The Percentage Sign as a Signaling Device
As you know, politics is the mind-killer. A fully rational politics would rank the weight of all conceivable policy choices, considering their basic fairness, the costs and benefits they are expected to produce, and the likelihoods that they will succeed, both in being enacted and in doing what they are designed to do. This weighting would be matched against a presumably perfect insight into the character and intentions of politicians, on whose actions the practical consequences of the whole ordering mechanism depend. A rational politics would account for emotion — good luck with that — and for reflexivity, because everyone else is thinking too.
In other words, a fully rational politics is impossible. (You mean to tell me that we can’t solve chess or go, but we can solve the decision tree for politics?)
This is not to say we should choose all our policy preferences from the gut. There might still be a less wrong way to think about public policy, even if Eliezer Yudkowsky despairs of it.
A less wrong approach would not begin with outcomes or initiatives. It would begin with the mind. It would begin with the search for small, easily defined, easily implemented correctives to our ways of thinking about public policy. Ideally these small changes would be painless and would have a great deal of influence on how we think.
Scary, I know. If a neurosurgeon said a procedure was “painless” and “would have a great deal of influence on how you think,” you’d run screaming. Perhaps with reason. I can hear you saying it already: But which party would this change steer me toward? What if it pushes me in direction X?
Well. If it does, then direction X is right. End of story. Would you rather be right, or right with your party?
So here’s my first suggestion: We should mistrust all of our internal hunches about percentage figures.
I don’t know why, but people are absolutely lousy at estimating percentages. Corporate profits are what percent of revenue? And the percent that make minimum wage? What percent of our budget is foreign aid? What percent goes to public broadcasting? And to NASA? What percent of Americans are gay or lesbian?
On every one of these, you’re probably wrong. About half of all adults guessed that more than 20% of Americans were gay or lesbian.
Empirical measurements of percentages are fine. Results from opinion polls are fine too. But any time we find ourselves thinking “we need to do A because X percent of Y is Z,” we should watch closely.
As a rule, source all percentages. Seek out the implicit ones. Source them too. The internally generated percent sign is a punctuation mark that indicates stupid.
Or perhaps it indicates signaling. When you say the average corporate profit margin is 60%, you’re saying that corporations make an alarming amount of money. Ordinary returns are more like 6%, but saying “6%” doesn’t signal much alarm, does it?
Indeed, around 5% — what Americans think goes to public broadcasting in the federal budget — is perhaps the figure of nominal concern. 5% seems to say, “yeah, it’s there all right.”
In reality, public broadcasting gets 0.01% of the federal budget. But it wouldn’t do for liberals or conservatives to say so. Liberals want to signal that they at least sorta care about public broadcasting. That’s difficult with the correct answer, even if you do happen to know it (honestly I don’t think they do). Conservatives want to signal that they are at least a bit worried about public broadcasting, but it’s very hard to worry about anything with so small a percent attached to it. Even if sometimes we should worry about the little things.
Or consider the idea that 20% of Americans are gay or lesbian. Now that’s a figure that signals concern! Never mind that it’s utterly implausible. You can’t have the next great civil rights movement for a mere 3% of the population. And a 3% homosexuality rate doesn’t really look like a civilization-ending threat. Both sides signal the strength of their commitment. The result is nearly the same. And it’s ridiculous. This is how politics kills the mind.