19 July 2007

Selected Pet Theories and Maxims

Prophets are supposed to produce proverbs, right? Here are a few of my "pet theories", which are basically hypotheses that I've personally discerned from an anecdotal examination of the evidence, but haven't rigorously proved or known to be described in the literature of the relevant fields, and maxims (bits of wisdom). A few are known in the relevant literature, but underused.

* The Sovereignty of the Group: The larger a group of people is, the less capable it is of making decisions bound by any constraints (such as law, or feasibility) governed by external constraints. Thus, while a three person group on an appellate court panel is capable of adhering to legal precedents, a three hundred person group will almost always simply decide a question based upon the member individual's own personal preferences.

* Why Are Some Places More Religious Than Others? Religious practice thrives where it protects a threatened culture (e.g. minorities, oppressed people, immigrant communities), and whithers if it espouses norms of a secure culture (e.g. mainline Christians, established churches).

* Why Are Some People More Superstitious/Religious Than Others? People whose livelihood or success/survival depend upon random chance (e.g. farmers, actors, gamblers, soldiers) tend to care more about the supernatural than those whose success is less capricious.

* Why do people fight wars? Wars almost exclusively arise from disputes over a regime's legitimacy (see yesterday's post).

* Artificial solutions are appropriate ways to deal with artificial problems. This addresses when it is morally appropriate to elevate form over substance, and when it is not.

* The Iron Law of Oligopoly: Markets inherently trend towards oligopoly from both genuinely competitive and monopolistic states.

* Unemployment is a failure of entrepreneurship. The relevance of this maxim is to discourage the notion that a workforce of a particular size is chasing after a fixed number of jobs. Jobs are created and destroyed easily, and unemployment often coexists will labor shortages in some fields. The problem of unemployment is not that there are not enough jobs, but that our society is insufficiently creative to find economically useful things for the people who are unemployed to do.

* Economically productive immigrants don't cause unemployment. When you agree that unemployment is a failure of entrepreneurship, it follows that gainfully employed people, regardless of their nationality, have little impact on unemployment; unemployment comes from failing to find something worthwhile for unemployed people to do, not from a shortage of jobs. More generally, the observations of Richard Florida in "The Rise of the Creative Class" that economic prosperity flows more from intellectual capital than from physical or monetary capital, is basically correct.

* Copyright violations in totalitarian regimes enhance American national security. In these cases the economic harm to American businesses from foreign copyright violations is far outweighed by the long term benefit to American national security interests that arise from diffusion of American ideas in an authentic way.

* Unjust enrichment is a better analogy for intellectual property laws than property law (for reasons discussed at this blog more than once).

* Simplicity is more important than extra features in a good user interface. Apple Computing understands this, Microsoft does not.

* When faced with a situation where people are not successfully performing, troubleshooting to address the problem should proceed in the following order: (1) Is all necessary information immediately at hand where the work needs to be done? (2) Are the right tools available? (3) Are the right incentives in place? (4) Do the people have sufficient training and education to perform their jobs? (5) Do the people have the abilities they need to perform their jobs? (6) Are the people inherently motivated enough? Bad managers tend to try to blame problems on later questions before adequately resolving earlier and cheaper to address questions first.

* The ability to draw free hand in realistic perspective, or play an instrument, is primarily a learned thought process skill, not a matter of manual dexterity. (From "Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain", etc.). If you can type or trace, you have sufficient manual dexterity to play piano or draw.

* Unopposed ideas almost always win. In a legislative or judicial context, proposals presented without opposition in the forum at the time the decision is made almost always prevail, while any opposition at all expressed at the appropriate time in that forum dramatically deceases the likelihood that the proposal will pass and makes it much more difficult to pass the proposal unamended. This notion is contrary to the notion that mere majority support is all that matters in this context. It also explains judicial behavior in areas like the FISA court, grand juries, temporary restraining order proceedings, search warrant applications, default judgment requests, and other ex parte proceedings. A corollary of this rule is that state and local governments are easier to lobby than the federal government, since the likelihood of being completely unopposed on an issue is much greater at lower levels of government than in Washington D.C. where almost every imaginable interest has a lobbyist.

* Local government is farthest from the people, while the federal government is closest to the people. This notion flows from the idea that voter turnout is highest in federal elections and lowest in local elections, and that the decisions made in federal elections are better informed than those in local elections because media coverage is better in top of the ticket races, and media coverage of elected officials while in office improves as officials are higher up the totem pole.

* Rural local government is less competent than urban local government which is less competent than state government which is less competent than federal government. This flows largely from the fact that more competent people seek higher offices and apply to jobs with bigger governmental bodies. Bigger governments also tend to have better institutionalized bureaucracies to insure that things are done right.

* Local governments are bad at making general policies. This flows from the fact that at the local government level there are often not enough decisions to be made to cause decisions to be based on any policy which is meaningfully separated from a holistic analysis of all the facts presented in the small number of cases that actually come up. It accounts for the fact that ordinances and zoning codes are frequently overturned on a case by case basis.

* Vice is a local problem. Examples like decriminalized or partially decriminalized drug use in the Netherlands and Switzerland; legalized under aged drinking in Europe; decriminalized prostitution in places like Nevada, Perth (Australia), and Amsterdam; and decriminalized gambling in places like Nevada, state lotteries, bingo halls, and Indian casinos illustrate that vices that are often criminalized, while they may be bad habits and public health issues, are not inherently victimizing for any of the participants. But, this fails to explain why there is wide public opposition to decriminalization of vice. The problem with vice is that it is a NIMBY problem without proper regulation. Illegal drug use, prostitution, drinking or gambling may not be victimizing for the participants, but they are horrible for the neighborhoods where they are located (as are legal vice operations like exorbitant rate payday loan shops and adult entertainment). The implications of this fact are (1) that laws to address vice should be local, and (2) that vice is essentially an economic crime just as theft is primarily an economic crime.

* Incompetency and accidents are much more common than malice.

* Coups are largely a product of small military forces, not large ones, because the control group whose support is necessary to carry out a coup is smaller in a small military force.

* Offenses with insufficient intent requirements, and with mandatory penalties end up disproportionately impacting the least culpable individuals (e.g. kid punished for wearing Winnie-the-Pooh socks to school in violation of a dress code allegedly designed to stop gangs).

* The vast majority of crimes are committed by people with either reasonably compelling and understandable reasons for doing so (albeit often appropriately without legally justiable reasons), or a mental illness. The vast majority of crime is economically motivated and is committed by the poor, or is substance addiction motivated. Most violent crime has some non-legally justifiable provocation. Most truly random crime is committed by the mentally ill, or by those temporarily out of their minds due to substance abuse. Recidivism is great because the underlying economic, substantce abuse or mental health problems behind so many crimes has not been resolved, or has been made worse, by the criminal justice system.

* Social problems are frequently best solved by looking for dominant trends. Most complex, multifactored problems have a variety of sources each of which has different possible solutions that are not equal in magnitude. Identifying the dominant trends behind a problem, and the dominant solution cost to problem impact ratios frequently makes it possible to address most of a social problem with solutions that address only a few of the sources of that problem. For example, while there were many sources of lead pollution, solving just one of them by banning leaded gasoline, solved the vast majority of the problem.

* In the absence of exceptionally good or exceptionally bad educational situations, academic performance is very weakly linked to educational institution quality. In the middle 80%-90% or so of educational situations ranked by teaching quality, the link is extremely weak.

* Clear wrongs are easier to right, even when they are trivial, than serious but less clear wrongs.

* The most successful scams don't hurt any one individual very much.

* Most people are bureacratically incompetent and functionally illiterate most of the time, even if they have had significant education.

* Political power is usually distributed less equally than economic power (this was a key observation of Milton Friedman).

* The vast majority of the laws on the books are irrelevant to the average person. Most laws on the book (and most tax laws for that matter) matter directly only to specified regulated industries or government employees. Moreover, the vast majority of laws relevant to the average person flow largely from moral intuition anyway, and most laws that don't flow from moral intuition are enforced only haphazardly.

* Modest wealth usually flows from ability, great wealth usually has a substantial component of either luck or malice or both involved ("behind every great fortune is a great crime").

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