Distribution of Agency

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Patrick

Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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31 Responses

  1. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto
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    says:

    Excellent post, I think you managed to encapsulate the problem of complexity in global economic distribution quite well. In particular the mobility of liquidity/capital vs. the immobility of labor, is IMO one of the biggest problems with globalization we’re seeing now.

    Tied into this, is the mobility disparity between the ultra wealthy and the normal people. In essence, we’re crafting the equivalent of the Enlightenment Army Aristocracy. People to whom, their social class actually matters more than their nationality or other factors. Interposing this sort of identity in a world where the vast majority are operating on a different scale, AND providing these individuals substantial power in the form of market power via capital and corporate shares can lead to some very scary incomes and an incentive for rent-seeking behavior on a truly vast scale.Report

  2. Avatar Roger
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    says:

    Patrick,

    Very well developed piece. Bravo to you and your editor.

    As usual, I need to pick at it….

    In the end you argue that you, or whoever gets to program you, gets to decide what excellence is. I suggest the wealthy and non wealthy are all pursuing whatever it is they define as excellence. Society in total is the collective movement toward all these goals along with any “wakes” created in the progress.

    The libertarian solution of course is to ensure that however it is they pursue excellence, that they can’t directly harm others via their actions or “wakes.”

    I fear you dismissing the value of commodity markets, and assuming that moon projects are a better use of money than investing in Apple. My guess is the collective wisdom of the decentralized actions of millions of wealthy people is probably much, much smarter than you, or me or Aristotle. If the system is working properly, the poor are also more advantaged by it. The poor just don’t realize it.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger
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      says:

      And I need to pick at this:

      I suggest the wealthy and non wealthy are all pursuing whatever it is they define as excellence. Society in total is the collective movement toward all these goals along with any “wakes” created in the progress.

      I think what you mean here isn’t that things are this way, but that they ought to be this way, yes? To say that the wealthy and non-wealthy each were practicing their own conception of excellence in (hold on, I’m gonna go there!) the antebellum south leaves something pretty damn important. Also, what you mean by excellence might beg all the questions against your interlocutor.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater
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        says:

        Stillwater,

        You know that I am suggesting decentralized, bottoms up mutually agreed to interactions. However, I am not suggesting things ought to be this way in a moral, absolute way. I am suggesting that based upon my read of history and my knowledge of what people want, that I believe they ought to take this path if they want to progress. And that is what we are really talking about with excellence, it is progress.

        Progress, as I am suggesting it here, is widespread, long term success. As an ideal it involves everyone thriving as they define thriving. Not just as Patrick or Aristotle or I define it. And no, people don’t have to accept my definition of progress either. If they have a better definition they ought to use that one, though I suggest one key role of a good definition is that others comprehend it.

        I am suggesting that the cumulative competitive and cooperative interplay of individuals pursuit of excellence as they define it within an agreed to structure of rules of how to interact is the best path to widespread flourishing. It is the path each of us is most likely to most succeed in our goals, individually and collectively. It is not the only path though, and I respect the rights of others to explore alternative paths. I prefer them not to coerce me in the process though.Report

      • Avatar Plinko in reply to Stillwater
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        says:

        Still, do you think The libertarian solution of course is to ensure that however it is they pursue excellence, that they can’t directly harm others via their actions or “wakes.” somehow endorses slavery?

        Roger didn’t say it directly but I’ve met few libertarians that endorse the idea that enslaving someone isn’t darned close to the very tip-top of the list of harms.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Plinko
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          says:

          No! I was trying (and failing) to point out that people’s conceptions of excellence can be wildly divergent, including a conception of individual and cultural excellence based on slavery.

          I was trying to tease out, in the form of a badly worded question, what Roger meant by the word.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Stillwater
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            says:

            There’s much talk about the Wisdom of Crowds being bandied about these days. Hobbes wrote some deathless prose on the subject

            For men, as they become at last weary of irregular jostling and hewing one another, and desire with all their hearts to conform themselves into one firm and lasting edifice
            […]
            I observe the diseases of a Commonwealth that proceed from the poison of seditious doctrines, whereof one is that every private man is judge of good and evil actions.
            […]
            Another infirmity of a Commonwealth is the immoderate greatness of a town, when it is able to furnish out of its own circuit the number and expense of a great army; as also the great number of corporations, which are as it were many lesser Commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man. To may be added, liberty of disputing against absolute power by pretenders to political prudence; which though bred for the most part in the lees of the people, yet animated by false doctrines are perpetually meddling with the fundamental laws, to the molestation of the Commonwealth, like the little worms which physicians call ascarides.
            Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger
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      says:

      > In the end you argue that you, or whoever gets
      > to program you, gets to decide what excellence is.

      Oh, absolutely not.

      I’m just pointing out that “the pursuit of excellence” by, say, Abramovich, is something that can encourage Boris to remain discontent (or just envious) rather than angry. Who gets to decide what “excellence” is? All of the Borises who are locked in the geopolitical subgame with Abramovich are the primary candidates, as far as stability in that geopolitical subgame are concerned. If Abramovich is Elon Musk, and the geopolitical subgame is America, the Borises we need to worry about are largely not in our own local subgame. Fifty years ago this didn’t matter so much (to us, justice concerns aside) as they didn’t possess the wherewithal to impact us. They do now.

      > I fear you dismissing the value of commodity
      > markets, and assuming that moon projects are
      > a better use of money than investing in Apple.

      I don’t dismiss the value of commodity markets; they have an awful lot of utility in many ways.

      They still have difficulties, and the difficulties are actually exacerbated by the fungible nature of money; the dollar buys staple goods and the dollar buys fiscal instruments. I can imagine a hypothetical future where you don’t have the same money to buy those two types of things in a subgame – a colony on Mars will probably have a local currency for staples (oxygen allowance, water, food, etc) and a fiscal commodity for transactions that aren’t staple goods (company shares that you can trade with the Earthlings or some such).

      This essay was really focused on half of the Bayesian equation – clarifying what sorts of systemic problems we *could* have, not which ones we do (which is why I was careful not to lay out much in the way of sharp conclusions). Sort of a framework for other people to bounce comments on the other threads off of to keep us from talking past each other.

      > My guess is the collective wisdom of the decentralized
      > actions of millions of wealthy people is probably much,
      > much smarter than you, or me or Aristotle.

      Sure. I’m not sure the collective wisdom of 1,000, or even 100,000 people (who have a very different base existence from the other 6,999,999,000) who are making most of the decisions about what happens with liquid capital is awesome, though. I expect rather the absolute converse.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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        says:

        Patrick,

        Good points, and deep too. I think the Borises are unlikely to ever approve of what the capitalists do. Economics is counterintuitive. What people think we should do is often 180 degrees from what economists would suggest.

        I keep getting back to the problem where the nastiest class of problems is where the action that seems to fix it actually makes it worse. When we label poison as RX, we can get in real trouble. I suspect this is part of why humans remained poor for so long. We kept drinking the poison in the RX bottle.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Roger
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          says:

          > I keep getting back to the problem where the nastiest
          > class of problems is where the action that seems to
          > fix it actually makes it worse.

          I am very sympathetic to this.

          The flip side, when it comes to higher taxes on the rich… is that we’ve had high tax rates on the upper class before and the economy sailed on. Now, the economy sailed on while a number of other things were going on that make this a very unreliable measure for “it’s okay to do this in all times and places”, but the empiricist in me at least says, “Sure, it might not work as well as we intend this time around, but at least it has the merit of having been done before without blowing up the economy”.

          I only take this as a *small* comfort, mind you…Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    I may need to post my response before I can fully respond to this but it seems to me that history has a long arc of people moving from system 2 (where a lot of Bobs and Alices die) and technological advancements bring them to system 3 (where a lot of Bobs and Alices die) and more advancements take them to system 4 (where a lot fewer Bobs and Alices die) which allows for pockets of system 1 to bubble up.

    The people who are still in systems 3 and 4 look at the pockets of system 1 and see those pockets as the baseline rather than the squalor of 2 that they crawled out of over the bodies of their brethren and sistern… and, even within system 1, we see people pointing to other people in system 1 who have even more edenic lifestyles and say “but I’m a system 4!”

    But I haven’t had my caffeine yet.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      > The people who are still in systems 3 and 4 look at the pockets
      > of system 1 and see those pockets as the baseline rather than
      > the squalor of 2 that they crawled out of over the bodies of their
      > brethren and sistern… and, even within system 1, we see people
      > pointing to other people in system 1 who have even more
      > edenic lifestyles and say “but I’m a system 4!”

      Oh, yes.

      Perception of the players is actually much more important than the actuality of the players’ existence.Report

  4. Avatar John Howard Griffin
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    says:

    Very interesting post.

    Regarding this:

    If the pile is gone, her [Alice’s] choices are: die or cut a deal with Bob for two of his resources. Alice has nothing to trade except the seeds she just planted. Bob’s got her over a barrel and we’re back to the coercion thread.

    I couldn’t help but wonder about the following:

    If there are three Agents – Bob, Alice, and Tom – and Alice and Tom find themselves in similar circumstances, there is an additional element of Inequality. Namely, what situation does Alice find herself in if Bob is more willing (or, perhaps, ONLY willing) to trade with Tom, because Tom has a Y chromosome and Alice does not?

    Of course, we could extrapolate to other aspects of Inequality that don’t rely on chromosomes, but on other social markers. Are these market forces? Are they something else? Is this important to think about and discuss?

    Perhaps I am taking things off topic, but when I heard about an Inequality Symposium, I expected more than just wealth disparity (or cash disparity, or income disparity). You’ve touched on it a bit, but only lightly, and I haven’t seen it mentioned in the other posts. Is my subject matter above forbidden in the discussion of Inequality?Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to John Howard Griffin
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      says:

      > Namely, what situation does Alice find herself in
      > if Bob is more willing (or, perhaps, ONLY willing)
      > to trade with Tom, because Tom has a Y
      > chromosome and Alice does not?

      Depending upon the initial circumstances, Alice is likely either in an artificial Depletion, or she’s likely the altruistic actor in Decoupled Cooperation (Alice does all the work, and Bob and Tom are dicks – either under a threat of force, or because Bob and Tom leverage their monopoly power), or she’s in case six and doesn’t care.

      Historically, industrialized nations are the Bob and Tom, and non-industrialized nations are Alice. They are understandably (regardless of whether or not they are justifiably, in their specific case) kind of pissed about this.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to John Howard Griffin
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      says:

      JHG, I see what you’re suggesting here. Why not submit a post about for the symposium? I think it’s actually more central to the libertarian/liberal divide than economic inequality is.Report

    • Avatar watson in reply to John Howard Griffin
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      says:

      JHG, you make an interesting point, and one that struck me. One of the baseline assumptions in the original post is that the Agents have equal opportunities to act and make decisions. They also have equal ability to influence outcomes of the system (depending on their action and decisions).

      I need to think on this some more to clarify my thoughts on this, but I also would be intetested in discussion of other types of inequality and their consequences/feedback with economic inequality.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to watson
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        says:

        > One of the baseline assumptions in the original post
        > is that the Agents have equal opportunities to act
        > and make decisions.

        Well, the conceit was to illustrate the set of problems, outside the bounds of nefarious actors.

        Nefarious actors will always be a problem. Not that they shouldn’t be discussed (or that we shouldn’t have instruments to deal with them).

        What I was trying to touch on here was more along the lines of, “It’s possible to have problems with this system even if we assume that the current conditions are just”. Even *if* *everybody* who is wealthy got to be wealthy *only* by adding a proportionate amount of value to the economy and all of the justice concerns were moot from an absolute perspective… you can still have a really destabilizing system very quickly, because the very wealthy actors are different not just in scale but in kind to the vast majority of players.

        Now, all that aside, you can still have embedded privilege and nefarious actors and when it comes to government action, you get cases where non-economic factors (war, for one big example) create longstanding economic disparities, too. But that got a bit too macro for a single discussion…Report

  5. Avatar Plinko
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    says:

    This is my favorite post in the symposium so far, Patrick.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Plinko
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      says:

      Hey, thanks!

      I felt my pedantic worst come out while writing this thing and never felt like I got it “tight”, but it seems to have worked.Report

      • Avatar Plinko in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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        says:

        It addresses a lot of the exact things I was wondering if anyone would address in the symposium.
        The immobility section in particular is a much better way of going about the long comment I posted on Tim’s post (regarding full employment as a ‘market failure’) than the one I actually wrote.

        If there’s one thing I felt was missing would be to more explicitly address the problem that somewhere that those agents that do happen to accumulate a lot of the wealth now have the incentive and the ability to rig the game going forward in their favor.
        I think you sorta touch on it a bit with the mutual fund bit, but it’s the one thing I was wondering how you’d address that you didn’t get to.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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        says:

        There’s an awful lot in this post, Patrick. I’d urge you to expand on the issues raised, namely Plinko’s issue about rigging the system and JHG’s cartel-ism.

        There was one curious sentence in there which deserved its own paragraph: Most arguments about justice are disconnected from the actors.. That deserves expansion, too.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP
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          says:

          Thanks for your editing work, by the way. You helped tighten up a bunch of my rambling.

          > There was one curious sentence in there which deserved
          > its own paragraph: Most arguments about justice are
          > disconnected from the actors.. That deserves expansion, too.

          Yes it does. There’s another four 5,000 word essays I can tack onto this one to make an actual thesis out of it covering enough of the bases for me to consider it actually coherent.

          I’m cheating and seeing if anybody will do the work for me 🙂Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Cahalan
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            says:

            Well, we make a great tag team. Bloviate away and I’ll tighten it up.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP
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              says:

              The nice part was you only slipped once and made a suggested change that was in your own voice rather than mine (a hard trick when you’re editing someone’s stuff other than your own).

              “The argument slithers from “not quibbling about justice” into the weeds of much fine speechifying about Justice and Excellence.”

              An awesome line, granted, just not me 🙂Report

  6. Avatar Stillwater
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    says:

    Patrick, this is a really excellent post. I first read it last night right after it went up and my brain went all noodly and I’ve been working thru it again off and on this morning. There’s alot to digest. So unfortunately, I can’t really comment on it – other than to say ‘nice post!’Report

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