Epistemic status: Casual

Some patient and thoughtful folks on LessWrong, and, apparently, some rather less patient folks on r/SneerClub, have pointed out that GDP-to-gold, or GDP-to-oil, are bad proxy measures for economic growth.

Ok, this is a counterargument I want to make sure I understand.

Is the following a good representation of what you believe?

When you divide GDP by a commodity price, when the commodity has a nearly-fixed supply (like gold or land) we’d expect the price of the commodity to go up over time in a society that’s getting richer — in other words, if you have better tech and better and more abundant goods, but not more gold or land, you’d expect that other goods would become cheaper relative to gold or land. Thus, a GDP/gold or GDP/land value that doesn’t increase over time is totally consistent with a society with increasing “true” wealth, and thus doesn’t indicate stagnation.

Yes. The detailed dynamics depend a lot on the particular commodity, and how elastic we expect demand to be; for example, over the long run I expect GDP/oil to go way up as we move to better substitutes, but over a short period where there aren’t good substitutes it could stay flat.

Commenters on this blog have also pointed out that the Dow is a poor measure of the value of the stock market, since it’s small and unnormalized.

These criticisms weaken my previous claim about economic growth being stagnant.

Now, a little personal story time:

Nearly ten years ago (yikes!) in college, I had an econ blog. My big brush with fame was having a joke of mine hat-tipped by Megan McArdle once. I did most of the required courses for an econ major, before eventually settling on math. My blog, I realized with dismay when I pulled it up many years later, consisted almost entirely of me agreeing with other econ bloggers I encountered, and imitating buzzwords. I certainly sounded a lot more mainstream in those days, but I understood — if possible — less economics than I do now.  I couldn’t use what I’d learned in school to reason about real-world questions.

I think I learn a heck of a lot more by throwing an idea out there and being corrected than I did back when I was not even asking questions.  A shy person cannot learn, an impatient person cannot teach” and all that.

Admittedly, my last post may have sounded more know-it-all-ish than it actually deserved, and that’s a problem to the extent that I accidentally misled people (despite my disclaimers.)  I actually tried, for several years, to be less outspoken and convey less confidence in my written voice.  My impression is that the attempt didn’t work for me, and caused me some emotional and intellectual damage in the meanwhile.  I think verbally; if I try to verbalize less, I think less.

I think the M.O. that works better for me is strong opinions, weakly held.  I do try to learn from knowledgeable people and quickly walk back my errors.  But realistically, I’m going to make errors, and dumber ones when I’m newer to learning about a topic.

To those who correct me and explain why — thank you.

New Comment
8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Curated, as well as the original Monopoly post.

In addition to my comments on the Monopoly post (i.e. great use of forming models, hashing out their weak points, and updating), I appreciated this post for diving into some of the details of how Sarah's internal "thinking" process works, and why it's important to sometimes be able to spell out a model without trying to moderate your tone.

+1 for noting mistake and for noting the importance of being bold, and asking questions and sharing models even when you're uncertain.

Your use of the Epistemic status tag - which I think /u/gwern pioneered? - seems good for balancing the value of sharing models while preventing polluting the "idea space" with potentially misleading/untrue things.

muflax was the first user I know of that used epistemic status tags.

This is exactly the kind of learning and flexibility that we're trying to get better at here. There's not much to say but congratulations, but it's still worth saying.

Big ups for admitting your mistake! You're the writer of Otium, right? I love your blog, especially its more opinion-slanted stuff (like the aesthetics-is-morality post).

You know, I've been reading a book called Crucial Conversations over the past few weeks, and it discusses the concept of "making space" so that difficult conversations can be had.

I wonder if the same principle can be applied to epistemic conversations, to make it really feel like you're just thinking out loud and trying to piece things together? In my experience, when people start throwing facts and figures together, it's easy for listeners to slip into a state of "This Is The Truth" and not "This Is Complex Thinking". Helping to keep readers in the second state when they read rationalist speculation, I think, would be a very valuable skill to build.

+100. Thanks for this post, it's something I've been thinking about a lot in the past 6 months.

A shy person cannot learn, an impatient person cannot teach

The translation you linked actually gives "A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn," which is even more on the nose. Does anyone have any advice on how to deal with this issue? I have a pretty severe case of it, especially because I tend to take a lot (a lot) longer than other people to do pretty much every kind of work I've ever tried, independently of how much intelligence I needed to apply to it. Aside from seeking medical advice for that problem (which hasn't helped much) the obvious thing to do was try to exploit my comparative advantage in intelligence, so at least I'd be focusing on the most valuable kind of work I was capable of. Trouble is, when you do smart-people stuff, you soon find yourself surrounded by, and often in competition with, other smart people, and being too slow to keep up looks an awful lot like being too dumb or lazy (except that people get confused to the extent that they notice I'm not actually dumb or lazy). It's hard enough trying to get over the fear of "learning in public" without having to explain that, due to an ill-defined, poorly understood disability that seems to afflict hardly anyone but me, I'm going to continue being surprisingly unproductive no matter how how patient anyone who tries to teach me is willing to be.

I actually tried, for several years, to be less outspoken and convey less confidence in my written voice.  My impression is that the attempt didn’t work for me, and caused me some emotional and intellectual damage in the meanwhile.  I think verbally; if I try to verbalize less, I think less.

That's interesting. Lately I've been noticing a lot how most people on the internet write in a manner that conveys much more self-confidence than I feel when I write, even when they write about things they probably shouldn't feel so confident about. I think my writing style noticeably conveys my lack self-confidence, but that might just be the illusion of transparency getting the better of me. Anyway, I've also noticed over the years that my internal monologue mostly consists of me talking out of my ass quite boldly about topics of which I am ignorant. I don't seem to have any difficulty squelching that voice when it comes time to share my thoughts with others, for better or worse.

Epistemic status: uncertain.

While I don't have a full answer for you, there are some ideas that might be worth trying out.

  • Maybe there is a way to do smart-people stuff at your own pace, like learning from books/youtube videos instead of in a public setting. Books and videos have infinite patience. People all have different paces for everything, and if you notice that yours is lower than your peers it might be worth carefully trying not keeping up for a while. This can be dangerous though, so be cautious with this.
  • Personally I've always been frustrated with my pace of learning, and this feeling has always vanished when I look back and see how far I've come. Some (very good) lecturers explained this to me both in terms of a maze ("At first you don't know which path to take so you have to spend a lot of time making dead turns, and then when you're done it looks like you didn't cover that much distance. But really you did.") and in terms of exponential growth ("At the end of a learning curve you look at your rate of progress, which is the derivative of your knowledge with respect to time, and say [I could have gotten here way faster, look at how high the derivative is now and how low my total knowledge level is]. But that's not how exponentials work, since learning also increases the rate of learning."). This has really helped me think of asking 'stupid' questions as an investment, and if I look back at the things I didn't know half a year ago I tend to be quite proud of my growth.