On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast 2021-04-21T01:53:33.363Z
Up and Down with the Pandemic; Why Pandemic Policies Do Not Last and How to Change That 2021-03-29T23:04:02.080Z
Democracy and Development, a Simple Model 2021-03-11T20:39:51.936Z
PhD student mutual line-manager invitation 2021-03-07T23:00:57.263Z
A brief explanation of the Myanmar coup 2021-02-02T15:47:34.145Z
Best Consequentialists in Poli Sci #1 : Are Parliaments Better? 2020-10-08T16:38:35.133Z
How do political scientists do good? 2020-08-28T19:17:50.711Z
Improving local governance in fragile states - practical lessons #2 2020-08-15T00:25:32.436Z
Improving local governance in fragile states - practical lessons from the field 2020-08-12T03:07:11.193Z
Where the QALY's at in political science? 2020-08-05T05:04:53.198Z


Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast · 2021-04-22T18:51:00.045Z · EA · GW

Original median voter theorem paper, Duncan Black in 1948

Let us suppose that a decision is to be determined by vote of a committee. The members of the committee may meet in a single room, or they may be scattered over an area of the country as are the electors in a parliamentary constituency. Proposals are advanced, we assume, in the form of motions on a particular topic or in favor of one of a number of candidates. We do not inquire into the genesis of the motions but simply assume that given motions have been put forward. In the case of the selection of candidates, we assume that determinate candidates have offered themselves for election and that one is to be chosen by means of voting. For convenience we shall speak as if one of a number of alternative mo- tions, and not candidates, was being selected.

Let there be n members in the committee, where n is odd. We suppose that an ordering of the points on the horizontal axis representing motions exists, rendering the preference curves of all members single-peaked. The points on the horizontal axis corresponding to the members' optimums are named O, 02, 03, . . . , in the order of their occurrence. The middle or median optimum will be the (n + I)/2th, and, in Figure 3, only this median optimum, the one im- mediately above it and the one immediately below it are shown

Anyway, this is really a pedagogic question. How best should we teach politics? Some people advocate that we should disregard the MVT because it is both "obvious" and "false". Setting that contradiction aside, I think the underlying assumption that only theories with perfect data fit should be taught is wrong. By the same logic, physics should not teach Newtownian mechanics because it is wrong relative to quantum mechanics. You can't just give the reader quantum mechanics, you need to start with a theory they can understand then update it.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast · 2021-04-22T01:07:13.310Z · EA · GW
  1. The median voter theorem is just a mathematical conclusion from a set of simple assumptions, it can't be watered up or down. If some set of voters rank proposals on a single axis with single-peaked preferences then the only Condorcet winner will be the median voters ideal point. The key here is that the voters choose the axis on which to rank the proposals. The voters can rank the candidates on any axis, taxes or policies or height. Usually smarter actors rank proposals and candidates on an ideology axis by collapsing issues onto one axis, as a mental heuristic. But if they interpret the axis as "does he run ads where he shoots guns" instead of "does he vote for my tax rate", the gun ads determine the axis not the tax rate. In this case the assumption is that Republican primary voters care a lot about the Trump-support axis.

The two level game papers are cool, but not relevant here.

The MVT is important here because Trumps influence over represenatives is non-linear with his vote share. If Trump loses 20% of his primary influence and loses the median primary voter, he does not lose 20% of his influence, he loses most of his influence.

  1. There are better ways to select leaders, but our current leaders choose not to influence them. Our current leaders like the current leader-selection system because they win at it. (See paper)[]
Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast · 2021-04-21T16:53:15.958Z · EA · GW

Interesting, that's a good point.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on On Mike Berkowitz's 80k Podcast · 2021-04-21T16:46:11.771Z · EA · GW

That’s good pushback, thank you.

I'll need to edit the piece more deeply, but for now I've added an explanation at the top.

Here are some counter criticisms

  1. That is a great summary of the modern critique of the MVT, thanks for sharing. The problem is that it applies to policy outcomes, but the subject is candidate selection. Caplan’s criticism is that voters are irrational at connecting votes to policies and policies to outcomes, which is true. If voters have a simpler utility function like “I want to vote against any anti-Trump candidates”, the median voter will apply very well. If 51% of voters choose to vote against any anti-trump candidates and you are anti-trump, the MVT will still cook your goose. Compare with democratic primaries, where the Bernie faction mobilized 40%, but Bernie does not have 4/5s of Trumps influence at all.

The response concerns me because Berkowitz passes up a great opportunity to explain a fundamental dynamic of the system in question. Imagine asking an economist “why did the price of gasoline increase when supply contracted” and the economist didn’t mention supply and demand curves. Sure it could be a Giffen good with a weird speculative market, but your explanation should start with the theory that explains maximum variation, then move to edge cases.

  1. Saying there is no silver bullet is a strong positive claim that Berkowitz doesn’t back up. I’m not all claiming there is definitive evidence that a silver bullet exists. I am simply claiming that we have not seen evidence disproving silver bullets, which Berkowitz claims. I should have made that more clear.

Viz-a-viz populism, if we define populism as “did any populist party form” then yes, there are few patterns. Martin Gurri is probably right that populism emerges from the information environment. But if we define it as populists that cam close to ruling, by getting 20% of the vote share, then we have some patterns. The German Bundestag was stunningly successful at deescalating every issue that the populists could use after 2016, for example (they paid billions to keep refugees out of Europe). Keeping populists out of office can probably be done with electoral engineering, but keeping populist minorities from forming can’t, so depends on goal post definitions.

  1. Fair enough, I shouldn’t argue that policy feedback is the definitive reason and Trump not. I'm just concerned that Berkowitz doesn't mention other explanations. Generally I am suspicious that activists will overfit on data to make their issue seem really important.
Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Is Democracy a Fad? · 2021-03-16T03:06:00.486Z · EA · GW

Democracies did not exist in the premodern world for one main reason; they were bad at war. Revolutions and republics did form in the Medieval period, particularly in capital-intensive trade hubs like Northern Italy and Northern Germany. However, most were quickly crushed under a wave of poorly armed peasant-soldiers from the coercive states next door.

A major reason for democracies rise in the 17th-21st centuries because democracies suddenly became much better at warfare than all other systems, and have maintained this advantage ever since. The first state to create a democratic nation-state and harness it to war was the Dutch in the Dutch revolt, who shocked Europe by defeating the Habsburg Empire. Shortly afterward Britain formed a democracy-nation hybrid who set the standard for military power. All major world wars since have been resounding Democratic victories., from the War of Jenkin's Ear to the Cold War. The main advantages of the democratic system are

  • Modern democracies had both large populations and property rights for capital, combining the two great advantages of previous state forms. Some autocracies have greatly improved their ability to accumulate capital to close this gap (Fascist Italy, China, Soviet Union).
  • Leaders pay a higher cost for defeat
  • Democracies can more credibly issue bonds (democratic advantage has faded over time)
  • Democracies rarely have to coup proof (divide and purge the military to prevent coups)

This advantage should be completely irrelevant going forward. China and Russia may democratize, giving the democracies a clean sweep of the security council powers. But the democracies are already at maximum influence in many stable anocracies like Morocco and Jordan.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Democracy and Development, a Simple Model · 2021-03-12T18:50:22.799Z · EA · GW

Hahaha I love hearing someone else say "cluster in polity-space". I use that phrase often but the other political scientists never do. It's an incredibly useful framework for describing correlated variations and side-stepping pointless debates about definition.

That's all spot on. Stable alternative models are rare and poor performing (Belgium, Lebanon, Bosnia, Libya).

The steel man for a democratic long run future: In the long run, the political system that survives longer should dominate. Once democracies pass a production threshold around 10,000 gdppc transitions become extremely rare. The half-life of a rich parliamentary system is really long > 200 years. By comparison autocracies have been unstable so far in all periods.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on A brief explanation of the Myanmar coup · 2021-03-07T22:39:48.428Z · EA · GW

Selectorate: People who select the leader

Ejectorate: People who don't.

In the Soviet Union, the selectorate was the Politburo Standing Committee. In Egypt and Myanmar the selectorate is a group of generals. In the US the selectorate are voters in swing states.

Thanks for the feedback.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Up and Down with the Pandemic; Why Pandemic Policies Do Not Last and How to Change That · 2021-01-07T05:25:30.346Z · EA · GW

I haven't ported the citations to this format yet, fyi

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Best Consequentialists in Poli Sci #1 : Are Parliaments Better? · 2021-01-05T18:57:45.069Z · EA · GW

My professor Hans Noel is featured in the article. Nice.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on My mistakes on the path to impact · 2020-12-13T19:23:14.276Z · EA · GW

I have a friend who is making the first two mistakes. They are in a different field from EA but similar totalizing vibe. They rarely apply to jobs that are outside their field-role but which would provide valuable career capital. They are also quite depressed from the long unemployment.

What can I say to help them not make these mistakes?

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on My mistakes on the path to impact · 2020-12-11T21:23:30.543Z · EA · GW

I disagree Max. We can all recall anecdotes of overconfidence because they create well-publicized narratives. With hindsight bias, it seems obvious that overconfidence was the subject. So naturally we overestimate overconfidence risks, just like nuclear power.

The costs of under confidence are invisible and ubiquitous. A grad student fails to submit her paper. An applicant doesn't apply. A graduate doesn't write down her NGO idea. Because you can't see the costs of underconfidence, they could be hundreds or thousands of times the overconfidence costs.

To break apart the question

  1. Should people update based on evidence and not have rigid world-models. Is people disagreeing with you moderate evidence?
  • Yes to both
  1. Once someone builds the best world-model they can, should they defer to higher-status people's models
  • Much much less often than we currently do
  1. How much should we weight disagreement between our models and the models of others?
Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on My mistakes on the path to impact · 2020-12-11T21:08:00.472Z · EA · GW

Thanks for making this. I experienced similar struggles in young adulthood and watched my friends go through them as well. It sucks that so many institutions leave young people with bad models of job-world and inflexible epistemology. It hits when we most need self-reliance and accuracy. IMO, the university professors are the worst offenders.

My disorganized thoughts

  1. Trusting your own models is invaluable. When I was 25 I had a major breakdown from career stress (read about it here). I realized my choices had been unimpeachable and bad. I always did "what I was supposed to do". But the outcomes would have been better if I trusted my own models.

There aren't consolation prizes for following socially approved world models. There are just outcomes. I decided to trust my own evidence and interpretation much more after that.

  1. It stuns me how often young people under-apply for jobs. The costs of over-applying are comparatively small. How to talk my friends out of it?

  2. I'm not sure you took risks, in an emotional sense. Under-applying protects against rejection. Loyalty protect against abandonment. In the moment, applying to an additional job and exploring a new career path feel very risky. I generally encourage young people to apply for tons of things, try new fields and move to new (developing) countries. I believe the strategies that feel risky are often the most effective, since they differentiate you and offer new skills. Maybe "risk" is the wrong heuristic for young people, who understand the world too little.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Best Consequentialists in Poli Sci #1 : Are Parliaments Better? · 2020-12-09T17:12:49.959Z · EA · GW

Great question! That is an incorrect interpretation, but this is the fault of the authors for their terrible reporting of the results not maintaining their reproduction data. I noticed the problems after writing.

Basically, those coefficients are the effect of one more year of parliamentarism in your history. So the .004 coefficient on corruption control means that 100 years of parliamentarism (1901-2001) is associated with a .4 increase.

I would also note that the dummy factors are stacked against parliamentarism. Think of it this way. In around 1880, Europe. East Asia and the Commonwealth chose parliamentarism while Latin America, the Francophone countries and (later) Africa chose presidentialism. We can't know if parl is the reason governance is worse in the later group, so we assume the reason is something else. But this is a strong assumption, we cannot rerun history and give the Norwejian constitution to Chile. So you should update up a bit toward parliamentarism.

To take import duties for example. If you keep country dummies in, 50 years of parl is associated with a 2.5% decrease in duties, half the impact of being a democracy. If you remove the continent dummies, then 50 years of parl is about as good as being a democracy.

Generally I would multiply the effect of parl by 50 then compare it to gdp per capita to ballpark total effect.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Best Consequentialists in Poli Sci #1 : Are Parliaments Better? · 2020-10-12T23:29:40.657Z · EA · GW

I don't know yet. I am curious.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Best Consequentialists in Poli Sci #1 : Are Parliaments Better? · 2020-10-12T04:40:36.553Z · EA · GW

Drutman is bae.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Best Consequentialists in Poli Sci #1 : Are Parliaments Better? · 2020-10-12T04:12:40.675Z · EA · GW

Drutman is bae.

It's crazy listening to people talk about America's problems and not apply the basic lessons of comparative politics. Drutman may be the only sane person talking about fixing American democracy because he's the only US pundit that actually compares the data on democratic institutions. American's are stuck in this 16th century Florentine conception of democracy without parties. People pay lip service to the idea that "the founders didn't believe parties would exist" then leave it at that.

One example is the way Americans talk about whipping (the speaker demanding party legislators vote). People talk about whipping as the end of the republic. Meanwhile, whipping is the complete norm in New Zealand, India, the UK, Canada, Tanzania, the Bundestag, Sweden, Japan, Turkey (formerly). At the start of the 20th century it was a reasonable prior that strong parties would lead to rapidly fluxuating economic regulations and growth slowdowns or major redistributions. At the time, it was a good guess. We now know that voters are great at stopping parties. Voters are the check and balance (federalism is still cool though).

Google your representative's position on ending the fillibuster. I bet you dollars to donuts that they say something like "if we abolish the fillibuster the other party will pass crazy bills A-Z". The reality is that strong parliaments get punished for passing bad bills and they learn to behave. Look at Sweden's wager-earner funds. Look at British Labor in the 1970's, locked out for two decades. Look at Canada's stunning record of policy stability despite a powerfully majoritarian system.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Best Consequentialists in Poli Sci #1 : Are Parliaments Better? · 2020-10-11T22:49:29.057Z · EA · GW

Good question. The key is that Gerring's paper ADJUSTED FOR DEMOCRACY. So it really means that "parliaments are better when they successfully become democracies", not "parliaments are better in general". This is a big stupid on Gerring's part. I just noticed it and am mad. Anyway-

South Sudan becoming a democracy was very hard due to the proto-state institutions before independence. Ethno-nationalist patrimonial warlord autocracies dominated pre-independence South Sudan and had effectively won their independence in a long and bloody civil war. And there were two warlordships of similar power and ethnic bases (and polygamy). Describing the main factions can get long and complicated and I could easily make a mistake. I'll just talk about three groups, the majority SPLM faction (mostly Dinka), the minority SPLM faction (mostly Nuer) and the International Community. I'm not an expert, so consider this a guess.

For the head of the majority faction (Salva Kiir) presidentialism is good because it concentrates power and patronage opportunities in his hands. He wants the presidency to have strong independence from the legislature. Remember the legislature is full of his lackeys. Being subservient to 300 lackeys makes corruption hard; capable people sneak in and bribes are more expensive (See Bueno De Mesquita, selectorate theory). This is the main reason, IMO.

For the head of the minority faction (Riek Machar), presidentialism also sounds nice because the upper house represented provincial governments. So the Nuer-dominated provinces have institutionalized power, maybe a veto. Note that war broke out a few months after Salva Kiir fired his ministers to consolidate power.

For the international community, the main thing is making sure that the government splits the money fairly. They know that state capacity will be tiny. In practice, they will be providing the services. But as long as the majority and minority faction are sharing the windfalls into their respective pyramid schemes fairly, a civil war might not happen. The massive corruption must seem fair to each warlord. Presidentialism should make this easier as well (checks and balances, multiple state actors with their own mandate).

If these actors were maximizing the quality of the health ministry in 20 years, Gerring would have been relevant. But none of them were.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on What is the increase in expected value of effective altruist Wayne Hsiung being mayor of Berkeley instead of its current incumbent? · 2020-10-09T14:33:33.728Z · EA · GW

Maybe. That's orthogonal to my comment. I was responding to

My default belief is that a politician implying something he knows the listener wants to hear is not evidence he's believes or will act on that implication.

As to the empirical content of "evidence-based policy", I'm not an expert on that question yet.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Best Consequentialists in Poli Sci #1 : Are Parliaments Better? · 2020-10-09T14:31:17.346Z · EA · GW

Good questions Thomas. The point of the blog series is to highlight papers that ask the right questions and use the right methods to have consequentialist value. I am not arguing that the Gerring paper is the last word. I'll answer a few of your questions, though.

  1. We know they aren't p-hacking in the selection of dependent variables because there are very few such variables that cover every country-year of interest. How many organizations measured the governance quality of Liberia, Columbia and Denmark in 1953. I'm working on introducing a new one using weather station quality.

  2. I didn't want to dive into the regression table in my blog post. All models used adjust for continent. They also adjust for distance to financial center. I would also point out that if the continents with lots of presidential regimes have less cross-border trade, this is evidence against quality of governance of presidentialism.

  3. There is a later study with an expanded dataset that supported the null on GDP, but I didn't include it because it ignored the 13 other governance indicators. This isn't my main research area so I won't do a full literature review for this blog post. In municipalities the same result is robustly observed.

If robustly establishing causation means "adjusting for every factor which could possibly affect governance outcomes at the country level", then the question is clearly unanswerable. There are hundreds of such factors and RCT's are impossible. But as consequentialists our goal isn't to achieve some arbitrary degree of confidence in our beliefs. The goal is to make better decisions. Since your prior on pres v. parl should be near .5, this evidence compellingly moves us toward the parl side, maybe to .7 . For a constitutional designer, that's a hugely valuable update. There remains a 30% chance of making the wrong decision, but that's way better than a 50% chance of making the wrong decision. Therefore if even one constitutional designer reads this paper, the QALY's that Gerring et al. have made is huge.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on I Want To Do Good - an EA puppet mini-musical! · 2020-10-08T22:05:58.825Z · EA · GW

:) ideal

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on What is the increase in expected value of effective altruist Wayne Hsiung being mayor of Berkeley instead of its current incumbent? · 2020-10-08T22:04:31.524Z · EA · GW

No time to call up the paper, but the basic answer is that such statements are evidence.

A common pattern is that politicians can propose policy A or B before entering office, but have an incentive to implement A once elected. So some of the politicians who propose B will switch to A once elected. But none of the politicians who support A will switch to B. For example this happens with economic security vs. economic efficiency platforms in Latin America (politicians prefer efficiency policies more once elected). About half of them switched in the study I read, and no efficiency campaigns switched to security after election.

That means the voter choice is simple. Even if you belief a politician might switch off B, the politician who is campaigning on B is always more likely to do B than the politician campaigning on A. This applies to head to head elections only ofc.

So the optimal decision theoretic choice is to support the politician who advocates for your policy in the election.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on If you like a post, tell the author! · 2020-10-08T18:10:50.118Z · EA · GW

As an author, this is SO TRUE.

Honestly the "people only comment to criticize" pattern incentivizes authors to be edgy to get any feedback on their ideas at all.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on How do political scientists do good? · 2020-09-20T22:07:42.905Z · EA · GW

Thanks for the comment. I've decided the most important thing is to learn to do my own expected value analysis for research programs.

Maybe econ is different from poli sci, but my experience is that grad students are extremely attuned to what the academic job market rewards, and if they don't start out that way, their advisors eventually push them in that direction."

I've been exploring this, and it appears to be a difference between the disciplines. Not sure why yet.

Since the academic market rewards difficult, technical work, the sort of work that doesn't do well on the job market can also be fairly tractable."

This makes sense. For example, looking at why some countries start charter cities and some do not would be very qualitative and poorly rewarded. But it would be really high-QALY.

Descriptive work

That actually makes a lot of sense. There could be some great descriptive work on aid which is non-causal.

Replications get okay rewards in Poli-Sci, since you might find a different method decision and be able to publish a new results. I plan to do lots of these.

I'd also love to see some meta-research on what researchers believe to be the highest-impact topics to study. Maybe you could ask faculty in your department what they would recommend an altruist work on? I wish I'd spoken to more of my professors about this since their suggestions were invaluable.

Thanks for this advice. It is valuable and I have already started doing it. Responses vary by professor. Some of them are like "utility...for people...we've never asked that question in this field. I have no idea" and some are like "yes of course, here are my thoughts". As a culture, political science is surprisingly non-activist compared to economics, in the sense that many pol scientists take no normative positions. Lots to learn about here.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on How do political scientists do good? · 2020-09-20T21:49:49.540Z · EA · GW

The question of how best to represent the interests of future persons is a good core question. My problem is more with their method of answering it. There's a great tradition of political philosophers thinking "what would be the ideal institution according to X moral philosophy" and then designing an institution backward from that. I consider this approach both crowded and low-leverage (John and McAskill are more in a middle position). The alternative is to look at how institutions work in practice then judge them against different ethical objectives, which is a bit more neglected. I also think the second approach is more effective. So writing at the same questions as John and McAskill could have good added value. If I have time I will take a look at Gov AI

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on How do political scientists do good? · 2020-09-16T19:11:07.494Z · EA · GW

Just read the paper and you are correct, my questions do differ. I should just make a post of my own about this I guess.

Firstly, I am skeptical that the future is best represented by creating special institutions. If people lose trust that their government cares about their interests the risks to democracy and state capacity are large, and introducing a new interest group endangers that trust. The alternative to directly representing the future is to consider which institutional arrangements create policies most beneficial to future people. They acknowledge a similar critique on page 15.

Future's assemblies - the analogy to the Irish assemblies is interesting. However, the Irish assemblies were selected for each issue separately, not for life. Here are several reasons they shouldn't be selected for life.

1. Selecting representatives for life greatly increases the benefits to actors that capture members.

2. Factions that by chance are under-represented in the future assembly must wait a long time for a change, so exiting is a more appealing option to them.

3. Are we sure why the Irish assemblors chose to think about the issue One possible explanation is that because they were only asked to make 1 decision, selecting an ideology and selecting a position on the issue were equally as cognitively expensive (they didn't have to think that hard). If that hypothesis is true, then when we ask the same set of assemblers to make many decisions they might realize that adopting an ideology makes the decision easier and they feel just as "right" afterward.

Well that's enough for now, I should get back to work. Thanks for sending the paper, hopefully I can write a full post on it.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on How do political scientists do good? · 2020-09-16T18:32:34.399Z · EA · GW

The electricity one is outside of our data range. States occasionally fail to provide electricity for weird price-politics reasons. But when that occurs, private sector electricity suppliers form fast (this can be a self-reinforcing policy as the new suppliers resist centralization). But that does suggest that as long as a community can pay for fuel, they will produce electricity. If our current institutions fail to provide electricity, people can form new ones fast.

I'll think about agricultural output for the moment. I would, anecdotally, assume political effects from that. Bread protests remain pretty common and many states continue bizarrely inefficient bread subsidies. Rulers probably do this because they believe that grain prices are related to their survival. Furthermore, if bread price increases are correlated with anti-government actions or violence, then it's plausible to to forecast an increase in civil wars with a 10% decrease in agricultural output.

But let's step back. By comparing changes in agricultural production with changes in grain prices I am comparing apples to oranges. The relevant object is the change in price of grains year-on-year. So how much would a 10% drop in agricultural production actually change the price of grains? And how has the salary of the very poor evolved relative to that price of grain over time? The global price of wheat has doubled once since WW2 . Of course there was also a major fuel shock that year. Country level data would probably be more useful for relating food price shocks to political effects.

A second problem is that the long term political effects could be negative or positive. Civil wars seem really bad for political systems partly because they often end in systems with more veto points and less independent problem-solvey states. But there's also evidence that the pressure of regime change is good, since it incentivizes a ruler to grow their economy to meet higher demands for food. De Mesquita and Easterly would both argue that leaders often lack incentives to improve the lives of their people (over satisfying narrow special interests). Translating changes in regime type to long term utility AFAIK has not been done, at least outside the most simplistic categories.

Actually, that could be a starting point. If we don't know the long term effects of majoritarian, minoritarian, concosiational, corporatist, monist, pluralist state structures, we cannot translate those values to long term utility. For example, it might be that majoritarian middle-income states are more likely to grow than minoritarians. Political scientists as a group hesitate t o assign utility values to different traits of political systems, so doing that would be fun and useful.

Sorry for rambling.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on How do political scientists do good? · 2020-09-15T21:10:47.166Z · EA · GW

Hmmm. That is an interesting question.

I was thinking recently about how stable patronage networks are during currency collapses, which might bear on the question.

Very rapid state collapses have occurred when side lost access to arms, as in Afghanistan in 1992. Investigating state collapse instances to estimate how much economic or social damage causes state collapse should be possible.

The world wars probably contain the closest example of a middle-income country undergoing state-collapse. Come to think of it, you could make an argument that state collapse occurs quickly during food shortages by looking at Austria-Hungary's collapse in 1918. There could be interesting arguments there.

I think the collapse of a civilization is a bit conceptually unclear, so that would be very difficult to investigate. Is civilization collapsed when regional leaders cease to identify with a westphalian state? Is civilization collapsed when the social contract is rewritten to return to the coercive premodern order? To make these questions more practical, did Italy collapse in 1943, when Italy became divided but Italians mostly refused to kill each other. Or did Austria-Hungary collapse in 1918 when it broke up into multiple sovereignty? But I could assert a few different definitions then construct a set of cases for each of them.

I'll look into past work on this subject.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors · 2020-09-03T18:30:05.003Z · EA · GW

I have one criticism of the argument that coup-proofing prevalence is evidence for personality factors. Suppose that if people observe a game being played multiple times they are more likely to set aside their personal preferences and "play to win". So if I were the first dictator of Iraq I might say "no I'm not going to kill generals who come from different towns, that would be evil". And then get killed for it. And maybe the second dictator says the same thing. But by the time the third or fourth dictator rises to power he'll either be selected for willingness to use violence or he will decide his preference for living is stronger than his preference for not killing. While I agree that many people would not commit inter-elite violence as the first leader, I suspect a much larger number would as the 5th leader. So an argument for point B.

Saddam Hussein was the 5th Iraqi leader to take power by coup within 21 years.

But on the other hand, there are lots of leaders that just stepped down when they lost the support of their ruling coalitions. And those heroes do not become famous. This is strong evidence of the importance of personality.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors · 2020-09-03T15:34:49.276Z · EA · GW

Hmmm, that is a good question. Let me dig in more. Here are reasons to talk about others than Hitler Stalin and Mao

Coup Proofing is a common practice of dictators for political survival

Some behaviors of Hitler, Stalin and Mao have compelling institutional explanations that have become repeated behavior of long-ruling dictators. I'm thinking of coup proofing in particular. Coup proofing is a set of policies dictators enact to prevent a single small group from seizing power; rotatring or purging officers (Tukachevsky/Rommel) splitting the army into multiple factions/militias (NKVD/SS/Revolutionary Guard). We've since observed that lots of dictators (and coup-threatened democracies) practice coup-proofing. So I would be careful about attributing the *intra-elite* violence by particular regimes to the personalities of the leaders. Coup-proofing cannot explain violence against non-elites by those regimes.

Change in ideological motivation between early dictators and modern dictators

Secondly, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were much more ideological than most modern dictators. The Mussolini model of a "moderate" or "synarchic" authoritarianism spread more after WWII. By moderate I mean without a narrow, extreme vision of state-society interaction, not that dissent or economic freedom were allowed. Particularly today ideology structures the behavior of dictators much less. So one could argue that both Hitler and Stalin faithfully followed the visions laid out in their (terrible and warped) ideologies. If you buy that argument you would update downward on future dictators committing similar violence against non-elites.

For example, Mohammad Bin Salman has killed and tortured elite rivals, dissenters and starved many thousands of Yemenis to death. But he does not seem interested in any state project that would involve violence on the scale of Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot.

All that said, I personally do not put much weight on my ideology argument. Firstly, the ideological explanation of Hitler and Stalin's behavior is not that strong. Secondly just because most dictators, like MBS and the Ethiopians, have "moderate" visions of state-society relations does not prevent future radical dictators from taking power (tail risk). Note that ISIS is a deathcult that took over half of two middle income countries, and that even in the 20's and 30's Mein Kampf was such ridiculous nonsense that Hitler should not have risen to power.

But on a first read this is a real hole in your argument. Almost all modern dictators do not look like Hitler, Stalin and Mao due to their weak ideoligical commitments. If you include a few more modern examples you can evade this argument. Off the top of my head I would suggest:

Khomeini and Ahmedinajad - they did not murder lots of people but their stubborn refusal to compromise with the world order has impoverished Iran without causing a regime change (they changed a bit recently but 30 years of bad decisions before).

Pol Pot - 1980's, only stopped by Vietnamese intervention

Modern Burma

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors · 2020-08-31T18:05:09.703Z · EA · GW

I'm compelled by this. That the difference is only 30% of 1 standard deviation means that lots of variation could be explained by other factors. Personality of the dictator could still explain lots of variation, even a majority. There could also be a relationship between dictator personality and allowances for dissent. Thanks for explaining that!

Aside, you would be more compelling if you talked about autocrats other than Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors · 2020-08-26T16:15:47.086Z · EA · GW


Concerns with causation:

I worry about the underlying assumption that democracies don't encourage malevolent traits. So we observe less mass killings and rival killings in democracies than in dictatorships. One explanation is that democracies are selecting for anti-killing leaders. Another explanation is that malevolent leaders in democracies see little gain from killing while malevolent leaders in certain types of dictatorships see much gain from killing. For example, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon seem to have a lot of malevolent traits, but they mostly refrained from political killings. So the fourth section suggests too much causation on the personalities of leaders.

But it seems to me that leaders personalities are very likely at least sometimes a substantial factor.

Fair - even if most of the difference in political killing is from institutional incentives, preventing malevolent actors from becoming dictators or presidents is big gains.

Secondly, this research agenda must recognize that authoritarian cultures may accept or encourage violence against non-comformists or "disloyal" people. It's a deeply sad fact, but important to understand. If torturing dissidents is an expected and approved behavior it is weaker evidence of a malevolent personality (fundamental attribution error).

Targeting your interventions:

You should pay more attention to how autocrats are actually selected. There are a few good models, my favorite is selectorate theory which (in dictatorships) emphasizes trust between top lieutenants. To continue with your preferred 40's references, Herman Goring, Himler, Keitel and Borman all hate and distrust one another. But they each trust Hitler because Hitler selected them to receive stolen wealth in exchange for support. So as long as the autocrat is alive the alliance is "stable".

In this model they care most about malevolence when the ruling coalition/launching org selects the next dictator. This famously happened after Stalin died, when Beria (head of secret police) got overthrown and replaced with Khrushchev who promised to stop political killings. So target regimes in or near transitions.

For example, the politburo of Cuba might be interested in this research. Saudi Arabia, now that MBS has solidified control, will be less fruitful.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Improving local governance in fragile states - practical lessons from the field · 2020-08-21T19:41:13.700Z · EA · GW

I would guess you were downvoted for tone, but I personally double upvoted.

When you are steeped in a literature sometimes you forget how much jargon your using. Being reminded that the jargon is inaccessible is super helpful.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Effective Altruism movement in LMIC and Africa · 2020-08-16T05:22:29.444Z · EA · GW

Good question. I recommend reading "Poor Economics" for a background on these questions.

Not a full response, but two points.

1. Giving has less impact - as an LMIC resident you probably have less money so giving directly has lower impact. Also you can buy goods at that price anyway.

2. Improving policy has more impact - You can influence your government in ways that rich countries cannot. You likely also have access to more parts of your own society to study different perspectives. Poor Economics discusses tools for changing policy in LMIC's better than I can.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Propose and vote on potential tags · 2020-08-15T18:33:39.555Z · EA · GW

Please separate global development from global health.

Global health is one part of global development, which can include political, economic and humanitarian interventions. I write on politics in developing countries, but I'm probably the only one on the forum so I don't need my own tag.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Improving local governance in fragile states - practical lessons from the field · 2020-08-14T16:37:55.204Z · EA · GW

Hahaha Thank you for the feedback. I will look for places to simplify the language.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on HaukeHillebrandt's Shortform · 2020-08-13T17:37:32.322Z · EA · GW

Are the diarrhea and substance abuse numbers annualized? (does diarrhea cost 85 m YLL/yr)

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Improving local governance in fragile states - practical lessons from the field · 2020-08-12T21:02:39.298Z · EA · GW

(first I'm a huge fan)

I'm not calibrated and I am not an expert, but I can comment as an amateur. I would give a 15% probability of a civil war in the next 5 years. There are a few reasons for my perspective.

The elite perspective

1. The faltering Lebanese economy has, so far, not lead to elite defection from concosiation.

From a game theory standpoint, the higher the value of the economy the lower the incentive on each faction to start a civil war. A civil war would drive the value of the Lebanese economy down hugely, so they would all prefer to split the pie than to upset it. If the splitting institutions have low trust and the economy isn't valuable anyway, defection is more beneficial (this may explain South Sudan). In Lebanon the splitting institutions have been effective at preventing civil violence for 3 decades. In theory I expect that escalations become cheap as the economy collapses (less to lose). But there has not been evidence that major armed groups like Hezbollah are pulling out of the government. Instead the best armed factions seem most determined to stay in the consociational government and delay any reform. Therefore it is unlikely that armed elite factions will make a play to dominate the government [1].

2. The international environment is not favorable for a war. Much of the Lebanese civil war was caused by outside states (Syria, Israel, etc.) providing arms and motivation to internal Lebanese factions. Several states do have strong influence over Lebanese factions - Syria, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and France. The thing is, none of them want a major escalation. Syria is recovering. Iran's economy is struggling and they already have good deterrence against the Saudis in Iraq, Yemen. The Saudi's are overextended in Yemen. The Israeli response to the Beirut explosion was pro-detente. The French have committed to stability in Lebanon through both their public statements and their aid commitments (they've avoided explicitly excluding Hezbollah affiliates as a matter of aid policy, unlike others). I'm not an IR specialist, but I don't expect any of these countries to flood Lebanon with weapons soon.

Currently, the preferred strategy of the parties in power seems a middle road between the Axis of Resistance and the West. Hezbollah keeps their guns, so the AoR is happy. But Hezbollah is held in check by the other parties, so western aid can continue.

The local perspective

1. At the local level, conflict between the people and the consociational elite is escalating. The failure of the peg is viewed as violation of the social contract and the government service provision has always been poor and politicized. The revolution has lead many Lebanese to belief that consocatiation is at the root of the problem (which I agree with). But there are plenty of Lebanese people who believe that consociation protects them from civil war and that removing the current generation of elites will solve the problem.

Its possible for anti-state protests to escalate into violence and further escalate into a civil war. I would say such escalation is unlikely with the current parties in power set against it, but its possible.

What can be done

1. Proposing new power-sharing models to Lebanon's elites

Political Scientists have been hard at work designing new voting and governing models to transition Lebanon away from dysfunctional consociation to a more liberal or a more majoritarian model. In the past the parties have not been interested, but as the pressure for reform mounts, they may be willing.

This would look like an NGO reading lots of political science papers and selecting a few of the most workable models. Then you would try to meet with revolutionary figures (easy), the party leaders (hard), and Lebanon's neighbors (good luck!). Activists in Serbia had all the opposition parties sign a joint statement of intent, so do something like that if possible. I do not know if anyone is trying that currently. If not, the utility could be very high but you need great connections.

I have not looked into it closely, but this area could be highly neglected. Most of the donors and NGO's are terrified of being associated with Hezbollah in any way. But most solutions that can achieve elite buy-in need to accommodate Hezbollah's interests. For that reason, a small organization focused just on preventing the civil war could have high influence despite the crowdedness of Lebanon aid in general.

2. Encouraging new legitimacy-making practices

In the next section we will discuss donor techniques for changing legitimacy-making practices. I'll add a discussion of this option there.


1. Possible exception if Hezbollah perceives their weapons to be threatened, since Hezbollah might not trust the other faction.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Where the QALY's at in political science? · 2020-08-07T23:39:41.934Z · EA · GW

Looks interesting. Unfortunately the article is paywalled.

I agree that the median political scientist produces ~0 utility, and the average produces much less than an economist. Still there may be some political scientist producing lots of utility.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Where the QALY's at in political science? · 2020-08-06T16:29:39.088Z · EA · GW

I am currently working on posts outlining just those questions, but wanted to check for past work. I hope to use H&H's tools, that post is so clear and compelling.

My intuition says that the juiciest QALYs are in scalable nation-wide interventions in developing countries, think poor economics for governance. I also expect the juiciest QALY's in poor authoritarian governments.

That said Eva Vivalt's work might have higher expected returns just due to the sheer neglectedness of the field. Its stunning how few people are applying Kahneman-style bias research to political decision-makers. My main concern with following her agenda is that it might not be rewarded in the PoliSci journals and hiring committees.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on How do i know a charity is actually effective · 2020-07-21T16:36:00.564Z · EA · GW

To take a slightly different track, one way is to ask charity employees about their theory of change. In a small charity, everyone should know what their goals are and the intermediate steps to achieving them. This is not a hard and fast rule, but if you hear lots of contradictory answers about why services are provided or there are obvious strong assumptions, the charity may be less effective.

That said, most political interventions of necessity have such strong assumptions. For example, say an organization teaches mayors in an authoritarian state to win elections through performance and consultation rather than patronage. Inevitably such an intervention has strong assumptions because they cannot compel uptake and RCT's would be very difficult. So you might override the TOC objection if the value of the outcome is high and costs are low. You could say "there's some low change it will work. But if it works the value is very high. So I still rate the charity effective".

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-04T00:04:31.278Z · EA · GW

This is an interesting point. The protests are happening largely outside so there is a further reduction, possibly itself an order of magnitude. So you really need two orders of magnitude to get one hundredth of Americans to contribute .3 to the reproduction number.

Imagine putting people into a room, and measuring the number of possible transmission paths. At one person in the room there are 0 possible transmissions. At two people, there is one possible transmission. 3 people, three transmissions. 4 people, 6 transmissions. The scaling is n! where n is the number of people in the room. So if protests involve a larger average number of people in breathing contact, then protesters might have an effective R ten times higher than our regular lives.

But that scaling only lasts out as far as the droplets spread. Do we model droplets as rays, equally likely to move in any direction? Then the droplet spread drops off by r^2 as the distance to another person. Then the connection factor stops scaling quickly because as people are packed in they become further away. I do not know when the n! scaling stops, but I imagine the number of protestors within 6 feet of one another is a good metric. The last protest I was at there were like 10 people within 6 feet of me. 10! is...

Oh my. Perhaps the R0 jump will be noticable.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Will protests lead to thousands of coronavirus deaths? · 2020-06-03T20:53:41.960Z · EA · GW

I agree with your main claim that the protests will cause more deaths than they save, but I disagree with your estimate of caused deaths by at least an order of magnitude.'

The estimated change in reproduction number is not compelling. Firstly, the largest protest in American history had attendance of 3*10^6, or one in a hundred Americans. So assuming this protest is tied for most attended in US history, and other Americans behave the same, the protestors must each have an R of 30 to bring our average R from .9 to 1.25. That is 10 times the pre-SD reproduction number. Assuming the protestors have an R of 3 or 4 seems reasonable to me. Now that we know much transmission is from speaking, 10 would be the upper limit of my 95% CI. Assuming an R of the 3, reduce the estimate to 10%

Also the protests are short relative to the time a person is contagious. I doubt the protests will maintain attendance in the millions for more than two days, which is less than people are typically contagious. Therefore their influence on our effective reproduction number will be less than you estimate. Seems like people are contagious for at least 4 days, so call that a reduction by half. So reduce the estimate by a further 50%.

So I would reduce your estimate from 75,000 to 4,000. Which is still a lot. More than my expected benefit from the protests by movement building.

Comment by Timothy_Liptrot on Reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors · 2020-06-01T20:59:53.653Z · EA · GW

I am skeptical of this line of reasoning because I see little reason to believe that malevolence determined the policies in question. Game theory political scientists argue that different institutional structures make it rational or irrational for leaders to distribute public goods or targeted goods, practice repression, allow political parties. For a more in depth treatment, see the Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno De Meqsuita and Alistair Smith. Their core argument is that because dictators must appease a very small group of powerful interest leaders (generals for Mussolini, members of the centcom for Stalin, tribal and military leaders for the Abdullah II) they can protect their power by rewarding only that small group at the expense of the masses.

Here is an illustrative example of political phenomena that is difficult to explain from the leaders personality. Torture is more common in multi-party autocracies than in one-party states. If the leaders narcissism strongly influences policies and narcissism and sadism are strongly correlated, then we would expect torture to be more common in states that ban dissent. Suppose that torture is not about satisfying the personal desire of the dictator and is instead about policing dissent. Now it makes sense that if some dissent (like resistance to a new "non-security" policy) is allowed, there must be some boundary into banned dissent. Then the occurrence of torture in multi-party states makes more sense and the rarity of torture in the most severe autocracies makes sense.

Opposing personality-of-dictator explanations to ideological explanations surprised me because it ignored the strongest explanations in institutional structures of states and in political cultures. Possibly you emphasized ideology because your samples are older. While the early modernist dictators were authentically ideological, most modern autocrats espouse a bland, centrist, syncretic corporatism. Dictators like Chavez and Castro are the exception today (although their ideology does influence behavior). Here is an article which argues most dictatorships are interest driven, not ideologically driven