A system for all of us

My all-time favorite last line of a book comes from William McDonough’s “Upcycle” (about ways to build products that enrich the environment rather than harm it) where he closes by saying:

It’s going to take all of us, and it’s going to take forever. And that’s the point.

We’re at an interesting point in history, where for the first time most of the people in the world have significant resources and freedom, but that has brought with it environmental destruction and growing inequality. It’s clear that the current path we’re on is not one that we can follow together forever…but what is a viable alternative?

Economics is one of the foundations of a society, so the economics of a collective system are crucial. Daniel Schmachtenberger has put together an interesting list of the criteria a collective economic system must support :

  • It must align the incentives of all individuals with each other and with the commons
  • It must work well with new systems of governance, law, intelligence, infrastructure, and worldview
  • It must solve the problems of today’s systems: perverse incentives, private ownership, scarcity-based valuation,
  • It must provide a viable transition path from today’s systems to the ideal future. As the author puts it, “this probably requires out-competing the current system, in a way that can scale to everyone, while obsoleting the destructive forms of competition within the new system.” Beat capitalism at its own game, if you will.

Interestingly, he later points to agriculture as the starting point for our current economic system, as it introduced both surplus and unequal scarcity for the first time. Both of these accelerated exponentially over time:

Accumulation has reached a point where single individuals have more accumulated wealth than all of the world combined before the industrial revolution. And abstraction has reached the place where tens of trillions of dollars are moved around the world daily, in digital form only, based on financial statements seeking to maximize profits…the consequences of which can include war, species extinction, climate change, increases in poverty, and so on.

More on this perspective soon, from my recent reading of James C. Scott’s Against the Grain.

The solution, in Schmachtenberger’s view, is to reverse the incentives in our current system, and make that process faster by optimizing the coherence of the people in it:

Extraction is replaced with contextualization; (value) abstraction with instantiation; and accumulation with distribution and flow dynamics…

Its source of competitive advantage (over the current system) has to come from optimizing coherence – of the agents with each other and with reality.

There’s some pretty heavy economics jargon in there, but it’s really interesting to think about designing systems that would feature these traits. My current strategy is optimizing collective intelligence through collaborative software; but worth thinking more broadly about how that interacts with the other parts of a future-viable system for all.

Veto power and ranked choice voting

George Tsebelis on the connection between electoral structure and government structure:

The basic idea is that the more veto players you have, the more difficult it is to change the status quo. And the more ideological distance the veto players have from each other, the more difficult it is to change the status quo…

In the United States, if this kind of sharp division and polarization that we are seeing now is one we’d want to try to resolve institutionally, then the major solution would be a change in the electoral system, and a transformation to Single Transferable Vote, which means that every voter would rank the different candidates…

What STV does is, even if you are an extremist of one side or the other, your second vote will go to the more moderate candidate on one side. You’ll have a house or senate where moderates prevail.

The Fair Representation Act and ranked choice voting

There may be no perfect voting system, but the Fair Representation Act is trying to improve the biggest problems:

  • Voters are currently incentivized to vote for “the best person they think can actually win”, rather than their actual favorite candidate
  • Only a single person represents a group of often diverse interests
  • Gerrymandering has created bizarre voting districts that bear little or no resemblance to actual communities

By requiring broader districts, and electing multiple people from that district (rather than one each from smaller ones), the authors hope to represent a wider range of views in Congress. By offering ranked choice (or “instant runoff”) voting, they hope to eliminate the strategic and suboptimal voting patterns that favor only the major parties.

Progressive conservatives

Political conservatives usually battle with political progressives. But there are a few interesting ways that conservative ideas could be used to accomplish progressive goals:

The parties are ideological enemies at this point, but continuing to refine what really matters to each–and being willing to work together–could lead to some surprising and mutually attractive solutions.

Identity politics is breaking elections but might be able to fix government

An interesting discussion about our inability to choose the right candidates to make our lives better:

How do choices get framed? How do opinions get formed? A lot of it is people simply taking cues from political figures, from public figures, that they’ve identified themselves with one way or the other, whether they’re party leaders or the leaders of social groups or interest groups that they feel some attachment to…This idea that people have fixed or informed views about central issues doesn’t square with most of the data we have.

From the authors’ book “Democracy for Realists“, some data supporting the argument that “it’s the economy, stupid”:

“It is possible to account for recent presidential election outcomes with a fair degree of precision solely on the basis of how long the incumbent party had been in power and how much real income growth voters experienced in the six months leading up to Election Day.”

The authors attribute 2016’s strange elections to the inability of political “elites” to connect with voters, hence the rise of “outsiders”:

The biggest limitation at the moment is that we don’t know how to incorporate the role of political elites in a constructive way into the governing process or to somehow make it possible to ensure that they’re working on behalf of the interests of ordinary people.

But they propose that instead of breaking down “identity politics”, we need to acknowledge its importance and make it work better:

These group attachments are not some bad thing we do instead of being rational, well-informed creatures. They constitute who we are…We construct an interpretation of our lives, and we’re loyal to that and we find other people with similar views. That’s what human beings are like, and recognizing that seems to us a big step forward from the way we tend to think about politics now…

To do that, we need to better connect people’s identities and actions to the policymaking (e.g. what happens in Congress every day) rather than the elections (e.g. who you elect to Congress once every few years):

A lot of the actual ways in which people of ordinary education or ordinary means or just not much power, the ways in which they are disadvantaged are often occurring at the level of policymaking rather than at the level of elections themselves. The financial sector, for instance, is having a lot of policy success in Washington, in ways that ordinary people, if they really understood what was happening, would not approve. But they don’t follow it closely enough, they don’t understand, and the policy process is tilted toward moneyed interests that ordinary people have no chance.

So embrace your identities, but don’t stop with the voting booth–find ways to connect daily to the actual decisions that impact your life.

Clare Hollingworth, “the most interesting woman in the world”?

Her obituary in The Economist reads like one of those Dos Equis commercials:

She gained the first interview with the last Shah of Iran in 1941; after his fall in 1979, he said he would speak only to her…she commandeered a British consulate car and drove into Germany from Poland. A gust of wind lifted a roadside hessian screen, revealing Hitler’s army, mustered for the invasion…Aged nearly 80, she was seen climbing a lamppost to gain a better look at the crackdown in Tiananmen Square.


Why voting doesn’t make anyone happy

The Exploratorium explains voting paradoxes, and why, no matter what happens tomorrow, no one will really be happy:

Or is it because society is too complex for us to even understand our choices?

“We’ve become fundamentally confused about what the decisions are, and what their consequences are. And we can’t make a connection between them,” he added. “And that’s true about everybody, as well as about the decision-makers, the policymaker. They don’t know what the effects will be of the decisions that they’re making.”

Kenneth Arrow even won the Nobel Prize for proving that when there are 3 or more choices, no system is guaranteed to choose an optimal winner.

Smaller decisions with smaller groups are more likely to work, but still fraught with peril. But go vote tomorrow, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

Two Isolated Americas

This makes a lot of what’s happening today make sense.

Absentee futures

We congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy…But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent? – Stuart Candy

My most influential role these days is less “tastemaker” and “decider” than simply “option generator”.

Fear and loathing in U.S. politics

Fascinating in-depth look at the most interesting part of the Trump phenomenon–not the man, but the supporters.

What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality.

Essentially, fear of change (especially related to physical threats) leads to desire for authoritarian leadership.