Harrison D


On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast

1, The “watering down” comment was really referring to the idea of expanding the “preference axis” assumption to include more than just policy, to the extent that MVT changes from “Politicians moderate their policies towards the center of policy axes” (which would be a perhaps unintuitive claim that doesn’t need explicit reference to “MVT”) to “Politicians appeal to the majority of the voting public” (which is almost “no-duh” except that it irons over potential wrinkles, like “someone who is very far right/left won’t even bother voting unless one of the candidates moves far enough towards them, rather than spending their time to go out and vote for the ‘less bad candidate’ in an election which they might deep down recognize they won’t actually have any impact on...”). Ultimately, I think the question of whether Berkowitz should have discussed MVT by name is less important that the question of MVT’s validity, but I’m not in an epistemic position to get deeper into the weeds on that. 😶 2. I still don’t see that as a true “silver bullet”; I imagine Berkowitz might consider it one of the potential positive reforms, though.

On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast

Thanks for the responses. To go through the points you mention:

  1. I’m just not that convinced that the MVT is akin to the gas price situation you described, in that I don’t see it as that explanatory/fundamental/crucial to mention (in combination with the following remarks). Importantly, as part of this I’ll say that it seems like you’re watering down the MVT to increasingly become “politicians try to appeal to the majority of people,” which is arguably far more intuitive and thus less necessary to cover in name/detail. As I understood it, the MVT is more meant to explain why politicians converge to more-moderate policy preferences in order to win over the “median” voter. So if you’re just going to say (e.g.) that “candidates were less inclined to be anti-Trump because a majority of people wanted to vote against the anti-trump candidates,” you don’t need to mention the phrase “Median voter theorem” any more than you actually have to mention “supply and demand ** curves/graphs ** “ (as opposed to just “supply and demand”).
  2. I’m still not convinced there is a silver bullet, and my base rate for “situations where there is actually a silver bullet despite the dismissal by people who are more experienced than me, yet it’s just not getting used” is really low. Thus, I’m inclined to side with Berkowitz on this—including his observation that there are definitely multiple helpful reforms that could be taken.
  3. If the situation is as you described it, I definitely think that’s a fair concern—and it’s something that I’ve seen too many pundits do.
If Bill Gates believes all lives are equal, why is he impeding vaccine distribution?

Although I think it’s unfortunate this comment is so downvoted, I’m not surprised to be honest. As a rhetorical matter more generally, I would recommend two major things:

  1. “Narrow the sale” (and soften the language): perhaps the post and this comment aren’t extremely expansive, but I do think they try challenging too many orthodox beliefs at once and/or otherwise have unnecessary baggage. For example, see the title itself which, like I argued, seems to beg the question. See also the language in the quote: “This struck me as a catastrophic move, turning a vaccine developed by a nonprofit institution into a way to make a company lots of money, with no clear upside.” Instead, you should be very clear up front what 2-3 main claims you are arguing for up front; in this case, I think the main points are things like “we ought to develop an alternative market mechanism for incentivizing R&D and distribution of vaccines”.
  2. Engage more deeply in market-mechanism reasoning or within “market” frameworks, including by agreeing where you need to agree / indicating more clearly that, for example, you understand that patents are better than nothing. For example, if I were in your position I would probably have lead with something like “I am generally in favor of typical market solutions, but in the case of IP regulations and the market for vaccine R&D/production there are specific points of market failure that patents inefficiently address: X, Y, Z. This is why I think one of two alternatives would be better: A1; A2. Because...” ** This helps to make your propositions clearer and more familiar to the primary audience you are trying to persuade: people who would support patents because of market dynamics **. This really also ties into my previous point, about avoiding charged language and a wide array of potential weak spots.
If Bill Gates believes all lives are equal, why is he impeding vaccine distribution?

The Manhattan Project, Apollo Program, and USPS all illustrate that the government can sometimes fill a role when given enough money/resources to solve a problem, but they aren’t widely-acknowledged examples of efficiency—in fact, the USPS is often criticized as a prime example of government inefficiency. As to the first two, these could be outliers given their nature as technical endeavors during wartime/security environment pressures. I’ll leave the latter half of your comment to the other comments that have already been made by others.

On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast

I haven't had a chance to listen to the podcast yet, but I'll give a couple first-thought responses.

(0) I don't know why (or even whether) Berkowitz doesn't address the MVT, but my impression is that the assumptions baked into the MVT are out of touch with reality; consider for example that people may rationally vote "irrationally" (see e.g., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_the_Rational_Voter), since national democracy does not have reliable feedback mechanisms for making good choices with your vote. Of course, that's not to say that MVT is totally wrong; it could be decently "right for the wrong reasons," but I've increasingly heard people argue that the MVT is losing accuracy as politics is increasingly detached from policy effectiveness. Also, just casually glancing over the transcript it seems like Berkowitz indirectly touches on the notion by emphasizing how party primaries encourage selecting more-partisan candidates ("they really talk about the problem of partisan primaries"), although perhaps Berkowitz should have given some more-explicit (i.e., by-name) discussion to this.

(2) This analysis feels really shallow, and I'm not sure it's fair to Berkowitz based on what I'm seeing on the transcript. In fact, looking at a few quotes it even feels a bit misrepresentative of what Berkowitz said. From the transcript: "So I do think political reforms are important here. I’m a little agnostic personally about which ones, we could talk more about this, but I do think some reforms to the system are really key to get at the structures there as well." Further on this, Berkowitz gives counterexamples of where he claims parliamentary democracies have led to "populism", including the UK and Australia; you can't just say "well here are a few examples of where parliamentary democracy has worked very well; it clearly has to do with their structure." (In the case of Japan, I'd immediately suspect there are massive confounding variables, including having one of the most homogeneous populations in the world as well as having been highly economically successful)

(3) I haven't fully read/analyzed this section of Berkowitz' talk, but I think that once again this is some shallow/hasty dismissal: "turnout wasn't high in Trump 1.0, so Trump can't be responsible for higher turnout in Trump 2.0" is not a knock-down argument in itself. It's wholly possible that Trump was so polarizing after 4 additional years of hogging the limelight that he had an upward effect on turnout. However, I do agree it's probably not the most persuasive argument--but I don't think that you ought to be so confident in your own analysis, either. Having not done serious research on the matter, it still seems more likely that the expansion of mail-in/absentee voting also had a sizable upward effect. In the end, all three of our explanations could be right. Perhaps Berkowitz should have mentioned your point, perhaps it wasn't that crucial.

In summary, I'd say it's easy to pick apart any political pundit's analysis; I imagine when I listen to this podcast I'll have a number of criticisms. However, I think it's also important to apply similar scrutiny to our own criticisms.

On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast

Quick, minor note: I'd recommend linking to the podcast you're referring to for ease of access.

If Bill Gates believes all lives are equal, why is he impeding vaccine distribution?

For quite some time now (even predating Covid), I've suspected that in many situations patents are just an inferior/stopgap market tool, but that a more-nuanced prize system such as you link to would require a trustworthy, competent, and (re)trained bureaucracy. It's outside of my wheelhouse so I haven't really actively pursued it, but I personally would be interested to see more research/discussion on the subject.

That being said, I do take some issue with the title of this post, which appears to beg/load the question: one could make an argument that the decision by Bill Gates could aid vaccine distribution by providing more market incentives for production and fast distribution. I'm definitely not familiar with this, but I do suspect that it's not like the vaccine information is going to be withheld from the world while at the same time pharma companies just price gouge their way through the Global South; I think it's more likely the vaccines will be provided to developing countries via foreign aid and/or other mechanisms at far lower cost relative to what was charged among wealthy countries. In the end, there are going to be unavoidable costs associated with production and distribution; the question is whether that is covered via foreign aid directly or if it will be funded more-indirectly by the profits gained in developing countries.

To Build a Better Ballot: an interactive guide to alternative voting systems

If you haven’t wandered around the Nicky Case website, I’d recommend doing so. There are a lot of interesting educational games on there, covering a wide variety of concepts such as social contagion, prisoner’s dilemmas, segregation, etc.

Harrison D's Shortform

Do you just mean this shortform or do you mean the full post once I finish it? Either way I’d say feel free to post it! I’d love to get feedback on the idea

Against opposing SJ activism/cancellations

I may have just missed this in the comments below, but FWIW: On top of all the other points that have been made in opposition to this stance, I would also assign very low credence to the implied claim "if we don't [do things that oppose cancel culture], then we'll be able to avoid getting canceled during the 'cultural revolution'." I would suspect that if this "cultural revolution" (which I already consider implausible) were nearly as bad as you suggest, EA as a movement would already get targeted regardless (especially if it's the case that the whole movement will be held collectively guilty for a subset of the movement speaking out about something), and thus it would have an even smaller fractional expected value. To clarify further, here the witch analogy that you use is potentially misleading because with witch hunts the scope is at least ostensibly limited to the instances of "witches." This could of course be expanded to include "witch sympathizers", but it's at least more plausible that by avoiding getting involved one can continue their abolition work. If however the witch hunt were to grow into an entire philosophy that says "anyone not primarily concerned with finding witches and burning them will be treated as witch sympathizers," then you face the lose-lose situation (darned if you do, darned if you don't).

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