Monthly Archives: May 2019

Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game

On Twitter, Freyja wrote:

Things capitalism is trash at:

  • Valuing preferences of anything other than adults who earn money (i.e. future people, non-humans)
  • Pricing non-standardisable goods (i.e. information)
  • Playing nicely with non-quantifiable values + objectives (i.e. love, ritual)

Things capitalism is good at:

  • Incentivising the production of novel goods and services
  • Coordinating large groups of people to produce complex bundles of goods
  • The obvious: making value fungible

Anyone know of work on -

a) integrating the former into existing economic systems, or
b) developing new systems to provide those things while including capitalism's existing benefits?

This intersected well enough with my current interests and those of the people I've been discoursing with most closely that I figured I'd try my hand at a quick explanation of what we're doing, which I've lightly edited into blog post form below. This is only a loose sketch, I think it does reasonably precisely outline the argument, but many readers may find that there are substantial inferential leaps. Questions in the comments are strongly encouraged.

Any serious attempt at (b) will first have to unwind the disinformation that claims that the thing we have now is capitalism, or remotely efficient.

The short version of the project: learning to talk honestly within a small group about how power works, both systemically and as it applies to us, without trying to hold onto information asymmetries. (There's pervasive temptation to withhold political information as part of a zero-sum privilege game, like Plato's philosopher-kings.) Continue reading

Hierarchy and wings

There are a few points I didn't make in my post on blame games because they seemed extraneous to the core point, which are still important enough to write down.


The Hierarchy game is a zero-sum game in which people closer to the center expropriate from people farther from the center, and use some of those resources to perpetuate the power imbalances that enable the expropriation. Players that fail to submit to expropriation by higher-level players are punished by those more-powerful players, often through intermediaries. Players that fail to help members of their class expropriate from those beneath them are excluded from their class, and often coordinated against more overtly.

This game isn't inherently majoritarian, - instead, it allows smaller groups to stably expropriate from larger ones, because every player has a short-run incentive to go along with the arrangement. Feudalism is a simple example of the hierarchy game. Modern states almost always have some hierarchical arrangements, such as the police and military, and (less formally) economic class.  Continue reading

Should Effective Altruism be at war with North Korea?

Summary: Political constraints cause supposedly objective technocratic deliberations to adopt frames that any reasonable third party would interpret as picking a side. I explore the case of North Korea in the context of nuclear disarmament rhetoric as an illustrative example of the general trend, and claim that people and institutions can make better choices and generate better options by modeling this dynamic explicitly. In particular, Effective Altruism and academic Utilitarianism can plausibly claim to be the British Empire's central decisionmaking mechanism, and as such, has more options than its current story can consider.


I wrote to my friend Georgia in response to this Tumblr post.

Asymmetric disarmament rhetoric

Ben: It feels increasingly sketchy to me to call tiny countries surrounded by hostile regimes "threatening" for developing nuclear capacity, when US official policy for decades has been to threaten the world with nuclear genocide.

Strong recommendation to read Daniel Ellsberg's The Doomsday Machine.

Georgia: Book review: The Doomsday Machine

So I get that the US' nuclear policy was and probably is a nightmare that's repeatedly skirted apocalypse. That doesn't make North Korea's program better.

Ben [feeling pretty sheepish, having just strongly recommended a book my friend just reviewed on her blog]: "Threatening" just seems like a really weird word for it. This isn't about whether things cause local harm in expectation - it's about the frame in which agents trying to organize to defend themselves are the aggressors, rather than the agent insisting on global domination.  Continue reading

Totalitarian ethical systems

(Excerpt of another conversation with my friend Mack.)

Mack: Do you consider yourself an Effective Altruist (capital letters, aligned with at least some of the cause areas of the current movement, participating, etc)?

Ben: I consider myself strongly aligned with the things Effective Altruism says it's trying to do, but don't consider the movement and its methods a good way to achieve those ends, so I don't feel comfortable identifying as an EA anymore.

Consider the position of a communist who was never a Leninist, during the Brezhnev regime.

Mack: I am currently Quite Confused about suffering. Possibly my confusions have been addressed by EA or people who are also strongly aligned with the stated goals of EA and I just need to read more. I want people to thrive and this feels important, but I am pretty certain that "suffering" as I think the term is colloquially used is a really hard thing to evaluate, so "end suffering" might be a dead end as a goal

Ben: I think the frame in which it's important to evaluate global states using simple metrics is kind of sketchy and leads to people mistakenly thinking that they don't know what's good locally. Continue reading

Authoritarian empiricism

(Excerpts from a conversation with my friend Mack, edited very slightly for clarity and flow, including getting rid of most of the metaconversation.)

Ben: Just spent 2 full days offline for the holiday - feeling good about it, I needed it.

Mack: Good!

Ben: Also figured out some stuff about acculturation I got and had to unlearn, that was helpful

Mack: I'm interested if you feel like elaborating

Ben: OK, so, here's the deal.

I noticed over the first couple days of Passover that the men in the pseudo-community I grew up in seem to think there's a personal moral obligation to honor contracts pretty much regardless of the coercion involved, and the women seem to get that this increases the amount of violence in the world by quite a lot relative to optimal play, but they don't really tell the men. This seems related somehow to a thing where the men feel anxiety about modeling people as political subjects instead of just objectifying them, but when they slap down attempts to do that, they pretend they're insisting on rigor and empiricism.

Which I'd wrongly internalized, as a kid, as good-faith critiques of my epistemics. Continue reading