Tag Archives: Regulation

Explaining Regulation

During this pandemic, elites have greatly enjoyed getting to feel important by weighing in on big pandemic policy questions, such as masks, lockdowns, travel restrictions, vaccine tests, vaccine distribution, etc. Each elite can feel self-righteous in their concern for others, and morally outraged when the world doesn’t follow their recommendations. Don’t people know that this is too important for XYZ to get in the way of the world believing that they are right? Unconsciously, they seek to signal that they are in fact elites, by the facts that they agree with elites, that other elites listen to them, and that the world does what elites say.

Imagine that these key pandemic policy choices had been made instead by private actors. Such as vaccine makers testing, pricing, and distributing as they wished, airlines limiting travel as they wished, and legal liability via tracking discouraging overly risky behavior. Government could have influenced these choices indirectly via subsidies and taxes, but the key specific choices would still have been made privately.

In this scenario, talking head elites would have been a lot more frustrated, as they’d have to direct their advice to these private actors, who are much less visibly eager than public officials to slavishly follow elite advice. So elites could less clearly show that they are elites by the fact that the world promptly and respectably obeys their commands.

When these private actors made choices that later seemed like mistakes in retrospect, then elites who resented their neglect would make passionate calls to change legal standards in order to rain down retribution and punishment upon these private actors, to “hold them to account.” Even though they were not at fault according to prior legal standards. However, when private decisions seemed right in retrospect, there’d be few passionate calls to rain down extra rewards on them. As we’ve seen recently in the “opiod crisis”, or earlier with subprime loans, cigarettes, and nuclear power.

In contrast, when government authorities do exactly what elites tell them, and yet in retrospect those decisions look mistaken, there are few calls to hold to account these authorities, or the elites and media who goaded them on. We then hear all about how uncertainty is a real thing, and even good decisions can look bad in retrospect. Given these sort of “heads I win, tails we flip again” standards, it is no surprise that private actors would often rather that key decisions be made by government officials. Even if those decisions will be made worse, private actors can avoid frequent retribution for in-hindsight mistakes.

In principle, elites could argue at higher levels of abstraction, not about specific mask or travel rules, but about how best to structure the general institutions and systems of information and incentives in which various choices are made. Then elites could respond to a crisis by reevaluating and refining these more abstract systems. But, alas, most elites don’t know enough to argue at this level. Some people with doctorates in economics or computer science are up to this task, but in our world we use a great many weak indicators to decide who counts as “elites”, and the vast majority of those who quality simply don’t know how to think about abstract institution design questions. But masks, etc. they think they understand.

Yes, there are many other topics which require great expertise, such as for example designing nuclear reactors. In many such cases, elites realize that they don’t know enough to offer judgments on details, and so don’t express opinions at detail levels. When something goes wrong, they instead may just say “more must be done”, even though they almost never say “less must be done” after a long period without things going wrong. Or they may respond to a problem by saying “government-authorized authorities must oversee more of these details”, though again they hardly ever suggest overseeing fewer details in other situations.

So the problem with regulation is more fundamentally that elites focus on reacting to concrete failures, instead of looking for missed opportunities, and they don’t understand much more than “do more” and “oversee more” as the possible institutional responses to concrete problems that they see need expertise. Nor do they understand much about how to design better institutions other than to respond in these ways to more particular observed problems.

And that’s my simple theory of most regulation. Elites love to pontificate on the problems of the day, and want whatever consensus they produce to be quickly enacted by authorities. As government officials are far more prompt and subservient in such responses, elites prefer government authorities to have strong regulatory powers. Elites enforce this preference via asymmetric pressures on private actors, punishing failure but not rewarding success, yet doing neither for public actors and their elite supporters.

Elon Musk is in for a world of pain if any of his many quite risky ventures ever stumbles, as elites are mad at him for ignoring their advice that none of his ventures ever had a chance. Zuckerberg is already being credibly threatened with punishment for supposed missteps by Facebook, even though it isn’t at all clear what they did wrong, and with no gratitude shown for all the social value they’ve contributed thus far.

All this gives me mixed feelings when I see smart people offer good advice in elite discussions on concrete topics like masks, vaccines, etc. Yes, given that this is how decisions are going to be made, it is better to make good than bad choices. But I wish such advisors more often and visibly said that this isn’t how such decisions should made. We should instead design good general institutions we can trust to deal with each crisis without needing constant elite micromanagement.

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Reviving Freedom of ‘Religion’

In 1890, the [US] Supreme Court … ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, … In the 1960s, the Court expanded its view of religion … [to include] Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

In its 1965 ruling … a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God … The Court in this 1970 decision … essentially merged religion with deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs. … Court in its 1972 ruling … suggested a shift back, … applied only to “a ‘religious’ belief or practice,” and “the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests.”

The Court in its 1981 decision … further expressed its reluctance to protect philosophical values. … Jehovah’s Witness [aversion to weapons job] was a “personal philosophical choice rather than a religious choice”. (more)

Centuries ago, Europe saw fierce religious conflicts, made more destructive by states taking sides. States who supported a particular religion might oppose alternatives via repressing local associates or going to war with associated states. To reduce such conflict, some states adopted “freedom of religion”, which meant the state not taking sides between religions.

This was possible in part because of the typical limited ambitions of both states and religions there and then. Neither the states nor the religions were in the habit of dictating most details of most social practices. So the overlap in their spheres of influence was small enough that states could accept a small loss in their sphere as a reasonable price to pay for less conflict.

Over the intervening centuries, the ambitions of states to dictate social details has greatly increased, but the influence and ambitions of the few most popular traditional religions have mostly waned. This has allowed “freedom of religion” to be nominally maintained, at least regarding those few traditional religions. And as the above quote shows, other taking-of-sides by states regarding religious-like groups and behaviors has largely been “solved” by declaring that they are “not religions”.

The problem of course is that the fundamental problem of passionate conflicts being stoked by states taking sides is not avoided merely by declaring relevant groups and behaviors to be “not religions”. So we have in fact recently seen a steady rise in the destructiveness of conflicts due to states taking sides. Yes, it isn’t yet as bad as centuries ago, but it seems to be on its way, and won’t obviously stop before getting there.

Religions have long existed because they serve deep and ancient human needs. So a decline of the once most popular religions does not imply a decline in social groups and behaviors that serve those ancient needs. It is just that those things are less often officially called “religions”. Yet the passions they inspire and the willingness of associates to sacrifice to show their support for some versions and dislike of others has not obviously greatly diminished.

All of which suggests that, unless we somehow revive a freedom of religion-like-stuff, we are likely to suffer increasingly destructive conflicts due to religious-like groups wielding the power of states against each other. But to revive such a freedom, we would have to pick a legal definition of “religious-like”. What could that be?

Clearly it wouldn’t be sufficient to just refer to beliefs in gods or the supernatural. Yes, people have often shown their devotion to groups by their willingness to believe extreme crazy-sounding stuff, and centuries ago gods and the supernatural fit that bill well. But clearly more recently religious-like groups have found other substitutes. And as it won’t work to have courts judge what beliefs are “crazy”, we can’t use that standard as our legal definition of “religious-like”.

A legal standard standard of “deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs” would be easier for courts to judge, but that would also seem to greatly limit the scope of the state. Libertarians might go for it, but most others would not.

Another possible standard would be that a group is “religious like” if enough individuals pay high enough and visible enough personal costs to promote it. Like strange food, strange dress, protests, and civil disobedience. But then would suicide or terrorism count? A standard that demands expensive destructive behavior to qualify your group as “religious-like” might induce a lot of that kind of behavior, which seems bad.

Yet another possibility would be to call anything a religion if at least ten percent of citizens says so.

At this point I don’t have any good suggestions, though I’d take any of these last three solutions over the status quo. But I’ve hardly started to think about this, and as some of you out there may have good ideas, I decided to just present the problem in this post, hoping to prod your efforts.

Added 9Apr: On reflection, the problem of religious-like groups wielding the power of the state against competitors seems to be more of an issue for governance processes which allow much discretion in how their power is wielded. In a futarchy, such discretion could exist in the choice of values, but is much harder in the choice of bills to consider or in bets regarding which bills promote the chosen values. If so, freedom of religion would be mainly realized via court vetoes over value elements.

We might like to distinguish between (A) religious-like groups going out of their way to beat on or inconvenience particular competitors, and their (B) just demanding extra accommodation in order to show their dominance and to inconvenience all possible competitors. If so, we might want a futarchy court to stand ready to accommodate religion by vetoing value elements that seem examples of (A), while not vetoing based on religion complaints that seem more to be examples of (B).

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Separate-To-Make-Equal Vaccine Queues?

“Among the 23 states that report those details, Black and Latino people received far smaller shares of the vaccine than their share of cases and deaths, and compared to their share of the states’ populations.” (more)

In other areas of life, such as jobs and schools, critics call it unfair to insist on exact race or class proportionality, as other important yet blameless factors are correlated with race and class. But with a pandemic, cases and deaths are in fact good proxies for the main outcomes of interest, as they indicate not just who is more likely to be harmed if infected, but also who has more risky contacts, and so is both more likely to catch the disease and to pass it on to others. So it makes more sense to try to make vaccine access more proportional to the cases and deaths of particular demographic groups.

Some say that race/class equity is just not possible in vaccine distribution, as poor folks and people of color have fewer cars, fewer computers, more language obstacles, less time flexibility, and worse abilities to navigate complex public health systems. But that’s all assuming that the system doesn’t explicitly consider race and class.

It would be completely possible to just have different queues for different races and classes. (And I can’t believe queue-designers were unaware of this option.) Give each person a rank within their different queue, presumably according to various risk and priority indicators. Call them to come get the vaccine when everyone below their within-queue rank has been given the chance to get it.

Under this system, if poor folk and people of color are less able to find out when they are called, or less willing or able to come in when called, then other people further down in their queue would get it. This system could insure race and class equal vaccine distribution up until the point where so few in a particular queue come for a vaccine when called that vaccines end up wasted.

This is just one example of a type of queue not tried. There is a vast space of possible queues, and many problems attributed to queues are actually only problems with particular versions of queues.

For example, many think it obvious that while queues might work to allocate vaccines of predictable availability, unpredictably available vaccines, such as leftovers at day end, must be allocated via who has the connections and time flexibility to be at the right place at the right time. But even unpredictably available vaccines could still be allocated via the same basic queues. Once you give everyone their rank in a queue, you could use those ranks to pick who gets any vaccines, from among those who are at the right place and time. And of course we should try harder to tell everyone what those places and times are, and to standardize them more.

In general, I think the covid vaccine distribution would have been more efficient if we had just let a private markets allocate them by price, perhaps giving out (and paying for) price discount vouchers to those we thought extra deserving. Not only would this have cut much of the waste and inequality of people trying to “work” the system to jump queues, but it would have allocated vaccines better by customer-perceived value. Yes, people with more money would tend to get vaccines sooner, but that money they paid could be spent on encouraging a larger and earlier supply. (And allowing early challenge trials would have helped even more.)

When choosing whether or not to intervene in markets, policy makers usually focus on the constraints that competition and uncoordinated actions impose on markets, while assuming that governments can do anything they want. Yet this case of pandemic vaccines reminds us that while governments may be able to set aside some of the constraints that bedevil markets, governments come with whole other sets of constraints of their own.

We do not have the best government allocation mechanisms that are abstractly possible, but instead have whatever seemed easy and familiar to existing government agencies. Markets tend to create much stronger incentives to search and innovate within its sphere of constraints. And just because advocates say government intervention is needed to ensure racial or class equity, that doesn’t mean that is what government intervention actually produce or promote.

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Keep Govt Officials Out of Life Details

The government can meddle in your life both via both your production and consumption. That is, it can tell you how much of what to produce, and how to do that, and it can tell you how much of what to consume, and how to do that. These meddlings can be general and uniform across the population, and decided by a legislature. Or they can make more distinctions between people, and be decided by low level government employees.

For example, the government can subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables in general, for everyone, or Ms. Jones’ social worker might tell her that if she wants to keep her kids she better serve more fresh spinach to her children at dinner this week. The government can require everyone to pay the same fraction of their income in taxes, or a draft board can choose to conscript Mr. Jones into becoming a solider, and then his sargent can order him to take that hill now.

While we might disagree on where we would draw the line, I think we can all agree that, all else equal, it is better if the government decides at a high level to meddle uniformly in everyone’s lives, than if low level government employees meddle very specifically in particular details of individual lives. While an unregulated society most likely does have market failures that legislatures can mitigate via general rules, it is harder to believe that low level employees know enough about particular people to meddle well in their details. Furthermore, detailed meddling allows more corruption and arrogance by officials, and induces more hurt pride and resistance by those controlled.

We can, I think, go further and agree that it seems harder to justify meddling in production, relative to consumption. For example, we may accept the government using a general rule to tell us how much we owe in taxes, but it seems harder to accept a government official telling us in particular what kind of career to go into, what job to take, or whether we must work this Saturday. Regulations about job safety, for example, work better as general rules that apply to all jobs, rather than being chosen at the discretion of a particular official regarding a particular workplace.

I propose that we all think about law vouching in this context. Just as a government who decides how much you owe in taxes does not decide how you acquire that money, a government who decides that you owe a legal debt due to a crime you’ve committed need not be empowered to decide how you pay that debt, if that you will in fact pay that debt.

In our world today, the judge who sentences a criminal not only decides the overall level of their “debt owed to society”, but also specifies the particular kind of punishment. Usually prison, but sometimes fines or community service. (And in the past: public shaming, torture, exile, or death.). And our governments and courts regulate those prisons in great detail. Even so, prisons are terribly expensive and yet not very effective at deterring crime. And as you leave prison, your parole board and officer will make many detailed decisions on how you can live your life.

Under vouching, there is no government parole officer and the judge would instead only specify the fine your owe, which would be paid by your voucher. (And could depend on your wealth.) Then you would be further punished according to your prior contract with your voucher. You and your voucher would also choose your privacy rights and freedoms of actions, and suffer larger fines if those make it harder to catch and convict your crimes. Furthermore, you and some close friends could together choose co-liability, to show you will watch each other.

Under vouching, you would repay your debt to society, and be in much more in control of how to repay that debt. Just as with tax debts now. Does anyone really think that judges, police, or prison officials are extra good at deciding what will deter crime in any one individual? Moreso than all the other government officials who we do not let dictate the details of our lives?

Not that I’m not pushing for some extreme libertopia where government has no powers. I’m instead appealing to a quite common feeling that government meddling should be limited and general; our default should be to avoid it, when possible.

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Socialism: A Gift You’d Exchange?

After reading and reviewing a book by a socialism critic, I then did a book by an advocate. Then some told me “No, here is the advocate book you should have read.” I tried one of them: Nathan Robinson’s Why You Should Be a Socialist, said to be “A primer on Democratic Socialism for those who are extremely skeptical of it.”

Robinson won’t commit himself to what exactly is socialism’s proposal, other than pushing for big changes in light of some vague and widely-shared values (mostly equality and democracy). He says conservatives are mean and liberals are wimpy; liberals have similar goals, but are to be disdained for not calling for bigger changes. Yet the only specific changes he’ll clearly endorse are smaller changes widely endorsed by liberals. I’ll get to some of those below, but instead of writing a whole review, I’d rather make one big point, riffing off of these quotes: Continue reading "Socialism: A Gift You’d Exchange?" »

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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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Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism

“The Tudor landowning justice of the peace (J.P.) was the greatest of of paternalists, rivaled only by the Tudor judges and privy councilors who who controlled the J.P.s. … They wanted to regulate the prices of bread, beer, and wool, the games one played, the amount one drank, the nature of one’s apprenticeship, and the clothes one wore. They arrested drunkards, fined those who did not attend church, and penalized the adulterous. …  a paternal state … only the 20th century has come to eclipse it” (more)

I spent most of the day Tuesday reading papers on paternalism, which was the topic of my job talk paper long ago, and one that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. Alas, almost all writings on the topic seek to argue for or against paternalism, rather than trying to explain it. Now if it were typically efficient, that would in fact be a reasonable explanation. And there are many papers that reasonably argue for the plausible efficiency of mild paternalistic “nudges”, weakly enforced.

But in actual fact we see a huge amount of quite strong paternalism, vigorously enforced. People are greatly discouraged from suicide, and prevented from selling themselves into slavery. Professional licensing limits who can do what, and sex laws limit who can do what with who. Censorship limits what you can read or see. Regulations limit the availability and uses of land, buildings, cars, planes, power plants, food, drugs, and much much more. To prevent “exploitation”, many prices are regulated, purchase is required of schools, doctors, and more. Finally, contract law greatly limited the kinds and levels of penalties that contracts can impose, and the kinds of contracts to which you can agree. And by far the most common rationale offered for all of this is that you are being protected from hurting yourself, not from hurting others. 

This is another one of those subjects where everyone thinks they know the answer, but they all know different answers, almost none of which actually hold up under scrutiny. The most commonly offered explanation is that regulators know more than those they regulate. But then why can’t regulators just tell what they know, such as via very visible certification? If the info for certification is underproduced, why not subsidize it. If it is too easy to forget to check certification, why not offer “would have banned“ stores, where customers must pass a test showing they understand it only sells stuff is otherwise have been banned by regulations. 

Of course it is plausible that some parties extract big selfish gains from these rules, and we do see many examples, such as professionals whose wages are increased via the supply cuts caused by professional licensing. But we need to explain why most everyone else goes along – most actual paternalism is in fact very popular among most people. So for that we’ll need benefits that are much more widely distributed. (In the usual “Bootleggers and Baptists” story, we need to explain the Baptists.) 

The closest I can find to an efficiency explanation is the idea that people make random but correlated mistakes, at which times they are too proud to listen to advice, and at other times they can’t accept that this might later happen to them. Temporary mistakes are easy to fix by requiring modest waiting periods, and temporary individual mistakes can be fixed by requiring groups of associates to choose something together. (Or equivalently, close associates who can veto individual choices.)

But the hypothesis here is that every once in a while a whole group of associates will all go kinda crazy, a “childish” kind of craziness which may last for quite a while. In this rare but correlated childish-crazy mode, this hypothesis says people tend to be especially unwilling to listen to advice, perhaps out of pride. Maybe they see themselves in a status contest with authorities, and are eager to show independence or defiance. Furthermore, people somehow just can’t accept that this problem might happen later to them, and so aren’t inclined to voluntarily choose to commit ahead of time to some more local paternalistic process which would protect them later.

That’s the best I can come up with, and yes this could in fact explain some paternalism. However, I just can’t see it as sufficient to explain the actual typical huge levels of paternalism that we see. So I must look elsewhere. A year ago, I favored this story: 

Thus another possible explanation for min-quality regulations is that, by officially declaring common lower class choices to be bad choices, regulators support upper class claims to be better people. And by forcing everyone to visibly accept this declaration via their not visibly defying the bans, everyone appears to support this claim that elite choices are better choices. … Why would so many non-elites support these policies as voters? Plausibly because they aspire to elite status, and by publicly displaying their agreement with elite attitudes, they affirm that they are themselves good candidates for higher status. (More)

Prestige is a key human process, and a key element is that we all seek to copy the behavior of the prestigious, and to associate with them. So a strong eagerness to push everyone to do what elites do, and what they say that one aught to do, seems completely to be expected. 

Even so, this explanation has still seemed somewhat insufficient to me. There is so so much paternalism! So in this post, let me add one more factor that I think complements the above stories, but also adds substantially to them. 

The key idea is that there are many “rulesy” people in the world. (Think of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory and Dwight from The Office.) These people specialize in learning of and even creating rules, so that they can then find and reveal violations of these rules around them. This allows them to beat on their rivals, and also to raise their own status. It obviously raises their dominance via the power they wield, but they prefer to be instead seen as prestigious, enforcing rules whose purpose is more clearly altruistic. And what could be more altruistic than keeping people from hurting themselves? 

So many people who are especially good at noticing and applying rules, good at finding potential violations, good at framing situations as rule violations, and willing to at least gossip about violators, are eager for a supply of apparently-paternalism-motived rules they can enforce. So they take suggestions by elites regarding what is good behavior and work to turn them into rules they can enforce. They push to turn norms into laws, and to make norms out of the weak behavior patterns of elites, or from their patterns of praise and criticism. 

Now think of the incentives of observers. A declares that B has violated a rule, and audience C has a choice to support A or B in this situation. The rule might be obsolete, A may be stretching its meaning to fit this case, or declaring a new rule from related prior cases. Even so, if B is associated with C, it may seem like corruption for C to support B. If the rule is justified as protecting some folks, then by supporting B you seem to not care about those protected folks. And maybe folks will suspect C of wanting to violate this rule themselves, or of already having violated it. Most of these considerations seem to lean toward supporting A in their case against B.

For example, maybe at first some elites sometimes wear hats. Then they and others start to praise hat-wearers. Then more folks start to wear hats, and get proud of how they are good hat people. Good candidates for promotion to elite they are. Then hat fans start to insinuate that people who don’t wear hats are not the best sort of people in various ways, and are only hurting themselves. They say that word needs to get out about the advantages of hats. And those irresponsible people arguing against hats really need to be dealt with – everyone should be told that their arguments mostly don’t meet the highest possible standards of scientific rigor. (Though neither do most pro-hat arguments.)

It becomes a matter of pride to teach your children to wear hats. And to have hats taught in school. And to include the lack of hats in lists of problems that problem people have. Hat fans start to push the orgs of which they are part to promote hats, sometimes even requiring hats at org functions. Finally it is suggested that wouldn’t it be simpler and more efficient to just have the government require hats. Then foreigners who visit us won’t think we are such backward non-hat people. And its really for their own good, as we all know.

At every step along this path, people can gain by pushing for stricter and stronger hat norms and rules. They are good people, pushing a good thing, which just happens to let them dump harder on rivals. Which is plausibly why we tend to end up with just too many overly restrictive rules. Rules rise with the ratchet of crises that can be blamed on problems said to be fixed by adding new rules. And between the crises, we rarely take away or weaken our rules. 

This sort of tendency to create excess rules can help to explain why many organizations seems to be afflicted by excess “legalism”, including government.

And I’m not sure exactly how, but I suspect that this process is mutually supportive of processes that push for a lot of discretion in rule enforcement: 

To the extent that there are rules, there seems to be a preference for authorizing some people to have discretion to make arbitrary choices, regarding which they are not held strongly to account. … Most people mainly favor discretion … to project to associates an image of being the sort of person who is confidently supports the elites who have discretion, and who expects in general to benefit from their discretion. … The sort of people who are eager to have a fair neutral objective decision-making process tend to be losers who don’t expect to be able to work the informal system of favors well. (More)

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Elois Ate Your Flying Car

J Storrs Hall’s book Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past, told me new things I didn’t know about flying cars. The book is long, and says many things about tech and the future, including some with which I disagree. But his main thesis is a contrarian one that I’ve heard many times from engineers over my lifetime. Which is good, because by putting it all in one place, I can now tell you about it, and tell you that I agree:

We have had a very long-term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. …

One invariant in futurism before roughly 1980 was that predictions of social change overestimated, and of technological change underestimated, what actually happened. Now this invariant itself has been broken. With the notable exception of information technology, technological change has slowed and social change has mounted its crazy horse. …

In the 1970s, the centuries-long growth trend in energy (the “Henry Adams curve”) flatlined. Most of the techno-predictions from 50s and 60s SF had assumed, at least implicitly, that it would continue. The failed predictions strongly correlate to dependence on plentiful energy. American investment and innovation in transportation languished; no new developments of comparable impact have succeeded highways and airliners. …

The war on cars was handed off from beatniks to bureaucrats in the 70s. Supersonic flight was banned. Bridge building had peaked in the 1960s. … The nuclear industry found its costs jacked up by an order of magnitude and was essentially frozen in place. Interest and research in nuclear physics languished. … Green fundamentalism has become the unofficial state church of the US (and to an even greater extent Western Europe). …

In technological terms, bottom line is simple: we could very easily have flying cars today. Indeed we could have had them in 1950, but for the Depression and WWII. The proximate reason we don’t have them now is the Henry Adams curve flatline; the reasons for the flatline have taken a whole book to explore. We have let complacent nay-sayers metamorphose from pundits uttering “It can’t be done” predictions a century ago, into bureaucrats uttering “It won’t be done” prescriptions today. …

Nanotech would enable cheap home isotopic separation. Short of that, it would enable the productivity of the entire US military-industrial complex in an area the size of, say, Singapore. It’s available to anyone who has the sense to follow Feynman’s pathway and work in productive machinery instead of ivory-tower tiddley-winks. The amount of capital needed for a decent start is probably similar to a well-equipped dentist’s office.

If our pre-1970 energy use trend had continued, we’d now use ~30 times as much energy per person, mostly via nuclear power. Which is enough energy for cheap small flying cars. The raw fuel cost of nuclear power is crazy cheap; almost all the cost today is for reactors to convert power, a cost that has been made and kept high via crazy regulation and liability. Like the crazy restrictive regulations that now limit innovation in cars and planes, destroyed the small plane market, and prevented the arrival of flying cars.

Anything that goes into a certificated airplane costs ten times what the thing would otherwise. (As a pilot and airplane owner, I have personal experience of this.) It’s a lot like the high cost of human medical drugs compared with the very same drugs for veterinary use.… Building of airports remains so regulated (not just by the FAA) that only one major new one (KDEN) has been built [since 1990]. …

It seems virtually certain that if we had had [recent] cultural and regulatory environment … from, say, 1910, the development of universal private automobiles would have been suppressed. … By the end of the 70s there was virtually nothing about a car that was not dictated by regulation.

With nuclear power, we’d have had far more space activity by now. Without it, most innovation in energy intensive things has gone into energy efficiency, and into smaller ecological footprints. Which has cut growth and prevented many things. The crazy regulation that killed nuclear energy is quite unjustified, not only because according to standard estimates nuclear causes far fewer deaths, but also because standard estimates are greatly inflated via wide use of a “linear no threshold model”, regarding which there are great doubts:

Several places are known in Iran, India and Europe [with high] natural background radiation … However, there is no evidence of increased cancers or other health problems arising from these high natural levels. The millions of nuclear workers that have been monitored closely for 50 years have no higher cancer mortality than the general population but have had up to ten times the average dose. People living in Colorado and Wyoming have twice the annual dose as those in Los Angeles, but have lower cancer rates. Misasa hot springs in western Honshu, a Japan Heritage site, attracts people due to having high levels of radium, with health effects long claimed, and in a 1992 study the local residents’ cancer death rate was half the Japan average.

To explain this dramatic change of regulation and litigation, Hall says culture changed:

Western culture had essentially succeeded in supplying the needs of the physical layers of [Maslow’s] hierarchy, including the security of a well-run society; and that the shift to the Eloi [of the Well’s Time Machine story] could be thought of as people beginning to take those things—the Leave It To Beaver suburban life—for granted, and beginning to spend the bulk of their energy, efforts, and concerns on the love, esteem, and self-actualization levels. … “Make Love, Not War” slogan of the 60s … neatly sums up the Eloi shift from bravery to sensuality. …

The nuclear umbrella meant that economic, political, and moral strength of the society was no longer at a premium.

I’ll say more about explaining this cultural change in another post.

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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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Remote Work Specializes

We seem on track to spend far more preventing pandemic health harm than we will suffer from it, which seems too much spending given the apparent low elasticity of harm w.r.t. prevention. But an upside is that some of this prevention effort is being invested in remote work, which is helping to develop and innovate such capacities. Which matters because remote work (a.k.a. telecommuting) is my guess for the most important neglected trend over the next 30 years. (At least of trends we can foresee now.)

My recent polls put remote work at #24 out of 44 future trends, which IMHO greatly underrates it. AGI, biotech, crypto, space, and quantum computing are far overrated (due to drama & status). Automation matters but will continue steadily as it has for many decades, not causing much trend deviation. Global warming, non-carbon energy, the rise of Asia, falling fertility, and the rise of cybersecurity and privacy are important trends, but their trend deviation implications tend more to be correctly anticipated. However, I see remote work as big and mattering more than and driving trends in migration, aug./virtual reality, and self-driving cars. And remote work implications seem neglected and unappreciated.

Remote work has been a topic of speculation for many decades, so likely somewhere out there is an author who sees it right. But I haven’t yet found that author. I’ve recently read a dozen or so recent discussions of remote work, and all of them seem to miss the main reason that remote work will be such a big deal: specialization due to agglomeration (i.e., more interaction options). The two most formal math analyses I could find actually explicitly assume that remote work, in contrast to traditional work,  produces no agglomeration gains! In contrast, these discussions get closer to the truth: Continue reading "Remote Work Specializes" »

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