Benquo's Comments

The Lesson To Unlearn

Graham's implying that at least for the vast majority of person-test combinations, the spirit of passing tests is hacking them:

Even though I was a diligent student, almost all the work I did in school was aimed at getting a good grade on something.
To many people, it would seem strange that the preceding sentence has a "though" in it. Aren't I merely stating a tautology? Isn't that what a diligent student is, a straight-A student? That's how deeply the conflation of learning with grades has infused our culture.
If getting into college were merely a matter of having the quality of one's mind measured by admissions officers the way scientists measure the mass of an object, we could tell teenage kids "learn a lot" and leave it at that.

I don't see how, specifically, to distinguish this sort of thing from what Hotel Concierge is saying, unless you think Hotel Concierge is against trying at anything. As far as I can tell Hotel Concierge isn't saying you shouldn't try to be happy, or achieve outcomes you care about via delayed gratification, or be smart, or learn a lot, just that it's a problem when people are pushed to optimize for performing simulacra of those things.

The Lesson To Unlearn

Currently writing this up at more length, I invite anyone to remind me if I forget to post a link here within a week. The short version is that Graham is implying that his behavior is aligned with the values of his essay - people are likely to trust Y-Combinator to help them learn to do real things, since it's a Paul Graham creation and he wrote this essay - while in fact he is doing the opposite and set up the world's best, most prestigious school for Succeeding by Passing Tests.

The Lesson To Unlearn

It's not that this essay is wrong. It's just that it's a rehash of what Hotel Concierge covered better and in more depth in The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment, and it's dangerously misleading advertising for the VC fund / cult Graham started, Y-Combinator, which is the current apex predator of the real-life Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment.

Drowning children are rare

It was originally marketed as a health tonic, but its apparent curative properties were due to the powerful stimulant and analgesic cocaine, not any health-enhancing ingredients. Later the cocaine was taken out (but the “Coca” in the name retained), so now it fools the subconscious into thinking it’s healthful with - on different timescales - mass media advertising, caffeine, and refined sugar.

It’s less overtly a scam now, in large part because it has the endowment necessary to manipulate impressions more subtly at scale.

Drowning children are rare

Maybe more specifically an ingroup that takes over a potentially real, profitable social niche, squeezes out everyone else, and uses the niche’s leverage to maximize rent extraction, is a gang.

Drowning children are rare

Coca-Cola produces something about as worthless as Theranos machines, substituting the experience of a thing for the thing itself, & is pretty blatant about it. The scams that “win” gerrymander our concept-boundaries to make it hard to see. Likewise Pepsi. JPMorgan Chase & Bank of America, in different ways, are scams structurally similar to Bernie Madoff but with a legitimate state subsidy to bail them out when they blow up. This is not an exhaustive list, just the first 4 that jumped out at me. Pharma is also mostly a scam these days, nearly all of the extant drugs that matter are already off-patent.

Also Facebook, but “scam” is less obviously the right category.

Drowning children are rare
I have a background expectation that the most blatant kinds of fraudulence will be caught.

Consider how long Theranos operated, its prestigious board of directors, and the fact that it managed to make a major sale to Walgreens before blowing up. Consider how prominent Three Cups of Tea was (promoted by a New York Times columnist), for how long, before it was exposed. Consider that official US government nutrition advice still reflects obviously distorted, politically motivated research from the early 20th Century. Consider that the MLM company Amway managed to bribe Harvard to get the right introductions to Chinese regulators. Scams can and do capture the official narrative and prosecute whistleblowers.

Consider that pretty much by definition we're not aware of the most successful scams.

Related: The Scams Are Winning

Drowning children are rare
Presumably you believe that point 2 holds, not just because of the GDP example, but because you've seen many, many examples (like health care, which you mention above). Or maybe because you have an analytical argument that the sort of thing that happens with GDP has to generalize to other credit allocation systems?

Both - it would be worrying to have an analytic argument but not notice lots of examples, and it would require much more investigation (and skepticism) if it were happening all the time for no apparent reason.

I tried to gesture at the gestalt of the argument in The Humility Argument for Honesty. Basically, all conflict between intelligent agents contains a large information component, so if we're fractally at war with each other, we should expect most info channels that aren't immediately life-support-critical to turn into disinformation, and we should expect this process to accelerate over time.

For examples, important search terms are "preference falsification" and "Gell-Mann amnesia".

I don't think I disagree with you on GiveDirectly, except that I suspect you aren't tracking some important ways your trust chain is likely to make correlated errors along the lines of assuming official statistics are correct. Quick check: what's your 90% confidence interval for global population, after Googling the official number, which is around 7.7 billion?

Drowning children are rare

Overall your wording seems pretty close.

Most white collar workers are executing a similar maneuver, except that instead of using force, they are corrupting the victim's ability to make sense of the situation.

I think it's actually a combination of this, and actual coordination to freeze out marginal gangs or things that aren't gangs, from access to the system. Venture capitalists, for example, will tend to fund people who feel like members of the right gang, use the right signifiers in the right ways, went to the right schools, etc. Everyone I've talked with about their experience pitching startups has reported that making judgments on the merits is at best highly noncentral behavior.

If enough of the economy is cartelized, and the cartels are taxing noncartels indirectly via the state, then it doesn't much matter whether the cartels apply force directly, though sometimes they still do.

So called "career capital" amounts to having more prestige, or otherwise be better at convincing people, and therefore being able to extort larger amounts.

It basically involves sending or learning how to send a costly signal of membership in a prestigious gang, including some mixture of job history, acculturation, and integrating socially into a network.

Drowning children are rare

This is something like a 9 - gets the overall structure of the argument right with some important caveats:

I'd make a slightly weaker a claim for 2 - that credit-allocation methods have to be presumed broken until established otherwise, and no adequate audit has entered common knowledge.

An important part of the reason for 3 is that, the larger the share of "knowledge work" that we think is mostly about creating disinformation, the more one should distrust any official representations one hasn't personally checked, when there's any profit or social incentive to make up such stories. Based on my sense of the character of the people I met while working at GiveWell, and the kind of scrutiny they said they applied to charities, I'd personally be surprised if GiveDirectly didn't actually exist, or simply pocketed the money. But it's not at all obvious to me that people without my privileged knowledge should be sure of that.

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