Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Democratic Dysfunction May Get in the Way of Everything

Trump's election has been gravely concerning to me for a while now, and as a Bay Area resident the repeated clashes between antifas on the one hand and Milo and friends on the other hand are an additional alarm. As a believer in Enlightenment values who, perhaps conveniently, thinks that widespread belief in and consensus around those values leads to good things (such as economic prosperity and peace), I'm disturbed by what seems like an assault on reason from all sides. On the right, there's the rise of nativism, and on the left, there's an identity-politics reaction that risks enabling the right.12

This has me starting to worry that maybe democratic dysfunction could be an issue above all issues. This piece got me thinking recently, and this blog helped me sort through my thoughts. I tend to think of the most pressing issues in the world as those directly affecting various generally ignored or in some cases inherently disenfranchised groups, including nonhuman animals, beings who will be alive in the future, and humans marginalized by virtue of their nationality, criminal record (and tacitly, race), or place of residence. Redress on any of these issues, though, demands a functional and inclusive system of governance. Democracy seems to yield ever broader moral circles, and without democracy, that effect may shrink.

I'm mostly concerned about this in the U.S., which has outsized power and where institutions appear to be strong but weakening. In Europe, there appears to be less to worry about institutionally, but a lot to worry about in the rise of a similar sort of rightwing movement. (Macron, who talks like a modern day Frederick the Great minus the war, does give me hope. I hope his approval ratings rebound.)

What to do about all this? I'm not sure. Looking for answers is probably the first place.

Maybe one solution is for us to start talking about market-friendly approaches to addressing inequality?  I did not quite understand the severity of male unemployment over the past several decades. Earnings figures give some sense of this issue, but the economic declines are greatest among those who were already the worst off.

Large numbers of unemployed young men is a recipe for conflict and more tribalistic tendencies. That may explain a lot about national politics. Then again, this may be a vicious cycle, as politicians appear to use the disenfranchisement and polarization of the public to further erode the institutions that might be able to stem the tide.

In the U.S., there's generally a choice between redistribution done in a complex, bureaucratic way or no redistribution at all (or policies that are outright regressive). If there were the option of ample (far greater than today) equalizing policy that was done in the least distortionary way possible, maybe there could be some progress made that could trickle up to democracy writ broadly.

1. I mostly sympathize with the left on the basic issues here, but I think the contemporary left makes two main mistakes: (a) The left often frames issues in a way that enables mistaken views. White/male/straight people should make a special effort to listen to others' voices, but wrong for white/male/straight people not to be allowed to speak. (b) The left ignores the impact of its rhetoric on people who disagree. Activists on the left will often justify violence by appeals to how wronged the perpetrators of violence feel, while giving second fiddle to the empirical literature showing that violence is bad for a cause.

2. I would REALLY love some empirical evidence on whether the identity politics on either side drive the reaction on the other side. I've seen a number of pieces of evidence persuading me that Trump's election had a lot to do with racism. Polls find stronger correlations there than on economic issues, and initial negative reactions to immigration seem to drive far-right parties. I read that percentage increases in immigration also seem to drive votes for Trump. It seems pretty common sense that the sorts of politics on the left have a lot to do with histories of oppression there. What I'm curious about is whether the politics on the left drove the racism on the right and vice versa.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Yesterday's Nobel Prize Winner's Work Has More Radical Implications than Most Admit

Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize yesterday for his work in developing behavioral economics. Thaler led the way in unraveling the traditional view in economics that humans are rational decision makers who at least on average will satisfy their goals if left to their own devices. In fact, humans systematically deviate from rationality in ways that give rise to policy prescriptions. I wrote my college thesis on Nudge, the book he co-authored with Cass Sunstein to collect these ideas, and I think behavioral economics is one of the greatest recent inventions.

I think that the implications of Thaler's and others' work in behavioral economics goes deeper than what he and others admit. Experiments show that humans systematically deviate from rationality by being present-biased, prone to temptation, unfocused, and inordinately susceptible to social influence. Thaler points out that these are all things that can systematically stop us from achieving our goals.

They also raise serious questions, though, about whether humans can be said to have coherent goals at all. That's an important question because many of the judgments economists do or do not make on policies depend on the mid-20th century idea that one can help individuals satisfy their preferences but not make paternalistic judgments about those preferences or comparing different individuals. If humans don't have coherent goals (or don't necessarily have coherent goals), then any policy evaluation suddenly involves some degree of paternalism, and the line between policies that require moral judgments and those that do not evaporates.

Economist and blogger Tyler Cowen wrote an interesting piece on the use of nudges by conservatives, countering the predominant view that Thaler's ideas are roughly center-left. When it comes to the theoretical ideas undergirding economics, though, Thaler's findings suggest some quite radical changes. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Hidden Cost of Shifting Away from Poverty

The Center for Effective Altruism and effective altruists active in online spaces have for a while now been shifting away from a focus on poverty toward a focus on the far future and meta-level work (and if not that, animal advocacy). Interestingly, the rank and file of effective altruism does not seem to have made this shift (or at least completed it). I generally agree with CEA and the online community on this. I think it's a shift with solid reasoning behind it. I think there's reason to pause, though, and appreciate some of what EA loses by making this shift.

Much of what EA loses by making this shift has been discussed: things become very abstract in a way that may not be compelling to as many people, and there are concerns about an overly speculative cause.

I believe there are other concerns to be had, though. In particular, there is an immense amount that EAs can learn from the global poverty space and apply to other spaces, and I see very few EAs doing that. The things I see EAs missing out on are a drive toward rigor, institutional capital, and organization.

Drive toward rigor: The "randomista" movement in poverty alleviation illustrated many of the basic concepts that motivate EAs in a concrete and extremely persuasive way. What "randomista" economists such as Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer did in the 1990s and early 2000s was to make rigorous and scientific a field that had been dominated by sentimentality and false hopes. It's easy today to look back and see as obvious the idea of comparing randomly assigned treatment and control groups for poverty alleviation programs, but this was not obvious. This sort of thing was just generally not the way social science was done, because economics is messy, and studying it the way we study medicine would be too difficult. The randomistas blew that idea out of the water.

EAs are increasingly working in theoretical spaces similar to pre-2000s development economics. Animal advocacy, EA movement-building, and cause prioritization could likely learn from the nearly neurotic desire to be empirically rigorous that created the randomization movement in poverty alleviation. Things that appear unmeasurable may actually be measurable with the right amount of determination and inventiveness. Far future causes may be genuinely unmeasurable, although some of the ingredients to improving the far future (such as effectively recruiting technical researchers and persuading others) are not. To learn how to measure those things, though, we need to learn from the greatest, and the global poverty space has a lot to offer there.

Institutional capital: There is a large network of organizations and donors in the poverty space who share virtually all EA values except neutrality with respect to generation and species. Dean Karlan, one of the randomistas, regularly cites Peter Singer in his speeches. The World Bank, the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and many other powerful bodies are invested in evidence-based poverty work and place high value on shifting their funding based on where the evidence points rather than ideology.

As I said, these organizations do not share values many EAs hold with respect to the far future and anti-speciesism, but they do share most of the values that differentiate EAs from the rest of the world, and maintaining relationships with these organizations offers institutional, intellectual, and human capital.

Organization: The evidence-based organizations in the global poverty space now have two decades of experience researching effective policies and putting them into action. Evidence Action has efficiently spread deworming to a number of countries based on a growing body of evidence. There are established academic pipelines to get trained in this space for both research and for effective policymaking.

No doubt the greater amount of money in this area has a large role in its organization, but time plays a significant role as well. Other EA cause areas can speed up progress by learning from the organization that poverty alleviation charities and researchers have developed.

In short, I think that at the very least a larger number of effective altruists interested in non-poverty causes should develop experience in the poverty arena. The level of rigor and institutional knowledge in that area offers something to which other cause areas could aspire.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Another Reading of the Historical Record on Civil Rights

I wrote a blog post a week ago positing that civil rights era protests may not have been as effective as I'd previously thought. My basic claim was that confrontation seemed to kick up a storm, and it might have been possible to kick up less of a storm. I still think it probably would not have been possible, but the strength of my confidence was weakened.

There's an alternative reading, or at least an additional issue, that might be at play in the history of the civil rights movement: that the civil rights movement made serious strategic miscalculations in the specific changes it pushed for and accepted.

The story of racial justice since the civil rights movement is chronicled in a number of places, my favorite of which is Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations. Basically, while legally ordained segregation ended, a number of systems popped up that sustained nearly the same degree of racial segregation in the most intimate and important places: mass incarceration, residential segregation, and school-based segregation. All exist without explicit reference to race. The criminal justice system seeks to put people behind bars, and at every step of the way racial bias creeps in without notice. People choose where to live and send their children to school: white people prefer to live with white people, but nobody is explicitly banned. (In some cases, to be clear, things get more aggressive and explicit, but this is the general pattern.)

According to Pillar of Fire, at a number of points in the civil rights struggle, civil rights leaders considered and decided against a more aggressive push to integrate housing and schooling, particularly in Northern cities. Leaders likely saw this decision as a decision to work on those issues later. Had leaders anticipated the backlash that would result from the movement's confrontation, though, they might have decided otherwise: they might have seen that the opposition would take advantage of whatever issues were not addressed and made greater minimum demands in legislation.

It's impossible to know what exactly is the right course of action in a social movement, and difficult even to guess. The moral may be simply that when fighting for social changes, the specifics of the changes you ask for and accept are critical. Every stone left unturned can cost you for a very, very long time.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Did Confrontation Really Work in the Civil Rights Movement?

I've recently wrapped up reading Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, the book covering 1963-1965 in a three-part series on the civil rights movement. I've been reading through the series in large part for its insights for animal advocacy in particular and social and political dynamics in general. The civil rights movement is one of the most commonly cited pieces of evidence for why protests and grassroots activism work. (It's certainly overly cited in the animal advocacy context.) Despite that, I'm ending the book with doubts about whether confrontational activism worked even in the civil rights movement.

To be clear, Pillar of Fire and its prequel Parting the Waters document short-run nonviolent triumph over the forces of segregation: children pushing through firehoses in Birmingham and marches to the Selma voting registrar's office. The civil rights movement's discipline yields political rewards. The political party most allied to them, the Democrats, win an epic landslide in Congress and the White House. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes by a wide margin, to be followed by wide margins for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, which line up with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s increasing concern with poverty.

Yet the now-familiar successes of civil rights protesters that dominate the narrative of Pillar of Fire are laced with the foreboding growth of a white backlash that gathers more power over time. The middle portion of the book covers election year 1964, and the candidacy of Barry Goldwater–a sharp reaction to civil rights–feels eerily similar to Donald Trump's. Things nobody thought could be said are said, a socially forward Republican establishment is undercut, and strange alignments grow between regressive social forces. Goldwater is defeated, but his attack dog Ronald Reagan and the segregationist George H.W. Bush get their start with his election cycle. The civil rights movement succeeds in toppling Southern segregation, but the residential and educational segregation common to Southern and Northern states receive little redress. When King seeks to speak in Northern cities, his words about troubles in the South are celebrated. His words about troubles in the North are shunned and increasingly opposed.

Most strikingly, politicians begin to define their identities with respect to racial problems. Of course, politicians' taking on the fight against racism and defining their identities around it is a good thing, and Lyndon Johnson makes the matter a personal crusade. This is paired, though, with many politicians' taking the other side in the fight: opposing the civil rights movement, and doing so vocally. Southern politicians' growing support for the Republican party is explicitly built around common opposition to federal civil rights action. In short, the debate is polarized, and it is clear in the book where this polarization is headed (see the Southern strategy).

Until now I'd always seen civil rights protests of the 1960s as irrefutably effective. The concrete institutional changes they seemingly achieved ended explicit discrimination and legal segregation, and there are many signs of progress, including a sharp decline in hate crimes and rise in life expectancy. Those changes, though, do not necessarily prove the movement effective because we do not know what would have happened without civil rights demonstrations. In the 1960 election, there was ambiguity as to which party would be more supportive of civil rights: both parties made overtures to civil rights advocates. One can imagine a slower process ending in the same legal changes occurring. It seems clearer from Pillar of Fire that the drama and conflict of civil rights confrontations played a significant role in triggering a white backlash that led to the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and residential and educational segregation on a par with pre-civil rights America.

To be clear, I still think it would be the wrong conclusion to take from the historical record that civil rights era protests led to more backlash than success. At the very least, though, I'm significantly less bullish on actions I'd previously thought to be clearly effective.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Locals Thwart New Kansas Tyson Plant—Why Doesn't This Happen More Often?
In the annals of social movements, one of the ones that most clearly achieved its objectives was the wave of U.S. anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s. Across the U.S., those who lived near nuclear power plants picketed, blockaded, and disrupted construction of plants, including taking strategic advantage of the Three Mile Island incident to effectively end nuclear power across the U.S. Nuclear power in the U.S. now has a monumental stigma against it quite unlike other developed countries—nuclear power is even a primary source for France's energy infrastructure. (U.S. policy is likely mistaken, as nuclear power is relatively safe).

This week, Kansas offers some inspiration for animal advocates on a model we should consider. Tyson is being forced to back out of a huge new chicken facility after 2,000 out of 5,000 residents of neighboring town Tonganoxie protested last Friday over environmental concerns.

Tyson is scrambling and will likely find somewhere to build not too far from there, but if everywhere they went (and everywhere they already are), they had to contend with massive local protests, that would start to impose a serious cost of doing business on them. Beyond that, it would dramatize the issue in a public way, much as the controversial and indirect environmentalist tactic of targeting pipelines has. NIMBYism is hardly admirable on its own, but why not try to steer it in a productive direction? Let's start gathering our friends and family to make more Tonganoxies.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How Sharp a Turn Did Humans Take in the Industrial Revolution?
Luke Muelhauser at the Open Philanthropy Project has a thought-provoking post arguing that most of human history is roughly the same plodding along in boring conditions until the industrial revolution, in which productivity exploded, countering what people have gotten in history. You can see a visual illustration of this in the graph on the right.

I think this gets a whole lot right about the way history has gone. It irrefutably gets a lot right when you talk in terms of sheer magnitude of living conditions: the amount of good things multiplied many times over in a short period of time.
As one of the commenters pointed out, there could still be importance to earlier eras of history–potentially as much importance as in post-Industrial Revolution history. The reason is this: if our interest is in relative progress, then one man's flat line is another man's explosion. If human progress followed an exponential function, then when an "explosion" happens depends on the scale. There's an illustration of this on the left.

Indeed, the original post contains a graph suggesting that things started to take off around the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the right scale:

It turns out, some commentators crunched the numbers and found that there is more evidence to think that the course of human history really did change in kind and not just degree in the industrial era. If it changed in degree, then the change of degree is sharper than exponential, and history follows a "double exponential function" rather than an exponential one.

One thing that worries me, though, and that makes me think the course of history could be closer to exponential than we think, is the question of how accurate measurement has been–from material goods to war statistics–over the course of human history. Error likely increases in magnitude the further back you go, an exponential curve could easily appear more horizontal in the past, as the growth might still have been undetectable.

A number of "big history" type books (Guns, Germs, and Steel; Better Angels of Our Nature) do seem to suggest there was steady progress over the course of human history. Maybe I'm just having disconfirmation bias, or maybe there's reason to be slow to conclude that all of this history is so much flatter than it seems.