27
Nov
10

Robin Hanson makes a strong push to win the internet

These two posts on Overcoming Bias are pretty damn strong:

Briefly:

These results seriously question the relation between winning and easy-to-observe local measures of rationality.  In at least two important contexts, people whose actions seem more locally consistent, consistently lose.

This suggests that either (a) there’s a serious methodological flaw in the study or (b) utilitarianism, behavioral economics, and so on are simply bah-roken.  I’d put the odds at 60% that (a) is correct, but commenters assuming (a) generally show that they didn’t read the full excerpt all that carefully.  He concludes:

Clearly the processes behind our inconsistencies aren’t just random errors, and aren’t very close to expected utility; simple-minded attempts to make them more consistent seem to make them worse.

Hanson’s next post addresses one of my favourite bugbears:

First he quotes Arnold Kling, who’s commenting on Ezra Klein’s notion that it’s better to give money to rich people who’ll lobby for government to give money to poor people than to actually give money to poor people.  Here’s Arnold:

So he winds up giving his money to support a think tank whose employees are somewhere around the 95th percentile of the income distribution, in the hope that they will help tilt the rent-seeking in Washington in a direction that he likes. … It is actually sort of sad for a policy wonk to settle on the idea of making donations to an organization of policy wonks.

Next, some more analysis along the lines of “policy vs. politics”, with poorly-hidden linear algebra content:

If public policy is a point a high dimensional space, then every policy change has two components: a partisan and a non-partisan change. Partisan changes are along standard partisan axes, where people are lined up in a tug-o-war on different sides pulling in different directions. Non partisan changes, in contrast, are not seen as a win for one side relative to others. Technically, partisan changes project total changes into the partisan subspace.

Assuming all parties think they seek good, partisan changes can only be good if some parties are right while others are wrong about what is good. In contrast, you can be right about a non-partisan change without others being wrong. Since the total space has a far larger dimension that the partisan space, there is a huge scope for searching in that larger space for changes that all sides could see as good. And donations to encourage such efforts can indeed consistently produce large social gains relative to their costs.

Donations to change policy within the partisan subspace, however, only achieve good when they happen to be on the right side of partisan disagreements. Averaged over the disagreeing parties, such donations cannot on average achieve good unless there is a correlation between between donations, or donation effectiveness, and which sides are right.  Even if you think you are right at the moment on your particular partisan policy opinions, you can’t think it good on average to encourage partisan donations, unless you think donations tend overall to go to the good or more donation-effective sides.

RTWT.

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