In a recent LessWrong question Anna Salamon asks “Where did stable, cooperative institutions come from (like bridges that stay up; the rule of law; or Google)?” She also worries that “the magic that used to enable such cooperative institutions is fading”. 

Anna’s post is strong in babble. It does provide gears-level mechanisms and concrete hypotheses. But it also gestures at intuitions, felt senses, and insights-waiting-to-be-had. 

This week’s challenge is simple: Have 50 thoughts about Anna’s post and questions. 

Do you have a guess at the magic enabling human societies to build roads and postal services? Do you think institutions are actually getting stronger over time? What are 10 examples of how institutions changed in the last 100 years? Or 10 predictions about how they'll change in the future? Etc.

Your thoughts can be hypotheses, questions, anecdotes, confusions, disagreements, feelings... and so forth. 

50 thoughts, no need for them to be longer than a sentence. 

You have 1 hour. 

Looking back

Here are the current rankings. (You gain a star for completing a challenge, and lose one for missing a week. I’m not including myself since it feels weird to be both gamemaster and participant.)  

Great job everyone! 

★★★★★ gjm

★★★★ Yonge

★★★ Tetraspace Grouping, Slider

★★ Mark Xu, Bucky 

★ Turntrout, Harmless, Tao Lin, Daniel Kokotajlo, chasmani, supposedlyfun

Moving Forwards

This is week 6 of my 7-week babble sprint. 

It is said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. 

I think something similar is true for building skills. 

There are some skills of which you can see the contours. You can squint and see yourself wielding them, with practice. And there are some things which seem like magic. As if though the kinds of humans who wield them are fundamentally different from the kind of human you are. There's no set of steps that could get you to where they are at.

Intellectual creativity often falls in this bucket. 

For whatever reason, culture loves to create the vision of a genius. The media writes about “the 14-year old who climbed Mount Everest and wrote software for America’s largest bank” when in fact they made an impressive-for-their-age contribution to an open source package and camped out at a lower base station reachable by walking. 

Maybe because creativity is so illegible. It seems that there is nothing. And then there’s an idea. George Orwell said of writing that it was like being “driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

It’s especially illegible from the outside. 

It will often happen to me that I read a LessWrong post. Full of brilliant, interesting, novel thoughts; and with a bustling comment section. And faced with this Tower of Babble I take a peak at what my own brain generates, 2 seconds after being hurled into the spotlight — 


— and I despair. 

I feel like I don’t have ideas. Like I am a person who does not have ideas.

But I miss that Tower’s are built one stone at a time. Once, where that great obelisk rests, there was only wind. 

I’ve recently been meditating on this, trying to feel this truth in my bones:

I am a machine. One that turns time and food and air into creativity. And machines are in the domain of Science. They are understandable, extendable, lawful. 

Now that I’ve done 5 weeks of the Babble Challenge, this is becoming clearer. I can choose to have ideas. I’m getting a better sense of the gears that turn to produce my creativity, I see motion where before there was only fog and magic. 

If you’ve also looked at LessWrong threads and felt they were the playing fields of wizards, I also want you to have this experience. I want you to feel like a machine who, with ambition and deliberate practice, can learn to turn time into ideas. 


  • Focus on the content of Anna's essay

Think about the ideas and the questions, not the spelling or word choice. Think about institutions and cooperation, not about paragraph length and sentence structure. Try to engage with the substance, rather than the symbol. 

  • 50 answers or nothing. Shoot for 1 hour. 

Any answer must contain 50 ideas to count. That’s the babble challenge. 

However, the 1 hour limit is a stretch goal. It’s fine if it takes longer to get to 50. 

  • Post your answers inside of spoiler tags. (How do I do that?)
  • Celebrate other’s answers. 

This is really important. Sharing babble in public is a scary experience. I don’t want people to leave this having back-chained the experience “If I am creative, people will look down on me”. So be generous with those upvotes. 

If you comment on someone else’s post, focus on making exciting, novel ideas work — instead of tearing apart worse ideas. 

  • Not all your ideas have to work 

I've often found that 1 great idea can hide among 10 bad ones. You just need to push through the worse ones. Keep talking. To adapt Wayne Gretzky's great quote: "You miss 100% of the ideas you never generate." 

  • My main tip: when you’re stuck, say something stupid. 

If you spend 5 min agonising over not having anything to say, you’re doing it wrong. You’re being too critical. Just lower your standards and say something, anything. Soon enough you’ll be back on track. 

This is really, really important. It’s the only way I’m able to complete these exercises.


Now, go forth and Babble!

50 thoughts on the question about stable, cooperative institutions!

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  1. The world was less complex in the past, which made optimization easier (but institutions only have a set amount of optimization power).
  2. Values were less complex in the past, which made it easier to optimize for them.
  3. America is no longer an expanding empire. Samo Burja has a theory of functioning institutions in which having new worlds to explore and new realms to conquer makes institutions healthier because leaders they can provide some of the expanding pie to their subordinates, rather than fighting for pieces of the existing pie.
  4. Lack of a true rival/enemy/antagonist/threat to drive America to greatness. The Soviet Union might have been this. An alien invasion might have provided this. But right now Americans fight other Americans.
  5. Relatedly, America's culture of ever striving for more might have worked while they were an expanding empire, but backfires once they are not.
  6. The fall of the Soviet union enables the American underclass to gain class consciousness and rebel against bourgeoisie
  7. Americans have become dumber.
  8. Uninspiring topmost American political offices. Ulysses S. Grant, Roosvelt and Eisenhower give way to Ronald Reagan, Biden, and Trump.
  9. Lack of virtue in topmost American political offices. Marital scandals, corruption, underhanded tactics siphon off the spirit of a nation.
  10. American public officials have gained class consciousness as a separate political entity with its own interests separate from those of the masses they serve.
  11. American teachers being less respected means less teachers means worse role models means worse and less curious and capable students means civics can't be taught.
  12. America started soul-searching after WW2/Vietnam war/ 9/11 attacks / a variety of other events, and it hasn't stopped
  13. Stigmatization of cigarettes means that Americans are much more pent-up.
  14. American morals become more complex, which means that its easier to infringe on them, which means that more people gain small status points by pointing them out, which leads to societal conflict.
  15. Conquest's second law of politics "Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing" means that American conservatives leave to form their own organizations, and there are fewer institutions to uphold shared values.
  16. America has become more connected and homogeneous, which means that different states don't try different things and see what works
  17. In becoming more complex, American morals stifle trying out new things and seeing what works.
  18. Same but with laws rather than morals.
  19. Americans are less willing to casually disregard parts of their population, which makes everything more difficult.
  20. Lack of one clear common American pecking order leads to more infighting.
  21. A substantial population of Americans cease to identify as "Americans" in any meaningful sense.
  22. Americans have become more arrogant, which means that they cease to import habits and cultural technologies when they work better.
  23. American universities becoming more mediocre and producing worse leaders.
  24. America becoming less religious has ripple effects
  25. The decline of the impulse to beat up troublemakers in America means that there are more of them.
  26. American nerds collectively gaining more power while having poor social skills.
  27. Some ripple effect of the decline of the Italian-American mafia. For example, maybe knowing that if you pissed someone enough they could hire someone to kill you had a salutatory social effect.
  28. Rising income inequality in the United States due to the decline of the labor unions leads to social division.
  29. Poor American architecture leads to people using public social spaces less.
  30. Elite overproduction. In particular, you might be able to control a number of people with O(sqrt(n)) people or with O(log(n)) people, but this means that as n grows a smaller proportion of people can be leaders.
  31. American baby boomers or whatever generation is currently in power having had some nutrient deficiency in childhood which makes them less cooperative
  32. American public spaces smell worse / are more noisy / more polluted ... so people use them less.
  33. Cultural division being economically more profitable
  34. Old institutions having more prestige and thus having more to loose by shaking things up and trying new things.
  35. In combination with a lack of a world war to renew American institutions.
  36. Southern Americans not having been convincingly defeated in the first American civil war, or thinking that they could win a second round.
  37. Lack of a culture of creating small local institutions, spreading the know-how of how to do it.
  38. Succession problem having never been solved in America, which means that it still depends on great leaders to correct institutions.
  39. The decline of Freemasons or some other secret cabal as a stabilizing force behind key institutions. Crucially, old-school Freemasons apparently banned discussion of religion and politics.
  40. American institutions successfully being sabotaged by rival powers
  41. Americans giving less of a fuck about their institutions.
  42. Indisputable Canadian superiority in all things leads to either denial or a desire to imitate them, which spits the population.
  43. Same but with Scandinavian countries.
  44. Americans having more interesting things to distract themselves with. That is, creating institutions is as satisfactory as it ever was, but other things are more satisfactory in comparison.
  45. Rise of (individual) hedonism
  46. Some demographic change having ripple effects.
  47. Americans read less of the classics and thus notice fewer skulls and make mistakes again and again
  48. America having unprocessed trauma and subconsciously wanting to fail.
  49. There is now no large majority of Americans who have a common coherent extrapolated volition, so institutions can't implement it.
  50. There is nothing to explain; institutions are as healthy as they ever were, and, e.g. availability bias makes us only notice the failures.


  1. The desire to outcompete the USSR in social outcomes was driven by nation-level existential concerns about what would happen if communism had better social outcomes. (see also Marshall Plan)
  2. Anti-expert sentiment is hardly new in the USA.  (cf The Paranoid Style in American Politics). Facebook makes it far easier for anti-expert people to coordinate.
  3. Increased anti-expert coordination places evolutionesque pressure on bad arguments, leading to better versions of those arguments.
  4. Bothsidesism in various sectors weakens immuno-epistemic protections against stupid ideas
  5. Increased sorting and extremism between Rs and Ds makes people less willing to coordinate on public goods.  (“Republicans are more likely to [do something akin to Prisoner’s Dilemma defecting], so why bother trying to deal?”)
  6. Google, Amazon, and grocery stores are (in this sense) a different category of thing from public goods.  There is a profit motive pushing them forward in a laissez-faire capitalist system.
  7. The memetic success of capitalism makes it more socially acceptable to critique the USPS by saying that it doesn’t turn a profit.  (The military doesn’t turn a profit.  Or does it? Has anyone studied counterfactual models of gas prices where we didn’t go into Iraq?  Was $2.4MMM a good deal?)
  8. Two-forward one-back advances in the rights of historically marginalized groups (women, Black people, Latinx, Asianx) has made historically relatively better-off groups feel like progress is a zero-sum game, making them less willing to coordinate
  9. The bigger society gets, the more our savannah monkey brains are Just Not Cut Out for A World This Complicated
  10. Universities create a motive for scientific progress, but only insofar as the prestige leads to more students being willing to attend.  State-level spending on higher ed in my alma mater’s state goes down every year.
  11. Incentive: do research that is “cool” (more students) or likely to lead to financial support from private sector (new Koch Hall for applied economics or whatever).
  12. Some people are going to do what they want because they’re wired that way, and some of them will end up making a lot of money (Elon Musk).  This will carry pet projects forward.
  13. Museums, orchestras, operas, some theaters owe their start to the Kochs and Musks and Gateses of 100+ years ago, who took all their surplus money and put it into stuff they cared about (High art and not Low art).
  14. Presumably, being on a nonprofit entity’s board has always been a giant cluster headache due to the same infighting/social signaling/etc that people complain about now; maybe previous Americans were more willing to play that game in exchange for status because status was more important to them
  15. NYT examples are interesting.  I think they dovetail with the “objective journalism” trend which is a flash in the pan relative to the history of printed news. (compare London’s various dailies (at least as of 20 years ago) with people identifying themselves politically in part by stating which paper they read)
  16. Strongly suspect that objective journalism was an outgrowth of the Cold War, somehow. Maybe people looked at Pravda and Nazi newspapers and realized that part of winning was not having [handwaves] whatever Pravda is.
  17. Yes, US bridges are crumbling, etc. However, when a decent-sized bridge falls down, it gets rebuilt (right?).  So the problem is less coordination and more people being stupid about economics and risk.  Or maybe that stupid leads to failure to coordinate in terms of taxes.
  18. I was reading an LW post recently about how hard it is to scale up corporate culture from, say, a startup--the NYT US news desk is probably not THAT large.
  19. Not counting “fake news,” i.e. not considering people with judgments proudly based on irrationality and ignorance, is the NYT actually perceived less well than in years past? The only big hit I remember them taking in my adult life is cheerleading the Iraq war.
  20. Obviously, carving out those people is missing a major part of the story.  Does the conservative media environment (Fox News, Breitbart, Rush) create the “common knowledge” that allows coordination among people who want to see the country coordinate less? Cf Ben Pace’s “The Costly Coordination Mechanism of Common Knowledge”
  21. I want political scientists to break their backs publishing articles and studies about what happened in the 2020 election, and why everyone voted for who they voted for.
  22. Covid is another thing. Suppose Trump had said, “Do what Fauci says, the guy knows what’s up,” what percent of anti-maskers would have been pro-mask?  In other words, how much no-coordinating is driven by politics?
  23. What is it about masks in particular that triggered the “I refuse to coordinate unless and until it kills my family” meme?  At first, it was supposedly about the government mandate (rather than the requested act), but that has shifted to a focus on the act itself.
  24. Why didn’t we do contact tracing more, and why didn’t my mayor bang on and on about how important it was and why? I had to look really hard to find any info at all about contact tracing nationwide or in my state.  It didn’t need to be voted on, just have money thrown at it.
  25. Why didn’t people answer the phone when the contact tracers called?  Coordination problem?  Do local, state, and national health entities’ failures count as institutional failures if they are caused by people’s reaction to them, independent of what the entities actually did?
  26. Why were people okay with “herd immunity” as a strategy when sensible estimates indicated that would kill over a million people?  Is there an empathy gap or large number problem with coordinating on this issue?
  27. If Those People think the CDC is so crap, why don’t they want to reform it?  (Does anti-government sentiment just reflect the view that some coordination/defection problems are absolutely intractable? Is this defensible?)
  28. Harvard. My sense is not that it has lost face in general, just that people are arguing that its admissions criteria have been Goodharted. (not so much the argument that the criteria were wrong when they were generated…)
  29. Where is Moloch in all this?  Moloch, who generated examples of unions becoming corrupt, which were then used to justify suppressing unions rather than fixing them?
  30. My middle of the country view on California in particular is that the claims of widespread governmental failures there are driven by people who think the government is too liberal.
  31. That said, the gun laws seem to have been written by people who don’t know very much about guns.
  32. Surely the massive flows of dark money generated by Citizens United have made it harder for small groups to coordinate and for new institutions to develop--the signal:noise ratio surely has gotten smaller. (Data on this?)
  33. The 0-3 model seems right.  You just need gatekeepers and line-holders to make sure the average norm-adherence stays high enough.
  34. Note: NYT has always been held to some extent by the Ochs/Sulzberger family.  (Parallel: Fox News and Murdoch empire.)   Hypothesis: strong institutions under capitalism require patrons.
  35. Elon Musk is a patron, too.  Was there really market pressure to come up with rockets that could land on a platform floating in the ocean?
  36. This is connected to the LW (and elsewhere) concept of slack. Someone with resources can help NYT preserve its culture by partially shielding NYT from the market demands that there be no slack in its business model.
  37. I wonder: Are people more interested in money and less interested in status now?  Or maybe status is something you can get more easily now in places other than your job?  Or maybe job status means less when you feel like your job is the public-capitalist arena and you suspect the system is rotten or at least a problem?
  38. Loss of regard for the political parties, if it exists, must be a function of increased sorting and polarization.  (ie more people hate the parties because they oppose them strongly, versus people who lean in the party’s direction but are frustrated by the apparatus)
  39. It must be very hard to count the number of subculture-communities out there.  How do you even find them to begin a study?
  40. Why are the scholars of community so obsessed with bowling leagues?  (Why did so many people participate in them?  Or is this a bad just-so story based on the title of Bowling Alone?)
  41. A political party/presidential government takes a sledgehammer to some government agency, which leads the brightest people there to say “fuck this” and go to the private sector, which leads to the agency becoming less functional, which leads to…
  42. More people know about Dunning Kruger, coordination problems, etc now than before (I think…) Is knowledge of all humanity’s cognitive biases an infohazard relative to one’s ability to get motivated to work for the common good, to coordinate, to support a sometimes-frustrating but mostly valuable institution of which one is a member?
  43. I feel in my bones that anti-expertise is the X Factor here, but I can’t justify that empirically, and obviously anti-expertise has many other causes, so proving it was the X Factor would only get us closer to an answer.
  44. Maybe I only feel that way because I am an expert at some things.
  45. Functional institutions are a levee built against the eldritch horrors.
  46. Do functional institutions start out with an eldritch horror as a target, or do they struggle forward blindly and only sometimes find a target?
  47. [Just hit a wall. Hit a wall at #47 last time, too!] Ultra babble mode engaged: What role does mental health play in all this?  If everyone has crippling anxiety because they’re afraid of being evicted, is there a ceiling on how complex of an institution they can create?
  48. What drives people to become patrons? Guilt at earning so much money?  Maybe: Jeff Bezos’ charitable giving isn’t aimed at e-commerce as far as I know.
  49. A large, long-standing functional institution that needs to be insulated from the profit motive: can it even exist without some kind of patron?  Or will it inevitably be outcompeted otherwise?
  50. Obviously some people like to tear down functional institutions. What is wrong with them?:

Yay for ultra-babble mode! Break through that wall!

Fixed your spoiler syntax for you. You were using the markdown syntax in our WYSIWYG editor.

Thank you.

(This felt less like fun and more like work than earlier ones. And I emerge from it feeling dissatisfied: although I did in fact have 50 thoughts about stable cooperative institutions, and no doubt some of them are correct and some of them might even be clever, they are almost certainly all thoughts that other people have had and expressed before. The "sillier" challenges didn't have that feature, not least because they were asking questions that probably not so many people have spent long thinking about. My guess is that in order to actually contribute anything to the understanding of stable cooperative institutions I would need to sit and think in a less babbly fashion for quite a while, and do some actual research.)

1. This seems like something that would be more useful with actual expertise, which I don't have.

2. There are experiments that seem to suggest that countries we think of as having more and better such institutions tend to be countries whose people are more willing to trust one another (in "toy" econ/psych games) -- actual causation is highly nonobvious of course.

3. Maybe useful to look at this at the level of individuals -- what can an individual person do to make such institutions more or less likely to come into being and flourish, what incentives do they face, and what might change how they respond to those incentives?

4. First guess is that the main thing is the temptation for small individual "defections": one police officer taking a small bribe, one corporate executive taking a decision that's bad for the company but good for his annual bonus, etc.

5. "Better" countries/communities/... will be ones where (a) the incentives for such misbehaviour are weaker, perhaps because of stronger formal or informal enforcement or because somehow they're better at keeping incentives aligned, and/or (b) individuals' motivations are less selfish so that given bad incentives move them less.

6. People are not idealized consequentialists and often we just do whatever first occurs to us, what we did last time, what we have seen others do, etc. So to the above we should add (c) opportunities for misbehaviour are less salient, others seem to be less inclined to misbehave, etc.

7. Note that this may mean that _hypocrisy is good_: if everyone else seems to be doing the Right Thing then you will be more inclined to follow suit, even if in fact they're all secretly on the take and you just haven't noticed.

8. But of course _hypocrisy is bad_ too: it depends on whether the question is "behave badly for sure; admit it or not?" or "hide misbehaviour for sure; actually misbehave or not?".

9. I realise I've tacitly been thinking specifically of incentives rewarding "bad" behaviours, but surely there are also rewards for "good" ones: social approval, wealth from long-term success of employer, actually valuing whatever good the institution does, etc.

10. That bit about "long-term success" may be important. Suppose I am purely selfish and have no scruples, and I'm a CxO. I can embezzle a pile of money from the company and get away with it, but that will make it less likely to succeed. If I value getting _really_ rich in the longer term over getting _slightly_ rich in the shorter term, and if the prospect of longer-term success is real, I may choose not to embezzle.

11. Of course, if my individual embezzlement makes a negligible difference to the company's prospects I may do it after all, so there could be a tragedy-of-the-commons effect; perhaps incentive-crafting for good institutions needs quite different adjustments for individuals at different levels.

12. Seems like it would be worth looking at more and less successfully stable cooperative institutions in a single country / of a single type, looking for patterns.

13. Even better would be _experiments_ where we try to establish institutions in various ways and in various places and see what works and what doesn't, but that seems like it would be pretty much 100% impossible.

14. Some of the longest-lasting institutions are religions. Why?

15. To some extent many religions can be viewed as devices for encouraging cooperation and stability. (Cooperate, because the gods like it. Cooperate, because you are all part of a single whole. Don't change, because we already have the final revelation of all truth. ...)

16. Some other long-lasting institutions are nations.

17. Part of that is cheating: we tend to think of, say, "England" as having persisted for something on the order of a thousand years or so even though its exact boundaries have changed, it's more or less merged with Scotland and Wales and (Northern) Ireland, the way it's governed has changed radically, etc.

18. Part of it is that to some extent nations are discovered as well as created. E.g., England and the UK are not the same thing as either of the geographical entities Britain or Great Britain, but there's a close relationship; England and the UK are not the same thing as "where English is spoken natively", but again there's a close relationship.

19. One thing (related to those factors) that helps nations cohere is a sense of having common interests and purpose. Religions try to encourage this too.

20. Other institutions also try to foster that sense, both by making it true (e.g,, company bonus schemes and share options) and by trying to make people _feel like_ it's true (e.g., use of "family" language).

21. If we feel that stable cooperative institutions are suffering lately, could it be that people in them either _have_ fewer common interests or _feel_ fewer common interests?

22. It's a commonplace observation (and probably true) that there was a considerable shift towards individualism in the West during roughly the 20th century.

23. Note that we don't necessarily _want_ an unconditional increase in stability of cooperative institutions. Suppose the institution is the Mafia, the Nazi Party, a price-fixing cartel, a cult designed to exploit its members for profit.

24. When thinking about incentives, or paths of least resistance, we need to bear in mind indirect effects. How do we incentivize A (earlier) to set things up so that B (later) is incentivized to do what we want?

25. In some cases A and B may be the same people at different times, and these may be particularly difficult. How do we get politicians _now_ to arrange their procedures so that _later_ those same politicians will be difficult for lobbyists to corrupt? How do we get company executives _now_ to set up their compensation schemes so that _later_ they will act in the company's interests? Their own present incentives may point in the wrong direction for this already.

26. Arguably, the norm of _trying to establish and maintain stable cooperative institutions_ is itself a stable cooperative institution. So if there's some general decline, it may feed on itself. "Gradually, then suddenly."

27. This suggests that if we're in a situation where stable cooperative institutions are generally doing well and we want that to continue, we may want something like a zero-tolerance policy towards defection. Public outrage any time any politician shows even a hint of corruption. Instant termination for employees who aren't working hard.

28. _Explicit_ attempts to maintain stable cooperative institutions can backfire if they aren't felt to match the real underlying values. So once the rot starts, the only paths to fixing it involve decisive actions (e.g., hire/fire to make sure the people you have are actually aligned with your company's interests) and not just proclamations about what "our company culture is".

29. The stablest institutions might be ones where something about the nature of the institution itself automatically produces stability.

30. That's not necessarily a good goal to aim for; optimizing for one thing tends to worsen others and the same traits that make an institution super-stable may e.g. make it super-unresponsive to change. (Consider, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church which arguably has both those characteristics.) Still, it might be worth looking for such traits. Let's stick with our example of the Catholic Church, or maybe Christianity more generally.

31. Feature: making the persistence of the institution an explicit goal of the institution.

32. (Cf. Pournelle's "Iron Law of Bureaucracy".)

32. Feature: a near-watertight belief that the institution and its goals are supremely valuable.

33. In many places, Catholicism took a _really bad_ beating because of child-abuse scandals; does that near-watertight belief in the goodness of the institution have the consequence that when it does something too bad to ignore, people are more likely to give up on the institution wholesale than to try to amend it? (It sounds plausible but I'm not at all sure it's so; perhaps other institutions in which similar bad things happened would have suffered even more attrition.)

34. Feature: explicit, written beliefs, values, procedures, etc. (Harder for them to shift gradually, that way.)

35. Feature: the institution's official values are explicitly cooperative. (For-profit businesses may face a fundamental disadvantage here.)

36. I should note that I'm only _guessing_ that all these things are features that promote stability. The real causes might be other things entirely. But they seem like plausible stability-promoters.

37. Let's consider now another institution that we might _want_ to be stable, but that's been called into doubt in some places lately: democracy. It's lasted quite a while in many places. What helps its stability? What hurts?

38. Presumably voters like democracy because it gives them (or at least seems to give them?) some control over their rulers. (So one might hope that democracies are somewhat "stable against popular revolution". This seems like a big deal.)

39. Whoever's on top in _any_ system might be expected to like the system because it gives them power. (So maybe _any_ political system is somwhat "stable against attack from the top".)

40. So explicit attacks on democracy may come from (a) groups that hope for more power than democracy looks like giving them -- e.g., people/parties/... who have tasted power but are currently out and don't expect to win the next election, or people/parties/... who are in power but fear that they're about to lose it -- or (b) breakdowns in voters' trust that democracy actually does empower them.

41. As well as being overthrown outright, democracy can fail if it stops actually making power responsive to voters' wishes. E.g., falsified vote counts, all candidates having to be approved by some institution that has the _real_ power, enough corruption that you can't tell what a candidate will actually do without knowing who'll be bribing them, etc. These are probably bigger dangers, in most democracies, than overt abandonment of democracy.

42. (More generally: Stability of a cooperative institution isn't enough; it needs to remain genuinely cooperative, and that rather than stability as such may be the most important failure mode.)

43. One reason why democracy tends to persist is that nations and their people are _proud_ of having it and often make it a key part of their identity. Of course this leaves open failure modes where the name remains but the reality fades, but it does seem that _being something people are proud of_ is an advantage. This is not exactly surprising.

44. It doesn't feel as if I'm producing any very interesting or original thoughts. What happens if we reverse the question and ask: Suppose we have some cooperative institution and we want to _make it fail_ (either when designing it, or later); what would we do?

45. We could make it so that keeping it working requires people to do things that are very difficult or against their interests.

46. We could hire some smart and unscrupulous people and say "make this thing fail; I don't care how you do it".

47. We could design it to pit people against one another, and hope that the resulting acrimony will itself be destructive. (Since this seems like it describes both capitalism and democracy, and both are doing pretty well all things considered, maybe it wouldn't work.)

48. We could aim not to make it _die_ as such but to make it _unstable_, so that small changes tend to produce larger changes, in the hope that eventually that will kill it. So e.g. if the institution involves some sort of division of power (as e.g. the legislative/executive/judicial split or the House/Senate split or the state/Federal split, in the US), try to make sure that when one entity starts to get more power there are ways for it to parlay that into more more power. (Consider e.g. gerrymandering, court-packing, etc.)

49. The above has mostly been considering institutions whose existence is somehow formalized and explicit. Even, e.g., "democracy" cashes out in any particular place to a bunch of laws. Some important institutions aren't explicit in this way; consider e.g. mutual trust in a community (or a family or ...).

50. It seems like it makes an _enormous_ difference who's meant to be participating in an institution. Smaller, more homogeneous groups with more common interests cooperate better. Perhaps we can, and if so perhaps we should, somehow build larger-scale cooperation out of smaller-scale institutions where cooperation is easier?



Root causes of cooperation

  1. Desire for meaning
  2. Desire for community
  3. Desire for status
  4. Cultural expectations
  5. Strong leadership
  6. Friendships
  7. Local reputation
  8. Financial incentives
  9. Individuals fighting within the system to increase cooperation
  10. Desire to help others
  11. Warm fuzzies
  12. National pride
  13. Fear of consequences
  14. Long term rewards
  15. Individual cooperative units (whole institution not necessarily required)
  16. People acting out the part of a model employee
  17. Social pressures
  18. Value creation and trading
  19. Understanding that cooperation is needed for any large project to succeed
  20. Punishment of defectors
  21. Cooperative institutions select for cooperative people, cooperation abounds

Why past was (or looks) better

  1. Low simulacra levels in population
  2. Rose tinted glasses for the good old days
  3. Only success stories lasting (selection bias)
  4. All the old institutions which focussed on the short term are long dead
  5. Becoming less cooperative is easy, becoming more so is hard
  6. Old institutions have had a long time to go down the slippery slope
  7. Comfortable life nowadays incentivizes less care about things
  8. No recent experience of war to bring people together
  9. Increased market competition
  10. Moloch
  11. Financial stresses are lower nowadays
  12. Easier to find a new job so less requirement to optimise in your current one
  13. Reputation is less important than it used to be
  14. Cultural expectations are aimed more towards individual success
  15. Capitalism has generally won over communism
  16. People getting their feelings of self-esteem elsewhere
  17. Internet allows easy escapism
  18. General ease of entertainment means less focus on finding meaning in work
  19. Reputations less linked to friends and neighbours – less social pressure
  20. Non-conformism being an ideal
  21. Families being less unified – less experience of cooperation
  22. Different strengths of unions
  23. Religious ties
  24. Experience of cooperation from religious upbringing
  25. Cooperation seen as a key virtue in the past
  26. Culture was more implicit, less explicit – does implicit perform better?
  27. More homogenous population
  28. More people now in cities, less local knowledge of individuals
  29. Increased partisanship
  30. More anti-heroes in culture – ok to succeed by being bad?

1) Working complicated cooperative institutions are formed from many smaller institutions that work together.

2) People altruistically valuing the same thing can give rise to co-operation on a small scale, but I suspect it isn't so important at larger scales

3) Co-operation often arises because it is in the selfish interests of the co-operating entities.

4) People are probably genetically pre-disposed to co-operate with what they perceive as their ``tribe''.

5) My immediate reaction to this statement is that it isn't true: ``The magic that used to enable such cooperative institutions is fading.''

6) I agree that institutional cultures can help foster co-operation (or make it more difficult)

7) Peer pressure is a key factor in maintaining institutional cultures.

8) Government institutions have failed before, current situation doesn't look unique.

9) It is possible for things to get better.

10) Could the co-operation exhibited by ant colonies be regarded as an ant institution?

11) Maybe something like an institution is inevitable when multiple members of the same species live close to one another?

12) Things that look like an institutional failure from the outside may look like an institutional success from the inside. e.g. the bureaucracy may like expanding the bureaucracy even if no on else does.

13) Political institutions have become more inclusive over the 20th century, e.g. by giving women the vote.

14) At a high level could the entire human species be thought of as an institution?

15) The fall of early civilizations like Rome can be regarded as an early form of institutional failure.

16) Plenty of private sector institutions also fail. Most new companies tend to go bankrupt.

17) Government failings may be bigger/more noticeable than private sector ones because private sector ones tend to go bankrupt at an early stage, whereas the government has a large supply of cash to bail out failed projects.

18)Improvements in communications technologies have mad it easier for institutions to co-operate over larger scales.

19) re ``Most brand names seem to be less regarded than they used to be'' could probably be said at most times during the past.

20) Are subcultures much more difficult to form now, or is it that the ones that are forming are less visible to you?

21) The scale of the largest institutions has increased through time and will probably continue to do so.

22) Large institutions can insulate most of themselves from problems at the top, which limits the damage incompetent leaders can do.

23) Private sector institutions seem to be gaining in importance relative to public sector ones.

24) Governments may force some of the largest private sector institutions (google/amazon) to stop them become more powerful.

25) Multi national institutions will probably become more prevalent and more powerful.

26) We may get interplanetary institutions one day.

27) A pre historic tribe can be thought of as an institution, so in one form or another they have always been with us.

28) Short of going to live as a hermit in a remote location it is probably impossible to avoid being a member of an institution.

29) Relations between different institutions are a key part of what they do, and a major determinant of how successful they are.

30) Humans instinctively divide people into ingroup/outgroup. This probably helps define institutions as distinct entities.

31) Institutions that fail badly tend to cease to exist and be replaced by others. So at any time the existing institutions are the ones which have succeeded in co-operating at least to an extent. So we shouldn't be surprised that existing institutions tend to co-operate at least moderately well.

32) An institution can't form, or exist for any length of time without at least some co-operation and stability. So the title could be replaced with ``Where do institutions come from?''

33) Peoples knowledge of how to craft institutional cultures may be more instinctive and sub-conscious than conscious.

34) Perceived self interest is key. Rich and powerful people tend to set up incentives for others mainly because it is in their interest to do so, not out of altruism.

35) Fear of punishment (e.g. prison) for defecting against the institution can help keep them stable.

36) The post talks about trends originating on the West coast of the US, then spreading to the rest of the West, but what about Asia?

37) Asian nations will probably play a stronger role in shaping multi-national institutions in the future than western ones.

38) Maybe sub-cultures are harder to form now because most of the ones there is a need for have already formed?

39) Co-operative institutions are often not intentionally designed in the way they operate.

40) I wouldn't regard brands such as bitcoin or Amazon as being better regarded.

Mismanagement by government institutions is not limited to America. Some examples from Britain:

41) The government had ``Private Finance Initiatives'' which meant they didn't have to pay for infrastructure until a later date, and due to accounting tricks didn't have to be reported as government debt. If they had just borrowed the money up front and used that to pay for the infrastructure it would have cost less overall.

42) In the early part of the 21st century the government significantly increased the health budget to make themselves look good, unfortunately it was increased faster than it could easily absorb it, so a lot of it ended up being wasted on things that didn't improve health care.

43) Every government IT program seems to be delivered late and over budget. The government had to recently delay some changes to the law on same sex marriages because they couldn't change their IT systems in time, and they spent 10 billion pounds on an IT system for the health service that didn't work.

44) Strikes in the winter of 1978-79 disrupted key services such as gravedigging, rubbish collection, and some health services. Things got better after that, so it is possible to recover from failures.

45) In the 1990s Britain stopped building submarines for a while. When we started again loss of key skills meant the program was seriously delayed and went massively over budget, and the Americans had to be asked to help sort out this mess. It was later estimated that it would have been cheaper to build a couple of submarines during the gap to maintain the skill base than what actually happened.

46) Britain's handling of Covid 19 is an epic fail. The government seems to be reacting against short term pressure with no clear long term plan to handle it.

47) When the British government was building the next generation of air defence destroyers they changed the program so that fewer would be built for more money just because it would keep it within short term budgets.

48) When the British government was negotiating Brexit they gave away their best negotiating cards in the initial round of negotiations without getting anything meaning full in return.

49) The British government spent billions of pounds on a new maritime patrol aircraft, paid the company more money for providing fewer of them at a later date when they screwed up, then scrapped them just as they were about to become operational, then realised a few years later this left a major capability gap, and then decided to buy inferior aircraft from abroad as they no longer had confidence local industry could deliver.

50) A few years ago when a new pay package was being negotiated for some workers in the health system the government agreed to pay them a lot more for doing less just because the unions proposed it.

 >! eating some space for preview purposes :::

  1. I look smarter than people in areas with weaker infrastructure because the infrastructure is taking cognitive load off of me
  2. Invisible hand, bitches!
  3. It's not always obvious when the magic that let you form and maintain something goes away: there's a long lead time before the cracks appear, long enough that you may have lost all the people who could recreate the original magic. Similar to the England/scurvy/lime juice story.
  4. It's easy to misidentify the magic, especially when there are incentives to do so.
  5. Geeks/MOPS/sociopaths
  6. Possible that Great Depression led to unusual period of government competence because other jobs were scarce and there was a premium on job stability, so they could attract better applicants.
  7. Anna seems to be skipping over institutional/individual alignment
  8. Certain kinds of coordination have gotten vastly easier or moved from impossible to possible using modern logistics tech.
  9. How are CA's electrical failures related to bad governance? I see bad results but it's not obvious the necessitating circumstances had responses that wouldn't be called bad governance.
  10. Not clear how much worse the US actually did on covid- Europe is having a resurgence now.
  11. Curious about how subcultures are harder to form, seems like it would be way easier than when you were stuck in the same 200 person town for life.
    1. Predicted response: being too easy to form/join is actually bad.
  12. HAM radio culture as described in that autism book was a dead ringer for lesswrong, and that was pre-1975.
  13. [redacted]
  14. Pushing out casuals is hard because sometimes they are nice and your friends.
  15. Gatekeeping is so, so hard/frowned upon in our culture
  16. Unless you call breaking past the gates appropriation, then you're allowed defenses.
  17. Sometimes geeks are really weak on particular skills and bringing in some casuals with those skills is really helpful to the overall subculture.
  18. What are the net effects if it becomes harder to keep out casuals?
    1. Fewer subcultures reach critical mass -> less novel art.
      1. Wasn't there a study showing pop music is changing much slower than it used to? That could be confirmatory if the methodology is good.
    2. How does this interact with science?
      1. Lack of defended factions leads to even more pressure for premature consensus than currently exists.
    3. Something something inter-institution diversity vs intra-institution diversity.
      1. Is it more important that a single campus has many viewpoints represented, or that each viewpoint has a stronghold university focusing on it?
      2. Dad talking about how jazz had got more locally but less nationally diverse.
        1. From the perspective of people living at that time, that's more variety which seems good.
        2. That scene in Treme where the high-status Jazz player has to defend New Orleans jazz.
      3. multiple institutions with very different views are easier to defend than the same institutions with a variety of views.
      4. But any given student is attending at most one school at a time, and will only get a single POV if at at a stronghold institution.
        1. Large schools could have a stronghold + tokens from other viewpoints, who will not be as productive as scholars at strongholds for their viewpoints. It's not like there's a shortage of professors.
  19. Chapman leaves out the conversion of casuals -> geeks, or how hard it can be to distinguish future geeks from future casuals.
    1. If it's too hard to join your club, people won't do it and the club will atrophy and ossify. E.g. wikipedia editor culture.
      1. Ray's melting gold essay
  20. Where the hell did the 6:1 ratio in Chapman's essay come from?
  21. "Under [the Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths] model [...] 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 "
    1. This has been happening in television. It used to be tactical competence (acting, dialogue, continuity), which is easy to assess early, was strongly associated with strategic competence (which often can't be assessed until the show is over) (Sopranos, Mad Men). Or tactical incompetence made it obvious who had strategic competence (Babylon 5). But lately they've figured out how to have good tactical competence without deep strategy, leading to shows that are compelling until a deeply disappointing ending (Game of Thrones).
  22. The strongest form of Effective Altruism parasitizes first-world institutions by benefiting from the intangible resources like trust and prosociality, while not contributing to them, and moving resources from the populations with those institutions to the (much, much needier) populations outside of them. This can be very moral on an individual level (because those outside the institutions are so much needier than those inside, for the exact reason of being outside), but disastrous if widespread because the institutions do actually need resources to run.
    1. This suggests that bringing people into the institutional ecosystem (e.g. immigration) is better/more sustainable than moving resources from one ecosystem to another.
  23. Maybe taking away all the rewards of power/declaring them immoral was a terrible idea, because it drove all the good-but-not-100%-self-sacrificing people out of power.
  24. Amazon seems way more competent than Google but I'd rather work for Google because they're nicer.
    1. Eh, is that true? I hated working for Google specifically because they didn't care about my actual productivity, and Amazon has supposedly softened from when everyone was wrung out in 18 months.
    2. Door desks are still stupid though.
    3. See also: not buying developers the best laptops.
  25. Some institutions (PTA) run on invisible slack and we ate up all the slack.
    1. Two income trap.
  26. I'm learning to draw and have all the resources I could possibly use at my fingertips. Art school is less necessary than it used to be. Grad school used to be the only way to keep up with academic research: now I have sci-hub and twitter. This can simultaneously be awesome for me, outside of art school and academia, but if art school/academia had an off-the-books goal it will suffer as people/resources leave.
  27. Existing institutions that have invisibly lost the magic can inhibit the formation/expansion of newer institutions that have it.
  28. WEIRD cultures' fairness towards strangers is in fact really weird and would be bad to lose.
  29. Destroying minority-owned institutions that made them less dependent on the majority had a worse impact than the majority excluding the minority from their institutions (e.g. Tulsa massacre, "Urban Renewal" destroying black business districts)
  30. Coding bootcamps were originally aimed at people who knew how to code but needed a little polish before they could excel at software eng. They ran through that backlog and are now their taking people from 0->coder. This greatly lowers the value of a bootcamp grad and the bubble is due to pop soon.
    1. Ditto datascience?
    2. [Redacted] described the same thing with plumbing. Master plumbers are replaced with people who have been taught how to execute a few things but can't manage the system as a whole.
  31. Treating public education as a thing done for the students as opposed to the country (which benefits from educated citizens) has huge implications for how you focus, especially what you do with the tails of the IQ curve.
    1. Treating public education as for the students rather than for the country is a huge luxury. As a country declines, it can either give it up or collapse.
  32. The concept of nepotism being bad is fairly new and precious.
  33. Many political institutions are dead inside but received lip service anyway. Some of Trump's inflammatory statements weren't different from what other politicians thought, people just objected to or enjoyed him saying it out loud.
  34. George Washington was an unusually good country founder.
  35. Cults are typically providing a (semblance of a) real need and much of the stigmatization of cults stigmatizes meeting that need, which just pushes people towards unhealthy ways of meeting it.
  36. Institutions (and people) taking charge without responsibility do a lot of damage.


Woah, this was hard! Took me longer than an hour, for the first time. The prompt felt very broad and less like it pushed the babble in a particular direction... it felt like it would probably have been best to be guided by curiosity, but I didn't feel much curiosity for the original post. I guess this is an interesting test cases in using babble challenge to help build more curiosity...

  • 1 What does Anna means when she says that some subcultures are only "sort-of here"?

What are examples I've come across of institutions being cooperative or non-cooperative?

  • 2 Whenever I interface with the US government I have to do an exorbitant amount of paperwork. This seems to be way more than necessary.
  • 3 A few months ago when I interfaced with the US Postal service. It was horrifying. Broken software (where I had to guess what the bug was and do weird iterations to get through to the next page); awful bureaucracy (to ship that kind of item you need to order a particular kind of plastic folder to contain a particular kind of customs form and it will take them 7 days to arrive); the general vibe being heavily... branding-y? Like, "we're pitching you this new, slightly outmoded service, that doesn't seem super amazing, but has a title that might sound-great-to-someone-in-charge-somewhere, like Click-n-Ship©" (note the copyright symbol! As if though the value in their service would lie in that name...!)
  • 4 I notice that when making fun of institutions like that there's some sense of guilt and sadness... as if though behind all that mess there are hard-working people just doing their best, and who do not deserve ridicule?
  • 5 When I subscribe to a newspaper recently to get access to an article, the "confirm your email" email didn't have any link in it. So I had to inspect the code underlying and manage to find a url that didn't render. God knows how many potential subscribers were not able to do that, and how long this error persisted for?
  • 6 I wonder how many of these problems are solvable with better mechanism design
  • 7 I'm confused why there would be a trend toward institutional decay... maybe because of the internet?
  • 8 It is said that the health of an organisation can be measured by how easy it is to unsubscribe from their services. And my impression is many newspapers make this super hard -- one I recently subscribed to one you had to call them, during limited work hours, to unsubscribe.
  • 9 I recently saw the Mathematicians' Association of America (or something similar, probably by a different name) post a long, confused Official Announcement about critical studies and social justice, taking a stance in favor of it. This felt to me like a strong sense of institutional decline, like maybe they were sacrificing some of the Kolmogorov Option.
  • 10 I'm reminded of a recent podcast of preference falsification with Eric Weinstein. One of the key points was that "majority beliefs" can be upheld even if only believed by a minority of people, due to lack of common knowledge; but when the tide actually turns, it can cascade very rapidly. This makes me wonder if there can be some sort of "institutional decay overhang", and that things are actually worse than they seem, but this just hasn't been realised yet
  • 11 I wonder how covid ties into all this. Some say it might be good that it shakes up the current equilibrium, clearing away institutional cruft (but at a terrible cost).
  • 12 How could we measure whether institutions have decayed over the past few years? I'm reminded of that study who sent postcards to invalid addresses in random countries, to find out how many of them were returned. (In order to measure the functioning of their postal service). Maybe one could use that to see how things have change over time? Maybe some natural experiement occurred in the past?

Some other ideas:

  • 13 books stolen from libraries
  • 14 the cost of bribing officials -- has it gone down?
  • 15 or, similarly, the effectiveness of lobbying in terms of policy change per dollar spent
  • 16 Cost disease, in its various form, seems like one of the strongest puzzle pieces to the general puzzle about institutions
  • 17 Why would institutions be decaying now and not earlier in history?
  • 18 Maybe they have decayed earlier, and civilisations fallen with them.
  • 19 What are effective ways of turning the tide? Of building more stable, cooperative institutions? RadicalXChange appear to be doing interesting work in this space.
  • 20 I'm confused about whether I should expect the internet to make it easier or harder to form subcultures. You ought to be able to access more people with niche interests... but at the same time there are economies-of-scale and razor-sharp competition for attention, so maybe clickbait superstimuli dominates everything.
  • 21 Hm... for some reason I feel that Pinterest is less clickbaity than other social media? Though really not sure about this. But it just generally presents me with beautiful and extremely well-curated content. And sure, I keep scrolling. But not in the binge-scrolling ways that I end up deeply regretting afterwards.
  • 22 Could Twitter change to really improve discourse if they wanted to? How much leverage do they have with the software? Relatedly: how deep is the current bad attractor they are in, and how hard is it to move to a different one?
  • 23 How was it at all possible to have institutions hundreds of years ago, when sending messages to take days, weeks, or months. How did the Brittish empire even work? Communication is hard, even these days with email, but the equivalent time of sending an email and receive a reply in those days would literally be months...!
  • 24 I often feel interactions are less cooperative and more hostile when happening through text than when in person... people appear way more humane and reasonable in person... I've been wondering why...
  • 25 A friend recently told me that maybe it was fortunate we were facing institutional decay in this period... this time when so many crucial questions about the future must be answered. We wished for a Long Reflection, and we got a Great Stagnation.
  • 26 When I did some work in policy-advising academia, it occurred to me that although there was some real incompetence, there was also some genuinely extraordinary people around. I update away from the "civilisation inadequacy" view where everything is broken, to a more nuanced view, where there are true heroes and geniuses scattered through the brokenness.
  • 27 Another major puzzle piece was the remarkably degree of cooperativeness from non-institutions during covid. Tons of companies volunteered employee time to help (e.g. software engineers, management consultant), others launched in-house projects like building dashboard or shipping PPE. How much of this was for PR, versus some kind of general, societal immune system against institutional collapse? Not sure -- but the current second wave might be an interesting test case. PR effects are less, but impact possibilities persist.
  • 28 I noticed I'm confused about how institutions arise and evolve in the first place... you can't really iterate on them in the same fast way as, say, companies
  • 29 In my experience, do obtain trust as a leader requires getting buy-in from people. This often requires high-bandwidth, 1-1 conversations. But how do you do that if you're a nation, or a government? Maybe by having local representatives who can have high-bandwidth communication with people? And maybe there's something important in that that's being lost when things happen more and more over the internet?

(I notice that for whatever reason I feel less in the mode of "it's okay to say something stupid, like 'bird in space suit'", and more like each thought has to be interesting! I feel stuck on hypotheses for what actually makes cooperative institutions successful, so let's try to attack that, starting with some stupid things...)

Cooperative institutions become successful if...

  • 30 ...they give their employees enough pizza.
  • 31 ...they follow the 2-pizza rule and never have meetings larger than the number of people you can feed with 2 pizzas.
  • 32 ...they're filled with "champions" -- people who really care about a thing, enough as to spearhead it, deal with all annoying details and special cases
  • 33 ...culture is filled with portrayals of high-integrity, conscientious, courages public servants. (What would such portrayals be? I think of maybe movies about Churchill, the character Rossiu from the Gurren Lagann anime, the title character from "Charlie Wilson's War"... but can't think of many others)
  • 34 ... employees of key department work in the same buildings, so they can have high-bandwidth communication
  • 35 ...employees of different departments work in the same buildings -- interfaces are a scarce resource
  • 36 ...when bureaucrats and civil servants are users of their own products in important ways
  • 37 ...they have rules that can manipulated in the working memory of the average person being ruled by them... and not too complex (not at all sure about this one)
  • 38 ...when they're governed by a bird in a space suit
  • 39 ...there is a basic story they can tell about their existence that the employees actually believe and buy into (like SpaceX has "Make life multiplanetary")
  • 40 ...when there exists live examples within the institution of people "working their way up", providing a very alive-feeling example that progress and reward is possible if you work hard (this is completely made up, no idea if true)
  • 41 I wonder what measures would could look at across history to track the rise and fall and rise and fall of cooperativeness...
  • 42 Are tech companies institutions just because they're monopolies with massive economies-of-scale and social externalities?
  • 43 Maybe culture and communication is not actually as bad as it seems on social media, since only the most extreme cases penetrate the war-for-clicks. But then again, that might lead to preference falsification and a surprisingly sticky equilibrium of more aggression and hostility than most people actually endorse
  • 44 "Inadequate Equilibria" talks a lot about systems and civilisations getting stuck. And this is something I've thought about, along with how they make progress. But I notice a gap in my thought in that I've rarely thought about how and why things decay... it is indeed confusing why so many systems seem to instead get stuck in slow-rolling, bad equilibria... some combination of inertia, and people willing to stick around as long as they see signs of their being status and other valuable resource to grab, even if much less of them than in other places?
  • 45 When institutions stop working, do they go out with a bang or with a whimper?
  • 46 What norms and practices have allowed science as a field to maintain such high-bandwidth (or, at least, rigorous) communication? Maybe there's a Chesterton's fence here in terms of other bad equilibria in science (not sure I believe that though)...
  • 47 If it is the case that most great things are driven by "champions", individuals who can deal with the annoying special cases, push through hard times, and rally people around them, has it become the case that society fosters fewer champions? If so, why? What is the mechanism whereby champions are raised?
  • 48 What are standard cooperative rituals people do to make it common knowledge that they actually intend to cooperate with each other? (if there even are such things) Maybe having casual chit chats on the street? [...]
  • 49 I recall listening to a podcast where the speaker described that when was young his mom would put a sign around his neck with her address and telephone number, in case he'd get loose when playing outside. In particular, back in those days, other adults were seen as a resource, as a safety net they could rely on. Whereas, today, many parents are very protective of their children, and other adults are seen as a potential threat.
  • 50 A contested election is a very interesting test case of our current institutions, because it sort of samples from outside the training distribution.
  • 51 What company is most like an institution, and what institution is most like a company?
  • 52 Newspapers are weird... because they are for-profit companies with an inherently social mission and strong sense of integrity and pride in fulfilling that mission...
  • 53 I'm also interested in utilities companies, and all the regulation and stuff surrounding them. As an example of a company dealing with a resource that would be a natural monopoly.

Prompt is pretty open. Focusing on "content" is ambigious whether to reflecdt on things said on the main post or the topic they gesture towards. There is no choice paralysis challenge factor here.

  1. Before the prompt I read some replies that wondered about some things not having come up and I noticed I had the thought but didn't post and kinda felt because I didn't feel that kind of position would be welcome (recall not ideation?)
  2. One form of epistemic coordination is allowing others to gracefully be wrong. If one wants all kinds of opinionsw one needs to have soe sort of stance of "let all flowers bloom". This might be a surprisingly not-okay pill to swallow.
  3. What strikes to me as American-like mindset treats a situation where everybody just plays the game to their benefit as an accident like tragedy. "Hate the game not the player", but why are people accepting to play these games?
  4. American and market like mentality often easily things that individual people are main things make things work. You "prove" yourself, you get "just compensation" that is able to be identified to single persons. A contrasting viewpoint tries to support the people trying to accomplish things as much as possible. You can't prove yourself if the challenge level is constantly trying to be demolished. If you are allowed to do anonymised effectiveness then you can't be attributed to be the reason of the outcomes.
  5. A society is built out of norms. If one were to totally destroy all forms the basis on which to shape any behaviour would be gone. Deregulation and such reduces norms. If the test to reduce norms is blind to certain kinds of values those values will be underserved.
  6. When breeding cows we once tried to maximise milk production. Then you get a lot of weird and sick cows which can get inefficient for cow per bottle of milk as random deaths as expense with no payoff. I think since then there has been focus to breed for health instead. This analog could be used to predict how it is going to play with human optimatision goals. Instead of efficient societies we might switch to stable societies once we get sick of unstability.
  7. In a city you interact with people less. You know people less. If you would say hello to every person that you pass by the street it would effectively be dossing yourself. Instead the interaction is limited to closer ties such as same-skyrise neighbours, people whos phone numbers you have etc.  Small towns retain "greet all" standards. Military has rules that lower rank people must always acknolwedge higer rank people but high rank people are not olicated to notice or acknowledge back. This military thing doesn't seem random or frivolous.
  8. Thinking in terms of salary is thinking also in terms of individual gain vs organizaational gain. It seems there is also a mindset which sets the organizational focus first and then maintenance of single actors second. That is if a tribe member goes hungry that reflects bad on the village instead of the villager. This is the dark side of "you are the smith of your own luck". It would run very contrary to human nature to let your neighbour starve when yo9u are well-fed even thought you probably start expecting good behaviour or acts of reprociosity.
  9. American style market capitalist easily think that the reason why their corporations are such money makes is their ruthlessness and willingness to cut corners. This probably genuinely gets over some bad barriers but it also works to get over good barriers and is not particualrly well suited to wonder the question whether bypassing is proper or not. If you were in a village known to backstab and rob all and every people every chanced they get you would probably think that they ar dangerous on the battlefield but also that it woudul be hard to get a good sleep within their camp and that they might enter the battlefield a few guys short because of semi-accidental deaths over personal property.
  10. Short-range optimization predictably leads to greedy results. The other side is that people allow and loud such optimizastions. In order for long-range optimization to prevail people would probably need to go out of their way to reward actors taht do things correctly.
  11. If you do things correctly it is easier to demand others do things correctly at their own expence. If everybody is donig things correctly irregradless of persoanl expense it doesn't distort interpersonal competition that much. However if disregarding doing things right gets you personal benefit, race to the bottom might result.
  12. One strategy to getting a good thing done is to show competence and showing that you have a good goal. This often falls short on doubt whether you are truly shooting for the goal or whether your goal is the one that you state. Another strategy is to do good things at great personal expense and when it would be foolhardy. Then if others want to nudge the world in that direction empowering you with money or any kind of support is pretty sure to nudge that way. But whether you are efficient or successful in your goals might be in doubt. If you give out food when you are yourself starving then it is probable that giving you food feeds more people. If you are a fat person advocating to alleviate world-hunger somebody might suspect that if given food you will just eat it.
  13. Good and selfless acts to improve the world can go unrecognised. Doing the good deed might get punished a lot. There might be some degree whic is it proper to continue despite such factors. But at some point it might also become unviable. If the world gets so cuthroat that all the idealists die for their pursuits then it is only a world of survivors which live for nothing.
  14. It is identified for self-preservation to be one of the instrumental universal goals for AI. However overvaluing survival and safety is possible. It seems quite unlikely if not impossible to "max out on safety". Given any situation it seems plausisble that security could be increased. Drawing line when the actually bypass on personal continuity for actually getting things done might be one skill for AIs/agents.
  15. In Ghost in the Shell (season 2 or some advanced stage of it?) Tachicomas face a situation where the only available mean to help is to crash their brain satellite into earth whic in the same go is suicide for them. I think the piece is trying to potrey them as noble and proving of having moral worth or displaying ethical capability for it. They did a similar thing with metal bodies in a previous cresendo phase. A low-intensity organization, ideology attitude would probably think that they displayed a sin of recklessness.
  16. It doesn't seem surprising that blindness to the unworkability manifests. Market-believing kind of requires some belief. There is probably a mirror to communistic propaganda going on in the right-wing pole of the world too.
  17. Peer-support groups for neurodivergence (personal) seems to have flexed a lot of muscles which might be key to basic tribal human functioning. People not having any special need for suport might be suffering from the lack of usage of those muscles wihtout themselfs knowing.
  18. I live in a country where there are viable public and private healthcare options. Long ques for public seem to wrench my heart in some way as it seems logical that individual people would choose to pay up more to get themselfs treated. I do not think that all people would feel sorry of the public infrastructure crumbling over underuse like that. In the same go it feels vdery twisted when for an american it makes sense to not treat a broken bone because it would incur disproportionate costs, because of uninsurancedness.
  19. By association the thought of "I don't myself taxed because I have healthcare premiums to payfor". It seems like a person oriented to personally pay for their needs would be very familiar for shopping for the services and woudl have a hard time imagining how their lives woudl be easier if they didn't have to. But in the same time it seems whether it is taken as taxes or premiums it seems basically comparable althought economies of scale coudul be stronger for states rather than corporations.
  20.  We live in a world which has many norms floating about which are tuned for different environments and goals. Taking a solution can seem alluringly powerful without clearcut understanding of its limitations.
  21. The US public conversation level has gone down so much and as a outsider I feel it is connected for peoples right to be stupid. An educated populus functions more robustly in civics. And I think this is more connected for respectful discourse rather than getting facts straight.
  22. It might make sense to allow a kind of "extended privacy" to solve for norm adaptiveness. A cell can influence its own chemistry much better if it has cell-walls rathet than trying to influencde their local corner of the ocean which has strong inflows and outflows.
  23. The france islam discussion seems to suffer from interacting with ideologicaly distant cultures in a too stetrotypical and simplied way.
  24. A "melting pot" approach might destroy important interfaces for interchange between large groups of people.
  25. I found it surprising to include "police" in non-goverment brands
  26. I found it surprising and american to include Amazon and Google as great collective functions.
  27. ~60 minutes (I consistently don't seem to hit it very well)
  28. As outsider I am surprised that US allows the degree of gerrymandreing, that the electroal college is put up with. It seems their questioning is periodic but people focus on shortist term politial impacts rather than the actual issues (as they appear to me). It just seems that it would be too embarrasing to have it as such a flimsy system.
  29. There is saying "who reaches for the fir, he will fall into the juniper" which kid of predicts unstability if you push a system too much. Sayings to the same effect are "Better bird in the sack than ten on the branch".
  30. People taking pride that they have done things correctly might play a role. You might be a happy consumer of low standards newspapaer that has fun with their writing. Reading a "proper" publication might be slower, less fun, has issues of being complex etc which might not make it super obvoius as personal choice.
  31. In the theory how markets might improve society customers define demand throught which kinds of properties they select their products for. If nobody cares about truth or peace building etc. then that is a kind of social choice.
  32. The market mechanism of making social choices probably has a lot of different properties than making social choice throught explicit deliberation on issues.
  33. It is easy to measure that product A is 10 cents cheaper than product B. The ideological impacts or which direction it pushes production can be much more nebolous and can't be accurately determined by customers.
  34. In order for economic theory styyle good world to come about people need to make long term predictions about their actions outcomes. In economic theory this is "solved" via "rational actor". The mechanisms infact pushed in the name of market efficiencies might make it more harder for people to be informed of their choices.
  35. "Made in US" kind of stamps allow customers to make choices about how they want to impact others. There are no comprehensive labels about every relevant impact and even the source labels can be misleading (assembled in US, fabric from netherlands, parts from China).
  36. Single rich people champioing for a good cause might be easy to understand but might have limitations. It might be easy to value a good combatant like Rambo but having a much boring ooption of just having 7 regular combatants is often much better. Reality doesn't preserve ninjutsu. So maybe having your civilization saved by having a good generation of Great Person Points isn't the most default plan.
  37. In an inequal society you care more about your place rather than is the society moving forward. If your collective ideal is to provide individuals the best chance for sucess then as a society you migth not be moving forward.
  38. Monkeys will rebel for an uneven feeding amount for human captors. There might be two strategy archetypes. If you are part of a group that strongly cooperates you can ride the wave of the group to succcess. If you are part of a group you might take their resources to benefit yourself. Cheaters are dangerous to riders as a group composed to cheaters is weak and less ridable. Yet opressing everybody else might make you a prosperous alpha, and as oppressed being alive is better than being dead.
  39. Have humans wrongly suppressed the feeling of unfairness. What are the proper factors to whether get upset over it?
  40. Organizsations that work to exists migth be parasitic. If a community forms organization where necceary and disbands them where unnecceary they are less likely to have societal overheads. There a choice of not having an instinct to live is a feature, it is a controlled apoptosis rather than a tragedy
  41. Do we hold each other responcible for our choices? Do we favour unexplained hedonistic impulses to easily turn into concrete actions? If we needed to talk about our choicdes more we might be more idealistic.
  42. If we see the rubble, we could choose to fix it. That would be standard political movement but if you pitted "law & order" party versus the "streets & power" that might cut closer to the real issues.
  43. It seems that ability to shake things up if we are only pretending might be important. That is if you can reliably turn cargo cults into actual research it doesn¨'t matter that much do or do you not generate cargo cults. Dna protection isn't about not breaking it, it is about repairing it.
  44. Some association about why keeping a straight face from laughter might be important or relevant. It seems that some of the bad directios would no t have happened (to the same degree) if the actors perpetrating them would have burts out laughing. That is somewhere somebody should have asked "are you serious?" and thigs would have been somewhat saved if "yes (holding back laughs)" would have been the result.
  45. We are unlikely as interner forum posters to really step this forward signficantly. It feels like it is going to stirr emotions. I feel like I ahve trouble taking this as a straight question but rather as a kind of "me, also me" meme which kind of requires to be in the target audience to reflect rather than advice from the outside.
  46. That the ask for "shot in the dark" qualifier didn't push me to comment seems like an expression that I do not trust that will actually signal any kind of different attitude. That I accept to do the babble challenge anyway seems that I believe in the "babble shield" a lot more. Part of the problem might be that detecting such things are hard or result in laboursome meta-discussion which neccesity might be hard to ascertain.
  47. Wikipedia is kind of succesful "lets just do this" project. Lesswrong seems kind of similar but doesn't seem as successful.
  48. At some point I felt greater confidence that just getting excited about LW tropes would result in some stuff. At some point there was a great decline which feels like (but I do not whether it is actually) that most of my posts didn't get points and I was expecting points. "Upkeep reinforcement". It seems plans or expression of wanting to build somethign would facde sceptisims from me.
  49. If you only reward the exceptional, then normal operation is not upkept
  50. In the very limit, if people were very separate they woudl probably form some kinds of contact or language or custos for trade etc. The forces that pull apart and together probably have various balancde points which ar shifted by various forces.
  51. ~2 hour


  1. 1 is indeed recall. Lurking might be a powerful force. In addition of resolving the situation for parties involved there is also the issue what is sets example and precedence for. If somebody says the emperor is naked others can reflect on it too and if nobody says it that tells a lot about the society too. Championiong a common value might have value beyond your particular circumstances. US supreme court things have to be actual issues, the big principle conflicts need to have an actual embodied conflict (ie named parties rather than just a vague "abortion question")
  2. Repair 21. The success of projects that benefit society but not that much particular indivudals need different pattern of recognition. Having teachers be higly respected, actually putting money into education, having wide access to education are pretty deliberate act my country has done, I feel US has not done and I think they result matters and US doesn't realise what they are missing out.
  3. 31-33 connection to topic is somewhat tenous. If we more directly asked person what they woudl want for society they woudl proabbly answer differntly than their current actions tell a story
  4. There can be different degrees of societal involvement. People "left behind" probably either cry for the malfunciton of the structures or don't see the point of participating. Less builders means slower building and repair.
  5. There is a strategy that if you unsolictedly help someone they might more probably help you in return. In online games where every player is rematched with different people people are vedry nasty and it is hard to get any kind of coordinatio going on. Even if coordination happens iti s often a very "by the book", "this is what you are supposed ot be doing irregardless of identities of the actual players" rather than a negotiated outcome.
  6. ~2 h 20 m

In babble mode it seems that my "touchy subject" censor is not working that much. It probably has a somewhat defencible reason to exist. Part of why it is okay to shut it off is that the output is taken into a space where the danger the module is built to repel is less relevant. I am kind of strained to think on the topi and beforehand thought I woudl reflect on the exercie afterwards. Seems that isn't viale right now and seems it will not be done if it doesn't happen now.

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If you'd like something more constrained, consider the following prompts: 

  • 50 ways our institutions have changed in the last 100 years
  • 50 experiences and data-points you've encountered that bear on the question of whether we're loosing the ability to build stable and cooperative institutions
  • 50 hypotheses for what makes a cooperative institution successful. (As Anna says, where "large sets of people pull in a common direction, and where that "common direction" remains grounded enough that an actual nice thing results from the pulling")