Posted by: Alephwyr | July 21, 2018

Towards the pseudo-formalization of a bad attitude Part 1/???

There are twelve year-olds right now capable of functioning productively in highly competitive and demanding intellectual fields.  Not a lot of them, but enough to grant the proposition as true and build an argument off of it.  Intelligence is remarkably static over time, and so effectively these kids are as smart as they’re ever going to be.  While they may lack life experience and knowledge, this is an information asymmetry and not an intelligence deficit.

Some of these children will be referred to gifted and talented programs, and some will actually be allowed to enter college, but one imagines most of them will be forced to go through the same education track as their low-IQ peers; education geared towards behavioral reinforcement and the development of cognitive skills that are already fully present in high IQ youth.  In practice this is something like putting leg braces on people with functional legs, yet the practice is ubiquitous and suggesting there is something deeply immoral and problematic about it is liable to be shouted down with bromides about special treatment and fallacious appeals to normalcy.  “We can’t deny these kids the chance of a normal development,” is the refrain.  Nevermind that by their very nature these children will never have a normal development, or that there’s nothing especially good or valuable about normalcy for its own sake.

There’s a popular joke that I think encapsulates my general intellectual tendencies quite well.  It goes like this:

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the midst of the French Revolution the revolting citizens led a priest, a drunkard and an engineer to the guillotine. They ask the priest if he wants to face up or down when he meets his fate. The priest says he would like to face up so he will be looking towards heaven when he dies. They raise the blade of the guillotine and release it. It comes speeding down and suddenly stops just inches from his neck. The authorities take this as divine intervention and release the priest.

The drunkard comes to the guillotine next. He also decides to die face up, hoping that he will be as fortunate as the priest. They raise the blade of the guillotine and release it. It comes speeding down and suddenly stops just inches from his neck. Again, the authorities take this as a sign of divine intervention, and they release the drunkard as well.

Next is the engineer. He, too, decides to die facing up. As they slowly raise the blade of the guillotine, the engineer suddenly says, “Hey, I see what your problem is …”

This sort of pathological honesty has a specific form, of correcting a problem in such a way that it leads to one’s own death.  However, it points to a more general form of thanatophilic truth-seeking, of seeking truth even though it will lead to one’s death, regardless of whether any problems are solved or not.

People often accuse me of excuse making, but nothing could be further from the truth.  An excuse has two properties: First, it describes some problem or misfortune (whether accurately or not).  Secondly, it does so to the exclusion of action.  I have never allowed my observations to prevent me from acting, and so I am not an excuse maker.  In point of fact, something substantially more wonderful and horrifying has been happening all of my life: because I describe some problem or misfortune, I am precluded from action by others.  It seems that people respond to the first component of excuse-making by enforcing the appearance of the second.  The more effectively a person diagnoses problems, the less social (and subsequently economic) freedom they have to fix them.  This creates the illusion that people who diagnose problems are ineffectual, that they are making the diagnosis specifically to excuse themselves from action, when it is really more of an ethological feedback loop.  People who diagnose problems are whiners, so they are excluded from the organizational structures necessary to fix the problem.  A build-up of such people occurs such that it visibly becomes the case that the diagnosing of problems is highly correlated with exclusion from the organizational structures where action takes place.  The meme propagates that people who diagnose problems are people who don’t do anything.  The organization begins excluding people who diagnose problems because it’s taken as evidence of a character of not doing anything.

Needless to say, this results in a negative selection against intelligence and honesty.  Worse still, this feedback loop has a way of growing until it becomes a kind of general common sense that displays of understanding of any kind are negatively correlated with action.  The false dichotomy between thinkers or talkers and doers is a result of this.  There are various perverse incentives and unfortunate compounding effects that re-enforce this process.  After a while, someone who has not been able to do anything is out of practice and prophecy is thus fulfilled.  And someone who knows that intelligence is correlated with ability is motivated to staff their organization entirely with those less intelligent than them for various reasons: first, to prevent disruptions of the pecking order, including the potential of being outcompeted by a new hire or training your replacement.  Secondly to ensure loyalty.  When people think they deserve something, they aren’t indebted to you.  Modern capitalism wants everyone to be permanently indebted, not just monetarily but psychologically, and this is why the go-to justification for not hiring someone is now entitlement rather than incompetence.

All of this violates traditional economic theory and its ethos, which says that the non-zero sum nature of wealth should make people indifferent to being outcompeted, that a rising tide lifts all boats, and therefore the incentive should be to raise the tide as much as possible rather than worrying about relative boat size, and that organizations in a competitive market have every incentive to hire the best talent relative to price that they can afford.  Rather than attempting to prove this in any way it has instead been more or less taken for granted simply because it is logical, and one of its logical outcomes, that economic numbers go up in markets, is readily observable.  That’s it.  That’s literally the absolute state of economic reasoning.  Model validity + numbers go up -> capitalism is optimal and fair.  An ethologically minded person who has observed enough of the world is sure to know better, but they are also unable to do anything with the knowledge.

An economy run by machines could implement capitalism perfectly, and in exact accordance with its ethos, which is agreeable to me.  I am going to call this hypothetical arrangement Machine Capitalism, which I am happy to call myself a proponent of.  What we have now instead is Animal Capitalism.  Over the course of this blog post I am going to go into more depth about some of the features of Animal Capitalism as I understand it.  Naturally I intend to do so very discursively, while simultaneously expounding my own outlook.

One of the interesting things about reading Vaclav Havel in the age of information is the way his description of post-totalitarian society maps more or less perfectly to the state of affairs in the United States today.  He describes an event in which a brewer was reassigned to menial labor after making the mistake of trying to promote a superior production method.  This violated the pecking order and so he was penalized for it rather than rewarded.  The political point systems common under Communism are plainly dystopian to us today, but at the time and to many of those who lived under them, they must have seemed meritocratic.  Human beings can adapt to just about any system of incentives and disincentives, and will tend to rationalize globally suboptimal outcomes by appealing to the fact that they were a result of locally suboptimal decisions within the context of the system.  To the average human being, competence at a given game is more important than the merits of the game’s design: Human beings enforce conformity to systems rather than enforcing quality of systems.  This is a very interesting tendency, and I hope it’s motivations become more clear through subsequent analysis.

The United States somehow became post-totalitarian without going through a totalitarian phase and without even having a true centralized institutional force to impose dysfunction onto it.  What that means is, the dysfunction of the United States is a result of decentralized and general processes that cumulatively had the same basic effect as the top-down imposition of authority did in Soviet client states.  This is very interesting, and if the human race manages to survive it, it will doubtlessly turn out to yield some of its greatest and hardest lessons.

It’s worth noting that even the most dysfunctional systems have still taken a long time to collapse.  Communism had quite a run and worked surprisingly well for a system that didn’t work.  For whatever reason, once people have committed to a way of living, it is enormously hard for them to alter that, regardless of the objective benefits or detriments of the system.  Somehow, economic and social systems that are exactly wrong in every tangible sense support generations of people.

This may just be the sunk cost fallacy in action at a group level, but by thinking probabilistically I have come to have another idea, which I of course have no way of testing: it’s impossible to really know the long run tendencies of a system without a sufficient sample size.  However, if you subject a sufficiently large group of human beings to a certain way of life for long enough, then after a while the entire network of properties and relationships that compose the system in which they live, will become visible, first in the distribution of resources and power, and then in the biological properties of the population itself.  Every human social experiment is thus a kind of social and biological computation in which human beings are the substrate for data collection: and all the death and failure involved in these computations is just the engine of data collection, a brute force process of elimination or environmental bitmasking procedure that gradually reveals the statistical properties of the total system.  Only once these properties become obvious enough in these terms, will people tend to either double down on them or walk away from them based on the system’s properties and their conduciveness to human life or cultural values.  Therefore, there’s a natural commitment to the total computation which is ingrained in humanity’s blood.

Confounding this somewhat, there are various circular processes in history that introduce noise into the analysis.  The idea that history itself is circular is very old and goes back at least as far as Vedic texts, which expound the concept of Yugas, and it is probable that this ancient wisdom is a reflection of these processes.  One of them, familiar to anyone who has taken Linear Algebra, is circular population growth and decline (or in extreme cases, collapse).  Another one, familiar to all economists, is the circular boom-bust of economic growth.  The presence of these circular processes introduces the possibility that the final results of a given bitmasking procedure will have too much noise in them to form correct conclusions.

I could write endlessly about these circular processes, but instead I will simply suggest that readers familiarize themselves with the HANDY model for an understanding of the potentially extreme implications of these processes, and then give a brief analysis of some of the circular economic issues in our present society, before going on to expound about how these bitmasking procedures (and their subsequent social and economic effects) are themselves circular.

Let’s talk about degree inflation.  There was a time when having a degree was a very clear signal of competence and intelligence.  The interesting thing about this was, an intelligent person didn’t need a degree as badly to get ahead back then; that is to say, a degree didn’t use to function as a barrier to economic entry, while at the same time better acting as a signal of intelligence.  Somehow, a degree has subsequently become a very terrible indication of competence and intelligence, while simultaneously acting as a barrier to entry even for intelligent people.  How did this happen?  It’s entirely insane that something should become more determinative precisely as it becomes less meaningful.

Goodhart’s law is on full display here.  However, perverse incentives are also in place.  As less competent people trickle into the workforce and subsequently rise to the final level of their incompetence per the Peter principle, it becomes more and more important to select future employees for loyalty rather than competence.  Some minimal level of competence is still required though.  Enter the modern college degree: a perfect signal of minimal competence.  Where before it represented that a person was intelligent, now it represents that they are not stupid.  Combine this with intensive testing for loyalty and you have modern hiring practices.  Only the loyal mediocre will thrive.

While some of these factors have traditionally driven intelligent and capable people into developing new fields, establishing start-ups and so forth, as soon as these fields are developed they succumb to the same tendencies and pressures.  The fact that anything has ever progressed at all is mostly an artifact of the entirely circumstantial truth that there have always been new fields to develop and compete in; IE, the human race functions through an iterative process of diffusion and development.  An ethnic minority is displaced from warm and friendly lands to cold and harsh lands, but there they find and develop some valuable resource, which they subsequently use to establish themselves.  Then they displace some new minority to some new wasteland and the process repeats.  This is the biological instantiation of the principle, in which the unwanted are basically fed into cube-like death mazes until value comes out.  The economic instantiation of the principle is simply the fact that small businesses are expected to bear the brunt of the risks in new markets while established firms use every resource in their power to maintain control over existing markets, including access to state power.  Through another circumstance of history, these mazes have become decreasingly dangerous or lethal and increasingly lucrative over time thanks entirely to what was iteratively extracted from them, namely technology, knowledge, and methodology, but the process of diffusion would take place in either case.  It’s not a moral law, it’s a biological one, and the capitalist insistence that the arrow will, in the aggregate, always trend up, and that this somehow represents the benevolence of capitalism, is entirely a misreading of a narrow and potentially fleeting set of facts, combined with a bizarre desire to take credit for natural process as personal will.  There may come a day when there are no new markets to develop, no new fields to compete in, and the tendency towards mediocrity becomes an entirely unanswered hegemon in human society.

The fastest way to understand human society is to realize that standardization acts as an economic lever that makes average people the single largest natural resource in the world.  The Roman legion, which united the western world, was made up of unexceptional people who used simple and generalizable techniques.  Some of these people were doubtlessly better than others at these techniques.  Therefore, the key to the military success of Rome was incentivizing the best of the average, rather than the best of the best.  An average person can learn from a slightly better than average person, because they use the same approach to a problem at different levels of efficiency, so a leadership consisting of the merely above average leading the average enjoys certain synergies and avoids certain disruptions.  At a higher level, the way a genius approaches a problem can often look like magic to the average, and this has traditionally been one of many reasons the genius makes a bad leader.  This general pattern really took off with industrialization, and now that the market is the driving force of the world it has effectively swallowed the world.  As the value extracted from the average has grown to constitute a greater and greater share of the economy, the economy has become increasingly idiot-proofed and automated while driving the intelligent to the margins.  Average people are drawn by gravity to low-risk, low-reward environments.  Above-average people are drawn by competitive advantage into the leadership of these environments.  Intelligent people (and undesirables, some of whom are intelligent) are pushed by diffusion into high-risk high-reward environments.

Naturally, the very first thing most intelligent people want to do once they’ve struck it big in a high-risk high-reward environment is to leverage their capital towards rent seeking in an environment that’s as close to risk-free as possible.  Once you have a lot of wealth, even marginal gains are still massive.  Interestingly, this desire sometimes seems to hold even in cases of negative expectancy.  At the extreme case is the truism that running servants replace running water: there are billionaires who would rather be feudal lords than give up any power or assume any risk, even in the face of large potential gains.  There seem to be two types of rich person: the type who made their money by pursuing a niche market or a low probability win with a high expected value, and the type who made their money by pursuing high probability wins and avoiding volatility to minimize risk of ruin.  In a flourishing market, on a long enough timeline, and with enough initial capital, all you have to do to win is not lose.  Yet there are many people who had no path to wealth except a high-risk, high-reward path, and these are the people capitalism lionizes as heroes, probably because very few people would want to gamble this way with their lives otherwise.  That these two types of people are different psychologically or morally seems unfathomable to me, otherwise winners in risky markets would never become rent-seekers.  The amount of intelligence required to succeed in a high-risk, high-reward environment is probably at least equal to the amount of intelligence necessary to manage an established firm.  As the economy ossifies, the high-risk, high-reward environments dry up, leaving only rent-seekers.  That these rent seekers are more interested in maintaining rent than in achieving profit then leads to, at best, stagnation, and at worst, total dysfunction.

 

 

 

 

 


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