Against Marx

Marx’s argument goes like this:

  • The value of a good is defined by the amount of labour that goes into it.
  • Workers provide most of the labour, yet only get a tiny fraction of the profits compared to the capitalist.
  • Hence capitalism is unjust

It’s wrong because the value of a good isn’t defined by the amount of labour that goes into it. E.g: If I spend 10’000 hours making 1kg of Basmati rice and another farmer spends 1 hour, my sack of rice is not 10’000 times more valuable than theirs. The labour theory of value is wrong and without it marx’s ethical arguments collapse.

Racial differences do not justify racism

When I read far-right or far-left websites, a justification for racism I often hear is that race X is worse in way Y and hence deserves to be treated worse. E.g:

  • Black people commit more crime, use more state handouts, contribute less to science etc… Hence we should reduce the benefits given to unemployed blacks/have harsher punishments for black criminals/other racist policy etc…
  • White people are more racist/sexist, more privileged, more hateful etc… Hence we should make whites pay reparations/make it harder for white children to get into university/racist policy Y etc…

Both make the same mistake. Even if you accept that

  • the races or ethnicity’s they talk about are real or somehow meaningful
  • their narrative that race A is worse than race B
  • their narrative that race A is worse due to internal as opposed to external reasons

they’re still wrong. Why? Because even if a group is on average bad and deserves to be punished, that does not mean that every member of that group is bad. Groups don’t exist. They’re aggregations. What racists want you to do is stop thinking about individuals and instead see each person as an extension of a collective. That’s wrong. A black person who obeys the law should not be held morally liable for the actions of a criminal who happens to have the same skin color as them. A white immigrant who lives in a trailer park should not be punished because slaveholders descendent have wealth built on blood.

Why condemn Trump but not MBS

When Trump visited the UK a while ago, many politicians spoke out against the UK welcoming him and large numbers of people protested his visit.

When other world leaders with far worse human rights records visit the UK, e.g: MBS the crown prince of saudi arabia. those same politicians and people are largely silent.


Potential explanations:

  • People are more likely to know about trump’s badness than that of other world leaders
  • Trump is from a nation we see, culturally, as part of our tribe. Hence trump is part of our culture war in a way the dictator of forignstan isn’t.
  • For politicians, their voters/the media dislike trump more than other world leaders, hence they play to that.

Why do populists succeed?

Question: How is it that populist politician often beat established political parties. How can small newcomers without established patronage networks, fundraising operations, media support or experience beat politicians who have all of these things?

Potential Answers:

  1. They don’t. Populists usually lose. It’s just that we tend to remember the ones who succeed.
  2. Populists are optimized for persuading the average person. Politicians are optimized for getting their party to like them (e.g: winning primaries in the USA or getting assigned to a safe seat in the UK)
  3. Politicians are part of parties. Parties have institutional inertia and lag behind public opinion. Hence sometimes parties lines are hugely suboptimal and hence an outsider with a different line has a decent shot.
  4. The public in some circumstances heavily punishes establishment figures.

Book Review: The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikotter

Before you read this, read my highlights. They give a better overview/feel of the book anything here.

The tragedy of liberation covers China from 1945 to 1957 with a few references back to events during WW2 and the Japanese occupation. It looks at the communist victory in the civil war and the gradual transformation of Chinese society that followed. It’s part of a trilogy, the latter two books covering the great leap forward and the cultural revolution.

The writing is good. It’s able to convey large scale social trends without loosing sight of the human experience or reducing history to the decisions of a few great men. Reading the book will teach you about those, but it will also paint a story of how peasants, industrialists, housewives and students experienced the decade.

The research seems good. From what I see, Dikotter went through party archives and bases his work on mostly primary material from the time. Still, I wouldn’t be able to tell if he was lying, either directly or by presenting only one side of a story.

The book is heavy. It talks of suffering and injustice and war. The descriptions of the former are often graphic. The scale of the suffering is unimaginable. It’s the injustice which got to me the most.

Recommendation: Read it. You’ll get a bit more from it if you have some knowledge of the broader history of the time to slot it into, before and after, but even without that background it’ll give you a good insight into the formation of the second most powerful state on earth and injustices which are difficult to comprehend.

Some observations from the book:

  • Bad incentives and un-empirical policymaking can and did have horrific consequences.

    • Regions were given targets for percentages of their population to kill as "rightists". Leadership at every level strove to exceed these targets and in doing so destroyed huge numbers of people, most being innocent. Underachieving meant risking being purged themselves.
    • In disease eradication programs, programs success was judged based on inputs, not outputs. Number of snails/rats killed rather than number of cases of disease X per year. People farmed rats to sell the tails. Peasants were organized in work brigades and forced to pick snails in waters swarming with Schistosomiasis. Why? To eliminate Schistosomiasis. In part this was down to ignorance and cadres incentives to show visible efforts to meet targets as well as bad incentives.
    • More generally, making any criticism of government policy incredibly dangerous leads, unsurprisingly, to no criticism and bad policy.
  • When the powerful are able to suppress speech, they will do so to limit criticism of their actions or morals. This was true even in the 1942 where Mao, in the midst of a desperate civil war, launched a half-year long purge to destroy critics who decried his luxurious lifestyle.

    • tens of thousands of young volunteers had poured into Yan’an to join the communist party. Students, teachers, artists, writers and journalists, they were disenchanted with the nationalists and eager to dedicate their lives to the revolution. Many were so excited after days on the road that they wept when they saw the heights of Yan’an in the distance. Others cheered from the backs of their lorries, singing the ‘Internationale’ and the Soviet Union’s ‘Motherland March’. They were full of idealism, embracing liberty, equality, democracy and other liberal values that had become popular in China after the fall of the empire in 1911. They were quickly disillusioned. Instead of equality, they found a rigid hierarchy. Every organisation had three different kitchens, the best food being reserved for the senior leaders. From the amount of grain, sugar, cooking oil, meat and fruit to the quality of health care and access to information, one’s position in the party hierarchy determined everything. Even the quality of tobacco and writing paper varied according to rank. Medicine was scarce for those on the lower rungs of the ladder, although leading cadres had personal doctors and sent their children to Moscow. At the apex of the party stood Mao, who was driven around in the only car in Yan’an and lived in a large mansion with heating especially installed for his comfort.2 In February 1942, Mao asked the young volunteers to attack ‘dogmatism’ and its alleged practitioners, namely his rival Wang Ming and other Soviet-trained leaders. Soon the criticisms that he unleashed went too far. Instead of following the Chairman’s cue, several critics expressed discontent with the way the red capital was run. A young writer called Wang Shiwei, who worked for the Liberation Daily, wrote an essay denouncing the arrogance of the ‘big shots’ who were ‘indulging in extremely unnecessary and unjustified perks’, while the sick could not even ‘have a sip of noodle soup’.3 After two months, Mao changed tack and angrily condemned Wang Shiwei as a ‘Trotskyist’ (Wang had translated Engels and Trotsky). He also turned against Wang’s supporters, determined to stamp out any lingering influence of free thinking among the young volunteers. Just as the rank and file were investigated in a witch-hunt for spies and undercover agents, they were interrogated in front of large crowds shouting slogans, made to confess in endless indoctrination meetings and forced to denounce each other in a bid to save themselves. Some were locked up in caves, others taken to mock executions. For month after month, life in Yan’an was nothing but a relentless succession of interrogations and rallies, feeding fear, suspicion and betrayal. All communications with areas under nationalist control were cut off, and any attempt to contact the outside world was viewed as evidence of espionage. The pressure was too much for some, as they broke down, lost their minds or committed suicide…

  • Absolute disregard for human life and dignity. The regime didn’t just kill it’s opponents or torture them. It sough to humiliate them. To make them lower than low. To make it normal, acceptable and indeed mandatory for their former friends, employees and community members to degrade them.

    • Some victims spent years in chains, for instance Duan Kewen and Harriet Mills. Many tightening devices were also very heavy, digging into the skin and lacerating the flesh. Beatings were common, administered with bamboo sticks, leather belts, heavy clubs or bare knuckles. Sleep deprivation was widely used. Other forms of torture were more ingenious, and came with poetic titles drawn from traditional literature. ‘Dipping the Duckling into the Water’ meant suspending a victim upside down with bound hands. ‘Sitting on the Tiger Bench’ consisted of fastening somebody’s knees to a small iron bench with his hands cuffed behind the back. Bricks were inserted under the tied legs, causing them to bend unnaturally, eventually breaking at the knees. There was an extensive repertoire of torture methods, as ever more ingenious ways of degrading other human beings were developed. In Beijing some victims had their feet shackled to the window until they fainted. Salt was rubbed into their wounds. Some had to squat on the bucket used for excrement and hold a spittoon for hours without moving. Others were sodomised. In the south the guards sometimes built crude electric machines with a battery in a wooden box and a wheel on the outside. Two cords were attached to the victim’s hands or other body parts and then the wheel was turned to generate an electric shock.11 The list could go on. But by all accounts the most dreaded aspect of incarceration was not the frequent beatings, the hard labour or even the grinding hunger. It was thought reform, referred to by one victim as a ‘carefully cultivated Auschwitz of the mind’. As Robert Ford, an English radio operator, put it after a four-year spell in prison, ‘When you’re being beaten up, you can turn into yourself and find a corner of your mind in which to fight the pain. But when you’re being spiritually tortured by thought reform, there’s nowhere you can go. It affects you at the most profound, deepest levels and attacks your very identity.’ The self-criticism and indoctrination meetings lasted for hours on end, day in, day out, year after year. And unlike those on the outside, once the group discussions were over, the others were still in the same cell. They were encouraged to examine, question and denounce each other. Sometimes they had to take part in brutal struggle meetings, proving on whose side they stood by beating a suspect. ‘By the time you got through such a meeting you would, if you were a conscientious person at all, suffer terribly mentally and groan for days. Silence and distress were the outcome.’ Every bit of human dignity was stripped away as victims tried to survive by killing their former selves. Wang Tsunming, a nationalist officer captured in 1949, came to the conclusion that thought reform was nothing less than the ‘physical and mental liquidation of oneself by oneself’. Those who resisted the process committed suicide. Those who survived it renounced being themselves

  • Many members of the intellectual elite bought wholeheartedly into communism. Chinese Harvard graduates chose to return to Maoist china only to be thrown into the meat grinder. Western intellectuals and ambassadors were led around potemkin villages, introduced to former capitalists who spoke well of the regime on fear of death.

  • How quickly humans descend to depravity when their society permits and encourages it

    • Some went further. Lin Zhao, a headstrong, idealistic young woman who wrote searing denunciations of government corruption before joining the underground movement in 1948, told her classmate that ‘my hatred for the landlords is the same as my love of the country’. This she demonstrated by ordering a landowner to be placed in a vat of freezing water overnight. She felt ‘cruel happiness’ on hearing the man scream in pain, as this meant that the villagers would no longer be afraid of him. After a dozen victims were executed in the wake of a rally she had helped organise, she looked at each of the corpses, one by one. ‘Seeing them die this way, I felt as proud and happy as the people who had directly suffered under them.’ She was barely twenty.

  • China has a long history of statehood. The communists like the nationalists before them knew how to govern, monitor regions from the center, establish a bureaucracy and do a huge number of other things which are difficult to do in a country of hundreds of millions. This was probably partly due to soviet assistance, but it’s still stunning just how different the cultural tech of governance is in different societies.

Observations on norm erosion

Norm Erosion

I work at an engineering consultancy. An engineering consultancy sells project to clients and makes money by then billing per man-hour for the staff assigned to complete those projects. Some engineering consultancies are little more than body shops/temp agencies, providing cheap short-term staff to other firms and littler more than that. The higher end firms provide whole projects which the client never would have done on their own, either due to bad culture or lack of ability. The firm I work for is the latter kind.

One problem engineering consultancies often have is co-location. Clients usually want the very expensive consultants they pay for to work from their offices. The firm wants to please clients but it also want happy staff and a strong internal culture and collective identity. Such a culture/identity is hard to build if people are in different places and never see each other. Hence my firm chose very early on to commit to having staff work from HQ at least two days a week on Thursday and Friday. The logic was simple. The long term gains from a strong culture drastically outweigh the short term gains from slightly more contracts or happier clients. I say was because that logic no longer seems to hold.

A year ago or so, I was working on a large project. It was one of the largest projects in the firms history and at the time brought in around 20% of total revenue. In terms of team size, revenue and customer base, that one project was larger than most startups or product firms. At some point, senior stakeholders at the client demanded that we work from their office 4 days a week. Our management initially refused, then negotiated and finally agreed. When they did, there was a big fuss. Meetings were organized to understand our concerns. We were offered free breakfast and lunch on the extra day. There were talks in the firm about the effects this would have and weather the tradeoff was worth it. Most of all, everyone recognized that this was unusual, and would only be done in these kind of extraordinary circumstances.

Fast forward a year. I’ve just started on another project. It’s for one of the most well-funded startups in history. (30m seed). We work from the client site 4 days a week. There’s been no discussion of this or recognition that it’s abnormal.

It’s interesting just how quickly norms can erode. This is only one example, and one data point is not enough to infer a general trend, but it’s still interesting because it illustrates a few of the conditions which make norm erosion especially likely.

  • Tangible, short term rewards for ignoring the norm ($$$ from having a major project extended) vs Intangible long term harms (weaker culture, less employee satisfaction, less networking)
  • Individual gains, socialized costs. Various individuals would be directly responsible for the collapse of a major multi-million dollar project had they said no to a client. No one would be held personally responsible for gradual cultural erosion.
  • Norm adherence -> "temporary, short term, situational" non-adherence -> general non-adherence. The norm didn’t snap in one day. Rather it gradually went from a norm to a sometimes followed norm to nothing. This is my impression of how most change happens.

The core problem issue is that most work is done by groups and one of the problems with groups is that they’re not aligned. What is best for an individual group member is not always what is best for the collective. Consider the scenario where

  • We have a choice between A and B
  • 95% of the time it is better for the group to choose A
  • It is better for the individual making the choice to choose B

If the individual making the choice lacked any self interest, we could trust them to make the best choice in each situation, choosing A in the 95% of cases where it’s optimal and B in the other 5%. On the other hand, if they’re self interested, they’ll choose B as much as they can get away with. Norms are one way to prevent this. If choosing A is a norm, not doing it is obvious, attributable to one individual and usually requires justification. All of these things raise the cost of norm-breaking actions and so make them less likely.

I’m not sure what my conclusion is here. Maybe that it can seem rational to approach situations on a case by case basis rather than using general rules but it’s usually not unless you’re in a very aligned team.

Westworld is not smart

The premise of the show is that there is a themepark, "westworld", in America in the near future. It’s a simulation of the imagined American wild west. Rich tourists go there. They either play white hats, good guys, or black hats, bad guys. The bad guys can rape and kill and torture the inhabitants of the park. How is this legal? The natives aren’t human actors, they’re robots who look human and, after the themepark resets, loose their memories of the past cycles events. The show does a lot of oooh-aaah about wheather the robots are alive and wheather torturing them is wrong etc..

Why is the show stupid? Because

  • It ignore moral uncertainty. The robots often look, feel and act like real people. As the narrative develops, they increasingly exhibit autonomous behaviours, self-awareness and other traits we associate with people. Even if we can’t be sure they they qualify as moral agents, it still seems to be highly likely or at least possible. Hence killing/torturing maiming them is wrong. There’s an (risk of them being people)% chance that you’re doing horrific things to actual people. A good comparison here is you see a person in a coma. You can choose to shoot them, You are 97% certain they’re braindead. Obviously you shouldn’t shoot them. The 3% risk that you run of commiting murder is too high.
  • It treats moral personhood as binary. The presumption in the show is that if the robots aren’t full people, it’s okay to torture/kill/rape/murder them. Why do they have to be 100% equivalent to humans for it to be bad to torture them? Animals are not people. We still don’t allow their torture. The robots certainly seem more aware and intelligent than animals, The point is there are levels of personhood in between "Rock" and "Sentient human being", those levels still have certain rights/preferences we care about and there’s no way in hell the robots appear to have less personhood than a pig or cow.
  • The world is really, really dumb. There exist super smart robots who have a great deal of decision making power, are autonomous, can be programmed to do many things (including shoot?). All they’re used for is theme parks. Bullshit. This kind of tech would change the face of the world in a decade. All manual or low-creativity jobs could be automated. Wars could be fought mostly without human intervention. Authoritarian regimes would have even less need of a happy populace, knowing their soldiers are always loyal and willing regardless of what the drones think. Hell, it’s literally a singularity level event which could entirely reshape/destroy human society. And that’s assuming the robots can just follow basic scripts and don’t have agency. If they do and if their intelligence can be adjusted to be super human, as the shows says it can, ooooohhhh boy.