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Mechanics without wrenches

33 Post author: PhilGoetz 15 April 2009 08:09PM

Say you're taking your car to an auto mechanic for repairs.  You've been told he's the best mechanic in town.  The mechanic rolls up the steel garage door before driving the car into the garage, and you look inside and notice something funny.  There are no tools.  The garage is bare - just an empty concrete space with four bay doors and three other cars.

You point this out to the mechanic.  He shrugs it off, saying, "This is how I've always worked.  I'm just that good.  You were lucky I had an opening; I'm usually booked."  And you believe him, having seen the parking lot full of cars waiting to be repaired.

You take your car to another mechanic in the same town.  He, too, has no tools in his garage.  You visit all the mechanics in town, and find a few that have some wrenches, and others with a jack or an air compressor, but no one with a full set of tools.

You notice the streets are nearly empty besides your car.  Most of the cars in town seem to be in for repairs.  You talk to the townsfolk, and they tell you how they take their cars from one shop to another, hoping to someday find the mechanic who is brilliant and gifted enough to fix their car.

I sometimes tell people how I believe that governments should not be documents, but semi-autonomous computer programs.  I have a story that I'm not going to tell now, about incorporating inequalities into laws, then incorporating functions into them, then feedback loops, then statistical measures, then learning mechanisms, on up to the point where voters and/or legislatures set only the values that control the system, and the system produces the low-level laws and policy decisions (in a way that balances exploration and exploitation).  (Robin's futarchy in which you "vote on values, bet on beliefs" describes a similar, though less-automated system of government.)

And one reaction - actually, one of the most intelligent reactions - is, "But then... legislators would have to understand something about math."  As if that were a bug, and not a feature.

We have 535 Congressmen in the United States.  Over the past half a year, they've decided how to spend several trillion of our dollars on interventions to vitalize our economy.  But after listening to them for 20 years, I have the feeling that few of them could explain the concepts of opportunity cost, diminishing returns, or the law of supply and demand.  You could probably count on one hand the number who could solve an ordinary differential equation.

This isn't the fault of the congressmen.  This is the fault of the voters.  Why do we regularly elect representatives who are mechanics without wrenches?

We like to praise the man who achieves great things through vision, genius, and force of personality.  If you tell people that he had great tools, people think you're trying to diminish his accomplishments.  People love Einstein above all scientists because they have the idea that he just sat in a chair and conducted thought-experiments.  They like to believe that he did poorly in math at school (he didn't).  Maybe this is because they feel math is a crutch that a true genius wouldn't need.  Maybe it's because they would like to think that they could also come up with general relativity if they just had enough time alone.  They love scientists who say they work by visualization or intuition, and who talk about seeing the solution to a problem in a dream.  It's not evident that Einstein was smarter than John von Neumann or Alan Turing, yet most Americans have never heard their names.

I think that what America needs most, in terms of rationality, is not training in rationalist techniques - although that's of value.  What America needs most is awareness of how much of a difference intelligence and education and rationality can make.  And what America needs second-most is for people to recognize the toolkits of rationality and appreciate their power.

Most people don't realize that there are small bodies of knowledge that radically amplify your intelligence.  Even a general understanding of evolution, or thermodynamics, or information theory, gives you a grasp on all sorts of other topics that would have otherwise remained mysterious.  Understanding how to rephrase a real-world problem as a function maximization problem lets you think quantitatively about something that before you would have had to address with gut feelings.

One reason for this may be that, in the mind of the public, the prototypical smart person is a physicist.  And particle physics, quantum mechanics, and relativity just aren't very useful toolkits.  People hardly ever get an insight into anything in their ordinary lives from quantum mechanics or relativity (and when they do, they're wrong).  You don't have to know that stuff.  And, as 20th-century physics is thought of as the pinnacle of science, it taints all the other sciences with its own narrowness of applicability.

With the exception of math, I can't recall any teacher ever trying to show me that something we were studying was a toolkit applicable beyond the subject being studied.  The way we try to teach our students to think is like the (failed) way we tried to teach AIs to think in the 1970s (and, in Austin, through the present day) - by giving them a lot of specialized knowledge about a lot of different subjects.  This is a time-tested way to spend a lot of time and money without instilling much intelligence into either a computer or a student.  A better approach would be to look for abstractions that can be applied to as many domains as possible, and to have one class for each of these abstractions.

 

(PS - When I speak specifically about America, it's not because I think the rest of the world is unimportant.  I just don't know as much about the rest of the world.)

Comments (75)

Comment author: mattnewport 16 April 2009 12:38:44AM *  11 points [-]

I don't think your parable of the mechanics without tools makes for a very good analogy with the problems of politics. In your story, it seems clear that if a mechanic came along who had the skills and equipment to actually fix cars, he would rapidly achieve success and drive the ineffective mechanics out of business. The problem of politics is that the nature of the system is such that it does not reward competent policy making but rather rewards competent politicking. The two seem to be only very loosely correlated.

If the desired outcome is good policy then the problem is not how to create greater policy making competence in politicians, or even to educate the public in how to recognize greater policy making competence in politicians, but to restructure the system so that competent policy making is rewarded. The fact that such a political structure is rarely if ever observed in reality suggests to me that good policy is not actually the true desired outcome of political systems.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 02:39:10AM 1 point [-]

restructure the system so that competent policy making is rewarded

That's part of the story I'm not telling now, about incorporating learning mechanisms into democracy.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 15 April 2009 08:49:36PM *  6 points [-]

What America needs most is awareness of how much of a difference rationality and intelligence can make.

Agreed, I think. This might even be what LW needs most. Any chance you (or anyone) could write us a good overview of how much of a difference it can make, and what detailed, concrete, empirical evidence backs the claim? Preferably as a top-level post? Seems to me we still haven't had a full answer to the points Yvain raised in "Extreme rationality: It's not that great". Eliezer has given us good techniques and good analysis of why we'd abstractly expect techniques to help, but his discussion has been abstract, without discussion of particular classes of practical decisions that individuals and societies can concretely improve.

Your example about legislators not knowing economics is excellent. What I'd like to see is an overview post mentioning this example, the inefficiency of marginal health care, the inefficiency of most philanthropic spending, and... any other good societal examples. And a similar set of examples for individuals.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 April 2009 09:15:00PM 2 points [-]

I think Yvain's points focus on how rationality doesn't improve a person's entire life as much as we would expect. I'm hoping that rationality improves job performance a lot more than it does life performance.

My guess it that, if you asked people how much intelligence/rationality affects job performance, they would say that the distribution of performance levels is distributed the same way IQ or height is distributed (with a normal distribution, and a very few people having 1.5 times the average performance). My expectation is that, instead, if you measured

  • the number of different solutions someone could come up with for a problem
  • a numeric measure of the goodness of someone's best solution to a problem
  • the number of problems within a domain that someone could solve

you'd find that measurement to increase geometrically or exponentially with f(intelligence, rationality, education), whereas most people would expect it to increase linearly or less.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 16 April 2009 02:56:07AM 5 points [-]

I think that rationality improves life performance more than it does most types of job performance. Life is more complex than most jobs and accommodates far more diverse strategies.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 03:12:31AM *  0 points [-]

Then you should have commented on Yvain's post. :)

I've repeatedly heard you say (correct me if this is a misinterpretation) that very smart people are dysfunctional more often than average people. How do you reconcile these views? Does "rationality" default to "rational life behavior" rather than "rational problem-solving"? Would you describe these people as very smart but irrational?

The people we're talking about have partitioned their lives into things they're rational about, and things that they're not. But we all do that to some extent. I think you're saying something like, "Rationality in life decisions improves life performance more than rationality in life decisions improves job performance."

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 15 April 2009 09:20:58PM *  1 point [-]

you'd find that measurement to increase geometrically or exponentially with f(intelligence, rationality, education)

Plausible, and very important if so. Why do you expect this? What evidence weighs for and against?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 April 2009 09:50:47PM *  2 points [-]

I don't have good evidence. Note that the space of all possible problems is very large; most problems are ones that either all humans could solve trivially, or all humans would fail to solve. You aren't necessarily going to get a nice clean "window" into the space of all possible problems so that all problems such that c < difficulty(problem) < d are in your window; you might have the situation P(problem is in your view) ~ 1 / difficulty(problem). Suppose that we then define problem difficulty in terms of algorithm runtime or minimal program length, and define educational level as being proportional to the difficulty of problems solvable by a person of that educational level. Suppose that the number of problems in problem-space nps(edu) that someone with education edu can solve is nps(edu) = edu^2. The number of viewable problems that person can solve is only npv(edu) = ( edu^2 / difficulty ) ~ edu, and would appear to us to be linear in the set of problems faced.

So the answer probably depends on what subset of problems we face. I believe that we continually make our society as complex as we can (to improve efficiency) while maintaining specialists in every necessary area who can deal with most of the problems arising in that area.

So it might be that, within an area of expertise (say, metallurgy), you'd find that most competent metallurgists can solve 90% of the set of problems they consider. There aren't enough unsolvable problems in the space to detect an exponential increase. But most non-metallurgists might be able to solve 2% of them. (Totally made-up figures.)

If we suppose that politics is an area in which practitioners are chosen for their ability to get elected rather than expertise in problem-solving, and that, the subset of problems under consideration being set by the same kind of process as for metallurgy, we might expect that 90% of political problems would be solvable by someone with the right education, but that only 5% can be solved by the typical politician. If we suppose that the 2%-solving politician is only 1 standard deviation below the 5%-solving politician, then, under the theory that number of problems solved increases linearly or less with ability/education/etc, the atypical 90%-solving politician would have to be so many SDs above the 5%-solving politician, that none would exist. So, by contradiction, the relationship must be more than linear.

A weakness with this argument is that I just guessed all the numbers right now.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 April 2009 10:42:12PM *  0 points [-]

I think the intuition behind my saying this was that the number of possible programs you can run increases exponentially in the size of your Turing machine's tape. Size of your tape ~ your education.

Another approach is to define the difficulty of a problem in terms of the length or runtime of a program that can solve it. You then find that n(diff), the number of problems that exist at a given difficulty level, is exponential in diff.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 15 April 2009 10:54:09PM *  0 points [-]

Have there been studies of how worker productivity is distributed? We should at least be able to get economy-wide income data, which gives us nearly the same info if we assume peoples' pay tracks the value they add.

In math, it does feel as though one's mathematical power is something like exponential in the amount of time one has spent on solid math study, at least until one hits the frontiers of one's subfield. Algebra I takes a year to learn, but a few years later, the content of algebra I seems similar to the content of a section (not even a chapter) within a semester's course. I suspect similar increases in my ability to learn other competencies as I "learn how to learn" those fields, but it is harder to quantify. Do any of you programmers, or others, care to estimate how your productivity has changed with focused efforts to learn, or to learn how to learn?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 16 April 2009 09:21:20AM *  1 point [-]

Math feeds on itself. It takes a simple concept, and then examines it from a dozen points of view, seeing more and more structure in the idealized problems, both on formal and intuitive levels. As a result, having learned some math, you can more easily anticipate new structure in the new math, and in other problems, as on the intuitive level, it generalizes very well because of the simplicity of constructions that get studied.

Educators must know a great deal about the effect of mathematical sophistication. It's interesting how undergrad textbooks, even on the subjects I know nothing about, seem boring and longwinded, and it's often more instructive to just find a tutorial paper, tapping greater depth through keywords and references.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 16 April 2009 05:20:19AM 1 point [-]

the content of algebra I seems similar to the content of a section

That's probably because the real content, eg, the idea of a variable, is invisible to you now. To someone who already knows it, it can't be drawn out any longer than a section. There is a phrase "mathematical sophistication" for such content that's hard to pin down. Also, people may teach it inefficiently, as they don't remember what the gap is.

Comment author: JGWeissman 16 April 2009 02:14:31AM 1 point [-]

I think a High School Algebra I course takes a year because it is designed for students who are not interested in math. The Algebra I students who will go on to take higher level college courses likely would be able to assimilate the early material much faster if it was expected of them. That the advanced classes proceed at a higher speed could reflect that earlier classes have weeded out the students without the ability and interest to do so.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 16 April 2009 02:16:20AM 0 points [-]

I loved math, and am talented at it, and it still took me a year. It was just a year at a much younger age.

Comment author: JGWeissman 16 April 2009 02:35:33AM 0 points [-]

Did it take a year because it really took that long to understand the material, or because the class took a year to present it to you?

Of course, age is also a factor, an adult can concentrate on a subject for longer than a child can. This might be better illuminated by change in the rate of self directed learning.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 16 April 2009 02:45:44AM *  1 point [-]

It really took me roughly that long, although it was more conceptually deep than most algebra courses. I learned most of my math at my own pace, with help from my dad. My non-confident guess is that most mathematically talented people encounter algebra and other subjects long after they're ready for them, and therefore learn them fairly rapidly but at the cost of having wasted time earlier on. But I may just have been slow.

In any case, even restricting to bright college students other than me, I've watched multiple individuals get much faster at learning math over the course of undergrad.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 16 April 2009 03:19:10AM 2 points [-]

Just how old were you when you studied it?

Comment author: JGWeissman 16 April 2009 03:42:57AM 0 points [-]

My non-confident guess is that most mathematically talented people encounter algebra and other subjects long after they're ready for them, and therefore learn them fairly rapidly but at the cost of having wasted time earlier on.

That might explain my experience in tutoring my cousin in math. I find he is able to catch up quickly once I explain the background material a given concept is based on. So, if he had been ready for some time to learn the background material, then learning it when I present it is not a big deal and doesn't even noticeably detract from the effort and focus he needs to understand the new concept he is supposed to be learning.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 15 April 2009 11:14:28PM 1 point [-]

Pay tracking value added is an extremely unlikely proposition. There are too many confounding factors that would swamp the effect while being very difficult to control for.

At any rate, it's considered common knowledge that great programmers are an order of magnitude more productive than average programmers, and that truly bad programmers can acheive net-negative productivity.

To what extent that has solid supporting evidence vs. a lot of anecdotes, I don't know.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 April 2009 11:34:37PM *  4 points [-]

I'm puzzled by a repeated Internet startup pattern:

  • One or two founders build an application or a website.
  • Website/app catches on. VCs invest money.
  • Company grows to employ dozens of people, without much improvement in the product.

You could read this as meaning that the founders were great programmers, who then hired average programmers. Or it could mean that the product is only a small fraction of the value of a company, and the other people do graphic design, public relations, marketing, advertising, business deals, accounting, and managing.

(It's surprising that companies that developed much of their software product with a few people frequently go out of business having dozens of people on their payroll, when you'd think they could just fire those people to become profitable. Do VCs make companies grow too fast?)

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 16 April 2009 12:06:34AM 2 points [-]

A bit of both, I expect. However, you do neglect the legacy code effect; two great coders writing a new system that basically works can happen amazingly fast, while a larger team doing maintenance and enhancements on an existing code base takes a lot longer.

And yes, they probably make them grow too fast. The anecdotes I've read about life inside a startup suggest that most VCs are actively harmful to companies at every point except while signing checks. However, it may very well be a rational strategy for the VCs, because a lot of dead startups and one huge success makes them more money than a handful of moderately successful companies and no smash-hits.

Comment author: mattnewport 16 April 2009 12:53:05AM 0 points [-]

I've seen this pattern with growing teams within large companies. I believe there is some research on the phenomenon in the software engineering / project management literature that suggests the rapid decrease in communication efficiency as team size increases beyond a fairly small number of individuals is the root cause of the problem. Companies or teams that grow slowly can sometimes adopt new methods to efficiently coordinate larger and larger groups so that total productivity continues to increase even as average productivity per individual declines but an all too common failure pattern is that total productivity actually declines as the team or company grows.

Comment author: RobinHanson 15 April 2009 11:42:02PM 11 points [-]

I doubt understanding differential equations would help Congressfolk make better decisions. It is the economic concepts that would be useful for them, not so much the math.

Also, our basic ideology of democracy says that ordinary people can make wise decisions about policy without expert knowledge. So it is hard for voters to say politicians are unqualified without such knowledge without admitting that voters are also unqualified.

Comment author: emeritusl 16 April 2009 12:06:53AM 7 points [-]

Regarding your first point, this quote by Gian-Carlo Rota perhaps says what I want to say best:

"Most people, even some scientists, think that mathematics applies because you learn Theorem Three and Theorem Three somehow explains the laws of nature. This does not happen even in science fiction novels; it is pure fantasy. The results of mathematics are seldom directly applied; it is the definitions that are really useful. Once you learn the concept of a differential equation, you see differential equations all over, no matter what you do. This you cannot see unless you take a course in abstract differential equations. What applies is the cultural background you get from a course in differential equation, not the specific theorems. If you want to learn French, you have to live the life of France, not just memorize thousands of words. If you want to apply differential equations, you have to live the life of differential equations. When you live this life, you can go back to molecular biology with a new set of eyes that will see things you could not otherwise see."

Regarding your second point, I think one of the principles behind democracy is that even if each individual voter is not an expert, their collective decisions (ideally) will be similar to those of 'experts'. Think of Boosting in AI - you can often combine many weak learners to form a strong learner. So it is reasonable to expect politicians to be more qualified (restricted to policy making, of course) than the voters.

Comment author: RobinHanson 16 April 2009 12:22:52AM 2 points [-]

Yes the concepts are the main thing useful you learn when you learn math. But not all math is equally useful in all areas. Economists hardly ever use differential equations; that is not a math that helps much there. So in learning econ Congressfolks should learn some math, yes, but probably not differential equations.

Comment author: byrnema 16 April 2009 10:17:58PM *  0 points [-]

That's an unfortunate example: to the extent which economics is quantifiable, it's all differential equations... heck, marginal utility is a differential equation!

Maybe they weren't explicitly stated as differential equations but:

Once you learn the concept of a differential equation, you see differential equations all over, no matter what you do.

so it can't be helped.

Comment author: William 17 April 2009 12:48:35AM 1 point [-]

Speaking of differential equations in economics, a friend of mine has had an idea that there should be an economics textbook for mathematicians, because it annoyed him so much that they seem to dance around mathematical concepts--for example, marginal anything is clearly a derivative, although normal econ textbooks never call it that.

Comment author: conchis 17 April 2009 05:17:36PM 0 points [-]

marginal anything is clearly a derivative

Not in the discrete case.

Comment author: steven0461 17 April 2009 05:10:36PM 0 points [-]

That's odd -- if anything, econ usually gets accused of being way too much about mathematical formalism. This, for example, might as well be "an economics textbook for mathematicians"; maybe your friend will find it helpful.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 17 April 2009 04:49:20PM 0 points [-]

Do you mean a math text for economists?

Comment author: MBlume 16 April 2009 12:00:44AM *  4 points [-]

But we have a representative democracy for a reason. The voters can ensure that the politicians advance their values while still deferring to those politicians the responsibility of obtaining the expert knowledge necessary to do so.

ETA: I'm speaking of ideals here, not of execution.

Congressfolk

I really like this -- gender neutral without sounding strained.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 16 April 2009 12:08:10AM 0 points [-]

I really like this -- gender neutral without sounding strained.

I've often heard the slightly less respectful version, "Congresscritter".

Comment author: billswift 16 April 2009 04:21:11PM 2 points [-]

That's the common serious libertarian term. Some of the more extreme libertarians have downgraded them even more, now refering to them as "Congressthings".

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 April 2009 04:44:52PM 1 point [-]

Illuminati University simply replaces "man" with "thing" in general, i.e., Congressthing, freshthing, postthing, policething, etc.

Comment author: Cyan 16 April 2009 08:24:28PM 0 points [-]

Oy, so distracting. (Congressional) representative, 1st year (student), mail carrier/postal worker, police officer, chair, fire fighter, business executive, council member.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 16 April 2009 12:21:26AM -2 points [-]

I've often used "congresscritter" :)

Comment author: mattnewport 16 April 2009 12:44:18AM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure whether to vote you up for making a true statement about the declared intent of representative democracy, or vote you down for seeming to imply that representative democracy actually achieves anything of the sort.

Comment author: MBlume 16 April 2009 02:31:57AM 2 points [-]

I was speaking entirely of ideals -- we fail hard at the execution.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 02:35:02AM 1 point [-]

There are 2 basic theories of representative democracy. One is what MBlume described. The other is that representatives should do whatever their constituents tell them to do. Most representatives in the US follow the latter, I think.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 02:30:47AM *  2 points [-]

Math is so powerful in so many domains that it is embarrassing that out of 300,000,000 people, we can't find 500 to represent us who are well-educated in math. I second emeritusl: It's a way of thinking.

Excellent point about the ideology of democracy.

Comment author: Zvi 16 April 2009 03:42:15PM 1 point [-]

I thought that representitive democracy meant that we could make wise decisions about who would be able to make wise decisions, and that part of what we are voting on is how they will make those decisions. Will they listen to our ideas of execution, or only our values, or their own values? Will they rely on our beliefs, their own or experts?

Even at that level, there is no need to believe that democracies make wise decisions to believe in them; you need only believe that the alternatives are worse. At least one of our major parties campaigns reguarly on the idea that we are incapable of making wise decisions in government, yet its rhetoric is still very much pro-Democracy.

Comment author: ciphergoth 16 April 2009 07:44:59AM 1 point [-]

our basic ideology of democracy says that ordinary people can make wise decisions about policy without expert knowledge

I think it should be at least possible to have an ideology of democracy that didn't depend on this supposition; it should be enough to be able to know whose expert knowledge to trust in evaluating policy.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 04:57:32AM *  0 points [-]

Curious that you say that economics, which should be quantitative, doesn't involve a lot of math. That strikes me as a flaw. Why isn't it math-heavy? What use is it when it isn't quantitative? If I can't plug numbers in and get numbers out, am I left with anything other than a collection of just-so stories with no ability to judge which is more applicable in any given situation?

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 16 April 2009 06:35:05AM 3 points [-]

The most valuable part for politicians is understanding that incentives matter, and the ideas of public choice theory, the concept of regulatory capture and the like. These don't require any facility with numbers. They inform decision making and direct the design of institutions.

Comment author: blink 16 April 2009 03:06:12AM 0 points [-]

[O]ur basic ideology of democracy says that ordinary people can make wise decisions about policy without expert knowledge.

Could this be an opportunity to "pull the rope sideways" (as you say)? Perhaps the assumption is too deeply ingrained, but it seems easier to convince someone to accept that experts might often know best than to challenge a specific policy preference.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 16 April 2009 08:29:45PM 3 points [-]

the most effective way of proselytizing rationality would be for rationalists to work on their neglected social signaling skills. No one will be convinced of anything you say if your body language doesn't scream "alpha who is going places".

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 16 April 2009 03:46:59AM 3 points [-]

And what America needs second-most is for people to recognize the toolkits of >rationality and appreciate their power.

I think one related problem is that people view the goal of becoming educated and intelligent in roughly the same way as they view the goal of becoming good at sports. In typical tournament-style contests, it's the winners who reap most of the benefits. There's no benefit to becoming a good tennis player in absolute terms; there's only a benefit to becoming one of the best tennis players. If you're one of the worst tennis players, you're not going to have much of an incentive to improve; it makes more sense to just give up and cut your losses.

In terms of education and rationality, the opposite is true. Education will make your life better, even if you are never good enough to be one of the top 10%. But most people don't realize this and so they have no desire to educate themselves.

Note: I thought this was an interesting post with several nice points, but it's a bit disorganized. I think you'd be better off to examine each small point (e.g. the one about physics tainting the other sciences) in finer detail.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 16 April 2009 03:24:13PM 1 point [-]

I don't think most people think about either sports or education that way. Most Americans start college. I'm not sure what they think they're getting out of it and I'm pretty sure their ideas of learning are entangled with credentials, but the ones in community colleges certainly don't think that they're in the top 10% of a tournament. I don't think that they realize that credentials are zero-sum, either.

Maybe 10% or fewer make a really prestigious team in their high school or college, but a lot more than 10% gain the status benefits of being jocks, at least in high school. I think that outside the really popular sports, the number of slots is not fixed, so becoming the marginal jock is not a zero-sum game. Moreover, I think that most athletes can identify general skills (eg, teamwork) that they gain from sports, while most people cannot tell what they're supposed to be getting out of education.

Comment author: scientism 16 April 2009 08:55:39PM 4 points [-]

It's interesting that China's leadership is full of engineers and economists; as a whole they're probably far more qualified to do their jobs than the leadership of most Western countries. I think there's some truth to the idea that you can have qualified leaders or you can have elected leaders but you can't have both. Getting elected just doesn't translate into being the best candidate for the job. If positions in the private sector were filled by popular vote, industry would grind to a halt. I think if you honestly consider that as a though experiment, it's obvious that only a truly absurd and impractical amount of voter rationality would solve the inherent problem, which is just that it isn't a sensible way to fill vacancies.

Comment author: Vladimir_Gritsenko 24 April 2009 05:24:04PM *  2 points [-]

For what it's worth, I offer this summary of a study about Chinese and American education. Even though Chinese students know a heck of a lot more science, they can't reason scientifically any better than their American counterparts.

I confess I don't know a lot about China, and so my preference to live in almost any Western country and not in China may be biased by ignorance, but... would you prefer to live in China, or another authoritarian state but whose management would be experts in various fields? Do you honestly think such a state would be better at various important parameters of societal welfare?

A final point: while congressfolk may be less competent than we might wish, actual state managers - civil servants in high positions - are often accredited veterans in their fields.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 17 April 2009 04:47:32PM 2 points [-]

Is it easier to move from monarchism, dictatorship, or one-party rule, to some more rational system? Is democracy an overly-stable local optimum?

Comment author: scientism 17 April 2009 10:24:32PM 3 points [-]

I read Lee Kuan Yew's book on the development of Singapore From Third World to First some time ago and recall it being startlingly rational and scarily pragmatic. (Detractors would probably say revisionist and self-congratulatory but, even if that is true, most Western leaders wouldn't even try to portray themselves as detached, rational and pragmatic.) I'm sure if there were a more rational means of statecraft (say, large-scale computer simulations) such a one-party state would be able to take greater advantage of it providing they're not compromised by some other ideology (religion or communism).

Comment author: Mass_Driver 02 July 2011 11:23:31PM 3 points [-]

Democracy is a local optimum over the medium term because it's unusually stable. You can give plenary power to your favorite electrical engineers today, but in 40 years you'll be governed with an iron fist by the engineers' innumerate, egotistical kids. Democracy is the only system we know of that can be trusted to crank out the same level of mediocre decision-making for hundreds of years on end. I'm sure there's a way to improve on it -- but more attention needs to be paid to the long-term consequences of our revisions.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 12 July 2011 07:54:13PM 1 point [-]

I'll take that as a "yes". (I agree with what you wrote; but much of it is moving the conversation backwards (to whether democracy is an improvement over dictatorship) instead of forward (to what a more rational system is, how to get there, and which of today's governments are likely to transition to it first).)

Comment author: Mass_Driver 12 July 2011 10:45:21PM 1 point [-]

Sorry; comes of butting into the conversation two years late -- hard to tell which way it's headed. Anyway, yes, a rational dictator would find it easier to impose, say, futarchy, than a coalition of rational voters would. There is an interesting question as to whether dictators are more or less likely to want to switch a rational system as compared to a majority coalition of voters. Dictators probably show more variation in their preferences than entire voting blocs do (although see http://www.cato-unbound.org/2006/11/06/bryan-caplan/the-myth-of-the-rational-voter for a strong argument that voter preferences do NOT exhibit much destructive interference), but dictators are also less likely to feel comfortable with (a) a major change that (b) encourages decisions to be made on some kind of 'expert' basis that is independent of the dictator's will. Even brainstorming in public about such a system could be dangerous to the dictator's continued enjoyment of the perks of power; once people start repeatedly applying the concept of "objectively right no matter what our Fearless Leader says," they're less likely to support the Fearless Leader.

Comment author: thomblake 24 April 2009 05:46:52PM 2 points [-]

Getting elected just doesn't translate into being the best candidate for the job.

The job of government is to enrich itself while limiting the actions of its people, with the side-effect of having a monopoly on the initiation of violence. I would rather live in a place where people in government are terrible at their jobs. Preferably a place where the government is divided into separate groups that are divided against each other so it can hardly do anything at all.

As Mal Reynolds would say, "that's what a government's for - getting in a man's way"

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 02:27:08AM *  2 points [-]

One problem is that representatives aren't specialized. Nobody would run a business where 435 people who all had the same title and job description got together to decide how to run things. It isn't quite like that; there is hierarchy in Congress. But everybody has "legislator" as their job description. This requires them to be experts in the law. Really, they should have some legal experts to help them figure out where things should go in the legal code, and how they should be written; and a bunch of other experts to argue over what should be done. Having the lawyers run Congress is like having the clerks run a company.

I wonder where the founding fathers imagined the ideas to run the country would come from. Did they think that congresspeople were supposed to get ideas from their constituents, and figure out how to encode them into law? The founding fathers didn't want there to be political parties, so they may not have expected the center of debate to be in Congress itself.

Comment author: jimrandomh 16 April 2009 02:52:57AM 2 points [-]

One problem is that representatives aren't specialized

US Congressmen are divided into committees, each of which deals with one topic, so they do get to specialize. Unfortunately, the committee assignments don't happen until after election, so voters can't take candidate-committee mismatches into account.

Comment author: CronoDAS 16 April 2009 02:39:34AM 1 point [-]

I don't know either, but they did have many examples of legislatures to look at; each individual state had its own legislature, and the British Parliament may be the oldest legislature that still meets today. Parliament had political parties, even back then: the Whigs and the Tories.

Comment author: ciphergoth 16 April 2009 07:49:25AM 5 points [-]

I believe Iceland's Althing has that honour.

Comment author: Unnamed 16 April 2009 12:27:31AM *  3 points [-]

I don't know about the Congresscritters, but there are a bunch of very smart, educated, informed people in Washington who have a lot of say over how the government spends its money. Whatever their flaws, people like Henry Paulson, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers are not lacking the basic tools of economic analysis, and they have had more influence over the shape of our current recovery effort than almost(?) anyone in Congress. And there are also the bureaucrats - the people at the CBO who analyzed the stimulus package, and the staff at the various government agencies that are getting the stimulus money to spend - who have plenty of specialized expertise.

In other words, Washington is a mixture of hacks and wonks, and things won't go well unless the wonks have a substantial role in setting policy.

Comment author: Vladimir_Gritsenko 16 April 2009 10:46:41AM 1 point [-]

Downvoted.

As a gut feeling, I agree with the sentiment. But... Most if not all of us agree that neither politicians nor voters are as educated or as rational as they should be, and we voice our agreements frequently. Is this the best use of our time? Considering that many folks have called for "thinking-based" education for a long time now, we're not even innovating. So, what are we doing? Reinforcing virtually uncontroversial beliefs? Priming our own private affective death spiral?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 03:49:10PM 1 point [-]

Can you propose a better use of our time?

Comment author: Vladimir_Gritsenko 16 April 2009 04:08:00PM 0 points [-]

Novel information. I liked your post "on dollars, utility, and crack cocaine", for example.

Comment author: ciphergoth 15 April 2009 10:41:05PM 0 points [-]

The primary focus of schools should be to prepare students to participate in democracy. If that policy were followed consistently, much of what is already taught in schools wouldn't have to change, but there are some parts of the emphasis it would change dramatically.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 15 April 2009 11:26:45PM 0 points [-]

What about education as a business investment for the country? Even a dictatorship would be better off with schools.

Comment author: Jordan 16 April 2009 03:04:14AM 1 point [-]

Not necessarily schools for all though. Uneducated people are easier to rule.

Also, a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. Based on my observations of people with a little bit of political knowledge, I would guess slightly increasing the education of everyone across the board could prove disastrous in a democracy.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 05:03:37AM 0 points [-]

I would guess slightly increasing the education of everyone across the board could prove disastrous in a democracy.

This surprises me. Can you elaborate on why?

Comment author: Jordan 16 April 2009 10:45:41PM *  2 points [-]

Two reasons.

One, in my experience people with slightly above average political knowledge tend to be more partisan. This could easily be a selection bias, partisans being more likely to learn a little, but I think in general whenever people learn they are more likely to use it to amplify their confidence in their current ideology.

Two, a little knowledge can create undue confidence. There are a lot of issues people (rightly) stay completely out of because they have zero knowledge. If everyone had just enough knowledge to feel engaged by an issue the decision makers might become pressured to follow the partially informed judgments of the majority.

Comment author: Alicorn 15 April 2009 11:19:54PM 0 points [-]

Can you go into more detail about what this would look like?

Comment author: alvarojabril 16 April 2009 12:05:37AM 1 point [-]

I think you're mistaking economics for math.

Comment author: SlyClaw 22 May 2012 11:19:09PM 0 points [-]

History class (A.P) we were taught some basic psychology and pattern recognizing.

Comment author: Aurini 16 April 2009 10:37:05AM *  0 points [-]

Paraphrase:

"Any free citizen needs to have a basic understanding of Math, Science, and History; without those they can't be a free citizen."

Robert A. Heinlein

*He may have said Economics, not Science.

Comment author: mattnewport 16 April 2009 12:18:22AM *  0 points [-]

I sometimes tell people how I believe that governments should not be documents, but semi-autonomous computer programs. I have a story that I'm not going to tell now, about incorporating inequalities into laws, then incorporating functions into them, then feedback loops, then statistical measures, then learning mechanisms, on up to the point where voters and/or legislatures set only the values that control the system, and the system produces the low-level laws and policy decisions (in a way that balances exploration and exploitation).

Sounds like a reasonable description of how a free market works to me.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 16 April 2009 02:21:52AM *  0 points [-]

Abstractly; but I don't just mean feedback loops and learning mechanisms with people as the components. I mean that some laws (not the Constitution itself, which is short and very meta; but many state and federal laws) should be a running computer program, with feedback loops and learning mechanisms. Some legislators just need to understand the parameters of the system; those who want to write amendments would need to be computer programmers.