Hmm, I was going to mention mission hedging as the flipside of this, but then noticed the first reference I found was written by you :P
For other interested readers, mission hedging is where you do the opposite of this and invest in the thing you’re trying to prevent—invest in tobacco companies as an anti-smoking campaigner, invest in coal industry as a climate change campaigner, etc. The idea being that if those industries start doing really well for whatever reason, your investment will rise, giving you extra money to fund your countermeasures.
I’m sure if I thought about it for a bit I could figure out when these two mutually contradictory strategies look better or worse than each other. But mostly I don’t take either of them very seriously most of the time anyway :)
I don’t buy your counterargument exactly. The market is broadly efficient with respect to public information. If you have private information (e.g. that you plan to mount a lobbying campaign in the near future; or private information about your own effectiveness at lobbying) then you have a material advantage, so I think it’s possible to make money this way. (Trading based on private information is sometimes illegal, but sometimes not, depending on what the information is and why you have it, and which jurisdiction you’re in. Trading based on a belief that a particular industry is stronger / weaker than the market perceives it to be is surely fine; that’s basically what active investors do, right?)
(Some people believe the market is efficient even with respect to private information. I don’t understand those people.)
However, I have my own counterargument, which is that the “conflict of interest” claim seems just kind of confused in the first place. If you hear someone criticizing a company, and you know that they have shorted the company, should that make you believe the criticism more or less? Taking the short position as some kind of fixed background information, it clearly skews incentives. But the short position isn’t just a fixed fact of life: it is itself evidence about the critic’s true beliefs. The critic chose to short and criticize this company and not another one. I claim the short position is a sign that they do truly believe the company is bad. (Or at least that it can be made to look bad, but it’s easiest to make a company look bad if it actually is.) In the case where the critic does not have a short position, it’s almost tempting to ask why not, and wonder whether it’s evidence they secretly don’t believe what they’re saying.
All that said, I agree that none of this matters from a PR point of view. The public perception (as I perceive it) is that to short a company is to vandalize it, basically, and probably approximately all short-selling is suspicious / unethical.
Here are a couple of interpretations of value alignment:
A pretty tame interpretation of “value-aligned” is “also wants to do good using reason and evidence”. In this sense, distinguishing between value-aligned and non-aligned hires is basically distinguishing between people who are motivated by the cause and people who are motivated by the salary or the prestige or similar. It seems relatively uncontroversial that you’d want to care about this kind of alignment, and I don’t think it reduces our capacity for dissent: indeed people are only really motivated to tell you what’s wrong with your plan to do good if they care about doing good in the first place. I think your claim is not that “all value-alignment is bad” but rather “when EAs talk about value-alignment, they’re talking about something much more specific and constraining than this tame interpretation”. I’d be interested in whether you agree.
Another (potentially very specific and constraining) interpretation of “value alignment” that I understand people to be talking about when they’re hiring for EA roles is “I can give this person a lot of autonomy and they’ll still produce results that I think are good”. This recommends people who essentially have the same goals and methods as you right down to the way they affect decisions about how to do your job. Hiring people like that means that you tax your management capacity comparatively less and don’t need to worry so much about incentive design. To the extent that this is a big focus in EA hiring it could be because we have a deficit of management capacity and/or it’s difficult to effectively manage EA work. It certainly seems like EA research is often comparatively exploratory / preliminary and therefore underspecified, and so it’s very difficult to delegate work on it except to people who are already in a similar place to you on the matter.
Though betting money is a useful way to make epistemics concrete, sometimes it introduces considerations that tease apart the bet from the outcome and probabilities you actually wanted to discuss. Here’s some circumstances when it can be a lot more difficult to get the outcomes you want from a bet:
When the value of money changes depending on the different outcomes,
When the likelihood of people being able or willing to pay out on bets changes under the different outcomes.
As an example, I saw someone claim that the US was facing civil war. Someone else thought this was extremely unlikely, and offered to bet on it. You can’t make bets on this! The value of the payout varies wildly depending on the exact scenario (are dollars lifesaving or worthless?), and more to the point the last thing on anyone’s minds will be internet bets with strangers.
In general, you can’t make bets about major catastrophes (leaving aside the question of whether you’d want to), and even with non-catastrophic geopolitical events, the bet you’re making may not be the one you intended to make, if the value of money depends on the result.
A related idea is that you can’t sell (or buy) insurance against scenarios in which insurance contracts don’t pay out, including most civilizational catastrophes, which can make it harder to use traditional market methods to capture the potential gains from (say) averting nuclear war. (Not impossible, but harder!)
I don’t think this is a big concern. When people say “timing the market” they mean acting before the market does. But donating countercyclically means acting after the market does, which is obviously much easier :)
While I think it’s important to understand what Scott means when Scott says eugenics, I think:
a. I’m not certain clarifying that you mean “liberal eugenics” will actually pacify the critics, depending on why they think eugenics is wrong,
b. if there’s really two kinds of thing called “eugenics”, and one of them has a long history of being practiced by horrible, racist people coercively to further their horrible, racist views, and the other one is just fine, I think Scott is reckless in using the word here. I’ve never heard of “liberal eugenics” before reading this post. I don’t think it’s unreasonable of me to hear “eugenics” and think “oh, you mean that racist, coercive thing”.
I don’t think Scott is racist or a white supremacist but based on stuff like this I don’t get very surprised when I find people who do.
I’m very motivated to make accurate decisions about when it will be safe for me to see the people I love again. I’m in Hong Kong and they’re in the UK, though I’m sure readers will prefer generalizable stuff. Do you have any recommendations about how I can accurately make this judgement, and who or what I should follow to keep it up to date?
Do you think people who are bad at forecasting or related skills (e.g. calibration) should try to become mediocre at it? (Do you think people who are mediocre should try to become decent but not great? etc.)
As someone with some fuzzy reasons to believe in their own judgement, but little explicit evidence of whether I would be good at forecasting or not, what advice do you have for figuring out if I would be good at it, and how much do you think it’s worth focusing on?
No one is going to run a prison for free—there has to be some exchange of money (even in public prisons, you must pay the employees). Whether that exchange is moral or not, depends on whether it is facilitated by a system that has good consequences.
In the predominant popular consciousness, this is not sufficient for the exchange to be moral. Buying a slave and treating them well is not moral, even if they end up with a happier life than they otherwise would have had. Personally, I’m consequentialist, so in some sense I agree with you, but even then, “consequences” includes all consequences, including those on societal norms, perceptions, and attitudes, so in practice framing effects and philosophical objections do still have relevance.
Of course there has to be an exchange of money, but it’s still very relevant what, conceptually or practically, that money buys. We have concepts like “criminal law” and “human rights” because we see benefits to not permitting everything to be bought or sold or contracted, so it’s worth considering whether something like this crosses one of those lines.
Under this system, I think prisons will treat their inmates far better than they currently do: allowing inmates to get raped probably doesn’t help maximize societal contribution.
I agree that seems likely, but in my mind it’s not the main reason to prevent it, and treating it as an afterthought or a happy coincidence is a serious omission. If your prison system’s foundational goal doesn’t recognize what (IMO) may be the most serious negative consequence of prison as it exists today, then your goal is inadequate. Indirect effects can’t patch that.
As a concrete example, there are people that you might predict are likely to die in prison (e.g. they have a terminal illness with a prognosis shorter than their remaining sentence). Their expected future tax revenue is roughly zero. Preventing their torture is still important, but your system won’t view it as such.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m more convinced that this is exactly the kind of thing people are concerned about when they are concerned about commodification and dehumanization. Your system attempts to quantify the good consequences of rehabilitation, but entirely omits the benefits for the person being rehabilitated. You measure them only by what they can do for others – how they can be used. That seems textbook dehumanization to me, and the concrete consequence is that when they can’t be used they are worthless, and need not be protected or cared for.
As my other comment promised, here’s a couple of criticisms of your model on its own terms:
“If the best two prisons are equally capable, the profit is zero. I.e. criterion 3 is satisfied.” I don’t see why we should assume the best two prisons are equally capable? Relatedly, if the profit really is zero, I don’t see why any prison would want to participate. But perhaps this is what your remark about zero economic profit is meant to address. I didn’t understand that; perhaps you can elaborate.
Predicting the total present value of someone’s future tax revenue minus welfare costs just seems extremely difficult in general. It will have major components that are just general macroeconomic trends or tax policy projections. While you are in part rewarding people who manage to produce better outcomes, you are also rewarding people who are simply best able to spot already-existing good (or bad) outcomes, especially if you allow these things to be traded on a secondary market.
You say things like “whenever the family uses a government service, the government passes the cost on to the company” as if the costs of doing so are always transparent or easy (or wise) to track. I guess an easy example would be the family driving down a public road, which is in some sense “using a public service” but in a way that isn’t usually priced, and arguably it would be very wasteful to do so. Other examples are things like using public education, where it’s understood that the cost is worth it because there’s a benefit, but the benefit isn’t necessarily easy to capture for the company who had to pay for the education. Amount of tax paid on salary doesn’t reliably reflect amount of public benefit of someone doing their job, for a variety of reasons: arguably this is some kind of economic / market failure, but it is also undeniably the reality we live in. In essence, this is saying that many things are funded by taxation and not privately precisely because it’s difficult or otherwise undesirable to do this kind of valuation for them.
Once you’ve extended your suggestion to prisoners and immigrants, I think it’s worth asking why you can’t securitize anyone’s future “societal contributions”. One obvious drawback is that once this happens on a large enough scale, it starts distorting the incentives of the government, which is after all elected by people who are happy when taxes go down, but no longer raises (as much) additional revenue for itself when taxes go up.
In part, I think the above remark goes to the core of the philosophical legitimacy of taxation: it’s worth considering how the slogan “no taxation without representation” applies to people whose taxes go to a corporation that they have no explicit control over.
My instinctive emotional reaction to this post is that it worries me, because it feels a bit like “purchasing a person”, or purchasing their membership in civil society. I think that a common reaction to this kind of idea would be that it contributes to, or at least continues, the commodification and dehumanization of prison inmates, the reduction of people to their financial worth / bottom line (indeed, parts of your analysis explicitly ignore non-monetary aspects of people’s interactions with society and the state; as far as I can tell, all of it ignores the benefits to the inmate of different treatment by different prisons).
This is in a context where the prison system is already seen by some as effectively legal slavery by the back door, where people believe that (for example) black people have been deliberately criminalized by the war on drugs as part of an explicit effort to exploit and suppress them, and where popular rhetoric around criminals has always been eager to treat them as less than human.
This perspective explicitly doesn’t address the specific content of your proposal, but I think there’s a few reasons why it’s important to pay attention to it:
It can help you to communicate better with people about your proposal, understand why they might be hostile to it, and what you can do to distance yourself from implicit associations that you don’t want.
It raises the idea that perhaps viewing the problem with prisons as one of incentive design is missing the point entirely – the problem is not a misalignment of interests of the government and private prisons, but that the interests of the government are wrong in the first place. If true, that diagnosis prompts an entirely different kind of solution.
Similarly, you don’t address the reason why the seemingly-terrible existing incentive structure exists already, and the role played in its construction and maintenance by lobbying from prison groups and corruption in politicians. Keeping that in mind, you need to think not only how your proposal would function now, but how it would be mutated by continued lobbying and corruption, if they were left unaddressed.
I’m posting this as a “frame challenge”, but I think I also have some critiques of your model on its own terms, which I’ll post as a separate comment.
As an offtopic aside, I’m never sure how to vote on comments like this. I’m glad the comment was made and want to encourage people to make comments like this in future. But, having served its purpose, it’s not useful for future readers, so I don’t want to sort it to the top of the conversation.
The number of possible pairs of people in a room of n people is about n^2/2, not n factorial. 10^2 is many orders of magnitude smaller than 10! :)
(I think you are making the mistake of multiplying together the contacts from each individual, rather than adding them together)
I strongly agree with both this specific sentiment and the general attitude that generates sentiments like this.
However, I think it’s worth pointing out that you don’t have to agree with the Labour Party’s current positions, or think that it’s doing a good job, to be a good (honest) member. I think as long as you sincerely wish the party to perform well in elections or have more influence, even if you hope to achieve that by nudging its policy platform or general strategy in a different direction from the current one, then I wouldn’t think you were being entryist or dishonest by joining.
(I feel like this criterion is maybe a bit weak and there should be some ideological essence of the Labour Party that you should agree with before joining, but I’m not sure it would be productive to pin down exactly what it was and I expect it strongly overlaps with “I want the Labour Party to do well” anyway)
I actually thought the “of course I’d rather you’d stay a member” part was odd, since nowhere in the post up to that point had you said anything to indicate that you supported Labour yourself. The post doesn’t say anything about whether Labour itself is good or bad, or whether that should factor into your decision to join it at all, but in this comment it sounds like those are crucial questions for whether this step is right or not.
Yeah I think you have to view this exercise as optimizing for one end of the correctness-originality spectrum. Most of what is submitted is going to be uncomfortable admitting in public because it’s just plain wrong, so if this exercise is to have any value at all, it’s in sifting through all the nonsense, some of it pretty rotten, in the hope of finding one or two actually interesting things in there.
GiveWell used to solicit external feedback a fair bit years ago, but (as I understand it) stopped doing so because it found that it generally wasn’t useful. Their blog post External evaluation of our research goes some way to explaining why. I could imagine a lot of their points apply to CEA too.
I think you’re coming at this from a point of view of “more feedback is always better”, forgetting that making feedback useful can be laborious: figuring out which parts of a piece of feedback are accurate and actionable can be at least as hard as coming up with the feedback in the first place, and while soliciting comments can give you raw material, if your bottleneck is not on raw material but instead on which of multiple competing narratives to trust, you’re not necessarily gaining anything by hearing more copies of each.
Certainly you won’t gain anything for free, and you may not be able to afford the non-monetary cost.
The convention in a lot of public writing is to mirror the style of writing for profit, optimized for attention. In a co-operative environment, you instead want to optimize to convey your point quickly, to only the people who benefit from hearing it. We should identify ways in which these goals conflict; the most valuable pieces might look different from what we think of when we think of successful writing.
Consider who doesn’t benefit from your article, and if you can help them filter themselves out.
Consider how people might skim-read your article, and how to help them derive value from it.
Lead with the punchline – see if you can make the most important sentence in your article the first one.
Some information might be clearer in a non-discursive structure (like… bullet points, I guess).
Writing to persuade might still be best done discursively, but if you anticipate your audience already being sold on the value of your information, just present the information as you would if you were presenting it to a colleague on a project you’re both working on.