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Just read all the top line comments here. Interesting that no one had mentioned the one thing that has probably done the most to "better our chances as species" in the last few hundred years, and has helped hundreds of millions in India and China get out of backbreaking poverty and accumulate some wealth. And that is...

Work hard, accumulate skills, and become better at your normal job. Even if you're not writing open source software to help local governments in third world countries have free elections and fight malaria or donating 50% of your salary, you're creating value and "bettering our species" just by doing something that someone is willing to pay you for. In fact, that's how most of the world's wealth is created.

Not saying you shouldn't volunteer or donate your salary (I personally try to donate a decent chunk of my salary to givedirectly) but -- unless you're a nigerian hacker or malware developer or something -- just because you're getting paid or working on something that isn't an absolute necessity doesn't mean you aren't doing social good. Just something to think about.

I couldn't disagree more. There's a lot of jobs that add little to no value. In a fictional efficient market economy that conforms to neoclassical assumptions, sure, every job is value adding. But does anyone believe that that is the world we live in?

It's comforting to think that just going to work and doing your job is actually contributing to something, but I just don't see how that can be generally true and definitely not universally true.

Even if we just measured contribution in purely capitalist terms, e.g. shareholder value, I don't think your claim is true. I think there have been several studies showing that the average company destroys shareholder value on net. It's likely that a lot of employees in such companies are also destroying shareholder value. And this is just shareholder value - to say nothing of the value destroyed for other stakeholders.

Yes, it is possible to lead your life in such a way that even if you work very hard, you're still a net drain on humanity.

Sorry, but we have to think much harder about how we can create a net positive contribution.

We need to go beyond high school guidance counselor nostrums like "work hard! study hard!" and really struggle with the issue of how we can contribute.

"It's comforting to think that just going to work and doing your job is actually contributing to something, but I just don't see how that can be generally true..."

I can't imagine how it would NOT be true. Say you buy something from the store. Presumably you're getting more value from it than it costs, if you weren't, you wouldn't buy it. Same with a company. If an employee provides more value than their salary, it makes sense to hire them. Otherwise it doesn't. Sure it's not perfect and wages are sticky and people skate by etc, but you have to be pretty cynical to think most people aren't providing net value at their jobs. Maybe we have a different definition of "contributing to something."


"...there have been several studies showing that the average company destroys shareholder value on net."

Maybe I'm misunderstanding something or this is a typo, but how could this be true? Shareholder value isn't an abstract concept like love or blue, it's the number of shares in a co*their price. The SP 500 is not negative.

> I can't imagine how it would NOT be true.

You can make money while damaging society. Some (possible) examples are employees working at: - a tobacco company - company that supplies oppressive regimes with tools (software and military hardware) to stay in power - company peddling some kind false medical treatment - tax lawyer helping people find loopholes - lobbyist working to increase regulatory capture in favor of their company

> you have to be pretty cynical to think most people aren't providing net value at their jobs

Yes, I agree. But note that you can provide net value to your company, but detract from society as a whole. Even so, I'd say the majority of people are adding value to society: plumbers, mechanics, pilots, engineers, most lawyers, some politicians, etc.

But there is a spectrum of how much you contribute ranging from way in the negative to way in the positive. There's also jobs that contribute nothing, but don't really hurt. Day Traders come to mind, they do high-frequency money sloshing, but don't really change anything.

I honestly think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to assess the individual value of rank-and-file work to society as a whole.

It is easy to build something and say "this helped family X, or this powered Y homes", but there are so many externalities that are simply hidden. What if family X is part of Nation Z, who is about to start thermonuclear war W?

It's just a guessing game at that point. It seems that most people ignore it under the guise of "well, I do the good that I can", but it's false comfort, IMO.

Sure, it may be an educated guess, but we have to try.

It's better than the alternative, which is to assume that any job that pays (and thus is from a company that earns profit) has equal impact or externalities with all other companies.

A lack of clarity shouldn't be an excuse for not trying.

>> the majority of people are adding value to society: plumbers, mechanics, pilots, engineers, most lawyers, some politicians

I agree with the rest of your comment, except for the above quote. The jobs you listed do not make up the majority. It's interesting that you only list trades and educated workers who earn above-average wages. A plumber can earn in one day of overcharged labour what it takes a worker in the service industry a week or longer. Pilots, engineers, lawyers, and politicians certainly do not belong as part of any definition of "majority".

The majority of jobs are in the service industry: fast food joints, real restaurants, retailers, etc. More than half of service industry jobs could vanish overnight, and consumers would get along just fine. These companies and jobs don't exist out of a necessity to serve society; they exist only because employees can be paid a tiny percentage of what they are worth (and in some cases being forced to live off food stamps), while the corporations rake in billions. These companies aim to make the easiest dollar possible, with no effort put into providing a service anyone actually needs. A job does not benefit society simply because a company manages to sustain itself by maximizing its own profits at the cost of taking advantage of employees.

If we could shut down every fast food joint (ex: McDonald's) and bottom-feeding retailers (ex: Walmart), and find positions for all those employees doing something more beneficial to society, that alone would make a huge difference. Those two companies are the tip of an enormous iceberg. These companies are not a "necessary evil", as if without them there would be no jobs. These corporations perpetuate the status quo to benefit themselves - society is an externality.

The capitalism we practice today will never improve upon this situation. The only incentive is for corporations to take the entire cake, offering services people think they want (they don't even really want them), rather than services people need. Things will never change without a major shift in the way we view economics. Perhaps if the next major plague takes out 50% of the population, we'll be forced to return to basics.

Yes, I meant I can't imagine how that's not true in general, I know there are many specific contrary examples. Agree about the continuum, I think we're fortunate that most ways to make a living are on the net positive spectrum.

You are correct about the starting conditions. A company with no revenue will devote close to 100% of its resources to creating value for customers.

But as it grows revenue, shifting resources to protecting its revenue stream starts to become lucrative. Employees spend some of their time providing value to customers, and some of their time protecting the "moat" around the company.

The percentage varies quite a lot, but I think there are lots of places where it's quite high. And within a company you may be acting in a role that's almost 100% moat protection, even if your coworkers are providing value directly. Without you, other people at other companies would provide that value directly, you're just helping to ensure that it happens under your shareholders' brand.

It goes meta, because then you have companies whose product is just moat protection services for other companies.

And it goes meta in the other direction too, down to the individual employee level. When you have no experience, you devote 100% of your energy to providing value. Once you have credibility amongst your coworkers, it makes sense to start shifting some of your resources to maintaining that credibility. This can become pathological in the same way, with entire companies whose product helps employees at other companies appear more credible to their peers. E.g. PowerPoint.

"as it grows revenue, shifting resources to protecting its revenue stream starts to become lucrative"

I have a lot of nice blue chip stocks that don't do that. Companies that not only pay me dividends far greater than any savings account, but the base value of the stock increases as well. None of these companies are tech or speculative stocks. They are solid big corporations manufacturing real things that people buy to live. Maybe it's essential. Maybe it's artificial cheese and soda pop. But it's something regular people buy at the corner store or the equivalent. And there's lots of them. And this activity is essential in some way for them and nothing about the transaction is misrepresented or unreasonable.

Soda pop seem like the best possible example of a business that has worked hard to build a moat around itself, to the detriment of its customers. Those companies work hard to make it hard for people to change their lifestyle. I would be surprised if even half of revenues went into the product itself.

On the first point: Behavioral economics has taught us that life is just a lot more complicated than that. You're referring to fairly simple econ 101 models of human behavior. There's also principal-agent problems. Maybe you create value for your bosses career prospects, but does that mean the stuff you're working on is creating value for the company? Or is just creating the perception of value? Executive tenures are very short - they may or may not be creating long-term value.

On the second point: this could happen a variety of way. For example, shareholder value is destroyed when there are positive returns, but those returns are worse than what could be realized from equivalently risky positions. Another way of thinking about this is that the return on capital is less than the cost of capital, resulting in a net negative return. Another way this could happen is if shareholder returns follow a power law where only a handful of companies (e.g. Amazon) create outsized positive risk-adjusted returns whereas most companies generate negative returns or positive returns at an unnecessarily high risk level.

So, yeah, just because someone pays you doesn't imply you're actually doing something worthwhile.

This is kind of personal for me because I spent way too many years under the mistaken belief that just because I was getting paid I was doing something worthwhile. I would hope others avoid the mistake I made.

In a perfect, free, fair, well-informed market economy all economic activity happens because it helps someone.

However: In that very same perfect system, the individual is also compensated for exactly 100% of the added value.

If they then spend it on personal consumption, they capture all the value of their work for personal benefit.

Society is improved by that exact amount only if you include that workers well-being in the calculation. Otherwise, it's exactly zero.

But the effective altruist community has already come up with a perfectly valid yet somewhat disappointing answer: "earn to give", i. e. try to make as much money as possible, then spend as much of it as possible on others' wellbeing.

By your logic I can make the world a better place by selling heroin to schoolchildren.

"There's a lot of jobs that add little to no value."

Creating wealth vs transferring wealth.

I've tried to choose jobs that have some value add, some win/win angle. Alas, it hasn't been that easy.

> We need to go beyond high school guidance counselor nostrums like "work hard! study hard!" and really struggle with the issue of how we can contribute.

I think your argument is just as reductive as the parent comment. If we're going to come up with a definition of 'value' that actually helps people make good decisions about how to spend their time, then its too simplistic to say 'all jobs create some value', but it's also too simplistic to say 'the average job is destroying value'.

I honestly think the reason most people don't try to do more good in the world is because it's just really hard and complicated to tell what's good/valuable and what's not.

It's a good one, but the caveat is stronger than you mention. Just because someone wants to pay you for something, doesn't mean it's good to society. Some things are unambiguously socially harmful - cigarette industry, gambling industry - but there are also many things that are harmful by perpetuating waste of resources and man hours. Be wary of zero-sum games, where your effort goes mostly to cancel out the effort of others. Some areas of adtech come to mind, for example.

So in short: use judgement. There's a lot of social good to be done in mundane jobs - but just because someone is willing to pay for something, doesn't mean it should be done.

This is the most neoliberal thing I've ever read. No, doing nothing will not make the world a better place. And no, our mindless slide into capitalism-in-all-things is not actually good for most people. For one, see the Clinton Foundation's disastrous neoliberalization of Haiti (touted as a success because it "raised people out of poverty"): http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/05/clinton-found...

In fact, by working for a typical VC-fueled tech company, you're probably helping a few very rich people extract rent more efficiently from a greater number of people. Your best bet for social impact is to do the exact opposite -- get involved in left politics, find ways to show solidarity with people who are being hurt by the Uber-ization and Airbnb-ization of the world, and use your tech skills to counter those effects.


> you're creating value and "bettering our species" just by doing something that someone is willing to pay you for

^^^ The thought process that lets HNers sleep at night.

Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James Goodfellow, when his careless son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation – "It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?"

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier's trade – that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs – I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, "Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen."

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented. [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window

To take this to a less absolutist neoliberal place - find a for-profit job where you are actually creating value. A service that saves low-income people money when they use it, that helps small (like, actually small) businesses become profitable, etc.

Sometimes yes -- sometimes no.

Yes, if you're creating better entertainment, but furniture, better toys, better gadgets, and people are willing to pay for them, you have made the world better.

But people are also willing to pay for weapons, for software that helps them to violate the privacy of others, for financial products that promise much and deliver little, for products that have addictive properties from sugar to gambling to everything else.

So, yes, just building things that other people want and getting rich in the process CAN be a good thing to do. But it is not AUTOMATICALLY a good thing to do.

Surely it depends on where someone spends the money they earn doing their job?

If I earn a good salary but I buy nothing but fast food or the cheapest (factory farmed) meat, cheap clothes made in sweatshops, expensive gadgets from companies that exploit workers, own 3 gas guzzling cars, have 5 children, vote for politicians who enjoy waging war on on other countries, how am I making the world better?

"that's how most of the world's wealth is created" Most of that wealth simply goes to the top 1% and stays stuck there.

Be that as it may, enough of the wealth remains with the 99% to make parent's point valid (with caveats applied).

The goal is a 'normal job' which encourages me to learn through it's end impact. Further the goal is to take skills learned through developing for impact rather than profit and build something to draw enough of a salary on which has a disproportionate impact compared to it's cost. I want to be the driving factor, not be payed by or pay the driving factor.

Please don't get discouraged by some of the negative comments here. You're not the only one searching for high-impact ways of helping out with the skills one has. I strongly believe opportunities like that exist, even if they're hard to identify. I also believe there's work to be done in making those opportunities easier to find.

Feel free to e-mail me if you ever want to talk about this further (address in profile).

Sounds like half-reading Adam Smith but OK

Please expand.

Well it's true that simply participating in the market helps to create value, viz the famous quote about it ot being from the good will of the butcher and baker that we enjoy our meal, but from their acting in their own self-interest. But Smith also mulls the need for regulation (due to market participants' habit of rigging markets to suit producers over consumers) and the downsides of pursuing pure efficiency (eg after praising the gains that come from the division of labor at a pin factory, he goes on to point out that getting people to do the same job over and over all day isn't good for them over the long term).

Smith was a very thoughtful economist but people have a bad habit of cherry-picking his work to suit their own needs while ignoring the bits that would constrain them.

Norman Borlaug(Saved a billion lives) had a net worth far less than Martin Shkreli(poached a billion dollars from the sick).

So I would be very surprised if compensation is directly tied to societal value.

I think Bill Gates is an interesting data point here. For a lot of his life he was reviled by many, and yet in the past 15 years he has used his wealth to do great good.

Agree that he's done a ton of good with his charitable giving, but point is that he bettered humanity (probably even more than his charity) even before that with Windows (giving the masses an easier way to interact with computers, allowing individuals and companies to create other valuable things in turn), the whole software not hardware paradigm (led to rapid development in terms of the type of programs and functionality people had access to), and Microsoft Office (Excel and Word == a ton of social value). Obviously he wasn't personally responsible for all that, and also became a multi billionaire in the process (and is giving most of it away, kudos) but even if he kept it all, that's all benefiting humanity and creating social good.

Disagree strongly.

By killing Netscape he set back the computer industry by a decade or more. If Gates hadn't used anti-competitive tactics, and he had just accepted, say, a 60% share for Windows, we would have reached where we are much quicker.

We benefit immensely from the presence today of multiple strong operating systems, Windows, Android, iOS, MacOS, Linux, and Chrome are all great offerings that force the other players to be better.

Windows languished during its monopoly decade, and we were all stuck with it. Why did it even take until iPhone 3G for there to be a widespread online software store? Because Microsoft profited from Office being the biggest, most profitable box on a shelf with a bunch of other boxes, and having that boxed software be the only place you could direct your attention on a PC. Steve Jobs could start an online software store because Apple was barely selling any software. They had nothing to lose. Gates had the world to lose.

Look at where peoples' attention goes today. That's what Netscape was promising. Now imagine if Gates had let that happen in 1995.

And Word and Excel were clones of existing software. Microsoft had about as much positive impact on the tech industry as Baidu is having now. Baidu probably has more users than Gates ever had.

1. Even a monopoly provides social value, though not as much as competitive market. See: http://www.csun.edu/~hceco008/c11d.htm

2. I'm sure Microsoft's competitive tactics had something to do with it, but it also sounds like Netscape had it's own problems: https://www.quora.com/Why-did-Netscape-lose-ground-to-IE

Almost every comment you're leaving here seems based on a Just World Fallacy, which is very close to survivor bias. It's easy but misleading to look back at the good aspects of the past and derive a teleological theory that ignores opportunity costs.

I think 'bettering humanity with Windows' is open for debate. Some would argue that Windows, and the security problems it brought to the Internet, was the enabler for the single largest source of income for criminal enterprise outside of the drug trade.

Now it is much more nuanced than that, network based criminal activity has existed since the invention of the telegraph, but I would be willing to wager even on a per capita basis of Windows, Mac, UNIX, and 'other' users of the network, it stands out.

That said, those days are largely behind us (caveat Wannacry and poor update policies) and I consider properly patched operating systems from all of the major vendors to be credibly defended from exploitation. I reason to that point of view by using the price offered for 'zero days' as an indicator of the challenge of finding them.

Windows contributed to global productively enormously.

It didn't do that by being Windows. It did that by being nearly ubiquitous so that software could be written to a known thing. That could have turned out to be OS/2, but Microsoft played unfairly there. It could have been one of the Unix platforms, but AT&T, Microsoft, and others played unfairly there.

It's really the IBM PC platform, IBM's willingness to sign a non-exclusive contract for the OS, and the success of the early clones (Compaq, AST, etc) making DOS so common that raised productivity so much. Whatever OS had shipped on them would have grabbed the market share DOS and Windows did.

Windows was also much more usable than what was common before it, ubiquity aside. The Office productivity suite was also very good for the time, and represented a major advancement in the state of the art. It's easy to take what Microsoft provided the PC world for granted and assume another company would have provided it if it never existed, but I don't think it's fair.

| poor update policies

which ones? forcing them or not forcing them?


1. Bundling them -- it should be trivial to turn off all non-security updates while still getting all security updates.

Counterpoint: There might be no unambiguous distinction between security update or non-security update.

2. Not having them. WannaCry was so bad because Microsoft stopped providing security updates for a system that's still widely used.

Counterpoint: It seems odd to insist Microsoft continue to provide updates to a fifteen-year-old system they end-of-lifed three years ago. Should we be able to force them to keep providing updates indefinitely by steadfastly refusing to upgrade?

In the wannacry event the policy of not applying updates was contributory to its spread. So 'not forcing them' being the less good choice.

The way it was explained to me was that Microsoft low-balled the market on Office and pushed out the innovators who built the individual pieces and were able to do it because they had a fat bank to lean on. I buy the argument that Excel and Word provide exceptional value to society, but I'm not convinced that Microsoft was entirely necessary for that to happen. Then again, windows, task manager, recycle bin, start menu, etc. etc.

The fact that this is the 'top' comment made me stop reading anything further. Wow - decadence.


The obsession with doing visible social good comes from a certain part of society, reinforced by academic advisors and admissions criteria as a requirement for advancing into the next academic tier.

Nevermind that by merely participating in a marketplace as a service provider or consumer you're providing a social benefit; that benefit's just not as easy to understand and doesn't get you any vanity points.

But if you're on a mission trip carrying a third world orphan in a microloan-built vaccination tent while on the phone with companies asking for food donations, you're just the most selfless person ever - clearly such charity is just an innate part of who you are.

Not everyone here has grown up in US academic culture. I for one have formed my desires of helping others long before I noticed anyone rewards that in any system (not to mention that my country's education system doesn't put much focus on volunteering for social causes).

Also, spending time on understanding the benefits coming from participation in a marketplace leads one to conclude that the market doesn't address all human needs promptly enough, and is not itself beyond creating many great problems.

If you took a few minutes to consider that I may be a completely different person than the one you're conjuring up, you might have something more useful to say.

Well said. I'm certainly in favor of people being free to decide how they want to spend their time and money, but I think you could make the argument that a lot of these visible social good activities, e.g. starting a the upteenth and one non-profit to provide clean water in third world countries, could very well be doing less "social good" and wasting more resources than someone donating their salary or even engaging in regular marketplace activity.

You could make that argument, and indeed many are. For instance, the effective altruism movement is all about evaluating that argument. The real question isn't if, but when participating in the market is an effective way of helping. Similarly, a good question is the one OP is asking - are there effective ways of helping directly with tech skills, and if so, what are they.

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