Economy gossip open thread

Diego Caleiro writes:

It amazes me that there is no "Sequence on how to make money in intelligent ways" or something of the sort in LessWrong.

I don't think a sequence is the quite the right approach to this.  The economy is huge, complicated, and heterogeneous, and it's changing constantly.  (Think of how complicated people are, then imagine how complicated their economy is.)  It's hard for a single person to have a thorough understanding of everything, and even if someone did, their understanding would start becoming obsolete immediately.

And making money intelligently is very closely related to knowing what's going on in the economy.  If you're training for a job, you want to develop skills that are in high demand.  If you're starting a business, you want to sell stuff for a profit.  You can only go so far identifying these opportunities by thinking things through from first principles.

I don't think most useful knowledge Less Wrong can share about what's going on in the economy is going to approach the certainty of carefully derived math or settled science.  Instead, it'll be more like gossip.  Since no one understands the entire economy, we won't get much firsthand knowledge.  Lots of information will consist of hearsay and speculation that's subject to change at any time.  (Incidentally, gathering such info and trying lots of stuff out may be a good preparatory activity for starting a business.)

Anyway, here's some gossip from me; feel free to post yours in the comments.



The US Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains an Occupational Outlook Handbook with information on salary, education requirements, and job growth for a wide variety of jobs.  Here are a few random interesting ones:

  • It may be possible to become an actuary (~$90K/yr, faster than average job growth, involves math) without a college degree if you pass a few actuarial exams
  • Diagnostic medical sonographer: requires only a 2-year degree, ~$65K/yr, much faster than average job growth
  • Michael Vassar was telling everyone to become a police officer a while ago.  The BLS page looks only OK, maybe you can get a much higher salary in the right municipality? looks pretty nice for salary info: college education return on investment data, top paying majors.  See also: 5 ways to be mislead by salary rankings,

UC Berkeley alumni surveys: What can I do with a major in...

This guy claims you can make $45-60 an hour playing poker after a year's practice and $5000 lost.  Some blackjack card counting guru I emailed years ago claimed you could learn to count cards in 100 hours and make 6 figures for years if you were diligent (cover play, travelling for new opportunities, etc.)  I'm not sure how workable these ideas are if you don't already have a large bankroll.  (See Kelly criterion.)

If you're interested in getting paid to practice rejection therapy and you're in the SF Bay Area, PM me and I can put you in touch with someone in California's ballot signature collection industry.  The job consists of standing somewhere where lots of people walk by and asking them to sign your petitions.  You get paid per signature, and if you find a good spot (and keep it secret from other signature gatherers), it's possible to make a lot of money.  A friend averaged $300 a day; I wasn't sufficiently dedicated/psychologically resilient to get anything like those results.  The business is seasonal; if I recall correctly, February is an especially good month.

It looks as though high-end, college-educated call girls can make $300/hour.

Tutoring websites: UniversityTutor, TutorSpree,, Craigslist, Wyzant.  One thing to keep in mind with tutoring: Since you generally work so few hours per gig, transportation-time overhead per hour worked is higher.

80,000 hours offers one-on-one career advising, if you're in to effective altruism.


Salary Negotiation

"In a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University's business school, Professor Linda Babcock discovered that [those MBA students who negotiated their starting salary instead of just accepting their initial offer] received an average of $4,053 more than those who did not."  (Bargaining for Advantage, p. 16.)  Women seem much more reluctant to ask for more money, which may go a ways towards explaining gender pay gaps.  The book recommends thorough preparation prior to any negotiation.


Business Gossip

Why rely on just one guru when you can draw inferences from the experiences of many?  But beware sampling effects: you'll likely hear less from people who didn't end up accomplishing anything worth writing about.

As business gurus go, Paul Graham is highly rational, has an unmatchable resume, and all his stuff is free.


Previously on Less Wrong


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I've done a bit of research on becoming an actuary, and it's not as good as it seems. In the mid 2000's it started appearing on the top of numerous "most desirable jobs" lists, probably thanks to DW Simpson's submarine. People looked at these lists, and some of them tried to become actuaries. But the actuarial field only has 20,000 jobs, so even if only 1000 people decide they want to become actuaries, the entry-level market becomes flooded. Passing two exams used to guarantee a job offer, now it's the bare minimum. Realistically, you won't get an entry-level job without two exams plus two of the following: STEM degree, internship, excellent GPA, programming skills, another 2 exams. Increased competition for entry-level jobs will inevitably lead to lower wages for the new generation of actuaries, just as lawyer salaries fell when lots of people started going to law school.

The job also has a high risk of being Turing'd. There's nothing the exams test that a computer can't do. In fact, the actuaries I've talked to say most of their job is monotonous arithmetic that could be done by a high-schooler. A highly paid, routine, math job is just begging for a computer to take it.

Still, it's a good paying job doesn't require you to go back to school.

ETA: Also, it's not really fair to compare actuarial salaries to other careers that are easier to break into. If you're smart enough to be a 50th percentile actuary, you're smart enough to be a 95th percentile accountant.

So writing actuarial software is probably seriously viable.

But how are you going to write it without becoming an actuary? Or sell it to the insurance giants? (Wouldn't they rather buy their own in-house software, tuned to their idiosyncratic needs? This is probably what is happening with that requirement "programming skills"...)

If it were easy there would already be kickass actuarial software. You might be right that one would need to become an actuary to do it. At least that is the normal path for this sort of thing.

You're correct; most of the software is produced in-house.

I do work for an external consultant firm / software house, and, to be honest a lot of the software is outsourced (which is good, because I like my job as it is). By now, I've got quite a bit of experience in working with one of those insurance giants, and the biggest problem is really the usual "political" one of getting to the right hooks. There is a lot of room for advanced economical models and the related software, and now probably the best choice is to work as a consultant. My suggestion is to look for medium size firms, since the biggest one (e.g Accenture, Ernst&Young) tend to have lower career opportunities, and usually you have to do a lot of boring work as a novice before having the chance to do something more interesting.

Yes, especially if you can do mainframes. (pdf) But then again, mainframe programmers can make good cash anywhere.The 2000 hours required to pass the first four exams are might be better invested developing your coding skills. Especially since some people manage to write actuarial software without actually becoming actuaries.

I wonder how accurate that old '97 transcript is (at least, I hope it was a transcript, errors like "a sequel system" make no sense otherwise).

Also, I loved the line about actuaries not being known for their ability to take risks.

Don't rule out marrying for money. (You can marry for love too, because there's plenty of rich people to fall in love with.)

For women looking for rich men, San Fransisco is the place. There are 12,000 more young straight men in SF than equivalent women, and that doesn't include Silicon Valley. Since you're reading Less Wrong, you're probably nerdy enough to pick up a socially awkward, but fiscally successful software developer.

For men looking for rich women, New York City is the best. If you're young and childless, you can enjoy dating women who earn 17% more than you and don't mind splitting the check. Because there are more college educated women than men in NYC, pairing with a career woman should be relatively easy.

If you're really ambitious, go to Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore. Expat women will move to these cities to advance their career, but often find it difficult to get a man. (Expat men prefer dating local women, but expat women practically never date local men) I've heard at least two reports of women resorting to traditionally male strategies, like buying drinks or counting the number of approaches they do.

I guess the choice of whom to share my life with is going to affect my eudaimonia to a much greater extent than my household income (at least so long as the latter is larger than the bottom quartile for a first world country), so I'd be a little reluctant to trade off the former for the latter.

There are 12,000 more young straight men in SF than equivalent women, and doesn't include Silicon Valley. Since you're reading Less Wrong, you're probably nerdy enough to pick up a socially awkward, but fiscally successful software developer.

Related: A female programmer friend of mine reports that SF area tech companies have a strong pro-female hiring bias--i.e. your coding skills may not have to be all that strong to get hired as a coder.

Expat men prefer dating local women, but expat women practically never date local men

Is there any hard evidence on this, or is it just the usual scuttlebutt?

That statement was based on the various accounts of expat life in Asia that I'd read online, such as:

But as I often reminded myself, I hadn’t come to Asia for a boyfriend. I’d come because I wanted to master Japanese and explore a culture drastically different from my own. But I just hadn’t expected that moving my life to Japan would mean leaving my love life at home. As much as I’d enjoyed my life in Tokyo, it just didn’t seem like a fair trade. Not that the female dating situation in Japan wasn’t without the occasional success story. I knew of a few women who’d come to Japan and left with husbands or fiancées in tow. But they were the minority. Most western women came to Japan single and stayed that way.

When I’m in China, I tend to turn a lot of heads, especially in the countryside — and that’s not just because I’m a foreigner. It’s because I’m often seen holding hands with my Chinese husband. It’s true — the sight of a foreign woman and Chinese boyfriend or Chinese husband is much rarer than its counterpart, the foreign man and Chinese woman.

Between the tables of men sits a gweilo (Caucasian) woman, She is alone, reading the local expat English-medium magazine. She is wearing glasses and a shapely gray dress. She’s the kind of girl I would have set up with my brother when he was single. None of the men around her have glanced her way or made eye contact.

Expat women face an unfortunate predicament in China and, from what I hear, throughout Asia. Their problem is that the expatriate men who come to China come for the local Chinese girls – and the local Chinese guys are too intimidated to go for expat women, or are too focused on finding a local wife, and in any event really aren’t all that attractive in their own right. What that means, of course, is that there are a lot of lonely expat girls in China.[...] It's something you can tell right away. When I first moved to Beijing, I saw three Russian women on the subway, one of them strikingly beautiful, and the other two not half bad. The instant I started talking to them, you could see their faces melt, and they just about started staring at me like a fat kid looks at a hamburger. I'm starting to think of this as the "expat girl stare" and I get it everywhere I go that there are expat girls. Even the most drop dead beautiful women here blow open to the lamest openers you can imagine, because they're so thrilled to meet a man who's actually interested and is the kind of guy they could get together with. Women of a caliber of looks I used to have to sometimes take a little while to crack open in California, or who might at times be downright cold to me on my approach, open easily here.

"The majority of men come here because they have issues back home ... or they just can't get a woman back home for a number of reasons," she said. "They come here because they become a big fish in a little pond; they become very important and sought after."[..] For these reasons, these women see the pool of single, dateable foreign men more as a small puddle. And they don't consider dating locals a viable option.

Hm. I was hoping for additional statistics for my hafu essay, but I guess some anecdotes are good too.

I knew a female Chinese language student who dated a Chinese guy here in Shanghai. I also saw a white girl who married a rural Chinese guy on TV once.

Aside from those 2 examples, it has always been either 1) couples who came together or 2) white guy who gets a Chinese girlfriend.

My perception (which I think a lot of Western guys who come to China share) is that Chinese women make better partners because they aren't as spoiled & demanding as Western women on average. In other words, why marry a woman who doesn't even know how to cook when you could marry a woman who will share all of the responsibilities with you?

This is changing FAST, especially in big cities like Shanghai. Shanghaineese women have a terrible reputation, not only among expats but also among Chinese.

My perception (which I think a lot of Western guys who come to China share) is that Chinese women make better partners because they aren't as spoiled & demanding as Western women on average.

They're not worried about Chinese women trying manipulate them for a visa?

Maybe some are, but that seems more like something a politician would worry about. Yeah it would be tragic if you found out your wife never really loved you & was just playing along the whole time, but that could happen even without the visa. The visa is issued by the government, not the husband, so he doesn't lose much (maybe the application fees & so forth, presuming he pays for them).

I know three guys married to Chinese girls and one in a long term relationship. In more than six months in Shanghai I can recall seeing only one obvious couple where it was a Chinese (looking) guy and a Western girl. Some women understandably get bitter here. Stepping off the plane is like aging ten years and gaining twenty pounds.

That's been my experience in China - I can remember meeting only one instance of a western girl with a Chinese guy, but it seems that over half western guys had Chinese girlfriends. I don't know if expat men actually prefer dating local women, since the vast majority of girls there are local.

But then my experience has been slightly different, as I spent more time in student circles than in working expat circles.

The job advice stuff reminds me - what happened to that guy who went to Alice Springs to do menial work based on a LW post? How did that work out in the end?

I don't want to speak on Psy-Kosh's behalf, but it worked out fine for me. I'm saving up a lot of cash, but I'll be glad when it's over.

I'd be interested to hear more about this, if you have the time and the inclination.

If you're interested in travel & speak fluent English, I have heard that is it possible to make excellent money teaching English, even without any kind of credentials. I personally only tutor 1 child because it is all I have time for, but I make about 125 RMB per hour, which translates to about $20 US. While my pay is not great (for the US), I have heard that if you get a group of 8 or so kids together & teach them in bulk, you can make upwards of 800 RMB per hour (~$127 US). This would also be tax free. Not quite on par with the high-end college-educated call girl, but I'm guessing most of us aren't suited to be one of those.

I always thought it'd be cool to pair this offer (guaranteed English teaching job in the country of Georgia, with housing, airfare, and stipend) with working on some kind of internet business. One teach-in-Georgia blogger (IIRC) wrote something like "I've got so much free time, but the government won't let me work any additional jobs!"

Oh yeah, and the Georgian visa laws are really nice. And things are probably pretty cheap there.

There's also Startup Chile--$40K if your startup moves to Chile, IIRC.

I am not convinced that this is morally superior to selling opium. This depends critically on how much use the marginal student actually gets out of English.

Now SAT tutoring, that is certainly morally inferior to selling opium. (Inferior, not equal, for obvious utility reasons.)

...and how much utility people actually get out of opium.

One thing I can tell you is that if a child has a native English speaker teaching them, their English is pretty much guaranteed to be better than if they don't. At many schools, Chinese teachers who have never been outside of China will be the ones teaching the kids English -- their English is horrible & often they will be punishing the children for getting something "wrong" when they are more likely than not the ones mistaken.

This depends critically on how much use the marginal student actually gets out of English.

Er, that seems pretty massive to me. Access to the English internet by itself seems worthwhile.

Yvain taught english in Japan with minimal/no certification and blogged about it. It seemed to work pretty well.

Did he ever write about what happened in Japan? It just seems to stop after he gets the job.

At any rate, the teaching English market has become more competitive since 2006.

Yeah, but China is like backwards land where all of the things you should do are all of the things that are illegal. For example, it is illegal to bring life-saving medicine into China, illegal to vaccinate infants against diseases which are likely to kill them, illegal to tell the truth about political injustices, etc.

There's a widespread gray market for English tutoring in Asia and the South Pacific.

How concerned should one be about doing something of questionable legality in China? My prior for this is not to go near it with a ten foot pole.

Plenty of people are doing things of questionable legality in China and not getting in trouble, the government may or may not turn a blind eye depending of the issue, and of whether you're Chinese or a foreigner (a common complaint of foreigners trying to start businesses in China is having to deal with regulations that their local competitors don't seem to comply with). Selling drugs to kids would be an extremely stupid move, but as far as I know the government used to close it's eyes to foreigners selling drugs to each other (though that was pre-olympics, I wouldn't be surprised if they cleaned things up since then).

Selling English tutoring to kids shouldn't be that risky (unless you're sleeping with them, or converting them to Christianity, or black, or something - or unless there's a big story in the news about some evil foreigner abusing his position as a tutor to sleep with his students, sell drugs and convert them to Christianity).

I did give lessons in China, but as far as I know it was legal (or in the grey area).

If there's enough interest to get this throwaway five upvotes I'll do a discussion article on teaching English in Shanghai.

I like Patrick McKenzie's advice on salary negotiation, not that I've ever had a chance to use that advice. He starts out by arguing that salary negotiation is super important and also not slimy, in case you need convincing.

Bryan Caplan on which majors are most lucrative after adjusting for ability bias. (Though, I guess maybe an extremely able person would do well to major in something that signals that they're extremely able...?)

Thanks for suggesting UniversityTutor. Personal Anecdote: In Houston, people will come to me and pay at least $30 an hour for tutoring. I was surprised. I particularly enjoy the light on one student's face when I explained why doing something to both sides of an equation was the only way to get the right answer. I might not have supposed that this was missing if it hadn't appeared on LessWrong.

I think the idea of an economic gossip thread is misguided. A career advice thread might be helpful, but the problem with economic gossip is that the only people who really know anything worth hearing work in jobs with fairly tight NDAs, limitations on talking to the press, limitations on posting in public forums, etc. Basically, people who know things work at institutions with lawyers who stop them from spreading that knowledge.

May I ask about the reason for the down vote?

Although I understand that what I said is not what the poster wanted to hear, it represents my view on the actual value of private vs. widespread public information. Further, it represents the view I believe the original poster would have on the actual value of private vs. widespread public information were the original poster to have more access to private information.

I down vote people who say posts I enjoy reading shouldn't exist, unless they've got really good arguments. I think there's plenty of non-secret but non-common interesting knowledge to be had about the economy/economics.

That seems like a fair standard. In the future I’ll try to phrase things like this as warnings to readers rather than question the existence of threads. Thanks for the guidance on how to improve.

I didn't vote you down, but maybe you got voted down 'cause "career advice" was subsumed under my idea of "economic gossip", and therefore your point seemed moot?

The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.

Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator

It's an interesting idea, but your typical unemployed person is looking for a job so they can sell their hours in exchange for money. A service like this allows someone to buy additional hours through paying someone else to do tasks for them, which is the opposite of the trade an unemployed person wants to make. Or to put it another way: why would I pay someone else to apply for jobs on my behalf if I'm broke and I have lots of free time? The only people I could see making use of a service like this are people who are already employed and want to get an even better job.

I think resume prep services are a much better opportunity for both sides. As an employer, I have seen a lot of resumes that would impress me a lot more if a competent editor spent 10 minutes polishing them (I'm actually very surprised that this signal hasn't been corrupted yet). And on the other side I've done some resume polishing for friends in the past and they went from failing to succeeding in their job search. To make it work for broke unemployed people you might try offering a money back guarantee. There are editors who will work cheaply on that you could outsource the grammar checking to.

What about people in education and training because they can't find a job? Little time.

Lots of middle class people, the biggest consumer segment, want work but don't have confidence in their applications. So they have to play a numbers game.

I like the idea of this thread, I hope lots of people add their own observations and ideas, here are mine.

Most importantly: economic winter is coming. I don't know the exact form it will take, but it is not going to be pleasant, especially for the unprepared. There will probably be inflation, tax hikes, service reductions, and high unemployment.

To prepare for inflation, you should buy hard assets such as real estate or stocks. I've been thinking about buying land, which seems like a good way to store value without high maintenance costs (compared to buildings).

High taxes are going to dampen economic activity of all types. This means people should move away from the "trade time for money, then trade money for utility" strategy. Instead you should figure out ways to exchange time directly for utility. There are lots of ways to do this.

Traditionally, most men follow a career trajectory that involves continuous, full-time employment over the course of several decades. This traditional trajectory is paired with the traditional family model where the husband is the breadwinner and the wife takes care of the kids. The traditional career might still make sense if you are going to have a traditional family, but otherwise it is probably very suboptimal: you are working more hours and paying more taxes for a minimal increase in income that you won't even have time to enjoy. You are probably also going to end up picking up the slack for your coworkers who have to spend lots of time on their family responsibilities. I get the sense that many LWers are following the traditional career model but are not planning to follow the family model.

Any substantiation for this "economic winter" gossip?

Graying populations in the First World as well as places like China. Too little replacement population produced or imported to offset this. Low productivity and higher levels of social dysfunction among the imported replacement population.

I feel like I see warning signs of incipient economic decline every time I read a news article. Here are some random example titles, you can find them with a Google search:

  • "Why air travel has become so expensive, annoying, and cramped"
  • "Spain Recoils as Its Hungry Forage Trash Bins for a Next Meal"
  • "A Part-Time Life, as Hours Shrink and Shift"
  • "‘Fiscal cliff’ already hampering U.S. economy, report says"

If the world were improving, what ratio of "good news" to "bad news" articles would you expect to see — given the incentives on journalists, news publishers, and news readers? If the world were worsening, what ratio would you expect to see?

There was lots of good economic news in the late 90s.

The media probably has the ability to distort our perception of certain things, like the risk of terrorism or serial murder. But trends like unemployment, tax increases, the fiscal cliff and the EU crisis seem hard to distort.