Tag Archives: Proposal

Status App Concept

In my last post I suggested that we prefer institutions of this form:

Masses recognize elites, who oversee experts, who pick details.

However, our existing methods for doing that first step, masses recognizing elites, seem rather limited. One simple method is to inherit a stable social consensus on the relevant weights to give different status markers, such as wealth, birth family, test scores, endorsement of prior elites, or winning between-elite fights. If we agree on such weights, we might quickly agree on who has how much status. Especially when we pick just one of these markers as our main marker of status.

A second method is to use our ancient more complex, opaque, and instinctual human methods of gossip, displays, fights, and other social tricks to come to a shared consensus on who is higher status. As most human communities do in fact come to rough consensus relatively quickly on relative status judgments, humans clearly do have such mechanisms, even we don’t understand them very well. But such gossip, displays, and fights are often very expensive.

A third method is elections, wherein masses choose between elite political candidates, mostly based on the advice of other elites. While electoral systems usually only only have the capacity to set the status of a tiny number of top officials, those few top officials can sometimes set the status of more others below them.

However, it isn’t clear that any of these methods actually give the masses that much influence over elite policy, or even over the relative status of elites. Nor do they seem that great at preventing coalitions of elites from installing themselves as unaccountable dynasties. Nor are they obviously great at picking the best people to be elites. Can we do better?

In this post I will outline a concept for a more fined-grained and decentralized approach: a status app. Though I haven’t figured out all the details, I’m posting this partial concept to entice you all to help me think about the remaining design issues. And then maybe implement something.

But first, let’s get clear on the relevant standards for evaluating such a proposal. Our other systems for agreeing on status induce great costs, and also suffer from strategic gaming, and a great many personal biases and agendas. Thus a new system doesn’t need to eliminate all such problems to be an improvement. It might be good enough if it just does better re some problems, and not worse re other problems. Furthermore, the first version of such a system needn’t be better than the status quo, if we can use trial and error to improve it, to eventually make a much better system.

Okay, here is my proposed concept. In a new status app, the core action is this: random triples of people X,A,B are selected, and then person X is asked which of the pair A, B they more respect, at least re elite social roles. Their answer is a “status bit”.

In my simplest reference design, the status app just fits a simple statistical model to all of the bits it has seen, a model with parameters that include each person’s current status, and the current info (vs noise) level of each person re their status bits. If these parameter estimates are made made public, the world could use them as input to many other social processes.

For example, the app might compute a status Elo score for each person based on their “wins” vs. “losses” in each of their status bit “contests”. Each person’s info score could then be a time-weighted measure of how well their their status bits predict changes to target Elo scores in the time period after their bits.

Now let’s consider some design issues that might drive us to modify this reference design.

The first issue is what triples X,A,B to use to create status bits. Yes one could choose them completely randomly. But to get bits that better help the app to estimate parameters, it would make sense to slant the triples toward X whose bits are more predictive, and toward A,B pairs whose status estimates are closer to each other. Also, toward triples X,A,B who have closer relations and more similarities to each other. And especially toward situations where X actually sees A and B interact, or sees them act in closely related contexts. Especially situations where status judgments are usually and naturally made.

When we can categorize the context type C for each status bit, it would make sense to have an info parameter for each such type, so that the expected error (squared) for each bit depends on both the particular person X as well as the context type C.

However, the more control that X,A,B have over which triples are evaluated when, the more they will try to game these choices, and the more inclined X might be to sacrifice their info score in order to reward or punish associates. There is thus an open question re what kinds of status judging contexts C to include in this system, and who to let cause or veto each one. Is it sufficient to just include an error adjustment parameter for each different context type C?

A second issue is that even a decent statistical model of these status bits will likely have known errors, inducing participants to try to game them. This certainly happens re Chess Elo scores. If we believe that eventually sufficient data will be collected to make such errors small, so that earlier large errors are mostly temporary, then it may be sufficient to create prediction markets on future Elo estimates, and use current market prices as our best status and info estimates, instead of stat model estimates.

But if we can’t trust model errors to fade away with time, then we might instead want prediction markets that pay out based on random future status bits, using context types that are especially hard to game (as in this post). This approach forces market traders to suffer higher risks, but is safer re model estimate errors.

A third issue is who is allowed to see what status bits. One extreme is where everyone can see them all, while the opposite extreme is where only bit creators can see them. The closer that X,A,B, are to each other, the more risk there is of inducing problematic behaviors by X,A,B toward each other when they can the details of such bits. But the more people who can see more all the bit details, the better they might be able to correct model estimate errors in prediction market prices.

A fourth issue is whether we can create a decentralized implementation of such an app concept, so that we don’t have to trust some center who might lie about or distort such a system.

A fifth issue is that while asking people who they generally respect more seems a very direct way to elicit general status judgments, what we might really want as data are actions where people reveal who they actually fear (for dominance) or seek to emulate (for prestige). But could we really find a set of actions where (a) we could reliably extract relative status judgments from those acts, without too many other confounding effects, (b) the set of actions covers a wide enough range of status aspects to allow the estimation of general status, and not just one narrow aspect of status, and (c) such actions can be observed often enough to give sufficiently accurate estimates of individual status? This seems hard.

A sixth issue is whether and how to give higher status people more weight in judging relative status. Will their info estimates naturally be higher in the basic stat model, or do we want to favor them more than would be done by this analysis, and if so how?

A seventh issue is that sometimes data may be of the form of (X,Y,…) ranking many people (A,B,…,N). Can this be reduced to many bits of the form of ranking (A,B), or does a stat model need to handle this differently?

An eighth issue is how to merge different kinds of status bits. That is, if X picks the higher of A and B several times re several different aspects of status, should the different kinds of status bits be analyzed separately, or would it be useful to estimate their correlation and use those to estimate each kind of status for each person?

I’ll add more issues here as I think of them.

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Complex Impact Futures

Imagine a world of people doing various specific projects, where over the long run the net effect of all these projects is to produce some desired outcomes. These projects may interact in complex ways. To encourage people to do more and better such projects along the way, we might like a way to eventually allocate credit to these various projects for their contributions to desired outcomes.

And we might like to have good predictions of such credit estimates, available either right after project completion, so we can praise project supporters, or available before projects start, to advise on which projects to start. Such a mechanism could be applied to projects within a firm or other org re achieving that org’s goals, or to charity projects re doing various kinds of general good, or to academic projects re promoting intellectual progress. In this post, I outline a way to do all this.

First, let us assume that we have available to us “historians” who could in groups judge after the fact which of two actual projects had contributed the most to desired outcomes. (And assume a way to pay such historians to make them sufficiently honest and careful in such judgments.) These judgments might be made with noise, well after the fact, and at great expense, but are still possible. (Remember, the longer one waits to judge, the more budget one can spend on judging.)

Consider two projects that have relative strengths A and B in terms of the credit each deserves for desired outcomes. Assume further that the chance that a random group of historians will pick A over B is just A/(A+B). This linear rule is a standard assumption made for many kinds of sporting contests (e.g. chess), with contestant strengths being usually distributed log-normally. (E.g., chess “Elo rating” is proportional to a log of such a player strength estimate.)

Given these assumptions, project strength estimates can be obtained via a “tournament parimutuel” (a name I just made up). Let there be a pool of money associated with each project, where each trader who contributes to a pool gets the payoffs from that pool in proportion to their contributions.

If each project were randomly matched to another project, and random historian groups were assigned to judge each pair, then it would work to let the winning pool divide up the money from both pools, just as if there had been a simple parimutuel on that pair. Traders would then tend to set the relative amounts in each pool in proportion to the relative strengths of associated projects.

If judging were very expensive, however, then we might not be able to afford to have historians judge every project. But in that case it could work to randomize across projects. Pick sets of projects to judge, throw away the rest, and boost the amount in each retained pool by moving money from thrown-away (now boost-zero) pools into retained pools in proportion to pool size.

All you have to do is make sure that, averaged over the ways to randomly throw away projects, each project has a unit average boost. For example, you could partition the projects, and pick each partition set with a chance proportion to its pool size. With this done right, those who invest in pools should expect the same average payout as if all projects were judged, though such payouts would now have more variance.

Within a set of projects chosen for judging, any ways to pair projects to judge should work.  It would make sense to pair projects with similar strength estimates, to max the info that judging gives, but beyond that we could let judges pick, and at the last minute, pairs they think easier to judge, such as projects that are close to each other in topic spaces, or similar in methods and participants. Or pairs that they would find interesting and informative to judge.

Historians might even pick random projects to judge, and then look nearby to select comparison projects, as long as they ensured a symmetric choice habit, or corrected for asymmetries. (It can also work to allow judges to sometimes say they can’t judge, or to rank more than two projects at the same time.) It would be good if the might-be-paired network of connections between projects were fully connected across all projects.

Parimutuel pools can make sense when all pool contributions are made at roughly the same time, so that contributors have similar info. But when bets will be made over longer time durations, betting markets make more sense. Thus we’d like to have a “complex impact futures” market over the various projects for most of our long duration, and then convert such bets into parimutuel tournament holdings just before judging.

We can do that by letting anyone split cash $1 into N betting assets of the form “Pays $xinto p pool” for each of N projects p, where xp refers to the market price of this asset at the time when betting assets are converted to claims in a tournament parimutuel. At that time, each outstanding asset of the form “Pays $xp into p pool” is converted into $xp put into the parimutuel pool for project p.

This method ensures that project pool amounts have the ratios xp. Note that 1 = Sump=1N xp, that a logarithmic market scoring rule would work find for trading in these markets, and that via a “rest of field” asset we don’t need to know about all projects p when the market starts.

Thus traders in our complex impact futures markets should treat prices of these assets as estimates of the relative strength of projects p in the credit judging process. They’ll want to buy projects whose relative strength seems underestimated, and sell those that seem overestimated. And so these prices right after a project is completed should give speculators’ consensus estimate on that project’s relative credit for desired outcomes. And the prices on future possible projects, conditional on the project starting, give consensus estimates of the future credit of potential projects. As promised.

Some issues remain to consider. For example, how could we allow judging of pairs, and the choice of which pairs to judge, to be spread out across time, while allowing betting markets on choices that remain open to continue as long as possible into that process? Should judgements of credit just look at a project’s actual impact on desired outcomes, or should they also consider counterfactual impact, to correct for unforeseeable randomness, or others’ misbehavior? Should historians judge impact relative to resources used or available, or just judge impact without considering costs or opportunities? Might it work better to randomly pick particular an outcome of interest, and then only judge pairs on their impact re that outcome?

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Needed: World Suggestion Box

Yoshimune Tokugawa, a shōgun who ruled Japan as part of the Tokugawa shogunate during the 18th century … is often credited as the first person to implement a suggestion box system, called meyasubako, around 1721, placing them outside of Edo Castle. (More)

In many complex workplaces, like stores or factories, if you have an idea for how the whole place could be run more efficiently, there is a standard “suggestion box” where you can put your suggestion. It is someone’s job to consider such suggestions, and if any look promising, pass them to the powers able to test or implement them. Such powers would at least feel a need to give excuses if they rejected such suggestions. And you might even be rewarded for successful suggestions. Which makes sense; maybe most ideas are bad, but gains from the few good can more than pay for the effort.

However, if your idea is far more valuable, being an idea instead for how to make the whole world run more efficiently, there is no standard place to make your suggestion! Nor is it anyone’s job to consider such suggestions, or to pass them on to appropriate powers if they looks promising. Its not just that we have bad underly-inventive overly-officious organizations sitting in this role, in need of reform. Instead, no one has ever been assigned to this role. Or even assigned themselves to the role. Which seems pretty crazy.

To make my complaint concrete, consider the big idea of tax career agents, an idea that is very simple, and seems to offer only big gains, with negligible losses. How big are the gains? Let’s do a quick conservative calculation.

Consider that many kinds of workers today actually have career agents who get paid ~10% of worker wages. Most of this agent fee can be seen as compensation for particular work done, where the agent would be dropped if they didn’t do such work. But agents seem to perceive that a substantial fraction, say ~15%, of their compensation comes via the less-visible-to-clients channel of increasing client wages over the long run. Which implies that in these jobs agent see their efforts as raising client wages by 15%, from which they get 1.5% as 15% of their 10% wage compensation.

As governments take ~20% of income in taxes, a tax career agent created by diverting income tax revenue could plausibly have twice the incentive of a 10% agent to increase wages. So if tax career agent abilities stayed the same, they would plausibly increase wages by ~30%.

But maybe we should discount this estimate by a factor of three, to account for the following factors. First, we now only have career agents for some jobs, and maybe we now have career agents for jobs where agents are unusually able to increase wages, or where workers are unusually wiling to listen to agent advice. Second, maybe the total social welfare gain from higher wages is only half of client wage gains, because maybe work becomes less pleasant to the client, or maybe agent or worker efforts become more socially predatory.

This leaves me with an estimate that tax career agents could increase worker welfare by ~10% of wages. As world product is $85T/yr, about half of which pays for wages, then ~10% of wages amounts to ~$4T/yr. (For a US GDP of $21T that amounts to ~$1T/yr). At a long term real interest rate of 2%, this has a present value of ~$200T. Which is a pretty big amount.

Yes, such gains would only be realized after an initial delay to test the method, and then for people to get used to the change.

And yet even with a simple easy-to-explain idea apparently worth ~$4T/yr to the world, I find it hard to generate any interest in the idea, No one sees it as their job to consider such proposals. Not even academic journals specializing in jobs and labor. Sure some think tanks might see it as their job to create ideas for improving the world. But not to consider ideas not-invented-here.

Added 12Nov: I’d previously miscalculated 15% of a 10% agent’s compensation due to raising wages as suggesting a 1.5% wage rise due to having such an agent. It’s really 15%, and I’ve just corrected the post to reflect that.

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Selling Safaris

Most people want wild animals to survive and even thrive in wilds on Earth, and some are willing to donate money to make that happen. (Or vote to make others pay.) Some others are willing to pay to watch TV and movies made in such settings. But in Africa, most financial support for wild animals comes from tourists; people are willing to pay to see them up close. I recently spent two weeks “on safari” in Africa doing just that. We mostly visited wildlife parks near the Chobe and Zambezi rivers (in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia).

The modern safari ethos is capture in the saying “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures.” You are supposed to try hard not to disturb the animals, and are supposed to get nothing more out of the visit than you could get from a very high res movie or virtual reality recording. And this does work as a nice clean line to draw, relatively easy to understand and enforce. It minimizes problematic interactions, and protects the “natural” brand, so that future visitors can be more assured that they are seeing animals acting “naturally”, as they would if humans never existed.

But it seems to me that this line also leaves a lot of value on the table, and so misses out on a lot more financial support available to keep such animals going. For most visitors, much of the thrill of seeing the animals up close is the feeling that one is interacting with them. They look at you, and you look at them. You might accidentally be in their path, and then have to get out of the way. It might momentarily look like they feel threatened by you and will attack. And they may even back that up with threatening noises, before they turn away.

Safari guides are selected from among those most passionate about African animals. (See the movie Out of Africa for a plausible picture.) And from the stories they tell, it seems that what what they’ve most valued emotionally in their decades of safaris are the times when they most interacted with wild animals. When one side or the other felt threatened, or made a gesture of help or friendship.

Thus if we could find ways to organize and arrange safaris to contain more frequent and deeper interactions between humans and wild animals, I’d guess people would be willing to pay a lot more for that. Maybe 2-10 times as much. And that added revenue could pay for much larger wildlife parks that protect far more animals. Or at least prevent their shrinkage as other economic activities increase nearby.

Of course, visitors would want to know that such interactions had been limited sufficiently so that they had only a minor effect on animal behavior. They are there to interact with wild animals, after all, not pets or zoo residents. And great care would need to be taken to avoid chances for harm to either side. For example, elephants love oranges, and I’m told that if someone on a safari jeep throws out an orange to them, they may well smash the jeep trying to get at the entire bag of oranges that they smell is there.

I not at all an expert here, so I don’t know how exactly to promote more interaction while limiting them and keeping everyone safe. I vaguely imagine people hanging from wires well above the ground, throwing down food at times, or pushing buttons that open or close gates or water sources. But clearly a lot of development would be needed to work out the bugs in such arrangements.

My point here is just that we seem to be leaving a lot of value on the table. Humans now dominate Earth, and other animals can only survive here when humans either get some value from them, or can’t be bothered to exterminate them. The size of these value metrics will set how many animals there are and where. It seems to me that a lot of innovation remains possible in this area.

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Self-Set Legal Liability

Today a big fraction of “constitutional law” issues are on our many awkward, incoherent, and inefficient collective choices regarding crime detection, punishment, co-liability, and freedoms of movement and privacy. My vouching proposal would instead privatize all of these choices, hopefully inducing more innovative, adaptive, and efficient versions. But it would not change how we decide what is a crime, how we judge particular accusations, or how we set priority levels for crime avoidance and detection.

In my vouching proposal, each kind of crime has a fine and a bounty. The fine sets how hard injurers and their vouchers will try to avoid causing the harm, while the bounty sets how hard bounty-hunters will work to detect who caused the harm if it happens. In this post, I’d like to consider further privatizing the choices of these two priority levels. I don’t have a fully worked out proposal here. I instead want more to frame the issues, and think aloud. Here goes.

Consider kinds of harms, like murder, rape, robbery, defamation, etc., where particular victims can be identified. We might want to let such victims set personal fine and bounty levels for each kind of harm that they might suffer, and to which others might contribute. If everyone were required to have an RFID tag that returns a pointer to a voucher, to prove that they are in fact vouched, then that pointer could also tell about that person’s personal fine and bounty levels, to help others better take those into account in their interactions.

For concreteness, consider the “harm” of being insulted. (I choose this example because it isn’t obvious whether this is in fact a harm that should be discouraged by law.) A potential victim of insults would seem to be well-placed to choose what fraction of the fine paid should go to pay for a bounty, as opposed to compensation to that victim. But setting a higher fine level would impose costs on others who might want to insult this victim. So we want the victim to pay a cost for raising their personal fine level. Ideally with the right cost, they’d set the level to match the actual harm they suffer from this event. Then others who faced this fine might make efficient choices regarding how hard to try to avoid insulting this victim.

Property taxes based on self-set property values can give property owners good incentives when those self-set values become legal property sales offers. Similarly, it seems to me that it might work to charge victims some fee in proportion to the insult fine levels that they set. Then the higher they set their insult fine, the more others will avoid insulting them, but the more they will have to pay in fees.

The key parameter here is the ratio of the personal annual fee paid to the personal fine level. This parameter may need to be set differently for each different kind of crime. How can we get such parameters near reasonable values?

For property taxes, it seems reasonable to add up all the expenses required to support property, such as the cost of roads, and set the property tax level so that the total tax revenue is near that sufficient to cover those property-supporting expenses. Similarly, my intuition is that the total amount of fees spent to set insult fine levels should be near the total amount of actual fees paid by those found guilty of insulting victims. My intuition is that these two numbers should be within a factor of ten of each other, and that setting them exactly equal wouldn’t be a terrible choice. (At least compared to our status quo.)

Now if these numbers are set to be similar, then the total amount of fees collected from victims would near the total fines paid by injurers, which would then be near the total amount of the premiums paid by voucher clients to their vouchers. Thus on average victim fees to set fine levels for hurting them could nearly pay for subsidies to on average cover all of the voucher premiums! So we needn’t worry about bankrupting injurers on average by forcing them to pay for vouchers.

Though, yes, those who seem to vouchers to have a much higher risk than average of hurting others would have to pay much higher premiums. (Those with lower than average risks might get cash rebates.) And that might well force such high risk clients to make big compromises via accepting unattractive co-liability, freedom, and punishment arrangements. Which we could think a just consequence of their risky inclinations, or we might feel sorry for some of them and subsidize their voucher premiums.

Yes, we might still worry about those who are too poor to afford large fines. Others would feel more free to insult them, or to cause them other harms. This is what efficiency requires, though again we could subsidize their fees if we felt sorry for them.

So far, I’ve focused on harms concentrated in particular victims; it makes sense for them to set personal fine levels. Other harms can be more diffuse, however, and harm a wider set of people together. For these, we’d want ways to help such groups to pay together to raise the fine levels regarding the harms that they might suffer together. But we have many promising “public goods mechanisms” for this purpose. And we still probably want to allow such fines to vary by group and context; setting a single level for all groups and contexts seems quite inefficient.

And that’s it, my out-loud thoughts on how to let people set personal priority levels regarding the harms that might befall them, in the context of my prior vouching proposal.

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Reliable Private-Enough Physical Identity

“Your papers, please” (or “Papers, please”) is an expression or trope associated with police state functionaries, allegedly popularized in Hollywood movies featuring Nazi Party officials demanding identification from citizens during random stops or at checkpoints. It is a cultural metaphor for life in a police state. (More)

When we share public spaces with mobile active things like cars, planes, boats, pets, drones, guns, and soon robots, we are vulnerable to being hurt by such things. So most everywhere on Earth, we require most such things to show visible registered identifiers. (Land also requires such registration, and most smart-phones contain them.) This system has some obvious advantages:

  1. If such a thing is actually used to harm us, and if we can remember or record its identifier, then we can look it up to find a human we might hold responsible.
  2. If such a thing does not show a visible identifier, we can immediately suspect it is up to no good, and pull away to limit harms.
  3. If you ever lose a registered thing, its finder can find you via the registration system, and return it.
  4. Registration discourages theft, as fully effective theft then requires also changing a registration entry.
  5. The identifier offers a clear shared unique index or “name” to facilitate records and discussion about the item.

Oddly, humans are the mobile active things to which we are usually the most vulnerable, and yet we don’t require humans to show visible registered identities in shared public spaces. As a result, it is harder to tell if a human is allowed to be where we see them, and if they hurt us and run away, then we face larger risks of not finding someone we can usefully hold responsible. Humans can also as a result be more easily lost or stolen.

Because of this problem, a great many organizations require humans who try to enter their spaces to, at their entrances, show a registered identity. And many of these orgs require that visible ID tags be continually shown within their spaces. Even more orgs (such as stores) require such identifiers on their responsible representatives, even if not on visitors. In fact, most orgs would probably require everyone in their spaces to have IDs this if were cheap; they relent mostly out of fear of extra costs and discouraging visitors. Continue reading "Reliable Private-Enough Physical Identity" »

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Vouch For Pandemic Passports

Car pollution is an externality. Via pollution, the behavior of some hurts others, an effect that injurers may not take into account unless encouraged to by norm, contract, liability, or regulation. However, as the pollution from one vehicle mixes with that from many others, liability is poorly suited to discourage this; it is too hard to identify which cars hurt you, and there are too many of them. It seems to work better use regulations regarding car design and maintenance to limit the pollution emitted per mile driven, and to tax those miles driven.

Assault is also an externality; you can hurt someone by punching them. But in contrast to pollution, regulation is poorly suited to assault. We could require everyone to wear boxing globes and headgear, and we might ban insults and alcohol consumption, or perhaps even all socializing. But such regulations would go too far in restricting useful behavior. It works better to just hold liable those who punch others, via tort or criminal law. Yes, to discourage assault in this way, we must hold (or at least threaten to hold) expensive trials for each assault. But that still seems far cheaper than regulatory solutions.

These two examples illustrate a well-known tradeoff in choosing between (strict) liability and regulation. On the one hand, making people pay damages when they hurt others encourages them to take such harms into account, while also letting their behavior flexibly adapt to other context. On the other hand, regulation lets us avoid expensive court trials that require victims to prove who hurt who when where and how much. Though regulation induces more uniform behavior that is less well adapted to circumstances, it works acceptably well in many cases, like auto pollution, even if less well in others, like assault. (The mixed solution of negligence liability is discussed below.)

In our current pandemic, the main externality is infection, whereby one person exposes another to the virus. Conventional public health wisdom says to discourage infection via regulation: tell everyone when to get tested and isolated, and make them tell you who they met when and where. Tell them who can leave home when and for what reasons, and what they must wear out there. However, as we are all now experiencing first hand, not only are such changes to our usual behaviors quite expensive, such rules can also induce far from optimal behavior.

Recent pandemic rules have banned bike riding, but not cars or long walks. You can take only one exercise trip per day, but there’s no limit on how long. Members of a big home can all meet in their yard together, but members of two small adjacent homes may not meet in one of their yards. You can’t go meet distant friends, even if they only ever meet you. All parks are closed regardless of how densely people would be in there. The same rules were set in dense cities and in sparse rural areas. Alcohol store workers are deemed critical, even though alcohol can be mailed, but not auto repair, which cannot be mailed. Six feet is declared the safe distance, regardless of how long we stay near, if we wear masks, if we are outdoors, or which way the air is moving. Workplaces are closed regardless of the number of workers, how closely they interact, or how many other contacts each of them have. The same rules apply to all regardless of age or other illness. You may have to wear a mask, but it doesn’t have to be a good one.

Imagine that we instead used legal (strict) liability to make as many of us as possible expect to suffer personally and directly from infecting others, and to suffer more-so the worse their symptoms. In this scenario, such people would try to take all these factors and more into account in choosing their actions. For actions that risk infecting others, they would consider not only on how important such acts are to them, but also on how likely they are personally to be infected now, how vulnerable each other person they come near might be to suffering from an infection, how vigorously their activity moves the air near them, where such air currents are likely to go, how well different kinds of masks hinder infected air, and so on. If allowed, they might even choose variolation.

Of course, for the purpose of protecting ourselves from getting infected by others, we already have substantial incentives to attend to such factors. The problem is that simple regulations don’t give us good incentives to attend to these factors for the purpose of preventing us from infecting others. With regulations, we have incentives to follow the letter of the law, but not its spirit. So we don’t do enough in some ways, and yet do too much in others. But if liability could make us care about infecting others as well as ourselves, then it might simultaneously reduce both infections and the economic and social disruptions caused by lockdowns. With strong and clear enough liability incentives, we wouldn’t need regulations; we could just let people choose when and how to work, shop, travel, etc.

But is it feasible to use liability to discourage infections? Yes, if we can satisfy two conditions: (1) most people are actually able to pay for damages if they are successfully sued for infecting others, and (2) enough of those who infect others are actually and successfully sued, and so made to pay.

On the first condition, ensuring that people can pay damages if they are found guilty, it is sufficient to require people who mix with others to buy infection liability insurance, similar to how we now require car drivers to get accident liability insurance. That is, to get a “pandemic passport” to excuse you from a strong lockdown, you must get an insurance company to guarantee that you will pay damages if you are shown to have infected someone. In a sense they “vouch” for you, and so are your “voucher”. The more types of voucher-client contract terms we are willing to enforce, the more levers vouchers gain to reduce risks.

The premiums for such insurance will be low if you can convince a voucher that you have already recovered from the virus, and so are relatively immune, or that you will leave your lockdown only rarely, to safe destinations. Otherwise, a voucher may require you to install an app on your phone to track your movements, or they may spot check your claims that you have sufficient supply of good masks that you use reliably when you leave home.

Okay, but what about the second condition, that enough infectors are actually made to pay? For this we need enough data to be collected on both sides, the infector and the infected, so that one can frequently enough match the two, to conclude that this person likely infected that one at this location at this time.

Now, we don’t need to be always absolutely sure of who infected who. In ordinary civil trials, the standard is a “preponderance of the evidence”; courts need only be 51% or more sure to convict the defendant. And sometimes we add on extra “punitive” damages, up to four ties as large as basic damages, often to compensate for a lower chance of catching offenders. So if we can find evidence to convince a court at the 51% or better standard for only one fifth of offenders, but we can add four times punitive damages, then offenders who do not know if they will be caught still expect to on average to pay near the basic damage amount.

Okay, but we still need to collect enough info to see who infected who at least one fifth of the time. Is this feasible? Well it is clearly quite feasible early in a pandemic, when few have been infected. Early on, if the times and places, i.e., space-time path, consistent with you being infected then and there overlap with the space-time path when someone else was likely infectious, then it was most likely their fault. This is the “contact trace” process usually recommended by public health workers early in a pandemic.

The problem gets harder later in a pandemic, when your infected path may overlap with the infectious paths of many others. Here it might be possible to use info on which virus strain you and they had to narrow the field. But even so there may still be several consistent candidates. In this case it seems reasonable to divide the liability over all of them, perhaps in proportion to the size of the path overlap. For the purpose of creating incentives to avoid infecting others, it isn’t that important to know later who exactly infected who when.

But yes, we still need info on who was infected and infectious where and when, perhaps supplemented by data on who had what virus strains. How can we get this info? People who might get infected have incentives to collect info on their path, to help them sue if infected. But people who might infect others would seem to want to erase such info, to keep them from being sued. I’ve recently outlined a more general approach to induce the collection of info sufficiently likely to be useful in later lawsuits. But for this essay, I’ll just propose that collecting key info be another condition required to get a pandemic passport, with violations punished by fines also guaranteed by your voucher.

Let me also note that yes, legal liability doesn’t work to discourage harms if typical harms get so small that people wouldn’t bother to sue to recover damages. In this case we could use a random lottery approach to dramatically lower the average cost of suing.

So let’s put this all together. You must stay at home, locked down, unless you get a “pandemic passport”, in which case you can go where you want when, to meet anyone. To get such a passport, you must get someone to vouch for you. They guarantee that you will pay should someone successfully sue you for infecting them, if you agree to their terms of premiums, behavior, monitoring, punishment, and co-liability. Defendants who pay damages may have to pay extra, to compensate for most infectors not getting caught in this way. When several infector candidates are consistent with the data, they can divide the damages. And for low damage levels, a random lottery approach can lower court costs.

To get and keep a passport, your voucher also guarantees that you will collect info that can help others to show that you infected them, but which can also help you to sue others if they infect you, and win you bounties via showing that others did not collect required info. For example, perhaps you must track your movements in space and time, regularly record some symptoms like body temperature, and also save regular spit samples. This info is available to be subpoenaed by those who can show sufficient reason to suspect that you infected them. Such info seems sufficient to catch enough infectors.

And by catching a sufficient fraction of infectors who then actually pay on average for the harms that they cause by infecting, (strict) legal liability can give sufficient incentives to individuals to avoid infecting others. If so, we don’t need crude lockdown regulations telling people what to do when and how; individuals can instead more flexibly adapt to details of their context in deciding when and where to work, shop, travel etc. Yes, voucher rules would not let them do such things as freely as they would in the absence of a pandemic. But behavior would be more free and impose lower economic costs than under crude regulations which similarly suppress the pandemic spread.

Note that today the most common form of legal liability is actually negligence, which we can see as a mixed form between simple regulation and simple strict liability. With negligence, the court judges if your behavior has been consistent with good behavior standards, which are essentially behavior regulations. But you are only punished for violating these regulations in situations where your behavior contributed to the harm of a particular person. Today courts tend to limit strict liability to cases where courts find it hard to define or observe good behavior details, such as using explosives, keeping a pet tiger, or making complex product design choices. As courts find it harder to define and observe good behavior in a new pandemic, strict liability seems better suited to this case.

Note also that none of this requires employers to be liable for their infected employees. Someone who is sued for infecting others may turn around and blame their employer for pushing them into situations that cause them to infect others. Employer-employee contract could usefully address such issues.

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Why Not More Job Agents?

Professional agents take substantial fractions of client wages: 3-10% in sports,10-15% in music, 10-20% in acting, and 15% for writers. Somewhat relatedly, job recruiters take 10-30% of a first year salary, and home realtors take 2-3% of home sales.

The logic is simple: you might be good at your job, but you can’t be the best at everything related to your career. There is room to be helped by people or organizations who specialize in advising, presenting, evaluating, matching, and networking for workers with your sort of career. Such help can be useful not only when you seek to change jobs, or get promoted within an organization, but at all points in your career. Even at the start, when you are deciding where to get trained in what.

The agency relation works smoothest with a clear division of labor; your tasks and their tasks. But there is also room for collaboration on shared tasks. Such as by their giving you advice on choices that are ultimately up to you.

The best agents are usually paid via an “incentive contact”, wherein they get paid a fraction of what clients get paid. This seems a big improvement on how we usually pay tutors, advisors, mentors, personal coaches, or inclined-to-advise friends and family. When you instead pay someone by the hour, or by favors traded, their interests are less clearly aligned with yours. Yes, you might judge them based on reputations or track records. But track records are rarely visible, and reputations are often only loosely related to help. You may not be much better at judging if their help and advice is good than you would be at just trying to do those things yourself.

In contrast, paying your agent a fraction of your earnings more clearly aligns their interests with yours, and also makes it easier to choose an agent. By agreeing to be your agent, someone credibly signals confidence in their and your abilities, and that you can work together. This is similar to how most lawyers will happily take your case if you pay them by the hour, but will be much picker if you ask them to be paid a contingency fee (i.e., % of the verdict). Also, all else equal, the lower the fraction of earnings they will take to do the same tasks, the higher their estimate of your earnings given their help.

While most people informally collect some career advisors and mentors, it seems something of a puzzle that more people don’t have career agents. You might claim that agents just can’t help most careers, but that seems just wrong. Maybe they don’t help a lot, but surely they could charge a little do a little. You might note that most of us have goals other than making money, but that is also true for most who have agents; the incentive contract method doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be better than other methods, such as paying by the hour.

Yes, if your career is very risky, with a small chance of huge success, then being your agent is risky too. But each agent can have many clients, and agents can band together into larger firms to spread risk. As a result, risk-aversion need not greatly limit agent incentive contracts.

Now perhaps you object that an agent just couldn’t help enough to deserve 10%, or even 5%, of most salaries. But you can use an initial signing fee to separate an agent’s incentive from their net compensation. For example, assume that your and your agent’s fractional incentives must add to 100%, and that for incentive purposes the most efficient fractions are 70% for you and 30% for your agent. But also assume that the cost to an agent to put in that optimal effort is equivalent to only 10% of your salary. In this case, a better contract is for the agent to pay you a 20% up front “signing fee” for the right to be your agent and then later get 30% of your earnings. In this way your agent will on net get paid 10% of your earnings, and yet have a 30% stake in your income to give them a strong incentives.

Yes, for short term contracts such incentives only make agents work hard in ways that can produce short term gains. And we might rightly be wary of committing early on to one agent for our whole life. A simple solution here is to have each new short-term agent pay their up front signing fee to your previous agent, instead of to you. In this way each of your agents has a long term incentive about you, even if they may not always stay your agent. Your first agent may then pay you an especially large signing fee, which you might use to help pay for early career education or training (or you could paying for those part of their tasks).

To avoid the problem that a stronger incentive for your agent comes at the cost of a weaker incentive for you, it is actually possible to have the sum of your and your agent’s wage fractions add up to more than 100%. All you have to do is find a third party “anti-agent” willing to accept the remaining incentive. For example, you could get 100% and your agent get 50% of your earnings, if your anti-agent takes a -50% stake. You’d pay your anti-agent an up-front signing fee, and then they’d later pay your agent 50% of your earnings, while you just kept your earnings.

The main problem with an anti-agent is that they’d have an incentive to hurt your career. So you’d want to make sure to pick anti-agents only from organizations who are set up so that it is hard for them to hurt you. Perhaps (1) they are only your anti-agent for a short period, (2) you use cryptography so they don’t know who exactly you are, (3) they are headquartered far from where you live, and (4) they are just a financial holding firm, without employees able to do things to help the firm.

It wouldn’t be terrible to use auctions (or decision markets) to pick your agents and anti-agents, and their fees, from qualified candidates. For example, you might initially pick optimal agent and anti-agent fractions, and identities, via an initial auction for the max net singing fee given to you. You could probably use many criteria to define who is qualified, though your agents would be wary of your later using arbitrary conditions to extort the signing fees that agents were supposed to be paid. So you would have to agree on some limits to changes in qualification conditions.

If agents expect that you will may make choices that cut your earnings, they would likely pay more for agent contracts that put those choices within their sphere of control. Such as the ability to format your resume, or perhaps to veto job choices. So you’d want to think carefully about which choices agents get full control over, and which they can only advise you on. And current laws may limit these contracts in many ways.

Think about it this way: with a good initial auction to choose an agent, if the help of an agent isn’t actually on average worth its cost, then the winning bid should be someone who just pays you up front for the present financial value of a fraction of your future income. They won’t include an amount in their bid to cover costs to help you, as they don’t plan to try to help. If that’s the winner, accept them, and walk away wiser for knowing that you are better off without an agent trying to help you.

With all these options available to help set up a productive agency relation, I am honestly puzzled about why more people don’t seem interested in having agents. Especially as it tends to be the more prestigious and successful people today who have agents. Why don’t people get an agent, just to brag that they have one?

(Note that I’m not making any assumptions about how the roles of “agent” are organized or divided. They could be provided by individuals or by large firms, and could either be unified into one role or divided up into many differing roles.)

Added 19Apr: Many say they’d rather pay an agent a percentage of earnings over some reference earnings. But that’s mathematically equivalent to an agent who pays a signing fee and then gets a percentage of all earnings.

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Variolation (+ Isolation) May Cut Covid19 Deaths 3-30X

(Here I try to put my recent arguments together into an integrated essay, suitable for recommending to others.)

When facing a new pandemic, the biggest win is to end it fast, so that few ever suffer. This prize makes it well worth trying hard to trace, test, and isolate those near the first few cases. Alas, for Covid-19 and the world, this has mostly failed, though not yet everywhere.

The next biggest win is to find a cheap effective treatment, such as a vaccine. And while hope remains for an early win, this looks to be years away. To keep most from getting infected, at this point the West must apparently develop and long maintain unprecedented expansions in border controls, testing, tracing, and privacy invasions, and perhaps also non-home isolation of suspected cases. Alas, these ambitious plans must be implemented by the same governments that have so far failed us badly.

Yes, there remains hope here, which should be pursued. But we also need a Plan B; what if most will eventually be infected without a treatment? The usual answer is “flatten the curve,” via more social distance to lower the average of (and increase the variance of) infection rates, so that more can access limited medical resources. Such as ventilators, which cut deaths by <¼, since >~¾ of patients on them die.

However, extreme “lockdowns”, which isolate most everyone at home, not only limit freedoms and strangle the economy, they also greatly increase death rates. This is because infections at home via close contacts tend to come with higher initial virus doses, in contrast to the smaller doses you might get from, say, a public door handle. As soon as your body notices an infection, it immediately tries to grow a response, while the virus tries to grow itself. From then on, it is a race to see which can grow biggest fastest. And the virus gets a big advantage in this race if its initial dose of infecting virus is larger.

This isn’t just a theory. The medical literature consistently finds strong relations, in both animals and humans, between initial virus dose and symptom severity, including death. The most directly relevant data is on SARS and measles, where natural differences in doses were associated with factors of 3 and 14 in death rates, and in smallpox, where in the 1700s low “variolation” doses given on purpose cut death rates by a factor of 10 to 30. For example, variolation saved George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge.

Early on, it can be worth paying such high costs to end a pandemic. But once a pandemic seems likely to eventually infect most everyone, it becomes less clear whether lockdowns are a net win. However, the dose effect that lockdowns exacerbate, by increasing dose size, also offers a huge opportunity to slash deaths, via voluntary infection with very low doses. (As others have been also been suggesting.) Continue reading "Variolation (+ Isolation) May Cut Covid19 Deaths 3-30X" »

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Deliberate Exposure Intuition

Many have expressed skepticism re my last post on controlled exposure. So let me see if I can’t communicate my intuition more clearly, so we can all examine it more carefully.

Assume we have a virus like COVID-19, highly infectious and substantially deadly, not blocked or cured by any known or soon-coming treatment. It takes up to 2+ weeks from exposure to death or recovery, and advanced medical resources like ICUs can cut death rates. Even with unusually strong quarantine efforts, COVID-19 currently seems to be escaping from its initial region and nation, doubling roughly every week. Even if that growth rate falls by a factor of three on average, it will reach most of the world within a year.

At which point roughly half of the world who isn’t immune gets infected over a perhaps two week period. Medical resources are completely overwhelmed, so ICUs save only a few. And the world economy takes a huge hit; for perhaps months before that point most workers have stayed home from work in an eventually futile effort to avoid exposure. At the worst possible moment, food, trash, cleaning, heating, and cooling may be scarce, increasing the fraction of sick who die.

To deal with this crisis, there are two key kinds of resources: medicine and isolation. With limited medical resources, including medical workers, we can treat the sick, and cut their chance of dying. We also have a limited set of quarantine resources, i.e., places where we can try to isolate people, places that vary in their health support and in their rate of infection leakage in and out. If we put the more likely infected into stronger isolation, that slows the disease spread.

Consider three different policy scenarios, based on three different policy priorities.

First, consider a policy that prioritizes immediate-treatment. This is a common priority in our medical systems today. Each day, medical and quarantine resources are devoted to the individuals for whom they seem most most-effective in keeping that person alive over the next few days. So hospital ICUs hold the patients whom ICUs can most help now. And the best quarantine locations are allocated to the apparently not-infected at most risk of dying if infected. (Such as the old.) Workers are allowed to stay home from work if they think that will increase personal safety.

In this scenario, medical and critical infrastructure workers may not be given priority in quarantines or medial treatment. So medical workers are culled earlier than others due to their extra contact with the sick, and most medical workers may be sick or stay home near the peak of the epidemic, which is a pretty sharp peak. Most workers in critical infrastructure may be home then too, and may have been there a while. Worse, by allocating isolation resources according to a risk of dying if infected, a treatment-focused policy does little to slow the disease spread.

Next, consider a policy that more prioritizes containment. This is the usual priority of public health today facing a new contagious disease. Here more people become more isolated, and the best isolation resources are allocated much more to those most likely to be recently infected, not to those most likely to die if infected. Efforts may be made here to isolate medical workers, even if that results in worse individual treatment.

This priority can make sense given a substantial chance that the disease can be stopped from spreading beyond an initial area. Even if spread seems inevitable eventually, a containment priority also makes sense if that policy makes an effective treatment substantially more likely to be found before this disease spreads to most everyone. Or if more medical or isolation resources can be created in the extra time. Hope springs eternal, and it feels good to assume the best and act on hope.

But what if there is little hope of containing or treating the disease before most everyone is exposed? And what if getting sick and then recovering often gives someone substantial immunity to the disease for a period? After all, if everyone is constantly exposed, the recovered quickly get sick again, and this infection has high mortality, then death is coming soon no matter what. So we must hope for some immunity.

For this situation, consider a policy that prioritizes long-term treatment-resources. Most everyone will be exposed within a year or so, and unless they are immune they will get sick, at which point their chance of recovery instead of death should depend on medical resources, and critical infrastructure, at that time. So this policy seeks to create a pattern of isolation, and possibly deliberate exposure, to increase the average resources available to help people recover when they are sick.

The obvious problem here is that the above scenarios can have a pretty sharp peak in infection rates, overwhelming medical resources at that point in time. And workers who stay home also threaten the availability of other critical infrastructure resources. Yes, if containment slows the rate of growth of the disease, it also spreads out the time period of peak infection by a similar factor. But that could still be pretty short period.

Relative to the containment policy, this long term resource policy would seek to move the time of infection of many people from near the peak, to substantially earlier than the peak. Moving to later than the peak is not possible, if we’ve been containing as much as possible. And the obvious way to infect people earlier is to directly expose them, on purpose.

Of course directly exposing people won’t help spread out the peak if the people exposed are isolated to the same average degree as people are in the containment scenario. That would instead just move the peak to an earlier point in time, and perhaps even make it sharper, by making the disease spread faster. So this long-term treatment policy would have to involve infecting some people deliberately, while giving them much higher than average quality isolation. If their isolation were very good, then they’d use medical resources at an earlier point in time when such resources are more available, without adding much to the overall growth of the disease.

Now, if good isolation resources, and medical resources, were already strained dealing with a flux of likely infected from outside, then there might be little point in adding new infected on purpose. But what if there are many good isolated places available not being fully used to deal with folks very likely to have been exposed, and also available medical resources not fully used, what if recovered folks had little risk of infecting others for a period, and what if we were closer in time to the peak than that average period between reinfections? Well that’s when we might tempted to deliberately expose some, and then to strongly isolate them.

One key idea here is to create a stronger correlation between the strength of isolation of a place and the likelihood that people there are infected. Such a strong correlation allows us to create a population of already recovered folks who are at least temporarily immune. And that can spread out the period of peak infection, so that more medical resources are available to treat the sick. And that can cut the average mortality rate, which means that more people don’t die.

People who work in medicine and critical infrastructure seem especially promising candidates for early deliberate exposure. This is because after recovery they become more available to work during the peak infection period. They are not sick then, and are less afraid of being exposed then, making it easier to persuade them to go to work. The other set of promising candidates are those most likely to die without sufficient help, which seems to be men and especially the old.

And that’s the intuition behind deliberate exposure. Its wisdom depends on some parameters of which we are unsure, and may learn more about soon. So it seems clearer that we should think more about such options than that we should pull the trigger to start one now. And there are substantial challenges in organizing such a policy fast enough, and in gaining sufficient public and elite support to allow it. Maybe this can’t work this time, and must wait until another big pandemic.

But contrary to many loud and rude commenters lately, this option isn’t crazy. And within the next year we may come to see and suffer the full consequences of not working harder to spread out a pandemic peak of maximum infection and medical need.

Added 2p: The obvious easy win policy solution (given that key assumptions hold) here is just to make it easy for people to volunteer for (1) exposure to virus, (2) strong 24 day quarantine, (3) medical help while there, (4) regular checkups afterward. Create a place where people can go to do this, an easy way to sign up legally, and pay to expose and house them there. Maybe even pay them extra if they work in medicine or critical infrastructure. (Btw, as such an option isn’t now available, and I don’t work in critical infrastructure, it wouldn’t help society much for me to just “go infect yourself”, as many have suggested in so many colorful ways. And as I don’t own my family, I can’t volunteer them.)

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