Everyone knows what it is to be tempted. You are a member of some community, the members of which have some expectations of each other. You might generally intend to satisfy these expectations, but through a failure of foresight, or some other sort of bad luck, feel an acute impulse to consume something that is not yours to take, or in some other way break commitments you would generally want to honor.Continue reading
Author Archives: Benquo
It is immoral to condemn the player but decline to investigate the game.
Context: Sadly, FTX
FTX defrauded users in a way that is normal for cryptocurrency. But the FTX fraud is a function of the normal system working normally. Like ordinary financialized firms, FTX grew by making leveraged promises. Spotty regulatory attention to cryptocurrency gave it sufficient legal cover to make it easy for people to speculate on it, while effectively allowing participants puff up a speculative bubble by engaging in more aggressive leverage than is tolerated in other areas, often shading into overt fraud.
If you were to randomly audit the books of institutions run by people who look from the outside like Bankman-Fried did prior to the FTX blowup, the level of shenanigans he engaged in would not look like an outlier; his ability to do unusual things with a disproportionate amount of capital was approximately titrated to his willingness to take on liability, i.e. borrow more than he could pay.
I do not have a strong opinion on whether South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission was too merciful, but I do not think anyone can legitimately think that it was not merciful enough; amnesty extended to those who have not yet confessed, and continue to occupy positions of power that can choke off their critics' access to resources and attention, is not part of a reconciliation, but license to continue to offend. If the investigation of the FTX fraud goes no farther than the individual at its nominal head, then it is extending such a license to those who created and endorsed the system in which Bankman-Fried was trying to do the right thing.Continue reading
Oppression and production are competing explanations for wealth inequality.
You would like to go to the beach tomorrow if it's sunny, but aren't sure whether it will rain; if it rains, you'd rather go to the movies. So you resolve to put on a swimsuit and a raincoat, and thus attired, attend the beach in the morning and the movies in the afternoon, regardless of the weather. Something is wrong with that decision process,* and it's also wrong with the decisions made by many supposedly systemic approaches to philanthropy: it does not engage with real and potentially resolvable uncertainty about decision-relevant facts.
Different popular philanthropic programs correspond to very different hypotheses about why people are doing wealth inequality, much like swim trunks and a trip to the movies represent different hypotheses about the weather. Instead of working backwards from the proposals to the hypotheses, I will lay out what I think are the two main hypotheses worth considering, and reason about what someone might want to do if that hypothesis were true. This is not because I want to tell you what to do, but to clarify that any time you think that something in particular is a good idea to do, you are acting on a hypothesis about what's going on.
The ideas of charity and philanthropy depend on the recognition of inequality; otherwise it would just be called "being helpful." The persistence of wealth inequality, in turn, depends on many people working together to recognize and enforce individual claims on private property.
If the mechanism of private property tends to allocate capital to its most productive uses, then incentives are being aligned to put many people to work for common benefit. But if wealth does not correspond to productive capacity - i.e. the people with the most are not those best able to use it - then, assuming diminishing marginal returns to wealth, coordination towards persistent wealth inequality comes from a self-sustaining misalignment of incentives, i.e. conflict.
The economic ideology taught in introductory microeconomics courses, which is assumed by many formal analyses of how to do good at scale, including much of Effective Altruist discourse, tends to make assumptions consistent with the means of production hypothesis, so if we are considering making decisions on the basis of that analysis, we want to understand which observations would falsify that hypothesis, and which beliefs are incompatible with it.Continue reading
Parkinson's Law and the Ideology of Statistics
The anonymous review of The Anti-Politics Machine published on Astral Codex X focuses on a case study of a World Bank intervention in Lesotho, and tells a story about it:
The World Bank staff drew reasonable-seeming conclusions from sparse data, and made well-intentioned recommendations on that basis. However, the recommended programs failed, due to factors that would have been revealed by a careful historical and ethnographic investigation of the area in question. Therefore, we should spend more resources engaging in such investigations in order to make better-informed World Bank style resource allocation decisions. So goes the story.
It seems to me that the World Bank recommendations were not the natural ones an honest well-intentioned person would have made with the information at hand. Instead they are heavily biased towards top-down authoritarian schemes, due to a combination of perverse incentives, procedures that separate data-gathering from implementation, and an ideology that makes this seem like the natural and normal thing to do.Continue reading
You asked why people who "believe in" avoiding nonmarital sex so frequently engage in and report badly regretting it. Instead of responding within your frame, I'm going to lay out the interpretive framework that seems most natural to me to use for this problem, and then answer in those terms.Continue reading
The Debtors' Revolt
You asked whether I had anything in writing to point you to about the history of the great international debtors' revolt of the 20th century, more commonly called the World Wars. I didn't, and I have had some trouble figuring out what the best approach is, in part because it's not clear who my audience is or which feedback if any is trying to learn something new rather than condition me to say more familiar things. Without an idea of someone who might understand me, there is no such thing as an attempt to communicate. The epistolary format has worked well for me recently, so I am going to try to explain what I know to you, personally, and publish at least my original email, and any back-and-forth you're willing to share.
I want to start by explaining the importance of this history. If I tell you that the old world has been overthrown by a class of debtor-aristocrats, and society converted en masse into a debtor aristocracy, you might think of exemplary cavaliers such as Thomas Jefferson and get the wrong idea. Instead, I'll start with an anecdote about the sort of person I mean, so you can see the relationship between membership in a debtor class, shame, class privilege (including "racial" privilege), and opposition to language. Next I will talk a little bit about the mechanism by which the debtor aristocracy propagates itself. Then I'll go into the chronology of the Money Wars. Along the way I will try to clearly signpost standard search terms, related bodies of recorded knowledge, and particular books or essays that might be relevant, but there are a lot, and I will try to write this in a way that at least potentially stands alone - please do err on the side of asking me questions (or trying to restate things in your own words to check whether you understand) rather than assuming you should do your own research first, because that will help me create a canonical summary I can point others to, and I expect that you are better informed than the typical person I need to explain this to.Continue reading
How to Interpret Vitamin D Dosage Using Numbers
I am sick of people rejecting good evidence about vitamin D because they are confused about the bad evidence and can't be bothered to investigate, so I am going to explain it.
Let's look at this like a 19th century physician who woke up from a coma this morning to trawl the public internet for info (I helped), knowing about evolution and bodies and counting and skepticism but not about "metastudies" or "scientific consensus" or "USDA guidelines." How much vitamin D do we need?Continue reading
Notes on the Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X isn't just an important historical document, but skillful storytelling about the investigation of a mystery: why are white people like that?Continue reading
Ivermectin Looks Good for COVID-19 Prophylaxis
Early on in the pandemic, Ivermectin was one of the few interventions that seemed promising, but since then I'd seen mainly negative headlines about faked pro-Ivermectin data, so I implicitly categorized it with hydroxychloroquine as a discredited hypothesis. But in response to my recent blog post on Machiavellian attitudes towards informing the public, ChristianKl from LessWrong asked me why I hadn't mentioned Ivermectin along with vitamin D. After a quick Google Scholar search, I found that the evidence for it seems surprisingly strong.Continue reading
Dr Fauci as Machiavellian Boddhisattva
If you parse what US authority figures like Dr Fauci are explicitly saying about COVID, you end up learning things like:
- An old white man in good health should take 6000 IU of vitamin D per day prophylactically.
- We won't have herd immunity until 80-85 percent of the population is vaccinated.
- From both a personal and public health cost-benefit analysis, nearly every adult ought to take at least a single-shot vaccine and it's not worth the health benefits for vaccinated people to avoid group gatherings or public spaces, or wear masks in public.
- From both a personal and public health cost-benefit analysis, children ought not to be vaccinated.
- Dr Fauci distorts his quantitative claims to be less surprising, so that they can more easily enter the common narrative. Therefore, you can extrapolate that any surprising number coming from Dr Fauci ought to be adjusted farther from the number that would make no waves, to infer his true opinion.
On the other hand, yesterday I visited a toy store that sells Dr Fauci figurines for children, insists that everyone wear masks regardless of vaccination status, and limits the number of people in the store.
Corporate mass media was happy to broadcast lies like "masks don't work" early in the pandemic. But while official state announcements clearly indicated the direction in which the press was expected to distort the narrative, they were careful not to brazenly say the opposite of the truth, that masks don't work, only to tell ordinary people not to use them because healthcare workers needed them. A literal-minded person who read and believed actual government statements rather than news and opinion articles would have inferred from the start that masks worked.Continue reading