On effective government

To my mind, the ideal would be if everyone were guided by morals / ethics and just did what was right. To a large extent, I think that’s really what has kept Singapore running so well. To me, Lee Kuan Yew created and inspired a culture of good governance among the PAP, while also setting up institutions / self-sustaining systems that encourage future leaders to continue the good work.

To that end, I think a key feature is transparency. It doesn’t really matter whether deep down inside a person is good or bad. If his activities are seen by everyone around him, he will naturally do the right thing (and enjoy doing so, because we are all human and enjoy the love and respect of those around us). This transparency need not even be between government vs voters. As long as things operate transparently within the government, people who fail to do a good job will willingly step down. Corruption and incompetence thrive in darkness, and if we have systems in place so that everything is well lit, it becomes nearly impossible to do bad things.

Also, the people need not know exactly what goes on within the government, because ultimately, the line separating voters from the government is largely illusory. Our leaders are humans too, and if we want them to treat us well, we have to treat them well too (i.e. with respect, etc.). We also want healthy communication between the government and the people, so that the people can communicate their needs / wants, alongside their appreciation for the government’s good work.

Without morals, the strong will always oppress the weak, one way or another. Good thrives in the light, while evil thrives in darkness. Therefore, a country that runs on morals (and transparency) will work much better than a country run by ruthless competition between the strong and the weak. A country runs better when the people and the government see each other as friends rather than foes. Even within the government, things would work better if everyone sees themselves as friends working for the common good, rather than as disparate parties each pushing their own selfish agenda.

On civil disobedience: I believe that disagreement in itself is insufficient to justify disobedience, for the mere reason that cooperation is always better than competition. With competition, the Nash equilibrium is the best we can hope for. Opposing parties who act unilaterally will collectively always achieve less than parties who cooperate and act multilaterally. Hence, the ideal is always first to work things out diplomatically through sincere discussion. Violence should be seen as a last resort, disobedience being a form of violence. The ideal is that we are all human beings who are sufficiently similar that we can come to a common understanding. When our perspectives differ, we should try our best to reconcile our differences, rather than be too quick to assume that the differences are immutable.

Very relevant: Can Confucianism save the world? — Democracy and Confucian values can work together to make good governance. (http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/more-opinion-stories/story/can-confucianism-save-the-world-20140523)

Further reading:

Rethinking Confucius: Lee Kuan Yew recants
Transparency (behavior) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Unitary & Adversary: The Two Forms Of Democracy

The individual vs the government — principal-agent problem and information asymmetry

Before anyone takes it upon himself to criticise the government, their own parents, their teachers, etc., consider this:

In a democracy, the government governs on behalf of the people. In a company, the managers manage on behalf of the shareholders.

Whenever we allow another party to act on our behalf, we encounter the principal-agent problem:


A disconnection or conflict between the objectives and goals of the principal and those of the agent authorized to represent the principal. The principal-agent problem arises because an agent is given the responsibility and authority to take actions that affect both the principal, but can also affect the agent. This problem is common in corporate management, where the principal is shareholders and the agent is managers. It is also common in government, where the principal is the public and the agent is elected leaders.
</quote source=AmosWEB>

<quote>The problem arises where the two parties have different interests and asymmetric information (the agent having more information), such that the principal cannot directly ensure that the agent is always acting in its (the principal’s) best interests, particularly when activities that are useful to the principal are costly to the agent, and where elements of what the agent does are costly for the principal to observe.
</quote source=Wikipedia>

Information asymmetry: an individual has the resources of a PC, while the government is like a supercomputer. An individual may pretend that he knows well, but the government almost always knows better (unless you’re some genius trying to introduce a paradigm shift). Likewise is the relationship between child and parent, student and teacher, etc.

The information asymmetry between individual and government is usually so great that it is not particularly meaningful for the individual to question the effectiveness of the government’s actions. The same is true to a lesser extent between child and parent, student and teacher, etc.

What then, are the meaningful steps we can take—whether individually or collectively—to ensure that the government faithfully serves our interests? This question is of course not trivial, and cannot be adequately answered here.

My purpose here is simply to point out the real problem that everyone (individually and collectively) needs to first understand, if his ultimate goal is to take meaningful steps to uphold his own interests. Real-world problems have many possible solutions of differing effectiveness; I shall leave the reader to discover the meaningful things that he can do in response.

Finally, here’s some practical advice on what NOT to do (Magicarp used splash! But nothing happened.):

Don’t pretend to know better than the government, unless you have really, really good reason to think otherwise, e.g. if you’re a genius specialising in a specific field, which increases the likelihood that you actually know better than the government in that specific area.

Don’t even begin to imagine that you can see the big picture better than the government. Your analytical power and access to statistical data will always be woefully inferior to that of the government. (Unless you’re, say, Bill Gates, or happen to own Google.)

Don’t disobey your government, parents, teachers, etc., unless you have really, really good reason to believe that you know better (see above). Obviously, how to know whether you know better is a huge problem in itself (Dunning-Kruger effect).

Don’t attempt to tackle a problem which you have not even begun to understand. Learn to appreciate intellectual honesty and humility; adopting these qualities is actually to everyone’s benefit, including your own.

“Happiness”: Experiencing Self, vs Remembering Self

Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory | Talk Video | TED.com

(The reader is strongly encouraged to watch the above-linked talk before proceeding.)

Here’s a summary/analysis:

(1) The following are fundamentally different: what we remember, vs what we actually experience. The level of happiness (or pain) experienced by the self during an activity tends to be very different from the level of happiness associated with the memory of that activity.

(1a) Decisions are made by the Remembering Self. We evaluate an activity based on what we expect to remember about the activity. (Also, expectations are derived from interpretations—i.e. theories—of past experiences.)

(2) Inter-personal relationship is the dominant contributor to happiness, far more significant than income. (Presumably true with respect to both the Experiencing and Remembering selves.)

(3) Experienced happiness absolutely flat-lines with increase in income above US$60,000 (based on a study on US citizens), i.e. after a certain level of wealth, more money contributes absolutely nothing to Experienced happiness.

(3a) Remembered happiness, on the other hand, increases indefinitely with income. However, the increase is logarithmic, meaning the more wealthy one already is, the more wealth is needed to increase one’s Remembered happiness. (*the values on the x-axis increase exponentially http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/05/daily-chart-0)

Personally, I would like to distinguish between Real happiness vs Theoretical happiness. Experienced happiness is real, simply because it is what we actually experience. Remembered happiness is theoretical, because it exists only in our own minds as a theory.

But how could our theory be so far removed from reality!? I propose that it is due to our tendency to extrapolate from limited data without considering the limits of such extrapolation. E.g. if one more scoop of ice cream makes me happier, that means two more scoops of ice cream would make me even happier, right? But the truth is that our human bodies are limited to a certain amount of scoops. Or, one may argue, that a $10 ice cream tastes much better than a $1 ice cream, so a $100 ice cream would make me even happier, right? Again, the truth is that our human bodies (and minds) are limited to a certain amount of sensation (and attention / cognition), so that there is also a limit to the amount of pleasure we can experience via sensory stimuli.

How about spending excess money on other people? If buying my loved one a $10 ice cream makes me happier than buying her a $1 ice cream, that means that buying her a $100 ice cream would make me happier, right? Or perhaps, buying ice cream for 100 loved ones would make me happier than buying ice cream for 10 loved ones, right? But the truth is that the human body / mind is actually limited in its capacity to derive pleasure from loving / being loved.

Bad theory leads to bad decisions. And when our theory is bad, the same theory gives us the illusion of well-being, when in reality we are just deceiving ourselves.

Bonus question: when we reach the limit of happiness afforded by material wealth / inter-personal relationship, what is there left for us to do? Does life have greater meaning beyond these human-bodily limits?

Further reading: High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being (Daniel Kahneman & Angus Deaton, 2010) http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.full

Newcomb’s Paradox

(Something I wrote more than 2 years ago.)



The real issue is simply whether we assume that the predictor has real predictive power. It seems many people get caught up with discussing the possibility of such a predictor, leading to questions of determinism, reverse causality, etc., all of which are really irrelevant to the problem of whether the best decision is to “one-box” or “two-box”.

This is what appears to be the fatal flaw of the two-boxer’s argument:

(1) Newcomb’s problem already assumes that the predictor has real predictive power.

(2) As a necessary consequence to (1), box contents are dependent (regardless of mechanism!) on the choice between one-boxing or two-boxing, because the prediction is dependent on that choice.

(3) Effectively, the two-boxer assumes that since the contents have already been decided, choosing one-box or two-box would not affect the contents, and concludes that two-boxing is optimal.

Unbeknownst to the two-boxer, the assumption in (3) actually violates (2) & (1), and therefore the two-boxer’s argument is unsound.

Simply put, the only thing paradoxical about Newcomb’s paradox is the assumption (1) that the predictor has real predictive power. If we simply accept that assumption (and stop distracting ourselves by questioning that assumption), then one-boxing is the obvious, incontrovertible solution!

PS. To be a logically consistent two-boxer, one simply needs to deny assumption (1), which then implies a denial of (2). Perhaps the predictor’s incredible record of correct past predictions were just lucky guesses after all.