The United States has a bunch of nice things whose creation/maintenance requires coordinated effort from a large number of people across time. For example: bridges that stay up; electrical grids that provide us with power; the rule of law; newspapers that make it easier to keep tabs on recent events; fire fighting services that stop most fires in urban areas; roads; many functioning academic fields; Google; Amazon; grocery stores; the postal service; and so on.

The first question I'd like to pose is: how does this coordination work? What keeps these large sets of people pulling in a common direction (and wanting to pull in a common direction)? And what keeps that "common direction" grounded enough that an actual nice thing results from the pulling (e.g., what causes it to be that you get a working railway system, rather than a bunch of tracks that don't quite work? what causes you to sometimes get a functioning field of inquiry and not a cargo cult)? Is it that:

  • Many people independently value the nice thing, and they altruistically decide to put their own efforts toward creating/maintaining the nice thing? (E.g., some large set of people wishes there were good fire-fighting institutions, and so each of them altruistically and independently decides to found a fire-fighting branch, to work at that branch, to tweak that branch's habits into a more effective configuration, etc.?)
  • A small number of rich and powerful people (who are somehow also knowledgeable about institution design) value the nice thing, and they altruistically decide to set up incentives such that other people, purely via self-interest, will do the work that is needed to create/maintain the nice thing? (E.g., a small number of people altruistically donate to fire-fighting groups and set up incentives at those groups, and then other people do the fire-fighting work because they want a job?)
  • Something else?

One reason I’d like to pose this question is that it seems plausible to me that the magic that used to enable such cooperative institutions is fading. If so, it seems useful to know about that fading for quite a variety of reasons.

My own lead candidate answer to "what is the magic that lets these cooperative institutions run?" is this:

Somehow, people have sometimes known how to craft "institutional cultures" that aligned an individual's desire for (glory/$/prestige/etc.) with the actions that will allow the institution as a whole to acquire redistributable (glory, $, prestige, etc.) in the long run. More specifically, cooperative institutions arise in cases where some set of designers (either a few people, or a larger distributed set) magically manage several things at once:

  1. There is an institutional culture that is distinct from the formal workings of the institution, but that exists alongside it, helping to animate it. For example, alongside the formal workings of the old NYT (the printing presses, newspaper subscriptions, staff payroll, explicit assignments, etc.) there was an ethic of journalism that helped direct staff actions at many junctures (an ethic of e.g. "all the news that's fit to print," putting in shoe-leather, protecting one's sources, etc.).

  2. The installed "institutional culture" is pretty good at picking out actions that, if taken, will tend to cause the institution as a whole to gain redistributable (glory/$/prestige/etc.) in the long-term. In our example: The old NYT will in fact gain more long-run prestige, customers, incoming staff talent, etc. if it follows its journalistic ethics. In other words, the culture gestured at by ""all the news that's fit to print," putting in shoe-leather, protecting one's sources, etc." offered pretty good on-the-ground answers to the question "What can I do now, as an NYT reporter/manager/editor/etc., that will most improve the NYT's long-term standing?"

  3. The installed "institutional culture" both teaches people how to detect which staff members do/don't have that same culture, and prompts people to differentially reward/punish (and promote/fire) staff members who do/don't have that same culture.

  4. Via 2), an individual staff member will be able to succeed best on personal goals (in terms of some combination of $, prestige, being thought attractive by potential mates, etc.) via following the institutional culture.

I am curious whether this 0-3 account of how stable, cooperative institutions work seems right to you guys (or whether there are caveats, or errors, or important omissions. I'd really like an accurate model here).

Separately (but relatedly – if the above account is importantly wrong, I'll probably be wrong about this too) – I would like to pose a second question: Is it getting harder to create stable, cooperative institutions in the above sense? If so, why/how?

Some evidence that it is getting harder:

  • Governmental institutions: There seems to be some degree of institutional failure (mild-ish, so far) in a number of American and especially Californian institutions: California's electricity is less reliable than it used to be, due basically to bad governance. San Francisco, especially, is seeing rising crime, due more or less to decriminalizing a lot of crime. Many aspects of the covid-19 response also cast our institutions in a worse light than I'd previously anticipated, though it is plausible (given my ignorance) that my anticipations were the silly thing here and that we would not in fact have done better in previous eras. (I'm thinking here of: America being slower than I'd anticipated re: acquiring testing and PPE; putting very little money in the extensive stimulus bill to reducing covid via testing/research/etc.; America staying in semi-lockdown for an extended time instead of trying harder either to head toward actual zero (via border control, testing + tracing, etc.) so that we could relax again, or toward something more like herd immunity (while metering it out; but it seems to me that as a country we probably lost more to the costs many parts of America seeming not to lock down for extended periods of time without a plan to use that time to do anything constructive, and without (I think?) adequate accounting for what that would cost in terms of social stability and mental health.)
  • Non-governmental parts of our national sense-making apparatus: Most brand names, e.g. the NYT, Harvard, Science and Nature magazines, the Democrats, the Republicans, the police, the CDC, etc. seem less well-regarded than they used to be. I can't think of many brands of any sort that are instead better-regarded (Amazon, SpaceX and bitcoin, probably).
  • Subcultures: David Chapman claims that subcultures are much harder to form now / more or less don’t exist anymore. I have also tried to look myself, and this matches my own experience: rationality and EA seem among the few things that are sort-of here, and even we are only sort-of here, I think. ("The rationalist diaspora," not "the happening applied rationality scene.") (I can think of some others, e.g. the authentic relating / circling communities; some other parts of the Thiel-o-sphere; maybe the group at the Stoa; surely some others. But... fewer than I would have expected, and I think fewer than I would have found in past decades?)
  • California/ the blue coasts have historically been a place where trends originate, then hit the US as a whole, then also the rest of the West. So I'm not sure how local this stuff is or isn't right now, but I'm worried regardless.

All of this is disputable. And I would love to see your disputes. Even more so, I would love to see your unjustifiable stab-in-the-dark intuitions as to where the center of all this is. From my perspective, the difficulty we are having lately in forming/sustaining institutional cultures (especially, ones adequate to get much done) seems like one of the central canaries in a puzzle that I badly need to fathom. I'll put my own hypotheses in the comments.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to lots of folks at Sunday's town hall discussion for relevant remarks (no fault to them for my errors), and to Ben Hoffman for his essay "Bob the Builder, and the Neo-Puritan Deal."

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Institutions have been suffering a massive brain drain ever since the private sector shot way ahead at providing opportunities for smart people.

Think of any highly capable person who could contribute high-quality socially-valuable work to an important institution like the New York Times, CDC, Federal Highway Administration, city counsel, etc. What's the highest-paying, highest-fun career opportunity for such a person? Today, it's probably the private sector.

Institutions can't pay much because they don't have feedback loops that can properly value an individual's contribution. For example, if you work for the CDC and are largely the one responsible for saving 100,000 lives, you probably won't get a meaningful raise or even much status boost, compared to someone who just thrives on office politics and doesn't save any net lives.

In past decades, the private sector had the same problem as institutions: It was unable to attribute disproportionate value to most people's work. So in past decades, a typical smart person could have a competitive job offer from an institution. In that scenario, they might pick the institution because their passion for a certain type of work, and the pride of doing it well, and the pride of public service, on top of the competitive compensation and promotion opportunities, was the most attractive career option.

But now we're in a decades-long trend where the private sector has shot way ahead of institutions in its ability to offer smart people a good job. There are many rapidly-scaling tech(-enabled) companies, and it's increasingly common for the top 10% of workers to contribute 1,000%+ as much value as the median worker in their field, and companies are increasingly better at making higher-paying job offers to people based on their level of capability.

We see institutions do increasingly stupid things because the kind of smart people who used to be there are instead doing private-sector stuff.

The coordination problem of "fixing institutions" reduces to the coordination problem of designing institutions whose pay scale is calibrated to the amount of social good that smart people do when working there, relative to private sector jobs. The past gave us this scenario accidentally, but no such luck in the present.

Another hypothesis: Great people aren't just motivated by money. They're also motivated by things like great coworkers, interesting work, and prestige.

In the private sector, you see companies like Yahoo go into death spirals: Once good people start to leave, the quality of the coworkers goes down, the prestige of being a Yahoo employee goes down, and you have to deal with more BS instead of bold, interesting initiatives... which means fewer great people join and more leave (partially, also, because mediocre people can't identify, or don't want to hire, great people.)

This death spiral is OK in the private sector because people can just switch their search engine from Yahoo to Google if the results become bad. But there's no analogous competitive process for provisioning public sector stuff.

Good Marines get out because of bad leadership, which means bad Marines stay in and eventually get promoted to leadership positions and the cycle repeats itself.


Great people aren't just motivated by money. They're also motivated by things like great coworkers, interesting work, and prestige. In the private sector, you see companies like Yahoo go into death spirals: Once good people start to leave, the quality of the coworkers goes down, the prestige of being a Yahoo employee goes down

Another fascinating thing that I hadn't realized here until it was pointed out to me is this also means that Yahoo has to pay more, as a consequence of being able to offer less non-financial compensation. Because great people like working together, this essentially means that you can get a 'bulk discount' on them, because part of their compensation is working with each other.

If Yahoo wants to buy the best people, it has to pay more.

But if Yahoo lost the ability to recognize the best people, it can simply pay the same, hire people who are not good enough to get the same salary in a better company, and be unaware of the situation.

(My work experience is mostly in small companies, and there it is not generally true that the shitty ones pay more. They sometimes even pay less, and somehow succeed to get employees that are in my opinion... average... but have a very strong impostor syndrome which tells them that a shitty job is the best they can get. I suppose this happens when you have a company who cannot recognize good people, but can still recognize and fire the bad ones. The bad ones get fired, the good ones with healthy self-confidence leave on their own, and what remains is this.)

Thanks. I buy the death spirals thing. I'm not sure I buy the "OK in the private sector but not the public sector b/c no competitive process there" thing -- do you have a story for why the public sector remained okay for ~200 years (if it did)? Also, particular newspapers and academic institutions have competitors, and seem to me also to be in decline.

do you have a story for why the public sector remained okay for ~200 years (if it did)?

I less have this sense for the last 200 years than for the preceding 2000 years, but I think for most of human history 'white collar' work has been heavily affiliated with the public sector (which, for most of human history, I think should count the church). Quite possibly the thing we're seeing is a long-term realignment where more and more administrative and intellectual ability is being deployed by the private sector instead of the public sector, both because the private sector is more able to compete on compensation and non-financial compensation has degraded in relative performance? [For example, ambitious people are less interested in the steady stability of a career track now than I think they were 100 years ago, and more and more public sector work is done in the 'steady career track' way. The ability to provide for a family mattered much more for finding a spouse before the default was a two-income family. Having a 'good enough' salary mattered more than having a shot at a stellar salary in a smaller world.]

Another thing I note is that there's variation in cultural push for various sorts... (read more)

Well, death spirals can happen, but turnaround / reform can also happen. It usually needs good leadership though. Sure, they have competitors, but what are they competing on? In terms of what's going on in the US right now, one story is that newspapers used to be nice and profitable, which created room for journalists to pursue high-minded ideals related to objectivity, fairness, investigative reporting, etc. But since Google/Craigslist took most of their ad revenue, they've had to shrink a bunch, and the new business environment leaves less room for journalists to pursue those high-minded ideals. Instead they're forced to write clickbait and/or pander to a particular ideological group to get subscriptions. Less sophisticated reporting/analysis means less sophisticated voting means less sophisticated politicians who aren't as capable of reforming whatever government department is currently most in need of reform (or, less sophisticated accountability means they do a worse job).
Public institutions are subject to mandate. You can boycott a company but the shareholders are sovereign. But private corporations are immune to public control short of following the law. A public goverment isn't really allowed to bankrupt or fail to exist. The theory under why companies are okay to die is that nobdys life or death is tied to it. Especially for limited liabity even people most invested in will be at worse poor. If a public institution misbehaves the responciblity of correcting it can be traced back to the will of the people. Staying true to the authority is an okay excuse to make losses etc. If you make a profict but violate policy in the public side of things you are out while in private you might still be in business.
My own story is that much of this is a side effect of (partially, but very much ongoing and needed) successful efforts to reduce discrimination and keep talented, driven, smart people out of many important industries and jobs. When women and minorities just flat-out don't get hired in high paying private sector jobs, you're going to get a higher-than-economically-reasonable number of such people working as teachers, postal workers, and lots of other stable-but-not-prestigious-or-lucrative jobs, which are skewed towards the public sector.  We haven't adjusted our societal expectations to these facts and what they mean for hiring and paying public servants. Any attempt to fix that now ironically runs up against the perception that government is so incompetent that throwing more money at the problem is a terrible waste, whether that's true in a particular case or not.   Edit to add: I think this combines with what David Chapman's points about society internalizing the postmodern critique incompletely. This makes it much easier to tear down people trying to lead and reform as intrinsically untrustworthy just for wanting to do that, while we haven't yet gotten enough metarational people in high enough places to build institutions that can function anyway, and don't yet know what those could look like.

Thanks. Under this hypothesis, we should see an improvement in the quality of private-sector institutions. (Whereas, under some competing hypotheses, Google and other private-sector companies should also have trouble creating institutional cultures in the 0-3 sense.) Thoughts on which we see?

Also, thoughts on David Chapman's claim that subcultures (musical scenes, hobby groups, political movements, etc.) have been vanishing? Do you also hypothesize this brain drain to affect hobby groups?

The highest-quality organizations today (not sure if they're "institutions") are the big companies like Amazon and Google. By "high quality" I mean they create lots of value, with a high value-per-(IQ-weighted)-employee ratio. Any institution that does a big job, like government, has lots of leverage on the brainpower of its members and should be able to create lots of value. E.g. a few smart people empowered to design a new government healthcare system could potentially create a $trillion of value. But the for-profit companies are basically the only ones who actually do consistently leverage the brainpower and create $trillions of value. This is because they're the only ones who make a sustained effort to win the bidding war for brainpower, and manage it with sufficiently tight feedback cycles. Another example of a modern high-quality institution that comes to mind, which isn't a for-profit company, is Wikipedia. Admittedly no one is bidding money for that talent, so my model would predict that Wikipedia should suffer a brain drain, and in fact I do think my model explains why the percentage of people who are motivated to edit Wikipedia is low. But it seems like there's a small handful of major Wikipedia editors addicted to doing it as a leisure activity. The key to Wikipedia working well without making its contributors rich is that the fundamental unit of value is simple enough to have a tight feedback loop, so that it can lodge in a few smart people's mind as an "addictive game". You make an edit and it's pretty clear whether you've followed the rule of "improve the article in some way". Repeat, and watch your reputation score (number of edits, number of article views) tick steadily up. So my model is that successful institutions are powered by smart people with reward feedback loops that keep them focused on a mission, and companies are attracting almost all the smart people, but there are still a few smart people pooled in other places like Wikipedia which u

I find this plausible, but I have a few reservations. I note the NYT is a private sector institution. If the brain-drain hypothesis is true, how do we explain the decay of private sector institutions that is also happening? Consider the case of General Electric, or the decay of other industrial giants like General Motors, or IBM, or AT&T, or American Steel. They were all well within the time period set for the trend; the damage mostly happened 60s-80s for the older examples, but General Electric is in its death throes now.

We see the average age of priv... (read more)

Consider this analogy: Professional basketball teams are much better than hobby league teams because they have a much stronger talent pool and incentive feedback loop. Yet individual teams rise and fall within their league, because it’s a competitive ecosystem. Business is currently the pro league for brainpower, but individual companies still rise and fall within that league. Business is also a faster-changing game than basketball because consumer preferences, supplier offerings and technological progress are all moving targets. So a company full of really smart people will still often find itself much less competitive than it used to be. Companies like Yahoo that fall too far stop being able to generate large profits and attract top talent, and eventually go extinct. The analogy with sports teams breaks here because many sports leagues give their worst teams some advantages to rebuild themselves, while failing companies just go out of business. GM, IBM and AT&T are teams who have fallen in the league rankings, but if they’re still operating in the market then they’re still effectively competing for talent and their higher-paid positions still probably have correspondingly higher average IQ. The NYT is a case where the competitive ecosystem shifted drastically, and the business successfully continued optimizing for profit within the new ecosystem. Before the internet, when information was a scarce resource, the NYT’s value prop was information creation and distribution, with a broad audience, and paid for by broad-targeted ads. Now their value prop is more focused on advocacy of the viewpoints of its narrower subscriber base, paid for by that subscriber base. The governing board of the NYT may care about neutral news reporting, but they also care a lot about profit, so they consider the NYT’s changes to be good tradeoffs. If you think of the NYT like a public service providing neutral reporting, then yes that service has been crumbling, and no company will rep



Here's a take on why it's gotten harder to form and maintain beneficial institutions and social structures, using my favourite lens: Memetics.

(I mentioned this briefly on the group call, but I missed part of the model before, and can expose it to more people here)

  • Enough people have a preference for hosting memes which are broadly prosocial, build a legacy, etc, and for co-operating with others who have this kind of preference to create self-sustaining cultures, so long as you get founding right and people can generally distinguish prosocial memes from others
  • People over time have a roughly stable personal ability to distinguish memes that have good effects from ones more optimised for spreading at the cost of important norms
  • Technologies have progressively lowered barriers to communication, allowing
    • More rapid evolution of memes which are better at fooling the distinguishing mechanisms while actually being hyper-optimised for self-promotion and disabling parts of the social environment's memetic immune system (e.g. fear of call-out/cancel culture reducing the ability of subcultures to reject it and related memes, even when there would normally be antibodies reacting to a meme's effects).
    • These highly optimised memes to be more rapidly spread into local cultures. A stable system need a certain dose of a virus or memeplex to become infected rather than petering out against the local background culture. A system gets a founding dose of alien memes much more often when new members maintain stronger connections to their old tribe (reinforce old memetic patterns), is broadly more exposed to flows of memes, and when likeminded people can more easily find each other to form a locally reinforcing group.
  • This means that on an individual level people end up less able to sort valuable thought patterns like old NYT's culture from viral patterns, and on a cultural level are less able to maintain "cell walls" against memeplexes competing for space in their substrate's brains.
  • I also think there some stuff around having hyper-optimised memes delivered by a hyper-optimised Out to Get You attention economy cutting into the free mindspace which is important for distinguishing prosocial from self-promoting memes, so maybe we're also getting worse at that at the same time as the job gets harder in several ways.

The Cost of Communication covers a very similar argument in a lot more detail, particularly with stronger grounding in memetic theory:

The basic argument of this post has 4 main components:

  1. Memetic Immune Systems: Just like there is a biological immune system for viruses, there may be a memetic immune system that decides which ideas, a.k.a. memes, are adopted by the individual. This memetic immune system would not select for “good” or true ideas. It would select for ideas that are beneficial to the carrier’s germline.
  2. Increased Memetic Competition Selects for
... (read more)



Attempting to blindsight the answer: 

In the past I imagine that people were usually trying to 'be a serious person'. And that's still true. But somehow being a serious person is now faker. And I think maybe its because they're being a very scared serious person. Somehow they're a lot more vulnerable from every direction. Or there's a lot more directions they're vulnerable from.

Thanks; this resonates for me and I hadn't thought of it here.

The guess that makes sense to me along these lines: maybe it's less about individual vulnerability from attack/etc. And more that they can sense somehow that the fundamentals of the our collective situation are not viable (environmental collapse, AI, social collapse, who knows, from that visceral perspective I imagine them to have), and yet they don't have a frame for understanding the "this can't keep working," and so it lands in the "in denial" bucket and their "serious person" is fake. (I don't think the "fake" comes from "scared" alone, I think you need also "in denial about it." For example, I think military units in war often do not feel fake, although their people are scared.)

(Alternative theory for scared: maybe it is just that we are lacking tribe.)

Only on my third read did I read it correctly – I thought you said that everyone being a serious person now is "a faker". It's harsher than what you said, but I kind of still believe it.

Ben Pace


I don’t have a clear hypothesis, so I will instead write down a few pretty disparate observations that feel related.

  • One thing I was surprised by around the Petrov Day Red Button was people saying they could not imagine that someone would actually care about the ritual. This felt like it was relevant to understanding why culture is hard to build and maintain.
  • I was fairly unhappy with my graduation ceremony at University. All of our families were sat above each other in a tall circular room, while a man in formal robes said that the students had grown into adults through their work at the university. I feel like the parents and university staff were coordinating around a world where this narrative was true, and that people would respect us because we had a degree. But I didn’t grow because of my university, I grew in spite of it, and people no longer trust that a degree means much. I feel like the parents and the man in the centre of the room all thought it did, and I imagine once they were correct.
  • I’ve been thinking about internet subcultures other than LessWrong and Effective Altruism, and thinking about how to help them out more. I think one thing that’s common is that the people trying to lead in building the infrastructure are not the people who started the culture but just people who are mood-affiliated and like the initial people. I also feel like such people are much more scared to act out what’s distinctive about their subculture, and thus normalize it a lot more.
  • Robin had a good recent post about how basically every country in the world coordinated to execute the same regulations around COVID – no experiments, no variolation, etc. This feels really alarming to me, like this fact should be central in my understanding of the world, whereas at the minute it feels like a thing I’m ignoring (whilst nonetheless continuing to anticipate).
  • I have an anticipation whereby if you want to be part of the popular discourse yet not simply ‘play your role’, you have to walk through fields of people saying awful things about you. I felt like OpenAI did it with their work on release practices, where most of the public dialogue was not ’staggered release versus open science’ but was more like ‘is OpenAI fundamentally immoral for doing this or not‘. I feel like Musk does it constantly, and I think that Musk not letting this get to him this is part of what allows his basic successes with Tesla and SpaceX to be part of the discussion.
  • Dave Chappelle has been very successful and given respect and prestige while nonetheless ignoring all the pressures on him to bend the knee, and instead just being funny. Which is strange. It stands out to me that he lives in the same small town in Ohio that he grew up in, raises his family there and knows everyone there, rather than having moved to one of the major coastal cities for his work like LA or New York.

If I were to try to make things up this minute. I’d say I feel like there aren’t enough heroes, and that the main times most of my heroes are brought up in popular culture is to attack and destroy their reputation, and that the internet makes things very contextless and ignores people’s history and positive reputation. So I feel like the internet has made people think there are no good people to look up to, and this makes it harder to trust new people.

Sounds like internet increased our ability to coordinate on destroying things and people. (Also to coordinate on doing useful things, but not that much, because we already had some mechanisms for that.)

An example for the light side of online coordination would be Kickstarter, and the obvious example for the dark side would be Twitter. Twitter can probably destroy orders of magnitude faster than Kickstarter can build.

So I feel like the internet has made people think there are no good people to look up to, and this makes it harder to trust new people.

This strongly clicked for me. It feels like there is more to say around this (and I don't know what / don't know how to say it yet), but this feels like part of the puzzle.

[Added:] Actually, perhaps it seems even more central to me that it feels like the same thing that has made people think there are no good people to look up to also has made have a decreased sense of looking up to institutional cultures. Like, my inner si... (read more)

2Ben Pace
Thank you for letting me know :)  (I will move my comment to an answer, given that it’s seemed to be helpful.)

I feel like the parents and the man in the centre of the room all thought it did, and I imagine once they were correct.

I feel this too.

About many traditions.

Let me posit some statements:

  • people exist in plurality-relevant numbers who feel very strongly that we should Have Traditions(tm) to reinforce what we value.
  • historical groups valued what they valued. when they didn't, they tend to war about it. they took actions which made sense at the time to support their values, and the common useful ones solidified into traditions.
  • borders between communities start
... (read more)



I asked just the title of this post to someone near me, who first laughed and said “ha ha not possible,” and when I said “no, really”, they came back with “community”. I asked for more details and it went something like this:

Community is the everyday practice of negotiating a positive outcome with people who aren’t just like you. When you do this regularly with people around you, you learn that they are people and that they have your back. Think churches, block parties, school boards. When community is our primary source of human interaction, we build this muscle of cooperation-by-default because that’s the social expectation, and because successful cooperation has positive feedback cycles that produce immediate returns.

We suck at this today: our communities are online, national and personalized. There’s no longer a forcing function to be nice to / learn to communicate with our neighbors.

Online communities compete with offline communities for our limited capacity to have meaningful interactions with people.

And like the private sector drains away the smart people who are motivated by money, internet drains away the smart people who are motivated by prestige.



One hypothesis for why it has gotten harder to form institutional cultures (I am assuming here that it has):

I’ll call this the “Geeks, MOPS, and sociopaths” model. Under this model (put forward e.g. in the essay of Ben Hoffman’s that I linked above), it has somehow become easier and more common for people to successfully ape the appearances of an institutional culture, while not truly being true to it (and so, while betraying it in longer-term or harder-to-trace ways).

In the example of the NYT, this could occur in several ways:

  • People getting jobs within the NYT who believe less sincerely in the old journalistic ethic (though they perhaps believe in looking like they believe in whatever is popular);
  • Alternative press outlets (Washington Post, or whoever) arising that believe less sincerely in journalistic ethics (or anything like this) than the NYT, but who parasitize the “kind of like journalistic ethics” brand by aping its appearance to readers;
  • Leadership of the NYT being more interested in bending the NYT’s brand (and its internal culture/ethics) to however current people today happen to be evaluating which newspaper to trust, in ways that boost those leaders’ personal [$/prestige/political power] but that harm the longer-term legacy of the institution (because future people, who are under the sway of different fads, won’t see it this way).

Related argument: the 4-hour documentary / propaganda film “Century of the Self” argues that the dispersion of game theory (“it’s virtuous to think about my self-interest and e.g. defect in prisoners’ dilemmas”) and of marketing/focus groups/“public relations” (“my brand can figure out how other people are making sense of the world on a pre-conscious level, by using techniques similar to Gendlin’s Focusing on them, and can thereby figure out how to be perceived as having a certain ethic/culture/institution by hacking their detectors”) led to more of this sort of aping, and replaced institutional cultures that might’ve helped past people do real work with LARPing and “lifestyles.”

This is also quite related to Goodhardt’s law. But under this hypothesis, dynamics have somehow changed dynamics so that [individuals/organizations who are trying to appear to have virtues] are able to successfully fool the detectors of [individuals/organizations that are are trying to detect whether they have virtues]. It does not explain why that would have changed.

One possibility if that if a group has safety in resources then they can start competing or peacocking on ethics. Like when the New York Times is doing well, then they can have their journalists do rewarding, risky work which might get them Pullitzer Prizes, and be conservative when considering journalistic ethic violations.  This is good for individual journalists and also the paper's reputation. Now, with the livelihood of their paper less secure they've made many small sacrifices against journalistic ethics to increase or keep revenue stable, which hurts both the individuals and the paper.

I would put this as a specific sub-example of what I might consider the "Eric Weinstein / Peter Thiel / Robert Gordon / Tyler Cowen Stagnation Hypothesis" where they might suggest something like this happening on a larger scale.

3A Ray
Maybe not the right place, but my understanding is that Robert Gordon's hypothesis is very different from the others. The common view between these folks is that our expectation is for growth, and with this comes plans/strategies/policies which are breaking down as our growth has been slower than expected (at this point for decades). (I think I know more about this one) Gordon's view is that stagnation is because our growth has come from discovering, scaling, and rolling-out a sequence of "once only" inventions.  We can only disseminate germ theory once, we can only add women to the workforce once, we can only widely deploy indoor plumbing once, etc.  This means the expectation is that as we get all the easy improvements, growth will slow down.  Gordon's view is importantly independent of culture, and makes similar predictions of US, UK, JP, SK, CN, FR, DE, (which they'll arrive at in different dates given the convergence model, but eventually all trend the same).  Gordon's prediction is that we're just now in a world where we're stuck at ~1% TFP growth. (I know some about this) Cowen's hypothesis in the Great Stagnation is similar to Gordon's, but seems to argue that the stagnation he's describing is 1) more specific to American culture 2) reversible, in that he predicts given some policy changes that we can get back to the higher growth of earlier decades.  I don't know how much Cowen's thinking has changed since publishing that book. (I know less about this) E.Weinstein's hypothesis is there's something in the cultural zeitgeist that is causing the stagnation.  I am interested in learning more about this take, and would appreciate references.

I think the point about people Goodhart-ing the things seen as greatness makes sense.  These incentives would have been around for a long time and don't predict recent changes, though.

One thing that is different now is more of the words/sentences/pictures/ideas of interactions I have are with some form of manipulable media (websites, podcasts, radio, television, etc) rather than flesh-and-blood humans.  Here I'm trying to capture something like the amount of beliefs, knowledge, and ideas moved, rather than amount of time or attention.

So this pred... (read more)

Seems like you’re missing an end to the paragraph that starts “Related argument”

Thanks! Fixed.



I want to lay out a basic hypothesis which claims that the main variable is political will. Important variables feeding into this are corruption and social capital.

Resources sort of feeding into this model (some more sort-of than others):

  • The Dictator's Handbook (this one is for real the source of most of the intuitions)
  • Moral Mazes, Elephant in the Brain (these aren't actually things I have read, but feel relevant)
  • The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives are No Substitute for Good Citizens
  • Bowling Alone

Basic claim: quality institutions come from "political will". Political will is basically like coordination-juice. I will claim that political will comes from two places:

  • Social Capital: the distributed trust that people have in each other.
  • Explicit Structure: the actual political arrangement.

The question of where social capital comes from is an open one, but a few important factors:

  • Television seems to have struck a significant blow to social capital, for the simple reason that it caused people to stay home in the evenings rather than go out.
  • Free market capitalism and high social capital seem quite correlated.
  • Measures of government corruption seem like a good proxy for low social capital.

As far as explicit structure goes, there are two basic sources of "political will":

  • Benevolent dictators. These do exist, but it seems like it's not something you can count on.
  • Much more often, the political will to create solid institutions comes from large-coalition dynamics.

Large-Coalition Dynamics

To those who have not read The Dictator's Handbook, I highly recommend it. You can get the basic model from the CPG Grey video The Rules for Rulers.

The basic idea is that you can put governments on a spectrum from democracy to dictatorship by asking how many people does the leader need to keep happy in order to stay in power. This is the "coalition". A very small coalition makes a government autocratic, and a very large coalition makes it democratic (regardless of the formal government structure). (Note that even within a democracy, the number of supporters required for a party to maintain power varies greatly depending on the voting method and the structure of the government.)

A ruler always has an incentive to minimize the size of the winning coalition, in order to minimize the number of people who need to be satisfied. This maximizes the amount the ruler can take for their own interests (be they benevolent or otherwise), and also maximizes the longevity of their rule (because it's easier to keep the coalition satisfied, and therefore, easier to keep it stable). Strong rulers will therefore tend to cut down the size of their coalition in a wide variety of ways.

However, the most important rule for a ruler is to keep their coalition satisfied. So although the ruler may want to cut the coalition down, whether they can get away with this depends largely on whether the coalition wants it, too.

The Dictator's Handbook argues that there is a turning point between small and large coalitions. Small coalitions generally want to become smaller, so long as they can maintain power: less people to split the pie between. Small coalitions will essentially loot the public welfare for their personal gains, restrict freedoms to prevent revolt, and shut down all parts of the economy except what they personally benefit from (through over-taxation and other means).

Large coalitions, on the other hand, rely more on public-good rewards. They want to grow the economy, create good infrastructure, etc. Large coalitions usually recognize that the best way to do this is to grow the coalition further, which helps ensure that the leader (who still wants a smaller coalition) won't boot anyone out, and puts more pressure on the leader to increase freedoms, invest in public works, etc.

So that's why dictatorship isn't the only stable attractor; democracy is also a stable attractor. (Even though the democratic leaders will keep looking for ways to reduce coalition size.)

This is, on this theory, the source of stable, cooperative institutions: the large-coalition attractor.

On this theory, the main interventions are those which decrease corruption, increase the size of the coalition, and increase social capital.

Can you clarify which "The Dictators Handbook" you mean? I suspect you mean the Mesquita and Smith version, though the Randall Wood one looks more fun.

Ah indeed! I meant Mesquita & Smith.



At the town hall, you remarked that you had made a list of many explanations, each of which looked apparently likely to be true when viewed in isolation, but none of which seemed obviously more compelling than the others. I attempted the same exercise, and got a similar result. Looking at my list and thinking about it, I'm not convinced there is necessarily a center; some of the hypotheses look like they plausibly could be, but the alternative is that there are a bunch of mechanisms which push to higher and lower levels of corruption, which mostly wind up cancelling out, but that some of the mechanisms are positive-feedback loops.

Here's my list of hypotheses, clustered in a few groupings. This is somewhere half-way between "developed theories that I fully believe" and this babble challenge.


Institutions Which Corrode Others in Proportion to their Own Corrosion

News media. The judiciary. Higher education. Unions. Grantmakers. Each of these institutions (or categories of institutions) has a surface area through which it influences other institutions, and is influenced by them in return; that influence might be positive or negative, depending on how well functioning it is. News media and the judiciary influence the behavior or other institutions through scandal and liability, respectively; that distortion can be positive or negative.

Loss of Slack

The parts of an institutional culture that trade off short- and long-term incentives rely on the institution and the people within it having slack. For a number of reasons, both people and organizations seem to have less slack than they used to. There are a few big well-known ones affecting individuals: student loans, housing prices, and health care prices, in particular. But the ones affecting institutions and person-instutition relationships are more interesting:

Financialization: It is fairly common for an investor to take an organization with a secure income stream and a lot of slack, and use financial instruments to transform it into a precarious organization plus money elsewhere. The prototypical instance of this is the leveraged buyout, which seems to have first started being a thing in the 1980s.

No More Company Men (/Women): Decades ago, and still in some countries, the relationship between an employee and a corporation was a long term and loyal one; people would spend most of their career inside a single organization. This implies a low risk of being fired, a long time horizon in their relationship with the company, and a lot of time in which to absorb a company's culture.

Loss of Ability to Filter

In order to function, an institution needs to recruit people filtered for both competence and alignment, which can be done either by recruiters assessing people directly, or by delegating and judging based on work history or formal credentials. Most large institutions have shifted heavily towards the latter, while the formal-credential-giving institutions have shifted away from selecting on intelligence and towards selecting on time-expenditure and conscientiousness. As a result, many institutions seem to have filled up with people who have papers that say they're qualified, who nevertheless aren't.

Scalability Problems

Some norms are enforced in a distributed way, where the enforcement only works if the violation is known widely enough, eg boycotts in response to corporate misbehavior. If the population doubles, the number of corporations doubles, and the per-capita number of boycott targets stays constant, then the total influence of boycotts halves. Similar effects exist internally when scaling up institutions, when increasing the number of participants in a market, and when increasing the complexity of regulation.

A noteworthy part of the experience of hanging out in any sort of niche forum is that US's major institutions have a recurring cast of scandals which never seem to be resolved, and which the relevant people don't show much awareness of. In 2015, the Congressional reaction to police brutality and discrimination didn't look like disagreement, it looked like not having enough bandwidth to investigate or think clearly about it. This is what we should expect to happen more and more to fixed-size institutions as the world gets more complex.

A related problem is that as the influence of an institution grows, the rewards for capturing or corrupting it also grow, and the growth between offense and defense is not symmetric. An example of this is the relationship between the PR and newspaper industries; the ratio of PR resources to investigative-reporting resources has grown drastically, and this fact seems like a natural consequence of economic growth.

Adversarial Action

Foreign intelligence agencies are actively working to reduce unity within the US.

A history of corruption in powerful institutions created a cultural backlash against institutional power in general, which isn't selective enough.

Institutions are easier to sabotage than they are to create, so scaling up the world disfavors them.

Decreased Attention Spans

When I was growing up, it was a standard aphorism that "television rots your brain"--ie, that consuming too much media messes people up in some way. I recall a more specific claim, which was that television decreases attention span -- ie, people who watch a lot of television have more scattered attention. People now say similar things about social media, and I think the effect is the same: people tend to spend less consecutive seconds on each thought, and have a harder time dealing with long inferential distances.

Many of the major problems look like leaders are being too miserly with cognition; there's a correct model of the problem which has some inferential distance, and a competing model of the problem which is simpler but wrong, and we find leaders acting as though they believe the latter. Eg the "landlords are greedy" model (simple, wrong) vs the "prices are high when housing construction is inhibited by regulation" model (correct, but more complex).

Assorted Other Hypotheses

Exposure advertising induces resistance to a class of messaging which includes both advertising and organizational ideology.

Business schools are teaching MBAs a strategy that doesn't rely on understanding the culture of an institution, and so they go on to destroy the local culture wherever they go.

The same thing that's causing an obesity crisis, also changes people's psychology in a way that makes them hard to build institutions out of.

Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy; believing that an institution is bad makes the people within it stop trying, and the good people stop going there.

Many organizations relied on an implicit hierarchy in which older people were higher ranked and less numerous; the decrease in birth rate broke this.

Con artists are more skilled than they used to be, because TV/social media/something else made it easier for them to practice, and most organizations are being captured by them.

"Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy; believing that an institution is bad makes the people within it stop trying, and the good people stop going there."

I think this is a key observation. Western academia has grown continually more cynical since the advent of Marxism, which assumes an almost absolute cynicism as a point of dogma: all actions are political actions motivated by class, except those of bourgeois Marxists who for mysterious reasons advocate the interests of the proletariat.

This cynicism became even worse with Foucault, who taught people to see everything as nothing but power relations.  Western academics today are such knee-jerk cynics that they can't conceive of loyalty to any organization other than Marxism or the Social Justice movement as being anything but exploitation of the one being loyal.

Pride is the opposite of cynicism, and is one of the key feelings that makes people take brave, altruistic actions.  Yet today we've made pride a luxury of the oppressed.  Only groups perceived as oppressed are allowed to have pride in group memberships.  If you said you were proud of being American, or of being manly, you'd get deplatformed, and possibly... (read more)

This rings pure and clear, epistemically, in a way that most of the page has not.

I see gears. They look hard to move, but they're there.



I've put together some guesses about what's important for US competence as a nation, loosely based on ideas from WEIRDest People and Where is my Flying Car?.

Human societies likely default to small groups that fragment (due to disagreements) if they grow much above 20 people.

Over the past 10 millennia or so, it has become common to use extended ties of kinship to scale up to the Dunbar number, and sometimes well beyond that.

Western civilization scaled up to unprecedented levels of trust and cooperation via a set of fairly new cultural features: moral universalism, use of impartial rules rather than contextual particularism, the expectation of supernatural punishment for undetected crimes, more emphasis on analytical thinking, and more positive-sum thinking.

The US has been partly held together by a shared religion, whose teachings promote trust between co-religionists, and which also encourage treating others as potential converts.

Shared enemies (Nazis, Communism, maybe briefly Islam) created additional, but temporary, boosts to cooperation within the English speaking world. Some of the polarization we've recently experienced is just a return to patterns that were previously common. If that were most of what's going wrong, I'd be fairly optimistic about the future of the US.

Over the past few decades, the US has experienced a decline in religion (or a least in a shared religion).

Science got too aggressive about demanding that we disbelieve any knowledge beyond what scientific journals would publish. That eroded beliefs in supernatural phenomena, and also eroded beliefs in the religion(s) that helped to promote large-scale trust and cooperation.

Science didn't succeed in replacing religion with something more rigorous. Instead, new quasi-religions sprouted (e.g. Green fundamentalism, and the cult of Trump). They're optimized more for features such as compatibility with forager instincts, than the ability to promote prosperity.

In contrast, the Protestant religion was selected in part for its ability to foster cooperation between distant strangers.

I'm concerned that many US problems of the past few decades (including The Great Stagnation) can only be solved by something like a return to being a Christian nation. The tension between Science and Christianity seems strong enough that it's hard to see how that is feasible.

Another problem is that democracy has morphed from a tool, to a goal in itself.

That has undercut the authority of political parties. They used to have near total control over what candidates were on the ballot. Then, starting around 1970, there was a massive shift toward direct voter control over who each party nominated.

That made it harder to hold any institution accountable for political results. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that this trend started around the same time as The Great Stagnation. It seems correlated with reduced trust in authority in general, although I can't tell whether this is a cause or effect.

WEIRDest People also claims that WEIRD cultures have produced lower testosterone levels, via monogamy. That's important, since it reduces impulsivity, reduces competitive urges, and increases positive-sum thinking.

But testosterone seems to have decreased over the past few decades, so the US ought to be in a better position than most societies to rebuild institutions.

I'm maybe 90% confident that the US still has enough competence to postpone collapse and civil war for a few decades.

It seems like there should be some research on how companies, nonprofits, etc. scale up past the Dunbar number. But I'm unclear whether it's relevant to groups as big as the US, but WEIRDest People has led me to expect that the optimal approach for a group of 300 million people will be rather different from the optimal approach for 200,000 people.



Vinay Gupta, in Cutting Through Spiritual Colonialism, and Venkatesh Rao, in The Gervais Principle, paint a picture where the routine operation and maintenance of life and organizations generates some sort of pollution (focusing mostly on the intrapersonal and interpersonal varieties), and an important function of institutions is basically doing the 'plumbing work' of routing the pollution away from where it does noticeable damage to where it doesn't do noticeable damage. I don't think I fully endorse this lens, but it seems like it resonates moderately well, and combines with trends in a few unsettling ways.

In centuries past, it was common to have communities that cared very strongly about whether or not insiders were treated fairly, but perceived the rest of the world as "fair game" to be fleeced as much as you could get away with; now the 'expanding moral circle' seems more common (while obviously not universal), in a way that makes the 'plumbing work' harder to do. [If life requires aggression, and you have fewer legal targets, this increases the friction life has to work against.] 

It seems like our credit-allocation mechanisms have become weirdly unbalanced, where it's both easier to evade responsibility / delete your identity and start over / impact many people who will never know it was you who impacted them, and simultaneously it's easier to discover crimes, put things on permanent records, and rally the attention of thousands and millions to direct at wrongdoers. The new way that they operate seems to have empowered Social Desirability Bias; once we might have imagined the Very Serious People leading the crowd, and now it seems the crowds are leading the Very Serious People.

This is also one of the ways that I think about the 'crisis in confidence'; see Revolt of the Public for more details, but my basic take is that experts have always been uncertain and incorrect and yet portrayed themselves as certain and correct as part of their role's bargain with broader society. Overconfidence helps experts serve their function of reassuring and coordinating the public, and part of the 'plumbing work' is marginalizing dissent and keeping it constrained to private congregations of experts. But with expanded flow of information, we both have more expertise as a society, and more memory of expert mistakes, and more virulent memes spreading distrust in experts. This feels like the sort of thing where we get lots of short-term benefits in correcting the expert opinion, but also long-term costs in that we lose the ability to coordinate because of expertise.

[Feynman in an autobiography describes his father, who makes uniforms, pointing out that uniforms are manufactured / Feynman shouldn't reflexively trust people because of their uniforms, which seems like great advice for Feynman, but not great advice for everyone in society; the social technology of respecting uniforms does actually do a lot of useful work!]



I think your causal options are missing an important one - "the invisible hand".  

Many people independently value the nice thing, and they altruistically decide to put their own efforts toward creating/maintaining the nice thing?

The first half is fine, but replace "altruistically" with "selfishly".  Someone wants the thing, and thinks many others want the thing.  They figure out how to make a living by providing the thing to everyone.  For non-exclusionary things (lighthouses being the classic example, although most of them were actually privately funded), the providers figure out how to get taxpayers or civic organizations to pay them.  

I like your 0-3 framework, and my answer for the decline is primarily about the following in #1:

  • breakdown in long-term rewards.  The larger cultural institutions of stability and consumer expectations have shifted to short-term evaluations.  Institutions that seek long-term rewards, at the expense of short-term survival, don't get either one.

One can certainly argue that traditional values are biased and unpleasant, and encouraging radical change is the right thing to do.  But it remains true that this harms institutions which had optimized for long-term value in the previous environment.  And to the extent that there's uncertainty in the stability of the future (cultural) environment, it's hard to see how new institutions can correctly optimize for the long-term.

The first half is fine, but replace "altruistically" with "selfishly".... They figure out how to make a living... [emphasis mine]

At first glance, if we're talking about a thing that requires cooperative effort from many people across time, this seems like a heck of a principal agent problem. What keeps everybody's incentives aligned? Why does each of us trying selfishly to make a living result in a working fire fighting group (or whatever) instead of a tug-of-war? I understand the "invisible hand" when many different individuals are individually put... (read more)

At first glance, if we're talking about a thing that requires cooperative effort from many people across time, this seems like a heck of a principal agent problem.

It turns out a whole lot of cooperation is achievable without explicit control.  It's not so much principal-agent, where a principal knows what they want and the agent has different goals.  It's more like agent-agent (or really, principal-principal), where all participants want compatible things, and small individual trades (I'll let you keep 10% if you mill my grain) add up over time to fairly long chains of behaviors that build bridges and convenience stores and websites where we can discuss the puzzle of cooperation-without-coordination.

I'd argue that this is what "institution" means.  A common understanding of what kinds of exchanges and behaviors will be rewarded.  They're bottom-up evolved human mutual expectations, not top-down designed structures.  Though, of course, human intent can influence what kinds of culture are prevalent in any given subgroup.

Something on my mind as I read this post is "evolution somehow creates pretty complicated things, with relatively low amounts of agency."  There are clear limits on what evolution can build, especially in a given timeframe. I don't have a clear model of how this relates back to your question, but "what sort of processes and feedback loops are involved when evolution invented multicellular organisms, etc" might be a useful pointer here.



Very interesting question, Anna.  In fact, it covers so much territory and is so deep I'm not sure where to start.  

To one of your core questions, "the difficulty we are having lately in forming/sustaining institutional cultures (especially, ones adequate to get much done)" - Yuval Levin has studied and written extensively on this.  

One of Levin's core diagnoses is that there is a new tendency of people to use institutions as platforms to launch/improve their own popularity rather than letting the institution form and guide them.  

Think of the relatively new phenomenon of new star journalists using, say the NYT, as the platform to leverage and boost their own brand and career independent of the NYT.  Or, say a politician who uses the R or D party as a platform for a media following rather than the old way of slowly working your way up the ranks of a party and gaining influence and prestige within the confines of the organizational norms.  

At the risk of blaming social media for yet another social ill, I do think SM enables this "platform using" behavior.  In today's world, a young upstart politician can get her own following on Twitter or FB, breaking through the limitations of the old party organization.  


Consider also larger societal and cultural trends that have been in play for decades now. On average Americans are much wealthier and have more opportunities than in past generations.  One of the side effects of higher wealth is people don't need or desire to be part of institutions as much as before.  Fifty years ago if someone was down on their luck, short on money, getting help from their local church or VFW Club would have been more common.  

Relatedly and additionally, a surge in government benefits also reduces the need and incentives to rely on those local institutions.  Why bother with the church or the Lion's Club if state and local gov. is providing checks no (or few) questions asked.  



According to Strauss–Howe generational theory, history is made of cycling Saecula each divided into four generational Turnings: the High, the Awakening, the Unraveling, and the Crisis, in that order, which tend to last approximately 20 years while the next social generation of people advances in age and takes over their role in society. Each Turning is provoked by the flaws of the last.

We are now approaching the end of the current Crisis Turning (since about 2005). The Crisis is the Turning when institutions are at their nadir, due to their long Unraveling in the previous Turning (1982–2004), when individualism was at its peak. Institutions will be destroyed and rebuilt for the next Turning. The current Millennial Saeculum will end in approximately 2025 and usher in the next Saeculum. The coming High will be when collective institutions will be strongest and individualism will be at its weakest.

The fourness of the Turnings also pattern match onto other things. Strauss and Howe associate each social generation with the Prophet, Nomad, Hero, and Artist archetypes, in that order. (The Millenials are Heroes, Generation X are Nomads, etc.) I also wonder if this fourness also maps onto Simulacra Levels, after reading Zvi's The Four Children of the Seder as the Simulacra Levels, which also has a generational feel.

Given that framework, strong institutions develop in response to a crisis, when culture tilts toward collectivism. When that collective culture unravels into individualism, the institutions decay.

[Epistemic status: stab-in-the-dark pattern matching.]



I studied a lot of stuff linked to this, what follows is my attempt to organise my knowledge. Here are the main processes I think are draining the kind of cooperation you described from society.



Cooperation in society is suffering immensely from the rising economical inequalities. The evidence and theories linking the rise of economical inequality to the rise of a wide series of social problems, including a strong decrease of mutual trust, cooperation, altruism and a decline in social bonds between people. These are all factors that would be needed for the kind of cooperation described in the question.

Essentially, the two minute version of the theory it's that in a society where wealth is unfairly distributed, with a very small percentage of people owning most of it and a lot of steps in the social ladder all the way down, everyone is stressing over social status all the time, seeing everyone else as a potential rival, and so everyone is worse off, even the rich.

I highly suggest The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett, they do an excellent work at explaining the theory and the evidence, and all the rest of the scientific evidence coming in is saying the same things.



Most of the progress obtained by western societies was made when the worse (domestic) follies of capitalism were kept in check by good rules that were there for extremely good reasons.

You can go see the results of deregulation with extreme clarity in the banking sector, from the exact moment a bunch of rules went out of the window with the various deregulation sprees we got stuck in a repetitive cycle of banking crisis.

With these deregulation sprees there were also massive cuts on a lot of forms and institutions of social welfare, which studies are showing now to have been things society extremely needed to function properly. I think most of the research I had read on this was in The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills by Stuckler and Basu, which were able to present really strong evidence of the harmful effects of these welfare cuts and deregulation sprees on society. These policies of welfare were essential to keep inequalities more or less in check, with the effects mentioned above. So deregulation interacts with inequality by being one of its main causes,  the richest part of the population has basically turned into a black hole that keeps getting richer every year why the rest of the population isn't, and it's wealth is not so slowly getting eroded. The less rules there are in an economy, the more the strong can grind down the weak. A lot of rules were also related to how much company should pay employees, how easy is to fire people and so on, so more inequality for everyone. 

Also, deregulation walked hand in hand with privatisation, and it turns out (I think it's in The Body Economic as well) that public company are not, in fact, less efficient than private ones, and that they do actually tend to have incentive systems that are more aligned with providing good services than to just make money.

I remember reading deregulation and privatisation being linked in attempts to cut public information medias in the UK by Thatcher, since you explicitly mentioned newspapers.


General thoughts on this

So it seems that if you try hard to optimise only for a single factor, say profit, and take off all the rules that try to limit the allowed tactics to those that don't actually harm society, thus letting a large number of psychopaths get real creative at making money while also being able to learn from each other tactics, and if you keep accidentally selecting for said psychopaths in your managerial levels as well, what you get it's not more wealth for everyone, but all kind of horrible consequences, and an extremely messed up society. 

And why should you, if you systematically try to make your genies less aligned to human and society values before you make your wish.

Managers who don't care about long term consequences but just rake up short term profits are systematically advantaged over the ones who would care for the company in the long term. The less rules there are, the more their advantage grow. The occasional billionaires that own the whole company and have on top of that a vision for the future are just too rare when the number of psychopaths between managers is six times the common ratio in the population. 


Oh, and there is also a lot of research showing that employees mostly acted in the interest of the company if the company was perceived as being loyal to them, wages and other incentives didn't even got close to get that kind of results. Research also showed that just thinking about moneys made people less moral and more likely to cheat, so there's also that problem in trying to use money as the only goal someone should have in a system.

Fairness is an extremely powerful incentive for optimisation, because if someone is being fair toward you, you try to be fair in return, you don't try to game the incentive system to get more fairness. Cialdini studies on reciprocity come to mind. 

But this kind of relationship between company and employee was being enforced by rules that have been long thrown out.


Then, if we add on top of all that an ideology that explicitly praise only personal economical success and egoistical individualism and we market said ideology to the masses, and we add in the common knowledge that your society would just let you alone to die if something goes wrong with your health or wealth... 

If a hunter-gatherer brain found itself in a pack where everyone was just in a competition to get more resources, was explicitly told the rule in this pack is to care only for its own success, didn't know most of its members at all and knew for a fact the pack would abandon you to die if something went wrong... well, it seems pretty hard this brain would care at all about trying the kind of cooperation you describe. It would mainly care about getting to the top, or staying out of troubles and looking out for himself if he wasn't confident in its skill.


As an European, I think USA culture is just poisoned with this kind of out of control individualism and "free market" ideology. Reasonably free market are good for society, excessively free market... aren't.

I'd advise everyone from USA to try and look at those concepts with fresh eyes, and to check how other societies are seeing the issue. I was really surprised nobody here seemed to have noticed this.


I don't know if I can really do any justice to everything I've studied on this without trying to write a sequence, I tried my best to explain but there's too much to cover...

If anything I tried to explain was unclear or anyone would be interested in more links and evidence please ask me so. I only mentioned studies and facts on which my memory was certain.


Edit 06/11/20: If it's not a bother, I'd like to ask people to give me their hypothesis on why this answer is so "controversial", karma wise. I don't mean this as a complaint at all, I simply plan to write more about this subjects here on Lesswrong and feedback would be useful. 

I strong-upvoted this out of the negative because it seemed disproportionate for it to be there; I think it has some flaws as an answer and it might've been better as a comment, but there are other answers that are just as shaky on an explanatory level. (Though I don't think some of the adversarial framing is doing it any favors.)

My intuition is that there's a strong underlying point here, even if the surface markers have run afoul of some memetic antibodies. I'd love to see a better framing of this and better-explained actual counters if they're there; if... (read more)

Thank you very much for your feedback. I had the feeling I wasn't really managing to throughly explain the background of evidence behind my point, and I can definitely see that my writing style has slipped into showing my annoyance toward these issues in several points. I'll be careful not to make the same mistakes when I'll write about it in the future. 



I'd like to talk about the broader topic too, but for now I just want to try out some Disputes.

Governmental institutions: There seems to be some degree of institutional failure (mild-ish, so far) in a number of American and especially Californian institutions: California's electricity is less reliable than it used to be, due basically to bad governance. 

There are definitely a number of institutional failures in recent years (another is Flint's government choice to ignore health and safety recommendations to save money resulting in contaminated water) but do we know that these sorts of events are actually getting worse than the type/frequency found in previous 20-year-chunks of American history?

San Francisco, especially, is seeing rising crime, due more or less to decriminalizing a lot of crime. 

Is there a source for this? Preliminary investigation indicates otherwise. Some crimes in particular are up, but it's not clear that they're because things like "arson" or "car thefts" were decriminalized? Has that actually happened?

Many aspects of the covid-19 response also cast our institutions in a worse light than I'd previously anticipated, though it is plausible (given my ignorance) that my anticipations were the silly thing here and that we would not in fact have done better in previous eras. (I'm thinking here of: America being slower than I'd anticipated re: acquiring testing and PPE; putting very little money in the extensive stimulus bill to reducing covid via testing/research/etc.; America staying in semi-lockdown for an extended time instead of trying harder either to head toward actual zero (via border control, testing + tracing, etc.) so that we could relax again, or toward something more like herd immunity (while metering it out; but it seems to me that as a country we probably lost more to the costs many parts of America seeming not to lock down for extended periods of time without a plan to use that time to do anything constructive, and without (I think?) adequate accounting for what that would cost in terms of social stability and mental health.)

It feels important for me to ask why this is related to "forming stable, cooperative institutions?" The evidence I've seen points to it being fairly easily explained by an excessively bad administration and lack of leadership, with many well documented unforced errors in preparedness and coordination, as well as simple failures to pick low-hanging-fruit. 

I'm not saying we should discount "The US government" as an institution, obviously it is a massively important one, but that importance comes from the way it effects others, and thus makes it hard to judge overall competence of institutions downstream of it. The Executive Branch in particular has massive amounts of control and effect on all sorts of areas beyond what people would generally think of as "their job." Personally I trust the CDC about as much as I did before, I'm just more aware of how much a bad Executive can hinder them.

Non-governmental parts of our national sense-making apparatus: Most brand names, e.g. the NYT, Harvard, Science and Nature magazines, the Democrats, the Republicans, the police, the CDC, etc. seem less well-regarded than they used to be. I can't think of many brands of any sort that are instead better-regarded (Amazon, SpaceX and bitcoin, probably).

This seems true, and largely due to the overall democratization of news/opinions/science/all manner of gatekeepers in our culture. In terms of clear-seeing, we're more aware of the mistakes they make, and in terms of exaggerated criticism, we're more influenced by antagonistically-produced memes.

Subcultures: David Chapman claims that subcultures are much harder to form now / more or less don’t exist anymore. I have also tried to look myself, and this matches my own experience: rationality and EA seem among the few things that are sort-of here, and even we are only sort-of here, I think. ("The rationalist diaspora," not "the happening applied rationality scene.") (I can think of some others, e.g. the authentic relating / circling communities; some other parts of the Thiel-o-sphere; maybe the group at the Stoa; surely some others. But... fewer than I would have expected, and I think fewer than I would have found in past decades?)

This seems genuinely surprising to me. There actually seems to be far more subcultures being formed than there ever were before? Even discounting subcultures formed around specific media, there's certainly a lot of political subcultures that have formed in the past ~20 years. What's the standard for what qualifies as a "culture" in this space?

There actually seems to be far more subcultures being formed than there ever were before

DaystarEld, what are your favorite current happening scenes? (Where new art/science/music/ways of making sense of the world/neat stuff is being created?) Would love leads on where to look.

Well my favorite ones you're likely already aware of, like rationality (+rational fiction) and EA and circling, but there have been many growing communities of e.g. board game designers, 3D printing aficionados, video game music creators, cosplayers, specific fanfiction groups (think like the glowfic community, but also for things like Worm and other major online serials), online "Quests," etc. Also porn.  Lots and lots of very niche and varied porn, such that I believe most of the top Patreon creators are some type of porn creator. Fewer of the "science" or "try to make sense of the world" communities come to mind where the communities are actually a part of the creation and not just consumers, but the "youtube edutainment community" has a lot of great works and collaboration and feels worth distinguishing as one. Overall it just feels like there are hundreds of communities out there, growing and dying every week. If the criterion is ones that they "last" then that does cut out most, since a lot are tied to particular types of media, and if we only focus on "serious" ones then certainly there are far fewer, since we can't include otherwise impressive ones like the high-quality-gif community on Reddit, but I would be surprised if any previous time period won on either of those metrics just from sheer amount of people around today, exchanging ideas and collaborating.

Thanks for the SF crime link; you may be right. Multiple (but far from all) friends of mine in SF have been complaining about being more often accosted, having greater fear of mugging than previously, etc.; but that is a selection of crimes and is not conclusive evidence.

1Ben Schwyn
Also on crime, I'm not sure the relevance or cause, but NYC's crime rate jumped in the 70s & 80s, then dropped again in the 90s. If anyone knew a good source for the cause of this I'd be curious.
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Richard Lucas


A lot of the answer to this question is in Charles Murray's Coming Apart (2010). In it he makes extensive use of Government statistics from surveys and economic analysis to trace the fortunes of working class and upper income community types from 1960 to 2010. There are four key founding virtues: industriousness, honesty, religiosity, and marriage. America had these in abundance from its founding up through 1960. After 1960 upper classes retained most of them, but the working classes experienced major declines. These were societal in extent; no blame assigned, it is simply what happened. The two classes have diverged strongly, and while the upper income class will be fine, without these virtues, working class communities that have come apart probably cannot be put together again.

Though he does pick the "virtues" that he chooses to study, the book is jammed with graphs and explanations of the data sources. To dismiss it you'd need to dismiss the validity of data that is from disparate sources that pre-date the book.  

One big challenge is that the double income, university-educated, urban elites in WDC, SF, LA, and NYC have little knowledge of the experiences of those in "flyover country." This leads to political polarization that is fed from different lived experiences, but I think the point of the book is that even if you removed politics completely from your view of this divergence, the four virtues are what are needed to get things back together. Government can't do that on its own. These are values that people pick for themselves. Government policies have actually nudged people towards discarding these values, but there is no political will for the types of programs (or absence thereof) that would undo that nudging.

After 1960 upper classes retained most of them, but the working classes experienced major declines. These were societal in extent; no blame assigned, it is simply what happened. 

Why that happened seems to be the key to reversing it, though. If the four virtues are needed to get things back together, but they can fade from society for reasons unknown, trying to get them back is like bailing water from a sinking ship.



One possible hypothesis for the question about the lack of new institutions may be related to the ability to assuage oneself with comparatively meaningless activities. For example, I can now write an angry message on a city's social media page and make myself feel like I've done something about the lack of fire protection. I will receive just as much social affirmation (aka likes) that way compared to cold calling all my neighbors and asking them if they'd like to form a committee to raise our taxes and staff an additional fire station.



Individuals' ethics is the cornerstone

To answer the first question: I think it's mostly individuals' ethics. I think the shared ethics lead to a culture based on those ethics, which in turn reinforces the individuals' ethics. This accounts for the changes created by a large group of people as well as the changes created by individuals.

I think personal ethics have been slowly degrading as evidenced by the reception of Jordan Peterson's (and others') message along the same lines. The message is: pay close attention to your individual ethics and how they are impacting the people around you; if your life is a mess, start fixing it locally.

Speaking of JP, one of his points is that we lost respect for things that we have, like the government, industries, and policies). We have a lot of people trying to disrupt the system for the greater good without realizing they are breaking down the Chesterton's fence. I think this explains, for example, people fighting for the the reduction of police force, while it pretty conclusively leads to increased crime.

Overall, I think I mostly disagree with your sentiment. I agree that things are changing, but I think a lot of the things you mentioned still exist and work fine. They might appear worse than they are due to modern media's alarmist reporting and short term (~20y) trends.

Internet is responsible for degradation of real-world communities

Internet leads to online communities and cooperation, but directly drains time from local and national communities. (Not counting the insane time drain from all the distractions it creates.) Plus the social media rewards social bubbles + polarized thinking, leading to intense tribalism within your bubble and overall divisiveness.

If you look at how many online communities there are, it's kind of insane. How many movements start online. Previously a lot of that effort would have gone into the real-world communities and movements.

The best are getting better

Given increased mobility, people go for the best. Case in point: all the rationalist chapters around the world went into a decline, but it's because the bay area attracted most of the people who were really into rationality. I think the best of the best (companies, communities, etc...) are growing faster than ever before. 

Government and decline of nationalism

I think short, acute wars (WW2 + Cold War) lead to an increase in nationalism. Plus they shift people towards Level 1. ("There's a sniper across the river" has to be interpreted on Level 1.) People operating on Level 1 likely have better individual ethic, leading to my first point. Increased nationalism leads to higher interest and prestige in working for the government, and during the war itself there's an increased urgency as well.



There are some important relevant insights in Henrich's book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. I'll say more after I finish reading the book.

Henrich's "The Secret of Our Success" also contains very relevant insights. It is a book about culture-gene co-evolution. He dedicates a significant portion of the book to cultural institutions.

Henrich spends the final chapters of the book talking about social institutions. He argues that social norms are especially strong and enduring when they hook into our innate psychology. For example, social norms for fairness toward foreigners will be much harder to spread and sustain than those that demand mothers care for their children.

Henrich further argues that... (read more)



I think there are a few puzzles about a good institutional culture (IC) and their tendency to fade/thrive here.

  1. If an institution has a good IC, does it always thrive?
  2. Can an institution thrive even without a good IC?
  3. How can we distinguish carefully between a good IC and the condition of fading/thriving? For example, if a good IC brings a good reputation, but we say that the NY Times is fading because its reputation is declining, then saying that lacking a good IC caused the NY Times to fade is tautological.
  4. A good IC may neither be necessary nor sufficient for an institution to thrive. But is the creation of a good IC necessary (if not sufficient) to create an institution?
  5. If a good IC is of overriding importance to the existence, success, or failure of institutions, then what are the necessary and sufficient conditions to create a good IC from scratch? To turn a bad IC into a good one?

My dad has a story from when he took over his first nonprofit clinic as a CEO. It was in severe financial distress when he started. Two of the doctors, he discovered, liked to play a game. Rather than taking on patients (they were salaried), they would stand in one of the rooms and try to toss pennies out the window and get them to land on the window ledge of the building across the alley. One of the things my dad did to turn it around was to tell them that they'd be fired if they didn't change their ways.

In this case, I think the order of events was something like:

The clinic was fading. Decision-makers responsible for it brought in a new leader to investigate the IC. He discovered that there was a disconnect in the self-reinforcing cycle: two of the producers were neither being rewarded for working nor punished for not working. By threatening to punish them for not working, the leader took a step towards restarting a good IC.

This suggests a new, important facet to your question. How does the IC of an institution get repaired and maintained when it breaks down? If an institution fails entirely, when and how do its parts get recycled into healthier institutions? When a fading institution breaks down, is this generally bad (because it's gone from bad to nonexistent) or good (because now its parts can be reincorporated into institutions that are thriving).

It also suggests to me that a hierarchy of responsible leadership is important. Having supervisors who can add, remove, or replace workers, or leaders, at various levels of the hierarchy has two good effects. It is both incentivizing as a reward or punishment, and it allows a more detailed investigation of the inner workings of a particular institution.

This loosely suggests that one failure mode for an institution is when the highest leadership is corrupt. In a democracy, the highest leader is the citizenry who elect officials. If the citizens are corrupt, then the democracy will suffer. In a small business, the highest leader is the owner. If the owner is corrupt, then the business will suffer. In a publicly-traded company, it is the shareholders and the government (and, by proxy, the citizens) who are the highest leaders; if one or both is corrupt, then the corporation will suffer.



Great Founder Theory looks like a detailed (and lengthy) attempt to answer something close to this.

What drives social change throughout history and the present? What are the origins of institutional health or sclerosis? My answer is that a small number of functional institutions founded by exceptional individuals form the core of society. These institutions are imperfectly imitated by the rest of society, multiplying their effect. The original versions outperform their imitators, and are responsible for the creation and renewal of society and all the good things that come with it—whether we think of technology, wealth, or the preservation of a society’s values. Over time, functional institutions decay. As the landscape of founders and institutions changes, so does the landscape of society.

This answer forms the basis of the lens through which I analyze current and historical events, affairs, and figures. But though it may be intuitively compelling, fully substantiating such a framework is no small task. This manuscript, titled Great Founder Theory, is my substantiation. It explains all of the models that are key to understanding how great founders shape society through the generations, covering such topics as strategy, power, knowledge, social technology, and more.



The answer is pretty simple Imo.

In pre-modernity, communities were small. everyone knows everyone else. Contentiousness and agreeableness were desirable. If you were selfish or mean you were ostracized. cooperativeness is rewarded by the system.

In modernity, communities are big and no one knows each other. If you are selfish, you can put on a friendly persona and hire a PR team even. Narcissists and psychopaths who are capable of draining the system of as much resource as possible have the most reward in the system. If you’re cooperative and trusting in a city, you’re more likely to be taken advantage of.

As we urbanized and industrialized, society as a whole slowly shed pre-modern values for post-modern values. Pre-modern values build Civilization and post-modern values tear it down. Humans (or any life form) become whatever their environment rewards.

The rate of change in society is also high and accelerating, which speeds up the decay of existing institutions.



The reason it may seem our societal ability to create well-working institutions is declining could also have to do with the apparent fact that the whole idea of duty and the honor that this used to confer is not as much in vogue anymore as it used to be. Also, Equality and Diversity aside, being "ideological" is not really a thing anymore... the heydays of being an idealist and brazenly standing for something are seemingly over.

The general public seem to be more interested in rights and not responsibilities, somehow unable to understand that they can only meaningfully exist together. I was having a conversation the other day about whether it would be a good idea to introduce compulsory voting in the US, as this would render moot a significant number of dirty tricks used to de-facto disenfranchise certain groups... almost all objections came from the "I"-side; I have a right to this, I am entitled to that... the whole idea that, gee, you know, you might be obliged to spend 1-3 hours every 2 or 4 years to participate in society is already too much of a bloody hassle. Well yeah... with that kind of mindset, it's no wonder the institutions that require an actual commitment to maintaining robust societal functions is hard to find...

Jarred Filmer


Love it!

To mirror what I got:

Institutions are structured groups of agent pulling in the same direction to gain redistributable value.

They work by aligning the incentives (especially the long term ones) of the agents with the institution through the technology of an institutional culture to provide guidance and help police detection.

An additional point I've been thinking about since I read Sapiens:

  • This cultural process recruits map/territory machinery to help people make sense of it. "Journalistic Ethics" is presented as an objective value like "Honour" or "Privilege"

  • From the inside "I am a valued member of a cohesive and effective institution" can feel more motivating than "I am working to provide this institution long term value that it will redistribute to me"

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Sharing an idea that came to mind while reading it, low confidence.

Maybe "forming great cultures" is really just the upper tail of "forming cultures" -- the more cultures we form, the more great cultures we get.

In this case the interesting thing is tracking how many cultures we form, and what factors control this rate.

I think over the timescales described, humans haven't really gotten much more interesting to other humans.  Humans are pretty great, hanging out together is (to many) more fun and exciting than hanging out alone.

A difference could be that the alternatives have been getting more and more interesting -- wandering in the woods is pretty but also boring.  Walking around town might be less boring.  Reading a book less boring still.  Listening to music is better for some.  The internet has created a whole lot of less-boring activities.  Somewhere in there we crossed a threshold for "forming cultures" becoming less and less interesting.

This is basically the idea "we form cultures when we get bored, and we're less bored".

But let's say I personally find the idea of starting a culture exciting, does this still affect me?

I think 'yes', because the people I try to recruit for participating in my culture will also have to choose between joining me and the BATNA.

Things that would update me against this: models that show "starting a culture" continues to be exciting, models that show "hedonic setpoint" reasons for the 'BATNA gets better' idea to be broken, evidence that more cultures are being started now than ever before.

Of all the things here I think the idea I'm most interested in inspecting is "formation of great cultures tracks formation of cultures in general".

In this case the interesting thing is tracking how many cultures we form, and what factors control this rate.

The "old web" vs. "new web" seems interesting along this dimension; quite possibly the thing that seemed different about the phpBB days compared to reddit/twitter/Facebook is that an independent forum felt like more its own culture than, say, a Facebook group or a subreddit. I have the vague impression that Discord servers are more "culture-like" than other modern options, but are considerably less durable and discoverable, which seems sad.

Is there some number that reflects the decline in cooperation you're seeing?

I really liked this question and the breadth of interesting answers. 

I want to add a mechanism which might contribute to a weakening of institutions that is related to the 'stronger memes' described by ete (I have not thought this out properly, but I am quite confident that I am pointing at something real even if I might well be mistaken in many of the details):

In myself, and I think this is quite common, while considering my life/career options, I noticed an internal drive (think elephant from elephant in the brain) that made me focus on the highest-prestige group that seemed like a viable option. A natural choice is an institution at the highest (available) power level/size.

I think that modern communication technologies are strong enough to capture that drive by giving (felt) access to the most prestigious groups from around the globe. 

As a consequence, I expect that the emotionally impactful access to global culture/'tribes' decreases the felt importance of, and thus the effort put into local institutions, culture and tribes. (Related topics that come to mind would be the loss of spoken languages or local newspapers)

I have a question about this part:

More specifically, cooperative institutions arise in cases where some set of designers (either a few people, or a larger distributed set)

How intentional is this process, in your view? My impression is that most stable institutional cultures weren't designed in any meaningful sense; I feel like even the notion of designing culture stems chiefly from attempts to directly ape previous successful cultures (where these notions are sincerely held and not just a marketing gambit).

Even more so, I would love to see your unjustifiable stab-in-the-dark intuitions as to where the center of all this is

Curious why this in particular (not trying to take umbrage with wanting this info; I agree that there’s a lot of useful data here. Would be a thing I’d also want to ask for, but wouldn’t have prioritised)

Good question. I'm not sure if this will make sense, but: this is somehow the sort of place where I would expect peoples' stab-in-the-dark faculties ("blindsight", some of us call it at CFAR) to have some shot at seeing the center of the thing, and where by contrast I would expect that trying to analyze it with explicit concepts that we already know how to point to would... find us some very interesting details, but nonetheless risk having us miss the "main point," whatever that is.

Differently put: "what is up with institutional cultures lately?" is a question where I don't yet have the right frame/ontology. And so, if we try to talk from concepts/ontologies we do have, I'm afraid we'll slide off of the thing. Whereas, if we tune in to something like that tiny note of discord Eliezer talks about (or if we pan out a lot, and ask what our taste says is/isn't most relevant to the situation, or ask ourselves what does/doesn't feel most central), we may have a better shot.

Something worth considering is the rise of high-granularity metrics. Marketing used to be about making powerful advertising that people thought helped make sales. Now, we can measure each individual campaign's effectiveness. Same with website design, which used to be about usability but is now about maximizing clicks/eyeball. 

Our best measures of individual success used to be based on gut feelings, which a culture determines far more than clicks.  And institutions run on cultures which encourage the type of behavior that helps the institution would win Darwinian contests against those which encouraged selfishness. But now, everyone is optimizing for individual success, and things they can measure, which tend to be short-term.

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