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I like and agree with this post, but want to caution that a 2019 paper, Does Apologizing Work? An Empirical Test of the Conventional Wisdom, studied a couple of examples of people saying something politically controversial, and found that apologizing either had no effect or made things worse. I suspect (hope?) that this harmful-apology effect is limited to moral outrage scandals, but that those cases are unusual.

[F]uture research should investigate the extent to which circumstances make it more or less helpful to apologize for a controversial statement. It may be that the effect was greater in the Summers example because Rand Paul is a well-known political figure. It also might be the case that the key difference lies in the fact that Summers apologized for a statement expressing a belief in a theory that can be tested empirically, while Paul had originally been criticized for giving a normative opinion. Finally, Summers gave reasons for his defense, while Paul went on the attack when questioned about his comments, perhaps unfairly implying that the controversy was the result of a partisan witch-hunt. More research is needed before conclusions can be drawn about when apologies have no effect, and when they increase or reduce the desire on the part of observers to punish the embroiled figure.

Except Iran. Why is a theocracy the only country capable of being rational about this?

I've heard that the 1980s economic sanctions were so severe that Iran didn't have dialysis machines, so they desperately needed other treatment options for kidney disease.

Unfortunately the legal system doesn't reflect this. 

This claim seemed worth checking, especially since there are multiple legal systems and it would be awful to discourage people from saving lives in one jurisdiction based on the flaws of another, so I looked into it briefly.

From my quick investigation, I think that being sued for providing medical assistance is not a serious concern in the USA, Canada, and the UK (and probably not in most other places but I didn't read much about other places)[1]. Laws protecting rescuers from lawsuits exist in many jurisdictions; they're called Good Samaritan laws.

I tried to find cases of people being sued for providing medical attention. There was an edge case in California in 2008 when someone caused a paralyzing spine injury to someone when pulling them from their car after an accident, believing that the car might explode[2]. The court ruled that this may have been (intended to be) emergency aid, but it wasn't medical aid, which is what California's Good Samaritan law specified, so the paralyzed person was allowed to sue the attempted rescuer. In response to this incident, California passed a new law stating that "no person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission".

If you're worried about being sued for helping in an emergency, look up Good Samaritan laws in your area. The Wikipedia page on Good Samaritan laws might be a good place to start.

[1] I'm aware of a famous incident in China in 2011 when no-one provided assistance to a dying toddler, because they were afraid of being sued. China passed a Good Samaritan law in response to that incident, so it's probably fine to attempt rescue in China now.

[2] I've looked into whether cars explode (separately, a while ago), and concluded that that's not a serious risk after an accident. If a car crashes in precisely the right way (such as falling off a cliff and landing on a protrusion that violently stabs the fuel tank) then it can explode in the initial accident. But an explosion after an accident is exceedingly unlikely, I concluded. A fire after an accident can spread, but I expect that a rescuer can easily evade a car fire if one appears, so I wouldn't be afraid of approaching a damaged car.

Looks like it's fixed on the EA Forum version but not the LW version.

> the class of "rationalist/rationalist-adjacent" SMEs in AI safety,

What's an SME?

That's fair about wheat import/exports – I don't quite follow this guy's estimate of only a 75% reduction in wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia, and plausibly it could be a lot worse.

The phosphate problem must depend on elasticity of phosphate supply (and a little of demand, though I checked and less than 10% of phosphate is used for non-agricultural industry, so there's probably not a lot that can be substituted from other uses). I found conflicting accounts of whether Russia was the largest phosphate exporter, but like wheat, it's not the largest phosphate producer. It produces about 13 million tons of phosphate, 5.6% of the world total, so I don't find that immediately alarming – maybe it's not too hard to increase phosphate mining by 5%? I wasn't able to quickly find out how much of Russia's production that it exports. I also couldn't quickly find anyone giving an estimate of phosphate supply elasticity.

This paper says "Between 1961 and 2014 there have been two instances when the global phosphate rock prices spiked, in mid-1970s and 2007–2008 (Fig. 3a). Both events are linked to an economic trigger. The first instance was during the first oil crisis, and it was driven by the increase in energy prices (Mew, 2016). The second one is attributed to a combination of oil price increase, higher labour costs and insufficient mining capacity (Scholz et al., 2014)."

This chart shows up-to-date phosphate prices. It would be the one to watch to see how bad the phosphate shortage is getting. It shows a big spike in 2008 – about three times the current price. I don't remember phosphate shortages in 2008 news, nor mass starvation, so I think we're probably okay with prices under three times the current price.

Articles about the fall in wheat exports face another Molochian problem. The ones that say that a massive decrease in grain exports will lead to famine are shared widely. Articles that include the context that most wheat is produced and consumed locally, so exports are a small proportion of global wheat production, are boring articles about boring price movements, so they aren't shared widely.

World grain production is 760 million tons per year. Russia exports 35 million tons per year (4.6% of total wheat production), and Ukraine exports 24 million tons (3.2% of total production). Losing three quarters of those exports will be a supply shock of the size we see about once or twice a decade (though it's usually due to a drought).

(btw I'm not accusing Eric Raymond of alarmism; I thought the grain decrease was a big deal too, until I happened across a Twitter thread explaining the details. Update: I found the thread – it's by a crop scientist. I'm not sure why her figure for Russian wheat as a percentage of world production is lower than what I found.)

Dominic Cummings, a UK politician, seems to have detailed models of what goes wrong in bureaucracies. Apologies that this excerpt is long; the original essay is much, much longer still:

I won’t go into details (unless they leak in which case I’ll clarify) but in a nutshell, something very important that the DfE had contracted was completely botched. Like opening Russian matrioshki, each meeting revealed a new absurdity and after seeing dozens of such episodes I now knew what would happen. First, I knew that the official who had signed the contract would have signed a stupid contract. Second, I knew that the contract had been signed three years earlier so the official would have long gone and the new people would shrug and say ‘not me’. (When I insisted that a particular inquiry into a cockup be pursued to a senior official in another department who’d left DfE, so mad was I at this trick, there was a panicked reaction: ‘we can’t go around demanding answers from officials who’ve moved, Dominic, where would it all end?!’)

Third, I knew that their bosses would all have changed too, so they could also say ‘very regrettable, but of course I wasn’t here then’. Fourth, I knew that EU procurement rules would be partly responsible for complicating everything unnecessarily. Fifth, I knew that some officials would instinctively cover it up while a tiny number would push for a serious ‘lessons learned’ exercise and get nowhere. Sixth, I had to make a decision about how hard to push for an internal investigation or use it as leverage to force officials to do something else I wanted done (‘SoS might be persuaded not to pursue this too hard, but we are very keen that X happens’, where X is something important and much resisted). Seventh, I knew that the first version of the scale of the problem would not be right and all the numbers would be wrong.

This time there was an added twist – the DfE had used (at the direction of the Cabinet Office, officials said) an EU Framework that actually forbade the DfE from clawing back the money from the company that had screwed up. This I had not predicted, it was a new twist though not a surprising one. ‘How many other contracts have been signed under this EU Framework which stop us from clawing back money?’ ‘Err, we’ll get back to you…’

Some people who make blunders like those described above are then deemed by the HR system to be ‘priority movers’. This means that a) they are regarded as among the worst performers but also means b) they have to be interviewed for new jobs ahead of people who are better qualified. It is a very bizarre system, made more bizarre by the fact that there are great efforts to keep it hidden from ministers and the outside world. These people float around in the HR system, both dead and alive, removed from ‘full time employee’ lists but still employed, like Gogol’s Dead Souls. ‘We need someone to do SEN funding.’ ‘Ahh, what about Y, they could do it.’ ‘But Y has been a rubbish press officer all his life, he’d be a disaster!’ ‘Yes, but it would be one less priority mover on my books.’


Ministers have little experience in well-managed complex organisations and their education and training does not fill this huge gap. Even most of the ones who have good motives – and there are many, though they struggle to advance – have a fundamental problem of scale. The apex of the political system is full of people who have never managed employees on the scale of 102 people or budgets on the scale of 106 pounds, yet their job is to reshape bureaucracies on scales of 104 (DfE) – 106 (NHS) employees and 1010-1011 pounds. The scale of their experience of management is therefore often at least 104 off from  what they are trying to control. Some unusual people can make jumps like this. Most cannot.


Large bureaucracies, including political parties, operate with very predictable dynamics. They have big problems with defining goals, selecting and promoting people, misaligned incentives, misaligned timescales, a failure of ‘information aggregation’, and a lack of competition (in normal environments). These problems produce two symptoms: a) errors are not admitted and b) the fast adaptation needed to cope with complexity does not happen. More fundamentally, unlike in successful entities, there is no focus of talented and motivated people on important problems. People externally ask questions like ‘how could X go wrong?’, assuming that millions are spent on X so everyone must be thinking about X, but the inquiries usually reveal that nobody senior was thinking about X – they spent their time on endless trivia, or actually stopping people working on X.

These dynamics are well-understood but are very hard to change. Bureaucratic institutions tend to change significantly only in the event of catastrophic failure (e.g. 1914, 1929, 1945, 1989) – catastrophes that they themselves often contribute to. However, these dynamics are so deep that even predictable failures that lead to significant loss of life can often leave bureaucracies largely untouched other than a soon-forgotten media frenzy.

Goals. First, in political institutions, it is usually much harder than in science or business to formulate and agree clear goals like ‘make a profit’ or ‘search for a new particle within these parameters’. Often, the official public definition of the goal is not even properly defined or is so vague as to be useless. This problem is entangled with the problem of incentives (below) – often defining goals wisely is disincentivised. Often in politics, officially stated goals are, taken literally, nonsensical and could not possibly be serious but are worded to sound vaguely friendly (e.g. ‘this must never happen again’, which I must have deleted dozens of times from draft documents).

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