Moloch’s Toolbox (2/​2)

Fol­low-up to: Moloch’s Toolbox (1/​2)


vii. Sticky tra­di­tions in be­lief-de­pen­dent Nash equil­ibria with­out com­mon knowledge

ce­cie: I could talk next about a tax sys­tem that makes it cheaper for cor­po­ra­tions to pay for care in­stead of pa­tients, and how that sets up a host of “de­ci­sion­maker is not the benefi­ciary” prob­lems.

But I sus­pect a lot of peo­ple read­ing this con­ver­sa­tion un­der­stand that part already, so in­stead I’ll turn my at­ten­tion to ven­ture cap­i­tal.

vis­i­tor: It sounds like the “poli­ti­ci­ans” and the “vot­ers” might be a more key is­sue, if the cul­tural trans­la­tor is right about what those cor­re­spond to.

ce­cie: Ah! But it turns out that ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and star­tups can be seen as a sim­pler ver­sion of vot­ers and poli­ti­ci­ans, so it’s bet­ter to con­sider en­trepreneurs first.

Be­sides, at this point I imag­ine the Visi­tor is won­der­ing, “Why can’t any­one make any money by sav­ing those ba­bies? Doesn’t your so­ciety have a profit in­cen­tive that fixes this?”

vis­i­tor: Ac­tu­ally, I don’t think that was high on my list of ques­tions. It’s un­der­stood among my peo­ple that not ev­ery prob­lem is one you can make a profit by fix­ing—per­sis­tent so­cietal prob­lems tend to be ones that don’t have eas­ily cap­turable prof­its cor­re­spond­ing to their solu­tion.

I mean, yes, if this was all hap­pen­ing on our world and it wasn’t already be­ing ad­dressed by the Se­ri­ous Peo­ple, then some­body would just mix the bleep­ing nu­tri­ents and sell it to the bleep­ing par­ents for bleep­ing money. But at this point I’ve already guessed that’s go­ing to be ille­gal, or sav­ing ba­bies us­ing money is go­ing to be as­so­ci­ated with the wrong Tower and there­fore un­pres­ti­gious, or your par­ents are us­ing a par­tic­u­lar kind of statis­ti­cal anal­y­sis that re­quires baby sac­ri­fices, or what­ever.

ce­cie: Hey, de­tails mat­ter!

vis­i­tor: (in sad re­flec­tion) Do they? Do they re­ally? Isn’t there some point where you just ad­mit you can’t stop kil­ling ba­bies and it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter why?

ce­cie: No. You can never say that if you want to go on be­ing a cyn­i­cal economist.

Now, there are sev­eral differ­ent kinds of mo­lasses cov­er­ing the world of star­tups and ven­ture cap­i­tal. It’s the tra­di­tion-bound as­pects of that ecosys­tem that we’ll find es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing, since ac­cord­ing to its own ide­ol­ogy, ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists are sup­posed to chase strange new ideas that other ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists don’t be­lieve in. Walk­ing through the sim­pler case of ven­ture cap­i­tal will help us un­der­stand the more com­plex rea­sons why vot­ers and poli­ti­ci­ans are nailed into their own equil­ibria, un­der­pin­ning the ul­ti­mate rea­sons why no­body can change the laws that pre­vent change.

vis­i­tor: (gaz­ing off into the dis­tance) … I won­der if maybe there are some wor­lds that can’t be saved.

ce­cie: Sup­pose it’s widely be­lieved that the most suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs have red hair. If you’re an un­usu­ally smart ven­ture cap­i­tal com­pany that re­al­izes that, a pri­ori, hair color doesn’t seem like it should cor­re­late to en­trepreneurial abil­ity, you might think you could make an ex­cess profit by find­ing some over­looked en­trepreneur with blonde hair.

The key in­sight here is that ven­ture cap­i­tal is a multi-stage pro­cess. There’s the ini­tial or pre-seed round, the seed round, the Series A, the Series B, the mid­dle rounds, the Series C… and if the startup fails to raise money on any of those rounds be­fore they be­come durably prof­itable, they’re dead. What this means is that the seed-round in­vestors need to con­sider the prob­a­bil­ity that the com­pany can suc­cess­fully raise a Series A. If the an­gels in­vest in the seed round of a com­pany whose en­trepreneurs don’t have red hair, that com­pany won’t be able to raise a Series A and will go bust and the an­gel in­vest­ment will be worth­less. So the an­gel in­vestors need to de­cide where to in­vest, and what price to offer, based par­tially on their be­liefs about what most Series A in­vestors be­lieve.

sim­pli­cio: Ah, I’ve heard of this. It’s called a Key­ne­sian beauty con­test, where ev­ery­one tries to pick the con­tes­tant they ex­pect ev­ery­one else to pick. A parable illus­trat­ing the mas­sive, pointless cir­cu­lar­ity of the pa­per game called the stock mar­ket, where there’s no ob­jec­tive ex­cept to buy the pieces of pa­per you’ll think other peo­ple will want to buy.

ce­cie: No, there are real re­turns on stocks—usu­ally in the forms of buy­backs and ac­qui­si­tions, nowa­days, since div­i­dends are tax-dis­ad­van­taged. If the stock mar­ket has the na­ture of a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s only to the ex­tent that high stock prices di­rectly benefit com­pa­nies, by let­ting the com­pany get more cap­i­tal or is­sue bonds at lower in­ter­est. If not for the di­rect effect that stock prices had on com­pany welfare, it wouldn’t mat­ter at all to a 10-year in­vestor what other in­vestors be­lieve to­day. If stock prices had zero effect on com­pany welfare, you’d be happy to buy the stock that no­body else be­lieved in, and wait for that com­pany to have real rev­enues and re­tained as­sets that ev­ery­one else could see 10 years later.

sim­pli­cio: But no­body in­vests on a 10-year hori­zon! Even pen­sion com­pa­nies in­vest to man­age the pen­sion man­ager’s bonus this year!

vis­i­tor: Surely the re­cur­sive ar­gu­ment is ob­vi­ous? If most man­agers in­vest with 1-year looka­head, a smarter man­ager can make a profit in 1 year by in­vest­ing with a 2-year looka­head, and can con­tinue to ex­tract value un­til there’s no pre­dictable change from 2-year prices to 1-year prices.

ce­cie: In the en­trepreneurial world, star­tups are kil­led out­right, very quickly, by the equiv­a­lent of low stock prices. And for le­gal rea­sons there are no hedge funds that can ad­just mar­ket prices en masse, so the re­cur­sive ar­gu­ment doesn’t ap­ply. The up­shot is that seed in­vestors have a strong in­cen­tive to care about what Series A in­vestors think. If the en­trepreneurs don’t fit the stereo­type of cool en­trepreneurs who have red hair, you can’t make an ex­cess re­turn by go­ing against the pop­u­lar mis­ap­pre­hen­sion, be­cause the startup will die in the next fund­ing round.

The key phe­nomenon un­der­ly­ing the so­cial mo­lasses is that there’s a self-re­in­forc­ing equil­ibrium of be­liefs. Maybe a lot of the Series A in­vestors think the idea of en­trepreneurs need­ing to have red hair is ob­jec­tively silly. But they ex­pect Series B in­vestors to be­lieve it. So the Series A in­vestors don’t in­vest in blonde-haired en­trepreneurs. So the seed in­vestors are right to be­lieve that “Series A in­vestors won’t in­vest in blonde-haired com­pa­nies” even if a lot of the rea­son why Series A in­vestors aren’t in­vest­ing is not that they be­lieve the stereo­type but that they be­lieve that Series B in­vestors be­lieve the stereo­type. And from the out­side, of course, all that in­vestors can see is that most in­vestors aren’t in­vest­ing in blonde-haired en­trepreneurs—which just goes to re­in­force ev­ery­one’s be­lief that ev­ery­one else be­lieves that red-haired en­trepreneurs do bet­ter.10

vis­i­tor: And you can’t just have ev­ery­one say those ex­act words aloud, in uni­son, and si­mul­ta­neously wake up from the dream?

sim­pli­cio: I’m afraid peo­ple don’t un­der­stand re­cur­sion as well as that would re­quire.

ce­cie: Per­haps, Sim­pli­cio, it is only that most VCs be­lieve that most other VCs don’t un­der­stand re­cur­sion; that would have much the same effect in prac­tice.

sim­pli­cio: Or maybe most peo­ple are too stupid to un­der­stand re­cur­sion. Is that some­thing you’d be able to ac­cept, if it were true?

ce­cie: Re­gard­less, on a larger scale, what we’re see­ing is an ex­tra stick­i­ness that re­sults when the in­cen­tive to try an in­no­va­tion re­quires you to be­lieve that other peo­ple will be­lieve the in­no­va­tion will work. An equil­ibrium like that can be much stick­ier than a sce­nario where, if you be­lieve that a pro­ject will suc­ceed, you have an in­cen­tive to try it even if other peo­ple ex­pect the pro­ject to fail.

Stereo­typ­i­cally, the startup world is sup­posed to con­sist of heroes pro­duc­ing an ex­cess re­turn by pur­su­ing ideas that no­body else be­lieves in. In re­al­ity, the multi-stage na­ture of ven­ture cap­i­tal makes it very easy for the field to end up pinned to tra­di­tions about whether en­trepreneurs ought to have red hair—not be­cause ev­ery­one be­lieves it, but be­cause ev­ery­one be­lieves that ev­ery­one be­lieves it.

viii. First-past-the-post and wasted votes

vis­i­tor: Does this feed back into our pri­mary ques­tion of why your so­ciety can’t stop it­self from feed­ing poi­sonous sub­stances to ba­bies?

ce­cie: It’s true that ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists are now col­lec­tively skep­ti­cal of at­tempts at new drug de­vel­op­ment, but the real prob­lem (at least for cases like this) is the enor­mous cost of ap­proval and the long de­lays the FDA causes.11 The ac­tual rea­son I went into this is that by un­der­stand­ing ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and en­trepreneurs, we can un­der­stand the more com­plex case of vot­ers and poli­ti­ci­ans. Which is the key to the poli­ti­cal equil­ibrium that pins down the FDA, and all the other laws that pre­vent any­one from do­ing bet­ter. Not always, but quite of­ten, the ul­ti­mate foun­da­tions of failure trace back to the mo­lasses cov­er­ing vot­ers and poli­ti­ci­ans.

sim­pli­cio: I’d like to offer, through­out what­ever the­ory fol­lows, the al­ter­na­tive hy­poth­e­sis that vot­ers are in fact just fools, sheep, and knaves. I mean, you should at least be con­sid­er­ing that pos­si­bil­ity.

ce­cie: The sim­plest way of un­der­stand­ing the anal­ogy be­tween ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and vot­ers is that vot­ers have to vote for poli­ti­ci­ans that are electable.

vis­i­tor: Uh, what? When you write down your prefer­ence or­der­ing on elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, you need to put poli­ti­ci­ans that other vot­ers pre­fer at the top of your prefer­ence or­der­ing?

ce­cie: Yes, that’s pretty much what it amounts to. In the US, at least, elec­tions are run on what’s known as a “first-past-the-post” vot­ing sys­tem. Who­ever gets the most votes in the con­test wins. Peo­ple who study vot­ing sys­tems widely agree that first-past-the-post is among the worst vot­ing sys­tems—it’s prov­ably im­pos­si­ble for one vot­ing sys­tem to have all the in­tu­itively good prop­er­ties at once, but FPTP is one of the most bro­ken.

vis­i­tor: Why not vote to change the vot­ing sys­tem, then?

ce­cie: I’ll get to that!

There are sev­eral ways of ex­plain­ing what’s wrong with FPTP, but a lovely ex­pla­na­tion I re­cently en­coun­tered phrases the ex­pla­na­tion in terms of “wasted votes”—the to­tal num­ber of votes that can be re­moved with­out chang­ing the out­come.

The two clas­sic forms of ger­ry­man­der­ing are crack­ing and pack­ing. Let’s say the par­ties are Green and Orange, and the Green party is in charge of draw­ing the vot­ing bound­aries. As a Green, you want to draw up dis­tricts such that Green poli­ti­ci­ans win with 55% of the vote—with some room for er­ror, but not all that much—and for Orange poli­ti­ci­ans to win with 100% of the vote.

sim­pli­cio: Ah, so that the Orange poli­ti­ci­ans won’t need to be re­spon­sive to Orange vot­ers be­cause their re-elec­tion is nearly guaran­teed, right?

ce­cie: No, the plot is far more di­a­bol­i­cal than that. Con­sider a dis­trict of 100,000 peo­ple, where a Green poli­ti­cian wins with 55% of the vote. When 50,001 Green vot­ers had cast their bal­lots, the elec­tion was already de­cided, un­der first-past-the-post, so the next 4,999 Green votes are “wasted”—this is to be un­der­stood as a tech­ni­cal term, not a moral judg­ment—in that they don’t fur­ther change the out­come. Then 45,000 Orange votes are also “wasted,” in that they don’t change the out­come. And also, one notes, those Orange vot­ers don’t get the rep­re­sen­ta­tive they wanted.

In an Orange dis­trict of 100,000 where the poli­ti­cian wins with 100% of the vote, there are 50,000 po­tent Orange votes and 50,000 wasted Orange votes. In to­tal, there are 50,000 po­tent Green votes, 5,000 wasted Green votes, 50,000 po­tent Orange votes, and 95,000 wasted Orange votes. On a larger scale, this means that you can con­trol a ma­jor­ity of a state leg­is­la­ture with slightly more than 14 of the votes—just have 55% of the dis­tricts con­tain­ing 55% Green vot­ers, with ev­ery­thing else solid Orange.

vis­i­tor: And then this quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion rules cru­elly over the re­main­ing three-quar­ters, who in turn lack the weapons to rise up?

ce­cie: No, the real dam­age is far sub­tler. Let’s say that Alice, Bob, and Carol have taken time off from their cryp­to­graphic shenani­gans to run for poli­ti­cal office. Alice is in the lead, fol­lowed by Bob and then by Carol. Sup­pose Den­nis prefers Carol to Bob, and Bob to Alice. But Den­nis can’t ac­tu­ally write “Carol > Bob > Alice” on a slip of pa­per that gets pro­cessed by a triv­ially more so­phis­ti­cated vot­ing sys­tem. Den­nis is only al­lowed to write down one can­di­date’s name, and that’s his vote. Un­der a sys­tem where the can­di­date with the most votes wins, and there’s un­cer­tainty about which of the two fron­trun­ners might win, all votes for who­ever is in third place will be wasted votes, and this fact is pre­dictable to the vot­ers.

vis­i­tor: Ah, I see. That’s why you in­tro­duced your pe­cu­liar multi-stage sys­tem of ven­ture cap­i­tal, which I as­sume must be held in place by laws for­bid­ding any­one else to go off and or­ga­nize their own fi­nan­cial sys­tem differ­ently, and ob­served how it cre­ates a sticky equil­ibrium in which fi­nanciers must be­lieve that other fi­nanciers will be­lieve in a startup.

If Den­nis doesn’t be­lieve that other “vot­ers” will be­lieve in Carol, Den­nis will vote for Bob, which makes your poli­tics stick­ier than a sys­tem in which “vot­ers” were per­mit­ted to sup­port the peo­ple they ac­tu­ally liked.

ce­cie: Well, you see the anal­ogy, but I’m not sure you ap­pre­ci­ate the true depth of the hor­ror.

vis­i­tor: I’m sure I don’t.

ce­cie: The up­shot of first-past-the-post is typ­i­cally a poli­ti­cal sys­tem dom­i­nated by ex­actly two par­ties.

vis­i­tor: Par­ties?

sim­pli­cio: En­tities that tell sheep who to vote for.

ce­cie: In elec­tions that have a sin­gle win­ner, votes for any can­di­date who isn’t one of the top two choices are wasted. In a rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy where dis­tricts vote on rep­re­sen­ta­tives who vote on laws, the dy­nam­ics of the dis­trict vote are then in­fluenced by the dy­nam­ics of the na­tional vote. Even if a third-party can­di­date could win a dis­trict, they wouldn’t have any­one to work with in the leg­is­la­ture, and so their votes would gen­er­ally be wasted.

In the ab­sence of a way to solve a large co­or­di­na­tion prob­lem, there’s no way for a third party to gain marginal in­fluence over time. Each in­di­vi­d­ual who con­sid­ers vot­ing for a third-party can­di­date knows they’ll be wast­ing their vote. This also means that third par­ties can’t field good can­di­dates, since po­ten­tial can­di­dates know they’d be run­ning to lose, which is stress­ful and un­re­ward­ing for peo­ple with bet­ter life op­tions. And that’s a suffi­cient multi-fac­tor sys­tem to pre­vent strong third par­ties from aris­ing. When you’re not al­lowed to vote for Carol, who you ac­tu­ally like, you’ll vote for whichever of Alice and Bob you dis­like the least.

The re­sult­ing equil­ibrium… well, Abramow­itz and Web­ster found that what mainly pre­dicted vot­ing be­hav­ior wasn’t how much the voter liked their preferred party, but how much they dis­liked the op­pos­ing party.12 Essen­tially, the US has two ma­jor vot­ing fac­tions, “peo­ple who hate Red poli­ti­ci­ans” and “peo­ple who hate Blue poli­ti­ci­ans.” When the Red poli­ti­ci­ans do some­thing that Red-haters re­ally dis­like, that gives the Blue poli­ti­ci­ans more lee­way to do ad­di­tional things that Red-haters mildly dis­like, which can give the Red poli­ti­ci­ans more lee­way of their own, and so the whole thing slides side­ways.

sim­pli­cio: Look­ing at the ab­stract of that Abramow­itz and Web­ster pa­per, isn’t one of their ma­jor find­ings that this type of hate-based po­lariza­tion has in­creased a great deal over the last twenty years?

ce­cie: Well, yes. I don’t claim to know ex­actly why that hap­pened, but I sus­pect the In­ter­net had some­thing to do with it.

In the US, the cur­rent two par­ties froze into place in the early twen­tieth cen­tury—be­fore then, there was some­times turnover (or threat­ened turnover). I sus­pect that the spread of ra­dio broad­cast­ing had some­thing to do with the freeze. If you imag­ine a coun­try in the pre-tele­graph days, then it might be pos­si­ble for third-party can­di­dates to take hold in one state, then in nearby states, and so a global change starts from a lo­cal nu­cleus. A na­tional ra­dio sys­tem makes poli­tics less lo­cal.

The In­ter­net might have pushed this phe­nomenon fur­ther and caused most of poli­tics to be about the same na­tional is­sues, which in turn re­in­forces the Red-vs.-Blue dy­namic that al­lows each party to sus­tain it­self on ha­tred for the other.

But that’s just me try­ing to eye­ball the phe­nomenon us­ing Amer­i­can his­tory—I haven’t stud­ied it. Other coun­tries that also have the ra­dio and In­ter­net and similar elec­toral dy­nam­ics do man­age to have more than two rele­vant par­ties, pos­si­bly be­cause of dy­nam­ics that cause the votes of third-party poli­ti­ci­ans to be less wasted.

sim­pli­cio: Isn’t the solu­tion here ob­vi­ous, though? All of these prob­lems are caused by vot­ers’ will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise on their prin­ci­ples and ac­cept the lesser of two evils.

ce­cie: Would things be bet­ter if peo­ple chose the greater of two evils? If they acted in­effec­tu­ally against that greater evil? The Nash equil­ibrium isn’t an illu­sion. In­di­vi­d­u­als would do worse by play­ing away from that Nash equil­ibrium. Wasted votes are wasted. The cur­rent sys­tem is an effec­tive trap and the vot­ers are trapped. They can’t just wish their way out of that trap.

There doesn’t need to be any way for good to win; and if there isn’t, the lesser evil re­ally is the best that vot­ers can do. Pre­tend­ing oth­er­wise may feel righ­teous, but it doesn’t change the equil­ibrium.

vis­i­tor: Just one sec­ond. Isn’t this all win­dow dress­ing, com­pared to the is­sue of what­ever true ruler im­poses these rules on the “vot­ers”? Like, if you put me into an elab­o­rate cage that gives me an elec­tric shock each time I vote for Carol, ob­vi­ously the per­son who re­ally con­trols the sys­tem is who­ever put the cage in place and de­ter­mines which poli­ti­ci­ans you can vote for with­out elec­tric shocks.

sim­pli­cio: I like the way you think.

ce­cie: It’s not quite true to say that the sys­tem is self-re­in­forc­ing and that the vot­ers are the sole in­stru­ment of their own de­struc­tion. But the lack of any ob­vi­ous, in­di­vi­d­ual tyrant who per­son­ally de­cides who you’re al­lowed to vote for has in­deed caused many vot­ers to be­lieve that they are in con­trol. I mean, they don’t feel like they’re in con­trol, but they think that “the vot­ers” se­lect poli­ti­ci­ans.

They aren’t able to per­son­al­ize a com­pli­cated bad equil­ibrium as a tyrant—not like they would blame a jew­eled king who was stand­ing in the pol­ling booth, ready to give them an elec­tric shock if they wrote down Carol’s name.

In­spired by Allan Gins­berg’s poem Moloch, Scott Alexan­der once wrote of co­or­di­na­tion failures:

Moloch is in­tro­duced as the an­swer to a ques­tion—C. S. Lewis’ ques­tion in Hier­ar­chy Of Philoso­phers—what does it? Earth could be fair, and all men glad and wise. In­stead we have pris­ons, smokestacks, asy­lums. What sphinx of ce­ment and alu­minum breaks open their skulls and eats up their imag­i­na­tion?

And Gins­berg an­swers: Moloch does it.

There’s a pas­sage in the Prin­cipia Dis­cor­dia where Mala­clypse com­plains to the God­dess about the evils of hu­man so­ciety. “Every­one is hurt­ing each other, the planet is ram­pant with in­jus­tices, whole so­cieties plun­der groups of their own peo­ple, moth­ers im­prison sons, chil­dren per­ish while broth­ers war.”

The God­dess an­swers: “What is the mat­ter with that, if it’s what you want to do?”

Mala­clypse: “But no­body wants it! Every­body hates it!”

God­dess: “Oh. Well, then stop.”

The im­plicit ques­tion is—if ev­ery­one hates the cur­rent sys­tem, who per­pet­u­ates it? And Gins­berg an­swers: “Moloch.” It’s pow­er­ful not be­cause it’s cor­rect—no­body liter­ally thinks an an­cient Carthag­i­nian de­mon causes ev­ery­thing—but be­cause think­ing of the sys­tem as an agent throws into re­lief the de­gree to which the sys­tem isn’t an agent.13

Scott Alexan­der saw the face of the Enemy, and he gave it a name—think­ing that per­haps that would help.

vis­i­tor: So if you did do this to your­selves, all by your­selves with no ex­ter­nal em­pire to pre­vent you from do­ing any­thing differ­ently by force of arms, then why can’t you just vote to change the vot­ing rules? No, never mind “vot­ing”—why can’t you all just get to­gether and change ev­ery­thing, pe­riod?

ce­cie: It’s true that con­cepts like these are non­triv­ial to un­der­stand.

It’s not ob­vi­ous to me that peo­ple couldn’t pos­si­bly un­der­stand them, if some­body worked for a while on cre­at­ing di­a­grams and videos.

But the big­ger prob­lem is that peo­ple wouldn’t know they could trust the di­a­grams and videos. I sus­pect some of the dy­nam­ics in en­trepreneur-land are there be­cause many ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists run into en­trepreneurs that are smarter than them, but who still have bad star­tups. A ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist who be­lieves clever-sound­ing ar­gu­ments will soon be talked into wast­ing a lot of money. So ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists learn to dis­trust clever-sound­ing ar­gu­ments be­cause they can’t dis­t­in­guish lies from truth, when they’re up against en­trepreneurs who are smarter than them.

Similarly, the av­er­age poli­ti­cian is smarter than the av­er­age voter, so by now most vot­ers are just ac­cus­tomed to a haze of plau­si­ble-sound­ing ar­gu­ments. It’s not that you can’t pos­si­bly ex­plain a Nash equil­ibrium. It’s that there are too many peo­ple ad­vo­cat­ing changes in the sys­tem for their own rea­sons, who could also draw di­a­grams that sounded equally con­vinc­ing to some­one who didn’t already un­der­stand Nash equil­ibria. Any talk of sys­temic change on this level would just be lost in a haze of equally plau­si­ble-sound­ing-to-the-av­er­age-voter blogs, talk­ing about how quan­ti­ta­tive eas­ing will cause hy­per­in­fla­tion.

vis­i­tor: Maybe it’s naive of me… but I can’t help but think… that surely there must be some break­ing point in this sys­tem you de­scribe, of vot­ing for the less bad of two awful peo­ple, where the can­di­dates just get worse and worse over time. At some point, shouldn’t this be trumped by the “vot­ers” just get­ting com­pletely fed up? A spon­ta­neous equil­ibrium-break­ing, where they just didn’t vote for ei­ther of the stan­dard lizards no mat­ter what?

ce­cie: Per­haps so! But my own cyn­i­cism can’t help but sus­pect that this “trump­ing” phe­nomenon of which you speak would be even worse.

sim­pli­cio: I have a tech­ni­cal ob­jec­tion to your as­cribing all these sins to first-past-the-post vot­ing rather than, say, the per­sonal vices of the vot­ers. There are nu­mer­ous par­li­a­men­tary democ­ra­cies out­side the United States that prac­tice pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, where a party get­ting 30% of the votes gets 30% of the seats in par­li­a­ment. And they don’t seem to have solved these prob­lems.

ce­cie: Omegaven does hap­pen to be ap­proved in Europe, how­ever. Like, they are not in fact kil­ling those par­tic­u­lar ba­bies—

sim­pli­cio: Oh, come on! Yes, the Euro­pean equiv­a­lent of the US’s FDA hap­pens to be a bit less stupid. Lots of other things in Euro­pean coun­tries hap­pen to be more stupid. In­deed, I’d say that in Europe you have much cra­zier peo­ple get­ting seats in par­li­a­ments, com­pared to the United States. The prob­lem isn’t the vot­ing sys­tem. The prob­lem is the vot­ers.

ce­cie: There are in­deed some vot­ers who want stupid things, and un­der the Euro­pean sys­tem, their voice can be heard. There are also vot­ers who want smart things and whose voices can be heard, like in the Pirate Party in Fin­land. But Euro­pean par­li­a­men­tary sys­tems have differ­ent prob­lems stem­ming from differ­ent sys­temic flaws.

Pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion would be a good sys­tem for a leg­is­la­ture that needed to re­peat­edly vote on laws, where differ­ent leg­is­la­tors could form differ­ent coal­i­tions for each vote. If in­stead you de­mand that a ma­jor­ity coal­i­tion “form a gov­ern­ment” to ap­point an ex­ec­u­tive, then you need to give con­ces­sions to some fac­tions, while other fac­tions get frozen out. I’m not nec­es­sar­ily say­ing that it would be easy to fix all the prob­lems si­mul­ta­neously. Still, I imag­ine that a pro­por­tion­ally rep­re­sented leg­is­la­ture, com­bined with an ex­ec­u­tive elected at-large by Con­dorcet vot­ing, might pos­si­bly be less stupid—

sim­pli­cio: Or maybe it would just give stupid vot­ers a louder voice. I don’t like the evil con­spir­acy of the press and poli­ti­cal elites that gov­erns my coun­try from the shad­ows, but I am will­ing to con­sider the propo­si­tion that the al­ter­na­tive is Don­ald Trump. I mean, I in­tend to go on fight­ing the Con­spir­acy about many spe­cific is­sues. But if you’re propos­ing a re­form that puts more power into the hands of sheep not yet awak­ened, the re­sults could be even worse.

ce­cie: Well, I agree that the de­sign of well-func­tion­ing poli­ti­cal sys­tems is hard. Sin­ga­pore might be the best-gov­erned coun­try in the world, and their his­tory is ap­prox­i­mately, “Lee Kuan Yew gained very strong in­di­vi­d­ual power over a small coun­try, and un­like the hun­dreds of times in the his­tory of Earth when that went hor­ribly wrong, Lee Kuan Yew hap­pened to know some eco­nomics.” But the Visi­tor asked me why we were kil­ling ba­bies, and I tried to an­swer in terms of the sys­tem that ob­tained in the part of the world that was ac­tu­ally kil­ling those ba­bies. You asked why Europe wasn’t a par­adise since it used pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and my an­swer is that par­li­a­men­tary sys­tems have their own de­sign flaws that in­duce a differ­ent kind of dys­func­tion.

sim­pli­cio: Then if both sys­tems are bad, how does your hy­poth­e­sis have any ob­serv­able con­se­quences?

ce­cie: Be­cause differ­ent sys­tems are bad in differ­ent ways. When you have a “crazy” new idea, whether it’s good or bad, the Euro­pean par­li­a­ments will be al­lowed to talk about it first. Whether that’s Omegaven, ba­sic in­come, gay mar­riage, le­gal­ized pros­ti­tu­tion, end­ing the war on drugs, land value taxes, or fas­cist na­tion­al­ism, you are more likely to find it talked about in sys­tems of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It also hap­pens to be true that those gov­ern­ments bloat up faster be­cause of the re­peated bribes re­quired to hold the “gov­ern­ing coal­i­tion” to­gether, but that’s a differ­ent prob­lem.

ix. The Over­ton window

sim­pli­cio: I’m be­gin­ning to ex­pe­rience the same sort of con­fu­sion as the Visi­tor about your view of the world, Con­ven­tional Cyn­i­cal Economist. If vot­ers weren’t stupid, the world would look very differ­ent than it does.

If the ul­ti­mate source of stu­pidity were poorly de­signed gov­ern­men­tal struc­tures, then av­er­age vot­ers would sound smarter than av­er­age poli­ti­ci­ans. I don’t think that’s ac­tu­ally true.

ce­cie: There are deeper forms of psy­cholog­i­cal mo­lasses that gen­er­al­ize be­yond first-past-the-post poli­ti­cal can­di­dates. The still greater force lock­ing bad poli­ti­cal sys­tems into place is an equil­ibrium of silence about poli­cies that aren’t “se­ri­ous.”

A jour­nal­ist thinks that a can­di­date who talks about end­ing the War on Drugs isn’t a “se­ri­ous can­di­date.” And the news­pa­per won’t cover that can­di­date be­cause the news­pa­per it­self wants to look se­ri­ous… or they think vot­ers won’t be in­ter­ested be­cause ev­ery­one knows that can­di­date can’t win, or some­thing? Maybe in a US-style sys­tem, only con­trar­i­ans and other peo­ple who lack the so­cial skill of get­ting along with the Sys­tem are vot­ing for Carol, so Carol is un­cool the same way Velcro is un­cool and so are all her poli­cies and ideas? I’m not sure ex­actly what the jour­nal­ists are think­ing sub­jec­tively, since I’m not a jour­nal­ist. But if an ex­ist­ing poli­ti­cian talks about a policy out­side of what jour­nal­ists think is ap­peal­ing to vot­ers, the jour­nal­ists think the poli­ti­cian has com­mit­ted a gaffe, and they write about this sports blun­der by the poli­ti­cian, and the ac­tual vot­ers take their cues from that. So no poli­ti­cian talks about things that a jour­nal­ist be­lieves it would be a blun­der for a poli­ti­cian to talk about. The space of what it isn’t a “blun­der” for a poli­ti­cian to talk about is con­ven­tion­ally termed the “Over­ton win­dow.”

sim­pli­cio: It’s all well and good to talk about com­pli­cated clever things, Cyn­i­cal Economist, but what ex­plana­tory power does all this added com­plex­ity have? Why pos­tu­late poli­ti­ci­ans who be­lieve that jour­nal­ists be­lieve that vot­ers won’t take some­thing se­ri­ously? Why not just say that peo­ple are sheep?

ce­cie: To name a re­cent ex­am­ple from the United States, it ex­plains how, one year, gay mar­riage is this taboo topic, and then all of a sud­den there’s a huge up­swing in ev­ery­one be­ing al­lowed to talk about it for the first time and shortly af­ter­wards it’s a done deal. If you sup­pose that a huge num­ber of peo­ple re­ally did hate gay mar­riage deep down, or that all the poli­ti­ci­ans mouthing off about the sanc­tity of mar­riage were en­gaged in a dark con­spir­acy, then why the sud­den change?

With my more com­pli­cated model, we can say, “An in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple over time thought that gay mar­riage was pretty much okay. But while that group didn’t have a ma­jor­ity, jour­nal­ists mod­eled a gay mar­riage en­dorse­ment as a ‘gaffe’ or ‘un­electable’, some­thing they’d write about in the sports-cov­er­age over­tone of a blun­der by the other team—”

sim­pli­cio: Ah, so you say it was a con­spir­acy by evil jour­nal­ists?

ce­cie: No! Those jour­nal­ists weren’t con­sciously de­cid­ing the equil­ibrium. The jour­nal­ists were writ­ing “se­ri­ous” ar­ti­cles, i.e., ar­ti­cles about Alice and Bob rather than Carol. The equil­ibrium con­sisted of the jour­nal­ists writ­ing sports cov­er­age of elec­tions, where ev­ery­thing is viewed through the lens of a zero-sum com­pe­ti­tion for votes be­tween Alice’s team and Bob’s team. Viewed through that lens, the jour­nal­ists thought a gay mar­riage en­dorse­ment would be a blun­der. And if you do some­thing that enough jour­nal­ists think is a poli­ti­cal blun­der, it is a poli­ti­cal blun­der. The jour­nal­ists’ sports cov­er­age will de­scribe you as an in­com­pe­tent poli­ti­cian, and pri­mates in­stinc­tively want to ally with likely win­ners. Which meant the equil­ibrium could have a sharp tipover point, with­out most of the ac­tual pop­u­la­tion chang­ing their minds sharply about gay mar­riage in that par­tic­u­lar year. The sup­port level went over a thresh­old where some­body tested the wa­ters and got away with it, and jour­nal­ists be­gan to sus­pect it wasn’t a poli­ti­cal blun­der to sup­port gay mar­riage, which let more poli­ti­ci­ans speak and get away with it, and then the change of be­lief about what was in­side the Over­ton win­dow snow­balled. I think that’s what we saw.

sim­pli­cio: For­give me for re­sort­ing to Oc­cam’s Ra­zor, but is it not sim­pler just to say that peo­ple’s be­liefs changed slowly un­til it reached some level where the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex re­al­ized they couldn’t win the bat­tle to sup­press gay mar­riage out­right, and so stopped fight­ing?

ce­cie: In a sense, that’s not far off from what hap­pened, ex­cept with­out the evil con­spir­acy part. We might or might not be ap­proach­ing a similar tipover point about end­ing the War on Drugs—a long, slow, sec­u­lar shift in opinion, fol­lowed by a sud­den tipover point where jour­nal­ists model poli­ti­ci­ans as be­ing al­lowed to talk about it, which means that poli­ti­ci­ans can talk about it, and then a few years later ev­ery­one is act­ing like they always thought that way. At least, I hope that’s where the cur­rent trend is lead­ing.

sim­pli­cio: Sev­eral states have already passed laws le­gal­iz­ing mar­ijuana. Why hasn’t that already bro­ken the Over­ton win­dow?

ce­cie: Be­cause voter ini­ti­a­tives don’t break the com­mon be­lief about what it would be a “gaffe” for a se­ri­ous, na­tional-level poli­ti­cian to do.

eliezer: (aside) What broke the silence about ar­tifi­cial gen­eral in­tel­li­gence (AGI) in 2014 wasn’t Stephen Hawk­ing writ­ing a care­ful, well-con­sid­ered es­say about how this was a real is­sue. The silence only broke when Elon Musk tweeted about Nick Bostrom’s Su­per­in­tel­li­gence, and then made an off-the-cuff re­mark about how AGI was “sum­mon­ing the de­mon.”

Why did that heave a rock through the Over­ton win­dow, when Stephen Hawk­ing couldn’t? Be­cause Stephen Hawk­ing sounded like he was try­ing hard to ap­pear sober and se­ri­ous, which sig­nals that this is a sub­ject you have to be care­ful not to gaffe about. And then Elon Musk was like, “Whoa, look at that apoc­a­lypse over there!!” After which there was the equiv­a­lent of jour­nal­ists try­ing to pile on, shout­ing, “A gaffe! A gaffe! A… gaffe?” and find­ing out that, in light of re­cent news sto­ries about AI and in light of Elon Musk’s good rep­u­ta­tion, peo­ple weren’t back­ing them up on that gaffe thing.

Similarly, to heave a rock through the Over­ton win­dow on the War on Drugs, what you need is not state propo­si­tions (al­though those do help) or ar­ti­cles in The Economist. What you need is for some “se­ri­ous” poli­ti­cian to say, “This is dumb,” and for the jour­nal­ists to pile on shout­ing, “A gaffe! A gaffe… a gaffe?” But it’s a grave per­sonal risk for a poli­ti­cian to test whether the pub­lic at­mo­sphere has changed enough, and even if it worked, they’d cap­ture very lit­tle of the hu­man benefit for them­selves.

vis­i­tor: So… if this is the key meta-level prob­lem… then why can’t your civ­i­liza­tion just con­sider and solve this en­tire prob­lem on the meta level?

ce­cie: Oh, I’m afraid that this en­tire meta-prob­lem isn’t the sort of thing the “lead­ing can­di­dates” Alice and Bob talk about, so the prob­lem it­self isn’t viewed as se­ri­ous. That is, jour­nal­ists won’t think it’s se­ri­ous. Meta-prob­lems in gen­eral—even prob­lems as sim­ple as first-past-the-post ver­sus in­stant runoff for par­tic­u­lar elec­toral dis­tricts—are is­sues out­side the Over­ton win­dow. So the lead­ing can­di­dates Alice and Bob won’t talk about or­ga­ni­za­tional de­sign re­form, be­cause it would be very dam­ag­ing to their ca­reers if they visi­bly fo­cused their at­ten­tion on is­sues that jour­nal­ists don’t think of as “se­ri­ous.”

vis­i­tor: Then per­haps the deeper ques­tion is, “Why does any­one listen to these ‘jour­nal­ists’?” You keep at­tribut­ing power to them, but you haven’t yet ex­plained why they have that power un­der your equil­ibrium.

ce­cie: Peo­ple be­lieve that other peo­ple be­lieve what’s in the news­pa­pers.

Well, no, that’s too op­ti­mistic. A lot of peo­ple do be­lieve what’s in the news­pa­pers, so long as it isn’t about a topic re­gard­ing which they have any per­sonal knowl­edge or ex­per­tise. The Gell-Mann Am­ne­sia Effect is the term for how we read the pa­per about sub­jects we know about, and it’s talk­ing about how wet streets cause rain; and then we turn to the story about in­ter­na­tional af­fairs or diet­ing, and for some rea­son as­sume it’s more ac­cu­rate.

There’s some level on which most peo­ple pre­fer to talk and be­lieve within the same men­tal world as other peo­ple. Nowa­days a lot of peo­ple be­lieve what they read on, say, Tum­blr, and hardly look at The New York Times at all. But even then they still be­lieve that other peo­ple be­lieve what’s in The New York Times. That’s what gives The New York Times its spe­cial power over the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness, far out of pro­por­tion to their dwindling read­er­ship or the van­ish­ing real trust that in­di­vi­d­u­als from var­i­ous walks of life have in them—what’s printed in The New York Times de­ter­mines what peo­ple be­lieve other peo­ple be­lieve.

sim­pli­cio: Do you truly lay all the sins of hu­man­ity at the feet of all this weird re­cur­sion? Or is this just a suffi­ciently weird hy­poth­e­sis that you find it more fun to think about than the al­ter­na­tives?

ce­cie: I’m not sure I’m point­ing in ex­actly the right di­rec­tion, but I feel that I’m point­ing in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of some­thing that’s truly im­por­tant to the Visi­tor’s most ba­sic ques­tion. The Visi­tor keeps ask­ing why, in some sense, on some suffi­ciently gen­eral level, we can’t just snap out of it. And to put it in the sort of terms you your­self might want to use, Sim­pli­cio, if we’re look­ing for an ex­pla­na­tion of why we can’t just snap out of it, then it might make sense to point to a bad Nash equil­ibrium cov­er­ing our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness and dis­cus­sion. I sus­pect that the re­cur­sion, the de­pen­dency on what peo­ple be­lieve other peo­ple be­lieve, has a lot to do with mak­ing that a sticky equil­ibrium a la ven­ture cap­i­tal.

eliezer: (aside) Re­turn­ing to my day job: As of 2017, I pretty com­monly hear from AI re­searchers who are wor­ried about AGI safety, but who say that they don’t dare say any­thing like that aloud. You could see this as ei­ther a good sign or a very bad sign, de­pend­ing on how pes­simistic or op­ti­mistic you pre­vi­ously were about the ad­e­quacy of aca­demic dis­cus­sion.

sim­pli­cio: But then what, on your view, is the bet­ter way?

ce­cie: Again, I could pon­tif­i­cate about var­i­ous ideas, but that’s a differ­ent and harder ques­tion than look­ing at the ac­tual equil­ibrium that cur­rently ob­tains and forces doc­tors to poi­son ba­bies. There doesn’t have to be a bet­ter way.

x. Lower-hang­ing al­tru­is­tic fruit and big­ger problems

(The Visi­tor takes a deep breath. When the Visi­tor speaks again, it is louder.)

vis­i­tor: Then what about your <un­trans­lat­able 17>?

ce­cie: Sorry? That word didn’t come through.

vis­i­tor: What about ev­ery­one on your en­tire planet who could pos­si­bly care about ba­bies dy­ing?

So your med­i­cal spe­cial­ists are borked. From the magic-tower anal­ogy, I as­sume your sys­tems of learn­ing are borked, and that means most of the par­ents whose re­spon­si­bil­ity it is to pro­tect the child are borked. Your poli­ti­ci­ans are borked. Your vot­ers are borked. Your planet has no Se­ri­ous Peo­ple who could be trusted to try al­ter­na­tive shoe de­signs, let alone lead the way on any more com­plex co­or­di­na­tion prob­lem. Your pre­dic­tion mar­kets, I sup­pose, are some­how borked in a way that pre­vents any­one from mak­ing a profit by cor­rect­ing in­ac­cu­rate policy fore­casts… maybe they fore­cast wrongly bad con­se­quences to un­pop­u­lar poli­cies, which there­fore never get im­ple­mented in a way that shows up the in­ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tion, since you don’t have any way to test things on a smaller scale? Your economists must some­how be borked—

ce­cie: It’s more that no­body ever listens to us. They pay us and then they don’t listen to us.

vis­i­tor: —and your fi­nan­cial sys­tem is borked so that no­body can make a profit on sav­ing those ba­bies or do­ing any­thing else use­ful. I’m not stupid. I’ve picked up on the pat­tern at this point.

But what about ev­ery­one else? There are seven billion peo­ple on your planet. How is it that none of them step up to save these ba­bies from death and brain dam­age? How is your en­tire planet failing to solve this prob­lem?

ce­cie: That… sounds like a weird ques­tion, to an Earth per­son.

vis­i­tor: What­ever your prob­lems are, surely out of seven billion hu­man be­ings there have to be some who could see the prob­lems as you’ve laid them out, who could try to rally oth­ers to the cause of sav­ing those ba­bies, who could do what­ever it took to save them!

Even if your sys­tem de­clares that sav­ing ba­bies is only the re­spon­si­bil­ity of “doc­tors” or “poli­ti­ci­ans” or who­ever is the Some­one Else whose Prob­lem it is, there’s no law of physics that stops some­one else from walk­ing up to the prob­lem and ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for it. Out of seven billion peo­ple in your world, I can’t be­lieve that liter­ally all of them are in­ca­pable of gath­er­ing to­gether some friends and start­ing things down the path to get­ting a lit­tle fish oil into a baby’s nu­tri­tional mix­ture!

eliezer: I think I’ll step in my­self at this point. There’s one other very gen­eral con­clu­sion we can draw from see­ing this ever-grow­ing heap of dead ba­bies. We might say, “the in­ad­e­quacy of the part im­plies the in­ad­e­quacy of the whole”—as we’ve defined our terms, if a part of the sys­tem is in­ad­e­quate in X lives saved for Y dol­lars, then the whole sys­tem is in­ad­e­quate in X lives saved for Y dol­lars. Some­one who is mo­ti­vated and max­i­miz­ing will first go af­ter the biggest in­ad­e­quacy any­where that they think they can solve, and if they suc­ceed, it pushes for­ward the ad­e­quacy fron­tier for the whole sys­tem. Thus, we can draw one other gen­eral con­clu­sion from the ob­ser­va­tion that ba­bies are still be­ing fed soy­bean oil. We can con­clude that ev­ery­one on the planet who is smart enough to un­der­stand this prob­lem, and who cares about strangers’ lives, and who max­i­mizes over their op­por­tu­ni­ties, must have some­thing more im­por­tant to do than get­ting started on solv­ing it.

vis­i­tor: (aghast) More im­por­tant than sav­ing hun­dreds of ba­bies per year from dy­ing or suffer­ing per­ma­nent brain dam­age?

eliezer: The ob­ser­va­tion stands: there must be, in fact, liter­ally no­body on Earth who can read Wikipe­dia en­tries and un­der­stand that omega-6 and omega-3 fats are differ­ent micronu­tri­ents, who also cares and max­i­mizes and can head up new pro­jects, who thinks that sav­ing a few hun­dred ba­bies per year from death and per­ma­nent brain dam­age is the most im­por­tant thing they could do with their lives.

vis­i­tor: So you’re im­ply­ing…

eliezer: Well, mostly I’m im­ply­ing that max­i­miz­ing al­tru­ism is in­cred­ibly rare, es­pe­cially when you also re­quire suffi­ciently pre­cise rea­son­ing that you aren’t limited to cases where the large-scale, con­vinc­ing study has already been done; and then we’re de­mand­ing the ex­ec­u­tive abil­ity to start a new pro­ject on top of that. But yes, I’m also say­ing that here on Earth we have much more hor­rible prob­lems to worry about.

ce­cie: We’ve just been walk­ing through a hand­ful of lay eco­nomic con­cepts here, the kind whose struc­ture I can ex­plain in a few thou­sand words. If you truly per­ceived the world through the eyes of a con­ven­tional cyn­i­cal economist, then the hor­rors, the abom­i­na­tions, the low-hang­ing fruits you saw un­picked would an­nihilate your very soul.

vis­i­tor:

eliezer: And then some of us have much, much more hor­rible prob­lems to worry about. Prob­lems that take more than read­ing Wikipe­dia en­tries to un­der­stand, so that the pool of po­ten­tial solvers is even smaller. But even just con­sid­er­ing this par­tic­u­lar heap of dead ba­bies, we know from ob­ser­va­tion that this part must be true: If you imag­ine ev­ery­one on Earth who fits the qual­ifi­ca­tions for the dead-baby prob­lem—enough sci­en­tific liter­acy to un­der­stand rele­vant facts about metabolic path­ways, and the car­ing, and the max­i­miza­tion, and enough scrap­piness to be the first one who gets started on it, meet­ing in a con­fer­ence room to di­vide up Earth’s most im­por­tant prob­lems, with the first sub­group tak­ing on the most ne­glected prob­lems de­mand­ing the most spe­cial­ized back­ground knowl­edge, and the sec­ond tak­ing on the sec­ond-most-in­com­pre­hen­si­ble set of prob­lems, un­til the crowd­ed­ness of the pre­vi­ously most ur­gent prob­lem de­creases the marginal im­pact of fur­ther con­tri­bu­tions to the point where the next-worst prob­lem at that level of back­ground knowl­edge and in­sight be­comes at­trac­tive… and so on down the lad­ders of ur­gency in­side the lev­els of dis­cern­ment… then there must be such a long and ter­rible list of tasks left un­done, and so few peo­ple to un­der­stand and care, that sav­ing a few hun­dred ba­bies per year from dy­ing or suffer­ing per­ma­nent brain dam­age didn’t make the list. So it has been ob­served, and so it must be.

wan­der­ing by­stan­der: (in­ter­ject­ing) But I just can’t be­lieve our planet would be that dys­func­tional. There­fore, by back­ward chain­ing, I ques­tion the origi­nal ob­ser­va­tion on which you founded your in­fer­ence. In par­tic­u­lar, I’m start­ing to won­der whether omega-3 and omega-6 could re­ally be such sig­nifi­cantly differ­ent micronu­tri­ents. Maybe that’s just a crack­pot diet the­ory that some­how made it into Wikipe­dia, and ac­tu­ally all fats are pretty much the same, so there’s noth­ing es­pe­cially ter­rify­ing about the prospect of feed­ing ba­bies ex­clu­sively fat from soy­bean oil in­stead of some­thing more closely re­sem­bling the lipid pro­file of breast milk?

eliezer: Ah, yes. I’m glad you spoke up. I’ll get to your mod­est pro­posal next.


Next: Liv­ing in an Inad­e­quate World.

The full book will be available Novem­ber 16th. You can go to equil­ibri­abook.com to pre-or­der the book, or sign up for no­tifi­ca­tions about new chap­ters and other de­vel­op­ments.


  1. See Glenn Loury’s The Anatomy of Ra­cial Inequal­ity for an early dis­cus­sion of this is­sue. Note that some ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists I’ve spo­ken to en­dorse this as an ac­count of VC dys­func­tion, while oth­ers have differ­ent hy­pothe­ses.

  2. Carl Shul­man ar­gues that the FDA’s clini­cal trial re­quire­ments prob­a­bly aren’t the rea­son for re­cent decades’ slow­down in the de­vel­op­ment of cool new drugs, given that in­creased reg­u­la­tion seems to have co­in­cided with but not sub­stan­tially ac­cel­er­ated the de­clin­ing effi­ciency of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal re­search and de­vel­op­ment (source). Shul­man sug­gests that Bau­mol’s cost dis­ease and diminish­ing re­turns play a larger role in the R&D slow­down.

    The FDA’s clini­cal trial re­quire­ments are much more likely to play a cen­tral role in limit­ing ac­cess to non-patented sub­stances, though it’s worth not­ing here that the FDA has got­ten faster than it used to be (source).

  3. Abramow­itz and Web­ster, “All Poli­tics is Na­tional.”

  4. See Scott Alexan­der’s “Med­i­ta­tions on Moloch.”