Counterintuitive Comparative Advantage

This has been sit­ting in my drafts folder since 2011. De­cided to post it to­day given the re­cent post about Dun­ning—Kruger and re­lated dis­cus­sions.

The stan­dard ra­tio­nal­ist an­swer when some­one asks for ca­reer ad­vice is “find your com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage.” I don’t have any re­ally good sug­ges­tions about how to make this eas­ier, but it seems like a good topic to bring up for dis­cus­sion.

If 15 years ago (when I was still in col­lege and my ini­tial ca­reer choice hadn’t been fi­nal­ized yet), some­one told me that per­haps I ought to con­sider a ca­reer in philos­o­phy, I would have laughed. “You must be jok­ing. Ob­vi­ously, I’ll be re­ally bad at do­ing philos­o­phy,” I would have an­swered. I thought of my­self as a nat­u­ral born pro­gram­mer, and that’s the ca­reer di­rec­tion I ended up choos­ing.

As it turns out, I am a pretty good pro­gram­mer, and a ter­rible philoso­pher, but it also hap­pens to be the case that just about ev­ery­one else is even worse at do­ing philos­o­phy, and get­ting some philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions right might be re­ally im­por­tant.

The usual (in­stinc­tive) way for some­one to choose a ca­reer is prob­a­bly to pick a field that they think they will be par­tic­u­larly good at, us­ing a sin­gle stan­dard of good­ness across all of the can­di­date fields. For ex­am­ple, the im­plicit rea­son­ing be­hind my own ca­reer choice could be some­thing like “Given a typ­i­cal pro­gram­ming prob­lem, I can solve it in a few hours with high prob­a­bil­ity. Whereas, given a typ­i­cal philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem, I can at best solve it af­ter many years with low prob­a­bil­ity.”

On the other hand, com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage says that in ad­di­tion to your own abil­ities, you should also con­sider how good other peo­ple are (or will be) at var­i­ous fields, and how valuable the out­puts of those fields are (will be). Un­less you’re only in­ter­ested in max­i­miz­ing in­come, and the fields you’re con­sid­er­ing are likely to re­main sta­ble over your life­time (in which case you can just com­pare cur­rent salaries, al­though ap­par­ently many peo­ple don’t even do that), this can be pretty tricky.

(There doesn’t ap­pear to be any pre­vi­ous OB/​LW posts on com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage. The clos­est I could find is Eliezer’s Money: The Unit of Car­ing. Most dis­cus­sions el­se­where seem to fo­cus on sim­ple static ex­am­ples where find­ing com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage is rel­a­tively triv­ial.)

To­day (in 2018) there’s an 80,000 Hour ar­ti­cle about com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage but that is more about how to find one’s com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage in a com­mu­nity of peo­ple who share a cause, like in EA, rather in the wider econ­omy.

I would also add (in 2018) that be­sides ev­ery­one else lack­ing skill or tal­ent at some­thing, an even big­ger source of com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage is be­ing one of the first peo­ple to re­al­ize that a prob­lem is a prob­lem, or to re­al­ize an im­por­tant new var­i­ant or sub­prob­lem of an ex­ist­ing prob­lem. In that case, ev­ery­one else is re­ally bad at solv­ing that prob­lem just be­cause they have no idea the prob­lem even ex­ists.