Saturday, April 1, 2017

Episode 10: Crony Beliefs

Read the original essay here.

Download the mp3 here.


  1. I just read the essay, but there was no room for comments on the webpage, so I'll just post a couple of thoughts/ questions that came to mind here: I like his interrogation into how crony beliefs function, but I think he has a very simple model for how beliefs translate into action, particularly when it comes to collective action type situations, which undermines his characterization and identification of potential crony beliefs. His central example of why beliefs regarding climate change must be cronies is revealing, but I think you can pick any other collective action problem pretty much:
    >> "I'm not accusing your belief [of climate change] of being false; I'm accusing it of being a crony. And no appeal to evidence or careful reasoning, or even felt sincerity, can rebut this accusation. What makes for a crony belief is how we're rewarded for it. And the problem with beliefs about climate change is that we have no way to act on them — by which I mean there are no actions we can take whose payoffs (for us as individuals) depend on whether our beliefs are true or false. ... But for the rest of us, our incentives come entirely from other people, from the way they judge us for what we believe and say. ... Since it's all but impossible to act on these beliefs, there are no legitimate sources of reward."
    - I don't argue that some people adopt beliefs about climate change for the social rewards it brings, but the way he seems to employ the definition in the quoted passage is very confusing: Is a crony belief distinguished by the reasons for holding it or the ability to act on it for immediate (non-social) self interest?
    - If it's the former, then some people's beliefs about climate change might be cronies, but others not (but he says that the crony status of climate change beliefs are immune to evidence - unfalsifiable?). If it's the latter, then the argument fails to get off the ground b/c:
    - He ignores the general fact that people are frequently motivated to act for reasons beyond immediate personal payoff: acting in your own long-term perceived interest (e.g. Greta et al), in the interest of your children, grandchildren, ethnic group, community, etc. (e.g. pretty much everyone else taking part in protests, civil disobedience, advocacy, divestment, green consumerism, at great immediate expense to themselves).
    - He ignores how people go about acting on collective action problems (and getting others to act with them). He seems completely ignorant of the many actions people can and do take to act on such beliefs.
    I focus in on this example, as it's the most detailed one he uses in his essay, and pretty clearly seems to fail. So my hypothesis is that, without some better theory on how beliefs relate to actions, the risk is that many beliefs might get mislabled as crony beliefs.

  2. I'm directly referring to your last sentence - my personal (maybe merit, maybe crony) belief is that as we speak tons of severe problems are caused by people acting on crony beliefs which is even spreaded and made stronger through social networks etc., causing all kinds of threatening situations - staying with climate change, I personally would be pleased which every belief - may it be merit or crony - as long as it leads to favorable results (in other words, let's start with: mankind does not extinct within the next 1000 years). And if you are right with your concerns and comments on the essay (which definetely may be the case), what kind of actions would you finde "accurate" related to your perception of climate change, our society and what could/should be done and what not?

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  5. Great essay. I'd only add the observation that the existence of markets can move many beliefs away from the crony quadrant into the merit-based realm by virtue of giving individuals skin in a much bigger game. Climate change is a great example; you can (and should) invest long in instruments likely to prosper given a changed climate, and short those that won't.
    Even at an informal level you can find private counterparties willing to bet on outcomes that you have little or no influence on at an individual level.