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People Aren’t Dumb, the World Is Hard (freakonomics.com)
868 points by dctoedt on July 12, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 426 comments

I would really really encourage everyone here to watch Alan Kay's recent talks on how poorly we understand systems and why it's critical we get better at managing them.

Some good ones: - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1R2jH4PQEo - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9c7_8Gp7gI

Some people have strong opinions about Alan Kay's CS / programming work and I'd really encourage them to put them aside and deeply understand his points + context. The programming parts aren't ever the point, he's deeply interested in how as humans we improve our ability to collaboratively manage systems.

Some more talks by Alan, for people who are interested: https://tinlizzie.org/IA/index.php/Talks_by_Alan_Kay

Wish I could edit my first comment to include this, not sure why I can't.

Comments are only editable for a limited duration (20 minutes, IIRC) after creation.

FWIW, I've found it to be a bit over an hour (maybe 1h15m or 1h30m).

For similar reasons, I highly recommend a book called Capital: Critique of Political Economy. And likewise, some people may have strong opinions about the author’s work. I'd really encourage them to put them aside and deeply understand his points + context.

I would complement it with a second book about capital: Capital in the Twenty-First Century - Thomas Piketty. I am not sure neither of this books have the solutions but they were enlightening for me.

I can't quite tell if you're being sarcastic or earnest.

The descriptive work of he-who-shall-not-be-named is leagues ahead of his prescriptive work (not surprising -- fixing problems tends to be harder than finding them).

The problems he addresses still abound and it's really a pity we have culturally suppressed the vocabulary and arguments he put forward to talk about them.

So, my guess: serious.

Funny how when I replaced the big hyphenated word with the 4-letter name, it actually triggered an emotional response in me which made me dismiss the rest of your comment, even though I was fine with the comment without the substitution. Weird how human brains work.

Even crazier: I have the same emotional response to the substitution and I'm the one who wrote the comment.

So the crowd forbid to name Karl Marx here of what?

Not the crown, but the Overton window.

Using certain names and terms on Reddit and Twitter (not sure about HN) does bring bots in who then try to influence the conversation with votes and propaganda comments. So J. K. Rowling made quite an accurate prediction about how society might interact with advanced technology (aka magic).

It’s very good. This guy was about 150 years ahead of the AI job loss/ singularity crowd. In Capital he doesn’t even really get into the politics that much, it’s more an analysis of automated manufacturing.

I think you've misunderstood quite a lot if you think Capital is an analysis of automated manufacturing that doesn't get into politics that much.

It doesn't get into politics the way a typical work on political theory might, but that is, I think, very much intentional. Capital centers on the problems and politics of its day, while attempting to critique and respond to them. It does this by establishing a thorough foundation for a better politics focused on achieving a very particular goal--obtaining true freedom from [social/political/economic] coercion and domination. That it seems ahead of its time is a testament to it continuing to be relevant--because the issues it focuses on continue to exist.

That Capital is so widely misunderstood--both by those who turned it into a foundation for totalitarian negation of its foundational principles, as well as those who hold that regrettable history up as an indictment of the principles themselves--is regrettable, and the world is worse off for it.

If you're interested in disabusing yourself of the notion that Capital is an analysis of automated manufacturing, and not a proper work of political theory, I'd wholeheartedly recommend the exceedingly approachable and well-cited book Marx's Inferno by William Clare Roberts. Roberts, in my opinion, gets Capital (and Marx) right--and presents an incredibly compelling argument for a literary connection that really is a first of its kind. Then I'd recommend re-reading Capital, while reminding yourself that Capital is on a mission, and that mission isn't to explain how manufacturing works. :)

It makes me smile that his concept of immiseration has the valid alternative spelling: e-miseration

Read it and you will wonder no more.

This, but unironically.

In all honesty, none was intended.

It struck me that my favorite intellects usually do foremost concern themselves with “how poorly we understand systems and why it's critical we get better at managing them”. This intellect just seems most important right now.

> Some people have strong opinions about Alan Kay's CS / programming work

I'm curious. I wasn't aware of this. What are these strong opinions about?

Common ones I hear:

- He hasn't shipped anything popular (he's a researcher, expanding the tree of knowledge, not an engineer optimizing for shipping) - Smalltalk isn't as great as Alan makes it out to be (again he's a researcher) - That the computer revolution has happened but he's stuck in the 70's - Many, many more things

Being stuck in the 70's isn't that bad, many avantgarde things from that era still have to make it to mainstream adoption.

I watched a presentation on YouTube that Christopher Alexander did in 1996, talking about work he did in the 70s and it continued to amaze me at its relevance today. +1 to you for realizing there are still a lot of good, under appreciated ideas out there and that technology actually moves super slow.

Computer tech folks have this stronger than healthy equation of new == good, old is wrong, needing replacement.

Just because we do something doesn't make a better idea than ideas we had in the past that are not being used. There are lots of dead great ideas.

Could I ask you what these are?

FWIW: I used Smalltalk a bit in college and then for about a year professionally, about four years into a now twenty year career. I've shipped software in about five languages over my career and have never again come anywhere close to as productive as I was during that time using Smalltalk. Ironically, the work environment at that time was perhaps the worst of my career but Smalltalk just makes it so darn easy to crank out functionality and test it at the same time. So, sure it is old but there's a lot we could still learn from it.

If it’s so great, why isn’t it used in industry? Cranking out functionality is what everyone wants. As someone who has never seen or used it, I always hear about how all these languages are inspired by smalltalk but just don’t get it right or whatever. Why doesn’t somebody do a straight up port of it if it’s that great?

There’s quite a few reasons, but I suspect the largest is lack of a corporate sponsor. People use what they know of, and few things have shipped with smalltalk.

And honestly, the language itself isn’t that remarkable by today’s standards; there’s so many dialects floating around most of the features have made their way into mainstream languages. It’s the tooling that I dream of. Sadly, it’s probably also another reason why it never took off: people couldn’t easily incrementally adopt it.

I'd generally agree with what you are saying... it was the tooling more than the language itself. That said, there was something to be said for the absolute simplicity of the language. With everything being an object that receives messages and the minimal syntax, you could teach people very quickly.

Why don't you just use it, rather than waiting for the industry to adopt it and translate it for you? The industry doesn't adopt things because they are great. It adopts things because it has to.

In my little corner of the industry, we've adopted a big heap of things for entirely political reasons, and they're mostly crap in one way or another.

I think people who say other languages "just don't get it right" are living in a fantasy world. At the end of the day, Smalltalk is a pretty extreme language. The insistence that, e.g., every integer value is an object that can be sent messages, or that every code block is an object, or that every code block can introspect its caller, all lead to a pretty extreme amount of flexibility but an inability to write efficient code or do much optimization.

At the end of the day, languages that were less extreme won the popularity contest. Ruby and Python, for example, are just more accessible and full-featured.

People unfamiliar with history live in a fantasy world.

Smalltalk or more specifically one of it's dialects, Self (an even more "extreme" Smalltalk), made huge advances in JIT compilation. Advances which later ended up in the Java HotSpot virtual machine. Some benchmarks hit half the performance of optimized C. That was in the late 90s.

I'd say more of a dystopia than a fantasy world

I believe the Squeak/Pharo VMs are much faster than the Python and Ruby interpreters. There are other tricks - an Int maybe be an object, but a special one that fits in a register. The part that other languages don’t get is it’s the Smalltalk environment that makes it special, and there is just nothing like it in our modern tooling.

History is really important here. When Smalltalk systems first spun out of Xerox PARC, they carried hefty licensing fees. The whole free software / open-source movement wasn't as ingrained in developer culture back then. Worth remembering that SUN was marketing Java everywhere for free and that made a world of difference.

Did you ship anything in Smalltalk? (I didn't, when I was using it.) If so, how? Ship the whole image?

Yes - you just shipped the whole image. At the time I was building desktop apps, but that made install super easy - you just dropped it onto the user's desktop. A guy a few cubes over was building server apps and that was equally easy - a self-contained deal with the vm, all the dependencies, etc that just needed to be dropped into /opt or wherever and was ready to run.

Are those criticisms in response to claims of his otherwise? Does he blame current problems programmers have on not listening to him more? Or make some other critical claims to trigger what kind of sound like ad hominem* responses?

I will google these questions also, but am always interested the HN crowd's take. Like the original question I didn't know he'd ruffled any feathers.

Edit: top hit was Alan Kay himself addressing criticism on a Quora question: https://www.quora.com/Has-anyone-criticized-Alan-Kay, but on further read it obliquely addresses criticisms other than his role in developing OOP.

You made me curious. Do you have any links to the criticism you quote?

What did he mean at 1:09:22 (https://youtu.be/R1R2jH4PQEo?t=1h09m22s) when he says "nobody complains about multiplying one fraction by another because it looks reasonable, but it turns out it isn't reasonable at all"?

He explains that it was a "triumph of Greek mathematics" to prove that multiplying the top and bottom of a fraction is how you multiply two fractions. That is, we accept as true that you can multiply fractions this way, but we kind of just got lucky that it does work that way. Proving that it always works is non-trivial, but that is totally glossed over in math classes, doing a disservice to students.

This is in context of dividing two fractions where kids are taught an arbitrary rule too early in their studies and it turns them off to math overall because it's become a class of memorizing arbitrary procedures instead of learning concepts.

(That's all my summary of that segment with a little reading between the lines, not my personal view of it. Or it might be later, but have to consider it more.)

The problem with teaching math is you must give them the tools that were created last, so they have the tools to keep up with math. They then must use those tools to understand and prove what they first had to accept as true, lacking proof.

Tend to think about constructive mathematics for this particular insight.

Dividing fractions is also easy. Did you mean summing fractions? Because, yeah, summing fractions is significantly harder than multiplying fractions, simply due to pure misfortune.

This is easy to derive if you have a little algebra, but it is shoved at kids before they can derive it, so they don't understand it (which is anti-math). The dull ones go along with it, but the brighter ones often think they are stupid. I (and independently others) have worked out visual proofs of both fraction multiplication and division for younger kids.

But I mostly think that "fractions as ratios" can be left until the child is older and has more chops for derivations.

The Greeks thought about these as different ways to measure intervals, and they worked out the idea of "common measure" as a good solution to dealing with these problems.

I may be wrong, but I think the issue is: what does it mean to divide x by 1/2? It means to multiply it by 2. We can easily understand that dividing by 2 means to split something into 2 pieces. What does it mean to split something into 1/2 pieces? Why does dividing by 1/2 mean to multiply it by 2 and does it always work that way? Can you prove it?

Summation of fractions is much easier to visualise, even if it is harder to calculate.

Informally speaking, that can be visualised by asking "how many half pieces can you get if you have x pieces?" If I have two pieces I can break them down into 4 half pieces, which nets the same result as multiplying by two.

I'm pretty sure he means "it is an easy equation to memorise, but it's not trivial". People can remember the formula, but have no idea how it actually works.

Memorizing equations is "religion" not "math". "Understanding" is "math".

I wish more math teachers would actually understand this.

The amount of crap I got for using the "wrong way" to calculate something in math class, was probably one of the major reason I never really got into it.

I remember math classes in the beginning actually being fun, I loved figuring out more convenient/to me more logical ways to calculate something, only to be constantly shut down by the teachers for using them, as he/she demanded I use the solution given by the book.

I do understand the value of getting to the same solution in different ways, I even did back then, but teachers didn't frame it like that; their insistence on the book solution just felt like an accusation against me of not understanding, telling me my way of calculating is wrong (even tho they usually proof calculated right) when to me it looked like it was them not understanding, by insisting on that one formalized, and often awkward, solution, and only that.

So as a somewhat rebellious character, it didn't take long for me to start actually despising math classes.

If I could go back I'd probably try to do it differently, I'm in my mid-30's now and consider myself "math illiterate". Sure I can do most basic stuff and even the occasional Pythagorean theorem (which fascinates me to this day, take two knowns to figure out the third unknown!), but I still feel like I missed out on something I could probably really have enjoyed.

Easiest way of visualising the pythagorean theorem is to think about it the way it was initially written: think about areas formed by tree squares.

This image[0] from wikipedia shows it all: the area of square a plus the area of square b equals the area of square c. It's just really convenient that we can use that to calculate triangle sides without resorting to trigonometry.

[0] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d2/Py...

I find that that's a terrible way of visualising the theorum, as it offers no indication of why the theorem is true. I much prefer the below picture: https://www.mathalino.com/sites/default/files/images/01-pyth...

It could be improved by putting -(ab/2) inside the triangles, but I'm on mobile, so making something is out of the question.

I consider this a tragic story. It sounds like you have the type of genuine curiosity and will to understand (not just get the answer) that would make you a really good math student, but your dopey teachers--who probably don't have your natural disposition towards math--beat it out of you.

I happen to like a little metaphor of mine; Math is like cooking: either you blindly follow a recipe (rote "learning") or you truly learn how ingredients combine together (from discovering, to understanding, to — ultimately — grokking).

But can he solve a whiteboard coding question in 30 minutes?

He will get away with small talk.

Ok normally I don’t approve of these types of comments on HN, but this was witty.

For those who do not get the reference, Alan Kay is the inventor of SmallTalk: http://worrydream.com/EarlyHistoryOfSmalltalk/

I love how you revealed that you dislike joke comments on HN and unintentionally killed it at the same time.

I don't think the explanation killed the joke. As someone who wouldn't have gotten it otherwise, it made me able to appreciate the pun.

Disagree. It killed it.

Agreed, it definitely did.

Dead as a doornail.

Didn’t intent on killing the joke, I was hoping it would allow more people to appreciate it. But apparently I failed at that. :)

No worries. :)

"Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process." -- Elwyn Brooks White

Isn't a joke "alive" until the explanation? So those that 'got' the joke would've enjoyed the joke, before moving onto read the next line. So reading the explanation of the joke wouldn't interfere with their enjoyment of the joke since they already enjoyed it prior to reading the explanation.

If you're telling a joke, you don't want emotional context switching. A quick explanation, laughter might be preserved (so the above pun may or may not inhibit the execution of the original joke).

But every joke has an emotional gravity and the longer you compliment it with other emotions (e.g. intellectual explanations), eventually escape velocity is reached and you're in an entirely different emotional state.

Airplane! has three laughs per minute on average (https://www.forbes.com/sites/andrewbender/2012/09/21/top-10-...). That's not much time pull in other emotional states. And that's on purpose.

This thread is so HN.

Post -> Comment on Post -> Analysis of Comment -> Analysis of Analysis -> Analysis of the act of Analysis -> Question truth itself.

It's like that Wikipedia phenomenon where all articles lead to philosophy.

I am not a programmer, but read enough HN to have gotten the reference.

To the people saying the explanation ruined the joke, I’d ask you to take a minute to consider whether you viewed it as a joke or a shibboleth.

If only those who know ‘got it’ and explaining it ‘killed it’, then isn’t it by definition a shibboleth?

In-group language is exclusionary by definition. Is this a good thing?

I would not have gotten it otherwise

Gotta provide some context for the project management professionals who are reading this thread, I guess.

I think people are dumb, and I'm not being derogatory about 'the 'masses' or any such crap. I'm unbelievably dumb. It often takes me a ridiculously long time to come to a solution to a problem, where the answer seems like it should be obvious. Instead my slow, feeble mammal brain takes forever to grope blindly around the issue before getting any traction.

Lets say there is a scale of sentience that goes from 1, which is the lowest level of sentience necessary to develop a technological civilization, up to who knows how high. Where are we on that scale? Well, given that we literally, in evolutionary terms, only just barely got our civilization off the ground we're pretty clearly very close to 1. I discussed this with my brother and he pointed out most of us are below that, because we get taken along for the ride by people who are at 1.0 or higher. They're the geniuses that truly drive innovation forward.

So we are literally at the dumbest, most intellectually feeble level of sentience required to get where we are, otherwise we'd have done it sooner.

Its hard to argue with what you are saying. You defined our most intelligent types scaled as 1 and unbounded it for most intelligent. Then obviously majority falls under the line and are considered dumb. I don't know if there is any insight in that other than feeling disappointed at self.

On the other hand the article is arguing the opposite. Trying to be empathic towards human nature and look for solutions with that in mind. I think that is refreshing and useful.

I'd say your scale is heavily mis-calibrated and demonstrates nothing more than your personal pessimism. As an alternative:

  A scale of 1-10:
  - 1 is the minimum threshold for civilisation
  - 10 is the most advanced civilisation the universe has ever known
We are a 10.

Unless you know of any other civilisations out there we can measure ourselves against?

Eh, your scale is off. Let's surmise, only in this case, that the universe is sentient, and knows all civilizations. This universe could then judge where we are on the scale of have made.

The issue here is you have conflated humanity with the universe. Simply, we can't know, and it may be unknowable to any civilization where they are on the scale in an absolute measure, only a relative one.

On a relative scale, we are a 10. On an absolute one, we are no where close.

> So we are literally at the dumbest, most intellectually feeble level of sentience required to get where we are, otherwise we'd have done it sooner.

I totally agree with you, and you have some interesting points. But, this is a subjective definition of “dumb” that is tautological. It ignores the possibility that it could have taken longer. For example, there are other sentient species on this planet for which it hasn’t happened yet.

You could also phrase what you said with the optimist’s glass-half-full phrasing: we are literally the smartest and most intellectually capable beings to get where we are, otherwise it would have taken longer.

Do you know of Sturgeon’s eponymous Law, “90% of everything is crap”? I didn’t realize at first (maybe because I’m dumb) that this isn’t a statement that things are bad. It’s a subjective and un-arguable proposed definition of what bad is. There’s a distribution of stuff, let’s just call the top 10% good and the bottom 90% crap. Sturgeon’s law applies to people as much as anything else.

> most of us are below that, because we get taken along for the ride by people who are at 1.0 or higher.

This thought has occurred to me before, and I think it’s super interesting to ponder. Today I’m not as sure as I once was that this paints an accurate picture of how progress works. History tends to over-inflate the importance of individual contributions and leave out the vast majority of context and help that luminary figures had. The progress we feel around us today takes immense commercial effort that involves uncountable numbers of people. The US launched first into modern computing because the political and economic conditions were right, not because we had more geniuses.

Perhaps it’s not the top sliver of civilization that is driving innovation at all, perhaps the it’s the average intelligence that hit a threshold, or perhaps it’s not much to do with intelligence but with economy and culture, or maybe it’s inevitable once written language happens. It’s hard to speculate about these things since we have no basis for comparison.

To truly argue on this point you need to, I think or at least in my opinion, settle on a definition of "smart" and "dumb".

I like to view our intellect as a tool for survival of our species. By that measure, we are doing fairly well. We used to get wiped out by minor stuff like not enough food, not enough protection from the elements and other animals, diseases, we have eradicated the majority of these things hindering our survival.

I hypothesise that most of the people here (on average) on HN are highly educated. It's kind of fashionable and almost necessary social behavior to be humble in your own intellect. By all objective measures the people on HN are really fucking smart but you can't say that of course because that's "arrogant". Yes, I too think I'm stupid and suffer from impostor syndrome having two graduates degree in applied math.

Anyway, humans, compared to other animals we compete with for survival, food, and territory, are doing really well. I don't see any cows on the moon yet.

>To truly argue on this point you need to, I think or at least in my opinion, settle on a definition of "smart" and "dumb".

That's exactly what I just did - the level of intelligence necessary to build a technological society. On that scale we only just register above the threshold, as a species.

I'm not saying our intellectual capacity is rubbish or useless, we make the grade to be significant on this scale. Yay us!

I'm just trying to put our intellectual achievements in perspective given that we have no other intelligences on the planet anywhere close to competing with us on this scale. Making a comparative analysis of a single data point is alway difficult, but I think this is a useful way to think about the problem.

> Anyway, humans, compared to other animals we compete with for survival, food, and territory, are doing really well. I don't see any cows on the moon yet.

Would all this be possible without other mammals? Or is the ecosystem (including mammals) the enabler for us?

Probably yes, but on a longer timeline. Humans don't need other mammals to survive.

Maybe not survival, but would we be anywhere near where we are now without the help of say, cows and horses? Possibly, but maybe not.

> So we are literally at the dumbest, most intellectually feeble level of sentience required to get where we are, otherwise we'd have done it sooner.

But do we all want to be "super thinkers": Is that actually progress? Especially in the context of "sentience", maybe it's not just a blessing but also a curse?

Imho animals mostly run on instinct in a kind of "intuition mode", this even applies to humans. What makes humans, and maybe some other animals, different is their ability to have self-awareness, which allows them to have an inner monologue and active thought to influence their actual actions and decisions, instead of just leaving it all to intuition.

But we don't all constantly do that, "thinking" that is. When speaking with friends and family about this, how do they perceive their thinking, I was shocked to learn that some don't know/understand this "inner monologue" aka "active thinking" at all.

These people are not stupid, that's not what I'm suggesting, these are very productive people, who often manage to stay positive, wise and happy through some rather nasty hardships that would probably have broken me, due to my tendency to overthink things.

As weird as it might sound, sometimes I wish I could just turn the thinking off. That's when I pursue hobbies, to take my mind off, but usually results in my thinking being refocused on something more enjoyable, but in the end I'm still thinking about something.

Though I hesitate to suggest it because it's a fad right now, you might want to give "mindfulness" meditation a try for a month or so.

> sometimes I wish I could just turn the thinking off

I have this same feeling, a lot. Sometimes it just goes into overdrive. It's so easy to get wrapped up, when I want to be doing something else. It's fun, but doesn't always have a positive result.

Taking 10, 15, 20 minutes every day to do this exercise of being still and just watching the monologue has been really valuable to understand and recognize that state, which makes it easier to deflect. And I haven't lost anything; that thinking mode is still available if I really need to puzzle something out. But it's in service of something, rather just than a runaway train.

I've seen "mindfulness meditation" getting mentioned, and suggested, a couple of times on HN. I guess it's something I really should get around taking a look at.

Probably also a way more healthy and sustainable solution than trying to medicate the issue away.

I doubt that is true given the literal forms of intellectual disorders. Given sufficient time a society with say limited to be just shy of mentally disabled could progress but slower. Say a few centuries "tech period" at 1700s Europe scale. We could still have done much better however in reduced generation times between advances just by not being stubborn about inconvenient new facts and theories from upstarts.

Also ability to drive things forward is limited/driven by things other than just intelligence. Look at Hero's steam engine - without the other metalworking technologies it was a curiosity. Having slave workers do the task was more efficient than having them gather more expensive fuel for an expensive machine to do the task. Also look at the "discovery" that Aristotlian flight paths for thrown objects was wrong. Who already knew for centuries? Literally anyone who actually worked or fought with projectiles but they weren't in contact with them. (Eastern warrior-elites generally would also mock them given the prevalence of aristocratic archery there).

By geographic time scales (read: compared to every other species) we still look like a division by near zero near assimtope.

Thank you for being you. It has been very lonely for me to propagate that very idea, esp. given how tied humans are to the idea that they are smart. On the spectrum humans use, I'm certainly on the high-end of it, but, gosh, we are such retards. We only think that we think.

> I discussed this with my brother and he pointed out most of us are below that, because we get taken along for the ride by people who are at 1.0 or higher. They're the geniuses that truly drive innovation forward.

This is basically the theme of "Atlas Shrugged".

How do you quantify "sooner" on an evolutionary time scale?

I'm not sure I understand the issue. The same way you quantify 'shorter' on a height scale. Sooner isn't a quantity, it's just a direction.

I'm saying within the lifetime of a species I'm not sure it's fair to say it's taken us a long time. It could have taken way longer.

This is probably the greatest argument for big government. If we were to eliminate the supervision of the establishment over the safety and security of everyday life, it would be very time consuming to handle every single aspect of it.

There is always the issue of an overreaching government, and that's where the left/right party split comes in. Each party either creates more regulation and protection or take some away. As voters, we have to recognize this duality of our system and embrace it. It's our only way to control the people we elect.

No, this is one of the greatest arguments for small government or no government. People are more rational when the cost to them of being irrational is larger. Voting for good policies is a public good. When a voter is one among three hundred millions of citizens, only 1/300,000,000 (on average) of the benefits of the vote befall the individual voter. This gigantic externality means that the democratic market will severely underproduce votes for good policies. Simultaneously, social desirability bias means that voters have a strong incentive to believe in policies that are harmful to them but that make them look good to other people. Since the cost to them of being wrong about politics is so small and the benefit large, voters have gravely irrational beliefs. This conclusion is consistent with the results from social science that show that voters are ignorant about politics and with the widespread agreement with protectionist tariffs, price controls, restrictions on immigration, and many other policies that cause great economic harm.

> People are more rational when the cost to them of being irrational is larger.

This isn't strictly true, and I'd love to see you provide extensive data on such a exceptional claim.

There is a lot of evidence showing that harsher punitive measures often have little to no impact on crime and wrongdoing.

I don't think he was referring to harsh sentences or punitive measures when someone breaks the law. I think its more that when its life and not the Government that is going to punish you for failing, you're going to work harder at not failing. In addition to the punishment provided by the Government there is also fall back mechanisms (bankruptcy protection, social security, medicare/medicaid, etc...) that they provide.

I would counter that without those punishments and protections, its possible that fewer people would do things like start businesses, for example. I don't really know. I'd love to see some data on this.

Seems to me that instead of rushing to one extreme or the other (no Government vs big Government), finding a good balance between the two is going to be the most productive for us all.

> I think its more that when its life and not the Government that is going to punish you for failing, you're going to work harder at not failing.

> I would counter that without those punishments and protections, its possible that fewer people would do things like start businesses

Again, the evidence rather strongly suggests the opposite.

As people's brains are more stressed out by the fear of failing, their decision making gets worse not better. There's tons of evidence that shows that being poor severely screws with your ability to make rational, intelligent decisions about long term planning. (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/11/your-br... ; https://theconversation.com/study-links-poverty-and-poor-dec...)

Likewise, there's data that shows one of the things that's special about entrepreneurs is the fact that they have strong familial safety nets. Part of their risk taking is literally that the risks are less risky for them, because their families will catch them. Which suggests that, if you want to increase the number of new businesses - implement a stronger social safety net (like a basic income). (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/welfare... ; http://www.nber.org/papers/w19276.pdf?new_window=1) . The paper I linked there focused on the "smart" and "illicit" avenues and completely brushed past the "come from wealthier families" part, but I've seen other papers (that google isn't coughing up readily in the 5 minutes I have right now) that focused more on that latter part.

Conversely, you just have to look at the countries that do a good job of taking care of their citizens - Scandinavia, Canada, etc - to see pretty strong evidence for the idea that a well cared for populace is able to make better decisions.

I think the general consensus is that the ineffectiveness of long sentences is mostly about hyperbolic discounting. Hawaii has recently had a lot of success with a program providing small, immediate penalties to people who break their parole conditions. This seems to work far better than large penalties that will only be applied after a large number of offences.

If your choice is between death and jail, or if your life is not significantly better than jail, the duration of incarceration isn't going to matter to you at all.

I'd be willing to bet that harsher punitive measures (and more aggressive enforcement) would have a big impact on white collar crime rates.

I would guess that a higher chance of being caught would be a greater deterrent to first-time white collar offenders than harsher punishment.

I spent 6 months in prison as a conscientous objector. One thing I learned was, in the relatively humane nordic penal system, the reality of imprisonment was nowhere near as scary as I'd imagined. If I were to commit a serious crime now, I think the social stigma would be much more serious to me than incarceration, were I to be caught. I think that's probably true for most white-collar types as well. Losing time is one thing, losing standing among your peers is much worse, if you have standing to lose. Shame is a terrible thing. It wasn't an issue for me, fortunately.

Of course, most people in prison don't have the luxury of such problems. The majority of people I met inside were there as a result of psychological and substance abuse issues. One man there reassured me that I was going to be OK because unlike everyone else there, my problems were not with my self. That's got to be about the saddest thing I've ever heard.

I found your comment insightful, but I have to ask about this:

>...I spent 6 months in prison as a conscientous objector.

Could you elaborate? Under what conditions does a conscientious objector face a lengthy prison term?

In Finland, as a male, refusal to perform military or civil service is a crime punishable by approximately 6 months of imprisonment. I understand that very recently that has been put on hold as a result of a legal challenge on the grounds that a certain religious minority is exempted from such service, the claim being that this constitutes inequal treatment.

I guess that is how being a conscientous objector worked in the US during the Viet Nam war - anyone declaring themselves a conscientous objector had to due some kind of public service or face jail time (probably more than 6 months).

In the US the draft just allowed the US government to continue the Viet Nam war far longer than it otherwise would have gone, I am glad we don't have an active draft here.

If anything the draft brought the war to a close sooner. Once kids of upper and middle class parents started getting drafted and killed they started putting pressure on the government to end the war.

Now that American wars are mostly being fought by volunteers from classes without political power they can drag on for decades and most Americans barely even think about them anymore.

>If anything the draft brought the war to a close sooner.

I don't think there is much evidence for this. Over 2.7 million Americans served in Viet Nam. If the politicians could have possibly gotten millions of young people to drop what they were doing and go 5 thousand miles to fight in a civil war in a country most had never heard of before, they would certainly have done so. There is simply no possible way they could have gotten that many troops on a volunteer basis, or they would have done so.

>Once kids of upper and middle class parents started getting drafted and killed they started putting pressure on the government to end the war.

The upper class were able to get out of serving in Viet Nam with deferments, serving in the National Guard, etc. Johnson acknowledged this and that is why they never sent the National Guard to fight in Viet Nam.

The middle and lower classes were dieting in Viet Nam long after the average American had given up on the war. Johnson din't even run for re-election because people were so opposed to the war but the war still dragged on for several more years. The politicians didn't end the war sooner because they didn't want to suffer the political consequences of looking like the person who lost and they knew there was plenty of cannon fodder to replace the soldiers who came back in a body bag.

>...Now that American wars are mostly being fought by volunteers from classes without political power they can drag on for decades and most Americans barely even think about them anymore.

There are differences between the wars of today and the Viet Nam war. The Viet Nam war had literally an order of magnitude more deaths than our current wars. A war zone is never safe but there are at least a few occupations that are a more dangerous than fighting in Afghanistan. Having a volunteer force means the soldiers have to treated better and paid more than a draftee. These wars have been a waste of lives and money but things would have been much worse if there were millions of draftees serving in the middle east and Afghanistan. At a minimum, I think it is very likely there would have been a war for regime change in Iran if there were a draftee army that was forced to fight there.

Having a volunteer force in the 1960s would have meant that the Viet Nam war would have been fought with a lot more concern for the loss of life of the solders, and it likely wouldn't have been fought anything like it was fought.

>a legal challenge on the grounds that a certain religious minority is exempted from such service, the claim being that this constitutes inequal treatment.

Kind of amazing that this is ground for a legal challenge but the fact that female aren't drafted isn't. That's one of the part of Western societies around which I can't wrap my mind.

There's increasing pressure to fix that too. Norway has introduced gender neutral draft two years ago.

I hope this get fixed eventually, either by extending it to both genders or removing it completely.

In Switzerland we had a small reform of our army and copying the Norwegians was considered for a while, but they ended up dropping the idea for just doing small changes. Quite disappointing.

>...I hope this get fixed eventually, either by extending it to both genders or removing it completely.

Every country has abolished private slavery. I'd like to imagine a world where each individual state also relinquished its claim to enslave people.

I thought that in Finland you could do other public works (something along the lines of Americorps in the USA) instead of serve in the army if you were a conscientious objector.

Yes, that's the civil service. I was using "conscientous objector" to describe what are called "total objectors" here, men who refuse to serve in any capacity for a variety of reasons.

Are women not subject to these same requirements?

No. Women may choose to serve in the military, but there is no requirement for them to do so. There's been talk of instituting a "citizen's service" for all citizens, where presumably women mostly would be expected to perform civil service similar to what men can now choose.

The exempted religious group are the Jehova's witnesses. It's my understanding they were granted an exemption because men in the group would by and large all refuse to serve, and putting them all in prison wasn't doing much good. However, recently a conscientous objector was released by a court on the grounds that this exemption constitutes inequal treatment, and the state now has to address the issue. I suppose the options they have are to either extend the exemption to others based on some grounds to be determined, or remove the exemption of Jehova's witnesses.

The ministry of defense has proposed to solve the problem by removing the witnesses' exemption. In general, the state appears to be consistently treating this as a practical matter of maintaining the current policy of general conscription, and not as a rights issue at all.

> There is a lot of evidence showing that harsher punitive measures often have little to no impact on crime and wrongdoing.

Harsher punitive measures are often meted out to those with the weakest reason.

I don’t think the claim is exceptional, but I’d love to see more studies on this. Check out the Centipede Game (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centipede_game):

“Parco, Rapoport and Stein (2002) illustrated that the level of financial incentives can have a profound effect on the outcome in a three-player game: the larger the incentives are for deviation, the greater propensity for learning behavior in a repeated single-play experimental design to move toward the Nash equilibrium.”

I recall reading somewhere that people also behave more rationally in other games like the Dictator Game (and exhibit fewer cognitive biases) when the stakes are higher, but can’t remember where.

What would the game’s results be if the financial incentives were unknown and/or highly variable? That’s more like real life.

The Nash equilibrium in this case being immediately taking the larger stash, instead of waiting (or even cooperating) with the other player for much higher payouts.

> Voting for good policies is a public good. When a voter is one among three hundred millions of citizens, only 1/300,000,000 (on average) of the benefits of the vote befall the individual voter.

Typically, voting results are highly skewed towards 50/50, say in most elections in democratic regimes with fair elections. This was the case for Brexit or the popular vote in the US 2016 election for instance.

For an election whose expected result is close to 50/50, each voter is highly influential; intuitively, if all but one voter are decided and produce a 50/50 draw, the last undecided voter has complete power. Since a lot of fair elections are approximately 50/50, undecided voters have far better influence than 1/300,000,000 for a population of 300,000,000.

In an approximately 50/50 election with few undecided voters, it is quite cheap to swing the results by bombarding the few undecided voters with ads.

Mathematicians use this concept coined "influence" of a variable, or "influence function" to analyze properties of random boolean functions in percolation for instance.

I don't think that 1/300 million part was about the likelihood of influencing the election, but rather about what percentage of the gains go to the person (not more than the percentage that that person represents of the population, presumably).

Even if you had guaranteed ability to affect the outcome of an election, supposing you knew that by spending many hours researching the correct policy to vote for you could save each person in USA $1, it would not be worth it for you to spend the time figuring it out. Although from a social perspective it would be a worthy thing to spend time on.

One of many reasons that offering false, contrived, binary choices in a world defined by its complexity is always a losing proposition.

That's actually a strong argument for requiring a 'super majority' to decide any major decision.

Then no decision would be made, which is a decision.

When was the last time someone got a supermajority with more than a small number of voters?

Presumably different referenda would be put to a vote if a supermajority were required, namely, ones that are less controversial.

To be fair in some situations where it is not internal political pressure that caused the vote in the first place, large majorities can occur; see the falkland islands referendum on joining argentina

On commenting on an article about why people have difficulty comprehending complex systems, you have just delivered an example of the phenomena.

Your basic point seems to be that a big Government will be so well run that individuals would rely on it to provide them with benefits, even in the case that the Government make poor decisions on policy choices. That is the whole point of a Government: to make life easier for people by taking care of things that are too expensive or complicated for people to do individually.

It's also a regulatory body to ensure that certain functions and services are provided equally to every citizen. E.g. everyone has the same basic human right of access to health care and education for example. Who else should guarantee that access for a whole population if not the government?

I would phrase it as, "The government is the natural monopoly of natural monopolies".

I really wish this notion of "society by survival of the fittest" would die its long-overdue death.

What actually happens, in the real world, in situations like this, is that people suffer and die. They don't become Ayn Rand's ideal man; there's just lots of needless suffering.

And because people are capable of violence, and because people don't like suffering very much, they commit violence against each other to improve their own position -- which increases the suffering.

And then other people, who don't want to suffer and don't want to commit violence, try to leave. And they come to countries like the United States, which they've heard at some point is a great and welcoming land of opportunity, only to discover that it's all a big marketing sham and the majority of the US wants to put up a sign that says, "Go away, we're closed."

Given the number of failing or failed states around the world recently, you have to have your head quite deep in the sand, or maybe far up in some body part, to still subscribe to this idea that anarcho-capitalism is a solution to anything.

There are many complex problems with many governments around the world right now. "Get rid of government" will not make any of it better.

> What actually happens, in the real world, in situations like this, is that people suffer and die. They don't become Ayn Rand's ideal man; there's just lots of needless suffering.

There are many many counterexamples to this. See [Seeing Like a State - Wikiwand](https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Seeing_Like_a_State) for many good ones.

There's a lot of good evidence that people are in fact capable of taking care of themselves pretty well. But violence, especially organized violence, is tho a very real problem for basically everyone. But that's basically what a government is, fundamentally, so it's not obvious that 'more government' always rebounds to the betterment of everyone or even most people. As with everything, there are tradeoffs to be weighed!

This is an unorthodox way of looking at this, and could only be persuasive with actual data.

The economic argument for government providing public services is actually that for public goods, the incentives on the individual lead to sub-optimal outcomes (that’s partly just the definition of a public good).

Just because voters vote for government that may be less good at providing that public good (let’s say police protection) is not an argument that this completely eliminates any benefit from that service being provided as a public good.

From the simple example, the Democrats may provide less optimal policing than Republicans (wasting money on nanny state directives) does not mean the service can effectively provided by the private market.

You’re positing that sort inverse incentives apply when voters are choosing the governmental provision of public services. This seems unlikely to be true in the aggregate because voters do not get to choose politicians who are going to pursue policies to benefit themselves, as an individual, when they vote. As you point out, they may vote for totally psychological benefits.

So the tension is not really over the size of government; it is over making the correct determination of how much of a good or service is comprised of being a “public good.”

Classic public good problems, like imposing the correct costs on pollution, can’t be solved by wishing them away.

What you’re complaint more seems to be with is that democracy allows elements of self, or class, interests into individuals voting choices. The solution to this would be some kind of perfect benevolent dictator, who would make the optimum determination as to which goods should be provided by the government, and dedicate the correct resources to them.

The problem with this, of course, is again the incentives on the holders of power distort their decision making to their own benefit, as had be shown over and over in the real world.

People will be irrational regardless of its cost. Here's some evidence to support my claim with no citation: people will gamble their entire life savings away, regardless of how much money they have.

People are more rational when the cost to them of being irrational is larger

People are not fundamentally rational, and people do not know how rational they themselves are in any given context.

Other commenters have addressed how your claim that people behave more rationally when government is small. I would like to address the fact that even if we assume that citizens behave rationally, this does not mean that behavior maximizing personal benefit translates to behavior maximizing net benefit.

Consider, for example, the international politics arena, wherein there is no government over state actors, and where sufficiently important players pursue sufficiently rational actions, since the cost of not pursuing it is so high. Yet even with good evidence that current human activities are leading to future food and environmental insecurity via climate change, the rational actors have been struggling to coordinate on a plan.

I don't think it's valid to discount the individual's power by the number of voters. If the low impact of any single vote had the sort of effect you're suggesting, people would be much more likely not to vote at all.

When a voter is just one of millions, their share of power is necessarily low. Yet the total power obviously rises linearly. (or even super-linearly, considering the outsize influence the US has in the world). Your comment also suggests that you believe people are fundamentally open to altruistic decisions. It should therefore not matter if the power they have is over themselves, or their compatriots.

I also doubt widespread agreement with the policies you mention. Answers to such survey questions depend on the phrasing more than anything. And to use one recent datapoint: we all know a recent candidate who embodied those policies more than anyone before him. Yet they actually got fewer votes than their free trade / pro-immigration opponent.

> No, this is one of the greatest arguments for small government

Well, soon enough, I am sure, the AI will satisfy both views on the government: it will control everything, and it will fit in your pocket.

"People are more rational when the cost to them of being irrational is larger."

We may need a source on that. Are you are familiar with Thaler's work?

>People are more rational when the cost to them of being irrational is larger.

This was directly negated in the article.

> People are more rational when the cost to them of being irrational is larger.

Do you mean like buying a house they cannot afford for some ideal of home ownership? ;)

Is there more I could read to get educated about this? How can we construct polical systems that are better?

Note that you are still living in the best times humanity has ever seen. That's true in the US, but also world-wide, with few exceptions such as Syria.

There's less war, life expectancies are generally rising (the opioid epidemic being a temporary, and local, blip), the possibility of achieving one's true potential is less dependent on class/gender/race than it has ever been.

It's not perfect, but it's far away from life as it was even 100 years ago: nasty, brutish, and short.

My preferred solution for governance problems is basically to have smaller governing units (nations/states/districts). this gives people better representation and is pretty effective in managing the 'tyranny of the majority'. considering the environment in US today the majority is essentially 51%. Now if one considers how bi-polar favorite policies for each side has become, it (mandate) is nowhere near enough to justify forcing their views on the other 49%.

The subtle mechanism behind most problems in public policy today is collapsing of decision tree into just one yes or no answer (red/blue) that IMO is killing the nuanced policy development (or more accurately used by politicians to do whatever half-aed measures they can come up with). having smaller units also help with even more meta-manipulations like gerrymandering so prevalent in US. if we want to hold congress accountable for their constituents this is pretty much the only sustainable path to it. Until this happens IMHO most good policies will continue to be lost in poor/unimaginative implementation.

ref: https://mises.org/wire/us-should-have-10000-members-congress

We could also collapse the yes/no questions with better voting systems, something not first pass the post.

While local government is totally necessary, I don't think we can afford to not have big government. If wind currents made air pollution a non-issue in say, Ontario because wind currents blew it all down to Nebraska, how would we deal with that? Many of our most pressing societal problems live at the interstate or international level and need a corresponding governing body.

You most certainly could not have big government, in that scenario each state would be its own sovereign nation.

It's a very popular theory that smaller polities have better governance. Picking single examples would maybe not capture it but I'd think of NZ vs Aus, Ireland vs UK, Switzerland vs France, or even Canada vs USA. (All pairs picked to have similar location in the world, but I guess you want to say the (former) empires of USA, France and the UK put them in entirely separate categories..)

Not necessarily "better" governance, because that's very dependent on what "better" means to you. I think you can make a strong argument that federalism results in governance more closely matching the will of the people — to the extent that the will of the people can be captured by representative democracy.

> This is probably the greatest argument for big government

The article talks about institutional inertia. The advantage of a market economy is your Blockbusters get replaced by Netflix. Imagine if film renting were a public agency. It would be much harder to disrupt. Governments are, by design, immortal. A crucial design decision is choosing what, in our society, we want to be immortal and what we want to be replaceable.

Netflix is still mailing out DVD's and library's have both computers and books. Which is very telling, most often new methods supplement existing systems not simply replace them. The real transition has been cheaper shipping costs replacing the need for local retail and that's been spreading across the economy for decades.

Further governments are often first adapters. Many legacy government IT systems exist, but as they generally work and cost less to maintain than replace. Really the advantage of free markets is information exchange and diminishing returns not simply building large scale systems.

Consider, some cars come with built in refrigerators yet we ended up with roadside stores selling cold beverages. That's the kind of tradeoff markets are great for identifying.

The elected component of the government sector in a properly functioning democracy is far more mortal than large corporations and newly elected Cabinets generally more zealous about reforming (for better or worse) the way agencies and services are run than newly appointed corporate board members. Sure, some services are prioritised more than others; no government is going to get voted out of office solely for running the nationalised film rental agency into the ground, but the main reason for the institutional inertia is the same scale, complexity and principal/agent problems large corporations also suffer from.

> the elected component of the government sector in a properly functioning democracy is far more mortal than large corporations

The elected component of any modern government oversees a vast administrative bureaucracy. This is the part people refer to when comparing "big" and "small" governments.

> the main reason for the institutional inertia is the same scale, complexity and principal/agent problems large corporations also suffer from

Federal bureaucracies only die if (a) the legislature explicitly kills it or (b) the government collapses. Large companies, on the other hand, can go bankrupt. Shareholders are motivated to be ruthlessly efficient in a way lawmakers, somewhat by design, are not.

I'm not convinced the legislature explicitly killing or dramatically reconstituting agencies is a significantly rarer event than large companies going bankrupt. More to the point, the executive is seldom shy about embarking upon restructuring or adjusting funding and objectives of its administrative bureaucracies, not least because it faces its own acute existential threat from not being seen to give its taxpayers value for money and the operations and future direction of its bureaucracies is the subject of open public debate; obviously more for pensions and prisons than vehicle registrations or waste transfer licensing

Ruthless efficiency for maximising long run profit is only useful in cases that particular metric happens to align closely with the goal of society. For film distribution this might be a reasonable assumption. For promoting health or learning outcomes or facilitating retirement, it almost certainly usually isn't.

> I'm not convinced the legislature explicitly killing or dramatically reconstituting agencies is a significantly rarer event than large companies going bankrupt

In Western European and North American history, at least, it dramatically is. Look at a list of the Dow or S&P 500's founding components. Look at those lists now. Now look at a list of U.S. departments in 1850, and compare them to today.

My reference point is the UK, where we killed 89 civil service departments in the early 90s alone.

There is a difference between immortal and slow to change. I don't think people want government to fail fast and be replaced with another government in the span of two years.

The "immortal" term and Blockbuster are great concreate examples. I will have to keep those in mind as it accurately portrays some of the pros and cons of government

I don't think economists agree with the concept of Big Government. Here's an entertaining back and forth between Thaler and Gene Fama about the efficient market theory [1]:

> Q: So policy makers should use bubbles as a way to step in?

> Thaler: Yes, but very gently. It’s not like I think policy makers know what’s going to happen, but if they see what looks disturbing, they can lean against the wind a little bit. That’s as far as I would go. We both agree that markets, good or bad, are the best thing we’ve got going. Nobody has devised a way of allocating resources that’s better.

> Fama: We disagree about whether policy makers are likely to get it right, though. On balance, I think they are likely to cause more harm than good.

[1] http://review.chicagobooth.edu/economics/2016/video/are-mark...

Economists rarely have a good solution to societal problems. They have good solutions for facilitating trade but offer nothing with respect to social norms, nationalistic sentiment, etc.

We all agree that economists are good at maximizing resource allocation. Sysops are good at maximizing hardware allocation but we should let them dictate national policy :)

Politics is about taking all of the science and all of the human components of administrating a country and merge them into an ideal outcome. Economics is just one part of a bigger picture.

I disagree that economists are good at maximizing resource allocation as they largely ignore externalities.

but economists invented the term "externalities" and the analysis of such..

How good are they, especially with dealing with the unknown unknowns to quote a famous contemporary American philosopher (/s)? Even for the known unknowns, they have to make assumptions to start somewhere. Yes, they create a lot of models for all kinds of stuff, and I'm sure all those models work out well.

I must say though that I have doubts about the parent's "they largely ignore externalities", I think that is too negative a claim.

Politicians and civil servants are subject to behavioral concerns too. Who will watch the watchmen?

it doesn't have to be an endless hierarchy of people looking over one another. For example, we could watch the people that watch us.

We watch, we note abuses, they launch internal investigations, and they conclude that nothing was wrong.

Case closed. Pay your taxes, citizen. Thank you; drive through.

> We watch, we note abuses, they launch internal investigations, and they conclude that nothing was wrong.

And then, occasionally, there are protests in the streets, people start running for office pledging to fix the abuses, we vote for them, and things slowly start to change.

Alternately, sometimes we sue them, or else a state or federal attorney general sues them; the matter ends up in the judicial system, and the behavior is reviewed by an independent judge – albeit only for violations of law, not of sense.

As avenues for redress, both of these are highly imperfect, with well-known limits and failure cases; but they’re not nothing.

Exactly: soap, ballot, jury, and hopefully we never get to the last step.

Yes, that's basically democracy in a nutshell.

Even if we're all watching each other, we still all have our own incentives and not so obvious irrationalities.

Then the problem becomes identifying and accounting for these incentives and irrationalities.

We solved these kind of problems: electronic systems in space have multiple redundancies, where the result returned by most of them is picked as input to other systems. This ensures that one system's quirks are kept in check

We don't even have a handle on what constitutes rational incentives/behavior, let alone irrational ones.

>we could watch the people that watch us.

If this were possible, there would be no authority

Careful, this might sound intuitive but be deathly wrong

Care to elaborate on your concerns? We're obviously speaking theoretically here at a high level of abstraction

My concern is that it might be possible to watch each other while keeping authority. You say it's not possible as if there was some kind of proof.

If everyone can watch everyone with equal transparency, that would seem to imply a distributed system with information symmetry, which is antithetical to centralized authority. If there was a central authority/super admin in such a system, how would you keep them from covertly creating information asymmetry?

That's why free/leisure time to figure WTF is going on politically/economically socially and an education not to get lost on the way of getting there have been considered as pre-requisites for a functioning democracy.

Ideally, the electorate.

In a small government scenario, who watches those providing services?

I seem to recall running into a claim that the original idea of the republicans was that the government would be a check against coercion, be it physical, emotional, economic, or otherwise.

Seems the current Republican establishment is the exact opposite of that ideal.

Libertarians are the new advocates for small government.

Libertarians = Arch Linux (lean, mean, minimal)

Everybody else = Windows or Mac (i.e. huge operating system that tries to protect users from everything under the sun)

This is what happens when engineers receive very little formal liberal arts education.


Cringe away, but please don't comment that you did—it's not on topic.


My experience with liberal arts education is that it teaches you how to talk and what to say, but not how to think.

That's the anti-college talking point that republicans like to preach to the uneducated masses. It's absolutely designed to devalue what is actually being taught in higher education, allow for the easy dismissal of soft sciences. And once you can dismiss soft sciences, you can certainly dismiss the hard sciences with guilt by association.

I earned my CS degree from a liberal arts college and took my share of liberal arts classes. But the name doesn't directly infer a political slant - there isn't an indoctrination that the right would like to say happens. Certainly some departments will have slants to them (women's studies, african american studies, etc.) but that doesn't mean that the scientific method gets forgotten at the door. Research still gets done and still gets reviewed. Certainly moreso than what happens on Fox News.

"soft" sciences are not sciences.

Majoring in a soft science is one of the least helpful things a human can do to themselves and society. As an engineer, sitting in on the required liberal arts classes felt like a seminar on group think and what aboutism

It's not so bad if you stick to some of the harder, or at least more rigidly defined liberal arts areas. Philosophy, Classics, and History (if you pick your way carefully) can be among the less squishy. If you go back to things that are at least 100, 150 years old, but not so far back that written records no longer exist, you can avoid most of the worst excesses of critical theory and similar politicized stances.

You know, there's a certain classist dismissal here of people who just plain did not attend university, let alone take "liberal arts classes" (someone please tell me what the normative value of my Chinese mythology course was!). How about we stop assuming the working class can't think for itself, eh?

It's not a dismissal of those who 'did not attend university'. It's a dismissal of people who are devaluing a university education because they did not attend university. There is no reason to believe that 'the working class' (not sure what that means really, many of us all work for a living) can't think for itself, but we have to be honest in an uneducated person thinking they know more about economics, climate change, business, etc., than those who have studied it and/or had careers in it.

Look at net neutrality, it's been completely framed by the republicans as anti-business, and they have appealed to the masses that are uneducated in how the internet works and why it was successful in the first place. But what would those of us who are educated and/or do development know? We just work using the internet all day, every day.

>and they have appealed to the masses that are uneducated in how the internet works and why it was successful in the first place.

I question this premise. How much of the public actually buys the Republican line on net neutrality?

Are people disapproving of my experience or that I'm talking about it?


Keep /pol/ memes on /pol/.

>it would be very time consuming to handle every single aspect of it.

Life is complicated. It is time consuming to become an knowledgeable, aware person capable of contributing intelligently to society. It is also absolutely necessary if we want to have a self-governed society worth living in. You can't have a worthwhile government - let alone a big government - governed by the will of the masses when the masses are largely ignorant and unable to offer informed consent due to lack of understanding.

That is where domain experts come in. It would be impossible for me, as an individual, to understand the repercussions of tax credits on the solar energy industry. I vote instead for competent people who I believe are best positioned to find the right people to answer these questions on my behalf.

If you don't have a general understanding, how can you decide who is competent? Staying informed and aware is hard, but necessary, work. Our reliance on pundits to recommend "experts" in the information age has led to our current society - where the overwhelming majority of voters are pushed, pulled, and manipulated by various government and corporate interests. I would contend that in order to judge who is competent to lead we as a people have to work harder to have a far better grasp of all the issues. We have fallen short in this way and we are suffering the consequences, on every level of government.

And that right there is the reason that technocrats are dumber than they think.

I don't think this follows at all. True, I probably don't want zero health and safety regulations. But government--an institution notorious for both pervasiveness and inertia--can get things wrong just like individuals and market institutions. And when the government does it, it does it at massive scale and for a very long time.

Thaler's "libertarian paternalism" is not about controlling choices, but making better choices easier to make while allowing people to still choose something else. Big government in practice is typically about picking an option and not allowing anything else. And if that one chosen option turns out to be wrong, it will take ages to undo it as the now-vested interests who manage to benefit lobby to keep the status quo.

Centralized systems can only handle so much complexity before the collapse. You can only handle the kind of society we have today through a distributed, decentralized model. The complexity of modern society is emergent, not the result of central planners. This is a foundational finding of economics and one of the primary reasons why communist dictatorships tend to fail to function.

What makes you think government is immune to these concerns? If anything, they can be more susceptible to certain kinds of adverse effects.

I agree with both you and the original poster. It's really important to have a culture of government accountability and iterative improvement. This has proven difficult in practice, as a sense of continuity and tradition is a hallmark of stable governments. But I think it's important to keep working toward that goal.

An interesting bit from the article was that he talks about 'sunk cost' with the defining example of ordering a dessert when you're nearly full and feeling compelled to finish it.

> There was an economist once early in my career who said to me, “You know, if you’re right, what am I supposed to do? What I know how to do is solve optimization problems.”

A career economist not wanting to change their ways because they have spent a career doing things when presented with a possible outcome that maybe those things didn't matter as much. Also:

> If you think of companies that have come and gone, like Kodak, which invented the digital camera, but they had an almost-monopoly in film, and didn’t really think this digital thing would go anywhere. Blockbuster Video, which came along and put tens of thousands of mom-and-pop video stores out of business, only to be put out of business by Netflix.

These are human behaviors to recognize - sunk cost. It can sink a company. Something to be wary of as a startup grows past adolescence and into adulthood.

My understanding with Kodak is that they invented digital tech far earlier than expected (pre 80s) and hushed it to avoid cannibalizing their existing film business.

I suspect Blockbuster behaved similarly. It's hard to kill the golden goose.

Still examples of the sunk cost fallacy, for sure, but it feels like "lack of realization" is perhaps the wrong attribution.

I don't think Kodak did hush it, they had some pretty advanced digital cameras early on, they were pioneers. The problem was they were a film company not a camera company, those businesses are so distinct they were never likely to cross from one to the other.

They would have been better ignoring the whole digital camera thing and looking for other opportunities where they could leverage their skills and assets. Or just wound down gracefully.

Kodak saw what was coming ahead of everyone else (they owned the digital camera field from the mid 1970 onwards), but it did them no good. The problem was there just is not as much money in digital photography compared to chemical photography.

Kodak is a classic example that no amount of foresight will save you when the entire industry changes underneath you.

In a way, it is sunk cost all the way down. Those companies' entire existance - supply chain, manufacturing, down to identity of what they do was so etched into everything it was hard to change.

It happens all the time with large companies.

Motorola is another, mostly forgotten example. They invented digital radios for cell phones, but they were so entrenched in analog radios at the time that they gave the technology away to a small company called Nokia. A few years later, they collaborated with Apple on an iTunes equipped cell phone, and shared their own internal designs of a full screen phone.

I think this phenomenon is one of the few ways a big company can die.

Sometimes it's a mistake to think about how these companies could pivot to adapt to new technology. A major feature of capitalism is that companies are (relatively) unimportant and it's the market and society that really matter. Without companies collapsing, it can be really difficult to recycle the manpower and capital invested in obsolete business models.

Blockbuster's organizational, legal and physical infrastructure was wholly devoted to video rental via physical stores. Decommissioning those organizational components and creating the systems necessary to spin up and run an online video portal would have required changes in the company so massive that it would effectively be a different company.

Even if Blockbuster had bought Netflix early on, Blockbuster would have been left running an organization they did not understand in a market that only vaguely resembled something it was familiar with. Even worse, and totally contrary to modern management theory, management skills alone are necessary but not sufficient to operate a growing and dynamic company on the forefront of technology. The entire management organization of Blockbuster would have been totally unequal to the task of operating Netflix competently.

This is, by the way, a problem I see with a lot of public policy - in a market system, what's good for companies is not necessarily what's good for the system.

Steve Eisman puts this well in [1] when talking about why he's investing in bank stocks even though he thinks prospective rollbacks in Dodd-Frank reforms are a bad idea: "There's two issues. There's what I think about the financial system and what I think about financial stocks, and the two don't necessarily correlate."

[1] https://youtu.be/NJodqhzqPKQ?t=4m10s

I liked the Steve Eisman character from The Big Short, but I was disappointed his prediction bank stocks would do well didn't play out.

  KBE:   44.49 Jan 30, 2017, 47.82 July 11, 2018 = 7.48% price growth (I couldn't find numbers for total return and too lazy to compute from distribution history)
  VFAIX: 20123 Jan 30, 2017, 23569 July 11, 2018 = 17.1% total return
  VFIAX: 22291 Jan 30, 2017, 27729 July 11, 2018 = 24.4% total return

  KBE:   SPDR Bank ETF
  VFAIX: Vanguard Financial Index
  VFIAX: Vanguard S&P 500

KBE total return is about 12.8% (42.70 to 48.19) based on http://stockcharts.com/freecharts/perf.php?KBE,VFAIX,VFIAX (those numbers are adjusted based on distributions and splits)

I find that super interesting - especially since they seem to have underperformed the 500 even after the deregulation bill passed in March.

I've seen this sort of justification of Blockbuster's demise before, but it's hard to buy.

I mean, sure, the business model and support systems between original Netflix and video rental store are fairly different, but Blockbuster still had a huge leg up over starting from scratch. They already had vast inventories, sorting systems, a distribution network (albeit one that would have to be heavily modified), name recognition in a market that consumers considered interchangeable (common consumers just think "video rental", not "brick-and-mortar retail vs. online direct delivery") and I assume a lot of production industry connections and relationships.

It seems like they were already over halfway there, and given that the biggest hurdle is getting off the ground, their existing brand recognition and membership records are a massive advantage.

I’ve been an employee in a buyout twice by a company that didn’t get it. One of those times they thought they did, but they still crushed us anyway. It was hard to watch. Especially from a front row seat. :/. I’ve worked at two places a year or two after the buyout. Not as real for me but my coworkers were clearly frustrated.

For a while I was pretty sure I knew what a healthy buyout should look like. Now I’ve no idea. How do people pull this off?

Cisco seems to do this well. And sometimes poorly. The screwed up on the consumer products space. But they regularly succeed with enterprise hardware solutions. If they can add something their global field team can sell and support, they succeed. The leverage of their sales pipelines exceed what the acquired business could do organically in any meaningful timeframe. They have a teams of entrepreneurs that have been acquired, then left to start something new again, and then been purchased more. I think the key thing is that there isn't a fundamental disconnect. Even blockbuster did well with aligned "bolt-on" acquisitions of regional chains during its growth phase.

It can also sink individuals. I don't know how many times I have watched people fail to make a living in a dead-end career because "it is what I went to school for".

This looks to be a bunch of discussion around receiving the Nobel prize.

Any pointers to where to find the information/studies that won him the prize. What people should/shouldn't be doing when making financial decisions. For instance, there was a reference to the fact that people "should ignore sunk costs" but don't. What are some other things to watch out for, and the reasons to do so?

Here's the lecture he's gave for the Nobel: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/la...

If you're looking for information on nudges, check this: http://economicspsychologypolicy.blogspot.com/2013/08/nudge-...

It looks like they've stopped updating it but it has all sorts of economic research on nudges in it. Beware that some of this research is debated though.

There's another section of the Nobel site that provides background on the work, both a popular version and an advanced version. The advanced version amounts to a fairly substantive literature review. In general, you can find both documents for all Nobel Prizes, and the writing is very good.

Popular: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/la...

Advanced: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/la...

Thaler has written a couple of books. Nudge (with Cass Sunstein) focuses on how the "right" decisions can be "nudged" by setting up appropriate decision frameworks.

Misbehaving is more of a personal history of how he got to behavioral decision theory. I particularly enjoyed that because I had a couple classes with him when he was working on these ideas early on.

Having worked front line technical support, I have to disagree. People are indeed dumb, many choose to stay that way.

It’s as if a person working in geriatric care claimed thet people are old. I rarely call or contact the support, the though of being treated as a dumb person make me solve the problem myself of abandon the service/product instead.

Well to be fair a lot of people contacting a front-line service center for a non-specialized product/service can't even articulate their problem accurately, if at all. I'm sure it'd be pretty easy to get jaded about people after hearing "I don't know if it's on or not, it just doesn't work...fix it" enough times.

That person calling in more than likely knows significantly more than you about some other topic, and that's the point.

Someone calling in that doesn't know the difference between the PC tower and the monitor and doesn't care to learn isn't "stupid" any more than you are stupid for not knowing an alternator from an AC compressor, and chances are you won't remember even if shown once or twice because you pay someone else to know and maintain/fix that stuff.

Yeh but what would the mechanic think if I didn't know the keys had to be in the ignition? Such are the level of questions you field at First level tech support.

You also get those kinds of questions at a shop.

Stuff like "where's my seat warmer?", "How do I turn off the windshield wipers" and "why does my window go up all the way when I just touch the button" are all questions I was asked when I worked as a mechanic.

And if they are coming to my shop to get those answers, then it's my job to help them. Hopefully come tax time when I need to talk to that accountant he wont laugh me out of the room because I didn't know I needed to keep my own tax when working as a contractor.

"why does my window go up all the way when I just touch the button"

hmmm, in many cars the window dongle has two states. Half pull moves the window only as long as it's pulled, full pull makes "the window go up all the way" even after releasing the dongle... and it might depend on whether the keys are inserted and whether the doors are open. Took me some time to figure it out in my car.

Bingo! However this guy had owned his last Mercedes for almost 20 years and had a million little questions like this about new features.

Really smart dude, but just needed some help with his new car.

No, this just shows some folks aren't specialized in the same way you are. Everyone has their areas of non-specialty, and everyone has limited mental energy to devote to things. Everyone sometimes has a "stupid" moment. But I'm going to guess every one of these folks you talk to have things they know that, if you tried them, you'd seem pretty stupid as well.

There's a difference between being dumb and being ignorant. Most people aren't dumb, they could learn to handle their technical issues if they were motivated to spend the time. But time is valuable, and if you can have a specialist handle your problems for you, is it really worth the trouble of learning and keeping up to date on something that doesn't really interest you?

They are probably wasting more time being on hold and explaining the problems to someone else. Also problems repeat, so if you know how to solve it yourself you save time.

But you're seeing a selection bias. The people who are doing just fine don't contact you.

Having used things that require technical support, I have to disagree. I'm not an idiot, I just don't have time to learn the idiosyncrasies of the problem that I have.

Are you able to determine if some piece of equipment you use every day is turned on or not, and able to accurately relay this information?

If so, you are not part of the demographic the parent is talking about.

Can you even determine the difference between a common law, and a civil law system of justice? Some non-trivial percentage of the population, including some very intelligent people cannot understand that - something so incredibly fundamental to the society they live in.

Ignore these haters mate, I'm greybeard sysadmin type who did his time in the helpdesk trenches, and it's a fact despite the many protestations of the others here. Prost!

ps. I would correct though and say some people are dumb. I've met others on the other end of the spectrum too. Also, something something, the difference between ignorance and stupidity, etc.

There was an interesting NPR Planet Money episode about Richard Thaler back in November. https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2017/11/01/561421807/epis...

B.E. is a subject I'm incredibly excited about. I'm glad to see this at the top of YC today.

Every (somewhat major) decision I'm making now, I'm constantly reminding myself of various biases and silliness that I participate in unwillingly (or even sometimes willingly).

I would say this study has been immensely helpful, and Thaler is a huge contributor to this for me. (Freakonomics, also, has been a great learning resource.)

For anyone interested in this subject, I recommend Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman. (You'd think I should get a referral bonus as often as I talk about this book.) It quite literally changed my life. Of course, Nudge is the other juggernaut in the field.

In fact, if anyone is particularly interested, I'd love to chat. Profile has contact details.

Behavioral Economics falls prey to the same kinds of over simplifications it was a reaction to in regular economics. There are useful insights to be gained from both over simplifications but it's also good to remain aware of their flaws. To over simplify myself, traditional economics starts from the assumption that people are rational and then tends to over simplify the way they reason and the models of the world they reason about; behavioral economics questions whether people are rational and 'demonstrates' they are not compared to over simplified models of the world they reason about.

A simple example is the "default choice" effect. The standard explanation is that people are too lazy to check a box. A more sophisticated explanation would be that people infer information from the default they are presented with and allow it to influence their decision based on their assumption that the form creator is well informed and looking out for their interests. There is in general an under appreciation in behavioral economics that people are likely being more rational than the over simplified models they are benchmarking them against. There are lots of examples of this in the most widely known results.

I think a "good" behavioral economist would not explain exactly why, but instead provide theories with as much data to describe why those theories exist.

A trial shows that people often exhibit behavior A. Why they exhibit behavior A may be complicated.

In your example, there's a sense of authority and conforming to a norm that can be used to describe those behaviors. But there's also the cognitive barrier (which we call lazy) that requires someone to exert mental effort to change away from a default.

It's not that one is wrong and the other is right. All of these may be right. But B.E.'s best contribution to society isn't to explain so much of _why_ we act in these ways - but instead to accept that despite our desires or perspectives of rationality, we do act in these ways.

Understanding the "why" may help us to make better decisions, certainly; however, being too prescriptive about "why" may lead us down the wrong path.

The way that behavioral economics is very often presented is not with the epistemic humility you describe here however. This is in part the fault of media popularizers and entities that use behavioral economics to justify and push their own agendas but in my experience the well known names in research are also culpable, both in their own popularizations and applications of their research and in their academic work.

There is an admirable strain in classical economics of epistemic humility: assuming that when human agents act in the world in ways that don't appear to match economic theory, it is at least as likely that the agents are acting in their own best interests and the economic theory, model or data are wrong than the reverse.

Behavioral economics tends to follow a less admirable strain of economic thought that assumes when agents don't follow the predictions of our over simplified model, it is the agents who are wrong and not the model. This is merely misguided in it's benign form but becomes pernicious when it is inevitably extended to "fixing" the agent's behavior through some form of coercion.

My criticism of BE is when it makes too strong a claim to agents acting irrationally rather than questioning where its own assumptions or models may be incomplete.

I find it somewhat useful if overly simplistic as an aid to analyzing and improving my own decisions. I dislike its use as another tool to justify telling people what to do. I also find its lack of introspection into its own flaws and limitations as a field disappointing.

It's similar to the classic spherical cows in many physics experiments.

We’re dumb in comparison to the systems we’ve created. Increasingly, the disparity between what our technology is capable of and our own limitations as animals will become a pressing issue.

One thing that always bothers me is how we have this myth of personal responsibility that supposes an individual is equipped to defend their own interests against a multinational corporation on their own.

“Well I just don’t get why the baby didn’t defend itself from the bear.”

And many of our problems are collective action problems: where it makes sense for individuals to defect on their own, and they can only raise the standard for the group if they act together.

At different scales this means unionization and professional organizations, government regulation, and international regulation, to prevent whole countries from defecting - this is in large part what the EU is about, and a significant source of UK ill will towards it; and also generally what makes nationalists upset at globalists.

Collective action problems require collective action solutions. Large actors, however, tend to dislike collective action because it reduces their scale advantage.

Collective action has its own problem: power structures encourage corruption and misuse of the pooled power. Overall, I suspect government and international systems are more likely to be less corrupt because they can afford to build more checks and balances into their institutions, but the distance from the people decreases their perceived legitimacy.

Not an easy circle to square.

As I see it, the corruption challenge of collective action is because it is so often not carefully, purposefully structured. Government is constructed with the express purpose of checking power.

I read a bit I liked a while back about early feminism, in which members rejected wholesale the idea of power structures & authority, and established no authority. The author relates, however, that the power vacuum was naturally still filled- but because everyone wanted to pretend there was no power structure, the one that developed was unusually cruel & unaccountable.

I liked the bit because to me it seems like the strongest argument for official government- if the power vacuum must always be filled, let us be deliberate in how we fill it.

I agree. As imperfect and corrupt as it is, democratic representation in government has taken a very long time to develop out of previous eras of might makes right. People who advocate for permanent dismantling of government instead of rebuilding it seem severely naive to believe that doing so won't devolve into violent contests between local armed powers.

Another very big factor in having a properly accountable government is reducing information asymmetry as much as possible. Democracy doesn't work well if education is crippled, and there's been a serious decline in the quality and breadth of education in the U.S. (I can't speak to other countries, but I hear of decline elsewhere as well) It sounds a little conspiratorial, but I don't believe the massive student debt loads and the disparagement of fields of study such as philosophy, which prompts critical authority-challenging questions, are accidents. It is my opinion that the upheaval of the 60's scared major U.S. powers and they took steps to nullify student activism.

People in general are very disengaged, apathetic, and distracted. Much of the corruption in government, media, and business could be countered effectively by a population that knows how to inform itself. Instead we seem to be sinking, like Rome did, into corruption, ignorance, and widespread superstition.

As someone who's participated in many organizations and movements that were purposefully against power structures and authority, I can tell you that it can go either way.

I've seen it work, where people found ways to fluidly hold each other accountable and natural leaders gently stepped into the power vacuums with out any kind of formalized authority. And I've seen it fail catastrophically in a myriad of ways. It really comes down to the people who are involved, and how intentionally they approach the organizational problem.

I've also seen larger scale organizations that intentionally attacked this problem and created formalized structures that were built to minimize concentrated power and instead keep it distributed. It was essentially a formalization of the first case where the no-authority / structure model worked.

So it's doable. You can have collective action with out concentrated power and hierarchy. It just takes intention and strong (but compassionate) social accountability.

Are there examples or reading you might be able to give regarding this? I'm interested!

Dunno about feminism, but I definitely observed the same on agile projects that rejected concept of formal leader and management.

Let's see who naturally arises as a leader style also leads to special kind of hell.

This is why representative democracies and rule of law are so important.

It's important to make governments that are "about laws - not about men". Because if governments are built around single people, those people will concentrate power. When a system leads to the person in power hands off power to the next person, it's a way to distribute power.

The second principle that is a huge problem today is concentration of power into the hands of the wealthy. Thomas Piketty put his finger on the problem - in the 1970s, most obviously in the US, billionaires began to figure out how to use their wealth for persuasion. In that way they use their wealth to take more of the profits in the economy for themselves.

I think this is the problem of our time: How do we stop oligarchs and billionaires from funding a propaganda machine designed to break democracies so they can accumulate more wealth?

>I read a bit I liked a while back about early feminism...

Link (and second recommendation) for the curious:


It also means laws/regulations to just plain ban harmful behaviors. Collectivization to alter market forces cannot fix everything. Some things need to just stop. Selling CFCs needs to stop. That won't happen by naming and shaming involved companies. It won't happen by people gathering on facebook to organize a boycott. It happens by people in uniforms enforcing the law, with violence when necessary. Sometimes that is the only way to stop individuals bent on illegally benefiting themselves at the expense of others.

"...Sometimes that is the only way to stop individuals bent on illegally benefiting themselves at the expense of others...."

Not just "sometimes", it takes the threat of violent people in uniforms ALL of the time when dealing with people bent on illegally benefiting themselves at the expense of others.

The issue is that the violent people in uniforms, (and even the people controlling them for that matter), can ALSO be bent on benefiting themselves at the expense of others.

It's not only grassroots organizations that can be corrupt, the government itself is actually even more likely to be corrupt. So you almost have to solve corruption before you try to solve the other structural issues. And corruption is just a very hard problem to solve.

Cory Doctorow has recently written an interesting piece on corruption: https://boingboing.net/2018/07/02/low-yield-crude.html

It talks about how socializing risk and privatizing profits is actually the definition of corruption.

Well it takes collective action to decide what to ban.

>> collective action to decide

No. Once upon a time we nominated experts to make most of those decisions. Groups like the EPA or the IRS were given a mandate to examine what was going on and ban behaviors that did harm. But today "regulation" is a bad word. Everything is political. The EPA and IRS cannot ban anything without massive public debate. In fact, most regulatory bodies are so under pressure to reduce any and all regulation that they rarely ever ban anything. Quick and efficient regulation of harmful behavior is dead.

Example: the recent bill to ban upskirting photography in the UK. Nothing much to debate. But the bill gets killed by the new breed of politicians who demand every new regulation be subject to the full public process in order to make the act of passing new regulations as difficult as possible.

What we lack is trust. We lack security in each other, in many cases for entirely legitimate reasons. Reestablishing systems of trust is one of the challenges we’re facing right now.

Reminds me of the one common Freudian slip I notice in the wake of a scandal. If they talk of restoring trust as a goal they are so irredeemably corrupt they see only the bad PR as a problem and not the heinous abuses. Since trying to fix the problem doesn't even come to mind to them as something to lie about when they are in hot water!

In general I probably agree with you. But I seriously can not comprehend how that applies to the example given in the parent post.

I'll take a stab. People don't trust their government or their justice system to fairly enforce the law or to draft a law that, all legalese deconstructed, is fair in the first place.

On your example: are you sure there is nothing to debate? No possible harm? No possible unintended consequence?

One thing I've observed over and over is that there are unintended consequences to everything. It often takes years to figure them out.

Thank you for this lucid description of the authoritarian position.

Would you please not post ideological battle comments to HN? They're not what this site is for.


Viewing regulation as authoritarianism is an extremist position.

In the case of individual or small group actions that have the capability to seriously fuck things up for everyone else, what other position is rational?

Local control of communities and migration to an amenable community for your desires instead of trying to force your preferences on others with the barrel of a gun.

There is no such thing as 'local' when we are talking about CFC production.

Try again.

Why was this flagged? Men using violence to enforce a preferred policy is exactly authoritarian. A simple factual description is in no way pejorative.

"Collective action has its own problem: power structures encourage corruption and misuse of the pooled power."

Exactly. I tend to be wary of concentrating power. The larger the group the more likely that there are conflicts of interest within the group.

Perhaps more importantly, large groups just don't make sense in a lot of cases. If I make a union of milk drinkers, we can buy in huge bulk and get a discount. But then we have 1000000 bottles of milk in one place that will go bad in a couple weeks. We need to invent a distribution network, and a way to figure out who actually needs milk and when, and a way to track who is drinking the most milk so they can pay higher dues. In other words, the union hasn't accomplished anything and basically everything will be the same.

But as a criticism against the already collected power of corporations and oligarchs that wariness just means individuals stay unfocused and weak vs concentrated and powerful interests.

The broad correlation (and correlation isn't necessarily causation) is that as union power decreased, so did real wage growth.

Short version: power vacuums get filled.

It simply means groups need to adapt to the realities on the ground. Your 1,000,000 milk drinkers may be better off measuring existing players vs buying milk collectively.

Dealing with information asymmetry not distribution can result in better outcomes without expending nearly as many resources.

PS: Consumer reports is a solid example. Collecting a lot of information on each toaster/fridge/bed is not practical for an individual, but split that among 1,000,000 people and each can save more money than the cost of a subscription.

At the same time, you can also fight back against companies that would seek to cut corners with milk production.

Hear hear, the agricultural revolution has trapped us in a Faustian bargain!

"The currency of evolution is neither hunger nor pain, but rather copies of DNA helixes. Just as the economic success of a company is measured only by the number of dollars in its bank account, not by the happiness of its employees, so the evolutionary success of a species is measured by the number of copies of its DNA. If no more DNA copies remain, the species is extinct, just as a company without money is bankrupt. If a species boasts many DNA copies, it is a success, and the species flourishes. From such a perspective, 1,000 copies are always better than a hundred copies. This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions."[1]

[1] https://erenow.com/common/sapiensbriefhistory/20.html

There is something curious about posters on a techie site lauding the superiority of the hunter-gatherer life.

It may not be obvious from the context and the limited excerpt, but in the book Sapiens, the author is careful to make the point that this is not an invitation to revert to the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, in fact, we're past the point where that's a possibility. Rather we have to innovate our way out of the predicament we find ourselves in (the irony of fighting fire with fire is not lost on me). But in my mind, it makes this a perfect quote to consider on a techie site.

The people immersed in technology should also be the ones to best understand both its potential and its limitations. Anyone who has dealt with the unpredictability and pitfalls in maintaining human-created complex software systems should also easily intuit our limits in understanding or controlling other even more complex systems such as the planet's biosphere.

Technology is often the solution to technology.

What's so curious about it? I'd expect an average techie to be able to think about this topic on their own and comprehend various perspectives.

I imagine a lot of them are starting to have families. What resonates in background information provides a foundational structure, and often establishes direction in opinion.

# of copies of DNA is just a proxy for probability of propagation.

Probability of propagation is just a proxy for consuming energy gradients more efficiently.

Life can be material-constrained instead of energy-constrained (I know there's E=mc^2, but this may not be technologically feasible hence irrelevant). Environmental domination is more fundamental than energy source tapping imo (you can imagine life in systems that don't even have precise energy analogues, like conway's game of life) -- that is, dominating whatever the basic resources are (space, materials, energy, etc).

The gene is the unit of selection.

The current fashion is subgenes (domains): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258039/

No, the collection of genes is. There are exactly zero individual genes roaming around replicating in isolation.

Sexual reproduction uncorrelates the selective pressures over each gene, and each small set of them (with larger sets being possible the larger a population the species has).

The gene is the unit of selection is perfectly right. It's missing a finer point in that groups of genes are unities of selection too, but it's correct.

Not according to modern understandings of gene theory. The Selfish Gene by Dawkins is perhaps the seminal work on this topic for the popular audience.

This is a common misconception. The collection is the unit of replication, but the gene is nonetheless the unit of selection. This argument was laid out in excruciating detail by Dawkins, but the TL;DR is that reproductive fitness can only ever be measured relative to some environment, and all the other genes in a replicative unit are (part of) the environment for a gene and its alleles.

Collection, chromosome, Gene, base pair. Selection happens at all these levels.

Nope. Selection can only happen at the level of something that has an effect on the phenotype. That's the definition of a gene.

Actually, it's chemical enviromments.

How does a chemical environment replicate and mutate?

With you 100% on this one.

Your last illustration there reminds me a little of this:



His name is Johan.

He drank a bottle of milk and played with a purple ball as he waited for the immigration judge, The Associated Press reported.

John W. Richardson, the judge at the Phoenix courthouse, said he was "embarrassed to ask" if the defendant understood the proceedings. "I don't know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a 1-year-old could learn immigration law," he told Johan's attorney.

That’s isn’t a matter of smart vs dumb. That is a farcical process subverting the judiciary to abuse someone’s rights.

If the judge had integrity he would resign or be disbarred.

> That’s isn’t a matter of smart vs dumb.

It was a reference to the quote above which is saying the reason individual people loose is not because they are dumb but because they are unable to match their opponents resources.

> “Well I just don’t get why the baby didn’t defend itself from the bear."

How can individuals defend themselves when the system and corporations subvert their rights.

A complicating factor here is that when a child is separated from their parents and put into foster care a guardian ad litem can be assigned who have been known to argue that it's in the best interests of the child to remain in the US regardless of whether the parents have been returned to their country of origin.

Or just not allow such proceedings to happen.


He is asking an infant who is incapable of speech whether he understands legal rights.

That’s an insult to the concept of justice.

>That’s an insult to the concept of justice.

Agreed. Unfortunately our justice system has been turned into a legal system. Legalities are more important than justice and it's sickening.


"It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."

Just because it is supposed to be their duty does not mean that they are actually performing that duty with any regularity.

I like to remind people that it's not "you versus AT&T" it's "you versus a quarter million experts in their respective domains."

I would expect any average individual to lose against AT&T in whatever their issue is unless AT&T willingly concedes to them.

Picking on AT&T for no particular reason.

I once spent nine months in what seemed like a losing battle with AT&T for them to correctly account for two checks I wrote that they credited to my old phone number rather than my new phone number. I had to write a letter to my state's Public Service Commission before I could get the attention of AT&T's executive office and get their collections department off of my back.

This is why corporations need to remain small.

The inefficiencies are what make the system A)navigable, and B) work.

When you have humans trying to run something that no human can fully mentally represent without significant investment in external memory aids, you have a recipe for disaster, because one bad move by a large actor propagates far better than the same move by a smaller actor.

Real life analogy: Your kid trips.<-Less severe YOU TRIP.<-More severe

Hyperbolic analogy: Jack trips Giant trips

Which has worse consequences?

That's an intersting point. Perhaps things would be more level if a conflict between an individual would be settled by selecting one RANDOM employee from that company (not the super ninja expert in the narrow field at hand), and have them battle it out in a lower court / arbitration.

No, just do like you do with children who sign contracts, invalidate any obligations the child has to the adult, but the adult is still bound to any obligations they have, and punish the adult for trying to take advantage of the child.

Ideally, the ability for individuals to sign contracts with corporations should be forbidden. Maybe a single 1 person corporation that doesn't involve a lawyer either direct or as a contractor.

I don't think the world could function without contracts.

I get into a restaurant, I order some food. That's a contract where I get into the obligation of paying, and they get into the obligation of serving the food.

It's much more likely that the justice system needs a complete rework.

You would still have contracts, they would be limited to being between people of similar power, and a lot stronger protections for someone being taken advantage of.

That would work only slightly better than the top level salary cap being the lowest salary - dodged via a nesting doll of layered corporations as contractors or using actual ones. In that case they would have a top level entity with C-levels and elite lawyers which just so happens to own the rights and assume legal responsibility for the lower corporation.

In which case just save everyone the hassle and pass a law requiring proportionality to the degree of defined max lawyers per lawsuit of size defined in some workable metric so it doesn't take decades just to go through every mortgage in a AAA bank with solo lawyers on each side. It would limit the use of lawyer armies but it may lose a constitutional challenge on grounds of right to petition the government for redress.

Its worse. The baby doesn't even know that its supposed to be afraid of the bear.

It's not just technology per se. We are dumb when it comes to understanding the behavior of any complex system with lots of emergent properties and feedback loops. I doubt the Roman Empire was understandable by its leaders either.

We are also fairly dumb when it comes to understanding things like ecosystems, genetic regulatory networks, the climate, the brain, etc. Those are all systems that have similar properties.

I think lots of people have been aware for a long time that there's a big gap between the individual understanding of what we can perceive machines (and institutions, philosophies based on their mechanical functioning) can do, versus what they do do.

It's just when you are caught up in it, you can't afford to think about it. You have to both be a part of it and not allow the responsibility of knowing you influence the system - therefore don't have the capacity to reason about the consequences of every single action - crush you.

It's more like you are the bear and you are trying to take care of a baby. There's the idea that you are just this tiny, little singular organism in comparison to the whole, but you aren't. Everything we do has consequences, everything we do directs systems. If you think some things you do just don't matter, you are missing some perspective.

> We’re dumb in comparison to the systems we’ve created.

I prefer not to think like that. I'd say we're doing our best to navigate hard problems, and it's not yet clear how to do things more effectively. Worst case scenario we're acting dumb, and I'd argue that is kind of a useless statement. We're acting, and we can do better, so put some time into working on doing better.

"One thing that always bothers me is how we have this myth of personal responsibility that supposes an individual is equipped to defend their own interests against a multinational corporation on their own."

1. Our wiring isn't perfect, but who is better equipped to defend a person's interests than the individual themself? Serious question.

2. I don't think the "power" and coerciveness of multinational corporations is anywhere near that of government, which people bashing corporations usually want to make larger and more powerful. As Diedre McCloskey says, what happens if you are morally opposed to some new fighter jet or corporate subsidy, and unilaterally decide to pay fewer taxes because of it? The answer is you go jail. What happens if you choose Samsung or an Iphone? Nothing.

3. It's not like there is just one monolithic corporation. There are many, and they have various interests, capabilities and incentives. Usually they're competing with each other. Further, in time, many corporations correctly view these irrationalities as market opportunities and actively work on helping consumers combat them. E.g. see Acorns, Wealthfront, or hundreds of apps that help people use their phones less.

No one has the time, energy, or capacity to become expert in all domains within a complex civilization that could materially affect them. You are confusing "better equipped" with "having the most substantial interest". A person has the most substantial interest in their own safety and benefit, but that in no way implies that they will be the best equipped to attain that in all cases, or even understand how to. By all means, that person should seek out such knowledge, but it will never be as comprehensive as the accumulated wisdom of experts, or even compete with a motivated group of non-experts. You can advocate for personal agency and also still realize that a person standing alone is likely to get screwed over.

>>Our hardware isn't perfect, but who is better equipped to defend your own interests than the individual?

Organizations who have similar levels of resources and expertise as those who are infringing upon the individual’s interests, obviously. Otherwise it ends up being a David vs Goliath situation.

"1. Our wiring isn't perfect, but who is better equipped to defend a person's interests than the individual themself? Serious question."

Someone who actually knows something about the topic in question? It is highly in the interests of any person to have both a plentiful and safe food supply, and safe, breathable air and safe, drinkable water. Pesticides constantly straddle this line; how much pollution is acceptable for food production, but still leaving the air and water safe? Do you honestly expect any random person to be able to make the correct choice in that situation? No. That's why we have experts in that field which study the effects of these chemicals, and the impact they have on the environment, and come to the conclusion of what's safe or not.

Another similar issue: One's actions do not exist in a vacuum. There's a recent story of some farmers spraying a certain herbicide to protect their crops from pigweed. However, not every farmer in the area is using it, or the herbicide resistant crops. The thing about spraying is that it goes in the air, and tends not to recognize property lines. The herbicide kills the crops on the neighboring farms. So while the original farmer who sprayed acted in their individual interest, they most definitely did not act in the interest of society in general, and clearly not in the interest of their neighbors.

"I don't think the "power" and coerciveness of multinational corporations is anywhere near that of government, which people bashing corporations usually want to make larger and more powerful."

No, we just want government to actually act in people's interests.

"As Diedre McCloskey says, what happens if you are morally opposed to some new fighter jet or corporate subsidy, and unilaterally decide to pay fewer taxes because of it? The answer is you go jail."

Yes, you broke the law, and so you must face the consequences. And unless you're Al Capone, you're not going to jail. Please stop parroting this ridiculous argument.

"What happens if you choose Samsung or an Iphone? "

What happens if you stop paying the balance on your Samsung phone because you switched?

"Further, in time, many corporations correctly view these irrationalities as market opportunities and actively work on helping consumers combat them."

I have huge doubts that many of them do this, and I have huge doubts that they are effective in this.

Corporations and governments are both capable of screwing you over in different ways and often overlap. Corporations made the arms that shot the students of Kent State University and the government failed to protect people poisoned by pollution of Superfund sites. Hold them both accountable or they will be used by nefarious entities in the other as enablers for a workaround.

That said persistently refusing like many conscientious objectors will land you in jail though. It isn't a ridiculous argument but the literal truth. It also isn't a very effective tactic of protest but more a matter of fanaticism of principle.

Execs of MNCs can be "nudged" too to do the right thing. That finding is one of reasons Thaler deserves his Nobel. Read his book.


Multinational corporations

Placing refugee children as young as one in front of immigration courts, in seriousness, speaks volumes to this.

Are you sure that is the disparity between what our technology is capable of and our own limitations as animals and not our perception of it?

My grandparents lived most of their life under the menace of a nuclear holocaust, but when they were born the electric power system was still in infancy and they had no electricity whatsoever in their house.

Going back centuries, the Ishtar Gate was built so that people arriving to Babilonia would be scared

I think that we are more scared by what we don't know that by what we can't manage

The world IS hard, but we're also very dumb

We know smoking gives cancer, but we still smoke anyway.

We know cars pollute the environment, but we ride them anyway.

etc. etc. etc.

Yet people have done and are doing it on a daily basis.

Do they now? Or are they just successful in areas where the corporation does not care, or even notice?

To paraphrase Eliezer's famous quote about AI - the Corporation does not hate you, nor does it love you; you're just a potential revenue source, and as long as it believes you'll net it something, it'll let you have your way.

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