Tag Archives: Social Science

Prepare for Nuclear Winter

If a 1km asteroid were to hit the Earth, the dust it kicked up would block most sunlight over most of the world for 3 to 10 years. There’s only a one in a million chance of that happening per year, however. Whew. However, there’s a ten times bigger chance that a super volcano, such as the one hiding under Yellowstone, might explode, for a similar result. And I’d put the chance of a full scale nuclear war at ten to one hundred times larger than that: one in ten thousand to one thousand per year. Over a century, that becomes a one to ten percent chance. Not whew; grimace instead.

There is a substantial chance that a full scale nuclear war would produce a nuclear winter, with a similar effect: sunlight is blocked for 3-10 years or more. Yes, there are good criticisms of the more extreme forecasts, but there’s still a big chance the sun gets blocked in a full scale nuclear war, and there’s even a substantial chance of the same result in a mere regional war, where only 100 nukes explode (the world now has 15,000 nukes).

I’ll summarize this as saying we face roughly a one in 10,000 chance per year of most all sunlight on Earth being blocked for 5 to 10 years. Which accumulates to become a 1% chance per century. This is about as big as your one in 9000 personal chance each year of dying in a car accident, or your one in 7500 chance of dying from poisoining. We treat both of these other risks as nontrivial, and put substantial efforts into reducing and mitigating such risks, as we also do for many much smaller risks, such as dying from guns, fire, drowning, or plane crashes. So this risk of losing sunlight for 5-10 years seems well worth reducing or mitigating, if possible.

Even in the best case, the world has only enough stored food to feed everyone for about a year. If the population then gradually declined due to cannibalism of the living, the population falls in half every month, and we’d all be dead in a few years. To save your family by storing ten years of food, you not only have to spend a huge sum now, you’d have to stay very well hidden or defended. Just not gonna happen.

Yeah, probably a few people live on, and so humanity doesn’t go extinct. But the only realistic chance most of us have of surviving in this scenario is to use our vast industrial and scientific abilities to make food. We actually know of many plausible ways to make more than enough food to feed everyone for ten years, even with no sunlight. And even if big chunks of the world economy are in shambles. But for that to work, we must preserve enough social order to make use of at least the core of key social institutions.

Many people presume that as soon as everyone hears about a big problem like this, all social institutions immediately collapse and everyone retreats to their compound to fight a war of all against all, perhaps organized via local Mad-Max-style warlords. But in places where this happens, everyone dies, or moves to places where something else happens.

Many take this as an opportunity to renew their favorite debate, on the right roles for government in society. But while there are clearly many strong roles for government to play in such a situation, it seems unlikely that government can smoothly step into all of the roles required here. Instead, we need an effective industry, to make food, collect its inputs, allocate its workers, and distribute its products. And we need to prepare enough to allow a smooth transition in a crisis; waiting until after the sunlights goes to try to plan this probably ends badly.

Thus while there are important technical aspects of this problem, the core of the problem is social: how to preserve functioning social institutions in a crisis. So I call to social scientist superheroes: we light the “bat signal”, and call on you to apply your superpowers. How can we keep enough peace to make enough food, so we don’t all starve, if Earth loses sunlight for a decade?

To learn more on making food without sunlight, see ALLFED.

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No One Rules The World

I’ve talked on my book Age of Em 79 times so far (#80 comes Saturday in Pisa, Italy). As it relies a lot on economics, while I mostly talk to non-econ audiences, I’ve been exposed a lot to how ordinary people react to economics. As I posted recently, one big thing I see a low confidence in any sort of social science to say anything generalizable about anything.

But the most common error I see is a lack of appreciation that coordination is hard. I hear things like:

If you asked most people today if they want a future like this, they’d say no. So how could it happen if most people don’t like it?

Their model seems to be that social outcomes are a weighted average of individual desires. If so, an outcome most people dislike just can’t happen. If you ask for a mechanism the most common choice is revolution: if there was some feature of the world that most people didn’t like, well of course they’d have a revolution to fix that. And then the world would be fixed. And not just small things: changes as big as the industrial or farming revolutions just wouldn’t happen if most people didn’t want them.

Now people seem to be vaguely aware that revolutions are hard and rare, that many attempted revolutions have failed, or succeeded but failed to achieve its stated aims, and that the world today has many features that majorities dislike. The world today has even more features where majorities feel unsure, not knowing what to think, because things are so complicated that it is hard to understand the feasible options and action consequences. Yet people seem to hold the future to a different standard, especially the far future.

Near-far theory (aka construal level theory) offers a plausible explanation for this different attitude toward the future. As we know a lot less detail about the future, we see it in a far mode, wherein we are more confident in our theories, see fewer relevant distinctions, and emphasize basic moral values relative to practical constraints. Even if the world around us seems too complex to understand and evaluate, issues and choices seem simpler and clearer regarding a distant future where in fact we can barely envision its outlines.

But of course coordination is actually very hard. Not only do most of us only dimly understand the actual range of options and consequences of our actions today, even when we do understand we find it hard to coordinate to achieve such outcomes. It is easier to act locally to achieve our local ends, but the net effect of local actions can result in net outcomes that most of us dislike. Coordination requires that we manage large organizations which are often weak, random, expensive, and out of control.

This seems especially true regarding the consequences of new tech. So far in history tech has mostly appeared whenever someone somewhere has wanted it enough, regardless of what the rest of the world thought. Mostly, no one has been driving the tech train. Sometimes we like the result, and sometimes we don’t. But no one rules the world, so these results mostly just happen either way.

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Social Science Critics

Many critics of Age of Em are critics of social science; they suggest that even though we might be able to use today’s physics or computer science to guess at futures, social science is far less useful.

For example At Crooked Timber Henry Farrell was “a lot more skeptical that social science can help you make predictions”, though he was more skeptical about thinking in terms of markets than in terms of “vast and distributed hierarchies of exploitation”, as these “generate complexities” instead of “ breaking them down.”

At Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation, Jonathan Cowie suggests social science only applies to biological creatures:

While Hanson’s treatise is engaging and interesting, I confess that personally I simply do not buy into it. Not only have I read too much SF to think that em life will be as prescriptive as Hanson portrays, but coming from the biological sciences, I am acutely aware of the frailties of the human brain hence mind (on a psychobiological basis). Furthermore, I am uncomfortable in the way that the social science works Hanson draws upon to support his em conclusions: it is an apples and oranges thing, I do not think that they can readily translate from one to the other; from real life sociobiological constructs to, in effect, machine code. There is much we simply do not know about this, as yet, untrodden land glimpsed from afar.

At Ricochet, John Walker suggests we can’t do social science if we don’t know detail stories of specific lives:

The book is simultaneously breathtaking and tedious. The author tries to work out every aspect of em society: the structure of cities, economics, law, social structure, love, trust, governance, religion, customs, and more. Much of this strikes me as highly speculative, especially since we don’t know anything about the actual experience of living as an em or how we will make the transition from our present society to one dominated by ems.

At his blog, Lance Fortnow suggests my social science assumes too much rationality:

I don’t agree with all of Hanson’s conclusions, in particular he expects a certain rationality from ems that we don’t often see in humans, and if ems are just human emulations, they may not want a short life and long retirement. Perhaps this book isn’t about ems and robots at all, but about Hanson’s vision of human-like creatures as true economic beings as he espouses in his blog. Not sure it is a world I’d like to be a part of, but it’s a fascinating world nevertheless.

At Entropy Chat List, Rafal Smigrodzki suggests social science doesn’t apply if ems adjust their brain design:

My second major objection: Your pervasive assumption that em will remain largely static in their overall structure and function. I think this assumption is at least as unlikely as the em-before-AI assumption. Imagine .. you have the detailed knowledge of your own mind, the tools to modify it, and the ability to generate millions of copies to try out various modifications. .. you do analyze this possibility, you consider some options but in the end you still assume ems will be just like us. Of course, if ems are not like us, then a lot of the detailed sociological research produced on humans would not be very applicable to their world and the book would have to be shorter, but then it might be a better one. In one chapter you mention that lesbian women make more money and therefore lesbian ems might make money as well. This comes at the end of many levels of suspension of disbelief, making the sociology/gender/psychology chapters quite exhausting.

At his blog, J Storrs Hall said something similar:

Robin’s scenario precludes some of these concerns by being very specific to a single possibility: that we have the technology to copy off any single particular human brain, we don’t understand them well enough to modify them arbitrarily. Thus they have to operated in a virtual reality that is reasonably close to a simulated physical world. There is a good reason for doing it this way, of course: that’s the only uploading scenario in which all the social science studies and papers and results and so forth can be assumed to still apply.

Most social scientists, and especially most economists, don’t see what they have learned as being quite so fragile. Yes it is nice to check abstract theories against concrete anecdotes, but in fact most who publish papers do little such checking, and their results only suffer modestly from the lack. Yes being non-biological, or messing a bit with brain design, may make some modest differences. But most social science theory just isn’t that sensitive to such details. As I say in the book:

Our economic theories apply reasonably well not only to other classes and regions within rich nations today, but also to other very different nations today and to people and places thousands of years ago. Furthermore, formal economic models apply widely even though quite alien creatures usually populate them, that is, selfish rational strategic agents who never forget or make mistakes. If economic theory built using such agents can apply to us today, it can plausibly apply to future ems.

The human brain is a very large complex legacy system whose designer did not put a priority on making it easy to understand, modify, or redesign. That should greatly limit the rate at which big useful redesign is possible.

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My Caplan Turing Test

At lunch today Bryan Caplan and I dug a bit into our disagreement, and now I’ll try to summarize his point of view. He can of course correct me.

Bryan sees sympathy feelings as huge influences on social outcomes. Not just feelings between people who know each other well, but also distant feelings between people who have never met. For example, if not for feelings of sympathy:

  1. Law and courts would often favor different disputants.
  2. Free workers would more often face harsh evaluations, punishments, and firing.
  3. Firm owners and managers would know much better which workers were doing good jobs.
  4. The US would invade and enslave Canada tomorrow.
  5. At the end of most wars, the victors would enslave the losers.
  6. Modern slaves would earn their owners much more than they would have as free workers.
  7. In the past, domestic, artisan, and city slaves, who were treated better than field slaves, would have been treated much more harshly.
  8. The slave population would have fallen less via gifts or purchase of freedom.
  9. Thus most of the world population today would be slaves.

These views are, to me, surprisingly different from the impression I get from reading related economics literatures. Bryan says I may be reading the wrong ones, but he hasn’t yet pointed me to the correct ones. As I read them, these usual economics literatures give different impressions:

  • Law and economics literature suggests efficiency usual decides who wins, with sympathy distortions having a real but minor influence.
  • Organization theory literature suggests far more difficulties in motivating workers and measuring their performance.
  • Slavery literature suggests slaves doing complex jobs were treated less harshly for incentive reasons, and would not have earned much more if treated more harshly. Thus modern slaves would also not earn much more as slaves.

Of course even if Bryan were right about all these claims, he needn’t be right in his confident opinion that the vast majority of biological humans will have about as much sympathy for ems as they do for mammals, and thus treat ems as harshly as we treat most mammals.

This sympathy-driven view doesn’t by itself predict Caplan’s strong (and not much explained) view that ems would also be very robot-like. But perhaps we might add to it a passion for domination – people driven by feelings to treat nicely creatures they respect might also be driven by feelings to dominate creatures they do not respect. Such a passion for dominance might induce biological humans to force ems to into ultra docility, even if that came at a productivity cost.

Added 28July2016: Caplan grades my summary of his position. I’m mostly in the ballpark, but he elaborates a bit on why he thinks em slaves would be docile:

Docile slaves are more profitable than slaves with attitude, because owners don’t have to use resources to torture and scare them into compliance.  That’s why owners sent rebellious slaves to “breakers”: to transform rebellious slaves into docile slaves.  Sci-fi is full of stories about humans genetically engineered to be model slaves.  Whole brain emulation is a quicker route to a the same destination.  What’s the puzzle?

For docility to be such a huge priority, relative to other worker features, em rebellion must happen often and impose big frequent costs. Docility doesn’t seem to describe our most productive workers today well, nor does it seem well suited when you want workers to be creative, think carefully, take the initiative, or persuade and inspire others. Either way, either frequent costly rebellions or extreme docility, create big disadvantages of slaves relative to free workers, and so argues against most ems being slaves.

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Henry Farrell on Age of Em

There is a difference between predicting the weather, and predicting climate. If you know many details on current air pressures, wind speeds, etc, you can predict the weather nearby a few days forward, but after weeks to months at most you basically only know an overall distribution. However, if there is some fundamental change in the environment, such as via carbon emissions, you might predict how that distribution will change as a result far into the future; that is predicting climate.

Henry Farrell, at Crooked Timber, seems to disagree with Age of Em because he thinks we can only predict social weather, not social climate:

Tyler Cowen says .. Age of Em .. won’t happen. I agree. I enjoyed the book. .. First – the book makes a strong claim for the value of social science in extrapolating likely futures. I am a lot more skeptical that social science can help you make predictions. .. Hanson’s arguments seem to me to rely on a specific combination of (a) an application of evolutionary theory to social development with (b) the notion that evolutionary solutions will rapidly converge on globally efficient outcomes. This is a common set of assumptions among economists with evolutionary predilections, but it seems to me to be implausible. In actually existing markets, we see some limited convergence in the short term on e.g. forms of organization, but this is plausibly driven at least as much by homophily and politics as by the actual identification of efficient solutions. Evolutionary forces may indeed lead to the discovery of new equilibria, but haltingly, and in unexpected ways. .. This suggests an approach to social science which doesn’t aim at specific predictions a la Hanson, so much as at identifying the underlying forces which interact (often in unpredictable ways) to shape and constrain the range of possible futures. ..

In the end, much science fiction is doing the same kind of thing as Hanson ends up doing – trying in a reasonably systematic way to think through the social, economic and political consequences of certain trends, should they develop in particular ways. The aims of extrapolationistas and science fiction writers aims may be different – prediction versus constrained fiction writing but their end result – enriching our sense of the range of possible futures that might be out there – are pretty close to each other. .. it is the reason I got value from his book. ..

So Hanson’s extrapolated future seems to me to reflect an economist’s perspective in which markets have priority, and hierarchy is either subordinated to the market or pushed aside altogether. The work of Hannu Rajaniemi provides a rich, detailed, alternative account of the future in which something like the opposite is true .. [with] vast and distributed hierarchies of exploitation. .. Rajaniemi’s books .. provide a rich counter-extrapolation of what a profoundly different society might look like. .. I don’t know what the future will look like, but I suspect it will be weird in ways that echo Rajaniemi’s way of thinking (which generates complexities) rather than Hanson’s (which breaks them down).

If we can only see forces that shape and constrain the future, but not the distribution of future outcomes, what is the point of looking at samples from the “range of possibilities”? That only seems useful if in fact you can learn things about that range. In which case you are learning about the overall distribution. Isn’t Farrell’s claim about more future “hierarchies of exploitation” relative to “markets” just the sort of overall outcome he claims we can’t know? (Rajaniemi blurbed and likes my book, so I don’t think he sees it as such a polar opposite. And how does hierarchy “generate complexities” while markets “break them down”?) Is Farrell really claiming that there is no overall tendency toward more efficient practices and institutions, making moves away from them just as likely as moves toward them? Are all the insights economic historians think they have gained using efficiency to understand history illusory?

My more charitable interpretation is that Farrell sees me as making forecasts much more confidently than I intend. While I’ve constructed a point prediction, my uncertainty is widely distributed around that point, while Farrell sees me as claiming more concentration. I’ll bet Farrell does in fact see a tendency toward efficiency, and he thinks looking at cases does teach us about distributions. And he probably even thinks supply and demand is often a reasonable first cut approximation. So I’m guessing that, with the right caveat about confidence, he actually thinks my point prediction makes a useful contribution to our understanding of the future.

One clarification. Farrell writes:

One of the unresolved tensions .. Are [ems] free agents, or are they slaves? I don’t think that Hanson’s answer is entirely consistent (or at least I wasn’t able to follow the thread of the consistent argument if it was). Sometimes he seems to suggest that they will have successful means of figuring out if they have been enslaved, and refusing to cooperate, hence leading to a likely convergence on free-ish market relations. Other times, he seems to suggest that it doesn’t make much difference to his broad predictive argument whether they are or are not slaves.

Much of the book doesn’t depend on if ems are slaves, but some parts do, such as the part on how ems might try to detect if they’ve been unwittingly enslaved.

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Star Trek As Fantasy

Frustrated that science fiction rarely makes economic sense, I just wrote a whole book trying to show how much consistent social detail one can offer, given key defining assumptions on a future scenario. Imagine my surprise then to learn that another book, Trekonomics, published exactly one day before mine, promises to make detailed economic sense out of the popular Star Trek shows. It seems endorsed by top economists Paul Krugman and Brad Delong, and has lots of MSM praise. From the jacket:

Manu Saadia takes a deep dive into the show’s most radical and provocative aspect: its detailed and consistent economic wisdom. .. looks at the hard economics that underpin the series’ ideal society.

Now Saadia does admit the space stuff is “hogwash”:

There will not be faster-than-light interstellar travel or matter-anti-matter reactors. Star Trek will not come to pass as seen on TV. .. There is no economic rationale for interstellar exploration, maned or unmanned. .. Settling a minuscule outpost on a faraway  world, sounds like complete idiocy. .. Interstellar exploration … cannot happen until society is so wealthy that not a single person has to waste his or her time on base economic pursuits. .. For a long while, there is no future but on Earth, in the cities of Earth. (pp. 215-221)

He says Trek is instead a sermon promoting social democracy: Continue reading "Star Trek As Fantasy" »

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Seeking Super Factors

In a factor analysis, one takes a large high-dimensional dataset and finds a low dimensional set of variables that can explain as much as possible of the total variation in that dataset. A big advantage of factor analysis is that it doesn’t require much theoretical knowledge about the nature of the variables in the data or their relations – factors are mostly determined directly by the data.

Factor analysis has had some big successes in helping us to understand how humans differ. As many people know, intelligence is the main factor explaining variation in cognitive test performance, ideology is the main factor explaining variations in political positions, and personality types explain much of the variation in stable attitudes and temperament. These factors have allowed us to greatly advance our understanding of intelligence, ideology, and personality, even while remaining ignorant of their fundamental causes and natures.

However, people vary in far more ways than intelligence, ideology, and personality, and factor analyses have been applied to many of these other human feature categories. For example, there have been factors analyses of jobs, brands, faces, body shape, gait, accent, diet, clothing, writing styleleisure behavior, friendship networks, sleep habitsphysical health, mortality, demography, national cultures, and zip codes.

As my last post on media genre factors showed, factors found in different feature categories are often substantially correlated with one another. This suggests that if we put together a huge super-dataset describing many individual people in as many ways as possible, a factor analysis of this dataset may find important new super-factors that span many of these features domains. Such super-factors would be promising candidates to use in a wide range of social research, and social policy.

Now it remains logically possible that these super-factors will end up being simple linear combinations of the factors that we have already found in each of these feature categories. Maybe we already know most of what there is to know about how humans vary. But I’d bet strongly and heavily against this. The rate at which we have been learning new things about how humans vary doesn’t remotely suggest we’ve run out of new big things to learn. Yes, merely knowing the super-factors isn’t the same as understanding their origins. But just as we’ve seen with factor analysis in more specific areas, knowing the main factors can be a big help.

So I’d guess that the super-factors found in a super dataset of human details will be revolutionary developments. We will afterward see uncovering them as a seminal milestone in our progress in understanding human variation. A Nobel prize worthy level of seminality. All it will take is lots of tedious work to collect a super dataset, and then do some straightforward number crunching. A quest awaits; who will rise to the challenge?

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Em Scale Economies

Angle, a relaunched journal from Imperial College London, “focuses on the intersection of science, policy and politics in an evolving and complex world.” The current issue focuses on economies of scale, and includes a short paper of mine on ems:

I focus on two key results related to economies of scale. … First, an em economy grows faster that ours by avoiding the diminishing returns to capital that we suffer because we can’t grow labour fast enough. Second, an economy has larger cities because it avoids the commuting congestion costs that limit our city sizes. (more)

Of course an em economy has many other important scale economies; those where just the two I could explain in the two thousand words given me.

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The Data We Need

Almost all research into human behavior focuses on particular behaviors. (Yes, not extremely particular, but also not extremely general.) For example, an academic journal article might focus on professional licensing of dentists, incentive contracts for teachers, how Walmart changes small towns, whether diabetes patients take their medicine, how much we spend on xmas presents, or if there are fewer modern wars between democracies. Academics become experts in such particular areas.

After people have read many articles on many particular kinds of human behavior, they often express opinions about larger aggregates of human behavior. They say that government policy tends to favor the rich, that people would be happier with less government, that the young don’t listen enough to the old, that supply and demand is a good first approximation, that people are more selfish than they claim, or that most people do most things with an eye to signaling. Yes, people often express opinions on these broader subjects before they read many articles, and their opinions change suspiciously little as a result of reading many articles. But even so, if asked to justify their more general views academics usually point to a sampling of particular articles.

Much of my intellectual life in the last decade has been spent in the mode of collecting many specific results, and trying to fit them into larger simpler pictures of human behavior. So both I and the academics I’m describing above in essence present themselves as using these many results presented in academic papers about particular human behaviors as data to support their broader inferences about human behavior. But we do almost all of this informally, via our vague impressionistic memories of what has been the gist of the many articles we’ve read, and our intuitions about what more general claims seem how consistent with those particulars.

Of course there is nothing especially wrong with intuitively matching data and theory; it is what we humans evolved to do, and we wouldn’t be such a successful species if we couldn’t at least do it tolerably well sometimes. It takes time and effort to turn complex experiences into precise sharable data sets, and to turn our theoretical intuitions into precise testable formal theories. Such efforts aren’t always worth the bother.

But most of these academic papers on particular human behaviors do in fact pay the bother to substantially formalize their data, their theories, or both. And if it is worth the bother to do this for all of these particular behaviors, it is hard to see why it isn’t be worth the bother for the broader generalizations we make from them. Thus I propose: let’s create formal data sets where the data points are particular categories of human behavior.

To make my proposal clearer let’s for now restrict attention to explaining government regulatory policies. We could create a data set where the datums are particular kinds of products and services that governments now provide, subsidize, tax, advise, restrict, etc. For such datums we could start to collect features about them into a formal data set. Such features could say how long that sort of thing has been going on, how widely it is practiced around the world, how variable has been that practice over space and time, how familiar are ordinary people today with its details, what sort of justifications do people offer for it, what sort of emotional associations do people have with it, how much do we spend on it, and so on. We might also include anything we know about how such things correlate with age, gender, wealth, latitude, etc.

Generalizing to human behavior more broadly, we could collect a data set of particular behaviors, many of which seem puzzling at least to someone. I often post on this blog about puzzling behaviors. Each such category of behaviors could be one or more data points in this data set. And relevant features to code about those behaviors could be drawn from the features we tend to invoke when we try to explain those behaviors. Such as how common is that behavior, how much repeated experience do people have with it, how much do they get to see about the behavior of others, how strong are the emotional associations, how much would it make people look bad to admit to particular motives, and so on.

Now all this is of course much easier said than done. Is it a lot of work to look up various papers and summarize their key results as entries in this data set, or just to look at real world behaviors and put them into simple categories. It is also work to think carefully about how to usefully divide up the space of actions and features. First efforts will no doubt get it wrong in part, and have to be partially redone. But this is the sort of work that usually goes into all the academic papers on particular behaviors. Yes it is work, but if those particular efforts are worth the bother, then this should be as well.

As a first cut, I’d suggest just picking some more limited category, such as perhaps government regulations, collecting some plausible data points, making some guesses about what useful features might be, and then just doing a quick survey of some social scientists where they each fill in the data table with their best guesses for data point features. If you ask enough people, you can average out a lot of individual noise, and at least have a data set about what social scientists think are features of items in this area. With this you could start to do some exploratory data analysis, and start to think about what theories might well account for the patterns you see.

Now one obvious problem with my proposal is that while it looks time consuming and tedious, it isn’t obviously impressive. Researchers who specialize in particular areas will complain about your data entries related to their areas, and you won’t be able to satisfy them all. So you will end up with a chorus of critics saying your data is all wrong, and your efforts will look too low brow to cower them with your impressive tech. So I can see why this hasn’t been done much. Even so, I think this is the data set we need.

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Yawning At Utopia

The prospect of better physical devices, such as logic gates or solar cells, often generates huge interest and investment. Of course there are many more physical devices where improvements generate much less interest, because we haven’t yet found nearly as much use for those devices. But even so, for devices we often use, small improvements can be very big news.

Similarly, there are many widely used computer algorithms where small improvements also generate big interest and financial investments. Of course most gains aren’t like this. For example, there is less interest in techniques tied to very narrow contexts, such as ways to reorganize particular programs. But when wide use is plausible, algorithm gains can be big news.

We can do engineering and design not only with physical and software systems, but also with social systems. There should of course be less interest in designs tied to very particular contexts, such as reorganizing the management of a particular firm. But we often repeatedly use some simple social mechanisms, like voting. So we should be a lot more interest in improving the designs of these.

I started out in engineering, moved to physics, then to software, and then finally to economics. That last move was very much inspired by big apparent gains from better social institutions. I knew that in physical and software engineering we put in huge efforts to scour the vast space of possible designs to find even small gains on devices of moderate generality. Yet in economics it seemed that big gains could be found from very simple easy to find innovations on general mechanisms of wide applicability.

Over two decades later, I must admit that the world shows far less interest in better designs for institutions and social mechanisms, relative to better designs for physical and software systems. Few talk about them, and even fewer business ventures pursue them. Some say that physics and software designs are far more valuable because we know far less about economics; these proposed social designs just don’t work. But this claim seems just wrong to me.

Yes of course any particular argument for any particular social design will make convenient but questionable assumptions. But this is also true for our main arguments for physical or software designs. They also almost always neglect relevant considerations. Tractable analysis simplifies.

I recently posted on a new voting mechanism. Voting is a very general process whose main purposes are also pretty general. I’ve also posted for years about the very general advantages of prediction markets for the problem of info aggregation, which is a very general problem. (Scott Sumner sees their gains as so obvious he calls anything else “Stone Age Economics”.) I just heard a nice talk on better political institutions to promote urban density. And economic journals are full of articles describing new institution designs, and testing the effects of institutions that are not widely adopted.

Yes, proposed new social mechanisms often fail along the path from simple theory models to complex models to lab experiments to small field experiments to large field trials. But physical and software designs also often fail along this path. I don’t see social designs as failing much more often, except for the key failing of not generating much enthusiasm or interest. That is, most people just don’t seem to care how well social designs do in theory or lab or field tests. Even most social scientists don’t care much about design innovations outside their specialty areas.

Yes in the last decade or so there has been more enthusiasm for social innovations embodied in physical and software innovations, like smart phones or block chains. But this enthusiasm seems to be mainly an accidental side effect of tech enthusiasm. For example, while many are excited by Uber achieving new value in cheaper-if-nominally-illegal cab services, most of those gains could have come decades ago from just deregulating cabs, an option in which there was little interest. As another example, there is far more interest today in prediction markets build on block chains than in ordinary prediction markets, even though far more value could be achieved by the later.

I should admit that this all confirms Bryan Caplan’s claim that few people can generate much emotional enthusiasm for efficiency. Bryan says people are far more engaged by moral arguments. I’d say people are also far more engaged by following fashion and by us vs. them coalition politics. Most apparent interest in innovation in social designs can be attributed to these three sources; we explain little more by positing an additional direct interest in helping us all get more of what we want.

This seems mostly also true at the level of smaller organizations like firms. While people give lip service to increasing the efficiency or effectiveness of the organization as a whole, that in fact generates little passion. The passion we do see in the name of efficiency mostly advances particular factions and individual careers. Homo hypocritus is quite skilled at saying that he serves the great good, while actually serving far more personal ends.

Added 9a: Many of you seem to be stuck on the ideas that social innovations can’t be tested unless the entire world agrees to adopt them. Or an entire nation, or city. Yes, some innovations are like that. (There are also physical and software innovations like that.) But a great many social innovations can be tried out on very small scales, where regulations do not block them. And there is very little interest in pursuing these innovations.

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