Though I didn’t participate in this exercise, I enjoyed reading about it and looking over the answers below. It put me in mind of a particular meta-point, which is that predictability turned out to be the key. The most profitable answers all hinged on noticing which categories the thaumatometer gave accurate readings for, and using those to minimize uncertainty.
Returning to this very belatedly. I actually agree with most of what you say here, and the points of disagreement are not especially important. However, my point WRT the original analogy is that it doesn’t seem to me to be compatible with these insights. If the general state of the world is equivalent to an emergency in which a man is drowning in a river, then the correct course of action is heroic, immediate intervention. But this, as some of your quotes, is totally unsustainable as a permanent state of mind. The outcome, if we take that seriously, is either crippling scrupulosity or total indifference.
The correct move is just to reject the original equivalence. The state of the world is NOT equivalent to an emergency in which a man is drowning in a river, and intuitions drawn from the prior scenario are NOT applicable to everyday existence.
A few observations:
Compared to 1947, there are many fewer things that you can do without permission, and many more people from whom you must seek permission. This naturally inhibits quick action.
Institutional incentives are all pointed towards caution, conservatism, and proceduralism. Undertaking decisive action to deal with a new situation is discouraged, and therefore these institutions are full of people without the disposition to even try.
I don’t have citations for these, but cf. Zvi’s entire series on moral mazes.
To these, we add a corona-specific factor, that we do not have enough vaccine doses to vaccinate everyone, so we have to ration and prioritise our doses. This, in turn, opens up vaccine prioritisation to political input, which means that the two factors mentioned above come to dominate, and we wind up with a vaccine plan which is maximally cautious, procedural, and bureaucratic. If we had enough doses to actually vaccinate everyone, it would be much easier to sell a policy of just vaccinating whoever walks through the door.
I endorse @remizidae’s comment above, and would like to add the following:
Twitter is a private company and not a state actor. The First Amendment does not apply to decisions about whom it allows to use its platform.Too many smart people are conflating the rights and responsibilities of state actors with those of private companies.
Twitter is a private company and not a state actor. The First Amendment does not apply to decisions about whom it allows to use its platform.
Too many smart people are conflating the rights and responsibilities of state actors with those of private companies.
This is legally relevant but morally irrelevant. The distinction between public and private moderation is not due to some fundamental, ontological difference between government and private oppression, but rather because in the conditions under which the 1st Amendment was originally written, the state was the only actor who could effectively suppress speech across the whole spectrum of society. But this is not the case today! Today, large online platforms are able to suppress speech that they disapprove of at an international scale. Even if “only 22% of Americans have a Twitter account”, that still gives them a degree of influence comparable to that of the state, and this concern only gets greater if we realise that adding in a few other common social networks brings coverage to close to 100% and all of these platforms have similar moderation attitudes, which results in a homogeneity of “acceptable discourse” which freedom of speech is supposed to avoid. If we actually value freedom of speech as an actual moral principle and not merely as a legal technicality, then we should absolutely be concerned about censorial powers wielded by private companies.
Unfortunately this intuition pump pumps the wrong way for me, or at least it does the moment I look away from the specific example and towards the general type of thing that it’s trying to encourage.
If you’re going on a walk just once and come across someone who needs help, you should help them. The experience you describe of having regret and sadness over not getting to help them is perfectly accurate. But Singer wants to generalise this kind of obligation to such a large class of problem that it’s as if you never get to have a nice walk in the woods again. You will spend your entire life pulling people out from underneath machinery, and every time you do so there will be another person right next to them who needs the same kind of help, and it goes on and on forever, because the scope of the problem, at least relative to your contribution, is infinite. You will beg for a day in which you go outside and don’t find another idiot stuck under his fucking car, you will glance longingly at the woods and wish for the day when you can enjoy the swish of leaves around your ankles again—but you know that if you do that, somebody else is going to die, you monster. So eventually you either give up, or you put earplugs in your ears and go enjoy some time in the woods, completely unable to hear the people yelling for help.
Edit: to be clear, I agree with the original choice as presented: I would be glad to give up my walk in the woods to save someone’s life in the manner described. My argument is against the generalisation of this intuition to the wide variety of situations that Singer wants to apply it to, and my paragraph above intends to show that even the original example becomes oppressive if you expand it to the appropriate scale.
I had the exact same thought. COVID inhabits a liminal zone in which it’s simultaneously true that vigorous action could save hundreds of thousands of lives, but many people would individually look at the infection and fatality rates and determine that it wasn’t worth it to cancel their entire lives. Given existing political cleavages, it was also entirely predictable that this would wind up splitting down partisan lines.
The only part of this that doesn’t make sense to me is “they still eliminated their excess population”. Unless I’m mistaken about the numbers, no war before WWI ever had a large enough number of combatants or was deadly enough in general to make a real dent in the population. An exception to this might be prehistoric intertribal warfare in which the combatants include “all healthy adult males of the tribe”, but that obviously doesn’t apply to Iron Age to Industrial Age warfare as you claim.
Piraha is hardly the only language which has a pure-tonal mode; such things are relatively common throughout the tropics, as I understand it. However, as I understand it the tonal modes of these languages tend to be pretty restricted compared to the full modes, since they lose too much information, and can only effectively communicate a limited suite of phrases and messages composed from those phrases.
Thanks in turn :).
I had read The Refragmentation before, but I reread it shortly after reading your article to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I definitely think that Graham is onto something, but I’m just not sure that it actually cashes out into a lower maze level overall. In particular, deregulation seems to have reduced the size of moats around incumbents, but doesn’t seem to have resulted in an overall reduction in firm size; instead, what happened is that incumbents were merged or reorganized, and in some cases upstarts replaced them and grew bigger. But this does not necessarily mean that the replacements were less maze-like. Microsoft is now bigger than IBM, but does it actually have less middle-management maze behavior?
I seem to recall stats to the effect that the largest N corporations employ a steadily-increasing portion of the population and the economy, which would support this analysis. Unfortunately, I can’t find a data set online that shows this, though I did come up with https://www.bls.gov/web/cewbd/table_g.txt, which has some interesting data in it. (For example, I didn’t realize that the number of public sector firms was actually that small.)
I also noticed this, tucked away in a footnote inThe Refragmentation:
More precisely, there was a bimodal economy consisting, in Galbraith’s words, of “the world of the technically dynamic, massively capitalized and highly organized corporations on the one hand and the hundreds of thousands of small and traditional proprietors on the other.” Money, prestige, and power were concentrated in the former, and there was near zero crossover.
The tiny mom-and-pop store is now much rarer than it used to be. Decades ago, your groceries, home goods, clothes, and gas might all have been bought from retailers that had less than 5 employees, even if they were manufactured by much larger corps. These days you probably get all of them from large organizations.
Hello, LessWrong! Long time reader, first-time commenter.
I think that your description of the counter-maze tendency is wrong, and you’ve misunderstood some aspects of Zvi’s model while being distracted by superficialities in the other. To wit:
Startups employ a trivial percentage of the workforce and do not contribute much to the economy. Startups that get big occupy more economic space, but by that point they’re no longer startups. So the attributes of startup culture are not really relevant to the economy at large.
It’s understood by everyone that being a startup is a kind of corporate childhood—romanticised, but temporary. It is implicitly accepted by everyone, including startup founders, that growing up and becoming a mature, “adult” company requires becoming a maze with multiple levels of hierarchy.
Tech culture is anti-maze only insofar as it consists of startups. All of FAANGM are fully converted to mazes. Consequently, most actual tech workers work within mazes.
The change away from suits etc. is a change of fashion with no impact on the underlying dynamics. Arguably it actually helps out the sociopaths because it replaces a fixed, legible standard of dress with an unclear and illegible question of “culture fit”, which creates more room for maze games.
The move away from “company men” was not a move away from large firms, but rather a move away from a vertical system to a stratified one. In the old system (prior to 1970) you could expect to work your entire life for the same company, and middle and upper management was typically promoted from the rank-and-file. In the newer system, middle and upper management are hired from people with MBAs and other credentials, and they move freely between industries. As a consequence, the maze-nature is transmitted quickly from company to company, and to a certain extent all management everywhere is joined in a super-maze, as all management shares the same culture and experiences which is completely separate from the culture and experiences of the workers.
Actually, this last point deserves more elaboration: according to Zvi, the main thing that mitigates against mazes is direct engagement with the object-level reality. This engagement is present in the rank-and-file, and to a certain extent at the very top, but is absent in the middle. However, in a vertical system of advancement, where management hires are made from within, the middle ranks will at least have a memory of working on the object-level concerns of the firm. The rise of a permanent managerial class means that many middle managers are of a type which has never worked directly on the actual product that their company makes, and whose entire education and experience is in the context of immoral mazes.
So I find it unpersuasive to think that any of the cultural changes of the previous decades have done anything to reverse the advance of mazes as the normative corporate structure, and some of the things that you mention as inhibiting maze structures (such as frequently changing companies over the course of a career) have probably actually accelerated them.
An additional, unrelated note: the model of The Dictator’s Handbook suggests that incentives push away from the middle, towards total democracy (when there are already a large number of key supporters) or total autocracy (where the number of key supporters approaches one). But don’t other models suggest that the middle state of oligarchy is actually the default, and that both democracy and monarchy tend to decay towards oligarchy over time? And aren’t examples of this widespread? I notice that I am confused.