... i.e., it doesn't spend enough time arguing about object-level things.

The way I'm using it in this post, "object-level" might include these kinds of things:

  • While serving as Secretary of State, did Hillary Clinton send classified information to an insecure email server? How large was the risk that attackers might get the information, and how much harm might that cause?
  • What are the costs and benefits of various communications protocols (e.g., the legal one during Clinton's tenure, the de facto one Clinton followed, or other possibilities), and how should we weight those costs and benefits?
  • How can we best forecast people's reliability on security issues? Are once-off mistakes like this predictive of future sloppiness? Are there better ways of predicting this?

"Meta" might include things like:

  • How much do voters care about Clinton's use of her email server?
  • How much will reporters cover this story, and how much is their coverage likely to influence voters?
  • What do various people (with no special information or expertise) believe about Clinton's email server, and how might these beliefs change their behavior?

I'll also consider discussions of abstract authority, principle, or symbolism more "meta" than concrete policy proposals and questions of fact.

This is too meta:



Meta stuff is real. Elections are real, and matter. Popularity, status, controversy, and Overton windows have real physical effects.

But it's possible to focus too much on one part of reality and neglect another. If you're driving a car while talking on the phone, the phone and your eyes are both perfectly good information channels; but if you allocate too little attention to the road, you still die.


When speaking the demon's name creates the demon

I claim:

There are many good ideas that start out discussed by blogs and journal articles for a long time, then get adopted by policymakers.

In many of these cases, you could delay adoption by many years by adding more sentences to the blog posts noting the political infeasibility or controversialness of the proposal. Or you could hasten adoption by making the posts just focus on analyzing the effects of the policy, without taking a moment to nervously look over their shoulder, without ritually bowing to the Overton window as though it were an authority on immigration law.

I also claim that this obeys the same basic causal dynamics as:

My friend Azzie posts something that I find cringe. So I decide to loudly and publicly (!) warn Azzie "hey, the thing you're doing is cringe!". Because, y'know, I want to help.

Regardless of how "cringe" the average reader would have considered the post, saying it out loud can only help strengthen the perceived level of cringe.

Or, suppose Bel overhears me and it doesn't cause her to see the post as more cringe. Still, it might make Bel worry that Cathy and other third parties think that the post is cringe. Which is a sufficient worry on its own to greatly change how Bel interacts with the post. Wouldn't want the cringe monster to come after you next!

This can result in:

Non-well-founded gaffes: statements that are controversial/offensive/impolitic largely or solely because some people think they sound like the kind of thing that would offend, alienate, or be disputed by a hypothetical third party.

Or, worse:

Even-less-than-non-well-founded gaffes: statements that are controversial/offensive/impolitic largely or solely because some people are worried that a hypothetical third party might think that a hypothetical fourth party might be offended, alienated, or unconvinced by the statement.

See: Common Knowledge and Miasma.

See: mimesis, herding, bystander effect, conformity instincts, coalitional instincts, and The World Forager Elite.

Regardless of how politically unfeasible the policy proposal would have been, saying that it's unfeasible will tend to make it more unfeasible. Others will pick up on the social cue and be more cautious about promoting the idea; which causes others to imitate them and be more cautious, and will cause the idea to spread less. Which makes people nervously look around for proof that this is a mainstream-enough idea when they first hear about it.

This strikes me as one of the main ways that groups can end up stupider than their members, and civilizations can end up neglecting low-hanging fruit.


Brainstorming and trying things

Objection: "Political feasibility matters. There may be traps and self-fulfilling prophecies here; but if we forbid ourselves from talking about it altogether, we'll be ignoring a real and important part of the world, which doesn't sound like the right way to optimize."

My reply: I agree with this.


  • I think mainstream political discourse is focusing on this way too much, as of 2021.
  • I think people should be more cautious about when and how they bring in political feasibility, especially in the early stages of evaluating and discussing ideas.
  • I think the blog posts discussing "would this be a good policy if implemented?" should mostly be separate from the ones discussing "how politically hard would it be to get this implemented?".

Objection: "But if I mention feasibility in my initial blog post on UBI, it will show that I'm a reasonable and practical sort of person, not a crackpot who's fallen in love with pie-in-the-sky ideas."

My reply: I can't deny that this is a strategy that can be helpful.

But there are other ways to demonstrate reasonableness that have smaller costs. Even just saying "I'm not going to talk about political feasibility in this post" can send an adequate signal: "Yes, I recognize this is a constraint at all. I'm treating this topic as out-of-scope, not as unimportant." Though even saying that much, I worry, can cause readers' thoughts to drift too much away from the road.

Policies' popularity (frequently) matters. But often the correct response to seeing a good idea that looks plausibly-unfeasible is to go "oh, this is a good idea", help bring a huge wave of energy and enthusiasm to bear on the idea, and try your best to get it discussed and implemented, to find out how feasible it is.

We're currently in a world where most good ideas fail. But... failing is mostly fine? See On Doing the Improbable and Anxious Underconfidence.

Newer, weirder, and/or more ambitious ideas in particular can often seem too "out there" to ever get traction. Then a few years later, everyone's talking about UBI. That feeling of anxious uncertainty is not actually a crystal ball; better to try things and see what happens.


Ungrounded social realities are fragile

From Inadequate Equilibria:

[...] The still greater force locking bad political systems into place is an equilibrium of silence about policies that aren’t “serious.”

A journalist thinks that a candidate who talks about ending the War on Drugs isn’t a “serious candidate.” And the newspaper won’t cover that candidate because the newspaper itself wants to look serious… or they think voters won’t be interested because everyone knows that candidate can’t win, or something? Maybe in a US-style system, only contrarians and other people who lack the social skill of getting along with the System are voting for Carol, so Carol is uncool the same way Velcro is uncool and so are all her policies and ideas? I’m not sure exactly what the journalists are thinking subjectively, since I’m not a journalist. But if an existing politician talks about a policy outside of what journalists think is appealing to voters, the journalists think the politician has committed a gaffe, and they write about this sports blunder by the politician, and the actual voters take their cues from that. So no politician talks about things that a journalist believes it would be a blunder for a politician to talk about. The space of what it isn’t a “blunder” for a politician to talk about is conventionally termed the “Overton window.”

[...]  To name a recent example from the United States, [this] explains how, one year, gay marriage is this taboo topic, and then all of a sudden there’s a huge upswing in everyone being allowed to talk about it for the first time and shortly afterwards it’s a done deal.

[... W]e can say, “An increasing number of people over time thought that gay marriage was pretty much okay. But while that group didn’t have a majority, journalists modeled a gay marriage endorsement as a ‘gaffe’ or ‘unelectable’, something they’d write about in the sports-coverage overtone of a blunder by the other team—”

[...] The support level went over a threshold where somebody tested the waters and got away with it, and journalists began to suspect it wasn’t a political blunder to support gay marriage, which let more politicians speak and get away with it, and then the change of belief about what was inside the Overton window snowballed.


What broke the silence about artificial general intelligence (AGI) in 2014 wasn’t Stephen Hawking writing a careful, well-considered essay about how this was a real issue. The silence only broke when Elon Musk tweeted about Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, and then made an off-the-cuff remark about how AGI was “summoning the demon.”

Why did that heave a rock through the Overton window, when Stephen Hawking couldn’t? Because Stephen Hawking sounded like he was trying hard to appear sober and serious, which signals that this is a subject you have to be careful not to gaffe about. And then Elon Musk was like, “Whoa, look at that apocalypse over there!!” After which there was the equivalent of journalists trying to pile on, shouting, “A gaffe! A gaffe! A… gaffe?” and finding out that, in light of recent news stories about AI and in light of Elon Musk’s good reputation, people weren’t backing them up on that gaffe thing.

Similarly, to heave a rock through the Overton window on the War on Drugs, what you need is not state propositions (although those do help) or articles in The Economist. What you need is for some “serious” politician to say, “This is dumb,” and for the journalists to pile on shouting, “A gaffe! A gaffe… a gaffe?” But it’s a grave personal risk for a politician to test whether the public atmosphere has changed enough, and even if it worked, they’d capture very little of the human benefit for themselves.

The public health response to COVID-19 has with surprising consistency been a loop of:

  • Someone like Marc Lipsitch or Alex Tabarrok gives a good argument for X (e.g., "the expected value of having everyone wear masks is quite high").
  • Lots of people spring up to object, but the objections seem all-over-the-place and none of them seem to make sense.
  • Time passes, and eventually a prestigious institution endorses X.
  • Everyone who objected to X now starts confabulating arguments in support of X instead.

I think this is a pretty socially normal process. But usually it's a slow process. Seeing the Overton window and "social reality" change with such blinding speed has helped me better grok this dynamic.

Additionally, something about this process seems to favor faux certainty and faux obliviousness over expected-value-style thinking.

Zvi Mowshowitz discusses a hypothetical where Biden does something politically risky, and suffers so much fallout that it cripples his ability to govern. Then Zvi adds:

Or at least, that’s The Fear.

The Fear does a lot of the work. 

It’s not that such things would actually definitely happen. It’s that there’s some chance they might happen, and thus no one dares find out.

[... W]hen you’re considering changing from policy X to policy Y, you’re being judged against the standard of policy X, so any change is blameworthy. How irresponsible to propose First Doses First.


A good test is to ask, when right things are done on the margin, what happens? When we move in the direction of good policies or correct statements, how does the media react? How does the public react?

This does eventually happen on almost every issue.

The answer is almost universally that the change is accepted. The few who track such things praise it, and everyone else decides to memory hole that we ever claimed or advocated anything different. We were always at war with Eastasia. Whatever the official policy is becomes the null action, so it becomes the Very Serious Person line, which also means that anyone challenging that is blameworthy for any losses and doesn’t get credit for any improvements.

This is a pure ‘they’ll like us when we win.’ Everyone’s defending the current actions of the powerful in deference to power. Change what power is doing, and they’ll change what they defend. We see it time and again. Social distancing. Xenophobia. Shutdowns. Masks. Better masks. Airborne transmission. Tests. Vaccines. Various prioritization schemes. First Doses First. Schools shutting down. Schools staying open. New strains. The list goes on. 

There are two strategies. We can do what we’re doing now, and change elite or popular opinion to change policy. Or we can change policy, and in so doing change opinion leaders and opinion. 

This is not to say that attempts to shift (or route around) the Overton window will necessarily have a high success rate.

But it is to say:

  • Some of the factors influencing this success rate have the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And such prophecies can be surprisingly fragile.
  • The Overton window distorts thinking in ways that can make it harder to estimate success rates. The current political consensus just feels like 'what's normal', 'what's reasonable', 'what's acceptable', and the fact that this is in many ways a passing fad is hard to appreciate in one's viscera. (At least, it's hard for me; it might be easy for you.)

(I also happen to suspect that some very recent shifts in politics and culture have begun to make Overton windows easier to break and made "PR culture" less adaptive to the new climate. But this is a separate empirical claim that would probably need its own post-length treatment.)


Steering requires looking at the road

I claim that politics is too meta.

(I would also say that, e.g., effective altruist discourse spends too much time on meta. And a lot of other discourses besides.)

Going overboard on meta is bad because:

  • It can create or perpetuate harmful social realities that aren't based in any external reality.
  • It can create (or focus attention on) social realities that actively encourage false beliefs (including false beliefs that make it harder to break the spell).
  • It's unnecessary. Often the idea that we need to spend a lot of time on meta is itself a self-perpetuating myth, and we can solve problems more effectively by just trying to solve the problem.
  • It makes it harder to innovate.
  • It makes it harder to experiment and make high-EV bets.

It's also bad because it's distracting.

Distraction is a lot more awful than it sounds. If you go from spending 0% of your time worrying about the hippopotamus in your bathtub to spending 80% of your time worrying about it, your other life-priorities will probably suffer quite a bit even if the hippo doesn’t end up doing any direct damage.

And it would be quite bad if 15% of the cognition in the world were diverted to hippos.



Note the headlines' framings. The New York Times is creating a social reality by picking which stories to put on its front page, but all the reporting is also about social realities: "How will this information (that we are here reporting on) change what's controversial, what's popular, what's believed, etc., and thereby affect the election?"

Presidential elections are a time when it's especially tempting to go meta, since we're all so curious about us, about how we'll vote. But they're also a time when it's an especially terrible idea to go meta, because our models and behavior are unusually important at this time and this is the exact time when we most need to be thinking about the object-level tradeoffs in order to make a higher-quality decision.

Imagine trying to steer a ship by polling the crew members, but then covering over all the ship's windows and doors with real-time polling data.

I don't think the reporters and editors here feel like they're doing the "loudly and publicly warn someone that they're being cringe" thing, or the "black out the ship's windows with polling data" thing. But that's what's happening, somehow.

If the emails are important in their own right, then great! The headlines and articles can be all about their object-level importance. Help voters make a maximally informed decision about the details of this person's security practices and how these translate into likely future behavior.

Headlines can focus on object-level details and expert attempts to model individuals' rule-following behavior. You can even do head-to-head comparisons of object-level differences about the people running for president!

But the front-page articles really shouldn't be about the controversy, the buzz, the second-order perceptions and spin and perceptions-of-spin. The buzz is built out of newspaper articles, and you want the resultant building to stand on some foundation; you don't want it to be a free-floating thing built on itself.

The articles shouldn't drool over the tantalizingly influenceable/predictable beliefs and attitudes of the people reading the articles. Internal decisions about the topic's importance (and the angle and focus of the coverage) shouldn't rest on hypothetical perceptions of the news coverage. "It's important because it will affect voters' beliefs because we're reporting that it's important because it will affect voters' b..."

This is an extreme example, but I'm mostly worried about the mild examples, because small daily hippos are worse than large rare hippos.



"A major win for Biden" here isn't just trying to give credit where credit's due; it's drawing attention to one of the big interesting things about this $1.9 trillion bill, which is its effect on Biden's future popularity (and thereby, maybe just maybe, the future balance of political power).

This is certainly one of the interesting things about bills, and I could imagine a college class that went through bill after bill and assessed it mainly through the frame of "who's winning, the Republicans or the Democrats?", which might teach some interesting things.

But "who's winning?" isn't the only topic you could teach in a college course by walking through a large number of historical bills.

So why has every major news outlet in the US settled on "who's winning" as the one true frame for public policy coverage? Is this what we'd pick if we were making a conscious effort to install good norms, or is it just a collective bad habit we've fallen into?

If you don't look at the road while you're driving, you get worse decision-making, and the polarization ratchet continues, and we all get dumber and more sports-fan-ish.

My political views have changed in a big way a few times over the years. In each case, the main things that caused me to update weren't people yelling their high-level principles at me more insistently. I was persuaded by being hit over the head repeatedly with specific object-level examples showing I was wrong about which factual claims tend to be true and which tend to be false.

If you want to produce good outcomes from nations, try arguing more about actual disagreements people have. Policy isn't built out of vibes or branding any more than a car engine is.

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This post seems to be founded on a background assumption that politics (i.e. voters, journalists, political threads on social media, etc), has anything at all to do with policy. As far as I can tell, this is mostly-false in today's world. Politics and policy live in two separate magisteria. Every few months or years, a few very specific policy questions win the memetic battle for public attention, but they're rarely the things-which-most-professional-policymakers-deal-with-on-a-daily-basis or the most-important-policy-questions in terms of peoples' welfare, budget, QALYs, relevance to the state of the world in ten years, etc.

The people who make policy on a daily basis are mostly either bureaucrats at various agencies, or judges. Their policies aren't published as bills on the floor of congress, they're published in the daily updates to the Federal Register or in case law (at least in the US). This all receives approximately zero attention from people-doing-politics, and mostly happens autonomously according to rules which have little correlation with election cycles and the like.

By contrast, the process of politics is almost entirely a process of tribes fighting over Schelling points, mostly via signalling. The policy questions just aren't that relevant in the first place; the meta-level is the main goal and the main point of the fight.

The main practical takeaway of this view is that, if you're interested in "concrete" questions, then you are not really interested in politics at all. You're interested in policy. And if you're interested in policy, then politics is mostly a distraction. Politics isn't way too meta, it's just the wrong thing to pay attention to in the first place.

But elections determine who appoints the judges and bureaucrats who make most policy. And some areas of policy, e.g. tax policy, are mostly decided by elected officials, not appointed judges or bureaucrats.

Great points! In one small reply, you've explained a lot about Trumpism and the resulting reaction:

  1. The red tribe was tired of being represented by blue-tribe meta-gamers who seemingly only cared about signals and not substance, so they hired a man whose meta was about smashing the meta.
  2. The blue-tribe media realized they literally couldn't afford a President whose substance matched his meta: ignoring the meta of politics and going for the meat of policy through consensus and win-win compromises. The only way to avoid that meta winning would be to prevent consensus and win-win compromises. So ensued five years of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, to convince the blue tribe hoi polloi that the prophesied Republican Hitler had finally arrived.

The result was a polarization that split Washington D.C. politics into two metas which no longer map to each other in even the ways they used to. And that's scary.

I'm curious about your thoughts on what happens next. Where will this divided reality lead us, near and far?

I find it hard to imagine that you are right when you imply that politics hasn't got anything to do with policy. "...has anything at all to do..."

To take a recent US example, pulling out of Afghanistan. No matter how much we focus on the Meta level politics, (eg. "Trump started it but Biden finished it, so who gets the blame?", "Will it embolden the US's enemies my creating an image of weakness?") it is still clear that an actual physical thing really happened, and that it would not have happened had the political landscape looked different in some key ways.

Here in the UK we left the European Union. That was discussed and voted on primarily through the lens of political issues (Typical conversation starters might have been: "will it help Boris unseat Cameron so he can launch his own leadership bid?", "are we the kind of country that is welcoming to foreigners?", "But surely we identify collectively much more on the level of a nation state than some kind of united states of Europe?"). But it happened, we have legally left. And the practicalities are slowly fitting into place.

Politics is not the same as policy, there are steps in between. But the suggestion that they have literally zero causal connection seems to be an obvious nonsense. I think this illusion possibly forms when the actual policy never touches you. The median voter is not a migrant, so migration policy feels fictional, only read about. The median voter is not a soldier (or a foreigner), so foreign wars also feel abstract. Most people have not been accused of a crime, so criminal policy again follows the pattern. Same with so many other things. When the COVID lockdown kicked in and for the first time in my life I actually felt a policy change "hit me" it was a bit of a shock. So, in typical times, it feels like politics doesn't effect policy - because almost all policy is targeted at a minority that probably doesn't include you.

Other people have commented here that journalism is in the business of entertainment, or in the business of generating clicks etc. I think that's wrong. Journalism is in the business of establishing the narrative of social reality. Deciding what's a gaffe and who's winning, who's "controversial" and who's "respected", is not a distraction from what they do. It's the main thing.

So it's weird to frame this is "politics is way too meta". Too meta for whom? Politicians care about being elected, so everything they say is by default simulacrum level 3 and up. Journalists care about controlling the narrative, so everything they say is by default simulacrum level 3 and up. They didn't aim at level 1 and miss, they only brush against level 1 on rare occasion, by accident.

Here are some quotes from our favorite NY Times article, Silicon Valley's Safe Space:

the right to discuss contentious issues

The ideas they exchanged were often controversial

even when those words were untrue or could lead to violence

sometimes spew hateful speech

step outside acceptable topics

turned off by the more rigid and contrarian beliefs

his influential, and controversial, writings

push people toward toxic beliefs

These aren't accidental. Each one of the bolded words just means "I think this is bad, and you better follow me". They're the entire point of the article — to make it so that it's social reality to think that Scott is bad.

So I think there are two takeaways here. One is for people like us, EAs discussing charity impact or Rationalists discussing life-optimization hacks. The takeaway for us is to spend less time writing about the meta and more about the object level. And then there's a takeaway about them, journalists and politicians and everyone else who lives entirely in social reality. And the takeaway is to understand that almost nothing they say is about objective reality, and that's unlikely to change.

I think it's good to be really cynical about the media as it exists today. I'm not sure it's good to be cynical about the-media-two-years-from-now — that has something of the property of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have my own personal sense of how likely it is that the media will suddenly turn over a new leaf tomorrow, but since it might turn out to be easier than I think, I won't start the conversation by stating that. Instead, I'll mention some of the specific forces I think create the status quo:

  • Self-deception and plausible deniability. Reporters don't want to think of themselves as doing a bad thing. If there were common knowledge within many newsrooms that this level of meta is bad, all or most of those newsrooms would behave a lot better. (Not perfectly, but a lot better.) Even more so if their readers and colleagues felt the same.
  • Lack of an ideology that recognizes these things as bad and clearly tells reporters what to do instead.
  • Bad ideologies filling the vacuum: ideologies that say "do the normal pragmatic thing", and ones that say "do the virtuous principled thing, but that principle is about advancing a specific political agenda that doesn't care much about epistemic principle".
  • Economic incentives. But these are partly shaped by the above incentives: many people choose to work in journalism because they want to purchase a sense that they're doing something noble and good. Many people choose to consume the news in order to purchase a sense that they're doing something responsible and virtuous.

I understand, I think we have an honest disagreement here. I'm not saying that the media is cringe in an attempt to make it so, as a meta move. I honestly think that the current prestige media establishment is beyond reform, a pure appendage of power. It's impact can grow weaker or stronger, but it will not acquire honesty as a goal (and in fact, seems to be giving up even on credibility). 

In any case, this disagreement is beyond the scope of your essay. What I learn from it is to be more careful of calling things cringe or whatever in my own speech, and to see this sort of thing as an attack on the social reality plane rather than an honest report of objective reality.

Sounds right! If there's anything I should read in order to understand and agree with your view, send it my way (including things that get written in the future).

Came to the comments to find an exchange like this. Rob, I liked the article, and also my thought while reading it was that I didn't think you were being cynical enough about motivations. There may be a conflict v. mistake theory thing here: in your article, the phenomenon is treated as a mistake or bad habit by people unaware of its consequences, rather than as an intentional strategy. My guess is that it is an intentional strategy (in fact, it'd be crazy if it weren't), and it's important to see it as that in order to figure out what function it's serving (and for whom).

Or both: for journalists, the focus on meta is an intentional strategy, but for the rest of us (people who read journalism), it's mostly a bad habit (maybe, or something).

Another, broader thing here, which is that there are really two different conversations your post sparks for me. One is, what is the existing media/news doing, really, and how, and why? And the other is, what does actually good and effective media/news look like?

A cruxy thing for me is "Is the current regime of journalism representative of all eras of journalism?". Was there a time when journalism was more in touch with object-level reality, even if it was still largely or primarily about social reality?

On one hand, I can think of examples of yellow journalism and other social-reality-oriented writing from Awhile Ago. On other hand, the current news cycle seems much worse than the new cycle from 50 years ago. I have stories in my head about how the first TV broadcast presidential debate shifted the focus from "who could speak better" to "who looked better", and various other increases in partisanship and soundbyteness.

I think I agree with Wentworth elsethread that it's best not to get distracted by politics when you're interested in policy. But still seems worth at least briefly noting that politics could be better than it is.

Paul Graham's The Refragmentation argues that mainstream media 50 years ago in the US was a rare and fragile historical anomaly.

In some worlds / topics / countries this would be a really good point. But we have 50 years of Nobel Prize winning economics ("public choice") and empirical evidence showing that large democracies are not at all "machines for passing good policies". So in the US, the benefits of a policy proposal are, unfortunately, almost irrelevant. We have essentially infinite lists of suggestions for better policies; adding more does basically nothing. The entirety of the problem is the construction of the law-making machine; and so to me, your suggestion in that sphere is that we deny the only thing that matters: the sausage-making machine.

Now, in other spheres, this is (fortunately) not the case. For example, in the part of EA that's about "how to do the most good", not about "how to grow the EA movement", there is the potential for a good suggestion to get seen by a decision-maker and adopted. Having more content-based discussions makes a lot of sense there. Or, with a trusted friend. Or, in a well-run company. Or even in a small democracy where public opinion on beneficial policies actually sometimes translates to those policies being passed.

If you want to produce good outcomes from nations, learn fields like public choice, or law & econ, and then influence activists to choose more informed strategies. (For example, I choose to work on charter cities for this reason). Otherwise you're acting within an idealized system that doesn't match reality in a way such that your strategies are basically useless. Your personal experience of being convinced by object-level examples to change your politics just don't translate to the behavior of a 350M person democracy.

So in the US, the benefits of a policy proposal are, unfortunately, almost irrelevant. We have essentially infinite lists of suggestions for better policies; adding more does basically nothing. The entirety of the problem is the construction of the law-making machine

I guess I don't currently believe this is true. My model is sort of:

  • Everything is a chaotic jumble and there's lots of variation from politician to politician and from government agency to government agency. Within that jumble, new good ideas (and normal smart well-intentioned actions, etc.) sometimes pop up, and periodically make a big difference.
  • To the extent this look homogeneous it's usually because of mimicry; what gets mimicked is highly contingent; and some of the things that shift the mimicry focus are good new ideas.
  • So there's a lot of low-hanging fruit unplucked, and yet new good ideas are still quite useful... somehow. I don't really have a theory for why that is. UBI-ish ideas seem to be catching on even though plenty of milder, less-weird improvements have languished in obscurity for decades. To my eye, academics and bloggers continuing to chatter about this seems to have made a difference.

One possible explanation for things like UBI: perhaps policymakers tend to look for modest improvements because their local incentives and bad models make them feel this is better; weird bloggers tend to gravitate toward more ambitious improvements because they're fun to think about; but in fact ambitious improvements are better across the board because they generate more enthusiasm and they more effectively shift the Overton window / break bad equilibria of silence.

and so to me, your suggestion in that sphere is that we deny the only thing that matters: the sausage-making machine.

I think some people should talk about electability and popular appeal, but hidden in specialized blogs rather than on the front page of newspapers or in most online policy discussions.

It sounds like the key cluster of evidence for your view here is roughly this:

Everything is a chaotic jumble and there's lots of variation from politician to politician and from government agency to government agency. Within that jumble, new good ideas (and normal smart well-intentioned actions, etc.) sometimes pop up, and periodically make a big difference.

I.e. things look chaotic, and you do sometimes see good ideas adopted within that chaos, therefore more good ideas does sometimes matter.

Here's a different model for the same phenomenon. There is a "policy equilibrium", determined by the incentives faced by policymakers, and policy is generally near-equilibrium. An example relevant to current events: policymakers at the FDA and CDC are incentivized largely to avoid blame. So long as they aren't blamed for any major problem, they face a pretty stable career trajectory without much room for other career incentives. So, this model would predict that at any given time FDA/CDC policies are approximately-optimal for blame avoidance. (This is oversimplified; a proper discussion would include both other incentives and the distinction between optimization-via-intentional-planning vs optimization-via-selection.)

New good ideas (and new bad ideas) sometimes pop up mainly because the environment sometimes shifts external incentives. For instance, if the FDA/CDC perceive themselves to be at serious risk of blame for blocking pandemic response, then they'll adopt policies less likely to block pandemic response (or at least less likely to be perceived that way).

(Thanks to Chana Messinger for discussing some of these topics with me. Any remaining errors in the post are society's fault for raising me wrong, not Chana's.)


  • public discourse of politics is too focused on meta and not enough focused on object level
  • the downsides are primarily in insufficient exploration of possibility space


  • "politics" is topics related to government, especially candidates for elected positions, and policy proposals
  • opposite of meta is object level - specific policies, or specific impacts of specific actions, etc
  • "meta" is focused on intangibles that are an abstraction away from some object-level feature, X, e.g. someones beliefs about X, or incentives around X, or media coverage vibes about X
  • Currently public discourse of politics is too much meta and not enough object level

Key ideas

  • self-censorship based on others' predicted models of self-censorship stifles thought
  • worrying about meta-issues around a policy proposal can stifle the ability to analyze the object-level implications
  • public discourse seems to be a lot of confabulating supporting ideas for the pre-concluded position
  • downsides of too much meta are like distraction in terms of attention and cognition
  • author has changed political beliefs based on repeated object-level examples why their beliefs were wrong

Review Summary

  • overall i agree with the author's ideas and vibe
  • the piece feels like its expressing frustration / exasperation
  • i think it's incomplete, or a half-step, instead of what i'd consider a full article
  • I give examples of things that would make it feel full-step to me


Overall I think I agree with the observations and concepts presented, as well as the frustration/exasperation sense at the way it seems we're collectively doing it wrong.

However I think this piece feels incomplete to me in a number of ways, and I'll try to point it out by giving examples of things that would make it feel complete to me.

One thing that would make it feel complete to me is a better organized set of definitions/taxonomy around the key ideas.  I think 'politics' can be split into object level things around politicians vs policies.  I think even the 'object level' can be split into things like actions (vote for person X or not) vs modeling (what is predicted impact on Y).  When I try to do this kind of detail-generation, I think I find that my desire for object-level is actually a desire for specific kinds of object level focus (and not object-level in the generic).

Another way of making things more precise is to try to make some kind of measure or metric out of the meta<->object dimension.  Questions like 'how would it be measured' or even 'what are the units of measurement' would be great for building intuitions and models around this.  Relatedly - describing what 'critical meta-ness' or the correct balance point would also be useful here.  Assuming we had a way to decrease-meta/increase-object, how would we know when to stop?  I think these are the sorts of things that would make a more complete meta-object theory.

A gears-level model of what's going on would also make this feel complete to me.  Here's me trying to come up with one on the spot:

Discourse around politics is a pretty charged and emotionally difficult thing for most people, in ways that can subvert our normally-functioning mechanisms of updating our beliefs. When we encounter object-level evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we feel a negative emotion/experience (in a quick/flash).  One palliative to this feeling is to "go meta" - hop up the ladder of abstraction to a place where the belief is not in danger.  We habituate ourselves to it by seeing others do similarly and imitation is enough to propagate this without anyone doing it intentionally.  This model implicitly makes predictions about how to make spaces/contexts where more object level discussions happen (less negative experience, more emotional safety) as well as what kinds of internal changes would facilitate more object level discussions (train people to notice these fast emotional reactions and their corresponding mental moves).

Another thing that would make this article feel 'complete' to me would be to compare the 'politics' domain to other domains familiar to folks here on lesswrong (candidates are: effective altruism, AI alignment, rationality, etc).  Is the other domain too meta in the way politics is?  Is it too object level?  It seems like the downsides (insufficient exploration, self-censorship, distraction) could apply to a much bigger domain of thought.

I really liked the distinction between multiple types of non-well-founded gaffes! Is there any chance you have examples of even-less-than-non-well-founded ones that aren't non-well-founded ones? (also those names should really have a slot for an ordinal number)

Level-1 non-well-founded gaffes, level-2 non-well-founded gaffes, etc.?

ideally we'd invent words so that we could give those names that are shorter than 6 english words, but that kind of thing.


  • 0-gaffe for "something that personally offends people present because they think it violates epistemic norms or is directly harmful",
  • 1-gaffe for "something that seems offensive to someone present because they think a hypothetical absent person might consider it a 0-gaffe if they were here",
  • 2-gaffe for "something that seems offensive to someone present because they think a hypothetical absent person might consider it a 1-gaffe if they were here",
  • etc.?

And ∞-gaffe for the kind of miasma that arises when there are too many levels to keep track of anymore, or when miasma sticks around out of habit, or when you're just imitating someone else who's treating the statement as a gaffe — statements that the brain rounds off to 'controversial' even though it can't cash that out in terms of any imagined person who would perceive it as a 0-gaffe.

I am into something that can be called "meta-politics": institutional reform. That is, crafting decisionmaking algorithms to have good characteristics — incentives, participation, etc. — independent of the object-level goals of politics. I think this is "meta" in a different way than what you're talking about in this article; in short, it's prescriptive meta, not descriptive meta. And I think that makes it "OK"; that is, largely exempt from the criticisms in this article.

Would you agree?

Yep. Doesn't seem to pose the kinds of risks I talked about.

I don't speak for Rob, but my guess is that your work still qualifies as object level because it is directly about the mechanisms of voting and how those votes are counted. In other words, your work is about voting policy.

Hi Jameson, I'm interested in the "meta-politics" you describe. Is there a field/domain where these things are explored in a more rigorous way? The only thing I'm aware of that comes close is the crypto/blockchain space.

Check out his posts on his profile (especially his voting theory primer). Also see the Voting Theory, Law and Legal systems, Politics, Mechanism Design, and Government tags.

Thanks Yoav, will do.

Note on the definitions: People use the word "meta" to refer to plenty of other things. If you're in a meeting to discuss Clinton's electability and someone raises a point of process, you might want to call that "meta" and distinguish it from "object-level" discussion of electability. When I define "meta", I'm just clarifying terminology in the post itself, not insisting that other posts use "meta" to refer to the exact same things.

An example of something that's "meta" in a different sense, and that I actually want to see more of in reporting, is "reflection on the process we're using to generate this story". E.g., I think it's good when reporters talk about their probability estimates and their calibration and discrimination track records, are transparent about how they reached a conclusion, publicly discuss and iteratively improve their policies, etc. I think it's good when people don't pretend to be Ra-like caricatures of objectivity, and instead are allowed to be human beings striving for objectivity.

It's similar to the advice I'd give a mathematician: focus on the technical problem you're thinking about rather than spending a bunch of cycles modeling group dynamics and what's popular or prestigious; but do take time occasionally to reflect on your reasoning process and see if there are ways to improve your math output.

I think it is worth pointing out that "who's winning" is a very badly understood thing in the first place, with very little actual expertise to go around. This is true of pretty much every facet of the system north of policy, and it feels like it gets worse the higher up you go.

Actual political campaigning is the most concrete thing above policy, with a lot of money and a lot of practical experience, and it still has very little expertise to work with. The expertise we have is mostly a matter of heuristics built from statistical regularities. I think it would be fair to categorize failed political strategies as often running afoul of some type of Goodhart; it is common to bet too hard on one or more of these regularities.

Yep. Part of why the fixation on this topic seems bad to me is that it's not very informative. We're looking at tea leaves and throwing away the tea.

I completely agree. It's worth noting that journalists are largely in the business of entertainment while providing people the feeling of getting informed and not in the business of exposing their readers to potentially taxing policy tradeoffs where the right answer isn't clear. Readers care a lot before US elections about who's going to win and the newspapers pander to that desire. The stories are also much easier to write given that they don't require doing background research on the merits of policies which is hard. 

When it comes to creating big change it's not required that the policy proposal is viable today. Having policy proposal in the drawer for times when the political winds change is very important for creating large changes. If you look at a very influential person like Milton Friedman, that's how he worked.

There's the quote from him around which Naomi Klein wrote a book: "Only a crisis-actual or percieved-produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around."

"But the front-page articles really shouldn't be about the controversy, the buzz, the second-order perceptions and spin and perceptions-of-spin."


I totally agree, but this seems like a business optimization problem. Considering all the different news sources that compete against each other for their consumers very limited time, they have to make it click-baity and scandalous if they want people to pick them over a competitor. I think sometimes when we get really close to an election that the election basically does become a tv show or a sports game. Its the talk of the town, the real consequences of what is happening usually get ignored, and people are just sports fanning it up. So assuming the average person probably likes to get their opinions fed back to them, and that political drama and scandal's becomes the stand in for entertainment. It becomes very hard for the news not to optimize towards overdramatic, not objective level cost / benefit analysis.

To be fair, regular cost/benefit analysis of a politician is pretty boring by all accounts. Find the policies of each, see what ones you agree / don't agree with. Find what the perceived costs and benefits of having that individual in office would be, then vote for them. You know what's not boring? Making conspiracies that your opponent is apart of an elite pedophile cabal trying to keep you down, or that your opponent is secret a puppet for foreign opposition sent to destroy America. That's much much more entertaining, and the lack of news about could even support your claims! I worry about how much people's need for escapism and bias for their side in politics fuels the rise of heavy skewed meta news as well.

Considering I agree with your post, and that there is a real chicken or the egg problem to current political reporting,  a good next step now for people politically inclined would probably be to think about the ways to better change election reporting news on the margin so that it eventually becomes more objective.

There's a certain perception of what "respectable journalism" looks like, and this perception is what causes the New York Times and CNN to not immediately rush down the slope to tabloid journalism in pursuit of short-term clicks.

I think this "respectable journalism" image affects newspapers' behavior because the public has this concept in mind, and many people will consume news less if it seems too far from respectable journalism. Separately, this image also affects newspapers' behavior because the journalists care about "respectable journalism" to some degree. Monetary incentives are a thing, but "how much do my peers respect me?" is also a thing, and the micro-hedonics of "how much do I respect myself?" are a thing as well.

So what I really want to do is change journalists' and newspaper-buyers' conception of what "respectable journalism" is, to have higher standards that are more robust to weird failure modes. That wince of pain people feel when they stray from what feels virtuous (whether for reputational or internal reasons) is exactly the thing society uses to not have everything fall to Moloch as soon as it possibly could.

(Note that I don't think I've provided a satisfactory battle plan here, and I think a good battle plan could well involve finding ways to better align journalists' economic interests with what's virtuous, rather than just trying to market virtue to them.)

I had some impulse to respond on the direct level to the Clinton examples, but ironically it doesn't seem to be  a good idea here ;)

Yes, this is a very hypocritical post. Surely the problem with that New York Times front page isn't some fancy meta-level principle it was violating, it's that the object-level arguments against the email thing being this important are so strong!

To my eye, the object-level errors are a warning sign that there's a deeper thing going wrong.

But hopefully if I succeeded in convincing the world this is a problem, I'd be able to stop talking about "deeper things" and go back to simple object-level arguments. Like how the purpose of good philosophy is often just to help people unlearn bad philosophy.

Of course this post is all meta, and my comment will be meta as well. We do it because it's easy.

I think part of the solution is being actually curious about the world.

For me, this perfectly hits the nail on the head.

This is a somewhat weird question, but like, how do I do that?

I've noticed multiple communities fall into the meta-trap, and even when members notice it can be difficult to escape. While the solution is simply to "stop being meta", that is much harder said than done.

When I noticed this happening in a community I am central in organizing I pushed back by bringing my own focus to output instead of process hoping others would follow suit. This has worked somewhat and we're definitely on a better track. I wonder what dynamics lead to this 'death by meta' syndrome, and if there is a cure.

When you're actually a little curious, you might start by using a search engine to find a decent answer to your question.  At least, if it's the sort of question for which that would work. Maybe even look for a book to read?

But, maybe we should acknowledge that much of the time we aren't actually curious and are just engaging in conversation for enjoyment? In that case, cheering on others who make an effort to research things and linking to their work is probably the best you can do. Even if you're not actually curious, you can notice people who are, and you can look for content that's actually about concrete things.

For example, my curiosity about the history of politics in Turkey is limited, so while I did read Scott Alexander's recent book review and some responses with interest, I'm not planning on reading an actual book on it. I don't think he's all that curious either, since he just read one book, but that's going further than me.

Occam's razor:

Each news organization is simply trying to maximize it's revenue.  For institutions like the New York times, they have an additional constraint to maintain the reputation - which constrains them by both Overton windows and that they generally have to have a source for their claimed facts.  [this has become a problem because of internet competitors that have decided to just make up the facts or use very weak signals.]

So you get the articles you see.  Yes, it has these meta feedback loops, but it isn't intentional.  Everyone is just trying to act in their perceived best interests and we get this craziness.  

How can we make it better?  The problem seems to have 2 components:

a.  Out of all the news in the world, the selected portion most adults will see may not maximize social utility [arguable, because it's a market and each reader is choosing and giving feedback to their choice, an economist might argue that clickbait is just the greatest good to the greatest many]

b.  While we share a ground truth reality, and by weighting the quality of the evidence of various sources it is possible to deduce what the ground truth is, the headlines are flooded with lies and bad conclusions.  

I don't know how to solve either.  I will mention that the clickbait problem is succinctly: 

There are common human needs, like those for attractive mates or to lose weight, but the clickbait is never providing the real information that might satisfy those needs.  

And (b) seems to require a queriable AI oracle.  That actually seems achievable.  "computer, how many individuals were at the Trump inauguration".  We have various tools to translate that query into searchable terms [GPT-3], other tools that could search for every possible source of information [crawling systems like google's], and then you would need an engine to construct an answer by weighting each source by quality.  

Politics is not meta enough. What's the goal?