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cousin_it comments on Open thread, May 15 - May 21, 2017 - Less Wrong Discussion

1 Post author: Elo 15 May 2017 07:06AM

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Comment author: Viliam 17 May 2017 01:56:10PM *  1 point [-]

The trick is in the word "value".

If you play some motte-and-bailey around it, you could redefine "value" to mean "that, which is maximized by the free market", and then prove that free market indeed maximizes value. I expect that most pro-market answers you will get at most places will be a variant of this.

The question is, how closely related is such definition to our intuitions about value, i.e. what we actually mean by "value". That is tricky, because human intuitions are in general unreliable (e.g. likely to change if you describe the same situation using different words), inconsistent, implemented on a broken hardware, etc. But of course that doesn't give us a license to redefine words arbitrarily, so... as the saying goes, it's complicated.

You are correct about the similarity between free market and PageRank. Free market is recursive -- you can only gain money by selling to people who have money, who in turn gained that money by selling to people who had money, etc. If you are a starving person with no money and nothing to sell, well, sucks to be you; there may be tons of food on the market, but no way to sell it to you, unless someone gives you some money first.

Money is not the same as value, though, and that is one of the places where the whole process is grounded in something other than recursion. Value can be created by work, or by selling or renting resources you have.

Also, economical value can be brought from outside of the free-market system. For example, an African warlord can extract resources locally using murder or slave work, but then can exchange those resources at the international free market for something else. What I am hinting at here is that even if you would in abstractly prove that "free market benefits all participants", that doesn't necessarily mean it benefits all humans, because some "participants" at the market are e.g. slave owners, and the "benefits" for them include the ability to exploit their slaves more safely and easily. That doesn't necessarily imply that it benefits the slaves, too; it may sometimes be the other way round. (Lenin would say: "Those naive libertarians in Silicon Valley keep inventing and selling on free market a cheaper and stronger rope with which we can now hang more people, mwa-ha-ha-ha!")

Speaking about human values, we have terminal and instrumental values, and the instrumental values are also recursive by nature.

So...

Seems to me that the recursive nature could be a red herring. Markets are recursive. Instrumental values are recursive. Maybe these things actually match each other well. Perhaps we should focus on (1) whether the non-recursive parts also match each other; and if there is a difference, (2) whether the recursive parts amplify the difference.

(I do have some opinions on that, but this comment is already too long, and contains important parts I wouldn't want to get ignored just because I write something controversial afterwards.)

Comment author: cousin_it 17 May 2017 08:54:29PM *  0 points [-]

Free market is recursive -- you can only gain money by selling to people who have money, who in turn gained that money by selling to people who had money, etc. If you are a starving person with no money and nothing to sell, well, sucks to be you

I guess my point was that "sucks to be you" situations don't just happen when you have nothing of value to sell, as libertarian-minded folks (like Lumifer in this thread) seem to believe. It also happens when you have stuff to sell, but the folks who would normally buy it from you can't pay you enough to survive today, because they don't have anything to sell, and the problem can start randomly and build on itself. Or at least I don't know any argument why it wouldn't. It feels like this horrible recursive process that doesn't approach anything good except by accident.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 18 May 2017 05:09:25AM 2 points [-]

"It feels like this horrible recursive process that doesn't approach anything good except by accident."

Much like PageRank doesn't turn up any useful websites except by accident, naturally.

Comment author: cousin_it 18 May 2017 11:02:02AM *  1 point [-]

If every website was a sentient creature that felt pain in case of low PageRank, our world would be pretty much hell for those creatures. So the analogy between market and PageRank isn't flattering to the market.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 18 May 2017 01:12:15PM 3 points [-]

The analogy between the market and PageRank is this:

  • PageRank cannot directly give a high rank to useful pages, because there is no known algorithm for that. So it uses a recursive structure to approximate this.

  • The market cannot directly give value to providers of value, because there is no known algorithm for that. So it uses a recursive structure to approximate this.

And it does approximate it; if you think it does not, you can certainly propose a better algorithm.

Of course, people would be happy to have value even if they don't provide any value, and disappointed not to have it. And likewise, the unlucky people who do provide value but which the algorithm misses, are especially unhappy, like the low ranked but useful websites.

If your position is, "Let's not provide value just to providers of value, but to everyone!" then you can certainly propose a means to bring that about.

Comment author: Lumifer 18 May 2017 02:42:50PM *  1 point [-]

"Let's not provide value just to providers of value, but to everyone!" then you can certainly propose a means to bring that about.

There, of course, was a highly popular proposal to do just that -- it starts with "c" and ends with "ommunism". Unfortunately, it... didn't quite work out.

Comment author: cousin_it 18 May 2017 03:58:00PM *  0 points [-]

For me morality is mostly about maximizing average or total utility, not giving value to providers of value recursively.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 19 May 2017 04:51:01AM 3 points [-]

The reason the market approximates rewarding the providing of value is not because there is something morally special about that situation, but because without doing that, it is very difficult to get any value or utility at all, for anyone.

A system that rewards the creation of value results in a substantial amount of average utility, even if not high utility for everyone. But if you have a system that does not reward the creation of value or utility, there will be many people who will not bother to create any value, and consequently you will get low average value or utility. That was why St. Paul had to tell his communities that "if someone will not work, neither shall he eat."

If you think you have an idea for a system that will create higher average value or utility than markets do, as I said, you can propose one. I do not think anyone has yet made any reasonable proposal of that kind.

Comment author: cousin_it 19 May 2017 08:39:12AM *  1 point [-]

I know the usual arguments why rewarding value creation is a good idea, and I'm not trying to argue against that. Instead, my first comment points out how markets don't always reward value creation. They do a more complicated and recursive thing. You can think of it as "if your product is awesome but your customers are poor, you're screwed". Only even worse because there's feedback effects, where value creators can become poor just because other value creators are poor etc.

To put it yet another way, in a PageRank-like system the utility will tend to clump together, leading to inequality and monopolies. That's more or less what the system does. The original PageRank had some nasty attractors after people started gaming it, which is why Google is tweaking it all the time. Someone on HN once made a cheeky comment saying "the end game of capitalism is one corporation selling everyone oxygen", and I can see how blindly trusting a recursive system to be fair can get you there.

Also, your St. Paul quote is a famous Soviet slogan, instantly familiar to anyone who was born in the USSR, so I chuckled a bit when you used it to defend free markets :-)

Comment author: entirelyuseless 19 May 2017 02:01:17PM 0 points [-]

I disagree with your first comment about the $100 and the loaves, as I said, because you are overly simplifying. For example, even aside from the things I already mentioned, you also ignore the fact that the person needs to spend money or goods in order to produce the loaves.

That said, you might be able to refine that example or come up with another; I certainly do not think that markets infallibly have the result of rewarding value creation. I agree that free markets leads to that kind of inequality and that this is a not particularly great aspect of it. However, it is not reasonable to say "this is a horrible process" if you cannot propose a better alternative. And I am not even saying there is not a better alternative. I am just saying that no one has found one yet.

The fact that the Soviets used the St. Paul quote is revealing in regard to what usually happens if you attempt to replace free markets with something else. The problem e.g. with a guaranteed basic income is this: either people have to work, or they don't. If they don't have to work, then there is the implicit assumption that wealth does not depend on work, which in our world is false. So if enough people decide not to work, the system will necessarily collapse. This does not of course prove that a basic income is impossible, since you could simply keep reducing the amount of the income until enough people are working to keep it going. But it does show a serious issue. And on the other hand, if they do have to work, then they are slaves. And so the way the Soviets were using the slogan, they were making people slaves.

The only alternative (to the the impossible option of wealth not depending on work or to slavery) is to admit that if people choose to do so, they do not have to work, but they will suffer the consequences. Europe has a better unemployment system than the USA, for example, but even in Europe (at least in general and if I understand it correctly, and obviously the details differ in various places), there needs to be at least a bit of ambiguity about why you are unemployed. If you openly say, "I am perfectly competent and well qualified for many jobs, and I know from experience that I could get one next week if I wanted. In fact I just received an offer, which I rejected. I do not WANT to work, and I won't," even Europe will not continue offering you support.

Comment author: bogus 22 May 2017 05:20:38PM 1 point [-]

The only alternative (to the the impossible option of wealth not depending on work or to slavery) is to admit that if people choose to do so, they do not have to work, but they will suffer the consequences.

Isn't this exactly what basic income does? If you don't work, you just get the basic income. If you work, you get the basic income plus some income from your work. (Yes there is a tax wedge so you're not going to get your full market value, and this necessarily hurts overall output/economic growth - but precisely because people vary so much in how productive they are, it's still a big win in utility terms compared to not having the BI. Not to mention that the actual real-world alternative isn't really "no BI", but redistributionist "welfare" as we know it.)

Comment author: cousin_it 21 May 2017 08:54:48PM *  0 points [-]

Even if you're willing to work, some job offers are objectively pretty bad (let's say it's a five hour commute, the work is hazardous, and the salary isn't enough for your food and medicine). Do you think people should die if they refuse such offers and better ones aren't available? I'd prefer to legally define what constitutes a "reasonable" job for a given person, and allow anyone to walk into a government office and receive either a reasonable job offer or a welfare check. If the market is good at providing reasonable jobs, as some libertarians seem to think, then the policy is cheap because the government clerk can just call up Mr Market.

Comment author: satt 21 May 2017 06:51:50PM *  0 points [-]

Europe has a better unemployment system than the USA, for example, but even in Europe (at least in general and if I understand it correctly, and obviously the details differ in various places), there needs to be at least a bit of ambiguity about why you are unemployed. If you openly say, "I am perfectly competent and well qualified for many jobs, and I know from experience that I could get one next week if I wanted. In fact I just received an offer, which I rejected. I do not WANT to work, and I won't," even Europe will not continue offering you support.

Counterexample: pensioners. (And yes, I can be quite sure that some of them are both able & qualified to work, because a non-negligible number of them do work.)

Comment author: Lumifer 18 May 2017 04:13:22PM 0 points [-]

Maximizing in the short term or in the long term?

Comment author: cousin_it 18 May 2017 05:07:01PM 0 points [-]

Across all time.

Comment author: Lumifer 18 May 2017 05:14:46PM 0 points [-]

What does that mean?

Comment author: Lumifer 18 May 2017 02:36:27PM 0 points [-]

If every website was a sentient creature that felt pain in case of low PageRank

tag: Shit LW says

Comment author: Dagon 18 May 2017 01:57:17PM 0 points [-]

Website owners certainly feel pain when they get lower traffic. Are you saying Google should flatten the distribution of browsing in order to better distribute happiness?

Comment author: Lumifer 18 May 2017 02:43:48PM 0 points [-]

It's only fair that everyone's PageRank be exactly the same :-/

Comment author: Viliam 19 May 2017 03:20:41PM 1 point [-]

It also happens when you have stuff to sell, but the folks who would normally buy it from you can't pay you enough to survive today, because they don't have anything to sell,

It seems unlikely that you would have a skillset which allows you to produce valuable stuff only for poor people, but you wouldn't be able to produce valuable stuff for anyone else.

Okay, thinking hard, I can make up some situations like that, for example that you are a skiled translator into some kind of indigenous language, where all speakers of the language are too poor to actually pay you for the translations (even if they would like reading them a lot). Or that your services are limited to your local area, e.g. you can provide accommodation for people, but there are only poor people living in that area, and zero tourists.

and the problem can start randomly and build on itself

Something like... million people living on an island, where most of them can provide some valuable service to their neighbors (but not to anyone outside the island), but some critical skill is missing on the whole island... like, all of them are genius teachers or movie producers, but none of them can grow food... so they are all going to starve, despite being so skilled that an average inhabitant of the island would be a rich person if they would be teleported into our society?

In short term, this certainly can happen, especially if the situation can change overnight. Like, yesterday, there were hundred specialized food producers, but by miracle, all of them were killed by a lightning during the night. To make it sound more likely, all of them were at the same place (the annual food-producer conference), and something exploded there and killed them all.

But... I don't see how any other economical system would deal with the fact that, no matter how you distribute the money, there is not going to be any food in the island anyway. With free market, at least now all professors and movie producers see the opportunity to become millionaires overnight if they succeed to reinvent e.g. the lost art of picking fruit. Even if they would be great movie producers, but quite lousy fruit pickers.

(Actually, such situation would be made worse by an unfree market, for example if the government of the island would insist that the wannabe professor-becoming-fruit-picker is legally not allowed to pick fruit because he doesn't have a diploma from Fruit Picking University; and any attempt to illegally do the job he is not qualified for would get him arrested.)

Now, let's assume that the island actually is okay, able to grow its own food, etc. It's just that the money flow happens to be hopelessly unidirectional. No one outside the island wants to buy anything from the island. (Let's suppose they are not interested in your stuff, and you can't gain customers even for trying to sell really cheaply, because the costs of ship fuel will still make everything more expensive than anyone is willing to pay for.) On the other hand, people on the island sometimes buy something from the outside, e.g. because they cannot produce their own iPhones. Thus, money only ever goes out of the island, but never in. The island is constantly losing its global PageRank, ahem, money reserve. What happens now?

If I understand it correctly, the standard market outcome will be that -- assuming the island uses its own currency -- the exchange rate will gradually approach "1 out-of-island currency = infinity island currency". The people on the island will stop being able to buy stuff from outside, because it will become astronomically expensive for them.

Yet, within the island, people will be able to sell to each other, because both sides will pay using island currency. And there will be things to sell, for example the locally grown food. No one will be able to buy iPhones anymore, and that sucks, but the island will still be not worse than if the rest of the world would simply stop existing.

And if someone comes from the outside, and uses their infinitely valuable out-of-island money to buy the local food, then the assumption of unidirectional flow of money is no longer true; we now have money flow in both directions.

Etc, economics 101.

However, one possible solution for "people who have nothing to sell" is generally known as Basic Income. Not universally accepted, of course, but it is a way to make sure everyone can buy stuff, at the cost of doing relatively small damage to the economy. By relatively small I mean, of course entrepreneurs will complain about higher tax rate, but as far as I know, they usually complain much more about regulation, bureaucracy, or unpredictability; and Basic Income doesn't create a lot of these compared with the usual government interventions.

Essentially, Basic Income + market profit seems like a plausible approximation of our model of terminal + instrumental value, when we assign approximately the same terminal value to each human (expressed as Basic Income), and more instrumental value to people doing useful stuff to others (express as the market profit).

Comment author: Lumifer 19 May 2017 04:09:45PM *  0 points [-]

one possible solution for "people who have nothing to sell" is generally known as Basic Income

A solution for "people who have nothing to sell" is generally known as welfare. It exists in all the developed world and consumes large fractions of government budgets.

Basic income is more of a solution for people who are capable of, but don't want to make something to sell.

Comment author: g_pepper 18 May 2017 01:51:08AM 1 point [-]

But the situation is not as bad as you make it out. Most people do have something they can sell (even if they have little or no wealth) - their labor - i.e. they can get a job. In fact, the majority of people (in the US, anyway) get by mostly by their salary or wages - they sell their labor to their employer. So, a person with no wealth today need not be a person with no wealth tomorrow.

Comment author: cousin_it 18 May 2017 11:14:25AM *  1 point [-]

When it becomes harder to get jobs, people will just try harder, because the alternative is bad. So employment isn't a good indicator, it might be stable until a point and then break down completely. A better indicator is how much people have to pay for jobs, and that's rising fast, as you can see from requirements on college degrees etc.

Comment author: Lumifer 17 May 2017 09:25:13PM *  1 point [-]

I guess my point was that "sucks to be you" situations don't just happen when you have nothing of value to sell, as libertarian-minded folks (like Lumifer in this thread) seem to believe.

To quote myself:

But, of course, that's not the only way to be poor.

.

It feels like this horrible recursive process that doesn't approach anything good except by accident.

To quote myself:

Reality check: fail.

Given that ALL developed countries got to be rich and developed through market-based economies, I don't understand what you are talking about.