed” if they afterward adopted disliked beliefs or actions. But if exactly the same process results in approved beliefs or actions, there are no complaints.

In times of relative peace and civility, such offenses are applied flexibly only rarely and inconsistently, when particular powerful people find an opening to bludgeon particular opponents. So we don’t much notice their flexibility. But at other times of more severe, aligned, and polarized conflict, they become key weapons in the great battles. We today live in such a time.

The problem isn’t with the general idea of laws or norms, with the idea of enforcing laws, nor with the idea of shunning or shaming those who violate norms. The problem is with a small subset of especially vague norms, offering “loopholes big enough to drive a truck through”, as they say. And with periods when passions become enflamed so much that people become willing to wield any available weapons, such as flexible laws and norms.

The main solution that I can see is to work harder make our laws and norms less flexible. That is, to more explicitly and clearly express and define them. To more clearly say what exactly are the disapproved behaviors, independent of the disliked beliefs that result. This isn’t as easy as many think, as our social norms do actually tend to be subtler, more context dependent, and less widely understood than we think. Even so, it is quite possible, and often worth the bother. Especially in times like ours.

Another complementary solution is to switch from norm to law enforcement, as I’ve previously suggested. Legal norms are reluctant to allow flexible laws, and legal process is less prone to mistaken rushes to judgement.

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Foreign Policy Is Incoherent

I am quite impressed with Richard Hanania’s new book Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy. It makes a simple but important point: U.S. foreign policy is less due to some persistent grand national strategy than to inconsistent lobbying pressures of various political groups. While at times causes millions to die for no good reason.

For example econ sanctions almost never work, but they satisfy a public desire to “do something”. We support big rivals like the USSR or China with trade as we resist them militarily, because business wants trade while the military wants budget. Hanania explains: 

The whole reason that International Relations is its own subfield in political science is because of the “unitary actor model,” or the assumption that you can talk about a nation like you talk about an individual, with motivations, goals, and strategies. No one believes this in a literal sense, but it’s considered “close enough” for the sake of trying to understand the world. … [But] the more I studied the specifics of American foreign policy the more it looked irrational on a system-wide level and unconnected to any reasonable goals, which further made me skeptical of the assumptions of the field.

The book felt a bit belabored to me, as I’d have been persuaded by an article length analysis. But I get why he did it; academics demand sweat and impressive mastery of literatures.

As a U.S. citizen, I am especially appalled at such waste being done in my name, even though I expect that similar problems bedevil other nations. This feeling is especially strong as I listen to major foreign policy issues being debated this week.

Monetary policy seems to me an especially promising place for a similar analysis. People usually talk as if that were being done by a central actor according to some coherent long term strategy, but that seems a priori unlikely. Yes futarchy could solve this, if only there were some interest in doing some small scale tests to hone such mechanisms. 

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The Coming World Ruling Class

When I got my Ph.D. in formal political theory, I learned that the politics of large democratic polities today, such as metropolises, states, and nations, are usually aligned along a single “ideological” dimension. (E.g., “left” vs. “right”.) What exactly that dimension is about, however, has varied greatly across times and places. It seems to more result from a game theoretic equilibrium than from a single underlying dimension of choice; the real policy space remains highly dimensional.

However, it wasn’t until years later than I noticed that this is not usually true for the politics of families, firms, clubs, towns, and small cities. These usually are usually run by a single stable dominant coalition, i.e., a ruling class. As were most ancient societies in history, at least eventually.

This ruling class might sometimes offer their larger community some options to choose between. But mostly this is when the ruling elite can’t decide, or wants to make others feel more involved. Such as who exactly to put at the top most visible positions. Sometimes real fights break out among coalitions within the elite, but these fights tend to be short and behind the scenes.

The same applies to communities with no formal organization. That is, to “mobs”. While in the modern world large mobs tend to split along a main ideological dimension, small mobs tend to be dominated by a main consensus, who roughly agree on what to do and how. Though with time, smaller mobs are more often becoming aligned to larger political ideologies.

This one-dimensional story also does not apply to large ancient areas which encompassed many different polities. These areas look more like a disorganized set of competing interests. So a one dimensional political alignment isn’t a fully general law of politics; it has a domain of applicability.

A few centuries ago, the world was composed of many competing nations, with no overall organization. During the great world wars, and the Cold War, there was an overall binary alignment. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen a single coalition dominate the world. And over recent decades we have seen policy around the world converge greatly around the opinions of an integrated world elite.

I’m tempted to put this all together into the following integrated theory of a standard progression. Imagine suddenly moving a large random group of diverse strangers to a new isolated area, where they could survive indefinitely. At first their choices would be individual. Then they’d organize into small groups that coordinate together. Then into larger groups.

Eventually many large groups might compete for control of the area, or for the allegiance of the people there. In their bids for control, such groups might emphasize how much they respect the many kinds of diversity represented by people in the area. They don’t intend to repress other groups, they just want to rule for the good of all. As people became more similar, they would bother less with such speeches.

Eventually, these groups would merge and align along a single main dimension, which might be labeled in terms of two main rival groups, or in terms of some ideological axis. For a while, the two sides of this main dimension might find themselves at a stalemate. Or one side might tend to win, but the midpoint of their conflict might be continually redefined to result in two roughly equally sized sides. This main ideological dimension would encompass many issues, but hardly all. It might encompass more issues as the fight for control got fiercer. But the fight should get weaker as outside threats became more salient.

Eventually a single coalition would come to dominate. Especially in a society with many “high grounds” which such a coalition could come to control. This situation might then oscillate between a single ruling elite and a main axis of conflict. But slowly over time, a single coalition would win out more. The members of the ruling elite would come to know each other better, become more similar, and agree more on who should be among their members, and on what are the “serious” policies worth considering. They would focus more on reassuring each other of loyal to their class, and on making sure their kids could join that elite.

A ruling coalition who felt insecure in its power might work harder to seek out and repress any potential dissent. At the extreme, it might create a totalitarian regime that demanded allegiance and conformity in every little area of life. And it might focus more on entrenching itself than on improving society as a whole. As a ruling coalition became more secure, it might more tolerate dissent, and demand less conformity, but also focus on internal conflicts and division of spoils, instead of its society as a whole.

This story seems to roughly describe national, and world, history. My nation is becoming more integrated and similar over time, with actions coordinated at larger scales, national politics coming more to dominate local politics, and national politics coming to color more areas and issues in life. And a single issue axis aligned to a global cultural elite is coming to dominate politics across the world.

It seems plausible that toward the end of the transition between a period of one main ideological dimension, and a period of a single integrated ruling class, the final main political dimension would be aligned for and against that final ruling class. The last ideology question would be: shall we let this ruling class take over?

That is, shall we let this small subset of us define for us who are “serious” candidates for leadership and what are “serious” policy positions worthy of consideration? As such ruling classes now decide in firms, towns, etc. today. A sign of the end would be when one side of the political axis kept putting up candidates for office who were consistently declared “not serious” by the elites who controlled the the main commanding heights of power, such as media, law, universities, regulators, CEOs, etc.

The pro-ruling-class side would be more dominant in places that are more integrated with the overall culture, and less dominate in places that cared more about local issues. Such as in larger cities, compared to towns.

This model suggests that our current era of roughly balanced forces on two sides of one main ideological axis may be temporary. As the world becomes more closely integrated and similar, eventually a single integrated elite culture will dominate the world, entrenching itself in mob opinion and via as many institutions as possible, especially global institutions.

This world ruling class may then focus more on further entrenching itself, and on repressing dissent more than on making the world better. As everyone becomes more similar, conformity pressures will become stronger, as in most small towns today. Plausibly cutting many kinds of innovation. And our entrenched global institutions may then rot. After which our total human civilization might even decline, or commit suicide.

This may take centuries, but that’s really not very long in the grand scheme of things.

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Are Political Freedoms a Fluke?

Through most of history, econ density and development went with less political freedom:

For most of the past 5,000 years, … kingdoms and empires were ‘exceptional islands of political hierarchy, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants … systematically avoided fixed, overarching systems of authority. (More)

In contrast, over the last few centuries we’ve seen increasing levels of peace, democracy, and political freedoms. Many take these trends to be strong and nearly inevitable consequences of industry. Here is some interesting skepticism about such views, by Daniel H. Deudney in his great book Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village:

United States of America … a “new order of the ages,” distinctive both from the early republican city-states and the “republic” of Europe. … Widely recognized as being “exceptionalistic” in several ways. … It combined familiar forms of popular sovereignty, formal state equality, balance of power, and division of power to create a negarchic political order novel in its overall configuration. (p.161)

The American founding occurred on the eve of the industrial revolution, whose main external security consequence was to increase sharply the scope of the state system and the size of viable units within it. … In this brutally competitive interstate environment, the only reason that republican politics would plausibly survive, let allow prevail, was that the United State of America had combined republication government with empirelike size via feral unions. All other democratic republics were implausible candidates for survival in the global-industrial era, except as allies of the United States. … In the World War II phase of the struggle, democratic republics at the Western core, already shrunk o a handful in northwester Europe, ere either overrun by Nazi German armies, were neutrals vulnerable to assured eventual conquest by Germany, or were snatched from conquest by massive American aid and Hitler’s quixotic grand strategy. Outside of the European core, democracies were few, scattered, and weak. They were spared immediate Axis conquest only by their remoteness and American assistance or their proximity to the United States.

After the defeat of Axis imperialism, liberal democracies faced another mortal peril from communist Russia and China, and the survival, reconstruction, and expansion of democracy in the second half of the twentieth century vitally depended on American military and economic power. … “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that since World War I, the” fortunes of democracy worldwide have largely depended on American power.” …

Looking at the overall picture, two facts stand out. First, without American power, there would probably not be any democracies at the end of the twentieth century. Second, the democracies that have behaved so impressively pacifically toward one another have largely been junior allies of the United States in a very hostile ad competitive interstate environment. (pp.183-185)

Consider the counterfactual world where the American continents never existed. In that counterfactual, there is never a new big place available to try out a new form of government, which then comes to control a huge empire. Most empires are based on more traditional governance forms, which then mostly win the big world wars, and mostly run the world today.

Democratic governments which ensure many political and economic freedoms may be nothing like an inevitable consequence of industry-era changes. In which case it seems less likely that such freedoms will continue long into the future.

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Beware Centralization

Imagine merging three public firms, by making each firm into a division of a single new firm with one new boss. In principle, this new boss has the option to keep these firms running exactly as before. The prior CEOs could become division heads, with complete freedom to run their divisions as before, and paid the same, such as via options on new assets that track the new profits of each division. Under this arrangement, the profits of the new firm could arguably be the same of the profits of the old firms, minus a little bit for the salary of the new boss.

However, this new boss would also have the option to do other things. Like cutting redundancies between some subdivisions, such as shipping or human resources. Or reviewing the major decisions of division managers. Or sharing technology between firms. Or using the larger size of this new firm to negotiate better deals with unions, suppliers, or politicians.

Arguably the fact that there is the option to get at least the old profit levels, combined with many new options for making and using synergies across these firms, suggests that such merged firms can in general make more profits than they could separately. Which suggests that firms should just keep on merging until they are very large. But in fact firms do not do this, because their investors do not support it. For example, firms with more than 250 employees employed only 55% of the private US work force in 2020.

So why don’t firms merge to achieve these gains? Yes, regulators and tax authorities may treat larger firms less favorably. Yes, maybe customers and employees dislike larger firms and so treat them worse. But the typical scale of most firms seems far smaller than can be explained by these effects. There seem to be much stronger reasons why most firms are not much larger.

One usual story is that the manager of the new merged firm just can’t help interfering with and inter-connecting these divisions. After all, he or she has career ambitions which are poorly served by a complete hands-off management style. But after such manager “help”, it becomes harder to evaluate the performance of each division independently from the rest. And the quality of the people wiling to work as heads of these divisions, instead of as CEOs of them as independent firms, gets lower. These costs of size are said to be larger than the benefits to be found from exploiting synergies, which is why firms are not larger.

A similar thing happens with government agencies assigned to manage sectors of society. Imagine that we created a government agency in charge of food for the whole nation. This agency is given an authorization so broad that it could allow exactly the existing food practice and industries, such as farms, grocery stores, restaurants, and personal kitchens. Or it could completely nationalize all these resources, and use tax revenue to reorganize them as it saw fit. Or it could do anything in between. Imagine that such an agency had been created in the U.S. in 1970.

It seems obvious to me that by now such a food agency would have intervened in food production, processing, and distribution far more extensively that has been the case in our actual history. Large government agencies would have formed with many thousands of employees, many of them directly managing food activities. Everyone would get access to some food, and some government activities would achieve larger scale economies than seen in the private sector. But this would be achieved in part via more uniformity, standardization, and stability of food processes. Government managed food would end up with less variety and adaptation to individual circumstances and preferences, and this food would improve and innovate less over time.

The amazing thing is that all this would happen even with high quality oversight and accountability by agencies to politicians, and politicians to voters. Voters would tell politicians about things they liked more and less, politicians would pass on these messages to agencies, and agencies would often change their policies and strategies in the suggested directions. But even in the absence of much corruption, civil servant selfishness, or partisan rancor, and even with the best political processes that we can imagine, a food industry managed by a government agency with broad powers would still probably end up creating a worse world of food over the long run.

Similarly, a new firm that merged three random prior firms would typically earn less profits, even with the sincere and helpful advice of its investors, boards of advisors, and management consulting firms, and even in the absence of stupid or corrupt firm managers and advisors. Processes of governance and oversight can and do help, but they are generally insufficient to cancel the harms from an overly centralized organization structure.

These patterns, if true, are seem important regarding the ideal scales of both business and government. And I fear the U.S. public is insufficiently aware of them, as we seem to be on the verge of a historic increase in the scale and depth of government management of society.

Added 4Oct: Let me emphasize that what I’m describing is theoretically puzzling, in that it isn’t very directly implied by our standard models of profit maximization or democratic accountability. There is something important that we don’t understand well going on here.

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Elite Biases Make Policy Biases

A 2014 paper predicted U.S. policy changes over four years for 1,779 issues, using the positions of four groups of influencers: business-based interest groups (55), mass-based interest groups (31), median public opinion (6), and elite public opinion (100), i.e. that of people at the 90th percentile of income. (I’ve listed their relative influence in parenthesis. Criticism says mid-class (not poor) influence is bigger.) While elite and median public opinion had a 0.78 correlation, the other pairs were uncorrelated. (A poll sets median influencer at 92% income percentile.)

What this says is that, even in a democracy, the ~90th percentile rich have the most influence, business interest groups have about half as much, and mass interest groups have about a third as much. We less rich folks only get what we want, to the extent we do, mainly because these elites mostly agree with us, and because we sometimes influence mass interest groups.

This median influencer household has income of $210K/yr and wealth of $1.2M, and households above this cut pay 70% of US Federal income taxes. This income is near the median doctor ($207K) and U.S. District Judge ($218K), more than the median full professor ($141K), lawyer ($139), lobbyist ($115K), judge ($109K), and CEO ($103K), and much more than the median federal civil servant ($64K) and high school teacher ($63K). (The median household made $64K, while the median CEO of the top 500 firms made $12.7M.)

These elites who set policy get most of their status and income from labor, not capital, and they are quite comfortable with, and in fact love, large bureaucratic organizations. Their highest hopes tend to be of gaining positions in, getting promoted in, or creating, such organizations. When they have dreams for the world, they dream of new versions with higher mandates and bigger budgets. (Think socialism.)

They can distinguish each other by their elite accomplishments, school credentials, org affiliations, and styles of talk, dress, etc. And their internal dynamics are dominated by status and gossip. That is, they are very social and join mutually-supporting coalitions which help get them the right jobs, party invites, speaking invites, etc. Via extensive gossip, they quickly form an apparent consensus on the policy issues of the day, on who is higher status among them, and on who should be ostracized and expelled from their ranks. Today these elite communities of gossip and status are integrated across the world.

Simple as it is, this account of who most influences policy seems to me promising as the basis of a theory of policy bias. That is, the natural biases of the group who most influences policy may plausibly explain many of our overall policy biases.

For example, policy set by elites may give elites too much benefit of the doubt, and defer too much to their status-gossip system. As elites tend to see their internal status-gossip processes as sufficient to discourage malfeasance and encourage excellence, they tend to see little need for other forms of track records, incentives, or accountability within elite professions and organizations, including government agencies. They see themselves as mostly good people, trying to do good things, who should be supported not hassled.

As another example, when there are groups that elites see as more outside of themselves, as rivals competing with them for power, then elites may push for policies that control, suppress, and disrespect such rivals.

The most obvious candidate for such a rival group is business. Even though these elites are richer than most of us, like most of us they focus more on those who are above them in status, relative to those who are below. Furthermore, the study above says that business is in fact their main rival for influence over policy. And while most business profits go to elites, elites don’t think of themselves as having their main influence on the world via business; elites instead identify more with their roles as org leaders and elite gossipers.

Furthermore, while elites see themselves as mostly well-meaning good people, they see business as transparently and dangerously selfish. Elites see businesses as tending to do what makes them more money, even when their leaders are ostracized and not invited to the right parties. Meaning that the usual pressures that work on most elites may not work on business and the super-rich. Thus elites support harsh, intrusive, and punitive business taxes, regulations, and legal liability. Yes when the super-rich are taxed, these elites are also taxed, but that may seem worth the price to take them down a peg or two. Most ordinary people miss this conflict by not distinguishing these two different kinds of “rich”.

Even though ordinary people seem to have little influence on policy, and mostly agree with elites on policy, elites are still wary of them as individuals. After all, we outnumber them at least five to one, we might revolt, and they must rely on us to do most of the things that need doing. So as employees, we must be tracked, assigned, and incentivized. As consumers and investors, we must be regulated. As authors and voters, our thoughts must be shaped and channeled via teachers, censors, media, interest groups, and politicians. As potential criminals we need to be tracked and threatened with punishment. And the poorest of us need even more direct management, such as via social workers and parole officers. All of which not only keeps us under control, but asserts elite status via the fact of their managing such controls.

Mass-based interest groups mostly don’t seem to scare elites as a whole, because usually such groups are dominated by elites at their top levels. It is only when a mass-based group seems to oppose elites as a whole that elites close ranks and warn against the dangers of such “populism”. While our society gives a lot of lip service to populism, populism is usually crushed aggressively whenever it actually seems threatening.

So how does this theory do empirically? It seems to me that policy does tend to be overly trusting of elites and their status-gossip system, and overly punitive and disrespectful of rival groups. For example, policy pushes us to pick docs, lawyers, and other prestigious professionals based more on the prestige of their affiliations, and less on track records or incentives. Business does seem greatly overly regulated, and taxes seem overly punitive. And policy seems to rely too much on the consensus of elite gossip, relative to more accurate sources like experts or prediction markets.

While roughly half of all regulation of individuals seems to be justified as protecting people from themselves, warnings seem just as helpful but would be far less controlling. Free speech (really free hearing) would be as effective at informing as is censorship. Pandemics could be more efficiently handled via law. And the poor could be helped more via simple cash transfers instead of expensive intrusive management of their lives.

Our legal system has high costs of suing people (from not using lotteries) but no required liability insurance. This makes law available to elites to sue each other, and to punish business, but not available to ordinary people to sue elites or each other. Elites can protect themselves well from ordinary people via strong prosecutor powers of plea bargaining together with broad surveillance and huge numbers of crime laws on the books, and also judges who are elites and give elites the benefit of the doubt. Oh and living, shopping, and working in separate neighborhoods.

And that’s my simple theory of who runs society, and policy biases that naturally result from their rule.

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The Coming Cosmic Control Conflict

We moderns like to join factions associated with ideologies, and many of our most inspiring stories are of great conflicts between ideologically-affiliated factions. We like such stories more when they have more morally-intense ideologies, bigger conflicts in space, time, and social scope, more impressive combatants, and more real and well-defined events.

At a cost in realism, science fiction and fantasy often turn up the other dials, making ideologies extreme, conflicts galaxy-wide, and giving combatants god-like powers. But for realism and definition, we tend to retreat to WWII, which ranks high on moral intensity, but less high on other criteria. Or more recent struggles for group respect. Our true stories of the largest scope, about our vast universe, tend to fail badly; past stories lack conflict or combatants, while future stories lack definition.

Having recently given a lot of thought to grabby aliens and UFOs as aliens, it occurs to me that they can offer great conflict stories of substantial moral intensity, plausible realism and definition, and quite unprecedented size, scope, and combatant impressiveness. Let us consider telling such stories!

The combatants in which we can be most confident are grabby aliens; the fact that we have appeared so early in the universe tells us that they are out there, and three other datums tell us we’ll meet them in roughly a billion years, if we last that long. Grabby civilizations will come into direct conflict with each other at their borders, and will compete more widely to influence the culture of the next hundred billion years. These conflicts rate high on reality, scope, and impressive combatants, but alas it seems hard to guess how such civilizations will differ, and thus to guess the ideologies that might orient their conflicts.

We can have less confidence that aliens are behind some UFOs. But they plausibly exist, and we can say a lot about a big ideological conflict they must have with grabby aliens. We can reasonably guess that UFO aliens have developed many millions of years past our level, are not changing fast now, and have coordinated to prevent any part of them from getting grabby, i.e., from aggressively expanding and filling the universe with their descendants. To achieve this, we can be pretty sure that they created a strong persistent “world” governments. And enforcing their anti-grabby rules on us is the obvious reason for them to be here now coyly showing themselves to us.

Furthermore, even if there are no aliens behind UFOs, we can forsee this same conflict in our future; we are likely to coordinate to try to prevent parts of our civilization from getting grabby. Thus the pro- vs. anti- grabby conflict is plausibly the big future ideological divide, whether or not UFOs are aliens. Let me explain.

For at least a million years, human foragers coordinated within each band to enforce local norms; individual humans were not free to do whatever they wanted. With farming, societies became larger and had more contact with outsiders, but within each society they enforced many norms and laws. And in our world today we actually have pretty strong global coordination enforcing many global norms via local laws. Human organizations have consistently been rising in size and scope, making much stronger global governance a likely outcome over the coming centuries. (It certainly happens in Age of Em.)

As an economist, I see that most people feel strongly that individual freedoms must be constrained by governance, and many seem to regret that we do not have stronger and larger scale governance to deal with our biggest problems. Few favor cutting our scales of governance. Even when governments seem to consistently fail at a task they’ve been assigned, like the unwinnable war on drugs, most are reluctant to give up; instead budgets and powers are continually increased.

Furthermore, I see these laments especially among futurists, who consider longer timescales and bigger problems. For example, many are uncomfortable with “capitalist” competition, which they hope will end soon or at least become globally managed, to prevent capitalist competition between nations. And many are wary of plain old biological competition, even without capitalism. For example, many see a big problem with overpopulation, for which their natural solution is global regulation of fertility. Some imagine that local unconstrained evolution might eliminate consciousness from future agents, or allow the values of our descendants to drift far from our own values, and suggest strong global governance as remedies for these.

In addition, we should expect rates of change due to natural selection to greatly increase with the rise of artificial life, which is likely to dominate our future starting in a few centuries. So whatever problems result from unmanaged natural selection are likely to become much stronger soon, and at a time when we in fact have a pretty strong world government.

If within a few centuries we have a strong world government managing capitalist competition, overpopulation, value drift, and much more, we might come to notice that these and many other governance solutions to pressing problems are threatened by unrestrained interstellar colonization. Independent colonies able to change such solutions locally could allow population explosions and value drift, as well as capitalist competition that beats out home industries. That is, colony independence suggests unmanaged colony competition. In addition, independent colonies would lower the status of those who control the central government.

So authorities would want to either ban such colonization, or to find ways to keep colonies under tight central control. Yet it seems very hard to keep a tight lid on colonies. The huge distances involved make it hard to require central approval for distant decisions, and distant colonists can’t participate as equals in governance without slowing down the whole process dramatically. Worse, allowing just one sustained failure, of some descendants who get grabby, can negate all the other successes. This single failure problem gets worse the more colonies there are, the further apart they spread, and the more advanced technology gets.

Thus if our descendants strongly value the regulations and coordinations that their world government allows, and are unwilling to give them up, then they may be strongly tempted to simply ban interstellar colonization beyond some manageable limits. Which is exactly what it seems that any aliens behind UFOs must have done successfully for millions of years. The exact opposite of the aggressive expansion that, for billions of years, has been and will continue to be chosen by grabby aliens.

Yes, banning internal expansion should put any civilization at a great disadvantage should they ever encounter a grabby one. But that distant possibility in perhaps a billion years may just not carry much weight against more immediate concerns. It might be easier to slip into denial, emphasizing the lack of solid proof that there will ever be any grabby aliens.

And there we have it: the grand cosmic conflict between authorities who use a strong world government to prevent local expansion, and grabby-wannabe rebels seeking a way to slip through this blockage and expand. A conflict with big values at stake, very impressive combatants, that takes places on the greatest scales of space, time, and social range, and which seems likely to be very real. Don’t you want to hear stories about that? Won’t someone write stories about that?

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