Sunday, October 28, 2007

Caplan a Communist?

So I've been dipping into Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter. It probably represents the state-of-the-art in marketeer thinking, and addresses voting which is an issue I've messed around with here before. It's a well reasoned and written book as far as it goes, but it's breathtakingly biased itself -- in favor of economists and against humans. Underlying it is an assumption that economics is an actual science, with objective results that have the same epistemological status as the findings of physics or biology. I've got news for Caplan -- the economics Noble is a fake Nobel, and economics, while certainly a valuable field of study, is not science, and people may disagree with its findings without being ignorant, stupid, or crazy.

Here's a synopsis of Caplan's argument:

- voters are astonishingly misinformed (this, unfortunately, is true)

- BUT, that might not be a problem if voters ignorance expresses itself randomly. In that case, aggregation will result in the ignorance averaging out and the small fraction of well-informed voters will end up determining the result (YAY).

- BUT, voters are not randomly ignorant, they are systematically ignorant or biased (BOO)

- the evidence for that bias is that they disagree in surveys with the views of Ph.D. economists (WHA?)

See what happened in that last point? Somehow, reality is what the academic field of economics says it is, and if you disagree with them, you are wrong.

The breathtaking smugness and arrogance of this position is really quite something, especially when it gets expressed about specific issues, such as protectionism and downsizing. Downsizing, to the marketeer, is an unalloyed good -- the corporation is performing its function while cutting costs, thus increasing profits and efficiency, la di da. "Every time we figure out how to accomplish a goal using fewer workers, it enriches society, because labor is a valuable resource". This is true from the bird's eye view of society, from the systems perspective, from a global perspective. Markets reward and encourage efficiency, downsizing is result of this process. OK. But nowhere does Caplan even deign to acknowledge the rather fundamental fact that individuals do not take the global view. Individuals are concerned with their own well-being, and so might not take as cheery a view of downsizing as a tenured economist or a Wall Street analyst. And this is perfectly rational. To the ordinary laboring shlub, someone Caplan has apparently never met and never thinks about, the gains in market efficiency are distant and theoretical while the loss from downsizing is immediate and devastating.

Here's what's weird -- I thought economics was all about individuals pursuing their own selfish ends, and through the magic of the market weaving those myriad local, selfish goal-seekers into collective wealth generation. So why is there an assumption that when someone goes into the voting booth, they should forget about their own interests and only be interested in some abstract, global concept of economic efficiency? I find this really weird. Caplan believes that when voters stroll into a voting booth, they should vote against protectionism because that is what's good for the abstract entity called "the economy", not because it's in their own particular self-interest. Somehow this quasi-libertarian marketeer has become almost communist in his assumption that people should be putting the good of society over their personal self-interest.

Maybe I'm missing something, since I haven't read the whole book in detail. But nowhere in the first few chapters do I see any acknowledgment that individuals might have a perfectly rational interest in policies that diverge from maximizing the global efficiency of the market.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Theory and Practice of Netarchy

[warning -- way too long]

Netarchy is a word I came up with to describe an imaginaged system of governance that relies, not on top-down hierarchies of power, nor on the supposedly bottom-up collective decision-making of markets, but on power distributed, transmitted, and exercised through social networks.

There are two different versions of netarchy. There's the purely descriptive version, which is just taking note of the very common observation that in the real existing world, individuals exercise influence by means of their social networks. Having spent some small time with high-powered business types, I have observed that their Rolodex is their most important asset and tool. The same is true in government, journalism, academia, and just about any other field of human endeavor. It's not a particularly original observation, of course. Everybody and there brother is trying to get social networks online or otherwise cash in on them. However, nobody seems to have quite nailed down in words the fact that these networks rule the world. So, perhaps the word netarchy can be of some service in foregrounding that fact.

The second version of netarchy is more interesting -- it's the idea that we can craft systems of governance that make these networks explicit and bring more people into them, and replace traditional party structures with something more dynamic and flexible.

A political party or organization is essentially a network or coalition that connects the leadership with the rank-and-file, along with various middlemen (organizers, consultants, etc). Parties interface with various interest groups (businesses, labor, lobbying groups like the AARP) via contributions and socia connections. The goal of a party is to build a coalition that can take and hold power.

A party or coalition should ideally express the common values and goals of its members. The US 2-party system is rather poor at this, since it requires widely disparate groups and values to be lumped together. The Republican party, for example, has to hold together religious fundamentalists, business interests, quasi-libertarian anti-government types, and hawkish neoconservatives. There is no particular reason that all these factions should be pulling in the same direction.

Parliamentary systems have greater latitude for forming coherent coalitions. Typically countries with such systems have a 2-4 major parties and a host of smaller ones. The parties themselves come together in coalitions to form governments, but the existence of the separate parties serves to coalesce group values in a way the US system doesn't.

Direct democracy

All the parliamentary systems were designed for eras before electronic communication and certainly before the internet. In that era, it was necessary for elections to be infrequent, for representatives to debate and decide things on behalf of the larger populace. While that might still be desireable, it is no longer necessary. It would be perfectly possible nowadays to have direct democracy, where debate and voting is handled over the web. The web has in fact evolved numerous debating societies, but has no real power. It's slowly replacing journalism, but not actual government.

Of course, most people don't have the time or inclination to participate directly in government. Nor should they have to. On the other hand, pretty much everybody hates the political system and the very few choices it presents. So, can we design a system that works better? Let's not worry about the fact that changing the fundamental political system, or even modifying it slightly, is next to impossible. Maybe the coming global-warming-induced collapse of society will create an opportunity for new systems to arise.


Here's my loose proposal for how a fully networked governance should work.

Anybody anywhere can start an interest group, with roughly the same effort it takes to start a blog.

Interest groups can have members, and this process is recursive -- that is, an interest group can join another, larger interest group. This is the coalition/party forming mechanism.

Groups can form their own internal governance mechanisms to make decisions (like which larger groups to join). There will be standardized models available.

Groups that are big enough get to be part of the government. "Big enough" is defined by some threshold of membership, or by taking the biggest n, or something like that.

Assume there's an issue to be voted on. The vote is called, and all the organizations that are part of the government get to express their vote. Every group has a certain amount of voting power. How is this power determined?

Here's where it gets a little bit interesting. This general structure can support a number of different schemes, separately or together. In the simplest model, ever person is allowed to join a single group, and a group's voting power is determined by the (recursive) sum of their membership. The vote of a group is determined in a winner-take-all vote. Issues that come up for a vote flow down the tree, and votes travel back up.

If we let all votes flow up the tree without a winner-take-all step, the result is equivalent to direct democracy, with one imporant difference, which is that belonging to a group absolves individuals of the need to actually vote on every issue. That is, if you belong to a group (say, the equivalent in this new world of Planned Parenthood), and a vote comes up on an antiabortion measure, you have the option of transmitting your vote through the organization, or you can just trust them to exercise a vote for you.

Group membership could be changed at any time, although some groups might try to get longer-term commitments from their members, which would increase their barganing strength. Presumably the large-scale groups would have to engage in the kind of poltical bargaining that goes on now, where one faction trades votes with another -- this is hard to do if the coalitions are too dynamic, so it might be desireable to build some friction into the system.

Complicating things

The above assumes that each individual is a member of exactly one low-level group, which is then bundled up into coalitions. But in reality, people might want to join multiple groups that express their values in different areas. For instance, say I'm an anti-choice environmentalist. Under the current system I'm stuck, since my values don't place me solidly in either party. In netarchy 1.0, above, I'm also stuck. But suppose you can join multiple groups and somehow split your individual voting power between them?

There's a number of different ways this could work. One obvious way is to split your single vote up into fractional powers that get distributed to different groups, but that's not very satisfactory, since it means the more things you care about the less pull you have with each. A more elaborate scheme would be to create a series of rules or filters, that basically assigns a different group to each vote depending on the content of the bill (if bill contains "abortion", count me with The Catholic League, if it contains "environment", count me with the Sierra Club, otherwise, count me with the Libertarian Party).

The computational and network mechanisms to accompish all this remain to be designed. They may not be practical -- after all, designing systems to support our ordinary, simpleminded voting system has many nontrivial security issues to deal with.

What this looks like

Changing the focus to user experience -- what does this mean in terms of web media? I think the idea is that we transform the current sprawl of online forums, blogs, and chatter into a network of debating societies, but debating societies that can actually make decisions and send their collective wisdom upstream. Like any group, there will be more and less active members, leaders and followers -- groups might have internal governance structures with elected officers -- but anybody is free at any time to start their own group. It's still pretty hierarchical, but that's basically a requirement of any system that collects votes and funnels them up to a decision point. If it's a hierarchy, it's at least one that can be dynamically reconfigured at any time, on any level, if the participants feel like it.

Essentially we are replacing the legislature with a more dynamic networked structure for collecting and conveying people's opinions and votes.

Well, this will never happen, barring a major revolution. Still, it's interesting to imagine what could happen if our 225-year old structures of governance could be given a modern technological makeover.

Hm, on reflection, what I think is more likely to happen is the government devolving and getting slowly replaced by networked organizations that are more efficient and responsive. Maybe they'll work as described above. Maybe, as they start small and grow and interconnect to form something bigger that can actually manage the planet, or what's left of it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Double plusgood, in fact

Here's a radical notion: Government is Good! I have to admire the courage of this website and its proprietor, to take such a forthright and deeply unpopular stance in the face of the general braindead libertarianism of the Intertubes.

Note: it is the official philosophy of this blog that government is in itself neither good nor bad, it is just an inescapable fact of human existence, and given that, there are certainly differentially good and bad forms of it. And, we have some obligation to join in the social process of sorting through those forms, ie politics, no matter how distasteful it may seem (if it sounds like I'm trying to convince myself, that's because I am).

h/t: a braindead libertarian, who goes on at great length proving that government is (can you guess) not so good. I can't resist quoting:

Before the New Deal, people took jobs that they preferred, and quit if the jobs did not pay sufficiently to compensate for the hazards and environment.
Whereas after the New Deal, as we all know, workers were rounded up into forced labor camps and shot if they tried to quit.

Here is a picture of some workers exercising their free economic choice in the paradisical, pre-New Deal world of unrestrained capitalism:

Damn you, FDR, for interfering with these children's voluntary exercise of their economic freedom.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Blogging is so over

Wow, the State Department has a blog (h/t Yglesias). As does the US government as a whole. And Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, and a random assortment of other government agencies.

If blogging ever meant anything, it was a chance for individual voices to reach a wide audience without instiutional mediation. Somewhere along the line they became marketing tools, and now big companies and big government are using them as a friendlier form of press release. I can't tell if this is fraudulent or represents a real opening up. It sounds promising:

With Dipnote we are going to take you behind the scenes at the State Department and bring you closer to the personalities of the Department. We are going to try and break through some of the jargon and talk about how we operate around the world.

I wonder how many people have to approve a posting to one of these blogs before its allowed to go public. I also am not sure who is going to read the State Department blog other than people already involved in government dealings in some way.