Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #13

What should we redistribute? And where?

Economist Robin Hanson (discussed previously in TiB) stoked a great deal of controversy by asking on his blog whether we should be as willing to "redistribute" sex as we are income. It's a short read and the argument is clear quite quickly. The piece immediately attracted fierce criticism, but was catapulted into the mainstream by the NYT's Ross Douthat, whose column on the topic also drew ire (It's worth reading an essa Douthat quotes by Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan, who asks the same question from a left-feminist perspective). Overall, most contributions to the debate have added little beyond outrage and counter-outrage, though Scott Aaronson's post is a notable exception. 

I don't have anything to add directly, but I do think it's a fascinating episode that demonstrates how conflicted our intuitions about inequality are. There is a vast academic literature on what kinds of equality we should care about (This, by Elizabeth Anderson, who we discussed two weeks ago, is a classic), but few of us have consistent views. 

A lot of our policy debates in the next twenty years are going to be about redistribution - and not just what gets redistributed, but the geographic scope of redistribution. The nation state may be under increasing pressure (as discussed in TiB multiple times), but it remains the political unit of redistribution par excellence. Can anything replace that? There's a lot of evidence that redistribution is most needed at the international level, but most popular at the local level (one of many fascinating findings in James Fallows' piece on reinventing America). That doesn't, to me, seem a very stable equilibrium.

How to get and give better advice

I spend a lot of time thinking about advice, as its one of the core currencies of the venture capital world. So, I enjoyed this post from the always-excellent Scott Alexander on guidelines vs. recommendations. Alexander argues that recommendations (e.g. "try this diet") are inferior to guidelines (e.g. "If criteria X applies to you, try diet A, but switch to diet B if you don't lose weight after four weeks; if X doesn't apply, start with diet B", etc) and that there's a disappointing dearth of good guidelines (outside medicine, where they are fairly common). Once you start thinking about this, you start to wonder what distinguishes fields with good guidelines from those with a surfeit of recommendations.

There is certainly no gold standard set of guidelines (in this sense) in startups, which is intriguing. Partly that comes from being an industry where, to a first approximation, only outliers matter, which makes guidelines tricky. My brilliant colleague Alex Crompton makes this argument in this 2017 post on three kinds of startup advice. Alex argues that the most valuable kind is what he calls "method advice" - learning how to think through a problem like a more experienced person would. As Alex says, other "advice at best improves outcomes, but method advice improves people". Perhaps if we want more guidelines, we first need more methods.

In praise of "para-education"

The ever interesting (and outspoken) Nassim Taleb has a good thread on education, in which he argues that a lack of skin in the game (not coincidentally, the subject of his latest book) among educators has damaged education. Riffing on Bryan Caplan's fascinating and controversial The Case Against Education, Taleb draws a distinction between "learning to be civilised" and "learning to do things" and argues the two are conflated in traditional universities.

A few days later I saw this superb conversation (start with that tweet and scroll up) on para-education - that is, "serious research communities that arise completely in parallel to standard academia". There seem to be an increasing number of such communities (not least in AI and arguably in startups more broadly).

Why is that? One hypothesis is that traditional academia is too interested in excellence and not interested enough in genius, a distinction Eric Weinstein made in this 2013 post for (See also Eliezer Yudkowsky on whether we can even recognise genius). Eric names an "archipelago of alternative institutions" in the penultimate paragraph. Some have aged well, others less so - but I'm excited to see more emerge.

Quick links

  1. Citation needed: What is the most cited article on Wikipedia? (The authors had no idea)
  2. Beyond Bitcoin: What are the deepest ideas in crypto? (Open thread)
  3. You and whose army? Is China actually that big anyway? (from an AI perspective)
  4. Optimism part 1: The bull case for solar
  5. Optimism part 2: The bull case for electric cars

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Until next week,