Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sorting Ideas

In this forum thread... 4th Grade Nation State... we've primarily been debating/discussing the idea of replacing voting with spending (coasianism).   The thread is up to 27 pages.  Here's a recent post...

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According to Google, the US population, rounded to the nearest million, is 319 million.

Let's say that someone comes up with the idea that humans of a certain race/colour/religion are "less human" than others, and we should be able to own them like property. The overwhelming majority of people would consider this to be a very bad idea. Let's assume that 99.7% of Americans consider the idea of owning another human abhorrent. In raw numbers, this would be approximately 318 million people, with around 1 million people being pro-slavery.

The issue comes up for voting. It's dead in the water. Why? Because the majority of people recognise a disgusting idea when they see it.

The issue comes up for bidding. 318 million people spend an average of $1000 each on the "no" campaign. Some more, some less, depending on circumstances, but it averages to $1000 per person. That's $318 billion. 1 million people spend $320,000 on the "yes" campaign. That's $320 billion. Despite the overwhelming majority finding the idea detestable, slavery is now a thing because a couple of people have deeper pockets than the rest.

"Ah," you say, "but they'll get MONEY!"

Yes, they will. Their civil rights, liberty and personhood was valued at a little over 1 billion dollars. Given that they've lost their personhood and are no longer considered human, would they even receive it? That would depend on how the law that 0.3% of people actually wanted was written.

Now do you understand why coasianism is worse than voting? - Dazchan

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If Dazchan had been following the thread all along then he would have known that the issue of slavery had already been brought up by another member... Galloism.  Alternatively, Dazchan could have figured this out if he had searched the thread for "slavery".

A thread consists of posts and each post is an idea.  By default, the posts/ideas are sorted chronologically... oldest to newest.

But what if the pragmatarian model was applied to the forum?  Each member would have to pay $1/month but they could choose which posts they spend their pennies on.  Then it would be possible to sort threads and their posts by their total value.

Galloism would still have brought up his idea about slavery being an effective argument against coasianism.  But then he, and everybody else, would have had the option to spend their pennies on his post.  The more pennies that were spent on Galloism's post, the higher up it would have been placed on the list of posts/ideas when they were sorted by their value... and the more likely that Dazchan would have seen it.

Here are a couple of basic facts...

1. We all have limited attention/time/brainpower
2. Not all ideas are equally valuable

When we put these basic facts together, it should be clear that maximizing society's benefit depends on sorting ideas by their value.

With this in mind, let's consider Dazchan's concern about slavery and coasianism.   Imagine that Bob posts in my thread, "slavery is wonderful".  It is an idea... but most of us would consider it to be a bad idea.  This means that, with the pragmatarian model, most of us would not be willing to spend our pennies on Bob's idea/post.  As a result, when the posts/ideas in the thread were sorted by their value, Bob's idea would be at the bottom of the list.

Would we use coasianism for such a worthless idea?  I don't think so.  Then again, by this same measure, coasianism and pragmatarianism probably aren't currently much more valuable than the idea of slavery.  Which is why we can't currently sort ideas by their value.  All ideas have to start somewhere...

Our creed is that the science of government is an experimental science, and that, like all other experimental sciences, it is generally in a state of progression. No man is so obstinate an admirer of the old times as to deny that medicine, surgery, botany, chemistry, engineering, navigation, are better understood now than in any former age. We conceive that it is the same with political science. Like those physical sciences which we have mentioned, it has always been working itself clearer and clearer, and depositing impurity after impurity. There was a time when the most powerful of human intellects were deluded by the gibberish of the astrologer and the alchemist; and just so there was a time when the most enlightened and virtuous statesman thought it the first duty of a government to persecute heretics, to found monasteries, to make war on Saracens. But time advances; facts accumulate; doubts arise. Faint glimpses of truth begin to appear, and shine more and more unto the perfect day. The highest intellects, like the tops of mountains, are the first to catch and reflect the dawn. They are bright, while the level below is still in darkness. But soon the light, which at first illuminated only the loftiest eminences, descends on the plain and penetrates to the deepest valley. First come hints, then fragments of systems, then defective systems, then complete and harmonious systems. The sound opinion, held for a time by one bold speculator, becomes the opinion of a small minority, of a strong minority, of a majority of mankind. Thus the great progress goes on, till schoolboys laugh at the jargon which imposed on Bacon, till country rectors condemn the illiberality and intolerance of Sir Thomas More. - Thomas Macaulay

Yesterday morning, like most mornings, I was browsing Medium trying to find valuable ideas.   Of course the ideas aren't sorted by their value.  So it's a very challenging Easter Egg hunt.  But I did manage to find a couple valuable Easter Eggs...


Each of these Easter Eggs is an idea... but each idea also contains several ideas.  Let's consider some of the individual ideas...

You actually put a person in a situation where there’s real money at stake, and all of a sudden they’re not so irrational. - Steven Pinker

This idea is another basic fact.  I've previously referred to this basic fact as Tabarrok's Rule.  Let's add it to the other two facts...

1. We all have limited attention/time/brainpower
2. Not all ideas are equally valuable
3. Spending improves rationality

Maximizing society's benefit depends on sorting ideas by their value... and determining an idea's value depends on spending.

Is this relevant to language?

That is Hayekian in the sense that no one planned the language to be optimal in satisfying one criterion. There are tradeoffs. There are multiple tugs, pushes, and pulls. As millions of speakers make little adjustments, as they use the language, as kids learn the language, the language itself spontaneously evolves with some balance. - Steven Pinker

The other day I mentioned to my friend Michelle that there's "real", "unreal" and "surreal" but no prefix for better than real.  For over an hour she argued that A. there was no such concept and B. there were already words to express such a concept... ie "fantasy"... "utopia".   I brought up the same topic a day or two later and she came up with "megareal".  "Megareal"?  I didn't think that it was a wonderful word... but, for lack of a better word, we've ended up using it.  It is a useful word!  When I say that it would be megareal if we could choose where our taxes go, she knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Michelle teaches 4th grade and she recently started applying coasianism and pragmatarianism to her classroom (Standing On The Right Shoulders).  Right now her class has two departments... IRS and Gardening.  Most of the kids owe taxes but so far none of them have paid any.  A couple nights ago Michelle and I discussed the idea that the point of the kids paying taxes was for them to use their pennies to paint a picture of a megareal classroom.

What would happen if Pinker applied the pragmatarian model to language?  He'd start a website where people could submit new words... or new meanings for old words.  Every member of Pinker's  website would pay $1/month but they could use their pennies to help sort the list of words/meanings.  At the top of the list would be the most valuable new words/meanings... they would receive the most attention... which means that they would be more quickly integrated into the language.  Determining people's willingness to pay (WTP) for new words/meanings would facilitate the efficient evolution of language.  Language would go from real to megareal in less time... and so would society.

Right now there are markets for products that we can spend our money on (food, clothes, etc)... and "markets" for products that we can't spend our money on (coasianism, language, etc).  If Cowen had pointed out this market dichotomy/paradox to Pinker... how would he have responded?  How would Jonathan Haidt have responded?  Would their responses have been as intelligent as they are?  If not, then how many intelligent people would Cowen have to ask before an intelligent answer was provided?

It's not that we technically can't spend our money on the word "megareal", for example, it's just that there's no pragmatarian system for us to do so.  Part of the premise of pragmatarianism is the free-rider problem...

1. We all have limited attention/time/brainpower
2. Not all ideas are equally valuable
3. Spending improves rationality
4. The free-rider problem is a real problem

With the pragmatarian model, the free-rider problem is solved.  With Pinker's website, I might as well spend my pennies on "megareal" and on other new words/meanings that I value...

Under most real-world taxing institutions, the tax price per unit at which collective goods are made available to the individual will depend, at least to some degree, on his own behavior. This element is not, however, important under the major tax institutions such as the personal income tax, the general sales tax, or the real property tax. With such structures, the individual may, by changing his private behavior, modify the tax base (and thus the tax price per unit of collective goods he utilizes), but he need not have any incentive to conceal his "true" preferences for public goods. - James M. Buchanan, The Economics of Earmarked Taxes

Would Pinker also be willing to spend $1/month on the new words/meanings that he values?  Or does he want to maintain the belief that determining WTP isn't necessary for language/culture/society to efficiently evolve?

Ideally, what we want is an arena in which the rules of the game make it so that no matter how emotionally tied you are to your belief, if it’s wrong, it’ll be shown to be wrong and it’ll just be too embarrassing to hold on to it or at least for other people to hold on to it indefinitely. That’s what I consider to be the ideal of what science is all about, and intellectual discourse in general. - Steven Pinker

Right now I'm holding onto the idea that voting should be replaced with spending (coasianism).  Am I holding onto the wrong idea?

Let’s say if people say harmful things — take a classic case. There’s a football team called the Washington Redskins. I’m pretty sure most of its fans, the intent is not offense, but there is an offense there for many people. It’s called a harm, and there are some demands that name be changed. There is a public or social dimension to the name, that if certain groups are insulted enough times maybe there’s a demoralization or other kinds of prejudice become seen as more effective.  How do you think through whether the Washington Redskins should be called the Washington Redskins, and does this not mean that on campus there should be some political correctness? - Tyler Cowen

These ideas are clearly conflicting.  How should the conflict be resolved?  By voting?

Once they start saying we’re going to put to a vote everything. Everyone gets to opine on whether we take down this, take down this. Before you know it, you’re taking down everything because presumably religious students are offended by certain things, conservative students are offended by certain things, everyone’s offended by something. - Jonathan Haidt

Not by voting?  So by a market for ideas?

You have to see college campuses as being institutions that were designed or intended to be places where people come up against diverse ideas, they’re challenged, and as within the marketplace — monopoly destroys a lot of the value of the marketplace — if you have a monopoly on ideas in the intellectual marketplace, you kill the marketplace. Campuses are supposed to be places where nobody has a monopoly on ideas, but they’ve become that in the last few years. - Jonathan Haidt

The idea of a market for ideas is really wonderful, but... it's really painful that this "market" is missing the idea of determining people's WTP for ideas.  All markets should be based on WTP!  Why?  Again...

1. We all have limited attention/time/brainpower
2. Not all ideas are equally valuable
3. Spending improves rationality
4. The free-rider problem is a real problem

What would happen if the owners of the Washington Redskins used coasianism to decide whether or not to change the name?  Then the relevant ideas would be sorted by their true social value.  As a result, society's limited attention/time/brainpower would be efficiently allocated.

Again, this is a critique from outside, but what a lot of people say which sounds right to me is that the early economists were great social theorists. My God, you read Adam Smith, what a brilliant world philosopher, historian, they thought so broadly and you tell me, but it seems there was a weird turn in the mid‑20th century towards mathematics. - Jonathan Haidt

From my perspective, the Wealth of Nations is the most valuable book ever written.  Here's what I consider to be the most valuable passage/idea in this most valuable book...

It is thus that the private interests and passions of individuals naturally dispose them to turn their stocks towards the employments which in ordinary cases are most advantageous to the society. But if from this natural preference they should turn too much of it towards those employments, the fall of profit in them and the rise of it in all others immediately dispose them to alter this faulty distribution. Without any intervention of law, therefore, the private interests and passions of men naturally lead them to divide and distribute the stock of every society among all the different employments carried on in it as nearly as possible in the proportion which is most agreeable to the interest of the whole society. - Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations 

Right now the distribution of attention/time/brainpower is faulty.  In other words, our limited resources are inefficiently allocated.  This is simply because there are far too many "markets" that don't determine people's WTP.  Why are there so many "markets" that don't determine people's WTP?  Because there isn't a pragmatarian market that would allow myself, and everybody else, to sort books and their ideas by their true value.

Compare Adam Smith's passage to this passage by Andy Greenberg...

What’s more, some limited evidence suggests that this kind of quick detection can actually help to tame trolling. Conversation AI was inspired in part by an experiment undertaken by Riot Games, the video­game company that runs the world’s biggest multi­player world, known as League of Legends, with 67 million players. Starting in late 2012, Riot began using machine learning to try to analyze the results of in-game conversations that led to players being banned. It used the resulting algorithm to show players in real time when they had made sexist or abusive remarks. When players saw immediate automated warnings, 92 percent of them changed their behavior for the better, according to a report in the science journal Nature. -  Andy Greenberg, Inside Google’s Internet Justice League and its AI-Powered War on Trolls 

Google is allocating a massive amount of society's limited attention/time/brainpower in order to try and use AI to solve the problem of trolling and abusive comments.  Why are they trying to use AI instead of IH (Invisible Hand)?  Why does Google think that an AI feedback loop will improve behavior more than a IH feedback loop would?

It's one thing if Jared Cohen had said, "Yeah, we created an IH feedback loop for comments... but it didn't work.   It turned out that the most abusive comments/ideas were actually the most valuable. So now we're allocating our resources to improving the AI feedback loop."  The impression that I get is that Cohen doesn't even realize that the IH feedback loop is an option.

Those of us who truly value/understand the IH feedback loop have completely failed to bring it to the attention of Google and countless other organizations.

Caplan recently tweeted a link to one of his older blog entries...


What prompts even unsophisticated consumers to practice self-correction?  The reason is pretty obvious: In markets, self-correction saves the self-corrector money, quality, time, and/or convenience.   If you don't self-correct, you get burned.  Badly.  And often.           
The opposite holds in politics.  Few voters exhibit even rudimentary self-correction.

In my previous blog entry I shared an experiment that Galloism helped to facilitate.  At a local college, a psychology professor is allowing three of his classes to decide whether they have class outside or inside.  One of the classes is using voting while the other two are using spending (coasianism).

Last Monday, all three classes decided to have class outside.  In both of the coasianism classes, there were two individuals who successfully cheated.

All of the cheaters in the morning class got burned.  Will their class have more or less cheaters the next time?  In the afternoon class, none of the cheaters got burned.  Will their class have more or less cheaters the next time?

Trying to play chicken with your class might be fun for some, but I'm guessing that it won't end up being a very profitable long-term strategy...

It is impossible for anyone, even if he be a statesman of genius, to weigh the whole community's utility and sacrifice against each other.  - Knut Wicksell, A New Principle of Just Taxation

As the cheaters realize this, the two conflicting ideas (outside vs inside) will be accurately sorted by their value.

Last year Bryan Caplan posted a blog entry about the problem with seminars...

Can't speakers deflect the pointless interruptions to make the talk train run on time?  It's tough.  You can't just say, "Please, only good questions."  And once you take one silly question, every other squeaky wheel feels entitled to put in his two cents.  "Hey, my question's clearly better than the last guy's!"  As a speaker, then, you have to choose between offending a fifth of the audience or boring the entirety.  Professionally speaking, the former is the greater danger. - Bryan Caplan, How to Fix Seminars

What was Caplan's solution?  It sure wasn't this...

What prompts even unsophisticated consumers to practice self-correction?  The reason is pretty obvious: In markets, self-correction saves the self-corrector money, quality, time, and/or convenience.   If you don't self-correct, you get burned.  Badly.  And often. 

Once you have a forum based on the pragmatarian model, then the speaker can start a thread that members of the audience can reply to whenever they have an idea (question or comment).  The "crowd" can use their pennies to sort the ideas by their value.  The most valuable ideas will be at the top of the list.  The speaker can easily find them and address them at any time.  After the seminar is over, the group can continue using the thread to discuss/debate the topic and valuate/sort the ideas.

Each member of the group would efficiently/effectively tap into the group's collective intelligence/information.  The people who share the most valuable ideas will be rewarded for improving the group's collective intelligence/information.  Incentives matter...

1. We all have limited attention/time/brainpower
2. Not all ideas are equally valuable
3. Spending improves rationality
4. The free-rider problem is a real problem
5. Incentives matter

Scott Sumner also brought up the quality concern regarding comments...

I'm not going to even comment on the Ashley Madison case.  I've found that Americans are so deranged when it comes to matters of gender, race, and sex that it's almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation on those subjects.  So I generally try to avoid those topics.  (Actually Bryan is one of the few people I know with whom I could have an intelligent conversation on any topic, if no commenters were listening in.)  - Scott Sumner, Beyond victims and villains

And I tried to bring the IH solution to his attention.  My favorite liberal economist, John Quiggin, also had the same issue with comments...

Plume, I agree with other commenters here. From now on, for my post, can you limit yourself to one comment per post per day. - John Quiggin, Income redistribution: Where should we start?  
Brett, you were banned some time ago. I don’t want my discussion threads derailed by debates with you. Could other commenters refrain from responding to Brett, please. - John Quiggin, Locke’s Road to Serfdom

I also tried to bring the IH solution to his attention...

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While I'm at it... I should point out that the solution to the comment problem really isn't to limit Plume's comments.  The solution is to create a market in the comment section!  Quiggin could spend his pennies on whichever comments he values most.  Everybody else could do the same.  Then, if people wanted to, they could sort the comments by their value.  The most valuable comments would be at the top of the comment section and the least valuable comments would be at the bottom of the comment section.

If we think of Quiggin's blog entry as a home... then the comment section would be the garden.  Plume is a weed that grows everywhere in the garden.  He takes up way too much space in the garden.  The thing is... it's a really big garden... and not all the space is equally valuable.  The most valuable space is closest to the house.  So the problem really isn't that Plume is taking up too much space... the problem is that he's taking up too much valuable space.  All the valuable space that Plume takes up could be used for far more valuable plants.  Sure, Quiggin could manually limit the amount of valuable space that Plume occupies... but a far more effective approach would be for Quiggin to give more water, food and love to the plants that he values most.  They would grow more vigorously and, as a result, they would crowd out Plume and all the other weeds.  Pretty soon all the most valuable space in the garden would be occupied entirely by the most valuable plants.  The garden would still have weeds... but they would be located in the most remote part of the very big garden.

This is how and why markets work.  Consumers can't pull weeds... but they can help nourish the most beneficial plants.  The logical result of consumer choice is that resources are unevenly distributed among the unequally beneficial plants.  Redistribution might seem fair... but it simply provides more valuable space to less valuable plants.

Nobody truly benefits when society's limited resources are placed in less beneficial hands.  In other words, the opportunity cost of fairness is way too high.

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And a bit here as well....

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Some weeds are hard to get rid of!  Clearly Quiggin doesn't value Plume's and Brett's contributions as highly as he values other people's contributions.  Just like I don't value all the different plants in my garden equally.  "Weeds" are the plants that I value the least.  I'd be happy if my garden didn't have any weeds in it!  In fact, I'd love to have a magic wand that would instantly turn each and every weed in my garden into an orchid!  How awesome would that be?  I would just wave the wand over a weed and voila!  It would be instantly transformed into an orchid!  Then my garden would provide me with much more value!

Quiggin definitely wants his blog's comment section to provide him with much more value.   He also definitely opposes slavery.  But honestly I'm not quite sure why he opposes slavery.  I don't think that I've ever read a blog entry of his that he's dedicated to explaining why, exactly, he opposes slavery.  

What's wrong with slavery?  Let's take Brett for example.  Right now he's a weed in Quiggin's garden.  From Quiggin's perspective... all the space that Brett takes up in Quiggin's garden could be allocated to far more valuable plants.  In other words... the opportunity cost of Brett is too high.  What if Quiggin could wave his magic wand and transform Brett into an orchid?  Wouldn't that be a good thing?  And isn't slavery a magic wand that would do the trick?  Then Brett would do whatever Quiggin wanted him to do.

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Anyways, I think that you get my point.  Ideas should be sorted by their value.  This can only be accomplished when we determine people's WTP for ideas.  As far as I can tell, according to the basic facts...

1. We all have limited attention/time/brainpower
2. Not all ideas are equally valuable
3. Spending improves rationality
4. The free-rider problem is a real problem
5. Incentives matter

... pragmatarianism and coasianism are two excellent ways to determine people's WTP for ideas.

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