[ Question ]

What is the low hanging fruit of things we could be doing to improve society?

by davidgasquez1 min read10th Mar 202141 comments


World Optimization

I was recently listening to Robin Hanson on Signaling and Self-Deception and he mentions that most of the Social Sciences discoveries haven't been applied back to society.

It wasn’t until a little while I realized, “The reason why it’s so easy to find big improvements in social science is we almost never actually apply them. We don’t actually make the improvements that we could.”

He then goes to mention Prediction Markets as an example. They also came up as a great example in a recent LW question, What are some real life Inadequate Equilibria?

I'm curious about what things we could be doing as a society that have been proved benefitial and we're not doing so far. Either because we're stuck in a bad equilibrium or they haven't reached the general public.

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Here's a list of things that I think would not be controversial among economists and relevant experts but nonetheless seem very unlikely to happen any time soon:

  • Much more free trade -- reduce friction, trade barriers, and tariffs. Consider payments to smooth out pain to short term losers
  • Greatly reduced zoning and housing regulations. Housing stock is artificially expensive (at least in most places in the US, especially the Bay Area) due to excessive local regulations and zoning.

    Also no more rent control. Do you want to make sure there's not enough places for people poor people to live? Because rent control is how you make sure there's not enough places for poor people to live
  • Carbon tax. It's the most efficient way to internalize the global warming costs. It'll never be adopted because the price sensitivity to gasoline is way higher than it is to e.g. electricity, so one blanket number will piss off consumers too much
  • Greatly reduce drug approval costs. Accepting approvals from similar agencies overseas is one approach. Greatly expanded "right to try" rules might be another. A more free market approach might be best.

    Also make almost all (actually all?) illegal drugs legal. The enforcement costs and social costs are ridiculously high, far higher than the benefits from the war on drugs
  • Payments for organ transplants. Supply is much lower than demand, and there's no price signal or reason for people to create more supply, so lots of people will die from a lack of a kidney while everyone else has a spare
  • Charter schools/voucher schools. This might be more controversial among "relevant experts" depending on what group you think that is, but the arguments against are very poor and the arguments for seem much stronger to me
  • Get rid of ~all tax deductions. The mortgage interest deduction is regressive and distortionary. The employer-provided health care deduction is distortionary and locks people into jobs. I personally benefit a ton from the charitable deduction but it's also regressive
  • Get rid of the corporate income tax. We want corporations to make money and invest it. Tax income to people, not to companies
  • Greatly reduce occupational licensing. Some of those may make some sense, but most are just thinly veiled job protection for the existing guild members
  • Shorten copyrights (35 years or life of the creator, whichever is longer?), shorten patents, no software or business method patents


I don't think there's a single explanation for why none of those policies seems likely to happen, though at least there's substantial movement on the drug legalization front recently.

Of course there's a single explanation: in a democracy, everyone gets a vote.  Not 'everyone' knows enough about these subjects to understand why the experts are right.  Moreover, in a representative democracy, there is a second layer where entrenched interests - who guard virtually everything you listed - get to bribe politicians to go against the preferences of their constituents.

I do have to ask about one issue on this list: regarding free trade.  The argument has been made that China applies indirect tariffs to U.S. made goods.  Spe... (read more)

1Dave Orr2moI'm sure there are some hard cases wrt free trade, but we could move a long way towards much more free trade without worrying too much about the corner cases (i.e. allow tariffs on those cases).
2Gerald Monroe2moYes but arguably this isn't a corner case. It's the majority of the trade that matters, to both the usa and china.

Payments for organ transplants. 

My version of this horrible idea would be to remove the law requiring bike helmets and make motorcycles cheaper.

The real question isn't about kidneys though: what happens when autonomous driving becomes widespread? Our supply of organs will effectively dry up.

3Gerald Monroe2moOpt-out rather than opt-in. While I would rather cryonics were also opt-out, the point is that by default someone should be opted-in to be an organ donor unless they go out of their way to express a religious preference otherwise.
1Stuart Anderson2moHow do you feel about opt-out for blood donation?
1Gerald Monroe2mopost humous or pre? Blood can't be donated without side effects and pain on the part of the donor. While a deceased motorcylist doesn't need those organs any longer.
1Stuart Anderson2moConsider the idea of anaesthetising you prior to blood harvest. We can paralyse people, stop them feeling pain, and make them unconscious. All of those are distinct elements of anaesthesia. Consider the cases: 1. You are paralysed but conscious and able to feel pain whilst your blood is taken 2. You are paralysed and anaesthetised but conscious whilst your blood is taken 3. You are fully anaesthetised and are conscious of nothing about the procedure Which of those are acceptable circumstances to take your blood from you, with and without your consent? Viable organs typically come from a living body with unrecoverable injuries, not a corpse. Scenarios like those above are not academic, they happen. Unsurprisingly, that is just the tip of the iceberg of possible problems when it comes to vivisecting people. Pragmatically I'm fine with opt-out. As long as there is a choice and that choice is respected then I don't see cause for complaint. That being said, it's not difficult to see problems with opt-out over opt-in
1Gerald Monroe2moSo this is a different issue. Current medical establishment has decided to declare living bodies "dead" the instant something major breaks they don't know how to fix. Someone is not actually dead for some period of time afterwards, possibly hours, where no possible technology could recover their mind after that. They also have the notion of "brain dead" where again everything else works and a large amount of the brain may still be alive but the wiring for breathing and a few other base reflexes is damaged. No way to fix that so off to the incinerator they go. I strongly feel these processes are barbaric and may one day be seen as outright evil, but nevertheless, working within this framework, organ donation for the bodies that medical systems were going to destroy anyway does make sense.
2gilch2moMaybe that would incentivize lab-grown organs? Which seems like a better long-term solution anyway.
2Richard_Kennaway2moHave autonomous vehicles crash at a rate adjusted to meet the demand for transplants.
1Stuart Anderson2moThat's going to function as a selective pressure to avoid vehicles, which will also function as a selective pressure on autonomous vehicles to seek out 'donors' (things like pedestrians, smashing into your house, etc.). That means we'll have turned your sedan into an apex predator. I think I better buy Tesla stocks.
2Viliam2moA dystopian version would be some "rent a biker" scheme, where bikers could get free bikes, but when they die their bodies belong to the sponsor. Given lots of free bikes, it would become a popular hobby.
1Stuart Anderson2moThis feels exactly like a movie from a video store (back from when they existed).

There should be no attendence requirement for any occupational licensing. Reduce all occupational licensing to tests that can be taken in a few days provided a person has the requisite knowledge. 

This should be enshrined by a federal right to work law. 

Yeah!  I don't want a surgeon who's wasted YEARS in supervised (and unpleasant/difficult to be sure) conditions.  Let them pass the test and pick up a scalpel!

A better reform would be "do away with occupational licensing entirely for many non-critical professions.  For those with high risk, replace it with liability/insurance and reputation mechanisms (which will end up looking like accreditation, or they will be unable to get insurance, but there's at least a chance at diversity of types of accreditation)".  

Surgeons are the motte of occupational licensing; hairdressers are the bailey.

4Dagon2moStrong upvote. And it's reversable too! Hairdressers are the motte of reducing regulatory hurdles, the huge spectrum of trivial to important is the bailey. Plumbers are a good example of the middle ground - someone untrained and unfamiliar with code can do a lot of damage, and will be long gone before it's discovered. Requiring a bond is just delegating the regulation to a bonding company.
6Gerald Monroe2moArguably, the effect of all those years should in some way be measurable. Otherwise it's irrational to state that those years of indentured servitude made them better. It might be difficult to test for, just saying in theory if you can't measure it how do you know it's real.
4ChristianKl2moIn Germany we don't have any problems with allowing people to operate after passing tests as I described.

Drug approval denationalization would create an incentive to for regulatory agencies to be faster at approving drugs while still having standards for safety and usefulness for drugs. 

I have a personal belief that a lot of low hanging fruit does not get picked because of we have masses where each benefits a little vs smaller entities with a lot to lose, such as drug companies wanting smaller enforcement. As such the invested minority can outlast the majority in terms of preventing these changes from becoming law.
Do you see other factors having more significance? Further, can we avoid these impasses?

3ChristianKl2moIf drug companies wanted smaller enforcement then they would favor drug approval denationalization.
  • Updated email protocol. Spam is an enormous problem, and there isn't even basic verification or encryption in the spec. People routinely use email as a file transfer medium and it's grossly inefficient. Enough sites fail to respect the RFC that valid email addresses will be rejected. If the only thing we did was fix spam we would claw back enormous amounts of bandwidth overnight.
  • Audio calibration. Notably for volume, digital files don't include information about how they're supposed to sound. Nobody implements end to end sound calibration at the OS level. If I can use a standard for my monitor then why can't I do the same for my speakers or headphones?
  • A simple reference implementation of at least read only data via wifi/bt for appliances (and if I knew what I was doing I'd make this myself with an esp8266 or equivalent). I shouldn't have to get up to be able to tell if the washing cycle is finished or the clothes dried. A replication of the control panel would be even better.
  • A legal requirement to open unmaintained hardware. If you aren't going to look after it, especially in the context of security, then someone else should be able to. Embedded Android is my personal bugbear here.
  • Designate social media as public square and force it to respect free speech or be liable for content posted. The compromise is that companies be allowed to create tools that users can choose to apply to achieve the same functionality that the draconian Silicon Valley holier-than-thou oligarchs shove onto everyone now.
  • If you provide a utility service (I'm looking at you Silicon Valley) then barring a court order you must provide a basic service offering to everyone (if it's free, it has to be for everyone, if it's paid then it has to be for anyone that pays). No, your social media company doesn't get to decide who speaks. No, your taxi service doesn't get to decline service to someone for their political beliefs. No, your financial institution doesn't get to conduct tortious interference by doing standover on transactions for people it doesn't like.
  • There are a number of technologies that are simply a matter of massive investment. Those investments are a no-brainer. For example: partial artificial gestation.
  • Pyrolysis is carbon neutral and we have a ton of stuff we could be burning right now.
  • Mariculture is underdeveloped.
  • We should be feeding animals insects and duckweed. Probably algae and seaweeds too. That being said, figuring out how to grow industrial quantities of grass would be better for the animals and those who eat them.
  • If potable water availability is a problem then we should probably stop flushing it down the toilet. Did I mention that we have a lot of wasted feedstock for pyrolysis? Because it's already in the bowl waiting to be turned into power at the point where we use it.
  • Spread spectrum communications are more efficient. The entire spectrum should be auto negotiated with QoS/demand rates.
  • Why doesn't my fridge have a barcode scanner for inventory management?
  • Why are my appliances allowed to be designed to become landfill? Why isn't there the digital equivalent of putting stuff you don't want on the street for people that do want it?
  • Printers that refuse to print black and white without all the colour cartridges need to have a warning label.
  • Insulin in America. Are you fucking serious? If this isn't a place where the government should just step in and mandate then I don't know where is.
  • Cryptographically auditable voting. Again, America and a debacle that never should have been allowed to occur.
  • Medical triage is grossly inefficient. It requires process improvement. Probably wouldn't hurt to bolt some expert systems onto the backend so that the machines can take the obs and figure out what's going on before you throw expensive doctor time at the problem.
  • Why don't they put nuclear reactors underground?
  • Why is so little of my house designed to be easy clean and filth repelling? Or for that matter, easy to alter and upgrade? Why isn't there such a thing as house lego where you just have a base with a bus of utilities on which you can just arrange some rooms as required?
  • Why don't we have grass species that have been selectively bred or genetically engineered to not grow tall? Mowing grass is bullshit.
  • Why aren't my mouse and keyboard easy to clean?
  • Why can't my clothes and shoes be made to fit my body perfectly when both cheap scanning and cheap manufacturing technology exist?
  • Why isn't the file system on my computers and devices a database, and the presentation layer the result of a SQL statement?
  • Why does it have to be so hard to record calls on Android?

Why are my appliances allowed to be designed to become landfill? Why isn't there the digital equivalent of putting stuff you don't want on the street for people that do want it?

But there is that digital equivalent, it's called ebay and Craigslist.  I have purchased a used washer and dryer for $100, both worked for over a year after.  I sold my entire desktop PC for parts on ebay a few months back, receiving $600 for 5 year old hardware, and I put the unsellable metal case on the curb and posted it to Craigslist.

There's a couple of factors here. &... (read more)

1Stuart Anderson2moThe ease of transactions on ebay are inverse to the sale price. I wouldn't list anything for less than $20 (ideally $50) simply because of the sheer idiocy and unreasonable conduct on display. Craigslist is a non-entity in my country. What I mean is the literal equivalent of dumping shit on the street and people seeing it and taking it. Why can't I drag my crap into the street, press one button to snap a geotagged photo for upload and then have whomever browses and gets there first pick it up? People's time has value, as do items even with zero resale value (scrap, for example). Reducing the friction involved is always a good place to look for improvement in any system. The whole subject of linking supply to need in an agnostic manner is interesting to me. The transaction is the atomic unit, not the goods or services being transacted. Whilst there is an interaction between economics and environmental concerns, they're clearly distinct domains. Environmental concerns are always going to have a price tag. Manufacturing costs going zero will result in such massive economic ructions that it is completely unpredictable what will happen. "You'll own nothing, and you'll be happy". The people at the World Economic Forum can't be executed soon enough for my liking. I think that neo-feudalism is a rotten idea and I'd rather die than be forced to live as a serf. I'd argue that trade is fundamental to the nature of us as a species (and throw Heinlein's nothing given is of value line in there somewhere too) . I think turning everything into a rental would cause problems because of that. Things must be earned and owned for people to have any kind of investment in participating in that system. The pi is an SoC so it's considerably different to anything from 15 years ago. If you can buy a pi for $5 then I want to know who your suppliers are. I had an x-ray at the beginning of the week. My country's only nuclear reactor supplies a huge portion of this hemisphere's medical
2Gerald Monroe2moCraigslist has a free section. Globally nuclear is also nearly dead. https://www.raspberrypi.org/products/raspberry-pi-zero/ [https://www.raspberrypi.org/products/raspberry-pi-zero/]
1Stuart Anderson2moFree is the ultimate in horrible transaction experiences. The cost of a transaction serves as a bullshit filter. China is building 20 of them and could end up with an export industry off the back of that if other technologies don't meet needs. If we don't get fusion soon then it won't matter if we get it eventually, we'll need to plug the gap in the interim. And there's an awful lot of yellow cake sitting there doing nothing right now. That being said, nobody can predict the future. Especially not me. Yeah, I live in Australia, so no. There are constant supply issues.
1Gerald Monroe2moFrom wikipedia: Following the Fukushima accident and consequent pause in approvals for new plants, the target adopted by the State Council in October 2012 became 60 GWe by 2020, with 30 GWe under construction. In 2015 the target for nuclear capacity on line in 2030 was 150 GWe, providing almost 10% of electricity, and 240 GWe in 2050 providing 15%. However, from 2016 to 2018 there was a further hiatus in the new build programme, with no new approvals for at least two years, causing the programme to slow sharply. Delays in the Chinese builds of AP1000 and EPR reactors, together with the bankruptcy in the U.S. of Westinghouse [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westinghouse_Electric_Company], the designer of the AP1000, have created uncertainties about the future direction. Also some regions of China now have excess generation capacity, and it has become less certain to what extent electricity prices can economically sustain nuclear new build while the Chinese government is gradually liberalising the generation sector. Bolding added by me. Please view this chart here : https://www.lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-and-levelized-cost-of-storage-2020/ [https://www.lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-and-levelized-cost-of-storage-2020/] Based upon the evidence that a. China is greatly slowing their plans b. Nuclear power is not economically feasible with updated numbers, as evidenced by lazard's data, for new plants. I think a reasonable conclusion would be that nuclear has no future. If you disagree, a. Where are you getting your evidence from? Please link. b. What reasoning do you use? If the cost of electricity is higher for nuclear, what is going to justify it? National governments can fund inefficient projects but even inefficient governments have limits on what they are willing to throw away (versus a cheaper option on the market) and they have to have a vendor to buy from to buy the reactors.

Why are my appliances allowed to be designed to become landfill? Why isn't there the digital equivalent of putting stuff you don't want on the street for people that do want it?

There are digital ways to do that depending on location. In Berlin where I live Ebay Kleinanzeigen/Craigslist/A facebook group for that purpose are all ways where you can give away stuff for free if other people want it. 

Forced choice for whether one wants to be an organ donor or not. Part of applying for passports or driving licenses should include a form where a person has to chose whether or not to be an organ donor. This maximises both moral concerns of not taking away people's organs without consent and increases the organ donations over the default of opt-in.

This happens in AU by default.

Adopting Japanese style planning & zoning alongside European models of social housing organization & finance would unlock a considerable degree of economic growth in a lot of Anglophone countries. It'd also have the additional benefits of reducing the carbon intensity of housing and transport through greater density, and make efficient public transit easier to finance and develop. It also would in the long-term stabilize urban housing costs and reduce the precarity of low-income households, while enabling a larger number of people to benefit from higher big-city wages through more dynamic housing stock growth.

As it is, we are locking people out of the places where their labor is most valuable and where they would have the smallest environmental impact to the benefit of (relatively wealthy) incumbent property owners. This equilibrium is difficult to change when there's expansive local control over land use and housing development, as it's much easier for narrow coalitions of property owners to dominate those nominally democratic decision-making processes, and because local constituents have little incentive to take the utility of newcomers or the metro region into account.

Yes.  Note that the general idea that "California pays the most but once you factor in state income tax and housing costs, it's about the same" has been true since about the late 1970s.  

I agree with you completely, just:

       a.  Hard to see how it's going to change if it hasn't changed in 40 years

       b.  Competing jurisdictions are a thing.  Theoretically some other city elsewhere will gain a comparative advantage if they have the right building codes and gain a critical mass of tech co... (read more)

There are indications that there are enormous deadweight losses in many sectors, which are not fixed because of political constraints. Eli Dourado wrote a great post about this: https://elidourado.com/blog/move-the-needle-on-progress/, and I wrote a short one for Works in Progress: https://worksinprogress.co/progress-studies-the-hard-question/.

There are various different social engineering techniques from public policy, political economy and related fields for smart policy design (not campaigning) that could be tried by policy entrepreneurs to engineer changes from these inadequate equilibria, but those techniques seem little known outside those fields. I'm working with a few others to summarize them and can supply more links if people are interested.

Make nuclear our main source of power. It's green, safe, sustainable, cheap and reliable. We could have done this in the 60's/70's as France did but irrational fears of nuclear power and subsequent over-regulation and lack of gov support killed it in the US and UK.

It's not rational to think it will happen.  I agree nuclear has advantages, but it doesn't come close to penciling in.

Instituting rule of law in foreign policy. In many countries foreign policy is essentially at the discretion of the executive. Insofar as it is controlled by the legislature, it's controlled through committees and reporting requirements rather than actually courts and rules of conduct. Imagine if the prime minister could choose to kill whoever they wanted and was only contrainted by the threat of parliamentary sanction. That's basically the status qou for foreign policy at the moment.

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The model of "applying" discoveries to society, or things "we" could do is at best misleading here.  Society is mostly self-regulating, not controlled by outside.  And even more not controlled by any "we" that I'm knowingly part of.

EMH isn't perfect, but it does apply here, in the sense that truly low-hanging fruit has already been incorporated.  Anything society is doing wrong or suboptimally (which there are PLENTY of) have pretty strong forces maintaining the inefficiency.

The fact that some equilibrium is inadequate does not imply that the adequate equilibrium is reachable.

Thanks for sharing Dagon, you made me realize a couple of things! I never thought about EMH applying in this situation and that some adequate equilibriums might not be reachable without a very large change.

I still think some of the examples shared by others might be still partially useful to think about when deciding who to vote or discussing issues with other people.