Tag Archives: Status

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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Our Hidden Motive To Submit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We pretend to disapprove of dominance, but we lie.

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Honest Putdowns

What do people want? Surely one thing they want is to not be insulted or put down by others. Yet if you ask people what personal features they most aspire to improve, the features they pick have no correlation with the features used in the putdowns around them! Yet putdown features have strong correlations with the features used in praise, and with the features people say they care most what others think of them. In this post, I’ll describe and interpret these new results, concluding that putdowns are our best guide to what really counts for status; aspirations are deluded, and not to be trusted.

So let’s start. Recently on Twitter I asked people for the damning descriptors that most lower folks’ status in their world. I then collect 32 such putdowns, identified the key human feature to which each referred, and then taxed the patience of my Twitter followers by posting five sets of 24 polls, with each poll comparing four of these 32 features. (Each feature appears in exactly 3 polls in each set.)

Each poll set corresponds to a different choice criteria. For the first criteria, Putdowns, I asked which feature was most often used for putdowns in their world. The next three criteria are: Praise asks which feature is most used for praise or admiration, Aspirations asks which you most aspire to improve in yourself, and ImageSeek asks for which you care most what others think of you. The last criteria TryLookBad asks for which feature (e.g., fart rate) it is most plausibly has an issue of it looking bad to try hard.

For each criteria, I fit (via min squared error) poll % responses to a simple model wherein some % of responses are random, and the rest are in proportion to the relative (positive) “priority” of each feature. The following table shows, for each criteria, the average number of responses per poll (Ave Poll N), the average root mean square error (RMSE in %) of its model in estimating poll % responses, and correlations between its prioritizes and priorities of other criteria. The correlations in red have t-stats of over 4.

Note that TryBadLook seems to have just failed as a poll question, with large errors and weak correlations; many just misunderstood it. Praise and ImageSeek are quite strongly correlated with each other and are similarly correlated with Putdowns, though only Praise is weakly correlated (t-stat 1.37) with Aspirations.

The most striking result, shown in bold, is that priorities for Putdowns and Aspirations are uncorrelated! You might think that since people don’t like to be insulted, they’d aspire more to look better on vulnerable features. But no. To help explore this puzzle, here are the best fit relative priorities for all 32 features and five questions, sorted by the difference between Aspirations and Putdowns priorities. (The % priorities for each criteria add to 100%.)

The pro-Aspiration top of the list has features like wealth, creative, brave, and articulate, that impress observers even if observers don’t value them as much. And it has features like productive and effort, which we’d like to convince others are a high priority for us. I do not at all believe that these two features are actually most people’s highest priority for improvement.

At the pro-Putdowns bottom of the list are features like menacing, biased, sanity, pleasant, and honest, which people see as important in others but not worth of improving in themselves. Plausibly, people convince others that they are not the type of folks at risk of ranking poorly on such features, so there is little need to work at them. Or, admitting that they are working on them would admit they have problems with them. It seems that people are also reluctant to admit they might have a problem with insufficient smarts.

In the middle of the list are features, like breadth, curious, professional, and generous, that most people pretend to care more about than they actually do. They are neither damning enough to be worth more putdowns, nor valued enough to be worth more aspiration. Note that features like liked and attractive plausibly matter less in putdowns because audiences for putdowns don’t like to admit that they care about them as much as they do. Not also that in another poll, respondents said 3-to-1 that criticism influences reputations more than does praise, with a majority saying it does so far more.

As these interpretations of the PutdownsAspirations differences mostly blame Aspirations for being less than honest, I conclude that the priorities of Putdowns are a more accurate measure of the true determinants of status than are the other measures above. Praise and ImageSeek are closer than Aspirations, but they are also polluted, Praise by the tendency to flatter people on the features on they want to be praised, and ImageSeek by our delusions regarding what failures are plausible for us.

Putdowns show what features really determine status, and aspirations can’t be trusted, as we care a lot more about status than we care to admit.

Yes of course it would be nice to check that these results hold for larger poll pools, and to see how they might vary with different subcultures.

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Dreamtime Social Games

Ten years ago, I posted one of my most popular essays: “This is the Dreamtime.” In it, I argued that, because we are rich,

Our descendants will remember our era as the one where the human capacity to sincerely believe crazy non-adaptive things, and act on those beliefs, was dialed to the max.

Today I want to talk about dreamtime social games.

For at least a million years, our ancestors wandered the Earth in small bands of 20-50 people. These groups were so big that they ran out of food if they stayed in one place, which is why they wandered. But such groups were big and smart enough to spread individual risks well, and to be relative safe from predators.

So in good times at least, the main environment that mattered to our forager ancestors was each other. That is, they succeeded or failed mostly based on winning social games. Those who achieved higher status in their group gained more food, protection, lovers, and kids. And so, while foragers pretended that they were all equal, they actually spent much of their time and energy trying to win such status games. They tried to look impressive, to join respected alliances, to undermine rival alliances, and so on. Usually in the context of grand impractical leisure and play.

As I described recently, status is usually based on a wide range of clues regarding one’s impressiveness, and the relative weight on these clues does vary across cultures. But there are many generic clues that tend to be important in most all cultures, including strength, courage, intelligence, wit, art, loyalty, social support etc.

When an ability was important for survival in a local environment, cultural selection tended to encourage societies to put more weight on that ability in local status ratings, especially when their society felt under threat. So given famine, hunters gain status, given war warriors gain status, and when searching for a new home explorers gain status.

But when the local environment seemed less threatening, humans have tended to revert back to a more standard human social game, focused on less clearly useful abilities. And the more secure a society, and the longer it has felt secure, the more strongly it reverts. So across history the social worlds of comfortable elites have been remarkably similar. In the social worlds such as Versailles, Tales of Genji, or Google today, we see less emphasis on abilities that help win in larger harsher world, or that protect this smaller world from larger worlds, and more emphasis on complex internal politics based on beauty, wit, abstract ideas, artistic tastes, political factions, and who likes who.

That is, as people feel safer, local status metrics and social institutions drift toward emphasizing likability over effectiveness, popularity and impressiveness over useful accomplishment, and art and design over engineering. And as our world has been getting richer and safer for many centuries now, our culture has long been moving toward emphasizing such forager values and attitudes. (Though crises like wars often push us back temporarily.)

“Liberals” tend to have moved further on this path than “conservatives”, as indicated by typical jobs:

jobs that lean conservative … [are] where there are rare big bad things that can go wrong, and you want workers who can help keep them from happening. … Conservatives are more focused on fear of bad things, and protecting against them. … Jobs that lean liberal… [have] small chances that a worker will cause a rare huge success … [or] people who talk well.

Also, “conservative” attitudes toward marriage have focused on raising kids and on a division of labor in production, while “liberal” attitudes have focused on sex, romance, and sharing leisure activities.

Rather than acknowledging that our status priorities change as we feel safer, humans often give lip service to valuing useful outcomes, while actually more valuing the usual social game criteria. So we pretend to go to school to learn useful class material, but we actually gain prestige while learning little that is useful. We pretend that we pick lawyers who win cases, yet don’t bother to publish track records and mainly pick lawyers based on institutional prestige. We pretend we pick doctors to improve health, but also don’t publish track records and mainly pick via institutional prestige, and don’t notice that there’s little correlation between health and medicine. We pretend to invest in hedge funds to gain higher returns, but really gain status via association with impressive fund managers, and pay via lower average returns.

I recently realized that, alas, my desire to move our institutions more toward “paying for results” is at odds with this strong social trend. Our institutions could be much more effective at getting us the things we say we want out of them, but we seem mostly content to let them be run by the usual social status games. We put high status people in change and give them a lot of discretion, as long as they give lip service to our usual practical goals. It feels to most people like a loss in collective status if they let their institutions actually focus too much on results.

A focus on results would probably result in the rise to power of less impressive looking people who manage to get more useful things done. That is what we’ve seen when firms have adopted prediction markets. At first firms hope that such markets may help them identify the best informed employees. But are are disappointed to learn that winners tend not to look socially impressive, but are more nerdy difficult inarticulate contrarians. Not the sort they actually want to promote.

Paying more for results would feel to most people like having to invite less suave and lower class engineers or apartment sups to your swanky parties because they are useful as associates. Or having to switch from dating hip hunky Tinder dudes to reliable practical guys with steady jobs. In status terms, that all feels less like admiring prestige and more like submitting to domination, which is a forager no-no. Paying for results is the sort of thing that poor practical people have to do, not rich prestigious folks like you.

Of course our society is full of social situations where practical people get enough rewards to keep them doing practical things. So that the world actually works. People sometimes try to kill such things, but then they suffer badly and learn to stop. But most folks who express interest in social reforms seem to care more about projecting their grand hopes and ideals, relative to making stuff work better. Strong emotional support for efficiency-driven reform must come from those who have deeply felt the sting of inefficiency. Perhaps regarding crime?

Ordinary human intuitions work well for playing the usual social status games. You can just rely on standard intuitions re who you like and are impressed by, and who you should say what to. In contrast, figuring out how to actually and effectively pay for results is far more complex, and depends more on the details of your world. So good solutions there are unlikely to be well described by simple slogans, and are not optimized for showing off one’s good values. Which, alas, seems another big obstacle to creating better institutions.

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Status Apps Are Coming

A person’s social status is a consensus of those nearby on that person’s relative social value and power. Which factors count how much in this status vary across societies and subcultures. (They probably vary more at high status levels.) Most people spend a lot of effort in private thought and in conversations trying to infer the status of they and their associates, and trying to raise the status of their allies and to lower that of their rivals.

Typically a great many considerations go into estimating status. Such as the status of your ancestors and current associates, and your job, income, residence, health, beauty, charisma, intelligence, strength, gender, race, and age. Most anything that is impressive or admirable helps, such as achievements in sports and the arts, looking sharp, and seeming knowledgeable. Most anything that is disliked or disapproved hurts, such as often (but not always) applies for violence, rudeness, unreliability, and filth.

Today we generate shared status estimates via expensive gossip and non-verbal communication, but someday (in 20 years?) tech may help us more in this task. Tech will be able to see many related clues like who talks to who with what tone of voice, who looks how at who, who invites who to what social events, who lives where and has what jobs, etc. Given some detailed surveys on who says who has what status, we may build accurate statistical models that predict from all that tech-accessible data who would say who has what status in what contexts.

Or new social practices might create more directly relevant data. Imagine a future app where you can browse people to see numerical current estimates of their status (perhaps relative to a subculture).  You can click up or down on any estimate to indicate that you consider it too low or too high. Some perhaps-complex mechanism then takes prior estimates, background tech data, and these up/down edits to generate changes in these status estimates, and also changes in estimates of edit source reliability. All else equal, people who contribute more reliable/informative status edits are probably estimated to have higher status.

I don’t know how exactly such an algorithm could or should work. But I’m confident that there are many variations that could work well enough to attract much participation and use. Many people would be tempted to use these status estimates similarly to how they now use the status estimates that they generate via gossip and subtle social clues. They might even use them in even more places than they use status today, if these new estimates were considered more reliable and verifiable.

I’m also confident that governments, firms, and other organizations would be eager to influence these systems, as they’d see some variations as being more favorable to their interests. Yes, that creates a risk that they may push for bad variations, though don’t forget that our informal systems today also have many flaws. For example, many people use false rumors and other underhanded status tricks to hurt rivals and help allies, tricks that may be harder to get away with in a more transparent system.

Yes, this may look like a dystopia in many ways. But it is probably coming whether you like it or not, and this change may offer great opportunities to improve our status systems. For example, today we have many anti-discrimination policies that seem to be crude and awkward attempts to fix perceived problems with our current status systems. A more fine-grained, data-driven, and transparent status system might allow more effective and better targeted fixes. So it seems worth thinking now a bit more about how such systems could and should work, before some big government or tech firm imposes a system that quickly gets entrenched and hard to change.

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Quality Regs Say ‘High Is Good’

95% think doctors should be licensed. … 96% oppose legalizing crystal meth. (more)

One of the main ways that our world is not libertarian is that it is full of government rules requiring minimum quality levels for many kinds of products and services. We see this for food, drugs, building codes, auto/plane rules, allowed investments, censorship, professional licensing, school accreditation, sports equipment, and much more. Once you look for them, you find such rules everywhere. So a key basic puzzle is: why do we have so many min quality rules?

Here are some clues to keep in mind:

  1. Though these rules limit consumer choices, they have strong voter support.
  2. Such rules were far less common in the ancient world.
  3. Today these rules are extremely widespread, across many areas of life and types of societies and governments.
  4. These rules are implemented via many channels: liability law, regulatory agencies, and legislation.
  5. Poor nations tend to have lower standards, like rich nations did when they were poor, yet we see few exceptions for poor people or neighborhoods.
  6. Product bans are far more common than are official quality evaluations.
  7. Many such rules are retained even when they seem quite ineffective, such as laws against vaping (little health harm), recreational drugs, and prostitution.
  8. We don’t make exceptions for customers who can show that they clearly understand that the product is considered low quality.

Continue reading "Quality Regs Say ‘High Is Good’" »

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Paternalism Is About Status

… children, whom he finds delightful and remarkably self-sufficient from the age of 4. He chalks this up to the fact that they are constantly lied to, can go anywhere and in their first years of life are given pretty much anything they please. If the baby wants the butcher knife, the baby gets the butcher knife. This novel approach may not sound like appropriate parenting, but Kulick observes that the children acquire their self-sufficiency by learning to seek out their own answers and by carefully navigating their surroundings at an early age. … the only villagers whom he’s ever seen beat their children are the ones who left to attend Catholic school. (more)

Bofi forager parenting is quite permissive and indulgent by Western standards. Children spend more time in close physical contact with parents, and are rarely directed or punished by parents. Children are allowed to play with knives, machete, and campfires without the warnings or interventions of parents; this permissive patently style has been described among other forager groups as well. (more)

Much of the literature on paternalism (including my paper) focuses on justifying it: how much can a person A be helped by allowing a person B to prohibit or require particular actions in particular situations? Such as parents today often try to do with their children. Most of this literature focuses on various deviations from simple rational agent models, but my paper shows that this is not necessary; B can help A even when both are fully rational. All it takes is for B to sometimes know things that A does not.

However, this focus on justification distracts from efforts to explain the actual variation in paternalism that we see around us. Sometimes third parties endorse and support the ability of B to prohibit or require actions by A, and sometimes third parties oppose and discourage such actions. How can we best explain which happens where and when?

First let me set aside situations where A authorizes B to, at some future date, limit or require actions by A. People usually justify this in terms of self-control, i.e., where A today disagrees with future A’s preferences. To me this isn’t real paternalism, which I see as more essentially about the extra info that B may hold.

Okay, let’s start with a quick survey of some of the main observed correlates of paternalism. Continue reading "Paternalism Is About Status" »

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Our Prestige Obsession

Long ago our distant ancestors lived through both good times and bad. In bad times, they did their best to survive, while in good times they asked themselves, “What can I invest in now to help me in coming bad times?” The obvious answer was: good relations and reputations. So they had kids, worked to raise their personal status, and worked to collect and maintain good allies.

This has long been my favored explanation for why we now invest so much in medicine and education, and why those investment have risen so much over the last century. We subconsciously treat medicine as a way to show that we care about others, and to let others show they care about us. As we get richer, we devote a larger fraction of our resources to this plan, and to other ways of showing off.

I’d never thought about it until yesterday, but this theory also predicts that, as we get rich, we put an increasing priority on associating with prestigious doctors and teachers. In better times, we focus more on gaining prestige via closer associations with more prestigious people. So as we get rich, we not only spend more on medicine, we more want that spending to connect us to especially prestigious medical professionals.

This increasing-focus-on-prestige effect can also help us to understand some larger economic patterns. Over the last half century, rising wage inequality has been driven to a large extent by a limited number of unusual services, such as medicine, education, law, firm management, management consulting, and investment management. And these services tend to share a common pattern.

As a fraction of the economy, spending on these services has increased greatly over the last half century or so. The public face of each service tends to be key high status individuals, e.g., doctors, teachers, lawyers, managers, who are seen as driving key service choices for customers. Customers often interact directly with these faces, and develop personal relations with them. There are an increasing number of these key face individuals, their pay is high, and it has been rising faster than has average pay, contributing to rising wage inequality.

For each of these services, we see customers knowing and caring more about the prestige of key service faces, relative to their service track records. Customers seem surprisingly disinterested in big ways in which these services are inefficient and could be greatly improved, such as via tech. And these services tend to be more highly regulated.

For example, since 1960, the US has roughly doubled its number of doctors and nurses, and their pay has roughly tripled, a far larger increase than seen in median pay. As a result, the fraction of total income spent on medicine has risen greatly. Randomized trials comparing paramedics and nurse practitioners to general practice doctors find that they all produce similar results, even though doctors cost far more. While student health centers often save by having one doctor supervise many nurses who do most of the care, most people dislike this and insist on direct doctor care.

We see very little correlation between having more medicine and more health, suggesting that there is much excess care and inefficiency. Patients prefer expensive complex treatments, and are suspicious of simple cheap treatments. Patients tend to be more aware of and interested in their doctor’s prestigious schools and jobs than of their treatment track record. While medicine is highly regulated overall, the much less regulated world of animal medicine has seen spending rise a similar rate.

In education, since 1960 we’ve seen big rises in the number of students, the number of teachers and other workers per student, and in the wages of teachers relative to worker elsewhere. Teachers make relatively high wages. While most schools are government run, spending at private schools has risen at a similar rate to public schools. We see a strong push for more highly educated teachers, even though teachers with less schooling seem adequate for learning. Students don’t actually remember much of what they are taught, and most of what they do learn isn’t actually useful. Students seem to know and care more about the prestige of their teachers than about their track records at teaching. College students prefer worse teachers who have done more prestigious research.

In law, since 1960 we’ve similarly seen big increases in the number of court cases, the number of lawyers employed, and in lawyer incomes. While two centuries ago most people could go to court without a lawyer, law is now far more complex. Yet it is far from clear whether we are better off with our more complex and expensive legal system. Most customers know far more about the school and job prestige of the lawyers they consider than they do about such lawyers’ court track records.

Management consultants have greatly increased in number and wages. While it is often possible to predict what they would recommend at a lower cost, such consultants are often hired because their prestige can cow internal opponents to not resist proposed changes. Management consultants tend to hire new graduates from top schools to impress clients with their prestige.

People who manage investment funds have greatly increased in number and pay. Once their management fees are taken into account, they tend to give lower returns than simple index funds. Investors seem willing to accept such lower expected returns in trade for a chance to brag about their association should returns happen to be high. They enjoy associating with prestigious fund managers, and tend to insist that such managers take their phone calls, which credibly shows a closer than arms-length relation.

Managers in general have also increased in number and also in pay, relative to median pay. And a key function of managers may be to make firms seem more prestigious, not only to customers and investors, but also to employees. Employees are generally wary of submitting to the dominance of bosses, as such submission violates an ancient forager norm. But as admiring and following prestigious people is okay, prestigious bosses can induce more cooperative employees.

Taken together, these cases suggest that increasing wage inequality may be caused in part by an increased demand for associating with prestigious service faces. As we get rich, we become willing to spend a larger fraction of our income on showing off via medicine and schooling, and we put higher priority on connecting to more prestigious doctors, teachers, lawyers, managers, etc. This increasing demand is what pushes their wages high.

This demand for more prestigious service faces seems to not be driven by a higher productivity that more prestigious workers may be able to provide. Customers seem to pay far less attention to productivity than to prestige; they don’t ask for track records, and they seem to tolerate a great deal of inefficiency. This all suggests that it is prestige more directly that customers seek.

Note that my story is somewhat in conflict with the usual “skill-biased technical change” story, which says that tech changed to make higher-skilled workers more productive relative to lower-skilled workers.

Added 10June: Note that the so-called Baumol “cost disease”, wherein doing some tasks just takes a certain number of hours unaided by tech gains, can only explain spending increases proportional to overall wage increases, and that only if demand is very inelastic. It can’t explain how some wages rise faster than the average, nor big increases in quantity demanded even as prices increases.

Added 12Jun: This post inspired by reading & discussing Why Are the Prices So Damn High?

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Low Prestige Hurts More

It can feel terrible to feel unwanted. Unwanted by schools, labor markets, sport teams, music bands, acting troupes, or romantic partners. We feel bad when we feel unwanted, and we often pity others to see them unwanted. Though we don’t usually pity enough to actually choose them over alternatives. And they can feel even worse to see our pity, as it affirms the visibility of their rejection.

Ever since we were foragers, humans have distinguished two kinds of status: dominance and prestige. Dominance is illicit, and we have norms saying to prevent and resist it, while prestige is not only allowed but encouraged. So one way to sympathize with and support someone who is unwanted is to frame their rejection as illicit dominance.

Since rich folks and big for-profit firms are easily portrayed as illicit dominators, it is easy to blame their illicit dominance when they reject people. So many people like to support those rejected by firms, such as for jobs at firms or loans from banks, by blaming firm dominance. Big firms can also be blamed when the products and services they sell explain why people are rejected by others. E.g., video games, tobacco, and payday lending.

This all helps explain why so many are so quick to blame “capitalist” firms and a larger culture and “system” of capitalism, such as for many kinds of discrimination leading to unfair rejection. Such blamers can then self-righteously sympathize with the rejected without having to actually choose them.

Note that economists often blame public pressures to cut firm rejections for bad economic effects, such as high unemployment in Europe where it is hard to fire workers, and excess home loans to risky households before the 2008 financial crisis.

This perspective also helps explain why people are reluctant to blame their “systems” of romance, friendship, conversation, sport, music, arts, which also result in rejections that make so many feel unwanted. Those systems tend to be associated more directly with prestige, and lack identifiable villains to blame for dominance. Except when big business gets involved. Rejection there can also be blamed on a larger “capitalist” culture causing discrimination, such as re sexual preferences or gender identities.

But here’s the thing: even without any illicit domination, some will have lower prestige than others, and that will hurt. Badly. In fact, it probably hurts even more than having low dominance, as that can be self-righteously blamed on others’ illicit pursuit of high dominance. Being low prestige, in contrast, elicits little sympathy from others, as showing sympathy toward such folks risks being pushed to not reject them, and being seen has having poor evaluation abilities regarding prestige.

The only simple solutions I see are an easy one, ignore it all, and a hard one: sometimes actually and honestly sympathize with the low in prestige. And let them see that sympathy. Which yes, will sometimes lead you to make “pity” choices you might not otherwise make. Do it because it hurts. (Some propose more complex solutions; they must wait for another post.)

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The Persistence of Poverty

On Bryan Caplan’s recommendation, I just read The Persistence of Poverty, by Charles Karelis (2007). Karelis seeks to explain these patterns:

Five patterns that have been common among the poor in many times and places, then, and that played a role in keeping them poor or making them poorer, are: 1. not working much for pay; 2. not getting much education; 3. not saving for a rainy day; 4. abusing alcohol; and 5. taking risks with the law. … [And] having children early and out of wedlock … is doubtless a big factor in poverty in the United States today.

His explanation is that often we experience diminishing returns for “relievers” that reduce our pain. Which actually gives us increasing, not diminishing returns for getting “more” in that area. For example:

Consider housing. Suppose we take the perspective of a couple whose house has a bedroom for them and each of their six children, plus adequate room for entertaining and other functions besides. Clearly they are consuming or using housing in the more-than-sufficient range. Their house is a source of positive experience. As each child leaves for college (let us say), the amount of space available for the use of the couple goes up by roughly equal amounts, but probably their enjoyment of the house goes up by smaller and smaller amounts. …

Now imagine a couple whose dwelling is a one-bedroom house that is barely adequate for themselves. If a child arrives, then given the crowded conditions, the couple’s privacy is much reduced, their peace and quiet is disturbed, and they may have to start sleeping in shifts. Whatever the compensating joys of parenthood may be, these are impressive deteriorations in their physical comfort. By the time child number six arrives, the couple may hardly notice the further deterioration in their situation that occurs as a result. One more voice outside the bedroom door when you cannot sleep anyway on account of the five that are already audible probably will not make much difference.

That is, you don’t notice as much of a difference between very and mildly crowded, as you do between mildly and not at all crowded. Karelis further claims (though without sufficient support in my opinion) that this sort of things happens much more often for people who are poor relative to their culture:

Whether something is functioning as a reliever for a given consumer is relative. It is only partly a question of objective economic circumstances, because it depends too upon how the consumer sees those circumstances. … A more anthropological view responds that the difference lies in neither discipline nor opportunity but in the values of the various sub-cultures. … No one doubts that different cultural groups within the United States have different histories, and that these different histories create different economic norms and expectations. For instance, having come from much poorer countries, Asian immigrants to the United States often have relatively low norms and expectations. By contrast, African-Americans, who are closely acquainted with the lifestyles of middle-class whites, and who have long been exposed to “the American dream” and all it implies, often have relatively high norms, if not exactly expectations. … this … predicts that the felt relief of the marginal dollar will be greater for poor Asian immigrants than the felt relief of the marginal dollar for similarly poor African-Americans.

Karelis first published this idea in 1986, and he notes that similar ideas were published by van Praag in 1968 and Friedman & Savage in 1948. I find the idea coherent and mildly plausible, but just based on Karelis’ arguments, I wouldn’t put it much above other common poverty explanations, such as stupidity, sickness, impatience, impulsiveness, and lack of self-control.

However, I gave more weight to this account after I realized that it is implied by my usual favorite account of income status: utility linear in income rank. As income is usually distributed lognormally, the function relating rank to log income must be convex below and concave above median income. This implies diminishing returns in income above median income, and a range below median income with increasing returns to income. When you have increasing returns to income, you value each unit of income more when you have more of it, rather than the usual diminishing returns case, where you value each unit of income less, the more income you have.

Karelis suggests some policy implications:

Seeing that the income effect and the substitution effect of strategies to make work pay will be mutually reinforcing, making work pay [via increased wages] is a double-barreled anti-poverty approach. By contrast, no-strings assistance is a single-barreled approach, since it lacks a positive substitution effect. …

Thirty-five years ago the speeches and writings of American civil rights leaders often framed or interpreted the circumstances of their audiences by “comparing them up”—measuring them against the circumstances of the middle-classes and the upper-middle classes, or even against the images of the good life found within the American Dream. This was openly done for the sake of energizing audiences with discontent. The goal was reasonable enough, but according to our theory, the strategy was probably counterproductive. …

Increasing the differential between the income from crime and the income from honest work—by raising the odds of punishment, lengthening sentences, or making (honest) work pay better—is likelier to be effective than strategies built on the assumption that criminals are dysfunctional and hence unresponsive to sticks and carrots of this kind; and it is likelier to be effective than strategies built on the assumption of atypical preferences. …

Our utility function could [correctly] be used to justify putting the least poor people ahead of the very poorest people in distributing assistance.

Though Karelis didn’t mention it, the same logic says to allow and even promote more gambling among the poor; within the convex region gambles look like a net gain. For the same reason, it would be good to promote inequality among the poor.

However, all these policy recommendations are based on assuming that the preferences of other poor people don’t change when you help one poor person move up their utility function. But if the transition from convex to concave utility, and other aspects of the utility of money, result from the actual distribution of income in one’s reference culture, then helping one person changes the distribution against which others compare themselves.

For example, if utility is linear in rank, the help you give one person is exactly cancelled by the hurt you thereby inflict on the others who this one person has jumped over in rank. Yes, with some other functional form, the help might outweigh the hurt, but with other forms the hurt might outweigh the help. This effect of changing the reference distribution is not small, and shouldn’t be ignored as Karelis does.

Finally, Karelis focuses entirely on immediate choices, rather than on long-term strategies. Young poor people who care about the long run should focus on trying to dig their way out of poverty, and so much less display the six patterns of poverty that Karelis tries to explain. So to predict typical poor behaviors, we need to add a substantial degree of impatience or lack of self-control to Karelis’ account.

Added 4p: Karelis responded to my email, and asked me to post this comment:

Thank you for blogging so thoughtfully about my book. One comment. The hypothesis of the book can fairly easily be extended to the putative fact that impulsiveness, impatience, and lack of self-control are commoner among the poor by introducing the idea that overcoming these weaknesses is a kind of work. The idea would be that this “will-work” will have less appeal when the material gain produced yields a smaller rather than larger addition to utility, as (the hypothesis contends) is the case in the lower income ranges. As I recall, Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, and Ta-nehisi Coates all noted this extrapolation of my theory around the time the book appeared. The amendment was made possible, really, by research into the nature of willpower subsequent to the publication of my book.

This story can work re efforts to make small gains while poor, but doesn’t work re making big gambles or long-term efforts to dig oneself out of poverty. Those should be seen as large gains, even for someone who can’t find sufficient motivation to work for small gains. So to explain a poor person uninterested in either of those, we need to add something else to our story.

Added 6p: Karelis further responds:

Yes, we need to add something else to our story, but maybe not too much. My hypothesis says that medium-sized  additions to the consumption of someone at the low end of the income scale (additions that leave them shy of sufficiency) will raise and not lower their marginal utility for the good in question, and thereby increase their motivation to secure more of that good. You are right to see that these medium additions need not come from an external source. Self-help can be as effective as exogenous help in raising marginal utility in this way. For instance, if you have ten unwashed dishes in the sink, and someone washes eight of them, the psychological benefit you will get from washing the last two will be more than you would have gotten from washing the first two, and it doesn’t matter whether that “someone” is you or a friend.

So why don’t poor people perform this kind of self-help more often? They may have internalized the law of diminishing marginal utility, just like the policy folks who resist helping the poor for fear of undermining their motivation for self-help. More likely, none of us, rich or poor, is very good at self-gaming, i.e. figuring out and acting upon the likely impact of possible actions on what will seem rational to us when we have completed those actions.
One might plausibly argue that no one ever really makes long term plans. People who seem to be doing so, such as students going to college, are really just executing standard cultural plans, doing “what you are supposed to do”. Then the “extra” we’d need to add, to explain why the poor don’t seem to have long term plans to dig them out of poverty, is to say that the cultures of poor people often don’t have standard cultural plans that induce them to so dig.
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