Category Archives: Economics

When to Reverse Quarantine and Other COVID-19 Considerations

A lot of people in my social network have been trying to track news about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, which seems like a global pandemic that's going to kill a lot of people. I've found some of this overwhelming and difficult to figure out how to use, until I sat down with a few friends, over the phone, and worked out a simple analytic framework for thinking about some basic decisions.  Continue reading

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

Pecking Order 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.

Pecking Order

The Pecking Order 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 in the middle has a short-run incentive to go along with the arrangement.

When pecking orders are overt and common knowledge, there can be an element of delegation that allows the pecking order to process some limited amount of information centrally, as a hierarchy. 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

Financial investment is just a symbolic representation of investment projected onto a low-dimensional space inside a control system run by the US government

Nassim Nicholas Taleb recommends that instead of the balanced portfolio of investments recommended by portfolio theory, we follow a "barbell" strategy of putting most of our assets in a maximally safe, stable investment, and making small, sustainable bets with very high potential upside. If taken literally, this can't work because no such safe asset class exists. Continue reading

There is a war.

Households vs markets

The first symptom was the clutter on the kitchen counter. One cutting board, two pans, one knife. My colleagues had arrived at the rented house the day before, so they'd had plenty of time to arrange things to their liking. I was sure the clutter was not to their liking, if they noticed it at all.

A teachable moment. Instead of tidying the counter myself, and accreting a small amount of resentment, I suggested to one of them that she think of the things on the counter as things that were in her power to arrange however she liked, to suit her taste, selfishly. (“Just as you might optimize your text editor to suit your workflow,” my other colleague chimed in.) She took this suggestion, and spent a few minutes arranging and rearranging the items on the counter. She put away the knife in the knife block.

A puzzle. She noted that she doesn’t usually think of the items in her home this way. Instead, household chores feel as though they are impositions from an abstract, outside authority. She was capable of accessing this other, more pleasant way of working on the things around her. Why wasn’t it natural for her to feel that way in her own home?

An hypothesis. In our usual mode of life, there is a separation between a job - which is done for someone else, to satisfy someone else’s standards, outside the home - and consumption, which is at least ostensibly done to suit one’s own taste. One of the goods you can buy with an income from a job is a nice place to live, and you can also buy services to keep the place clean and tidy. For the most part, you maintain the place you live by leaving it, and entering the domain of an outside authority. Household chores are the remainder that cannot efficiently be outsourced, or an echo of a previous era in which such outsourcing was less common. Continue reading