The Status of Status Games

A commenter asks,

If beach volleyball is made an Olympic sport, does that lower the status of Usain Bolt? No probably not, but it does raise the status of beach volleyballers. What evidence is there that status is zero sum?

Within each status game, it is zero-sum. The 100-meter race can have only one winner.

But what about multiple status games? Does adding a status game lower the status of existing games?

I hope instead that with multiple status games, more people can be winners. I recall Tyler Cowen arguing that having multiple status games would be more conducive to social peace. Instead, if there is only one ultimate game, so that “status” can be reduced to a single dimension along which everyone has a rank, then conflict seems inevitable.

Status Games

Tyler Cowen writes,

In essence, (some) media is insulting your own personal status rankings all the time. You might even say the media is insulting you. Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered. It’s like they get to throw a media pie in your face.

With material goods, we can play a positive-sum game. With status goods, the game is zero-sum. In a footrace, someone finishes first, someone finishes second, and so on. If I move up, someone else must move down.

Political power tends to act like a positional good.

How to Change Minds

Maria Popova writes,

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the three elements of persuasion — attunement, buoyancy, and clarity — French physicist, philosopher, inventor, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) intuited this mechanism as he arrived at a great truth about the secret of persuasion: Pascal came to see that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

Pointer from Olivia Goldhill.

Borrowing a Hansonian locution, I would say that argument is not about changing minds. Instead, it is about playing status games. You make points that lower the status of those with whom you disagree, and this in turn raises your status among those with whom you agree.

As Popova’s article explains, if your goal is to change someone’s mind, then the best approach is to start by talking about what seems right about the person’s beliefs. Then allow the person to come around to the problems with their thinking and, ultimately, to the better alternative.

Perhaps my Three Languages of Politics can be useful in this regard.

A Searle Thought to Ponder

In Making the Social World, John R. Searle writes,

If we assume that democracies are defined in part by majority rule as expressed in elections, then another feature of successful stable democracies is that few, if any, of the important problems of life are determined by elections. Such questions as who will live and who will die, who will be rich and who will be poor, cannot be decided by elections if the country is to be stable. Why not? Elections are too unpredictable for people to be able to plan and live their lives based on the outcome of elections. If you knew that if your opponents won the next election, you were likely to be thrown into a concentration camp, or executed, or have all your property confiscated, you could not make stable and enduring life plans. In successful democracies, it does not matter who gets elected. . .I have noticed that life pretty much goes on after the election as it did before, regardless of who gets elected.

Some thoughts.

1. It is of course in the interest of political activists and journalists to argue otherwise–that “this is the most important election in history,” that the wrong choice will lead to disaster, etc. Their warnings typically do not turn out to be valid, although some day that could change.

2. This is an argument for keeping the stakes in politics low, and thus the argument tends to weigh in on the libertarian side of things. However, I doubt that those who favor activist government will think much of the point that “elections are too unpredictable.”

What I’m Reading

1. Philosopher John R. Searle’s The Making of the Social World, published in 2010. One excerpt:

How do governments, so to speak, get away with it? That is, how does the government manage to be accepted as a system of status functions superior to other status functions?. . .governmental power is a system of status functions and thus rests on collective recognition or acceptance, but the collective recognition or acceptance, though typically not itself based on violence, can continue to function only if there is a permanent threat of violence

…All political power is a matter of status functions, and for that reason all political power is deontic power.

For some reason, my brain keeps wanting to read “deontic” as “demonic.”

Anyway, I think of a status function as a social convention that assigns people or objects certain properties. I think of a deontic power as a right or obligation.

So, imagine a busy intersection. We could put up a traffic light and by general consent give it a status function to regulate traffic flow. Or we could let an individual direct traffic. For the status function to work, we need to be willing to follow the social convention of obeying the signals, either from the stoplight or from the individual.

Next, suppose that we recognize that the individual wears a uniform and a badge, and we recognize that the individual is permitted to impose fines on people who do not obey. These are stronger deontic powers, and they will deter drivers from trying to cheat the system. We can think of that move as a metaphor for government by consent (although the consent may not be explicit or universal).

As of this writing, I have yet to finish the book. By the time this post goes up, I may have finished a first read, but the book will require some re-reading. It seems to me that Searle is likely to turn out to be on my side of a disagreement with Michael Huemer.

2. Ryan Avent’s new book (not yet out) The Wealth of Humans. I attended a discussion of the book the other night. As the conversation jumped around, I found myself frequently thinking, “Show me the model.” That is out of character for me, because I have spent a lot of the last few years criticizing economists’ use of formal models. But as people tried to speculate about capital accumulation, wealth distribution, and productivity differentials, I found that I could not follow what was being said. I needed to think in terms of supply and demand curves crossing, income adding up to output, and output equal to labor input times output-per-worker. It was hard to get that in a purely verbal discussion, particularly when people were speaking extemporaneously.

Haidt, Cosmides, and Tooby on Socialism’s Attraction

Self-recommending. I went to the event with high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I will post on the substance once I have watched a re-run. Each of the speakers had problems. Jonathan Haidt was flustered by technical difficulties which delayed the start of his talk. Leda Cosmides had a sore throat from a cold. And John Tooby reminded me of Paul Samuelson, in that it appeared that his mind was working much faster than he could talk, giving the listener the feeling of missing out on insights that were in the speaker’s head but never made it out of his mouth.

In general, I wish the event had been longer.

Reviewing a Cold-War Era Book

I review The Quest for Community, by Robert Nisbet.

Nisbet warned that weakening of ties of work, family, and religion would give people a sense that they have lost control of their destinies, producing this sort of alienation. It seems to me that the support in this year’s Presidential primaries for the socialist politics of Bernie Sanders and the caudillo politics of Donald Trump, which shocked many observers, would not have surprised Nisbet. Nor would the recent work of Robert Putnam or Charles Murray on cultural decay.

Why You Don’t Have to Change Your Mind

James Surowiecke writes,

Obamacare is being hobbled by the political compromises made to get it passed. ..

Conservatives point to Obamacare’s marketplace woes as evidence that government should stop mucking around with health insurance. In fact, government hasn’t mucked around enough: if we want to make universal health insurance a reality, the government needs to do more, not less.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

A while back on twitter, someone pointed me to a passage from David Deutsch.

The key defect of compromise policies is that when one of them is implemented and fails, no one learns anything because no one ever agreed to it.

So, one side says that the stimulus failed because stimulus does not work. The other side says that it worked, but there was not enough of it. One side says Obamacare has not achieved its objectives because it is a flawed concept. The other side says that “government hasn’t mucked around enough.”

If you wanted to create accountability in politics, you could say, “You can have your way, but if the results do not conform to your promises, you lose power.” But things are never that clean.

With markets profits and losses ensure accountability. When your firm loses enough money, you can insist that you were right all along and just ran into bad luck, but nonetheless you go out of business.

Modernity is a Package

I have just started reading Leviathan 2.0, by Charles S. Maier. I could not find a Kindle edition when I was ordering the book. Here is a quote from p.5-6:

The winners were the well-organized representatives of Europeans and their American or African or Asian descendants organized into the most efficient engine of expansion and governance that the world had seen for centuries: the modern nation-state. This was a large-scale unit organized to permeate and master territory, to pursue sedentary agriculture and industrial technology, possessing complex legal systems that allowed the preservation and transmission of family and individual property, the salaried employment of large-scale private and public workforces, the rapid communication of commercial and policy decisions by electrical telegraph, the ministerial archives and records that ensured institutional memory, and ideologies of rivalry and group purpose that generated intense loyalties.

Reading this passage, I came up with a catch-phrase “Modernity is a package.” Libertarians see the evils of the state–wars, inefficient and harmful policies, rent-seeking–and they imagine a utopia with a minimal state or no state at all. Progressives see the evils of capitalism, and they imagine a utopia with minimal or no use of markets.

But both capitalism and the state are deeply embedded in modernity. To eliminate either is to pull the rug out from under the system that supports prosperity an innovation.

To take a less politically fraught example, consider urbanization. We know that in small villages people feel a stronger sense of community. They know one another’s names. When they meet on the street, they take time to have a conversation, whereas in a large city people hurriedly rush past one another–friends might say “Oh, hi! We should have lunch, strangers might mutter “good morning.” People look out for one another.

And yet, the overwhelming majority of people who migrate from one to the other move from small villages to large cities, not the other way around. The city offers better employment opportunities, more variety of consumption options, and more overall effervescence.

The city represents the package of modernity, both good and bad. You cannot enjoy both the pre-modern charm of the small village and the modern wonders of the city in the same place.

Start with the Nirvana Fallacy

Bryan Caplan writes,

The claim that “free-market dogma” is the “reigning economic policy” of the United States or any major country seems so absurd, so contrary to big blatant facts (like government spending as a share of GDP, for starters), that I’m dumb-founded. Sure, I could defend this position with demagoguery. But if I wanted to intelligently argue in favor of the claim that neoliberalism actually guides economic policy in any major country, I literally wouldn’t know where to start.

I would suggest starting with the Nirvana fallacy. That is, take the point of view that things could be almost ideal if your preferred policies were in place. Then compare reality to this ideal. When reality falls short, you can infer that your preferred policies are not in place.

This approach works equally well for people who prefer more statist policies and for people who prefer more libertarian policies. For the former, the flawed state of current outcomes are sufficient to demonstrate the futility of free-market dogma, which must be the only thing standing in the way of Nirvana. For the latter, the flawed state of current outcomes are sufficient to demonstrate the futility of government intervention, which must be the only thing standing in the way of Nirvana.