Monday, June 25, 2012

The Envelope Theorem, Group Selection, and Cynical Framing

I'm rather fascinated by the concept of group selection, which seems rather important in explaining human behavior. I don't think it explains everything, but a lot. Steven Pinker just wrote an Edge piece criticizing it, and it is pretty good. His basic point is that unlike ants, human soldiers need a lot of prodding to kill themselves for the commonweal. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism, for Pinker, are sufficient to explain the superficial altruism one sees in society  In the comments section Herb Gintis replies, and he's an economist with a long interest in this debate; he favors the importance of group selection.

 I think a lot of this gets down to the envelope theorem, because if self and group selection mechanisms are operating, you will find something optimal for the self given the optimal group behavior, will also be optimal for the group given the optimal selfish behavior.  That is, take y* to be the optimal output, and x* to be the optimal value of x for any value of a.  Then


So, as with economics, it is often difficult to find easy tests.  That is, I'm sure for most instincts, one can rationalize them with selfish and groupish incentives.  I think a key proof would involve showing  that if you are competing with other individuals, it is not an equilibrium for there to be no coalitions; a coalition would outperform those not acting in concert, the way a collusion in Texas hold 'em can dominate non-colluding players.  Thus, it should be hard wired to collude because it is a dominant strategy if no one else is doing it, and perhaps even if everyone is doing it.  

In a tenuously related observation, Dan Dennet responded with an especially cynical focus.  First, he says to drop the 'group' prefix because it seems to support some 'vague and misguided ideas' that Dennet does not like.  As Jonathan Haidt emphasizes patriotism and religiosity of group selection, one can presume that's what Dennet is afraid of there.  He then suggests adding the word 'design'  into the selfish selection mechanism because the 'intelligent design' community has stumbled upon a good description of how biologic systems appear (ie, like they are designed, as admitted by Dawkins and Pinker), and he hates 'Intelligent Design'.

This is what reading George Lakoff does to people's thinking, gets them to focus on manipulating metaphors and focusing on higher truths as opposed to discussing ideas at hand, and that is a path to cynicism and nihilism. I agree that the big picture matters and very occasionally one has to be insincere or misleading to help a higher goal (eg, not overly criticizing your leaders when fighting Nazis and the battle is in doubt).  But  if you make them your primary focus you have simply become a shill for whatever big idea you chose years ago.

Consider the genius Lakoff's idea to rebrand taxes as community dues, an idea that didn't work because while we don't mind paying dues for clubs, unlike taxes, dues are voluntary. But because he's is so partisan he doesn't see the stupidity of his suggestion, and it has gone nowhere. Lakoff's latest riff on branding the health care fight, is especially funny because this master of language writes the following, which I could not decipher:
There is another metaphor trying to get onstage -- that the individual mandate levies a health care tax on all citizens, with exemptions for those with health care. The mandate wasn't called a tax, but because money is fungible, it is economically equivalent to a tax, and so it could be metaphorically considered a tax -- but only if the Supreme Decided 
Where the first metaphor would effectively kill the Affordable Care Act, the second could save it.
As George Orwell noted, the enemy of clear language is insincerity, and here he does want a mandate and all it implies, but does not want to say so.


AndyinSanDiego said...

"this master of language writes the following, which I could not decipher:"

Great line.

Mercury said...

The thing is, paying taxes to the government can be like paying dues to a club and if you’re happy to pay them and see them well used it doesn’t matter much if they’re voluntary or not. But being a club member implies that you are part of an association of people with defined common interests, values or goals. Those who, in the last few decades, have sought to expand the size and scope of government have also been promoting “multiculturalism” at the expense of e pluribus unum. Next thing you know, you’re looking at your membership tab and calculating how much you actually make use of all those expensive new amenities you keep hearing about. How is it that dues keep going up and the back nine looks like hell? And what’s this new BS about exam fees and training courses to “retain access to the club bar room”? *Sigh* Why did we let those jerks in from Chicago three years ago?

You also start noticing that most of the people who work at the club live a lot better than the average club member…how did that happen? It was practically an act of charity to give the assistant groundskeeper a job ten years ago and now half of the club’s suppliers are his blood relatives, he has a seat on the board of directors and his extended family appears to be living on the grounds. Why, it’s almost like club employees are in business for themselves and letting you have a tee time every once in a while is like…..overhead for them.

Oh damn, I’ve manipulated metaphors to the point where I’ve allowed myself to go down the path of cynicism and nihilism.

cig said...

The taxes as club dues metaphor is uncomfortably mid-way. I prefer the idea that taxes are just an entrance fee for flat rate services, like the fee you pay to enter Disneyland.

The idea that taxes are mandatory is also factually false: locally, you usually need to do proactive things, which are not essential to survival and thus elective, in order to give rise to tax liabilities; and globally, there is a market for government services -- the suppliers only have local monopolies -- with the full range of price/services bundles available, so it is always possible to station oneself where your preferred bundle is offered. Zero tax/zero service is available, and even in some case zero tax/some services, so there's plenty of opportunities for the tax-shy.

People who think taxes are mandatory are in essence blinded by a form of entitlement culture: they think they are entitled not to take the initiative necessary to achieve their preferred tax level. They reject the market for governance due to an imagined entitlement to stay with their initial supplier. They're stuck in Disneyland, because they refuse to acknowledge they could leave.

Mercury said...

But every once in a while it turns out that those in government are the ones who are in fact most blinded by an entitlement culture and, when push comes to shove, are sent packing into the “global marketplace” in search of a more pliable population of tax donkeys.

Anonymous said...


"The thing is, paying taxes to the government can be like paying dues to a club and if you’re happy to pay them and see them well used it doesn’t matter much if they’re voluntary or not."

If I have to pay them, then the government has a reduced incentive to ensure that I remain happy to pay them. So it definitely does matter much.


You may think of taxes as fees but the governments that collect them typically do not. Also, it's a mistake to call something a fee unless the party charging a fee has a legitimate claim to it. If I stand in front of your door and demand that you pay me a dollar every time you go inside, that's not a fee. That's just me threatening to deprive you of something in order to get money out of your pocket and into mine.

Tel said...

Speaking of the "enemy of clear language", I absolutely hate the term "reciprocal altruism" because it is not altruism at all, and should rightly be called "trade" -- which is both the older name for such behaviour and the name more people will correctly understand.

With regards to "group selection", people hear that and they think that individual selection can thus be ignored. I agree that really it is happening at both the individual level and the group level, requiring a stationary point to satisfy both optimizations. The term "Multilevel selection" gets this across better, IMHO.

Mercury said...

Anon- Of course incentives are important but the less a governed populace shares a common , mutually understood culture (which fosters a certain trust), the less likely any single taxpayer will consider his taxes well spent which creates a negative feedback loop of self-interested behavior at the expense of whatever tax-funded, common good things the government is supposed to produce and control. Trust is not a replacement for proper incentives or explicit legal rights but it can make things more efficient and less fractious which is why for many jobs you’d rather engage a trusted family member than go through the hassle of vetting and incentivizing a stranger. Notice how the more our common culture disintegrates the more official “compliance” and red tape gets wrapped around every activity in life as other peoples’ human judgment is no longer considered a trusted mechanism of control.

cig said...

@Anon, in the Disneyland model the legitimacy comes from the customer opting in to the fees by entering the park. Of course there's a bootstrap issue, that people are born somewhere, but the trick I propose to solve that issue is to include "not leaving" as a form of "entering the park". It's imperfect, but it does reflect the reality that if you don't want to pay taxes where you are today, you can achieve that by moving to a country that does not raise taxes (for you, or generally). In this model, to loose legitimacy, a government needs to ban its residents from moving to tax-free competitors.

As for governments' self assessment of what they're doing, there's probably as many views as people involved, but some element of "fee for service" is certainly not uncommon, sometimes very explicitly when the tax is very narrow (e.g. rubbish collection taxes), and often visible in the way the authorities try to justify taxes by boasting of the quantity/quality of matching services delivered.

taxpayer said...

Local taxes are sort of like dues; if you don't want to be a club member you can leave. (of course, you have to live somewhere, and a community with no taxes would have awfully expensive land and/or few residents). But regarding federal taxes it's pretty difficult to leave, so it's more like a penalty.