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  • Showing only topics with the tag "economics". Back to normal view
    1. Thinking about the societal problem "stack"

      This past year and a half I've been in a strange sort of depression over the dysfunction of human society, especially in how nations around the world have collectively dealt (or failed to deal)...

      This past year and a half I've been in a strange sort of depression over the dysfunction of human society, especially in how nations around the world have collectively dealt (or failed to deal) with the coronavirus.

      I'm trying to get myself out of this funk. I'm normally a doer, not a sit-on-my-butt-er. I'm trying to think about the nature of human problems, see the problem space along different dimensions, and find high-leverage points for solutions. Trying to outline the problem "stack" so to speak.

      This is a lot of paper napkin thinking from me. There are going to be a lot of naive thoughts here. But I'd like to have an open conversation, so we can stumble on some new interesting insights, rediscover what others already have, and not get too bogged down in "well, ackchyually..." nitty-gritty details.


      The pandemic is a relatively 'easy' problem — at least if you compare it to the threat of an incoming extinction-level asteroid, a wandering black hole, or a dying sun, which would require technical solutions impossibly beyond our current capabilities. In those scenarios, we can only pray and party. But for the pandemic, we had the political tools: Taiwan showed us how a combined approach of strict border controls with hotel quarantining (no kindly asking people to maybe please quarantine — travelers will quarantine), wearing masks everywhere, extensive contact tracing, and cross-governmental data-sharing, can successful contain the virus. Now we have technological tools: a myriad of vaccines.

      Yet...

      • It's been nearly a year and a half. A concerted global effort could have ended the crisis within a month or two early on, right? Granted, this would entail giving up our human rights for a short while — but that seems way better than dragging it for so long. Instead we watched as we tried to carry on as normal as possible and the virus spread like wildfire.
      • A third of U.S. adults are unvaccinated despite being eligible and there being plenty of vaccines to go around (in the US at least).
      • Significant numbers of people believe wacky stuff: COVID isn't real, masks don't do anything, and so on.

      From what I observe: nearly all human problems are policy problems. The human race has sufficient material and technological resources to solve most problems. Underlying those policy problems are coordination problems — coordinating people on the facts, solutions, and implementations.

      1. Human problems
      2. ... are policy problems
      3. ... are coordination problems

      So the human race has a bunch of solutions, institutions, and tools to help with the coordination problem:

      • the UN and other intergovernmental bodies like the WHO to coordinate at the international level
      • National institutions to coordinate
      • Newspapers to spread information and generate consensus

      But as we well know, these coordination solutions have problems. Now I'm thinking what are the coordination sub-problems.

      • Incentive problems / The Game: Broadly in game theory speak, some players are incentivized to not cooperate, even if at the detriment of everyone. This seems to me to be the crux of the coordination problem.
      • Culture problems: This is a whole nest of problems.
        • Cultural norms around equity. I think that this is a big one. It's been shown that different societies have different norms and ideas about what's fair and equal. The norms often develop around economic realities. Forager societies favor egalitarian distribution over meritocratic distribution as high cooperation is required between members: unequal distribution threatens relationships and cooperation. Perhaps our merit-based norms may need to shift from a pre-industrial era where people more or less produced what they consumed — to a new era of automation and robotics, where a relative few produce most everything.
        • Cultural norms around consumption and transmission of information. This stems from our education culture. Media consumption in our societies — western and non-western alike — is passive. Socratic seminars are rare in schools: pupils receive lessons passively from their teachers. Most people aren't educated or trained on how to have open discussions or on how to avoid rhetorical fallacies.
      • Education problems: there is only so much information can do if people don't know how to process information.
        • Mentioned above cultural norms around how we consume and transmit information.
        • Statistical thinking. The abuse and misuse of stats in popular discourse.

      Among others.

      7 votes