OT51: Alien Vs. Threadator

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. Did you perhaps miss Open Thread 50.25, Open Thread 50.5, and Open Thread 50.75? Remember, this blog now has “hidden” open threads every Wednesday and Sunday (except the Sunday of a visible open thread like this one). You can find them by going to the “Open Thread” tab at the top of the page in the blue area.

2. Comments of the week include Trollumination on dualization in labor markets and JDDT on British union-hospital bargaining. I also really liked this long thread about people’s political conversion stories – ie who started off with one political position and switched to a very different one.

3. I may or may not switch to writing fewer but longer posts sometime soon. I feel like I get the most out of really comprehensive review posts, or complicated theory posts like this, and I don’t have the time to write them if I’m writing a couple of posts a week. So don’t be surprised if quantity starts to drop off.

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1,305 Responses to OT51: Alien Vs. Threadator

  1. Douglas Knight says:

    What was the result of the IARPA prediction contest (2010-2015)?

    Below I present what seem to me very basic questions about the contest. I have read vague statements about the results that sound like people are willing to answer these questions, but the details seem oddly elusive. Is there is some write-up I am missing?

    How many teams were there? 5 academic teams? Who?
    What was the “control group”? Were there two, an open benchmark and another group consisting of intelligence analysts with access to classified information? More?

    What were the Brier scores of the various teams in various years?

    When Tetlock says that A did 10% better than B, does he mean that the Brier score of A was 90% of the Brier score of B?


    I can identify a few teams:
    GJP (Berkeley/Penn: Tetlock, Mellers, Moore)
    DAGGRE/SciCast (GMU: Twardy, Hanson)
    Michigan: Page
    MIT – another team, or joint with Michigan?

    crossposted to LW

  2. Samuel Skinner says:

    Anyone notice the recent spate of space 4x’s? If you could design one, what would you change to the formula? Most of them seem to adhere to tradition so closely I’m curious if the problem is innate conservativism, programming hurdles or myopia in taste.

    • Luke the CIA stooge says:

      I haven’t really played any spaced based 4x or tie fighter/wing-commander style games since Freelancer and Sins of a Solar Empire, but my impression has been that Eve Online is unique enough, big enough, deep enough, and we’ll executed enough to just suck the oxygen out of both genres.

      I mean it essentially did what every MMO, 4x and space pilot game dreamed they could do but gave up immediately after.

      • re-enslave the minmatar now says:

        Eve doesn’t play in the same space at all. It’s not a game about building empires, it’s a genuine world of cutthroat space pilots in which, as in all worlds, humans have built empires. You can’t fire it up and go build a galaxy-spanning empire. (You can fire it up and be cannon fodder in a genuine, if nonlethal, war, though.)

        • Andrew says:

          Perhaps this explains why alien von neumann machines never colonised this galaxy – they are all busy playing EVE…

      • Zorgon says:

        Yeah. The space that used to be occupied by things like the X series has been split between EVE and things like Elite: Dangerous, which focuses on giving you the things X can’t. Note should also be given to the space survival sandbox genre (titles like Empyrion or Starmade), which also grabs a piece of the same pie.

      • Walter says:

        I don’t think EVE is eating any 4x players. I think EVE takes its bite from MMO players.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’d want one that’s more like Aurora 4x, except with an interface meant for a human and optimized for performance.

      • Zorgon says:

        I’m very gradually building a game engine that interfaces with a SQLite database specifically for this purpose. It’s a second- or third-line project, however, so expect virtually no progress ever.

        • bean says:

          That’s exactly what Aurora is. It literally uses a database as its backend.

          I’d love to see a decent automation AI added to Aurora, but that’s not going to happen unless some game studio decides to pick it up. Making the game is the easy part there.

          • Zorgon says:

            I know that’s what Aurora is, hence adding a SQLite database backend to my existing game engine. The difference is that I have a game engine, rather than some rather scrappily designed VB. In particular, being able to access the database from both Lua and C++ seems rather promising.

            (Also I’m doing some experiments with driving my engine’s GUI from SQLite tables. But that’s a weird afterthought of a thing.)

          • bean says:

            And you expect to be able to reverse-engineer Aurora well enough to be able to make it work? Also, are you aware that it’s being rewritten in C#?

          • Zorgon says:

            No. I expect to be able to build an interesting space empires game out of the same kind of general premise. I have no particular desire to specifically clone Aurora, that seems eminently pointless.

            (Actually I expect to get a framework built, create a test case, post excitedly on social media about it then lose interest and move on to something else. But you get my point.)

            As for the C# version… I’ll believe it when I see it.

    • Lemminkainen says:

      I’ve been playing Stellaris recently. They seem to have the bones of some kind of robust internal political system in the game’s mechanics, but there’s not any flesh on them right now. I think that if and when Paradox does make those gameplay elements meaningful, they’ll provide a more distinctive and engaging 4x experience.

      • Urstoff says:

        Indeed, because it’s a Paradox game, I’m holding off on buying it until it’s been patched a couple of times.

    • Eggoeggo says:

      “It’s The Current Year god damn it, how are you people still incapable of making city/planet governor automation any better than Alpha Centauri?!!

      I think a big part of the problem is that the recent boom is mostly nostalgia-fueled, so any changes to the traditional model are going to be met with suspicion.

      It sounds like Stellaris got a lot of things right, but nobody’s discovered a way to get rid of the micromanagement that bogs down galaxy-spanning-4x play in the late game, without oversimplifying to the point that the early game is boring and content-free.

      • Lemminkainen says:

        Definitely. I think that “the Sector governors who you turn things over to so that you don’t have to micromanage might rebel against you to overthrow you or seek indepdence” would be an amazing improvement in this department.

        (Basically, bring in something like the internal politics from Crusader Kings II. They did a nice job reducing the late game power/boredom factor there.)

        • Eggoeggo says:

          I’d be happy if governors just didn’t make all-robot populations try to grow food they don’t need on barren tomb-worlds you can’t grow food on. >_<

          • Kaj Sotala says:

            I think the food issues got fixed with the recent patch? (at least they claimed so, I haven’t bothered looking at the sector planets in that much detail)

        • Forlorn Hopes says:

          I don’t know why they decided that Stellaris wouldn’t have direct interaction between different leader characters; but I think that was a big mistake.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        It sounds like Stellaris got a lot of things right, but nobody’s discovered a way to get rid of the micromanagement that bogs down galaxy-spanning-4x play in the late game, without oversimplifying to the point that the early game is boring and content-free.

        Stellaris actually has the opposite problem. The early game is interesting and full of things to do, but then you grow to the point where the micromanagement-limiting mechanics kick in, making the mid-game boring and content-free. (I’m told the late game is somewhat better due to the catastrophes. Honestly, I never got that far.)

    • Forlorn Hopes says:

      Honestly, I’d just add a lot more content and depth to Stellaris. It looks like it has the potential to do it right.

      The biggest change I’d do is give each scientist three traits at level 1; one of which would always be a field of study (like the Rocketry Expert trait). Then I’d make anomalies more involved, with you getting multiple options based on your scientist’s traits and your ethos – a bit like FTL’s text encounters.

      The results of an anomaly would have long term impacts. For example, if you find an ancient mining drone, you might unlock an entire new section of the tech tree for your empire. Or you might get the opportunity to design and add a new species to your empire.

      My other ideas are smaller (I’ve just been replaying the early game). For example, I’d really like the ability to add stars to my empire just by clicking on them – imagine drawing a circle on a map in your throne room and saying “mine”. Then when you encounter another empire you compare maps, and if you’ve both claimed the same stars you have to either negotiate a deal (with happiness penalties for giving up territory, bigger ones if you got a bad deal) or have a small war to sort it out. After you’ve met empires it costs influence to claim stars; but the claim is automatically known to other empires so no more overlap.

    • Zorgon says:

      Regarding the conservatism angle…

      The 4X genre underwent a slow death/evolution process in the 00s which more-or-less reduced the field to real-time 4X experiences like Sins of a Solar Empire and, of course, the perennial iterations of Civ. The Space Empires series has fallen on its backside and with it, the old-school approach more or less died.
      The recent resurgence has been an attempt to reclaim the original form, in the case of Stellaris while also basically still being a PDX grand strategy. The only reason that’s possible is because a lot of other genres have been gradually absorbing 4X elements for decades, which in turn has fed the death of the original concept; to a degree, “4X” isn’t a coherent concept any more.

      Of course, another way of looking at it is that Aurora has already claimed the position of “Platonic form of the 4X genre”…

    • Vaniver says:

      I’ve played a bunch of them–Distant Worlds, Endless Space, Stardrive, Sid Meier’s Starships (it kind of counts), Stellaris, and more that aren’t coming to mind. I’m not actually sure that there are disproportionately many of them, rather than just the indie gaming scene / digital distribution making lesser known titles more salient.

      I think the fundamental problem with Space 4Xs is that they’re not operating at the right level of abstraction. The future and past are fundamentally different in a way that makes it painfully obvious when someone is taking a pre-modern way of dealing with things and applying it to the future. (It’s easier to complain about individual things than paint a holistic picture, and I probably shouldn’t go on a rant.)

      To talk about Stellaris specifically, there are a lot of things that are just bad about it as a game, but which I expect them to patch. (For example, I discovered yesterday that the research agreement–which makes you researching a tech that they have 25% cheaper–is 25% of the base tech price. You know, the one that increases by 10% for every planet and 1% for every pop, so it basically means 2 less planets and 5 less people. Thanks, that was totally worth it. 😐 )

      But one of the weirdest things about Stellaris is energy coming from… mostly power plants and gas giants, and sometimes stars. Why, exactly, am I not able to capture solar output directly? You’d think building Dyson clouds to capture energy would be the obvious way to do things, not building mining stations around a gas giant.

      So I think most of my game design effort is focused on pre-modern 4X games. It’s getting to the point where I really need to just throw together a prototype and see if the sorts of systems I think would make a good underpinning can just work at all.

    • John Schilling says:

      Back when Master of Orion III was in development, we were promised an “imperial focus” dynamic in which the player would be allowed only a limited ability to manage game events. Every command issued, screen or window opened, would cost “focus points”, and when you were all out of those there was nothing for it but to hit the “end turn” button and trust the AI to handle everything else as best it could.

      This, of course, was never implemented, and MoO III sank into oblivion. Almost certainly the AI of the time wasn’t up to the task. Probably the AI of today isn’t up to it. Even CKII still gives me fits of “Aargh why would you do something so boneheadedly stupid!”, and that’s apparently after being told not to waste 75% of its clock cycles deciding who to castrate.

      But I’d like to see it done right. Done right, such a mechanic would almost force the game to be equally engaging throughout, and it would change gameplay for the better.

      • Urstoff says:

        It sure would be nice in, for example, the Hearts of Iron games, which quickly descend into micromanagement hell.

      • Zorgon says:

        The biggest issue with achieving this goal is that a surprising proportion of players actively want micromanagement and wallow in it to the furthest possible extent. I am relatively certain this is the case, as I am exactly such a player; I actively miss the wildly overcomplicated tech tree of HOI1, for example.

        Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a golden medium somewhere. I think this might lie in providing high-detail-tolerant players with unintrusive mechanics which keep the player from effective hyperengagement. I don’t think that “focus points” were the right approach, though – maybe something like the “orders delay” in Aurora but with a broader context?

        • John Schilling says:

          If micromanagement is possible and advantageous, I want it. How can I be playing a game and not want to win? Even if I set a personal victory condition of “win without micromanagement because that’s more fun and rewarding”, and I’m all about personal victory conditions, at the margin one more bit of detailed management is always going to be a personal win at the time. And if there are times when the micromanagement is going to be an unfun slog, then still better than watching the AI bollix up everything I’ve been working on.

          It doesn’t follow that I “actively want micromanagement”. I want, crudely speaking, for micromanagement to not be possible, not be advantageous, and not be necessary.

          More elegantly, I want the AI to be both good and responsive enough to trust with most things, for micromanagement to be possible when something looks particularly interesting or critical, but for it to come with costs that make excessive micromanagement to be suboptimal. “Focus points” plus a good AI, is as good a proposal for that as I have yet seen. Orders delay seems like it would prevent the bits of carefully targeted micromanagement that are going to be necessary with any plausible near-term AI.

          • Skivverus says:

            Orders getting delayed could be an interesting mechanic depending on how it’s handled – I’d think the most plausible method would be increasing delay with distance from the “capital”, possibly with different capitals for different purposes (military, expansion, and policy, for instance). You also could have Interesting Tradeoffs if you combined this with the focus points you mention.


          • ivvenalis says:

            I’m reminded of Blood Magic in Dominions (last one I played much was D2, I hate the wizard aging mechanic). Very powerful, but required absurd levels of micromanagement to the point where it was a sort of balance factor.

        • Adam says:

          I had another idea for limiting micromanagement, somewhat similar to the idea of “focus points.” Rather than having a limited amount of interaction in general, limit the times when interaction is allowed. My idea is to only allow control of your empire occasionally, and the rest of the time it is controlled by a an AI in observer mode. The player would be able to choose when to take control, and their control would last for some period of time, perhaps a leader’s term in office (anywhere from a few years to life). There would be limitations on how often you could take control, so the player has to plan strategically when you can make the most impact, whether by taking advantage of an opportunity or by staving off some crisis.

          I feel like most 4X games suffer from a lack of dynamism, whereby civilizations rise and fall. Paradox games in observer mode are the only example I can think of where there is a real risk of empire collapse, resulting in a huge power void. If a player is involved, then the nation under human control tends to enjoy a mostly monotonic rise to prominence. By injecting AI control into your game, you can add some fear. I recognize that I could try this today using console commands, but I haven’t yet.

          • suntzuanime says:

            There was a Civ 4 mod that tried to inject this dynamism, “Rhye’s and Fall of Civilization” or something like that. I played it, and it turns out it’s really aggravating for the player when there is a real risk of their empire collapsing despite their best efforts.

            I feel like smashing what the player has built so that they can have fun picking up the pieces is not the way to keep 4X games interesting. Rather, I think what you really want is to keep challenges scaling so that as your empire gets bigger it faces bigger threats. There are attempts at this in some Paradox games, like the endgame event chains in Stellaris, the coalition mechanic in EU4, and the Mongol Invasions in CK2, but I don’t think they’ve quite figured out the magic formula.

          • Nicholas says:

            I’d always interpreted Rhyse as more addressing a complaint about simulation: There are a lot of things that affect the long term health of an empire that the State Policy God of that empire wouldn’t actually be able to control. Rhyse tried to simulate some of those issues.

          • Kaj Sotala says:

            CK2 has the best approach for this, or at least it tries: not so much the Mongol invasions, but rather the fact that the larger your empire gets, the more easily it’s going to fragment due to internal conflict.

            Of course, experienced players still find large realms relatively easily to control even in CK2, but it’s a nice concept. You don’t break big empires by introducing even bigger enemies, but rather by introducing internal turmoil that gets harder and harder to manage.

    • cassander says:

      I’ve always had a notion of tying tech trees to various types of unobtanium. That is, there’d be uu1, which was good for making armor and kinetic weapons, uu2 was good for shields and energy weapons, and so on. You’d follow down tech paths for the resources you had a lot of, each with differing strengths, weaknesses, and combinations with other unobtainiums.

      This would make tech and empires more varied, you couldn’t just rush straight to the whatever-cannon if you don’t have whatever-cannon juice. It would also create more interesting interactions and decisions. You’ve won the war, do you want to take the nice developed planet, or the toxic hellhole that just happens to be full of the right sort of space rock?

      • Zorgon says:

        Noted. I really rather like this idea.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        Civilization 6 looks like they are planning on operating that way; meet a criteria and the associated tech is 50% cheaper.

      • ivvenalis says:

        Endless Space did this somewhat, and I liked it for that. You also couldn’t see which planets had X resource until you’d researched a certain technology.

    • Fj says:

      I have not played the recent ones, but I’ve noticed a really big but quite subtle regression between Master of Orion and MOO2 in terms of diplomacy, and everything I have played since then followed the MOO2 mistake.

      Basically, MOO2 forced the AIs to roleplay. So the best strategy was to befriend everyone and tech/develop like crazy. Then someone frames someone and the shit is going down as various alliances force everyone to attack everyone and use scorched earth approach at that because there’s not enough actual spaceships, only the threat that one can switch one’s economy to military track with disastrous consequences for the attacker.

      MOO1 didn’t have that, it was a pure game, entirely”Realpolitik” if you will, nobody would sign a nonaggression pact with you to roleplay, so it was actually way way more interesting as far as strategic gameplay goes. It’s not one big showdown, it was action all along.

      Try it in dosbox, it was really a total mindfuck the first few times I’ve played it, “they do that? And I actually have to use all of the early combat tech?”

    • JuanPeron says:

      I’m going to lay the blame on justified conservatism. 4X tends to produce long games with subtle feedback systems (early weakness screws you later, low novelty cripples the satisfaction of good gameplay). A single design error will send a good game into meltdown; see the fights over whether Stellaris is excellent or too unreliable to be worth playing.

      So innovation in 4X is genuinely dangerous and difficult compared to other genres. If you can clean up someone else’s mistakes and upgrade their graphics, you’ll get steady sales. If you take a bold new direction, you have a high chance of a massive downside.

    • FeepingCreature says:

      I’d add costs to maintaining everything. Research a project? You have the knowledge now, but it’s institutional – you have to invest in schooling to keep it in your population, you have to invest in engineering to keep being able to work with it, invest in fabrication to be able to build it. Then there’d be “commitments”, things like pacifism or standard of living, that you can lock yourself into for bonuses but that limit your options and impose further costs. The goal is to have a situation where empires can actually collapse from size and where a new player can in theory come in halfway through and not be automatically dogfood, where specialization gives you advantages but isn’t free, and where Race to Exponential Growth is not automatically the dominant strategy. A game where if you find ruins, they’re not there because the game placed the “ruins” entity, but because there was an actual civilization there that hit its end state in the actual history of the game you’re playing.

      • Anonymous says:

        Ooh, yeah, that would be great. Costs increase so long as there’s possibility to pay them, then some event smacks the costs greater than possible income, just a bit, and it steamrolls downward from there, since the vast majority of that income is *also* predicated on that which the costs were paying for. The empire goes into meltdown, unable to generate revenue to pay for generating revenue…

  3. blacktrance says:

    It’s up to you, of course, and I’ll enjoy your posts either way, but I prefer shorter, more frequent posts.

    • onyomi says:

      I tend to disagree. Most of Scott’s greatest hits are pretty long.

      • daronson says:


      • Jugemu Chousuke says:

        How about we compromise on long, frequent, and of course high quality posts?

        • Anon says:

          You can get this all for the low low price of whatever-itll-take-to-rent-a-scott.

          • Jaskologist says:

            By its own admission, Scott’s writing is a sort of inverse giffen good, wherein the higher the demand/price people try to pay for it, the less of it gets produced.

          • Bryan Hann says:

            “By its own admission, Scott’s writing is a sort of inverse giffen good, ”

            I thought that was with the idea of having to write specific content though. Like Handel chafing at having to write some water music for the King while he had an Oratorio buzzing in his head.

            Rent Scott — but without rules! : -)

      • Zorgon says:



      • Tsnom Eroc says:

        Er,comment didn’t go through?

        But,you don’t want what happened to Moldbug to happen to this place. The guy was once recommended to by someone, but checking out the blog…you wonder if he leads anywhere.

        “For an example, Moldbug responded … by writing a seven-part sequence of posts in September 2007, totalling 37,941 words, in which he conclusively proved, step by step, thread by thread, detail by detail, that Dawkins was, for all his protestations of atheism, in fact … a cultural Christian![29] Dawkins, of course, stated the same thing in December 2007 in four and a half words: “I’m a cultural Christian”.[30] ”

        “Moldbug’s early “The magic of symmetric sovereignty” (19 May 2007)[31] is short, comprehensible and gets its point across in 1,666 words, rather than barely getting started in that much space.”

        • daronson says:

          I think the phenomenon you’re observing is actually not one of writing long posts, though correlated with it. Namely, presumably Moldbug’s blog got into the rabbit hole of self-referential internet discussions and doctrinal arguments within an insular community.

          I tend to prefer (with exceptions, of course) slatestarcodex posts which are prompted by random things Scott thinks or reads about rather than rebuttals or explainers prompted from within the rationalist (or around-rationalist) community. I’d say that the majority of Scott’s posts are of the “fresh” sort, and so wouldn’t be worried about this.

        • onyomi says:

          True, though I think Scott understands the value of concision better than Moldbug, for whom waxing eloquent seems to be something of an end value, or at least, became so.

          All things equal, of course, shorter is better than longer if you can make the same point in fewer words; I just have noticed a correlation between quality and length in Scott’s case, which in no way holds generally.

        • Dahlen says:

          Arguments like this make me wonder whether people any longer have patience for books. An argument sometimes requires an entire book-chapter to be deployed to its full strength, even though sometimes the length of an average newspaper article works as well. Not that there’s no such thing as a meandering writing style, but to look at word count only can be deceptive.

          • Nicholas says:

            There is a structural difference between how The Reader approaches a book and a blog post. War and Peace is a good book, by all accounts, but would not have worked as a piece of serial fiction. Great Expectations, by all accounts, was a great serial fiction, but it doesn’t work very well as a book in my opinion.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        Also in favor of the shift to fewer and longer.

  4. Luke the CIA stooge says:

    So I know we’ve kinda moved away from the whole rationality will turn us into God Emperors thing, but assuming in 20 years time a single individual has gone from complete obscurity and Is now, by miles, the most powerful person on earth: what books do you think that person read cover to cover? And why would that book have contributed to their dominance?

    I would think “Leviathan” by Hobbes
    (lays out a comprehensive and still relevant theory of the origins and nature of political power, while at the same time showing why the most prosperous, secure and long lived nations will be liberal and “pass unwounded between the rocks of too much liberty and too much authority”)

    “On War” by Clauswitz
    (Both for its relevance to politics and war, but also for laying out the first comprehensive description of large complex organizations and becoming the model for modern corporations)

    “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu
    (A clichéd entry but in any strategic scenario there’s an aphorism from Sum Tzu that matches it perfectly)

    “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie
    (Self explanatory)

    • hnau says:

      Nice discussion starter– thanks! I’ll throw in my two cents:

      “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky
      Our future God Emperor or Empress reads this book, thinks “What is this guy Raskolnikov’s problem? Why is he having a breakdown?”, hates the ending, realizes that he or she actually *is* a “Napoleon”, and then proceeds to emulate Napoleon: rise to power from obscurity, conquer a large swath of the developed world, and rule it with an iron fist.

      Once one’s ambitions, character, and willpower are recognized, acquiring the relevant technical knowledge is secondary. (And for the record, I’m a big fan of Crime and Punishment’s ending.)

      • Luke the CIA stooge says:

        The only thing is this seems to imply that ambitions, character and willpower are the missing ingredients and I just don’t see that. Law schools and med schools are full to the brim with people drowning in ambition, character and willpower. And yet almost all of them are dooming themselves to at best upper-middle class/ lower-upper class obscurity.

        The technical knowledge and more importantly the ideas about how one organizes their life/ achieves greatness seems infinitely more important. (As compared to our cultures credentialist , heirarchical, salary+status= station, conception of the successful life)

        I would suspect our future God Emperor will have read a significant number of personal finance books at some point, the earlier the better, and as such knows better than to get him/herself trapped in zero sum status Careers/competitions.

        I’ve heard horror stories of tier one lawyers and MBAs doing the math and realizing that, once they divide their salary by the number of hours they work, they actually make less than minimum wage. I remember doing the math for the army and realizing that you have to make Colonel before the often 24 hour work you do adds up to minimum wage.

        So basic personal finance books which our God emperor started with and is building off of:

        “Rich Dad Poor Dad”

        “The wealthy Barber”

        “The Millionaire Next Door”

        Any other suggestions?

        • God Damn John Jay says:

          Rich Dad Poor Dad

          — for the record, Rich Dad likely didn’t exist and his advice boiled down to buy property and commit tax fraud.

          • Nicholas says:

            What’s wrong with buying property?

          • God Damn John Jay says:

            Nothing is particularly wrong about it, its just not overly profound advice. I was emphasizing was that the book spent a lot of time discussing how profound he was, while the actual advice was a little slim.

          • Julie K says:

            I’ve read Rich Dad, Poor Dad and some of its sequels, and I agree that it’s mainly flim-flam, not useful information.

          • Luke the CIA stooge says:

            I haven’t read in like a decade. Was probably 12 the last time i touched but i do remember reading it at an early age that it seemed like a revelation.
            I included it on this list not because i think its an amazing personal finance book but because it was the first book i really read that pretty much completely rejected the script of “your life outcomes are entirely determined by how well you shutup, listen to your teacher, and do your homework. Now shutup and do your homework”.

            Compare that with other PF books a kid might read which don’t want to challenge the script but instead want to say, “oh be a good kid and do well in school and get a good job, but also be extra good and save x% of your income in a diversified mutual fund”. I think it would be important for a God Emperor to have that script challenged early (i can imagine the class prankster becoming God Emperor, i can imagine the teachers pet). If our God Emperor did not have someone to challenge those cultural models of success he might sleepwalk into law school, or med school or worse

            Also property ownership is a massive winning proposition for people with little other skills.

            Here is a PF blog I follow, where the guy shows how, with some clever work, rental property ownership adds up to a $72.50 an hour job.

          • Anonymous says:

            Also property ownership is a massive winning proposition for people with little other skills.

            So irrelevant to our god emperor then.

            You MMM guys just can’t help talking about trains, can you?

          • Luke the CIA stooge says:

            The trains thing is a reference i don’t get.

            Although ya i kinda assumed a God Emperor would read a little deeper.

            Does any one have a suggestion for a really comprehensive personal finance book? A”master this and you’ll be able to play your pocketbook like Jimi Hendrix plays his stratocaster?”

            I’ve been looking for a personal finance book that talks about margin investing forever. I mean there are public sector employees out their with perfect credit, who will never get fired and who have a generous pension waiting for them. It would seem anything less than remortgaging your house and leveraging to the hilt to invest in index funds would be leaving money on the table in that situation no? I mean borrow at 4% invest at 9% (avg. market rate before inflation) and you have 5% on your entire allowable credit with your secure job and lifestyle evening out the volatility.

        • I’m a fan of “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.” and anything by John Bogle.

          I haven’t read the barber book, shun everything in Rich Dad Poor Dad, and had this to say (spoilers: not great things) about Millionare Next Door.

          Note: This will be for preserving and growing your millions acquired elsewhere, because getting rich by beating the market consistently is really, really hard.

        • Anonymous says:

          Personal finance books are great for dentists that don’t want to be tricked into investment scams. Also for people with mediocre salaries that want help being frugal. I have no idea why awould be god emperor would want to read one. No need to be especially frugal and if he’s the type to get scammed he ain’t going to be GE.

          • Luke the CIA stooge says:

            I would suspect PF would be a useful entry point and set of skills for working your way up to wealth, no?

            If not what books do you think would give better time invested to God Emperorhood gained?

          • Anonymous says:

            No. Neither knowing the ins and outs of 401ks vs Roth IRAs nor knowing that you can totally cut off the bottom of soda bottles and save money on tupperware is going to be particularly useful in becoming a god emperor through wealth.

            Your best bet is probably a subject matter book in an area that you are going to be an entrepreneur in, but if you insist on something finance focused, you probably want to read up on the venture capital industry so you don’t lose control of your company after it starts to take off.

          • Matt M says:


            Most PF books are books on what to do with a lot of money, not how to make a lot of money.

            Yet they are marketed to people with no money who think they will be receiving advice on the latter.

    • Viliam says:

      You described a wannabe politician, maybe even a wannabe dictator.

      I am not necessarily disagreeing; maybe that is the fastest way for an individual to gain a lot of power. I just think there are already many people trying to do this; what exactly would be your relative advantage? Also, how important is here the role of rationality? I mean, assuming you do everything more or less correctly, how much does the result depend on random events, such as who and when exactly decides to betray you, and whether their first bullet will hit?

      More generally, I think that in some fields the role of rationality is greater, while in other fields the more important thing could be e.g. luck, or how much resources you own at the beginning, or whether your family is a part of existing power structures, etc. A rational person deciding whether to do X should include this in their calculations, just to make sure they are not doing an equivalent of buying a very expensive lottery ticket.

      • Luke the CIA stooge says:

        That’s funny because I was assuming from the start it would be an Elon musk style startup god, the reason all the books are political is that I assumed a strong non-faddy philosophical foundation would be what really separates his/her multimillion-billion dollar career from all the others. (And Leviathan + On War do both genuinely combine solid theory (leviathan remains perhaps the only comprehensive morality free conception of political order) (On War pretty much invented the modern strategic language we use in war games/ other strategic scenarios) with massively in depth tooth and comb discussion of the issues (leviathan lays out a conception of law that would make a dictator want consistent, just and dependable courts)
        Bother of these are massively applicable if you just live in a society, or if you intend to build or interact with any large institution of people.

        But given I’m assuming it’s a startup founder, let’s add:

        “The Lean Startup” by Eric Riese

        The Personal MBA” by John Kaufmann


        The works of Ayn Rand maybe “anthem” to start,, because it’s short.

        I know the works of Rand piss people off but if you look at her, not as laying out a political philosophy, but an aesthetic philosophy or a philosophy of virtue, then you can see she’s really the master in her field. She provokes action in the kinds of people she thinks are the heroes of history. Compare that to Neitszche who want to provoke action but is so obscured by his own inability to know what that hero would look like, and anyone who reads Neitszche to be inspired will just leave confused.
        Yes I just said Rand did it better than Neitszche.

        • Nicholas says:

          Actually I think that you can make a case that, insofar as Nietzsche had a call to action, it was to inspire more pragmatic authors such as Rand to develop object level agendas in line with the meta-level principles he laid out. And considering Rand said in more than one interview that her meta-level principles were largely cribbed from Nietzsche you could thus conclude that Rand is herself a check mark in Big N’s win column.
          However, on the object level Rand’s aesthetic theory was actually pretty unsatisfying and her virtue ethics appear to have failed the basic test of virtue philosophy. Most people who follow the recommendations of Objectivism see no improvement in their life, and many see losses that are only regained after they abandon the theory. Hell, the biggest success story for a while was Alan Greenspan, and his career ended in the single biggest act of corporate looting in the fifty years since the philosophy was committed.

          • Luke the CIA stooge says:

            I think your really short selling Rand here. I mean, yes, she’s best understood in the context of US bravery debates. But any writer who has an influence on:
            -Mark Cuban
            -Malcolm Frazer (former Prime Minister of Australia)
            -Alan Greenspan
            -Paul Ryan (speaker of the house)
            -Gene Roddenberry (creator of star trek)
            -Clarrence Thomas (supreme Court)
            -Hunter S. Thompson
            -Peter Theil
            -Mark Emery (Canadian Cannabis Celebrity)
            and Anton Levey (founder of the Church of Satan)

            Is doing something right.

            Hell this list includes 2 potential God Emperors and one potential POTUS. Their aren’t many other authors alive who can claim that influence. Neitszche doesn’t have this much influence on modern life, nor do any other would be successors.

            This doesn’t mean she’s right (if there’s any meaning to saying someones moral/virtue framework is right or wrong) but it does mean a hypothetical God Emperor is very likely to have read her.

            Check out the full list

    • Bitter Nerd says:

      If there will be such an individual then it’s propably some multinational’s CEO that got there by a combination of various kinds of blind luck. The only two books he or she will have read from front to cover are going to be Some Cheap Airport Novel and “MS Excel 2020 For Dummies”, both having had a profound influence on them.

      • Psmith says:

        Could be a politician, but otherwise, cosigned. The desire for power is fundamental and pretty much exogenous.

      • Luke the CIA stooge says:

        The problem is power is fragmenting and even the really powerful positions that you could get to by the right amount of luck combined with basic competence: elected office, top of the corporate ladder (via office politics) are largely disappearing. The silicon valley types are pretty much undeniably involved in a meritocracy (everyone of them was the self taught top off their field when they made it rich google:search, mark Zuckerburg: social networking, Theil Musk et AL. : online transactions.

        So ya a person might be able to get to a high position through a combination of Luck, Basic Competence in their field and a few impressive attributes, but all of those positions are losing power and influence every day.
        If a person were to get to where we’re talking about (real life Lex Luthor/Ozymandiaz) then they’d need something more than Luck. They’d need a set of ideas, knowledge and habits that make them expanding their influence as one-sided as a kid taking an M1 Abrams to a king of the hill shoving match.

      • eh says:

        For most things, it seems necessary to have the kind of luck that gives individual merit, i.e. being born with a high IQ in the right kind of culture, pursuing the right kind of childhood interests, or having the exact right life experiences. The kind of luck that involves bags of money falling from the sky and the kind of luck that means your mother doesn’t die three days before product launch are pretty damned helpful, but on their own they don’t seem to be sufficient to produce the future God-Emperor.

      • nydwracu says:

        Cosigned. Nerds overestimate the importance of books and underestimate the importance of firsthand experience. How many books do you think Donald Trump reads?

    • Deiseach says:

      Are you assuming that the single most powerful person is going to be in a political role, rather than (say) technology, sports, entertainment, banking/finance etc?

      I can see the argument that “President of the United States is the most powerful person in the world” but that’s a result of the office, not the individual. You can work your way to becoming president, certainly, but once out of office, all that power and influence disappears (this is something that often strikes me about ex-prime ministers and premiers and the rest of it – yesterday you were the guy setting the terms of trade agreements and influencing the money in people’s pockets, today you can’t even sign off on a dog licence).

      I think that’s why ex-politicians go on the after dinner speeches and lectures circuits and wangle their way into foundations, because they miss the buzz of having power. Ex-civil servants and the like tend to end up via the revolving door working for the companies that lobbied them when they were in government.

      If we’re talking “made it myself on pure charisma and producing something people want, be that fancy mobile phones or a new game or being the highest-scoring sports person”, then I think there’s more room there for individual achievement – and possibly genuine influence. You might not know or care who the Minister for Counting Sheep is, even though as part of the government they have a direct influence on your life and well-being, but you’ll be very aware of your favourite sports star, pop star, movie star, comics/movies content producers, brand of computer, etc.

      For instance, right now with the whole Peter Thiel versus Gawker thing – Nick Denton is obviously very powerful and influential in a certain sphere where his websites can make or break reputations (and he may have had more of an influence than we think via his investment and involvement in various companies – looking him up on Wikipedia, I see one of his early ventures was co-founding Moreover Technologies, which was involved in developing RSS – hands up everyone who uses RSS feeds?)

      Is Nick Denton The Single Most Powerful Person In The World? For a small slice of society, he probably is, because get on his bad side and you may find yourself (or your product or your business) being profiled in one of his online media enterprises and getting the “stupid, evil, or stupid and evil?” treatment.

      • “Are you assuming that the single most powerful person is going to be in a political role, rather than (say) technology, sports, entertainment, banking/finance etc?”

        Consider Keynes. His influence on the world surely ended up being greater than that of most kings or presidents.

        “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”

        • Nicholas says:

          There’s a similarly punchy quote that I forget, to the effect that every hard-headed pragmatist who claims to care only about the Object Level is in fact mindlessly echoing the high-handed Meta-Level beliefs of some long-dead and obscure philosopher without realizing where they picked it up from. Reading philosophy backwards and all that.

    • Tsnom Eroc says:

      “Den veldig sulten Grave Maskin” written by a former Putnam Fellow.
      A book on the desperate cravings of the animal kingdom and its inhabitants.

      “The Kings Stilts” by Dr. Geisel
      An engrossing read into the delecate balancing acts of people in power.

    • anonymous says:

      read the few books by other outliers and cargo cult off of them even if you don’t understand the causal mechanisms by which the actions outlined lead to success.
      Searching for invariants between:
      Principles by Ray Dalio
      Poor Charlie’s Almanac by Charlie Munger
      Zero to One by Peter Thiel
      Bloomberg by Bloomberg
      Also, several billionaires publish their own reading lists, so you an get an idea of what their information diet is like.

      and reading between the lines for the mental models the successful have that differ.

    • SUT says:

      I’ll criticize your selections at a meta-level. I don’t think reading the canon will set allow you to stand head and shoulders above your peers. To do that, you need to take a unique or contrarian approach.

      One example that comes to mind where [knowledge -> power] principle holds is Geoffrey Hinton who pursued neural networks while they were in the trough of disillusionment with the greater CS community, and emerged with his name associated with one of the more important discoveries of the 21st century so far.

      So my theory predicts that 2030’s ‘God Emperor’ is currently pursuing something that “we know is unfruitful/impossible”. A guess to what something that might look like today is Theranos-like technology, which goes on to “cure” cancer.

      • Luke the CIA stooge says:

        I wouldn’t discount the classics. They’re ridiculously effective knowledge to have in a world where absolutely everyone is influenced by them, but a ridiculously small percentage of even successful people have actually read them.

        Understanding the arguments and logic of some classic piece of wisdom verses just having it as an assumption strikes me as something that would be ridiculously useful once you start going toe to toe with other people who maybe know the subject matter and share all those assumptions but don’t actually understand the internal logic of that received wisdom.

        You can see this all the time with politicians (because their on TV, not because politics is unique) where there are a bunch of people who got to where they are by spouting this or that received wisdom, then they get pushed ever so slightly, or this complexity arises, or that complexity arises, and they’re completely fucked. So they wind up saying something incredibly stupid because they do not have any of the basics down.

        Just from a first principles perspective i cannot see how the classics can’t have a positive impact on someones thinking. You get to outsource lifetimes worth of difficult thinking and research to the very best people in history as judged by multiple generations with very different tastes and affects.

        I can’t see where the cannon can’t set you head and shoulders above your peers. Given in any individual field you can assume most of your peers have read a good chunk of that specific cannon, but having read the cannon across multiple fields so that odd things your peers are just forced to assume you know inside and out and can play around with and, yes, be contrarian without going completely stupid for having let go the shackles of recieved wisdom.

        • SUT says:

          Almost anything as arduous as reading and comprehending “the classics” has benefits. The question is always: how much benefit vs how much cost.

          Nick Szabo blogged the the trouble with books is that they are too long for the amount of insight gained. Costs > Benefits (if your opportunity costs are high enough, which if you’re being groomed for god emperor, they are astronomical).

          Szabo has also blogged that he denies being the creator of bitcoin. But from what I understand he still under suspicion. How does a lecturer at a law school come to be a likely suspect in one of the most interesting technologies in decades?

          He probably has read his Cicero and decline and fall of the roman empire. I’m sure there are relevant ideas in these texts to developing a new currency. But what concrete insight from the classics actually made its way into the technology?

          I’d argue, the body of skills and innovations was gathered working on the *frontiers* of intellectual discourse; not the classic but the modern curriculum: Mathematical proofs, auction theory, pragmatic programming, etc. It was these un-genteel side areas of research that his peers lacked, and which also enabled the putative-Satoshi to leave his mark.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Nick Szabo blogged the the trouble with books is that they are too long for the amount of insight gained.

            He has, but I can’t see any justification for that assumption, either in his post or anywhere else. Sure some books are long-winded, but a lot of them aren’t.

    • anonymous says:

      “Taltos” by Steven Brust, Because I just read it, and it’s going to be me.

      More seriously, if someone is going to be god emperor I think they’re going to have to be smart enough to invent and figure out things for themselves. There isn’t a book on how to become god emperor (or any comprehensive argument for why a person of extreme abilities ought to). If there is one, I imagine they’ll write it, -or they’ll take the trick(s)(!) to their graves.

      I also think being a master of all trades would be very helpful in terms of how a person who wants to be god emperor is perceived. If there’s few or no field in which a person can’t say, “trust me, it works out that way. I can’t explain it to you, it’s too complex and subtle and fraught, but look at my track record, -I get these questions right”, that might be one of the only ways someone could convince the whole world they ought to be king for a lifetime. If someone can do that they probably don’t need the ancient wisdom, though they might of course investigate it anyway, out of prudence, and the question of why not?

      So our god emperor might e.g. be not just a successful inventor/businessperson combo (inventing something new and useful would be a good way to make a lot of money), you probably want to be making new emperical discoverys in theoretical physics and theoretical discoveries in archeology, -to be doing such things, and such a variety of things, and to have contributed such an amount that you can just say, “trust me”. (though such discoveries would involve little or no personal sacrifice, relatively, and so would not imo be a very good basis for personal trust)

      I think it would also help to be personally dangerous in combat, and perhaps possessing a particularly fine or otherwise “impressive” vessel to walk the earth in, because I’m sure that still makes a difference, (especially to would be assassins).


      Along these same lines, I think “conquering the world” would not be a likely motivation, (unless the person happens to be totally cracked/insane), as- why would you take the risk.

      There’s no glory in it nowadays, and much less exposure to the vicious struggles for survival at early ages (relative to statistical likelyhood of later capacity for world-conquest) that cracked a few unfortunately-exceptional people’s terminal goals. And/or enough unexceptional people’s that it worked out for one or two of them.


      There’s a chance that anyone capable of it wouldn’t be interested in it.


      I also think the existence of nuclear weapons reduces the appeal of the “I wanna be the very best like no one ever was” side of things, -where “best refers in large part to being ruthless, cunning, dangerous, etc, because no matter how good of a vicious empire builder you are, any incompetent NOOB with a nuke can (-omg designers pls-) wipe you out if they can locate you.


      I mean, I don’t think a game where no matter how good you are any idiot can take you out if they get lucky, is very appealing to someone who might want to prove themselves in that way. Even for an insane solipsist.

      The problem is that with nukes there’s simply no recourse. Poison can be avoided with food testers, assassination while sleeping can be avoided with carefully selected guards, and a locked and sleeping door. Assassination in the street can be avoided by eternal readiness, and perhaps vigilance, blade or gun, and the ability to throw things to the wall seventy times seven harder than any attackers.

      Even snipers can be played around to some extent with surveilance, angles, “armor”, and of course actual body armor (I’m pretty sure you could afford to not follow the convention of leaving your precious mortal shell unprotected and ready for assassins).

      -but nukes are just bullshit! And I imagine anyone megalomaniacal enough to go for an elimination victory might not feel like playing the game on this particular patch, where the best player in the whole game, even the best player ever, could be taken out by the worst, -without any recourse!


      Arguably if you were secretive enough you could avoid your location being known, but I think 90%+ of the time you’re back to diplomacy victories in that case, because there’s no way you can hide your army. Unless maybe the warfare involved is all about computer hacking to gain access to the nanobot net or something and can hence be done from anywhere. And nukes allow angry players to crash the whole server anyway.


      As for actual books that might be helpful. Well, again, I don’t think anyone who isn’t reading sun tzu and thinking something more like “not bad for an uninformed ancient”, rather than “teach me senpai”,

      -or just not bothering reading it in the first place,

      is going to be up for the goal, let alone the task. Or of course if someone is extremely good at extracting valuable wisdom from other perspectives, and at avoiding associated pitfalls, the answer could also be “anything and everything”.

      Anyway, here are some book ideas:

      Prince of thorns by Mark Larence. Could be a place someone otherwise not inclined picked up the aesthetic or the idea, as well as the idea of ignoring the wall of corpses and worse that mount up in their wake.

      Berserk. SPOILERS FOR THE START. SKIP THIS IF DON’T WANT. (ALSO DON’T READ THE COMIC IF YOU DON’T LIKE NEEDLESSLY HORRIFIC SHIT) The anti “anything for the dream” message is so heavy handed, and so potentially effective, that I could imagine someone being almost “overawed” by it (letting it cause them to balk at the idea without them meaning too), that they might bounce back the other way in contempt. Same goes for other impressive (as conceptually distinct from good) works with similar messages.

      Chronicles of amber. -Another example of a compelling amoral(ish) high stakes game with a protagonist who might be considered justified by the romanticism of it all (oh yeah, and of course the small subtlety that it’s a book). Anyway the point there is again that I think what might be more significant than knowledge, is if someone smart enough to normally not want to do anything so obvious and blase as to be god emperor were imbued with a great aesthetic appreciation for that idea. On this same point, I might have said this above, but, if there is a god emperor I expect them to have been poor, and blessed with no more than not-much-better-than-mediocre- parents, because while an argument can be made for “you ought to be god emperor” (and moreover, that you ought to go well out of your way to make it happen, too) I think in most possible worlds where that happens, the original impulse/impetus wouldn’t have been a rational and detatched evaluation.

      Though again contempt for heavy handed “Don’t think you’re good enough to judge things”, especially if they are almost successfully imposed/were narrowly avoided, could potentially change that, but I still think some form of fundamental crackedness in values, epistomology, in a vital heuristic, in a particular engaging with the world, or something important, would be a likely precipitate



      Or it could maybe be someone initially not very intelligent/capable, or whatever the exact right word is, that of course doesn’t exist, but who at some point grasps “the nature of victory” or some such “ideal”-that-isn’t-very-idealistic, and is motivated by this and/or megalomania (-I kind of repeat myself) onto the heights necessarry to successfully take on such an unnapealing, difficult, and dangerous task.



      Anyway, I’m mostly reassured by the understanding that to actually do this you’d probably have to be extremely “sane” in a lot of ways, or I guess I mean something more like “hyperpurposeful”, -to a level where you’re figuring out the nature of things and acting on that.

      As well as probably quite elevated and dignified I think, or something like it, that is, I suppose, posessing an aesthetic which is greatly motivating but does not make you look like a dangerous lunatic.

      So I imagine it doesn’t even occur to the majority of candidates that might genuinely have a shot.

      The genghis khans and alexanders and mohammads of the past lived in more brutal times, times where the aesthetic of conquest, or subjectivism, would have have a greater illusion of legitimacy. And times where information travelled more slowly, too.

      Take someone like Ted Kaczynski. A genius by usual definitions, Cracked (imo) (possibly by an evil and abusive psychological experiment he was fraudulently tricked into participating in in college).

      But, despite these risk factors, was caught even in his relatively unambitious scheme (-relative to “becoming god emperor”) thanks to a number of slip ups.

      Imo it’s quite likely that someone strong (strong as in “elo”, not as any kind of reference to “worthiness” or such nonsense, but I don’t have a word with better connotations than strong offhand here) -enough to start an antitechnological revolution, would probably have been strong enough not to lose track of their goals, and was also brought down by the informational connectedness of the time he lived in.

      I am of course assuming that Ted Kaczynski’s actions were not very sane. I think his statement that people who want to effect antitechnological revolution should want to undermine society so as to increase agitation, rather than try to convince people, should be sufficient proof of that, both tactically and in terms of sanity.

      (this isn’t a very good procedure for all the difference people who want to mould society to better fit their image, and/or even just be better in an absolute sense, -to follow. It might be a technically correct tactical direction in very particular kinds of situations, but if you’re wrong it’s a disaster, and even if you’re right, and it’s, -seperately, also worth the risk of betting that you are, it’s still never right to broadcast this to every two bit revolutionary of every different cause in the country. That will make people suspicious of revolutionaries in general, and people associated with you or your ideas in particular.)

      -It’s advice from someone who has no viable plan to implement their ideal, but is still going for the smallest most infinitessimal outside chance of it at the expense of others. Though maybe that is a mistake a would be god-emperor might be particularly prone to making. And like I said it’s tactically awful and makes anyone associated with you or your ideas an object of suspicion.


      There’s also the fact that I think a dedication to vengeance would be quite helpful for gaining the reputation of such, and/or the appearance of it, and so at enabling someone to survive such a scheme, so I also think the Ted Kaczynski that has the good fortune to be vengeful enough to put themselves into the far riskier and more vulnerable positions needed to personally effect antitechnologial revolution, is at very high risk of strangling the “researcher”, if it was that that did it. -Or whoever it was, whenever it was, that so badly cracked their mind as to end up in that direction, and hence end up in prison, or self imposed exile and in hiding, rather than as god emperor.



      One other thing, it’s possible that the would-be god emperor would go well out of their way to avoid visibly reading such books where possible, to avoid your friends at the CIA, and so on (and so we’d never find out unless they told us), and if guaranteeing that no one would know was impossible, they might just choose not to, either because they don’t need them, or because the smartness and ruthlessness/capacity for deferment, etc that mgiht lead them to be capable of being god emperor, might lead them to be capable of giving it up for a life of a much higher eV, (which as usual, they might have to be capable of, -that is capable of generating their own values, if they were to have a shot) if present circumstances don’t lend themselves well to approaching life as that particular kind of game.

      • anonymous says:

        A couple of typos I missed:

        if there is a god emperor I expect them to *be more likely* to have been poor…*



        “, and was also brought down by the informational connectedness of the time he lived in.”

        in regard to Ted Kaczynski

        Should be ” *.* And *he* was also…”



        “in a particular *way of* engaging with the world


        and probably one or two others but that’s enough combing for now

  5. onyomi says:

    Thank you for pointing to Trollumination’s post on dualization. I missed it the first go round, but it seems a very accurate description of the market for academic labor. As the demand for academic labor decreased, it wasn’t like everyone’s job got 20% crappier across the board. Rather, the best jobs stayed good, but the number of new good jobs dropped off dramatically, with the slack being picked up by much worse jobs.

    • HH says:

      And because it’s academia, the indirect effect on the quality of our public discourse have been bad. Megan McArdle has argued that academics only understand one labor market – their own, where the employer (universities & tenured professors) have near-unlimited market power over the powerless adjunct masses. Of course this doesn’t describe low-skilled labor generally, but because it matters in academia, it pervades public discourse about bargaining power and inequality in a big way.

      • Nita says:

        Eh, adjuncts can always give up on academia and enter the low-skilled labor market. An adjunct can compete for fast food jobs, but a fast food worker without a degree can’t compete for college teaching jobs.

        How exactly does this result in adjuncts having less bargaining power?

        • Urstoff says:

          Adjuncts can enter the high-skill labor market, too. They’ve got a college degree, which gives them a huge leg up on fast food workers.

        • Creutzer says:

          I don’t know about the US, but in Europe, there are plenty of jobs that you can’t get anymore once you have a PhD.

          Also, the fast-food job is actually less valuable to a former adjunct than it is to the (other) people who actually apply – not in monetary terms, but because it represents an additional status hit.

          • onyomi says:

            Yeah, there is definitely such a thing as being “overqualified” in the US as well.

            Even within academia the problem exists: if you have a PhD from Harvard, say, then that gives you a leg up on getting a job at Yale, Princeton, MIT, UChicago, Stanford, etc.

            It can actually be a hindrance to getting an academic job at low-ranking local university or community college. Because they’ll assume you’re “too good for them” and will leave as soon as you can find a better post (which you probably will).

          • Matt M says:

            You can always leave the PhD off your resume if you feel that’s an issue.

          • onyomi says:

            Well then what I was I doing for the past 7 years? Big gaps in employment history are probably worse than superfluous PhDs.

          • Matt M says:

            True. I thought about addressing that in my last comment.

            If the job you’re applying for is low-skilled enough they MIGHT not care. You MIGHT consider lying or embellishing something hard to prove – “I was working on starting a business” or something.

            Maybe tell them you were in school but didn’t finish?

            I was just throwing it out there as a thought, not as a “this is 100% guaranteed to solve all your problems” type of solution.

          • The Nybbler says:

            If it’s a fast-food job, just imply that you were in prison but the conviction was overturned.

            If it’s a lesser academic jobs, traveling Europe while writing a novel?

          • Creutzer says:

            For the lesser academic position, you still need a PhD – it just ought to be from a less prestigious university. You can’t fake that.

          • Jill says:

            I guess the deans and deanlets in the university system are kind of like the CEOs that get wildly overpaid, although deans don’t get paid as much as CEOs. But they are the ones, comparatively speaking, with the money and the power, in the so-called free market.

            That’s the thing about believing in laissez faire capitalism. It seems that if one believes in it, you don’t expect to be the person stuck in a less powerful position, being competent but without the power to get rewarded for your competence and hard work, while someone else skates on by.

            That’s why it’s a problem that Libertarianism ignores these power issues in the free market that is far freer for some people than for others. The situation is such that some CEO or dean can be totally incompetent and still do fine, while those with less power can be tremendously competent and hard working perhaps still not get tenure.

            Everyone who believes in laissez faire capitalism thinks that they are going to come out on top because the market is supposedly free, and fair in some way. But that’s what the whole inequality idea is about, about the top 1%. In fact, it’s really the top .01%. The bottom 99.99% can be very vulnerable to getting screwed over, due to lack of power.

            It’s like what Scott talks about when he talks about Moloch– how individual incentives lead everyone to do what is destructive for the group as a whole. But it’s not the same incentives for everyone. The behaviors caused by the incentives for a small group of people– those who find a way to concentrate massive power and money in their own hands– can be perversely, quickly and extremely destructive for the whole group, in ways that the average person’s behaviors can not be.

            Laissez faire capitalism seems wonderful when you think you are the bourgeosie or are going to be the bourgeoisie. But once you realize you are really the disempowered proletariat, laissez faire capitalism doesn’t seem so hot any more. And the idea of unions, or political action groups to press government to make laws for public protection, or other ways of organizing so as to have a bit of power– suddenly those don’t seem like such bad ideas.

          • Skivverus says:

            I’ll grant that capital-L Libertarianism ignores the problem you describe in one sense: it has no prescription for solving it.
            It simply points out that similar mismatches of competence to compensation occur in every other system tried so far, including the ones that have created their rules precisely in response to those perceived mismatches.
            Well, okay, it does go further than that. It also says that using government as a tool to disrupt concentrations of power is itself creating another concentration of power, namely, the government. And assuming that the government is any more competent or friendly than the concentration of power you want it to disrupt is… biased at best, deadly at worst.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            CEO pay is incredibly messed up. There is some research evidence of pay aligning with performance, but it’s weak.

            The people who are being ripped off are the shareholders, and they seem to say “given that billions of dollars are at stake, I’d rather take the 1% chance that CEO pay matters a little bit, so let’s spend an extra few million on a ‘good’ CEO.” And the CEOs are happy to exploit that.

            It requires a much much higher level of evidence to show that high CEO pay is somehow harmful, either to the company or to outsiders.

          • John Schilling says:

            I guess the deans and deanlets in the university system are kind of like the CEOs that get wildly overpaid…
            That’s the thing about believing in laissez faire capitalism.

            Except that the deans and deanlets aren’t a part of anything that could be described as “laissez-faire capitalism”. Colleges and universities, the tenure-granting ones at least, are nonprofit institutions. The most prestigious of them, and the ones which set the culture for the rest (e.g. Oxbridge and the Ivies) are among the oldest surviving human institutions, predating both the United States of America and Adam Smith. The younger universities, in addition to inheriting a pre-capitalist culture, are mostly created and operated by state governments. There is no private ownership of capital involved, no capitalism in any normal sense of the word.

            So if you are seeing some aspect of human behavior that you believe is objectionable, e.g. high pay at the top of a hierarchy, and you find it noteworthy that this behavior is shared by corporate CEOs and university Deans, that’s a pretty good bet that the root cause is something that isn’t laissez-faire capitalism.

          • Jill says:

            We live in a capitalist system and that infiltrates everything within the system. A non-profit is just a technical category. It’s often even worse in its power politics than for profit corporations. In fact, universities have a reputation of being all about power politics.

            Yes, a university makes sure that the tons of money it takes in are all spent on deans and deanlets and big gyms or whatever, so that there is, technically speaking, no profit. But that does not necessarily make their corporation very different from a for profit corporation. It’s a simple bookkeeping maneuver, done for the purpose of keeping the highly beneficial non-profit status going.

            Some of the richest most powerful corporations in the world are technically non-profit, like large churches, for example. But they are chock full of power politics. And many people have wanted to start some kind of school or business, and then realized the tons of benefits that would come with making it technically a “non-profit”, so they did. But the organization was just as they had originally conceived it– except that it received tons more benefits, like not having to pay taxes.

          • Nornagest says:

            That strikes me as the political-science version of Spinozan pantheism. By defining capitalism so broadly, you’ve robbed yourself of the ability to say anything interesting about it.

          • John Schilling says:

            Spinozian acausal pantheism, given the timing. But if laissez-fair capitalism can bend the laws of time and space like that, sign me up! Whatever harm it does “now”, we can retroactively fix sometime in the next trillion years.

          • @Jill:

            What’s your definition of “capitalist?” I assume it’s not just “full of power politics,” since one can easily imagine a socialist economy (economist’s definition–government ownership and control of the means of production) with lots of power politics.

          • LtWigglesworth says:

            @David Friedman

            Communists playing power politics amongst themselves was a major factor in the USSR losing the race to land a man on the moon.

      • onyomi says:

        I am curious about the extent to which this happened in other, more private industries. Because to my mind, part of the reason this can happen in academia is because professor pay and profitability of the college are very decoupled (in both positive and negative senses).

        Like, it’s kind of hard to imagine the shareholders putting up with a private company giving half the workers pay cuts while upper management all got raises in response to a downturn (well, not TOO hard to imagine, but it seems like the unprofitability of such a decision would tend to mitigate against it, though increased automation potential does make it easier to replace some of the rank and file… though maybe the universities who have protected all the senior professor positions at the expense of new professors are in fact failing in slo-mo, since, as institutions, they tend to function on a longer timescale).

        • Nicholas says:

          it’s kind of hard to imagine the shareholders putting up with a private company giving half the workers pay cuts while upper management all got raises in response to a downturn

          Between 2006 and 2014 this occurred so frequently there are actually country-western songs with the plot “You are being fired so there will be space in the budget for my raise.” When it happened in reality is was always defended on the basis that the company was hemorrhaging money, and thus someone had to be downsized, but only by attracting highly skilled leaders with generous pay and benefits packages could the hemorrhaging be stopped, and thus the CEO needed a raise. Politically these decisions were roundly criticized, but to my knowledge there was no great shareholder reaction.

    • Psmith says:

      This is a version of nominal wage rigidity, no?

    • HeelBearCub says:

      “As the demand for academic labor decreased”

      What are you classifying as “academic labor” here? Research?

      • onyomi says:

        I mean research and teaching jobs. There are few pure research jobs, at least in my field, though there are quite a few where continued research beyond the terminal degree is not required if you don’t mind having no prospect for advancement.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          Do you disagree with this graph that shows college enrollment rising at a steady rate from 1970 through now (roughly).

          If not, how can demand for academics, including teachers, being going (absolutely) down?

          • JayT says:

            It’s possible for the demand for academics could go up while the demand for teachers goes down. Larger class sizes or online education would be two ways this could be possible.

            (I don’t know if this is indeed the case, but I could see it being this way.)

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Sure, but there would have to be a really large jump in both to overcome the rise in overall students. Let’s just say I want to see the numbers on that.

          • onyomi says:

            Well, honestly, the drop in demand for academics is something of a mystery to me! Maybe it’s just a drop in the demand for the type of academic I am, i. e. someone with aspirations of tenure and pretensions of being, first and foremost, a researcher and writer, and only secondarily a teacher (and within that role, aspirationally, a trainer of grad students and would-be scholars primarily, and a general purpose introducer of Asian language and culture for undergrads secondarily).

            What is clear, both to me and people I know who have been in the profession much longer, is that the market for the tenure-aspiring, research and writing-focused academic, and even, to a lesser extent, the market for the tenure-aspiring teaching-focused academic, has been getting steadily worse since the 70s (ironic, considering enrollment), and also got notably worse yet again after the most recent financial crisis.

            As to why that is, again, it’s probably complicated and I don’t have good answers. The increase in undergrad enrollment could ironically have resulted in a shift in focus: the professors are there as teachers/camp counselors for all the young adults in need of gentry and elite finishing school, and the research is thus less valued for its own sake.

            Academic publishing is certainly WAY down since the 70s, when it seems like there was a greater likelihood of the general public actually picking up and reading an academic book now and again. Would make some comment about dumbing down of the culture, but honestly not sure why this is.

            With regard to why the opportunities for tenure-type job security even for teaching-focused academics is down, my best guess is that the overall job market has an effect, even as demand for teaching has gone up: the general job market having been bad since 2008, humanities PhDs have even fewer other options than they had previously; hence, schools found they could still attract qualified candidates even if they stopped offering one of the major historical perks, i. e. strong job security.

            The overall demand for teaching labor may actually be up, but the demand for the type of work most people getting a humanities PhD are hoping to do is way down.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            My googling isn’t giving me what I want, but I don’t think demand for faculty in general is falling. Generally it appears to have been rising over the long term. although the composition has changed a great deal in the last 40 years.

            I think what you are seeing is likely more competition for tenure track research jobs. These jobs aren’t growing at the same pace as people who want to fill them. Maybe I am wrong here, but that feels more likely than an absolute fall.

            This Atlantic article seems to back me up:

            This doesn’t actually mean that there are fewer full-time professors today than four-decades ago. College faculties have grown considerably over the years, and as the AAUP notes, the ranks of the tenured and tenure-track professoriate are up 26 percent since 1975.

          • Jill says:

            Demand for academics, and willingness to provide good pay & tenure, goes down because academics don’t have the power to stop it from happening. I know that many here believe it’s the invisible hand of the free market. But it’s really just power politics.

            Just like CEOs get on each other’s boards and finagle super high pay for each other, for no reason other than that they can. Academics don’t have unions or any other form of power, so they are easily screwed over. Maybe it has partly to do with how disempowering an experience graduate school often is. Academics don’t expect to be treated well, until and unless they have tenure.

          • onyomi says:

            “up 26% since 1975…”

            Well the US population is up 32% since 1975, so , if it’s accurate that the total number increased by 26%, then the number of professor jobs is actually down, per capita (unless they mean up 26% per capita, which they didn’t specify). And the same article states the percentage of professor jobs which are tenurable is down from 45% to less than 25%.

            So the total number of professor jobs is up, but the number per capita is down and the number of tenurable jobs per capita is down even more. What’s more college enrollment has roughly doubled in absolute numbers since 1975, further implying a shrinking number of faculty, especially tenurable faculty, relative to students.

            What is more, there are a lot more foreign professors qualified, willing, and able to move to the US today, especially in a field like mine (Asian Studies), so that further adds to the competition (ironically, I’m more likely than your average blue collar worker to be unemployed or underemployed due to competition from immigrants).

            I also wouldn’t be surprised if the percentage of Americans aspiring to be a tenured professor is also up, though I’m not sure about that. I definitely sensed a spike in grad school enrollment after 2008. I think the thinking was “well, the economy sucks now, may as well go to grad school… hopefully it will be better by the time I get my degree.”

            That is, the job of tenured professor has started to seem more attractive compared to other career options at the same time as foreign competition has increased, the number of positions has shrunk per capita, and the percentage of tenurable positions shrunk even more.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            You are double counting the “down” side.

            The 26% rise is for tenure and tenure track positions, not all positions.

            You seem right that this is a drop per capita, and definitely it’s a drop per college student (as college entry is climbing faster than population).

            Part of this issue here is that I imagine the distribution feels very different. In 1970, most professors at most colleges were surrounded by mostly tenured and tenure track professors. Now it is probably the opposite, which makes the title “professor”, on average, much less valuable (in many senses). In the old days, “you” probably would just be on the outside looking in, wishing “you” could be a professor. Now the barbarians (so to speak) are inside the gates.

          • onyomi says:

            “In 1970, most professors at most colleges were surrounded by mostly tenured and tenure track professors. Now it is probably the opposite, which makes the title “professor”, on average, much less valuable (in many senses). In the old days, “you” probably would just be on the outside looking in, wishing “you” could be a professor. Now the barbarians (so to speak) are inside the gates.”

            I don’t really get what you mean here. Doesn’t being surrounded by tenured professors make being tenured seem less valuable than if only one in a great many of college-level educators you know is tenurable? Right now there is the greater sense of “haves” and “have-nots” within the group of people doing roughly similar work, and landing the tenure-track job feels like more of a “coup” and less of a given.

            I’m also not sure what you mean about “barbarians inside the gates.” It seems to me that, had I got a PhD in 1970 with the aim of becoming a tenured professor, my chances of achieving that goal were greater, not lower.

            If you mean it would have been just as hard or harder to turn the PhD into a tenured position but I would have been less likely to be working alongside tenured professors as an adjunct and therefore feeling like a second-class citizen, then I’m not sure why that would be the case. Yes, the number of adjuncts were fewer, but the number of tenurable jobs per seeker was also greater.

            If, in some other industry, the number of “good” jobs per seeker had dropped, but the number of “bad” jobs per seeker had increased, then I wouldn’t blame the growing “dualization” so much on the growth of “bad” jobs, as on the loss of “good” jobs (though the two are related, of course).

          • HeelBearCub says:


            The title “professor” used to imply that one was on the track to tenure (the vast majority of professors were on the track to tenure). Now it only implies “contract teacher”, so the title of professor feels less valuable.

            “Tenure track” might feel more valuable now, but then again, tenure used to mean lifetime employment, and it doesn’t really mean that anymore. Still, “tenure track” probably feels like a rare jewel now, even if it is only a topaz among cut-glass, instead of the ruby, emerald or diamond it used to be.

            As to the “barbarians”, it was only supposed to be slightly humorous. What I mean is that, broadly speaking, if college enrollment is going up as percentage of population, then I expect that so are PhDs. Which means, statistically speaking, if you have a PhD now there is an increased chance that you would not have been in the cohort that would have been accepted to grad school in 1975.

            It would not surprise me if PhDs per capita have more than doubled since 1975. If that is so, then it seems reasonable to say that the average “you” should not expect that they would have had a tenure track job in 1975, and they also should not expect that they would have been working on a college campus at all.

          • “but then again, tenure used to mean lifetime employment, and it doesn’t really mean that anymore.”

            It used to mean employment to age 65. It now means lifetime employment–until you decide to retire.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @David Friedman:
            Publish or perish is absolutely a thing.

          • onyomi says:

            “Publish or perish is absolutely a thing.”

            From what I can tell, that still mostly applies only to the untenured. I’ve never heard of a tenured professor losing his job due to failure to publish. Though there are those who remain at the rank of associate professor for decades.

            At least at the fancier institutions, tenure is still pretty iron-clad, at least for the time being. A tenured professor at Yale was not too long ago discovered to have been sleeping with an undergrad student, which student he then helped get into a graduate program and then a tenured job at Yale. In other words, besides sleeping with a student and cheating on his wife, he corrupted the whole grading, recruitment, hiring, and approval process.

            Neither of them were fired, though I think he was required to accept some unpaid leave time.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Yale is private with a huge endowment.

            My father started feeling the pressure of publish or perish at a state university maybe 15 years ago? Not that he was ever in danger of not publishing, but he was getting the clear message that you could be “shuffled off to Buffalo” if you weren’t publishing. Trust me, that stuck in his craw.

            ETA: At that point he had been at the University for 20+ years and tenured for 15, I want to say.

  6. MF says:

    I’ve been thinking about the idea of expected value, and the idea that in utilitarianism one should attempt to do the action with the highest expected value every time. The issue is that you get into situation’s like Pascal’s Mugging.

    Is there some sort of formalism of the idea that taking the highest expected value choice each time only works because actions are repeated over and over? For example, if there’s an extremely small chance (one in a googelplex, say) of there being a super-high payoff in a wager, we’re unlikely to repeat the wager enough times in the next few billion years such that we even get a single positive outcome, so we may as well take the lower expected value… which, uh, is the higher ‘expected’ value.

    I guess it might be a more formal version of risk aversion I’m wondering about, which makes me think this idea is awful.

    This idea may not be well-formed – just curious if there’s anything out there on this.

    • Theo Jones says:

      Sounds vaguely like the frequentist interpitation of probability applied to ethics. In frequentist probability an event’s probability is equal to the limit of its relative frequency. In some variants this means that probabilities are only well-defined for repeatable events.

    • Eggoeggo says:

      “we’re unlikely to repeat the wager enough times in the next few billion years such that we even get a single positive outcome”

      You’ve accidentally introduced time to your model without factoring it into the expected value. In the simplified model without time, all iterations happen “at once”, and there’s no such thing as billions of years. If you add time to the model, you have to add it everywhere.

      The present value of a future return is reduced by time discounting. If I offer you 1 penny today or a coupon for $100 in 500 years, the penny is much more valuable. This reduces the expected net present value of any long-term wager that will take billions of years to pay off in exactly the way you’re suggesting.

      Nobody adds this to the babby EV model because it confuses the basic concept, and you’ll painfully grind out the NPV of future cash flows in intro to finance anyway

      TL;DR it’s dangerous to ask reasonable questions about simplified models, because they’re too simple to reason about.

      • Deiseach says:

        You’ve accidentally introduced time to your model without factoring it into the expected value.

        “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”

        So – should you buy Wimpy a hamburger? 🙂

        • Loquat says:

          Not if you’ve known him longer than a week.

          More seriously, I’m pretty sure elements like “odds this bum will ACTUALLY pay up” are supposed to factor into your EV calculation to begin with.

      • MF says:

        I think you’re taking what I said a little too literally, which is my fault for being unclear.

        As I understand the (somewhat simplified, as you note) rationalist argument for doing things in terms of EV,

        1. Assume we’re consequentialists, so we want to maximize our utility function.
        2. Actions have uncertain outcomes, but due to the law of large numbers, if we perform these actions a lot of times we can expect the average EV to be a very useful measure.
        3. If we perform high-EV actions all our lives, we’re likely to maximize utility. So in any given instance, we should perform the highest-EV action available.

        If it helps, I’d prefer to get rid of time dimension. I don’t see it as relevant, here. Pretend we do a hundred thousand wagers (note: pure utility wagers, not wagers in terms of money, utility curves aren’t relevant) instantly, all with a ridiculously low chance of success but a good EV. We’re still unlikely to get a good outcome if this is the only time in our lives we’re going to be doing a wager like this (say we’re a really weird alien race which goes into stasis).

        I’m wondering if there’s some way to model in an extremely heavy discount for such low-probability things in order to defeat Pascal’s Mugging. Jacob brought in the idea of variance, etc. which is along the lines of what I was asking for, but no mathematical equations.

        • Eggoeggo says:

          If your expected value is already stated in terms of utility, the answer is already included in the premise.
          In the outcome of an EV-maximizing decision, you would not be saying “boy, I wish I’d had an extremely heavy discount for that low-probability thing that didn’t happen and left me with 0 utils”. You’d be saying “yup, it was still worth the risk”.
          Any discounting of low-probability events is factored in through risk aversion.

          Also, this demonstrates why actually using “utils” outside a thought experiment or a joke is fucking retarded, and rationalists look silly for doing it.

    • Jacob says:

      I often have the same question so I’ll pose a concrete example. A genie wants to play a game with you and offers to flip a coin. Heads you win, tails you lose, with equal and opposite payoffs. P(heads) = 0.75, that is, odds are 3:1 in favor of heads. Xe gives you the following two options:

      a) Bet $1 million on a single flip
      b) Bet $1 per flip, on a million flips

      Anybody can verify that the expected return in either case is $500k. Which bet do you take? My answer below. I’m assuming most people here aren’t millionaires, would your answer change if your net worth were $50 million or more?


      In this case we can draw out the probability distribution of events. In case a) it’s a bimodal distribution, with 75% chance of a $1 million win and 25% chance of a $1 million loss. With case b) you have a nice clean bell curve centered around $500k. You might win $450k, or $550k, but it’s going to be in that neighborhood. Chances of losing money are essentially zero. I might take case a) if my net worth were greater than $50 million or so and I could afford the loss, but failing that loss aversion would win out and I’d do case b).

      For more complicated situations we can’t necessarily get the full probability distribution, but we often at least have some idea of the variance. Maximizing expected value is all well and good, but if the variance is large then any specific realization isn’t going to be anywhere near the expected value. This has been born out in psychology experiments [citation needed], people are often willing to pay for additional certainty. Consider modifying case b) so that the genie gives you $400k, guaranteed. Lower expected value, but much much lower variance. Would you take it? How about $300k?

      • stargirlprincesss says:

        I think almost everyone would take bet B. In practical terms you want both low variance and high expected value in your bets/investments*. Many rationalists claim you should always maximize expected value. At least when payoffs are measured in “utility.” Most criticisms of “always maximize utility” say that it might be useful to sacrifice EV to reduce variance. In your example EV is constant. So most people will just reduce the variance.

        Here is a more interesting answer:

        Option A: One bet. +1 million with p=.75, lose 1 million with p=.25
        Option B: 100 bets of +1 dollar with p=.72, -1 dollar with p=.28.

        I would take option B.

        *See Tetlock for example of people being risk-seeking. Most of the example involve “avoiding losses.” For gains almost everyone, rational or not, wants lower variance under most conditions (some amount of gambling might be fun but not with 500K-ish on the line).

        • Jacob says:

          I’m more interested in the tradeoff between expectation value and variance here, rather than loss aversion, so let’s modify it to be a fair coin, where:

          a) You win you get $1 million, you lose you don’t pay or lose anything.

          b) Genie just gives you $X

          What’s the minimum value of $X where you choose b)? At $500k they have the same expected value. I might even take b) if it were as low as $100k, that guarantee is pretty tempting.

      • Eggoeggo says:

        Xogself am just risk averse. You add that to the model by sticking a Bernoulli utility function in your EV calculation, turning it into “expected utility”.

        For anyone interested, this is a good demo of applying that to “how much insurance should I buy?”

      • James Bond says:

        That seems to be more about the marginal utility of money, than it is about anything else. I mean the person taking the 400 or 300K over the expected value of 500K makes rational sense once you take into account that the risk of losing a million places a way higher negative utility than the possibility of gaining the extra 600 or 700K creates positive utility for the average person.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          I would absolutely take 300K over a 50:50 shot at a million. Just as long as I can keep it secret from my wife.

    • Jake says:

      The Kelly Criterion describes an optimal amount to wager on a bet given a logarithmic utility curve. As a rule of thumb, at it’s upper bounds, it can basically be boiled down to say even on a bet where you would receive infinite utility, you should only bet a fraction of your bankroll equal to the odds. You can kind of use this to escape Pascal’s Mugging by saying that if my net worth is $100k, and I value my time at $1/hour, even if you are promising me infinite utility, I should only even consider listening to you for a minute if I think the odds of you being correct are better than 6,000,000:1.

      This probably isn’t the best worded example, but using that approach does seem to help get around a lot of the problems with just straight up calculating expected values. (Though it probably opens a whole new can of worms I haven’t looked at yet)

      • Jacob says:

        So that’s fine for money-based bets, but what about other areas of decision theory? e.g. the flashy rare side effects. Should we treat the entire population as our “bankroll”? I wouldn’t think so, health policy is clearly not designed to maximize QALY total (or else we would want to get rid of abortion and birth control just to inflate the population) but rather minimize QALYs lost. It’s not clear to me it generalizes.

      • MF says:

        This isn’t quite what I was asking. You’re assuming a logarithmic utility curve; I’m talking about wagers which are already in terms of pure utility.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      I’m going to answer several questions you didn’t ask instead of the one you did, because they are, I suspect, what actually needs answering here. Apologies if you know much of this already and this comes off as condescending, but I’m getting a distinct whiff of fundamentally-confused-about-what-utility-functions-are from your comment, and it’s sufficiently common that I’d like to head off the possibility and address this all at once.

      First: Why is it that an ideal consequentialist — not just a utilitarian, which is rather more specific! See note at end of comment — would act according to a utility function (in the decision-theory sesne)? (That is to say, have a function they are maximizing the expected value of?) This is answered by Savage’s theorem. (If you already believe in probability, it’s answered by the VNM theorem. But I find Savage’s theorem much more satisfactory, as it grounds probability and utility both at once.)

      Second, let me address this bit:

      I guess it might be a more formal version of risk aversion I’m wondering about, which makes me think this idea is awful.

      Why do you need a “more formal” version of risk aversion, when risk aversion is already perfectly formalizable? Risk aversion in some quantity is just having an convex-downward utility function in it.

      Now for the note at the end, which I have written so many times here but let’s do this once more:

      Someone who acts according to a utility function, in the decision theoretic sense, need not be in any way a utilitarian. They could be perfectly selfish, for instance. Having a utility function in that sense basically just means you’re a consequentialist (if we accept Savage’s hypotheses, any ideal consequentialist acts according to a utility function).

      A (ideal) utilitarian is someone who assigns to people “utility functions” in an entirely different sense, which may be related to those people’s decision-theoretic utility functions (if, y’know, they possessed them) but aren’t necessarily, and then somehow aggregates them into a decision-theoretic utility function that they act according towards. It’s a much more specific type of consequentialist, and also one that’s not really well-defined at all. It’s easy to say what a decision-theoretic utility function is, but nobody knows how to define these utilitarian utility functions, or how to aggregate them into a decision-theoretic utility function.

      Yes, the terminology is terrible, but we seem to be stuck with it for now.

      (As for your actual question, uh, probably something like what Theo Jones said.)

      • MF says:

        Thank you for taking the time to respond. I appreciate the note on terminology; I’ll strive to be more clear on that in the future.

        For the purposes of the question, though, I was hoping to assume everything in terms of pure utility. Utility functions are misleading for the thing I’m asking. To rephrase with an example question,

        You are faced with a choice. Either you take a guaranteed gain of 1 utilon, or you can take a wager. The wager is a nearly-guaranteed loss of 1 utilon, or an extremely unlikely chance of an extreme number of utilons such that the EV for the wager is very high. But you can only perform this wager a limited number of times, far below the number where you could expect to have at least one successful outcome from the wager.

        Basically, Pascal’s Mugging. The Sequences bring up the very simple model of just taking the highest EV action each time, and I was curious if there was a mathematical model which takes into account variance, etc. of this kind of situation to determine what one ‘should’ do as a consequentialist. As I mentioned in the other comment, I think the strategy of always taking the highest EV works under an assumption that the law of large numbers is in your favor; I’m curious as to how things would be handled by a consequentialist when that assumption breaks down.

        (Put another way: why or why not would EY take that bet?)

        • Sniffnoy says:

          For the purposes of the question, though, I was hoping to assume everything in terms of pure utility.

          What do you mean by “utility” here? If you mean that in the decision-theoretic sense, then your question essentially seems to be a contradiction in terms. By definition, if you have a decision-theoretic utility function, you are maximizing its expected value. You want to talk about a function for which you do not want to maximize the expected value; thus, the function you are talking about is not a utility function.

          This is like that old example on LW — “What if nobody was willing to pay me the going rate for a hammer?” Then it’s not the going rate for a hammer; the question’s premises are contradictory.

          If you mean utility in some other sense, such as the utilitarian sense, then of course I have no idea how to answer your question; but it seems to me that then the question also loses its force, so I’m not sure why you’d be asking it in that case.

          I mean, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to the approach you are exploring. For instance, obviously the various explicit utility functions that people discuss or use for making decisions (e.g. log(money)) are not actual decision-theoretic utility functions. And so when they fail to be, this is one thing it might look like. But one should not confuse actual utility functions (which we don’t actually have) with useful “approximate” utility functions, and attribute the failures of the latter to the former.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Oops, I forgot to also mention: This is also really not Pascal’s Mugging. Pascal’s Mugging, properly, involves (among other things) the possibility that the utility of situations could grow much faster than exponentially in the length required to describe them.

          …which, really, goes away if you assume utility functions are bounded — and one of the conclusions of Savage’s Theorem (maybe not the theorem proper, but whatever) is that utility functions not only exist but are bounded. So, as far as I’m concerned, all utility functions should be bounded, because if not for Savage’s Theorem, what other reason do you have for using utility functions in the first place?

          EY insists that utility functions should not be bounded, hence why he considers Pascal’s Mugging a probem, but I’ve never seen him put forth even a half-decent argument for this position, or reply to the above.

          I suppose having bounded utility functions does potentially answer your question as well, though.

          • Addict says:

            Really? I found his argument rather convincing. There is no ‘x’ such that I would prefer [a 100% chance of living x years] above [an 80% chance of living forever and a 20% chance of living to 100]. That means my utility function must be unbounded. What is your criticism of this argument?

    • Peter says:

      Expected value has the nice property that it’s consistent over aggregation and disaggregation. If you 100 opportunities to roll a D6, and get a pound if it rolls a 6, then a decision on those 100 opportunities “as a batch” is the same as deciding on each opportunity individually and then aggregating at the end.

      “Median value” doesn’t have that nice property. The median value of your D6 roll is £0, the median value of 100 rolls is £17, so it matters whether you aggregate or not.

      I can think of two other rules that have the property – maximin and maximax – choose the option with maximum possible worst/best outcome. Possibly minimax regret (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regret_%28decision_theory%29#Minimax_regret) has the property as well.

      Various bits of decision theory etc. runs on “pick rules that make sense, i.e. that don’t work at cross purposes with themselves”.

      That said, all this gets rendered moot if your events aren’t independent – for example, if you’re looking at utility rather than cash value. Supposing I have two opportunities to win a million pounds. How much the second opportunity is worth to me depends a lot on, if I take the first opportunity, whether it comes off or not.

      A thought – possibly ill-formed. Suppose you have an ultimate meta-rule that says: “decide according to those decision rules/procedures/parameters/whatever that have given the best results in the past”, a sort-of “optimal learner” criterion if you will – maybe the result of taking the outcome of evolution or learning or culture change or whatever and imagining a more ideal version of that. Possibly you get something highest-expected-utility for most cases, with a “don’t get mugged by Pascal” clause in there. I’m a bit worried about the work that “ideal” is doing there, but it’s an idea.

  7. Tova says:

    Reposting my question from previous open thread in hopes of getting a response:

    How does one even get started with a therapist? There’s all these people that say “get help, talk to someone” like a mantra but it’s unclear to me what that even means. Is there a thing like a “general mental checkup” work, or do I need to come to the therapist with some attempt at self-analysis? I haven’t gone to a doctor in a while, partially because it’s unclear to me if/how I should raise any issues with him. With a doctor, nothing feels particularly acutely wrong, so I don’t know if things are normal or not and it’s hard to just dump a list of “probably nothing” items onto someone. As you can tell, even just setting up a doctor’s appointment seems to have the same difficulty as a therapist. With mental things I can tell something is up (noticing some periods of depression, lack of strong enjoyment in things, and a trend of mood swings and distractedness that has been increasing recently) — but how much do I need to organize my thoughts to be able to give them to someone for him/her to do something helpful with them? And how important is continuity with a particular therapist? I’m currently away at a summer internship and am wondering if I should pursue all this now and have to find someone new when I go back to my college town, or if it’s better to have a longer-term person back home. Sorry for the textdump, but the whole process seems alien and unapproachable to me and hearing everyone say ~~do something, just talk to a licensed professional~~ isn’t giving me clear actionable steps. I hope you can help me. Thanks!

    • david says:

      Replying to increase volume.

      As another person who has heard this advice, and thinks some sort of counselling is worthwhile, I too am not sure where to start the process. How do you know that a therapist is right for you? Is it advisable to switch for reasons other than “this person is a complete asshole”?

    • Lemminkainen says:

      I think that waiting to find somebody when you go back to your college town would probably be easier (since therapist appointments often have to be arranged a while in advance.) Your college probably has some kind of counseling center where you could get some sort of meeting for free.

      As for the issues about introspection– you should probably think some about what aspects of your life you’re unhappy with, but you don’t really need to know more than that. Part of a good therapist’s job is to ask you questions which will help the two of you figure out what the actual cause and extent of your problems are.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’d like to know this myself, as my initial attempt at going to a therapist foundered on this very thing – what is the use of talking about things that happened in the past, can’t be changed, and just have to be put up with? Is it any good telling them all about the things that are making you feel bad, when there’s nothing that can be done about them (i.e. there is no easy fix of the “talk to your loved ones about the things that concern you” kind of solution which appears to be one of the happy smiley fixes for depression – at least when I’ve looked up websites supporting depression sufferers, it’s what they all say).

      I mean, I can see myself tying myself up in knots about what to say and to tell, such that I’ll give the conventional expected answers simply to move things along (“yes, you’re right, I should talk to my friends when I’m feeling upset by something they’ve done”), and I can do that at home by myself so what’s the point of going to a therapist? Especially if they’re going to tell me “So there is this great new technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” since I’ve done the mandatory ten sessions of that and it did nothing for me.

    • Vitor says:

      Organizing your thoughts and discovering exactly what bothers you and why is a very hard task that talk therapy is well suited for.

      If you feel like you aren’t allowed to go to therapy without a clear reason and a lack of clarity is actually part of the problem you’d like help with, then you are de facto barring yourself from getting any help at all. That is what the “just do something, talk to someone” advice is getting at.

      It sounds to me that if you go to a therapist with the exact question you’re posing us right now, the two of you will have your hands full for quite a while.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Have you read https://gruntledandhinged.com/how-to-get-therapy/ ? Is it what you’re looking for?

    • LWNielsenim says:

      “The teacher learns more than the student” and hence in therapy “the listener learns more than the talker”.

      The practices of unprogrammed worship build upon this principle to provide an effective, accessible way to practice (what might be called) therapeutic listening.

      The key aspect is “unprogrammed”.

      Just attend. Just listen. Just reflect on what you hear and what you feel.

      It is customary in unprogrammed worship for no-one to speak twice, until everyone has spoken once. Good practice for new attendees is to not speak at all, until everyone has spoken once. Just sit and listen.

      So this isn’t “talk therapy” so much as “listen therapy.”

      Anxiety is natural (especially at first) in that listeners voluntarily cede control of topics discussed. It can happen, and not uncommonly does happen to new attendees, that expectant silence initiates a panic attack (which is made worse by feelings of shame for having a panic attack in such a psychologically supportive environment). In this respect therapeutic listening can be substantially more challenging than conventional therapy.

      With practice, anxiety subsides and listening skills improve, and many people concomitantly experience improvements in their capacity to speak for themselves and to themselves.

      These improvements are what David Foster Wallace sought in attending unprogrammed services (Mennonite in his case), alas with only partial success.

      Mennonites, Anabaptists, and Quakers are among the communities that practice unprogrammed worship via therapeutic listening.

      It is commonly the case, in these communities, that a strikingly high proportion of attendees are themselves healthcare providers. Hopefully this comment has helped SSC readers to appreciate why this is.

      PS: humor is present but kindly and nuanced.


      Q  What do you get when you cross a Friend with a Witness?
      A  Someone who rings your doorbell, then just stands there without saying anything.

      The celebrated joke whose punchline is “You’re absolutely right!” is well-regarded too.

      • Broggly says:

        Its interesting how the joke after that about sex standing up has a completely different meaning when told about Protestants.With the orthodox rabbi, dancing being forbidden is portrayed as totally reasonable, while in the one about (insert protestant denomination here) the joke is that they have such an irrational hatred of dancing that they wouldn’t otherwise mind premarital sex

        • Julie K says:

          Although apparently the joke-teller doesn’t know (or doesn’t care) that in Orthodox Judaism it would be perfectly fine for a married couple to dance together in private. The restriction only applies outside of marriage.
          I’m leaning towards “doesn’t know,” since the very first page of the book has this egregious error: “…during the Passover Seder… the youngest child is asked a question and, in turn, asks four questions.” Actually, one question (“Why is this night different…?”) is followed by four statements (“On all other nights we do X, but on this night we do Y”), and all five lines are said by the child. (Possibly this was how his childhood Seders went, and he didn’t bother to do any further research.)

          • LWNielsenim says:

            Julie’s comment matches my own experiences. I have heard “the dancing joke” told by straight-faced Methodists, to straight-faced Methodists; the joke is heard as particularly hilarious in a rural community that strictly forbids dancing, gambling, smoking, and alcohol.

            Whereas at Lubavitcher services, I have heard nothing like this particular variety of humor; indeed the prevalence of dancing and alcohol at Lubavitcher services would be regarded as highly scandalous among Methodists.

            So who knows where the “dancing” joke originated? More plausibly among Methodists than Lubavitchers?

            Perhaps the two most striking facts are that every religious culture is possessed of jokes (hundreds of them), and there is a remarkably high degree of cross-cultural overlap among these jokes. And perhaps the lesson here is that a really good joke is too precious to remain the property of just one religion! 🙂

        • Paul Goodman says:

          Your reading differs from mine so much I’m wondering if we’re reading the same thing. It definitely seems to me that the joke is that the rabbi is so much more concerned about dancing than sex when one would expect the opposite. If you think the rabbi’s concerns are more reasonable than when the same joke is told with Protestants I think that says more about you than about the joke.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            The joke about Protestant’s is a different joke, playing on different stereotypes.

          • Broggly says:

            Well, they aren’t exactly the same jokes, just the same basic setup and punchline.
            In the versions I’ve heard (usually about Baptists or Methodists), it’s either premarital sex being wrong because it leads to dancing, or an adulterous couple where one suggests sex standing up and the other is worried someone might see them and think they were dancing.
            The version in the book starts by pointing out the man’s getting married, and being told he can’t dance with his wife. All the sex involved is between a married couple. And “They don’t allow dancing” is part of the set-up, rather than being the punchline, so it feels less like that’s what you’re laughing at. To me, it feels more like the joke is in the Rabbi realizing that the young man is trying to find a way around the rule, rather than the rule itself.

            Maybe it’s not so much that it’s the jewish version of the joke, but that it’s a fairly tame version, and possibly badly told.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Here is my interpretation.

            First, I think it’s important to understand that humans like to talk about sex, and lots of comedy includes sex for that reason. Just having sex in the joke doesn’t make the joke about sex.

            I think that the Jewish version of the joke is about how the Jews have lots of “weird” customs that don’t make “sense”, even to those who are actually members of the chosen tribe. It exploits the very legalistic way that Jewish religion is used to control every day life. The automatic telelphone answers and light switch flickers that exist in some Orthodox communities so that they may “Do no work on the Sabbath” or, I’m sure, also mined for comedic effect. In this joke, it’s “Do any freaky thing you like, except this freaky thing because it against an “arbitrary” seaming rule. The couple is already married, there is no hint that sex is wrong or out of bounds anywhere in the joke.

            The Baptist version of the joke is all about how wrong, so very wrong, Baptists think sex, especially pre-marital sex is. So wrong that they can’t even talk about sex at all, it has to be the subtext, rather than the text. Everyone knows that Baptists don’t like young people dancing because it is dangerously close to do something sexual. The joke inverts this known quantity and makes it about the opposite. “The real reason they don’t like sex is that it might lead to pre-marital dancing, which is what they really object to.”

        • Julie K says:

          Can someone explain why in the book Rilla of Ingleside (the final sequel to Anne of Green Gables) the minister’s daughters attend a ball but are not allowed to dance, while Anne’s daughters are allowed?

    • Gravitas Shortfall says:

      I think it’s better to maintain a long-term relationship with a therapist, but just having a professional to talk to is good by itself.

      If you’re looking for a particular type of therapist, I’d recommend one with a cognitive-behavioral orientation. As to what you do when you’re there? I don’t think most therapists expect you to have an organized set of explanations. It’s THEIR job to organize it all. You talk to them, they take notes, they ask questions, you answer, they make suggestions or recommendations for what to do, you do them. It’s harder than it sounds, but that is the process.

    • anonymous says:

      Imo what it means is “this particular saying frees from all responsibility and concern for your problems, and I’m not strong enough to do the latter for myself, so I better repeat this mantra”

      My point being, why not give it a try if it might help, and you’re not in dire financial straits, -or you might be able to use it as a springing board, schelling point etc, -but I wouldn’t bet your hopes on it any more than I’d bet them on a hypnotist. Which isn’t said to disparage hypnotists, I’m sure there’s some great hypnotists, and I’m also sure that talking things over with someone who is serious about helping a person can help someone, but they’re just people. There’s no magic there, other than that of a willing ear and a person (hopefully) dedicated to helping you.

      (and perhaps of the authority any order of priests or shamans can invoke. -at least in part legitimate imo: the orders of psychologists have particular but often highly relevant rules and standards they follow, and their members tend to be dedicated to their chosen profession for example.)

      So to be more specific I suppose I should have said I wouldn’t bet your hopes on it unless you find someone who seems on their own merits to make that worth doing so.

      But that’s just my perspective. Best of luck with that head of yours.

  8. TPC says:

    Does anyone else run into the “tiny internet” problem where they keep running into the same people even though they are in (presumably) vastly different areas of the internet?

    I have been online 20+ years and despite bouncing around what I think of as very different groups, I keep running into the same users and posters.

    • Julie K says:

      I think one factor is what The Tipping Point calls Connectors.

      (I first encountered David Friedman as the author of medieval re-creation articles. Some years later, on Megan McArdle’s blog (this was before she was at Bloomberg), one commenter said something like ‘Milton Friedman may have had a Nobel in economics, but what did he know about parenting?’ and another commenter said that Milton must have been a good parent, since his son is Cariadoc (David’s medieval name).)

    • Eggoeggo says:

      That’s amazing—it’s something I’ve never encountered before. Although in most of my communities people switch usernames frequently. Do most of yours work on an IRL names basis?

      • TPC says:

        I started out being open to the WHOLE WORLD MAAAANNN, having correspondences with people all over the globe. But over time I ended up mostly in Ami-specific spaces, but very politically variable.

        I’ve basically moved from left to right over the decades I’ve been online, and yet I am not in a wildly different group of people. I still run into the same folks, which I don’t understand given the general high polarization in right/left in America (where I reside.)

    • blacktrance says:

      There’s one person that used to comment on SSC that I also saw in the Bleeding Heart Libertarians comment section, but those aren’t vastly different. Another person who used to post on the GameFAQs Politics board was mentioned by username in a comment here.

    • Viliam says:

      Yeah, I noticed that too. My guess is that there are actually not so many places on the internet supporting the kind of discussion I like (I prefer to call it “rational discussion” but of course many people would disagree with that label), and that I keep meeting people who have a similar preference.

      Also, selection bias.

    • Nita says:

      To me, that is the opposite of a problem. I get a very satisfying sense of closure every time my interests or social circles intersect. (Perhaps there’s some sort of drive to explore the environment, which only calms down when you seem to have come full circle.)

      It doesn’t happen very often, though.

      • TPC says:

        I might feel closure if they all got along together, but that is a classic geek fallacy for a reason.

    • J Quenff says:

      I’ve had the effect of seeing lots of familiar faces in strange places years later, but they’ve pretty much all been from SomethingAwful and it seems to already have been acknowledged that SA has had a strangely disproportionate influence on internet discourse.

    • Frog Do says:

      I left Less Wrong sometime in 2010 and ended up back in the rat-sphere due to Tumblr mostly by accident.

    • John Schilling says:

      I know at least three people here from usenet days, twenty years ago and in different contexts, apparently having independently gravitated to this space. So I’ve run into the effect you describe, yes.

      I am unclear on why you describe it as a “problem”.

      • Clathrus says:

        I remember John Schilling from Usenet. I used to hang out in the sci.space.* groups and alt.fan.pratchett . A good SSC comment thread is like being in a 90s newsgroup with a high SNR.

      • John Schilling says:

        Now you’ve got me wondering which of my reports is circulating in your neighborhood.

        I’d seen SSC mentioned in a number of contexts, and I can’t recall whether you were one of the sources, but the one that finally stuck was a comment thread at Marginal Revolution that went out of its way to insult Scott in a way that made me think this was an interesting guy I ought to pay attention to. Sure enough, he was. As is much of the rest of the commentariat here, obviously.

    • suntzuanime says:

      This has only happened to me once, where I discovered a member of a Magic: the Gathering messageboard I frequented was also adjacent to postrationalist Twitter. The internet feels very large to me, in general.

      • Niall says:

        I don’t know if this is weird but I remember seeing you/ your avatar comment both here and under a Wildbow story and noticed you as a regular commenter (amongst like loads of others). It took me ages before I realised you were at both places.

      • Shion Arita says:

        as someone who is more peripherally involved here… postrationalist? what does that mean? when and how did rationalism become postrationalism? It sounds like a fascinating tale.

        • suntzuanime says:

          It’s like beginning of FF6, when the Imperial soldiers march into Narshe shouting “That which can be destroyed by Magitek Armor should be!”

          Which doesn’t really answer your question. Which answers your question. Which doesn’t really answer your question. And it goes on like this.

        • Aaron Brown says:

          Darcey Riley wrote a thing about postrationality. (This was going to be the beginning of a series but unfortunately I’m pretty sure she never wrote the rest.)

      • Sivaas says:

        I had a similar reaction when I learned that a fairly well-known pro Magic: The Gathering player was the CEO of MetaMed.

    • Some Troll's Legitimate Discussion Alt says:

      No matter how different the internet groups that are interesting to you may be, they do all sare the property of being interesting to you.

      Since there are 3 billion plus people on the internet now, at least a few of them are going to have interest profiles similar to your own. Humans aren’t all *that* unique.

      So those TPC-like people keep popping up.

    • meyerkev248 says:

      How are you finding these new corners?

      Some of this is that I’m introduced to X through “Person who was at Y”.

      If persons A-J were also introduced to X through Y, then A-J will also be in both of my corners.

    • JuanPeron says:

      I’ve definitely encountered some of this. I’ve run into people in professional settings who go “Oh, are you that guy from HackerNews?” And I’m firmly convinced that there are only like 30 rationalists (and perhaps twice that many -adjacents), just judging by how many places I run into the same individuals.

      As an example, I read Gwern regularly for some time, then encountered him again through LessWrong, then encountered him a third time, totally independently, through some academic content.

      • Eggoeggo says:

        90-9-1 again, I guess. If there’s 30 you’re aware of, there’s probably 270 who just lurk.
        have you asked any of those people if they ever comment?

        • JuanPeron says:

          Almost certainly – there are plenty of spaces I read but don’t post in myself. I guess I didn’t mean to imply that there are only 30 people, just suggest that I’m stunned at how often the same pool of names shows up in new spots.

    • Flame says:

      I suspect if this is a thing, it’s a combination of (a) high IQ people being uncommon and congregating with one another (b) most people, including high IQ people, don’t use the internet seriously or even if they do they mostly lurk. (I think I remember reading that typical lurker to poster ratio is 10:1 or greater? I wonder if lurkerhood in one forum predicts lurkerhood in general?)

      In particular, I imagine that a good fraction of SSC posters who are old enough to have been around for Usenet were on Usenet at the time it was active. And you wouldn’t be surprised that you’d keep seeing the same people on Usenet because Usenet was a niche thing right?

      • For what it’s worth, I was active on Usenet for a very long time. I think of Facebook as a not very good Usenet replacement, from the standpoint of finding interesting people to argue with, SSC as a considerably better one.

  9. Julie K says:

    Are you interested in having a FAQ for SSC? We could help write it.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Can anyone recommend a good introduction to Color Theory? I can’t pick colors for websites and such.

    • Some Kind Of Dog-Octopus says:

      Websites like http://paletton.com/ are great for picking out triads and such, but to get a good grounding in the theory in a practical sense the resource I found the most useful was Color and Light.

    • When picking individual colors, I often find the HUSL color picker helpful. It’s a color picker that lets you modify colors by three independent properties: hue, saturation, and lightness. Play with it to learn how each property affects the color.

      Unlike “HSL” pickers which are built into many applications, and have the same three property names, HUSL makes these three properties truly independent of each other. So once you set your desired lightness, changing the hue and saturation won’t mess with how bright the color appears to be, unlike with HSL.

      The image to the left of the picker demonstrates how different colors have different maximum saturations at different lightnesses. So there is no such color as “dark highly-saturated yellow” – a yellow like that just can’t exist.

      The graphs farther down the page can also help you understand the difference between “saturation” and “chroma”, though you will need to find other sources for details. Basically, “saturation” is a relative measure of how saturated a color looks compared to how saturated it could be at that lightness, expressed as a percentage. “Chroma” is an absolute measure of how saturated a color looks, expressed as a number. The maximum chroma for various hues at a given lightness level can be different. For example, for light colors, a fully-saturated yellow has much more chroma than a fully-saturated red.

    • Samedi says:

      There is a old, multi-media CD-ROM called DesignSense (https://www.amazon.com/DesignSense-Presentations-Margo-Halverson/dp/0967873606/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1465557492&sr=1-1&keywords=designsense) that I think is the best ever made on the topic. It is aimed at PowerPoint users but its color and layout theory training is amazing. Sadly, it is now very hard to find but well worth it if you can find a copy somewhere.

      If you are old enough you might remember all the hype and promise of interactive learning via CD-ROM. This is one of the few that actually lived up to it.

  11. R Flaum says:

    Idea (not wholly original to me, but I made some tweaks from the version I saw): lawsuit investment. You go to an investor, and say “I have a strong claim against a company that can afford a huge settlement, but I can’t afford lawyers as good as they can.” The investor evaluates your claim and its chance of winning, and if he likes it he he helps pay your legal costs in exchange for a share of the settlement should you win. Is this legal/practical/profitable?

    • God Damn John Jay says:

      I am not sure, but this reminds me of one of the cleverer laws:

      That divorce lawyers are not allowed to work on commission.

    • Anonymous says:

      This reminds me of Saga Iceland’s legal system. You could literally sell your claim to justice to a third party, who would extract it from the offender.

      • I like to argue that, in this respect, we are a mere thousand years behind the cutting edge of legal technology. Making tort claims marketable solves multiple problems:

        1. The tort victim who can’t afford a lawyer. He may be able to get a law firm to take the case for a share of the award, but …

        2. How does he know which law firm will do a good job, which do a bad job, which sell him out for some covert payment? If he can sell his claim, all he needs to know is which firm offers him the highest price.

        3. Ditto for the victim who can afford a lawyer but doesn’t know which to hire.

        4. It replaces the class action as a way of dealing with torts that have many victims, each of which has not suffered enough to make it worth suing. An entrepreneurial lawyer buys up many claims, then sues.

        • LHN says:

          Trade in patents is one way in which this is effectively possible in the current legal system. The public perception of non-practicing entities is reflected in the fact that no one calls them that in any context where “patent troll” is permissible.

          That said, there are institutions that are unpopular at parties but nonetheless make the world more economically efficient. Are companies that buy patents specifically to sue infringers improving total welfare?

          • Loquat says:

            What are patents for, though? The U.S. Constitution fairly explicitly describes the purpose of patent and copyright protection as “to promote the progress of science and useful arts” by protecting the ability of authors and inventors to profit off their work, presumably by selling what they’ve made. The “patent troll” is by definition not trying to sell the new and improved mousetrap or what-have-you, merely waiting for someone else to have the same idea and try to actually make use of it, then demand money.

            If you’re going to invent something useful, but not actually produce it yourself or license it to someone else who will actually produce it, what benefit is there to society in giving you rights over it?

          • The Nybbler says:

            No, but it isn’t inherent in the idea of a non-practicing entity. The problem is that the patents are crap. Companies that actually make things don’t want to get into a war over crap patents; instead, they build up their own portfolio of crap patents to use to threaten back.

            But a non-practicing entity offers a way to make money off bad patents, because there’s no way for the defendent to countersue using its own portfolio. So either a speculator picks up the bad patents when a company goes bankrupt, or someone simply sells the bad patent to the NPE. Then the NPE can sue and make money that way.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Someone could be non-practicing because it is a field which huge start-up costs.

            If I design a novel CPU, I can’t build it myself. I need to license it to others.

    • Lemminkainen says:

      In the real life American legal system, some law firms solicit clients and take a high proportion of the lawsuit’s proceeds rather than flat legal fees. American law firms operate on a partnership structure rather than a corporate one, though, which makes getting outside investment to bring in more capital to fund suits like this more complicated than it might be otherwise.

      • Anonymous says:

        To elaborate, it is illegal for outside investment to come from other than lawyers. Thiel is, in fact, a lawyer, but he probably just donated funds, which anyone could do.

      • Jordan D. says:

        This is exactly how the current system handles ‘X has a strong case for a lawsuit with high damages but no money for attorneys’, and it works in some cases. That’s part of the reason you see a lot of personal injury ads on television featuring serious-looking men in suits telling you that calling their number will cause your opponent to laugh nervously and open up their checkbook. A personal injury firm has seen enough cases that they can make a pretty educated guess whether your claim is likely to succeed (or settle) and what it’ll be worth, and if taking a 30% cut of that will be worth their time.

        Where this could create a market is in risky-proposition cases. A law firm (especially a smaller firm) is a risk-averse entity if it’s getting a percentage fee because lawsuits are really expensive. An investment firm with strong enough metrics could probably pinpoint the precise margins for cases better than a law firm. I actually sort of wonder if Scott’s old idea of a slightly negative-sum betting market fueling some litigation could work, although there are enough potential problems with that idea that I don’t care to seriously suggest it right now.

        Not exactly on-point, but I highly suggest the book ‘A Civil Action’ to anybody who’d like to see a realistic account about the costs and risks of litigation while still having an exciting, character-driven story.

    • Andrew G. says:

      Historically this was illegal, under the name “champerty”.

      In current English law, as I understand it it’s no longer a crime, but the funder of the suit may become liable for costs if they lose.

      (What Thiel did would historically also have been illegal, called “maintenance” – the crime or tort of funding another party’s lawsuit without just cause. Champerty is maintenance in exchange for a proportion of the proceeds of the suit.)

      • R Flaum says:

        British legal doctrines have the funniest names. This is something I’ve noticed before.

        • Jordan D. says:

          Nonsense! Go check out the Tipsy Coachman Doctrine, which I believe originated from some combination of Georgia or Florida.

          • brad says:

            I like “hell or high water” clauses.

          • keranih says:

            Which reminds me of a little lake in central FL, off the east side of the swamp that drains into the St Johns River.

            The name on the maps is “Lake Helen Blazes” which leads some people to ask who Mz Blazes was, and why she lived so far out in the boonies.

    • Neanderthal From Mordor says:

      Here you can buy the litigation rights of someone and take their place in a lawsuit. Sometimes lawyers buy these rights because it’s cheaper for them.
      It’s a good thing because it means that people who can’t afford the cost of lawsuits can still get something and people with power are less likely to bully them.

    • Deiseach says:

      Isn’t that the same kind of thing as “no foal, no fee“?

      I can see the appeal where someone has a genuine claim but the other side can afford the big guns, but on the other hand that’s also an invitation to ambulance chasing and fraudulent claims.

      I’ll have to be careful to name no names here, but there is one lawyer in my town who is notorious for taking cases about the local government authority where I work(ed); one guy who took a case got a nice settlement but once the lawyer had taken his chunk there was not so much left for the plaintiff.

      There was also a particular family who had terrible misfortune; they were always tripping over uneven paving on the streets and having to go to court and get damages. It was a plague for them, it went from one member to another, all falling over in the street and getting injured and having to go to court. Such unlucky people!

      *sarcasm off*

      • Doctor Mist says:

        no foal, no fee

        I thought this was a typo for “foul”, but that’s how it appears (three times) in the linked article, which seems to have nothing to do with horses. I still think it must be a typo, or a mechanical translation error, but I’m fascinated to know if this is some idiom I have missed.

        • J Quenff says:

          It’s from animal husbandry, where you’d pay someone to bring his stallion to impregnate your mare, with the stipulation that if no foal was begotten, no fee would be paid.

        • Manya says:

          It appears to come from horse breeding:
          John Smith has a mare that he wants to breed. Sally Jones has a stallion. John and Sally agree that Sally’s stallion will mount John’s mare, and if she gets pregnant, John will pay Sally a fee. But he doesn’t pay anything until there is an actual success.

          The analogy to legal cases seems clear. You win, you have a foal. You lose, you don’t pay anything.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Wow, learn something new every day, if I pay attention. I should have googled the phrase straightaway.


    • Steven says:

      The is legal in the US and the UK, and is growing in significance.
      Suggested Google search terms that will pull up references:
      litigation finance
      litigation funding
      legal financing

    • Matt M says:

      Was this inspired by the Peter Thiel/Gawker situation?

      That was somewhat similar. It was basically someone going to a rich person and saying “I have a strong claim against a company you hate, but I can’t afford lawyers as good as they can – will you agree to compensate me for my legal expenses if I lose in exchange for the personal satisfaction of having destroyed them if I win?”

      I mean it’s not exactly the same but…

      • R Flaum says:

        It was inspired by a guy I saw on Twitter commenting on the Thiel/Gawker thing, yes. His idea seemed to be public-spirited rich guys funding lawsuits out of the goodness of their hearts, but I thought a self-interested version would be more interesting.

        • Andrew G. says:

          Frankly I see the “public-spirited rich guy” case as being far more dangerous. One of the criticisms of Thiel—rightly or wrongly, I haven’t investigated—is that his involvement changed the case from one that Gawker could have settled into one that put Gawker’s continued existence at stake, without actually getting more benefit for the plaintiff-of-record. One could hope that a for-profit funder would have better incentives in this respect.

          (How to allow for-profit funding without letting in the malicious rich guy funder is another question.)

          In UK law, where the loser as a rule pays the winner’s costs, as I understand it a third party who funds the losing side can find themselves ordered to pay a share of costs reflecting the extent to which their involvement extended the proceedings without cause.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Wait, how is there not more benefit for the plaintiff? He gets a judgment big enough to put Gawker’s continued existence at stake. And he may even have some emotional interest in getting justice instead of a spare-change settlement, too, Gawker has been at least as unkind to Hulk Hogan as it has to Peter Thiel.

          • Andrew G. says:

            If the plaintiff has been harmed then he’s entitled to damages in respect of the harm, and perhaps an injunction to prevent further harm; he’s not in general entitled to dictate some specific outcome for the defendant.

            Refusing a settlement in order to run up the other side’s costs, or adjusting the claim to avoid the possibility that the other side’s insurance might cover it, is exactly the kind of conduct that would distinguish the malicious maintainer from a profit-oriented funder.

          • Jordan D. says:

            The solution to that, it seems to me, is the same one which is practiced in certain fields of insurance: have the interested third party pay into a fund but forbid disclosure of the third party to the attorney. That way the attorney’s interests can only come from the plaintiff directly.

            (Granted, that still leaves open the situation where the third party gives the first party instructions on how they want the case handled. Such is life.)

          • suntzuanime says:

            Didn’t the plaintiff sue for damages in respect of the harm? I guess there were some punitive damages too, but surely you don’t think punitive damages are evil and should be abolished. I don’t know why you think the plaintiff has an obligation to settle for an amount that Gawker’s insurance might cover; he was wronged, and deserves his day in court.

          • John Schilling says:

            he’s not in general entitled to dictate some specific outcome for the defendant

            He is specifically entitled to dictate, “You will pay me the sum of money that the jury determines is fair”. He is also specifically entitled to dictate, “Yes, we are going to put this to the jury and see what they think is fair rather than you giving me some smaller sum in exchange for going home early”.

            If this happens to result in the defendant’s bankruptcy, then yes, the plaintiff is entitled to demand the defendant’s bankruptcy.

    • JuanPeron says:

      I can’t speak to legal, but it’s profitable. From a financial perspective it’s effectively the same as getting a lawyer who’s working for a cut of the settlement, but with a freer market. There’s no particular reason that the person ‘investing’ in your court case should be the lawyer prosecuting it; they might have an uncommon sense of how likely you are to win, but it should be productive to sell that claim to anyone who’s interested in buying it.

      If anything, your system should increase the odds of successful prosecution. As is, semi-shady lawyers who are willing to work on spec usually take these cases. In your model, a strong-and-valuable claim can be sold to an investor rich enough to front money for the best lawyers around.

      This also creates solves the problem of spec-work lawyers taking the entire settlement. Right now they’re fighting your broke ass over fees (What’re you gonna do, sue them? You couldn’t afford a lawyer in the first place!) As proposed, they’d be dealing with a wealthy-and-experienced lawsuit-investor, hopefully leading to better negotiated settlement structures.

  12. Eggoeggo says:

    Odd question, but would anyone here be interested in a brief, illustrated post on the history of beekeeping?
    Some conversations in the last few threads about mead-making, medieval food and drink, and economic history got me looking at some recent archeology papers on the subject, and they’ve discovered some fascinating things.
    (To… well, someone who’s a little too obsessed with all of those subjects.)

    It’s a strange feeling to look at dung & straw hives from 1100-900 BC right next to identical ones from 2012 AD.
    And it’s even stranger to realize that iron age peasants 3000 years ago—who could only spell “bee” by drawing little pictures of them—knew the ideal dimensions for hive volume and opening size down to the centimeter. Dimensions that were only confirmed experimentally in the 1980s!

    Beekeeping history is only interesting to weird nerds, but the discovery and cultural transmission of knowledge over millennia could be a useful thing for a rationalist group to talk about in general. And this seems like a perfect case study, if I can dig up more info.

    • Anonymous says:

      Am interested in apiculture a bit, yes. Would like a post.

    • TPC says:

      Yes, I would like this post, and this is illustrating my post-point up above in a slightly different way. Here it’s someone physically local to me, which also happens a ton. I’ve scaled back on mentioning my location because in the recent areas I am online they seem dominated by people from my physical location (well, within 500 miles).

    • Richard says:

      I’ve been keeping bees for a decade (after taking over from several generations of beekeepers) and still know practically zero about the history attached to the whole thing. Would love such a post and can possibly pitch in with a few comments about the current state of the art if desirable.

    • Nita says:

      Yes. Not sure why you’re hating on pictograms, though. They’re very user-friendly in relatively small, relatively static domains.

    • Deiseach says:

      Why not? Knowledge is no burden, as the saying goes! And it’s nice to see something that helps drive out the modern attitude that “people Back Then were so dumb, they believed all this crap, unlike us Smart Moderns who know so much and all our beliefs are perfectly reasonable”.

      Rule of thumb, trial-and-error, and observation over time means that though they may not have had sophisticated measuring instruments or been able to devise the perfect theory, they could – as in your example about opening size – find the best way to do something by using the evidence of their eyes and experience. I think we tend to over-emphasise “if this doesn’t have seven decimal places it’s no good” when ‘close enough’ is good enough for practical purposes.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        Rule of thumb, trial-and-error, and observation over time means that though they may not have had sophisticated measuring instruments or been able to devise the perfect theory, they could – as in your example about opening size – find the best way to do something by using the evidence of their eyes and experience.

        I can’t remember where I was reading it (maybe a Jared Diamond book?) but I remember it being observed that the construction of Polynesian canoes was based on copying the ones that came back to shore.

        • CatCube says:

          Evolution, in other words.

        • The same method was used during WWII to figure out what were the vulnerable points on bombers. Have a model of the bomber. Every time one comes back, put a black patch on the model where each bullet hole is. Look for the areas that end up with no black patches. Those are where the bullet holes were in the ones that didn’t come back.

          • Agronomous says:

            Putting the armor where the bullet holes weren’t was actually a hard-won insight on the part of Abraham Wald; I’d known the story, but not about the man, until I read about him in a book by a mathematician, Jordan Ellenberg, who I knew briefly when we were young, called How Not to Be Wrong, which should have some appeal to this readership.

            Then this past week the put-the-armor-where-there-are-no-holes idea made the rounds on Twitter, where people had to point out that it wasn’t apocryphal (progress!).

            So it’s a small world, both in terms of people and in terms of ideas.

          • I’m pretty sure I had the story from my father, who was part of the statistical research group during the war, which I think is where the idea came from. Wald was part of the same group.

      • bbartlog says:

        I strongly suspect that preliterate people had far better skills of observation and recall, at least for concrete events, than we do today. Partly this is due to a sense that there must be some similar overall use of brain capacity, and therefore all of the memory we now devote to modern factoids and media creations must at one time have been much more allocated towards remembering the small details of everyday life and/or the local social gossip. I remember reading an account of a farmer from the 1870s who commented that it had rained on some particular date for five years running. Who now would be able to call to mind the weather on a particular day, for years in to the past, without recourse to a computer?
        So far as bees go, this is relevant because I expect that one way to figure out how big the hive opening size needs to be is just to watch your bees for an hour every day, understand what they’re trying to do and whether they’re getting bottlenecked, and enlarge the opening as needed. Once you realize it always ends up essentially the same size you have the information you need…

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          I remember reading an account of a farmer from the 1870s who commented that it had rained on some particular date for five years running. Who now would be able to call to mind the weather on a particular day, for years in to the past, without recourse to a computer?

          If it was an important day, like my birthday, I’d probably remember it.

          And if it was an important day for farming, and the rain impacted it, the farmer would remember it, too.

        • LHN says:

          I think it’s very likely that preliterate people had better skills for observation and recall. Methods of conserving necessary knowledge seem likely to have a huge impact on group survival.

          On the other hand, it’s likely they also had comparable tendencies towards confirmation bias and overestimating the accuracy of their memories, eyewitness testimony, etc., to what we find in our own experiments. One difference between the farmer saying it rained on date X for five years running now is that instead of assuming he must know or he wouldn’t be saying it, and being suitably impressed, we can google and check.

          (Though most people still might not– the “[citation needed]” tendency is stronger in the geekosphere than in mainstream society as far as I can tell. [citation needed])

        • Nicholas says:

          In fact there were entire suites of pedagogic technologies, fully developed courses of training to cultivate this skill, that became completely outmoded by widespread book printing. Once you had widespread literacy anyway, putting more paper into people’s hands was easier than giving them a minor-degrees worth of training in memory control.

    • vjl110 says:


      I am really interested in bee-keeping generally, and have actually done some unpublished research on honey collection among African foragers that will likely remain unpublished. There are tons of interesting angles to the topic: The clever search strategies (like triangulating ‘bee tracks’ to find hives), the strategic nature of the symbiotic relationship with the honey guide, and the unique property rights problems that honey collection poses for foragers.

    • Zorgon says:

      Dear gods, yes. BEES!

    • Nornagest says:

      Absolutely. Especially if it goes into detail on pre-modern developments — most of the time when I see an article on the history of some technology, it jumps straight from Egypt or Rome to the early modern period.

    • Yes, yes I would. That sounds fantastically interesting. Every time I stumble onto anything apicultural, I get swallowed up by a mini-wiki-sinkhole for some number of hours. I suppose I should try it some day when I actually have a yard, but until then, I must live vicariously!

    • keranih says:

      Yes. If you could find information on Yemen and the practice of carrying log hives at night by camel, that would be extra awesome.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s a strange feeling to look at dung & straw hives from 1100-900 BC right next to identical ones from 2012 AD.
      And it’s even stranger to realize that iron age peasants 3000 years ago—who could only spell “bee” by drawing little pictures of them—knew the ideal dimensions for hive volume and opening size down to the centimeter. Dimensions that were only confirmed experimentally in the 1980s!

      “You are not smarter than the entire past.”

      • Eggoeggo says:

        Your answer there was exactly why that info made such an impression on me, rather than “huh, that’s a funny coincidence”.

  13. Lemminkainen says:

    So, inspired by a whole bunch of posters talking about how acceptance of Muslims gelled with Blue and Red values, I’m going to offer some interesting observations based on some travels in the Middle East:

    The Shi’a Muslims of South Lebanon (ie: Hizbullah country) are more like Red Tribe Americans than any group of non-Americans I’ve ever encountered (after years of travel in Europe and a lot of contact with immigrants from East and South Asia.) [In the sentences that follow, I’m going to be speaking in statistical generalities– a lot of people in the region do diverge from the pattern in some way, just as many Red Tribe Americans don’t fit aspects of that pattern.] They’re deeply patriotic in a way that links up with regional and sectarian identity, they valorize military service and honor their war dead with great ceremony, they love guns and old cars, they have an intensely entrepreneurial small business culture, they smoke Winstons and eat at KFC, they prefer not to move too far away from their hometowns, they try to maintain and expand family farms, they put a high priority on their relationships with their families, they’re patriarchal but not to the point of banning women from the workforce, they’re baffled and somewhat disgusted by trans people, and they’re extremely friendly and hospitable to visitors, and show their hospitality by serving huge, high-fat meals which you have to eat all of to avoid being perceived as rude.

    Making my own position more clear: I’m a very Blue Blue-triber, but I don’t have the usual tribal antipathy towards Reds, probably because my mother’s from a Red midwestern family, and because I went to college in Texas, so I got a lot of opportunities to build emotional connections with Red people. My historical research incorporates material relating to the Middle East, so, like most people in Middle Eastern studies, I’m more inclined to be sympathetic to Arabs than most Americans are.

    • Nita says:

      Hmm, what about Israeli Reds? Are they very different from that?

      • Ben David says:

        Israeli Jewish society doesn’t really fit into the sociology of the United States. The big cleavages there are: fundamentalist (Haradi) vs national religious vs secular, Russian speaking vs non-Russian speaking, and Ashkenazi vs Sephardi vs other.

        Within a particular subgroup (i.e. secular, Ashkenazi, non-Russian) you do see the kind of economic and cultural animosities that split the U.S. red and blue tribes but with the physical geography being so much smaller and the overarching cleavages playing such a prominent role, the kind of sharp tribal separation we see in the US is not really possible.

      • Vadim Kosoy says:

        Israeli here (don’t idenitify as either left or right wing even though I voted for a left wing party – Meretz – on previous elections). I partially agree with Ben David but the division between people supporting dovish policy vs. people supporting hawkish policy is also significant (and correlates with other standard positionos of left vs. right politics but not perfectly). That said, it doesn’t seem to have most of the cultural attributes of the American Red Tribe. If I interpret “Israeli Reds” as “Israelis who support hawkish policy” and compare with Lemminkainen list:

        * Deeply patriotic, valorize military service: yes
        * Love guns and old cars: Not really. Notice that gun ownership by civilians is very restricted in Israel.
        * Small business culture: Hmm, don’t think so.
        * Winstons and KFC: no.
        * Moving far away: Israel is a small country so moving away doesn’t seem to be a big issue. OTOH, Lebanon is even smaller. Maybe the transport infrastructure there is worse though, I dunno.
        * Family farms: not really. To the extend agriculture is idealized it seems a left-wing thing as much as a right-wing thing, at least used to be (see Kibbutz).
        * Sexism and other bigotry: I’m sure there is substantial positive correlation but there also seem to be substantial groups of hawkish people who are not especially bigotted (except bigotry towards Arabs; this is somewhat difficult to separate from hawkishness, at least from extreme hawkishness).
        * Hospitality: Hmm, dunno, don’t think there is strong correlation there.

    • These Shia Muslims sound like my kind of people. Actually, they also sound a lot like Romanians.

      • JuanPeron says:

        My first reaction here was “Sounds like Eastern Europe!” (Also Scotland in a lot of ways.) That cluster of ideas (sexual traditionalism, machinery traditionalism/affection, dietary habits, etc) seems to have found expression in at least half a dozen wildly distinct places.

        • Publius Varinius says:

          To me, it sounds like the complete opposite of (present-day) Scotland. And I live in Scotland. And I was born in Yugoslavia.

    • moridinamael says:

      I think the citizens of almost every other country in the world have more in common with Red Tribe Americans than Blue Tribe Americans, except the upper-left quadrant of Europe.

      Source: lots of travel

      • Lee Wang says:

        Outbreeding versus inbreeding.

      • Anonymous says:

        I sort of noticed this too. While I found very little in common with American media figures, the expat Americans I met were actually overwhelmingly people I most liked and could easily get along with. All of them were Red Tribe.

        • hlynkacg says:

          Anecdote, but as someone who almost went the expat route, but came home in the end, I’ve often felt that that I had more in common with the dirty rednecks, be they from Sumatra or Missouri than I did with the folk from Paris or New York.

    • Hlynkacg says:


      You’re not the only one. Making my own position more clear; I’m probably far more “Red” than the average commenter here and the similarities were striking to me as well. As far as why things have played out the way they have, I feel like there is a two-fold problem.

      (Note that this is based entirely my own experience/perception rather than any sort of scientifically rigorous analysis.)

      I think the first part of the issue is that I think a large portion of people’s opinions that are influenced by activists and the media rather than direct experience. The second and in my mind the more critical problem is that the activists and the media seem to be actively trying to muddy the waters, making any sort of distinction between distinction between Sunni, Shia, Wahhabists, etc… politically untenable. As such they all get rolled into the blanket group “Muslims” or “Middle Easterners”.

      This vox article was linked in the subreddit, and I feel like something similar is happening in regards to immigration, specifically immigration from the Middle East.

      When employers don’t have an explicit criminal history to look at, they may resort to other cues — like race — to gauge if someone has a criminal history.

      By the same token when we are prevented from discriminating between say Shia and Sunni, or Chaldeans and Wahhabi there is a (IMO reasonable) impulse to just throw up one’s hands and say “Fuck it, none of you get to come in”.

      • Lemminkainen says:

        Yeah, of these distinctions, I think that the Wahabbis vs. Everyone Else one is the most important. Having more knowledge about the Middle East has made me feel much more comfortable hating on the Wahabbis, because most Muslims (Sunni and Shi’a, actually) in places like Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt also hate them. (I think that this dislike also ties in to a general sense of resentment towards the citizens and governments of the Gulf countries and especially towards the Saudis, who people in the poorer parts of the Arab world perceive as bastards who stir up trouble in their countries and then don’t lift a finger to help, all while claiming to be good Muslims.)

        • Fahundo says:

          and especially towards the Saudis, who people in the poorer parts of the Arab world perceive as bastards who stir up trouble in their countries and then don’t lift a finger to help, all while claiming to be good Muslims.

          Haven’t traveled the region as much as you have but this part is definitely something I noticed right away.

          • Lemminkainen says:

            Don’t want to suggest that I’ve traveled more than I have. I do my research in Beirut, but I’ve run into and talked to a bunch of Palestinians, Syrians, and Egyptians there.

      • Lemminkainen says:

        Oh, also, I think that your theory about the representation of American Muslims discounts what I think is a simpler explanation– most Americans actually just don’t know much about the distinctions between different groups of Muslims, at least not beyond the Sunni/Shi’a split, so their discourse doesn’t take those divisions into account. (This isn’t a knock on Americans– I doubt that most Middle Eastern Muslims keep track of the differences between the eighty bajillion Protestant denominations.)

        • hlynkacg says:

          Understand that I’m not disagreeing. I think you are correct in observing that most Americans do not understand the distinctions.

          I actually find this incredibly frustrating, because I think these distinction are important and as I said above, it seems to me that there is a subset of activists and the media (the folks at CAIR spring to mind) who are actively try to keep these distinctions from being made.

        • BBA says:

          There are probably still many Americans who think of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and the Nation of Islam when you mention Muslims. The NoI was either a deeply heterodox form of Islam or a separate religion entirely, not unlike the relationship of Mormonism to Christianity, but for many years it was the most visible sect calling itself “Islamic” in America. (I use the past tense because the organization fragmented after the death of Elijah Muhammad. The current incarnation of the Nation of Islam under Louis Farrakhan is, of all things, a Scientology affiliate.)

          • hlynkacg says:

            I think you are correct and I suspect that those I mentioned above may be trying to cash in on this sort of equivocation.

        • Matt M says:

          “I doubt that most Middle Eastern Muslims keep track of the differences between the eighty bajillion Protestant denominations”

          Hell, most non-Protestant Americans don’t even do this. I’m an agnostic and I know more about the difference between Sunni and Shia than I do about the difference between Baptist and Methodist (because it seems less relevant to global events).

          • John Schilling says:

            Sunni/Shia is in any event more closely comparable to Catholic/Protestant. How many outsiders know more about that than “The Catholics all obey the Pope, the Protestants don’t because of something they protested once upon a time”?

          • I know more about the difference between Twelver Shia and Sevener Shia than the difference between Baptist and Methodist.

          • caethan says:

            It’s not that hard. Baptists are Puritan descendants who split off in the early 1600s and share a common focus on baptism of believers rather than infant baptism. Methodists are Anglican descendants which began as a reformist movement and later split into a separate church, thanks mostly to independent ordination not approved by the institutional Anglican church. The historical context is interesting – after the Revolutionary War, there were no longer any validly ordained Anglican bishops in America. So John Wesley (an ordained Anglican) ordained his own priests to go and minister to Methodists in America rather than wait for the institutional church to send their own bishop.

      • JuanPeron says:

        This nails something I’ve been thinking a lot about. The failure to welcome groups like the Chaldeans as refugees seems to be almost exclusively a product of political point-scoring.

        The Democrats go “let in the Middle Eastern refugees, they need help!” The Republicans go “no, they’re scary Islamic terrorist types! But we’ll take the Christians!” And the Democrats go “no, that’s religious discrimination, so don’t let them in either!” So suddenly we’re not letting in a bunch of white-looking, culturally-uncontroversial refugees who are in desperate danger, because no one will budge on their proposals. Everyone involved thinks they should come in, but no one can draft a policy making it happen.

        None of that was meant to be a moral assessment, just an observation that we have this utterly-idiotic system where we have a near-universally accepted opportunity to do good and still achieve nothing.

        • Hlynkacg says:

          Agreed. The partisanship and “culture war” stuff ranges from entertaining to annoying, but this is the sort of thing that tempts me to spit upon my hands and hoist the black flag…

        • Matt M says:

          I’d also like to point out that for as up in arms as everyone gets about how “unfair” it is to discriminate on the basis of religion, our current system discriminates based on how much we like the guy who rules the chunk of land you happened to be born on. And that’s apparently not controversial at all…

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t know. If it was late 1939 and there was a proposed bill to allow 50,000 refugees from Poland into the country, but the southern democrats insisted on adding a requirement that they be Christian, because they didn’t want any more Jesus killers in the country, I probably wouldn’t be supporting the bill.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t see why.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Not a perfect analogy: after 1939, Polish Jews were in far greater danger than Polish Gentiles: over 90% of Jews who were in Poland before the war started were dead by its end.

            In contrast, Christians in the places refugees have recently been fleeing are probably more at risk than the average.

          • JuanPeron says:


            This seems crucial.

            I’m sympathetic to the idea that half measures prevent whole measures. I was intensely skeptical of ‘civil partnerships’ in the gay marriage debate because they seemed less like a stepping stone than a derailing tactic, and I think the same logic applies in a lot of other places.

            In this case, though… The edge case in question (Christians, Chaldeans, Yazidis, whoever other non-Muslims) is even more extreme (per capita) than the standard case. What’s more, we could easily settle as many immigrants from those groups as Americans are likely to take anyway – it’s a half measure, but the full measure would help the same number of people.

            If anything, I would analogize to Israel’s immigration rules instead of pre-war conflict; they didn’t help everyone getting persecuted in Russia, but Russian Jews were pretty clearly a group in uncommon need of help!

          • Matt M says:

            I can’t find the source on this – but I swear when this whole refugee thing started happening, I was seeing a ton of articles on social media from blue-tribe folks about how back in the 30s, a majority of Americans opposed allowing Jewish refugees from Europe to come settle in America (the point of which, presumably was: see, we haven’t changed, we’re as racist and terrible as ever).

          • John Schilling says:

            If there was a proposal to settle 50,000 Polish refugees and some politically-powerful group said “OK, we’ll take 50,000 Jews, but we don’t want any of the Gypsies”, would you really have vetoed the resulting bill?

          • dndnrsn says:

            My historical understanding is as follows:

            In the 1930s, the debate was largely over accepting as refugees Jews in German-controlled areas, who faced increasing discrimination (mass killings didn’t start until 1939 with shootings in Poland, and only really took off in massive numbers in 1941 with shootings in the USSR; death camps followed that).

            Not only did the various countries that could have taken in the German Jews not want to (being, by the standards of today, very anti-Semitic) they feared that if they took in German Jews, they would be followed by Jews from east of Germany – who were much more numerous, generally less assimilated, and victims of discrimination as well.

            It’s not a great analogy, for 2 different reasons:

            1. The situation is not Person A saying “we should let Middle Eastern Christian refugees in” and someone else saying “ew we don’t like Middle Eastern Christians, plus if we let them in all the other groups facing persecution will have a precedent”. It’s Person A saying “we should let Middle Eastern refugees in” and person B saying “well, but let’s limit it to Christians”, with person A replying by saying “all or none!”

            2. Jews in Germany, and in Europe in general, in the 1930s faced discrimination. The mass killing hadn’t started yet: very few people were predicting that by 1945 2/3 of European Jews would be dead (and that’s when Jews in places the Germans never reached are counted – if you only include German territory, German-allied territory, and occupied territory, it’s higher). In contrast, mass killings are already happening in the Middle East.

        • John Schilling says:

          our current system discriminates based on how much we like the guy who rules the chunk of land you happened to be born on

          This is the second time you’ve said that, and I don’t think it is true. Our current system distinguishes immigrants by nationality. Nationality is more than “the guy who rules the chunk of land”. Of all the potentially relevant factors that constitute nationality, I do not think that the identity or likeability of the present head of state or head of government is anywhere near the top of the list in US immigration policy.

          If it were, I’d expect US immigration policy to undergo frequent changes when nations change administration or government, and I don’t see much evidence of that.

          If you understand that US immigration policy cares about other relevant aspects of nationality and are trying to trivialize it as a sort of personal popularity issue, please stop.

          • Matt M says:

            I’m not 100% familiar with our country by country policy, but is it your assertion that in terms of immigration, our government treats people from Syria, Jordan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia all the exact same?

            My guess is that no – they aren’t treated the same, and that favorable treatment probably follows favorable relations with the government from which they claim citizenship. What “other aspects of nationality” does it care about that are things we wouldn’t find it abhorrent to discriminate based on?

            Are there other things that might separate an Iranian from a Jordanian? Sure – religion immediately comes to mind – but wait, using that as a criteria is evil and wrong.

            Edit: And I mean to refer to “immigration” in the broadest possible sense – encompassing visits for tourism, work visas, permanent residence, refugee/asylum claiming, citizenship, all that. I’m assuming that in all of these areas, the difficulty of accomplishing your desired task depends a great deal on which passport you have – which is almost always a direct result of where you happened to be born.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’d guess that US immigration (etc) policy treats Jordanians and Saudis in a sufficiently similar manner as to make no meaningful difference. But it’s your claim, so I’ll let you look it up.

            I’d also guess that US immigration policy w/re Syria has changed dramatically over the past five years, even though it is the same guy running the country (or at least the parts that are still issuing Syrian passports). I would expect that US policy on Syrian immigrants today is substantially similar to US policy on immigrants from other countries with messy, bloody civil wars in progress and is driven by that fact more than any other.

            And with regards to Iran, the incredibly obvious characteristic that distinguishes it from Jordan as a source of immigrants to the United States of America is that Iran’s messy bloody civil war not too long ago was explicitly anti-American in character and still results in annual anti-American mass celebrations promising Death to the Great Satan.

            Is it really your contention that the only meaningful differences between those nations are the extent to which Salman bin Abdulaziz, Abdulla bib Al-Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, and Ali Khameni are “liked” by the United States Government?

          • Matt M says:

            “And with regards to Iran, the incredibly obvious characteristic that distinguishes it from Jordan as a source of immigrants to the United States of America is that Iran’s messy bloody civil war not too long ago was explicitly anti-American in character and still results in annual anti-American mass celebrations promising Death to the Great Satan.”

            And what does the average Iranian poor laborer have to do with any of that? He is almost certainly not involved in this. It’s a dispute between the rulers of Iran and the rulers of the U.S. And yet, the fact that he was born on one side of a particular river means that we hold him somehow responsible, and yet someone born on the other side of the river would not be held responsible.

            Is your point “It’s reasonable to restrict immigration for Iranians because a lot of them have professed anti-American viewpoints?”

            Because that applies to Muslims as well. People object to that with “It’s unfair to discriminate against the whole group because of the actions of a few!” So why does that STOP being unfair if you do it based on “nationality” (whatever that means) rather than religion?

          • John Schilling says:

            Is your point “It’s reasonable to restrict immigration for Iranians because a lot of them have professed anti-American viewpoints?”

            Is your point, “It’s reasonable to restrict immigration for Iranians because we don’t like their present head of state”?

            Make up your mind what you want to talk about, because this is getting really annoying. Are we talking about what US immigration policy reasonably should be, or about what US immigration policy actually is?

            I have said nothing in this thread about the reasonableness of any US immigration policy, real or hypothetical, and at this point I do not intend to. You made an explicit but unsupported assertion about what US immigration policy actually is, and it is one which I do not believe is true. I do not even believe that you believe it is literally true. As part of my response, I offered an alternate (and oversimplified) explanation as to what I think US immigration policy actually is. I make no claim that this is “reasonable” as a policy, only that it is more likely to be the actual policy than is your strawman.

          • Matt M says:

            I propose that U.S. immigration policy currently discriminates on the basis of nationality (and the only thing they check is your passport, not any of the non-geographic factors you propose make up nationality). I offer you no particular evidence, just a hunch I have. Feel free to believe that’s wrong if you’d like.

            My feeling on the matter is that discriminating based on nationality is certainly no better than discriminating based on religion (which we are frequently told is just plain evil). I would actually lean towards the idea that discriminating based on nationality is worse than discriminating based on religion, because you can generally pick your religion (yes yes, I know in the middle east it’s not quite that simple sometimes) but you can’t pick your nationality – it is a pure fluke of birth.

            I also propose to you that if you asked most Americans, “Should we have different immigration policies for Canadians and Iranians” they would say yes – obviously – that’s just common sense. But if you asked them “Should we have different immigration policies for Christians and Muslims” they would say no – that’s discrimination, it’s un-American! I believe these positions are contradictory. In either case, you are judging an individual based on your perception of the group they belong to.

          • Matt M says:

            Your lack of patience isn’t my problem.

            The obvious point here is that “nationality” is primarily determined by one thing – where you happened to be born (and occasionally, where your parents happened to be born).

            Your rant about how there are “other things” that comprise nationality is technically accurate, but irrelevant to the issue. When we decide whether to let in Abdul or Muhammad, we look at one thing, the country that issued their passport. We don’t quiz them on whether they are moderate Shia or 12er Sunni – we don’t take note of whether they speak Arabic or Farsi – we look at “country you are a citizen of” only – and as discussed above, this is almost always a product of circumstances of birth entirely outside one’s control.

            But how do we decide which countries citizens to grant easy access to and which ones to grant strict scrutiny? I suppose if you have an optimistic view of government you might say “Our elected leaders survey various research conducted by our intelligence agencies to make educated estimates of the threat level presented by nationals of each individual nation and apply policy accordingly.”

            I, taking a slightly more pessimistic view, characterize the same process as, “Our leaders decide how much they like the policies instituted by the leaders of other countries.”

            This is largely a semantic debate, and once again, which side is “correct” here is probably irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that a poor Jordanian has zero influence on how much the Obama administration likes the King of Jordan (or, if you prefer, how much of a threat the CIA thinks the average Jordanian is). The average Iranian has no influence on those things in regard to Iran. I have no influence on these things in regard to the U.S. (this isn’t a one way street by the way, I suspect that I would have a tougher time immigrating to Iran than a Jordanian would, but I might be wrong about that).

            For the 50th time, the point here is that this is “policy as usual” and nobody cares. Nobody considers it a moral outrage to discriminate against Muhammad the Iranian, who has done no harm to anyone, because some Iranians are bad and don’t like us. And yet, proposing discriminating against Abdul the Muslim, who has done no harm to anyone, because some Muslims are bad and don’t like us – is considered a disgusting and un-American practice. This makes no sense to me, and I have yet to hear anyone attempt to justify the apparent contradiction.

          • Anonymous says:

            Chargability for US immigration quotas is a separate issue from nationality. For example, you can be charged to the country that is the current sovereign of the place where you were born even if you aren’t a national of that country, indeed even if that country didn’t have sovereignty over that location when you were born. That wrinkle saved my grandfather from the holocaust.

          • Matt M says:


            I’m not quite understanding you. Is your point that your grandfather was born somewhere the U.S. liked, then a hostile regime took over, but immigration officials still treated him as if he were “from” a regime we liked?

            That’s fortunate for him and seems to be good judgement for sure – but what help is it to people who are born in a hostile regime and would prefer to leave? The idea of allowing Jews to come over to escape the Nazis is noble and proper… but what about an ethnic German born in Munich who just plain dislikes Hitler? Should he not be allowed in?

          • Jiro says:

            The ethnic German born in Munich who dislikes Hitler is not in as much danger as the Jew, even though, Hitler being Hitler, his danger is still non-zero.

          • Matt M says:

            “The ethnic German born in Munich who dislikes Hitler is not in as much danger as the Jew”

            Is the Lebanese Christian as much danger as the Lebanese Muslim?

          • Anonymous says:

            @Matt M
            In this particular case it didn’t have anything to do with “liking” a particular regime. The US at that time didn’t like Hitler’s Germany any better than it liked Schuschnigg’s Austria. On the contrary, probably. Instead at that time U.S. immigration policy favored Western Europeans over Eastern Europeans for reasons that would probably sound very familiar today if you changed Eastern European to say Mexican. But since it was based on where you were born rather than nationality my grandfather was under the Western European German quota, rather than the Eastern European Austrian quota and was able to escape to the United States. His parents were considered Austrian for the purposes of US immigration law, could not immigrate, and died at Dachau.

            In any event, I agree with you that we should eliminate per country quotas, I just thought the little factoid about the distinction between nationality and changeability might be interesting.

          • Tom Womack says:

            “If it were, I’d expect US immigration policy to undergo frequent changes when nations change administration or government, and I don’t see much evidence of that.”

            I know more about UK than about US immigration policy; but the UK is quite good at gathering expert witnesses about conditions in other nations, and has fairly nuanced policy which does change with time – most Tamils from Sri Lanka could get asylum in the UK in 2008; nowadays you would have to have been an obvious member of the LTTE to get it.

          • John Schilling says:

            [The UK] has fairly nuanced policy which does change with time – most Tamils from Sri Lanka could get asylum in the UK in 2008; nowadays you would have to have been an obvious member of the LTTE to get it.

            Yes, but does “nowadays” mean since about 2009, when the civil war ended, or since 2015, when Sri Lanka got a new president and prime minister?

            If the policy change occurred in the 2009-2015 timeframe, that’s an argument against the “…based on how much we like the guy who rules the chunk of land” theory of immigration discrimination.

        • John Schilling says:

          I propose that U.S. immigration policy currently discriminates on the basis of nationality

          I agree. That is why the second sentence I wrote in my original response was, “Our current system distinguishes immigrants by nationality”.

          But this is the first time you have made that statement. What really pisses me off is that it has taken you this long to make such a simple and unobjectionable statement, which might have served as the foundation for a discussion. Instead, you have persistently and perversely said “how much we like the guy who rules the chunk of land you happened to be born on”, apparently imagining that it is a synonym for “nationality” or that we will all admire your wit in asserting so.

          That’s false, it’s stupid, and it’s silly. In the unlikely even that there is some deep truth to it that I have previously missed, you probably should have tried to offer a serious explanation at some point. Because I was from the outset quite explicit that this supposed equivalence was the source of my disagreement with you, and I have now at the conclusion lost patience with you.

      • Anonymous says:

        In general I’m glad U.S. refugee policy tends towards long standing programmatic rules rather than ad hoc chasing after the latest group of photogenic disaster victims.

        That said, vis-à-vis Iraqis in particular there is an element of “you broke it, you bought it”. Yet another brick in the Iraq was Vietnam 2.0 wall I guess.

    • Eli says:

      That’s accurate, and also manages to succinctly describe what I dislike about much of the Arab culture I’ve encountered. Not the loudness or the liking for guns and cars, so much as the incredible racial chauvinism and nationalism, and of course the antisemitism, which they share in common with American-brand racial chauvinists.

      I hope you realize that it’s not fucking cute in the Middle East, and actually causes wars. People die because many Arabs cannot feel ok about living alongside non-Arabs.

      • Lemminkainen says:

        I’d agree with you that the chauvinism and nationalism (and more pertinently in Lebanon, sectarianism) are negative traits, but I don’t agree with you that they indicate that Arabs’ culture is uniquely pathological or a sufficient explanation for warfare. Indeed, as some other commenters have pointed out, this is a package of cultural traits which appears in a lot of different world regions, many of which don’t share the Middle East’s recent history of intense warfare.

        I also think that your implicit attribution of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Arab anti-Semitism (which, to be clear, is common in the region) is inaccurate. Arab hostility to European Jewish settlers in the Middle East really picked up after the Balfour Declaration. Wouldn’t you be hostile to a group of immigrants whose political leaders had persuaded the world’s leading imperial power to carve out part of the land where you had lived for centuries to create a state for them where you would be second-class citizens, reneging on earlier promises of independence? And later, wouldn’t it make sense to continue to oppose their plans and even seek to drive them out as they formed increasingly powerful armed militias to pursue those goals?

  14. hnau says:

    A few months ago, the links post included “The High IQ Homo Economicus” which was (correctly) described as getting at an important, under-discussed conservative idea in an offensive, hard-to-follow way. I recently ran across a First Things piece called “Homeless” which I take to be making a similar point from a much different (though still basically conservative) angle. At any rate it’s not nearly as offensive or hard to follow (though I can’t guarantee a total lack of those qualities) and I found it to be really thought-provoking. Unfortunately this margin is too small to contain it it’s behind a paywall.

  15. Seth says:

    LambdaConf appears to have gone very well:


    “All this happened amid the hailstorm that has become known as The LambdaConf Controversy. AKA, the conference’s decision not to ban a [knee oh we actuary] from the conference.”

    “Some thought the controversial speaker would break our code of conduct or delve into politics, but he upheld his promise and his talk never strayed (many thought it was quite interesting!).”

    “In just three days and against all odds, LambdaConf 2016 proved all the naysayers wrong — on every single count.”

    The post is a very charitable and gracious reflection on the issues. On the other, I can’t escape the feeling that in context it’s the “good” part of what was a good-cop/bad-cop opposition.

    • Viliam says:

      I like this nice, politically correct, fully general argument against censorship:

      We will not censor X, because that could offend women and people of color who like X.

      • JuanPeron says:

        Normally I’m not much for fully-general arguments, but this is actually a decent moral basis for anti-censorship. It basically takes the main argument (people should have the right to individually determine their preferences and beliefs via open communication) and says “which also applies to all the marginalized people you’re so focused on helping, god damn it!”

    • Zorgon says:

      File this under “literally no-one is in any way surprised”.

      • Virbie says:

        In case you were being literal, I think that the cynical among the no-platformers are probably outnumbered by the useful idiots who actually expect people with “wrong” views to be evil in every way, including the ability to talk about functional programming for an hour without assaulting a minority.

        • Matt M says:

          I’m pretty sure such people will learn nothing from this. They’ll claim “he only behaved because we raised such a stink and he knew he was under the microscope – so we better continue to raise a stink about similar things that may happen in the future”

          • Mary says:

            You assume a level of awareness they often don’t show. They don’t bother to even justify keeping up with the bilge.

    • Flame says:

      Degoes is a hero in my book… best demonstration of nonviolent communication in the face of heated internet opposition I’ve seen in a while, maybe ever. It’s on the backs of such people that cooperative and well-functioning societies rest.

    • Eggoeggo says:

      Any news about how the alternative “mooncon” went?

  16. James Bond says:

    I wonder if there is some sort of opposite to autism. I just read this article
    and it said that autistic people have superior 3D visualization and attention to detail. However they also tend to have poorer social skills and tend to want to be introverted and alone. They also tend to have a hard time with hyperstimulation and do not have as much of a strong desire for social status as neurotypical people ( this one is more based on anecdote). I am the polar opposite. I have no visualization skills (only part of math i cant handle), the poorest attention to detail, strong social skills, and extreme extraversion. I seem to constantly crave human contact and visual/auditory simulation ( cant do hw without music ) and I have a strong desire for social status.I am a complete people person, and I am gray/red tribe. Can there be an other side to the autism spectrum?

    • Anonymous says:

      A politician?

    • Acedia says:

      opposite of autism

      Williams syndrome (allegedly).


      Low IQ and impaired visuo-spatial skills, unusually high sociability, empathy and verbal development.

      • James Bond says:

        Interesting, however i definitely do not have that. My IQ is well above average compared to the regular population, ( although significantly below the mean of SSC ), and I do not share the facial structure associated with Williams Syndrome. My facial structure is more just a classically highly masculinized one ( strong jawline, high cheeks , strong brow ect). I also have well above average genetics for muscle tone and am above the mean for height and weight( especially for my race), so none of the physical characteristics pan out. Plus i have the musical talent of a deaf duck. Interesting but i think the ADHD plus extraversion is more apt diagnosis.

    • Nita says:

      Sounds like some subtype of ADHD + extraversion, to be honest.

    • Peter says:

      The standard “opposite of autism” thing that gets quoted is Williams syndrome. Except all the cases I hear about tend to be pretty “low functioning” (especially in terms of IQ) and I don’t hear much about higher-functioning cases.

      Except that it’s not all opposite; for example, both Williams and autism are associated with having anxiety disorders, having musical talent, and a few other things. Also autism seems to be highly polygenic, whereas Williams seems to be associated with a specific genetic condition.

      (I’ve also heard a few “schizophrenia as opposite of autism” things but that seems rather more tenuous, especially as there are cases of one being misdiagnosed as the other, and it’s more common to talk about similarities between the two. Also also schizophrenia (unlike Williams) really isn’t associated with being hypersocial so is unlikely to apply in your case)).

      • Tyrant Overlord Killidia says:

        Re: schizophrenia. Under the assumption that autism is the “extreme male brain”(because it affects more men than women) they think that the “extreme female brain” would be its opposite. E.g., things that induce paranoia like schizophrenia or BPD. Which seem to affect more women than men.

        • Peter says:

          That said, schizophrenia is usually quoted as affecting more men than women; the things that tend to affect more women than men tend to be things like anxiety disorders and depression. Borderline is an interesting one, again it looks like one that’s the “opposite” in some ways and yet there (has a google) seem to be stories of misdiagnosis of one as the other there too.

          • JuanPeron says:

            I agree with this, but I think “male vs. female prevalence” may be an axis we should ignore when looking for our ‘opposite’. As a general rule those aren’t two sides of the same coin, since the Y chromosome simply carries less data than the X. So men have high expression of recessive things like color-blindness (only one shot at the dominant gene), but women have high expression of dominant things (two shots at the dominant gene). Even for epigenetic things, hormone mediation is awfully far from a mirror-image effect.

            In general, I would expect that for continuum effects, both ends of the spectrum would be extra-prevalent in the same gender.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        There is some evidence for the “autism and schizophrenia as opposites” hypothesis from copy number variants, where for certain genes where having more copies is associated with autism, having fewer is associated with schizophrenia, and vice versa (or all four ways, I guess).

        There is also this “imprinted brain theory”, which vaguely resembles what Tyrant Overlord Killidia is saying, except it’s not “more male vs. more female” but rather “imprinted so as to benefit the child’s father vs. imprinted so as to beneift the child’s mother”. That said, the hypothesis of them as opposites seems quite separable from this broader theory.

        (Note: This is not actually a subject I know anything about.)

    • herbert herbertson says:

      I don’t think you’re going to find a term for the opposite of autism, because those people, pretty much by definition, are going to fit in very well with society and accordingly aren’t going to be diagnosed with anything or otherwise systematized. You’ll probably find them in sales and other forms of business; I’m tempted to say Trump would qualify.

      • Peter says:

        Williams Syndrome survives as a diagnosis – partly because it has other parts to it (typically low IQ, but with some social abilities atypically good for that IQ, characteristic facial features, odd speech patterns) and partly because the whole “hypersocial” thing doesn’t actually work out too well for people with the condition. Apparently they can be inappropriately friendly, which can put a lot of people off, and can make it easy for people to take advantage of them.

        I’d also beware of thinking that the definition of autism is solely about social factors; there are a lot of traits mentioned in the DSM-V that aren’t anything to do with that.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Apparently they can be inappropriately friendly, which can put a lot of people off, and can make it easy for people to take advantage of them.

          I know some autistic people who are hyper-friendly, and this is the exact problem they face, too.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t think you’re going to find a term for the opposite of autism

        “Allistic” is the term I’ve usually seen used.

        • Zorgon says:

          Nah, “Allistic” is the psycho-autist community’s term for “not autistic”.

          It was coined as an alternative to “neurotypical” when some of them managed to overcome typical mind fallacy for long enough to realise that referring to a population with an ever-increasing mentally-ill population was probably not the best idea.

    • Tsnom Eroc says:

      >and it said that autistic people have superior 3D visualization and attention to detail.

      Autism is so vague of a diagnosis with not too great diagnostic validity in practice(there are very interesting studies on giving the same behaviors and getting different diagnosis by switching gender and in different regions of the US reflecting trends)

      If something is defined as a major absense of verbal abilities and aspects of sociability, then its likely some subset will be talented at some traits while lacking the ones requisite to the diagnosis(if valid) in the first place. And it will be a higher percentage then the general population that has that cognitive profile as a direct consquence.

    • Once Felt says:

      This article has a very detailed argument for psychosis being the opposite of autism:


      Probably the most interesting aspect of the theory is that it reconciles the idea that autism is the “extreme male brain” with the fact that most of the most severely impaired schizophrenic people are male.

      Here’s an extended quote:

      …we hypothesize that a maternal–paternal imprinting axis of cognition, and an axis based on male–female differences, jointly explain key aspects of the sex biases and differences found for autistic- and psychotic-spectrum conditions. By this model, the two axes overlap partially but broadly with one another, such that the so-called male brain is relatively similar, neuroanatomically and cognitively, to a brain biased towards increased influence of paternally expressed imprinted genes. This overlap explains the male sex-ratio bias and male-typical traits found in autism, and the association between less-extreme impairment and a more male-biased sex ratio (in high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome). Conversely, a “more-female” brain is similar to a brain developing under a relatively strong influence of maternally expressed imprinted genes, which explains the female bias in positive-symptom schizotypy and schizophrenia. The most severe neurological and cognitive impairments are found, in both disorders, where the direction of genomic-imprinting dysregulation opposes the sex difference: in females with autism, and in males with schizophrenia. This hypothesis may also help to explain some of the many striking neuroanatomical and other differences between females and males with schizophrenia, as well as the more female-like hormonal profiles of male schizophrenics with predominantly negative symptoms, a high prevalence of homosexual ideation in male schizophrenics, the female-biased sex ratio in major depression, and the relatively high incidences of psychosis in Klinefelter syndrome and autism in Turner syndrome.

      One other remarkable feature of this theory is that it can be used to predict that psychotic savants should exist. They exist for much the same reason autistic savants exist. In discussing this matter, the theorists hint at a reason why so far everyone has missed the relationship between autism and psychosis. Basically, a “high-functioning psychotic” or even a “psychotic savant” will tend to do well in life and won’t be recognized as having a mental problem. Because of the sheer importance of social skills in life, they won’t be obviously impaired the way someone with Aspergers is obviously impaired.

      Autistic savantism is characterized by outstanding, if isolated, mechanistic skills or expertise set against a background of general mentalistic deficits. Accordingly, we might predict that psychotic savantism should show the exact opposite cognitive configuration: remarkable, if perhaps highly circumscribed, mentalistic talents coexisting with more general mechanistic deficits. By this term we do not mean to suggest that the savants in question are in fact psychotic, only that their cognitive configuration puts them on the psychotic side of the mentalistic spectrum. Nevertheless, the symmetry cannot be exact. For a start, the normally sad plight of autistics reminds us that mentalistic deficits are typically much more significant socially and have an enormous impact on people’s personal relationships in a way in which mechanistic deficits seldom if ever do. Not being able to program the video, change a plug, or read a map is one thing, but failing to understand other people’s motives, actions, and intentions is quite another – and much more damaging from a social point of view. Hyper-mentalistic tendencies of the kind seen in psychotic savants might normally promote a person’s social adjustment because of the skill these consummate mentalists have in manipulating others and exploiting them thanks to their natural empathic understanding – particularly of other people’s weaknesses. Consequently, psychotic savants are likely to be identified at worst as cranks or charlatans rather than psychopaths, and at best we should not expect psychotic savants to be as noticeable as autistic ones usually are, or as readily diagnosed as such.

      …hyper-mentalistic savantism might be expected in skills and areas of expertise that are much closer to normal social life and everyday concerns. Examples might be outstanding achievement in religious and political evangelism; literary and theatrical culture; litigation and the law; hypnosis, faith-healing, and psychotherapy; fashion, advertising, and public relations; and commerce, confidence-trickery, and fraud of all kinds.

      And the best part of all this is the nominative determinism. One of the authors is Christopher Badcock. He started his career as a Freudian and later became an evolutionary psychologist. “Badcock” is the perfect name for him.

    • Gravitas Shortfall says:

      I would clarify that description of autism is a generalization. As someone on the spectrum, I have shitty 3-D visualization and an attention to detail wavering between meticulous and downright negligent depending on my mood. Autism generally involves superior abilities in one or two areas, but it’s not necessarily visual. For me, it’s verbal. I had college-level reading ability at 6th grade, and consistently place somewhere in the 90th to 99th percentile in verbal and reading comprehension tests. So, I mean, don’t generalize.

      Also, I’m not sure what you’re saying here. There’s no “opposite of autism”.

  17. Shrike says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m very much in favour of the ‘fewer but longer posts’ approach. Your best work is in the review and analysis posts, by far.

  18. J Quenff says:

    Chesterton’s fence came up in the last thread, which apparently goes something like this:

    In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

    I was wondering if anyone has any historical examples of a failure to apply this principle? I can’t think of any instance of reformers wanting to remove some institution without thinking about its purpose, rather they disagree with what conservatives think it is. If anything, I would have thought reformer’s tend to theorise much more about ideas like property and civil rights, particularly about how these ideas come to be (rather than Chesterton’s implication that because it exists, it exists for good reason). Is this ‘principle’ just a lame strawman of progressives?

    • Murphy says:

      Most people run into examples in smaller scales: some consultant comes in, decides that a bunch of things the company is doing have no reason then 6 months later it turns out one of the people he fired was in charge of sorting out the tape backups for their computer system.

      The soviets attempting to do away with markets, even internal markets might be a larger scale example. They did away with them for ideological reasons without first considering that they might be serving a valuable function.

      • LWNielsenim says:

        The mechanisms — equally mathematical and empathic — of how and why the soviets came to make their mistakes are surveyed in Francis Spufford’s highly regarded and warmly compassionate historiography Red Plenty (2010).

        In accord with J Quenff/Chesterton’s principle, SSC readers are well-advised to acquaint themselves with Spufford’s account. Plus, Spufford is fun.

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        Those are examples where the usefulness of the useful thing can be discovered, and therefore doesn’t need to be assumed. The problems mentioned are presumably caused by not asking questions, or believing answers .

        And how is a business consultant to apply the Fence? They would never be able to sack anybody, including the useless people.

        And everyone has plenty of examples of fenes that have been pulled down without the sky falling in. Although some are good at not noticing them.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      I suppose the biggest example would probably be the push to make divorce easier, and to destigmatise out-of-wedlock births and pre-marital sex. Fifty years later, I think we’re in a position to say that a bit more thought about the possible consequences of this might have been in order.

      Another example would be the sort of people who look at military parades like Trooping the Colour and dismiss them as a load of silly antiquated nonsense, without considering the effects they have on things like regimental pride and morale.

      • Murphy says:

        I’m not so sure the marriage one is a good example. You need a mighty heavy set of rose-tinted glasses to believe that the historical situation was better.
        2 people who hate each other being forced to remain financially tied to each other does not a good anything make.

        Even the teen pregnancy rate is at historic lows:

        Probably because even in the rose-tinted past teenagers had sex with each other every chance they got. Now they’re a hell of a lot safer about it and mostly having sex later.

        It has had a devastating effect on the price that prostitutes can get since people can hook up in bars which has had the knock on effect of putting lots of women off the profession. It’s also done away with the situation where most young men had their first sexual experience with a prostitute. Nowdays very few do.

        • Jaskologist says:

          s/historic/since 1976

        • The original Mr. X says:

          2 people who hate each other being forced to remain financially tied to each other does not a good anything make.

          Glib answer: Being molested by your stepdad and suffering major depression because your parents divorced doesn’t make a particularly good anything either.

          Less glib answer: Tearing down a system because in edge cases it doesn’t work very well, without considering the effects this will have on the far more numerous cases where the system works OK, is generally not a very good idea. Indeed, it sounds like exactly the sort of thing Chesterton was getting at in his fence argument.

          Even the teen pregnancy rate is at historic lows:

          I note that that chart doesn’t begin until well after the sexual revolution got going. Regardless, though, the negative effects of early sexual activity aren’t confined to unwanted pregnancies — sexually-active teenagers are more likely to suffer from depression or low self-esteem, and less likely to be able to hold down long-term relationships when they grow up. This isn’t the sort of thing that can be solved by “Oh well, we’ll just teach them how to use contraception, then they won’t need to worry.”

          • Nita says:

            Tearing down a system because in edge cases it doesn’t work very well

            How is that an edge case? It’s the central case — couples divorce to avoid that outcome. Sometimes they start too late, and then the divorce turns ugly because they hate each other and want to harm each other. I don’t think people dissolve perfectly fine, functional marriages just because divorce exists.

          • Dr Dealgood says:


            I don’t think people dissolve perfectly fine, functional marriages just because divorce exists.

            Unfortunately, that’s not true. See my comment below.

          • Murphy says:

            Picking any random child there’s just as likely to end up stuck with a (non step) dad molesting them who their mom then can’t divorce.

            That was the furthest back I could find a chart, since the timeframe was set at 50 years 40 wasn’t too bad.

            Though before then it gets a bit messed up because it was so normal to pair a young teenager off with some 40 year old guy and you’re no longer comparing like with like.

          • Jiro says:

            Picking any random child there’s just as likely to end up stuck with a (non step) dad molesting them who their mom then can’t divorce.

            No, they’re not, because that would require that a biological father and a stepfather are equally likely to molest the child.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Even if a biological father and a step-father are equally likely to be molesters, simply by cycling through more step fathers, you’re more likely to land on a molester.

            A 10% chance, if you roll the dice 5 times, becomes a 40% chance.

          • Murphy says:


            Then we have to move into the negative utility of being stuck with a molester for some length of time X where X is the average length of marriages with a molester and being stuck with a molester for up to 18 years.

            10% chance of 18 years of abuse vs 40% chance of a shorter term.

            Then somehow take into account the odds of the mother intervening, ignoring or participating in the abuse and their effects on the numbers. Hard to say whether an abusive partner is more or less likely to be turned into the police over consecutive marriages or during a single one. specially since abusive people are more likely to pair up with other abusive or permissive partners in the first place.

          • Murphy says:


            61% lived with their biological mother and father, 8% with at least one step-parent (I can’t explain what this means, sorry!), and 2 % with at least one adoptive parent. The difference between this total and 100% is because I’ve omitted less frequent situations like living with grandparents or being emancipated.

            If child maltreatment was not associated with the parent’s actual relationship to the child, we’d expect 61% of cases to be perpetrated by biological parents, 8% to occur when there was a step-parent in the house, and 2% to be carried out by adoptive parents. In fact, we see many more cases of maltreatment by biological parents than we’d expect, and fewer by step-parents and adoptive parents—in fact, only about half of the expected rate by the last two groups.

          • John Schilling says:

            61% lived with their biological mother and father, 8% with at least one step-parent (I can’t explain what this means, sorry!), and 2 % with at least one adoptive parent. The difference between this total and 100% is because I’ve omitted less frequent situations like living with grandparents or being emancipated.

            Wait, 29% of children live in “less frequent situations” than the 2% who live with at least one adoptive parent? That seems a bit off.

            And then children of single parents don’t fit into any of the enumerated categories; presumably that category was omitted but I’m not buying it as “less frequent” than 2%. I’m not even buying it as less frequent than the 8% with at least one step-parent.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            10% chance of 18 years of abuse

            I’m pretty sure that “spouse is abusive to our children” was one of the grounds for divorce before no-fault came in (or if it wasn’t, it would certainly be possible to make it one).

          • Jaskologist says:

            If you’re actually going to try to write out a utilitarian calculation for this, I think you need to weight the disutility of the initial molestation much higher.


          • John Schilling says:

            I’m pretty sure that “spouse is abusive to our children” was one of the grounds for divorce before no-fault came in

            Less confident here. Coarsely speaking, sexual abuse of children by biological parents was I think rare enough to be socially invisible, nonsexual abuse was “discipline”, and since children were supposed to be seen and not heard, any child whining about how his parents beat him hasn’t been disciplined enough.

            Pragmatically, if the kid is being beaten, either both parents are in on it so nobody is talking divorce, or it’s just the one who is most likely beating their spouse as well and that (if beyond socially tolerable limits) gets you a divorce for spousal abuse regardless.

            (or if it wasn’t, it would certainly be possible to make it one)

            Yes, if there were to be a return to divorce-only-for-cause, this would be an obvious addition to the classical list of causes.

          • Nornagest says:

            Without taking a side, a site calling itself “childmyths” does not inspire confidence in me.

          • Hlynkacg says:

            Unless it’s discussing Boojums and monsters with iron teeth I would say your suspicion is entirely justified.

        • Dr Dealgood says:

          2 people who hate each other being forced to remain financially tied to each other does not a good anything make.

          This is a statistic I like to drop everywhere, so if you don’t mind me using this opportunity:

          Only about 20% of divorces are in what are called high-conflict marriages. The sort which would have been permitted under the old divorce with cause system, where you could accurately describe the husband and wife as hating one another (often with very good reason!).

          The remaining 80% are in what people who study marriages call low-conflict marriages. Where the problems which drive the couple apart are simply the ordinary stresses any successful marriage goes though. Cases which can only happen in the current no-fault divorce system.

          Given that four in five divorces are plainly unnecessary, and the rather large negative effect divorces have on suicide rates and more importantly the prospects of children caught up in the divorce, it seems like the current system causes quite a lot more misery than the old one ever did.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Still though. 20% of marriages being high conflict sounds pretty awful. Surely there could be some compromise between “simple no-fault divorce” and “til death do us part”.

          • Murphy says:


            I’m from a country that had no mechanism for divorce (because the church is literally evil) a few decades back so when people attack divorce I’m not transparently inserting “except in the really bad cases” I’m actually looking at how history was without divorce being allowed at all.

          • Jaskologist says:

            20% of divorces, not marriages.

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            Well, I’m not sure how things worked in your country Murphy but in most places throughout human history and virtually the whole history of the US we have had legal divorce… provided that the party seeking a divorce could prove that the other was at fault.

            The distinction between that and the current system is a rather large one. A high-conflict marriage, the sort we want to be able to break up, is exactly the kind which will generate evidence sufficient to convince a court. Removing that requirement means opening up the floodgates where many low-conflict marriages end, breaking up families without any good reason.

            I’m not trying to defend Catholicism or say that divorce is never justified. But there needs to be some justification provided beyond simple whim.

          • Nita says:

            Where the problems which drive the couple apart are simply the ordinary stresses any successful marriage goes though.

            A marriage can survive a lot of stress, but only if both people are committed to making it work. If one or both of them want to get out, the problems won’t be fixed, and eventually resentment will consume everything that was still good in the relationship.

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            You can look at the research yourself. Your conjecture is not supported by the facts here.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            A marriage can survive a lot of stress, but only if both people are committed to making it work. If one or both of them want to get out, the problems won’t be fixed, and eventually resentment will consume everything that was still good in the relationship.

            The evidence I’ve seen suggests that, in the majority of cases where unhappy low-conflict couples decide to stick together, they report feeling more satisfied with their relationship during follow-ups a few years later.

            And of course, there’s the effect that law and societal attitudes have on struggling couples. If society in general holds up no-fault divorce as the normal thing to do when you’re feeling dissatisfied with your current spouse, people are much more likely to want to leave a marriage although, had they but known it, they were just going through a rough patch and their relationship was perfectly fixable with a little kindness and perseverance.

          • reytes says:

            I’m not arguing (here) against the central point about divorce you’re making, but: what are the criteria that we’re using to decide when a marriage “should” end in a divorce? What are we defining as a successful marriage? I’m kind of dubious about treating all low-conflict marriages as ordinary/successful/”should not end in divorce”.

          • keranih says:

            what are the criteria that we’re using to decide when a marriage “should” end in a divorce? What are we defining as a successful marriage? I’m kind of dubious about treating all low-conflict marriages as ordinary/successful/”should not end in divorce”.

            That is a good question. My thoughts:

            “Staying married” should be assumed to be the default desired state.

            “Staying married” should ABSOLUTELY be the default desired state for all marriages involving children. We-as-society have a vested interest in children being raised by two biological parents. It reduces the rate of so many other problems.

            Marriages where one person is physically abusing the other should not be treated as though the assault was happening between two strangers in a bar. While a temporary separation for protection may be called for, we need to remember that the desired end state is not a divorce, but that two partners cherish each other. This situation requires particular skill and attention in solving, and may find that divorce is the eventual outcome. Changing the behavior of the spouses so that they do not immediately reenter the same situation with different partners would be important.

            Emotional abuse is more difficult to define, easier to conceal, and women are more likely to do this, making it harder to get social backing to stop it, but emotional abuse can be as toxic as physical. The same ideas as above apply.

            For people who are unhappy with each other – whose goals are at odds – we need grandmothers and uncles and priests and counselors, to help these two people find joy and support in each other. The role of general society here should be, I think, to emphasize that the marriage is a real thing that deserves work and attention, and to give more status to married people than to singles, so that the married people feel that their effort in maintaining the marriage is justified.

            To this end, we should, I think, avoid promoting love stories of adulterers, emphasize the role of the supportive spouse, and as a society see more in a successful marriage than in a high flying career.

            I don’t think we can come to an end of abusive marriages, or unhappy marriages, or marriages where one person is pretty okay but the other is always looking out the door wishing for other things. I do think we can reduce the percentage of them, and in particular I think that reducing the number of children who are born handicapped by not having a stable two parent family raise them is something we should strive for.

      • Says says:

        >the push to make divorce easier

        Isn’t it reasonably accepted at this point that no-fault divorce was a result of rising divorce rates, not the cause of it?


    • Deiseach says:

      Mr X got there before me on things like Free Love.

      The original push for legalising and making contraception more available was all “It will only be used by married couples who already have children who wish to space out the births of their children. No, of course it won’t be used by people who don’t want children. No, of course it won’t be used by people who aren’t married. No, it won’t lead to abortion.”

      See the 1930 Lambeth Conference (this is Anglicanism) where limited contraception was accepted as permissible:

      Resolution 15

      The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

      Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.

      Resolution 16

      The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

      The Conference further records its abhorrence of the sinful practice of abortion.

      Resolution 17

      The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

      While the Conference admits that economic conditions are a serious factor in the situation, it condemns the propaganda which treats conception control as a way of meeting those unsatisfactory social and economic conditions which ought to be changed by the influence of Christian public opinion.

      Resolution 18

      The Life and Witness of the Christian Community – Marriage and Sex

      Sexual intercourse between persons who are not legally married is a grievous sin. The use of contraceptives does not remove the sin. In view of the widespread and increasing use of contraceptives among the unmarried and the extention of irregular unions owing to the diminution of any fear of consequences, the Conference presses for legislation forbidding the exposure for sale and the unrestricted advertisement of contraceptives, and placing definite restrictions upon their purchase.

      Move forward in time, and what do you know, sometimes contraception fails so you need abortion as a back-up – after all, you’ve already given in on the principle of “this is an unwanted child”, you’ve said the parents can try to prevent its conception, why not permit them to prevent its birth?

      Can anyone imagine nowadays a Church of England or an Episopalian clergyperson giving a sermon on how sex outside of marriage is sinful, abortion is sinful, if you cannot have children you should not have sex, contraception should only be used in limited cases by married people, and certainly not for those who want to engage in pre-marital sex without the risk of pregnancy?

      The reformers thought this was just a small, necessary concession, a recognition of the hard facts of life, and that giving in on this would not have greater effects on society in general and attitudes within the church in particular. They were wrong.

      In fact, jump forward from 1930 to 2007 and you get this: a female Dean of an Episcopalian seminary, which is one of the member churches of the Anglican Communion (the entity which holds the Lambeth Conferences) giving a speech praising abortion providers and their work, and moreover abortion not alone the hard cases where most abortion rights activists campaign about but for “motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience” are A-Okay:

      And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight – only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

      • Murphy says:

        Which would be great if people had actually been choosing to not have sex rather than simply having sex without protection dumping the mother in a catholic-church run slave camp and burying the childs body in a well.


        And there was also the option of rounding the children up and selling them for slave labor. Seriously, these times that people look back on so fondly had a hell of a lot more excess children born out of wedlock and disposed of in various ways by respectable social institutions.


        We can go one step further back. The catholic hierarchy had a very serious meeting where they thought long and hard about young girls inserting tampons and decided that it could give them the wrong sort of ideas and had tampons banned in ireland.

        They eventually gave in on the idea of women putting things inside themselves and look where it led!

        It’s the one thing I found frustrating trying to talk intelligently to the youth-defence nutters back in uni. They loved to talk about a hypothetical universe where everyone actually perfectly follows all catholic rules and thus all the problems go away and any effort to deal with the real physical world we have including real human beings was just “promoting a culture” of not following catholic rules. It was like his brain switched off.

        If someone proposed putting railings on the edges of cliffs I’d swear he’d have turned around and screamed that it promoted a culture of cliff-diving.

        It’s kind of like trying to talk to a hard-core communist who’s sure that if everyone just followed karl marx perfectly then there would be no problems and anyone trying to do things like prevent fammines by setting up markets is the problem because they’re promoting a culture of not following marx properly.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          You might want to dial back on the hysteria a bit, it’s not very good for making people take you seriously.

          • Murphy says:

            Factually describing history isn’t hysteria. Sorry to crack your rose-tinted glasses. Ye-Oldie-Time society was largely horrible to lots and lots of people.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Factually describing history isn’t hysteria.

            No; ranting about Church-run slave camps dumping children’s bodies in septic tanks is.

          • Anonymous says:

            @Mr. X
            As opposed to say claiming that children of divorced parents are all being molested by their stepdads. You might want to check out that beam before doing anything else.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            No, Anon, I never made such a ridiculous claim. I was simply mirroring Murphy’s statement that no-fault divorce is good because some couples hate each other. Perhaps you ought to read my post again, paying particular attention to the label “Glib answer” and what it applied to.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            Warning to the original Mr. X that this kind of comment is the sort of thing that gets people banned

        • Wrong Species says:

          Obviously not everyone is going to stop having sex but how many people did choose to be abstinent for that very reason? Incentives matter, even when it’s politically inconvenient.

          • Nita says:

            I think Murphy is saying that those incentives had serious costs, and maybe Deiseach should have acknowledged that in her argument.

          • Wrong Species says:

            That’s a good steelman but that is certainly not what Murphy said.

            In regards to your point, every incentive has a cost. The question is whether the existence of a few unwanted orphans who do worse under the old system(assuming it’s as bad as Murphy made it out to be) is worse than the high number of impoverished single mothers we see today. Of course , we have to factor in the fact that we are richer today so the worst excesses of history can probably be mitigated today.

          • Murphy says:

            Good question.

            shall we see what we can find for hard numbers since, say, 1950?

            I’ll pre-commit to what I’m searching for and see if I can find it. If I can’t I’ll post the closest I can find and if anyone finds better data let me know.

            Is the average age of first-sex higher or lower now than 50 years ago?

            Is the teenage pregnancy rate higher or lower?

            Has the number of children in orphanages gone up or down?

            Has the rate of STD’s gone up or down?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Orphanages is the wrong metric, because we have foster families now.

            But otherwise, that seems like a solid list to me.

          • “Is the teenage pregnancy rate higher or lower?”

            Googling around for U.S. data, the best I could find only went back to 1940. Teenage pregnancy rose until about 1960, has been trending down since, is currently lower than it was in 1940.

            But that’s a bit misleading, because it includes desired births to married women, and birth rates in general are considerably lower now. The current fertility rate is about two thirds what it was in 1940, half what it was at the peak around 1955.

            What was seen as a problem that contraception and abortion were supposed to solve was births to unmarried women, especially but not exclusively teenagers. The implicit assumption was that they were almost all unwanted–”Accidents cause people.” The percentage of births that are to unmarried mothers has gone up enormously–almost eight times as high as it was in 1960.

            Which suggests to me that most are not, perhaps were not in the past, unwanted.

          • Anonymous says:

            @David Friedman, indeed, the rate of births to unmarried women rose because those women remained unmarried after finding out they were pregnant.

            (Also relevant?)

            Re: wanted vs. unwanted teenage pregnancies, I think direct comparisons are made tricker by, e.g., changes in rate of/attitude toward premarital sex. That said, if all that contraception and abortion accomplish is a reduction in unwanted pregnancies, many would consider that sufficient.

          • John Schilling says:

            That said, if all that contraception and abortion accomplish is a reduction in unwanted pregnancies, many would consider that sufficient

            Right, but from a statistical or evidentiary perspective, “unwanted” is a tricky thing to measure.

            Children conceived by unmarried teenagers and carried to live birth would be a good proxy in most cultures, and ought to be at least in principle the sort of thing you could pull out of government vital-record statistics, but I don’ know that anyone does that. Children born to unmarried teenagers is a common statistic that might be an acceptable proxy but suffers from differing attitudes towards “…and now we Have To get married”

          • Anonymous says:

            Right, but from a statistical or evidentiary perspective, “unwanted” is a tricky thing to measure.

            Yes, I think “unplanned” would have worked better in that statement.

          • @Anonymous:

            I think that’s just giving the Akerlof and Yellin explanation. On that theory, it isn’t that women who got pregnant didn’t want to be married, it’s that they couldn’t get the father to marry them–unlike the old pattern.

            One possibility is that the babies were wanted–that the mothers would rather have been married, but preferred single motherhood to not having a child. Another is that they were unwanted, the result of contraceptive failure in an environment where the father was not obliged to marry a woman if he got her pregnant.

          • Murphy says:

            An additional confounder to factoring in marriage: there’s a very non trivial number of perfectly happy long term couples who put off getting married even if they’re in a stable long term relationship.

            Reasons can be as simple as the bride wanting a really fancy wedding but priorities like buying a first house get in the way.

            in the 1940’s there would have been massive pressure to get married, now nobody cares and the couple might just start wearing rings and acting married, making each other their beneficiaries in their wills/insurance etc long before they actually go have a party and sign paperwork.

            After I moved a few years ago people we met just assumed me and my fiancé were already married. (not changing names is also common enough to not make it an inconsistency)

            That pattern isn’t even unusual in my peer group. Lots are getting married 8-10 years into a relationship with or without children.

            In my parents generation being married within 18 months of meeting wasn’t unusual where now it’s downright bizarre behavior most common in people with very impulsive personalities.

            Additional schooling for girls is also going to throw it off. My mother couldn’t earn the same wage as my father working the same job at the same place starting before him. Young women without cash reserves had a much tougher lot if they didn’t have a man who could earn a mans wage.

          • Anonymous says:

            That pattern isn’t even unusual in my peer group. Lots are getting married 8-10 years into a relationship with or without children.

            In my parents generation being married within 18 months of meeting wasn’t unusual where now it’s downright bizarre behavior most common in people with very impulsive personalities.

            FWIW this changes once you get into your thirties. If a couple meets when they are both in their early 30s engagements after a year or so are not at all uncommon. At least IME.

          • JayT says:

            I don’t really see how that makes a difference, Murphy. In the old model those people would have just gotten married soon after meeting, and would most likely have been just as happy or unhappy as they are now.

            Also, I also don’t see marriage within 18 months of meeting as something that is unusual, especially for people in their 30s. By that age most people have a fairly strong idea of who they are, and what they are looking for in a mate. it doesn’t take very long to figure out if someone will fit that role. For what it’s worth, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it isn’t like I’ve only experienced backwoods red tribe areas.

          • keranih says:

            Also, if you’re female, and want kids (in a marriage with a husband) and you’re thirty, you have to get on the fucking ball right now or it’s not happening.

            Being on the short side of thirty gives a lot of women the impression that guys will go on hitting on them for forever, and that they have a lot of time to make up their minds about who exactly they want to settle down with. This is not actually correct.

          • Nicholas says:

            Assuming that the up thread article about the dumping of 351,000 children’s corpses into a mass grave isn’t just making shit up, the incentives seem to have short-circuited in a fairly large number of cases to “We will have unprotected sex, and if a baby is conceived we will just kill it after it is born.” I know that historically, other cultures have considered abortion into the eleventh trimester a perfectly acceptable option.

        • Deiseach says:

          Murphy, this was the Church of England, not the Roman Catholic Church. They had certain attitudes about sex and marriage which they thought were the baked-in hard-wired version of how things were, and a tiny little tweak like letting married couples with children use contraception sparingly wouldn’t make any huge, major changes.

          They were wrong.

        • Deiseach says:

          No, Nita, Murphy was ranting about the Catholic Church and particularly the Irish version – “slave camp” and “burying child’s body in well”.

          Plainly Murphy has not read the report, or is not aware of the history, and is going by the dramatically coloured movies that were made about the Magdalene Laundries. Movies where the makers have admitted to inventing scenes (because the facts were not abusive enough for their purposes) but that’s okay, right? The spirit of the thing is right – so English film makers could make movies about backwards priest-ridden sexually repressive Ireland but not have to think about the similar mother and child homes in their own countries, or things like wholesale exporting of orphans to Commonwealth nations in order to get rid of a drain on the English taxpayer and provide cheap labour to build up the Empire.

          Murphy also did not bother to read that this was from the Lambeth Conference, which is the Anglican Communion and not the Roman Catholic Church. But hey, why bother with the facts when any stick will do to beat the dog? Murphy appears to be very sensitive to any perceptions of controlling the free expression of their sexuality and frequently fizzes over when discussing such matters. I don’t care who they bang or how they do it or what their reasons are, and I’m certainly not trying to regulate their bedroom habits. That is not why I used that particular example.

          • Nita says:

            You said that the Church of England shouldn’t have demolished the fence, because it lead to bad outcomes.

            The Irish Catholic Church did not demolish the fence on its own turf, so presumably that should have produced better outcomes. But, as Murphy pointed out, there were still unwanted pregnancies to deal with, and they were dealt with in rather unsavory ways.

            So, are you saying that it wasn’t so bad? Are these women making things up, or is that kind of treatment acceptable?

          • Jiro says:

            Are these women making things up, or is that kind of treatment acceptable?

            You can’t prove a case like this with individual examples. You need to show that the quantity of such examples is larger with the wrong policy. Anyone can quote examples of people hurt by pretty much any policy if they ignore the quantity.

          • Murphy says:

            Why are you linking the report? it “does not make findings” on the issue of abuse in the Magdalene Laundries. It’s about the extent of the states involvement in the scandal with them such as judges sending women there or industrial school children and mental patients being sent there by the state. It has some personal accounts but their job was not to search for cases of abuse.

            It seems like little more than throwing 1200 sheets of irrelevant text at someone and shouting that they didn’t even read it.

            It is interesting to note that while women forced to go there by judges had to be informed how long they had to stay and when they could leave girls dropped into them by their families or from industrial schools had no such right and generally weren’t informed.

            Never mind that it supports my claim of them being used as forced labor.

      • J Quenff says:

        This sounds more like a defence of “slippery slope arguments are sometimes valid” than of Chesterton’s fence.

        • Deiseach says:

          This sounds more like a defence of “slippery slope arguments are sometimes valid” than of Chesterton’s fence.

          No, the reformers there did not have a developed argument against contraception; they relied on the traditional understanding of “sex is for procreation within marriage” and did not see why a ban on contraception was anything more than a ban on contraception qua contraception. They may have developed their arguments elsewhere, but in that digest form at least, their only reasons for asking the Anglican Church to permit limited contraceptive use was in a vague social good model: “clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood”.

          What would be such an obligation? Most would argue the health and life of the mother but there is no definition stated there of what reasons for using contraception should be or would be likely to be. Remove the stigma, and why expect people to refrain within cloudy limits? If I have a “clearly felt moral obligation” not to have a baby because I don’t think I can afford it or I want to complete my education first, for what reason should I refrain from using contraception? Since the reformers propose no good reason for the ban on contraception, they have nothing to offer as guidance on the proper use of contraception except “if you really feel you need to use it”.

          How, then, did they expect people who wanted to limit family size or not have children at all to refrain from using contraception for “selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience” – if the people involved feel they really do need to use contraception? In response to “the widespread and increasing use of contraceptives among the unmarried and the extension of irregular unions owing to the diminution of any fear of consequences”, all it can call for is “legislation “, rather than stating clear teaching from the Christian tradition.

          They had a vague grasp of the reason for the ban, they decided to do away with it, and they thought they could rely on social attitudes to keep things as they had been. People are using contraception, so let’s yield on this since we probably can’t stop them, but we’ll tell them they should only use it in limited circumstances. Once you remove the fence, you can tell people “don’t walk on the grass” but you certainly can’t stop it happening.

      • MugaSofer says:

        Can anyone imagine nowadays a Church of England or an Episopalian clergyperson giving a sermon on how sex outside of marriage is sinful, abortion is sinful, if you cannot have children you should not have sex, contraception should only be used in limited cases by married people, and certainly not for those who want to engage in pre-marital sex without the risk of pregnancy?

        Do Church of Ireland count?

        • Deiseach says:

          It would, but even there attitudes are changing. Some bishops are more liberal in their notions than others and it really depends if you’re talking about north or south of the border.

          The General Synod in 2012 passed a motion reaffirming the traditional understanding of marriage and that sex should be within marriage not outside it, but that did stir up a lot of discussion and they are still working out a position on LGBT, particularly now that same-sex marriage is legal in the Republic and Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland.

      • houseboatonstyxb says:

        @ Deiseach
        “It will only be used by married couples who already have children who wish to space out the births of their children. No, of course it won’t be used by people who don’t want children. [….]”

        If this gives an accurate reflection of the then-Anglican doctrine … well, before a new thread goes up, I must say it sounds awfully barbaric to me.

    • Frog Do says:

      Some academic examples, so that this doesn’t immediately descend to obvious culture war: in loco parentis, institutionalized peer review, the extension of copyright, demonization of rote learning, the cult of STEM.

      It’s not a strawman. The idea that traditions can arise for unintelligible reasons and still be useful is super important! By analogy, you don’t need to know the exact mechanism by which a drug works to know that it works.

      • Murphy says:

        Does it really apply to gradual creep? most of those sound like simple gradual creep of existing structures. Like someone who just can’t stop themselves building fences, started with a Chesterton’s fence that was keeping a bull in and just kept adding branches to it, blocking roads and screwing things up.

        • Frog Do says:

          They sound like gradual creep, but there are clearly points that describe discontinuous jumps in the system, usually court cases or the creation of institutions.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          There are two issues: gradual vs sudden and intent. I don’t think gradual vs sudden is relevant to whether Chesterton’s fence applies. A gradual change is just the removal of a lot of fences. Chesterton’s argument applies at each stage. Intent is the key: Chesterton’s argument is an argument about consequences aimed at someone consciously making an argument about consequences.

          But many gradual changes happen without people noticing, so it may be a good proxy for intent. If no one notices, no argument is applicable. Bureaucrats may be aware that they are grabbing more power, but they might not care much about the consequences. And everyone else is unaware. If they were aware, they would probably reject the bureaucrat’s move as selfish, without even recourse to Chesterton’s argument.

          For another example of different kinds of intent, I believe that in loco parentis was slowly and consciously eroded. But it was not eroded for beliefs about its consequences, so Chesterton’s appeal to humility about consequences is not very relevant. Instead it was eroded for belief about a moral or legal imperative.

        • Frog Do says:

          I agree, but I also think that Dixon v. Alabama was a big deal.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Most of those aren’t examples of Chesterton’s fence.

        They are just things that changed, and then (at least in your estimation) had bad side effects. That is a bad consequence after an action, but it’s only an example of Chesterton if a) the change occurred in something designed to stop said consequence, and b) the consequence wasn’t known about in advance (known trade-offs are a thing).

        • Frog Do says:

          Well in that case, there is no example of Chesterson’s fence ever happening. Human beings are rationalizing actors and hindsight is 20/20. Reformers are necessarily going to think they’ve thought of everything and always they will be wrong, hopefully, they will be wrong in a not-terribly-costly way.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Well, isn’t the point of the OP?

            Ref.) I want to tear down this fence?
            Chest.) Why is it there?
            Ref.) It was put up to stop the sheep from wandering away.
            Chest.) How do you intend to stop the sheep from wandering away?
            Ref.) We are buying a sheep dog.
            Chest.) Proceed to tear down the fence.
            Old Codger) I don’t think that sheep dog is going to actually work, plus I don’t like dogs.

            If the sheep then still wander away, it’s not an example of Chesteron’s fence. It is something else. Calling it Chesterton’s fence doesn’t make it so.

        • Randy M says:

          but it’s only an example of Chesterton if a) the change occurred in something designed to stop said consequence, and b) the consequence wasn’t known about in advance (known trade-offs are a thing).

          No, I don’t think so. Chesterton’s fences may be allegorical; I think the argument can apply to fences that organic forces conspired to keep in place. Likewise, someone may know about the consequences, just not the poeple wanting to tear it down.
          The key insight is that a restriction probably has a purpose, or at least a reason for persevering, and reformers who don’t well understand or even consider it are making trade-offs that may well not be net positive.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Likewise, someone may know about the consequences, just not the people wanting to tear it down.

            The OP was asking for examples of this. Almost all policy debates are much more nuanced than this. Hence Chesterton’s fence is a strawman (or allegorical, as you say).

            Put it this way, if I phrased Chesterton’s fence as “Let’s consider the trade-offs in having and not having the fence” the device would have far less rhetorical weight. Implicit in the employment of the device is the accusation that the other side is naive, incompetent, or uninformed.

          • Frog Do says:

            Well, it also assumes that the reason why the fence is there is understandable at the current level of knowledge, that the trade-offs are legible. The Cromwell’s Rule: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken” approach, which also has a rigorous probabilistic formulation.

            For example, nearly all surviving religions include fasting as a major component (for various definitions of fasting, I would say all involve calorie and protein restriction). But obvious you ask the ancients why fasting is beneficial they probably won’t answer with “the metabolic benefits of periodic calorie and protein restriction”. They just know it’s good for you.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Sure. Epistemic humility is always warranted. Saying, “Fasting is an antiquated custom that was not and is not of any use and all who practice it are doddering dolts” would certainly run up against Chesterton.

            But again, going back to my up-thread example, if I say that the fence was erected to keep the sheep from wandering off, have I satisfied Chesterton or not? Your view now seems to be that I have not. And that twists the fence argument into a universal helplessness before the status quo.

          • Frog Do says:

            Your taking a gamble, in which case, I’d expect you to have some sort of investment so that you too would be hurt if you were wrong. Skin in the game, just to be sure.

            Edit: Ideally, you will have also secured the investment of everyone else affected by the fence. It does rather strongly resist universalization, or even on the large scale.

          • Jill says:

            “Put it this way, if I phrased Chesterton’s fence as “Let’s consider the trade-offs in having and not having the fence” the device would have far less rhetorical weight. Implicit in the employment of the device is the accusation that the other side is naive, incompetent, or uninformed.”

            Well then, this device is a good fit in today’s political atmosphere, where a person is lucky if their opponent only considers them to be simply naive, incompetent, or uninformed– rather than considering them someone who is evil and is intentionally trying to destroy our country or to harm other people.

          • Frog Do says:

            Yes, but that very same impulse in today’s politics drives everyone to pretend their provincial cultural fashions are human universals, so it’s also not a good fit in that sense. Though I imagine self-conscious traditionalism is the wave of the future, left and right.

          • Samedi says:

            It is likely that the pro-fence people have long forgotten what the purpose of the fence was and simply maintain it out of habit. It could be that the fence embodies some useful community knowledge, or it could be that it was built to solve a problem at the time but has ceased to be relevant (but still maintained out of habit).

            The burden of proof is just as much on the pro-fence side as it is on the anti-fence side. On the other hand, I think there is a lot to be said for gradual change. We are so bad at understanding cause and effect in complex systems that it warrants a good deal of modesty on our part.

          • Frog Do says:

            The burden of proof may be equal, but you need a lot less information to determine if something is bad than if something is good, so there is an asymmetry in favor of fences.

      • MugaSofer says:

        I am an ignorant child who doesn’t know what you’re talking about. Care to expand on those examples?

        • Frog Do says:

          I was very vague, so as to sound smart and hopefully let other people fill in the details so I wouldn’t have to. I will attempt to do so to the best of my ability / understanding, but I’ve only been in academia for so long (and not in any position of power, at that).

          In loco parentis was the university taking on a parental role for the students. For example, in my grandmother’s time, university dorms were gender segregated with curfews and chaperones to prevent … hanky-panky. These were removed in 1961, but the idea of bad things happening to the parent’s precious children is still kind of a highly motivating consequence. It turn out college students don’t always make fantastic decisions, but now universities are prevents from being directly paternal to, say, undergrads. So now the paternalism has to be universal and requires a much larger bureaucratic apparatus to keep going, which then metastasized as these things do, leading to outrage as the regulations parents want are simultaneous overenforced and underenforced and they are also hitting literally everyone involved in the university.

          Institutionalized peer review was mostly set up in the post-War era, in my understanding, which replaced the previous, more informal system of papers concerned to be must-reads with a professional, blind bureaucratic system that is extremely vulnerable to institutional capture in the form of dogmatism, p-hacking, and in general the requirement that professors publish an increasing number of essentially junk papers to keep their jobs. The is one of those weird cases where formalizing the system actually was terrible, because of perverse incentives.

          The extension of copyright seemed like it was a good idea at the time. Originally, IIRC, copyright in America was barely over a decade, and things went out of copyright all the time. There was still a vibrant popular culture even if being a professional branded-content-producer maybe wasn’t a lucrative as it is now. Nowadays, copyright protection is whatever Disney wants it to be, instead of the original sensible term limitations, the law is more or less completely made by pop-culture corporations.

          Demonization of rote learning particularly annoys me, but this one is also ore cyclical. So I teach math, and one of the broad things people like to say is understand the concept, not just memorize a formula. In general, this is good advice, but practically speaking, you don’t understand the background of math until much after you are able to use it as a tool. People can write good things without a perfect knowledge of etymology, grammar, style, etc. This basically always pops up because the continuous Red Queen race that is education reform has no memory at all, so any useful tools built up tend to get wiped out every couple decades or so. It’s gotten to the point that I explicitly tell my students that it’s okay to memorize things sometimes because the good ones won’t and it cripples them.

          The cult of STEM is much vaguer and probably a bad example, the more general case I think is the watering down of a general education in a common culture, allowing people to specialize way too early and their not really “fully educated”, as far as I’m concerned. This is one of those things I’ve noticed teaching really smart STEM track highschool students, the sort that are taking college level organic chemistry and mathematical modelling as high school seniors (while they’re fourteen years old). I talk to these kids, and they literally haven’t read a work of fiction since they were about 12. They only ever take classes in STEM subjects, usually just one to specialize even harder, and this is kind of extreme specialization is just getting younger and younger. So yeah, this is a bad example cause I probably take this too personally, but I think this is way too specialized way too early in their lives, all because we’ve destroyed the idea of a general education.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            I agree with you about “peer review,” but (1) I don’t like it that people use peer review as metonymy for bureaucracy. I can point to a lot of problems that were caused or exacerbated by peer review, but mainly it served to promote bureaucracy for the sake of scale and that is the heart of the problem.

            And (2) I don’t think a new institution (whether peer review or government funding of research) is a good example of Chesterton’s Fence. It’s just an unintended consequence, whereas Chesterton’s Fence is an argument that there is a reason to think that other consequences might be capable of being understood; and a benchmark of how much thought might be enough, rather than an open-ended prediction of doom.

            FWIW, when I read your original comment, I thought “Cult of STEM” referred to encouraging more people to go into STEM, not acceleration.

          • Frog Do says:

            Yeah, that’s why I tried to emphasize “institutional peer review” instead of just “peer review”. Maybe “peer review bureaucracy” would be better. And in my opinion the destruction of the (often informal) pre-War academic culture was a fence that was destroyed, it just wasn’t as legible as other examples. One of the cases where formalization is harmful.

            I also think encouraging more people to go into STEM fields is incorrect, for a variety of reasons, mostly related to shrinking total academia overall.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I also think encouraging more people to go into STEM fields is incorrect, for a variety of reasons, mostly related to shrinking total academia overall.


            STEM is far more practically applicable to the non-academic market.

          • Frog Do says:

            Which is exactly why is shouldn’t be pushed in the academic market as much!

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Frog Do:

            Here is what that maps to in my mind:
            The most lucrative and plentifully available jobs when you graduate will be in STEM. That’s why you shouldn’t study it.

            More charitably, you seem to be saying that you would rather that private market STEM jobs grow at the expense of academic ones, but a) encouraging people to study STEM doesn’t say where they will ultimately be employed, and b) you always need to save some seed corn for both next years planting as well as experiments with varietals, etc.

            If growth is in STEM, we need people to study, teach and research in STEM. Perhaps they are being over sold, but that is a different argument.

          • Frog Do says:

            I’m fine with research in fundamentals, I’m really strongly in favor of that, it why I switched my dissertation from an applied topic to a more pure research area. I kept seeing a lot of junk papers (and to be fair also producing them), especially in engineering, the definition of mathematical make work in model building. Not even art for art’s sake, more like publications for the publication god. I think the field has a huge quality control problem.

          • Murphy says:

            Lots of scientific fields have a publication problem. It’s one of those Moloch things.

            Need to assess academics somehow and citations/publications looks like a decent proxy at first but once it’s used to assess them you get lots of shoddy publications that people try to make as sexy as possible.

            I have mixed feelings about early specialization. For the individual it pays dividends. There are individuals I’ve worked with who seem like kids but then turn out to be extremely capable because they leapfrogged over their peers and got into the industry 5 years early. Forcing them to sit in a classroom memorizing Latin poetry or trying to learn spanish would only make them miserable and make their lives significantly worse than they ended up this way.

            As long as the kid themselves is the driver rather than someone else forcing them to specialize early I’m in favor of it. After all, some people don’t like scifi.

          • Frog Do says:

            I broadly agree with this, but kids are never going to be in the driver seats, it’s always going to be the parents. Even kids who seem to be in the driver seat are there because their parents allow it.

            That said, if we are going to have a Prussian-style factory system for education, you could do a lot worse then to force people to learn languages.

          • Murphy says:

            I’m not so sure, I had friends who were pressured into professions and didn’t get much choice but my own experience was very much self-driven goals.

            I was lucky enough to have parents who literally went with “We don’t care what you do but try to make sure you’re happy with yourself later”.

            At about age 4 when asked what I wanted to grow up to be I’d say “I don’t know but something to do with math or computers”, a few years later that was broadened to “math or computers or science” and now I’m a bioinformatician (intersection point of math and computers and biology)

            About the only thing my parents ever pressured me to do was music lessons.

            If anything I’d have loved to specialized more than I was allowed to.

            Though I accept I’m not the norm. I’ve known some people to get highly distressed at the prospect of having to choose even a vague field of study in college by the age of 18.

            Learning about the things I was interested in was a pleasure, effort yielded results easily.

            On the other hand >50% of my school hours in my life ended up dedicated to things which were utterly useless to me like dead languages, made me utterly miserable, yielded nothing and contributed not at all to my future career.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            peer review bureaucracy

            Thanks for the clarification. I guess I don’t agree with you.

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        > The idea that traditions can arise for unintelligible reasons and still be useful is super important

        How does one apply it? Exceptionlessly? In combination with othe considerations?

        • Frog Do says:

          Exceptionlessly, if I understand you correctly.

          • James Picone says:

            Tradition getRandomTradition() nothrow;

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            It clearly gives a lot of wrong results if applied exceptionessly. Three of Maos Four Evils were evil.

          • Frog Do says:

            Trying to think of it as some sort of abstract deontological rule is probably bad, in the same way applying anything as an abstract deontological rule is bad.

      • The Nybbler says:

        One problem with Chesterton’s Fence is that traditions which arise for no intelligible reason or for bad or forgotten reasons are harder to pull down than those which arose for good reasons. If we know a fence once divided the sheep from the goats, and we know we keep sheep on both sides of the fence now, we can pull it down. But if the fence was put up because “it seemed like a good idea at the time”, a later reformer will never discover the reason it was put up, and so never find support for pulling it down. Or if it divided sheep from goats but no one remembers there once were goats, same thing. And so we get a proliferation of useless fences.

        Chesterton’s Fence always reminds me of the brisket pan story:


        There was a good reason for chopping off the ends of the brisket, but it’s gone now. If Grandma had passed away and her pans long since been scrapped, the newlyweds would never discover why the ends were chopped off — and hence would keep doing it, by Chesterton’s fence.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Sure, you sometimes end up cutting off the ends of the brisket unnecessarily. Often, though, it turns out that cutting off the ends is actually important, and in real life, the consequences are usually more severe than simply “You’ll have one dinner where the meat isn’t as nice as it could be.”

          • The Nybbler says:

            There are consequences to a proliferation of useless and counterproductive traditions kept only because no one knows their original reason for existing and so is afraid to abolish them, too.

          • Anonymous says:

            Can you think of any examples of traditions being kept around more than a generation or two after they’ve stopped being useful?

            Jews not eating pork maybe?

          • The Nybbler says:

            > Can you think of any examples of traditions being kept around more than a generation or two after they’ve stopped being useful?

            Not by the rules of Chesterton’s fence, because any example I give, the conservative view is I just haven’t discovered the reason.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Did Jews not eating pork stop being useful? If they were intended to mark Jews as separate and prevent assimilation, Jewish food rules were useful for a long time, and among the more observant Jews still are.

          • Anonymous says:

            Jews not eating pork maybe?

            That’s useful for separating Jews from non-Jews.

          • JayT says:

            Does it really work to separate Jews from non-Jews though? Muslims don’t eat pork either.

          • keranih says:

            Can you think of any examples of traditions being kept around more than a generation or two after they’ve stopped being useful?

            There was holding the horses but alas, snopes (of course) sez it ain’t so.

            Jews and pork is a different case, because it differentiated the Chosen People from the settled village people of the valleys who had strange (and false) gods.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            You really need to distinguish between the cases where

            A) the Fence isn’t producing many bad results even when applied blindly, because it s a reliable rule

            B) the Fence isn’t producing many bad results because even its proponents apply it very selectivly.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @JayT: Jewish food rules had existed for quite some time when Islam arose. Plus, there are plenty of Jewish food laws beyond “no pork”, ditto Muslim food laws.

          • JayT says:

            Sure, the Jews were avoiding pork for a long time before the Muslims did the same, and for that time that “fence” made sense as a way to differentiate Jews from others, but for the last 1,500 years not eating pork doesn’t differentiate Jews from Muslims. Perhaps the other food rules do, but that is irrelevant to whether or not avoiding pork has any purpose.

          • dndnrsn says:

            It would, however, continue to work as a marker of difference just fine for all the Jews outside of the Muslim world, who generally aren’t confused for Muslims.

            The other relatively convincing theory I’ve seen for a lot of Jewish food laws is that they’re against things that mix categories: pigs have hooves but don’t chew cud, rabbits (look like they) chew cud but don’t have hooves, bats are weird rodent-birds, animals that swim in the sea but aren’t fish are prohibited, etc.

          • brad says:

            That’s useful for separating Jews from non-Jews.

            So from a Chesterton’s Fence perspective once we’ve identified that as the reason we can remove it if we are no longer interested in separating Jews from non-Jews, right?

          • dndnrsn says:

            Depends on who “we” is. Jews who don’t put much value on being a separate, distinct, chosen-by-God community generally don’t observe much (if any) of the rules that Jews are supposed to follow that don’t apply to Gentiles.

            Of course, if you are a really traditionalist Jew, you might not care about what the mundane purpose of the rules was. I remember an article in the NYT Magazine about young, left-leaning but still observant Jews, who argued for humane practices on the basis that ritual slaughter rules were intended to show respect for animals, be more humane than other means of slaughter, and by extension we should today be following the most humane methods possible. Either quoted after this in the article, or in a letter the next week, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi basically said “no, that’s not why we do it, we do it because G-d told us to, which is what we do”.

          • The original Mr. X says:


            The other relatively convincing theory I’ve seen for a lot of Jewish food laws is that they’re against things that mix categories: pigs have hooves but don’t chew cud, rabbits (look like they) chew cud but don’t have hooves, bats are weird rodent-birds, animals that swim in the sea but aren’t fish are prohibited, etc.

            Yeah, that’s one I’ve heard too. Ancients tended to think of God’s (or gods’, for the pagans) creation as consisting of, or at least involving, bringing order out of chaos. By avoiding category-mixing (not eating the foods mentioned above, not wearing clothes of more than one type of fibre, etc.) we can reflect that orderliness in our own lives, and so become closer to God.

        • Eggoeggo says:

          “traditions which arise for no intelligible reason” aren’t necessarily unimportant. If you read that beekeeping thread, there are 3000 year old traditions nobody understands (or ever understood in the sense of knowing the fundamental mechanics!) that still give perfect dimensions for hive boxes.

          Also, if some smartass tears down all the fences because he doesn’t think there’s a good reason to keep sheep away from other sheep, he’s going to have a great time when he finds out about breeding season.

          If people did honest analysis and made honest arguments about why they want to change things, we wouldn’t need the rule. But instead we get “that fence was only built by an ancient conspiracy to oppress sheep, and we need to smash it!”

          • Frog Do says:

            Even if people did honest analysis and made honest arguments, we would still need the rule, because people aren’t the Promethian rational gods of the Englightenment, we are grubby little hairless murder-apes that barely understand the reasons for our own behavior, much less anything else.

        • Frog Do says:

          The person in your example can pull down the fence separating the sheep from the goats whenever he wants! It’s his fence, after all. If there’s no problem, people will probably tear down their fences if they don’t want it or keep it there if they do. What the man tearing down his fence can’t do, is tear down everyone’s fence just because he thinks his is worthless. He only tears down his fence, and faces the consequences.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            The fence has to be in the commons, otherwise how can Chesterton prevent it from being torn down? Chesterton doesn’t come into it at all if it is simply private.

            In fact, in the marriage example which is being bandied about, Chesterton can be seen as preventing people from tearing down fences on their own land (the fence preventing various activities between people who are not married to each other).

          • Frog Do says:

            Then you have to get community agreement, and communities should be small enough that this is not an impossible task. I assume Chesterson would also object to the idea that a national level government sets marriage policy in general.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Frog Do:
            I can’t tell exactly, but it seems you are equivocating, switching back and forth between various definitions as your arguments are rebutted.

          • Frog Do says:

            I treat Chesterton’s fence as a metaphor for a rule that guides behavior, not treating it like an abstract mathematical theorem, because I’m not a Kantian, and I’m pretty sure Chesterton wasn’t either. This is probably the root of our disagreement, to you it looks like I’m equivocating while I think you’re following arguments off of cliffs.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            In fact, in the marriage example which is being bandied about, Chesterton can be seen as preventing people from tearing down fences on their own land (the fence preventing various activities between people who are not married to each other).

            The Sexual Revolution wasn’t just about people having sex, it was about people trying to change the entire societal attitude towards sex. I’m not sure that “trying to change the attitudes of an entire society” can plausibly be analogised to “removing a fence on your own private property”.

            Even if it could, though, people don’t have the right to just do whatever they want with their property. If your fence is helping to prop up an unstable cliff and removing it would increase the risk of avalanches onto your neighbours’ houses below, you don’t have the (moral, and probably legal as well) right to just tear it down, even if it is built entirely on your property, and even if you really really want to get rid of it.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Frog Do:

            I treat Chesterton’s fence as a metaphor for a rule that guides behavior

            If Chesterton is merely giving advice to the eager young college educated city man who has determined that the gate on the path from his house to his new DHS appointed doctor position is unnecessary, then I have no problem with Chesterton or his fence.

            “Look before you leap”, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, “Loose lips sinks ships”, “Nevermind the bollocks”, all useful aphorisms to keep in mind as heuristics. Especially that last one. 😉

            So, a weak form of Chesterton’s Fence is almost certainly true, but perhaps trivially so. The question is, how valid are strong(er) form(s)? If you are only defending it as an aphorism, I think you misinterpreted the OP.

            I mean, Burns said it 100 years before Chesterton:

            But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
            In proving foresight may be vain:
            The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
            Gang aft agley,
            An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
            For promis’d joy!

          • Frog Do says:

            Well in that case, I’d agree that it’s strawman, but then given smart people (and all of us here are probably smart) have an internal bias to think that everyone else is also smart, I wouldn’t have a lot of confidence in it.


      • Good Burning Plastic says:

        IIUC journals introduced modern-style peer review because the old system could no longer cope with the greatly increased numbers of submissions.

    • smocc says:

      This blog post claims three examples in income tax, state welfare, and divorce laws. Then it applies the idea to take issue with a certain class of argument in favor of legalizing gay marriage.

      It’s a nice essay because it mostly avoids moral judgment on the outcomes; the point is simply that consequences that people imagined couldn’t happen did happen.

      • Murphy says:

        … whoever’s been making the “throughout human history” claim needs to read a little more widely. There’s a lot of variations.

        Even if you restrict your source list to the bible alone you still get a lot more variations on marriage than the 1 man/1 woman. If you bother with the rest of human history there’s plenty of variations that aren’t 1 man+1 woman for life with no divorce.

        The foundation there seems to not just be flawed but entirely missing.

        • MugaSofer says:

          I agree with you, but that’s rather like saying we had several cold days so Global Warming is false. Exceptions don’t mean a rule hasn’t been present in most societies for most of human history.

          … but maybe it would have been a good idea to actually look at the exceptions and see what the results were, instead of waving vaguely toward “possible unknown repercussions”.

        • John Schilling says:

          The last paragraph of the blog post in question seems to specifically address and rebut your criticism.

          The claim is that in virtually all historical societies, one marriage consisted of one man and one woman with divorce (or annulment) as an extraordinary deviation from the expected until-death-do-you-part bit. Some societies allowed a man, or less commonly a woman, to engage in more than one marriage simultaneously, but each marriage was still a separate arrangement of the one-man-one-woman sort.

          The only counterexample I know of offhand is Nika Mut’ah, which is controversial even within the Islamic sects that technically allow it. Possibly there are others, but they don’t seem to be common.

          • Murphy says:

            1 man- 1 woman is the common case, sure, with 95%+ of the population heterosexual and most of them having an interest in keeping relationships simple.

            But the “divorce as an extraordinary deviation” claim I’m going to dispute.

            In Abriamhic religions and Hinduism it’s sort of a thing and isn’t accepted in some but in a large fraction of the other’s it’s perfectly acceptable and more similar to breaking off a relationship with a long term boyfriend/girlfriend. Unpleasant for those involved but perfectly acceptable.

            In plenty of cultures breakups are reasonably easily accommodated. Apparently in celtic tradition it was roughly equivalent to breaking off a business contract.

          • Nornagest says:

            I would take claims about the (pre-Christian, I assume) Celtic tradition with a grain of salt. Pretty much all the accounts we have of it are highly biased — first by Roman observers who wanted to paint it as exotic and barbarous, then by early Christian observers who wanted to paint it as licentious, and finally by revisionist historians and anthropologists of the Margaret Mead school, who generally took the licentious angle and ran with it.

            That said, the Christian tradition is historically on the strict side regarding divorce. It was easier in historical Islam, for example, especially if initiated by the husband.

        • smocc says:

          I don’t think the article disagrees with you. That “throughout human history line” is a summary of an argument that social conservatives make. It is not the thesis of the article. You’ll note that it doesn’t ever claim to have a solid argument against (or for) gay marriage. It’s an argument against one argument in favor of gay marriage. The point is summarized well at the end:

          So what does this mean? That we shouldn’t enact gay marriage because of some sort of social Precautionary Principle

          No. I have no such grand advice.

          My only request is that people try to be a little more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes. The argument that gay marriage will not change the institution of marriage because you can’t imagine it changing your personal reaction is pretty arrogant.

          In support of this point it gives three examples of institutional changes that let to societal consequences that were dismissed as possibilities at the time.

    • Jaskologist says:

      One of my favorite pieces of history is this 1926 Atlantic article on The Russian Effort to Abolish Marriage

      When the Bolsheviki came into power in 1917 they regarded the family, like every other ‘bourgeois’ institution, with fierce hatred, and set out with a will to destroy it. ‘To clear the family out of the accumulated dust of the ages we had to give it a good shakeup, and we did,’ declared Madame Smidovich, a leading Communist and active participant in the recent discussion. So one of the first decrees of the Soviet Government abolished the term ‘illegitimate children.’ This was done simply by equalizing the legal status of all children, whether born in wedlock or out of it, and now the Soviet Government boasts that Russia is the only country where there are no illegitimate children. The father of a child is forced to contribute to its support, usually paying the mother a third of his salary in the event of a separation, provided she has no other means of livelihood.

      At the same time a law was passed which made divorce a matter of a few minutes, to be obtained at the request of either partner in a marriage. Chaos was the result. Men took to changing wives with the same zest which they displayed in the consumption of the recently restored forty-per-cent vodka.

      For a simpler example, consider the French Revolutionary Calendar, which switched to 10 day weeks, among other things.

      • J Quenff says:

        But communists thought quite a lot about the family. They wouldn’t have said “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away,” they would have said that it was a keystone of bourgeois capitalism. It’s not that they didn’t think they understood it, it’s that they misjudged the consequences of doing away with it.

        • DrBeat says:

          It’s not that they didn’t think they understood it, it’s that they actually did not understand it.

          Almost everyone, ever, literally ever, who screws up something because they don’t understand it, thinks they understand it.

          If by your standard “we abolished this because we thought we understood the consequences of it but we didn’t because we were too drunk on the mad dog 20/20 of ideology” does not count as an example of tearing down Chesterson’s fence, then it is impossible to find an example of tearing down Chesterson’s fence.

          • Hlynkacg says:

            If by your standard “we abolished this because we thought we understood the consequences of it but we didn’t because we were too drunk on the mad dog 20/20 of ideology” does not count as an example of tearing down Chesterson’s fence, then it is impossible to find an example of tearing down Chesterson’s fence.

            I agree whole heartedly. It is perhaps the platonic example of Chesterson’s “Less intelligent sort of reformer”

          • J Quenff says:

            But then Chesterton’s Fence seems to boil down to “reformers who disagree with me about the importance of certain things shouldn’t be listened to”, which is a less insightful maxim. I think The original Mr. X’s comment further down gives good examples of what I took the Fence idea to be saying.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            But then Chesterton’s Fence seems to boil down to “reformers who disagree with me about the importance of certain things shouldn’t be listened to”, which is a less insightful maxim.

            It can be misused in that way, but I think the actual point is about people who only give superficial or inadequate thought to the potential ramifications of their proposed reforms. I’d say there’s also an element of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” there — if you can’t see the point of something, but as far as you can tell it doesn’t seem to have a real effect one way or the other, it’s probably best to leave it alone.

          • Zorgon says:

            In its original construction, it’s always seemed an admonition to avoid the kind of mentality which leads people to charge cheerily into tearing down the fence without considering the reason why it was there in the first place.

            This, to me, seems eminently reasonable and admirably apolitical in nature. Obviously everyone thinks that The Enemy are the only people who do this, but that’s why the admonition is directed at the reader.

          • Skivverus says:

            As an addendum to Chesterton’s fence, can we add signs saying what exactly the fence is for? The first ten thousand people asking to take it down are fine, but after a while it does get old.

            In other words, “no” is less useful than “no, and there are reasons, go find out what they are”, which is in turn less useful than “no, and here are the reasons”.
            On the other hand, justifications can get arbitrarily long with respect to the human attention span; hence why the first option shows up so often, I suppose. (Now can we please take that fence down and start writing reasons for laws?)

          • Hlynkacg says:

            @ Mr X & Zorgon,
            Pretty much.

          • Anonymous says:

            Saying we should add signs misunderstands the whole concept. It’s a justification for conservatism by appeal to folksy wisdom.

            The “fences” in question are customs, habits, and prejudices passed down in a community, not anything codified.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            > This, to me, seems eminently reasonable and admirably apolitical in nature

            Once you realise how selectively it is applied, it s very poltcal indeed. Who is complaining that Christian countries have abandoned their age old ban on usury? It could be about a thousand things, but itis always sex.

          • Zorgon says:

            That’s a question of the poltiics of those who use it most often, not the term itself.

            My personal favourite example of the fencr is the UK establishment position against the death penalty, which has nothing to do with sex at all.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            I’m not following you at all. In what way us opposition to the death penalty an exampe of the fence?

        • Skivverus says:


          Saying we should add signs misunderstands the whole concept.

          I’m pretty sure the concept’s intended as “the presence of X should be interpreted as evidence of X being good for (something)”; the addendum I propose is “the presence of people asking to get rid of X should be interpreted as evidence that whatever (something) X is good for, it isn’t obvious enough. Therefore effort should be made to either get rid of X, or make (something) more obvious.”

          (Whoops, replied a bit distanced)

        • JuanPeron says:

          This is certainly a large part of the confusion. Few people are foolish enough to go around tearing down unknown fences, but a great many see a fence in the road and say “this must be here to slow down excessive amounts of traffic – let us remove it for the sake of progress!”

          As I’ve learned it, a better heuristic than “say why it exists” is “say why it exists, in terms the builders would agree with.” If you cannot justify something in the terms that justified it, there’s a good chance that you’re being dangerously reckless. If you can, and you can also invalidate the reason (either the ideology, or the rule within the ideology) then you might go ahead.

        • Mary says:

          ” they would have said that it was a keystone of bourgeois capitalism.”

          They were, in fact, assuming that their ancestors were fools. Let us read on in the Chesterton passage:

          “There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. ”

          That is, Chesterton precisely pointed out that this is not a solution.

    • Adam Casey says:

      The French revolution was very good at what you’re describing, they found institutions they didn’t like and got rid. But they also deliberately got rid of old things simply because they didn’t fit the rational models they wanted. So a whole lot of lower-level institutions like the parlement were removed. I’ll leave it to others to say if it worked.


      The Gracci in Rome are my go-to example of people who broke something by not respecting tradition which then couldn’t be un-broken. They did this by breaking customs around the powers of certain offices, and then threatening to enforce their unconstitutional actions by violence. It wasn’t clear to them why the same person couldn’t be tribune multiple times, why the senate couldn’t be overruled in cases of land reform etc.

      They changed the effective source of political power in Rome from popular elections (mobs granting power by their voice), to violence (mobs granting power by force of arms). Beforehand mobs were constrained in the constitutional channels which had served well. Afterwards mobs were aware that they could change the constitution when it didn’t suit them by use of force. The end result after 3 generations of revolution and counter-revolution was Ceaser and the end of the republic.

      • Xeno of Citium says:

        I’m not sure the Gracci brothers are a case of not *knowing* why the traditions around the Tribune of the Plebs and other positions existed, but rather a case of them not *caring* about those traditions. They seem to have played on the desires of the mob in order to secure wealth and power for themselves, rather than out of any principle. Maybe the sources I’ve read are just unkind to the Gracci and I’m being unfair, though.

        The greater point stands, of course. There’s a definite line between the Gracci’s political changes, plus the part where the Senate has them beaten to death and begins the process of normalizing violence in Roman politics, and the fall of the Republic. I doubt bringing an army into Rome like Caesar did, or even like Marius and Sulla did, would have become acceptable without someone like the Gracci brothers weakening those prohibitions against violence and attacking the institutions and traditions that allowed Rome to have political change *without* violence.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Related: Sulla marched on Rome when his eastern command was taken away and given to Marius instead, something accomplished thanks to rioting by Marius’ partisans. The justification Sulla gave was that the Republic was too much in the grip of violent demagogues to function properly, and that it was his patriotic duty to march in and restore order.

          • Xeno of Citium says:

            The death throes of the Roman Republic are so fascinating. It’s one of those periods of history, like the French Revolution, where things just get worse and worse, like a movie franchise where each sequel has to top the last movie in how epic it is.

          • Alejandro says:

            @Xeno; Here is something I wrote in my old blog attempting to explain this fascination, which share:

            ) It is a world very ancient and different from our own, but also surprisingly modern in many respect –and surely the closest thing to the modern world that existed before, say, the seventeenth century at least. There were large-scale democratic politics, a complex government system involving checks and balances between different kinds of magistrates, heated electoral campaigns, political opposition between conservatives and progressives, vast and complex financial enterprises that enriched a few and impoverished many, and an intricate legal system of justice that combined sensible and fair principles with an often corrupt practice. These very recognizable features combine with others that seem alien to us, such as the huge importance of a military career as a way to fame, riches and political power, the almost quotidian occurrence of massive warfare (civil or not), the horrors of the slave economy system, the normality of gladiator fights as entertainment, and the enshrining of superstitions like reading the future by augurs as part of the political constitution. Moreover, it is a period in which the contradictions and tensions within the system become greater and greater and ultimately unsustainable, leading to the collapse of the Republic and the emergence of the Empire, which looks rather less “modern” and more akin to other ancient-world civilizations. One could say that the Roman Republic was an early and clumsy attempt by the secret gods that write human history of creating a modern world, that failed because many of the crucial ingredients were misplaced or omitted altogether.

    • Peter says:

      A little while back there was (sort-of) a discussion of the book _After Virtue_ (here) and there was mention of Polynesians giving up their taboos with a shrug – see Kamehameha II’s wikipedia page for more. That, at first, looked like a good example of Chesterton’s fence being roundly ignored.

      On further reading it seems that abolishing the system of taboos was a bit of power politics; they entrenched the power of the class of rulers beneath the King – so abolishing the taboos allowed him to centralise his power. So perhaps he precisely saw the use of the fence, and that very use was what motivated him to get rid of it.

      In general, I think the “we know exactly what the function is, it’s there to boost the power, prestige, privilege and other desirable things beginning with ‘p’ of some particular social group at the expense of other people; that’s why we want to get rid of it – we are, or are acting on behalf of, the other people” argument is pretty common. There’s also the implicit “No-one’s quite sure how this superstition got started, some people have theories about how it was priests or someone like that looking to boost their status, whatever way, it’s past time to clear out the cruft”. I’m not so sure how common that one is.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      Another few examples I’ve just thought of: wanting to do away with restrictions on governmental power so that the government can do more to help poor people; wanting to reduce the protections given to defendants to make it easier to convict rapists (or other criminals, I suppose, but mostly this sort of logic gets applied in rape cases); wanting to restrict freedom of speech where it negatively impacts minority groups.

      • J Quenff says:

        These ones I like. They also remind me of a recent situation in Ireland that seems to fit the bill. There’s a law that says the state broadcaster has to devote equal time to both sides of a political issue when there’s a referendum coming up that concerns it. During the gay marriage referendum it had the unfortunate effect of banning LGB people from speaking about their same-sex relationships without someone on air to chime in to say that we still shouldn’t have gay marriage. It led to a lot of left-wing people calling for the rule to be abolished, without concern for the obvious downsides that might follow in the future.

    • ChetC3 says:

      > Is this ‘principle’ just a lame strawman of progressives?

      Libertarians and small government conservatives are at least as likely to violate this principle as progressives.

    • Skef says:

      One of the contemporary places you see this effect quite strongly is in software development and what could be called “version 2.0 syndrome”. The common criticism of second-version software is feature bloat, but that’s often not the primary issue. When the initial version is developed iteratively in response to problems and feature requests, the result is often “ugly” and developers want to wipe the slate clean. But much of that ugliness encodes solutions to real problems, and when those problems are not understood some portion of them tend to reappear. That can make getting the overall system to “converge” very difficult, leading to a drawn-out process of bug fixing that can compromise or even destroy the project. So it’s best to throw out code only after you understand why it’s ugly.

    • JuanPeron says:

      This is totally a genuinely valuable principle.

      My best example isn’t something erected by humans, but it conforms anyway. Mao began a campaign against the Four Pests (sparrows, rats, flies, and mosquitos) which disrupted health and agriculture in China. Eurasian tree sparrows (which were targeted for eating grain from farms) were driven to near extinction, after which it was discovered that they primarily ate bugs. The main predator of crop pests had been eradicated, crop yields plummeted, and 20 million people died. If you don’t see the use of sparrows, I certainly won’t let you drive them away.

      Two political examples, both from Rome:

      The Marian Reforms of the second century BC revoked the former requirements that soldiers be raised from the land-owning class and supply their own equipment, in favor of raising and equipping a professional army. This may have been a net good (it massively improved Roman military prowess), but it created a standing army drawn from the peasant classes, who had little loyalty to the Senate and government. As a result, they favored their generals (who made them wealthy) over their Senators (who had left them peasants), directly driving the move towards civil war and undemocratic leadership. If you don’t see the use of civic duty, I won’t let you abridge it.

      Similarly, Diocletian attempted to address third-century inflation with the Edict on Maximum Prices. This increased the currency supply, fixed the maximum prices for most goods, and banned profiteering under a definition which included raising prices due to risk or travel costs. As a result, inflation became overwhelming and an illegal barter economy emerged almost immediately. If you don’t see the use of market pricing, I won’t let you overturn it.

      These are simply my most familiar examples. The Cane Toad entering Australia and a great many other examples also qualify.

      I admit, these are examples where the fence-builders had not consciously addressed the issue created. But in every case, a functional and complicated system was catastrophically altered by people who couldn’t explain its functioning.

      Under other names, this is a long-standing principle in ecology, software design, business management, and I assume a variety of other fields. Any time you face a highly interconnected system, it should be considered dangerous to alter it without a clear statement of what you are changing and why it took on the form it currently has.

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        If the fence had been applied to sparrows, I would have had to be applied to flies mosquitoes and rats….indeed, every apparent pest ever. What do I keep saying about selectivity? To show that something as a rule, you have to show it works in all or most cases.
        One out of four s not good enougl

        And people a keep missing that there is a third way. You can kill the sparrows in one area , and see what happens. Further Research is Needed s a much better rule than Never Change Anything.

        • Saint Fiasco says:

          Isn’t your third way the one advocated by Chesterton?

          Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it

          Experimentation is superior to just thinking, of course, but the gist of it is still the same as “Further Research is Needed”.

        • JuanPeron says:

          I disagree with that “one out of four” assessment pretty vigorously. As I read it, Mao picked four pests without deliberation, and 25% of his choices were genocidally bad! That doesn’t mean the other three were well considered, just that not every fence will literally kill tens of millions when you take it down.

          I’m not calling for Never Changing Anything; your third way seems completely compatible with Chesterton. Don’t tear down the fence, but perhaps leave it open for a few hours, during which you sit and watch. If you cannot explain its existence through thought alone, that is a reason for research, not surrender.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I’d argue this post is merely examples of “selective rigor”. It seems like a good example of what OP is talking about.

        • JuanPeron says:

          I disagree.

          Of the four pests chosen, one was a nation-crippling disaster. That isn’t selective rigor, it’s just an observation that not all fences are devastatingly bad to remove. In this case, one was a catastrophe, two were questionable (flies and rats have ecological value, but we still try to limit their populations), and one still looks plausible (ideas about driving mosquitos to extinction are still floated with total sincerity).

          To me, that looks like evidence that tearing down fences is not universally problematic, but that the consequences can be enormous. Similarly, Diocletian and Marius both fiddled with complex systems they didn’t understand; other Romans did this without disaster, but those two are reminders of just how severe the results can be.

          I feel like we’re crying ‘selective rigor’ when what we mean is ‘bad decisions with unreliable consequences’. If I had my way, I would change out Chesterton’s summary with “don’t touch complex systems unless you understand them well”, but I don’t think the principle is useless.

    • Anonymous says:

      At the risk of causing some heat, I’d like to point out that one of the main things Chesterton is likely to have meant when he wrote that is women’s emancipation and enfranchisement. Whether you like the outcome of those reforms or no, the suffragettes themselves were pretty clear that their motivation wasn’t improvement of society in general at all, or careful consequence analysis. They were just fucked off and thought it was unfair that they couldn’t have everything they wanted, even though they were middle class. (And if that seems like a snide and unfair snipe to you, O reader, you should take a look at Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s interactions with Sylvia Pankhurst, after she became a socialist.)

      The actual fence quotation is from a chapter of The Thing entitled The Drift from Domesticity, so I feel pretty comfortable with calling the women’s lib movement a central example of the principle being violated, even though The Thing‘s from the interwar period. He wrote a number of very similar things in his prewar essays. Oh, and by the way, besides being probably the best even written in the English language generally, those essays are very useful for providing examples of the kind of kook social reformer abroad in those days, which might be hard to get from conventional history writing — for instance, Chesterton feels the need at one point to engage with people who want to abolish private kitchens in favor of large communal ones in order to prevent…? Who even knows, some sort of bourgeois abuse of spices, maybe.

      • Nicholas says:

        The kitchen thing is about the change in how you made, prepared, and then resold food in the “pre-grocery store” era, and people not knowing how kitchens would work when they didn’t need to accommodate four-man teams of food preservers or feed 9 to 19 people on a nightly basis.

  19. Deiseach says:

    The Swiss voted no to a Universal Basic Income.

    What I found interesting in the article was this – on the one hand, the opponents are arguing that Switzerland already has a labour and skills shortage, so paying people to do nothing means that would be even worse.

    On the other hand, they say this:

    Critics warned that the Swiss economy would be damaged if low-paid employees had little incentive to work and simply gave up their jobs.

    So I thought the basic economic fact was if labour is in short supply, wages go up. If wages aren’t enough to compete against a payment of €2,250 per month, how bad can the labour shortage be? Or alternately, how low are the wages for low-paid workers that the UBI would be worth more on its own?

    See, “We haven’t got enough labour but we also need to keep wages down” doesn’t make sense to me. Either the Swiss start relaxing immigration laws so they get cheap foreign workers taking those low-paid jobs, or they start paying their native workers more. I don’t see how “we don’t want foreign workers but we haven’t enough workers of our own” is going to help the Swiss economy; even if they mean “We are badly short of skilled workers”, surely letting high-skills workers legally immigrate is a better solution?

    Anyone know the nitty-gritty of the Swiss economy and can explain to me this conundrum – not enough workers (so wages should be high) but if we don’t force the low-paid to work (by not giving them a basic income) they won’t take the jobs on offer?

    • Jugemu Chousuke says:

      If someone can get paid 2250 per month to play video games, or get say 4500 per month (say min wage + basic income, with no taxes at this level) to serve burgers at McDonald’s, some will choose to stay home, when previously they would have needed to work for rent and food. However, this means that there will be one less (marginal) person’s productive work being generated in the economy, while that person still consumes resources. Basically if you subsidize leisure, you’ll get more of it on the margin. Whether this is ultimately a good or a bad thing depends on a number of factors and will probably require testing as much as theory.

      Also it seems possible that if wages are driven high enough by this, you may end up with similar employment levels but higher wages (PLUS the basic income) for the lower-end workers, effectively a form of redistribution. If the basic income is so high that people won’t work for a wage where they can actually produce profits for their employer (because they aren’t very skilled etc), then you’ll end up effectively paying people to do nothing when they could have otherwise worked.

      • Acedia says:

        If someone can get paid 2250 per month to play video games

        Would a large proportion of the population really be okay with sitting at home all day playing video games and jerking off if you gave them a BI? The only people I’ve known who could do that for more than a month or two without getting antsy and wanting to do something more productive were really badly depressed.

        • Jugemu Chousuke says:

          I’ve been unemployed for a few months now and only really thinking about getting a job because I have to. I’ve done the same once in the past too. If I was on BI forever (and it was enough to live a comfortable life) I might do the occasional productive project but I’d probably do like 5% of the work I’d do at a job.

        • Adam Casey says:

          I’d never work again if I had BI. At least, not in a job. I’d do something more interesting like work for CFAR for free, or become a politician, or start another company.

          There are lots of work-like things that are fun and rewarding, but which aren’t actually (reliable) sources of income.

        • Wrong Species says:

          You must know a lot of productive people then. Avoiding any kind of strenuous activity is the default state for many people. Maybe most. And there’s probably a cultural component too. If you grew up never working and never expecting too, you would probably be less likely to start.

        • onyomi says:

          The people you know are probably disproportionately overachievers.

        • Psmith says:

          We had a decently long subthread about this a little while back. It might be one of those fundamental human experiences things.

          For what it’s worth, there are productive things I’d do if I didn’t need money, “productive” in the sense that they involve progressive improvement at some goal-directed activity. But they’re things like music and athletics. Nothing that anyone would pay me to do.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          The only people I’ve known who could do that for more than a month or two without getting antsy and wanting to do something more productive were really badly depressed.

          You are in a bubble. I went to an overachiever college, and we still had people drop out because they realized they liked to just play video games all day. (And this was a while ago, before video games became something everyone played.)

          • JayT says:

            I was going to say, I spent a good five years of my late teens/early twenties doing little more than sitting around and playing video games with all my friends. It was called college 😉

        • Fahundo says:

          Would a large proportion of the population really be okay with sitting at home all day playing video games and jerking off if you gave them a BI?

          Are you kidding? That’s my #1 aspiration in life. On some lazy weekends or periods of leave from work, I’ve occasionally reached the point where even “playing video games” sounded like too much hassle to bother with.

          • Acedia says:

            I don’t doubt it, but I was talking about what people feel like doing when they’re well-rested and energized, not when they’re exhausted and still recovering from work.

            The other responses are all telling me that wanting to do basically nothing for years and years on end even when you’re not tired or depressed is perfectly common and normal though, so I guess I’m wrong about this.

          • Fahundo says:

            I don’t doubt it, but I was talking about what people feel like doing when they’re well-rested and energized, not when they’re exhausted and still recovering from work.

            You’re giving me way too much credit

          • InferentialDistance says:

            Because it helps ensure the health of the commons in which you graze your sheep.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Unless I think it’s actively harmful for the sheep in the commons.

          • InferentialDistance says:

            @Edward Scizorhands

            Unless I think it’s actively harmful for the sheep in the commons.

            It is significantly contentious that a UBI would harm the sheep.

            @Mark Atwood

            My working to pay for someone who’s highest asperation is to sit on their ass and play video games all day is not “ensuring the health of the commons”.

            And it’s doubly unpersuasive when more than a few people arguing that it is are the ones who say that such is, in fact, their highest asperation.

            People sitting on their ass playing video games all day still pay rents to landlords, buy electricity from power companies, purchase video games from game studios, buy food from supermarkets, etc… Consumers are a necessary part of a healthy economy. Decreasing labor supply without reducing demand for consumer goods is a benefit to the people who still labor because they get increased leverage in negotiating salary without a reduction in the overall economy.

            Furthermore, the assertion that UBI will result in a more than trivial shift of the population towards free-loading assumes a UBI of a magnitude far larger than is feasible. The kind of shelter, with the kind of food, with the kind of luxuries available on only a UBI will not be palatable to the majority of people, in much the same way that the kind of lifestyle available entirely on modern welfare isn’t attractive to any but a minority. UBI allows people to survive on their savings longer while hunting for jobs, and mitigates worst-case scenarios in times of misfortune.

            Finally, the assertion that charity to free-loaders is such a moral failing that the continued suffering of the poor but hard-working is necessary is not persuasive. We live in an unfair world where people are disadvantaged through no moral failing of their own; a UBI mitigates the consequences of bad luck far more more than taxes decrease incentive to produce value.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            It is significantly contentious that a UBI would harm the sheep.

            Yes, it’s contentious. The people proposing a big social upheaval are the ones who need to justify their big social upheaval, not the ones who are nervous about it.

            assumes a UBI of a magnitude far larger than is feasible

            I’ve been told by the BI advocates here on SSC that people not working is an unalloyed good, so I can only assume that they are trying to create a BI of that magnitude.

            I said on the last comment thread that I would like to try smaller experiments. Like “universal food stamps.” Give everyone $100/month on a card, usable the way EBT is. Try that, let’s see how it works. (This particular example comes because my family has been trying to help two other families get on them and it’s a big PITA.)

          • The original Mr. X says:

            People sitting on their ass playing video games all day still pay rents to landlords, buy electricity from power companies, purchase video games from produces, buy food from supermarkets, etc… Consumers are a necessary part of a healthy economy.

            Sure, but the problem with this line of thinking is that they only have the money because it was taken away via the tax system from other consumers, so any increase in the video-games-players’ consumption ability can only be brought about by a corresponding decrease in other people’s.

          • “People sitting on their ass playing video games all day still pay rents to landlords, buy electricity from power companies, purchase video games from produces, buy food from supermarkets, etc”

            That is to say, they still consume goods and services that have to be produced by someone else. That’s a cost, not a benefit.

            Follow out the line of argument you are starting and we can make the world richer by producing stuff and dumping it in the ocean.

          • InferentialDistance says:

            @Edward Scizorhands

            Yes, it’s contentious. The people proposing a big social upheaval are the ones who need to justify their big social upheaval, not the ones who are nervous about it.

            UBI is not as big a social upheaval as you’re making it out to be, since both taxes and social welfare already exist.

            I’ve been told by the BI advocates here on SSC that people not working is an unalloyed good, so I can only assume that they are trying to create a BI of that magnitude.

            Reduction in suffering is, ceteris paribus, an unalloyed good. Most jobs require compensation because they include some component that is sufficiently odious to dissuade people from doing it themselves. A society where no one has to undergo such odios tasks is strictly better than one where people do.

            We live with scarcity, so material wealth has to come from somewhere. We are not yet efficient enough that purely volunteer labor is sufficient to sate demand, so we have to be careful not to undermine incentives to produce so much as to cause more suffering than we eliminate. Anyone arguing for such a large UBI in current societies, as opposed to post-singularity utopias, is unfortunately naive.

            @The original Mr. X

            Sure, but the problem with this line of thinking is that they only have the money because it was taken away via the tax system from other consumers, so any increase in the video-games-players’ consumption ability can only be brought about by a corresponding decrease in other people’s.

            The marginal value of that money spread out among a larger number of poorer people is higher than concentrated into a single person’s hands. I’d also say that the economies that the larger number of poorer people pay into employ more people because of locality, and therefor have larger positive externalities.

            @David Friedman

            That is to say, they still consume goods and services that have to be produced by someone else. That’s a cost, not a benefit.

            Follow out the line of argument you are starting and we can make the world richer by producing stuff and dumping it in the ocean.

            Only if the government is paying you for dumping said stuff in the ocean. And in some cases that can make the world richer, in terms of human well being, if it means lower unemployment and fewer people suffering as a result .

          • JayT says:

            Mark, paying zero marginal product people to sit around doing nothing might just be enough to stop them from trying to start a revolution, so from that perspective it could be looked at as a form of self preservation for all the higher income people.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I don’t think people who think the world owes them a living are really the type to start a revolution, or be very effective in accomplishing that goal. And if they are… bullets are cheaper than UBI, and you only need a to use a few pour encourager les autres

          • JayT says:

            The Czar will be so happy to hear that!

          • Fahundo says:

            I wasn’t saying anyone should pay for me to play video games (though if enough people are interested maybe I’ll set up a Patreon)

            My point was more the opposite. I hate working, derive no satisfaction or fulfillment from it, and right now the only incentive I have to go to work is that it’s necessary for me to survive and live comfortably. I know I’m not the only one. A basic income would enable people like me to do what we want, and what we want isn’t productive at all.

        • Julie K says:

          I expect many single mothers would be happy to quit unfulfilling jobs and stay home with their kids.

        • Anonymous says:

          If I had UBI, I’d still work – self-employment almost certainly, and certainly not full-time – but only because I don’t trust the government not to remove UBI after a while.

        • Xeno of Citium says:

          Something often missed is that there’s *already* a large population of people who have a regular income and don’t work. They’re called retirees, and they’re often quite happy to not work. Some of them do in fact watch TV all day (and IIRC tend to not be particularly satisfied with life), but a lot of them do all sorts of more interesting things that no one would pay them for – fish, golf, garden, write memoirs, provide care for their grandchildren, volunteer, spend time with their family, and so on.

          Wolfram Alpha says the median Swiss household income is about €46k. Two people with BI of €2250 a month is more than that. That’s enough money to live on comfortably. If you had BI to that level, I think you’d see a *massive* number of people drop out of the labor market. I might. I’d probably use that safety net to do something that *might* be productive, like write fiction or code my own projects, but is too risky to rely on as a main income source, but maybe I’d just play video games all day.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Retirees are also unlikely to engage in blue-collar time if they have a bunch of free time.

            They also know how hard it is to work.

          • Anonymous says:

            >all sorts of more interesting things that no one would pay them for – fish, golf, garden, write memoirs, provide care for their grandchildren, volunteer, spend time with their family, and so on.

            Of those, society only cares about the volunteering and caring for the grandchildren. Fishing and golfing are about as useful as video games, maybe even less. Memoirs could be good if you’re particularly notable but probably not.

            The hope with BI is that people behave more like workers with savings or like contractors, using it to negotiate jobs that better fit their skills instead of going for the first thing available. Retirees understandably can’t provide data about how well that would work. Another hope is that those who do check out of working will do other useful things, and looking at retirees sounds like a great idea for that. The hope is for things like civil service, making art that people appreciate (fanfiction with 100 readers qualifies, memoirs that nobody will read do not), open source software, low-cost research, startups.. Playing golf may seem morally more acceptable or whatever but it’s just as big a failure for BI as playing games would be.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            No, the part that society cares the most about is that we don’t see every 75 year old needing to wait proverbial tables at Denny’s so that they can eat there after their shift is done.

            Their are a bunch of other ancillary benefits, but the A1 reason is not forcing granny to be in the labor market just so that she can satisfy the bottom levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

          • Anonymous says:

            For retirement programs yes, but for BI we need a bit more than that to have a chance of implementing it.

          • Matt M says:

            Your point is well taken and is quite worthy of consideration.

            I think when people say “I’d still work – I mean I’d go crazy just sitting around and playing video games – I feel the need to do something productive!” we must keep in mind that everyone has a different idea of what “productive” actually means.

            What would actually happen in my best guess is that we’d see a hugely dramatic increase in the types of things you just mentioned. Tons of amateur golfers. An exponential growth in “starving artist” types. More bloggers and “independent journalists” then we can shake a stick at.

            But take away the incentive and how much effort would they put in? How much would they practice? Would the world really be better off with a bunch more paintings that nobody values enough to actually buy? A tenfold increase in the amount of wordpress hobby blogs? Does something really count as “productive” if you can only do it because the government is subsidizing your requirements of living?

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            People act like it’s completely unresearched what unemployed people do.


            Unemployed men spend most of their time watching TV.

          • Xeno of Citium says:

            @Edward Scizorhands: Interested study, had no idea that something like that existed. I’d definitely expect people to spend way more time passively consuming stuff like television, or sleeping more (and by “more” I mean “not being chronically sleep deprived like the average American worker.”) Not certain how much the study would apply to a world where everyone had the option to not work. If you’re unemployed and looking for work, you’re (probably – this is conjecture, not from the study) going to avoid anything that requires an ongoing time commitment if you won’t be able to keep it up once you’re working 8 hours a day again. If not having to work is your life (and you’re young and healthy and not exhausted from a life of work for wages, unlike retirees), it might be different.

            Also, keep in mind that unemployed people are not a representative cross-section of the working age population – there are more people who are disabled, physically or mentally, more people whose work just isn’t very valuable (and aren’t attractive to employers and so can’t get jobs), etc., and all of these point towards people who won’t use their leisure writing the Next Great American Novel or inventing things or whatever socially beneficial thing you want. Again, conjecture, not data – no idea how’d you study if this is important other than actually implement UBI. IIRC, GiveWell is trying this in a low-income country, so we should have actual results one day.

            @Everyone: There seems to be two camps in regard to what UBI is for in this thread, and I think they’re talking past each other. One sees UBI as just being enough so people literally don’t starve, possibly replacing most other entitlement programs. The other is thinking of a form of UBI where society generates so much wealth that even without work people can live comfortably, say in the middle class, with their UBI. These are going to lead to very different outcomes. The second one is probably impossible in the current world and we’re going to have to wait for much more work to be automated before there’s enough wealth to go around.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            There seems to be two camps in regard to what UBI is for in this thread, and I think they’re talking past each other

            This is probably true. There is one kind I would really like.

          • Mary says:

            The stress of being unemployed and knowing that both benefits and COBRA would run out have a non-zero impact on the activities. It’s probably useful to look at what the unemployed do, but remember that the population is inordinately like to be suffering from depression and anxiety*, both of which may keep them from more productive activities.

            * Both from their status and because those conditions may cause unemployment.

      • Deiseach says:

        Even people who sit around all day playing video games buy food and clothes and of course video games, pay utility bills, engage in the economy. The money the Swiss government would pay them would not stay in their bank accounts, it would be spent.

        Indeed, the only way it would stay in bank accounts is if it is paid to people with other sources of income – the already working in good jobs who use it as savings or the rich who can treat this as free money.

        If there aren’t enough people to do the work, as the Swiss are claiming, then why is the UBI such a threat? If they’re saying “We have plenty of low-income workers, we need high-skills workers” then the simple answer is not to pay the UBI to everyone, or to pay it on a sliding scale – you are a skilled worker making more than the UBI every month, you get paid a percentage of the UBI. You are a low-income worker making the same or less than the UBI every month, you get paid the UBI.

        It does sound, on a very shallow reading of it, that they are saying “If people don’t have to take shitty jobs for bad pay because they will be able to pay for food and shelter otherwise, what will the employers do?” The short answer there seems to be “pay better wages or make your shitty jobs less shitty”. If the long answer is “but we can’t afford it!” then either open up your job market to foreign labour or work out some way of affording it.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          Low-income people primarily consume the labor of other low-income people. How in the world are they going to eat at $LOCAL_FASTFOOD_RESTAURANT if $LOCAL_FASTFOOD_RESTAURANT can’t hire anyone?

          One social revolution at a time, please.

          • brad says:

            The largest parts of the consumption basket for low (and moderate) income Americans are rent, food, energy, and medical care in that rough order.

            Energy and rent have large non-labor components and what labor they do include have tends to be at least moderate income. The labor components of medical care tends to skew towards moderate to very highly compensated labor. That leaves food, which does indeed embody relatively high proportions of low income labor — but overall I think the claim is overstated.

    • Nita says:

      If wages aren’t enough to compete against a payment of €2,250 per month, how bad can the labour shortage be?

      Well, the alternative to the current wages (for a potential worker) is starvation or begging. If the alternative was merely (relative) poverty, employers might have to offer higher wages, and nobody knows how much higher.

      They want more labor, and they want it as cheap as possible — I don’t see what’s paradoxical about that 🙂

      • Vitor says:

        The funny thing is, this argument is exactly why I am so strongly in favor of UBI. Remove coercion (the threat of starvation etc) and wages will adjust upwards to their true level, because now both sides have bargaining power. If someone can’t afford a worker at the new price, that job probably wasn’t worth doing anyway. Tough luck.

        I guess what would happen next is that the price of bigmacs would drastically increase (noone willing to flip those burgers), which will in turn make people wonder if they really want to live off just the UBI. I hear they started offering quite nice wages at McD’s, I’ll go to work after all, etc.

        Extrapolating this process, I think that in the end market forces would make the UBI trend towards 0 in purchasing power of luxuries, e.g. widen the price gap between a home-cooked meal and a restaurant meal even further than it already is here. I’m fine with that.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          If someone can’t afford a worker at the new price, that job probably wasn’t worth doing anyway.

          This attitude is what makes me really hate UBI.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            “I do not see the use of this low-wage job; let us clear it away.”

          • Urstoff says:

            It’s the exact opposite of marginal thinking. I see this attitude come up in MW debates, too, and it drives me bananas.

          • Zorgon says:

            You’re using an emotive argument in the face of reality. If the low-paid job cannot be paid more, it clearly is not actually important and is only being done because the marginal benefit of having it done is worth slightly more the low cost of employing someone to do it.

            However, unimportant low-paid jobs are actually quite rare. Most low-paid jobs are really quite important to the enterprise, but low-status; cleaning work, stacking shelves, and so on. These are low-wage not because the work is unimportant, but because they are unskilled and thus used as an entry point to the workplace hierarchy. Is that a good enough reason not to pay someone a wage commensurate to the importance of the job?

            Put simply – do you think low-wage workers are virtuous? If so, why do you not wish to pay them more?

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            You’re using an emotive argument in the face of reality

            No, it’s me realizing that my opponents want something much bigger than I do, and having to stop it.

            If the low-paid job cannot be paid more,

            That’s merely reservation wages.

            If we had a super-low unemployment rate everywhere, then I wouldn’t worry about “jobs being undone.” But there are places in the US with serious unemployment. Modesto, California has 15% unemployment. It’s not because there “are no jobs that are actually important.” Just look around Modesto and you will see jobs that need done.

            Put simply – do you think low-wage workers are virtuous? If so, why do you not wish to pay them more?

            I do wish to pay them more. I advocate for something that will actually accomplish this: increasing my taxes to pay for a wage subsidy. I eschew policies that say “well, as a third-order effect we think wages might go up. Maybe.”

          • Zorgon says:

            Do you believe that unemployment is implicitly and inherently a bad thing?

            If you do, then we are not arguing from the same basic principles and I’m not sure how to proceed.

          • onyomi says:

            “Unemployment” as defined by labor statistics generally means “looking for, but unable to find work.” Retirees, house husbands, cloistered nuns, and the idle rich are not “unemployed.”

            Since unemployed as commonly used in these contexts implies people failing to find what they want, I don’t see how it could but be negative, other than, perhaps, in the transitional sense, where it’s better for someone to look a little longer with the result of finding a good job than to take whichever is the first job offered.

          • Urstoff says:

            If the low-paid job cannot be paid more, it clearly is not actually important and is only being done because the marginal benefit of having it done is worth slightly more the low cost of employing someone to do it.

            Using “importance” as a metric is strange and seems totally arbitrary. What does it mean to be “important”? And why should pay correlate with “importance”?

          • Zorgon says:

            “Important” in this context carrying an implicit “to the enterprise”.

            Which is to say, carries a direct benefit to the enterprise’s operations. It may be marginal; cleaners are a good example of marginal yet important jobs. If you can’t pay your cleaners more (which in a UBI context translates to “paying them enough of a premium over their UBI to get them to do the irritating and backbreaking job of cleaning up after the public”, which is a currently unknown market position) then it is clear that “clean facilities” is not actually important to your enterprise, as if it was, you would pay them more.

            The current reasons for not doing so are not actually based on the importance of the work, but on the position those labourers have in the workplace hierarchy. The only reason this is possible is because low-skilled workers are effectively forced to take the job even at a cost vastly below what it is worth. UBI removes that coercion and in turn forces the enterprise to pay low-status workers commensurate to their labour. I cannot help but feel that this is a significant element in the opposition to the idea.

            One interesting observation I feel like I should make at this point is that I have had two personal interactions with cleaning workers’ salaries. The first was when one of my sisters had a cleaning job in a large supermarket, and the second was employing a professional cleaning company to clean my offices. The latter was a very small company with three employees and apparently paid very well, while the latter paid buttons and recruited primarily by getting the local jobcentre to force people to work there at jeopardy of losing their unemployment benefits.

            Both companies clearly considered having regularly cleaned premises important (I know I did, I’m an untidy git at the best of times). Only one of these, however, would be able to continue to function in a UBI context. I personally find it hard to have much sympathy for the other.

          • Jaskologist says:

            I feel like you’re using the term “importance” to wield emotional effect in order to wave away the concept of efficiency. Some things are worth doing at $x, but not at $(x+10).

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            An unstated problem, which the janitor example highlights, is that “pay janitors better” or “live with a dirty workplace” is a false dichotomy.

            I don’t have statistics on hand, but from personal experience I’m confident in asserting that right now at least three quarters of janitorial staff are illegal immigrants. Often hired through subcontractors for plausible deniability (“hey, we had no idea these guys were illegal. Go talk to the people that hired them…”).

            Every Basic Income scheme that has a chance in hell of working pays out only to citizens. So rather than eliminating “worthless” jobs and increasing compensation to the “important” jobs, your plan would just replace poorly paid citizens with even more poorly paid illegal immigrants.

            Even in Trumptopia, with a chicken in every pot and a Wall on every border, you’d still see this problem in a different form. In fact, one which you highlight. Poorly paid low-skill labor will not be replaced with well paid low-skill labor: it will be replaced by a much smaller number of high-skilled laborers operating expensive labor-saving devices. The people who would have been janitors originally are no less unemployed, it’s just that a few other people (who likely had other employment options before) are employed in their place.

          • Zorgon says:

            If it’s not worth doing at (x+10) currency units, then it’s clearly not very important to the enterprise. We don’t have good language for this, however – “marginal worth” is probably the closest and even that doesn’t really cover the intracorporate social mechanics of the situation.

            The reason I bring this up is precisely because people are using emotive arguments in favour of maintaining low-importance low-paid jobs. My argument is that either they are worth it at (x+10) or they are not – and if they are not, why on earth should someone want to do it given the opportunity to not do so?

            I would rather 500 people working in charities and 500 people playing videogames to 1000 people doing cleaning work that isn’t important enough to warrant (x+10). And that, at its heart, is the core argument for UBI.

          • Zorgon says:

            @Dr D – I don’t disagree at all. Immigrant labour and inflationary problems are the two major unanswered questions as regards UBI from my perspective. But they get ignored in favour of “oh woe is me, having to pay for all these awful lazy people swept from low-paying jobs”.

          • Urstoff says:

            If you can’t pay your cleaners more (which in a UBI context translates to “paying them enough of a premium over their UBI to get them to do the irritating and backbreaking job of cleaning up after the public”, which is a currently unknown market position) then it is clear that “clean facilities” is not actually important to your enterprise, as if it was, you would pay them more.

            Again, this is just some arbitrary standard of importance you’ve cooked up. Companies value clean facilities, which is why they pay people to clean them (versus saving the money from not hiring janitors at all). I don’t see any reason to use your arbitrary standards of importance as a basis from which to make policy or judge other companies.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I would rather 500 people working in charities and 500 people playing videogames to 1000 people doing cleaning work that isn’t important enough to warrant (x+10)

            If you want to re-order society to your wishes, you have to do a lot more hard work to justify the new society you are imagining.

          • Zorgon says:

            this is just some arbitrary standard of importance you’ve cooked up.

            There’s nothing arbitrary about it, given it’s wholly contextual to the employment situation under consideration.

            However, you’re now just repeating the same objection over and over and I feel like I’ve gone out of my way (indeed, somewhat beyond the call of duty) to explain my position. I have no intention of repeating myself further at this point.

          • InferentialDistance says:

            @Edward Scizorhands

            If we had a super-low unemployment rate everywhere, then I wouldn’t worry about “jobs being undone.” But there are places in the US with serious unemployment. Modesto, California has 15% unemployment. It’s not because there “are no jobs that are actually important.” Just look around Modesto and you will see jobs that need done.

            UBI reduces unemployment because it reduces the number of people who want to find jobs. UBI does not take jobs away from people who want to work them, it takes labor away from people who want to employ it. The only jobs that get eliminated from the market are those that the unemployed aren’t willing to take.


            Again, this is just some arbitrary standard of importance you’ve cooked up

            No, you are the one invoking an arbitrary standard. Zorgon is invoking the standard capitalist method of determining importance by Market Rates. If the reduction in supply of janitors would not result in an increases in janitor wages, that implies that janitors are already paid the maximum of their profitability (i.e. their employers make no profits from their labor that they can cut into to pay higher wages). That this wage is so low means that it isn’t important to the markets. That paying more for the labor is less profitable than not having the job done at all.

            The idea that janitor jobs are so “important” that we have to coerce poor people with threats of homelessness and starvation so that they’ll accept lower wages is your position, and you have not demonstrated the metric by which you measure such importance.

          • Mary says:

            “There’s nothing arbitrary about it”

            it is entirely arbitrary. There is nothing magical about the UBI you will pay; you say that “importance” is defined as something that someone will pay enough that the job gets done even when UBI is $N.

            Well, UBI is $N now. N is zero. Indeed, that’s the only non-arbitrary level, since it’s the level that occurs without interference. Therefore, by your definition, everything that gets done now is important. Or your objection is arbitrary.

    • Joe Teicher says:

      In economics a shortage is when supply is higher than demand and for some reason the market can’t clear. Like either there is just no way to make more of whatever is in short supply (marginal cost is infinite) or there is something keeping the price from rising to the market clearing level (price controls). When people talk about labor market shortages they aren’t typically talking about that. What they really mean is that the market is clearing but the price is too high for whoever is complaining about it. So there is no contradiction between talking about a “labor market shortage” and a need to keep wages down. Those are really the same idea.

      • Deiseach says:

        Yeah, but the argument goes “We need to hire the best CEO, we have to pay top wages, even better than our competitor” and I understand that. Nobody argues “Well we don’t have enough CEOs to go round but we certainly are not going to pay top dollar”.

        “We need more people to do this low-paid work and we can’t get enough of them” – then shouldn’t the wages rise to attract people to do the work? If there are people who are physical bodies in the country who are not taking on jobs in (I don’t know) restaurants and as hospital porters because they can make money elsewhere, then surely the wages need to rise to attract workers? If there are not enough bodies present – everyone who can work is working – then again, you either need to raise your wages/conditions so just finished high school Georg thinks “Yes, I’d like to work for Frau Suzanne’s Kitchen rather than Liver Baked On The Lake because they pay more” or you need to import more labour.

        I don’t see how they can say they haven’t enough workers but wages can’t rise. Either they do have enough workers and they want to force them to work for lower wages, or they don’t have enough workers but they’re not willing to pay the going rate to attract them. If the CEO won’t work for them because they’re not willing to pay the same rate as a competitor, why should Georg the factory worker? If Georg can get a job elsewhere, good luck to him!

        EDIT: Actually it’s worse than that, because they’re complaining of a lack of skilled workers. So they’re not prepared to pay even skilled workers more attractive rates than the proposed UBI, which means I have little sympathy for them.

        • Murphy says:

          “We need more people to do this low-paid work and we can’t get enough of them” – then shouldn’t the wages rise to attract people to do the work?

          If it’s a closed system, yes.

          But if the companies in your country are competing with companies outside then it makes it that much harder to compete and hits many kinds of exports.

          • Deiseach says:

            But the Swiss seem to be trying to make it a closed system – they only have so large of a population, after all. They also seemingly have stringent limits on immigration.

            Therefore there will come a point when all the people who can work are working, or near to it. If they can’t find enough labour, they will have to let more people into the country to do that low-income labour and high-skills not enough graduates work.

        • Theodidactus says:

          As my grandpappy always said, a shortage of $7.99 golden watchchains isn’t a shortage of golden watchchains.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          The market for CEO labor is stupid and broken, but the people who have to pay for it (the shareholders) don’t care because it’s a pittance to them.

          We should not be trying to make the rest of the labor market into the CEO market.

          • Deiseach says:

            Is it the shareholders who pay, though? It’s rather hard to see reports of “Company X made losses this year so staff are facing redundancy, meanwhile the CEO gets his guaranteed by contract bonus” which makes a laugh of the idea of a bonus and doesn’t really make it seem like there is any punishment for failure among the higher-ups.

            The rationale is that the calibre of CEO has a great effect on the success of the business so they should be rewarded commensurately which is fine – but there seem to be no ill-effects for failure; even if they want to kick the CEO out for totally screwing up, they still have to pay them to leave quietly, which is not the case for any other worker at any other level who gets fired if they screw up and does not receive preferential treatment.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Yes, it’s the shareholders who pay. I wish they would give more a damn, but they don’t.

            (Well, and a lot of CEOs sit on each other’s “compensation committees.”)

            If you want to argue exactly how CEO compensation is screwed up, okay, but it does nothing against my point that trying to use CEO pay to model the rest of the labor market is game no one should want to play.

        • Lambert says:

          ‘Labour shortage’ factoid not actually true. Just finished high school Georg who lives in Switzerland and rejects over 10,000 job offers per day is a statistical outlier and should not have been counted.

        • James Bond says:

          The issue with UBI is that the person isnt doing another job. They are just living of the taxpayers. They would be contributing more to the economy working the job, than they would be living of UBI. They pay for CEOs is not raised by an artificial price floor created at the taxpayers expense. It is created by the natural competition for the handful of people who are CEO-material. And to top it all off we are using government coercion to reduce our economic productivity. I understand that a moral imperative to the old, to the sick, to children, and to those who disabled and cannot find work, and I can understand how we can argue taking care of them could be worth the government coercion. In fact i do support welfare for those who are in that list out of purely moral reasons. However they young, able-bodied, but lazy, should not have a subsidy to just sit at home and play video games. That is a loss of economic productivity by both using money that could have been better spent on this leisure and also by losing the possible productivity of these workers.

          • Richard says:

            how about able minded?

            I just read this (scroll down to “hiding unemployment the nordic way” for the pertinent bits) which reminded me of a consulting gig I did some years back on aluminium plants in countries like Brazil, Spain, USA and Norway.

            Per 100 tonnes of daily production, the number of employees were:
            – 3000 in Brazil
            – 1500 in Spain
            – 1000 in USA
            – 150 in Norway.
            The degree of automation and skill level of the employees followed the exact opposite curve, while the production cost of aluminium were just about exactly the same.

            What I am (badly) trying to articulate here is that I suspect that what Norway is doing with granting disability pay to anyone who are not in high demand in the workplace is silently and slowly sneaking UBI in the back door without anyone noticing.

          • John Schilling says:

            The issue with UBI is that the person isnt doing another job

            Which person is that? The ‘U’ in UBI means that even the people who are doing other jobs are on UBI; unless and until we get to true mass technological unemployment it will probably be the case that most adults on UBI are “doing another job”. Possibly including the unpaid but vitally productive jobs of “housewife” and “mother”.

            The people who refuse to do any job at all, will under a UBI system be collecting UBI and doing no other job, and under any other system will be collecting SSDI or whatnot and doing no other job. There is approximately no place in western civilization where “you’re a lazy bum so we’re going to let you starve unless you get a job” is actually going to happen; the only question is how we hide that fact.

            Most of the systems for hiding that fact, have the perverse feature that they actually punish people for getting part-time jobs or minimum-wage jobs that don’t come with immediate prospects for improvement.

            In between the people who will be working other jobs with or without the UBI and the people who will be watching TV and collecting the dole with or without the UBI, are a bunch of people who can do some weakly-productive work and will do some weakly-productive work if and only if it profits them. Under UBI, those people will be collecting UBI and doing another job part time. Under any other system, those people are probably sitting around watching TV and collecting the dole, slowly learning the lesson that working is for suckers.

          • Nornagest says:

            @John — That’s actually a really good point. I’m concerned, though, that there may be some population of people who would rather passively consume whatever we’re willing to give them, aren’t capable of convincingly faking whatever will qualify them for means-tested welfare, and are capable of being productive in low-skill jobs.

            How large this population is, I have no idea.

          • John Schilling says:

            @Nornagest: If convincing the bureaucrats that you are unable to work is hard enough that the reasonably smart and able-bodied people who ought to be working, can’t do it, then it is almost certainly hard enough that actually disabled people can’t do it and so will be left to starve on the streets. We may hope the process is biased in favor of the truth, but it really can’t be biased so far in favor of the truth as to overcome the gross difference in ability between fully capable and substantially disabled people.

            The current system, per The Last Psychiatrist and what little I’ve seen of it in action, seems to both pose real hardships to actually-disabled people while still being accessible to anyone who just really really doesn’t want to work, so I am particularly skeptical of promises to fix both of those problems at the same time.

          • Matt M says:

            John Schilling,

            That’s a fair point. In my anecdotal experience, the one person I’ve known that was on full-time disability was absolutely defrauding the government. The one person I knew who deserved to be on it kept getting denied again and again and again because they thought he was faking.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Reading that The Last Psychiatrist post, it feels like going to UBI is just giving up on those people who currently won’t work.

            Which, okay, maybe the right thing is to give up. I’ve certainly encountered lots of situations where giving up was the best course of action. Maybe it is the right thing to do.

            But if we’re giving up on that segment of the population, then

            1. how are we containing the size of that problem population? 5% of the population refusing to work and not bothering to vote is probably manageable. 20% refusing to work and politically organized isn’t.

            2. are we going to create that same problem in other subpopulations?

    • Jaskologist says:

      The final result showed 76.9% of Swiss voters opposed the plan in a national referendum.”

      Wow. That’s gonna leave a mark.

      • Vitor says:

        In which direction do you mean? FWIW, 23.1% voting in favor is about twice what I expected, we are talking about a huge, untested overhaul of our economic foundations, after all.

        As a reference point, back in 1989 there was a vote about getting rid of our army entirely, which also had a sizable minority (35%) voting for it. It had serious impact on politics in this area despite being rejected.

      • Tom Womack says:

        The other line items in the same referendum:

        * A proposal to speed up the country’s asylum process was backed by nearly 67%
        * The Pro Service Public initiative proposing that bosses of big public sector companies should not earn more than government ministers – a reflection of dissatisfaction with railways and telecoms provider Swisscom. It was rejected by 68% of the voters
        * A proposal to allow genetic testing of embryos before they are inserted in the uterus in cases of in-vitro fertilisation, where either parent carries a serious hereditary disease. It was passed, with 62% backing it
        * Transport financing: An initiative from the car lobby which wants more investment in roads. The government had urged a “No” vote, and it was rejected by 71%.

        Which says I think something quite good about the Swiss

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          To “allow” generic testing of embryos? They couldn’t before?

          • Dr Dealgood says:

            Switzerland has one of the most nonsensical sets of laws governing biological research I’ve ever seen, even by European standards.

            Evidently it’s because their constitution has a poorly-worded line about respecting the dignity of all creatures, which has formed the basis for (among other things) attempting to bar or limit research which would disrespect the “dignity of plants.”

          • Deiseach says:

            Dr Dealgood, I wonder if that’s a reaction to the reputation of Swiss clinics in the late 19th/early 20th century?

            Basically that if you wanted any crackpot treatment, a discreet private Swiss clinic would provide it – see the “monkey glands” story about Yeats (which was not a tissue transplantation but a partial vasectomy).

            Though I see that the actual “monkey glands” man was a Russian Jewish surgeon working in France, not Switzerland.

        • Vitor says:

          Before you heap high praise on us, keep in mind that in our previous batch of votes, 40% were in favor of throwing out the window such pesky and bothersome notions as “separation of powers”, “universal human rights”, etc.

    • Stefan Drinic says:

      There seem to be two schools of thought at the places on the internet I tend to visit.

      The first is that foreign competition is too strong and we have to pay lower wages, because otherwise we just can’t make any money and all our businesses will fail.

      The second is that employers are greedy and selfish and will stop at nothing to pay their employees less, damn the consequences.

      As for myself, I can only hope one of these two is right. If they both are, it is a much more tragic situation.

      • Deiseach says:

        I can see how foreign competition is strong for Switzerland, but they are going to be hampered by natural limits of population. There won’t be enough surplus people to do the low-wage (or even moderate-wage high skills) jobs. If Georg and Heidi can make more money simply by crossing the border into Italy or France or Germany to do a similar job for better wages, how do you stop them?

        The objection seems to boil down to “Yes, conditions and wages are so crap that if people had any other choice they wouldn’t work in our jobs” which is not a great admission for a First World rich developed liberal nation to make.

        • Stefan Drinic says:

          Yes, you are perfectly correct. I don’t see how we are in disagreement here..?

      • Almost all talk about being unable to compete with foreign firms is based on a view of economics that has been out of date for about two hundred years. It’s the same view that gives us terms such as “unfavorable balance of trade.”

        U.S. costs are in dollars. Japanese costs are in yen. If, at the current exchange rate, everything is cheaper to make in Japan, there will be lots of Americans trying to exchange dollars for yen in order to buy stuff from Japan, no Japanese offering to exchange yen for dollars, since there is nothing in America worth buying.

        Since demand for yen is higher than supply of yen, the price of yen in dollars goes up. It keeps going up until quantity demanded equals quantity supplied, at which point Americans are buying as many yen worth of Japanese goods as Japanese are buying of American goods.

        Capital flows and such complicate the story a bit, but the simple argument is enough to show why arguments of the form “if you do that, we can’t compete” are nonsense. The correct form is “if you do that, we will be poorer,” which for some “thats” is true.

        • meyerkev248 says:

          With the caveat that Japan or China can totally cheat by buying treasuries.

          If they’re buying half a trillion in investments, then either we need to match that with half a trillion in investments BACK (not unreasonable for Japan, not so much for China), or we need to buy half a trillion in cheap Chinese crap and expensive Japanese TV’s to make up for it.

          • Samuel Skinner says:

            “Giving us free stuff” is not a horrible failure state.

          • hlynkacg says:

            I contend that there is no such thing as “free stuff”.

          • meyerkev248 says:

            Every other major state on the face of the planet resists that failure state.

            The problem is that it’s not free stuff.

            It’s reducing productive investment opportunities for Americans, while making American policymakers choose between either increased debt or increased unemployment.

    • John Schilling says:

      “We haven’t got enough labour but we also need to keep wages down” doesn’t make sense to me.

      Makes perfect sense if you look at it from an employer’s perspective, and I see variations on it quite frequently. Particularly whenever someone is talking about how we don’t have nearly enough (cheap) STEM workers and need more, more, more…

      And from the middle-class perspective, the €2,250/month wage level is probably perceived as “what we need to pay people to mop the floors, serve the burgers, and otherwise do the jobs that middle-class folk like me want to have done for us”. So, thinking economically as an “employer” even though they aren’t the ones directly making payroll.

      • Deiseach says:

        It breaks down to something over €500 a week which is decent money. I don’t know if taxes or social insurance payments would be taken out of it, but it certainly is more than you’d make working mopping floors and the like, so I do see the fear about “not enough workers to do the low wage jobs”.

        Okay, then bring the UBI down to a smaller amount – €300 a week, or €250 a week. Then people can choose to do part-time/full-time low-wage jobs on top of that to earn extra money.

        As it stands, it sounds like (a) too ambitious by the proposers (b) wanting a level of forced inequality and coercion to make the system work under capitalism by those opposed.

        People who are doing a job they hate under bad conditions only because they won’t have any money to live on otherwise are not going to do a good job. You the employer may or may not care about that, but it doesn’t make for productivity and good quality in the goods/services produced.

        • Vitor says:

          Mopping the floors pays more than the UBI, actually. We have insanely high wages. Also consider that one proposal is to remove the UBI gradually as you make more money, so maybe you make CHF 3000 mopping the floor and get maybe a quarter of the UBI on top of that. If you mop the floor part time, maybe you get 80% of UBI + a wage of 1000. The idea would be to create a smooth, shallow ramp where more work = more money.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            We already have a bunch of ramps that phase out when you earn more money, creating significant marginal taxes on the poor. The Basic Income is supposed to solve that problem.

          • Vitor says:

            Variants with and without phasing out at higher incomes have been proposed. But that’s a side issue for me, I was just assuming the worst possible world for my argument. If UBI doesn’t phase out at higher income, the incentive to work in order to increase disposable income is even stronger.

    • Theo Jones says:

      I would have voted aganist that bill. The ammount was way to high, a more resonable ammount would of been around 1/2 of that. 30k per year is over 50% of the percapita GDP.

      • JayT says:

        I believe the actual bill didn’t have a set number for what the UBI would be. The 30K was just a suggestion by the authors of the bill.

        • Vitor says:

          That’s correct. There was also a 50 year time window in which to implement the changes. There would have been plenty of discussion and secondary votes to hammer out what exactly UBI means.

    • Devilbunny says:

      I have a friend who worked in Switzerland for a variety of NGO’s over the course of about fifteen years. One of his comments about the Swiss system was that such firms often hired a lot of foreign labor on a contract basis, but that the work visas expired quite quickly if you were laid off (and most were quite short, typically six-to-twelve-month contracts).

      The permanent positions tended to be reserved for Swiss citizens, and so when the economy weakened and layoffs occurred, their jobs were safe, while all the contractors had to leave the country.

    • Nicholas says:

      A certain demographic of salary-class consumer wants products to be cheaper. The labor shortage is driving up prices, a UBI would drive up prices, the Swiss are very conservative about immigrants. That’s what they want: to have to pay less for products without deflating their own paychecks.

    • JuanPeron says:

      One plausible explanation: response to wages is intensely non-linear.

      This general principle solves a lot of real world and theoretical questions (like the Lottery Paradox). The first few notches of income are absolutely crucial: they keep you from starving or enduing up homeless. After that, value drops off rapidly – there are lots of people working on $10/hour who could be doubling that, but are choosing not to work on an oil rig or join the military (at the cost of risk, exhausting labor, long-term travel, and moving away from friends and family).

      Beyond those points, things get complicated. $100,000/year is much, much better than $40,000/year (it enables all kinds of luxuries, and also removes the sting of many minor shocks like an unexpected bill). But $40,000 versus $50,000 (the sort of variance available to unskilled workers)? I think most people would give up that raise for lots more time off work.

      Video games, books, and Netflix aren’t just patronizing examples – I could imagine being pretty happy with rent, basic food, and enough free time to consume reams of high-quality media. As is that’s not on the table: if I choose against work, I choose against food and a home. But I think a surprising number of young people might be well-satisfied by affording nothing but staples and media access.

  20. HH says:

    Donald Trump is low-level example of Roko’s Basilisk, right?

    • MugaSofer says:

      If you’re not on board with fascists before they come to power, they may purge you when they win, you mean?

      Some Jews voted for the Nazi party based on this logic.

      I don’t think anyone knows Donald Trump well enough to guess at his intentions with enough accuracy to be sure he won’t turn on them, given his obsessive lying. Why shouldn’t he purge “his own” supporters if they become inconvenient?

      • Dr Dealgood says:

        Why are we assuming he’s going to “purge” anyone?

        The whole ‘Trump is Literally Hitler’ thing is so hysterical and absurd, it’s actually making me more favorably disposed to him every time I hear it.

        • Zorgon says:

          There’s a solid argument that this is in fact the main source of his popularity.

          • JayT says:

            Which has nothing to do with Dr. Dealgood’s comment. I’m no Trump fan, but all the hysterics over a guy who would most likely end up being a pretty Democratic-leaning president is just amazing to me.

        • Gravitas Shortfall says:

          It’s kinda frustrating to hear Godwin’s law evoked so aggressively by liberals after years of them complaining (with good reason) about conservatives invoking it on Obama. People just can’t get enough of those goddamn Hitler/Nazi comparisons.

          Trump should be compared to George Wallace, or the leaders of the Know Nothing party of the 19th century, not any historical dictator.

          • Berlusconi. As I suggested elsewhere.

          • It’s kinda frustrating to hear Godwin’s law evoked so aggressively by liberals after years of them complaining (with good reason) about conservatives invoking it on Obama. People just can’t get enough of those goddamn Hitler/Nazi comparisons.

            I completely agree, but your phrasing troubles me a little.

            As I understand it, to “invoke Godwin’s Law” would be to say, “Aha, you brought up Hitler or Nazis irrelevantly, therefore, I have won the argument!”

            What you are saying instead is that comparing a politician to Hitler “evokes” or “invokes” Godwin’s Law. Referring back to Mike Godwin’s original conception, perhaps one might say that it demonstrates Godwin’s Law.

    • Aegeus says:

      What? No. Just… I don’t even see the connection between the two.

      Donald Trump does not become more dangerous because you know about him. Donald Trump does not make acausal bargains. Donald Trump is not a superintelligence. Donald Trump is not capable of making simulations of his electorate. Donald Trump has not threatened retaliation against people who failed to get him elected.

      • HH says:

        Probably disagree with your last point. I was thinking more along the lines of “once I’m in power I will punish all of those who didn’t work hard to put me into power.” He hasn’t threatened it explicitly, but does he really need to? He’s obviously thin-skinned and vindictive, just the sort of person to get back at you for not backing him when you could have been useful.

        • Aegeus says:

          He’s thin-skinned and vindictive, but not in the way that the Basilisk is vindictive. I wouldn’t expect him to seek retribution against everyone who failed to support him – that’s 50% of the country! And if he did try, he’d find that the Constitution has some very strong words about using state power to suppress your political opponents.

          (Yes, the US has done it to Communists before, but if Communists were 50% of the country I imagine that McCarthy’s job would have been a little harder.)

          I can imagine he’d seek retribution against a few prominent opponents (I’d certainly be pissed off at the NeverTrump Republicans if I was him), but at that point it starts becoming hard to distinguish from “normal human politics.” I don’t think it’s really helpful to use “Basilisk” as a synonym for “Spiteful politician.”

          • HH says:

            I wouldn’t, but I do think he’s orders of magnitude different. There’s a certain sense of “no one wants this but we have to help him because otherwise he’ll turn on us” with Trump that I just don’t get with other folks.

          • John Schilling says:

            Really? I get that impression from Hillary Clinton even more strongly than I do Trump. Trump is fickle; Clinton knows how to carry a grudge.

            In her case, I’d expect that anyone outside the higher echelons of the Democratic Party would be safe, but then I don’t envision Trump going out of his way to target average members of the electorate either.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @John Schilling:
            You think Clinton is sending pictures of her hands to (essentially) random reporters years after they said something symbolic and crude about her?

            I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty sure Clinton can carry a grudge. I just think she saves them for things which are more consequential.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Maybe not, but then HH was worrying about Trump punishing people who didn’t help him to power. If that punishment consists of getting a photo of his hands every so often, I don’t think there’s any need to worry.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @The original Mr. X:
            Trump has already threatened to do things like pulling CNNs FCC license or investigating Amazon because Jeff Bezos now owns the Washington Post and Trump doesn’t like their coverage.

            I not sure he’d actually be really capable of making that happen, bureaucracies do have survival instincts and defense mechanisms, but it does speak to what he might intend. And certainly speaks to the things he is willing to threaten.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            If we’re going to be stuck with a vindictive President, which it looks like we are, it might be better to have one who goes after imaginary targets such as CNN’s “FCC license”.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Cerebral Paul Z:


            But, do you really want to follow that line of reasoning through?

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            What I said was probably too much of a throwaway joke to be worth following through, but as a #NeverTrumper I’m not too concerned about where it might lead.

          • Eggoeggo says:

            vs the candidate who wants to introduce actual licensing for media companies… especially ones that criticise her.

          • HH says:


            Spoke w/ a Trump friend this afternoon. Says Trump paying close attn to who in GOP is with him now, who is not. “Will remember,” friend says

          • houseboatonstyxb says:

            @ Eggoeggo
            the candidate who wants to introduce actual licensing for media companies… especially ones that criticise her.

            First time I’ve heard that one. Cite?

        • Sniffnoy says:

          This is missing key features of Roko’s Basilisk — in particular, the whole basilisk part. Do you think Donald Trump, should he be so vindictive, will restrict his vindictiveness to those who considered this idea, and chose not to support him anyway?

          I really don’t think it’s a good idea to dilute the term this way.

        • Loquat says:

          Trump has a record of being vindictive against people who have specifically offended him, like the journalist who started the “short-fingered vulgarian” meme. I can see Trump holding a grudge against someone for refusing to help the campaign after Trump had personally asked them to, but not against the general category of people who voted for, or even actively worked for, another candidate.

        • tmk says:

          Well he did say he would pick Supreme Court justices who “would look very seriously at her email disaster.” That sounds awfully like a purge of political opponents to me.

          • Winfried says:

            If those that are in power are so corrupt that people are above the law, replacing them all is warranted.

    • waffles says:

      Strategy: Always register as a member of the party more likely to use opposing party’s rosters harmfully. Then, in the actual election vote however you like.

      (Yes, there are states that don’t allow this, but others do.)

    • Peter says:

      Possibly in a “merely knowing about him is likely to break your brain” sense. Unfortunately it’s a bit too late for “we have to censor all mentions of Trump lest people go insaaaaaaaane!” these days.

  21. J Quenff says:

    Can the sidebar be updated to have clearer descriptions of what the different blog groupings are?

    • Peter says:

      I think that working it out is left as an exercise to the reader – and would be a bit like explaining the joke. Some are based on puns on the name, some appear to be partly based on puns on the name, some are based on content… The catergories are mostly cribbed from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge which pokes fun at the idea of classification systems in general. (Well, supposedly it’s taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopedia but this seems highly doubtful).

      • Jame Gumb says:

        Maybe there should be a link to the explanation right above or below the categories. People keep asking.

        • multiheaded says:

          It’s a way for us to feel superior to the illiterate masses, yo.

          • Jame Gumb says:

            You like that sort of thing?

          • Frog Do says:

            Nah, multi prefers to post comments here to her tumblr to ridicule them and rile up her Holodomor-denialist friends.

          • Anonymous says:

            Does Multiheaded Multiheadedself deny the Holodomor? Or is it just Multiheaded’s friends?

          • Frog Do says:

            Well, let me channel multiheaded to see if I get this right…

            “You’re a fascist I and want you to die. Why did SSC commenters get so libertarian-Nazi-racist, when I’m constantly shrieking death threats at them and trying to start internet lynch mobs! And no, a sincere appreciation for Stalin and all his policies plus the desire that a wave of purifying violence with refresh the Volkish spirit bring justice to the deserving proletariat doesn’t necessarily mean I support the Holodomor, just that I politically affiliate with those people!”