Tag Archives: World

The Coming World Ruling Class

When I got my Ph.D. in formal political theory, I learned that the politics of large democratic polities today, such as metropolises, states, and nations, are usually aligned along a single “ideological” dimension. (E.g., “left” vs. “right”.) What exactly that dimension is about, however, has varied greatly across times and places. It seems to more result from a game theoretic equilibrium than from a single underlying dimension of choice; the real policy space remains highly dimensional.

However, it wasn’t until years later than I noticed that this is not usually true for the politics of families, firms, clubs, towns, and small cities. These usually are usually run by a single stable dominant coalition, i.e., a ruling class. As were most ancient societies in history, at least eventually.

This ruling class might sometimes offer their larger community some options to choose between. But mostly this is when the ruling elite can’t decide, or wants to make others feel more involved. Such as who exactly to put at the top most visible positions. Sometimes real fights break out among coalitions within the elite, but these fights tend to be short and behind the scenes.

The same applies to communities with no formal organization. That is, to “mobs”. While in the modern world large mobs tend to split along a main ideological dimension, small mobs tend to be dominated by a main consensus, who roughly agree on what to do and how. Though with time, smaller mobs are more often becoming aligned to larger political ideologies.

This one-dimensional story also does not apply to large ancient areas which encompassed many different polities. These areas look more like a disorganized set of competing interests. So a one dimensional political alignment isn’t a fully general law of politics; it has a domain of applicability.

A few centuries ago, the world was composed of many competing nations, with no overall organization. During the great world wars, and the Cold War, there was an overall binary alignment. Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen a single coalition dominate the world. And over recent decades we have seen policy around the world converge greatly around the opinions of an integrated world elite.

I’m tempted to put this all together into the following integrated theory of a standard progression. Imagine suddenly moving a large random group of diverse strangers to a new isolated area, where they could survive indefinitely. At first their choices would be individual. Then they’d organize into small groups that coordinate together. Then into larger groups.

Eventually many large groups might compete for control of the area, or for the allegiance of the people there. In their bids for control, such groups might emphasize how much they respect the many kinds of diversity represented by people in the area. They don’t intend to repress other groups, they just want to rule for the good of all. As people became more similar, they would bother less with such speeches.

Eventually, these groups would merge and align along a single main dimension, which might be labeled in terms of two main rival groups, or in terms of some ideological axis. For a while, the two sides of this main dimension might find themselves at a stalemate. Or one side might tend to win, but the midpoint of their conflict might be continually redefined to result in two roughly equally sized sides. This main ideological dimension would encompass many issues, but hardly all. It might encompass more issues as the fight for control got fiercer. But the fight should get weaker as outside threats became more salient.

Eventually a single coalition would come to dominate. Especially in a society with many “high grounds” which such a coalition could come to control. This situation might then oscillate between a single ruling elite and a main axis of conflict. But slowly over time, a single coalition would win out more. The members of the ruling elite would come to know each other better, become more similar, and agree more on who should be among their members, and on what are the “serious” policies worth considering. They would focus more on reassuring each other of loyal to their class, and on making sure their kids could join that elite.

A ruling coalition who felt insecure in its power might work harder to seek out and repress any potential dissent. At the extreme, it might create a totalitarian regime that demanded allegiance and conformity in every little area of life. And it might focus more on entrenching itself than on improving society as a whole. As a ruling coalition became more secure, it might more tolerate dissent, and demand less conformity, but also focus on internal conflicts and division of spoils, instead of its society as a whole.

This story seems to roughly describe national, and world, history. My nation is becoming more integrated and similar over time, with actions coordinated at larger scales, national politics coming more to dominate local politics, and national politics coming to color more areas and issues in life. And a single issue axis aligned to a global cultural elite is coming to dominate politics across the world.

It seems plausible that toward the end of the transition between a period of one main ideological dimension, and a period of a single integrated ruling class, the final main political dimension would be aligned for and against that final ruling class. The last ideology question would be: shall we let this ruling class take over?

That is, shall we let this small subset of us define for us who are “serious” candidates for leadership and what are “serious” policy positions worthy of consideration? As such ruling classes now decide in firms, towns, etc. today. A sign of the end would be when one side of the political axis kept putting up candidates for office who were consistently declared “not serious” by the elites who controlled the the main commanding heights of power, such as media, law, universities, regulators, CEOs, etc.

The pro-ruling-class side would be more dominant in places that are more integrated with the overall culture, and less dominate in places that cared more about local issues. Such as in larger cities, compared to towns.

This model suggests that our current era of roughly balanced forces on two sides of one main ideological axis may be temporary. As the world becomes more closely integrated and similar, eventually a single integrated elite culture will dominate the world, entrenching itself in mob opinion and via as many institutions as possible, especially global institutions.

This world ruling class may then focus more on further entrenching itself, and on repressing dissent more than on making the world better. As everyone becomes more similar, conformity pressures will become stronger, as in most small towns today. Plausibly cutting many kinds of innovation. And our entrenched global institutions may then rot. After which our total human civilization might even decline, or commit suicide.

This may take centuries, but that’s really not very long in the grand scheme of things.

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Will World Government Rot?

We have seen a centuries-long increase in the scale and scope of governance, and today we see many forms of global governance. While the literature has so far identified many costs and benefits of global governance, I here suggest that we add one so-far-neglected consideration to the list: rot. While many kinds of systems tend to innovate and grow with time, other kinds of systems tend to rot, decay, and die. We should consider the risks that global governance may increase the rot of our total world system.

Global Governance

Over the last millennia, the scale of nations has increased, as has the scope and intensity of governance. Particular governance functions have tended to migrate to larger scales, from local to regional to national to global. At the global level, we have increasingly many organizations with increasing abilities to coordinate policy in many particular areas.

In addition to formal organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, we also see an increasingly strong informal global convergence of policy across many areas, such as regarding pandemics, medicine, finance, schools, nuclear, aviation, telecom, and media. This is plausibly due to an increasingly integrated global community of elites and policy-makers, an integration which makes policy-makers in each nation reluctant to deviate far from global policy consensus.

How much wider and stronger might global governance become, and what might be the costs and benefits of such changes? An old literature had identified many relevant factors (Glossop 1993; Alesina & Spolaore 2003; Deudney 2008).

On the plus side, larger scale governance allows for wider standardization, and more trade and migration over larger scales. It also allows for more production of larger-scale public goods such as the promotion of innovation, and dealing with global problems such as CO2 warming. Also, global governance can suppress inter-state warfare.

On the minus side, however, large scale governance encompasses more diverse places, cultures, and populations, and this diversity is an obstacle to coordination. It suggests more internal conflicts within these global systems, and more difficulty reaching consensus, perhaps even leading to armed rebellion. Also, as the threat of external competition weakens, larger scale political processes become freer to focus on internal conflicts and rent seeking, and governance units become freer to suppress dissent and to entrench themselves. Global governance also becomes a single point of failure for the globe, for example increasing risks of both global suicide and of a global totalitarian regime well-entrenched against resistance.

The purpose of this short paper/post is to add one more consideration to this list: rot.

The Question of Rot

Some kinds of systems rot and decay, while other kinds grow and improve. To better judge the potential for rot in our total world system, we need to better understand what distinguishes these two kinds of systems.

For example, over time whole biospheres like Earth seem to slowly accumulate innovations and to spread into more environmental niches. But the individual organisms of which such biospheres are made tend to decay and die, after an initial period of growth. Most individual species, adapted to relatively stable environments, may slowly rot, to be outweighed by the few rare species adapted to varied and changing environments, forcing them to abstract and remain flexible.

Non-trivial software systems seem to consistently rot and decay (Kruchten et al. 2012; Izurieta & Bieman 2013). Software changes resulting from new features and changing hardware and customer environments tend to be haphazard, resulting in more interdependences between previously relatively modular subsystems. This interdependence makes further changes increasingly expensive, so that the system becomes more inflexible and changes less.

While efforts to “refactor” such systems, by streamlining their overall structures, can temporarily increase flexibility, large software systems are almost always eventually discarded, to be replaced by new systems rewritten from scratch.

Over time, legal systems seem to similarly become more complex, interdependent, and resistant to change. Sometimes legal systems are “refactored” to increase flexibility, such as when the Roman emperor Justinian arranged for a restructuring and simplification of the Roman legal code. This Justinian code was later adapted by Napolean, who spread it across Europe, after which European conquests spread it across the world.

While the rate at which firms die does not seem to depend on age (Daepp 2015), older firms do tend to grow at a lower rate (Hosono et al. 2020). That is, individual firms rot.

While industries supplied by many diverse firms seem to consistently grow and innovate, such innovation is greatly reduced when industries are dominated by a very small number of firms (Peneder & Woerter 2014; Delbono & Lambertini 2020). Industry innovation can also be greatly reduced by intrusive and globally coordinate regulations. For example, in the nuclear industry strong regulation has resulting in greatly increasing costs, greatly curtailing its potential (Haas 2019; Hall 2021).

Across human history, entire civilizations and empires also seem to consistently rise and then fall, suggesting that empires also rot (Turchin & Nefedov 2009). Will today’s integrated world economy and culture also rot for similar reasons, or will some important difference in today’s world civilization prevent that?

Does World Government Rot?

So now we reach the crucial question: are our new systems of global governance more like an open field of competition that innovates and grows, as do open industries and biospheres? Or are they more like individual organisms, firms, empires, and software and legal systems, or like overly-concentrated or overly-regulated industries? Which tend to decay and rot. What are the key parameters that determine renewal versus rot, and how can they be mapped onto systems of global governance? And can we identify the safest least-rotting variations to recommend? Is it sufficient to keep such systems very simple and modular, allowing few dependencies?

References

Alberto Alesina, Enrico Spolaore (2003) The Size of Nations, The MIT Press, November 7.

Madeleine I. G. Daepp , Marcus J. Hamilton , Geoffrey B. West and Luís M. A. Bettencourt 2015. “The mortality of companies” Interface 6, May.

Flavio Delbono, Luca Lambertini (2020) “Innovation and product market concentration: Schumpeter, arrow, and the inverted U-shape curve.” Oxford Economic Papers, November,

Daniel H. Deudney (2008) Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village. Princeton University Press, November 9.

Ronald J. Glossop (1993) World Federation?: A Critical Analysis of Federal World Government.
McFarland Publishing, July 1.

Reinhard Haas, Stephen Thomas, Amela Ajanovic (2019) “The Historical Development of the Costs of Nuclear Power” in The Technological and Economic Future of Nuclear Power, pp.97-115.

J. Storrs Hall (2021) Where Is My Flying Car? Stripe Press, November 30.

Kaoru Hosono, Miho Takizawa, Kenta Yamanouchi (2020), “Firm Age, Productivity, and Intangible Capital.” RIETI Discussion Paper 20-E-001.

Clemente Izurieta & James M. Bieman (2013) “A multiple case study of design pattern decay, grime, and rot in evolving software systems” Software Quality Journal 21:289–323.

Philippe Kruchten; Robert L. Nord; Ipek Ozkaya (2012) “Technical Debt: From Metaphor to Theory and Practice” IEEE Software 29(6):,18 – 21, Nov-Dec.

Peter Turchin, Sergey A. Nefedov (2009) Secular Cycles Princeton University Press, August 9.

Peneder M. Woerter M. (2014) “Competition, R&D and innovation: testing the inverted-U in a simultaneous system.” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 24:653–87.

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What Makes Stuff Rot?

Here is a deep and important theory question: What determines when familiar systems and other structures decay and become less functional, versus when they remain stable or improve in functionality with time? I call this a theory question because we basically know the physics of all the familiar systems around us, so this question is in principle answerable with careful enough theory analysis.

Yes, thermodynamics says that all structures will eventually decay down to a small set consistent with max entropy. But what about long before then?

In biology, most all individual cells and organisms at first grow and become more capable, but then later decay and die. Even whole species typically decay, though the extreme rare tail of species that improve eventually have far more descendant species, so that whole biospheres improve over time.

Small human organizations like clubs and firms often grow when small, but then consistently ossify and decay when old; few last for centuries. Even whole human civilizations and empires seem to follow a similar pattern, over a several century timescale. And yet our entire human civilization has consistently become more capable over time.

In software engineering, we find that most all computer systems become gradually more fragile and harder to usefully modify over time, and eventually are replaced wholesale. “Refactoring” can delay this, but only for a while and at substantial cost.

All of this might be summarized as saying that whole competitive fields often improve over time, while each competing item tends to rise and then fall. Life grows, but living things die.

But this summary just isn’t good enough to address a big important question: what will happen as we introduce more and more “global” (i.e., civilization-wide) structures? Such as global governance bodies, global professional associations, global integration of academic disciplines, global trading networks, or global conversation communities. Are these structures more like entire biospheres that improve or more like individual organisms that eventually die and must be replaced?

The question is important because such global structures face much weaker threats from outside competition. So pressures to improve may have to mainly come from inside them. And if they effectively repress internal dissent, they may persist for a very long time, even if they greatly decay and rot. The weight of such decay on overall progress and growth might eventually outweigh other sources of improvement, to permanently hinder our civilization’s overall growth and limit our long term potential.

So we must decide how wary to be of allowing global structures to repress internal dissent and efforts to end or replace them wholesale. And to inform those key choices, it would help to better understand: what makes stuff rot?

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Hidden Motives of Gratitude

I recently got 568 Twitter folk to say which of these 4 things they are most thankful for:

Assume first that one is most thankful for the process which increased your gains by the highest ratio, relative to prior expectations. If we are just talking about such a degree of selectivity into a better position, then it seems to me that the first answer is obviously best: there are vastly more possible than actual creatures. If you get zero value from not existing, but a positive value from existing, and your prior odds of existing were tiny, then your gain ratio is astronomical.

However, some insist that they can only compare scenarios where they exist, and so reject the counterfactual possibility that they might not have existed. For them, the second option seems obviously the most selective among the remaining three. Humans are clearly enormously special compared to the vast number of species who will ever exist. For example, far more special than are humans in any one place and time compared to humans in others.

What if the goal of a poll respondent isn’t to identify the option from which they benefited more, but instead to use this poll as an opportunity to signal something about themselves. (Other than literal understanding and honesty.) The apparently most useful thing to signal then would be loyalty to one’s immediate associates, and confidence in one’s local roles. In which case the last poll option seems obviously best.

But oddly, 48% of poll respondents picked the third option! What goal could explain that choice? One possibility is that they sought to signal their “patriotism” toward their place and time in human history. People in different places often feel rivalrous toward each other. Different nations are in different places, and even within nations different culture, ethnic, and political “factions” tend to be in different places.

What about your time in history? Well first, there is less rivalry of feeling between different times, and less to gain by signaling loyalty to your time. Furthermore, if you think you’ve seen a trend in history toward times getting better, to make your time the best so far, you should expect the future to get even better, making your time not so great compared to all the times, past and future. So I suspect that many overt time affiliations are actually covert political affiliations.

Thus I’m led to conclude that the strongest motive in choosing what to be most thankful for is signaling loyalty to one’s region. Nationalism, racism, political alignment, and cultural rivalry. If you encourage people to be more grateful, that’s what you will be encouraging. Not what I would have guessed, but I guess not so crazy either.

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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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Yay Parliaments

Voters may like the idea of direct democracy, but as Garett Jones mentions in 10% Less Democracy, most scholars agree that representative democracy produces better outcomes. Similarly, while voters may thrill more to directly choose their top leader, better outcomes come from having voters pick legislators who then pick, and can remove, the top leader.

Here’s Arend Lijphart with some simple theory:

In parliamentary systems, only the legislature is popularly elected and is the clear and legitimate representative of the people, but in presidential systems both president and legislature are popularly elected and are both legitimate representatives of the people—but it is quite possible and even likely that the president and the majority of legislators have divergent political preferences. … There is no democratic principle to resolve such disagreements. … second problem is “rigidity”: presidents are elected for fixed periods of time. … third serious problem is the “winner take all” nature of presidential elections. … The fourth serious drawback of presidentialism is that presidential election campaigns encourage the politics of personality … instead of … competing parties and … programs.

In his new book Why Not Parliamentarism? Tiago Ribeiro Dos Santos collects much evidence favoring that option: Continue reading "Yay Parliaments" »

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The World Forager Elite

My last post was on Where’s My Flying Car?, which argues that changing US attitudes created a tsunami of reluctance and regulation that killed nuclear power, planes, and ate the future that could have been. This explanation, however, has a problem: if there are many dozens of nations, how can regulation in one nation kill a tech? Why would regulatory choices be so strongly correlated across nations? If nations compete, won’t one nation forgoing a tech advantage make others all the more eager to try it?

Now as nuclear power tech is close to nuclear weapon tech, maybe major powers exerted strong pressures re how others pursued nuclear power. Also, those techs are high and require large scales, limiting how many nations could feasibly do them differently.

But we also see high global correlation for many other kinds of regulation. For example, as Hazlett explains, the US started out with a reasonable property approach to spectrum, but then Hoover broke that on purpose, to create a problem he could solve via nationalization, thereby gaining political power that helped him become U.S. president. Pretty much all other nations then copied this bad US approach, instead of the better prior property approach, and kept doing so for many decades.

The world has mostly copied bad US approaches to over-regulating planes as well. We also see regulatory convergence in topics like human cloning; many had speculated that China would be defy the consensus elsewhere against it, but that turned out not to be true. Public prediction markets on interesting topics seems to be blocked by regulations almost everywhere, and insider trading laws are most everywhere an obstacle to internal corporate markets.

Back in February we saw a dramatic example of world regulatory coordination. Around the world public health authorities were talking about treating this virus like they had treated all the others in the last few decades. But then world elites talked a lot, and suddenly they all agreed that this virus must be treated differently, such as with lockdowns and masks. Most public health authorities quickly caved, and then most of the world adopted the same policies. Contrarian alternatives like variolation, challenge trials, and cheap fast lower-reliability tests have also been rejected everywhere; small experiments have not even been allowed.

One possible explanation for all this convergence is that regulators are just following what is obviously the best policy. But if you dig into the details you will quickly see that the usual policies are not at all obviously right. Often, they seem obviously wrong. And having all the regulatory bodies suddenly change at once, even when no new strong evidence appeared, seems especially telling.

It seems to me that we instead have a strong world culture of regulators, driven by a stronger world culture of elites. Elites all over the world talk, and then form a consensus, and then authorities everywhere are pressured into following that consensus. Regulators most everywhere are quite reluctant to deviate from what most other regulators are doing; they’ll be blamed far more for failures if they deviate. If elites talk some more, and change their consensus, then authorities must then change their polices. On topic X, the usual experts on X are part of that conversation, but often elites overrule them, or choose contrarians from among them, and insist on something other than what most X experts recommend.

This looks a lot like the ancient forager system of conflict resolution within bands. Forager bands would gossip about a problem, come to a consensus about what to do, and then everyone would just do that. Because each one would lose status if they didn’t. In this system, there were no formal rules, and on the surface everyone had an equal say, though in fact some people had a lot more prestige and thus a lot more influence.

This world system also looks new – I doubt this description applied as well to the world centuries or millennia ago, even within smaller regions. So this looks like another way in which our world has become more forager-like over the last few centuries, as we’ve felt more rich and safe. Big world wars probably cut into this feeling, so there was probably a big jump in the few decades after WWII, helping to explain the big change in attitudes ~1970.

Elites like to talk about this system as if it were “democratic”, so that any faction that opposes it “undermines democracy”. And it is true that this system isn’t run by a central command structure. But it is also far from egalitarian. It embodies a huge inequality of influence, even if individuals within it claim that they are mainly driven by trying to help the world, or “the little guy”.

This system seems a big obstacle for my hopes to create better policy institutions driven by expert understanding of institutions, and to get trials to test and develop such things. Because as soon as any policy choice seems important, such by triggering moral feelings, world elite culture feels free to gossip and then pressure authorities to adopt whatever solution their gossip prefers. Experts can only influence policy via their prestige. Very prestigious types of experts, such as in physics, can win, especially on topics about which world elites care little. But otherwise, elite gossip wins, whenever it bothers to generate an opinion.

That is, the global Overton window isn’t much wider than are local Overton windows, and often excludes a lot of valuable options.

Notice that in this kind of world, policy has varied far more across time than across space. Context and fashion change with time, and then elites sometimes change their minds. So perhaps my hopes for policy experiments must wait for the long run. Or for a fall of forager values, such as seems likely in an Age of Em. Alas neither I nor my allies have sufficient prestige to push elites to favor our proposals.

Added 11p: It seems to me that the actual degree of experimentation and variance in policy is far below optimum in this conformist sort of policy world. We are greatly failing to try out as many alternatives as fast as we should to find out what works best. And we are failing to listen enough to our best experts, and instead too often going with the opinions of well-educated but amateur world elites.

Added4p: As John Nye reminds me, in the early years of a new tech, only a few nations in the world may be able to pursue it. They then set the initial standards of regulation. Later, more nations may be able to participate, but risk-averse regulators may feel shy about defying widely adopted initial standards.

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The Plan A Winner’s Circle Alliance

Plan A is how to contain Covid19 until a vaccine or other strong treatment shows up. Plan B is how to deal with Plan A failing, and a substantial fraction (>20%) of the population getting infected.

While I’ve mostly focused on Plan B analysis, many nations and sub-regions seem to be doing okay so far at Plan A, keeping infections low and now declining in rate. It isn’t at all clear that they can maintain this until a vaccine arrives, but it is clear that they will keep trying for a while. And most other places have been shamed into giving lip service to Plan A. So much so that they may well induce much more damage from such efforts than they’d suffer from quitting and moving on to Plan B.

Soon the places that are doing well under Plan A will consider carefully relaxing their controls, while standing ready to reassert them should infections rise. And one of their key choices will be how much contact to have with other places. They will be much more willing to interact with places that also seem to be doing well at Plan A.

If X opens to Y who opens to Z, that makes X vulnerable to Z. Thus a winner’s circle of places doing well at Plan A will want to coordinate on who opens to who. They may want to share monitoring efforts re who is worthy to join their circle, and standards re how to grade their openings. And how to prevent hidden openings to the contagious centers that are failing at Plan A. And eventually, how if at all to open to places that fail so much as to achieve local “herd immunity”.

I’m not sure what names people will give to these two groups. Competent circle versus incompetent basket case centers? Clean versus unclean? High vs low state capacity? But whatever they are called, the US seems a likely candidate to stay in the bad group, with Europe a close second, and US rivals will eagerly push for a new international alignment that keeps them there.

US and European prestige will take a huge hit if this situation persists long. You might think this would shame us into reorganizing better to succeed, but apparently not. Yet we seem inclined to pay large costs to pursue plan A with our poor organization. So we risk the worst of both: trashing our economy far more than do they, and yet still ending up excluded from the winner’s circle.

Of course if success at Plan A is only temporary, and infections from the contagious centers infect most of the world before vaccines arrive, it will be the Plan B places who achieve herd immunity that will form the growing and relatively successful alliance. In that case, the Plan A alliance will shrink and suffer while they limit their connections to the Plan B group.

Note that places that achieve herd immunity have less need to coordinate on who they open to. And if these really organized into hostile alliances of nations, some may be willing to do the extreme things that nations have long done against competing alliances. The Plan A alliance may accuse the Plan B group of trying to infect them on purpose, and in at least some cases, they may be right.

Added 2May: Here’s an article on a Plan A alliance.

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Open Borders

In their new book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith do everything you’d think that good policy pundits should do.

They don’t just track trends or scold rivals, they identify and focus on a feasible positive policy change. They don’t just pick any old change, but focus on one of the biggest possible gains they can identify. And it isn’t a complex fragile proposal that most people couldn’t understand, or that would go badly if not implemented exactly as recommended; their proposal is simple and robust. They don’t pick a topic that has little emotional-resonance, regarding which few would act even if they were persuaded; their topic is quite emotionally-engaging. They don’t pick a change so abstract (like futarchy) that few can concretely imagine it; one can create concrete vivid images of what would happen if their proposal were implemented.

They don’t use complex technical prose, they write in simple clear language, and even add engaging pictures; their book is actually a well-done “graphic novel”. They don’t just present one side of an argument, but instead respond to many major counter arguments. They don’t just use one favored framework of analysis, they consider the issue from many possible frameworks. They don’t just focus on their favorite policy choice, they consider many possible ways to compromise with others. They aren’t overly confident in their claims. And while they consider many possible details and complexities, their main argument, regarding the main effect of their proposal, is simplicity itself.

Most important, their arguments seem solid and correct. Adopting their proposal could in fact plausibly double world product, over and above the growth rate that we might achieve without it. The main obvious effect seems so huge as to overwhelm other considerations. Relative to that huge gain, other costs and risks seem minor and acceptable. Of course, the real world is more complex than are our models of it, and so we can never be very confident that changes which go well in our models will actually go well in the real world. And all the more so when our models are noisy and partial, as in social science. Even so, this is another case I’d call “checkmate”, at least in argument terms.

So, damn it, Caplan and Weinersmith do everything you might think pundits should do. I remain personally persuaded (as I have long been); I’d pull the trigger on doing large broad tests of their plan, and if necessary making big compromises to get a deal that can make these tests happen.

I very much hope that everyone loves this book, and that it is the trigger we needed to start a larger debate that leads eventually to big trials. But alas, I’d bet against this happening, if I had to bet. The large political world isn’t that responsive, at least in the short to medium term, to the world of elite policy debates, and in the elite world people mainly care about signs of status and prestige. Elites loved Hawking’s Brief History of Time, Dubner & Levitt’s Freakonomics, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and Bostrom’s Superintelligence not because those offered clear solid arguments that readers understood, but because they came with signs of high status. Many elites talked about them, their style projected prestige, their authors had high status affiliations, and the positions they took were in fashion, at least in elite circles.

I deeply admire my colleague Bryan Caplan, and am proud that he has again gone for the big solid simple intellectual win, as he did before regarding politics, parenting, and school. I hope he can do it another dozen times. I’ll read each one, and usually be persuaded. There’s a small chance he’ll have big effects, and his taking that chance seems a clear win on cost-benefit terms. But I must also be honest; that chance is still low.

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Against Irony

Papua New Guinea. There are nearly 850 languages spoken in the country, making it the most linguistically diverse place on earth. … Mountains, jungles and swamps keep villagers isolated, preserving their languages. A rural population helps too: only about 13% of Papuans live in towns. …. Fierce tribal divisions—Papua New Guinea is often shaken by communal violence—also encourages people to be proud of their own languages. The passing of time is another important factor. It takes about a thousand years for a single language to split in two, says William Foley, a linguist. With 40,000 years to evolve, Papuan languages have had plenty of time to change naturally. (more)

British printer who used a mirrored question mark to distinguish rhetorical questions in 1575, and John Wilkins, a British scientist who proposed an inverted exclamation mark to indicate irony in 1668. … The problem with adopting new irony punctuation is that if the people reading you don’t understand it, you’re no better off. … The ironic punctuation mark that the social internet can claim as its own is the sarcasm tilde, as in, “That’s so ~on brand~” … But tildes can feel a bit obvious. For a wryer mood, a drier wit, one might try a more subdued form of ironic punctuation—writing in all lowercase. …

Irony is a linguistic trust fall. When I write or speak with a double meaning, I’m hoping that you’ll be there to catch me by understanding my tone. The risks are high—misdirected irony can gravely injure the conversation—but the rewards are high, too: the sublime joy of feeling purely understood, the comfort of knowing someone’s on your side. No wonder people through the ages kept trying so hard to write it. (more)

Just as the urge to signal loyalty to people nearby has kept New Guinea folks from understanding people over the next mountain, our similar urge pushes us to write in ways that make it hard for those outside our immediate social circles to understand us. Using irony, we sacrifice ease of wide understanding to show loyalty to a closer community. 

Language is like religion, art, and many other customs in this way, helping to bond locals via barriers to wider interaction and understanding. If you think of yourself instead as a world cosmopolitan, preferring to promote world peace and integration via a global culture that avoids hostile isolationist ties to local ethnicities and cultures, then not only should you like world-wide travel, music, literature, emigration, and intermarriage, you should also dislike irony. Irony is the creation of arbitrary language barriers with the sole purpose of preventing wider cultural integration. 

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