Advice, Literature, Model

Sanderson’s Law Applies To Cultures Too

[Warning: Contains spoilers for The Sunset Mantle, Vorkosigan Saga (Memory and subsequent), Dune, and Chronicles of the Kencyrath]

For the uninitiated, Sanderson’s Law (technically, Sanderson’s First Law of Magic) is:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Brandon Sanderson wrote this law to help new writers come up with satisfying magical systems. But I think it’s applicable beyond magic. A recent experience has taught me that it’s especially applicable to fantasy cultures.

I recently read Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss, a book that falls into one of my favourite fantasy sub-genres: hopeless siege tales.

Sunset Mantle is what’s called secondary world fantasy; it takes place in a world that doesn’t share a common history or culture (or even necessarily biosphere) with our own. Game of Thrones is secondary world fantasy, while Harry Potter is primary world fantasy (because it takes place in a different version of our world, which we chauvinistically call the “primary” one).

Secondary world fantasy gives writers a lot more freedom to play around with cultures and create interesting set-pieces when cultures collide. If you want to write a book where the Roman Empire fights a total war against the Chinese Empire, you’re going to have to put in a master’s thesis worth of work to explain how that came about (if you don’t want to be eviscerated by pedants on the internet). In a secondary world, you can very easily have a thinly veiled stand-in for Rome right next to a thinly veiled analogue of China. Give readers some familiar sounding names and culture touchstones and they’ll figure out what’s going on right away, without you having to put in effort to make it plausible in our world.

When you don’t use subtle cues, like names or cultural touchstones (for example: imperial exams and eunuchs for China, gladiatorial fights and the cursus honorum for Rome), you risk leaving your readers adrift.

Many of the key plot points in Sunset Mantle hinge on obscure rules in an invented culture/religion that doesn’t bear much resemblance to any that I’m familiar with. It has strong guest rights, like many steppes cultures; it has strong charity obligations and monotheistic strictures, like several historical strands of Christianity; it has a strong caste system and rules of ritual purity, like Hinduism; and it has a strong warrior ethos, complete with battle rage and rules for dealing with it, similar to common depictions of Norse cultures.

These actually fit together surprising well! Reiss pulled off an entertaining book. But I think many of the plot points fell flat because they were almost impossible to anticipate. The lack of any sort of consistent real-world analogue to the invented culture meant that I never really had an intuition of what it would demand in a given situation. This meant that all of the problems in the story that were solved via obscure points of culture weren’t at all satisfying to me. There was build up, but then no excitement during the resolution. This was common enough that several chunks of the story didn’t really work for me.

Here’s one example:

“But what,” asked Lemist, “is a congregation? The Ayarith school teaches that it is ten men, and the ancient school of Baern says seven. But among the Irimin school there is a tradition that even three men, if they are drawn in together into the same act, by the same person, that is a congregation, and a man who has led three men into the same wicked act shall be put to death by the axe, and also his family shall bear the sin.”

All the crowd in the church was silent. Perhaps there were some who did not know against whom this study of law was aimed, but they knew better than to ask questions, when they saw the frozen faces of those who heard what was being said.

(Reiss, Alter S.. Sunset Mantle (pp. 92-93). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.)

This means protagonist Cete’s enemy erred greatly by sending three men to kill him and had better cut it out if he doesn’t want to be executed. It’s a cool resolution to a plot point – or would be if it hadn’t taken me utterly by surprise. As it is, it felt kind of like a cheap trick to get the author out of a hole he’d written himself into, like the dreaded deux ex machina – god from the machine – that ancient playwrights used to resolve conflicts they otherwise couldn’t.

(This is the point where I note that it is much harder to write than it is to criticize. This blog post is about something I noticed, not necessarily something I could do better.)

I’ve read other books that do a much better job of using sudden points of culture to resolve conflict in a satisfying manner. Lois McMaster Bujold (I will always be recommending her books) strikes me as particularly apt. When it comes time for a key character of hers to make a lateral career move into a job we’ve never heard of before, it feels satisfying because the job is directly in line with legal principles for the society that she laid out six books earlier.

The job is that of Imperial Auditor – a high powered investigator who reports directly to the emperor and has sweeping powers –  and it’s introduced when protagonist Miles loses his combat career in Memory. The principles I think it is based on are articulated in the novella Mountains of Mourning: “the spirit was to be preferred over the letter, truth over technicalities. Precedent was held subordinate to the judgment of the man on the spot”.

Imperial Auditors are given broad discretion to resolve problems as they see fit. The main rule is: make sure the emperor would approve. We later see Miles using the awesome authority of this office to make sure a widow gets the pension she deserves. The letter of the law wasn’t on her side, but the spirit was, and Miles, as the Auditor on the spot, was empowered to make the spirit speak louder than the letter.

Wandering around my bookshelves, I was able to grab a couple more examples of satisfying resolutions to conflicts that hinged on guessable cultural traits:

  • In Dune, Fremen settle challenges to leadership via combat. Paul Maud’dib spends several years as their de facto leader, while another man, Stilgar, holds the actual title. This situation is considered culturally untenable and Paul is expected to fight Stilgar so that he can lead properly. Paul is able to avoid this unwanted fight to the death (he likes Stilgar) by appealing to the only thing Fremen value more than their leadership traditions: their well-established pragmatism. He says that killing Stilgar before the final battle would be little better than cutting off his own arm right before it. If Frank Herbert hadn’t mentioned the extreme pragmatism of the Fremen (to the point that they render down their dead for water) several times, this might have felt like a cop-out.
  • In The Chronicles of the Kencyrath, it looks like convoluted politics will force protagonist Jame out of the military academy of Tentir. But it’s mentioned several times that the NCOs who run the place have their own streak of honour that allows them to subvert their traditionally required oaths to their lords. When Jame redeems a stain on the Tentir’s collective honour, this oath to the college gives them an opening to keep her there and keep their oaths to their lords. If PC Hodgell hadn’t spent so long building up the internal culture of Tentir, this might have felt forced.

It’s hard to figure out where good foreshadowing ends and good cultural creation begins, but I do think there is one simple thing an author can do to make culture a satisfying source of plot resolution: make a culture simple enough to stereotype, at least at first.

If the other inhabitants of a fantasy world are telling off-colour jokes about this culture, what do they say? A good example of this done explicitly comes from Mass Effect: “Q: How do you tell when a Turian is out of ammo? A: He switches to the stick up his ass as a backup weapon.” 

(Even if you’ve never played Mass Effect, you now know something about Turians.)

At the same time as I started writing this, I started re-reading PC Hodgell’s The Chronicles of the Kencyrath, which provided a handy example of someone doing everything right. The first three things we learn about the eponymous Kencyr are:

  1. They heal very quickly
  2. They dislike their God
  3. Their honour code is strict enough that lying is a deadly crime and calling some a liar a deathly insult

There are eight more books in which we learn all about the subtleties of their culture and religion. But within the first thirty pages, we have enough information that we can start making predictions about how they’ll react to things and what’s culturally important.

When Marc, a solidly dependable Kencyr who is working as a guard and bound by Kencyr cultural laws to loyally serve his employer lets the rather more eccentric Jame escape from a crime scene, we instantly know that him choosing her over his word is a big deal. And indeed, while he helps her escape, he also immediately tries to kill himself. Jame is only able to talk him out of it by explaining that she hadn’t broken any laws there. It was already established that in the city of Tai-Tastigon, only those who physically touch stolen property are in legal jeopardy. Jame never touched the stolen goods, she was just on the scene. Marc didn’t actually break his oath and so decides to keep living.

God Stalk is not a long book, so that fact that PC Hodgell was able to set all of this up and have it feel both exciting in the moment and satisfying in the resolution is quite remarkable. It’s a testament to what effective cultural distillation, plus a few choice tidbits of extra information can do for a plot.

If you don’t come up with a similar distillation and convey it to your readers quickly, there will be a period where you can’t use culture as a satisfying source of plot resolution. It’s probably no coincidence that I noticed this in Sunset Mantle, which is a long(-ish) novella. Unlike Hodgell, Reiss isn’t able to develop a culture in such a limited space, perhaps because his culture has fewer obvious touchstones.

Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic can be your friend here too. As he stated it, the law is:

The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than its capabilities. What the magic can’t do is more interesting than what it can.

Similarly, the taboos and strictures of a culture are much more interesting than what it permits. Had Reiss built up a quick sketch of complicated rules around commanding and preaching (with maybe a reference that there could be surprisingly little theological difference between military command and being behind a pulpit), the rule about leading a congregation astray would have fit neatly into place with what else we knew of the culture.

Having tight constraints imposed by culture doesn’t just allow for plot resolution. It also allows for plot generation. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles gets caught up in a seemingly unwinnable conflict because he gave his word; several hundred pages earlier Bujold establishes that breaking a word is, to a Barrayaran, roughly equivalent to sundering your soul.

It is perhaps no accident that the only thing we learn initially about the Kencyr that isn’t a descriptive fact (like their healing and their fraught theological state) is that honour binds them and can break them. This constraint, that all Kencyr characters must be honourable, does a lot of work driving the plot.

This then would be my advice: when you wish to invent a fantasy culture, start simple, with a few stereotypes that everyone else in the world can be expected to know. Make sure at least one of them is an interesting constraint on behaviour. Then add in depth that people can get to know gradually. When you’re using the culture as a plot device, make sure to stick to the simple stereotypes or whatever other information you’ve directly given your reader. If you do this, you’ll develop rich cultures that drive interesting conflicts and you’ll be able to use cultural rules to consistently resolve conflict in a way that will feel satisfying to your readers.

Literature, Model

Does Amateurish Writing Exist

[Warning: Spoilers for Too Like the Lightning]

What marks writing as amateurish (and whether “amateurish” or “low-brow” works are worthy of awards) has been a topic of contention in the science fiction and fantasy community for the past few years, with the rise of Hugo slates and the various forms of “puppies“.

I’m not talking about the learning works of genuine amateurs. These aren’t stories that use big words for the sake of sounding smart (and at the cost of slowing down the stories), or over the top fanfiction-esque rip-offs of more established works (well, at least not since the Wheel of Time nomination in 2014). I’m talking about that subtler thing, the feeling that bubbles up from the deepest recesses of your brain and says “this story wasn’t written as well as it could be”.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because about ¾ of the way through Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer, I started to feel myself put off [1]. And the only explanation I had for this was the word “amateurish” – which popped into my head devoid of any reason. This post is an attempt to unpack what that means (for me) and how I think it has influenced some of the genuine disagreements around rewarding authors in science fiction and fantasy [2]. Your tastes might be calibrated differently and if you disagree with my analysis, I’d like to hear about it.

Now, there are times when you know something is amateurish and that’s okay. No one should be surprised that John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows series, books that he explicitly wrote for himself are parsed by most people as pretty amateurish. When pieces aren’t written explicitly for the author only, I expect some consideration of the audience. Ideally the writer should be having fun too, but if they’re writing for publication, they have to be writing to an audience. This doesn’t mean that they must write exactly what people tell them they want. People can be a terrible judge of what they want!

This also doesn’t necessarily imply pandering. People like to be challenged. If you look at the most popular books of the last decade on Goodreads, few of them could be described as pandering. I’m familiar with two of the top three books there and both of them kill off a fan favourite character. People understand that life involves struggle. Lois McMaster Bujold – who has won more Hugo awards for best novel than any living author – once said she generated plots by considering “what’s the worst possible thing I can do to these people?” The results of this method speak for themselves.

Meditating on my reaction to books like Paladin of Shadows in light of my experiences with Too Like The Lightning is what led me to believe that the more technically proficient “amateurish” books are those that lose sight of what the audience will enjoy and follow just what the author enjoys. This may involve a character that the author heavily identifies with – the Marty Stu or Mary Sue phenomena – who is lovingly described overcoming obstacles and generally being “awesome” but doesn’t “earn” any of this. It may also involve gratuitous sex, violence, engineering details, gun details, political monologuing (I’m looking at you, Atlas Shrugged), or tangents about constitutional history (this is how most of the fiction I write manages to become unreadable).

I realized this when I was reading Too Like the Lightning. I loved the world building and I found the characters interesting. But (spoilers!) when it turned out that all of the politicians were literally in bed with each other or when the murders the protagonist carried out were described in grisly, unrepentant detail, I found myself liking the book a lot less. This is – I think – what spurred the label amateurish in my head.

I think this is because (in my estimation), there aren’t a lot of people who actually want to read about brutal torture-execution or literally incestuous politics. It’s not (I think) that I’m prudish. It seemed like some of the scenes were written to be deliberately off-putting. And I understand that this might be part of the theme of the work and I understand that these scenes were probably necessary for the author’s creative vision. But they didn’t work for me and they seemed like a thing that wouldn’t work for a lot of people that I know. They were discordant and jarring. They weren’t pulled off as well as they would have had to be to keep me engaged as a reader.

I wonder if a similar process is what caused the changes that the Sad Puppies are now lamenting at the Hugo Awards. To many readers, the sexualized violence or sexual violence that can find its way into science fiction and fantasy books (I’d like to again mention Paladin of Shadows) is incredibly off-putting. I find it incredibly off-putting. Books that incorporate a lot of this feel like they’re ignoring the chunk of audience that is me and my friends and it’s hard while reading them for me not to feel that the writers are fairly amateurish. I normally prefer works that meditate on the causes and uses of violence when they incorporate it – I’d put N.K. Jemisin’s truly excellent Broken Earth series in this category – and it seems like readers who think this way are starting to dominate the Hugos.

For the people who previously had their choices picked year after year, this (as well as all the thinkpieces explaining why their favourite books are garbage) feels like an attack. Add to this the fact that some of the books that started winning had a more literary bent and you have some fans of the genre believing that the Hugos are going to amateurs who are just cruising to victory by alluding to famous literary works. These readers look suspiciously on crowds who tell them they’re terrible if they don’t like books that are less focused on the action and excitement they normally read for. I can see why that’s a hard sell, even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last few Hugo winners [3].

There’s obviously an inferential gap here, if everyone can feel angry about the crappy writing everyone else likes. For my part, I’ll probably be using “amateurish” only to describe books that are technically deficient. For books that are genuinely well written but seem to focus more on what the author wants than (on what I think) their likely audience wants, well, I won’t have a snappy term, I’ll just have to explain it like that.

Footnotes

[1] A disclaimer: the work of a critic is always easier than that of a creator. I’m going to be criticizing writing that’s better than my own here, which is always a risk. Think of me not as someone criticizing from on high, but frantically taking notes right before a test I hope to barely pass. ^

[2] I want to separate the Sad Puppies, who I view as people sad that action-packed books were being passed over in favour of more literary ones from the Rabid Puppies, who just wanted to burn everything to the ground. I’m not going to make any excuses for the Rabid Puppies. ^

[3] As much as I can find some science fiction and fantasy too full of violence for my tastes, I’ve also had little to complain about in the past, because my favourite author, Lois McMaster Bujold, has been reliably winning Hugo awards since before I was born. I’m not sure why there was never a backlash around her books. Perhaps it’s because they’re still reliably space opera, so class distinctions around how “literary” a work is don’t come up when Bujold wins. ^

History, Quick Fix

Against Historical Narratives

There is perhaps no temptation greater to the amateur (or professional) historian than to take a set of historical facts and draw from them a grand narrative. This tradition has existed at least since Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with its focus on declining civic virtue and the rise of Christianity.

Obviously, it is true that things in history happen for a reason. But I think the case is much less clear that these reasons can be marshalled like soldiers and made to march in neat lines across the centuries. What is true in one time and place may not necessarily be true in another. When you fall under the sway of a grand narrative, when you believe that everything happens for a reason, you may become tempted to ignore all of the evidence to the contrary.

Instead praying at the altar of grand narratives, I’d like to suggest that you embrace the ambiguity of history, an ambiguity that exists because…

Context Is Tricky

Here are six sentences someone could tell you about their interaction with the sharing economy:

  • I stayed at an Uber last night
  • I took an AirBnB to the mall
  • I deliberately took an Uber
  • I deliberately took a Lyft
  • I deliberately took a taxi
  • I can’t remember which ride-hailing app I used

Each of these sentences has an overt meaning. They describe how someone spent a night or got from place A to place B. They also have a deeper meaning, a meaning that only makes sense in the current context. Imagine your friend told you that they deliberately took an Uber. What does it say about them that they deliberately took a ride in the most embattled and controversial ridesharing platform? How would you expect their political views to differ from someone who told you they deliberately took a taxi?

Even simple statements carry a lot of hidden context, context that is necessary for full understanding.

Do you know what the equivalent statements to the six I listed would be in China? How about in Saudi Arabia? I can tell you that I don’t know either. Of course, it isn’t particularly hard to find these out for China (or Saudi Arabia). You may not find a key written down anywhere (especially if you can only read English), but all you have to do is ask someone from either country and they could quickly give you a set of contextual equivalents.

Luckily historians can do the same… oh. Oh damn.

When you’re dealing with the history of a civilization that “ended” hundreds or thousands of years ago, you’re going to be dealing with cultural context that you don’t fully understand. Sometimes people are helpful enough to write down “Uber=kind of evil” and “supporting taxis = very left wing, probably vegan & goes to protests”. A lot of the time they don’t though, because that’s all obvious cultural context that anyone they’re writing to would obviously have.

And sometimes they do write down even the obvious stuff, only for it all to get burned when barbarians sack their city, leaving us with no real way to understand if a sentence like “the opposing orator wore red” has any sort of meaning beyond a statement of sartorial critique or not.

All of this is to say that context can make or break narratives. Look at the play “Hamilton”. It’s a play aimed at urban progressives. The titular character’s strong anti-slavery views are supposed to code to a modern audience that he’s on the same political team as them. But if you look at American history, it turns out that support for abolishing slavery (and later, abolishing segregation) and support for big corporations over the “little guy” were correlated until very recently. In the 1960s though 1990s, there was a shift such that the Democrats came to stand for both civil rights and supporting poorer Americans, instead of just the latter. Before this shift, Democrats were the party of segregation, not that you’d know it to see them today.

Trying to tie Hamilton into a grander narrative of (eventual) progressive triumph erases the fact that most of the modern audience would strenuously disagree with his economic views (aside from urban neo-liberals, who are very much in Hamilton’s mold). Audiences end up leaving the paly with a story about their own intellectual lineage that is far from correct, a story that may cause them to feel smugly superior to people of other political stripes.

History optimized for this sort of team or political effect turns many modern historians or history writers into…

Unreliable Narrators

Gaps in context, or modern readers missing the true significance of gestures, words, and acts steeped in a particular extinct culture, combined with the fact that it is often impossible to really know why someone in the past did something mean that some of history is always going to be filled in with our best guesses.

Professor Mary Beard really drove this point home for me in her book SPQR. She showed me how history that I thought was solid was often made up of myths, exaggerations, and wishful thinking on the parts of modern authors. We know much less about Rome than many historians had made clear to me, probably because any nuance or alternative explanation would ruin their grand theories.

When it comes to so much of the past, we genuinely don’t know why things happened.

I recently heard two colleagues arguing about The Great Divergence – the unexplained difference in growth rates between Europe and the rest of the world that became apparent in the 1700s and 1800s. One was very confident that it could be explained by access to coal. The other was just as confident that it could be explained by differences in property rights.

I waded in and pointed out that Wikipedia lists fifteen possible explanations, all of which or none of which could be true. Confidence about the cause of the great divergence seems to me a very silly thing. We cannot reproduce it, so all theories must be definitionally unfalsifiable.

But both of my colleagues had read narrative accounts of history. And these narrative accounts had agendas. One wished to show that all peoples had the same inherent abilities and so cast The Great Divergence as chance. The other wanted to show how important property rights are and so made those the central factor in it. Neither gave much time to the other explanation, or any of the thirteen others that a well trafficked and heavily edited Wikipedia article finds equally credible.

Neither agenda was bad here. I am in fact broadly in favour of both. Yet their effect was to give two otherwise intelligent and well-read people a myopic view of history.

So much of narrative history is like this! Authors take the possibilities they like best, or that support their political beliefs the best, or think will sell the best, and write them down as if they are the only possibilities. Anyone who is unlucky enough to read such an account will be left with a false sense of certainty – and in ignorance of all the other options.


Of course, I have an agenda too. We all do. It’s just that my agenda is literally “the truth resists simplicity“. I like the messiness of history. It fits my aesthetic sense well. It’s because of this sense, that I’d like to encourage everyone to make their next foray into history free of narratives. Use Wikipedia or a textbook instead of a bestselling book. Read something by Mary Beard, who writes as much about historiography as she writes about history. Whatever you do, avoid books with blurbs praising the author for their “controversial” or “insightful” new theory.

Leave, just once, behind those famous narrative works like “Guns, Germs, and Steel” or “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and pick up something that embraces ambiguity and doesn’t bury messiness behind a simple agenda.

Economics, Politics

When To Worry About Public Debt

I watch a lot of political debates with my friends. A couple of them have turned to me after watching heated arguments about public debt and (because I have a well-known habit of reading monetary policy blogs) asked me who is right. I hear questions like:

Is it true that public debt represents an unfair burden on our hypothetical grandchildren? Is all this talk about fiscal discipline and balanced budgets pointless? Is it really bad when public debt gets over 100% of a country’s GDP? How can the threat of defaulting on loans lead to inflation and ruin?

And what does all this mean for Ontario? Is Doug Ford right about the deficit?

This is my attempt to sort this all out in a public and durable form. Now when I’ve taken a political debate drinking game too far, I’ll still be able to point people towards the answers to their questions.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an economist. Despite the research I did for it and the care with which I edited, this post may contain errors, oversimplifications, or misunderstandings.)

Is Public Debt A Burden On Future Generations?

Among politicians of a certain stripe, it’s common to compare the budget of a country to the budget of a family. When a family is budgeting, any shortfall must be paid for via loans. Left unspoken is the fact that many families find themselves in a rather large amount of debt early on – because they need a mortgage to buy their dwelling. The only way a family can ever get out of debt is by maintaining a monthly surplus until their mortgage is paid off, then being careful to avoid taking on too much new debt.

Becoming debt free is desirable to individuals for two reasons. First, it makes their retirement (feel) much more secure. Given that retirement generally means switching to a fixed income or living off savings, it can be impossible to pay off the principle of a debt after someone makes the decision to retire.

Second, parents often desire to leave something behind for their children. This is only possible if their assets outweigh their debts.

Countries have to grapple with neither of these responsibilities. While it is true that the average age in many countries is steadily increasing, countries that have relatively open immigration policies and are attractive to immigrants largely avoid this problem. Look at how Canada and the United States compare to Italy and Japan in working age population percentage, for example.

Graph showing % of working age population in 4 OECD countries: Japan, Canada, USA, Italy.
After seeing this graph, I realized how hyperbolic it was to talk about Japan’s aging population. Source: OECD.

 

Even in Japan, where this is “dire”, the percentage of the population that is working age is equivalent to the percentage of the population that was working age in Canada or America in 1970. As lifespans increase, we may have to expand our definition of working age. But some combination of immigration, better support for parents, and better support for older citizens who wish to keep working will prevent us from ever getting to a point where it’s sensible to talk about a country “retiring”.

Since countries don’t “retire”, they don’t have to cope with the worry of “needing to work later to pay off that debt”. Since countries don’t have children, they don’t have to worry about having something to pass on. Countries don’t ever actually have to pay back all of their debt. They can continue to roll it over indefinitely, as long as someone is willing to continue to loan them money at a rate they’re willing to pay.

What I mean by “rolling over”, is that countries can just get a new loan for the same amount as their last one, as soon as the previous loan comes due. If interest rates have risen (either in general, or because the country is a greater risk) since their last loan, the new loan will be more expensive. If they’ve fallen, it will be cheaper. Rolling over loans changes the interest rate a country is paying, but doesn’t change the amount it owes.

Is Talk Of Discipline Pointless?

No.

Even if countries don’t really ever have to pay back the principle on their loans, they do have to make interest payments (borrowing to pay these is possible, but it isn’t a good look and can pretty quickly lead to dangerous levels of debt). The effect of these payments ranges from “it’s mildly annoying that we can’t spend that money on something better” to “we’re destroying our ecosystem growing bananas so that we have something to sell for cash to make our interest payments”. Lack of discipline and excessive debt levels can move a country closer to the second case.

In a well-integrated and otherwise successful economy with ample room in its governmental budget, interest payments are well worth the advantage of getting money early. When this money is used to create economic benefits that accrue faster than the interest payments, countries are net beneficiaries. If you take out a loan that charges 1-2% interest a year and use it to build a bridge that drives 4% economic growth for the next forty years, you’re ahead by 2-3% year on year. This is a good deal.

Unlike most talk about interest rates, where they’re entirely hypothetical, I really do mean that 1-2% figure. That’s actually higher than the average rate the US government has been paying to borrow over the last decade (Germany had it even better; they briefly paid negative interest rates). Governments – at least those with a relatively good track record around money – really have a superpower with how cheaply they can get money, so if nothing else, it’s worth keeping debt relatively low so that they don’t lose their reputation for responsibility and continue to have access to cheap money for when they really need it.

That’s the case in a moderately disciplined developed nation with adequate foreign reserves, at least. In a cash-poor or underdeveloped economy where a decent portion of any loan is lost to cronyism and waste, the case for loans being positive is much more… mixed. For these countries, discipline means “taking no loans at all”.

When discipline falls apart and debt levels rise too high, very bad things start to happen.

Is 100% of GDP The Line Beyond Which Debt Shouldn’t Rise?

There is nothing special about 100% of GDP, except that people think it is special.

Sometimes, people talk about markets like they’re these big impersonal systems that have no human input. This feels true because the scale of the global financial system is such that from the perspective of pretty much any individual person, they’re impersonal and impossible to really influence. But ultimately, other than a few high frequency trading platforms, all decisions in a market have to be made by humans.

Humans have decided that in certain cases, it’s bad when a country has more than 100% of its GDP in debt. This means that it becomes much more expensive to get new loans (and because of the constant rollover, even old loans eventually become new loans) when a country crosses this Rubicon, which in turn makes them much more likely to default. There’s some element of self-fulfilling prophecy here!

(Obviously there does have to be some point where a country really is at risk from its debt load and obviously this needs to be scaled to country size and wealth to not be useless. I think people have chosen 100% of GDP more because it’s a nice round number and it’s simple to calculate, not because it has particularly great inherent predictive power, absent the power it has as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe the “objectively correct” number is in fact 132.7% of the value of all exports, or 198% of 5-year average government revenues… In either case, we’ve kind of lost our chance; any number calculated now would be heavily biased by the crisis of confidence that can happen when debt reaches 100% of GDP.)

That said, comparing a country’s debt load to its GDP without making adjustments is a recipe for confusion. While Everyone was fretting about Greece having ~125% of its GDP in debt, Japan was carrying 238% of its GDP in debt.

There are two reasons that Japan’s debt is much less worrying than Greece’s.

First, there’s the issue of who’s holding that debt. A very large portion of Japanese debt is held by its own central bank. By my calculations (based off the most recent BOJ numbers), the Bank of Japan is holding approximately 44% of the Japanese government’s debt. Given that the Bank of Japan is an organ of the Japanese Government (albeit an arm’s length one), this debt is kind of owed by the government of Japan, to the government of Japan. When 44% of every loan payment might ultimately find its way back to you, your loan payments become less scary.

Second, there’s the issue of denomination. Greek public debts are denominated in Euros, a currency that Greece doesn’t control. If Greece wants €100, it must collect €100 in taxes from its citizens. Greece cannot just create Euros.

Japanese debt is denominated in Yen. Because Japan controls the yen, it has two options for repaying ¥100 of debt. It can collect ¥100 in taxes – representing ¥100 worth of valuable work. Or it can print ¥100. There are obvious consequences to printing money, namely inflation. But given that Japan has struggled with chronic deflation and has consistently underperformed the inflation targets economists think it needs to meet, it’s clear that a bit of inflation isn’t the worst thing that could happen to it.

When evaluating whether a debt burden is a problem, you should always consider the denomination of the debt, who the debtholders are, and how much inflation a country can tolerate. It is always worse to hold debt in a denomination that you don’t control. It’s always worse to owe money to people who aren’t you (especially people more powerful than you), and it’s always easier to answer debt with inflation when your economy needs more inflation anyways.

This also suggests that government debt is much more troubling when it’s held by a sub-national institution than by a national institution (with the exception of Europe, where even nations don’t individually control the currency). In this case, monetary policy options are normally off the table and there’s normally someone who’s able to force you to pay your debt, no matter what that does to your region.

Developing countries very rarely issue debt in their own currency, mainly because no one is interested in buying it. This, combined with low foreign cash reserves puts them at a much higher risk of failing to make scheduled debt payments – i.e. experiencing an actual default.

What Happens If A Country Defaults?

No two defaults are exactly alike, so the consequences vary. That said, there do tend to be two common features: austerity and inflation.

Austerity happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps spending levels were predicated on access to credit. Without that access, they can’t be maintained. Or perhaps a higher body mandated it; see for example Germany (well, officially, the EU) mandating austerity in Greece, or Michigan mandating austerity in Detroit.

Inflation also occurs for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the government tries to fill a budgetary shortfall and avoid austerity by printing bills. This flood of money bids up prices, ruins savings and causes real wages to decline. Perhaps it becomes hard to convince foreigners to accept the local currency in exchange for goods, so anything imported becomes very expensive. When many goods are imported, this can lead to very rapid inflation. Perhaps people in general lose faith in money (and so it becomes nearly worthless), maybe in conjunction with the debt crisis expanding to the financial sector and banks subsequently failing. Most likely, it will be some combination of these three, as well as others I haven’t thought to mention.

During a default, it’s common to see standards of living plummet, life savings disappear, currency flight into foreign denominations, promptly followed by currency controls, which prohibit sending cash outside of the country. Currency controls make leaving the country virtually impossible and make any necessary imports a bureaucratic headache. This is fine when the imports in question are water slides, but very bad when they’re chemotherapy drugs or rice.

On the kind of bright side, defaults also tend to lead to mass unemployment, which gives countries experiencing them comparative advantage in any person intensive industry. Commonly people would say “wages are low, so manufacturing moves there”, but that isn’t quite how international trade works. It’s not so much low wages that basic manufacturing jobs go in search of, but a workforce that can’t do anything more productive and less labour intensive. This looks the same, but has the correlation flipped. In either case, this influx of manufacturing jobs can contain within it the seed of later recovery.

If a country has sound economic management (like Argentina did in 2001), a default isn’t the end of the world. It can negotiate a “haircut” of its loans, giving its creditors something less than the full amount, but more than nothing. It might even be able to borrow again in a few years, although the rates that it will have to offer will start out in credit card territory and only slowly recover towards auto-loan territory.

When these trends aren’t managed by competent leadership, or when the same leaders (or leadership culture) that got a country into a mess are allowed to continue, the recovery tends to be moribund and the crises continual. See, for example, how Greece has limped along, never really recovering over the past decade.

Where Does Ontario Fit In?

My own home province of Ontario is currently in the midst of an election and one candidate, Doug Ford, has made the ballooning public debt the centrepiece of his campaign. Evaluating his claims gives us a practical example of how to evaluate claims of this sort in general.

First, Ontario doesn’t control the currency that its debt is issued in, which is an immediate risk factor for serious debt problems. Ontario also isn’t dominant enough within Canada to dictate monetary policy to the Federal Government. Inflation for the sake of saving Ontario would doom any sitting Federal government in every other province, so we can’t expect any help from the central bank.

Debt relief from the Federal government is possible, but it couldn’t come without hooks attached. We’d definitely lose some of our budgetary authority, certainly face austerity, and even then, it might be too politically unpalatable to the rest of the country.

However, the sky is not currently falling. While debt rating services have lost some confidence in our willingness, if not our ability to get spending under control and our borrowing costs have consequently risen, we’re not yet into a vicious downwards spiral. Our debt is at a not actively unhealthy 39% of the GDP and the interest rate is a non-usurious 4%.

That said, it’s increased more quickly than the economy has grown over the past decade. Another decade going on like we currently are certainly would put us at risk of a vicious cycle of increased interest rates and crippling debt.

Doug Ford’s emotional appeals about mortgaging our grandchildren’s future are exaggerated and false. I’ve already explained how countries don’t work like families. But there is a more pragmatic concern here. If we don’t control our spending now, on our terms, someone else – be it lenders in a default or the federal government in a bailout – will do it for us.

Imagine the courts forcing Ontario to service its debt before paying for social services and schools. Imagine the debt eating up a full quarter of the budget, with costs rising every time a loan is rolled over. Imagine our public services cut to the bone and our government paralyzed without workers. Things would get bad and the people who most need a helping hand from the government would be hit the hardest.

I plan to take this threat seriously and vote for a party with a credible plan to balance our budget in the short term.

If one even exists. Contrary to his protestations, Doug Ford isn’t leading a party committed to reducing the deficit. He’s publically pledged himself to scrapping the carbon tax. Absent it, but present the rest of his platform, the deficit spending is going to continue (during a period of sustained growth, no less!). Doug Ford is either lying about what he’s going to cut, or he’s lying about ending the debt. That’s not a gamble I particularly want to play.

I do hope that someone campaigns on a fully costed plan to restore fiscal order to Ontario. Because we are currently on the path to looking a lot like Greece.

Economics, Politics, Quick Fix

Cities Are Weird And Minimum Wages Can Help

[6-minute read]

I don’t understand why people choose to go bankrupt living the most expensive cities, but I’m increasingly viewing this as a market failure and collective action problem to be fixed with intervention, not a failure of individual judgement.

There are many cities, like Brantford, Waterloo, or even Ottawa, where everything works properly. Rent isn’t really more expensive than suburban or rural areas. There’s public transit, which means you don’t necessarily need a car, if you choose where you live with enough care. There are plenty of jobs. Stuff happens.

But cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and San Francisco confuse the hell out of me. The cost of living is through the roof, but wages don’t even come close to following (the difference in salary between Toronto and Waterloo for someone with my qualifications is $5,000, which in no way would cover the yearly difference in living expenses). This is odd when talking about well-off tech workers, but becomes heartbreaking when talking about low-wage workers.

Toronto Skyline
Not pictured: Selling your organs to afford a one-bedroom condo. Image Credit: Abi K on Flickr

If people were perfectly rational and only cared about money (the mythical homo economicus), fewer people would move to cities, which would bid up wages (to increase the supply of workers) or drive down prices (because fewer people would be competing for the same apartments), which would make cities more affordable. But people do care about things other than money and the network effects of cities are hard to beat (put simply: the bigger the city, the more options for a not-boring life you have). So, people move – in droves – to the most expensive and dynamic cities and wages don’t go up (because the supply of workers never falls) and the cost of living does (because the number of people competing for housing does) and low wage workers get ground up.

It’s not that I don’t understand the network effects. It’s that I don’t understand why people get ground up instead of moving.

But the purpose of good economics is to deal with people as they are, not as they can be most conveniently modeled. And given this, I’ve begun to think about high minimum wages in cities as an intervention that fixes a market failure and collective action problem.

That is to say: people are bad at reading the market signal that they shouldn’t move to cities that they can’t afford. It’s the signal that’s supposed to say here be scarce goods, you might get screwed, but the siren song of cities seems to overpower it. This is a market failure in the technical sense because there exists a distribution of goods that could make people (economically) better off (fewer people living in big cities) without making anyone worse off (e.g. they could move to communities that are experiencing chronic shortages of labour and be basically guaranteed jobs that would pay the bills) that the market cannot seem to fix.

(That’s not to say that this is all the fault of the market. Restrictive zoning makes housing expensive and rent control makes it scarce.)

It’s a collective action problem because if everyone could credibly threaten to move, then they wouldn’t have to; the threat would be enough to increase wages. Unfortunately, everyone knows that anyone who leaves the city will be quickly replaced. Everyone would be better off if they could coordinate and make all potential movers promise not to move in until wages increase, but there’s no benefit to being the first person to leave or the first person to avoid moving [1] and there currently seems to be no good way for everyone to coordinate in making a threat.

When faced with the steady grinding down of young people, low wage workers, and everyone “just waiting for their big break“, we have two choices. We can do tut-tut at their inability to be “rational” (aka leave their friends, family, jobs, and aspirations to move somewhere else [2]), or we can try to better their situation.

If everyone was acting “rationally”, wages would be bid up. But we can accomplish the same thing by simple fiat. Governments can set a minimum wage or offer wage subsidies, after all.

I do genuinely worry that in some places, large increases in the minimum wage will lead to unemployment (we’ll figure out whether this is true over the next decade or so). I’m certainly worried that a minimum wage pegged to inflation will lead to massive problems the next time we have a recession [3].

So, I think we should fix zoning, certainly. And I think we need to fix how Ontario’s minimum wage functions in a recession so that it doesn’t destroy our whole economy during the next one. But at the same time, I think we need to explore differential minimum wages for our largest cities and the rest of the province/country. I mean this even in a world where the current minimum $14/hour wage isn’t rolled back. Would even $15/hour cut it in Toronto and Vancouver [4]?

If we can’t make a minimum wage work without increased unemployment, then maybe we’ll have to turn to wage subsidies. This is actually the method that “conservative” economist Scott Sumner favours [5].

What’s clear to me is that what we’re currently doing isn’t working.

I do believe in a right to shelter. Like anyone who shares this belief, I understand that “shelter” is a broad word, encompassing everything from a tarp to a mansion. Where a certain housing situation falls on this spectrum is the source of many a debate. Writing this is a repudiation of my earlier view, that living in an especially desirable city was a luxury not dissimilar from a mansion.

A couple of things changed my mind. First, I paid more attention to the experiences of my friends who might be priced out of the cities they grew up in and have grown to love. Second, I read the Ecomodernist Manifesto, with its calls for densification as the solution to environmental degradation and climate change. Densification cannot happen if many people are priced out of cities, which means figuring this out is actually existentially important.

The final piece of the puzzle was the mental shift whereby I started to view wages in cities – especially for low-wage earners – as a collective action problem and a market failure. As anyone on the centre-left can tell you, it’s the government’s job to fix those – ideally in a redistributive way.

Footnotes

[1] This is inductive up to the point where you have a critical mass; there’s no benefit until you’re the nth + 1 person, where n is the number of people necessary to create a scarcity of workers sufficient to begin bidding up wages. And all of the people who moved will see little benefit for their hassle, unless they’re willing to move back. ^

[2] For us nomadic North Americans, this can be confusing: “The gospel of ‘just pick up and leave’ is extremely foreign to your typical European — be they Serbian, French or Irish. Ditto with a Sudanese, Afghan or Japanese national. In Israel, it’s the kind of suggestion that ruins dinner parties… We non-indigenous love to move. We don’t just see it as just good economic policy, but as a virtue. We glorify the immigrant, we hug them at the airport when they arrive and we inherently mistrust anyone who dares to pine for what they left behind”. ^

[3] Basically, wages should fall in a recession, but they largely don’t, which means inflation is necessary to get wages back to a level where employment can recover; pegging the minimum wage to inflation means this can’t happen. Worse, if the rest of the country were to adopt sane monetary policy during the next bad recession, Ontario’s minimum wage could rise to the point where it would swallow large swathes of the economy. This would really confuse price signals and make some work economically unviable (to do in Ontario; it would surely still be done elsewhere). ^

[4] I think we may have to subsidize some new construction or portion of monthly rent so that all increased wages don’t get ploughed into to increased rents. If you have more money chasing the same number of rental units and everything else remains constant, you’ll see all gains in wages erased by increases in rents. Rent control is a very imperfect solution, because it changes new construction into units that can be bought outright, at market rates. This helps people who have saved up a lot of money outside of the city and what to move there, but is very bad for the people living there, grappling with rent so high that they can’t afford to save up a down payment. ^

[5] No seriously, this is what passes for conservative among economists these days; while we all stopped looking, they all became utilitarians who want to help impoverished people as much as possible. ^

Economics, Model

Against Job Lotteries

In simple economic theory, wages are supposed to act as signals. When wages increase in a sector, it should signal people that there’s lots of work to do there, incentivizing training that will be useful for that field, or causing people to change careers. On the flip side, when wages decrease, we should see a movement out of that sector.

This is all well and good. It explains why the United States has seen (over the past 45 years) little movement in the number of linguistics degrees, a precipitous falloff in library sciences degrees, some decrease in English degrees, and a large increase in engineering and business degrees [1].

This might be the engineer in me, but I find things that are working properly boring. What I’m really interested in is when wage signals break down and are replaced by a job lottery.

Job lotteries exist whenever there are two tiers to a career. On one hand, you’ll have people making poverty wages and enduring horrendous conditions. On the other, you’ll see people with cushy wages, good job security, and (comparatively) reasonable hours. Job lotteries exist in the “junior doctor” system of the United Kingdom, in the academic system of most western countries, and teaching in Ontario (up until very recently). There’s probably a much less extreme version of this going on even in STEM jobs (in that many people go in thinking they’ll work for Google or the next big unicorn and end up building websites for the local chamber of commerce or writing internal tools for the company billing department [2]). A slightly different type of job lottery exists in industries where fame plays a big role: writing, acting, music, video games, and other creative endeavours.

Job lotteries are bad for two reasons. Compassionately, it’s really hard to see idealistic, bright, talented people endure terribly conditions all in the hope of something better, something that might never materialize. Economically, it’s bad when people spend a lot of time unemployed or underemployed because they’re hopeful they might someday get their dream job. Both of these reasons argue for us to do everything we can to dismantle job lotteries.

I do want to make a distinction between the first type of job lottery (doctors in the UK, professor, teachers), which is a property of how institutions have happened to evolve, and the second, which seems much more inherent to human nature. “I’ll just go with what I enjoy” is a very common media strategy that will tend to split artists (of all sorts) into a handful of mega-stars, a small group of people making a modest living, and a vast mass of hopefuls searching for their break. To fix this would require careful consideration and the building of many new institutions – projects I think we lack the political will and the know-how for.

The problems in the job market for professors, doctors, or teachers feel different. These professions don’t rely on tastemakers and network effects. There’s also no stark difference in skills that would imply discontinuous compensation. This doesn’t imply that skills are flat – just that they exist on a steady spectrum, which should imply that pay could reasonably follow a similar smooth distribution. In short, in all of these fields, we see problems that could be solved by tweaks to existing institutions.

I think institutional change is probably necessary because these job lotteries present a perfect storm of misdirection to our primate brains. That is to say (1) People are really bad at probability and (2) the price level for the highest earners suggests that lots of people should be entering the industry. Combined, this means that people will be fixated on the highest earners, without really understanding how unlikely that is to be them.

Two heuristics drive our inability to reason about probabilities: the representativeness heuristic (ignoring base rates and information about reliability in favour of what feels “representative”) and the availability heuristic (events that are easier to imagine or recall feel more likely). The combination of these heuristics means that people are uniquely sensitive to accounts of the luckiest members of a profession (especially if this is the social image the profession projects) and unable to correctly predict their own chances of reaching that desired outcome (because they can imagine how they will successfully persevere and make everything come out well).

Right now, you’re probably laughing to yourself, convinced that you would never make a mistake like this. Well let’s try an example.

Imagine a scenario is which only ten percent of current Ph. D students will get tenure (basically true). Now Ph. D students are quite bright and are incredibly aware of their long odds. Let’s say that if a student three years into a program makes a guess as to whether or not they’ll get a tenure track job offer, they’re correct 80% of the time. If a student tells you they think they’ll get a tenure track job offer, how likely do you think it is that they will? Stop reading right now and make a guess.

Seriously, make a guess.

This won’t work if you don’t try.

Okay, you can keep reading.

It is not 80%. It’s not even 50%. It’s 31%. This is probably best illustrated visually.

Craft Design Online has inadvertently created a great probability visualization tool.

 

There are four things that can happen here (I’m going to conflate tenure track job offers with tenure out of a desire to stop typing “tenure track job offers”).

Ten students will get tenure. Of these ten, eight (0.8 x 10) will correctly believe they will get it (1/green) and two (10 – 0.8 x 10) will incorrectly believe they won’t (2/yellow). Ninety students won’t get tenure. Of these 90, 18 (90 – 0.8 x 90) will incorrectly believe they will get tenure (3/orange) and 72 (0.8 x 90) will correctly believe they won’t get tenure (4/red). Twenty-six students, those coloured green (1) and orange (3) believe they’ll get tenure. But we know that only eight of them really will – which works out to just below the 31% I gave above.

Almost no one can do this kind of reasoning, especially if they aren’t primed for a trick. The stories we build in our head about the future feel so solid that we ignore the base rate. We think that we’ll know if we’re going to make it. And even worse, we think that a feeling of “knowing” if we’ll make it provides good information. We think that relatively accurate predictors provide useful information against a small chance. They clearly don’t. When the base rate is small (here 10%), the base rate is the single greatest predictor of your chances.

But this situation doesn’t even require small chances for us to make mistakes. Imagine you had two choices: a career that leaves you feeling fulfilled 100% of the time, but is so competitive that you only have an 80% chance of getting into it (assume in the other 20%, you either starve or work a soul-crushing fast food job with negative fulfillment) or a career where you are 100% likely to get a job, but will only find it fulfilling 80% of the time.

Unless that last 20% of fulfillment is strongly super-linear [3][4], or you don’t have any value at all on eating/avoiding McDrugery, it is better to take the guaranteed career. But many people looking at this probably rounded 80% to 100% – another known flaw in human reasoning. You can very easily have a job lottery even when the majority of people in a career are in the “better” tier of the job, because many entrants to the field will view “majority” as all and stick with it when they end up shafted.

Now, you might believe that these problems aren’t very serious, or that surely people making a decision as big as a college major or career would correct for them. But these fallacies date to the 70s! Many people still haven’t heard of them. And the studies that first identified them found them to be pretty much universal. Look, the CIA couldn’t even get people to do probability right. You think the average job seeker can? You think you can? Make a bunch of predictions for the next year and then talk with me when you know how calibrated (or uncalibrated) you are.

If we could believe that people would become better at probabilities, we could assume that job lotteries would take care of automatically. But I think it is clear that we cannot rely on that, so we must try and dismantle them directly. Unfortunately, there’s a reason many are this way; many of them have come about because current workers have stacked the deck in their own favour. This is really great for them, but really bad for the next group of people entering the workforce. I can’t help but believe that some of the instability faced by millennials is a consequence of past generations entrenching their benefits at our expense [5]. Others have come about because of poorly planned policies, bad enrolment caps, etc.

These cover the two ways we can deal with a job lottery, we can limit the supply indirectly (by making the job, or the perception of the job once you’ve “made it” worse), or limit the supply directly (by changing the credentials necessary of the job, or implementing other training caps)   . In many of the examples of job lotteries I’ve found, limiting the supply directly might be a very effective way to deal with the problem.

I can make this claim because limiting supply directly has worked in the real world. Faced with a chronic 33% oversupply of teachers and soaring unemployment rates among teaching graduates, Ontario chose to cut in half the number of slots in teacher’s college and double the length of teacher’s college programs. No doubt this was annoying for the colleges, which made good money off of those largely doomed extraneous pupils, but it did lead to the end of the oversupply of teachers and a tighter job market for teachers and this was probably better for the economy compared to the counterfactual.

Why? Because having people who’ve completed four years of university do an extra year or two of schooling only to wait around and hope for a job is a real drag. They could be doing something productive with that time! The advantage of increasing gatekeeping around a job lottery and increasing it as early as possible is that you force people to go find something productive to do. It is much better for an economy to have hopeful proto-teachers who would in fact be professional resume submitters go into insurance, or real estate, or tutoring, or anything at all productive and commensurate with their education and skills.

There’s a cost here, of course. When you’re gatekeeping (for e.g. teacher’s college or medical school), you’re going to be working with lossy proxies for the thing you actually care about, which is performance in the eventual job. The lossier the proxy, the more you are needlessly depressing the quality of people who are allowed to do the job – which is a serious concern when you’re dealing with heart surgery ­– or the people providing foundational education to your next generation.

You can also find some cases where increasing selectiveness in an early stage doesn’t successfully force failed applicants to stop wasting their time and get on with their life. I was very briefly enrolled in a Ph. D program for biomedical engineering a few years back. Several professors I interviewed with while considering graduate school wanted to make sure I had no aspirations on medical school – because they were tired of their graduate students abandoning research as soon as their Ph. D was complete. For these students who didn’t make it into medical school after undergrad, a Ph. D was a ticket to another shot at getting in [6]. Anecdotally, I’ve seen people who fail to get into medical school or optometry get a master’s degree, then try again.

Banning extra education before medical school cuts against the idea that people should be able to better themselves, or persevere to get to their dreams. It would be institutionally difficult. But I think that it would, in this case, probably be a net good.

There are other fields where limiting supply is rather harmful. Graduate students are very necessary for science. If we punitively limited their number, we might find a lot of valuable scientific progress falling to a stand-still. We could try and replace graduate students with a class of professional scientific assistants, but as long as the lottery for professorship is so appealing (for those who are successful), I bet we’d see a strong preference for Ph. D programs over professional assistantships.

These costs sometimes make it worth it to go right to the source of the job lottery, the salaries and benefits of people already employed [7]. Of course, this has its own downsides. In the case of doctors, high salaries and benefits are useful for making really clever applicants choose to go into medicine rather than engineering and law. For other jobs, there’s the problems of practicality and fairness.

First, it is very hard to get people to agree to wage or benefit cuts and it almost always results in lower morale – even if you have “sound macro-economic reasons” for it. In addition, many jobs with lotteries have them because of union action, not government action. There is no czar here to change everything. Second, people who got into those careers made those decisions based on the information they had at the time. It feels weird to say “we want people to behave more rationally in the job market, so by fiat we will change the salaries and benefits of people already there.” The economy sometimes accomplishes that on its own, but I do think that one of the roles of political economics is to decrease the capriciousness of the world, not increase it.

We can of course change the salaries and benefits only for new employees. But this somewhat confuses the signalling (for a long time, people will still have principle examples of the profession come from the earlier cohort). It also rarely alleviates a job lottery, because in practice people set this up for new employees to have reduced salaries and benefits for a time. Once they get seniority, they’ll expect to enjoy all the perks of seniority.

Adjunct professorships feel like a failed attempt to remove the job lottery for full professorships. Unfortunately, they’ve only worsened it, by giving people a toe-hold that makes them feel like they might someday claw their way up to full professorship. I feel that when it comes to professors, the only tenable thing to do is greatly reduce salaries (making them closer to the salary progression of mechanical engineers, rather than doctors), hire far more professors, cap graduate students wherever there is high under- and un- employment, and have more professional assistants who do short 2-year college courses. Of course, this is easy to say and much harder to do.

If these problems feel intractable and all the solutions feel like they have significant downsides, welcome to the pernicious world of job lotteries. When I thought of writing about them, coming up with solutions felt like by far the hardest part. There’s a complicated trade-off between proportionality, fairness, and freedom here.

Old fashioned economic theory held that the freer people were, the better off they would be. I think modern economists increasingly believe this is false. Is a world in which people are free to get very expensive training ­– despite very long odds for a job and cognitive biases that make understanding just how punishing the odds are – expensive training, in short, that they’d in expectation be better off without, a better one than a world where they can’t?

I increasingly believe that it isn’t. And I increasingly believe that having rough encounters with reality early on and having smooth salary gradients is important to prevent this world. Of course, this is easy for me to say. I’ve been very deliberate taking my skin out of job lotteries. I dropped out of graduate school. I write often and would like to someday make money off of writing, but I viscerally understand the odds of that happening, so I’ve been very careful to have a day job that I’m happy with [8].

If you’re someone who has made the opposite trade, I’m very interested in hearing from you. What experiences do you have that I’m missing that allowed you to make that leap of faith?

Footnotes:

[1] I should mention that there’s a difference between economic value, normative/moral value, and social value and I am only talking about economic value here. I wouldn’t be writing a blog post if I didn’t think writing was important. I wouldn’t be learning French if I didn’t think learning other languages is a worthwhile endeavour. And I love libraries.

And yes, I know there are many career opportunities for people holding those degrees and no I don’t think they’re useless. I simply think a long-term shift in labour market trends have made them relatively less attractive to people who view a degree as a path to prosperity. ^

[2] That’s not to knock these jobs. I found my time building internal tools for an insurance company to be actually quite enjoyable. But it isn’t the fame and fortune that some bright-eyed kids go into computer science seeking. ^

[3] That is to say, that you enjoy each additional percentage of fulfillment at a multiple (greater than one) of the previous one. ^

[4] This almost certainly isn’t true, given that the marginal happiness curve for basically everything is logarithmic (it’s certainly true for money and I would be very surprised if it wasn’t true for everything else); people may enjoy a 20% fulfilling career twice as much as a 10% fulfilling career, but they’ll probably enjoy a 90% fulfilling career very slightly more than an 80% fulfilling career. ^

[5] It’s obvious that all of this applies especially to unions, which typically fight for seniority to matter quite a bit when it comes to job security and pay and do whatever they can to bid up wages, even if that hurts hiring. This is why young Canadians end up supporting unions in theory but avoiding them in practice. ^

[6] I really hope that this doesn’t catch on. If an increasing number of applicants to medical school already have graduate degrees, it will be increasingly hard for those with “merely” an undergraduate degree to get in to medical school. Suddenly we’ll be requiring students to do 11 years of potentially useless training, just so that they can start the multi-year training to be a doctor. This sort of arms race is the epitome of wasted time.

In many European countries, you can enter medical school right out of high school and this seems like the obviously correct thing to do vis a vis minimizing wasted time. ^

[7] The behaviour of Uber drivers shows job lotteries on a small scale. As Uber driver salaries rise, more people join and all drivers spend more time waiting around, doing nothing. In the long run (here meaning eight weeks), an increase in per-trip costs leads to no change whatsoever in take home pay.

The taxi medallion system that Uber has largely supplanted prevented this. It moved the job lottery one step further back, with getting the medallion becoming the primary hurdle, forcing those who couldn’t get one to go work elsewhere, but allowing taxi drivers to largely avoid dead times.

Uber could restrict supply, but it doesn’t want to and its customers certainly don’t want it to. Uber’s chronic driver oversupply (relative to a counterfactual where drivers waited around very little) is what allows it to react quickly during peak hours and ensure there’s always an Uber relatively close to where anyone would want to be picked up. ^

[8] I do think that I would currently be a much better writer if I’d instead tried to transition immediately to writing, rather than finding a career and writing on the side. Having a substantial safety net removes almost all of the urgency that I’d imagine I’d have if I was trying to live on (my non-existent) writing income.

There’s a flip side here too. I’ve spent all of zero minutes trying to monetize this blog or worrying about SEO, because I’m not interested in that and I have no need to. I also spend zero time fretting over popularizing anything I write (again, I don’t enjoy this). Having a security net makes this something I do largely for myself, which makes it entirely fun. ^

Advice, All About Me, Biology

Not Making That Mistake Again: A Quick Dive Into Vegetarian Nutrition

[Content Note: Discussion of diet]

The first time I tried vegetarianism, I ended up deficient in B12. Since then, I’ve realized just how bad vitamin B12 deficiency is (hint: it can cause irreversible neural damage) and resolved to get it right this time.

I’m currently eating no meat, very little milk, almost no eggs, and a fair amount of cheese. I consider clams, oysters, and mussels to be morally (if not taxonomically) vegetables, but am too lazy to eat them regularly. To figure out what this diet put me at risk for, I trolled PubMed [1] until I found a recent article arguing for a vegan diet, then independently checked their nutritional recommendations.

Based on this, I’ve made a number of changes to my diet. I now take two vitamins in the morning and a slew of supplements in sugar-free fruit juice when I get home from work [2]. I hope the combined effect of this will be to protect me from any nutritional problems.

Pictured: the slew. Next: The science!

Once I went to all the work of collecting information and reading through paper abstracts, I realized that other people the same situation might find this research helpful. I’ve chosen to present everything as my diet, not my recommendations. This is what is currently working for me, not necessarily what is “correct” or what would work for anyone else. Diet is very personal and I’m no expert, so I’ve taken great pains to avoid the word “should” here.

That caveat out of the way, let’s get into the details!

Protein

Eating cheese gives a relatively easy (and low suffering) source of complete protein, but I didn’t want all of my protein to come from cheese. Therefore, it was heartening to find there are many easy ways to get complete protein from plants. These include combinations (like hummus + pitas or rice + beans) or quinoa.

I try to make some of my lunches revolve around these sources, rather than just cheese.

I’ve decided to supplement my protein intake with protein powder, because I found it hard to get enough protein (I’m aiming for 1g/kg daily, to be on the safe side, estimates of the minimum daily requirements range from at least 0.83g/kg/d to 0.93kg/day and I’m rather more active than the average North American, especially in the summer) with my limited appetite even when I was eating meat. I first tried whey, but found this incredibly hard on my stomach, so I’ve shifted to an unflavoured multiple source vegetable protein that I find not at all unpleasant when mixed with fruit juice.

Iron

It seems to be kind of hard to become iron deficient; the closer anyone gets to deficiency, the more effective their body becomes at pulling in iron and holding onto what it already has. This is good for vegetarians, because iron from plants is generally not very bioavailable and it’s harder to get iron when consuming significant calcium at the same time (e.g. a spinach salad with cheese or tofu isn’t that great a source of iron, until your body gets desperate for it).

Even better than this is the fact that iron is one of the rare things that is actually subject to “one weird trick”, namely, iron absorption is greatly aided by vitamin C, even in the presence of calcium. I expect to meet my iron needs via a combination of leafy greens salads + orange slices, protein powder + fruit juice, and oatmeal.

Vitamin B12

As far as I can tell, my diet doesn’t include adequate B12 on its own, so I’m supplementing with 1000mcg sublingually each morning. If I did more of my own cooking, I’d consider nutritional yeast grown in B12 rich media, which seem to be effective in small scale trials and anecdotally among people I know. I can’t figure out if probiotics work or not; the study above says no. Another study I found said yes, but they were giving out the probiotics in yoghurt, which is naturally a good source of vitamin B12. This baffling decision makes me consider the study hopelessly confounded and has me overall pessimistic about probiotics.

I was frightened when I learned that folic acid fortification is very effective at preventing B12 deficiency driven anemia, but not effective against B12 deficiency driven neural damage (so the neural damage can sneak up with no warning). The NIH recommends keeping folic acid consumption below 1g/day, which can be difficult to do when many fortified foods contain much more folic acid than they claim to. If I was eating more breads or cereals I’d be worried about this. For now, I’m just filing it away as a thing to remember; if I ever start eating more bread and cereal, I’m going to want to be very careful to ensure I’m consuming enough B12.

I take B12 especially seriously because I take proton pump inhibitors, which have been associated with an increased risk of B12 deficiency.

Calcium

Calcium is a mess.

Here are studies I’ve found about calcium:

One explanation for this is that the meta-analysis that finds no significant relationship between fracture risk and calcium intake didn’t find anyone with calcium levels low enough to observe significant effects. That would mean that the study that found vegans broke bones more often found the effect because the vegans they studied were so low on calcium.

Except that study is barely significant (the relative risk lower bound includes 1.02). Barely significant study + meta-analysis that turns up nothing points pretty strongly at “this was only significant because of P-hacking”.

Since yoghurt is apparently an ideal protein source for cycling recovery and three small containers of yoghurt provides an ideal amount of protein for cycling recovery (and Walmart gives a deal if you buy three cases of 4 of these, which makes it cheap to mix and match flavours), I will probably continue to have significant amounts of yoghurt (and therefore lots of extra calcium) whenever I’m cycling. This will make me feel a bit better about my mountain biking related fracture risk. Otherwise, I’m not going to worry about calcium intake (remember: I am eating plenty of cheese).

I am glad I looked into calcium though, because I found something really cool: Chinese vegetables (like Bok Choi, Chinese cabbage flower leaves, Chinese mustard greens, and Chinese spinach) provide calcium that is much more bioavailable than many western vegetables. I wonder if this is related to prevalence of milk drinking across cultures?

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for increasing absorption of calcium. Since Vitamin D is synthesized in the skin in response to light and I live in Canada, I’m pretty likely to be deficient in it, at least in the winter (something like 1 in 35 Canadians are). There was a story going around that the government wouldn’t pay for most vitamin D testing because Canadians are assumed to be deficient in it, but according to the Toronto Star article above, the real reason is that so many charlatans have claimed it can do everything under the sun that demand for tests was becoming a wasteful drain on funds.

My plan is to take a D3 supplement in the months where I don’t regularly wear shorts and a t-shirt. Given that I cycle to work and frequently walk around town, I expect to get more than enough D3 when my skin is actually being exposed to sunlight.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

From what I read, the absolute level of these is less important that the ratio of Omega-3 fatty acids to Omega-6 fatty acids. An ideal ratio is close to 1:1. The average westerner has a ratio closer to 16:1. While it is clear that this isn’t just a vegetarian problem, it seems like omnivores who eat a lot of fish have a healthier ratio. Given that a good ratio is associated with pretty much every good thing under the sun (is this why Japan has such high life expectancies?), I’m pretty motivated to get my ratio to the sweet spot.

As far as I could tell, there was once controversy as to whether non-animal sources of Omega-3 fatty acids could be adequate, but that looks to be cleared up in favour of the vegetarian sources. This is good, because it means that I can follow the recommendations in this paper and consume about 6g of unheated flaxseed oil daily to meet my Omega-3 needs. This goes pretty easily into my fruit juice mixture with my protein powder and creatine.

Creatine

There’s some evidence (although no meta-analyses that I could find) that creatine improves cognitive performance in vegetarians (although not in omnivores, probably because it is present in meat [3]). I’ve decided to take 5g a day because it seems to be largely risk free and it also makes exercise feel somewhat easier.


That’s everything I was able to dig up in a few hours of research. If I’ve made any horrible mistakes, I’d very much like to hear about them.

Footnotes:

[1] I like PubMed because it doesn’t index journals unless they meet certain standards of quality. This doesn’t ensure anything, but it does mean I don’t have to constantly check the impact factor and editorial board of anything I read. ^

[2] The timing is based on convenience, not science. The fruit juice is actually important, because the vitamin C in it makes the iron in my protein powder more bio-available. It also makes the whole mixture palatable, which is what I originally chose it for. ^

[3] Although people I know have also speculated that this might just be the effect of poor diet. That is to say, if you’re studying university vegetarians, you might be primarily studying people who recently adopted vegetarianism and (like I was the first time I tried it) are deficient in a few important things because they’re restricting what already tends to be a somewhat poor student diet. A definitive mechanism will probably have to wait for many more studies. ^

Advice

An Apology is a Surrender

[Content Warning: Discussion of the men who have recently been implicated in sexual harassment and assault]

Why do so many people undermine their apologies with defensiveness?

When celebrity chef Mario Batali apologized for sexually harassing his employees, he included a link to a recipe at the end of the email.

This fits into the pattern we’ve seen in many of the recently named abusers. When (if) they apologize, they’re sure to lace it with a few face saving measures:

  • “[I apologize if I’ve hurt anyone], but I remember the incident differently” (Al Franken)
  • “[It’s] not reflective of who I am.” (Dustin Hoffman)
  • “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it”, followed by “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances” via a spokesperson. (Harvey Weinstein)

Amazingly, and for the first time I can remember, (most) people aren’t buying it.

Ignoring most of these apologies is almost certainly the correct response. In fact, I wouldn’t even call them apologies. An apology is a surrender. These statements are rearguards.

What I mean is: as long as you’re defending yourself, you aren’t internalizing the consequences of your actions. For as long as you keep fighting, you get to keep believing that maybe consequences won’t materialize. Maybe you’ll say the right thing; maybe the consequences will disappear.

An apology accepts consequences.

Imagine yourself arguing with someone you’ve hurt. Imagine the wiggle words and excuses you might use. Imagine the fear you feel, the fear of failure, or the fear of hurting someone you love. Imagine how easy it is to give into that fear. Imagine how hard it is to ignore it, to be quiet, to listen when someone tells you that you’ve hurt them.

Doing that, despite the voice inside you telling you to fight, telling you to try and get away clean, that’s scary; that’s difficult. That’s a surrender.

(This is probably a good place to mention the law of equal and opposite advice; some people reading this probably need to surrender more and some people probably need to surrender less. This advice is aimed at the people who need to surrender more. Hopefully you know who you are? If you need to surrender less and you’ve wasted time reading this, sorry. Have some photos of a delightful owl/dog friendship as recompense.)


Of course, surrendering is just the first step. It’s best if you back it up with something of substance. My four-step algorithm for a proper surrender-apology goes:

1. How did I hurt them?

Sometimes people will tell you straight up how you hurt them. Others won’t. And when you’re proactively apologizing, you may know that you did something likely to hurt someone, but not exactly how you hurt them.

To figure out how you hurt someone, consult your mental model of them. Try and remember what makes them sad or insecure. How did your action intersect with that? Don’t assume they’ll be hurt in the same way as you would. Let’s say you played a prank on a co-worker involving paint that ruined their outfit and made them really mad. You might be mad if someone played a similar prank on you because of the ruined clothes. But maybe they’re mad because they’re quiet and anxious and you put them on the spot in an embarrassing situation in front of a lot of people. If that was the case, the clothes might barely even register for them. Therefore, it’s best if you don’t focus your apology on the clothes, but on the embarrassment.

If you don’t know how you hurt someone, or you want to check if you guessed correctly, you can ask:

  • Did <my action X> make you feel <Y>?
  • It seems like <my action X> made you really sad. Can you help me understand how I hurt you?
  • I suspect you might be feeling <Y>, is that correct?
  • If someone did <my action X> to me, I’d be feeling <Y>. Is that what you feel right now?

When asking these questions, be careful to keep your tone neutral and not accusatory and to back off if whoever you’re apologizing to doesn’t seem keen on answering. Also note that there’s always some risk in asking questions; some people believe that you should just know how you hurt them. I don’t endorse this as a social norm, but I understand where the feeling comes from and want to make note of it.

2. Validate and Apologize

Here’s a good script for the start of an apology:

“I am really sorry that I did X. It seems like the kind of thing that would make you feel Y, which makes a lot sense. It’s crappy that I did that to you. You are an important person in my life and I want to work to avoid doing this again.”

Being able to articulate how you hurt someone shows empathy. It also shows that you aren’t horribly self-centred. The focus is on their pain, not your need to have an apology accepted.

Above all other things, avoid the passive voice here. There’s no point being sorry that someone “was hurt”. Nothing says “I am apologizing only because it socially expected” like the passive voice.

Notice also that this script validates what the person is feeling. It proactively assures them that there isn’t something wrong with them for feeling hurt. It makes it clear that their response is reasonable, expected, and that you’re the one who did something wrong.

This is one opportunity to surrender. It is excruciatingly difficult to accept full responsibility for your actions without giving any excuses. But it’s important that you do that first. It shows how serious you are and really helps to validate the emotions of the person you’re apologizing to.

3. (If desired) Explain yourself

After you’ve made a mistake, people often want to be assured that you are a fundamentally reasonable person who doesn’t go around hurting friends for fun. If someone asks you “why?”, you should be prepared to explain yourself.

I think it is best to be brutally honest here, which means you first have to be prepared to be brutally honest with yourself. “I just don’t know what came over me” is a comforting excuse; it implies that this was sudden, incomprehensible, and unlikely to happen again – so don’t allow yourself to believe it! Cop-outs like that allow you to avoid your failings. In almost all cases, “I just don’t know what came over me” (or its ilk) can be replaced with something like:

  • “Our relationship made me feel undesirable and they made me feel sexy again”
  • “I thought it would be fun and that I could convince you to feel okay about it later”
  • “I was so fixated on how funny it would be that I didn’t want to think about whether it was right or wrong”
  • “I’m so used to doing things for other people. I thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to do this just for me'”

Here you must surrender any belief you have that what you did “just happened”. There’s almost certainly a reason for it and the reason is probably uncomfortable – and probably points to some other problem with you or your relationship.

I have a bad habit of leaving this step out, even when asked. Part of this is that I’m personally against excusing myself and part of this is that being “against excuses” is a great cop-out when you aren’t very proud of your actual reasons. But I’m trying to get better, because I think people do find it discomfiting to have their request for explanation ignored.

Apologies aren’t magic. Sometimes even the most sincere and heartfelt apology won’t change someone’s mind if they’ve decided they don’t want to be around you anymore. If that’s the case, take your leave as gracefully as you can and try and figure out how you can do better in similar situations in the future. A sincere apology definitionally cannot be contingent on getting something in return.

4. (If desired) Discuss how to avoid this in the future

This is another step that it’s tempting to jump to, perhaps before you’ve even finished apologizing. It’s nice to believe that if you convince someone that you’ll avoid something in the future, you don’t really have to apologize for it now. This is part of the fast-talking school of apology, where you overwhelm someone with excuses, plans for the future, and rushed sorries so that you don’t ever have to surrender, admit you’re in the wrong, or fundamentally change anything about yourself.

Instead of rushing into this, you should wait until the person you’re apologizing to has had time to digest your apology and thought about what they want. Maybe they don’t want to talk about it at all. Maybe they have specific things they want from you and don’t want to feel like they’re fighting against your plans for the future.

What I’m saying is that while this can be useful, it can also hurt. Make sure whoever you’re apologizing to is ready to hear this part of the apology and wants to hear this part of the apology.

How you plan to avoid your mistakes in the future will probably be unique to your circumstances. That said, one piece of advice I have is to avoid the outcome bias. If you would do the same things again in the same situation because you expect it on average to be positive, you aren’t doing anyone a favour by lying about it. Address the ways in which your decision making was suspect. Don’t weasel out of anything by promising not to do specific actions when you know full well you’d do the same general thing again.

And if you’ve hurt someone in the same way a bunch of times, you may find that plans no longer cut it. Them forgiving you can become contingent on results, not words.

Ultimately, an apology is an acknowledgement that you would have acted differently in the situation if you were better at acting the way you want to act. An apology indicates a willingness to change. If you instead endorse the actions you took and have no intent of deciding differently in the future, you shouldn’t apologize at all. If this is the case, you can tell whoever you hurt that you regret hurting them. You can tell them that you wish they hadn’t been hurt. But you cannot truthfully tell them you wouldn’t hurt them that same way again if you have any choice in the matter. So, don’t walk down the road that ends that way.

It isn’t worth it.


In the examples at the start, it seemed the only thing anyone regretted was getting caught. Remember that these are the examples that our culture provides; it’s no wonder that it’s easy to learn the wrong lessons about apologies! When apologizing to our loved ones, it’s natural to let these lessons seep in and make us defensive when we should be open. Apologizing better requires a conscious act, one that I’m still learning how to do. This post is my attempt to chronicle these tentative efforts in a way that might be useful to others who are also struggling.

Advice, Model

Improvement Without Superstition

[7 minute read]

When you make continuous, incremental improvements to something, one of two things can happen. You can improve it a lot, or you can fall into superstition. I’m not talking about black cats or broken mirrors, but rather humans becoming addicted to whichever steps were last seen to work, instead of whichever steps produce their goal.

I’ve seen superstition develop first hand. It happened in one of the places you might least expect it – in a biochemistry lab. In the summer of 2015, I found myself trying to understand which mutants of a certain protein were more stable than the wildtype. Because science is perpetually underfunded, the computer that drove the equipment we were using was ancient and frequently crashed. Each crash wiped out an hour or two of painstaking, hurried labour and meant we had less time to use the instrument to collect actual data. We really wanted to avoid crashes! Therefore, over the course of that summer, we came up with about 12 different things to do before each experiment (in sequence) to prevent them from happening.

We were sure that 10 out of the 12 things were probably useless, we just didn’t know which ten. There may have been no good reason that opening the instrument, closing, it, then opening it again to load our sample would prevent computer crashes, but as far as we could tell when we did that, the machine crashed far less. It was the same for the other eleven. More self-aware than I, the graduate student I worked with joked to me: “this is how superstitions get started” and I laughed along. Until I read two articles in The New Yorker.

In The Score (How Childbirth Went Industrial), Dr. Atul Gawande talks about the influence of the Apgar score on childbirth. Through a process of continuous competition and optimization, doctors have found out ways to increase the Apgar scores of infants in their first five minutes of life – and how to deal with difficult births in ways that maximize their Apgar scores. The result of this has been a shocking (six-fold) decrease in infant mortality. And all of this is despite the fact that according to Gawande, “[in] a ranking of medical specialties according to their use of hard evidence from randomized clinical trials, obstetrics came in last. Obstetricians did few randomized trials, and when they did they ignored the results.”

Similarly, in The Bell Curve (What happens when patients find out how good their doctors really are), Gawande found that the differences between the best CF (cystic fibrosis) treatment centres and the rest turned out to hinge on how rigorously each centre followed the guidelines established by big clinical trials. That is to say, those that followed the accepted standard of care to the letter had much lower survival rates than those that hared off after any potentially lifesaving idea.

It seems that obstetricians and CF specialists were able to get incredible results without too much in the way of superstitions. Even things that look at first glance to be minor superstitions often turned out not to be. For example, when Gawande looked deeper into a series of studies that showed forceps were as good as or better than Caesarian sections, he was told by an experienced obstetrician (who was himself quite skilled with forceps) that these trials probably benefitted from serious selection effects (in general, only doctors particularly confident in their forceps skills volunteer for studies of them). If forceps were used on the same industrial scale as Caesarian sections, that doctor suspected that they’d end up worse.

But I don’t want to give the impression that there’s something about medicine as a field that allows doctors to make these sorts of improvements without superstition. In The Emperor of all Maladies, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee spends some time talking about the now discontinued practices of “super-radical” mastectomy and “radical” chemotherapy. In both treatments, doctors believed that if some amount of a treatment was good, more must be better. And for a while, it seemed better. Cancer survival rates improved after these procedures were introduced.

But randomized controlled trials showed that there was no benefit to those invasive, destructive procedures beyond that offered by their less-radical equivalents. Despite this evidence, surgeons and oncologists clung to these treatments with an almost religious zeal, long after they should have given up and abandoned them. Perhaps they couldn’t bear to believe that they had needlessly poisoned or maimed their patients. Or perhaps the superstition was so strong that they felt they were courting doom by doing anything else.

The simplest way to avoid superstition is to wait for large scale trials. But from both Gawande articles, I get a sense that matches with anecdotal evidence from my own life and that of my friends. It’s the sense that if you want to do something, anything, important – if you want to increase your productivity or manage your depression/anxiety, or keep CF patients alive – you’re likely to do much better if you take the large scale empirical results and use them as a springboard (or ignore them entirely if they don’t seem to work for you).

For people interested in nootropics, melatonin, or vitamins, there’s self-blinding trials, which provide many of the benefits of larger trials without the wait.  But for other interventions, it’s very hard to effectively blind yourself. If you want to see if meditation improves your focus, for example, then you can’t really hide the fact that you meditated on certain days from yourself [1].

When I think about how far from the established evidence I’ve gone to increase my productivity, I worry about the chance I could become superstitious.

For example, trigger-action plans (TAPs) have a lot of evidence behind them. They’re also entirely useless to me (I think because I lack a visual imagination with which to prepare a trigger) and I haven’t tried to make one in years. The Pomodoro method is widely used to increase productivity, but I find I work much better when I cut out the breaks entirely – or work through them and later take an equivalent amount of time off whenever I please. I use pomos only as a convenient, easy to Beemind measure of how long I worked on something.

I know modest epistemologies are supposed to be out of favour now, but I think it can be useful to pause, reflect, and wonder: when is one like the doctors saving CF patients and when is one like the doctors doing super-radical mastectomies? I’ve written at length about the productivity regime I’ve developed. How much of it is chaff?

It is undeniable that I am better at things. I’ve rigorously tracked the outputs on Beeminder and the graphs don’t lie. Last year I averaged 20,000 words per month. This year, it’s 30,000. When I started my blog more than a year ago, I thought I’d be happy if I could publish something once per month. This year, I’ve published 1.1 times per week.

But people get better over time. The uselessness of super-radical mastectomies was masked by other cancer treatments getting better. Survival rates went up, but when the accounting was finished, none of that was to the credit of those surgeries.

And it’s not just uselessness that I’m worried about, but also harm; it’s possible that my habits have constrained my natural development, rather than promoting it. This has happened in the past, when poorly chosen metrics made me fall victim to Campbell’s Law.

From the perspective of avoiding superstition: even if you believe that medicine cannot wait for placebo controlled trials to try new, potentially life-saving treatments, surely you must admit that placebo controlled trials are good for determining which things aren’t worth it (take as an example the very common knee surgery, arthroscopic partial meniscectomy, which has repeatedly performed no better than sham surgery when subjected to controlled trials).

Scott Alexander recently wrote about an exciting new antidepressant failing in Stage I trials. When the drug was first announced, a few brave souls managed to synthesize some. When they tried it, they reported amazing results, results that we now know to have been placebo. Look. You aren’t getting an experimental drug synthesized and trying it unless you’re pretty familiar with nootropics. Is the state of self-experimentation really that poor among the nootropics community? Or is it really hard to figure out if something works on you or not [2]?

Still, reflection isn’t the same thing as abandoning the inside view entirely. I’ve been thinking up heuristics since I read Dr. Gawande’s articles; armed with these, I expect to have a reasonable shot at knowing when I’m at risk of becoming superstitious. They are:

  • If you genuinely care only about the outcome, not the techniques you use to attain it, you’re less likely to mislead yourself (beware the person with a favourite technique or a vested interest!).
  • If the thing you’re trying to improve doesn’t tend to get better on its own and you’re only trying one potentially successful intervention at a time, fewer of your interventions will turn out to be superstitions and you’ll need to prune less often (much can be masked by a steady rate of change!).
  • If you regularly abandon sunk costs (“You abandon a sunk cost. You didn’t want to. It’s crying.”), superstitions do less damage, so you can afford to spend less mental effort on avoid them.

Finally, it might be that you don’t care that some effects are placebo, so long as you get them and get them repeatedly. That’s what happened with the experiment I worked on that summer. We knew we were superstitious, but we didn’t care. We just needed enough data to publish. And eventually, we got it.

[Special thanks go to Tessa Alexanian, who provided incisive comments on an earlier draft. Without them, this would be very much an incoherent mess. This was cross-posted on Less Wrong 2.0 and as of the time of posting it here, there’s at least one comment over there.]

Footnotes:

[1] Even so, there are things you can do here to get useful information. For example, you could get in the habit of collecting information on yourself for a month or so (like happiness, focus, etc.), then try several combinations of interventions you think might work (e.g. A, B, C, AB, BC, CA, ABC, then back to baseline) for a few weeks each. Assuming that at least one of the interventions doesn’t work, you’ll have a placebo to compare against. Although be sure to correct any results for multiple comparisons. ^

[2] That people still buy anything from HVMN (after they rebranded themselves in what might have been an attempt to avoid a study showing their product did no better than coffee) actually makes me suspect the latter explanation is true, but still. ^

History, Model

Warriors and Soldiers

Epistemic Status: Full of sweeping generalizations because I don’t want to make it 10x longer by properly unpacking all the underlying complexity.

[9 minute read]

In 2006, Dr. Atul Gawande wrote an article in The New Yorker about maternal care entitled “How Childbirth Went Industrial“. It’s an excellent piece from an author who consistently produces excellent pieces. In it, Gawande charts the rise of the C-section, from its origin as technique so dangerous it was considered tantamount to murder (and consequently banned on living mothers), to its current place as one of the most common surgical procedures carried out in North American hospitals.

The C-section – and epidurals and induced labour – have become so common because obstetrics has become ruthlessly focused on maximizing the Apgar score of newborns. Along the way, the field ditched forceps (possibly better for the mother yet tricky to use or teach), a range of maneuvers for manually freeing trapped babies (likewise difficult), and general anesthetic (genuinely bad for infants, or at least for the Apgar scores of infants).

The C-section has taken the place of much of the specialized knowledge of obstetrics of old, not the least because it is easy to teach and easy for even relatively less skilled doctors to get right. When Gawande wrote the article, there was debate about offering women in their 39th week of pregnancy C-sections as an alternative to waiting for labour. Based on the stats, this hasn’t quite come to pass, but C-sections have become slightly more prevalent since the article was written.

I noticed two laments in the piece. First, Gawande wonders at the consequences of such an essential aspect of the human experience being increasingly (and based off of the studies that show forceps are just as good as C-sections, arguably unnecessarily) medicalized. Second, there’s a sense throughout the article that difficult and hard-won knowledge is being lost.

The question facing obstetrics was this: Is medicine a craft or an industry? If medicine is a craft, then you focus on teaching obstetricians to acquire a set of artisanal skills—the Woods corkscrew maneuver for the baby with a shoulder stuck, the Lovset maneuver for the breech baby, the feel of a forceps for a baby whose head is too big. You do research to find new techniques. You accept that things will not always work out in everyone’s hands.

But if medicine is an industry, responsible for the safest possible delivery of millions of babies each year, then the focus shifts. You seek reliability. You begin to wonder whether forty-two thousand obstetricians in the U.S. could really master all these techniques. You notice the steady reports of terrible forceps injuries to babies and mothers, despite the training that clinicians have received. After Apgar, obstetricians decided that they needed a simpler, more predictable way to intervene when a laboring mother ran into trouble. They found it in the Cesarean section.

Medicine would not be the first industry to industrialize. The quasi-mythical King Ludd that gave us the phrase “Luddite” was said to be a weaver, put out of business by the improved mechanical knitting machines. English programs turn out thousands of writers every year, all with an excellent technical command of the English language, but most with none of the emotive power of Gawande. Following the rules is good enough when you’re writing for a corporation that fears to offend, or for technical clarity. But the best writers don’t just know how to follow the rules. They know how and when to break them.

If Gawande was a student of military history, he’d have another metaphor for what is happening to medicine: warriors are being replaced by soldiers.

If you ever find yourself in possession of a spare hour and feel like being lectured breathlessly by a wide-eyed enthusiast, find your local military history buff (you can identify them by their collection of swords or antique guns) and ask them whether there’s any difference between soldiers and warriors.

You can go do this now, or I can fill in, having given this lecture many times myself.

Imagine your favourite (or least favourite) empire from history. You don’t get yourself an empire by collecting bottle caps. To create one, you need some kind of army. To staff your army, you have two options. Warriors, or soldiers.

(Of course, this choice isn’t made just by empires. Their neighbours must necessarily face the same conundrum.)

Warriors are the heroes of movies. They were almost always the product of training that starts at a young age and more often than not were members a special caste. Think medieval European Knights, Japanese Samurai, or the Hashashin fida’i. Warriors were notable for their eponymous mastery of war. A knight was expected to understand strategy and tactics, riding, shooting, fighting (both on foot and mounted), and wrestling. Warriors wanted to live up to their warrior ethos, which normally emphasized certain virtues, like courage and mercy (to other warriors, not to any common peasant drafted to fight them).

Soldiers were whichever conscripts or volunteers someone could get into a reasonable standard of military order. They knew only what they needed to complete their duties: perhaps one or two simple weapons, how to march in formation, how to cook, and how to repair some of their equipment [1]. Soldiers just wanted to make it through the next battle alive. In service to this, they were often brutally efficient in everything they did. Fighting wasn’t an art to them – it was simple butchery and the simpler and quicker the better. Classic examples of soldiers are the Roman Legionaries, Greek Hoplites, and Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

The techniques that soldiers learned were simple because they needed to be easy to teach to ignorant peasants on a mass scale in a short time. Warriors had their whole childhood for elaborate training.

(Or at least, that’s the standard line. In practice, things were never quite as clear cut as that – veteran soldiers might have been as skilled as any warrior, for example. The general point remains though; one on one, you would always have bet on a warrior over a soldier.)

But when you talk about armies, a funny thing happens. Soldiers dominated [2]. Individually, they might have been kind of crap at what they did. Taken as a whole though, they were well-coordinated. They looked out for each other. They fought as a team. They didn’t foolishly break ranks, or charge headlong into the enemy. When Germanic warriors came up against Roman soldiers, they were efficiently butchered. The Germans went into battle looking for honour and perhaps a glorious death. The Romans happily gave them the latter and so lived (mostly) to collect their pensions. Whichever empire you thought about above almost certainly employed soldiers, not warriors.

It turns out that discipline and common purpose have counted for rather a lot more in military history than simple strength of arms. Of this particular point, I can think of no better example than the rebellion that followed the Meiji restoration. The few rebel samurai, wonderfully trained and unholy terrors in single combat were easily slaughtered by the Imperial conscripts, who knew little more than which side of a musket to point at the enemy.

The very fact that the samurai didn’t embrace the firing line is a point against them. Their warrior code, which esteemed individual skill, left them no room to adopt this devastating new technology. And no one could command them to take it up, because they were mostly prima donnas where their honour was concerned.

I don’t want to be too hard on warriors. They were actually an efficient solution to the problem of national defence if a population was small and largely agrarian, lacked political cohesion or logistical ability, or was otherwise incapable of supporting a large army. Under these circumstances, polities could not afford to keep a large population under arms at all times. This gave them several choices: they could rely on temporary levies, who would be largely untrained. They could have a large professional army that paid for itself largely through raiding, or they could have a small, elite cadre of professional warriors.

All of these strategies had disadvantages. Levies tended to have very brittle morale, and calling up a large proportion of a population makes even a successfully prosecuted war economically devastating. Raiding tends to make your neighbours really hate you, leading to more conflicts. It can also be very bad for discipline and can backfire on your own population in lean times. Professional warriors will always be dwarfed in numbers by opponents using any other strategy.

Historically, it was never as simple as solely using just one strategy (e.g. European knights were augmented with and eventually supplanted by temporary levies), but there was a clear lean towards one strategy or another in most resource-limited historical polities. It took complex cultural technology and a well-differentiated economy to support a large force of full time soldiers and wherever these pre-conditions were lacking, you just had to make do with what you could get [3].

When conditions suddenly call for a struggle – whether that struggle is against a foreign adversary, to boost profits, or to cure disease, it is useful to look at how many societal resources are thrown at the fight. When resources are scarce, we should expect to see a few brilliant generalists, or many poorly trained conscripts. When resources are thick on the ground, the amount that can be spent on brilliant people is quickly saturated and the benefits of training your conscripts quickly accrue. From one direction or another, you’ll approach the concept of soldiers.

Doctors as soldiers, not as warriors is the concept Gawande is brushing up against in his essay. These new doctors will be more standardized, with less room for individual brilliance, but more affordances for working well in teams. The prima donnas will be banished (as they aren’t good team players, even when they’re brilliant). Dr. Gregory House may have been the model doctor in the Victorian Age, or maybe even in the fifties. But I doubt any hospital would want him now. It may be that this standardization is just the thing we need to overcome persistent medical errors, improve outcomes across the board, and make populations healthier. But I can sympathize with the position that it might be causing us to lose something beautiful.

In software development, where I work, a similar trend can be observed. Start-ups aggressively court ambitious generalists, for whom freedom to build things their way is more important than market rate compensation and is a better incentive than even the lottery that is stock-options. At start-ups, you’re likely to see languages that are “fun” to work with, often dynamically typed, even though these languages are often considered less inherently comprehensible than their more “enterprise-friendly” statically typed brethren.

It’s with languages like Java (or its Microsoft clone, C#) and C++ that companies like Google and Amazon build the underlying infrastructure that powers large tracts of the internet. Among the big pure software companies, Facebook is the odd one out for using PHP (and this choice required them to rewrite the code underlying the language from scratch to make it performant enough for their large load).

It’s also at larger companies where team work, design documents, and comprehensibility start to be very important (although there’s room for super-stars at all of the big “tech” companies still; it’s only in companies more removed from tech and therefore outside a lot of the competition for top talent where being a good team player and writing comprehensible code might top brilliance as a qualifier). This isn’t to say that no one hiring for top talent appreciates things like good documentation, or comprehensibility. Merely that it is easy for a culture that esteems individual brilliance to ignore these things are a mark of competence.

Here the logic goes that anyone smart enough for the job will be smart enough to untangle the code of their predecessors. As anyone who’s been involved in the untangling can tell you, there’s a big difference between “smart enough to untangle this mess” and “inclined to wade through this genius’s spaghetti code to get to the part that needs fixing”.

No doubt there exist countless other examples in fields I know nothing about.

The point of gathering all these examples and shoving them into my metaphor is this: I think there exist two important transitions that can occur when a society needs to focus a lot of energy on a problem. The transition from conscripts to soldiers isn’t very interesting, as it’s basically the outcome of a process of continuous improvement.

But the transition from warriors to soldiers is. It’s amazing that we can often get better results by replacing a few highly skilled generalists who apply a lot of hard fought decision making, with a veritable army of less well trained, but highly regimented and organized specialists. It’s a powerful testament to the usefulness of group intelligence. Of course, sometimes (e.g. Google, or the Mongols) you get both, but these are rare happy accidents.

Being able to understand where this transition is occurring helps you understand where we’re putting effort. Understanding when it’s happening within your own sphere of influence can help you weather it.

Also note that this transition doesn’t only go in one direction. As manufacturing becomes less and less prevalent in North America, we may return to the distant past, when manufacturing stuff was only undertaken by very skilled artisans making unique objects.

Footnotes:

[1] Note the past tense throughout much of this essay; when I speak about soldiers and warriors, I’m referring only to times before the 1900s. I know comparatively little about how modern armies are set up. ^

[2] Best of all were the Mongols, who combined the lifelong training of warriors with the discipline and organization of soldiers. When Mongols clashed with European knights in Hungary, their “dishonourable” tactics (feints, followed by feigned retreats and skirmishing) easily took the day. This was all possible through a system of signal flags that allowed Subutai to command the whole battle from a promontory. European leaders were expected to show their bravery by being in the thick of fighting, which gave them no overall control over their lines. ^

[3] Historically, professional armies with good logistical support could somewhat pay for themselves by expanding an empire, which brought in booty and slaves. This is distinct from raiding (which does not seek to incorporate other territories) and has its own disadvantages (rebellion, over-extension, corruption, massive unemployment among unskilled labourers, etc.). ^