Social construction is not fact—and it is not fiction

July 30, JDN 2457965

With the possible exception of politically-charged issues (especially lately in the US), most people are fairly good at distinguishing between true and false, fact and fiction. But there are certain types of ideas that can’t be neatly categorized into fact versus fiction.

First, there are subjective feelings. You can feel angry, or afraid, or sad—and really, truly feel that way—despite having no objective basis for the emotion coming from the external world. Such emotions are usually irrational, but even knowing that doesn’t make them automatically disappear. Distinguishing subjective feelings from objective facts is simple in principle, but often difficult in practice: A great many things simply “feel true” despite being utterly false. (Ask an average American which is more likely to kill them, a terrorist or the car in their garage; I bet quite a few will get the wrong answer. Indeed, if you ask them whether they’re more likely to be shot by someone else or to shoot themselves, almost literally every gun owner is going to get that answer wrong—or they wouldn’t be gun owners.)

The one I really want to focus on today is social constructions. This is a term that has been so thoroughly overused and abused by postmodernist academics (“science is a social construction”, “love is a social construction”, “math is a social construction”, “sex is a social construction”, etc.) that it has almost lost its meaning. Indeed, many people now react with automatic aversion to the term; upon hearing it, they immediately assume—understandably—that whatever is about to follow is nonsense.

But there is actually a very important core meaning to the term “social construction” that we stand to lose if we throw it away entirely. A social construction is something that exists only because we all believe in it.

Every part of that definition is important:

First, a social construction is something that exists: It’s really there, objectively. If you think it doesn’t exist, you’re wrong. It even has objective properties; you can be right or wrong in your beliefs about it, even once you agree that it exists.

Second, a social construction only exists because we all believe in it: If everyone in the world suddenly stopped believing in it, like Tinker Bell it would wink out of existence. The “we all” is important as well; a social construction doesn’t exist simply because one person, or a few people, believe in it—it requires a certain critical mass of society to believe in it. Of course, almost nothing is literally believed by everyone, so it’s more that a social construction exists insofar as people believe in it—and thus can attain a weaker or stronger kind of existence as beliefs change.

The combination of these two features makes social constructions a very weird sort of entity. They aren’t merely subjective beliefs; you can’t be wrong about what you are feeling right now (though you can certainly lie about it), but you can definitely be wrong about the social constructions of your society. But we can’t all be wrong about the social constructions of our society; once enough of our society stops believing in them, they will no longer exist. And when we have conflict over a social construction, its existence can become weaker or stronger—indeed, it can exist to some of us but not to others.

If all this sounds very bizarre and reminds you of postmodernist nonsense that might come from the Wisdom of Chopra randomizer, allow me to provide a concrete and indisputable example of a social construction that is vitally important to economics: Money.

The US dollar is a social construction. It has all sorts of well-defined objective properties, from its purchasing power in the market to its exchange rate with other currencies (also all social constructions). The markets in which it is spent are social constructions. The laws which regulate those markets are social constructions. The government which makes those laws is a social construction.

But it is not social constructions all the way down. The paper upon which the dollar was printed is a physical object with objective factual existence. It is an artifact—it was made by humans, and wouldn’t exist if we didn’t—but now that we’ve made it, it exists and would continue to exist regardless of whether we believe in it or even whether we continue to exist. The cotton from which it was made is also partly artificial, bred over centuries from a lifeform that evolved over millions of years. But the carbon atoms inside that cotton were made in a star, and that star existed and fused its carbon billions of years before any life on Earth existed, much less humans in particular. This is why the statements “math is a social construction” and “science is a social construction” are so ridiculous. Okay, sure, the institutions of science and mathematics are social constructions, but that’s trivial; nobody would dispute that, and it’s not terribly interesting. (What, you mean if everyone stopped going to MIT, there would be no MIT!?) The truths of science and mathematics were true long before we were even here—indeed, the fundamental truths of mathematics could not have failed to be true in any possible universe.

But the US dollar did not exist before human beings created it, and unlike the physical paper, the purchasing power of that dollar (which is, after all, mainly what we care about) is entirely socially constructed. If everyone in the world suddenly stopped accepting US dollars as money, the US dollar would cease to be money. If even a few million people in the US suddenly stopped accepting dollars, its value would become much more precarious, and inflation would be sure to follow.

Nor is this simply because the US dollar is a fiat currency. That makes it more obvious, to be sure; a fiat currency attains its value solely through social construction, as its physical object has negligible value. But even when we were on the gold standard, our currency was representative; the paper itself was still equally worthless. If you wanted gold, you’d have to exchange for it; and that process of exchange is entirely social construction.

And what about gold coins, one of the oldest form of money? There now the physical object might actually be useful for something, but not all that much. It’s shiny, you can make jewelry out of it, it doesn’t corrode, it can be used to replace lost teeth, it has anti-inflammatory properties—and millennia later we found out that its dense nucleus is useful for particle accelerator experiments and it is a very reliable electrical conductor useful for making microchips. But all in all, gold is really not that useful. If gold were priced based on its true usefulness, it would be extraordinarily cheap; cheaper than water, for sure, as it’s much less useful than water. Yet very few cultures have ever used water as currency (though some have used salt). Thus, most of the value of gold is itself socially constructed; you value gold not to use it, but to impress other people with the fact that you own it (or indeed to sell it to them). Stranded alone on a desert island, you’d do anything for fresh water, but gold means nothing to you. And a gold coin actually takes on additional socially-constructed value; gold coins almost always had seignorage, additional value the government received from minting them over and above the market price of the gold itself.

Economics, in fact, is largely about social constructions; or rather I should say it’s about the process of producing and distributing artifacts by means of social constructions. Artifacts like houses, cars, computers, and toasters; social constructions like money, bonds, deeds, policies, rights, corporations, and governments. Of course, there are also services, which are not quite artifacts since they stop existing when we stop doing them—though, crucially, not when we stop believing in them; your waiter still delivered your lunch even if you persist in the delusion that the lunch is not there. And there are natural resources, which existed before us (and may or may not exist after us). But these are corner cases; mostly economics is about using laws and money to distribute goods, which means using social constructions to distribute artifacts.

Other very important social constructions include race and gender. Not melanin and sex, mind you; human beings have real, biological variation in skin tone and body shape. But the concept of a race—especially the race categories we ordinarily use—is socially constructed. Nothing biological forced us to regard Kenyan and Burkinabe as the same “race” while Ainu and Navajo are different “races”; indeed, the genetic data is screaming at us in the opposite direction. Humans are sexually dimorphic, with some rare exceptions (only about 0.02% of people are intersex; about 0.3% are transgender; and no more than 5% have sex chromosome abnormalities). But the much thicker concept of gender that comes with a whole system of norms and attitudes is all socially constructed.

It’s one thing to say that perhaps males are, on average, more genetically predisposed to be systematizers than females, and thus men are more attracted to engineering and women to nursing. That could, in fact, be true, though the evidence remains quite weak. It’s quite another to say that women must not be engineers, even if they want to be, and men must not be nurses—yet the latter was, until very recently, the quite explicit and enforced norm. Standards of clothing are even more obviously socially-constructed; in Western cultures (except the Celts, for some reason), flared garments are “dresses” and hence “feminine”; in East Asian cultures, flared garments such as kimono are gender-neutral, and gender is instead expressed through clothing by subtler aspects such as being fastened on the left instead of the right. In a thousand different ways, we mark our gender by what we wear, how we speak, even how we walk—and what’s more, we enforce those gender markings. It’s not simply that males typically speak in lower pitches (which does actually have a biological basis); it’s that males who speak in higher pitches are seen as less of a man, and that is a bad thing. We have a very strict hierarchy, which is imposed in almost every culture: It is best to be a man, worse to be a woman who acts like a woman, worse still to be a woman who acts like a man, and worst of all to be a man who acts like a woman. What it means to “act like a man” or “act like a woman” varies substantially; but the core hierarchy persists.

Social constructions like these ones are in fact some of the most important things in our lives. Human beings are uniquely social animals, and we define our meaning and purpose in life largely through social constructions.

It can be tempting, therefore, to be cynical about this, and say that our lives are built around what is not real—that is, fiction. But while this may be true for religious fanatics who honestly believe that some supernatural being will reward them for their acts of devotion, it is not a fair or accurate description of someone who makes comparable sacrifices for “the United States” or “free speech” or “liberty”. These are social constructions, not fictions. They really do exist. Indeed, it is only because we are willing to make sacrifices to maintain them that they continue to exist. Free speech isn’t maintained by us saying things we want to say; it is maintained by us allowing other people to say things we don’t want to hear. Liberty is not protected by us doing whatever we feel like, but by not doing things we would be tempted to do that impose upon other people’s freedom. If in our cynicism we act as though these things are fictions, they may soon become so.

But it would be a lot easier to get this across to people, I think, if folks would stop saying idiotic things like “science is a social construction”.

Several of the world’s largest banks are known to have committed large-scale fraud. Why have we done so little about it?

July 16, JDN 2457951

In 2014, JPMorgan Chase paid a settlement of $614 million for fraudulent mortgage lending contributing to the crisis; but this was spare change compared to the $16.5 billion Bank of America paid in settlements for their fradulent mortgages.

In 2015, Citibank paid $700 million in restitution and $35 million in penalties for fraudulent advertising of “payment protection” services.

In 2016, Wells Fargo paid $190 in settlements for defrauding their customers with fake accounts.

Even PayPal has paid $25 million in settlements over abuses of their “PayPal Credit” system.
In 2016, Goldman Sachs paid $5.1 billion in settlements over their fraudulent sales of mortgage-backed securities.
But the worst offender of course is HSBC, which has paid $2.5 billion in settlements over fraud, as well as $1.9 billion in settlements for laundering money for terrorists. The US Justice Department has kept their money-laundering protections classified because they’re so bad that simply revealing them to the public could result in vast amounts of criminal abuse.
These are some of the world’s largest banks. JPMorgan Chase alone owns 8.0% of all investment banking worldwide; Goldman Sachs owns 6.6%; Citi owns 4.9%; Wells Fargo 2.5%; and HSBC 1.8%. That means that between them, these five corporations—all proven to have engaged in large-scale fraud—own almost one-fourth of all the world’s investment banking assets.

What shocks me the most about this is that hardly anyone seems to care. It’s seen as “normal”, as “business as usual” that a quarter of the world’s investment banking system is owned by white-collar criminals. When the issue is even brought up, often the complaint seems to be that the government is being somehow overzealous. The Economist even went so far as to characterize the prosecution of Wall Street fraud as a “shakedown”. Apparently the idea that our world’s most profitable companies shouldn’t be able to launder money for terrorists is just ridiculous. These are rich people; you expect them to follow rules? What is this, some kind of democracy?

Is this just always how it has been? Has corruption always been so thoroughly infused with finance that we don’t even know how to separate them? Has the oligarchy of the top 0.01% become so strong that we can’t even bring ourselves to challenge them when they commit literal treason? For, in case you’ve forgotten, that is what money-laundering for terrorists is: HSBC gave aid and comfort to the enemies of the free world. Like “freedom” and “terrorism”, the word “treason” has been so overused that we begin to forget its meaning; but one of the groups that HSBC gladly loaned money to is an organization that has financed Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. These are people that American and British soldiers have died fighting against, and when a British bank was found colluding with them, the penalty was… a few weeks of profits, no personal responsibility, and not a single day of prison time. The settlement was in fact less than the profits gained from the criminal enterprise, so this wasn’t even a fine; it was a tax. Our response to treason was to impose a tax.

And this of course was not the result of some newfound leniency in American government in general. No, we are still the nation that imprisons 700 out of every 100,000 people, the nation with more prisoners than any other nation on Earth. Our police officers still kill young Black men with impunity, including at least three dozen unarmed Black men every year, many of them for no apparent reason at all. (The precise number is still unknown, as the police refuse to keep an official database of all the citizens they kill.) Decades of “law and order” politicians promising to stop the “rising crime” (that is actually falling) have made the United States very close to a police state, especially in poor neighborhoods that are primarily inhabited by Black and Hispanic people. We don’t even have an especially high crime rate, except for gun homicides (and that because we have so many guns, also more than any other nation on Earth). We are, if anything, an especially vindictive society, cruel, unforgiving, and violent towards those we perceive as transgressors.

Except, that is, when the criminals are rich. Even the racial biases seem to go away in such circumstances; there is no reasonable doubt as to the guilt of O.J. Simpson or Bill Cosby, but Simpson only ended up in prison years later on a completely unrelated offense, and after Cosby’s mistrial it’s unclear if he’ll ever see any prison time. I don’t see how either man could have been less punished for his crimes had he been White; but can anyone seriously doubt that both men would be punished more had they not been rich?

I do not think that capitalism is an irredeemable system. I think that, in themselves, free markets are very useful, and we should not remove or restrict them unnecessarily. But capitalism isn’t supposed to be a system where the rich can do whatever they want and the poor have to accept it. Capitalism is supposed to be a system where everyone is free to do as they choose, unless they are harming others—and the rules are supposed to be the same for everyone. A free market is not one where you can buy the right to take away other people’s freedom.

Is this just some utopian idealism? It would surely be utopian to imagine a world where fraud never happens, that much is true. Someone, somewhere, will always be defrauding someone else. But a world where fraud is punished most of the time? Where our most powerful institutions are still subject to the basic rule of law? Is that a pipe dream as well?

What we lose by aggregating

Jun 25, JDN 2457930

One of the central premises of current neoclassical macroeconomics is the representative agent: Rather than trying to keep track of all the thousands of firms, millions of people, and billions of goods and in a national economy, we aggregate everything up into a single worker/consumer and a single firm producing and consuming a single commodity.

This sometimes goes under the baffling misnomer of microfoundations, which would seem to suggest that it carries detailed information about the microeconomic behavior underlying it; in fact what this means is that the large-scale behavior is determined by some sort of (perfectly) rational optimization process as if there were just one person running the entire economy optimally.

First of all, let me say that some degree of aggregation is obviously necessary. Literally keeping track of every single transaction by every single person in an entire economy would require absurd amounts of data and calculation. We might have enough computing power to theoretically try this nowadays, but then again we might not—and in any case such a model would very rapidly lose sight of the forest for the trees.

But it is also clearly possible to aggregate too much, and most economists don’t seem to appreciate this. They cite a couple of famous theorems (like the Gorman Aggregation Theorem) involving perfectly-competitive firms and perfectly-rational identical consumers that offer a thin veneer of justification for aggregating everything into one, and then go on with their work as if this meant everything were fine.

What’s wrong with such an approach?

Well, first of all, a representative agent model can’t talk about inequality at all. It’s not even that a representative agent model says inequality is good, or not a problem; it lacks the capacity to even formulate the concept. Trying to talk about income or wealth inequality in a representative agent model would be like trying to decide whether your left hand is richer than your right hand.

It’s also nearly impossible to talk about poverty in a representative agent model; the best you can do is talk about a country’s overall level of development, and assume (not without reason) that a country with a per-capita GDP of $1,000 probably has a lot more poverty than a country with a per-capita GDP of $50,000. But two countries with the same per-capita GDP can have very different poverty rates—and indeed, the cynic in me wonders if the reason we’re reluctant to use inequality-adjusted measures of development is precisely that many American economists fear where this might put the US in the rankings. The Human Development Index was a step in the right direction because it includes things other than money (and as a result Saudi Arabia looks much worse and Cuba much better), but it still aggregates and averages everything, so as long as your rich people are doing well enough they can compensate for how badly your poor people are doing.

Nor can you talk about oligopoly in a representative agent model, as there is always only one firm, which for some reason chooses to act as if it were facing competition instead of rationally behaving as a monopoly. (This is not quite as nonsensical as it sounds, as the aggregation actually does kind of work if there truly are so many firms that they are all forced down to zero profit by fierce competition—but then again, what market is actually like that?) There is no market share, no market power; all are at the mercy of the One True Price.

You can still talk about externalities, sort of; but in order to do so you have to set up this weird doublethink phenomenon where the representative consumer keeps polluting their backyard and then can’t figure out why their backyard is so darn polluted. (I suppose humans do seem to behave like that sometimes; but wait, I thought you believed people were rational?) I think this probably confuses many an undergrad, in fact; the models we teach them about externalities generally use this baffling assumption that people consider one set of costs when making their decisions and then bear a different set of costs from the outcome. If you can conceptualize the idea that we’re aggregating across people and thinking “as if” there were a representative agent, you can ultimately make sense of this; but I think a lot of students get really confused by it.

Indeed, what can you talk about with a representative agent model? Economic growth and business cycles. That’s… about it. These are not minor issues, of course; indeed, as Robert Lucas famously said:

The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these [on economic growth] are simply staggering: once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.

I certainly do think that studying economic growth and business cycles should be among the top priorities of macroeconomics. But then, I also think that poverty and inequality should be among the top priorities, and they haven’t been—perhaps because the obsession with representative agent models make that basically impossible.

I want to be constructive here; I appreciate that aggregating makes things much easier. So what could we do to include some heterogeneity without too much cost in complexity?

Here’s one: How about we have p firms, making q types of goods, sold to n consumers? If you want you can start by setting all these numbers equal to 2; simply going from 1 to 2 has an enormous effect, as it allows you to at least say something about inequality. Getting them as high as 100 or even 1000 still shouldn’t be a problem for computing the model on an ordinary laptop. (There are “econophysicists” who like to use these sorts of agent-based models, but so far very few economists take them seriously. Partly that is justified by their lack of foundational knowledge in economics—the arrogance of physicists taking on a new field is legendary—but partly it is also interdepartmental turf war, as economists don’t like the idea of physicists treading on their sacred ground.) One thing that really baffles me about this is that economists routinely use computers to solve models that can’t be calculated by hand, but it never seems to occur to them that they could have started at the beginning planning to make the model solvable only by computer, and that would spare them from making the sort of heroic assumptions they are accustomed to making—assumptions that only made sense when they were used to make a model solvable that otherwise wouldn’t be.

You could also assign a probability distribution over incomes; that can get messy quickly, but we actually are fortunate that the constant relative risk aversion utility function and the Pareto distribution over incomes seem to fit the data quite well—as the product of those two things is integrable by hand. As long as you can model how your policy affects this distribution without making that integral impossible (which is surprisingly tricky), you can aggregate over utility instead of over income, which is a lot more reasonable as a measure of welfare.

And really I’m only scratching the surface here. There are a vast array of possible new approaches that would allow us to extend macroeconomic models to cover heterogeneity; the real problem is an apparent lack of will in the community to make such an attempt. Most economists still seem very happy with representative agent models, and reluctant to consider anything else—often arguing, in fact, that anything else would make the model less microfounded when plainly the opposite is the case.

 

No, this isn’t like Watergate. It’s worse.

May 21, JDN 2457895

Make no mistake: This a historic moment. This may be the greatest corruption scandal in the history of the United States. Donald Trump has fired the director of the FBI in order to block an investigation—and he said so himself.

It has become cliche to compare scandals to Watergate—to the point where we even stick the suffix “-gate” on things to indicate scandals. “Gamergate”, “Climategate”, and so on. So any comparison to Watergate is bound to draw some raised eyebrows.

But just as it’s not Godwin’s Law when you’re really talking about fascism and genocide, it’s not the “-gate” cliche when we are talking about a corruption scandal that goes all the way up to the President of the United States. And The Atlantic is right: this isn’t Watergate; it’s worse.

First of all, let’s talk about the crime of which Trump is accused. Nixon was accused of orchestrating burglary and fraud. These are not minor offenses, to be sure. But they are ordinary criminal offenses, felonies at worst. Trump is accused of fundamental Constitutional violations (particularly the First Amendment and the Emoluments Clause), and above all, Trump is accused of treason. This is the highest crime recognized by the Constitution of the United States. It is the only crime with a specifically listed Constitutional punishment—and that punishment is execution.

Donald Trump is being investigated not for stealing something or concealing information, but for colluding with foreign powers in the attempt to undermine American democracy. Is he guilty? I don’t know; that’s why we’re investigating. But let me say this: If he isn’t guilty of something, it’s quite baffling that he would fight so hard to stop the investigation.

Speaking of which: Trump’s intervention to stop Comey is much more direct, and much more sudden, than anything Nixon did to stop the Watergate investigations. Nixon of course tried to stonewall the investigations, but he did so subtly, cautiously, always trying to at least appear like he valued due process and rule of law. Trump made no such efforts, openly threatening Comey personally on Twitter and publicly declaring on national television that he had fired him to block the investigation.

But perhaps what makes the Trump-Comey affair most terrifying is how the supposedly “mainstream” Republican Party has reacted. The Republicans of Nixon had some honor left in them; several resigned rather than follow Nixon’s illegal orders, and dozens of Republicans in Congress supported the investigations and called for Nixon’s impeachment. Apparently that honor is gone now, as GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham have expressed support for the President’s corrupt and illegal actions citing no principle other than party loyalty. If we needed any more proof that the Republican Party of the United States is no longer a mainstream political party, this is it. They don’t believe in democracy or rule of law anymore. They believe in winning at any cost, loyalty at any price. They have become a radical far-right organization—indeed, if they continue down this road of supporting the President in undermining the freedom of the press and consolidating his own power, I think it is fair to call them literally neo-fascist.

We are about to see whether American institutions can withstand such an onslaught, whether liberty and justice can prevail against corruption and tyranny. So far, there have been reasons to be optimistic: In particular, the judicial branch has proudly and bravely held the line, blocking Trump’s travel ban (multiple times), resisting his order to undermine sanctuary cities, and standing up to direct criticisms and even threats from the President himself. Our system of checks and balances is being challenged, but so far it is holding up against that challenge. We will find out soon enough whether the American system truly is robust enough to survive.

Argumentum ab scientia is not argumentum baculo: The difference between authority and expertise

May 7, JDN 2457881

Americans are, on the whole, suspicious of authority. This is a very good thing; it shields us against authoritarianism. But it comes with a major downside, which is a tendency to forget the distinction between authority and expertise.

Argument from authority is an informal fallacy, argumentum baculo. The fact that something was said by the Pope, or the President, or the General Secretary of the UN, doesn’t make it true. (Aside: You’re probably more familiar with the phrase argumentum ad baculum, which is terrible Latin. That would mean “argument toward a stick”, when clearly the intended meaning was “argument by means of a stick”, which is argumentum baculo.)

But argument from expertise, argumentum ab scientia, is something quite different. The world is much too complicated for any one person to know everything about everything, so we have no choice but to specialize our knowledge, each of us becoming an expert in only a few things. So if you are not an expert in a subject, when someone who is an expert in that subject tells you something about that subject, you should probably believe them.

You should especially be prepared to believe them when the entire community of experts is in consensus or near-consensus on a topic. The scientific consensus on climate change is absolutely overwhelming. Is this a reason to believe in climate change? You’re damn right it is. Unless you have years of education and experience in understanding climate models and atmospheric data, you have no basis for challenging the expert consensus on this issue.

This confusion has created a deep current of anti-intellectualism in our culture, as Isaac Asimov famously recognized:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

This is also important to understand if you have heterodox views on any scientific topic. The fact that the whole field disagrees with you does not prove that you are wrong—but it does make it quite likely that you are wrong. Cranks often want to compare themselves to Galileo or Einstein, but here’s the thing: Galileo and Einstein didn’t act like cranks. They didn’t expect the scientific community to respect their ideas before they had gathered compelling evidence in their favor.

When behavioral economists found that neoclassical models of human behavior didn’t stand up to scrutiny, did they shout from the rooftops that economics is all a lie? No, they published their research in peer-reviewed journals, and talked with economists about the implications of their results. There may have been times when they felt ignored or disrespected by the mainstream, but they pressed on, because the data was on their side. And ultimately, the mainstream gave in: Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Experts are not always right, that is true. But they are usually right, and if you think they are wrong you’d better have a good reason to think so. The best reasons are the sort that come about when you yourself have spent the time and effort to become an expert, able to challenge the consensus on its own terms.

Admittedly, that is a very difficult thing to do—and more difficult than it should be. I have seen firsthand how difficult and painful the slow grind toward a PhD can be, and how many obstacles will get thrown in your way, ranging from nepotism and interdepartmental politics, to discrimination against women and minorities, to mismatches of interest between students and faculty, all the way to illness, mental health problems, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in general. If you have particularly heterodox ideas, you may face particularly harsh barriers, and sometimes it behooves you to hold your tongue and toe the lie awhile.

But this is no excuse not to gain expertise. Even if academia itself is not available to you, we live in an age of unprecedented availability of information—it’s not called the Information Age for nothing. A sufficiently talented and dedicated autodidact can challenge the mainstream, if their ideas are truly good enough. (Perhaps the best example of this is the mathematician savant Srinivasa Ramanujan. But he’s… something else. I think he is about as far from the average genius as the average genius is from the average person.) No, that won’t be easy either. But if you are really serious about advancing human understanding rather than just rooting for your political team (read: tribe), you should be prepared to either take up the academic route or attack it as an autodidact from the outside.

In fact, most scientific fields are actually quite good about admitting what they don’t know. A total consensus that turns out to be wrong is actually a very rare phenomenon; much more common is a clash of multiple competing paradigms where one ultimately wins out, or they end up replaced by a totally new paradigm or some sort of synthesis. In almost all cases, the new paradigm wins not because it becomes fashionable or the ancien regime dies out (as Planck cynically claimed) but because overwhelming evidence is observed in its favor, often in the form of explaining some phenomenon that was previously impossible to understand. If your heterodox theory doesn’t do that, then it probably won’t win, because it doesn’t deserve to.

(Right now you might think of challenging me: Does my heterodox theory do that? Does the tribal paradigm explain things that either total selfishness or total altruism cannot? I think it’s pretty obvious that it does. I mean, you are familiar with a little thing called “racism”, aren’t you? There is no explanation for racism in neoclassical economics; to understand it at all you have to just impose it as an arbitrary term on the utility function. But at that point, why not throw in whatever you please? Maybe some people enjoy bashing their heads against walls, and other people take great pleasure in the taste of arsenic. Why would this particular self- (not to mention other-) destroying behavior be universal to all human societies?)

In practice, I think most people who challenge the mainstream consensus aren’t genuinely interested in finding out the truth—certainly not enough to actually go through the work of doing it. It’s a pattern you can see in a wide range of fringe views: Anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, climate denialists, they all think the same way. The mainstream disagrees with my preconceived ideology, therefore the mainstream is some kind of global conspiracy to deceive us. The overwhelming evidence that vaccination is safe and (wildly) cost-effective, 9/11 was indeed perpetrated by Al Qaeda and neither planned nor anticipated by anyone in the US government , and the global climate is being changed by human greenhouse gas emissions—these things simply don’t matter to them, because it was never really about the truth. They knew the answer before they asked the question. Because their identity is wrapped up in that political ideology, they know it couldn’t possibly be otherwise, and no amount of evidence will change their mind.

How do we reach such people? That, I don’t know. I wish I did. But I can say this much: We can stop taking them seriously when they say that the overwhelming scientific consensus against them is just another “appeal to authority”. It’s not. It never was. It’s an argument from expertise—there are people who know this a lot better than you, and they think you’re wrong, so you’re probably wrong.

Can we have property rights without violence?

Apr 23, JDN 2457867

Most likely, you have by now heard of the incident on a United Airlines flight, where a man was beaten and dragged out of a plane because the airline decided that they needed more seats than they had. In case you somehow missed all the news articles and memes, the Wikipedia page on the incident is actually fairly good.

There is a lot of gossip about the passenger’s history, which the flight crew couldn’t possibly have known and is therefore irrelevant. By far the best take I’ve seen on the ethical and legal implications of the incident can be found on Naked Capitalism, so if you do want to know more about it I highly recommend starting there. Probably the worst take I’ve read is on The Pilot Wife Life, but I suppose if you want a counterpoint there you go.

I really have little to add on this particular incident; instead my goal here is to contextualize it in a broader discussion of property rights in general.

Despite the fact that what United’s employees and contractors did was obviously unethical and very likely illegal, there are still a large number of people defending their actions. Aiming for a Woodman if not an Ironman, the most coherent defense I’ve heard offered goes something like this:

Yes, what United did in this particular case was excessive. But it’s a mistake to try to make this illegal, because any regulation that did so would necessarily impose upon fundamental property rights. United owns the airplane; they can set the rules for who is allowed to be on that airplane. And once they set those rules, they need to be able to enforce them. Sometimes, however distasteful it may be, that enforcement will require violence. But property rights are too important to give up. Would you want to live in a society where anyone could just barge into your home and you were not allowed to use force to remove them?

Understood in this context, United contractors calling airport security to get a man dragged off of a plane isn’t an isolated act of violence for no reason; it is part of a broader conflict between the protection of property rights and the reduction of violence. “Stand your ground” laws, IMF “structural adjustment” policies, even Trump’s wall against immigrants can be understood as part of this broader conflict.

One very far-left approach to resolving such a conflict—as taken by the Paste editorial “You’re not mad at United Airlines; you’re mad at America”—is to fall entirely on the side of nonviolence, and say essentially that any system which allows the use of violence to protect property rights is fundamentally corrupt and illegitimate.

I can see why such a view is tempting. It’s simple, for one thing, and that’s always appealing. But if you stop and think carefully about the consequences of this hardline stance, it becomes clear that such a system would be unsustainable. If we could truly never use violence ever to protect any property rights, that would mean that property law in general could no longer be enforced. People could in fact literally break into your home and steal your furniture, and you’d have no recourse, because the only way to stop them would involve either using violence yourself or calling the police, who would end up using violence. Property itself would lose all its meaning—and for those on the far-left who think that sounds like a good thing, I want you to imagine what the world would look like if the only things you could ever use were the ones you could physically hold onto, where you’d leave home never knowing whether your clothes or your food would still be there when you came back. A world without property sounds good if you are imagining that the insane riches of corrupt billionaires would collapse; but if you stop and think about coming home to no food and no furniture, perhaps it doesn’t sound so great. And while it does sound nice to have a world where no one is homeless because they can always find a place to sleep, that may seem less appealing if your home is the one that a dozen homeless people decide to squat in.

The Tragedy of the Commons would completely destroy any such economic system; the only way to sustain it would be either to produce such an enormous abundance of wealth that no amount of greed could ever overtake it, or, more likely, somehow re-engineer human brains so that greed no longer exists. I’m not aware of any fundamental limits on greed; as long as social status increases monotonically with wealth, there will be people who try to amass as much wealth as they possibly can, far beyond what any human being could ever actually consume, much less need. How do I know this? Because they already exist; we call them “billionaires”. A billionaire, essentially by definition, is a hoarder of wealth who owns more than any human being could consume. If someone happens upon a billion dollars and immediately donates most of it to charity (as J.K. Rowling did), they can escape such a categorization; and if they use the wealth to achieve grand visionary ambitions—and I mean real visions, not like Steve Jobs but like Elon Musk—perhaps they can as well. Saving the world from climate change and colonizing Mars are the sort of projects that really do take many billions of dollars to achieve. (Then again, shouldn’t our government be doing these things?) And if they just hold onto the wealth or reinvest it to make even more, a billionaire is nothing less than a hoarder, seeking gratification and status via ownership itself.

Indeed, I think the maximum amount of wealth one could ever really need is probably around $10 million in today’s dollars; with that amount, even a very low-risk investment portfolio could supply enough income to live wherever you want, wear whatever you want, drive whatever you want, eat whatever you want, travel whenever you want. At even a 5% return, that’s $500,000 per year to spend without ever working or depleting your savings. At 10%, you’d get a million dollars a year for sitting there and doing nothing. And yet there are people with one thousand times as much wealth as this.

But not all property is of this form. I was about to say “the vast majority” is not, but actually that’s not true; a large proportion of wealth is in fact in the form of capital hoarded by the rich. Indeed, about 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by the richest 1%. (To be fair, the world’s top 1% is a broader category than one might think; the top 1% in the world is about the top 5% in the US; based on census data, that puts the cutoff at about $250,000 in net wealth.) But the majority of people have wealth in some form, and would stand to suffer if property rights were not enforced at all.

So we might be tempted to the other extreme, as the far-right seems to be, and say that any force is justified in the protection of fundamental property rights—that if vagrants step onto my land, I am well within my rights to get out my shotgun. (You know, hypothetically; not that I own a shotgun, or, for that matter, any land.) This seems to appeal especially to those who nostalgize the life on the frontier, “living off the land” (often losing family members to what now seem like trivial bacterial illnesses), “self-sufficient” (with generous government subsidies), in the “unspoiled wilderness” (from which the Army had forcibly removed Native Americans). Westerns have given us this sense that frontier life offers a kind of freedom and adventure that this urbane civilization lacks. And I suppose I am a fan of at least one Western, since one should probably count Firefly.

Yet of course this is madness; no civilization could survive if it really allowed people to just arbitrarily “defend” whatever property claims they decided to make. Indeed, it’s really just the flip side of the coin; as we’ve seen in Somalia (oh, by the way, we’re deploying troops there again), not protecting property and allowing universal violence to defend any perceived property largely amount to the same thing. If anything, the far-left fantasy seems more appealing; at least then we would not be subject to physical violence, and could call upon the authorities to protect us from that. In the far-right fantasy, we could accidentally step on what someone else claims to be his land and end up shot in the head.

So we need to have rules about who can use violence to defend what property and why. And that, of course, is complicated. We can start by having a government that defines property claims and places limits on their enforcement; but that still leaves the question of which sort of property claims and enforcement mechanisms the government should allow.

I think the principle should essentially be minimum force. We do need to protect property rights, yes; but if there is a way of doing so without committing violence, that’s the way we should do it. And if we do need to use violence, we should use as little as possible.

In theory we already do this: We have “rules of engagement” for the military and “codes of conduct” for police. But in practice, these rules are rarely enforced; they only get applied to really extreme violations, and sometimes not even then. The idea seems to be that enforcing strict rules on our soldiers and police officers constitutes disloyalty, even treason. We should “let them do their jobs”. This is the norm that must change. Those rules are their jobs. If they break those rules, they aren’t doing their jobs—they’re doing something else, something that endangers the safety and security of our society. The disloyalty is not in investigating and enforcing rules against police misconduct—the disloyalty is in police misconduct. If you want to be a cop but you’re not willing to follow the rules, you don’t actually want to be a cop—you want to be a bully with a gun and a badge.

And of course, one need not be a government agency in order to use excessive force. Many private corporations have security forces of their own, which frequently abuse and assault people. Most terrifying of all, there are whole corporations of “private military contractors”—let’s call them what they are: mercenaries—like Academi, formerly known as Blackwater. The whole reason these corporations even exist is to evade regulations on military conduct, and that is why they must be eliminated.

In the United case, there was obviously a nonviolent answer; all they had to do was offer to pay people to give up their seats, and bid up the price until enough people left. Someone would have left eventually; there clearly was a market-clearing price. That would have cost $2,000, maybe $5,000 at the most—a lot better than the $255 million lost in United’s stock value as a result of the bad PR.

If a homeless person decides to squat in your house, yes, perhaps you’d be justified in calling the police to remove them. Clearly you’re under no obligation to provide them room and board indefinitely. But there may be better solutions: Is there a homeless shelter in the area? Could you give them a ride there, or at least bus fare?

When immigrants cross our borders, may we turn them away? Now, here’s one where I’m pretty strongly tempted to go all the way and say we have no right whatsoever to stop them. There are no requirements for being born into citizenship, after all—so on what grounds do we add requirements to acquire citizenship? Is there something in the water of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River that, when you drink it for 18 years (processed by municipal water systems of course; what are we, barbarians?), automatically makes you into a patriotic American? Does one become more law-abiding, or less capable of cruelty or fanaticism, by being brought into the world on one side of an imaginary line in the sand? If there are going to be requirements for citizenship, shouldn’t they be applied to everyone, and not just people who were born in the wrong place?

Yes, when we have no other choice, we must be prepared to use violence to defend property—because otherwise, there’s no such thing as property. But more often than not, we use violence when we didn’t need to, or use much more violence than was actually necessary. The principle that violence can be justified in defense of property does not entail that any violence is always justified in defense of property.

What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”