Scott Alexander


Introduction to Game Theory
The Blue-Minimizing Robot
Hypotheses and Hunches
Probability and Predictions
Parables and Prayers
Futurism and Forecasting
Community and Cooperation
Economics and Efficiency
Research and Reviews
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Still Not in Charge

Thanks for this.

I think the UFH might be more complicated than you're making it sound here - the philosophers debate whether any human really has a utility function.

When you talk about the CDC Director sometimes doing deliberately bad policy to signal to others that she is a buyable ally, I interpret this as "her utility function is focused on getting power". She may not think of this as a "utility function", in fact I'm sure she doesn't, it may be entirely a selected adaptation to execute, but we can model it as a utility function for the same reason we model anything else as a utility function.

I used the example of a Director who genuinely wants the best, but has power as a subgoal since she needs it in order to enact good policies. You're using the example of a Director who really wants power, but (occasionally) has doing good as a subgoal since it helps her protect her reputation and avoid backlash. I would be happy to believe either of those pictures, or something anywhere in between. They all seem to me to cash out as a CDC Director with some utility function balancing goodness and power-hunger (at different rates), and as outsiders observing a CDC who makes some good policy and some bad-but-power-gaining policy (where the bad policy either directly gains her power, or gains her power indirectly by signaling to potential allies that she isn't a stuck-up goody-goody. If the latter, I'm agnostic as to whether she realizes that she is doing this, or whether it's meaningful to posit some part of her brain which contains her "utility function", or metaphysical questions like that).

I'm not sure I agree with your (implied? or am I misreading you?) claim that destructive decisions don't correlate with political profit. The Director would never ban all antibiotics, demand everyone drink colloidal silver, or do a bunch of stupid things along those lines; my explanation of why not is something like "those are bad and politically-unprofitable, so they satisfy neither term in her utility function". Likewise, she has done some good things, like grant emergency authorization for coronavirus vaccines - my explanation of why is that doing that was both good and obviously politically profitable. I agree there might be some cases where she does things with neither desideratum but I think they're probably rare compared to the above.

Do we still disagree on any of this? I'm not sure I still remember why this was an important point to discuss.

I am too lazy to have opinions on all nine of your points in the second part. I appreciate them, I'm sure you appreciate the arguments for skepticism, and I don't think there's a great way to figure out which way the evidence actually leans from our armchairs. I would point to Dominic Cummings as an example of someone who tried the thing, had many advantages, and failed anyway, but maybe a less openly confrontational approach could have carried the day.

What is it good for? But actually?

Bronze Age war (as per James Scott) was primarily war for captives, because the Bronze Age model was kings ruling agricultural dystopias amidst virgin land where people could easily escape and become hunter-gatherers. The laborers would gradually escape, the country would gradually become less populated, and the king would declare war on a neighboring region to steal their people to use as serfs or slaves.

Iron Age to Industrial Age war (as per Peter Turchin) was primarily war for land, because of Malthus. Until the Industrial Revolution, you needed a certain amount of land to support a unit of population. Population was constantly increasing, land wasn't, and so every so often population would outstrip land, everyone would be starving and unhappy, and something would restore the situation to equilibrium. Absent any other action, that would be some sort of awful civil war or protracted anarchy where people competed for limited resources - aided by wages being very low (so they could hire soldiers easily) and people being very angry (so becoming a pretender and raising an army against the current king was a popular move). Kings' best way to forestall this disaster was to preemptively declare war against a foreign enemy. If they won, they could steal the enemy's land, which resolved the land/population imbalance and fed the excess population. If they lost, then (to be cynical about it), they still eliminated their excess population and successfully resolved the imbalance.

The rationalist community's location problem

The Bay Area is a terrible place to live in many ways. I think if we were selecting for the happiness of existing rationalists, there's no doubt we should be somewhere else.

But if the rationalist project is supposed to be about spreading our ideas and achieving things, it has some obvious advantages. If MIRI is trying to lure some top programmer, it's easier for them to suggest they move to the Bay (and offer them enough money to overcome the house price hurdle) than to suggest they move to Montevideo or Blackpool or even Phoenix. If CEA is trying to get people interested in effective altruism, getting to socialize with Berkeley and Stanford professors is a pretty big plus. And if we're trying to get the marginal person who isn't quite a community member yet but occasionally reads Less Wrong to integrate more, that person is more likely to be in the Bay than anywhere else we could move. I think this is still true despite the coronavirus and fires. Maybe it's becoming less so, but it's hard to imagine any alternative hub that's anywhere near as good by these metrics. *Maybe* Austin.

Separating rationalists interested in quality-of-life from rationalists working for organizations and doing important world-changing work seems potentially net negative.

I think if we were going to move the Berkeley hub, it would have to be to another US hub - most people aren't going to transfer countries, so even if the community as a whole moved, we would need another US hub for Americans who refused to or coudln't emigrate.

I don't think Moraga (or other similar places near the Bay) are worth trying. They're just as expensive as Berkeley, but almost all single-family homes, so it would be harder for poorer people to rent places there. Although there's a BART station, there's not much other transit, and most homes aren't walkable from the BART station, so poorer people without cars would be in trouble. And it really isn't much less expensive than Berkeley, and it's got the same level of fire danger, so we would be splitting the community in two (abandoning the poor people, the people tied to MIRI HQ, etc) while not gaining much more than a scenery upgrade. I think they're a fair alternative option for people who can't stand the squalor and crime of the Bay proper, but mostly in the context of those people moving there and commuting to Berkeley for community events.

If we made a larger-scale move, I think it would be to avoid the high housing costs, fires, blackouts, taxes, and social decay of the Bay. That rules out anywhere else in California - still the same costs, fires, blackouts, and taxes, although some places are marginally less decayed. It also rules out Cascadian cities like Portland and Seattle - only marginally better housing costs, worse fires, and worse social decay (eg violence in Portland). 

If we wanted to stick close enough to California that it was easy to see families/friends/colleagues, there are lots of great cities in or near the Mountain West - Phoenix, Salt Lake, Colorado Springs, Austin. All of those have housing prices well below half that of the Bay (Phoenix's cost-of-housing index is literally 20% of Berkeley's!). Austin is a trendy exciting tech hub, Colorado Springs frequently tops most-liveable lists, Salt Lake City seems unusually well-governed and resilient to potential climate or political crisis, and Phoenix is gratifyingly cheap.

The most successful adjacent past attempt at deliberate-hub-creation like this I know of was the Free State Project, where 20,000 libertarians agreed to create a libertarian hub. They did some analyses, voted on where the hub should be, created an assurance contract where every signatory agreed to move once there were 20,000 signatories, got 20,000 signatories, and moved. They ended up choosing New Hampshire, which means we might want to consider it as well. It's got great housing prices (Manchester is as cheap as Phoenix!), a great economy, beautiful scenery, a vibrant intellectual scene, it's less than an hour's drive to Boston, it's very politically influential (small, swing state, presidential primaries), and (now) has 20,000 libertarians who are interested in moving places and building hubs.

If people are interested in this, I think the first step would be to consult MIRI, CFAR, CEA, etc, and if they say no, decide whether splitting off "the community" from all of them is worth it. If they say yes, or people decide it's worth it to split, then make an organization and take a vote on location. Once you have a location in mind, start an assurance contract where once X people sign, everyone moves to the location (I'm not sure what X would be - maybe 50?)

I think this is a really interesting project, but probably am too tied to my group house to participate myself :(

Ideology/narrative stabilizes path-dependent equilibria

I think you might find helpful here. It explains legitimacy as a Schelling point. If everyone thinks you're legitimate, you're legitimate. And if everything expects everyone else is going to think you're legitimate, you're legitimate.

America has such a strong tradition of democracy that the Constitution makes an almost invincible Schelling point - everyone expects everyone else to follow it because everyone expects everyone else to follow it because...and so on. A country with less of a democratic tradition has less certainty around these points, and so some guy who seizes the treasury might become the best Schelling point anyone has.

English Bread Regulations

Banning fresh bread doesn't decrease human caloric needs. Wouldn't making fresh bread less desirable just mean people replace it with other foods, spending the same amount of money overall (or more, since bread is probably cheaper than its replacement) and removing any benefit from bread price controls? Or was the English government working off a model where people were overconsuming food because of how tasty fresh bread was?

The EMH Aten't Dead

Re: "revisionist history":

You criticize my description in "A Failure, But Not Of Prediction", which was:

The stock market is a giant coordinated attempt to predict the economy, and it reached an all-time high on February 12, suggesting that analysts expected the economy to do great over the following few months. On February 20th it fell in a way that suggested a mild inconvenience to the economy, but it didn’t really start plummeting until mid-March – the same time the media finally got a clue.

As my post said, the market started declining a little in February. Using the S&P link you provide, on March 2/28, it reached 2954, just 12% lower than its all-time high, then quickly recovered to only 8% lower a few days later. For comparison, the market fell 7% in May 2019 because Donald Trump made a bad tweet, and then everyone laughed it off and forgot about it within a few weeks. I think my claim that "it fell in a way that suggested a mild inconvenience to the economy" is a fair description of this.

It had its next major fall on March 9, reaching a new low (34% off its all-time high) March 23. I think it is fair to say it started plummeting in mid-March, though I would not blame you if you consider March 9 more "early" than "mid". For comparison, Jacob wrote his post warning that the coronavirus would be a big deal in late February, and I wrote one saying the same on March 2.

Some of this depends on the "correct" amount of market crash. I was writing my post in early April, when the market was near its floor. If that was the "correct" amount of market crash, then the early February crash underpredicted it, and the market didn't "get it right" until mid-March. As you write this post now, the market has recovered, and if it's at the "correct" price now, then the early February crash was basically correctly calibrated and the mid-March crash was an overreaction.

To be clear, I think time has proven you correct about the EMH (and this is easy for you to say, now that the market has stabilized). I'm not debating any of the points in your post, just your accusation that I am a "revisionist historian".

SlateStarCodex 2020 Predictions: Buy, Sell, Hold

Thanks, I look forward to seeing how this goes. I'm impressed with you being willing to bet against me on things you know nothing about like my restaurant preferences (not sarcastic, seriously impressed), and I will be *very* impressed if you end up broadly more accurate than I am in that category. In many cases I agree with your criticism once you explain your reasoning.

There was a pretty credible rumor that Kim Jong-un was dead last week when I wrote this, which is why I gave him such a low probability. Today the news is he was seen in public alive (though in theory this could be a sham), so you are probably right, but it made sense when I wrote it.

Evaluating Predictions in Hindsight

Thanks (as always) for your thoughts.

I agree most of your methods for evaluating predictions are good. But I think I mostly have a different use case, in two ways. First, for a lot of things I'm not working off an explicit model, where I can compare predictions made to the model to reality in many different circumstances. When I give Joe Biden X% of the nomination, this isn't coming from a general process that I can check against past elections and other candidates, it's just something like "Joe Biden feels X% likely to win". I think this is probably part of what you mean by hard mode vs. easy mode.

Second, I think most people who try to make predictions aren't trying to do something that looks like "beat the market". Accepting the market price is probably good enough for most purposes for everyone except investors, gamblers, and domain experts. For me the most valuable type of prediction is when I'm trying to operate in a field without a market, either because our society is bad at getting the right markets up (eg predicting whether coronavirus will be a global pandemic, where stock prices are relevant but there's no real prediction market in it) or because it's a more personal matter (eg me trying to decide whether I would be happier if I quit my job). Calibration is one of the few methods that works here, although I agree with your criticisms of it.

I'm not sure we disagree on Silver's Trump production and superforecasters' Brexit prediction. I agree they did as well as possible with the information that they had and do not deserve criticism. We seem to have a semantic disagreement on whether a prediction that does this (but ascribes less than 50% to the winning side on a binary question) should be called "intelligently-made but wrong" or "right". I'm not really committed to my side of this question except insofar as I want to convey information clearly.

I'm not sure it's possible to do the thing that you're doing here, which is to grade my predictions (with hindsight of what really happened) while trying not to let your hindsight contaminate your grades. With my own hindsight, I agree with most of your criticisms, but I don't know whether that's because you have shown me the error of my ways, or because Scott-with-hindsight and Zvi-with-hindsight are naturally closer together than either of us is to Scott-without-hindsight (and, presumably, Zvi-without-hindsight).

A few cases where I do have thoughts - one reason I priced Biden so low was that in December 2018 when I wrote those it was unclear whether he was even going to run (I can't find a prediction market for that month, but prediction markets a few months later were only in the low 70s or so). Now it seems obvious that he would run, but at the time you could have made good money on InTrade by predicting that. My Biden estimate was higher than the prediction market's Biden estimate at that time (and in fact I made lots of money betting on Biden in the prediction markets in January 2019 ), so I don't think I was clearly and egregiously too low.

Same with Trump being the GOP nominee. I agree now it seems like it was always a sure thing. But in late 2018, he'd been president for just under two years, it was still this unprecedented situation of a complete novice who offended everyone taking the presidency, we were in the middle of a government shutdown that Trump was bungling so badly that even the Republicans were starting to grumble, and the idea of GOP falling out of love with Trump just felt much more plausible than it does now. It's possible this was still silly even in late 2018, but I don't know how to surgically remove my hindsight.

I will defend my very high confidence on Trump approval below 50, based on it never having gotten above 46 in his presidency so far. While I agree a 9-11 scale event could change that, that sort of thing probably only happens once every ten years or so. Trump got a boost from a rally-round-the-flag effect around COVID, and it was clearly bigger than any other boost he's gotten in his administration, but it only took him up to 45.8% or so, so even very large black swans aren't enough. The largest boost Obama got in his administration, after killing Osama, was only 5 points above baseline, still not enough for Trump to hit 50. And it wouldn't just require an event like this to happen, but to happen at exactly the right time to peak on 1/1/2020.

May staying in power feels wrong now, but she had beaten Labour recently enough that she didn't have to quit if she didn't want to, she had survived a no-confidence motion recently enough that it would have been illegal to no-confidence her again until December (and it probably wouldn't happen exactly in December), and she had failed badly many times before without resigning. So I figured she wasn't interested in resigning just because Brexit was hard, and nobody else could kick her out against her will, so she would probably stay in power. I guess she got tired of failing so many times. You were right and I was wrong, but I don't think you could have (or should have be able to) convinced me of that last year.

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