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Interesting Links for 05-03-2012

Original post on Dreamwidth - there are comment count unavailable comments there.

I've been thinking about the democracy problem recently - that there's just too many people who don't understand the problem to be able to choose what to do about it (take the economy for example, I'd say I'm pretty well educated, and I can't make head nor tail of it, how's someone who doesn't have a maths degree supposed to know what's best?). Alternatively, just the problem of huge numbers of people voting because that's the way they've always voted, like my dad, and his dad before him. Does that really help anyone?

Unfortunately, last time I mentioned it to someone I got a reponse along the lines of "that's how dictators think". I like to think I'm not a crazed despot, bent on controlling everyone, but can this really be reconciled, or should I just give up and accept that the opinions of informed people are worth no more than general ignorance?

It seems like the most viable models are (a) let the most ruthless person rule (b) have a democractic process that at least some of the time rules out things that are obviously awful to everyone. Obviously neither of those is great, but I think it's understandable to pick (b), although I don't know for sure it's better, but (a) is certainly scary.

The question is, is there any better way? A representative democracy appears to do some good: of policies that parliament implements that people disagree with, some are awful (eg. lots of surveillance), but I think more are worthwhile (eg. no death penalty). I don't if we can guarantee that, or if we're just lucky, and I don't know if we can improve of that without falling into (a) or (b).

My personal view is that the big positive thing about democracy is that it draws a line under just how awful a government can be before they get chucked out. People aren't very good at judging how good a prospective government will be, but they are much better at judging a spectacularly poor one as being spectacularly poor in retrospect.

So even if elections are essentially random noise, because you've put a lower bound under how shockingly bad a government can get, and a new government essentially starts from there the previous one left off (all those democratic institutions), you have a stochastic process. It's a bounded random walk, in essence, and that'll give you much better outcomes (on average) than a random scatter of governments with no dependence.

True, and this is essentially Machiavelli's argument for the superiority of republics over principalities.

But the other big advantage of democracy is that provides a mechanism by which bad governments can be removed without bloodshed.

That's definitely the advantage when a country first adopts democracy - the general level of stability is going to improve dramatically.

take the economy for example, I'd say I'm pretty well educated, and I can't make head nor tail of it, how's someone who doesn't have a maths degree supposed to know what's best?

I have a maths degree, regularly attended seminars in economics (as they have a high maths content) and conclude that while economics is a fascinating subject and well-founded mathematically, the evidential basis for most economics is not so clear cut that we can yet make important decisions on that basis.
Take two really basic "macro economic" questions:
1) At which point by raising the tax rate do we lose money in the short term by "rich people leave".
2) At which point in the taxation curve can we reduce tax rates and get more money in the longer term (because people are incentivised to work harder by the lower taxes) -- see Laffer Curve and Reganomics.

These are really very basic questions about economics but have no clear cut answer from mathematical and statistical answers yet.

So, despite having strong opinions on economics myself, I'm not convinced too much mathematics helps. I do worry that people tend to default to "simple" arguments -- e.g. "low tax is good because you have more money" is a simpler argument than "with higher tax we can increase the productivity of society as a whole by pooling our resources to increase net wealth and money invested as tax often produces returns which outstrip the investment so by paying £1 in tax you often accrue much more than that £1 in reward although indirectly".

I believe the second argument is much more correct but the first argument is much easier to make in a debate where the people judging are of average intelligence.

I suggest that our representative democracy is modelled on a false premise. I suggest that the false premise is that it doesn’t need to be scaled to fit our current view of the franchise.

I suggest that what looks like representative democracy in the past is in fact more closely to related to direct participative democracy. In a society where only a few tens of thousands of people counted then a bi-camaral parliament with about a thousand people in it probably includes most people who care enough about stuff to get into a room and work out how to make it work. If you were an effective citizen (i.e. you had the vote, you had enough money to matter and you were considered “one of us”) if you really wanted to be in Parliament, or on one of its committees of enquirey or in someone’s kitchen cabinet then you almost certainly could be.

We’ve taken the mechanism of an Open Space event or a public forum or a conference and tried to make it work in a situation where the number of people in the room is tens of orders of magnitude smaller than the number of people who count and orders of magnitude smaller than the number of people who would like to be in the room.

No further suggestions for the time being but thank you for asking. Much obliged. Very civilised of you, I'm sure.

(I am trying to signal that I'm thinking out loud or talking about a working theory and not something that I consider to be a proven fact.)

I think a big problem is that all the people in politics are trying to crowd around the same political positions. I think people can make ethical judgements about what outcomes are desirable without knowledge of the specifics of how to get those outcomes.

For a noddy example:
No, I don't think I have the background to judge which education policy is going to result in the highest % of 11 year olds being literate - but I want to vote for someone who thinks literacy is *important* not someone who thinks illiterate 11 year olds should be sent to work down mines.

I also think we need more trust (and trust needs earning) in experts - so that when someone says "I have tested my educational theory and found that it leads to a 99% literacy rate at 11" we can believe them; and when someone else says "yes, and his theory costs 11billion to implement" we can believe them too. Then the voter is left with the question of whether 99% literacy in 11 year olds is worth 11 billion quid. Not the impossible-to-the-lay-person question of whether this policy leads to literacy etc.

That’s pretty much my position.

I’d add that it’s not impossible for people to become knowledgeable about particular issues. They can in a few months become knowledgeable enough about an issue to interact with experts. To get themselves to a position where they can ask the right questions and understand the answers.

That’s more or less what elected politicians do on committees. It’s more or less what university students do.

So two additional questions flow for me. Does this potential representative have a good track record of doing their homework? Can we or should we widen the pool of lay experts we create and use in our decision making.

The counter-argument to that farming is evil, hunter gathering yay argument is that Europe could support a population of maybe 30-50,000 hunter-gatherers. They would move into a region, eat everything in sight, then move on to another valley, and eat everything there. Repeating the pattern. If we hadn't started agriculture, the human population would be tiny.

Plus, hunter gathering was an all day sort of lifestyle. Wouldn't have been much time for things like art, science, music, medicine, etc.

Is (1) that bad?

And the article specifically contradicts (2).

I don't think it's inherently bad, if a smaller number of people can be supported in equal or better comfort. It may be good. But I would guess it's impossible to get there from here whether it's desirable or not: can you drop the population by a factor of a thousand without having all the existing population starve when they get old, and without having millions of people migrate in?

Is (1) that bad?

Heh... I find it weird when people ask this question... unless we allow "magic" (humans suddenly find a way to responsibly reduce the population by an extreme amount through family planning in a way that doesn't leave an aging population to starve) there seems no way to get to that population without an extreme amount of human misery and premature death. If the deaths and suffering of billions is not bad then what is?

It's a funny little mental quirk... One person or animal starving or dying prematurely and unnecessary is obviously bad. Weirdly, billions, less so. I've encountered it with global warming deniers. If you back them into a corner of "yes, there is an increase in temperature, OK that's clear" and "OK, it is manmade... OK that's clear" and "OK, the consequences would be massive loss of human and animal life" then occasionally (in at least two people where I've got to stage 3 with) you get "well is it really so bad if there are fewer people and animals".

I appreciate you were more asking "is the smaller population" necessarily so bad -- in which case I agree with the below comment.

I wasn't suggesting a move from _here_ to a hunter-gatherer society. That would be genocidal insanity.

Well you could argue that a tiny human population would be a very good thing indeed for the rest of the eco-system, particularly given it now seems an inevitability that global capitalist-consumerism is going to destroy the world. But it's one of those situations where, we might as well say if the asteroid hadn't hit, we'd all be super intelligent dinosaurs. We can hardly go back to hunter-gathering, at least not without a catastrophe that sees 99% of us wiped out.

And yeah, there's is this ongoing argument in archaeology about just how much spare time hunter-gatherers would have had. Some argue that it was a pretty easy relaxed lifestyle, others that it was tough hard work from dawn until dusk. I think it probably depends on the environment. Some HGs would have had an easy life, if they were lucky enough to live in food rich locations. Others, not so much.

We've got archaeological evidence of hunter-gatherer populations where there are quite significant skeletal defects amongst women, for example, from spending their entire lives squatting on cave floors processing shellfish.

Perhaps the best counter-argument to "farming is evil, let's hunter gather" is that all continents except Africa suffered an extinction of the majority of their large mammals during humanity's hunter gatherer phase. (Apparently in Africa they had time to adapt as that is where early proto humans evolved).

Hunter-gatherer populations certainly were very efficient at stripping out everything edible in an area before they moved on, that's for sure.

Indeed... though I guess they would, in time, learn if they became sufficiently long-lived with record keeping and so on to learn from mistakes in the longer term past. Apparently when hunter gatherers are confined to relatively small areas (e.g. an island), more sustainable methods can be learned.

Oh, "sold out" in a good way! :)

I read it the other way too, and was relieved when I clicked on the article!

The first five search suggestions for "how" included "how to get married in skyrim". The first five suggestions for "why" included "why is my poop green". I really hope these are not personalised suggestions.

"The Reference is Lost" misses my very favourite -- the alleged (but uncertain) Bugs Bunny popularisation of the word "nimrod" to mean idiot. Don't know if you're familiar with the story but in one cartoon Bugs refers to Elmer Fudd as "poor little Nimrod" -- a reference to the god of Hunting... however, sufficient numbers of the audience just took it to be a general "insult" word which it has now mutated into.

(Alas for this theory there are previous sarcastic uses of "Nimrod" which predate Bugs... so nobody is really certain.)

"Where are they all?" [aliens]
"A very, very long way away."

The Gaekic anguage article what interesting but failed to raise one interesting issue. If Lallans/Ullans are to be regarded as dialects of English, where does a dialect end and a separate language begin?

If Plattdeutsch is a dialect of German, then why isn't Dutch? They are so close that the speakers can understand each other pretty well. You could make the same argument about Pennsylvania Dutch and the Pfaltz/Hesse dialects.

A language is a dialect with a navy?

Explains why there's no Swiss or Austrian language.

Ahh, but there is a Swiss Navy!

(Incidentally, do not do what I just did and innocently google "swiss navy". At least not while you're at work* or at a publically visible computer...)

* bart calendar can probably do this without any problems, but I wouldn't recommend it for most people.

where does a dialect end and a separate language begin?

I'm confident a linguist would have a definitive answer for you, but I'm not one. :)

I made an error with a gas oven once.... tried lighting it without giving the gas from a previous failed attempt to light it to clear.

There were blue flames coming at me very fast, and some barely first degree burns on my face and a tiny bit of damage to my eyebrows.

Aside from gratitude for the reflex which made my eyes close, I was amazed at how much it resembled a mild version of the old cartoons.

I actually took a short course in Scots Gaelic in college, just because it was available. (I actually would've preferred Irish Gaelic, but the one professor at my university who was expert in the history and teaching of Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Cornish, Breton, Manx, and Welsh, went with majority interest -- and there were about half a dozen students interested in Scots over Irish. It was certainly interesting, if difficult, and all I remember how to say (over a decade later) is "I'm from [location]", and I couldn't begin to spell it. :)

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