Tag Archives: Regulation

‘Long Reflection’ Is Crazy Bad Idea

Some futurist philosophers have recently become enthused by what seems to me a spectacularly bad idea. Here is their idea:

Some effective altruists … have argued that, if humanity succeeds in eliminating existential risk or reducing it to acceptable levels, it should not immediately embark on an ambitious and potentially irreversible project (such as space colonization) of arranging the universe’s resources in accordance to its values, but ought instead to spend considerable time— “centuries (or more)” (Ord 2020), “perhaps tens of thousands of years” (Greaves et al. 2019), “thousands or millions of years” (Dai 2019), “[p]erhaps… a million years” (MacAskill, in Perry 2018)—figuring out what is in fact of value. The long reflection may thus be seen as an intermediate stage in a rational long-term human developmental trajectory, following an initial stage of existential security when existential risk is drastically reduced and followed by a final stage when humanity’s potential is fully realized (Ord 2020). (More)

The long reflection. Perhaps it’s a period of a million years or something. We’ve got a lot of time on our hands. There’s really not the kind of scarce commodity, so there are various stages to get into that state. The first is to reduce extinction risks down basically to zero, put us a position of kind of existential security. The second then is to start developing a society where we can reflect as much as possible and keep as many options open as possible. William MacAskill

It seems that first comes computer science and global governance and coordination and strategy issues, and then comes long time of philosophy. Lucas Perry (more)

And here is Toby Old from his book The Precipice, quoted at length so we can all be very clear about what is this idea:

I find it useful to consider our predicament from humanity’s point of view: casting humanity as a coherent agent, … what all humans would do if we were sufficiently coordinated and had humanity’s long term interest at heart. … We should [proceed]… in three phases: 1. Reaching existential security 2. The long reflection 3. Achieving our potential … A place where existential risk is low and stays low. I call this existential security. …

This will involve major changes to our norms and institutions (giving humanity the prudence and patience we need), as well as ways of increasing our general resilience to catastrophe. … Take our time to reflect upon what we truly desire, … call this the Long Reflection. … What is essential is to be sufficiently confident in the broad shape of what we are among at before taking each bold and potentially irreversible action – each action that could plausibly lock in substantial aspects of your future trajectory. … For example, … genetically improving our biology … or giving people the freedom to adopt a stunning diversity of new biological forms.

We could think of these first two steps of existential security and the Long Reflection as designing a constitution for humanity. … We can’t rely on our current institutions and institution that have evolved to deal with small- or medium-scale risks. … Humanity typically manages risk via a heavy reliance on trial and error. …But this reactive trial and error approach doesn’t work at all when it comes to existential risk. …. This will require institutions with access to cutting edge information about the coming risks, capable of taking decisive actions, and with the will to actually do so. For many risks, this action may require swift coordination between many or all of the world’s nations.

There would be benefits to centralizing some of this international work on safeguarding humanity. … Our options range from incremental improvements to minor agencies through to major changes to key bodies such as the UN Security Council, all th way up to entirely new institutions for governing the most important world affairs. …

Some important early thinkers on existential risk suggested that the growing possibility of existential catastrophe required moving toward a form of world government. … But the term [world government] is also used to refer to a politically homogenized word with a single point of control (roughly, the world as one big country). This is much more contentious and could increase over existential risk via global totalitarianism, or by permanently locking in bad values. Instead my guess is that existential security could be better achieved with the bare minimum of internationally binding constraints needed to prevent actors in one or two countries from jeopardizing humanity’s future.

Okay, they want to first greatly cut our risk of extinction, and then somehow stop irreversible change and have us talk and think for a very long time, after which we would then act again once we had reached a sufficiently strong consensus. But that’s kinda crazy, as discussed here by Felix Stocker:

Is there any way humanity could reach a ‘Long Reflection’ period? Could we sustain it? Could it really discover the way to the ‘optimal’ future? … Can we actually eliminate x-risks without taking any momentous and irreversible decisions, … we would have to have radically different political and governmental structures – perhaps a global government, or a global hegemon … it seems really hard to achieve and sustain. … a significant number of individuals and groups would be forced to sacrifice short term gains … authoritarian political institutions would have to be developed which could prevent individuals and groups from acting in their own rational self-interest. … We couldn’t expect to be able to ‘solve moral philosophy’ just by doing it in a vacuum. … I’m struggling to see the Long Reflection as anything other than impossible and pointless. … If we genuinely could engage in a collective philosophy project for 10,000 years, why would we ever want to stop?

In our world today, many small local choices are often correlated, across both people and time, and across actions, expectations, and desires. Within a few decades, such correlated changes often add up to changes are which are so broad and deep that they could only be reversed at an enormous cost, even if they are in principle reversible. Such irreversible change is quite common, and not at all unusual. To instead prevent this sort of change over timescales of centuries or longer would require a global coordination that is vastly stronger and more intrusive than that required to merely prevent a few exceptional and localized existential risks, such as nuclear war, asteroids, or pandemics. Such a global coordination really would deserve the name “world government”.

Furthermore, the effect of preventing all such changes over a long period, allowing only the changes required to support philosophical discussions, would be to have changed society enormously, including changing common attitudes and values regarding change. People would get very used to a static world of value discussion, and many would come to see such a world as proper and even ideal. If any small group could then veto proposals to end this regime, because a strong consensus was required to end it, then there’s a very real possibility that this regime could continue forever.

While it might be possible to slow change in a few limited areas for limited times in order to allow a bit more time to consider especially important future actions, wholesale prevention of practically irreversible change over many centuries seems simply inconsistent with anything like our familiar world.

So how did all these people get so stuck on such a crazy bad idea? My guess is that they don’t talk enough to social scientists. But that’s just my guess.

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Beware Centralization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elite Biases Make Policy Biases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Taxes Or Control, Not Subsidies?

All prices are relative; a price is how many As it takes to buy one B. So we can only say that prices are generally high or low relative to some reference asset, like land or hours of work.

Relative prices says that all taxes of A are really subsidies of Not A, and vice versa. But there is an enforcement difference: it is easier to subsidize than tax, as people have to come to you the enforcer to ask for their subsidy, but they might try to hide from your tax, via a “black” market.

If taxes and subsidies are in a sense equivalent, but subsidies are easier to enforce, we should expect to see a lot more formal subsidies than taxes. But in fact we see the opposite, not just in total revenue, but also in terms of the number items covered. Why?

Well even if we rarely see subsidized market items, we do see “subsidies” in the form of direct government provision. Instead of subsidizing private schools, hospitals, roads, libraries, parks, etc. we often see government instead hire workers to build and run such things, exercising detailed control over exactly how such things are done. In contrast, we see many broad taxes, which allow market participants to make detailed choices as long as they pay the broad taxes.

So why do we see so many market taxes, so few market subsidizes, and so much direct provision, which combines a subsidy with high levels of government control? I can think of two explanations, but I’m not very confident in them, and so am interested to hear more theories.

First, taxing and controlling things looks like you are dominating them, while subsiding things looks like you are submitting to them, as if you were paying tribute to a lord. So my first explanation is that government seeks to appear dominant over citizens, instead of submissive to them, and gives this a higher priority than having more efficient market influence.

My second explanation is that government employees have an unusual influence over government policy, and they prefer to have cushy jobs where they control society without taking many personal risks, and they want taxes raised to pay for their jobs. Sure, if we subsidized parks instead of having government run them, similar jobs would exist in private park firms, but those jobs would be less secure or cushy than government jobs, and give employees less control over the public.

Neither of these theories is very flattering of government. But as I said, I’m not very sure of these; what else ya got?

Another way to say this: why doesn’t government more often directly control the provision of stuff that it taxes? Like soda, gambling, luxury goods, polluting cars, etc.?

Added 11:30a: Bryan Caplan suggests its citizens or employees prefer government to be closer to good things, and more distant from bad things. So they want direct provision of things to subsidize, market provision of stuff to tax.

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Why Not Innovate More?

When investigating specific policy changes to test for evidence of whether stronger patents induce more R&D, a number of papers have failed to uncover such a relationship. (more)

Economists widely believe that failing to sufficiently promote innovation is one of humanity’s biggest, if not the biggest, social failure. While innovation is the main cause of growth in population, wealth, and satisfaction over time, the people who put in effort to create and diffuse innovations on average gain much less from their efforts than what everyone else gains. So they do too little.

Yes, we do have some laws and policies that we say promote innovation. Such as intellectual property, research tax credits, and government funded research. But our total spending on all of these is quite small as a fraction of the economy. Even given these efforts, we still have a huge underinvestment in innovation. Why?

One theory says that we still don’t sufficiently understand innovation. Yes, we know roughly what social process we have in mind, and we can roughly agree on which events and things around us represent more or less innovation. For example, we can hand out awards for unusually good innovation. But if we funded a government agency tasked with promoting innovation, or if your org funded a special office to do similarly, they wouldn’t actually know enough about what to do to justify a large budget. Which suggests that we don’t actually know enough yet about which are the more useful innovation efforts.

Another theory, however, says that we know plenty of other ways to promote innovation, but just aren’t willing to pay their costs. Our world would be more innovate with lower levels of regulation, especially re new products and services. There’d be more innovation with less variety in products, services, languages, and cultures, and with more emphasis on capital and engineering over labor and design. We’d also have more innovation diffusion if we weakened our “not invented here” biases, and other biases to celebrate invention more than diffusion. And if we celebrated innovation more, compared to other accomplishments, such as activism.

We know of many ways to make changes in these directions. But for all such changes we have sacred-like values that oppose them, and which we prioritize over innovation. The obvious but hard solution: change our priorities.

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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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