Norms of Membership for Voluntary Groups

Epistemic Status: Idea Generation

One feature of the internet that we haven’t fully adapted to yet is that it’s trivial to create voluntary groups for discussion.  It’s as easy as making a mailing list, group chat, Facebook group, Discord server, Slack channel, etc.

What we don’t seem to have is a good practical language for talking about norms on these mini-groups — what kind of moderation do we use, how do we admit and expel members, what kinds of governance structures do we create.

Maybe this is a minor thing to talk about, but I suspect it has broader impact. In past decades voluntary membership in organizations has declined in the US — we’re less likely to be members of the Elks or of churches or bowling leagues — so lots of people who don’t have any experience in founding or participating in traditional types of voluntary organizations are now finding themselves engaged in governance without even knowing that’s what they’re doing.

When we do this badly, we get “internet drama.”  When we do it really badly, we get harassment campaigns and calls for regulation/moderation at the corporate or even governmental level.  And that makes the news.  It’s not inconceivable that Twitter moderation norms affect international relations, for instance.

It’s a traditional observation about 19th century America that Americans were eager joiners of voluntary groups, and that these groups were practice for democratic participation.  Political wonks today lament the lack of civic participation and loss of trust in our national and democratic institutions. Now, maybe you’ve moved on; maybe you’re a creature of the 21st century and you’re not hoping to restore trust in the institutions of the 20th. But what will be the institutions of the future?  That may well be affected by what formats and frames for group membership people are used to at the small scale.

It’s also relevant for the future of freedom.  It’s starting to be a common claim that “give people absolute ‘free speech’ and the results are awful; therefore we need regulation/governance at the corporate or national level.”  If you’re not satisfied with that solution (as I’m not), you have work to do — there are a lot of questions to unpack like “what kind of ‘freedom’, with what implementational details, is the valuable kind?”, “if small-scale voluntary organizations can handle some of the functions of the state, how exactly will they work?”, “how does one prevent the outcomes that people consider so awful that they want large institutions to step in to govern smaller groups?”

Thinking about, and working on, governance for voluntary organizations (and micro-organizations like online discussion groups) is a laboratory for figuring this stuff out in real time, with fairly low resource investment and risk. That’s why I find this stuff fascinating and wish more people did.

The other place to start, of course, is history, which I’m not very knowledgeable about, but intend to learn a bit.  David Friedman is the historian I’m familiar with who’s studied historical governance and legal systems with an eye to potential applicability to building voluntary governance systems today; I’m interested in hearing about others. (Commenters?)

In the meantime, I want to start generating a (non-exhaustive list) of types of norms for group membership, to illustrate the diversity of how groups work and what forms “expectations for members” can take.

We found organizations based on formats and norms that we’ve seen before.  It’s useful to have an idea of the range of formats that we might encounter, so we don’t get anchored on the first format that comes to mind.  It’s also good to have a vocabulary so we can have higher-quality disagreements about the purpose & nature of the groups we belong to; often disagreements seem to be about policy details but are really about the overall type of what we want the group to be.

Civic/Public Norms

  • Roughly everybody is welcome to join, and free to do as they like in the space, so long as they obey a fairly minimalist set of ground rules & behavioral expectations that apply to everyone.
  • We expect it to be easy for most people to follow the ground rules; you have to be deviant (really unusually antisocial) to do something egregious enough to get you kicked out or penalized.
  • If you dislike someone’s behavior but it isn’t against the ground rules, you can grumble a bit about it, but you’re expected to tolerate it. You’ll have to admit things like “well, he has a right to do that.”
  • Penalties are expected to be predictable, enforced the same way towards all people, and “impartial” (not based on personal relationships). If penalties are enforced unfairly, you’re not expected to tolerate it — you can question why you’re being penalized, and kick up a public stink, and it’s even praiseworthy to do so.
  • Examples: “rule of law”, public parks and libraries, stores and coffeeshops open to the public, town hall meetings

Guest Norms

  • The host can invite, or not invite, anyone she chooses, based on her preference.  She doesn’t have to justify her preferences to anyone.  Nobody is entitled to an invitation, and it’s very rude to complain about not being invited.
  • Guests can also choose to attend or not attend, based on their preferences, and they don’t have to justify their preferences to anyone either; it’s rude to complain or ask for justification when someone declines an invitation.
  • Personal relationships and subjective feelings, in particular, are totally legitimate reasons to include or exclude someone.
  • The atmosphere within the group is expected to be pleasant for everyone.  If you don’t want to be asked to leave, you shouldn’t do things that will predictably bother people.
  • Hosts are expected to be kind and generous to guests; guests are expected to be kind and generous to the host and each other; the host is responsible for enforcing boundaries.
  • Criticizing other people at the gathering itself is taboo. You’re expected to do your critical/judgmental pruning outside the gathering, by deciding whom you will invite or whether you’ll attend.
  • We don’t expect that everyone will be invited to be a guest at every gathering, or that everyone will attend everything they’re invited to. It can be prestigious to be invited to some gatherings, and embarrassing to be asked to leave or passed over when you expected an invitation, but it’s normal to just not be invited to some things.
  • Examples: private parties, invitation-only events, consent ethics for sex

Kaizen Norms

  • Members of the group are expected to be committed to an ideal of some kind of excellence and to continually strive to reach it.
  • Feedback or critique on people’s performance is continuous, normal, and not considered inherently rude. It’s considered praiseworthy to give high-quality feedback and to accept feedback willingly.
  • Kaizen groups may have very specific norms about the style or format of critique/feedback that’s welcome, and it may well be considered rude to give feedback in the wrong style.
  • Receiving some negative feedback or penalties is normal and not considered a sign of failure or shame.  What is shameful is responding defensively to negative feedback.
  • You can lose membership in the group by getting too much negative feedback (in other words, failing to live up to the minimum standards of the group’s ideal.)  It’s not expected to be easy for most people to meet these standards; they’re challenging by design.  The group isn’t expected to be “for everyone.”
  • The feedback and incentive processes are supposed to correlate tightly to the ideal. It’s acceptable and even praiseworthy to criticize those processes if they reward and punish people for things unrelated to the ideal.
  • Conflict about things unrelated to the ideal isn’t taboo, but it’s somewhat discouraged as “off-topic” or a “distraction.”
  • Examples: competitive/meritocratic school and work environments, sports teams, specialized religious communities (e.g. monasteries, rabbinical schools)

Coalition Norms

  • The degree to which one is “welcome” in the coalition is the degree to which one is loyal, i.e. contributes resources to the coalition.  (Either by committing one’s own resources or by driving others to contribute their resources.   The latter tends to be more efficient, and hence makes you more “welcome.”)
  • Membership is a matter of degree, not a hard-and-fast boundary.  The more solidly loyal a member you are, the more of the coalition’s resources you’re entitled to.  (Yes, this means membership is defined recursively, like PageRank.)
  • People can be penalized or expelled for not contributing enough, or for doing things that have the effect of preventing the coalition gaining resources (like making it harder to recruit new members.)
  • Conflict, complaint, and criticism over the growth of the coalition (and whether people are contributing enough, or whether they’re taking more than their fair share) is acceptable and even praiseworthy; criticisms about other things are discouraged, because they make people less willing to contribute resources or pressure others to do so.
  • Membership in the coalition is considered praiseworthy.  Non-membership is considered shameful.
  • Examples: political coalitions, proselytizing religions

Tribal Norms

  • Membership in the group is defined by an immutable, unchosen characteristic, like sex or heredity (or, to a lesser extent, geographic location.)  It is difficult to join, leave, or be expelled from the group; you are a member as a matter of fact, regardless of what you want or how you behave.
  • It’s not considered shameful not to be a member of the group; after all, it isn’t up to you.
  • Since expulsion is difficult, behavioral norms for the group are maintained primarily by persuasion/framing, reward, and punishment, so these play a larger role than they do in voluntary groups.  Important norms are framed as commandments or simply how things are.
  • Examples: families, public schools, governments, traditional cultures

Some comparisons-and-contrasts:

Honor and Shame

Kaizen and Guest group norms say that being a member of the group is an honor and comes with high expectations, but that not being a member is normal and not especially shameful.

Civic norms say that being a member of the group is normal and easy to attain, but not being a member is shameful, because it indicates egregiously bad behavior.

Coalition norms say that being a member is an honor and comes with high expectations and that not being a member is shameful.  This means that most people will have something to be ashamed of.

Tribal norms say that being a member is not an honor (though it may be a privilege), and that not being a member is no shame.

Protest

Civic and Kaizen norms say that it’s okay to protest “unfair” treatment by the governing body.  In a Civic context, “fair” means “it’s possible for everyone to stay out of trouble by following the rules” — it’s okay for rules to be arbitrary, but they should be clear and consistent and not so onerous that most people can’t follow them.  In a Kaizen context, “fair” means “corresponding to the ideal” — it’s okay to “not do things by the book”  if that gets you better performance, but it’s not okay if you’re rewarding bad performance and punishing good.

Guest and Coalition norms say that it’s not okay to protest “unfair” treatment; if you get kicked out, arguing can’t help you get back in.  Offering the decisionmakers something they value might work, though.

In Tribal norms, protest and argument can be either licit or taboo; it depends on the specific tribe and its norms.

Examples of debates that are about what type of group you want to be in:

Asking for “inclusiveness” is usually a bid to make the group more Civic or Coalitional.

Making accusations of “favoritism” is usually a bid to make the group more Civic or Kaizen.

Complaining about “problem members” is usually a bid to make the group more Coalitional, Guest, or Kaizen.

Not A Taxonomy

I don’t think these are the definitive types of groups. The idea is to illustrate how you can have different starting assumptions about what kind of thing the group is for. (Is it for achieving a noble goal? For providing a public forum or service open to all? For meeting the needs of its members?)

I suspect these kinds of aims are prior to mechanisms (things like “what is a bannable offense” or “what incentive systems do we set up”?)  Before diving into the technical stuff about the rules of the game, you want to ask what kinds of outcomes or group dynamics you want the “game structure” to achieve.

 

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Playing Politics

Epistemic Status: Guesses Based on Personal Experience

Lately I’ve been going through a family of learning experiences in the world of how to get things done cooperatively.  It’s hard for me.  Even very basic things in this area have been stumping me, overwhelming me, leaving me way more tired and drained than I’d expect. My productivity has gone to hell and — worse — I didn’t even notice for a while.  This is hard stuff, and rarely written about by the people for whom it’s hard, so my hope is that processing in public helps someone. I generally think that data-sharing is good and helpful.

Collective Deliberation Isn’t Working For Me

At a conference, I was in a room full of people having a really good discussion. I wanted to get people together to have a follow-up discussion later — nothing elaborate, just a room with whiteboards and snacks and maybe moving towards some action items.

What I did:

  • Passed around a sheet for emails to sign up
  • Sent out an email proposing the parameters of the event
  • Waited for people to propose dates that worked for them.

Radio silence.

Somebody else suggested a poll where people could put down their preferred times and dates.  Out of thirteen people, five signed up.  Nobody volunteered “ok, we’re doing it on this date then,” so I did.  I reserved a conference room at my office and bought a bunch of snacks.

The front door was locked on the weekend and my key card didn’t work even though it was supposed to, so I had to switch locations at the last minute. It wouldn’t have mattered anyhow, because one person showed up on time, and one other person several hours late.

Conclusion: it is harder than I thought to get ten people to show up in a room and talk to each other.

And I probably shouldn’t have expected an event to coalesce naturally from the mailing list.  I have a strong “egalitarian” instinct that if I’m trying to do something with a group and in some sense for the benefit of everyone in the group, then I shouldn’t be too “bossy” in terms of unilaterally declaring what we’re all going to do.  But if I leave it up to the group to discuss, it seems like they generally…don’t.

I’m also on a policy committee for a community organization, and it’s been a whole lot of heartache because I want to change some things about our policies and internal processes, and the process of trying to communicate that has resulted in a lot of hurt feelings, mine and other people’s.

The first thing I did was write up a document explaining why I thought the existing policies were harmful, and share it with the mailing list.  This resulted in DRAMA because people heard it as a personal accusation.  (I never meant to imply that my fellow committee members were bad people, but I felt strongly about the policy changes and my writing tone may have come out angrier than I intended.)

In retrospect, I should never have led with complaints — I should have started by proposing solutions.  My intention had been to raise the issues I cared about while minimizing bossiness — this is an organization for the benefit of a larger community, and I’m only one member of a committee, so I thought it would leave more degrees of freedom open to the group to say “here’s why the existing policies have problems, what do you think we should do?” rather than “here’s how I’d suggest improving the existing policies.”  I thought this was the considerate way to communicate.  But from the committee’s perspective, it must have sounded like “You’re doing it wrong. Here’s a bunch more work you have to do to fix it. You’re welcome!”  They were actually much more receptive once I wrote up a revised set of policies that I’d be happier with.  Once again, being “unbossy” and hoping that collaborative discussion would resolve the issue was a total failure, because people had less bandwidth to engage in discussion than I’d anticipated.

Private Discussions Are A Flawed Solution

I’ve noticed that in a lot of deliberative bodies or organizations, the real decision-making doesn’t happen in groups.  (Meanwhile Madison is grappling with the fact that/ Not every issue can be settled in committee.)  The people who have “real power” meet in private and hash things out off the record.  Nobody really shares their full thoughts on the internet or on an email list.  It’s not necessarily “secrecy”, but it’s secrecy-adjacent.

I know this is how things are frequently done, but it bothers me.  When an issue is officially the jurisdiction of a committee, everyone on the committee is equally entitled to be part of the discussion, and entitled to know what’s going on; having secret side conversations creates a hierarchy between those “in the know” and those who aren’t.  (No-one else was in the room where it happened/ the room where it happened/ the room where it happened.)  Still more, when your project is supposed to be for the sake of, and with the participation of, a broader community, it seems like fairness demands being transparent with that community.

Maybe this is just the geek-kid issue, or what people today tend to call the geek social fallacies.  I’m deeply uncomfortable when I see what looks like an elite subgroup, a group of “cool kids” or “VIPs” or whatever, talking behind closed doors because hoi polloi just wouldn’t understand. I mean, yes, sometimes people wouldn’t understand!  I get it. There do exist people who will be offended by my honest opinion (god knows), or who literally aren’t bright enough or knowledgeable enough to contribute to a discussion.  I understand why it’s easier to talk in private with people who are already more-or-less on the same page.  But still…there’s a pattern that gives me the willies. It’s “elites get to know what’s going on, randos are kept out of the loop,” and even when somebody says that I qualify as an elite, not a rando, it still bothers me, because I’m much more comfortable having rights than being favored.

This is part of what gives me a bad feeling about the discourse around “demon threads” (that is: big, addictive, internet debates) and in praise of “taking things private“, where tensions will be easier to defuse.  There are real costs to acrimonious debate, in time and emotional energy, and I appreciate that people are trying to find ways to reduce those costs.  But I feel nervous about anything that looks like it’s trying to sweep real conflicts under the rug.  It’s like “don’t fight in front of the children” — except that in this case the members of the public are being placed in the role of “the children,” whether or not we want to be.

I occasionally find myself in situations where I feel I’m being asked to take a sort of Straussian stance — if you want to get important things done, you can’t be totally transparent about what you’re doing, because the general public will stop you.  I’m not sure these people are wrong.  But I really hope they are.  I have a bad feeling about maintaining information asymmetries as a general policy.  I have a dangerous temperamental temptation towards concealment — it’s just “minor” stuff like trying to hide my failures, but in the long run, that’s neither ethical nor practical — so I’ve developed a counter-tendency towards transparency, as a sort of partial safeguard.  If I tell people what I’m up to, early and often, I can’t slip down the road of dishonesty.

Therapeutic Language: Another Flawed Solution

Peace is good, all things being equal. Fighting hurts.  And many fights are unnecessary, borne of misunderstanding more than actual disagreement. I’ve seen this a lot firsthand.  It’s much more likely that someone literally doesn’t comprehend your idea than that they oppose it.

And one of the most common types of misunderstanding is when people falsely assume you are damning them as a person.  This is something I learned from Malcolm Ocean, who gave me the first really clear explanation I ever got as to what people are doing when they use NVC or Circling language or other types of very careful and mannered speech to avoid the perception of blame or judgment.  Surely, I asked him, sometimes you do need to judge?  To distinguish between good and bad behavior?  To enforce norms?

After a while, we came up with this analogy:

There’s a difference between saying “You’re fired” and “You’re fired, and also fuck you.”

In the course of life, one absolutely does have to say things like “you’re fired.”  Or “you can’t behave like that in this space”, “this work does not merit publication”, or “I don’t want to go on a date with you.”  In other words, drawing boundaries is necessary for life.  But drawing boundaries doesn’t always have to involve damning someone, as though sending them to Hell, utterly condemning their essential being.  (What Madeleine l’Engle would call X-ing.)  One can fire a person from a job, or reject their manuscript, or turn them down romantically, without saying it is bad that you exist and you should hate yourself.  One can even, I believe, convict someone of a crime, or kill them in self-defense, without damning them, while wishing that they had not done the thing that forced you to draw an extremely severe boundary.

Boundaries are necessary; self-defense is necessary; damning people might not be necessary, and I’m inclined to believe it isn’t.

And yet, people do damn each other, very frequently; and even more frequently, as a result of these bad experiences, they assume they’re being damned when they’re merely being criticized.  “You did a thing with negative consequences” gets read as “your essence is stained, you are a Terrible Person, it’s time to hate yourself.”  So, as an imperfect attempt to forestall these misunderstandings, people have developed these extremely artificial locutions that, yes, make you sound like a therapist, and, yes, aren’t as natural as just speaking in plain language.  But the hope is that they create enough distance to allow people to avoid immediately jumping to the conclusion that you’re accusing them of being Generally Terrible and Worthy of Eternal Hellfire.

Of course, the human mind being devious and wily at figuring out how to make us miserable, it’s possible to be easily set off by therapeutic language itself!  It turns out I have such a sensitivity.  “You’re insinuating that I’m having bad feelings — this means you’re saying that I’m Weak and Can’t Hack It and need Special Treatment — which means you’re calling me Generally Terrible!  Screw you!”   (This isn’t completely irrational; it is the appropriate norm for situations like work or school, where hiding physical and mental pain is expected and where people are penalized for failing to do so.)

Now, of course, I do have bad feelings sometimes, being a human.  And, a lot of the time, the person using therapeutic language is trying to deal productively with that fact of the matter, rather than condemning me for it — they’ve moved on to Step 2, What Do We Do Now, while I’m still on Step 1, Is Sarah Terrible Y/N?

But you really can’t have good conversations while anyone’s still on Step 1.  If you haven’t yet resolved “Do You Think I’m Terrible?” with a resounding “No,” then every other conversation that’s nominally about some topic will actually be about the vital issue of Do You Think I’m Terrible?

And, because the human mind is devious, Step 1 doesn’t stay resolved; you have to keep reaffirming it, because people will forget.  You have to put what seems like a colossal amount of unsubtle effort into saying “I like you and I think you’re good” in order to keep discussions from becoming about “I’m good and not terrible! See, I’ll prove it!”

I have not mastered this art, or even close, but I basically agree with the need for it.

I have totally observed people being blunt and irreverent without hurting others’ feelings and while getting very productive discussions done — but I think what’s going on is not that these people don’t validate each other, but that they validate each other very well through different means than therapeutic language.  Some people can get away with speaking styles that are very “offensive” by conventional standards, but that’s because they also show deep affection and regard for the people they’re talking to.

I think there are people who are more robust than others at independently maintaining a sense that they’re Okay and Good and Liked and Valid (and that’s great!) but I don’t think this in any way disproves the need for validation, any more than the existence of plants proves that organisms don’t need chemical energy.

Nobody (Exactly) Agrees With You

I’ve been struggling a bunch with the fact that people seem to disagree fractally and at every turn.  It’s really, really hard to get exact alignment on worldviews and desires, to the point that I’m beginning to doubt it’s possible.  I see someone who seems to see part of the world the same way I do, and I go “can we talk? can we be buds? can we be twinsies? are we on the same team?” and then I realize “oh, no, outside of this tiny little area, they…really don’t agree with me at all.  Dammit.”

It would be nice to have someone to talk to who was basically the same person as you, right?  Someone you could just melt into,  the way all of humanity melted into a single sea of neon-orange thought-fluid in that anime.

But, in my experience, that just keeps not happening.  Friendship and mutual respect, sure, I’m very fortunate to have lots of that; but merging doesn’t happen.  There’s always me, or the other person, saying “no, not exactly” instead of “yes, and”.

Is it just that I’m unusual?  Surely people who build movements get people to agree with each other?

The thing is, I’m starting to suspect they don’t.  I recently went to TEDWomen, and saw a bunch of talks about activism and organizing, including by such luminaries as Dolores Huerta and Marian Wright Edelman.  And here are some takeaways I got from them:

  • Activists view the main goal as fighting apathy, that is, getting people to participate, literally activating people.  Getting people to show up to vote or show up to a protest or to raise issues in conversations.
  • Everybody in a coalition supports everybody else. It’s very “all for one and one for all.” They explicitly talk about how you shouldn’t allow anyone to frame things as “the environment” vs “women’s issues” vs “labor issues” vs “immigration” — everyone’s encouraged to push for everyone’s agenda together, for every sub-group in the progressive coalition.
  • Activists endorse being moved more by individual stories and art and emotional appeals than by facts and figures.  They don’t just talk about how “emotional appeals work better on the public” but they talk about how emotional appeals and personal connections work on themselves.

If you think of everybody’s beliefs as a forest of trees, where consequences branch out from premises, then “trying to get agreement” is building trees as big as they can get and trying to hash out what’s going on when two people’s trees differ. What seems to be going on in an activist frame is not building out the trees very big at all, only getting agreement on rather basic things like “children shouldn’t live in poverty” and trying to move straight to voting and fundraising and other object-level actions, without really hashing out in much detail “ok, what ways of avoiding child poverty are effective and/or morally acceptable?”  They recognize that getting people to participate at all is difficult (in my shoes, they would have invested a lot more effort in getting people to show up to the event), and they don’t seem to even try to get people to agree in a deep sense, to agree on world-models and general principles and moral foundations.

Just because everyone is shouting the same slogan doesn’t mean they really agree with each other.  They agree on the slogan.  It might mean different things to different people.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth being aware that it isn’t true unity.

The Greek for “with one accord” is ὁμοθυμαδόν, which appears frequently in the New Testament; it means literally “same passion” or “same spirit”, the seat of courage and emotion that lives in the heart.  “Unanimity” is an exact translation into Latin — “one spirit.”  You can have large groups of people who feel the same, who are filled with the same passion.  It is much harder for all those people to have the same belief structure, to stay on the same page on the nitty-gritty details.  Just getting groups of people to “weak unanimity,” namely, active participation, good will, and agreement on ideal goals, is a challenging full-time job by itself — and it doesn’t even touch getting worldview alignment.

The Cost of Complaint

One weird and maybe trivial thing that’s been nagging at me is trying to get a handle on the underlying worldview expressed by the Incredibles movies.  Yeah, it’s pop culture, but there’s clearly an attempt to communicate a moral, and it’s a weird one.

Sure, there’s the inspiring, defiant pro-superhero note of “people shouldn’t be pressured to hide their excellence”, which often gets labeled Randian (but could just as easily be Nietzchean or Harrison Bergeron-esque).

But it gets weird when you look at the villains.  The villains of both movies are genius technologists.  Syndrome, the villain of the first movie, is a bitter, pimpled male nerd, resentful of superheroes’ elevated status, who wants to provide technology to give everyone superpowers.  Evelyn Deavor, the villain of the second movie, is a bitter, urbane, worldly feminist, a technologist who dislikes the way technology has “dumbed down” its users, resentful of the public’s passive reliance on screens and superheroes.  For plot reasons, of course, both supervillains pull dangerous stunts that put the public at risk, and need to be stopped by the superheroes.  But their motivations are actually empowering humanity, weirdly enough.  Syndrome is, effectively, a transhumanist, while Evelyn is an “ethical techie” type reminiscent of the people at the Center for Humane Technology.  Their obsession is using their talents and hard work to make all people more self-reliant and capable of greater things — a mission that would actually sit well with Rand or Nietzsche, and, outside the world of the films, could easily work as a heroic cause.

What’s wrong with the villains, in the world of The Incredibles, is that they’re grouchy.  They’re social critics. They complain.

Notice that, before we know she’s a villain, Evelyn tries to get Mrs. Incredible to commiserate about sexism; the heroine doesn’t take the bait.  Before his villainous reveal, Syndrome is a whiny kid who wants to be Mr. Incredible’s sidekick and complains about not getting to tag along.  And the initial controversy that drove superheroes underground was a suicidal man who sued Mr. Incredible for saving his life.  The common thread among the antagonists is unhappiness.  (And the misfit, gender-ambiguous, Tumblresque minor superheroes in Incredibles 2 are depicted as not exactly antagonists but vulnerable to being coopted by the villainous Evelyn because of their unhappiness.)

Also, notice that Brad Bird is taking a very firm stance in favor of optimism and against gloom, in the Incredibles movies and others; his movies overtly defend his creative choice to keep things positive and brightly colored in a world where critical acclaim usually comes in shades of gray. (The antagonist in Ratatouille, not accidentally, is a restaurant critic.)  I think it’s really that simple: Brad Bird likes unity and positivity, and doesn’t like complaining.  Critics like the New Yorker’s Richard Brody are right to see a threat in the Incredibles movies — their real enemy is criticism.

(If you look at Brad Bird’s actual words, he isn’t any kind of a libertarian or Randian, and says so; he’s a centrist, he’s big on finding common ground, staying positive, focusing on unity, and so on.)

It’s almost impossible to talk about the world intelligently while refraining from any complaint.  Try finding a blog to read that never criticizes society, from any direction.  Where you find interesting and articulate people, you’ll find people who express dissatisfaction with things as they are.  There’s no principled way to say “hey I think everyone’s pretty much right,” because people don’t remotely agree with each other if you ask about any details at all.

And yet, people (like Bird, but also like me, and like many) get heartsick when we’re exposed to too much complaint or disagreement.  Moods are contagious, and criticism is very often depressing, for all we try to tell ourselves that it’s merely an intellectual awareness.  Sometimes I feel like “for god’s sake, World, for once could you give me a social context where literally nobody expresses dislike or disapproval about anything?  Could we have a Happy Zone please?”

But I’m genuinely not sure if that’s possible.  It may be a feature of language or logic itself that it’s hard to talk at all if you restrict yourself firmly to avoiding critical speech.  I certainly would have a hard time sticking strictly to Happy Zone rules.

I don’t have solutions here.  I’m just trying to figure things out.  It ought to be possible, I think, to deliberate and collaborate with people, allowing “the group” to decide, rather than just deciding what want individually and letting people collaborate with me to the extent that it sounds good to them.  I know how to be an individualist; I’m trying to learn how to also do the collective thing, “voice” rather than “exit”.  But I’m just stumped by the fact that people want different things, and think different things, and actual, far-reaching unity doesn’t seem to exist.

Things I Learned From Working With A Marketing Advisor

Epistemic Status: Opinions stated without justification

I’ve been getting a bunch of advice and help at LRI from a marketing/strategy expert, and it’s been an education. She’s been great to work with — she kicks my ass, in a good way.  Basically, she takes my writing, rips it apart, and helps me put it back together again, optimized to make the organization look better.  Every kind of writing, from professional emails to website copy to grant proposals, gets a makeover.  I’m thinking of the experience as something of an introduction to the conventions of business/promotional communication, which are very different from the kinds of writing norms I’m used to.

Here are some of the general patterns I’ve been learning about, stated in my own words (and maybe mangled a little in translation).

Discretization

“People hate reading,” she tells me.

Seriously? You’re going to rip up my nice, fluent, carefully-written essay explaining my rationale and replace it with a table?

Yes. Yes we are.

She’s not wrong, though. I’ve had the experience of meeting with executives after sending them a two-page document, worrying that I should have written something more comprehensive, and finding they didn’t even read the two-pager.  I learn best through text, but clearly not everyone does. So promotional content needs to make allowances for the skimmers, the glancers, the reading-avoidant.

Hence: tables. Headers. Bolding key phrases.  Bullet points. Pictures and graphs. Logos. And, of course, slide decks.

Layout matters. If you cross your eyes until the page turns blurry and don’t read anything, how does it look? Is it a wall of text? If so, you need to break it up.

The principle of discretization is things should be broken up into separate, distinctive, consistently labeled parts.

What things? Everything.

Your website has parts. Your five-year plan has parts. Your value proposition has parts.

LRI doesn’t have a “product”, but in companies that sell a product, your product has parts called “features.”  Even when the “product” is sort of an abstract, general thing like “we produce written reports”, in order to make them legible as products, you have to have a list of distinct parts that each report contains.

Once you have parts, you need to get obsessive about matching and parallelism. Each part needs to have one, and only one, name, and you have to use the same name everywhere.  If your organization has Five Core Values, you don’t use near-synonyms to talk about them — you wouldn’t interchangeably talk about “single focus” or “narrow mission”, you’d pick one phrase, and use that phrase everywhere. Matchy-matchy.

You match your website navigation links to your page headers. You match your website to your grant proposals, your slide decks, your email phrasing, everything.  You put your logo on every-fucking-thing. It feels repetitious to you, but it just looks appropriately consistent to an outside observer.

When I was a child, I was into American Girl dolls. My favorite thing was the parallelism. Each doll had five books, with matching titles and themes — “Changes for Felicity”, “Changes for Samantha”, etc.  Each book came with its own outfit and accessories. The accessories were even parallel-but-unique  — each doll had her own historically-accurate school lunch, her own toys, and so on. Even more than I liked actually playing with my doll, I liked reading through the catalog and noticing all the parallels.  Ok, maybe I was a weird kid.

Anyhow, marketing is full of that stuff. Separating things into parallel-but-unique, hyper-matchy parts.  Same principle as tables of correspondences.

I suspect that what you’re doing is reifying your ideas into “existence.”  (In something like Heidegger’s sense).  You translate a general sort of concept (“I think we should test drugs to see which ones make animals live longer”) into something with a bunch of proper nouns and internal structure, and I think the result is the overall impression that now your organization exists, as a…thing, or a place, or a personage.  Like, the difference between an idea (e.g. the general concept of lifespan studies) and an agent (LRI).  It activates the “animist” part of your brain, the same part that believes that Facebook is a place or Russia is an agent, the part that feels differently about proper nouns from improper nouns.

(Proper nouns, btw, are another big thing in themselves, because of social proof. Just naming people or institutions in connection with your work — whether they be advisors or partners or employees or customers or collaborators or whatever — is legitimizing.  And proper nouns are, themselves, “discrete parts.” )

All this discretization imparts a sense of legitimacy. After discretizing my writing, it feels much more like “LRI exists as a thing” rather than “Sarah is proposing an idea” or “Sarah is doing some projects.”  Yeah, that’s a spooky and subjective distinction, but I think it’s probably a very basic marketing phenomenon that permeates the world around us. (Maybe it has a name I don’t know.)  I feel slightly weird about it, but it’s a thing.

Confidence + Pleasantries = Business Etiquette

One thing that came as a big surprise to me is how confident language you can get away with in a professional, non-academic context.

For example, not phrasing requests as questions.  “I look forward to hearing back.”  My instinct would be to worry that this was overly forward or rude; you’re essentially assuming the ask; but people don’t seem to mind.

Or removing all uncertain language. All the may’s, mights, and coulds.  How can you do that without making overstated or misleading claims? Well, it’s tricky, but you can generally finagle it with clever rephrasing.

I’m used to assuming that the way you show respect is through reticence and reluctance to ask for too much.  Especially when communicating with someone higher status than you.  To my surprise, really assertive wording seems to get better results with business types than my previous, more “humble” email style (which works great for professors.)

So, how do you keep from sounding like a jerk when you’re essentially bragging and making big requests?  A lot of pleasantries. A lot of framing phrases (“as we talked about in our last conversation”, “circling back”, “moving forward”, etc).  Wishing them a good weekend/holiday/etc, hoping they’re doing well, etc.

I’d previously noticed in office contexts how vital it is to just keep your mouth making words smoothly even when there’s not a lot of information density to what you’re saying.

Business “jargon” and “buzzwords” are unfairly maligned by people who aren’t used to corporate culture. First of all, a lot of them originally referred to specific important concepts, and then got overused as generic applause lights — e.g. “disruptive innovation” is actually a really useful idea in its original meaning.  But, second of all, it’s honestly just handy to have stock phrases if you need to keep talking fluently without awkward pauses.  People respond really well to fluency.  Palantir’s first exercise for all new employees is to give a software demo, which taught me that it is really hard to speak in public for five minutes without pausing to think of what to say next.  Stock phrases help you reach for something to say without appearing hesitant or afraid.

I was trained on writing style guides from literary or journalistic contexts, like Strunk & White, which teach you to be relentless in removing cliches and using simple short Anglo-Saxon words wherever possible.  Business language constantly violates those rules: it’s full of cliches and unnecessary Latinate locutions.  But I suspect there may actually be a function to that, in making you sound smoother, or setting the scene with comfortable and familiar wording before introducing new ideas.  “Good writing” is original and vivid; a good (i.e. effective) business email may not be.

 

Fasting Mimicking Diet Looks Pretty Good

Epistemic status: pretty much factual.

CW: diets, calories

One of the odd things about working on longevity is that now people ask me for lifestyle advice.

Or they ask me what I, personally do to live longer.

Mostly my response has been a lame “um, nothing?”

There are, as of now, no interventions shown to make humans live longer or slow or reverse the human aging process. And, of the interventions reported to make animals live longer, many are doubtful, and many are too risky or unpleasant to make the cost-benefit tradeoff look good for healthy people.

Also, as a personal matter, I’m just not very interested in my own “lifestyle optimization” for the most part. My motivation is about helping people, not especially staving off death for myself; I think I’m more mentally prepared for death than most people my age. Certainly I’ve thought about it more concretely. (BTW, if you too like to know all the gory and technical details about how people die, this blog by an ICU nurse is gold.)

And “lifestyle optimization” turns out to be heavily about diet and exercise, and…I confess, diet culture really creeps me out.  Not at all my thing.

That said, there is a lifestyle intervention that seems pretty evidence-based and also pretty low on risk and inconvenience: the Fasting Mimicking Diet, developed by Valter Longo of USC.

It’s actually been tested in a clinical trial on 100 healthy participants, where it improved a bunch of biomarkers related to aging and disease (reduced IGF and blood pressure, though no change in glucose, triglycerides, cholesterol, or CRP.)

The really good results are in mice, where it rescues both Type I and Type II diabetes as well as a mouse model of MS, reduces tumors by 45% and dermatitis by 50%, increases mesenchymal stem cells by 45x, improves motor and cognitive performance, and results in an 11% lifespan extension.

So, what is the FMD?

It’s a 5-day low-calorie, low-carb, low-protein diet, followed by a period of eating however you would by default.

Caloric restriction (reducing calorie intake about 1/3 from baseline or ad-lib) is probably the most replicated lifespan- and healthspan-extending intervention in animals. It’s about 30-40% life extension in mice and rats.  In monkeys, it extends lifespan little if at all, but delays age-related disease and hair loss.  However, the side effects are nontrivial — humans on CR experience weakness, lethargy, depression, muscle wasting, and neurological deficits. (Undereating also stunts growth in children and adolescents, and underweight in women causes infertility, miscarriage, and preterm birth.)

Mice seem to get most of the benefits of CR, including an equally extended lifespan, from an isocaloric but low-protein or low-methionine diet. Low-protein diets are safe for humans and might not be as damaging to quality of life, but they do definitely inhibit physical fitness/performance.

Alternate-day fasting in mice has a bunch of benefits,  including lifespan extension of 10-30% depending on mouse strain, as well as reduction in cancer incidence, and lower levels of neural damage in mouse models of Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, and acute brain injury.  In a randomized controlled trial in humans, alternate-day fasting caused weight loss but no improvement in metabolic/cardiovascular parameters.

The FMD seems like the least amount of dietary restriction that is still known to cause life extension. 5 days/month of low calorie intake isn’t that big a commitment.

Valter Longo sells patented packaged foods for the FMD, but they’re pricey ($300 for five days).

What I find more aesthetic, and cheaper, is an adapted version, which I’m trying now:

For the first five weekdays of every month, eat nothing but (non-potato) vegetables, cooked in fat if desired.  The rest of the time, eat whatever you want.

It’s low-calorie and low-protein while containing vitamins, but it skips the calorie-counting and allows you to actually cook tasty food.

Since I’m breastfeeding, which is about a 500-calorie daily expenditure, it’s a little harder on me than it would be by default, so I’m adding the modification of if you feel weak or lightheaded, eat a fat source until you stop feeling that way.  I expect this is probably a good conservative measure for people in general.

This ought to be generally safe for healthy adults under 65.  The clinical trial reported no adverse effects more serious than fatigue.

It’s definitely not a good idea for children, diabetics, pregnant people, or people with disordered eating.

If you basically believe the science that periods of little or no food promote good metabolic processes (autophagy, reduced inflammation, increased neurogenesis & stem cell production) but you don’t want the nasty side effects of prolonged caloric restriction, some kind of intermittent or periodic fasting seems like a sensible thing to try.

I don’t think there’s any direct evidence that the FMD is better than intermittent fasting for health, but it seems easier to do, and maybe a bit better in terms of results from randomized human trials.

If you (like me) really don’t like the aesthetics of dieting — “special” pre-packaged foods, appearance insecurity, calorie counting, having to make excuses to the people around you for eating “weirdly” — a homebrew FMD is pretty ideal because you are spending very little time “on a diet”, and you are eating normal things (vegetables).  Also, it’s not necessarily a weight-loss diet, and you can conceptualize it as primarily about health, not looks.

don’t expect it to have nontrivial lifespan effects on humans, but it might be good for healthspan or disease risk, and that seems worthwhile to me.

Reflections on Being 30

Epistemic Status: Personal

I haven’t written a lot of personal stuff here recently, because I’ve been doing a lot more private contemplation, and been busy with life things. (Nonprofit and baby, among other things.)  But I thought I might want to put out some thoughts about what growing in maturity means to me and what I’ve come to believe — since I still believe firmly in the blogging medium and the practice of transparency.

Prudence

There’s a transition that a lot of people go through as they get older, that has to do with “practicality” or “prudence.”  They no longer want to do things that will predictably fail.  They are no longer as willing to deal with people who will predictably fail at life. They are no longer as interested in ideas that can’t stand up to practical tests.

I’ve noticed more of this spirit in myself as I get older, but I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about it.  I like interestingness.  I want to avoid the natural tendency to stop exploring as I age.  Meeting new people, learning new things, having new experiences, expanding my boundaries, are still important to me.

On the other hand, I’ve really enjoyed becoming more adept at the “practical” or “operational” side of things — schedules, housework, childcare, managing a small organization, etc.  My identity up until now has been “talented mess” — so much so that I got an ADHD diagnosis quite by accident, and am now exploring the very different world of practicality and detail-orientation and organization.  It’s strange. It’s very calm, and it’s a satisfying challenge to keep up with things and bring more order to different parts of my life, and it’s completely non-narrative.  Life becomes a series of tasks, rather than a story.  I’m continually marveling that this is how some people have been living all along.

Of course, the real reason for being more prudent in your thirties or as a parent is hard necessity. You have less energy, and more responsibilities, and so you have to be more cautious with resources and time.  This isn’t something I really want to spin as a good thing — it’s scarcity, plain and simple.

You have to give up something, and the cheapest thing to give up is being a dumbass.

want to have an “abundance mentality”, to be generous and spendthrift with my time and energy; but sometimes I come up against irreducible scarcity.

A friend advised me last year to “have an ego.”  He meant it in Freud’s sense of the “rational self-interest” part of the psyche.  An ego is an institution you build around yourself, like the Republic of Sarah, or Sarah Incorporated.  Your household, your career, your reputation, your health, all these structures around yourself that you build and maintain and use to interface with the world.

So I did that.

I do a lot of adjusting and updating on these structures; in a sense that’s most of what I do all day long.  Taking care of my work, my family and household, my physical body, etc. Like a hermit crab, the little soft emotional creature that is me is hidden within all this prudence and structure.  I notice it works better. I notice people like it better.  But I’m a little melancholy about it.

Humanism

One value I still hold very firmly is something I call “humanism”, or being “pro-human” or believing in the worth of the human spirit.  I don’t think that has to go away with age.

The whole human mind, which is a general intelligence, which can learn anything and create anything, is a beautiful thing and not to be destroyed.

This is in contrast to some people who become traditionalists or authoritarians when they hit the age where they realize they need prudence. The temptation is to believe “people just need to be kept under tight enough control that they can’t do dumb shit, because the consequences of doing dumb shit are tragic.”

The thing is, I don’t think that controlling people actually is a feasible way to prevent tragedy.

A child prevented from making mistakes isn’t a perfect child, but an underdeveloped child.

If you manage to control someone’s behavior well enough to “keep them out of trouble”, there’s a good chance you’ve damaged their ability to problem-solve, and — I don’t know how to say this any other way — injured the sacred thing that makes them human.

People who say “autonomy is a figment, some people need to be controlled for their own good” are sometimes the same people who do actually really bad things to human beings, by dehumanizing them.

As I get less easily susceptible to opinions I hear, and more interested in the boring-but-true over the hot take, I become more humanist, not less so.  It’s not naive. It’s actually looking at what people are, and noticing that they are a lot more complex and able than cynics give them credit for, that “people aren’t all that special” or “some people aren’t really people” is a brute’s excuse.

You can totally be a mature person, or a parent, and still believe in humanism and autonomy.  People have been doing it for hundreds of years.

 

Direct Primary Care

Epistemic Status: PSA and raising questions

Medical care in the US is expensive. There aren’t that many demonstrated ways to make it drastically cheaper.

Direct primary care seems to be an exception.  It makes routine medical expenses 95% cheaper.

Yes, really.

If you have a cash-only, or “direct”, primary care practice — i.e. you don’t accept insurance — you can negotiate much lower wholesale rates from providers of tests (like EKGs, MRIs, blood tests) or prescription drugs. Why? Because you can guarantee the providers immediate payment, rather than the uncertainty and inconvenience of insurance reimbursement.  They’re willing to give you a discount for that.

Direct primary care also cuts down on paperwork for doctors, because they don’t have to document everything with the ICD codes that insurance companies require.

Atlas MD is an EMR designed for direct primary care practices that use a subscription model, founded by Dr. Josh Umbehr, who also uses it in his own direct primary care practice in Wichita.  I’ve spoken to him via phone and tried to poke holes in his model, and came away even more impressed.

My question is, could this model scale up nationwide — and would it still be as effective at cutting costs if it did?

Right now, as I understand, direct primary care practices negotiate individually with suppliers to get discounts. I imagine that it would be much more efficient if done by a nationwide chain of direct primary care practices.  Bulk wholesale purchases, after all, could be even cheaper than what a single practice might hope to get.

With Amazon moving into healthcare, direct primary care might get a chance to shine. Amazon has a lot of experience cutting prices through economies of scale & supply chain optimization. Jeff Bezos even funded direct primary care startup Qliance, which went bankrupt last year.

Direct primary care only works as a complement to insurance that pays for more catastrophic care like emergency room visits and specialists.  And if you can get a “minimalist” insurance plan that’s not redundant with the direct primary care membership, your total healthcare costs (membership + premiums) can be much lower.  The potential problem arises if it’s difficult (or illegal) to sell sufficiently “bare-bones” insurance plans — in that case patients wouldn’t be willing to pay out of pocket for a direct-care membership in addition to their already pricey insurance.

Umbehr has managed to negotiate deals with insurers to offer lower premiums when patients bought insurance along with direct care subscriptions, but maybe Qliance, which apparently struggled to keep customers, didn’t successfully pull it off.

At any rate, if I’m not missing something, this seems like an ideal opportunity for Amazon to make healthcare a lot more affordable. Are there barriers I haven’t thought of?

Oops on Commodity Prices

Epistemic status: Casual

Some patient and thoughtful folks on LessWrong, and, apparently, some rather less patient folks on r/SneerClub, have pointed out that GDP-to-gold, or GDP-to-oil, are bad proxy measures for economic growth.

Ok, this is a counterargument I want to make sure I understand.

Is the following a good representation of what you believe?

When you divide GDP by a commodity price, when the commodity has a nearly-fixed supply (like gold or land) we’d expect the price of the commodity to go up over time in a society that’s getting richer — in other words, if you have better tech and better and more abundant goods, but not more gold or land, you’d expect that other goods would become cheaper relative to gold or land. Thus, a GDP/gold or GDP/land value that doesn’t increase over time is totally consistent with a society with increasing “true” wealth, and thus doesn’t indicate stagnation.

paulfchristiano:
Yes. The detailed dynamics depend a lot on the particular commodity, and how elastic we expect demand to be; for example, over the long run I expect GDP/oil to go way up as we move to better substitutes, but over a short period where there aren’t good substitutes it could stay flat.

Commenters on this blog have also pointed out that the Dow is a poor measure of the value of the stock market, since it’s small and unnormalized.

These criticisms weaken my previous claim about economic growth being stagnant.

Now, a little personal story time:

Nearly ten years ago (yikes!) in college, I had an econ blog. My big brush with fame was having a joke of mine hat-tipped by Megan McArdle once. I did most of the required courses for an econ major, before eventually settling on math. My blog, I realized with dismay when I pulled it up many years later, consisted almost entirely of me agreeing with other econ bloggers I encountered, and imitating buzzwords. I certainly sounded a lot more mainstream in those days, but I understood — if possible — less economics than I do now.  I couldn’t use what I’d learned in school to reason about real-world questions.

I think I learn a heck of a lot more by throwing an idea out there and being corrected than I did back when I was not even asking questions.  A shy person cannot learn, an impatient person cannot teach” and all that.

Admittedly, my last post may have sounded more know-it-all-ish than it actually deserved, and that’s a problem to the extent that I accidentally misled people (despite my disclaimers.)  I actually tried, for several years, to be less outspoken and convey less confidence in my written voice.  My impression is that the attempt didn’t work for me, and caused me some emotional and intellectual damage in the meanwhile.  I think verbally; if I try to verbalize less, I think less.

I think the M.O. that works better for me is strong opinions, weakly held.  I do try to learn from knowledgeable people and quickly walk back my errors.  But realistically, I’m going to make errors, and dumber ones when I’m newer to learning about a topic.

To those who correct me and explain why — thank you.

Monopoly: A Manifesto and Fact Post

Epistemic Status: exploratory. I am REALLY not an economist, I don’t even play one on TV.

You can call it by a lot of names.  You can call it crony capitalism, the mixed economy,  or corporatism.  Cost disease is an aspect of the problem, as are rent-seeking, regulatory capture, and oligopoly.

If Scrooge McDuck’s downtown Duckburg apartment rises in price, and Scrooge’s net worth rises equally, but nothing else changes, the distribution of purchasing power is now more unequal — fewer people can afford that apartment.  But nobody is richer in terms of actual material wealth, not even Scrooge.  Scrooge is only “richer” on paper.  The total material wealth of Duckburg hasn’t gone up at all.

I’m concerned that something very like this is happening to developed countries in real life.  When many goods become more expensive without materially improving, the result is increased wealth inequality without increased material abundance.

The original robber barons  (Raubritter) were medieval German landowners who charged illegal private tolls to anyone who crossed their stretch of the Rhine.  Essentially, they profited by restricting access to goods, holding trade hostage, rather than producing anything.  The claim is that people in developed countries today are getting sucked dry by this kind of artificial access-restriction behavior.  A clear-cut example is closed-access academic journals, which many scientists have begun to boycott; the value in a journal is produced by the scholars who author, edit, and referee papers, while the online journal’s only contribution is its ability to restrict access to those papers.

Scott Alexander said it right:

LOOK, REALLY OUR MAIN PROBLEM IS THAT ALL THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS COST TEN TIMES AS MUCH AS THEY USED TO FOR NO REASON, PLUS THEY SEEM TO BE GOING DOWN IN QUALITY, AND NOBODY KNOWS WHY, AND WE’RE MOSTLY JUST DESPERATELY FLAILING AROUND LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS HERE.

 

Except that it’s pretty easy to see why. We have a lot of trolls sitting under bridges charging tolls to people who want to cross. Modern Raubritter can easily maintain a hard-to-refute image that they’re providing value, and so make it hard for anyone to coordinate to avoid them.  It’s genuinely risky to unilaterally skip college, refuse to publish in closed-access journals, or leave an expensive city with a booming economy.  You know you’re being charged a ton for some stuff you don’t want or need, but it’s hard to tell where exactly the waste is; it’s dissipated and concealed and difficult to disentangle.  As 19th century businessman John Wanamaker said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the problem is, I don’t know which half.”

But, for now, let’s try to get a factual picture of what’s actually going on.

Stagnant Commodity-Denominated Growth

GDP is supposed to be adjusted for inflation, but the calculation of the inflation rate is pretty political and might be misleading. What happens if you instead denominate in commodities?

dow-to-gold-ratio-100-year-historical-chart-2018-05-30-macrotrends

This is the Dow-to-gold ratio for the past 100 years; as you can see, there are three major contractions in the places you’d expect: one in the Great Depression, an even deeper one that began around 1972, and the most recent in the Great Recession that began in 2008.

You get a similar picture looking at the US GDP-to-gold ratio:

and the global GDP-to-gold ratio:

In 100 years we’re looking at something like an average of 1.4% growth in gold-denominated stocks or GDP; and gold-denominated GDP is comparable to where it was in the 1980’s.

But maybe that’s just gold. What about GDP denominated in other commodity prices? Here’s US GDP in terms of crude oil prices:

fredgraph

Once again, this shows US GDP never really recovering from the 2001 tech bust, and not being much higher than where it was in the 80’s.

fredgraph (3).png

Compared to the global price of corn, again, US GDP barely seems to have an upward trend since 1980; something like 1.5% growth.

fredgraph (1).png

Compared to a global commodities index, once again, GDP seems no higher than it was in the 90’s.

This should make us somewhat suspicious that “real” GDP growth is overestimating growth in material wealth.

Of course, since median income has grown slower than GDP, this means that median income relative to commodities has actually dropped in recent decades.

fredgraph (4).png

Stagnant Productivity

Labor productivity, in dollars per hour, has risen pretty steadily in advanced economies over the past half-century.

laborproductivity.gif

On the other hand, total factor productivity, the return on dollars of labor and capital, seems to have stagnated:

Image result for total factor productivity

Total factor productivity is thought to include phenomena such as technological improvement, good institutions and governance, and culture. It’s been stagnating in other developed countries, not just the US:
Image result for total factor productivity

A Brookings Institute report broke down US total factor productivity by sector, and concluded that the declining growth from 1987 to today was in services and construction, while manufacturing and other sectors continued to improve:

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 6.37.51 PM

Services and construction, please note, pretty much match the “cost disease” sectors whose prices are rising faster than the rest of the economy can grow: education, housing, transportation, and especially healthcare.  As services become more expensive, they’re also becoming less efficient.

Declining productivity means that we’re doing less with more.  This is particularly true for innovation, where, for instance, we’re not getting much increase in crop yields despite huge increases in the number of agricultural researchers, and not getting much increase in lives saved despite increasing volume of medical research.

agyield

lifeexpectancy

Monopoly and Declining Dynamism

The Herfindahl Index is a measure of market concentration, defined by the sum of the squares of the market shares of firms in an industry. (If a single firm held a monopoly it would be 1; if N firms each had equal shares, it would be 1/N.)

US industries have become more concentrated since the mid-1990s, with the number of firms dropping and the Herfindahl index rising:

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 7.55.33 PM

Firms have also gotten larger:

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 7.57.30 PM.png

You can also look at concentration in terms of employment.  Education and healthcare are the most concentrated industries by occupation, while computers are the least:

Occupational groups by industry concentration, May 2012

There has been a steady increase in market power since 1980, with markups rising from 18% above cost in 1980 to 67% above cost in 2014.

 

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 8.40.26 PM.png

More concentrated industries can charge higher prices relative to costs.

As industries are becoming more concentrated, they’re also becoming more static. Fewer new firms are being created:

Fig. 2: Firm Entry and Exit Rates (1978-2011)

Americans are moving less between states:

Image result for falling labor mobility

And self-employment is dropping:

Image result for declining entrepreneurship

As market power increases (i.e. as industries become more monopolistic), you can get a scenario where the financial value of firms outpaces their investment in capital or their spending on labor.

With an increase in market power, the share of income consisting of pure rents increases, while the labor and capital shares both decrease. Finally, the greater monopoly power of firms leads them to restrict output. In restricting their output, firms decrease their investment in productive capital, even in spite of low interest rates.

If you divide the economy into “capital” and “labor”, you find a long-term decline in the share of labor and increase in the share of capital. But if you decompose the capital share, you find that the returns on structures, land, and equipment are static or declining, while pure profits are on an upward trajectory:

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 8.13.58 AM.png

This story is consistent with other long-term trends, like the increasing share of the value of firms that consists of intangibles — that is, “the value of things you couldn’t easily copy, like patents, customer goodwill, employee goodwill, regulator favoritism, and hard to see features of company methods and culture.

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Those intangibles constitute barriers to entry, precisely because they can’t be easily copied by new firms.  The rise of intangibles is also a sign of a more monopolistic economy.

It’s Not (Just) Regulation

Alex Tabarrok, a libertarian economist, argues that the decline in dynamism is not due to regulation.

Since the 1970’s, the most stringently regulated industry by far has been manufacturing:

Regulatory stringency by major sector

(“FIRE” here refers to finance, insurance, and real estate.)

However, more stringently regulated industries are not less dynamic:

Startup rates vs. regulatory stringency

Some of these results are weird, since #622, marked as a lightly regulated industry, is “Hospitals”, which I don’t really think of as freewheeling.  Maybe these numbers don’t include indirect effects like occupational licensing for medical professionals restricting the supply of people to work in hospitals.

But at any rate, regulations are not the only way to enforce monopoly power, and it seems that they’re not the decisive factor.  Governments have means other than regulation to promote monopoly (for instance, grants, contracts, or subsidies to insider firms, or increases in the scope of what can be patented and for how long).  And there are purely private mechanisms (like prestige/signaling in the scientific publishing industry) that can preserve monopolies as well.

Problems for the Middle and Lower Classes

US income inequality is rising; in real dollar terms, this looks like the rich getting richer while everyone else stays the same:

inequality

On the other hand, it’s worth moderating this picture by awareness of cost disease. High-income people as well as lower-income people are spending a larger fraction of their budget on housing and healthcare, which aren’t really improving much in quality.

Image result for household consumption in high income

Income mobility is also dropping:

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Some Slogans

Why is monopoly bad?

Monopoly drives up prices while depressing production.  That means we have fewer nice things. Yes, even for the “winners” of this negative-sum game, though of course the problem is worse for everyone else.

Monopoly and lack of innovation go together, since monopolists have less incentive to produce or compete.

Monopoly and intangibles go together.  Branding is a form of market power. As are patents.

Monopoly causes inequality; it also causes absolute economic insecurity (if necessities cost more, the poor are most harmed).

Monopoly is anti-meritocratic. It’s a troll guarding a bridge, not a hardworking genius inventor.

 

None of this tells us what to do about monopoly. I’m not at all confident that antitrust law works or is a fair solution to the problem.  There’s also reason to doubt that deregulation would fix everything, though fixing zoning and occupational licensing laws seems like it would at least help.

Introducing the Longevity Research Institute

I’ve just founded a nonprofit, the Longevity Research Institute — you can check it out here.

The basic premise is: we know there are more than 50 compounds that have been reported to extend healthy lifespan in mammals, but most of these have never been tested independently, and in many cases the experimental methodology is poor.
In other words, there seems to be a lot of low-hanging fruit in aging.  There are many long-lived mutant strains of mice (and invertebrates), there are many candidate anti-aging drugs, but very few of these drugs have actually been tested rigorously.
Why?  It’s an incentives problem.  Lifespan studies for mice take 2-4 years, which don’t play well with the fast pace of publication that academics want; and the FDA doesn’t consider aging a disease, so testing lifespan isn’t on biotech companies’ critical path to getting a drug approved.  Mammalian lifespan studies are an underfunded area — which is where we come in.
We write grants to academic researchers and commission studies from contract research organizations.  Our first planned studies are on epitalon (a peptide derived from the pineal gland, which has been reported to extend life in mice, rats, and humans, but only in Russian studies) and C3 carboxyfullerene (yes, a modified buckyball, which prevents Parkinsonism in primate models and has been reported to extend life in mice).  I’m also working on a paper with Vium about some of their long-lived mice, and a quantitative network analysis of aging regulatory pathways that might turn up some drug targets.
We’re currently fundraising, so if this sounds interesting, please consider donating. The more studies that can be launched in parallel, the sooner we can get results.

Wrongology 101

Epistemic Status: Speculative.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, available online here, is a really interesting study of the psychology of anti-Semitism, written in a time (1940’s France) when it was common for people to talk overtly about how much they hated Jews.  Sartre, being Gentile and from a culture where anti-Semitism was much more common than it is in 21st century America, had an opportunity to observe these people that I do not.  So while he paints an extremely unflattering picture of anti-Semites, one that’s almost hard to believe, I take it seriously.

What are anti-Semites like, according to Sartre?

They are lazy. Sartre gives the example of a man who believes Jews are given unfair advantages in passing an exam he failed, but readily admits that he didn’t study for it.

They are people-oriented rather than thing-oriented.  “They behave toward social  facts like primitives who endow the wind and the sun with little  souls.  Intrigues, cabals, the  perfidy of one man, the courage and virtue of another —  that is what determines  the  course of their business, that is what determines the course of the world.”

They are impulsive.  “the anti‐Semite understands nothing about modern society.  He  would be incapable of conceiving of a constructive plan; his action cannot reach the level of the methodical; it remains on the ground of passion.  To a long‐term enterprise he prefers an explosion of rage analogous to the running amuck of the Malays.”

They are bullies.  “He has chosen also to be terrifying.   People are afraid of irritating  him.   No one knows to what lengths the aberrations of his passion will carry him  —  but he knows, for this passion is not provoked by something external.  He has it well in hand; it is obedient to his will: now he lets go of  the reins and now he pulls back on them.”

They are conformists.  “This man fears every kind of solitariness, that of the genius as  much as that of the murderer; he is the man of the crowd.   However small his stature,  he takes every precaution to make it smaller, lest he stand out from the herd and find  himself face to face with himself.  He has made himself an anti-Semite because that is something one cannot be alone.  The phrase, “I hate the  Jews,” is one that  is  uttered  in  chorus;  in  pronouncing  it,  one  attaches himself to a tradition and to a community  —  the tradition and community of the mediocre.”

They are irrational.  “The anti-Semite has chosen to live on the plane of passion.” They like being angry (at the Jews), and seek out opportunities to work themselves up into a rage.  They deliberately say trollish things that make no sense: “Never believe that anti‐ Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies.  They know  that  their remarks are  frivolous, open to challenge.   But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti‐Semites have the right  to play.”

They are mystical and anti-intellectual.  “The anti‐Semite has a fundamental  incomprehension of the various forms of modern property:  money,  securities,  etc.   These are abstractions, entities of reason related to the abstract intelligence of the Semite…What his subtle sense seizes upon is precisely that which the intelligence cannot perceive.” In other words: he cannot understand complicated abstract ideas which in principle anybody could grasp, with enough time and effort and ordinary thinking; but he believes he has magical powers of intuition that reach beyond the intellect and which the Jews innately will forever lack.

They are a mob. “He  wants  his  personality  to  melt  suddenly  into  the  group  and  be  carried  away  by  the  collective  torrent.   He  has  this  atmosphere  of  the  pogrom  in  mind  when  he  asserts  “the  union of all Frenchmen.”

Why would a person want to be wrong on purpose?

Sartre explains:

How  can  one  choose  to  reason  falsely?  It  is  because  of  a longing for impenetrability. The rational man groans as he  gropes for the truth;  he  knows  that his  reasoning is no more than tentative, that other considerations may supervene  to  cast doubt on it.  He never sees very clearly  where he is going; he is “open”; he may even appear to be hesitant.   But there are people who are attracted  by the durability of a stone.   They wish to be massive and impenetrable;  they wish  not to change.   Where, indeed, would change take them?   We have here a basic fear of oneself and of truth.  What frightens them is not the content of truth, of which they have no conception, but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation. It is as if their own existence were in continual suspension.

In other words: the person who is wrong on purpose is afraid of the vulnerability of trying at a task that may fail.  In particular, he is afraid of the process of learning.  The “indefinite approximation” Sartre mentions is the process of double-checking, doubting, asking questions, second-guessing, saying “oops”, moderating or complicating one’s views, all the millions of mental motions involved in trying to understand things accurately. The person who is wrong on purpose wants to just stop all of that motion, forever.

Only  a  strong  emotional  bias  can give a lightning‐like  certainty; it alone  can hold reason in leash; it alone can remain impervious to  experience and last for a whole lifetime.

People choose to be wrong so that they can play a game that is by definition impossible to lose.  They don’t like trying or working hard. They don’t like expectations being placed on them.

The  anti‐Semite  is  not  too  anxious  to  possess  individual  merit.   Merit  has  to be sought, just like truth; it is discovered with difficulty; one must deserve it.  Once acquired, it is perpetually in question: a false step, an error, and it flies away.  Without respite, from the beginning of our lives to the end, we are responsible for what merit we enjoy.

But the anti-Semite wants a respite from responsibility, very badly.  He wants to be done.  He wants an end to trying altogether.

 Anti‐Semitism, in short, is fear of the human condition.  The anti‐Semite is a  man  who wishes to be pitiless stone, a furious torrent, a devastating thunderbolt‐anything except a man.

Sartre’s “Anti-Semitism” Isn’t Just About Jews

Sartre says explicitly that the character that made a Frenchman of his time into an anti-Semite could in other contexts apply to other races: “The Jew only serves him as a pretext; elsewhere his  counterpart  will  make  use  of  the  Negro  or  the  man  of  yellow skin.”

Sartre’s version of anti-Semitism is a lot like the American institution of herrenvolk democracy, established around the time of Andrew Jackson, in which white people, no matter how poor, formed a coalition that allowed them to be socially superior to black people, given arbitrary privileges over them and free to enact unpunished mob violence against them.

Anti-Asian prejudice (“sure, they’re smart, but they’re not really a good culture fit“) is also structurally very similar to the defiant mediocrity that Sartre describes in anti-Semites.

More controversially, there is something about the concept of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is no longer officially a medical designation and was arguably never a natural category, that matches this pattern.  Smart, logical people who just aren’t one of us, who may technically fulfill the requirements of a job but don’t have the right intangibles, who aren’t good at politicking, who naively believe in the literal rules, and who inevitably get bullied.

Structurally, we’re talking about a cartel, or a mob.  Mob in both the “mafia” and the “riot” sense.  Collusion to keep unmerited privilege, enforced by acts of random violence.

If you are trying to enforce an eternal privilege, something that cannot be lost no matter what you do, then being wrong, or being bad at things, or treating others badly, is the fundamental test of the security of your status.  Being wrong is both a badge and one of the perks of class membership.

Fascism and Mysticism

This article on Jordan Petersen is infuriating in some ways — there are gratuitous digs at masculinity and self-help that I don’t endorse — but it’s worth reading because it outlines his historical influences.

A range of intellectual entrepreneurs, from Theosophists and vendors of Asian spirituality like Vivekananda and D.T. Suzuki to scholars of Asia like Arthur Waley and fascist ideologues like Julius Evola (Steve Bannon’s guru) set up stalls in the new marketplace of ideas. W.B. Yeats, adjusting Indian philosophy to the needs of the Celtic Revival, pontificated on the “Ancient Self”; Jung spun his own variations on this evidently ancestral unconscious. Such conceptually foggy categories as “spirit” and “intuition” acquired broad currency; Peterson’s favorite words, being and chaos, started to appear in capital letters. Peterson’s own lineage among these healers of modern man’s soul can be traced through his repeatedly invoked influences: not only Carl Jung, but also Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar of religion, and Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, who, like Peterson, combined a conventional academic career with mass-market musings on heroic individuals.

There is, historically, a connection between occultism and the study of mythology, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other. (I would add D.H. Lawrence to the list of fascist-sympathizing mystics.)  The literal Nazis were very fond of myth and magic — see the Thule Society.  Start exploring contemporary neopaganism and occultism and you’ll quickly run into people with some very disturbing politics.

There’s a historical explanation — both the Theosophists and the fascists drew intellectually from German Idealism — but Sartre gives a more psychological explanation.  Both the desire to enjoy unearned (racial) privilege and the desire to believe in occult forces essentially boil down to the desire not to be tested.  One can fail tests.

If you have an invisible, magical essence that makes you special, however — that can’t be taken away by any inconvenient facts.

Cartel Thinking

The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective “, an account of a Chinese immigrant’s experiences at Cambridge, Goldman Sacks, and Stanford Business School, talks a fair bit about the mentality of seeking to live insulated from fair tests.

“In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.”

When Puzhong makes a successful trade by accident at Goldman Sacks, he expects to be reprimanded for his mistake, but is instead rewarded. But “it was not enough to just be a good trader. It was also essential to be able to manage one’s boss, other colleagues, and those who report to them.”

In business school, he learns (amusingly enough) that the way one is supposed to express feelings in American elite culture seems a lot like falsifying them:

We talked about microaggressions and feelings and empathy and listening. Sometimes in class the professor would say things to me like “Puzhong, when Mary said that, I could see you were really feeling something,” or “Puzhong, I could see in your eyes that Peter’s story affected you.” And I would tell them I didn’t feel anything. I was quite confused.

One of the papers we studied mentioned that subjects are often not conscious of their own feelings when fully immersed in a situation. But body indicators such as heart rate would show whether the person is experiencing strong emotions. I thought that I generally didn’t have a lot of emotions and decided that this might be a good way for me to discover my hidden emotions that the professor kept asking about.

So I bought a heart rate monitor and checked my resting heart rate. Right around 78. And when the professor said to me in class “Puzhong, I can see that story brought up some emotions in you,” I rolled up my sleeve and checked my heart rate. It was about 77.  And so I said, “nope, no emotion.” The experiment seemed to confirm my prior belief: my heart rate hardly moved, even when I was criticized, though it did jump when I became excited or laughed.

This didn’t land well on some of my classmates. They felt I was not treating these matters with the seriousness that they deserved. The professor was very angry. My takeaway was that my interpersonal skills were so bad that I could easily offend people unintentionally, so I concluded that after graduation I should do something that involved as little human interaction as possible.

Puzhong is noticing that American elite businesspeople appear to be colluding rather than competing.  They’re not racing each other for profits, they’re signaling that they’re cozy insiders who will play nice and share the spoils with others who know the right buzzwords.  Cartel behavior, in other words.

I had always thought that things happen for reasons. My parents taught me that good people get rewarded while evil gets punished. My teachers at school taught me that if you work hard, you will succeed, and if you never try, you will surely fail.

If people are rewarded for reasons, then anyone who meets these publicly known criteria can gain rewards.  If rewards are given opaquely, then they can be safely restricted to existing insiders. Therefore, people who want to preserve cartel privilege have an interest in being mysterious and not making sense.

Applied Wrongology

I have never been an anti-Semite, for obvious reasons; I have never been a banker or MBA, either, and I like to think that racism is not particularly my vice.  But I do understand the longing for security.

It gets tiring to be tested all the time, to be subject to skepticism, to be second-guessed, to have expectations placed upon you.  It’s nerve-wracking to have to perform and worry that you’ll fail.  Merit is intimidating. Objectivity is daunting.

And, on the other hand, to float completely free, to have a space where you can just be, to feel the world is faintly gold-dusted and magical, to build castles in the air without any annoying people coming around to check on whether you’re being “productive” or whether the castles are, in fact, real…that would be lovely, wouldn’t it?  Doesn’t that seem more like the way life should naturally be?

And wouldn’t it be nice to be sure that nobody will ever come round to weigh and measure and count and judge?  Forever, no matter what?

I can’t, in sincerity, say people shouldn’t want that. It’s a very understandable thing to want, to be cut slack, to not be judged. At times I want it myself.

But Sartre’s anti-Semite only wants to be secure — he isn’t said to succeed.  Just because he wants to stop being human doesn’t mean he can get what he wants. Total security, and total absence of thought, is probably unattainable.