Epistemic Status: Reference post. Strong beliefs strongly held after much thought, but hard to explain well. Intentionally abstract.

Disambiguation: This does not refer to any physical good, app or piece of software.

Further Research (book, recommended but not at all required, take seriously but not literally): The Book of the Subgenius

Related (from sam[ ]zdat, recommended but not required, take seriously and also literally, entire very long series also recommended): The Uruk Machine

Further Reading (book): Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Previously here (not required): Play in Hard Mode, Play in Easy Mode, Out to Get You

Leads to (I’ve been scooped! Somewhat…): Sabbath Hard and Go Home

An illustrative little game: Carpe Diem: The Problem of Scarcity and Abundance

Slack is hard to precisely define, but I think this comes close:

Definition: Slack. The absence of binding constraints on behavior.

Poor is the person without Slack. Lack of Slack compounds and traps.

Slack means margin for error. You can relax.

Slack allows pursuing opportunities. You can explore. You can trade.

Slack prevents desperation. You can avoid bad trades and wait for better spots. You can be efficient.

Slack permits planning for the long term. You can invest.

Slack enables doing things for your own amusement. You can play games. You can have fun.

Slack enables doing the right thing. Stand by your friends. Reward the worthy. Punish the wicked. You can have a code.

Slack presents things as they are without concern for how things look or what others think. You can be honest.

You can do some of these things, and choose not to do others. Because you don’t have to.

Only with slack can one be a righteous dude.

Slack is life.

Slack in project management is the time a task can be delayed without causing a delay to either subsequent tasks or project completion time. The amount of time before a constraint binds.

Slack the app was likely named in reference to a promise of Slack in the project sense.

Slacks as trousers are pants that are actual pants, but do not bind or constrain.

Slackness refers to vulgarity in West Indian culture, behavior and music. It also refers to a subgenre of dancehall music with straightforward sexual lyrics. Again, slackness refers to the absence of a binding constraint. In this case, common decency or politeness.

A slacker is one who has a lazy work ethic or otherwise does not exert maximum effort. They slack off. They refuse to be bound by what others view as hard constraints.

Out to Get You and the Attack on Slack

Many things in this world are Out to Get You. Often they are Out to Get You for a lot, usually but not always your time, attention and money.

If you Get Got for compact amounts too often, it will add up and the constraints will bind.

If you Get Got even once for a non-compact amount, the cost expands until the you have no Slack left. The constraints bind you.

You might spend every spare minute and/or dollar on politics, advocacy or charity. You might think of every dollar as a fraction of a third-world life saved. Racing to find a cure for your daughter’s cancer, you already work around the clock. You could have an all-consuming job or be a soldier marching off to war. It could be a quest for revenge, for glory, for love. Or you might spend every spare minute mindlessly checking Facebook or obsessed with your fantasy football league.

You cannot relax. Your life is not your own.

It might even be the right choice! Especially for brief periods. When about to be run over by a truck or evicted from your house, Slack is a luxury you cannot afford. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary effort.

Most times are ordinary. Make an ordinary effort.

You Can Afford It

No, you can’t. This is the most famous attack on Slack. Few words make me angrier.

The person who says “You Can Afford It” is saying to ignore constraints that do not bind you. If you do, all constraints soon bind you.

Those who do not value Slack soon lose it. Slack matters. Fight to keep yours!

Ask not whether you can afford it. Ask if it is Worth It.

Unless you can’t afford it. Affordability is invaluable negative selection. Never positive selection.

The You Can Afford It tax on Slack quickly approaches 100% if unchecked.

If those with extra resources are asked to share the whole surplus, all are poor or hide their wealth. Wealth is a burden and makes you a target. Those visibly flush rush to spend their bounty.

Where those with free time are given extra work, all are busy or look busy. Those with copious free time seek out relatively painless time sinks they can point to.

When looking happy means you deal with everything unpleasant, no one looks happy for long.

The Slackless Like of Maya Millennial

Things are bad enough when those with Slack are expected to sacrifice for others. Things are much worse when the presence of Slack is viewed as a defection.

An example of this effect is Maya Millennial (of The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial). She has no Slack.

Constraints bind her every action. Her job in life is putting up a front of the person she wants to show people that she wants to be. If her constraints noticeably failed to bind the illusion would fail.

Every action is being watched. If no one is around to watch her, the job falls to her. She must post all to Facebook, to Snapchat, to Instagram. Each action and choice signals who she is and her loyalty to the system. Not doing that this time could mean missing her one chance to make it big.

Maya never has free time. There is signaling to do! At a minimum, she must spend such time on alert and on her phone lest she miss something.

Maya never has spare cash. All must be spent to advance and fit her profile.

Maya lacks free speech, free association, free taste and free thought. All must serve.

Maya is in a world where she must signal she has no Slack. Slack means insufficient dedication and loyalty. Slack cannot be trusted. Slack now means slack later, which means failure. Future failure means no opportunity.

This is more common than one might think.

“Give Me Slack or Kill Me” – J.R. “Bob” Dobbs

The aim of this post was to introduce Slack and give an intuitive picture of its importance.

The short-term practical takeaways are:

Make sure that under normal conditions you have Slack. Value it. Guard it. Spend it only when Worth It. If you lose it, fight to get it back. This provides motivation for fighting things Out To Get You, lest you let them eat your Slack.

Make sure to run a diagnostic test every so often to make sure you’re not running dangerously low, and to engineer your situation to force yourself to have Slack. I recommend Sabbath Hard and Go Home with my take to follow soon.

Also respect the Slack of others. Help them value and guard it. Do not spend it lightly.

A Final Note

I kept this short rather than add detailed justifications. Hopefully the logic is intuitive and builds on what came before. I hope to expand on the details and models later. For a very good book-length explanation of why lacking Slack is awful, see Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.


66 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:12 AM
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This reminds me that not everyone knows what I know.

If you work with distributed systems, by which I mean any system that must pass information between multiple, tightly integrated subsystems, there is a well understood concept of maximum sustainable load and we know that number to be roughly 60% of maximum possible load for all systems.

I don't have a link handy to show you the math, but the basic idea is that the probability that one subsystem will have to wait on another increases exponentially with the total load on the system and the load level that maximizes throughput (total amount of work done by the system over some period of time) comes in just above 60%. If you do less work you are wasting capacity (in terms of throughput); if you do more work you will gum up the works and waste time waiting even if all the subsystems are always busy.

We normally deal with this in engineering contexts, but as is so often the case this property will hold for basically anything that looks sufficiently like a distributed system. Thus the "operate at 60% capacity" rule of thumb will maximize throughput in lots of scenarios: assembly lines, service-oriented architecture software, coordinated work within any organization, an individual's work (since it is normally made up of many tasks that information must be passed between with the topology being spread out over time rather than space), and perhaps most surprisingly an individual's mind-body.

"Slack" is a decent way of putting this, but we can be pretty precise and say you need ~40% slack to optimize throughput: more and you tip into being "lazy", less and you become "overworked".

This comment is still real good. Some thoughts I've been reflecting on re: 60% rule:

I've roughly been living my life at 60% for the past year (after a few years of doing a lot of over-extension and burnout). It has... been generally good.

I do notice that, say, at the last NYC Winter Solstice, I was operating at like 105% capacity. And the result was a more polished, better thing than would have existed if I'd been operating at 60%. Locally, you do get more results if you burn your reserves, esp if you are working on something with a small number of moving parts. This is why it's so easy to fall into the trap.

But, like, you can't just burn your reserves all the time. It just doesn't work.

And if you're building a thing that is bigger than you and requires a bunch of people coordinating at once, I think it's especially important to keep yourself _and_ your allies working at 60%. This is what maximizes the awesomeness-under-the-curve.

The main worry I have about my current paradigm, where I think I'm lacking: Most of my 60%-worth of effort I spend these days doesn't really go into _improvement_ of my overall capacity, or in especially building new skills. A year-ish ago, when I dialed back my output to something sustainable, I think I cut into my self-improvement focus. (Before moving to Berkeley, I HAD focused efforts on raising the capacity of people around me, which had a similar effect, but I don't think I've done that _much_ since moving here)

This was a brand-new concept to me, and I suspect it's going to immediately be useful to me. Thank you very much for taking the time to explain clearly.

Huh. That's for a well-defined concrete goal outside the system that doesn't require substantial revision by the system you're evaluating. This suggests that if you see yourself operating at 60% of capacity, you're at neutral (neither accumulating debt nor making progress) with respect to metacognitive slack. Fortunately, if your metacognition budget is very small, even a very small investment - say, the occasional sabbath - can boost the resources devoted to it by one or more orders of magnitude, which should show substantial results even with diminishing returns.

I've come across this called Queueing Theory but I suspect it has been discovered many times.

I saw this explained well in a book called The Phoenix Project. The book talks about what software development can learn from decades of manufacturing process improvements.

This blog post shows the graph presented by the book, which makes a similar but more general point to yours and further formalizes the Slack concept.

Seems it's hard to pin down the source of this concept, but it apparently follows from Little's Law.

This sounds very interesting. I'm curious if anyone has a reference for the 60% number? (a few simple google searches for "maximum sustainable load distributed system" and variants didn't turn up anything)

and perhaps most surprisingly an individual's mind-body

Could you elaborate on this bit? Or maybe give an example of what you mean?

I don't know of a great way to phrase this so it doesn't get mixed up with notions of personal productivity, but the basic idea here is that you are yourself a complex system made of many distributed parts that pass information around and so you should expect if you try to operate above 60% of your maximum capacity you'll experience problems.

Take physical exercise, for example. If you are doing about 60% of what you are capable of doing you'll probably be able to do it for a long time because you are staying safely below the point of exhausting energy reserves and damaging cells/fibers faster than they can be repaired. Of course this is a bit of a simplification, because different subsystems have different limits and you'll run into problems if you work any subsystem over 60% capacity, so your limiting factor is probably not respiration but something related to repair and replacement, thus you may have to operate overall at less than 60% capacity to keep the constraining subsystem from being overworked. Thus you can, say, walk 20 miles at a slow pace no problem and no need to rest but will tire out and need to rest after running 5 miles at top speed.

Same sort of thing happens with mental activities, like if you concentrate too hard for too long you lose the ability to concentrate for a while but if you concentrate lightly you can do it for a long time (think trying to read in a noisy room vs. trying to read in a quiet room). It doesn't really matter how this happens (ego depletion? homeostatic regulation encouraging you to meet other needs?), the point is there is something getting overworked that needs time to clear and recover.

To sneak in an extra observation here, it's notable where this doesn't happen or only rarely happens. Systems that need high uptime tend to be highly integrated such that information doesn't have to be shared but instead contain a lot of mutual information. For example, the respiration system doesn't share information between its parts so much as it is a tightly integrated whole that immediately responds to changes to any of its parts because it can have zero downtime so it has to keep working even when parts are degraded and being repaired. But high integration introduces quadratic complexity scaling with system size, so such tight integration is limited by how much complexity the system can manage without being subject to unexpected complex failures. Beyond some scaling limit of what evolution/engineering can manage, systems can only get more complex by being less integrated than their subsystems, and so you run into this capacity issue everywhere we are not so unlucky as to need 100% uptime.

I find it interesting that some of the things that give slack also take it away. The obvious example is cell phones. Especially at first they gave slack by letting you leave the house while you were waiting for an important phone call, but eventually ate it by creating an expectation that you'd always be available.

I think what we are looking at here is Moloch eating all slack out of the system. I think that is a summary of about 75% of what Moloch does.

Soylent gives me slack by saving time during lunch, until shorter lunch breaks become the norm. No, it's not really the new technology that's eating your slack, your manager is doing it. Those people who decided they aught to be able to call you on a whim. All we have to do is tell them no and they'll find a way to live with it. Sometimes it can be hard to tell them no, and that's why we have unions.

This is because social structures strive to keep slack homeostatic at your level. As soon as you have more slack than you need to service your superiors in the social hierarchy, they will take that slack for themselves.

I think that's a matter of the slack being pulled in by the remote end you had estabolished slack towards, much like wage increases push cost of living in affected areas up accordingly.

I clicked +1, but in way of feedback I would suggest trying to be more precise with your definitions. "The absence of binding constraints on behavior" sounds just like a synonym for freedom. If that was the concept that this article identified, it would be kind of pointless, but you've actually identified a new and useful concept.

This has a few advantages:

  • Firstly, it makes the article easier to understand. Someone people learn better by example, others better by explicit definition.

  • Secondly, it helps you make sure that what you have identified is indeed a single concept and not a few closely related ideas rolled into one.

  • Third, it allows you clarify the concept in your own head and pick more central examples to illustrate it.

  • Fourth, it helps set social norms by encouraging other people to carefully define their terms.

I would make an alternative definition as follows:

  • Firstly, we start off by assuming some kind of resource (ie. time, energy, money, social capital)

  • Now we can define Slack as keeping some of a resource spare so that you can spend it when opportunities come up (ie. to do things ethically/properly/just for fun/for personal growth, ect).

This is a more specific concept than freedom, it is related to the freedom provided by having spare resources.

There is also a typical paradigm of how people end up in situations without enough slack. Basically, they underestimate the future opportunity cost of either spending or committing to spend a particular resource now. For example, they spend a lot money at a casino, without realising that there is a chance that they may lose their job, in which case their excess money would suddenly become much more useful. Or they commit to too many projects because they want to be agreeable in the present, without realising how a lack of time for recuperation will wear them out when the work ends up more tiring than they expect. More broadly, it is deciding what you can spend or commit now, whilst ignoring the unknowns that might pop up in the future.

Thank you. I agree that the definition isn't perfect and can likely be improved. "Freedom provided by having spare resources" isn't a bad second attempt but I sense we can do better; I will continue to think about the best way to pin this down concisely. Suggestions welcome!

"Freedom by having spare tolerances in your action -> utility map".

Resources are just one set of inputs to the function that maps actions to utility. Slack is what happens when your utility map has a plateau rather than a sharp peak.

I.e., arrange all your available actions on an N-dimensional field, separated by distinguishable salience. Then create an N+1 dimensional graph, where each such action is mapped to the total utility that results from that action. You have lots of slack if your region of maximum utility look like plateaus - that is, noticeable adjustments to your input don't pertub you out of your 'win' - and you have no slack if your region of maximum utility looks like a sharp peak - that is, noticeable adjustments to your input almost instantly perturb you out of your 'win' and into a significantly lower-utility part of your action space.

How about the following definition: slack is the range where a quantitative change in behavior does not result in a qualitative change in outcome?

I assert that this is also about Slack, but possibly a different kind of Slack:


Strongly agree that this is about Slack.

I'd forgotten that this specifically included the "strategize about how to increase your affordance widths" part, which brings it more in line with this post.

The thing is, Zvi's post here is about *not losing your affordance width*; it says nothing about how to increase it. Such a post would be highly appreciated.

I think this is a valuable concept to have, but despite thinking about it on and off ever since this was first posted (and reading the Book of the Subgenius) I still don't really understand it well enough to act on it.

I found this post immediately valuable. i appreciated your conciseness. These ideas are simple but not obvious; spending too many words explaining a simple thing makes it seem complicated.

I don't feel that Maya Millennial describes me or anybody I know. People may be in thrall to various different traps of the superego, but by no means is the only common manifestation "social media astroturfing, FOMO, 'premium mediocre something something', thinly veiled middle class trap anxiety". A rich guy becomes slave to his airplane refurbishing hobby just as easily.

Reminds me of Meditations on Moloch. "Slack" is anything that you have/want/enjoy that you would not need/want/care about if you were optimized for competition. Which is to say, Slack is any resource you could sacrifice to Moloch for an advantage.

Thanks for sharing. I've been thinking about this sort of thing a lot the past few years, and it's nice to have a concept handle that broadly encompasses buffer money/free time/focused attention/etc, instead of referring to each individually.

On management you write

Slack in project management is the time a task can be delayed without causing a delay to either subsequent tasks or project completion time. The amount of time before a constraint binds.

I think this is a nice short reference, but a lot lurks behind, because slack in project or process management has a long history and a lot of theory behind it. I think slack in this context can be equated with buffer capacity, at least mostly. Buffers can be good or bad. Toyota saw buffers as bad and invented Just in Time to deal with the consequences. If we follow their insights it is possible to go without much slack and still reap most benefits. But does this translate to private life? Maybe a better or at least more intermediate trade-off is Drum Buffer Rope. It may depend on personal style and situation. I know a few people who plan their life heavily and reap efficiency gains. Are there other insights from production that we could compare?

Note that the production analogy assumes a level of value-alignment (or easiness of value alignment) that's not necessarily present in just living your life.

If I recall correctly, Toyota is the company that installed the pull-cord anyone on the assembly line could pull to halt the process, which seems like quite a lot of slack in some sense, without being a buffer in the sense I take you to mean.

There's a sense in which buffer that's not being used productively is more like clutter than slack. These seem worth distinguishing between, since they're very different kinds of having more than enough.

[a] buffer that's not being used productively is more like clutter than slack.

I like this specific observation and totally agree. Buffers can be slack, but there are definitely other ways. The key seems to be granting options - like with the pull-cord.

The opposite of slack would be... deliberate constraints? Which I find very valuable. In addition to the value of deliberate constraints- Parkinson's law is a real thing, as are search costs, analysis paralysis, eustress (distress's motivating cousin). I find when I'm structured and extremely busy, I'm productive and happy, but when I have slack, I'm not.

Could this be a case of Reversing the advice you get?

Yes, this post was very useful as advice to reverse to me. I think it possible now that one of the biggest problems with how I'm living my life today is optimising too hard for slack.

Low-confidence comment disclaimer; while I've had the concept pretty much nailed down before, I never before thought about it as something you might have too much off. After reading this post I realised that some people do not have enough slack in their life, implying you can choose to have less or more slack, implying it's possible too have too much slack.

I don't have abstract 'this is what too much slack looks like' clearly defined right now, but one thing resonates from my own experience. I often find myself with free time, and 'waste it away'. I don't really do anything on most weekends. Having more constraints as guidance for behaviour in free time could likely remediate that; but I seem to be very good at talking myself out of any recurrent commitments, saying that they would reduce my freedom/flexibility/slack.

At the same time, it seems to me that I'm happiest, most 'alive', most in the 'flow', in situations with exactly the kind of binding constraints this post talks of avoiding. The constraints focus you on the present, on the very moment, on being. For me this is clearest in sailing regattas - a clear purpose that acts as a binding constraint (to go as fast as possible while staying safe - a safety margin does not for slack make, since you are not willing to ignore crossing it), consuming all your attention (at least during the time you're responsible for the ship, and often more).

I suppose one can stretch the metaphor and say that having no slack on too many dimensions is likely to squash you; but having slack everywhere leaves you floating around aimlessly. Keeping most constraints slack and choosing only a couple aligned ones to bind against is possibly a way to find purpose.

I think we have to distinguish slack from freedom or indeed total absence of constraints. When I was younger I was fond of saying that freedom is overrated, because all this striving for freedom comes at significant costs of its own. Deliberately limiting oneself can indeed create some slack. For example, I don't have a driver's license (initially for environmental reasons), which might look like a lack of freedom to go where I want. But I noticed that this doesn't take notable options away (I live in a big city with good public transportation). I and my environment adapt and if I really need a car I can take a taxi from all the saved car costs. Maybe not the best example to illustrate this, but the best I currently have on offer :-)

Related (I think): if you're early in your career, use some of the government-mandated slack (aka weekends) to differentiate yourself and build up human capital. If you're "a programmer" and are perceived as a generic resource, the system will often drive you to compete on few visible dimensions - like hours. If you have unique and scarce skills you have bargaining power to have more Slack and your employer might even pay for you to gain more human capital. (I still continue to reinvest part of my slack time into my career, though I a) like what I do and learning more of it b) don't really have to)

Maya Millenial almost certainly already believes this. Instagram would be replaced by Github, of course, and maybe a technical blog. The main thing being that she is basically *required* to spend nearly all of her extra time on developing these external markers of expertise. But also that she is driven by the belief that these things make her more likely to acquire Slack in the future.

Agree, this could be a trap, e.g. people feel Github is a required resume item now. I think the strong indicator variable here is whether the thing you're doing is the generally socially acceptable thing (possibly a trap) vs something differentiated.

I personally got into the ML wave before it was cool and everyone in the world wants to be a Data Scientist. Back then it was called "Data Mining" and I decided to do it because I saw being a SWE was intellectually a dead end and wanted to do more mathy things in my job. The generalizable part of this is following your curiosity towards things make sense but are not yet another step on the treadmill.

It may be tough to know what the next stepping stone is, in the sense of investing in skills that will be important in the future but aren't super hyped today. And also skills that will be relevant for a long time. I have a Generation X friend who essentially has this problem - despite having over a decade of ogramming experience, he essentially has to start over from scratch if he wants to be competitive in the job market again. While financially stable I'm sure he's still looking for something that is intellectually stimulating and fulfilling. But he also believes (rightly in my opinion) that he's earned a lot of Slack over the many years of his career. Therefore he's basically forced into Maya's situation, but at a serious disadvantage due to where he's invested his Slack already (like having a family).

Whoa this is like The Problem In My Life Right Now (tm)

Maya has adopted the goal of Appearing-to-Achieve and competition in that race burns slack as a kind of currency. She's going all-in in an attempt to purchase a shot at Actually-Achieving. Many of us might read this and consider ourselves exempt from that outcome. We have either achieved a hard goal or are playing on hard mode to get there. Be wary.

The risk for the hard mode achiever is that they unknowingly transform Lesser Goals into Greater. The slackful hobby becomes a consuming passion or a competitive attractor and then sets into a binding constraint. When every corner of your house is full of magic cards and you no longer enjoy playing but must play nonetheless, when winemaking demands you wake up early to stir the lees and spend all night cleaning, when you cannot possibly miss a night of guitar practice, you have made of your slack a sacrifice to the Gods of Achievement. They are ever hungry, and ever judging.

This isn't to say you cannot both enjoy and succeed at many things, but be wary. We have limited resources - we cannot Do All The Things Equally Well. Returns diminish. Margins shrink. Many things that are enjoyable in small batches are poisonous to the good health of Slack when taken in quantity. To the hard mode achiever the most enjoyable efforts are often those that beckon - "more, more, ever more, you can be the best, you can overcome, you know how to put in the work, you know how to really get there, just one more night of focus, just a little bit more effort" - and the gods watch and laugh and thirst and drink of your time and energy and enjoyment and slack. Until the top decks are no longer strong, the wine tastes of soured fruit, the notes no longer sound sweet and all is obligation and treadmill and not good enough and your free time feels like work because you have made it into work.

Our latest font changes made this post a bit harder to read, so I cleaned it up and converted it to our editor.

For some reason I remembered "In praise of Idleness" by Bertrand Russell. Seems relevant, although not entirely the same. Some choice quotes.

Another disadvantage is that in universities studies are organized, and the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be discouraged. Academic institutions, therefore, useful as they are, are not adequate guardians of the interests of civilization in a world where everyone outside their walls is too busy for unutilitarian pursuits.

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach byroutine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

I think a nice, short definition of Slack would be, "A small gradient of the cost function in the vicinity of the optimum." In other words, the penalty for making sub-optimal decisions is not very high, because the region of acceptable behaviors around the best one is fairly large.

And yet here we are, where the penalties for sub-optimal decisions are indeed quite high. The obvious question is, "How did it get to be this way?" Well, typically non-smooth cost functions indicate more complexity, so in some sense the decision landscape has gotten more complicated than it used to be. Intuitively, this would seem to be because there is some sort of adversarial process going on where everyone's strategies have adapted to become more effective.

The narrative that I usually tell myself to explain this goes something like, at some point along the way, firms realized (especially firms that accomplish cognitively demanding tasks) that the majority of their value was being created by a small number of extremely talented people. But these people were not just talented, but also mono-maniacal in their dedication to their jobs. They essentially filled most of their waking hours doing one thing, because they genuinely love it (and they love being hyper-focused). My assumption is that the ratio of the value these people created for their firms over the cost of hiring them was much greater than one. So firms realized that they could cut down on costs heavily by reducing overall hiring and focusing on locating just these people. Therefore they start to look for the signs of these people: Heavy activity outside of work dedicated to their field, a genuine love of it (maybe shown by writing articles, blogs or textbooks, giving talks, etc.), and willingness to work long hours. People adapt by trying to signal these things too even if it means cutting into the time they spend doing things they actually enjoy, but the job market is much tighter now because firms have reduced hiring. In short, firms are winning, people are losing.

But it still leaves the question of why the hyper-talented people are being paid less than they're worth? That seems to be the crux of it all, some kind of market inefficiency that allows firms to win big by getting super-people at a bargain. My naive guess is that it has something to do with the employees themselves, by the nature of their personalities they are actually willing to work for less than they are worth, but I am pretty uncertain about that. I would appreciate any answers from someone with more economic expertise if they have some ideas.

My model of this problem is that firms cannot pay the hyper-talented what they are worth because the other employees would not stand for it. We have constructed norms whereby hyper-productive CEOs and other executives can get pay that is many times that of their employees, and still this causes massive resentment and even calls for government intervention. If programmers that were 100x as valuable as the average got even 10x the pay, the other employees would strike or riot. Equity does seem to be one way around this trap in some circumstances.

I have personal experience with this. I got [company I used to work for] to hire a very good programmer for a contract, he got the job done ahead of schedule and made us tons of money, and we couldn't renew for another project, because other programmers found out what he was paid and threatened to quit. So he took a higher-paying job elsewhere.

Implicitly I've been assuming that we're talking about tech workers here, but that may not be totally fair. I should probably extend this model to include most millenials that are highly career-focused, probably based in major coastal cities. In which case, you could probably extend this to sales/marketing and finance people as well.

I think if we do this, then it may be true that the "hyper-talented" people are still the issue here, but it could also be due to more general labor surplus issues as well. Then you get a lot of highly educated, highly motivated young people crowding into major hubs into a few high paying fields, under the belief that these are the primary, if not the only pathways to success.

Then the question becomes, is this actually true? Are they correctly identifying where their best chance at happiness lies, and it just happens that there truly are fewer opportunities for financial stability for most people these days?

If yes, then I think we could probably reduce the "slack" problem to general economic problems, but I'm not sure if that's the direction you were intending to go with these posts. One thing I don't know is whether or not Maya is essentially acting rationally under her incentive structures, and the incentive structures are the main culprit, or whether she is valuing certain things too highly, such as prestige and social approval.

My model says that Maya is acting the way humans react to things in similar situations, so whether or not her actions are "rational" the system is still the problem. Maya's actions seem like they could be rational for certain utility functions, and you can't play such games by halves (hence the lack of Slack) but my guess is that most Mayas are making a mistake playing the game at all. She should probably quit.

It does seem like financial stability is in practice much harder to achieve than it used to be, for most people. Especially when student loans and health care get involved. There's less margin for error even with a "good" job and good jobs are harder to find in a pinch for most people. It is unclear to me how much of that is increased needs (letting consumerism, signaling and positional goods eat all your Slack, general high standards, and not putting up with boring or physically demanding work like people used to) versus how much is a real crisis (student loans, health insurance, child care and other forced expenses, lack of jobs with good pay and job security, being treated like dirt due to that, and taking of Slack in order to control people).

For programmers, especially top programmers, this isn't an excuse. If I'm a superstar programmer who is worth 100x normal programmer, I can't get 100x or even 10x, but I can get a new job any time I want and likely earn 1.5x with good perks. That really should be good enough to have Slack.

I like to look at energy usage per capita over time as an indicator of whether we can do more stuff than we could before. E.g. can people own cars. Technology changes this a bit, it makes cars more efficient/cheaper to make so more people can have cars. But looking at money etc makes things too easy to fudge.

So getting energy and people , the energy consumption per capita in 1980 it was 64 million BTU per person. In ~2014 it was 73 million BTU per person. So things are getting better energy wise for the globe. I won't try to break down per country to see if things are getting better for the US, things get complicated via global trade (exporting energy consumption etc). You could expect that the majority of the increase in energy consumption has happened other places than the US (Asia had 300% energy consumption growth) during that time period though so that there might be a net negative in the US.

It is late, so I'm not going to continue. I think we have a rising inequality from various things, so even if there was an increased energy usage over all, people may feel worse off.

There was some furore a while back about wage fixing between the big tech companies. Whether it has been fixed or not is another matter.

I think that that sort of fixing is possible because a programmers value is based on the scale they work at. If you fix a bug that effects 1 million people per year and leads to 10 cents more per transaction, you have earned the company 100k per year. If your company only has 10k customers, then the same bug in the same time is only 1k per year. So you are worth different amounts to different businesses. As there are only so many very high scale businesses, they can collude.

Similar things might apply to lawyers, getting an X% better deal? I wonder at the social factors involved though.

I think a nice, short definition of Slack would be, "A small gradient of the cost function in the vicinity of the optimum." In other words, the penalty for making sub-optimal decisions is not very high, because the region of acceptable behaviors around the best one is fairly large.

This doesn't seem right to me. I think you could describe slack formally in terms of machine learning, but I don't think this is a correct description of it. I was going to propose a better one, but I don't know what I think it is yet.

My guess is that 'Slack' reads differently in social and material reality. Maya is, in a sense, signaling infinite slack, but in a manner which actually consumes any possible reserve of slack. I think a careful reading of Rao shows that sacrificing the thing for the representation of the thing is what he refers to as 'creating social capital'.

Featured (nominated by Elizabeth): well-written, interesting, useful concept

Just a data point: I've yet to find a Zvi post enjoyable to actually read. When I make myself slog through them, there's always valuable and interesting concepts, and I'm usually better off for having put forth the effort, and so I upvote and am grateful to Zvi for sharing. But at the same time, the experience is one of trying to make sense of postmodernist slam poetry, or having to consciously sort out which words are jargon and which words are filler and which words just mean what they say, or trying to parse the statements of someone on a half-dose of mushrooms. It always feels like things could've been 50% more straightforward while still being aesthetically unique and interesting. It sort of feels like the writing doesn't try to optimize for limited working memory, maybe?

(All of this really truly just meant for data/feedback; I have no desire to communicate any sort of a demand-for-change and don't claim that it's "wrong" in any way except for me personally. It's just that, in Zvi's shoes, I would want to know if I were imposing a cost on some readers. Doesn't mean I wouldn't continue to impose it, if that were the right move.)

Thank you for saying it. Feedback of this type is hard to get and quite valuable, especially given you grok the posts after doing the work. The concept that I might not be accounting for limited working memory is especially new and interesting. I've been making an effort to make the jargon/non-jargon distinction clear, but it's a known issue and I don't love my solutions so far. There's tension with brevity; I'm trying hard to keep things short.

I don't think you're the only person who has this issue, so I need to fix it. Tsuyoku Naritai. If you're willing I'd love to hear more (here or elsewhere), the more detailed and concrete the better.

I have nearly the opposite experience, FWIW.

The posts are intuitive; I flow through the text without any jarring.

I think the trick might be (I'm making this up, I don't know what anyone is actually doing) to not try to analyze each line or try to make sure you've understood each sentence. But to let yourself read all the words and then at the end, try to notice if you feel any different about certain concepts, situations, or beliefs.

My guess is people have different default methods of absorbing or processing text. If Zvi exists on one end of a spectrum, it would be nice to have whatever is at the opposite end. But I don't want to lose the benefits of having, what to me is a very enjoyable and easy reading experience. (But I also want to accommodate other processing types.)

For an example of a similar writing style (which I posit is worse than Zvi's but has similar properties), the book Finite & Infinite Games by James Carse.

Heh. I'm able to understand Zvi's posts just fine and find them entertaining, but I think this is largely because I've spent a lot of time talking to him in person. I hear them in his voice with a particular cadence which comes with a sense of familiarity and in-jokiness.

It is interesting how different rationalist bloggers compare in terms of writing vs speaking. Scott and Eliezer both feel very different in essay form than in person. Zvi and Anna Salamon pretty much write exactly the same way they talk.

Hmm, I thought that Out to Get You was relatively clear, but I suppose that was because it was describing a concept that was easy to grok, not that it was written any differently. For that article there wasn't any need for a precisely specified definition, but for more difficult concepts definition by examples has its limits. But even more than that, if someone can write down an explicit definition it is more likely that they will also be able to pick good definitions to illustrate their point.