(Note: none of this is original, just a repackaging of others’ ideas)
A question of great practical importance is “What can I do to improve the world?”
In this post I want to talk about a different but related question: How confident should I be that my ideas for how to improve the world are actually good ideas?
The cynic says something like: “Don’t be naive. The real world is complicated, and there’s almost surely some complex reason that you don’t understand that would make your idea fail spectacularly upon attempted implementation. Besides, there are millions of people out there that are smarter and more knowledgeable than you, and some of them have most likely already thought of your idea. Maybe, if you’re really lucky or really really bright, you might have one or two truly original and not terrible ideas in your life, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
I don’t want to straw man this perspective, because I think it is right in some really important ways. There is a sense in which perceived low hanging policy fruit is similar to perceived $100 bills lying in the middle of the sidewalk – if it wasn’t some type of trick, you’d better believe that somebody else would have picked them up by now.
Overfishing removes tens of billions of dollars from global GDP every year. It permanently destroys fish stocks, the livelihoods of fishermen, and seaside communities. And, well… we’ve known how to solve this problem for decades. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons. The standard solutions that you’ll find in an introductory economics textbook are: privatize the common resource, regulate the market through legally enforceable agreements, or tax/subsidize the market to incentivize sustainable fishing.
These are not just good in theory – they actually work. Catch share programs like an individual transferable quota (ITQ) are clever combinations of privatization and regulation – there is a legally enforced fishing quota and individual fishermen own percentages of this quota. These policies have been tried in about a hundred fisheries, and when they are tried they not only stop the trend of overfishing but even reverse it.
Regulation through marine protection programs that temporarily halt activity in heavily fished areas to let them recover could save up to $920 billion of otherwise lost value by 2050. And in 2010, researchers studying subsidies to fisheries found that “the single action of eliminating fuel subsidies could potentially be the most influential factor in stemming the trend of overfishing”.
All of these solutions are perfectly obvious and commonsensical. Want to end overfishing? Stop subsidizing the overfishers and tax them instead, enforce sustainable fishing practices, and protect overfished areas. So if you thought that by applying some basic economics and common sense, you could do better than most of the world’s governments and fisheries over the last century, you would be completely correct.
But then we come back to our $100 bill thought experiment and the cynical argument. Surely the world consists of people that are plenty incentivized to save marine ecosystems, bring in billions of dollars to the country’s economy, and save the livelihoods of fishermen. And surely some of those people know about the policies I’ve just described and have the power to implement them. But overfishing continues as ever, destroying fish populations and draining money from the economy. So what gives?
It’s not that the cynic is wrong, it’s just that there is more to be said.
I want to develop the $100 bill analogy some more. When in fact should we expect that you could successfully discover a real $100 bill lying on the floor? Here are some questions whose answers would be important to know:
- Are there other people that can see the $100 bill?
- Do they realize what it is (that is, money)?
- Do they want money?
- Could they take the $100 bill?
If the answer is “yes” to all four questions, then the bill is probably a realistic sidewalk painting, or a hallucination, or a prank bill on a fishing line held by some impish teenagers in the nearby bushes. If others can see the $100 bill, know what it is, want it, and are capable of taking it, then it’s probably going to be picked up very quickly.
On the other hand, if the answer is “no” to any of the questions, then the bill is likely real and soon to be yours. All you need is one break in the chain of conditions for the conclusion to not obtain. So, for instance, if everybody is blind, it’s not too surprising that the bill is lying there. Similarly for a society in which nobody has ever seen paper money, or the people are all ascetics, or they are all incapable of bending over to pick it up.
Let’s bring this back to our starting question. Say that you’ve thought of an apparently brilliant policy P that solves an important issue I. When should we expect that P is actually a solution to I? Here are the analogous four questions you should ask yourself:
- Could other people have thought of P?
- Would they be able to tell if it were a solution to I?
- Do they want to solve I?
- Could they implement P?
We can call this our taxonomy of inadequacy, if we feel fancy. If all of these questions are answered in the affirmative, then we should expect that the policy would have already been implemented if it were actually a solution to I.
At the risk of being redundant, here’s an image:
The intersection of these four circles is the set of people that you’d expect to have implemented P, if it were actually a good solution to I. The larger this set is, the more suspicious you should be of your idea.
So let’s apply this!
Why is overfishing not solved? Probably because of #4.
People in positions of influence know how to stop overfishing and some would even like to do so. But they have to worry about the influence of the fishing lobby, as well as their approval ratings among the coastal communities that would be temporarily disadvantaged by policies like fishing quotas, marine protected areas, and higher taxes. Sure it’d be better for everybody in the long run, but voters have a hard time accepting short-term losses for long-term gains. So although we can all see ridiculously low-hanging policy fruit, and enough of us care about solving the problem, nobody in power is actually able to implement these policies due to the nature of the system they exist in.
Another example! Everybody agrees that first-past-the-post (FTPT) voting is about the worst voting system out there. It encourages gerrymandering, dooms third parties, and forces smart voters to vote against their preferences. And we know of more sane voting systems! So why are we still stuck with our horrible system?
Well, those that are currently in power are exactly those that have benefited from FPTP. And if a third party came into being that wanted to change the voting system… well FPTP dooms third parties. So we’re stuck. In terms of our taxonomy of inadequacy, this is a combination of #3 and #4 – those that are in power don’t want to change the voting system, and those that want to change the voting system are unable to get in power.
What I like about this way of thinking is that you can start with “Hey, this sounds like a good way to solve problem X!” and end up understanding the deep structure of our society, seeing the way that this gigantic beast we call civilization functions and the inadequacies that result.
There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I will leave it for future posts.