Cold Take

This may have been obvious to everyone, but I recently put 2 and 2 together on why communism was considered evil in capitalist countries like the US.  In short, colonialism.

The Cuban Revolution is the perfect example of why a rich, capitalist country would oppose communism.  For some background, pre-revolution Cuba was heavily influenced by US companies.  Many companies received preferential government treatment and had their interests protected by threat of force by the US military (including actual force, at times). In an unconscionable conflict of interest, the head of the CIA and his brother were on the board of directors of a United Fruit, a company that benefited greatly from local government nepotism, and committed atrocities in the name of protecting profits. These companies were primary dealing in commodities such as fruit, sugar, and oil.  They were so called enclave economies that extracted natural resources but did not contribute to the local economy.  It’s hard to look at this period of history and see the US as “the good guys.”

When Castro came to power, he seized the property owned by these companies and distributed the land among Cuban farmers.

The US wanted to maintain the ability to monopolize markets and protect that monopoly with their military, political and economic clout.  Communism concentrates government power.  It’s simply easier and less risky to influence regularly held democratic elections among competing factions than it is to risk international scandal or war by covert military action against the indefinite, single-party state.

Markets and commodities have changed but the mechanism is still the same.  It’s not just Chaquita banana anymore, but Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonald’s, and countless others. Communism was the only credible threat to US companies expanding their interests without limit.  You can argue about the merits of capitalism vs the merits of communism, but really it boils down to different groups trying to monopolize money and power.  Same as it ever was.

Left vs Right

I listened to a very enlightening interview with Jonathan Haidt, who studied and wrote a book, The Righteous Mind, about morality and personality as it relates to political opinions, that I think everyone should watch.  The gist, and the full video, are below.

According to the Moral foundations theory, there are 6 biggest moral concepts that are fundamental to human moral reasoning.  These are:

  • Care: cherishing and protecting others; opposite of harm.
  • Fairness or proportionality: rendering justice according to shared rules; opposite of cheating.
  • Liberty: the loathing of tyranny; opposite of oppression.
  • Loyalty or ingroup: standing with your group, family, nation; opposite of betrayal.
  • Authority or respect: submitting to tradition and legitimate author; opposite of subversion.
  • Sanctity or purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions; opposite of degradation.
 Source: wikipedia

Interestingly, there is a trend for people to value different moral foundations based on whether they are liberal or conservative.  Liberals tend to value Care, Fairness, and Liberty very highly, but have little value for Loyalty, Authority, or Sanctity.  Conservatives on the other hand value all 6 relatively equally.  This is based on polls, surveys, and sentiment analysis of liberal and conservative literature and media.

Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 2.23.49 PM.png

Source: http://www.moralfoundations.org/

So, one of the things that causes disagreements between liberals and conservatives is that we have fundamentally see the world from a different morality.  We have different assumptions about what makes something good, or not.  It’s hard to overcome a disagreement over moral values, and even harder when you don’t even realize root of the disagreement.  If a particular issue goes against a particular moral value, then any arguments appealing to sanctity will likely not resonate much with liberals and arguments appealing (too much) to care will likely not resonate with conservatives.  Arguing with someone on the other side in terms of your own moral values will just cause you to talk past each other.

One fascinating conclusion that Jonathon Haidt shares is that he now believes that conservative intellectuals have a more accurate view of human nature.   This is coming from a self-proclaimed liberal who seems to add some liberal bias in his commentary at times. He goes on to say “we need structure, we need families, … It would be very difficult to organize a society without resting much on loyalty, authority and sanctity.”  He discusses this point more in his book, though I am still interested in hearing more from him on this subject.

One more interesting thought Haidt shares on the US political system:

Most of our politics are driven by people at the extremes… Those people rarely cross over. Most Americans are not that politically engaged and those are the ones that decide the elections. Since most people are not extreme either way in their dispositions, they are up for grabs. Whatever party can connect with their moral values [will win the election].

The Democrats have not fully understood moral psychology. I listen to them in election after election… saying “We’ve got this policy for you! We’re going to give you more support!” As though politics is shopping. “Come, buy from us, we have a better deal for you!”

The Democrats have not been as good at realizing that politics is really religion…Politics is about offering a vision that will bind the country together to pursue greatness. Republicans since Ronald Reagan have been really good at that.

He also has some interesting commentary on the irrationality of individuals and some of our biases as it pertains to politics.  Check out the full video here:

The Power to Assign Value

Who has the power to assign value?  In a small sense, anyone can assign value to any one thing at one time by purchasing it, as the value of any thing is the amount someone is willing to pay for it.  However, the value of that thing then becomes whatever the next person is willing to pay for it.  You can’t assign the value of every one of those things except by buying them all, and then we are back to square 1.  The purchasing power and value of your currency out of your control.  The market sets the price (sometimes being manipulated by big players) and the Fed sets the value of the dollar in the US.  The power to assign value is concentrated in the hands of very few people.

Sometimes, economic value deviates from what would be ideal for human well-being.  For example, factory farms are continuing to be the winning economic model and are driving out smaller, family owned farms all across the US.  The horrors of many factory farms are well-documented, but also the incentive to create a large amount of food for profit competes with the incentive to create healthy, nutritious food.  Are we always going to be slaves to what is the most economically viable?

We can consider alternative economic models that allow people to capture value that is not in terms of the US dollar.   One alternative model would be a type of “resource bank” (similar to a time bank or a care bank) or advanced barter system.  Here is an example where I will gloss over the logistics to keep it simple:

Say for example, a community had a Craigslist type website for buying and selling goods and services.  You have a pickup truck and someone in your community needs help moving.  You find the listing, and decide to loan your truck (and maybe your time and labor) to assist this person, and you are awarded 100 reputation points.  Later, you can use those points to exchange for other good and services on the site. The key points here are 1) compensation is done using an alternative currency, points, in this example, and 2) point values for goods and services are set by the community.

What is cool about that?  Imagine if a community implemented a reputation system that highly valued small, sustainable farming.  The community cannot reasonably inflate the prices at the supermarket, but they could reward people who contribute food in a way that is not currently captured by our economic model.    Those farmers realistically have no chance of competing economically with factory farms.  However, within this community would be able to farm for a living and exchange their reputation points for good and services they need.  Communities could be in charge of assigning what they consider valuable and incentivize behavior that is de-incentivized by the market, and they have the power to assign value.  You can think of it like a tax subsidy, although the biggest difference is that participation in this community is voluntary.

The main benefit of this alternative model is the community who created the system would have the power to assign point values to things.  We could create such a system with existing technology and I think we will begin to see systems like this start to appear at the local level.  I believe it could be something that acts a supplement to the existing economy that allows us to act in the best interest of our community even if it’s not economically viable within the current model.

OJ on Race

I had a previous post where I called out OJ for not being a member of the black community.  I do not mean to attack him in any way.  He had a pretty interesting take on civil rights that really made me think.

As an up and coming star athlete, OJ decided to not participate in any way with the civil rights movement.  In fact, he actively distanced himself from it.  He did not want to be a black athlete, as he said “I just want to be OJ”.  In many ways, he did that.  After his NFL career as a star, he was the first black person to be the spokesman of a major brand and starred in national commercials.  He became a prominent actor.  He was an announcer on Monday Night Football.  He was all over the radio, TV and silver screen.  These are no small feats for any man, let alone a black man in America during the 70’s.

I obviously don’t know what OJ’s motives were, but it does make me wonder, which is the better path towards equality and acceptance, the OJ path or the path of demonstrative activism?

Rational Thought is Limiting

I wanted to share an except from the book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb because this story is hilarious and interesting:

The protagonist makes a big discovery. He remarks that a fellow named Joe Siegel, one of the most successful traders in a commodity called “green lumber,” actually thought that it was lumber painted green (rather than freshly cut lumber, called green because it had not been dried). And he made it his profession to trade the stuff! Meanwhile the narrator was into grand intellectual theories and narratives of what caused the price of commodities to move, and went bust. It is not just that the successful expert on lumber was ignorant of central matters like the designation “green.” He also knew things about lumber that nonexperts think are unimportant. People we call ignorant might not be ignorant. The fact is that predicting the order flow in lumber and the usual narrative had little to do with the details one would assume from the outside are important. People who do things in the field are not subjected to a set exam; they are selected in the most nonnarrative manner—nice arguments don’t make much difference.

Basically, lumber experts were being out-traded by a guy who had no idea what he was trading.  The takeaway is that assumptions about what are important may be wrong, and conclusions that are perfectly rational may be completely wrong, and it’s impossible to know what we don’t know.  In this way, rational thought is limiting.

Try things that don’t seem rational, check even the most basic assumptions and don’t worry too much about figuring everything out  because you are looking at the world through a keyhole.

How Trump OJ’ed the US

Bear with me on this one, because it’s kind of roundabout, but here’s a hot take for you on the US election .

Anyone who knows anything about US politics and the media knows there are many, many problems, some of which we have ranted about on this blog.  During this past election, Donald Trump hit on valid criticisms of corruption, incompetence, nepotism, and others that are impossible to argue with.  This is not really a new tactic, but what he was able to do is convince people that *he* could solve these problems or that *he* was immune to these problems.  I think he did it in the same way OJ Simpson got away with murder.

For some background: OJ Simpson was a superstar back in the 60’s but it’s easy to forget because he did not participate in any way in the Civil Rights movement.  While athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammed Ali (and other less famous athletes whose names you don’t know because their careers were ruined) were aligning with leaders in the black community and speaking out in favor of civil rights, OJ made the decision to stay neutral and declined to participate in politics.  After his NFL career, OJ settled in Brentwood, CA in the same neighborhood as the mayor.  He was a prominent businessman and his friends and associates were mostly white, rich businessmen in the area.  I’m not attacking OJ for this, and he actually had an interesting take on civil rights which I will write about later.  I simply want to say that OJ was a much bigger part of the white community in southern California than he was of the black community.

So, when OJ was accused of murdering his wife, the defense preyed upon the numerous instances of police brutality and injustice that had been happening in the black community of southern California at the hands of mostly black policeman and got the people and the media running wild with this idea.  He had legitimate criticisms to raise.  The LA police had a long, simmering history of violence against unarmed black people where the cops walked away with impunity.  There was a historical racial bias.  One of the cops who arrested OJ had some kind of racist history.  Thus the defense made a grand spectacle about this being another day in the predatory police state where a member the black community is getting screwed.

However, not only was OJ categorically NOT a member of the black community (the defense famously removed all the pictures in OJ’s house of him and his white friends and put up pictures of black people so he seemed more ‘black’ when the news cameras went through his house), there is a large amount of evidence that OJ murdered his wife.  OJ and his defense got everyone so emotionally fixated on legitimate issues that everyone ignored the actual evidence of a horrible crime and history of spousal abuse.

I see this apply to Trump particularly with his attacks on the media.  He called them scum, shills, traitors and other absurd names for his ‘unfair’ treatment of him.  Now, no doubt there are legitimate issues with the news media.  It is exclusively corporate owed, profit driven, sensationalist, and biased.  However, can anyone honestly say that reporting on the absurd things he said to be unfair attacks?  And can we then use those legitimate criticisms of the media and allow ourselves to throw out everything else we know about the man?  Apparently, enough of us can.  I’m just saying it’s possible for us to have a shit media and for Donald Trump to be shit as well.

 

PS Sorry for getting political.  As is tradition, I have to buy the next round

Corruption and what to do about it

I choose to define corruption broadly to mean any dishonest, unethical, or sometimes ethically neutral act by someone in a position of authority done for personal gain to the detriment of others.

 

The short version

  1. Corruption exists because everybody cheats a little bit and justifies it
  2. Our ethical choices are governed by social pressures
  3. The size of our social circle has an upper limit (Dunbar’s number)
  4. Systems relying on human trust do not scale past Dunbar’s number
  5. Trustless systems can replace current systems that rely on human trust

 

The long version

I think almost all society-level problems stem from corruption.  I’m talking about the big hitters like famine, war, poverty, and social injustice.  It’s been a problem since the beginning of human civilization and it seems like it will always be with us.  Is it human nature?  Are we doomed to be stuck with this and suffer it’s consequences forever?  If not, what do we about it?

Most cheating is done by good meaning, regular people but the aggregate fucks us massively

First, we have to expel the myth that corruption only happens because of bad people doing evil things.  Corruption exists because everybody cheats a little bit and then justifies the cheating to themselves–this is a feature of human psychology.  Ask yourself, do you think you are a good person who generally does the right things?  Next, have you lied, cheated or stolen in the past 6 months?  If you said yes to both, how do you justify this juxtaposition?

Common justifications are things like it’s so small, no one will even miss it, or I’ve worked so hard and I deserve it, or everyone else is doing it, or a million others. While some people cheat massively, they are actually in a minuscule minority and don’t actually cost us that much in total (with notable exceptions like Bernie Madoff) but what really kills us as a society is the aggregate of all the good people making small ethical failures, coupled with the fact that corruption breeds more corruption and makes it easier to justify further corruption (e.g. everyone else is doing it).  Most cheating really just boils down to a conflict of interest and you convince yourself that you are justified in acting in your own interest.  People in positions of authority are not immune to these conflicts.

Our ethical choices are mostly governed by social pressures from our peers

Think about how human social structure has been for most of history.  Civilizations is maybe 20,000 years old out of 200,00-300,000 years for anatomically modern humans.  Most of human life was characterized by small nomadic tribes and clans who enforced rules and ethical behavior through social pressure.  Social pressure is really powerful and behavior is enforced by positive and negative reinforcement and shunning, as well as your own incentive to appear of high status.  Take Slab City for example, which is basically an ad hoc hippie collective where laws and social norms one in the same.  This structure works in smallish groups but we run into problems when we try to extrapolate this organization to larger numbers.

Our social circle is limited by Dunbar’s number

Another characteristic of these tribes and clans is that they were typically smaller than 150 or so in number.  The upper limit on the size of these tribes is called Dunbar’s number.  Although the number varies from individual to individual, it is roughly the upper limit on the number of people that belong to a community and know every single person individually.  It can be rephrased as a practical limit on the size of your social circle. Other primates in captivity have an observable upper limit on group sizes as well, such that groups will splinter when individuals are added so that the group grows beyond this threshold.

Any system based on human trust does not scale well past Dunbar’s number.  You can’t really expect someone you’ve never met to act in your best interest all the time because our psychology makes it easier to justify ripping off a total stranger, especially if it’s to benefit yourself or others within your social circle.  Again, it boils down to a conflict of interest.  To extrapolate this idea, you could argue someone in the US Congress gets more pressure from other members of Congress, lobbyists, or other insiders in the “club” than he or she would to the general public because of primate psychology.

The solution is implementing decentralized, trustless systems

So you can’t trust anybody, so what do we do about it?  We replace all systems based on human based trust with trustless systems that are backed by cryptography (sometimes in tandem with reputation systems) instead of authorities.  These systems don’t rely on us making ethical choices and they can be scaled to the entire population of the world. A trustless system shifts our reliance from humans, who are imperfect moral agents, to math which is verifiably true.

We have examples of these systems in various stages of implementation already. Bitcoin is the most notable example where transactions are authorized and authenticated using public key cryptography, so that you can be sure that the transaction was initiated by the actual person who has the Bitcoin, and that they actually have the Bitcoin that they claim to have.  (You can steal somebody’s Bitcoin wallet, but that’s a different issue.)  These transactions are written to a public ledger so that you can verify that a transaction did or did not take place.  This example of taking monetary exchange and making it trustless needs to be applied to larger social systems.

A side note about centralization vs decentralization.  It seems to me that centralization was necessary 20,000 years ago and was probably the only way that humans could organize themselves effectively to create civilization as we know it.  Corruption and abuse of power is a downside, but there are obvious upsides like the ability to the build cities and social institutions that allowed us to grow scientifically, technologically and ethically.  Centralization served a necessary purpose but it’s not the optimum way to organize a population of humans of the size we have now.

Examples of trustless systems

Three fundamental systems of society that currently rely on human trust are commerce, material production, and law, and there are people working to replace these with trustless systems.  Some current examples:

1) Commerce – This one is the furthest along for current implementations with Bitcoin being a decentralized means of exchange and marketplaces like OpenBazaar acting as the platform for exchange of goods and services.

2) Decentralized production – ☭  3D printing is still in it’s infancy, but this technology has exciting possibilities.

3) Law – Polycentric legal structures allow providers of legal systems to compete and overlap and allows participants to choose their desired legal system provider in their own dealings.  Ideas around polycentric law are still being developed but we do have examples of “Startup Cities” which are special economic zones that are exempt from many local regulations and instead abide by an agreed upon legal framework that allows small companies to exist and grow without the burden and expense of being compliant with local regulations.  More info here (scroll down to Startup Cities).

A prerequisite of these 3 is decentralized communication, with some implementations existing like Bitmessage.  This is sort of bedrock for the previous 3 and allows people to be made aware of instances of corruption, abuse and fraud.

 

That’s all for now

These systems will take a long time to develop and gain adoption but it’ll be worth it.  Trustless systems are the only way we can break the cycle of corruption and engineer a more fair and more scalable society.

 

Sources:

Cheating and corruption – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely, TED Talk: 3 Myths About Corruption
Dunbar’s number and social organization and social pressure – Some bits from Ariely’s book aboveThe complex structure of hunter–gatherer social networks by Marcus J. Hamilton, et al., and my own editorializing
Decentralized society – 4 Pillars of a Decentralized Society

 

  • Calendar

    • March 2017
      M T W T F S S
      « Jan    
       12345
      6789101112
      13141516171819
      20212223242526
      2728293031  
  • Search