Liberals versus conservatives? Nope

Types A and B map reasonably well onto today’s culture wars, with A the modern/liberal and B the traditional/conservative. It maps well to the rich-poor axis from the World Value Survey.  But in fact, type A vs. B are actually foragers vs. farmers. [The above summarizes many books and articles I've read over the last year.]  Which is my point: I think a lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways, with forager ways slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution. It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when richer we feel we can afford to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace domination and ranking, are required to generate industry-level wealth. We live a farmer lifestyle when poor, but prefer to buy a forager lifestyle when rich.

From a 2010 post by Robin Hanson. Click through to read the descriptions of Type A and Type B people.

From a later post by Hanson on the same topic:

Farming required huge behavior changes, mostly unnatural to foragers. A key enabler seems to have been increased self-control to follow social norms. But what allowed this increased self-control?

One source was moving from vague spirituality to religions with powerful and morally-outraged gods who punish norm violators. In addition (as I’ll explain tomorrow), high densities and larger social networks made stronger credible threats to ostracize folks for specific deviant acts.  Yes both these mechanisms require the fear that norm violations could lead to great harm, even death. But for poor farmers living on edge, such threats were easy to come by.

Interestingly, this death-threat pressure could work even without farmers being conscious of the relevant threats or fears. In fact, farming society probably worked better with homo hypocritus farmers, consciously denying that strong social pressures pushed them to do what would otherwise feel unnatural.

A large robust literature makes it clear that inducing people to unconsciously think about death pushes them to more strongly obey and defend cultural norms, especially norms framed as disgust at animal-like behavior.  Today, fear of death encourages folks to obey authorities, and be more loyal to their communities and spouses, all strong farmer norms.

Count me among the foragers, though until reading these posts I'd never call it that. Thanks Mom and Dad for giving me the chance to live like a forager, I am blessed.

The farmer-forager dichotomy is like some variant of the Myers Briggs personality test.

Nate Silver and Sam Wang on impact of shutdown

Sam Wang penned an article on the impact of the government shutdown on Republicans and their House seats. It's titled "Republicans could lose their House majority because of the shutdown":

Since the election is over a year away, it is hard to predict how this will translate to future seat gain/loss. If the election were held today, Democrats would pick up around 30 seats, giving them control of the chamber. I do not expect this to happen. Many things will happen in the coming 12 months, and the current crisis might be a distant memory. But at this point I do expect Democrats to pick up seats next year, an exception to the midterm rule.

Nate Silver was the more famous of the election prediction pundits from the last Presidential election, but among people who followed that space closely Sam Wang's Princeton Election Consortium was just as much a must-follow. Silver's relaunch of hasn't arrived yet, but in the meantime he penned a quick piece over at Grantland, his temporary home.

1. The media is probably overstating the magnitude of the shutdown's political impact.

Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public's interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won't turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time.

Some took these two pieces as an opportunity to pit the two pundits against each other, but as Wang notes, the two are not as far apart as provocative headlines might make it seem. Wang does think this time could be different, though.

Multiple polls, including detailed onerom NBC/WSJ, show that public sentiment has turned against the GOP. Under the radar, gerrymandered districts are swinging much harder than I was expecting. If the election were today, Democrats would control the House by about 50 seats. That will fade, but by how much?

Silver lists other events that didn’t move opinion: Benghazi, and the IRS business, and Syria. But the shutdown has, bigtime. I agree with him that most pundits emit bulls**t, which is why I am working on a prediction model. Right now, the model is saying: as long as the GOP stays on its current path, where the House goes next fall is an even-money bet.

How this impacts the next election will be a fascinating test of whether this gambit by the extremists in the Republican Party really boomerangs on them. Any system that divorces costs from actions really kills the feedback loop that's needed for continuous improvement. 

Lobbying: a great (the greatest?) investment

In a striking infographic, the United Republic shows why lobbying is so pervasive: it's an unbelievably effective form of spending (for now I'm linking to the NYTimes hosted version of the infographic as most of United Republic's pages, including the infographic, are 404'ing on me).

As the NYTimes article notes, the ROI on lobbying dwarfs that of any investment an ordinary citizen might hope to capture.

According to statistics United Republic assembled, the prescription drug industry spent $116 million lobbying for legislation to prevent Medicare from bargaining down drug prices — legislation that enabled drug companies to make an additional $90 billion annually. That amounts to an extraordinary 77,500 percent return on investment. Oil companies, in turn, had a return on investment of 5,900 percent, and multinational companies, 22,000 percent.

You're not feeling as hot about those shares of Apple or Google you've held for a few years now, are you?

In fact, the ROI on lobbying is so astronomically high that Tyler Cowen wonders why politician's don't demand larger bribes from lobbyists, or why companies don't spend more on lobbying. This disparity between the cost of lobbying and its returns is known as Tullock paradox. It's ironic, isn't it, to ask why government isn't more corrupt than it already is?

In Government's End, Jonathan Rauch predicted this would be the logical wall any democratic government would run into: demosclerosis, or the inability of a democratic government to deal with our deep problems because motivated lobbyists spend billions fighting for and maintaining the status quo. In such a situation, only marginal incremental change is possible.

If you've ever worked in a large corporation you may also recognize that inertia that comes from entrenched groups defending their turf.

It would be wonderful if we could simplify our tax code, but the prevalence of lobbying makes it unlikely. So many of the odd tax loopholes and shelters and rules are there specifically because some narrow interest group fought to get them into the tax code.

In fact, my variant of the Tullock paradox is why corporations like Apple still have to shelter foreign income from domestic taxes at all. You'd think they'd have lobbied their way to ways to get that income back home without the IRS laying their hands on much of it at all.


I admire [CNN's] commitment to covering all sides of a story...just in case one of them happens to be accurate.

When Obama leaves office, one of the things I'll miss the most are his comedy routines at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. The one he gave last night was one of the best yet.

I recognize that the Press and I have different jobs. My job is to be President, your job is to keep me humble. Frankly I think I'm doing my job better.

Seriously, he has some serious comedic timing, that's a gift. He also has some great joke writers, and they deserve some recognition. Who are they? Conan O'Brien could've used them last night.

Some interests more special than others

Some of the senators who voted against the background-check amendments have met with grieving parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook, in Newtown. Some of the senators who voted no have also looked into my eyes as I talked about my experience being shot in the head at point-blank range in suburban Tucson two years ago, and expressed sympathy for the 18 other people shot besides me, 6 of whom died. These senators have heard from their constituents — who polls show overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks. And still these senators decided to do nothing. Shame on them.

I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like “tough vote” and “complicated issue.” I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.

Gabrielle Giffords on the Senate's failure to pass any of the three gun control legislation measures today. When something like the Toomey-Manchin bill which would extend background checks and which 90 percent of the country supports gets rejected by the Senate, it's clear who the Senate represents. It's not the majority.

You can peruse the list of Senators who voted for and against the measure. All but four Republicans voted against the measure, and four Democrats defected and voted against the measure.

Even if the Senate had passed the measure, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would have ended its hopes.

If there is any consolation in this effort, it's that the Senators who voted against the measure were acting not as representatives of the people but as self-interested politicians. It means that there is a clear path to defeating the NRA: deliver more money and more votes.

Obama summed up the situation clearly:

They are better organized, they are better financed, they’ve been at it longer and they make sure to stay focused on this one issue during election time. That’s the reason why you can have something that 90 percent of Americans support and you can't get it through the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Your Senator will represent you, but it's going to cost you.


When it comes to Washington’s current (and to all appearances permanent) fiscal fracas, the semantic weeds are as high as an elephant’s eye and higher than a donkey’s. In the battles over debt limits, fiscal cliffs, continuing resolutions, and the budget, the clashing sides deploy duelling vocabularies. The Democrats’ revenue enhancements, public investments, and “the one per cent” are the Republicans’ tax hikes, reckless government spending, and “the job creators.” Reading from left to right, the inheritance tax is the estate tax is the death tax. The Dems prevail in a few of these skirmishes, the Reps in a few more. Most are stalemated. But in one of them the conservative side long ago won a decisive victory, a victory at once famous and infamous: “entitlements.”

Hendrik Hertzberg on the Republican rhetorical victory over programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Too bad Google's Ngram viewer doesn't go beyond 2008 now, but even up to then the Google Ngram for entitlements shows a steady rise through the late 1990's, and it's still far above what it was in the 1970's.

Books aren't the ideal or most complete corpus for measuring the use of this term in political discourse, but it does seem to support Hertzberg's thesis.

The singularity already happened

One of my favourite recurring tropes of AI speculation/singulatarian deep time thinking is mediations on how an evil AI or similar might destroy us.
And all I can think is: we already have one of those. It is pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that 1. a marketplace regime of firms dedicated to maximizing profit has—broadly speaking—added a lot of value to the world 2. there are a lot of important cases where corporate profit maximization causes harm to humans 3. corporations are—broadly speaking—really good at ensuring that their needs are met.

From Mini. Quiet Babylon. Intriguing.

Some of this is a time horizon issue. At some sufficiently long time horizon, things like environmental destruction or, to take a more popular AI trope, the destruction of the human race, would seem to be counter to a profit motive.

Perhaps that's the wrinkle in this hypothesis. For a variety of reasons, corporations have failed to survive for very long; most have a lifespan shorter than that of the average human (the open market being a ruthless jungle to try to survive in). Not long enough, I suspect, to execute on a long-term plan to destroy humanity. Given this theory, we should perhaps regard antitrust regulation with even more respect.

The linked post mentions that corporations have corrupted American politics. Jonathan Rauch makes a great argument in his book Government's End why the American political system is hugely susceptible to the influence of special interests, and it's not just the profit motive but inherent structural flaws in the American (and many other) forms of government.

Interview with Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen would make a great lunch companion, and he was one for this interview with the Financial Times. Interesting, as always. A few tidbits:

Nevertheless, he is worried about the number of people going into finance. “I think about this a lot: you’re young, you come from a smart, wealthy family, you’re somehow supposed to show that you’re successful quite quickly. Banking, law, consultancy allow you to do this; engineering, science and entrepreneurship less so. Your friends expect it, your parents, your potential mates do ... So we see so many talented people very quickly having to signal how smart they are but that may not be the longest-term social productivity.”

On politics:

“What I would like to vote for is a candidate that is socially liberal, a fiscal conservative, broadly libertarian with a small ‘l’ but sensible and pragmatic and with a chance of winning. That’s more or less the empty set.”

And, just because he always has to write something that surprises me:

“Sports is remarkably cognitive. I think it’s underrated just how smart it is. Actually, if I had more time, I would spend more time with sports. Watching it, reading about it, I think it’s oddly underrated.”