Tag Archives: Politics

Easy Conspiracy Tests

The most obvious kind of conspiracies to expect in the world are ones between your local organized crime, police, and political powers. These powers should each see each other as rivals to their dominance. So to reduce such threats they should should seek to either weaken each other,  or to ally with each other. There are rumors that such alliances are common around the world, and there is clear data that they have often happened in the past. 

So this is no mere theoretical conspiracy theory, to be dismissed by claiming that too many people would know to keep it a secret. This sort of conspiracy is not only verifiably common, it also has a quite credible threat of punishing those who too publicly expose it.

Given that this seems to usually be a real possibility, what sort of evidence might speak to it? Here are some indicators that, if true about your area, are at least weak evidence against such a local alliance:

  1. You see very little profitable crime in your area, such as gambling, drugs, or prostitution.
  2. You see profitable crime, but also conflicts over its control. E.g., wars over drug-selling territory.
  3. You see profitable crime, and little fighting for its control, but its consumer prices are quite near average costs.
  4. You see profitable crime, and see that those who enter such industries fear only police and competitors, not organized crime.
  5. You see a big conflicts in your area between police and organized crime. 
  6. Police in your area are bounty hunters, who regularly gain bounties from catching each other, and judges are clearly not corrupted.
  7. You do elections in a way that lets organized crime steal elections, yet they are clearly not being stolen.
  8. (what else?)

Now if you don’t see any of these signs in your area, you should estimate a higher than average chance that you have a crime-police-politics conspiracy in your area. And as the base rate is already substantial, your estimate should be even higher than that. 

If people were concerned about such conspiracies, they’d pay to hear from folks who collected and published stats on these indicators. And pay even more for stats that made it easier for skeptical observers to check on how such stats were collected and constructed. And then those with the worse indicators, suggesting local conspiracies, could learn about that fact, and perhaps coordinate to change it. 

So what does it tell you if few seem to care enough to even know if such stats are published?

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Why Abstaining Helps

Misunderstandings that I heard in response to these tweets has encouraged me to try to explain more clearly the logic of why most eligible voters should abstain from voting.

Think of each vote cast between two candidates as being either +1 or -1, so that the positive candidate wins if the sum of all votes cast is positive; the negative candidate wins otherwise. Abstaining is then a vote of 0. (If the vote sum is zero, the election is a tie.)

Assume that there is one binary quality variable that expresses which of the two candidates is “better for the world”, that these two options are equally likely, that each voter gets one binary clue correlated with that quality, and that voters vote simultaneously. What we should want is to increase the chance that the better candidate wins.

While all else equal, each voter may prefer a higher quality candidate, they need not be otherwise indifferent. So if, based on other considerations, they have a strong enough preference for one of the candidates, such “partisan” voters will pick that candidate regardless of their clue. Thus their vote will not embody any info about candidate quality. They are so focused on other considerations that they won’t help make for a more informed election, at least not via their vote. The other “informed” voters care enough about quality that their vote will depend on their quality clue.

Thus the total vote will be the sum of the partisan votes plus the informed votes. So the sum of the partisan votes will set a threshold that the informed votes must overcome to tip the election. For example, if the partisan sum is -10, then the informed votes must sum to at least 10 to tip the election toward the positive candidate. For our purposes here it won’t matter if there is uncertainty over this sum of partisan votes or not; all that matters is that the partisan sum sets the threshold that informed votes must overcome.

Now in general we expect competing candidates to position themselves in political and policy spaces so that on average the partisan threshold is not too far from zero. After all, it is quite unusual for everyone to be very confident that one side will win. So I will from here on assume a zero threshold, though my analysis will be robust to modest deviations from that.

Assume for now that the clues of the informed voters are statistically independent of each other, given candidate quality. Then with many informed voters the sum of informed votes will approach a normal distribution, and the chance that the positive candidate wins is near the integral of this normal distribution above the partisan threshold.

Thus all that matters from each individual voter is the mean and variance of their vote. Any small correlation between a voter’s clue and quality will create a small positive correlation between quality and their mean vote. Thus their vote will move the mean of the informed votes in the right direction. Because of this, many say that the more voters the better, no matter how poorly informed is each one.

However, each informed voters adds to both the mean and the variance of the total vote, as shown in this diagram:

What matters is the “z-score” of the informed vote, i.e., the mean divided by its standard deviation. The chance that the better candidate wins is increasing in this z-score. So if a voter adds proportionally more to the standard deviation than they add to the mean, they make the final vote less likely to pick the better candidate, even if their individual contribution to the mean is positive.

This is why poorly informed voters who vote can hurt elections, and it is why the relevant standard is your information compared to that of the other voters who don’t abstain. If you are an informed voter who wants to increase the chance that the better candidate wins, then you should abstain if you are not sufficiently well informed compared to the others who will vote.

In a previous post I considered the optimal choice of when to abstain in two extreme cases: when all other informed voters also abstain optimally, and when no one else abstains but this one voter. Realistic cases should be somewhere between these extremes.

To model inequality in how informed are various voters, I chose a power law dependence of clue correlation relative to voter rank. If the power is high, then info levels fall very quickly as you move down in voter rank from the most informed voter. If the power is low, then info levels fall more slowly, and voters far down in rank may still have a lot of info.

I found that for a power less than 1/2, and ten thousand informed voters, everyone should vote in both extreme cases. That is, when info is distributed equally enough, it really does help to average everyone’s clues via their votes. But for a power of 3/4, more than half should abstain even if no one else abstains, and only 6 of them should vote if all informed voters abstained optimally. For a power of 1 then 80% should abstain even if no one else does, and only 2 of them should vote if all abstain optimally. For higher powers, it gets worse.

My best guess is that a power of one is a reasonable guess, as this is a very common power and also near the middle of the distribution of observed powers. Thus even if everyone else votes, for the purpose of making the total vote have a better chance of picking the better candidate, you should abstain unless you are especially well informed, relative to the others who actually vote. And the more unequal you estimate the distribution of who is how informed, the more reluctant you should be to vote.

Many have claimed that it hurts to tell people about this analysis, as low informed voters will ignore it, and only better informed voters might follow it. But this analysis gives advice to each and every voter, advice that doesn’t depend on who else adopts it; every added person who follows this advice is a net win. Yes, people can be uncertain about how unequal is the info distribution, and about where they rank in this distribution. But that’s no excuse for not trying to make best estimates and act accordingly.

Note that the above analysis ignored the cost of getting informed and voting, and that people seem to in general be overconfident when they estimate their informedness rank. Both of these considerations should make you more willing to abstain.

In the above I assumed voter clues are independent, but what if they are correlated? For the same means, clue correlation increases the variance of the sum of individual votes. So all else equal voters with correlated clues should be more willing to abstain, compared to other voters.

Yes, I’ve used binary clues throughout, and you might claim that all this analysis completely changes for non-binary clues. Possible, but that would surprise me.

Added 7a: Re the fact that it is possible and desirable to tell if you are poorly informed, I love this saying:

If you’re playing a poker game and you look around the table and can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.

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The Socialist Manifesto

As I’ve read criticisms of socialism, I thought I should read some advocates. This seemed promising:

Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality (April 2019) … What, exactly, is socialism? And what would a socialist system in America look like? The editor of Jacobin magazine, Sunkara shows that socialism, though often seen primarily as an economic system, in fact offers the means to fight all forms of oppression, including racism and sexism. The ultimate goal is not Soviet-style planning, but … to create new democratic institutions in workplaces and communities. A primer on socialism for the 21st century.

I’ve just finished it. Alas, the vast majority of its 288 pages is an “inside baseball” history of socialist movements in history. Who inspired them, ran them, and joined or supported them. How they allied with and fought each other and outsiders, and rarely, what policies they pushed for or how they ran things. Generally, Sunkara’s heros are those who “called for” the most “radical” change, regardless of their actual impact on people or policies.

Amazingly for something called a “manifesto” and “primer”, there’s little effort to argue for why socialism is good; we are supposed to find that obvious. More on that below.

Yes, big failures like Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China are acknowledged, but blamed on their being insufficiently “democratic”. Sunkara doesn’t discuss why that seems to happen so often, nor how to stop it from happening again. The actual socialist-like government that he seems most willing to embrace is that of Sweden until a few decades ago. But he has little discussion of why Sweden has since moved far away from that, other than to blame it on business media campaigns and bad strategy choices by politicians.

Much is packed into Sunkara “democracy” concept, as he often blames the failure of socialists to gain more influence as due to capitalist influences on votes. Apparently any elections done within capitalism can’t be fully “democratic.” The US today is also said to be “undemocratic” because our system tends to favor having two main parties. Sunkara also says having things decided by local governments is less democratic, as capitalists have more influence at smaller scales. Sometimes merely voting is seen as insufficiently democratic; Sunkara instead prefers the pressure that comes from mobs, especially mobs willing to break the law. I don’t really see a coherent “democracy” concept here, other than that “democracy” is whatever leads to Sunkara’s favored policies.

Socialism is said to be the solution not only to inequality and oppression, but also to racism and global warming:

People can overcome their prejudices in the process of mass struggle over shared interests.

Democratic socialism would do far better at keeping humanity flourishing along with the wider ecology. …Worker-controlled firms don’t have the same ‘grow or die’ imperative as capitalist ones. A more empowered citizenry, too, would be better able to weigh the costs and benefits of new development.

Though Sunkara does call for

avoiding a narrow ‘call-out culture’ along with the kinds of identity politics that, taken to its extreme, will lead us down the path to a hyper-individualized and anti-solidaristic politics. Hyperbole and the politics of personal shaming are a recipe for demoralization, paranoia, and defeat.

So what exactly is “socialism”? It is not the end of competition or inequality. Under socialism, there is still personal private property allocated by competitive markets. Romantic and friend relations are set by competitive markets for association. Competitive labor markets still allocate jobs, which result in differing wages and working conditions. People compete under democracy to see who gets to run firms and the government, and people compete to gain government approval to start and grow firms:

Collectively you and your coworkers now control your company. … You have to pay a tax on its capital assets, in effect renting it from society as a whole. … Everyone [must] participate in management on an equal footing. … [Your firm picks] a representative system of governance. … From the unit supervisor’s perspective, she has the duty to make sure everyone is doing their share. [A lazy worker] goes through a progressive disciplinary process – first comes a warning, with concrete suggestions for improvement, then a suspension with pay, then finally, dismissal with three months of severance. …

There is still market competition, and firms still fail, but the grow-or-die imperative doesn’t apply. … There’s pressure to make sure janitorial and other ‘dirty’ jobs are well compensated. …

Capital goods tax … funds are invested into … national planning projects. What’s left is given to regions on a per capita basis … channels by regional investment banks (public of course) that … apportion … to new or existing firms. Applicants are judged on the basis of profitability, job creation, and other criteria including environmental impact. … These tradeoffs are political decisions. … Since you’re starting the firm, you have some discretion in setting the initial operating agreement. … To attract workers [you decided on] income differentials. … you are rewarded for your invention with a small amount of state prize money, and you do end up earning more as an elected manager.

Sunkara says that you wouldn’t be scared to lose your job as you “can get by on the state’s basic income grant and supplement it by taking a guaranteed public sector job.” No mention is made of savings, so it seems you can’t forgo consumption today to save more for you or your children’s future.

Sunkara offers this as his definition of “socialism”, but he doesn’t do anything to assure us that others agree with his definition. From what I’ve read before on the subject, there’s a lot of disagreement on that question.

I have serious doubts that such a system will work as well as familiar ones for choosing products and methods of production. Why are they better for creating efficiency and growth, or for happiness and meaning? Seems to me people would try a lot less hard to figure out better ways to do things. They’d instead figure out how to pander to and lobby the more ignorant politicized panels that allocate capital. As we’ve seen in “socialist” regimes before.

You probably have such doubts too. Yet Sunkara offers zero arguments to allay our fears. No theory arguments. No systematic data comparing how different systems have worked in practice. Not even a few detailed anecdotes on which we might hang our hopes. Nothing, other than perhaps invoking a faith that more democracy must improve all things.

To anyone tempted in the future to write a “manifesto” for some radical proposal, I suggest: actually argue for it. With theory, data, anecdotes, something. And you’d do best to argue for particular concrete trials to test your proposal. Call for more such trials, but don’t call for everyone everywhere to adopt your proposal in the absence of generally positive results from a series of trials of increasing scale and difficulty.

Given how much experience the world has had with regimes that were called “socialist”, I don’t see how anyone could seriously propose more of it without a review of some data drawn from these experiences. While we do have some such data regarding “democracy” of various forms, that data isn’t especially encouraging. Data on government panels deciding what new production ventures to try, and what old ones to maintain, seems to me even more sparse and less encouraging. But do show us that’s wrong, if you can.

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Yay Parliaments

Voters may like the idea of direct democracy, but as Garett Jones mentions in 10% Less Democracy, most scholars agree that representative democracy produces better outcomes. Similarly, while voters may thrill more to directly choose their top leader, better outcomes come from having voters pick legislators who then pick, and can remove, the top leader.

Here’s Arend Lijphart with some simple theory:

In parliamentary systems, only the legislature is popularly elected and is the clear and legitimate representative of the people, but in presidential systems both president and legislature are popularly elected and are both legitimate representatives of the people—but it is quite possible and even likely that the president and the majority of legislators have divergent political preferences. … There is no democratic principle to resolve such disagreements. … second problem is “rigidity”: presidents are elected for fixed periods of time. … third serious problem is the “winner take all” nature of presidential elections. … The fourth serious drawback of presidentialism is that presidential election campaigns encourage the politics of personality … instead of … competing parties and … programs.

In his new book Why Not Parliamentarism? Tiago Ribeiro Dos Santos collects much evidence favoring that option: Continue reading "Yay Parliaments" »

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Why Not Clearer Legitimacy?

In political science, legitimacy is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime, … a system of government, … without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. … Unpopular régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite. …

In moral philosophy, the term legitimacy is often positively interpreted as the normative status conferred by a governed people upon their governors’ institutions, offices, and actions, based upon the belief that their government’s actions are appropriate uses of power by a legally constituted government. (More)

Legitimacy is a common belief among the governed that they prefer their current system of government to possible alternatives. This is widely seen as a good thing, and in its absence many say that violent revolt or foreign influence is justified. So you might think that regimes would be eager to show their legitimacy to those they govern, and to the world.

Now the absence of a recent violent revolt is evidence for some degree of legitimacy. But let us define the degree of legitimacy of a regime as the cost that its governed would be willing to pay to keep that regime from changing. In this case, the absence of recent revolt only places a rather low and negative lower bound on the degree of legitimacy. So you might think regimes would be eager to show much higher degrees of legitimacy. Perhaps even positive degrees.

A second way to show legitimacy is to offer an official way to change the system. Many regimes have a constitution that can in principle be changed if enough people lobby hard and long enough to trigger the various official acts required by that constitution to effect change. But while this sets a higher (negative) lower bound than does the absence of revolt, honestly it isn’t usually that much higher. The governed could still strongly prefer an alternative system of government, and yet not care enough to coordinate to sufficiently push the usual constitutional process.

A third way to show legitimacy is to advertise the results of polls of the governed on the topic. But not only are such polls almost never done, observers can reasonably question their neutrality and relevance. Who is trusted to do them, and how well do citizen responses to random questions on the subject out of the blue indicate what they’d say if they thought about the topic more?

Regular referenda seem like a more informative approach. Hold elections at standard intervals wherein the governed is asked to endorse either the status quo or change. (In the system, not the people.) In this case, discussion leading up to the election could induce more thought, and give change advocates a better chance to make their case and persuade voters.

Voters might be asked to pick one of several directions of change, or they might just initiate a process that will soon generate more concrete alternatives and then offer them to the electorate. I’m sure that a lot could be said about the best way to run such referenda, but for today my focus is on the fact that almost no regimes ever hold such referenda. Not even bad ones intended to prevent regime change and produce the appearance of more legitimacy than actually exists.

Regimes the world over give lip service to the idea of regime legitimacy, saying both that it is important for regimes to have high legitimacy, and claiming that they in particular have high legitimacy. Yet in fact the most that regimes usually do is to include in their constitutions very slow difficult processes for regime change, processes that are rarely ever actually invoked. Regimes point to that plus the lack of recent revolts as sufficient evidence of their legitimacy. They do not institute regular legitimacy referenda.

Of course most ordinary people are not very upset about this fact. If they were to demand such referenda, then politicians might run on platforms which support them, and they might happen. Yet if asked these same ordinary people would also probably claim that it is important for regimes to have high legitimacy. Especially their own. It seems that both the governed and their governors pretend to care more about legitimacy than they do.

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Our Hidden Motive To Submit

Dominance and submission are deeply embedded in animal and primate psychology, yet foragers had a strong norm against both, though they embraced the somewhat similar concept prestige. And we humans today retain this forager norm. So dominance and submission are obvious hidden motives to expect in human behavior, often under the cover of prestige. Over the years, I’ve noticed many behaviors that may be best explained by such hidden motives:

Why are we so terrified of, and bad at, public speaking? … I suspect that for our distant ancestors, it was dangerous to do well on an important mental task in front of a large group, if your performance could be clearly compared to other members. Doing so in a calm confident manner was likely considered a bid for high status. If you did not have the abilities and allies to make good on that bid, you might get squashed by others resisting your bid. So it was often more important to show a submissive low-status attitude than to do well on such things. (More)

A key function of managers may be to make firms seem more prestigious, not only to customers and investors, but also to employees. Employees are generally wary of submitting to the dominance of bosses, as such submission violates an ancient forager norm. But as admiring and following prestigious people is okay, prestigious bosses can induce more cooperative employees. (More)

If humans hate industrial workplace practices when they see them as bosses dominating, but love to copy the practices of prestigious folks, an obvious solution is to habituate kids into modern workplace practices in contexts that look more like the latter than the former. … Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. … Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions. …. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained. When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. (More)

In addition, many people better informed than I about such things say that dominance and submission are big but usually-denied parts of sexual attraction.

The most obvious place where we say we disapprove of domination and submission is in politics. Everyone has heard that in the bad old days everyone should have been ashamed to have kings, but in the good todays we have democracy, where we the public now runs the show. Now of course in those old day it was other nations who were said to have tyrants, while our king was good to us, and far from a tyrant. Even today most people say other politicians are bad people, but theirs are okay. And in our world today a great many areas of life are basically run by people who are very secure, hard to displace, and thus not very accountable.

Even after knowing all of the above, I was surprised by the following poll results on preferences for kings versus democracy:

In addition, I asked what should be the default choice when we don’t know what to do. Here are the results, sorted by % favor ruler:

When you ask in general (eg re default), people pick voting three times as often as rulers, but if you ask about specific areas, there is apparently nearly as much support for rulers as for democracy! We see this in the average response percentages (22% vs. 26%) , as well as in the number of choices where a plurality favors each approach (3 vs. 4). And this is in poll responses; I’ll bet that in actual practice people are even more accepting of rulers.

Note that, as indicated by this poll, respondents are most willing to accept rulers on technical topics. Perhaps because my followers tend to be technical, and imagine that they’d be a ruler. Maybe this suggests we are more willing to accept political rulers from technical backgrounds, such as is common in China.

We pretend to disapprove of dominance, but we lie.

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Dominance Explains Paternalism

My Ph.D. is in formal political theory, but I’ve come to realize that it is usually best to think of political behavior not as some different kind of thing, but instead as an extension of or variation on ordinary behavior. This seems to me especially true for paternalism, which I’ve spend much effort pondering. I did a game theory analysis of it for my job talk long ago, and Bryan Caplan just reviewed what seems to be a nice book puzzling over “behavioral” explanations. But on reflection a key explanation seems pretty simple.

In our personal lives, we all know that some of the people around us are more “control freaks”; they push harder for control over what they and their associates do. First they push to control their own lives, then they push for more control of shared context and choices, like which restaurant a group goes to, and finally they push for control over the lives of others. Such as by nagging and berating others re what to eat or wear, or with whom to associate. Or by becoming official leaders and authorities, with formal power to make people do what they say.

I just did two polls that say that most of us think that this control freak pressure tends to hurt associates, and also that control freaks tend more to be “do-gooders”, who talk more about making the world better, and more give that rationale for things they do:

Dominance seems to me the obvious interpretation here. Like most animals, humans strive to dominate each other, in order to rise in the local “pecking order”. And control over ourselves and others not only brings many direct benefits, it is widely taken as one of the strongest signs of dominance and non-submission. But unlike other animals, humans have norms against overt dominance and submission, and norms promoting pro-social behavior, that helps others. So we do push to dominate, but we pretend that we are actually just trying to help. And as usual, we are typically not consciously aware of our hypocrisy. In our mind, we are mainly aware of how they are doing the wrong things, and how they would be so much better off if only we could make them do things our way.

It is not just individuals who try to dominate to gain status; groups coordinate to dominate together as well. For example, parents coordinate to dominate their kids. So we push for our groups to have autonomy, and also control over other groups. And so in politics, where our main motive is to show loyalty to our allies, we each push for our political coalitions to have more self-control, and more control over other groups. So when there is an option for “regulators” or other authorities to take more control over ordinary lives, we tend to support that when we see those authorities as part of our coalition, and those “helped” as part of rival coalitions. Else we may resist.

Of course we actually do often need leaders to make central decisions that effect many others. And people do sometimes make bad decisions that can be improved via pressures from others around them. So dominance isn’t the only cause of leadership or paternalism. This is another example of a key principle: people can only successfully pretend to have motive X to cover real motive Y if sometimes X really is a substantial motive. “The dog ate my homework” works better as an excuse than “The dragon ate my homework.” For a cover to work, it has to be sufficiently plausible. So all the motives we pretend to have really do apply to some people at some times; just not nearly as often as we suggest.

So the claim is not that paternalism or dominant leaders can never be appropriate. Instead, the claim is that there’s a strong tendency to try to justify other more selfish and harmful behaviors via such needs. So we need to hold a much higher standard on leadership than “we should do whatever leaders say because we need leaders.” And we need to hold a higher standard on paternalism than “you should do what regulators say because they are authorities.” Leaders and authorities should be accountable to make their choices actually help via more than a mere dominance struggle for power to grab such positions.

In small firms, leaders are often given rewards that depend on the overall success of those firms. And subordinates who feel they are treated badly may well leave. Together, these can greatly temper leader temptations to use powers of their dominant positions to seek to gain status over their subordinates, relative to actually helping their groups. And in the distant past, in small groups within very war-like areas, dominant leaders faced related outside threats of military competition, and of subordinates running away to other nearby areas.

But today in large mostly-peaceful nations, political leaders tend to lack these other disciplines to temper their tyranny. Which is why it becomes so important today to find other ways to hold political leaders and authorities accountable, to limit their arbitrary dominance. Such as via elections, law, and property rights. I’ve tried to explore new methods, such as futarchy and vouching. But until they are fielded we should keep the old ways, and hold our leaders and authorities to much higher standards than “because I said so”.

In our society today, paternalistic authorities often claim that they are disciplined not so much by profit, voters, or law, but by “science”. You see, they only make people do things when “science” says that is for the best. Having seen how such “science” actually works in these contexts, I’m relatively skeptical of this as an effective discipline today. Too often, this is just a way to justify applying the widespread opinions of social classes and coalitions with which regulators ally.

Added 1p: Teaching kids to play a musical instrument is a striking example of paternalism. Even though data doesn’t suggest that it improves discipline or other academic performance, many passionately want to force this on not only their own kids, but also the kids of others, even those who feel strongly that they don’t want to play. Though most adults enjoy listening to music, few of them choose to play instruments, especially among those who were forced.

Yet people argue that we must force all kids to play so that they can enjoy music as adults and be more attractive as mates, or so that we can find the few good musicians, or so that we can increase the supply of music. Which seem pretty laughable arguments. More plausibly people identify with musicians and cultures that respect them, and so want to force others to respect them as well, especially kids whose status contributes to their own personal status.

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Beware RightTalkism

Some religions put “right belief” as a core principle in their qualifications for belonging, if not for eternal salvation. I have coined this religious phenomena as “Beliefism”. (More)

[In contrast to Christianity,] In Rome, individual expression of belief was unimportant, strict adherence to a rigid set of rituals was far more significant, thereby avoiding the hazards of religious zeal. (More)

“A purely symbolic congressional act is one expressing an attitude but prescribing no policy effects. … The term symbolic can also usefully be applied where Congress prescribes policy effects but does not act (in legislating or overseeing or both) so as to achieve them. … in a large class of legislative undertakings the electoral payment is for positions rather than for effects.” David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection

The word professionalism originally applied to vows of a religious order. By at least the year 1675, the term had seen secular application and was applied to the three learned professions: Divinity, Law, and Medicine. The term professionalism was also used for the military profession around this same time. (More)

A profession is an occupation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain. … There is considerable agreement about defining the characteristic features of a profession. They have a “professional association, cognitive base, institutionalized training, licensing, work autonomy, colleague control… (and) code of ethics” (More)

Robin Hanson argued some time ago that politics isn’t about policy. … “We (unconsciously) don’t care much about the consequences of such policies – we instead support policies to make ourselves look good” … How would we know if Robin was wrong? I think that no matter what your policy priors are, there are some obvious things policy should incorporate if in fact we did care about policy outcomes. The lack of these policy features suggests to me that Robin is correct. (More)

Folk activism … leads activists to do too much talking, debating, & proselytizing, & not enough real-world action. We build coalitions of voters to attempt to influence or replace tribal political & intellectual leaders rather than changing system-wide incentives. (More)

The numbers of women or people of color in management do not increase with most anti-bias education. “There just isn’t much evidence that you can do anything to change either explicit or implicit bias in a half-day session,” … anti-bias training can backfire, with adverse effects especially on Black people, perhaps, he speculated, because training, whether consciously or subconsciously, “activates stereotypes.” … likelihood of backlash “if people feel that they’re being forced to go to diversity training to conform with social norms or laws.” (More)

The answer to racist policing … starts with hiring. The majority of police officers do not have four-year college degrees. They don’t start their career with a foundational education that will broaden their worldview, make them empathetic to other cultures or understand human psychology. (More)

The Chinese legal system originated over 2000 years ago in the conflict between two views of law, Legalist and Confucian. The Legalists, who believed in using the rational self-interest of those subject to law to make them behave in the way desired by those making the law, were accused by later writers of advocating harsh penalties to drive the crime rate to near zero. They supported a strong central government and equal treatment under law. Confucianists argued for modifying behavior not by reward and punishment but by teaching virtue. …

resembles the conflict between 18th and 19th century British approaches to crime and punishment. The dominant view in the eighteenth century saw criminal penalties as deterrence, their purpose to make crime unprofitable. The dominant view in the nineteenth century saw criminals as victims of their own ignorance and irrationality, the purpose of penalties to reform them, make them wiser and better. … Both approaches survive in modern legal theory and modern legal systems. …

One might interpret the [Chinese] examination system as a massive exercise in indoctrination. …Those who had fully internalized that way of thinking would be better able to display it in the high-pressure context of the exams. … The Confucian solution was education and example, making people want to be good and teaching them how. The ideal Confucian Emperor would never punish anyone for anything, merely set an example of virtuous behavior so perfect that it would inspire all below him. Seen from that standpoint, it made some sense to set up a system designed to produce good men, put them in power and then leave them alone. (More)

An “ism” is a system of beliefs, and many isms are versions of “righttalkism”. That is, they are systems which claim that one of if not the most important way to make the world better is to push most everyone to more oft and loudly express good and deny bad beliefs. Such pushing is done via early-life education, later-life sermons and retraining, favoring right-thinkers for prestigious positions, and seeking out and punishing deviant heretics.

As the examples of Christianity and Confusianism illustrate, righttalkism has been quite common in history, though righttalkists have varied somewhat in where and how much they tolerate deviants. Rightalkism is arguably the main justification offered today in support of most religious activity, education, news, licensed trained professionals, social media conflict, etc. Which adds up to a big fraction of human behavior.

While widely expressed beliefs surely do have some causal effect on the world, most versions of righttalkism seem to me clearly false in far over-stating that influence. That is, pushing right talk is vastly over-emphasized as a way to make a better world. And the reason why seems obvious: political coalitions continually vie for dominance, and when beliefs are markers of coalition membership, then coalitions can win by promoting those who share their markers and hindering those with conflicting markers. That is, coalitions win by helping us and hurting them.

Yes, right talk can sometimes help to promote right policy. And coalitions can gain by promoting policies that favor coalition members, and also policies that help larger social units, at least when such gains will be widely recognized and credited to the wisdom and generosity of that coalition. Its just that coalitions gain far less from righttalk via these channels than via more directly helping members to win over members of other coalitions.

While politics is usually less about policy than people pretend, it could be that you are unusual in caring more than most do about good policy outcomes. In that case, you should care less than do most others about righttalk. You should care less about changing the rightness of what is said via news, schools, social media, care less about how many people are exposed to such messages, and care less about the righttalk of people chosen for prestigious positions.

Instead, care more about concrete non-talk actions, and about talk that can’t be easily classified as supporting or opposing existing coalitions. Instead of joining in on existing political battles, pull the tug-o-war rope sideways.

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Utopia’s Garden, World, and Wall

Imagine that you lived in the “human quarter” of a vast city full of diverse aliens, all on a planet far from Earth. These aliens are quite strange and hard to understand in many ways, and so cannot simply be trusted, though your city does manage to usually maintain basic overall peace and law. As your human quarter is too small to be self-sufficient, it must trade and interact a lot with the rest of the city. Not just in physical goods, but also in work and social coordination. As a result, many humans participate in many alien-dominated orgs.

In this “human quarter in an alien city” scenario, your social concerns would come in three areas: (a) close relations between humans (b) global coordination among all species across a city or larger scales, and (c) humans interactions with aliens. That last area of concern is the one that seems the most interesting to me, and where I have the most to say.

Close human relations are harder to reason about abstractly, and can depend greatly on human nature and local culture. Global coordination is the sort of topic that many compete to discuss, making it unlikely that I can add much, or that the world would listen to me if I did. But it seems more feasible to find interesting and general things to say about how very different and distrusting species can usefully interact.

Consider this in terms of “utopia” (or “heaven”). If it were possible, we’d all like to built and maintain utopias. And utopias have three key issue areas, which I’ll call “garden”, “world”, and “wall”.

Well inside each utopia is a “garden”, full of rich detailed life, energy, color, aromas, passions, conflict, and play. Gardens give deep and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction, but depend crucially on complex opaque details of residents. Each utopia may have very different gardens, all full of life, but living very different lives. Making it hard to say much in general about how to manage gardens. Each utopia may have to mostly learn on its own here.

Utopias all exist in a larger “world”, a larger world that will try to coordinate in many ways, but will also fail to coordinate in as many ways. How exactly that grand coordination should be organized will always be a big political issue, on which many will compete fiercely to influence. Your utopia will want to play its part in this larger game, but can’t expect to have great influence there.

As David Lloyd Dusenbury argues in a thoughtful essay:

The basic intuition of all utopian fiction [is that] the perfect modern state—like the optimal city of antiquity—is sheltered by strong borders.

If your utopia is a small part of a nearby larger world, then to achieve many of their ends residents will want to interact with that larger world in many ways. And as those other parts of the larger world aren’t part of your utopia, you will have to be careful about how you do this. The world today is actually full of creatures that may look human-like and understandable, but are actually quite alien and inscrutable. You’d do better to treat them as aliens than as friends.

Thus your utopia must have a “wall”, i.e., an interface between it and the world. You can’t presume that those you interact with out there share your utopian norms, culture, attitudes, or feelings of utopian solidarity. And if you try to make your interactions depend on the details of their norms, culture, etc., you’ll need to do that differently for each of the different kinds of others with which you interact.

There thus may be a place for thinking in general about utopian walls. About how your utopia’s precious garden might be better promoted via the right levels and types of interactions with outsiders. And instead of using a different type of interaction for each different type of outsider, it may work better to find good general ways that people from different utopias and sub-worlds can reliably and useful interact. That is, utopias may well want to have rather similar walls, even if they have very different gardens.

This is how I’ve come to think about my work onpaying for results.” It is a hands-off distant relation, in which you admit that you don’t know much about how to judge the expertise you are trying to buy, and you don’t seek close emotionally-satisfying relations with such experts. Thus you are willing to consider simple general interaction policies, designed to let you get as much as possible out of the relation, while also allowing as much skepticism as possible about those strange outsiders and their odd and untrustworthy ways.

I fully admit that it isn’t enough for a utopia to merely have good walls, or to sit in a good-enough world. It will also need good gardens, and arms-length paying for results may be poorly suited for that. But good walls are an important element, and that is at least something where abstract thinking and analysis of the sort I’m good at may well have a lot to offer.

Added: In this Twitter poll, my answer is least popular:

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Board Games As Policy Arguments

When we want to convince others to support our policy positions, we often tell stories. We tell people about things that happened to us, to people we know, and to people we’ve heard of. Journalists tell stories about what happened to famous people recently, or to whole sets of people in “studies”. Popular books also include such policy-lesson stories. And fiction often tries to persuade about policy using “true-like” stories, which are not actually true.

The way that these stories are supposed to support policies is that we are invited to imagine how such stories would have turned out better with different policies. That is the policy “moral” of a story. A big problem with this approach, however, is that even if the story is true, and even if we can correctly judge how a policy would have changed a story, each policy influences a great many other stories. Policy advocates are likely to select the stories that make their policy look best, out of all the other possible stories they could tell.

Academias often tell these kinds of stories, but we also tell other kinds that better avoid this problem. For example, formal game theory models describe entire formal worlds, including agents, resources, actions, info, locations, and preferences. So one can judge if a policy is good overall in such a world. A similar benefit holds for agent-based simulations, lab experiments, and field experiments. In each case, one can judge how much a policy helps or hurts overall for the world that is studied.

Of course most of these methods actually only consider relatively small worlds, which at best correspond to small parts of our big world. So if a policy has effects outside of the scope of the world that it considers, these methods won’t see that. You can try to analyze the many small worlds that a policy influences, and add up the overall effect across them all, but that is hard to do well.

These sorts of small world models also make many assumptions about the basic situations in the small worlds that they consider. So the lessons that they draw from their small worlds need not apply to the corresponding parts of our big world, if those assumptions are bad approximations to our big world. This is less of a problem when one relies on true stories drawn from our actual world. So both sorts of methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and one should plausibly use both when drawing policy conclusions.

All these methods by which academics model policy in small worlds have one big disadvantage: it is hard to use them to persuade ordinary people. They and their supporting analysis can be complex, and also just boring, and thus not emotionally engaging. Dramatic stories from the real world can overcome these big disadvantages.

However, there is another kind of policy story that has so far been neglected, but which can combine the advantages of a wholistic policy evaluation across an entire small world, with the advantages of being simple enough for ordinary people to understand, and also emotionally engaging enough to get them to pay attention. And that is board games. Consider Monopoly:

In 1903, Georgist Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game called The Landlord’s Game with the object of showing that rents enriched property owners and impoverished tenants. She knew that some people would find it hard to understand the logic behind the idea, and she thought that if the rent problem and the Georgist solution to it were put into the concrete form of a game, it might be easier to demonstrate. …

Also in the 1970s, Professor Ralph Anspach, who had himself published a board game intended to illustrate the principles of both monopolies and trust busting, fought Parker Brothers and its then parent company, General Mills, over the copyright and trademarks of the Monopoly board game. (More)

The rules of each board game describe both an entire small world, and also the policies that govern player actions in that world. So when people play a board game, they get an intuitive feel for how that world works, how much they enjoy living in that world, and how alternate rules would change their enjoyment. At which point they are ready to hear and understand this policy argument:

If we changed these policy-setting rules (as opposed to these world-defining rules) in this game, that would turn this into a more enjoyable game, and/or make the world it describes more admirable. So to the extent that an important part of our real larger world is like this game world, we should try to move our real policies more toward these better game policies.

Now as far as I can tell, these policy argument fail badly in the case of Monopoly. People like playing the Monopoly game as it is, and do not enjoy it as much when its rules are changed to embody the alternate property and tax policies favored by those who designed and developed it. But the basic approach to policy argument seems valid, at least as a complement to our other story approaches.

Yes, people may have different agendas and priorities regarding life in a board game, relative to their own real lives. But that critique applies as well to all the other kinds of stories that people use to argue for policies. For example, your priorities about the characters in a story you hear may not be the same as your priorities if you were in the story yourself. Yes, to the extent that video games have board game elements, with rules on how players relate to each other, video games can also support policy arguments.

So I’d like to see more people try to make policy arguments in the context of board games. Show us two variations on a game, where the more fun or admirable version corresponds to the policies that you prefer, while the other version corresponds to policies closer to what we have now. Let us prove your claim to ourselves by playing your game. Or maybe find other rules that we enjoy even more, and invite you to prove that claim to yourself by playing.

Yes, I might still not like your policy, because I think your world differs from our real world, or our priorities differ between games and real life.  And yes, the space of fun board games is far smaller than the space of games, so that fun games are far from representative of the larger space. But still, from the point of view of convincing ordinary people about policies, adding game policy arguments probably puts us in a better position than we are in now relying mainly on personal stories, fictional stories, and academic authority.

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