Tag Archives: Status

UFOs and Status

Status seems pretty central to the UFO phenomena.

For example, reports have been filed on well over 100K encounters worldwide so far, but most of the books & movies on the topic focus on the same few cases. These cases are chosen in part for having more witnesses, detail, and physical evidence. But they seem especially chosen for having prestigious witnesses and locations. Seen by police or military workers, especially pilots. At military bases, especially housing nukes. These same books and movies are most eager to interview sympathetic people who are very high status, such as heads of state.

Similarly, many ancient legal systems had formal rules relating status to whose legal testimony to believe. And the social status of witnesses matters greatly today in court, even when there are no explicit rules requiring this.

Apparently most who witness UFOs as part of their job don’t report them, fearing reputation consequences. Because UFO fans are widely seen as very low status, at least among cultural elites. Similarly, organizations like police, militaries, airlines, and airports don’t want to be associated with such events, and so discourage reports by members. Unless some outside monitoring system discourages it, such orgs probably simply destroy such reports when they can.

When high officials have been asked privately why they would be reluctant to publicly admit to UFOs, they consistently say that the public rewards them for projecting ability and knowledge re their topic areas. UFOs require them instead to admit that they don’t know, and that there may be other parties around far more able than they. This effect is larger for police and militaries, compared to other agencies. And it is largest for the United States, at least during the period when it has been nearly the world’s dominant military power.

This all fits with several other militaries around the world releasing their UFO reports, long before the US has considered doing so. And it predicts that coming US release will be minimal, at least compared to the data the US could have and may have been collecting.

As a mildly elite academic, I can directly feel the status hit. If UFOs have an exotic intelligent cause, then we as a species have a lot less freedom than we thought to direct our destiny. And our governments, elites, and academics can do less to protect or inform us.

Yes, we might fund more UFO research, but I honestly don’t see the evidence situation changing that much for the indefinite future. Given how much data we already have, I don’t see more funding changing the overall data situation that much. These aren’t events you can seek out; you have to wait for them. And if there are intelligent exotic UFO causers here, they are clearly not eager to clearly show themselves.

And as long as the data situation remains ambiguous, I expect academic elites to remain adamant in dismissing exotic explanations. They’ll probably divert most funding they get on this topic to other topics they respect more. It will be hard to make much intellectual progress here, and those who do will be consistently slighted by academic elites. Even if society comes to accept UFOs more as a legitimate topic of investigation, elites will make very sure that the people who have so far championed this cause will not get more respect. Instead funding and respect will go to existing elites who deign to touch on the topic, at least from acceptable angles.

Status effects may even help explain some key features of UFO behavior. For example, among humans today, the response to an aggressive physical attack usually depends on how strong is the attacker relative to the defender. (The strengths of both sides’ allies are usually included in this calculation.) When the attacker is much stronger, the usual response is submission. And if they have similar strength, then the defender is likely to react vigorously.

However, if the attacker is far weaker, like a toddler attacking an adult, the usual response is to signal one’s strength by easily deflecting the attack, with little harm to either side. And in the reports I’ve read, this seems to be the usual reaction of UFOs to human attack: easy deflection. Which seems to signal their awareness, intelligence, abilities, and status stance. Maybe they sometimes let us seem them just so they can dis us in this way.

Status effects might even explain their lack of communication. (If they exist, of course.) Often small nations are eager to “enter into talks” with big nations just for the status bump this gives; “they take us seriously, and include us among those who must be consulted”. Conversely, the ultimate status dunk is to refuse to talk to or about someone; you act as if they are as worthy of this as a gnat. Might this explain the otherwise-puzzling lack of direct communication from intelligent exotic causes of UFOs?

A perhaps related and more ominous possible reason for their lack of communication is that they expect this to lead to us asking them some awkward questions. About our history, their expectations about us, their previous behavior toward us, their future plans regarding us, etc. Often the simplest way to avoid having to answer awkward questions is simply refusing to talk. Maybe how they plan to treat us reflects their view of our relative status, and we might not react well to hearing this.

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Subtext Shows Status

When we talk, we say things that are explicit and direct, on the surface of the text, and we also say things that are in hidden and indirect, said in more deniable ways via subtext. Imagine that there was a “flattext” type of talk (or writing) in which subtext was much harder to reliably express and read. Furthermore, imagine that it was easy to tell that a speaker (or writer) was using this type of talk. So that by talking in this way you were verifiably not saying as much subtext.

Yes, it seems very hard to go all the way to infinitely hard here, but flattext could have value without going to that extreme. Some have claimed that the artificial language Lojban is in some ways such a talk type.

So who would use surface text? A Twitter poll finds that respondents expect that on average they’d use flattext about half of the time, so they must expect many reasons to want to deny that they use subtext. Another such poll finds that they on average expect official talk to be required to be flattext. Except they are sharply divided between a ~40% that thinks it would be required >80% of the time, and another ~40% who thinks it would be required <20% of the time.

The obvious big application of flattext is people and organizations who are often accused of saying bad things via subtext. Such as people accusing of illicitly flirting, or sexual harrassing. Or people accused of “dogwhilsting” disliked allegiances. Or firms accused over-promising or under-warning to customers, employees, or investors.

As people are quite willing to accuse for-profit firms of bad subtext, I expect they’d be the most eager users. As would people like myself who are surrounded by hostile observers eager to identify particular texts as showing evil subtext. You might think that judges and officials speaking to the public in their official voice would prefer flattext, as it better matches their usual tone and style which implicitly claims that they are just speaking clearly and simply. But that might be a hypocrisy, and they may reject flattext so that they can continue to say subtext.

Personal servants, and slaves from centuries ago were required to speak in a very limited and stylized manner which greatly limited subtext. They could suffer big bad consequences for ever being accused of a tone of voice or manner that signaled anything less than full respect and deterrence to their masters.

Putting this all together, it seems that the ability to regularly and openly use subtext is a sign of status and privilege. We “put down” for-profit firms in our society by discouraging their use of subtext, and mobs do similarly when they hound enemies using hair-trigger standards ready to accuse them of bad subtext. And once low status people and organizations are cowed into avoiding subtext, then others can complain that they lack humanity, as they don’t show a sense of humor, which is more clear evidence that they are evil.

So I predict that if flattext were actually available, it would be mainly used to low status people and organizations to protect themselves from accusations of illicit subtext. As our enforcement of anti-subtext rules is very selective. Very risk averse government agencies might use it, but not high status politicians.

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Our Default Info System: Status And Gossip

Around 1988-1990, I was working on the idea of “hypertext publishing”, which today we call the web. I was invited to give a talk to a few (<10) academics working on computer based info systems, I think at Xerox PARC. I argued that we then were hampered by our poor systems for finding out what other people had done and said.

One of the audience members said that, via gossip, he had no problem finding out what others were doing in his field. If anything was important, he’d hear about it via gossip, and if someone didn’t have enough status to get people to gossip about his work, it couldn’t be important enough for him to attend to.

Today, a physics academic told me (and a few others) that it isn’t a problem that physicists can’t be persuaded by contrarian arguments published in respectable peer reviewed physics journals, as they won’t read or consider it if it goes against their prior expectations. He said what really matters is your status, not whether you’ve published or where. Gossip about high status people gets their arguments considered even without publication, and no one else’s arguments matter anyway. Low status people can contribute by working out the details of high status people’s arguments.

And from a sociological point of view, of course, they are both correct. In a world that has decided that only arguments from high status people are worthy of considering, each one of them can safely ignore all the others. Even if some low status person somehow forces the world to hear and be persuaded by their argument, the high status people can and will close ranks to ensure that this low status person gains minimal concrete advantages from it, to make sure everyone learns the lesson about going through proper channels.

I presume you can see the social problem here, of insufficient information aggregation and intellectual progress. They can probably see it too, if forced to think on it. But why should they, and even if they saw the problem why should they risk personal prestige to change things, as success just makes it easier for others to compete with them.

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Is Status-Seeking A Context-Neglecting-Value?

The main evolutionary function of sex for humans is obviously procreation. Yet our deep values regarding sex don’t seem to pay that much attention to info we have about if procreation is likely to actually happen in any given sex-related context. Consider our preferences regarding context for pornography, strip clubs, romance novels, and contraception. Oh our sex preferences do attend to cues that robustly correlated with procreation success for our distant ancestors. Such as the status of males and the youthfulness of females. But regarding kinds of context rare among our distant ancestors, our sex preferences seem drawn to the naive appearance of the possibility of successful sex, and neglect the more detailed context info that we have.

This sort of context-neglecting values also seems to happen with media. People seem to act as if the TV actors they watch regularly are actually their friends, and the sports stars they associate with are somehow going to raise their status. They feel they are raising their status by correcting strangers “wrong on the internet”. They also don’t seem to pay that much attention to how the processing of their food might change its nutrition, as long as it doesn’t hurt the taste.

Back in 2010 I posted on a context-neglecting-values theory to explain the demographic transition, i.e., the puzzlingly low fertility that seems to happen as societies get rich. I suggested that women who find that they are rich presume that they are relatively rich, and this have a shot at being “queens”, i.e., at mating with a high status man and producing high status kids. Or a shot at having their kids become kings or queens. This can justify delaying her own fertility to invest in status markers, or justify having fewer kids to let each kid gain more status markers. When entire societies get rich, each person neglects the fact that being absolutely rich doesn’t make you relatively rich. Plausibly among our distant ancestors, societies almost never got very rich for very long, and so this neglect wasn’t much of a problem back then.

Recently I realized that I should consider generalizations of this theory. What if, when societies get rich, we all feel like we have high relative status, and a decent chance to get even more, neglecting the fact that most everyone around us is also richer as well? In this case we’d be primed to take the sort of actions that makes sense for ambitious people with high relative status.

This might explain two big puzzles that I’ve long pondered. The first puzzle is our strong taste for variety in the last few centuries, which doesn’t seem to actually produce that much net value for us. Making new unusual choices can make sense for the high status, if they can use this as a way to show that they are leaders. That is, if they pick or do something different, and lots of people follow their example, they may prove to observers that they are a “thought” leader. And if we all see ourselves as strong leader candidates, we may all be attracted to such strategies.

The other big puzzle I’ve long pondered is our strong taste for paternalism, especially in the last few centuries, which seems to mostly hurt us on average. Instead of showing our high status by showing that others copy us when we do unusual things, we can also show our high status by our visible ability to stop others from doing unusual things. If people hear that we have such power and regularly use it, they have to conclude that we are “somebody.” And so ordinary people lend their support to paternalist policies in the hope that they will be personally credited for it. Much like people seem to think their status will be raised if they associate with celebrities who have never heard of them.

So my new suggestion in this post is that, because in a rich world we all greatly overestimate our relative status, we intuit that it makes sense to try to raise our status either by choosing variety and getting others to copy it, or by showing off our ability to stop others from choosing variety. These both actually make less sense for most of us as ways to gain status, because we aren’t actually high in relative status. But our intuitions don’t notice that.

Why would our preferences neglect context so? The idea is that they are coded in us at very deep levels, at places where our conscious thoughts just can’t change them. Such changes mostly require slower genetic and cultural selection processes.

Should welfare analysis focus on the context-neglecting preferences that we currently express, or on the ones that we would have if we took context more into account. That depends on if you care more about the immediate surface feelings of people today, or longer term outcomes and descendants.

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More on Experts Vs. Elites

When a boss issues a new order, usually the main thing he or she is fighting with is the effects of his (or a prior boss’) previous orders. It can take time to undo their effects. And subordinates who fear that yet newer orders will come down before they can make enough changes might prefer to drag their feet, to see if these current orders will last.

Some responded to my last post on experts versus elites by saying how good it is that elites often overrule experts, as experts get it so wrong so often. As with early in this pandemic. But the experts are less of an autonomous force here, and more just the repository of previous elite instructions. If pandemic experts had it wrong before about masks or travel bans, that is mostly because elites previously pushed them to adopt such policies. For example, our continued ban on challenge trials is due to how med ethics experts have interpreted prior elite instructions. Experts won’t change their mind on this until elites tell them they are allowed to change their minds. In contexts where elites are typically so pushy, it can be hard to tell what experts would decide in their absence.

In economics, it usually feels pretty obvious what the elites want us to say. Not all economists do what they are told, but the major institutions and their elite leaders seem mostly willing to go along, and so what the public mostly hears is economists saying what elites want us to say. When elites change their minds, our major institutions also quickly change their minds.

Now I had been thinking this is all bad news for the new kinds of institutions I want to introduce, as I had been assuming they would be framed as new expert institutions. And yes all this suggests a distrust of formal expert mechanisms that can’t be easily overruled by elite opinion. But maybe I have been too hasty about how new institutions might be framed.

Consider the widespread hostility to “market manipulation”, such as seen in the recent Gamestop stock price episode. Or consider movies like Boiler Room, Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, and Wolf of Wall Street. Typically, financial markets are chock full of “manipulation”, in the sense that most traders are trying to talk and spin to get others to agree with and follow their trades. Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they fail, but that mostly doesn’t bother people. What bothers people most is when they see clearly low status low prestige people seeming to greatly influence prices, especially in ways that seem unlikely to last. (Elite manipulations tend to last.)

Consider also that elites only rarely complain about errors in speculative market prices, such as stock prices or currency prices. They mainly complain when they think they can find non-elite folks to blame for such prices. Together, these facts suggest to me that most elites may see speculative market prices as something that elites create. They know that there is a lot of money at stake in such markets, and that many big powerful rich elite players play heavily in such markets. So perhaps elites usually accept the verdict of such prices as a verdict of elites!

If this were true, then the prospects for improving our social consensus via improving speculative markets would be far higher than I’d ever hoped! If we could get thick markets trading on many more topics, then elites might well defer to those price estimates in their elite conversations, and push experts to also accept such estimates.

Of course, even if elites would accept a price estimate when it exists, this doesn’t mean most are eager for such any particular price to exist. Rivalrous elites constantly try to undermine each other, including via undermining the organs that rival elites use to express their opinions. If if the prices existed for a while, I predict elites would cave and defer to them, at least until they could kill them.

To signal to all that they are dominated by elites, I do think it important that a lot of money seem be riding on these market prices. Mere prediction tournaments or polls of experts just will not do. Even real money markets with small stakes may not be taken seriously enough.

My proposal for Fire-the-CEO markets seems like it could work here. Though I’ve been waiting for 25 years now for someone to take up this idea.

Added 8Feb: I see now why my usual answer to “what should I read?”, namely “textbooks”, falls on deaf ears. People are looking for elites to read, not experts.

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Experts Versus Elites

Consider a typical firm or other small organization, run via a typical management hierarchy. At the bottom are specialists, who do very particular tasks. At the top are generalists, who supposedly consider it all in the context of a bigger picture. In the middle are people who specialize to some degree, but who also are supposed to consider somewhat bigger pictures.

On any particular issue, people at the bottom can usually claim the most expertise; they know their job best. And when someone at the top has to make a difficult decision, they usually prefer to justify it via reference to recommendations from below. They are just following the advice of their experts, they say. But of course they lie; people at the top often overrule subordinates. And while leaders often like to pretend that they select people for promotion on the basis of doing lower jobs well, that is also often a lie.

Our larger society has a similar structure. We have elites who are far more influential than most of us about what happens in our society. As we saw early in the pandemic, the elites are always visibly chattering among themselves about the topics of the day, and when they form a new opinion, the experts usually quickly cave to agree with them, and try to pretend they agreed all along.

As a book I recently reviewed explains in great detail, elites are selected primarily for their prestige and status, which has many contributions, including money, looks, fame, charm, wit, positions of power, etc. Elites like to pretend they were selected for being experts at something, and they like to pretend their opinions are just reflecting what experts have said (“we believe the science!”). But they often lie; elite opinion often overrules expert opinion, especially on topics with strong moral colors. And elites are selected far more for prestige than expertise.

When an academic wins a Nobel prize, they have achieved a pinnacle of expertise. At which point they often start to wax philosophic, and writing op-eds. They seem to be making a bid to become an elite. Because we all respect and want to associate with elites far more than with experts. Elites far less often lust after becoming experts, because we are often willing to treat elites as if they are experts. For example, when a journalist writes a popular book on science, they are often willing to field science questions when they give a talk on their book. And the rest of us are far more interested in hearing them talk on the subject than the scientists they write about.

Consider talks versus panels at conferences. A talk tends to be done in expert mode, wherein the speaker sticks to topics on which they have acquired expert knowledge. But then on panels, the same people talk freely on most any topic that comes up, even topics where they have little expertise. You might think that audiences would be less interested in hearing such inexpert speculation, but in fact they seem to eat it up. My interpretation: on panels, people pose as elites, and talk in elite mode. Like they might do at a cocktail party. And audiences eagerly gather around panelists, just like they would gather around prestigious folks arguing at a cocktail party about topics on which they have little expertise.

Consider news articles versus columnists. The news articles are written by news experts, in full expert mode. They are clearly more accurate on average than are columns. But columns writers take on an elite mode, where they pontificate on all issues of the day, regardless of how much they know. And readers love that.

Consider boards of directors versus boards of advisors. Advisors are nominally experts, while directors are nominally elites. Directors are far more powerful, are lobbied far more strongly, and are paid a lot more too. Boards of advisors are usually not asked for advise, they are mainly there to add prestige to an organization. But prestige via their expertise, rather than their general eliteness.

Even inside academic worlds, we usually pretend to pick leaders like journal editors, funding program managers, department chairs, etc. based mainly on their expert credentials. But they also lie; raw prestige counts for a lot more than they like to admit.

Finally, consider that recently I went into clear expert mode to release a formal preprint on grabby aliens, which induced almost no (< 10) comments on this blog or Twitter, in contrast to far more comments when arguable-elites discuss it in panelist/elite mode: Scott Aaronson (205), Scott Alexander (108), and Hacker News (110). People are far more interested in talking with elites in elite mode on most topics, than in talking with the clear relevant experts in expert mode.

All of which suggests that my efforts to replace choice via elite association with prediction markets and paying for results face even larger uphill battles than I’ve anticipated.

Added noon: This also helps explain why artists are said to “contribute to important conversations” by making documentaries, etc. that express “emotional truths.” They present themselves as qualifying elites by virtue of their superior art abilities.

See also: More on Experts Vs. Elites

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Six Struggles Surrounding Status

Struggle For Function – These are struggles that individuals and organizations have to achieve non-status things. Keep a boat from sinking, don’t burn dinner, or have a wedding plan work out. Your status may depend on how well you do these things.

Struggle For Allies – You want to be liked by, and allied with, particular people that you encounter. Your status may help, but if you succeed they may well end up liking you much more than similar-status others.

Struggle For Status – Status is a widely shared estimate of esteem, within some status community. It is a weighted average of widely shared estimates of many admirable features. It combines direct power (dominance) and indirect power (prestige).

Struggle For Fashion – The weights of status vary with time, like fashions do. People form coalitions to push for more weight onto favorable features. In part via pushing to put their people into particular positions of power.

Struggle For Worlds – Status is usually not global, but instead relative to a community. These communities compete for influence in a wider world. People may care about how their local status struggles influences who wins there.

Struggle Over Struggles – All these struggles compete for the attention of individuals and organizations. Individuals, allies, coalitions, and communities can try to influence which struggles matter most.

The struggles for status, and for the fashion that sets status, tend to be zero-sum, at least directly. But the struggle for function clearly allows for mutual gains and higher efficiency. To a lessor extend, so does the struggle for allies; in principle we really can all have more lovers, friends and co-workers.

So if status puts more weight on function and allies, that can give added encouragement to attend to those struggles. And when people in a community care more about the struggle for worlds, they will want to put more status weight on such things. Especially on the kinds of functions and allies that most help win struggles over worlds.

It is also possible for a community to put less weight on status. For example, when status is the only visible quality marker re lawyers and doctors, customers must use it to pick those experts. But if customers can see visible track records, or use strong incentive contracts to pay for results, their status matters less. That can help to promote such functions, and also help a community to win the struggle over worlds.

Personally, I’m most engaged by the struggle over struggles. I’d like function and allies to matter more. And by reminding people of this struggle over worlds, I hope to influence the struggle for fashion to put more status weight on function, allies, and worlds. Yes, if I personally did better at the struggle for status, I could have more influence over the struggle for fashion. But at this point in my life, the opportunity cost of that seems quite high.

So I’ll content myself for now to point all this out to you, my readers. And invite you to join me in pushing to make status matter less, and to put more weight on function and allies. Such as via more trials with, and fewer legal barriers to, using track records and incentive contracts to substitute for status in picking experts.

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Prestige As Mob-Enforced Dominance

Humans distinguish two kinds of status, about which we are quite moralistic. There’s the good kind, prestige, and the bad, dominance. These are commonly described as pro-social vs. selfish:

Social status can be attained through either dominance (coercion and intimidation) or prestige (skill and respect). (more)

As Machiavelli noted, love [prestige] and fear [dominance] are both valuable assets that can be used to influence others. (More)

Dominance: Deference is demanded and is a property of the actor.
Prestige: Deference is freely conferred and is a property of the beholder. … Creation of authentic and lasting relationships … High in need for affiliation; high in authentic pride. (more)

Back in 2015, my co-author Kevin Simler argued for a “more cynical” view:

Central question [about prestige is] … What’s in it for the admirer? I know of two answers … first is given by Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White … second … by Amotz Zahavi … and … Jean-Louis Dessalles … This [second] account may be more cynical, perhaps, but it’s one of the most powerful ideas I’ve ever encountered.

Henrich and Gil-White [say] … admiration … acts as a bribe. Admirers … are sycophants. … hoping to learn from their superiors. …

[But I say] prestige [is] … a kind of “credit” reflecting the amount of good each [babbler bird] has done for others. … Prestige-seeking and admiration (deference) are complementary teaming instincts. They help babblers stay attached to a group, keep groupmates happy, and secure a larger share of the group’s reproductive “spoils.” …

We [humans] voluntarily follow our leaders (and otherwise defer to them) because good things tend to happen when we do; it pays to be on their team. A leader who tries to command entirely with dominance — all stick, no carrot — will find his efforts thwarted at every turn … we want to be friends, allies, and teammates with people who do good things for their friends, allies, and teammates. [we] cultivate access to such people … by paying them respect and granting them the perks of prestige. …

Pinker … says, [prestige] is “the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to.” … Among our ancestors, then, bullies quickly got their comeuppance — unless they offset their dominance with a lot of prestige, creating many friends and allies in the process. (More)

But honestly, this view doesn’t seem that cynical to me. As they say, “hold my beer”. Consider my last post:

Elite employers … focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees. … don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious. … Even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. … What they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around [their] advice. … Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. (More)

Firms in this scenario aren’t just “freely giving” prestige, nor is this about learning, “love”, “authenticity”, nor rewarding generous allies. These firms instead face strong incentives from audiences to assign prestige in the way that key audiences think prestige should be assigned.

Consider academic “peer” review. Reviewers formally decide who gets how much prestige. But if they gave good reviews “freely” to whomever they most “authentically” “loved”, they might not get invited to review again, and their own prestige may suffer. When you hope to gain prestige by hosting an academic conference, you will be punished if you don’t invite the speakers that your key audiences think you should invite.

Or consider “cancelling”, which is in effect a form of negative prestige. While I still have my job, many events and organizations tell me that they can’t afford to publicly invite, fund, or associate with me because of what mobs say about me. They say they don’t personally have a problem with anything I’ve said or done, but they don’t want the hassle that mobs could impose.

In all these cases, we aren’t at all looking at each person just “freely” assigning to others the respect and evaluation that they privately think appropriate. Instead, evaluators face strong conformity pressures to agree with the evaluations of others.

Both dominance and prestige are expressions of power. In dominance, the power is direct, what that person can do to or for you. But with prestige, the power is indirect, enforced via a local mob. You must “freely” accord each person the respect that your relevant mob says is due, or risk their wrath. But make no mistake, there is a power that enforces prestige, just as with dominance.

Note that “socialists” tend to explicitly frame unequal money or physical power as unacceptable “domination”, and yet greatly admire historical cases where outraged and active mobs tried to fix such problems.

Added 6Nov: Mercer & Sperber’s Enigma of Reason similarly assumes that while those who present arguments might be biased, evaluators of arguments are neutral and fair.

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Prestige in US Today

Lauren A. Rivera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs is a depressing book because it tells how the world works:

Pedigree takes readers behind the closed doors of top-tier investment banks, consulting firms, and law firms to reveal the truth about who really gets hired for the nation’s highest-paying entry-level jobs, who doesn’t, and why.

A big % of graduates of elite colleges take such jobs, and the other jobs they take don’t make nearly as much money. The other big employers, such as hedge funds, private equity firms, and tech firms, choose similarly. And elite colleges use similar criteria to pick their students. So this is a window into how we pick a big % of the top elites in the US today.

While I often assume that prestige is a big driver of human behavior, my poll respondents hardly admitted to putting much weight on prestige when picking experts. And many complain that I put too much emphasis on the concept. However, these elite employers strongly confirm my view, as they focus overwhelmingly on prestige when picking junior employees.

They only recruit at the most elite colleges, and they want recruits to be attractive, energetic, articulate, socially smooth, and have had elite personal connections, jobs, and extracurriculars. They don’t that much care about your grades, what you’ve learned, or what you did in your jobs or extracurriculars, as long as they were prestigious.

I noticed several interesting patterns worth pondering. For example, employers have little patience with candidates who didn’t pick the most prestigious possible college or job, but were swayed by other considerations. Such as topics of interest, limited money, or the needs of a spouse or family. A “serious” person always picks max prestige. Always.

Yet for extracurriculars, you are not supposed to connect those to your career plans, as “nerds” do. You must instead do something with no practical value, but that is prestigious. Like varsity athletes in lacrosse or crew, sports that are too expensive for ordinary folks to pursue. Excess interest in ideas marks you as a “boring” “tool”.

An interesting criteria is that you must tell a mesmerizing story about your life, a story told almost entirely in terms of choices that you made to pursue your internal goals, without external constraints having much influence. And even though you have been chosen for your very consistent lifetime pursuit of prestige, that is very much not allowed to be one of your main goals. You were instead pursuing other goals, and prestige just happened as a side effect. Lucky you.

The author convincingly argues that this is not that much of a “meritocracy”, in that the features sought are much easier for elite parents to promote in their kids, and many of them are not actually that useful to society. But it does look like an equilibrium, in the sense that firms who picked differently would probably be punished.

It seems that while these firms do sell concrete consulting services to their customers, what they are mostly selling is a prestigious aura around that advice. So firms that hired less prestigious workers would likely be punished. Customers who paid as much for less prestigious advice would probably also be punished, via others being less willing to praise or follow that advice. And so on.

All of this seems to fit my experience in academia, where at the highest levels the focus is overwhelming on gaining the endorsement of prestigious schools, journals, jobs, funders, etc. Whether the work you do is useful to society or even accurate is someone else’s job; your job to gain prestige and so you only do those other things if your prestige incentives encourage them.

Some of these features that these firms look for probably count for prestige in most any society. Such as looks, energy, intelligence, connections, and social savvy. But in other ways the particular packages of features most sought here now are probably a local equilibrium; other societies have valued different packages.

So a crucial question is: to what extent is it possible to move our prestige equilibrium to a different and more useful one? Where say it might be prestigious to actually do something useful for the world. Seems a worthy topic of study.

Some book quotes to confirm my claims above: Continue reading "Prestige in US Today" »

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Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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