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Yvain comments on On the unpopularity of cryonics: life sucks, but at least then you die - Less Wrong

65 Post author: gwern 29 July 2011 09:06PM

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Comment author: Yvain 29 July 2011 12:30:20AM 61 points [-]

Upvoted for several reasons:

  • excellent theory about cryonics, much more plausible than things like "people hate cryonics because they're biased against cold" that have previously appeared on here.

  • willingness to acknowledge serious issue. Work is terrible, and the lives of many working people, even people with "decent" jobs in developed countries, are barely tolerable. It is currently socially unacceptable to mention this. Anyone who breaks that silence has done a good deed.

  • spark discussion on whether this will continue into the future. I was reading a prediction from fifty years ago or so that by 2000, people would only work a few hours a day or a few days a week, because most work would be computerized/roboticized and technology would create amazing wealth. Most work has been computerized/roboticized, technology has created amazing wealth, but working conditions are little better, and maybe worse, than they were fifty years ago. A Hansonian-style far future could lead to more of the same, and Hanson even defends this to a degree. In my mind, this is something futurologists should worry about.

  • summary of the article was much better than the article itself, which was cluttered with lots of quotes and pictures and lengthiness. Summaries that are better than the original articles are hard to do, hence, upvote.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 July 2011 02:25:58AM *  11 points [-]

Work is terrible, and the lives of many working people, even people with "decent" jobs in developed countries, are barely tolerable. It is currently socially unacceptable to mention this. Anyone who breaks that silence has done a good deed.

How confident are you that this reflects the experience of working people rather than how you would feel if you were in their position?

I've wondered about this a lot myself. Note along with figure 3 of the quoted article, according to a Gallup poll the average self reported life satisfaction in America is around 7/10. Presumably this average includes even including the sick/elderly/poor. I believe that my own self reported life satisfaction would be considerably lower than that if I were living the life of an average American.

I would guess that the difference is mostly accounted for by my own affective response to a given situation diverging heavily from the affective response that members of the general population would have in the same situation.

Comment author: shokwave 29 July 2011 05:06:58AM 12 points [-]

It's entirely possible for working life to be awful and people living those lives to genuinely self-report an average of 7/10 on a happiness scale. This is likely due to facts about how humans set their baseline happiness, how they respond to happiness surveys, and what social norms have been inculcated.

Like, when given a scale out of 10, people might anchor 5 as the average life, and for social signaling and status purposes, reasons for them being different-better are more available to their conscious mind than reasons for them being different-worse, so they add a few points.

There are also other problems with the average happiness level being above average - it suggests some constant is at work.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 July 2011 05:45:39AM *  2 points [-]

I just realized that a link to an article by Angus Deaton about a Gallup poll that I meant to include in the comment above didn't compile. I've since added it.

It's entirely possible for working life to be awful and people living those lives to genuinely self-report an average of 7/10 on a happiness scale.

I agree. But I don't see the considerations that you bring up as decisive. Several points:

•According to Angus Deaton's article

I focus on the life satisfaction question about life at the present time, measured on an eleven-point scale from 0 (“the worst possible life”) to 10 (“the best possible life”)

If I were to give a response of 7/10 to this question it would indicate that my life is more good than it is bad. You're right that my interpretation may not be the one used by the typical subject. But I disagree with:

There are also other problems with the average happiness level being above average - it suggests some constant is at work.

it could be that everyone finds their lives to be more good than bad or that everyone finds their lives more bad than good.

• You raise the hypothetical:

for social signaling and status purposes, reasons for them being different-better are more available to their conscious mind than reasons for them being different-worse, so they add a few points

but one could similarly raise ad hoc hypotheticals that point in the opposite direction. For example, maybe people function best when they're feeling good and so they're wired to feel good most of the time but grass-is-greener syndrome leads them to subtract a few points.

• Note that suicide rates are low all over the world. A low suicide rate is some sort of indication that members of a given population find their lives to be worth living.

• Note that according to Deaton's article, life satisfaction scores by country vary from ~ 4 to ~ 7 in rough proportion to median income in a given country. This provides some indication that (a) life satisfaction scores pick up on a factor that transcends culture and that (b) Americans are distinctly more satisfied with their lives than sub-Saharan Africans are. But in line with my above point, sub-Saharan Africans seldom commit suicide. In juxtaposition with this, the data from Deaton's article suggests that the average American's life satisfaction is well above the point at which he or she would commit suicide.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 July 2011 01:01:40PM *  12 points [-]

Suicide rates could be low even when the average experience of the general population is worse than unconsciousness. People may apply scope insensitivity and discount large quantities of non-severe future suffering for themselves. Happiness reports can lead to different results than an hour-to-hour analysis would. Asking for each hour, "Would you rather experience an exact repeat of last hour, or else experience nothing for one hour, all other things exactly equal? How much would you value that diffence?" might lead to very different results if you integrate the quantities and qualities.

People with lives slightly not worth living may refrain from suicide because they fear death, feel obligated toward their friends and family, or are infected with memes about reward or punishment in an imaginary afterlife. A very significant reason is probably that bearably painless and reliable suicide methods are not universally within easy reach (are they in sub-Sahara Africa?). In fact, there is a de facto suicide prohibition in place in most contries, with more or less success. The majority of suicide attempts fail.

So continued existence can be either involuntary or irrational, and suicide rates can be low even when life generally feels more bad than good. If all sentient entities could become rational decision-makers whose conscious existence is universally voluntary, that would probably be the most significant improvement of life on earth since it evolved.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 July 2011 04:27:17PM 10 points [-]

So continued existence can be either involuntary or irrational, and suicide rates can be low even when life generally feels more bad than good. If all sentient entities could become rational decision-makers whose conscious existence is universally voluntary, that would probably be the most significant improvement of life on earth since it evolved.

I agree. See also this comment and subsequent discussion. I consider low suicide rates to be weak evidence that people find their lives worth living, not definitive evidence. There's other evidence, in particular if you ask random people if their lives are worth living they'll say yes much more often than not. Yes they may be signaling and/or deluded, but it seems hubristic to have high confidence in one's own assessment of their quality of lives over their stated assessment without strong evidence.

Comment author: shokwave 29 July 2011 06:09:31AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, re-reading my post it's very handwave-y. However, a point you made about more good than bad / more bad than good stuck out to me. I wonder if a survey question "On a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is every thing that happens to you is a bad thing, and 10 is every thing that happens to you is a good thing, what number would you give to your life?" would provide scores correlated with life satisfaction surveys. (Ideally we would simply track people and, every time a thing happened to them, ask them whether this thing was good or bad. Then we could collate the data and get a more accurate picture than self-reporting, but the gain doesn't outweigh the sheer impracticality so I'll be content with self-reported values).

I feel like if it correlated weakly, you would be right. And now that I think about the experiment, I'm fairly convinced it would come out correlated.

Comment author: Yvain 29 July 2011 08:48:02PM 18 points [-]

How confident are you that this reflects the experience of working people rather than how you would feel if you were in their position?

Somewhat confident. I work at a medical clinic. The number of people who come in with physical complaints relating to their job, psychological/stress complaints relating to their job, or complaints completely unrelated to their job but they talk to the doctor about how much they hate their job anyway because he's the only person who will listen - is pretty impressive.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 July 2011 08:58:43PM *  19 points [-]

But there's a clear selection bias here; maybe the 10% of people who are most unhappy with their jobs visit medical clinics 5x as much as anybody else.

In any case, thanks for the info.

Comment author: Morendil 30 July 2011 03:47:29PM 8 points [-]

Work is terrible, and the lives of many working people, even people with "decent" jobs in developed countries, are barely tolerable. It is currently socially unacceptable to mention this.

I've been wondering why no one has yet broached this issue on LW, that I recall.

Comment author: jhuffman 17 August 2011 02:36:36PM *  5 points [-]

Ugh field? People don't like to talk about this. I will say something like "my job is a soul-sucking vortex" and people think I'm only joking. I am joking, but like many jokes it is also true.

My job doesn't make me hate life; much of what I value in life is supported by my job which is why I keep it.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 03:16:36AM *  29 points [-]

I was reading a prediction from fifty years ago or so that by 2000, people would only work a few hours a day or a few days a week, because most work would be computerized/roboticized and technology would create amazing wealth. Most work has been computerized/roboticized, technology has created amazing wealth, but working conditions are little better, and maybe worse, than they were fifty years ago.

Technological advances can't shorten the work hours because even in a society wealthy and technologically advanced enough that basic subsistence is available for free, people still struggle for zero-sum things, most notably land and status. Once a society is wealthy enough that basic subsistence is a non-issue, people probably won't work as much as they would in a Malthusian trap where constant toil is required just to avoid starvation, but they will still work a lot because they're locked in these zero-sum competitions.

What additionally complicates things is that habitable land is close to a zero-sum resource for all practical purposes, since to be useful, it must be near other people. Thus, however wealthy a society gets, for a typical person it always requires a whole lot of work to be able to afford decent lodging, and even though starvation is no longer a realistic danger for those less prudent and industrious in developed countries, homelessness remains so.

There is also the problem of the locked signaling equilibrium. Your work habits have a very strong signaling component, and refusing to work the usual expected hours strongly signals laziness, weirdness, and issues with authority, making you seem completely useless, or worse.

As for working conditions, in terms of safety, cleanliness, physical hardship, etc., typical working conditions in developed countries are clearly much better than fifty years ago. What arguably makes work nowadays worse is the present distribution of status and the increasing severity of the class system, which is a very complex issue tied to all sorts of social change that have occurred in the meantime. But this topic is probably too ideologically sensitive on multiple counts to discuss productively on a forum like LW.

Comment author: CarlShulman 29 July 2011 07:01:51AM *  11 points [-]

What additionally complicates things is that habitable land is close to a zero-sum resource for all practical purposes, since to be useful, it must be near other people. Thus, however wealthy a society gets, for a typical person it always requires a whole lot of work to be able to afford decent lodging

Housing need not be as scarce as land, if regulatory permission for tall buildings and good transport networks exist. There is a lot of variation on this dimension already today. Automated mining, construction and cheap energy could make sizable individual apartments in tall buildings cheap, not to mention transport improvements like robocars.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 09:32:59PM *  8 points [-]

I agree that the situation can be improved that way, though it's arguable how much it runs against the problem that packing people tightly together has the effect of increasing discomfort and severely lowering status. But even with optimistic assumptions, I think it's still the case that housing can never become non-scarce the way food and clothing could (and to a large degree already have). There is in principle no limit to how cheaply mass-produced stuff can be cranked out, Moore's law-style, but this clearly can't work anywhere as effectively for housing, even with very optimistic assumptions.

Comment author: CarlShulman 30 July 2011 03:22:24AM 6 points [-]

I basically agree, and don't mean to nitpick, but there's also in the long run virtual environments/augmented reality.

Comment author: soreff 30 July 2011 03:40:36AM *  3 points [-]

Another possibility that would reduce the effective cost of housing would be small scale distributed manufacturing (I'm thinking Drexler/Merkle nanotech here). That would mean that most goods would not need to travel, they would be "printed" locally. There are exceptions for goods which require uncommon atoms, which would still need transport. (To be a bit more explicit: I'm trying to weaken the "near other people" restriction. As is, a lot of what we exchange with other people is information, and we ship that around globally today. Goods are another major category, which I commented on above. Physical contact is a third category, but a lot of that is limited to family members in the same household anyway.)

One factor which hasn't been directly discussed, is that housing, while partially designed to protect us from weather, is also partially to protect us from other people. The former function can be reduced in cost by better or cheaper materials. The latter is to some extent a zero-sum game. (There is a whole range of interacting social issues involved. Some of the protection is from thieves, some from obnoxious neighbors, some from intruding authorities - and these groups differ greatly in their ability to bring greater resources to bear, and also differ in their interest in doing so.)

Comment author: saturn 29 July 2011 04:46:58AM 8 points [-]

Do you know of a forum where this could be discussed productively?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 08:19:41AM 10 points [-]

No, not really. Opportunities for good and insightful discussion open up from time to time in all kinds of places, and sometimes particular forums can have especially good streaks, but all of this is transient. I don't know any places that are particularly good these days.

Comment author: steven0461 29 July 2011 09:59:50PM *  14 points [-]

Could this be solved by setting up a new forum and being sufficiently selective about whom to let in (e.g. only sufficiently high-quality and sufficiently non-ideological thinkers, as vetted by some local aristocracy based on comment history elsewhere), or is there some other limiting factor?

I would love there to be a place suitable for rational discussion of possibly outrageous political and otherwise ideologically charged ideas, even though I wouldn't want it to be LessWrong and I wouldn't want it to be directly associated with LessWrong.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 30 July 2011 02:50:37AM 10 points [-]

I'd love to have such a place too, and based on my off-line conversations with some people here, I think there are also others who would. So maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to set up a new forum or mailing list, perhaps even one without public visibility. I have no idea how well this would work in practice -- there are certainly many failure modes imaginable -- but it might be worth trying.

Comment author: steven0461 22 August 2011 10:19:26PM 4 points [-]

Here's one thing I'm worried about. What if discussion between those of widely varying ideological background assumptions is just intrinsically unproductive because they can never take basic concepts for granted? Even the best thinkers seem to mostly have strongly, stably different ideological outlooks. You could pre-select for ideology and possibly have multiple groups, but that has its own downsides.

Comment author: Lumifer 04 September 2013 05:58:46PM 1 point [-]

You could pre-select for ideology and possibly have multiple groups

That would mean a collection of echo chambers which are worse than useless.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 30 July 2011 02:43:00AM 9 points [-]

Strongly agree. Mailing lists are easy but damn have I become addicted to nested comments and upvoting/downvoting (automatic moderation!).

Comment author: wedrifid 30 July 2011 02:52:02AM 5 points [-]

Strongly agree. Mailing lists are easy but damn have I become addicted to nested comments and upvoting/downvoting (automatic moderation!).

I know what you mean. I follow along with the decision theory list but is almost painful being limited to email format!

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 30 July 2011 03:55:37AM 5 points [-]

(Yup. Can't downvote Stuart. Frustrating. And the impact of saying so aloud without anonymity is not quite what I want to enact.)

Comment author: steven0461 22 August 2011 10:20:14PM 2 points [-]

Do you or does anyone else know of free online services, analogous to mailing lists, that allow such nesting and upvoting/downvoting?

Comment author: Will_Newsome 23 August 2011 12:53:39AM *  3 points [-]

Presumably it'd be easy to clone LW's git code, change the logos, ask SingInst to host it, and put it behind a locked gate. https://github.com/tricycle/lesswrong . Louie would be the SingInst guy to ask I think. Besides that, no.

Comment author: kpreid 29 August 2011 10:20:10PM 2 points [-]

Reddit. If you create your own subreddit I know you get to moderate it, but I don't know how well it would work for a deliberately exclusive community.

Comment author: Strange7 19 August 2011 03:57:00AM 2 points [-]

Maybe make it hidden to the public (like Koala Wallop's Octagon) and invitation-only, with any given member limited to one invitation per hundred upvotes they've received?

Or... a nested thing, maybe. The onion has as many layers as the Grand High Administrator deigns to create, and said administrator can initiate anyone to any desired depth, or revoke such access, at will. A given user can issue one invite to their current layer per 100 net upvotes they have received on the layer in question; when someone receives 100 net downvotes on a given layer, they are banned from that layer until reinvited (at which point they start from scratch). Invites to a given layer can only be directed to users who have already been initiated to the layer immediately outside that one.

There might also be a branching structure; nobody knows for sure until they find parallel layers.

Comment author: FourFire 04 September 2013 05:24:16PM 0 points [-]

I am curious as to whether such a thing actually exists, do you or anyone else here end up producing an exclusive, private, invite only community in order to commune in high signal political discussion?

Comment author: Yvain 29 July 2011 09:04:06PM *  26 points [-]

I agree that even a post-scarcity society would need some form of employment to determine status and so on. But that seems irrelevant to the current problem: one where even people who are not interested in status need to work long hours in unpleasant conditions just to pay for food, housing, and medical costs, and where ease of access to these goods hasn't kept pace with technological advantages.

And although I don't think it quite related, I am less pessimistic than you abou the ability of a post-scarcity society to deal with land and status issues. Land is less zero-sum than the finitude of the earth would suggest because most people are looking not for literal tracts of land but for a house in which to live, preferably spacious - building upward, or downward as the case may be, can alleviate this pressure. I'm also not convinced that being near other people is as big a problem as you make it out to be: a wealthier society would have better transportation, and cities have enough space to expand outward (giving people access to other humans on at least one side) almost indefinitely. There will always be arbitrarily determined "best" neighborhoods that people can compete to get into, but again, this is a totally different beast from people having to struggle to have any home at all.

I think a genuinely post-work society would have its own ways of producing status based on hobbyist communities, social interaction, and excellence at arts/scholarship/sports/hobbies; the old European nobility was able to handle its internal status disputes in this way, though I don't know how much fo that depended on them knowing in the back of their mind they were all superior to the peasantry anyway.

Agreed that the class system is an important and relevant issue here.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 29 July 2011 10:16:29PM 9 points [-]

I like this framing (I almost never thought on this topic): money as status as measure of socially enforced right to win competitions for resources, but with a baseline of fairness, where you can still get stuff, but less than high-status individuals (organisations). Right-based bargaining power rather than a measure of usefulness.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 30 July 2011 02:40:33AM 1 point [-]

Wah. Neat conceptualization, and much easier for me to wrap my head around than my previous non-models. Thanks!

Comment author: Armok_GoB 29 July 2011 10:21:12PM 5 points [-]

current problem: one where even people who are not interested in status need to work long hours in unpleasant conditions just to pay for food, housing, and medical costs, and where ease of access to these goods hasn't kept pace with technological advantages.

This seems like a good place to point out the US centrism issue, as mentioned http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/6qr/lw_systemic_bias_us_centrism/ . Many countries do have safety nets that while not enough for actual comfort at the current tech level still makes plain survival a non-issue, and to some degree higher things through institutions like public libraries where you'll often be able to access the internet.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 10:09:35PM *  12 points [-]

I agree that even a post-scarcity society would need some form of employment to determine status and so on. But that seems irrelevant to the current problem: one where even people who are not interested in status need to work long hours in unpleasant conditions just to pay for food, housing, and medical costs, and where ease of access to these goods hasn't kept pace with technological advantages.

But that's not the case in the modern developed world. If you are really indifferent to status, you can easily get enough food, housing, and medical care to survive by sheer freeloading. This is true even in the U.S., let alone in more extensive welfare states.

Of course, completely forsaking status would mean all sorts of unpleasantness for a typical person, but this is only because we hate to admit how much our lives revolve around zero-sum status competitions after all.

I think a genuinely post-work society would have its own ways of producing status based on hobbyist communities, social interaction, and excellence at arts/scholarship/sports/hobbies; the old European nobility was able to handle its internal status disputes in this way, though I don't know how much fo that depended on them knowing in the back of their mind they were all superior to the peasantry anyway.

Don't forget about the status obtained from having power over others. That's one part of the human nature that's always dangerous to ignore. (The old European nobility was certainly not indifferent to it, and not just towards the peasants.)

Also, there would always be losers in these post-work status games who could improve their status by engaging in some sort of paid work and saving up to trade for the coveted status markers. These tendencies would have to be forcibly suppressed to prevent a market economy with paid labor from reemerging. It's roughly analogous to the present sexual customs and prostitution. Men are supposed to find sexual partners by excelling in various informal, non-monetary status-bearing personal attributes, but things being zero-sum, many losers in this game find it an attractive option to earn money and pay for sex instead, whether through out-and-out prostitution or various less explicit arrangements.

Comment author: Yvain 31 July 2011 08:44:27AM 17 points [-]

But that's not the case in the modern developed world. If you are really indifferent to status, you can easily get enough food, housing, and medical care to survive by sheer freeloading. This is true even in the U.S., let alone in more extensive welfare states.

I'm not sure this is true; I know little about welfare politics, but I was under the impression there was a major shift over the last ten years toward limiting the amount of welfare benefits available to people who are "abusing the system" by not looking for work.

One could probably remain alive for long periods just by begging and being homeless, but this raises the question of what, exactly, is a "life worth living", such that we could rest content that people were working because they enjoy status competitions and not because they can't get a life worth living without doing so.

This is probably way too subjective to have an answer, but one thing that "sounds right" to me is that the state of nature provides a baseline. Back during hunter-gatherer times we had food, companionship, freedom, et cetera without working too hard for them (the average hunter-gatherer only hunted-gathered a few hours a day). Civilization made that kind of lifestyle impossible by killing all the megafauna and paving over their old habitat, but my totally subjective meaningless too-late-at-night-to-think-straight opinion is that we can't say that people can opt-out of society and still have a "life worth living" unless they have it about as good as the hunter-gatherers they would be if society hadn't come around and taken away that option.

The average unemployed person in a developed country has a lot of things better than hunter-gatherers, but just the psychological factors are so much worse that it's no contest.

Comment author: [deleted] 06 August 2011 03:27:18PM 11 points [-]

Speaking from a lifetime of experience on welfare in the US (I'm disabled, and have gotten work from time to time but usually lost it due to factors stemming either from said disability, or the general life instability that poverty brings with it), your impressions are largely correct.

I'm not sure this is true; I know little about welfare politics, but I was under the impression there was a major shift over the last ten years toward limiting the amount of welfare benefits available to people who are "abusing the system" by not looking for work.

What I'd say is that the shift (and it's been more like the last forty years, albeit the pace has picked up since Reagan) is towards "preventing abuse" as a generic goal of the system; the result has been that the ability to deliver the services that ostensibly form the terminal goal of welfare-granting organizations is significantly diminished -- there's a presumption of suspicion the moment you walk in the door. Right now, SSI applicants are auto-denied and have to appeal if they want to be considered at all, even if all their administrative ducks are otherwise in a row; this used to be common practice, but now it's standard.

This also means that limits are fairly low. I can't receive more than 40 dollars a month in food stamps right now because my apartment manager won't fill out a form on my behalf stating the share of rent and other services I pay in my unit. He has an out; he's not involved in the household finances. But without that in writing, from that person, the office presumes that since I have roommates declared, my share of the household expenses is zero, ergo I'm entitled to the minimum allowable (they can't just deny me since I'm on SSDI).

And having been homeless for a little while (thankfully a friend helped me get the down payment on a place I could just barely afford), yeah...Vladimir_M's comments are based more on rhetoric than substance. One thing I observe is that many people who are long-term impoverished or homeless (self included) will project a bit of being inured to status as a way of just securing ourselves some dignity in our interactions with others -- but nobody in that situation could miss how deeply that status differential cuts whenever it's used against us, even implicitly in the way people just ignore or dismiss them,

As luck would have it, I have some limited experience with living for periods of about a month at a time in a household where we gathered about 80 percent of the food we ate (no exaggeration). Rich in what the land around of offered, rich in the basic assets needed to make use of it, rich in ability to keep ourselves entertained and occupied during our copious free time.

I could easily see the typical hunter-gatherer experience being very, very good. Certainly, I'd rather be financially and material poor under the conditions I described above, than in my present circumstances.

Comment author: jhuffman 18 August 2011 04:27:09PM 0 points [-]

Then what limited the growth of forager peoples so substantially? There had to be a mechanism to prevent them from exceeding their region's carrying capacity. If a tribe of 50 people grew at a rate of 1% for 2000 years there would 24 billion people in it. Clearly that didn't happen; in fact there have been massive die-offs from starvation due to cyclical climate change, or to resource warfare (sometimes fought to extinction) between neighboring tribes.

Comment author: jhuffman 17 August 2011 04:38:43PM 0 points [-]

I could easily see the typical hunter-gatherer experience being very, very good. Certainly, I'd rather be financially and material poor under the conditions I described above, than in my present circumstances.

You cannot be considered financially and materially impoverished if you have access to abundant natural resources. Nevermind if you own that or can enforce the exclusive status of your rights to it - if you have those resources available to you they at least count as cash flow if not assets.

Limited access to limited resources is far more typical, and life is not so leisurelly when you spend every hour of daylight working to procure food that still isn't enough to provide for you and your family. That is also the state of nature and was a situation that a great many people have found themselves in for the brief time that they managed to survive it.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 August 2011 02:00:34AM 5 points [-]

Limited access to limited resources is far more typical, and life is not so leisurelly when you spend every hour of > daylight working to procure food that still isn't enough to provide for you and your family. That is also the state of > nature and was a situation that a great many people have found themselves in for the brief time that they managed to survive it.

That...actually doesn't represent the human condition for most of our ancestral history, nor the current state of surviving forager peoples for the most part.

Resources are limited, but you only need about 15 hours of work a week per hunter-gatherer individual devoted to food-producing activities. Overdo that and you may well tax your ecosystem past carrying capacity. This is why foragers wander a migratory circuit (although they tend to keep to a known, fixed route) or live in areas where there's sufficient ecological abundance to allowed for a sedentary lifestyle while still using hunter-gatherer strategies. It's also why they tended to have small populations. Scarcity was something that could happen, but that's why people developed food preservation technologies and techniques that you can assemble with nothing more than accumulated oral tradition and some common sense. Tie a haunch of meat down to some stones and toss it down to the bottom of a cold lake. That meat will keep for months, longer if the lake freezes over. It'll be gamy as hell, but you won't starve -- and this is a pretty typical solution in the toolkit of prehistoric humans from Northern regions. Drying, salting (sometimes using methods that would squick you -- one branch of my ancestors comes from a culture that used to preserve acorns by, kid you not, burying them in a corner of the home and urinating over the cache), chemical preservation, favoring foods that store long-term well in the first place, fermentation, and a flexible diet are all standard knowledge.

In the American Southwest (a hot, harsh, dry and ecologically-poor climate), Pueblo people and many others used to rely on the seasonal abundance of Mormon Crickets for protein. You can gather eighteen pounds of them an hour when they pass through, basically just by walking around and picking up bugs. The nutritional profile beats the hell out of any mammal meat, and they can be preserved like anything else. Think about that for a second -- one person, in one hour, can provide enough of these bugs to feed an entire village for a day, or their own household for weeks (and that's without preservation). It's not desperation; it's a sound food-gathering strategy, and a lot more palatable when you don't come from a culture used to think of insects as a culinary taboo.

Starving to death is more of an issue for low-tech pastoralists and agriculturalists -- people who use just a small fraction of the available edible resources to support populations that wouldn't be able to forage on the available resources. The relationship of effiort to output for them is linear; work your farm harder, get more food in proportion -- and you need to run a surplus every year in most cases because there is non-negotiable downtime during which it's going to be hard to switch to another food source (and even if you do, you'll be competing with your neighbors for it).

In my own case, I've taken part in of a family of five supplying themselves with only a few culturally-specific dietary staples (powdered milk, spices, flour, rice, things that we could easily have done without had they not been available) doing most of their food-production by just going out and getting it somewhere within a mile of home. Clams. squid and oysters were for storing (done with a freezer or by canning with water and salt) and cooking up into dishes we could eat for the rest of the month; small fish were gathered day-by-day, large fish stored (one salmon or sturgeon can feed five people for over a month when you have a freezer), crabs and similar gathered on a case-by-case basis. I personally wasn't fond of frog legs, but a nearby pond kept up with a whole lot of demand for frogs in my family and others. We never bothered with anything like deer or bird hunting, but we'd gather berries, tree fruits (apple, plum, pear) and mushrooms, grow garden veggies and basically just keep ourselves supplied.

I'm not saying everyone on Earth could switch back today -- heck no. A whole lot of people would starve to death after destroying the ecosystems they need. But my ancestors lived in that place for thousands of years and starving to death was not a common experience among them, because they weren't used to the population densities that only come with intensive agriculture. And there are people descended from foragers of even more remote and desolate climes -- some of them STILL living that way -- who can say the same thing.

Comment author: jhuffman 18 August 2011 04:27:53PM *  2 points [-]

Then what limited the growth of forager peoples so substantially? There had to be a mechanism to prevent them from exceeding their region's carrying capacity. If a tribe of 50 people grew at a rate of 1% a year for 2000 years there would 24 billion people in it. Clearly that didn't happen; in fact there have been massive die-offs from starvation due to cyclical climate change, or to resource warfare (sometimes fought to extinction) between neighboring tribes.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 August 2011 07:18:45PM *  7 points [-]

Then what limited the growth of forager peoples so substantially?

I am so glad you asked, because the answer to your question reveals a fundamental misapprehension you have about forager societies and indeed, the structure and values of ancestral human cultures.

The fact is that forager populations don't grow as fast as you think in the first place, and that across human cultures still living at or near forager methods of organization, there are many ways to directly and indirectly control population.

It starts with biology. Forager women reach menarche later, meaning they're not fertile until later in life. Why? Largely, it's that they tend to have much lower body fat percentages due to diet and the constant exercise of being on the move , and that's critical for sustaining a pregnancy, or even ovulating in the first place once you've reached the (much higher) age where you can do that. Spontaneous abortions or resorption of the fetus are rather common. Women in an industrial-farming culture attain menarche quite a bit earlier and are more likely to be fertile throughout their active years -- it only looks normal to you because it's what you're close to. So right out of the gate, forager women are less likely to get pregnant, and less likely to stay that way if they do.

Next biological filter: breastfeeding. Forager women don't wean their children onto bottles and then onto solid food the way you experienced growing up. Breastfeeding is the sole means for a much longer period, and it's undertaken constantly throughout the day -- sleeping with the baby, carrying them around during the daily routine. It goes on for years at a time even after the child is eating solid food. This causes the body to suppress ovulation -- meaning that long after you're technically able to get pregnant again, the body won't devote resources to it. All the hormonal and resource-delivery cues in your body point to an active child still very much in need of milk! Not only that, but it's routine in many such societies for women to trade off breastfeeding duty with one another's children -- the more kids there are, the more likely it is that every woman in the proximate social group will have moderately suppressed fertility. It's a weak effect, but it's enough to lengthen the birth interval considerably. In the US, a woman can have a baby just about every year -- for modern-day foragers, the birth interval is often two to five years wide. It's harder to get pregnant, and once you do, the kids come more slowly.

The next layer is direct means of abortion. In the US that tends to be pretty traumatic if it's not performed by a medical specialist. In some cases it still is for forager women -- the toolkit of abortives across all human cultures is very wide. Midwives and herbalists often have access to minimally-invasive methods, but they also often have painful or dangerous ones. What you won't find is many that are truly ineffective. Methods range from the unpleasant (direct insertion of some substance to cause vaginal bleeding and fetal rejection), to the taxing or dangerous (do hard work, lift heavy objects, jump from a high place) to fasting and ingestible drugs that can induce an abortion or just raise the likelihood of miscarriage.

The last layer is infanticide (and yes, we have this too, though it's a deprecated behavior). In all cultures that practice it it's considered a method of last resort, and it's usually done by people other than the mother, quickly and quietly. Forager cultures are used to having to do this from time to time, but it's still a rare event -- certainly not a matter of routine expedience.

The point I'm making is that population growth unto itself is not a goal or a value of forager societies like those every human being on earth is descended from (and which some still occupy today). Growth, as an ideological goal, is a non-starter for people living this way. Too many mouths to feed means you undercut the abundance of your lifestyle (and yes, it truly is abundance most of the time, not desperate Malthusian war of all against all) -- and forager lives tend to be pretty good on the whole, filled with communitas and leisure and recreation aplenty as long as everybody meets a modest commitment to generating food and the supporting activities of everyday life. I'm not making it out to be paradise; this is just really what it's like, day to day, to live in a small band of mostly close relatives and friends gathering food from what's available in the environment.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 August 2011 07:26:12PM 2 points [-]

As to resource warfare, it's a non-starter for most foragers. You walk away, or you strike an agreement about the use of lands. There are conflicts anyway, but they're infrequent -- the incentive isn't present to justify a bloody battle most of the time. And it doesn't come up as often as you think, either, because as I've stated, forager populations don't grow as quickly (they tend to stay around carrying capacity when different groups are summed over a given area) and indeed, devote active effort to keeping it that way, which supplements the tremendous passive biases in favor of slow growth.

Where it does come into prominence is with low-tech agriculturalists, pastoralists and horticulturalists. Those people have something to fight over (a stationary, vulnerable or scarce landbase, that rewards their effort with high population growth and gives incentive to expand or lock down an area for their exclusive use).

Comment author: Vladimir_M 31 July 2011 06:53:43PM *  15 points [-]

The specific situation in the U.S. or any other individual country doesn't really matter for my point. Even if I'm wrong about how easy freeloading is in the U.S., it's enough that we can point to some countries whose welfare systems are (or even just were at some point) generous enough to enable easy freeloading.

Ironically, in my opinion, in places where there exists a large underclass living off the welfare state, it is precisely their reversal to the forager lifestyle that the mainstream society sees as rampant social pathology and terrible deprivation of the benefits of civilized life. I think you're committing the common error of idealizing the foragers. You imagine them as if you and a bunch of other highly intelligent and civilized people had the opportunity to live well with minimal work. In reality, however, the living examples of the forager lifestyle correctly strike us as frightfully chaotic, violent, and intellectually dead.

(Of course, it's easy to idealize foragers from remote corners of the world or the distant prehistory. One is likely to develop a much more accurate picture about those who live close enough that one has to beware not to cross their path.)

Comment author: mikedarwin 02 August 2011 08:37:09AM 21 points [-]

You are not wrong about "freeloading," though that term is probably (unnecessarily pejorative). The Developed world is so obscenely wasteful that it is not necessary to beg. You can get all the food you want, much of it very nice - often much nicer than you could afford to buy by simply going out and picking it up. Of course, you don't get to pick and choose exactly what you want when you want it.

Clothing, with the exception of jeans, is all freely available. The same is true of appliances, bedding and consumer electronics of many kinds. The one commodity that is is very, very difficult to get at no cost is lodging. You can get books, MP3 players, CDs, printers, scanners, and often gourmet meals, but lodging is tough. The problem with housing and why it is qualitatively different that the other things I've cited is that while it is technically illegal to dustbin dive, in practice it is easy to do and extremely low risk. It is incredibly easy in the UK, if you get a dustbin key (easy to do).

However, the authorities take a very dim view of vagrancy, and they will usually ticket or arrest the person who has either "failure to account," or is clearly living in a vehicle or on the street. This is less true in the UK than the US. However, get caught on the street as a vagrant AND as a foreigner in the UK (or in the US, or in any Developed country) and you are in a world of hurt - typically you will be deported with prejudice and be unable to renter the country either "indefinitely," or for some fixed period of time.

If you can swing lodging, then the world is your oyster (for now). I travel with very little and within 2 weeks of settling on a spot in large city, I have cookware, flatware, clothing, a CD player, a large collection of classical CDs, and just about anything else I want to go looking for. There is an art to it, but the waste is so profligate that it is not hard to master, and absolutely no begging is required (except for lodging ;-))

Comment author: soreff 31 July 2011 03:26:04PM 0 points [-]

It turns out that homelessness, in and of itself, approximately quadruples one's mortality risk: study pointer:

Comment author: hairyfigment 29 July 2011 10:39:52PM 4 points [-]

If you are really indifferent to status, you can easily get enough food, housing, and medical care to survive by sheer freeloading. This is true even in the U.S.,

I don't know how you're using the word "easily", then. Do you classify all forms of social interaction as easy?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 10:50:27PM *  2 points [-]

Well, "easy" is clearly a subjective judgment, and admittedly, I have no relevant personal experience. However, it is evident that large numbers of people do manage to survive from charity and the welfare state without any employment, and many of them don't seem to invest any special efforts or talents in this endeavor.

In any case, my original arguments hold even if we consider only rich countries with strong welfare states, in which it really is easy, in every reasonable sense of the term, to survive by freeloading. These certainly hold as examples of societies where no work is necessary to obtain food, housing, medical care, and even some discretionary income, and yet status concerns still motivate the overwhelming majority of people to work hard.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 31 July 2011 08:07:40AM 1 point [-]

this seems very difficult if you aren't a member of a protected class. can a young white healthy male freeload easily?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 31 July 2011 03:36:23PM 4 points [-]

I don't know about race, but I did read a piece by a young man who viewed homelessness as a sort of urban camping. He didn't use drugs and he didn't beg-- he found enough odd jobs.

Comment author: jhuffman 17 August 2011 05:30:07PM *  5 points [-]

Ten years ago I read a "news of the wierd" story about a young homeless man in silicon valley. He earned something like $90K a year working as a junior programmer or some such occupation. He slept under a bridge, but had a bank account, mailbox, cell phone, laptop and gym subscription. He worked out and showered at the gym every morning before work. He socked away lots of money and spent a lot of his free time surfing the internet at a coffee shop or other hang out. The reason the story got picked up is that his parents or someone in his family was trying to get him committed for psychiatric treatment. Its more bold and daring than most people but that behavior in and of itself doesn't really sound crazy to me.

Comment author: Desrtopa 17 August 2011 06:07:02PM 3 points [-]

A long time friend of mine wrote an article for the New York Times about her boyfriend's decision to become homeless.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 July 2011 10:25:16PM 2 points [-]

Of course, completely forsaking status would mean all sorts of unpleasantness for a typical person, but this is only because we hate to admit how much of our lives revolves around zero-sum status competitions after all.

I agree that we hate to admit how much of our lives revolves around zero-sum status competitions. Here human modification via genetic engineering, supplements, & advanced technologies provides a potential way out, right? That we don't like the fact that our lives revolve around zero-sum status competitions implies that there's motivation to self-modify in the direction of deriving fulfillment from other things.

Of course there's little historical precedent for technological self-modification and so such hypotheticals involve a necessary element of speculation, but it's not necessarily the case that things will remain as they always have been.

Also, there would always be losers in these post-work status games who could improve their status by engaging in some sort of paid work and saving up to trade for the coveted status markers.

This is a very good point and one which I was thinking of bringing up in response to Yvain's comment but had difficulty articulating; thanks.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 10:58:02PM 7 points [-]

That we don't like the fact that our lives revolve around zero-sum status competitions implies that there's motivation to self-modify in the direction of deriving fulfillment from other things.

Trouble is, once you go down that road, the ultimate destination is wireheading. This raises all sorts of difficult questions, to which I have no particularly interesting answers.

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 July 2011 11:26:35PM *  2 points [-]

Though I know others feel differently (sometimes vehemently), aside from instrumental considerations (near guaranteed longevity & the welfare of others) I personally don't mind being wireheaded.

My attitude is similar to the one that denisbider expresses here with some qualifications. In particular I don't see the number of beings as so important and his last paragraph strikes me as sort of creepy.

Comment author: Desrtopa 29 July 2011 08:39:33PM 4 points [-]

As for working conditions, in terms of safety, cleanliness, physical hardship, etc., typical working conditions in developed countries are clearly much better than fifty years ago.

For many people's psychological welfare, I think these may be lesser concerns than mobility, autonomy, and freedom from monotony.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 09:09:19PM *  17 points [-]

I don't think that typical jobs from 50 years ago were better in any of these regards. On the contrary, the well-paid blue collar manufacturing jobs that are associated with bygone better times in folk memory were quite bad by these measures. Just imagine working on an assembly line.

Focusing specifically on North America, where these trends appear to be the most pronounced, the key issue, in my opinion, is the distribution of status. Fifty years ago, it was possible for a person of average or even below-average abilities to have a job, lifestyle, and social status that was seen as nothing spectacular, but also respectable and nothing to scoff at. Nowadays, however, the class system has become far harsher and the distribution of status much more skewed. The better-off classes view those beneath them with frightful scorn and contempt, and the underclass has been dehumanized to a degree barely precedented in human history. Of course, these are not hereditary castes, and meritocracy and upward mobility are still very strong, but the point is that the great masses of people who are left behind in the status race are no longer looking towards a mundane but respectable existence, but towards the low status of despised losers.

Why and how the situation has developed in this direction is a complex question that touches on all sorts of ideologically charged issues. Also, some would perhaps disagree whether the trends really are as severe as I present them. But the general trend of the status distribution becoming more skewed seems to me pretty evident.

Comment author: nerzhin 29 July 2011 10:00:14PM 8 points [-]

Nowadays, however, the class system has become far harsher and the distribution of status much more skewed. The better-off classes view those beneath them with frightful scorn and contempt, and the underclass has been dehumanized to a degree barely precedented in human history.

How do you measure this kind of thing? Do you have a citation?

Comment author: Dustin 29 July 2011 10:41:55PM *  5 points [-]

I too would be interested in sources for this assertion. It goes contrary to what I would say if I were asked to guess about classes of today compared to classes of fifty years ago.

edit: Oops, I should have refreshed page before commenting, as I now see Vladimir_M responded. Leaving comment for content about my state of mind on this issue.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 10:26:53PM *  1 point [-]

Do you have a citation?

No, it's a conclusion from common sense and observation, though I could find all kinds of easily cited corroboration. Unfortunately, as I said, a more detailed analysis of these trends and their components and causes would get us far into various controversial and politicized topics, which are probably best left alone here. I stated these opinions only because they seemed pertinent to the topic of the original post and the subsequent comments, i.e. the reasons for broad dissatisfaction with life in today's developed world, and their specific relation to the issues of work.

Comment author: lessdazed 29 July 2011 11:14:05PM 5 points [-]

Nowadays, however, the class system has become far harsher and the distribution of status much more skewed. The better-off classes view those beneath them with frightful scorn and contempt, and the underclass has been dehumanized to a degree barely precedented in human history.

There is no obviously appropriate way to measure this, even in theory.

What does one say about differences in solidarity between and church members, as it varies from Sunday to other days of the week, and from now to fifty years ago? Likewise for football fans in a city...What does one say about it as it varies from during the Olympics to during an election, within country, party, etc...During war? During strikes? And so on.

To make this claim one would have to establish a somewhat arbitrary "basket" of status markers and see how they varied (willingness to marry people from group X, willingness to trust random members of group X not to steal, willingness to make fun of people from group X for amusement, etc.) One would then have to integrate over time periods (war, etc.), and it's not obvious how to do that. It's also not obvious how to aggregate the statistics into a single measure expressible by a sentence like the above even if we have somehow established a score for how each individual thinks of and would think of each other individual. It's not obvious what constitutes members of a class, nor how much the classes are to be judged by their worst members as against, say, their average or typical or idealized member.

What I most disagree with the connotation of is "the distribution of status much more skewed". For status, each of us views others in certain ways, has representations of how we are viewed, has representations of how we view others, has representations of how others think they view us...status is not a thing for which the word "distributed" is at all apt.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 11:39:31PM *  9 points [-]

There is no obviously appropriate way to measure this, even in theory.

It's hard to discuss these things without getting into all sorts of overly controversial topics, but I definitely disagree that there are no obviously appropriate ways to establish whether this, so to say, skew of the status distribution is increasing.

Admittedly, these are fuzzy observations where it's easy to fall prey to all kinds of biases, but there is still useful information all over the place. You can observe the level of contempt (either overt or more underhanded) that people express for those below their class, the amount of effort they invest just to make sure they're insulated from the lower classes, the fear and disgust of mere proximity to anyone below a certain class, the media portrayals of people doing jobs at various percentiles of the income distribution, the reduction and uniformization of the status criteria and the disappearance of various sources of status available to those scoring low in wealth, fame, and bureaucratic rank, and so on. Of course, my observations and interpretations of all these trends may well be biased and inaccurate, but it's certainly incorrect to claim that no conclusions could be drawn from them even in principle.

Comment author: soreff 30 July 2011 12:34:29AM 10 points [-]
  • I basically agree with you - The U.S. has certainly been headed in the direction of a winner-take-all society over the last few decades.
  • I think some of this is measurable. The Gini coefficient certainly captures some of the economic aspects, and it has gotten higher over time
  • "the underclass has been dehumanized to a degree barely precedented in human history" seem too strong. History includes slavery, including practices such as "seasoning"
Comment author: Vladimir_M 30 July 2011 01:07:23AM *  9 points [-]

History includes slavery, including practices such as "seasoning"

I agree that was probably a too hyperbolic statement. History certainly records much more extreme instances of domineering and oppression. However, "dehumanized" was not a very good choice of term for the exact attitudes I had in mind, which I think indeed have little historical precedent and, and which don't really correspond to the traditional patterns of exercising crude power by higher-status groups and individuals, being a rather peculiar aspect of the present situation. But yes, in any case, I agree I exaggerated with the rhetoric on that point.

Comment author: lessdazed 30 July 2011 12:49:18AM 7 points [-]

it's certainly incorrect to claim that no conclusions could be drawn from them even in principle.

I wouldn't claim that, my claim is that there can't be one formula specifying what you want to measure, so for reasonably similar societies like this one and that of fifty years ago, you can't draw conclusions like that. If one looks at all the equally (in)appropriate ways to measure what you're making claims about, the modern USA outperforms 18th century Russia in enough ways that we can draw conclusions. I'll elaborate a bit on your examples.

fuzzy observations

The observations are the least fuzzy part.

the fear and disgust of mere proximity to anyone below a certain class

With something like this, you could perhaps quantify fear disgust of millions of people if in proximity to other people. You might find that in one society, 50% are extremely disgusted by the bottom 5%, and nonplussed by the others, and the top 10% of that is disgusted by the whole bottom 50%, while in another society, the top 20% is moderately disgusted by the bottom 80%, and the top 40% absolutely repulsed by the bottom 1%...etc.

What exactly, or even approximately, are your criteria, and how much do you think others on this site share them?

What our society has is an unprecedented tabooing of many overt scorning behaviors and thoughts. Perhaps you totally discount that? It has also tamed superstition enough that there is no system of ritual purity. People at least believe they believe in meritocracy. There is a rare disregard of bloodlines and heredity, compared to other times and places, including modern Japan.

the media portrayals of people doing jobs at various percentiles of the income distribution

What that brings to mind for me is the honest labor memes from the Puritans, and how so many were ready to identify with the common man, Joe the plumber, etc. One might say that this was primarily or only because he is white, and I think we all discount its value because of that to some extent, and if you idiosyncratically discount it more than others, you should be upfront about that by being more specific, and not make implicit claims that according to your readers' values, what you say is true.

Were I trying to call out a certain statement as being sexist, I might quote the statement and tell people that the statement is sexist. That's totally legitimate if I think that, would they reflect rationally and calmly, they would come to the same conclusion, according to their values. But if the reason I think that the statement is sexist is because it's written in English, which has a long history of being used by sexists, it would be totally illegitimate for me to simply say to normal human beings that the statement is sexist, because the reason I think it sexist is its mere expression in English.

If you believe that your claims resonate with normal conceptions of fairness upon reflection by people, it's fine for you to just make them. But this particular claim of yours is so, let's say counter-intuitive, that I suspect you have very idiosyncratic values in which the worth of a great many things is reduced to zero where other people would think it worth something, perhaps a great deal. If so, please clarify that when you say "The better-off classes view those beneath them with frightful scorn and contempt, and the underclass has been dehumanized to a degree barely precedented in human history," you just don't mean "contempt" and "dehumanized" the way your readers do.

I think there may be some "rosy retrospection" going on here.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 30 July 2011 01:50:38AM *  11 points [-]

It seems like we have some essential misunderstandings on these points:

What our society has is an unprecedented tabooing of many overt scorning behaviors and thoughts. Perhaps you totally discount that? It has also tamed superstition enough that there is no system of ritual purity. People at least believe they believe in meritocracy. There is a rare disregard of bloodlines and heredity, compared to other times and places, including modern Japan.

The "status skew" I have in mind has nothing to do with the issues of fairness and meritocracy. In this discussion, I am not concerned about the way people obtain their status, only what its distribution looks like. (In fact, in my above comment, I already emphasized that the present society is indeed meritocratic to a very large degree, in contrast to the historical societies of prevailing hereditary privilege.)

What I'm interested in is the contrast between the sort of society where the great majority of people enjoy a moderate status and the elites a greater one, and the sort of society where those who fall outside an elite minority are consigned to the status of despised losers. This is a relevant distinction, insofar as it determines whether average people will feel like they live a modest but dignified and respectable life, or they'll feel like low-status losers, with the resulting unhappiness and all sorts of social pathology (the latter mostly resulting from the lack of status incentives to engage in orderly and productive life).

My thesis is simply that many Western countries, and especially the U.S., have been moving towards the greater skew of the status distribution, i.e. a situation where despite all the increase in absolute wealth, an increasingly large percentage of the population feel like their prospects in life offer them unsatisfactory low status, and the higher classes confirm this by their scornful attitudes. (Of course, all sorts of partial exceptions can be pointed out, but the general trend seems clear.)

In fact, one provocative but certainly not implausible hypothesis is that meritocracy may even be exacerbating this situation. Elites who believe themselves to be meritocratic rather than hereditary or just lucky may well be even more arrogant and contemptuous because of that, even if they're correct in this belief.

I think there may be some "rosy retrospection" going on here.

Well, I'm not that old, and I honestly can't complain at all about how I've been treated by the present system -- on the contrary. Of course, I allow for the possibility that I have formed a skewed perspective here, but the reasons for this would be more complex than just straightforward "rosy retrospection."

Comment author: multifoliaterose 29 July 2011 04:48:08AM 4 points [-]

Technological advances can't shorten the work hours because even in a society wealthy and technologically advanced enough that basic subsistence is available for free, people still struggle for zero-sum things, most notably land and status.

I agree that the zero-sum character of status makes it unlikely that technology will shorten work hours (barring modification of humans).

What additionally complicates things is that habitable land is close to a zero-sum resource for all practical purposes, since to be useful, it must be near other people. Thus, however wealthy a society gets, for a typical person it always requires a whole lot of work to be able to afford decent lodging, and even though starvation is no longer a realistic danger for those less prudent and industrious in developed countries, homelessness remains so.

I don't see any reason why this should be true. Population levels in developed countries have leveled off and up to a point it's easy to increase the amount of habitable space through the construction of skyscrapers. It's not even clear to me that one needs to be industrious to avoid homelessness in contemporary America.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 05:38:43AM *  21 points [-]

I don't see any reason why this should be true. Population levels in developed countries have leveled off and up to a point it's easy to increase the amount of habitable space through the construction of skyscrapers. It's not even clear to me that one needs to be industrious to avoid homelessness in contemporary America.

You're right, things are a bit more complicated than in my simplified account. Lodging can be obtained very cheaply, or even for free as a social service, in homeless shelters and public housing projects, but only in the form of densely packed space full of people of the very lowest status. This is indeed more than adequate for bare survival, but most people find the status hit and the associated troubles and discomforts unacceptably awful, to the point that they opt for either life in the street or working hard for better lodging. And to raise the quality of your lodging significantly above this level, you do need an amount that takes quite a bit of work to earn with the median wage.

This is in clear contrast with food and clothing, which were also precarious until relatively recent past, but are nowadays available in excellent quality for chump-change, as long as you don't go for conspicuous consumption. This is because advanced technology can crank out tons of food and clothing with meager resources and little labor, which can be shipped to great distances at negligible cost, and the population is presently far from the Malthusian limit, so there is no zero-sum competition involved (except of course when it comes to their purely status-related aspects). In contrast, habitable land isn't quite zero-sum, but it has a strong zero-sum aspect since it's difficult to live very far from the centers of population, and wherever the population is dense, there is going to be (more or less) zero-sum competition for the nearby land.

Another striking recent phenomenon that illustrates this situation is that increasing numbers of homeless people have laptops or cell phones. Again we see the same pattern: advanced technology can crank out these things until they're dirt-cheap, but acceptably good habitable land remains scarce no matter what.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 July 2011 08:30:04PM *  3 points [-]

Demonstrably the cost of housing has not dropped as much as the cost of a byte of hard drive storage, but that is not necessarily only because space is zero-sum. A lot of technologies have failed to advance at anywhere near the rate of computer technology, in particular housing-related technologies - the cost of building a structure, the cost of lighting it, air conditioning it, etc. I think that science fiction authors in the past tended to imagine that housing-related technologies would change much more rapidly than they actually did.

Transportation has also, in recent years, not changed all that much. That's another one that science fiction writers were massively overoptimistic about. Transportation changes the value of proximity, and the changes that we did experience starting with steam powered vehicles probably did radically change the nature of what counts as proximity. I am, for example, an order of magnitude or so "closer" to the city center now than I would have been two hundred years ago, holding everything constant except for transportation.

Building construction and transportation are at a kind of plateau, at least compared with computers, possibly in part because they require a more or less fixed amount of energy in order to move stuff around. In order to transport a person you need enough power to move his body the required distance. In order to build a building, you need enough power to lift the materials into place. I had the misfortune of working next to a construction site and I recall that for weeks we could feel the thumping of the pile drivers.

Comment author: pengvado 31 July 2011 05:04:36AM *  5 points [-]

... they require a more or less fixed amount of energy in order to move stuff around. In order to transport a person you need enough power to move his body the required distance. In order to build a building, you need enough power to lift the materials into place.

There's no hard lower bound on the amount of energy needed to move something horizontally. Any expenditure in transportation is all friction, no work. Now, reducing friction turns out to be a harder engineering problem than making smaller transistors, but just saying "energy" doesn't explain why.

And the gravitational potential energy in 1 ton of stuff lifted by 1 storey would cost all of .001$ if bought from the grid in the form of electricity. So clearly the energy requirement of lifting construction materials into place is not the primary cost of construction either.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 August 2011 10:22:28AM 4 points [-]

So clearly the energy requirement of lifting construction materials into place is not the primary cost of construction either.

The cost of the fuel itself is not the only cost that increases when the amount of energy increases. When a large amount of energy is applied all at once, it becomes important to apply the energy correctly, because otherwise the results can be catastrophic. If you take the energy required to lift a ton one storey, and misapply it, then you could damage property or, worse, kill people.

We let children ride bikes but not drive cars. Why? One reason is that a typical moving car has a much larger amount of kinetic energy than a typical moving bicycle, so if the car is steered badly, the results can be much worse than if a bike is steered badly.

So the more more energy is applied, the more carefully it must be applied. And this extra care costs extra money.

In a controlled environment such as a factory, the application of energy can be automated, reducing costs. But in an uncontrolled environment such as we see in transportation or building, significant automation is not yet possible, which raises costs.

Other costs also rise with energy use. For instance, the machinery that employs the energy must be built to withstand the energy. A toy car can be built of cheap plastic, but a real car needs to be strong enough not to fly apart when you step on the gas. And the machine has to be built so that it doesn't wear down quickly in reaction to the great stresses that it is being subjected to as it operates.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 31 July 2011 08:04:47AM *  4 points [-]

Land is only a problem because of the dept of education. Competition wouldn't be nearly so fierce if there wasn't a monopoly on good schooling. Look at a heat map of property values. They are sharply discontinuous around school district borders.

Comment author: jhuffman 17 August 2011 04:26:15PM 1 point [-]

How does one school district with good schools prevent its neighbor districts from also having good schools? There are certainly plenty of examples of contiguous districts with good schools.

Comment author: Swimmer963 02 August 2011 01:28:06PM 2 points [-]

Technological advances can't shorten the work hours because even in a society wealthy and technologically advanced enough that basic subsistence is available for free, people still struggle for zero-sum things, most notably land and status. Once a society is wealthy enough that basic subsistence is a non-issue, people probably won't work as much as they would in a Malthusian trap where constant toil is required just to avoid starvation, but they will still work a lot because they're locked in these zero-sum competitions.

That is the clearest explanation I've seen so far for this. (I've read a lot of SF, and asked myself the question.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2011 08:46:18PM 19 points [-]

I don't think that's a complete explanation. I would say it's more along the lines of "If you start with somebody working a three-day week, it's much easier to employ them for another two days, than to hire a new person to work two days because that requires creating a whole new business relationship." Then both corporations and governments, I think, tend to be as inefficient as they can possibly get away with without dying, or maybe a little more inefficient than that. Work expands to fill the time available...

I would have to sit down and write this out if I really wanted to think it through, but roughly I think that there are forces which tend to make people employed for a full workweek, everyone want to be employed, and society to become as inefficient as it can get away with. Combine these factors and it's why increasing productivity doesn't increase leisure.

Comment author: Swimmer963 03 August 2011 01:14:17AM 3 points [-]

The full work week makes sense, depending on what sort of job you're talking about. Is it a job where a certain number of staff have to be working at a given time but it doesn't really matter who, i.e. my job at the pool, etc, or is it a job where a certain amount of work has to get done and it's simpler for one person to do a set of tasks because sharing the tasks between brains is complicated, i.e. my job at the research institute? For the former, it doesn't really matter whether you have 20 staff working 40 hours a week or 40 staff working 20 hours a week. (In fact, at the pool we tend to flip between the two: in winter, when most employees are in school, there are a lot more staff and many of them have only 1 or 2 shifts a week. In summer, the number of staff drops and nearly everyone is full-time.) It doesn't matter whether a given staffperson is there on a certain day; lifeguards and waitresses and grocery store cashiers (and nurses, to a lesser degree) are essentially interchangeable. For the latter, it makes a lot of sense for any one employee to be there every day, but why 8 hours a day? Why not 5? If the full-time employees at the research institute were each in charge of a single study, instead of 2 or 3, they could do all the required work in 5 hours a day plus occasionally overtime or on-call work.

I'm guessing that most work for corporations and governments is in the latter category. Most work in the former category is relatively low-paying, so adults in this jobs have to work full-time or more to make ends meet. I can see why right now, neither corporations nor the government are endorsing shorter work-days or work-weeks: they would have to hire more staff, spend more time on finding and interviewing qualified people, and providing these extra staff with the expected benefits (i.e. health insurance, vacation time) would be more complicated. The current state is stable and locked in place, because any business or organization that tried to change would be at a disadvantage. But in theory, if every workplace transitioned to more employees working fewer hours, I can't see why that state wouldn't be stable as well.

Comment author: jhuffman 17 August 2011 04:20:16PM *  3 points [-]

Yes but as Eliezer said the work expands to fill the time. So if you cut the time correctly, you just cut out the useless work and don't give up any competitive advantage. This is how large corporations can lay-off 50,000 people without falling apart. Sometimes that means giving up products or markets, but more often it means a haircut across the organization - e.g. trimming the fat. At first the people left are paniced about how they will get everything done without all these resources, but what really happens is priorities get clarified and some people have to do more work during the day instead of reading Less Wrong. The same thing would happen if the work week were reduced, although management's job would get harder as Eliezer points out.

Comment author: soreff 02 August 2011 02:49:20PM 4 points [-]

It is a plausible argument, but it seems at least partially incompatible with known international differences within the wealthy industrialized world. "Using the most recently available data, the ILO has determined that the average Australian, Canadian, Japanese or Mexican worker was on the job roughly 100 hours less than the average American in a year -- that's almost two-and-a-half weeks less. Brazilians and British employees worked some 250 hours, or more than five weeks, less than Americans.". I'd expect very similar zero sum competitions to exist in all of these nations, yet the work hours have substantial differences.

Comment author: kragensitaker 13 August 2011 03:09:56PM 10 points [-]

If we accept the premise that most of this work is being spent on a zero-sum game of competing for status and land, then it's a prisoner's-dilemma situation like doping in competitive sports, and a reasonable solution is some kind of regulation limiting that competition. Mandatory six-week vacations, requirements to close shops during certain hours, and hefty overtime multipliers coupled with generous minimum wages are three examples that occur in the real world.

A market fundamentalist might seek to use tradable caps, as with sulfur dioxide emissions, instead of inflexible regulations. Maybe you're born with the right to work 1000 hours per year, for example, but you have the right to sell those hours to someone else who wants to work more hours. Retirees and students could support themselves by getting paid for being unemployed, by some coal miner, soldier, or sailor. (Or their employer.) This would allow the (stipulated) zero-sum competition to go on and even allow people to compete by being willing to work more hours, but without increasing the average number of hours worked per person.

Comment author: MixedNuts 02 August 2011 02:59:06PM *  4 points [-]

Japan‽ That can't be right. This study says indeed it isn't. What's going on?

Edit: What's going on is that it's a recent change. Thanks, soreff.

Comment author: soreff 02 August 2011 08:28:57PM 7 points [-]

Ouch! "The more I find out, the less that I know". This site gives extensive statistics, broken out nationally and by year from 2000-2010. According to their numbers, for 2010, Korea had the largest numbers of hours worked, with the U.S. 12th on the list and Japan 15th. It looks like the shifts across this decade are considerable (10%-20%, for many of the nations). Looking at a bunch of sites, there seems to be considerable differences in reported numbers as well - the definitions of what hours they include and who they include may differ...

Comment author: Swimmer963 02 August 2011 01:33:34PM 0 points [-]

As for working conditions, in terms of safety, cleanliness, physical hardship, etc., typical working conditions in developed countries are clearly much better than fifty years ago. What arguably makes work nowadays worse is the present distribution of status and the increasing severity of the class system, which is a very complex issue tied to all sorts of social change that have occurred in the meantime. But this topic is probably too ideologically sensitive on multiple counts to discuss productively on a forum like LW.

This sounds like such an interesting topic for discussion, though!

Comment author: Vladimir_M 02 August 2011 09:22:34PM 3 points [-]

This sounds like such an interesting topic for discussion, though!

Trouble is, it touches on just about every controversial and ideologically charged issue imaginable. (Which is not surprising, considering that it concerns the fundamental questions about how status is distributed in the whole society.)

Comment author: Armok_GoB 29 July 2011 10:12:17PM 8 points [-]

The prospect of an hansonain future does seem like a pretty good reason to delete all records of yourself, dispose of anyone with significant memories of you, and incinerate your brain in a large explosion enough to spread the ashes of your brain for miles around. At sea.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 July 2011 11:55:53PM *  9 points [-]

It should make you happy with the present, though, if you use the past and the future as the baseline for comparison. As John Derbyshire once said in a different context, "We are living in a golden age. The past was pretty awful; the future will be far worse. Enjoy!"

Comment author: Armok_GoB 30 July 2011 11:52:39AM 3 points [-]

Now I'm confused, how's other people being even worse of supposed to make me feel better?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 30 July 2011 11:42:35PM 1 point [-]

Well, if we (the present humans) are indeed extraordinarily fortunate to live in a brief and exceptional non-Malthusian period -- what Hanson calls "the Dreamtime" -- then you should be happy to be so lucky that you get to enjoy it. Yes, you could have been even luckier to be born as some overlord who gets to be wealthy and comfortable even in a Malthusian world, but even as a commoner in a non-Malthusian era, you were dealt an exceptionally good hand.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 31 July 2011 09:38:38AM 6 points [-]

No, I'm UN-lucky. I'd prefer a different, counterfactual universe where EVERYONE is happy at all times, and given any set universe I see no reason how which entity in it is me should matter.

Comment author: soreff 31 July 2011 03:09:31PM *  5 points [-]

A couple of comments:

  • Yes, a hansonian future looks appalling. Anything that gets us back into a Malthusian trap is a future that I would not want to experience.

  • I'm not sure that active measures to prevent oneself from being revived in such a future are necessary. If extreme population growth makes human life of little value in what are currently the developed nations, who would revive us? Cryonics has been likened to a four-dimensional ambulance ride to a future emergency room. If the emergency rooms of the 22nd century turn out to only accept the rich, cryonicists will never get revived in such a world anyway.

  • I find it bizarre that Robin Hanson himself both endorses cryonics and actively endorses population growth - both in the near term (conventional overpopulation of humans) and in the long term (explosive growth of competing uploads/ems).

Comment author: Armok_GoB 31 July 2011 06:25:49PM 2 points [-]

@2: Most of it was humour, indicating excessive paranoia. Under that was basically a mix of being humble (might have reasons we would never think of to do it), and the implication that it's not only bad but so bad every little trace of probability must be pushed as close as possible to 0.

Comment author: gwern 29 July 2011 11:10:15PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: jaime2000 12 May 2014 05:05:35PM 0 points [-]

summary of the article was much better than the article itself, which was cluttered with lots of quotes and pictures and lengthiness. Summaries that are better than the original articles are hard to do, hence, upvote.

It's not very hard to do when the original author is Mike Darwin. The man really needs an editor. Consider "Doing the Time Wrap", which looks for all the world like someone wrote 2 or 3 amazing, wonderful essays on completely different topics, and then decided to cut and paste random sections of them to form a single article, with random song lyrics thrown in for good measure.