Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Another Systemic Problem: Correlation of Consequence

This is another installment of "big picture ideas", aka political philosophical exploration...

Democratic society, at its fundamental level, works on the basis of automatic self-correction, as do many other systems (evolution, various computerized automatic organization algorithms, neural networks, etc.). The basic idea is that you have some direct input into the results of the system (in the case of democracy, that's voting), and to that extent you somewhat control the outcomes. By observing the outcomes, and evaluating their benefit/harm to yourself, you adjust your inputs in the future, so as to influence the system to produce more beneficial results. These systems work fairly well... with some rather large caveats.

One problem is timing: change is slow, and there can be painful missteps along the way. To compensate, many of these systems allow/encourage biasing the input based on the expectations of results; ie: voting for a politician because of campaign promises, etc. Participants also consider similar previous inputs, based on the supposition that similarity in input qualities will, at least in some cases, carry through to similarities in output events (eg: favoring political parties). These mechanisms can work, but they rely on the accuracy of the information and suppositions, both of which are very tenuous at best in the political work (campaign promises, in particular, are suspect to the point of being well-understood to be laughable). Fortunately, these "input bias" methods don't have to be accurate; as long as the feedback loop works well, eventually the system will produce inputs which lead to beneficial outputs regardless.

This brings us to the larger problem: ensuring the feedback loop works correctly, which is vital to long-term success for the system. To this end, participants need to be able to evaluate the consequences (results) of the actions of the system given their inputs (elected officials), and correlate those consequences to the inputs accurately. This is where there's a huge problem in many democratic societies, and the US in particular. As examples, how many voters would accurately attribute the higher level of perceived inflation than that which is officially reported to Bill Clinton's manipulation of the CPI? The huge unfunded social network liabilities to FDR's establishing of a government-sanctioned pyramid scheme? The housing bubble (at least in part) to the change in tax treatment for capital gains from sales of primary residences? There are many other examples, some obvious and others less clear, but most not well understood.

How, then, are voters to adjust their voting to benefit themselves when they cannot accurately assess the results of previous votes, and correlate them to their own actions? Let me state something, and let it sink in: there are voters in this country who think the health care takeover bill is about providing universal health care for people. Or this: there are voters who think the government needs to be doing more to prop up the housing market. Or even this: we have voters who think the government should be doing more to regulate businesses to help create jobs. Think about how stupid any of those premises are, how bad they would be for the country, and yet how benign they might sounds to the average non-thinking individual, and how even purportedly "smart" people hold some of the beliefs. How can we reasonably expect the feedback loop system to function when we have active participants who are pushing the system in the complete wrong direction?

We need a system whereby the voters can really experience the effects of their efforts in isolation from the people who think differently, and visa-versa. We need a system where the capitalists and the socialists can co-exist, rather than trying to pull one country in two polar opposite directions. We need a system where when the socialist part inevitably collapses under the weight of its inherent failure, it can be removed like the malignant sociological tumor it is, and keep the rest of the host alive (preferably without giving the tumorous cells voting rights in the remaining healthy political organism, so as to not encourage more tumorous growths). We need a system where people can directly experience the correlation of consequences for their own actions, so we can evolve into a better overall society.


  1. The problems in the feedback path that you describe, along with the complexity of the decisions, make it hard to people to agree on which policies cause which effects.

    I want to see more pragmatism and less ideology. Pure capitalism or socialism is not the key to thriving or collapsing. We need some elements of “socialism” as the circumstances require.

    It’s funny that in my community, where we are willing to tinker with the free market with things like inclusionary zoning, we raise a lot of business startup funding for a city of our size and come up with new technologies and businesses built on productizations of those technologies. We have some of the most expensive housing (measured by purchase or rent price) in the Upper Midwest. Educated, economically productive people want to move here because it’s one of the best places for families.

    So I find it absurd that people would see our government interference with the market as a tumor. I agree that we should be able to have more regional variation. Thomas Jefferson had ideas about even neighborhoods being able to establish radically distinct laws so that each person could live in society with minimum compromise to his freedom. If we moved in this direction, the result would not be prosperity following communities who adhered to some ideology but rather to those that were run pragmatically.

  2. I agree that a system with more regional variation, and much less centralized control/manipulation, would be much more ideal, both for fostering nice political environments to live in, and for weeding out failed ideologies as people voted with their feet. This is kinda what Seasteading is trying to do, albeit with a more separated and probably more plausible plan (but the same general idea/motivation).

    The reason why socialism doesn't work isn't that it can't be good in theory; lots of pseudo-socialist elements and plans do work in theory, and sometimes in practice for short times. The problem is that they lead to stagnation and corruption, and all the real-world examples which have been tried lead to failure. It's not that pure capitalism, competition, and limited government are ideal in theory, it's that when you add in the human factor and the propensity for corruption in government, the US original system of limited and checked government seems to produce the best results (as long as it can be maintained by the voters in opposition to the government expanding its power).

    Government interference with and manipulation of private enterprise is dangerous; it may be benign at the moment, or maybe even beneficial, but it lays the groundwork for corruption and malignancy in the future. Anyone who doesn't see why need look no further than the plethora of recent examples (housing market bailouts, bank bailouts, auto industry bailouts, union bailout, "stimulus" corrupt handouts, TARP back-door handouts, money value manipulation, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.).

  3. The seasteading thing is the coolest thing I've heard of in a long time. It says the base costs $300/sqft to construct. They should have spent some of the stimulus money on this and then tried to recoup the money slowly by selling it to developers who get the "land", some limited autonomy, and favorable tax treatment (for a limited time) for returns on US investment in businesses located on the platform. Sure the gov't could just have them build it in an unpopulated area, but MAYBE the autonomy would make some of the sea colonies more productive and the US gov't would actually make money out of it. Either way, it would be a stimulus measure that directly creates jobs to build something that might create more jobs.

    This is really cool. If they ever build one, I will want to go on vacation there. If they stamp my passport with the name of the colony, it will be worth even more.