Last year I came across an interview with an astrophysicist and former professional poker player who read an article about an old poem about an even older god, which may or may not be either an even older mythical creature or potentially an even older word, which represents a particular type of negative-sum game, and that particular type of negative-sum game is very relevant right now.

The god in question is the namesake of this here post—Moloch, or Molech, or MLK as the case may be. But before we get to that, welcome to...


For the Thorny Devils arriving at the Moloch Inter-Dimensional Spaceport baggage claim, it takes forever to retrieve their bags, because a few of these prickly characters insist on crowding the conveyor, blocking the vision and the path of those stuck behind them. 

Those in front still have to wait for their bag to come to their spot on the conveyor, while those behind have to wait 'til their bag reaches the very end of the conveyor where they might have a chance to push past and retrieve their bag before it vanishes back into the mouth of the beast, some can’t see anything, and those at the front, having retrieved their bags, are trapped by the horde behind them.

For each of these woe-some souls, all they want is to get their bag and get to the taxi stand, but no one is leaving any time soon.



Moloch is a nasty character. He appears in John Milton’s Paradise Lost as the most bloodthirsty of all the fallen angels and is named in the Bible as a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice. But there is some confusion over whether Moloch is a god or merely the personification of the Punic word for sacrifice which is “Mlk” or perhaps is a combination of the Hebrew words for king “Melech” combined with the word for shame “bōšet”. There are also many parallels between the bona fides of Moloch and the Ancient Greek Minotaur. Both have a bull’s head on a man’s body and the fury of both are only appeased by ritual sacrifice. So, as with many myths, the origins are hazy.


Moloch is conceived as a tyrannical god that demands child sacrifice, threatening far worse if his hunger is not satisfied. In game theoretical terms, the negative payoff of losing his support, or worse courting his ire, makes yielding to the tyrant’s demands the optimal strategy, but in doing so the victims keep the monster alive, so they can never escape this perpetual negative-sum game.

It is the fact that the population are complicit in their own subjugation, which is the essence of a Molochian system. Like our unfortunate friends at the Moloch Inter-Dimensional Spaceport.


The concept of Moloch has been recently popularised by Liv Boeree (that astrophysicist poker star mentioned in the first paragraph) in her works on The Beauty Wars and The Media Wars where she explores the emergence of "moloch-y" situations borne of instagram beauty filters and The Media.

“I call Moloch the God of Negative-Sum Games” — Liv Boeree

As technology creates more opportunities for systems built of multiple free agents to arise, it has become important to recognise when they involve perverse incentives that drive individuals to act against their own long-term best interests or the best interests of the group.


Boeree discovered the concept through an article called Meditations on Moloch by Scott Alexander which was an exploration of the poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg which seems to use Moloch as a metaphor for the evils of modernity and capitalism. Alexander uses the poem to flesh out the metaphor of Moloch, drawing from numerous sources. I recommend reading the article if you haven't already. For now it’s enough to say Moloch is a metaphor that’s in the Zeitgeist, and for good reason —it helps us to understand the challenges we face as an increasingly global society with hopefully increasing individual freedoms.


Sometimes we might notice that a system so inevitably leads to downfall that it seems to be designed to fail. These Molochian problems are a subset of what are known as coordination problems —by personifying the concept of Moloch it helps us to connect that feeling about the pernicious nature of a particular system to a mental shorthand…

Once we have put a name and face to the issue we can interrogate it and devise an escape from it, like stepping back from the crowd at the baggage claim.


Perhaps you have found yourself at the Moloch Inter-Dimensional Spaceport baggage claim and observed one or two lizard brains start to crowd the conveyor, and suddenly half the passengers are scrambling for a space while the rest of you throw up your claws in despair. Moloch’s victims are just trying to get their bag as quickly as possible, but the result is that it takes longer for everyone. However, it’s not always the case.

Often we experience baggage claim Utopia where each person waits behind the yellow line. They spread out, giving everyone good visibility on the conveyor, and leaving enough space for whoever spots their bag to dash in, grab it and get out again. That’s because people generally understand the system, we’ve had positive and negative experiences and have learned to act in unison. This is how we escape Molochian situations and the faster we learn to spot them the quicker we’ll learn to coordinate ourselves and solve them.

So, what Molochian situations are we facing today?


Molochian systems come in many different flavours—some playing on human irrationality, exploiting externalities, or initiating races to the bottom, and some are more complex pernicious systems. Next are four key examples of systems that can turn self-interest into a collective nightmare: Listicles, Bargain Hunting, Tax Havens, and Late-Stage Capitalism... First off, let's talk about something we all have fallen for...


We've all had that feeling, as we slowly slide down to the bottom of a serious article, full of 'word-vegetables', we are struck by the 'junk-food-buffet' and the unanticipated desire to see what "... these 20 celebrities look like now".

Sound familiar? That's because these engagement-driven algorithms take advantage of our evolutionary proclivities for gossip and negativity, not unlike the legacy media's notorious 'If it bleeds, it leads'. They embody a Molochian System where even the content creators themselves become victims, surrendering their message to the relentless chase for eyeballs.


While we're down at the bottom of the news article, our eye is drawn to the clip-on laptop LCD screen extender at a remarkable 90% off!. This seems too good to believe, so you carefully probe the reviews, which all seem good, until you find one that points to a news article about the company's use of child labor.

Here, there is an externality being exploited, with the cost being shouldered by an 8-year-old in a foreign country. You decide to forgo the screen and instead donate to Unicef.


Some Molochian systems such as Tax Havens are purely race-to-the-bottom scenarios. In the interests of luring big business, smaller economies compete for the lowest tax rates. Ireland, from which Apple runs its European operations, has a 12•5% tax rate, while some island countries such as Bermuda (Google Alphabet, Uber) and the Cayman Islands (Alibaba) reach the actual bottom, offering tax rates of 0%.

This means that the tremendous amounts of wealth being generated by these companies is not being redistributed to the societies that support them, or to the countries where people buy their products.


Tax Havens play into another type of Molochian system, which I'll call Pernicious Systems. These are systems where rational self-interested behavior and human instincts are built-in, and with some maintenance, the system largely self-balances. But if maintenance of the system fails to mitigate for bad actors gaming the system with tax havens or mismanaged mortgage-backed securities, it can fall out of balance, leading to increasing inequality.

As is so often the case with click-bait, the title of this section is not always perfectly accurate and perhaps these issues aren't exactly "ruining your life", however it is clear that the four Molochian systems we've explored; Listicles, Bargain Hunting, Tax Havens, and Late-Stage Capitalism, are operating in our day-to-day lives. They exploit our human tendencies, manipulate external circumstances, and stimulate a ruthless race to the bottom, all resulting in outcomes counter to collective well-being.

But before we despair, it's important to remember that while Moloch is powerful, knowledge is more so and is the first step toward change. So, the next time you're about to click on a listicle or snap up a bargain, make like a snail, slow down for a moment, relax and ask yourself: 'Can I take a less Molochy path?'.

It's important to bear in mind too that unlike click-bait, nuanced discussion requires that we look at all sides. Capitalism, for instance, can be seen in many respects as an example of a non-zero-sum game, while the globalisation that leads to exploitative child labor can in other areas have some positive effects for those in the developing world. Listicles can have their place too, even if only as a means to criticize listicles. Tax havens? Well, they're just pure evil.


We know that Molochian situations are everywhere, from the baggage claim to the economy. It’s a metaphor that helps us understand the pernicious nature of negative-sum games — when our rational short-term individual decisions create a system that is detrimental to all, making us complicit in our own subjugation.


What should the original victims of Moloch do?

I mentioned in Who is Moloch? that the Canaanites were acting rationally by offering the occasional child for sacrifice, but that’s not entirely true. We can actually find an optimal strategy through using some Game Theory!


Right now we have a chronically bad situation. So, if on one hand, the tyrant can and will destroy literally everything, this is an absolutely bad outcome, a game-over scenario, this is indeed worse than a chronically bad situation. But if there is a chance that some of the population can survive the consequences of refusing to submit, leading to the starvation of Moloch, then you are measuring a chronically bad situation with a finitely bad situation. And a situation that is finitely bad, as long as it is not absolutely bad (game over) is better than a chronically bad situation.

So. the optimal solution is to rebel and starve the tyrant.


Ironically, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, this is the path for which Moloch advocates when addressing his wretched compatriots; open war against God. Now, Satan famously stated…

“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n” — Satan

Moloch goes one further, to propose (and I’m paraphrasing) that it’s even better to risk death attempting to conquer Heaven, than to rule in Hell.

But this is not the only answer. When we look closer, a better solution becomes evident. The Bible portrays the Canaanites (Moloch’s victims in this case) as a war-like, expansionist culture — an account we should approach with some skepticism, given that it also endorses genocide against the Canaanites. Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let’s accept their allegiance with Moloch is precisely to gain his support for their perpetual conquests (which is right up the belligerent Moloch’s alley). So, it is actually the desire for conflict and expansion that is driving this unhappy arrangement. Let go of that mandate, and they no longer need Moloch — problem solved.


Molochian situations are all around us, where rational decisions made by unwitting individuals can lead to negative outcomes. And Moloch is a suitably abhorrent personification that can help us develop a recognition of these systems and recoil from them accordingly. Understanding these systems allows us to make sure we’re not a part of the problem but rather, like our baggage claim Utopia, part of the solution. And there are always solutions, they just require us to look at the bigger picture and ask, who is controlling this situation? Us, or Moloch?

In Game Theory we are often given an alternative with regards to solutions. This solution to the foundational story however, serves as a reminder that beyond theory, in the messy throes of real-life dilemmas, it’s often crucial to seek out a third option, one that’s beyond the established parameters.

Thanks for joining this exploration into the systems that shape our lives. What other Molochian systems have you noticed in your life, and how do you think we can tackle them?"

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