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

post by davidgasquez · 2021-03-10T13:03:01.562Z · LW · GW · 41 comments

This is a question post.

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? [LW · GW]

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.


answer by Dave Orr · 2021-03-10T17:35:01.211Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-11T03:16:41.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.  Specifically, by either (1) outright banning entire categories of good (no tariff, just ban) such as the Google App Store.  (2)  Subsidizing heavily companies making a competing product.  So, for example, a U.S. smartphone chip vendor can technically sell their parts on the Chinese market without a tariff, but the Chinese domestic competitors to them get billions of dollars in subsidies and thus can price a comparable part for even less.  

I don't know how to deal with this other than the obvious, which is to fight China's implicit tariffs with explicit tariffs.  (which is what is being tried, albeit with a great deal of complaining)

Replies from: dave-orr
comment by Dave Orr (dave-orr) · 2021-03-11T14:49:26.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'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).

Replies from: gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-11T18:35:27.160Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes but arguably this isn't a corner case. It's the majority of the trade that matters, to both the usa and china.

comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-03-10T21:07:41.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: gerald-monroe, gilch, Richard_Kennaway, Viliam
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-11T03:18:25.708Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Opt-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.

Replies from: stuart-anderson
comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-03-11T19:53:49.739Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-12T08:44:17.507Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

post 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.

Replies from: stuart-anderson
comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-03-15T02:24:30.290Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-15T03:41:04.684Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

So 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.

comment by gilch · 2021-03-11T02:51:36.994Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe that would incentivize lab-grown organs? Which seems like a better long-term solution anyway.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2021-03-12T15:38:59.293Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

Have autonomous vehicles crash at a rate adjusted to meet the demand for transplants.

Replies from: stuart-anderson
comment by Viliam · 2021-03-12T14:44:29.027Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A 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.

Replies from: stuart-anderson
answer by ChristianKl · 2021-03-10T21:39:22.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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. 

comment by Dagon · 2021-03-10T22:54:16.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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)".  

Replies from: Viliam, gerald-monroe, ChristianKl
comment by Viliam · 2021-03-12T14:46:49.290Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

Replies from: Dagon
comment by Dagon · 2021-03-12T15:49:49.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Strong 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.

comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-11T03:20:30.202Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Arguably, 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.  

comment by ChristianKl · 2021-03-11T11:18:19.157Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In Germany we don't have any problems with allowing people to operate after passing tests as I described. 

answer by ChristianKl · 2021-03-10T13:32:12.679Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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. 

comment by migueltorrescosta · 2021-03-10T14:11:38.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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?

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-03-10T14:23:45.102Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If drug companies wanted smaller enforcement then they would favor drug approval denationalization. 

answer by Stuart Anderson · 2021-03-10T23:02:43.094Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-11T03:42:03.598Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.  One, due to the time value of money, a cheaper appliance now may very well be cheaper, even if it only lasts 5 years, than a more expensive appliance with a longer lifespan.  Another is that consumer goods are moving over time, as factories get more efficient, to a model where the cost is the (raw materials + manufacturing cost + IP license).  Once manufacturing cost trends near zero - something that machine learning driven robotics should allow in the Soonish future - you are left with raw materials + IP license.  Turn in the old one to be recycled, and that just leaves the license.  Prediction: the stable way it will work is that products will be rented, not bought, and when the hardware wears out or deprecates you get a 'free' or minimal cost replacement.  Lower end goods will have a very cheap or free license (open source) and will cost almost nothing, although they will be years behind the state of the art.  Present example is the raspberry pi, which is a computer that would have been decent 15 years ago for as little as $5.

Why don't they put nuclear reactors underground?

I found this paper, but I think the reason here is simple.  There are many possible improvements to nuclear reactors.  Each has a development cost.  And a development risk.  And nuclear is already too expensive to be viable, probably from now until the singularity*.  So there is simply not the market scale to develop any substantial improvement to the existing examples that we have now.  Scale matters - if it costs say the cost of 10x nuclear reactors to design and debug a new form of nuclear reactor, and you earn 10% profit on each reactor you build, you need a market size of 100 over say 10 years or it isn't worth the investment.  Right now the market size for new nuclear reactors is 2.  

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?

I agree with this but I think that the fundamental problem is local building code and permitting systems.  If the system were national, then lego-like modules would have a market because it would be worth the investment to build the factory and distribution system to make them cheaply, given you could use the modules anywhere.  But here local committees might vote down the modular house simply because the logical modules are rectilinear, and the resulting structure would be 'too boxy'.  Or because it has electrical runs with the wrong kind of wiring.  (most places, romex in walls is ok.  Chicago: conduit only)

*definition of the singularity : self amplifying cascade of algorithms and AI hardware, with the endpoint of intelligent systems that are asymptotically limited by physics.  At which point, you can ask/command such a system to develop a new nuclear reactor and it'll get done, and be nearly perfect and free of error, at minimal cost in time and materials. 

Replies from: stuart-anderson
comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-03-11T19:37:02.766Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-12T08:43:26.253Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Craigslist has a free section.

Globally nuclear is also nearly dead.  


Replies from: stuart-anderson
comment by Stuart Anderson (stuart-anderson) · 2021-03-14T09:20:09.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Replies from: gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-15T00:44:45.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From 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, 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/

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.  

comment by ChristianKl · 2021-03-10T23:32:11.685Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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. 

answer by ChristianKl · 2021-03-11T11:36:44.983Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

answer by Vanvidum · 2021-03-10T14:45:21.654Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-11T03:22:13.036Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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 companies.  And it will turn Bay Area into another Detroit or maybe just another New York City. (NYC, while still viable, is mostly stagnant with ever decaying buildings and ever rising fake rents)    

answer by JohnMyers · 2021-03-17T12:00:43.418Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

answer by Srdjan Miletic · 2021-03-11T00:52:56.676Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-03-11T03:46:32.634Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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

answer by Srdjan Miletic · 2021-03-11T00:55:47.847Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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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comment by Dagon · 2021-03-10T21:18:10.815Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Replies from: davidgasquez
comment by davidgasquez · 2021-03-11T08:18:30.575Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.