Marginally Zero-Sum Efforts

by Eliezer Yudkowsky1 min read11th Apr 200714 comments


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Bostrom recently noted the problem of the commons in labeling efforts "important"; each managerial player has an incentive to label their project world-shakingly important, even though this devalues the priority label as used at other times or other projects, creating positive feedback in inflated labels.

This reminds me of how my grandfather, a pioneer in quantitative genetics, regularly bemoans the need to write more and more grant proposals to maintain a constant level of funding.  It's not that the funding is drying up in his field.  But suppose there's money for 20 grants, and 21 scientists in need of grants - or one scientist who'd like to run two projects, or receive more funding for one project...  One scientist doesn't get his first grant proposal funded, so he writes another one.  His second grant proposal does get funded, which uses up a grant that could have gone to another scientist, who now also has his first grant proposal denied, and has to write and send off a second grant proposal too...

The problem here is that, while some initial level of effort is beneficial, all effort beyond that is marginally zero-sum; there's a marginal return to the individual on additional efforts, but no marginal return to the group.  If there are 20 grants, then ultimately only 20 grant proposals are going to be funded.  No matter how many grant proposals anyone writes, the total funding available remains the same.  Everyone would be better off if everyone agreed to write only one grant proposal.  But in this case, there wouldn't be much competition for any given grant, and the rewards for writing another two or three grant proposals would be huge... until everyone else started doing the same thing.

There's no obvious limit to this process; the 21 scientists could write 1,000 grant proposals apiece, and still get only 20 grants between them.  They'd all be better off if they only wrote one grant proposal apiece; but anyone who cuts back unilaterally will be snowed under.

In a way, this is even worse than the classic problem of the commons.  A common grazing field eventually gets eaten down to bedrock and the farmers find something else to do with their herds.  When professional efforts are marginally zero-sum, but yield positive returns to the individual, the resulting cycle of busy-work can expand to the limits of individual endurance.

I've often suspected that a similar effect governs bureaucracies (both government and corporate); the longer you stay at your desk each day, the more you are perceived as a hard worker and get promoted.  But there's only a limited number of promotions to go around... and only a limited amount of genuinely important work to do.

Social approbation is the usual method for dealing with non-positive-sum actions.  Theft has positive returns to the individual, but not positive returns to society, so we put thieves in jail.  But in this case, the social dilemma is that neither writing grant proposals, nor showing up at your office desk, is inherently an evil deed.  Some grant proposals do need to get written.  It's not inherently a zero-sum activity.  It's just marginally zero-sum beyond a certain point.

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