Saturday, October 27, 2018

Why don't all sides of politics agree to pursue Wealth Plus?

It would be great if the major political parties in all countries of the world were to pursue Wealth Plus as a national objective. However, I don’t think that is likely to happen soon, even in the wealthy countries that have implicitly pursued similar objectives in the past.

Wealth Plus is the objective advocated by Tyler Cowan, in his recently published book, Stubborn Attachments: A vision for a society of free, prosperous, and responsible individuals. Tyler defines Wealth Plus as:

‘The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth."

Tyler also suggests that we should aim to “maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth, defined in terms of a concept such as Wealth Plus”. He suggests that we should think more broadly about economic growth as an ongoing self-sustaining process that produces goods that contribute to human welfare, rather than in terms of growth in GDP as conventionally measured.

I think the objective that Tyler is writing about could better be described in terms of pursuing growth in opportunities for human flourishing – growing opportunities for people to live the lives that they aspire to have. I prefer that terminology partly because it fits neatly with the view I expressed in Free to Flourish that good societies are characterised by widespread opportunities for human flourishing. In my view, progress is movement toward better societies, with growing opportunities for human flourishing.

An emphasis on human flourishing raises a question, touched on in an appendix, of why human flourishing should be prioritized above the flourishing of non-human lives. One good reason is that flourishing humans show greater consideration for non-human lives than do humans who are struggling to survive. Discussion about what constitutes ethical behaviour toward non-human lives is a feature of modern life in prosperous countries. More fundamentally, if ethical behaviour is intrinsic to human flourishing – as Aristotle argued persuasively long before modern psychologists took up the idea - then human flourishing must encompass ethical behaviour toward all other living creatures.

Tyler makes a strong case that we should care about the well-being of people in the distant future just about as much as we care about the well-being of the current generation. His argument is based partly around the implications of discounting the value of future human lives. Under any positive discount rate, one life today could appear to be worth as much as the entire subsequent survival of humanity if we use a long enough time horizon for the calculation.

The argument for using a low discount rate seems to me to have considerable force when we are considering the benefits of public investments to protect future generations from potential catastrophes. As previously discussed on this blog, that argument is pertinent in considering what discount rates should be used for public investments to avert or mitigate climate change risks.

I am not persuaded by Tyler’s argument that the well-being of future generations isn’t adequately considered today in the choices “we” are making about “how rapidly to boost future wealth”. The “we” Tyler is referring to is the collective “we” that makes public policy choices. As I have previously suggested, the argument that positive externalities cause free markets to produce too little economic growth does not appear to have any more merit than the argument that negative externalities cause free markets to produce too much economic growth. Tyler hasn’t persuaded me that government intervention can improve on the growth outcomes of the savings and investment decisions made by individuals and families in a free market.  

In any case, the choices that governments make about “how rapidly to boost future growth” seem to be largely implicit rather than explicit. Boosting economic growth may be a motive for public investment in research and some forms of education, but I can’t think of many other examples. Perhaps what Tyler has in mind are the choices that governments make that unintentionally reduce the rate of economic growth. For example, he notes that when government spending is cut, investment spending is often the first area to go while entitlements for the elderly remain intact.

Tyler is on firm ground in arguing that the strengthening of good institutions today can be expected to provide benefits for centuries into the future. There is strong historical support for the view that growth promoting institutions and a history of prosperity tend to have enduring effects.

Tyler suggests that three key questions should be elevated in their political and philosophical importance, namely:

1.       What can we do to boost the rate of economic growth?

2.       What can we do to make our civilization more stable?

3.       How should we deal with environmental problems?

He goes on to observe:

“The first of these is commonly considered a right-wing or libertarian concern, the second a conservative preoccupation, and the third, especially in the United States, is most commonly associated with left-wing perspectives. Yet these questions should be central, rather than peripheral, to every political body. We can see right away how the political spectrum must be reshaped to adequately address these concerns. Politics should be about finding the best means to achieve these ends, rather than disputing the importance of these ends."

I agree that is what politics should about, but I am not optimistic that political leaders can pursue those ends diligently, even if they can be persuaded to embrace them. Liberal democracy has been weakened in recent decades by widespread failure to adhere to the norms of self-reliance and reciprocity that underpin it. As predicted by James Buchanan (see this post for explanation) failure of the liberal democracy is becoming increasingly likely as a higher proportion of the population becomes dependent on government, and voters increasingly seek to use the political process to obtain benefits at the expense of others.  

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that we are heading toward a tragedy of democracy. When interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity produce outcomes that a detrimental to just about everyone. The process seems to be intensifying with the fragmentation of broad interest groups supporting the centre left and centre right of politics.

As Henry Ergas has noted recently, with particular reference to Australia, it has become “increasingly difficult for “catch-all” parties — as both our main parties have been — to position themselves in such a way as to aggregate a winning coalition. The concept of the ‘average’ or ‘median’ voter, which used to help orient the parties’ choices, has lost its substance, as has the notion of ‘the centre’. (“The Australian”, 25 Oct. 2018).

Similar problems are evident in other mature democracies. The process of fragmentation of broad interest groups has accelerated in many countries over the last decade or so as innovations in the social media have greatly increased the power of the rabid sports fans of politics - aptly referred to by Jason Brennan as Hooligans. Hooligans tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing political opinions and ignore or reject information that contradicts those opinions. They tend to communicate in echo chambers that reinforce their outrage when the leadership of the major parties is unresponsive to their concerns.

In some countries we are seeing ill-informed Hooligans taking over major parties and the reins of government. In other countries splinter parties comprised of Hooligans are attracting supporters away from major parties and making it more difficult for them to pursue coherent policy agendas. No matter which way it is happening, the growing political influence of the Hooligans makes it increasingly difficult for political leaders to pursue Wealth Plus, or any goals relating to the future well-being of the broader communities who elect them.

As more people come to recognize that liberal democracy is confronted by deep problems, perhaps some of them will attempt to make concerted efforts to reform political institutions so that they produce better outcomes. However, it is not obvious what reforms would stop the rot or how reforms could be achieved. A major economic crisis might help to focus the minds of responsible political leaders, but it could just as easily further strengthen the hands of the Hooligans.

I now think the best hope for future generations lies in the potential for new technology to enable people to circumvent the obstacles created by the Hooligans of national politics. As Max Borders has suggested (see discussion on this blog here and here) technological innovations provide us with the potential to “reweave the latticework of human interaction to create a great reconciliation between private interest and community good". The social singularity has potential to enable people to enjoy growing opportunities to live the lives that they aspire to have.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Does the I-You relation enter into every aspect of the moral life?

Roger Scruton argues in On Human Nature that the “I-You relation enters essentially into every aspect of the moral life”.

That strikes me as an exaggeration. Examples readily come to mind of the exercise of the traditional virtues of prudence (practical wisdom) and temperance (moderation) that do not involve other people. We can make the ethical judgement it is good to exercise practical wisdom by managing our food intake and exercising regularly without considering possible benefits that might have for others. We can make the ethical judgement that it is good to be able to respond with moderation when our computers misbehave, even if there are no other humans nearby to witness unrestrained emotional outbursts.

So, why does Scruton take such an extreme position on the importance of the I-You relation? Scruton follows Stephen Darwall, who argues that the moral life depends on the “second-person standpoint” – the standpoint of someone whose reasons and conduct are essentially addressed to others. In attempting to explain that proposition, Scruton argues that it is “only because we enter into free relations with others that we can know ourselves in the first person”. He presents two supporting arguments – one from language and one from recognition.

The argument from language, associated with Wittgenstein, is that first-person awareness arises from mastery of a public language and recognition that others are using the word I as I do, to express what they think or feel directly.

The argument from recognition, associated with Hegel, is based on the claim that in a state of nature, motivated only by my desires and needs, I am conscious, but without the sense of self. The sense of self arises from encounters with other humans and the struggle for survival.

It seems to me that the argument from language fails because it does not explain why first-person awareness would depend on having words to express what that feels like.

The argument from recognition fails because it does not explain why it is necessary to identify other humans as having self-awareness before being aware of your own thoughts and feelings. Indeed, it is not clear how any individual human can ever be certain that other humans are self-aware – we assume that others are self-aware as we observe their behaviour because of introspection about the way our own actions are related to our thoughts and feelings.

Within a few decades, we could well be assuming that some robots are self-aware because they seem to behave as though they are self-aware. Incidentally, just now when I asked Siri if she is self-aware, her response was: “Not that I am aware of”. I expect she has been programmed to make that response, but it is the kind of response one might expect from a self-aware human trying to appear to be clever.

In attempting to provide a functional explanation of self-awareness, it is not clear why Roger Scruton gives so much credence to the speculations of Hegel. He persuaded me earlier in the book that much human behaviour, including laughter, can be better understood in terms of its social meaning rather than evolutionary causes. But evolutionary causes are pertinent to functional explanations. We should not lightly dismiss the possibility that self-awareness provided evolutionary advantages to the individuals who possessed it by helping them to survive terrifying solitary endeavours, as well as to compete with and to cooperate with other humans.

Of course, we don’t need to ask how we came to have self-awareness if we acknowledge that the fundamental problem of ethics is taking responsibility for how we live all aspects of our lives. It is sufficient to acknowledge that we have self-awareness, which entails the ability to reflect upon our own behaviour, feelings and thoughts.

The template of responsibility, advocated by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn, bases ethics on “the existential fact that we must make something of our lives”:

“For the template of responsibility, the basis for determining worthiness is human flourishing or wellbeing of some sort. Its ultimate value is integrity. Integrity expresses itself interpersonally in honour but when applied to the agent herself, the term ‘integrity’ signifies a coherent, integral whole of virtues and values, allowing for consistency between word and deed and for reliability in action” (p 20).

By contrast to the template of responsibility, the template of respect refers to the view that ethics as essentially about relations among persons. Den Uyl and Rasmussen note that Stephen Darwall’s second person perspective provide a prime example of the template of respect. Darwall’s perspective leads him to the view that ethics is essentially a social or communal phenomenon. He sees our sociable nature as giving rise to moral obligations conceived in juridical terms. Den Uyl and Rasmussen comment:

“Darwell wants to suggest that it is only reasoned and reasonable claims and demands that we can make upon one another. And yet, unless a determination of what is reasonable is left to individuals, there is … nothing beyond the grasp of what might potentially become the subject of publicly dictated forms of claiming and demanding” (p 167).

(The Perfectionist Turn has been previously discussed on this blog: here, here and here.)

In the hands of Roger Scruton, the founding of ethics in the I-You relation leads eventually to approval of Hegel’s assertion that the dialectical opposition between the family, as a sphere of pious obligations, and the market, as a sphere of free choice and contract, “is transcended and preserved in a higher form of unchosen obligation – that towards the state”. Scruton asserts:

“The bond of allegiance that ties us to the state is again a bond of piety”.

In Roger Scruton’s framework, ethical conduct almost seems to be equated with accepting obligations and following rules, rather than accepting responsibility for one’s own actions. To his credit, he condemns the commandants of concentration camps “given to obeying orders and willing to sacrifice their conscience to their own security when the time to disobey had come”. But he doesn’t seem to understand that people who feel a bond of piety to the state are likely to be particularly challenged when it comes to knowing when the time has come to disobey.

Before concluding, I want to note that I enjoyed reading On Human Nature, despite the impression that might be given by what I have written above. I found Roger Scruton’s discussion of the limitations of the explanations offered by evolutionary biology to be particularly illuminating.  

Friday, September 21, 2018

Why read a book providing advice to radicals?

I doubt whether many people would consider me to be a radical, even though I look forward to the withering away of the state as the social singularity subverts government activities. My views about politics have been most strongly influenced by people who were once considered to be radicals, including John Locke and Adam Smith, but these days people who hold such views are more likely to be described as conservatives. Following Friedrich Hayek, I reject the conservative label because I am strongly opposed to the use of the powers of government to resist spontaneous social change.

I have been reading Derek Wall’s book: Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states. My main reason for reading the book was my previous advocacy, on this blog, of Elinor Ostrom’s approach to discussion of economic and social issues as a means of promoting dialogue across ideological divides. Elinor Ostrom argued that instead of presuming that individuals sharing common pool resources will inevitably experience the tragedy of the commons, we should leave ideology aside and seek to learn from experience why some efforts to solve commons problems have succeeded while others have failed. I suggested that if we apply Elinor Ostrom’s research methodology to national politics we should also seek to learn from experience why some countries have been more successful than others in coping with the tendency of interest group activity to have wealth-destroying impacts that are analogous to over-fishing.

Derek Wall describes himself as a “left-wing member of a Green Party”. When I started reading the book I didn’t expect to be able to endorse it as suitable reading for anyone other than people who self-identify as having radical views, or have some desire to be able to have a dialogue with radicals. The fact that I endorse it as worthwhile reading for a wider audience illustrates the potential for Elinor Ostrom’s views to have wide appeal across the ideological spectrum. The nonpolemical tone of the book is a credit to the author. The deep impression that Elinor Ostrom’s views have had on Derek Wall will be obvious to everyone who reads the book.

The rules for radicals that Derek Wall has derived from Elinor Ostrom’s writings are listed below, with some brief explanation summarised from the book:

1. Think about institutions. Economic activity is shaped by institutional rules. Formal rules are less important than the “dos and don’t that one learns on the ground that may not exist in any written document”.

2. Pose social change as problem solving. Those who look at politics and economics in an abstract way often fail to deal effectively with particular issues.

3. Embrace diversity. Polycentricism promotes good decision-making. The idea of a god-like leader or committee with perfect information is a myth.

4. Be specific. Move from slogans to analysis. Keep asking what can we specifically do in a specific context.

5. Listen to the people. People who participate in commons may be more likely to have good ideas about solving problems than outside experts.

6. Self-government is possible. The Ostrom approach of promoting self-government at a local level provides an attractive alternative to both top-down bureaucratic management and exercise of power by populist politicians.

7. Everything changes. Evolution happens. Technological change is creating new opportunities for collective economic activity e.g. Wikipedia.

8. Map power. If you can map flows of power, you are in a better position to change the flows.

9. Collective ownership can work. It is not always utopian and unrealistic.

10. Human beings are part of nature too.  Ecological problems are profoundly political. The politics of humanity has an influence on the rest of nature.

11. All institutions are constructed, so can be constructed differently. Communities need to keep adapting and reinventing institutions. Institutional development should occur constantly and engage all citizens.  

12. No panaceas. Imperfect humans cannot design utopia. If we attempt to construct institutional blueprints failure is likely.

13. Complexity does not mean chaos. Polycentricism and overlapping jurisdictions can be more efficient than hierarchical structures with linear chains of command.

It seems to me that most of those rules are as relevant to conservatives as to radicals. In all modern democracies conservatives and radicals seem to share the misconception that all economic and social problems can be solved if they can win and hold on to power at a national level.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Can MEMEnomics help us to predict social change?

MEMEnomics is the title of a book by Said Dawlabani, a cultural economist. The book, published in 2013, is an application of the psycho-social model of human development pioneered by Clare Graves and Don Beck. MEMEnomics has been praised by several prominent people, including Deepak Chopra and Bruce Lipton, but I have yet to see any praise by prominent economists. The author does not claim that his book is part of the economics mainstream.

Said Dawlabani suggests that MEMEnomics represents the coming together of two fields: memetics – the study of the replication, spread and evolution of memes - and economics. Just as genes carry the codes that define human characteristics, memes carry the codes that define cultural characteristics. The book is focused on value-system memes - the varying preferences and priorities that humans have in their lives depending on their level of development. The way human values may change with levels of human development was discussed in a recent post on this blog.

The author defines MEMEnomics as “the study of the long-term effects of economic policy on culture as seen through the prism of value systems”. Much of the book is devoted to attempting to explore the cultural implications of changes in economic policy in the United States. The author recognizes the desirability of ensuring that his model can explain history before it is used to attempt to predict the future.

There are three memenomic cycles identified in the book:

·         a “fiefdoms of power” cycle, peaking around 1900, in which American industrialists played a dominant role - large-scale exploitation, fraud and corruption came to identify the values of that era;

·         a “patriotic prosperity” cycle, peaking around 1950, characterized by economic expansion and government intervention – Keynesian macro-policies and social polices – and ending in stagflation;

·         and an “only money matters” cycle, peaking around 1980, characterized by monetarism and deregulation of the economy, and leading to the financial crisis of 2008.

I am not sure the author succeeds in demonstrating that changes in economic policies have led to cultural change. The cycles identified seem to me to be caricatures of beliefs held by powerful elites rather than accurate descriptions of deep-seated changes in values held by ordinary citizens. Nevertheless, it might be reasonable to argue that the cycles represent changes in ideologies of opinion leaders that have been reflected superficially in voting preferences and priorities of the American public.

The author suggests that we are standing on the cusp of a fourth cycle, “the democratization of information cycle”, in which technological advances are allowing social networks to play a pivotal role in affecting social change. That view has merit in my view, but I think this technology-driven change is better viewed as an exogenous factor rather than a new ideology emerging from the down-side of “only money matters”. At this stage it seems that, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, social networks have aided the return of economic nationalism rather than a policy environment placing higher priority on human development and living in harmony with nature.

As discussed in previous posts (here and here) there does seem to be scope for technological advances to have profound impacts on human values and the way we organise ourselves relative to each other over the next few decades. However, since some of those innovations threaten the scope of government, it seems unlikely that government policy will play a top-down role encouraging them to happen. Policy change seems more likely to occur in response to the demands of ordinary citizens for governments to get out of the way, so citizens can make effective use of new technology.

I enjoyed reading the final chapter of the book discussing the concept of a sustainable corporation. Inspirational examples are provided of corporation leaders setting out to define how the core values of their organisations can enable them to simultaneously pursue profits and a higher purpose. Unfortunately, some of the shining examples of 2013 do not all shine so brightly today.  Said Dawlabani has written an interesting article recently on the reasons why that has happened.
 Entrepreneurs who are selling new sets of values to investors, staff and customers will always encounter naysayers. In the face of this negativism some of these pioneers will succeed, many will not.

One of the messages I get from MEMEnomics is that individual entrepreneurs are likely to play a crucial leadership role in facilitating transition from a subsistence value system limited to expressions of selfish interests, to a value system that understands the interconnectedness of all life on the planet.

It strikes me that for economics to shed light on the role of the entrepreneur in this process it needs to recognize that the value created by entrepreneurs is likely to have a large non-pecuniary component in future. In pursuit of personal values some innovative entrepreneurs are offering investors the opportunity to feel that their funds are being used for the betterment of humanity and/or the environment, as well as generating financial returns. Similarly, they are offering employees the opportunity to feel they are engaged in a meaningful venture rather than just an income earning activity, and are also offering consumers opportunities to feel good about their purchases.

The economic model that seems most relevant in this context is 'identity economics' - as discussed in a book of that name by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton. The key idea is that people gain satisfaction when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity. In a tribal society, identity economics is like identity politics – people adopt the norms and ideals of the tribe to which they belong. In a cosmopolitan society the relevant norms and ideals are those of the market economy, incorporating a large measure of respect for the rights of others and social trust. Over the next few decades, hopefully the relevant norms and ideals will incorporate greater concern for the well-being of all humans and other living creatures.