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March 30, 2007

Political applications of social escrow

Politics is dominated by special interest groups that make large campaign contributions. A presidential campaign in the US can cost over one billion dollars. That's only $3 per American, so you might think that a $10 contribution from each family to their favorite candidate would make special-interest money irrelevant. Wrong!

A few big-money donors, early in the campaign, decide which candidates are in the running. The rest of us get to decide whether to donate to, or vote for, the lesser of two evils. Of course, you could make an early donation to your preferred candidate. But, unless many others do the same, you would be throwing your money away.

Social escrow could change this. Rather than making a donation directly, you deposit the money with a social escrow agency. If enough other people do the same, thereby convincing your preferred candidate to run, great! Otherwise, you get your money back. People will pledge more than they would otherwise donate, because they know they won't be out any money unless their candidate has a realistic chance of winning. For example, 10 million people, each pledging $100, would raise $1 billion. Tough luck, special interests!

But social escrow could do more than just raise money for candidates. It could also influence their behavior once elected.

The simplest way to do this would be to put large sums of money (a few dollars each from a lot of people) in escrow, tied to the actual performance of people in office. Consider the congressman's dilemma: Big Tobacco is offering $1 million (campaign contribution, "consulting fees", whatever) to support their legislation, but there's $10 million in escrow ($10 each from a million tobacco victims) that will be released only if he votes no.

At some point, special interests might change their tune, and decide that making campaign contributions to candidate A dependent on candidate A's votes should be illegal after all. This would be an improvement over the present situation, and we should support it.

But it wouldn't kill social escrow. What if campaign contributions to one party were made conditional on the other party doing something bad? For example, 10 million people could each put $100 in escrow ($1 billion total) that would be released to the Democratic Party if any of the following happen:
1) the Supreme Court reverses Roe vs. Wade,
2) the US invades Iran,
3) polar bears go extinct in the wild, or
4) the budget deficit increases.

That's a lot of insurance for $100 each. If the social escrow company invested the money, they could even pay dividends to the "depositors." 4% interest less 2% management fee would yield 2%, better than most savings accounts.

The terms of the escrow agreement would need to include some disincentives to keep Democrats from confirming extremist judges, voting to invade Iran, etc., just to get the money!

Of course, this mechanism could be used by conservatives as well, releasing campaign contributions to the Republicans if:
1) the Supreme Court forces gay ministers to perform gay marriages,
2) Iran invades the US,
3) polar bears invade the US, or
4) the budget deficit increases (I'm assuming many conservatives still care about this, even if their leaders don't).

March 23, 2007

Viruses as technical solutions: just science fiction?

According to Hardin's paper, individuals, each pursuing self-interest, will often act in ways that undermine our collective welfare, causing problems like collapse of fish stocks or human overpopulation. He thought the solutions were essentially political, "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon." He had little faith in technical solutions.

Mutual coercion seems to work to limit some kinds of antisocial behavior (e.g., violent crime) in many societies, but the only societies that coerce people into having fewer children (e.g., China), or more children, for that matter, -- Rumania in the 1980's is one of the more extreme examples -- can't claim that the coercion is mutually agreed upon. Furthermore, some kinds of antisocial behavior are so difficult to monitor that coercion might not be practical even if it were widely supported by the public.

Technical solutions to these sorts of problems, based on viruses that alter human behavior (e..g. a virus for altruism) or reduce human fertility have been proposed in science fiction.

Could this actually happen? This question really has two parts:

1) would it be technically feasible to engineer and disseminate a virus that would reduce human fertility enough to prevent over-population, without going too far in the other direction (reducing population enough to have severe negative effects)?, and

2) would a person or group with the technical capability to do such a thing be crazy enough to do it?

There are lots of real-world examples of parasites that manipulate their hosts. I recently ran into a nice summary on a site called Biology in Science Fiction. The rabies virus makes hosts more aggressive, so maybe a genetically engineered virus could make people less aggressive.

There has also been significant research on the development of viruses that control rodent pests by reducing their reproduction rather than killing them. In at least one case, however, a virus intended only to reduce mouse fertility by "immunocontraception" ended up killing the mice instead (Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16:418-420). Oops!

Our ability to manipulate genes is advancing rapidly, so things that are impossible today may soon be routine. Already, the 1918 flu virus, which killed millions, has been made from scratch based on the published DNA sequence (Nature 437: 794-795). So the deliberate development of viruses that would reduce fertility or alter behavior in humans, or perhaps in some subset of humans, may be a project that, within a decade or two, would seem like a feasible project for a single molecular biology graduate student, working in secret weekends and evenings.

Of course, the actual consequences of releasing such a virus would probably be very different than what was intended, as the mouse immunocontraception example shows. Most people with the technical ability to do such a thing would recognize this, but would everyone? Most would consider that major decisions about the future of humanity should be made democratically and with respect for individual choices, but would everyone?

I find it troubling that reviews of "Tide Turners", the story about releasing a virus to reduce human fertility, mostly seem to think it might be a good idea. One wrote, " it offers perhaps the only hope we have of staving off the more traditional methods nature has of dealing with overpopulation." I hope not!

March 16, 2007

Driver behavior a tragedy of the commons after all?

Apparently some of what I wrote last week is wrong. I contacted Dr. Martin Treiber, a traffic expert in Germany who is working on an "adaptive cruise control (ACC) system that is designed not only to provide a comfortable acceleration and deceleration behaviour to the driver, but also to improve the overall traffic flow." He writes that there is sometimes a conflict between the two objectives of: 1) improving the experience of individual drivers and 2) overall traffic flow. Apparently the driving pattern that optimizes traffic flow feels unnatural to the driver.


Dr. Treiber writes that "the short-term user optimum is different from the system optimum or even the long-term user optimum. This adds 'less comfortable equals more comfortable' to the other dilemmas 'slower is faster' (speed limits may also be beneficial for traffic stability and capacity), and "less is more" (reducing temporarily the capacity by ramp metering leads effectively to more capacity since congested traffic entails a lower dynamic capacity)."

I also asked about excessive lane-switching as a possible tragedy of the commons. He writes, "The actual benefits are marginal, both in the simulations and in tests performed on real roads. Due to a statistical effect, however, the PERCEIVED advantage may be substantial" and cites a paper in Nature (vol. 401, p.35) explaining why people incorrectly think the next lane is moving faster, even when it's not. If lane switchers are slowing everyone else down and not getting there any faster but feel like they're getting there faster, is that a tragedy of the commons?

He says his models don't support the claim (see last week) that a single motorist can erase a jam by increasing his following distance and driving at a constant speed. "First, a single motorist can create a jam (by creating a large perturbation of traffic flow), but once a jam is created, beneficial effects due to different driving behaviour grow proportional to the fraction of drivers applying the different driving style, so a single driver has a minute influence. Second, by increasing the following distance, the capacity is reduced (since the capacity is always lower than the inverse of the average time headway). So, driving with (overly) long following distances will lead to more stable traffic but also to more congestions."

OK, looks like I should leave this problem to the experts!

March 9, 2007

Tail-gating tragedy reversed?

We know that one selfish driver can slow everyone down by weaving in and out of traffic, but is the reverse also true? William Beaty claims to have figured out how one driver can eliminate those annoying, slow moving "clots" of cars. He simply maintains a longer-than-usual following distance when he approaches a clot. That prevents the clot from growing at the rear, while it gradually evaporates at the front. I would have thought that might lead to another clot behind him, but he says actual road tests show it improves traffic flow both in front and behind. Apparently the key is driving at a constant rate, which would be impossible if he were tail-gating the clot, but isn't that hard to do if you leave enough space in front of you to buffer speed fluctuations of the car ahead.


Some people don't like to leave extra space in front of them because people will cut in front (either by passing or from a neighboring lane), but I've found that doesn't happen as often as you might expect. Beaty's explanation is that aggressive drivers pass you or move into your lane, but then they're gone and you accumulate better drivers behind and around you.

He's also got an impressive animation apparently showing that increasing following distance and letting people merge makes traffic flow faster when constricted by lane closures.

Is there a tragedy of the commons here? I always try to leave three or four seconds ahead of me because I think it increases my own safety and figure I'll only arrive at my destination one or two seconds later than if I left a two-second gap. (OK, two seconds times the number of people who cut in front of me, but that still never adds up to more than a 10 seconds or so.) If increasing following distance is the best strategy for individuals and also helps everyone else, then this isn't a real tragedy of the commons, just a widespread failure to recognize enlightened self-interest.

What I'd like to see is a realistic traffic simulation to answer these questions:
1) how much does aggressive driving decrease travel time for the perps? (On an open road, driving twice as fast gets you there in half the time, but what about in traffic?)
2) how much does it increase their chance of having an accident?
3) what are the effects on the rest of us?
4) assuming that most drivers follow too closely, what happens if a few drivers increase their following distance? How does it affect travel time and accident rates for these drivers, and how does it affect overall traffic flow?

There's another possible connection to Harding's original essay. Remember his suggestion that some problems have no technical solution? This might actually be a case in which a technical solution would work pretty well. I guess there would still be an element of "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon", in that the solution may depend on government-mandated liability insurance.

March 1, 2007

The Tragedy of the Commons vs. The Three Musketeers

[Yossarian:] "We won't lose. We've got more men, more money, and more material. There are ten million men in uniform who could replace me. Some people are getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed."
[Major Major:] "But suppose everybody on our side felt that way?"
[Yossarian:] "Then I'd certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?"
-- Catch-22

“In fact, four men such as they were - four men devoted to one another, from their purses to their lives; four men always supporting one another, never yielding, executing singly or together the resolutions formed in common; four arms threatening the four cardinal points, or turning toward a single point - must inevitably, either subterraneously, in open day, by mining, in the trench, by cunning, or by force, open themselves a way toward the object they wished to attain, however well it might be defended, or however distant it may seem. The only thing that astonished D'Artagnan was that his friends had never thought of this.?
-- The Three Musketeers

I suggest that the key words in these contrasting views of cooperation are “ten million? and “four.? One person in ten million deserting won’t change the course of a war, but if one swordsman in a group of four consistently puts his own safety ahead of the success of the group, the group is more likely to lose a fight, with severe consequences for everyone in the group.

Even without any mechanism to enforce cooperation, members of small groups may see that it is in their own interest to do what is necessary for their group to succeed. Larger groups, on the other hand, may need more powerful mechanisms to prevent members from putting individual interests ahead of collective (e.g., national) interests.

In 1974, Levin and Kilmer (Evolution vol. 28 p. 527-545) came to similar conclusions about the power of natural selection, acting on groups (a school of fish, say), to favor cooperation within groups. In order for group selection for cooperation to overcome individual selection for selfishness, they showed that group sizes “of less than 25 and usually closer to 10 were required?; their computer models also showed that “migration could not be too much greater than five percent per generation.? In other words, if even a small percentage of selfish individuals can switch to another group when their selfishness has undermined their current group, then differences in the success of groups have little effect on the evolution of individual traits that affect group success.

Just a coincidence!

Apparently the University of Minnesota is staging a controversial comedy, The Pope and the Witch, which includes a reference to condom use (not necessarily the Trojan brand) for birth control. I hadn't heard of this play, by Nobel-prize-winner Dario Fo, when I chose a name for my blog. I just thought Comedy of the Trojans sounded like it should be the opposite of Tragedy of the Commons, although it did occur to me that someone could conceivably write a play with either title. Given the emphasis in Hardin's essay on the need to reduce birth rates, I guess I should go see the play.