Quick Thoughts on Immoral Mazes

by abramdemski5 min read9th Dec 202048 comments

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Moral MazesSelectorate Theory
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I finally got around to reading (most of) Zvi's sequence Immoral Mazes. I may want to turn some of the following ideas into longer posts, but I thought I'd try to get out some quick thoughts.

Connections to Dictator's Handbook

I've also recently finished reading Dictator's Handbook. The two share some similarities, but offer very different analyses of the problem and very different directions for hope/improvement

Dictator's handbook in brief (see also the excellent summary by CPG grey on youtube):

  • You can think of government as a game played between rulers and ruled. Rulers who don't play to maximize the amount of time they stay in power don't rule for long, so we can model rulers' utility function as just maximizing time in power. This fits most cases pretty well, and explains a lot of political phenomena.
  • We can ignore most of the details of a given political system, and just put systems on a spectrum from "perfect dictatorship" to "perfect democracy" by how many key supporters a ruler needs to please to stay in power. In a realistic dictatorship, the answer is a handful of people. In a realistic democracy, the answer is a significant fraction of the population.
  • The ruler's incentive is always to minimize the number of key supporters needed, and then make those supporters satisfied.
  • The key supporters sometimes have incentives aligned with the ruler, IE, also want to minimize the number of key supporters (to get more rewards per key supporter). This is especially true when there are few key supporters already. This will lead to culls and movement further and further toward dictatorship.
  • At other times, the key supporters may want to expand the number of key supporters. This is because (1) they want to protect themselves against a cull, and (2) they may want to incentivise the ruler to produce public goods (rather than special benefits to supporters). This is especially true when the number of key supporters is already very large, so special benefits to supporters are small, and won't be hurt much by expanding the coalition (and are outweighed by benefits from public goods). Expanding the coalition further provides insulation from culls. This leads to further democratization.

Immoral Mazes seem sort of like the Dictator's Handbook model but with more levels. The Dictator's Handbook did mention (I think?) that the key supporters are usually playing the same game one level down, but didn't make very much of this.

I think the Dictator's Handbook model is clearer and more precise than Immoral Mazes, so it would be cool to try and meld them together further.

Some big differences between the models:

  • Dictator's Handbook sees everyone as just following their incentives. Moloch is very strong in organizations closer to the dictatorship end of the spectrum, and relatively weak in organizations close to the democracy end of the spectrum.
  • Immoral Mazes sees everyone as following perceived incentives, but strongly holds that it isn't worth it. People in Mazes are making a mistake.
  • Both models would agree that flatter hierarchies result in better outcomes (for the majority of people). But for different reasons:
    • Immoral Mazes holds that hierarchy itself is the problem. Deeper hierarchy means increasingly warped incentives.
    • Dictator's Handbook holds that small branching numbers in hierarchy is the problem. Smaller branching numbers naturally lead to deeper hierarchy, but the more important point according to Dictator's Handbook is that each boss has to satisfy fewer supporters.
  • Dictator's Handbook doesn't really care what the executive hierarchy looks like, so long as it is answerable to a large number of people. A president may set up a deep hierarchical government, but since the president is ultimately answerable to the people, you're in a democratic (and therefore relatively benevolent) regime.
  • Immoral Mazes predicts that the deep hierarchy in the government is as big a problem as deep hierarchy anywhere else; it matters only a little that the president answers to the people.

Connections to Gervais Principle

Another model with striking similarities is The Gervais Principle

Here's my summary, biasing toward connections to the other two models:

  • Like the other two models, Gervais Principle emphasizes that large organizations are fundamentally dysfunctional, IE, not very aligned with carrying out their purported function.
  • Like Immoral Mazes, Gervais Principle gives a special role to middle management.
  • In the Gervais Principle, the top of an organization is a collection of sociopaths. The middle management are called the clueless. The bottom rungs of an organization are called the losers.
    • Sociopaths are the really ambitious people who create the warped moral frame that middle management buys into. Sociopaths rise to the top and then proceed to extract profit, like the rulers in Dictator's Handbook.
    • Clueless are the people who sociopaths want beneath them. Ideally (for the sociopath) there would only be one sociopath; the key supporters would all be clueless loyalists who buy into the narrative. Unfortunately (for the top sociopath), other sociopaths will manipulate their way into the highest positions. So the top management realistically consists of power-hungry sociopaths who weave a web of moral confusion. Middle management lives in this web of confusion.
    • Losers are at the bottom. They work for their paycheck and little more. The sociopaths don't need to fool them, so they are usually more aware of the dysfunctional nature of the organization, but can't do anything about it.

The Gervais Principle takes an almost anthropological approach to these three groups of people, describing their different cultures and norms. It offers no hope for building better institutions.

I like the way The Gervais Principle factors loyalty into the model, highlighting the way that rulers select key supporters based on loyalty in a way the more game-theoretic model of The Dictator's Handbook can't really explain. Loyalty in a game-theoretic model just means that dictators make supporters dependent on them and rule through fear. Loyalty in real life includes more than this; as Immoral Mazes put it, giving up your soul.

The Great Fragmentation

In Immoral Mazes, Zvi asserts that mazes are on the rise. Corporations and other organizations with large mazes have been around for a long time in America, slowly but surely increasing their internal maze levels, and seeping out maze culture into the general cultural mixing pot.

Now, I'm not saying Zvi is wrong, but I see a lot of things which are discordant with this picture.

When I look at recent American history, I get the following impression:

  • The 50s and 60s saw "peak square" -- the socioeconomic landscape was dominated by large companies and "the company man".
  • The 60s and 70s saw a huge cultural revolution, which began a major decline in squares. Men stopped wearing suits and ties, and alternative hairstyles (IE long hair) became much more socially acceptable for men. Women were less and less pressured to live traditionally as housewives.
  • The "company man" became less and less a thing, as the average number of careers in one's lifetime increased. Today it's hardly realistic to expect to work for one company for your whole life.
  • In the 90s, start-up culture started to be a major thing. We saw the rise of "the tech industry" as it exists today, which Zvi himself admits is somewhat less prone to immoral mazes.
  • In the 00s, hipster culture (like hippy culture before it) created commercial pressure against homogenized goods. Large record labels became much less important in the music industry. The same thing happened across many other areas of media, continuing into the 2010s, due to the new possibilities opened up by the internet. We saw the rise of indie everything, which by Zvi's account, should greatly reduce mazes.

All of these impressions are greatly reinforced by Paul Graham's essay, The Refragmentation

All of these forces push against large organizations with deep hierarchies. The fall of "square" culture should be a major blow to maze culture -- americans were no longer interested in becoming cookie-cuttout people (as required by mazes).

Yet Zvi claims that maze culture has been on the rise!

What could be the cause, if many drivers of mazes are in decline?

One hypothesis could be that although the root causes are in some ways decreasing, the damage has been done -- like someone exposed to the common cold at a party, and who gradually gets worse once they get home. America has contracted the maze disease, and it continues to fester. In other words, even if large corporations with deep hierarchies are actually less prevalent than they once were, the maze cultures in those that exist are far, far more developed.

I'm somewhat suspicious of this explanation, because in a culture where non-maze opportunities are opening up more and more, it seems like mazes should die. I think people's behavior is more dependent on context than it is on these subtle cultural influences, so I expect to see larger effect sizes from incentive structures changing than from negative cultures slowly festering over time. But perhaps it's a factor.

Another hypothesis is slow strangulation via red tape. As regulations and restrictions increase over time, it gets harder and harder to escape mazes, and mazes get deeper and deeper. More generally, it could be that although some causes of mazes have diminished, other more important causes have increased, making mazes worse overall.

It's also possible that Zvi is wrong, mazes as such are not on the rise after all, and the creeping insanity which Zvi is noticing has some other source.

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Hello, LessWrong! Long time reader, first-time commenter.

I think that your description of the counter-maze tendency is wrong, and you've misunderstood some aspects of Zvi's model while being distracted by superficialities in the other. To wit:

  • Startups employ a trivial percentage of the workforce and do not contribute much to the economy. Startups that get big occupy more economic space, but by that point they're no longer startups. So the attributes of startup culture are not really relevant to the economy at large.
  • It's understood by everyone that being a startup is a kind of  corporate childhood -- romanticised, but temporary. It is implicitly accepted by everyone, including startup founders, that growing up and becoming a mature, "adult" company requires becoming a maze with multiple levels of hierarchy.
  • Tech culture is anti-maze only insofar as it consists of startups. All of FAANGM are fully converted to mazes. Consequently, most actual tech workers work within mazes.
  • The change away from suits etc. is a change of fashion with no impact on the underlying dynamics. Arguably it actually helps out the sociopaths because it replaces a fixed, legible standard of dress with an unclear and illegible question of "culture fit", which creates more room for maze games.
  • The move away from "company men" was not a move away from large firms, but rather a move away from a vertical system to a stratified one. In the old system (prior to 1970) you could expect to work your entire life for the same company, and middle and upper management was typically promoted from the rank-and-file. In the newer system, middle and upper management are hired from people with MBAs and other credentials, and they move freely between industries. As a consequence, the maze-nature is transmitted quickly from company to company, and to a certain extent all management everywhere is joined in a super-maze, as all management shares the same culture and experiences which is completely separate from the culture and experiences of the workers.
  • Actually, this last point deserves more elaboration: according to Zvi, the main thing that mitigates against mazes is direct engagement with the object-level reality. This engagement is present in the rank-and-file, and to a certain extent at the very top, but is absent in the middle. However, in a vertical system of advancement, where management hires are made from within, the middle ranks will at least have a memory of working on the object-level concerns of the firm. The rise of a permanent managerial class means that many middle managers are of a type which has never worked directly on the actual product that their company makes, and whose entire education and experience is in the context of immoral mazes.

So I find it unpersuasive to think that any of the cultural changes of the previous decades have done anything to reverse the advance of mazes as the normative corporate structure, and some of the things that you mention as inhibiting maze structures (such as frequently changing companies over the course of a career) have probably actually accelerated them.

An additional, unrelated note: the model of The Dictator's Handbook suggests that incentives push away from the middle, towards total democracy (when there are already a large number of key supporters) or total autocracy (where the number of key supporters approaches one). But don't other models suggest that the middle state of oligarchy is actually the default, and that both democracy and monarchy tend to decay towards oligarchy over time? And aren't examples of this widespread? I notice that I am confused.

However, in a vertical system of advancement, where management hires are made from within, the middle ranks will at least have a memory of working on the object-level concerns of the firm.

I think this is part of why the startup nature of tech firms is important, even if all of the important firms are no longer in childhood; it means some fraction of the executive class are people who were around from the beginning, or who built the systems themselves, and so do have the relevant memory.

That said, my sense is that FAANGM are somewhere between 50% and 80% as mazy as corporations as a whole; enough less to be noticeable, but it's still probably the best lens through which to view the situation.

I think this is part of why the startup nature of tech firms is important, even if all of the important firms are no longer in childhood; it means some fraction of the executive class are people who were around from the beginning, or who built the systems themselves, and so do have the relevant memory.

Which startups get big, while keeping their founders  in charge, isn't random. The founders that do that will tend to be the ones who can attract investment and partnerships and have a network of (personal or professional or familial or whatever) connections to draw on. They're the ones who already know to (and know how to) play maze games. 

Welcome! :)

  • Startups employ a trivial percentage of the workforce and do not contribute much to the economy. Startups that get big occupy more economic space, but by that point they're no longer startups. So the attributes of startup culture are not really relevant to the economy at large.
  • It's understood by everyone that being a startup is a kind of  corporate childhood -- romanticised, but temporary. It is implicitly accepted by everyone, including startup founders, that growing up and becoming a mature, "adult" company requires becoming a maze with multiple levels of hierarchy.
  • Tech culture is anti-maze only insofar as it consists of startups. All of FAANGM are fully converted to mazes. Consequently, most actual tech workers work within mazes.

Try reading The Refragmentation and see if you still think the same, if you haven't yet.

One choice quote:

But change was coming soon. And when the Duplo economy started to disintegrate, it disintegrated in several different ways at once. Vertically integrated companies literally dis-integrated because it was more efficient to. Incumbents faced new competitors as (a) markets went global and (b) technical innovation started to trump economies of scale, turning size from an asset into a liability. Smaller companies were increasingly able to survive as formerly narrow channels to consumers broadened. Markets themselves started to change faster, as whole new categories of products appeared. And last but not least, the federal government, which had previously smiled upon J. P. Morgan's world as the natural state of things, began to realize it wasn't the last word after all.

What J. P. Morgan was to the horizontal axis, Henry Ford was to the vertical. He wanted to do everything himself. The giant plant he built at River Rouge between 1917 and 1928 literally took in iron ore at one end and sent cars out the other. 100,000 people worked there. At the time it seemed the future. But that is not how car companies operate today. Now much of the design and manufacturing happens in a long supply chain, whose products the car companies ultimately assemble and sell. The reason car companies operate this way is that it works better. Each company in the supply chain focuses on what they know best. And they each have to do it well or they can be swapped out for another supplier.

In other words, it's not just about isolated startups which employ a tiny percentage. According to Paul Graham, across the board, things broke up. Horizontal and vertical integration became less common as the market increased its churn rate. This means smaller organizations doing fewer things well, which is one piece of advice Zvi gives for combating mazes. 

(For those not familiar, "vertical integration" means taking care of more parts of your supply chain, EG if a steel company started directly doing some of the mining which produced its raw materials; and "horizontal integration" means branching out into other businesses (perhaps with some supply chain overlap, but not so directly related).)

Now, obviously, the new companies (FAANGM as you put it) have umbrellad outwards horizontally and in some cases vertically. But these are very new organizations. So unless the rate of mazification has itself increased, they should be at lower maze levels than these older organizations that were around in the 1950s. The rate of mazification may have increased, I'm not saying it hasn't, but that still requires some other driving factor.

  • The move away from "company men" was not a move away from large firms, but rather a move away from a vertical system to a stratified one. In the old system (prior to 1970) you could expect to work your entire life for the same company, and middle and upper management was typically promoted from the rank-and-file. In the newer system, middle and upper management are hired from people with MBAs and other credentials, and they move freely between industries. As a consequence, the maze-nature is transmitted quickly from company to company, and to a certain extent all management everywhere is joined in a super-maze, as all management shares the same culture and experiences which is completely separate from the culture and experiences of the workers.
  • Actually, this last point deserves more elaboration: according to Zvi, the main thing that mitigates against mazes is direct engagement with the object-level reality. This engagement is present in the rank-and-file, and to a certain extent at the very top, but is absent in the middle. However, in a vertical system of advancement, where management hires are made from within, the middle ranks will at least have a memory of working on the object-level concerns of the firm. The rise of a permanent managerial class means that many middle managers are of a type which has never worked directly on the actual product that their company makes, and whose entire education and experience is in the context of immoral mazes.

This point seems very significant, and pushes more "this is what's really going on" type buttons in my brain.

"Company men" have more cooperative incentives. People who switch careers many times have more adversarial incentives. At the risk of muddying our spatial metaphors, this is vertical vs horizontal transmission all over again.

It also smacks of the rise of meritocracy. See this book and this podcast episode.

I still have a picture where some key maze factors have reduced over time, but others (including this creation of a separate middle management career track) have increased, plausibly resulting in an overall increase.

An additional, unrelated note: the model of The Dictator's Handbook suggests that incentives push away from the middle, towards total democracy (when there are already a large number of key supporters) or total autocracy (where the number of key supporters approaches one). But don't other models suggest that the middle state of oligarchy is actually the default, and that both democracy and monarchy tend to decay towards oligarchy over time? And aren't examples of this widespread? I notice that I am confused.

Frankly, the argument that there are two attractive states with instability in the middle is a bit fuzzy, and I wouldn't be surprised if it somewhat breaks down with better models.

However, to defend it a little: iirc the book does give historical examples of governments in inbetween states being very unstable. And it sort of makes sense. The larger the number of key supporters, the more competition you have as leader. Democracies are relatively stable because they've settled on a stable way to overturn leaders. Dictatorships are relatively stable because they don't overturn leaders. But somewhere in the middle, you expect leadership to be overturned moderately often, as there is steep competition for the top (just not as steep as in a full blown democracy). Unless the government sets up a regular way for that to happen, you'd expect governmental instability, meaning things can easily transition into a more full-blown democracy or a more full-blown dictatorship.

I might be wrong here, but I have a stereotype of long-lived dictators but short-lived royals. Monarchies of the late middle ages were often somewhere in the middle, with unelected rulers but large courts. (But I'm no historian.)

Thanks in turn :).

I had read The Refragmentation before, but I reread it shortly after reading your article to make sure I hadn't missed something. I definitely think that Graham is onto something, but I'm just not sure that it actually cashes out into a lower maze level overall. In particular, deregulation seems to have reduced the size of moats around incumbents, but doesn't seem to have resulted in an overall reduction in firm size; instead, what happened is that incumbents were merged or reorganized, and in some cases upstarts replaced them and grew bigger. But this does not necessarily mean that the replacements were less maze-like. Microsoft is now bigger than IBM, but does it actually have less middle-management maze behavior?

I seem to recall stats to the effect that the largest N corporations employ a steadily-increasing portion of the population and the economy, which would support this analysis. Unfortunately, I can't find a data set online that shows this, though I did come up with https://www.bls.gov/web/cewbd/table_g.txt, which has some interesting data in it. (For example, I didn't realize that the number of public sector firms was actually that small.)

I also noticed this, tucked away in a footnote inThe Refragmentation:

More precisely, there was a bimodal economy consisting, in Galbraith's words, of "the world of the technically dynamic, massively capitalized and highly organized corporations on the one hand and the hundreds of thousands of small and traditional proprietors on the other." Money, prestige, and power were concentrated in the former, and there was near zero crossover.

The tiny mom-and-pop store is now much rarer than it used to be. Decades ago, your groceries, home goods, clothes, and gas might all have been bought from retailers that had less than 5 employees, even if they were manufactured by much larger corps. These days you probably get all of them from large organizations.

I seem to recall stats to the effect that the largest N corporations employ a steadily-increasing portion of the population and the economy, which would support this analysis. Unfortunately, I can't find a data set online that shows this, though I did come up with https://www.bls.gov/web/cewbd/table_g.txt, which has some interesting data in it. (For example, I didn't realize that the number of public sector firms was actually that small.)

Ahhh yes, this would negate most of my confusion.

The tiny mom-and-pop store is now much rarer than it used to be.

Yep, a very good point.

Root comment is excellent. Makes some but not all of the points I would make in response. I think it would mostly be more enlightening for me not to say much more on the subject here and let the conversation unfold, so that's the plan. 

I'm currently left with the feeling that I raised a few points plausibly against mazes, and comments pointed out how those points could plausibly be pro-maze instead. I don't have enough gears to evaluate which we should really expect. So my current models fail to be predictive.

Factor 1: more people moving between companies / between different careers.

On the one hand, having more autonomy means you can opt out of toxic environments. To my eye, this severely weakens your story about super-perfect competition.

On the other hand, moving between companies is an additional way to cover your tracks, promoting shorter memories and less skin in the game. Taking a biological analogy, this is horizontal transfer, which promotes parasitism.

The answer might be "both", but this leaves the question of which effect is larger.

It also leaves the question of whether super-perfect competition is really important to moral mazes and whether it's really prevalent in today's middle management (despite a lot of apparent freedom to move).

Factor 2: more fragmentation of big companies into more highly specialized companies.

On the one hand, you named fragmentation as a way to help reduce maze levels.

On the other hand, maze levels seem to be increasing with fragmentation.

Fragmentation in the modern context seems to increase maze level, as more fragmentation somehow means more managers. You get companies splitting into specialized entities, but continuing to have deep management hierarchies below the top.

My best explanation for this at the moment is simply increasing background expectation that you need a deep management hierarchy to run things.

Congrats on a great first comment! :)

Startups employ a trivial percentage of the workforce and do not contribute much to the economy. Startups that get big occupy more economic space, but by that point they're no longer startups. So the attributes of startup culture are not really relevant to the economy at large.

 

I wonder what fraction of GDP in 2060 will be accounted for by the work that startups are doing today. US GDP in 1975 was about 9% of what it was in 2015. Do we think that it was the biggest companies that existed in 1975 that were primarily responsible for driving this growth? Or was it startups that grew over time?

I'm willing to accept that the large companies that exist today are primarily responsible for generating the lion's share of GDP and employment today. But it seems plausible that startups are more important to the future economy, and thus to absolute long-term levels of production, than large companies that exist today.

This is just pure speculation; I'd be curious to hear what a real economist had to say about this.

I looked up the founding dates of the 30 companies that currently make up the Dow. 19 of them (making up 56% of the index) were founded before 1975, and the other 11 (44%) afterwards.

The DOW itself was only 4.5% of it's 2015 (nominal) value in 1975

About 10/30 of the companies that were in the DOW in 1976 are still major economic drivers today

So, overall, I'd guess 50% of GDP in 2060 will be from companies that exist on January 1, 2022 (using 2020 as a baseline year is all sorts of fraught)

An additional, unrelated note: the model of The Dictator's Handbook suggests that incentives push away from the middle, towards total democracy (when there are already a large number of key supporters) or total autocracy (where the number of key supporters approaches one). But don't other models suggest that the middle state of oligarchy is actually the default, and that both democracy and monarchy tend to decay towards oligarchy over time? And aren't examples of this widespread? I notice that I am confused.

I haven't read The Dictator's Handbook or know what models there are already, but an autocrat could choose to convert to oligarchy to ensure a stable succession plan (assuming they felt no other autocrat could successfully wield power other than them), and a democracy could become an oligarchy if no individual could seize enough power to directly become an autocrat, but a group working together could. Under the right circumstances these incentives could overwhelm the ones going in the opposite direction.

The common strategy for autocrats is to name successors, typically their own children.

If the dictator's handbook is right about the forces, oligarchy isn't a "stable succession plan" (because it's less stable), so this wouldn't make oligarchy an equilibrium, it would just make nothing an equilibrium. (IE these forces don't balance out, they just keep transitioning other states into the least stable state, which would result in continuing transitions back and forth.)

americans were no longer interested in becoming cookie-cuttout people (as required by mazes).

I think people are becoming more diverse on superficial features and less diverse on 'important' features (granted this is sort of an abuse of language that is somewhat question-begging). This makes sense if the system as a whole is (in an agencyless way) incentivizing finding and exploiting the sorts of things that cause people to rebel in more superficial ways. E.g. social media makes rebellion with any real teeth more costly.

Have you read The Refragmentation? The way I see it, there are many large forces pushing toward fragmentation. If there is large-scale anti-fragmentation happening, I don't understand how it is happening.

I didn't buy the essay when it first came out and I buy it even less now. Radicalization seems like a cycle and we currently seem to be in a swing back towards centrism with record numbers of people condemning radicals of their own party and election results that heavily favored more centrist candidates on both sides of the isle.

Since my earlier comment, it occurred to me that there's a pretty obvious source of "anti-fragmentation": far more people going to college/university. Although this results in superficial specialization, it means people have a far more uniform life experience in their early 20s compared to if they learned specialties on the job rather than at a large institution.

I've read Gervais Principle and see it as fully compatible with Immoral Mazes (I forget if I mention this explicitly or not, if not it's a good idea to fix that in the editing). 

Gervais Principle largely studies the interactions between the three groups, as observed in The Office. Sociopaths like David Wallace appear, but they rarely interact much with each other, and while there are some discussions of how they interact (e.g. Power Talk) the book is mostly unconcerned with Sociopath vs. Sociopath.

The managers in Moral Mazes are all (in Gervais terms) sociopaths, with the occasional intentional clueless perhaps (the managers who 'opt out' of the competition). 

Gervais Principle does not have a suggestion for change, as Rao doesn't believe in such things, but there is a clear message: If you have to choose, Be A Loser. Immoral Mazes strongly agrees, noting that being a Loser is not obviously a mistake, but that being a Sociopath is definitely a mistake.

Yes, you did mention the Gervais Principle. I found 4 references from Escaping Mazes but the main one seems to be:

The Gervais Principle can be seen as the prequel to Moral Mazes, dealing with life at lower levels of mazes that have to interact with the real world. Mazes need, as several quotes describe, people who keep their heads down and ‘do their job’ with no ambitions for further advancement. Ideally one does this as low on the totem pole as one can stomach and afford, as the life that results is far less odious and taxing. 

Some of the other references in that post related to the "loser" concept.

There were also 3 in the Round Up post, one being (Seems no one has taken up the suggestion):

If one wanted to do a full extension of the project, (17) On The Gervais Principle could be anything up to and including its own sequence. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I consider Gervais Principle and Moral Mazes to be fully compatible, and Gervais Principle has a bunch of stuff that expands upon the model.

Gervais Principle does not have a suggestion for change, as Rao doesn't believe in such things, but there is a clear message: If you have to choose, Be A Loser.

 

FWIW reading between the lines, I'd say Rao's belief is "If you have to choose, be a sociopath."

I think that's also what many readers concluded.

And when I read it, my clear takeaway was actually to be a clueless - the only one that believed in organizations that could make a difference, and lived that value.

Of course, one of the problem's with Rao's account that I later realized(that I think Zvi's sequence shares to some degree) is that it doesn't distinguish between Kegan 4.5 Sociopaths, and Kegan 5 leaders.  This creates the impossible choice between having freedom as a loser, meaning as a clueless, or influence as as a sociopath, pick one.

Similarly, Zvi's sequence gives the choice of truth as a simulacra 1,  belonging as Simulacra 2, and influence as Simulacra 4.

Neither framing admits that it's possible to get to a stage of leadership in which you can fluidly cycle between variations of the 3 modes.

BTW this is bolstered by Rao's other work, like his longstanding newsletter called "Be Slightly Evil".

I think you probably mention Gervais Principle briefly at some point?

Dictator's Handbook sees everyone as just following their incentives. Moloch is very strong in organizations closer to the dictatorship end of the spectrum, and relatively weak in organizations close to the democracy end of the spectrum.

I think this is either using a version of 'Moloch' that's too specific, or is ignoring what's bad about democracies. Moloch in democracies looks like politicians who give voters what they think they want, instead of what they 'actually' want, or who drive turnout mostly by demonizing the opposition rather than credibly promising to improve things.

I agree, and worded myself carefully to avoid going into that too much:

and relatively weak in organizations close to the democracy end of the spectrum.

IE, relative to dictatorships.

In the big picture, democracies are way, way better than dictatorships. This doesn't stop democracies from being pretty crappy in a lot of easily identifiable ways.

A problem we currently have is that we don't have a very good picture, at present, of what we could aspire to that's better than democracies.

Futarchy is a start, but it's rather untested, and there are some plausible problems with it.

One hypothesis could be that although the root causes are in some ways decreasing, the damage has been done -- like someone exposed to the common cold at a party, and who gradually gets worse once they get home. America has contracted the maze disease, and it continues to fester. In other words, even if large corporations with deep hierarchies are actually less prevalent than they once were, the maze cultures in those that exist are far, far more developed.

Compare 100 mazes (mazes are widespread) with 10 mazes holding 90% of the area the 100 mazes did (big concentrated mazes). This allows them to be 10 times as deep.

It does seem like this picture is right. I still feel like I'm lacking some part of the causal story.

America has contracted the maze disease, and it continues to fester. In other words, even if large corporations with deep hierarchies are actually less prevalent than they once were, the maze cultures in those that exist are far, far more developed.

Some evidence in support of this hypothesis (and by extension, Zvi's claim that mazes are on the rise) is the prevalence of oligopolies in America and the world. It's hard to buy affordable food without indirectly buying from Nestle for example, and in many of America's food deserts the only nearby place to buy food in the first place is a supermarket that's part of a massive chain. Most Americans have only 1-3 options when it comes to internet service providers, and media companies like Disney routinely buy or merge with their competition (which somewhat prevents startups from being as disruptive to deep hierarchies as they could otherwise be).

I'm somewhat suspicious of this explanation, because in a culture where non-maze opportunities are opening up more and more, it seems like mazes should die. I think people's behavior is more dependent on context than it is on these subtle cultural influences, so I expect to see larger effect sizes from incentive structures changing than from negative cultures slowly festering over time. But perhaps it's a factor. 

Even when people choose to buy from individuals, they often do so through corporate mediators. For example, to reach an audience, an indie musician will probably upload their music to DistroKid which will allow people to download or stream the music through other corporate platforms; in some sense, this makes the musicians beholden in some way to the whims of DistroKid's and other corporations' whims. Similarly, people who design their own crafts or clothing can sell them online independently, but much of this business takes place through a platform like Etsy or Redbubble which likewise introduces a maze to an otherwise individualized and direct process/transaction. Ridesharing services, Airbnb, and the rise of the "gig economy" fit into the same pattern of individual, atomically voluntary participation at the bottom of what is ultimately a deep hierarchy. 

Thus, there may be fewer giant corporations in America than there were 60-70 years ago, but those that remain seem to have deeper hierarchies than ever because incentive structures favor participation in corporate hierarchies even in a culture of independence and self-sufficiency. In that sense, I think your intuition that incentive structures overpower cultural influence is correct, but I disagree about which element favors/disfavors mazes.

Some evidence in support of this hypothesis (and by extension, Zvi's claim that mazes are on the rise) is the prevalence of oligopolies in America and the world. It's hard to buy affordable food without indirectly buying from Nestle for example, and in many of America's food deserts the only nearby place to buy food in the first place is a supermarket that's part of a massive chain. Most Americans have only 1-3 options when it comes to internet service providers, and media companies like Disney routinely buy or merge with their competition (which somewhat prevents startups from being as disruptive to deep hierarchies as they could otherwise be).

My contention (based on The Refragmentation) is that this is much less true than it was in 1950; if not in food, then still, in many other sectors of the market.

But it's possible that this wan only the case for a period around the 90s or something, and the fragmentation has reversed in recent years.

Even when people choose to buy from individuals, they often do so through corporate mediators. For example, to reach an audience, an indie musician will probably upload their music to DistroKid which will allow people to download or stream the music through other corporate platforms; in some sense, this makes the musicians beholden in some way to the whims of DistroKid's and other corporations' whims.

I've never heard of DistroKid and expected you to say BandCamp or SoundCloud. This is minor evidence against the claim. But some variety doesn't mean a lot of variety (IE there could be just three choices).

Still, musicians are far less beholden to these platforms than they were to big record companies of the past, which dictated musical fashion to a far greater degree.

But again, these are newer companies, so we need a different explanation of why they have deeper mazes.

Ridesharing services, Airbnb, and the rise of the "gig economy" fit into the same pattern of individual, atomically voluntary participation at the bottom of what is ultimately a deep hierarchy. 

Definitely agree with this one. The choice  between driving for traditional taxi companies, uber, or lyft isn't much of a choice.

These are newer companies, but in this case there's a ready explanation for why they have deeper mazes: many relatively small and local taxi companies have been replaced by just two ride-share companies. I don't know the statistics, but it would make perfect sense if these companies have deeper mazes simply because they are larger than traditional taxi companies.

The same explanation holds for amazon vs everything it replaces.

Dictator's Handbook doesn't really care what the executive hierarchy looks like, so long as it is answerable to a large number of people. A president may set up a deep hierarchical government, but since the president is ultimately answerable to the people, you're in a democratic (and therefore relatively benevolent) regime.

It's not as easy. There are career civil servants who stay in power independent of who is president. Presidents and ministers come and go.

It's commonly believed that Putin does win his elections and I still wouldn't call Russia a relatively benevolent regime.

For a member of Putin's inner circle it does matter that Putin stays in power but their personal power depends a lot on relationships with other members of Putin's inner circle.

Dictator's Handbook addresses the case of Putin. The regime holds elections, but has very effectively stifled free speech, which makes the elections less free. The same is true in China. Granted, this is a significant wrinkle to the formal model. I think the authors are essentially placing these countries further toward the autocratic end of the spectrum based on intuition (IE they admit a wide variety of factors in this judgement, not just a direct analysis of the governmental structure).

I think there's a general trend that countries with strong parliaments are more democratic and more benevolent then countries with have one strong person at the top. It would surprise me if Bruce Bueno de Mesquita wouldn't agree on that point (I read The Predictioneer's Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future with is another book by him). 

There are also good reason why people consider the recent centalization of Chinese power on Xi as a sign of it getting less democratic.

I don't know what the structure in Russia is, but Hungary (ed: original post said Turkey, which an error of my memory) transitioned from a democracy to a one-party state by, essentially, narrowing the focus from "everyone" to "party members" (about 1/3 of the population belongs to the ruling party) and especially party elite over non-party elite. We saw the same thing in Saddam's Iraq, or Apartheid South Africa: an elite getting lots of goodies, and a substantial minority of the population getting some exclusive benefit, and the majority out in the cold.

Contrast with Magna Carta era England, where all the goodies went to the top <1%

Yeah, this seems like an important structure to think about. What stops many democracies from sliding into a ton of party favoritism? What allows this in other cases?

The standard story as I see it is that re-election worries prevent this. Reward the minority, and the majority will turn against you. What stops this in Turkey? I guess there are lots of ways to disenfranchise people.

In a popular election, you'd love to promise the world to 51% at the expense of the 49%. Why isn't this more common?

Once in power, you'd love to disenfranchise more people so that you can have a smaller base (which you can promise even more to, while taking even more for yourself). Why isn't this more common?

Why isn't dictatorship the only attractor?

  1. Hungary has gerrymandering and other voter suppression stuff, but primarily it has divided opposition. The party in power has 1/3, but the other 2/3 is split 4 ways, plus minor parties. One particularly good election where they got ~1/2 the vote due to temporary members let them claim a supermajority of legislative seats, and then use that supermajority to change the rules so that any party with a core 30% level would retain majority power indefinitely (plus putting in party appartchiks in lots of governmental and judicial roles). If the opposition was fully unified, they could take back control, theoretically, but the media/bureaucratic control lets them work against that happening.
  2. Democracies have laws, norms, and systems that prevent the elected government from directly rewarding their voters. They have to spread the rewards more generally (eg even if my company didn't support you, I still get to bid on government contracts. Often there is a bureaucracy and military that are held independent of political parties, and demand a large share of the  "rewards" leaving not enough $ left to bribe 51% of the electorate.
  3. Some people value equality/fairness as a terminal value. If you have (and/or create via childhood messeging) a large enough fraction of your population with that value, one of the "rewards" you can hand out is even-handed policies that spread the $ rewards out (in the form of public goods / programs), which that group will vote for over their own selfish enrichment.

In a popular election, you'd love to promise the world to 51% at the expense of the 49%. Why isn't this more common?

I think this focus on 100% mistakes a lot of what political support is about. US presidential candiates spent a lot time campaigning in swing states and not in California because there little expected gain from campainging in Calinfornia. 

It's very wasteful for any US presidential candidate to promise anything to Californians. 

A lot of people also don't form their own opinions but take their opinions from thought leaders (which can be promised rewards) or through political messenging (which you buy with the campaign donations that you exchange for rewards). 

I agree.

I also don't know what N% support literally means, in selectorate theory (the theory expounded by Dictator's Handbook).

In a plurality vote, N% support means that percent of people voted for you. This definition is also used even when systems like the electoral college, gerrymandering, etc are in place, since these are seen as methods of disenfranchising some people.

But voting for a candidate doesn't mean you like them very much! Particularly in a plurality system!

In an approval voting system, you similarly take "voted for that person" as "support". This is plausibly more meaningful than "support" in a plurality vote. But it is also very different, since you support more than one candidate.

In other systems such as IRV and score voting ant STAR voting and so on, it gets increasingly murky.

I think it's very misleading to see voting system that are prescriptive with the same lense as selectorate theory that tries to be descriptive.

In Germany where I'm from, to become a parliamentarian the selectorate are your fellow party members. If you are liked by your fellow party members you get a place high up in the list and/or a district you are likely to win. You do things that advance the agenda of your party to win favor with your fellow party members.

Then at an election voters decide about which agenda of which parties gets how much influence. 

In the US you need donors to run a successful campaign to be elected as congressman so donors are central to the selectorate. Both the donors that give you money and also the donors that would fund a possible primary challenge against you. 

If nobody knows their congressman and what good the congressmen did for their district expect those who are highly engaged and can drive campaign donations, that small class of people is effectively the selectorate

First off, thank you very much for this post.  I've been kicking around similar thoughts on these three books and am loving the discussion.

In a popular election, you'd love to promise the world to 51% at the expense of the 49%. Why isn't this more common?

Define "more common" It definitely isn't rare in the US. Ending exemptions for state taxes hurts blue states and helps red states. Forgiving student loans helps liberal college educated voters at expense of no college conservative voters.

Once in power, you'd love to disenfranchise more people so that you can have a smaller base (which you can promise even more to, while taking even more for yourself). Why isn't this more common?

Again, accusations at least of disenfranchisement are very common in US. The debate over voter ID is primarily a debate about who would be disenfranchised by enacting them ("legit voters" having their vote cancelled by illegit voters or "legit voters" not able to vote at all cause the requirements are too strict). DC and Puerto Rico statehood are attempts to expand the franchise in a way that makes it easier for liberals to gain control of Senate and Presidency.  Calls to end Electoral College are about disenfranchising rural areas in favor of urban areas (often very explicitly).

I'm not sure I have anything significant to add to jaspax comment above which is excellent and summarize most of my objections to the main post.

So this comment is just here to recommand a book which I think could help make the discussion of the two last points (the ones on engagement with object level reality). It is called "shop class as soulcraft", by Matthews Crawford, and discuss quite engagingly the different kind of relation-to-the world you can get from different kind of jobs. It is generally a defence of jobs that are often considered low status (main example being a motorcycle repairer) ; it's main point is that those jobs engage you with the reality of the world, exercise your intelligence and give meaning to your live in a way many white-collared jobs don't. 
It's also very well written, alternating between solid philosophical and sociological discussions and down-to-earth example out of the author experience.

For some reason I can't see the comments without commenting.

This actually builds a very strong case for unionising those at the bottom.

I think the rise of the popularity of the internet has actually strengthened moral mazes in companies. 

Especially now since everybody on the internet can access their own very intense small scale subgroups which usually perfectly conforms to whatever ideology / life style that person wants. Not only does the internet allow people to find their niche interests, it allows them to jump between group cultures relatively easily.  In each of these groups there is norms and unwritten culture rules about what is and isn't acceptable, I think that's why the social sites with points system like reddit took off was because not only is their a reward for posting acceptable in-group content but it also allows the shaming of out-group content.

These small subcultures usually draw specific pools of users, who draw more pools of users, who then make up a majority of the platform. But it is subcultures all the way down, and different subcultures can have dramatic effects on the type of content an individual consumes. Some getting to the point where it is as close to an echo chamber as it can be. There is a distinct difference in types of content produced on YouTube's trending page and say game design tutorial playlists. For another example of subcultures I like to look to reddit, I would say the site is increasingly political, but how those political subcultures divide on the left and right is both interesting and I would argue mostly psychotoxic to consistently read through. But the point is all sub-cultures online are made of people, then those subcultures keep grouping until their are a generally cohesive base on a few big topics. 

A business can be thought of as a bunch of sub-cultures as well also grouping into a hopefully cohesive unit. Office politics has always and forever will be a thing, but I think due to the rise of intense social subcultures online that maybe tailored to each individual it's become more difficult to find commonality. The middle managers will have to stay on top of very fuzzy social and moral issues to keep their competitive edge on other managers or firms. I think of it as social keynes beauty contest, the typical appeal to the mass audience except with the light on you at all times with social media. Specific sub-cultures online and probably major media corporations will drag you and your company into the spotlight if you violate social order. 

tl;dr: I think it has become harder for middle managers to navigate through office culture as the rise of the internet has given sub-groups both in and out of the corporation to have a lot more direct social influence on acceptable actions and positions your company can take, thus increasing the intensity in company moral mazes. 

Especially now since everybody on the internet can access their own very intense small scale subgroups which usually perfectly conforms to whatever ideology / life style that person wants. Not only does the internet allow people to find their niche interests, it allows them to jump between group cultures relatively easily.

Groups on the internet are not intense small scale subgroups. Joining an organization like Scientology in magnitude more intense then what you get with an internet subgroup. 

Conflicts inside a company are usually much more important for the people inside the company and their career then whatever online discussions arrise. 

Another reason for Zvi to paint a bleak picture is to make sure mazedom doesn't grow further, ever. Even if mazedom is low, it may still be beneficial to keep it that way.