Graham’s implying that at least for the vast majority of person-test combinations, the spirit of passing tests is hacking them:
Even though I was a diligent student, almost all the work I did in school was aimed at getting a good grade on something.
To many people, it would seem strange that the preceding sentence has a “though” in it. Aren’t I merely stating a tautology? Isn’t that what a diligent student is, a straight-A student? That’s how deeply the conflation of learning with grades has infused our culture.
If getting into college were merely a matter of having the quality of one’s mind measured by admissions officers the way scientists measure the mass of an object, we could tell teenage kids “learn a lot” and leave it at that.
I don’t see how, specifically, to distinguish this sort of thing from what Hotel Concierge is saying, unless you think Hotel Concierge is against trying at anything. As far as I can tell Hotel Concierge isn’t saying you shouldn’t try to be happy, or achieve outcomes you care about via delayed gratification, or be smart, or learn a lot, just that it’s a problem when people are pushed to optimize for performing simulacra of those things.
Currently writing this up at more length, I invite anyone to remind me if I forget to post a link here within a week. The short version is that Graham is implying that his behavior is aligned with the values of his essay—people are likely to trust Y-Combinator to help them learn to do real things, since it’s a Paul Graham creation and he wrote this essay—while in fact he is doing the opposite and set up the world’s best, most prestigious school for Succeeding by Passing Tests.
It’s not that this essay is wrong. It’s just that it’s a rehash of what Hotel Concierge covered better and in more depth in The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment, and it’s dangerously misleading advertising for the VC fund / cult Graham started, Y-Combinator, which is the current apex predator of the real-life Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment.
It was originally marketed as a health tonic, but its apparent curative properties were due to the powerful stimulant and analgesic cocaine, not any health-enhancing ingredients. Later the cocaine was taken out (but the “Coca” in the name retained), so now it fools the subconscious into thinking it’s healthful with—on different timescales—mass media advertising, caffeine, and refined sugar.
It’s less overtly a scam now, in large part because it has the endowment necessary to manipulate impressions more subtly at scale.
Maybe more specifically an ingroup that takes over a potentially real, profitable social niche, squeezes out everyone else, and uses the niche’s leverage to maximize rent extraction, is a gang.
Coca-Cola produces something about as worthless as Theranos machines, substituting the experience of a thing for the thing itself, & is pretty blatant about it. The scams that “win” gerrymander our concept-boundaries to make it hard to see. Likewise Pepsi. JPMorgan Chase & Bank of America, in different ways, are scams structurally similar to Bernie Madoff but with a legitimate state subsidy to bail them out when they blow up. This is not an exhaustive list, just the first 4 that jumped out at me. Pharma is also mostly a scam these days, nearly all of the extant drugs that matter are already off-patent.
Also Facebook, but “scam” is less obviously the right category.
I have a background expectation that the most blatant kinds of fraudulence will be caught.
Consider how long Theranos operated, its prestigious board of directors, and the fact that it managed to make a major sale to Walgreens before blowing up. Consider how prominent Three Cups of Tea was (promoted by a New York Times columnist), for how long, before it was exposed. Consider that official US government nutrition advice still reflects obviously distorted, politically motivated research from the early 20th Century. Consider that the MLM company Amway managed to bribe Harvard to get the right introductions to Chinese regulators. Scams can and do capture the official narrative and prosecute whistleblowers.
Consider that pretty much by definition we’re not aware of the most successful scams.
Related: The Scams Are Winning
Presumably you believe that point 2 holds, not just because of the GDP example, but because you’ve seen many, many examples (like health care, which you mention above). Or maybe because you have an analytical argument that the sort of thing that happens with GDP has to generalize to other credit allocation systems?
Both—it would be worrying to have an analytic argument but not notice lots of examples, and it would require much more investigation (and skepticism) if it were happening all the time for no apparent reason.
I tried to gesture at the gestalt of the argument in The Humility Argument for Honesty. Basically, all conflict between intelligent agents contains a large information component, so if we’re fractally at war with each other, we should expect most info channels that aren’t immediately life-support-critical to turn into disinformation, and we should expect this process to accelerate over time.
For examples, important search terms are “preference falsification” and “Gell-Mann amnesia”.
I don’t think I disagree with you on GiveDirectly, except that I suspect you aren’t tracking some important ways your trust chain is likely to make correlated errors along the lines of assuming official statistics are correct. Quick check: what’s your 90% confidence interval for global population, after Googling the official number, which is around 7.7 billion?
Overall your wording seems pretty close.
Most white collar workers are executing a similar maneuver, except that instead of using force, they are corrupting the victim’s ability to make sense of the situation.
I think it’s actually a combination of this, and actual coordination to freeze out marginal gangs or things that aren’t gangs, from access to the system. Venture capitalists, for example, will tend to fund people who feel like members of the right gang, use the right signifiers in the right ways, went to the right schools, etc. Everyone I’ve talked with about their experience pitching startups has reported that making judgments on the merits is at best highly noncentral behavior.
If enough of the economy is cartelized, and the cartels are taxing noncartels indirectly via the state, then it doesn’t much matter whether the cartels apply force directly, though sometimes they still do.
So called “career capital” amounts to having more prestige, or otherwise be better at convincing people, and therefore being able to extort larger amounts.
It basically involves sending or learning how to send a costly signal of membership in a prestigious gang, including some mixture of job history, acculturation, and integrating socially into a network.
This is something like a 9 - gets the overall structure of the argument right with some important caveats:
I’d make a slightly weaker a claim for 2 - that credit-allocation methods have to be presumed broken until established otherwise, and no adequate audit has entered common knowledge.
An important part of the reason for 3 is that, the larger the share of “knowledge work” that we think is mostly about creating disinformation, the more one should distrust any official representations one hasn’t personally checked, when there’s any profit or social incentive to make up such stories. Based on my sense of the character of the people I met while working at GiveWell, and the kind of scrutiny they said they applied to charities, I’d personally be surprised if GiveDirectly didn’t actually exist, or simply pocketed the money. But it’s not at all obvious to me that people without my privileged knowledge should be sure of that.
I agree that there are more and less capital-intensive types of work, but it might make sense for the excellent programmer to use some of their surplus to outsource nonprogramming tasks (e.g. order delivery, hire a cleaning service, pay for high-quality day care for their kids), to free up more time for the thing they have the greatest comparative advantage at.
I basically already thought that lots of jobs are bullshit, but I might skim or listen to David Graeber’s book to get more data.
It’s not really about how many jobs are bullshit, so much as what it means to do a bullshit job. On Graeber’s model, bullshit jobs are mostly about propping up the story that bullshit jobs are necessary for production. Moral Mazes might help clarify the mechanism, and what I mean about gangs—a lot of white-collar work involves a kind of participatory business theater, to prop up the ego claims of one’s patron.
The more we think the white-collar world works this way, the more skeptical we should be of the literal truth of claims to be “working on” some problem or other using conventional structures.
I read the all of “There Is a War”, but I still don’t get the claim, “GDP is a measurement of the level of coercion in a society.” I’m going to keep working at it.
I think it’s analytically pretty simple. GDP involves adding up all the “output” into a single metric. Output is measured based on others’ willingness to pay. The more payments are motivated by violence rather than the production of something everyone is glad to have more of, the more GDP measures expropriation rather than production. There Is A War is mostly about working out the details & how this relates to macroeconomic ideas of “stimulus,” “aggregate demand,” etc, but if that analytic argument doesn’t make sense to you, then that’s the point we should be working out.
Pretty close—the main reason I wouldn’t say it like that is that “created value” is a bit ambiguous here. The issue is really whether you can add up all the value created to get something like total value produced (a measure like GDP), which would be a desirable thing to increase in a pure loaves world, but definitely not in an arrows-and-shields world.
Declining life expectancy suggests a general increase in scarcity. If the processes around you are trying to make things more scarce for you rather than less, then you’re in something more like a conflict relation than a trade relation to them, and delayed gratification is much less feasible in wartime or other emergencies where you’re likely to die if you don’t get something done NOW.
What are the competing explanations for high time preference?
IRR, discount rate, and effective time preference are really the same thing as expressed in related domains.
This question seems to conflate the claim that caffeine works as a stimulant, and the claim that in a meaningful sense stimulants increase productivity. I suspect this is true for measured productivity, but not at all obviously true for net production.
(Related: Talents, Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich)
helping by default (they pay their landlord, who buys goods, which pays manufacturers, etc.)
helping by default (they pay their landlord, who buys goods, which pays manufacturers, etc.)
The exact opposite—getting paid should imply something. The naive Econ 101 view is that it implies producing something of value. “Production” is generally measured in terms of what people are willing to pay for.
If getting paid has little to do with helping others on net , then our society’s official unit of account isn’t tracking production (Talents), GDP is a measurement of the level of coercion in a society (There Is a War), the bullshit jobs hypothesis is true, we can’t take job descriptions at face value, and CEA’s advice to build career capital just means join a powerful gang.
This undermines enough of the core operating assumptions EAs seem to be using that the right thing to do in that case is try to build better models of what’s going on, not act based on what your own models imply is disinformation.
Seems to me like punishment might not accomplish what it claims to & might be harmful on net. I have a future post planned to explain that point more fully though.
Thanks! Unfortunately I guess signals crossed and you missed a last-minute correction I made—changing the arguably untrue and value-laden “increasingly nasty” to the more factual “occasionally genocidal.” I’ve restored the correction, but figured I’d note it here because it was the topic of a few comments.