Streetlight Capitalism

Note: I do not have a solution to this problem. It’s still important.


One of the things you keep hearing in postmodern literature is about the conversion of all personal and ancient relations into economic relations. This is presented as a big deal but it never meant anything to me when I read it and I doubt it means anything to you. So allow me to steelman/quantify this issue, or at least what I think it means.

Things have value, but the more we look at things from a capitalist/economic perspective, the more we can only see the value of things from the capitalist/economic perspective. But things still have their value and there’s a real risk we’ll lose important things with high value as we adopt the capitalist/economic viewpoint because we no longer see their value.

So let me use the most ur-example I can: the enclosure of a private grazing field. This is one of the first big parts of the Agricultural/Industrial revolution: the enclosure/fencing of previously publicly used land for grazing cattle or other more structured agriculture by private owners. So let’s imagine the town of Engleborough. Since medieval times, the people of Engleborough have let their cows and sheep graze in the meadows. 100 villagers, 200 cows, 500 sheep, or 2 cows and 5 sheep per villager. Now the villagers grow their own food, they’re subsistence farmers, so they also consume most of the milk, wool, and meat from the cows for themselves but they do sell a bit, so let’s say each villager consumes $400 worth of milk, wool, and meat a year and sells $100 to outsiders.

So what happens when the meadow is privatized? Well, the villagers no longer have a field where their cows and sheep can graze but fortunately the local landholder is willing to buy up the 20,000 cattle and 50,000 sheep of Engleborough and pretty soon those same animals are grazing the same land, they’re just owned by the local landholder now. Some of the villagers travel to London to look for work but most of the farmers are farmers, this is early Agricultural Revolution so there’s no big factories for them to work in, and so they remain subsistence farmers in Engleborough except now they buy their milk, wool, and meat from the local landholder and in exchange they work part time tending to all the sheep and cows for the landholder.

I’m worried that in the situation I described, it looks like a lot of economic activity is going on but in reality little has happened. Ignore potential efficiencies or wealth concentration or anything like that and just focus on how this looks to a government official or an academic. If we’re measuring local economic activity, doesn’t Engleborough look much more prosperous? I mean, GDP is the main stat we use today to measure economic activity. And GDP hasn’t just increased, it’s at least quadrupled. The villagers still consumer the same amount milk, wool, and meat as before but now they’re buying it from the landlord and paying him with wage labor. That means where previously the milk, wool, and dairy sector in Engleborough had $10,000 a year in measurable economic activity, now it has at least $90,000 of measurable economic activity, because the government agency record $40,000 more dollars worth of goods being sold and $40,000 more of wages being paid. But put a gun to an economists head and he’ll admit that nothing has changed. The same number of cows and sheep are grazing on the same amount of land producing the same amount of milk, wool, and meat being consumed by the same people. But doesn’t it look like GDP has increased? Average and median wages have almost certainly increased, there’s a lot more wage labor going on. Unemployment is probably down, depending on how it’s measured. If you were a journalist or a government researcher with enough knowledge of Engleborough to know that nothing has really changed, what stat would you point to? Think about how we talk about unemployment or wages now.

And I realize this is a simplified example but it’s the complex real world I’m worried about. Imagine Bingleborough, which is just like Engleborough except that 10 of the villagers left to work in the city, 20 villagers kept their livestock and pay a small fee to the landholder, and the landholder raises 75 more cows but 100 less sheep. In Bingleborough the economic realignment has generated some small but real changes. Bingleborough meadows/farm animals are probably a bit more valuable (there’s an economic reason for more cows and less sheep) and there’s 10 more workers in the city producing more surplus value. How does Bingleborough look to researchers/the government? Let’s say GDP in Bingleborough went from $10,000 to $97,000. Remember the Engleborough went from $10,000 to $90,000. How would you distinguish between real growth a “fake growth”? How would the government or any other policy making body?

I think the GDP growth, the fall in unemployment, all of it, in Engleborough, is fake. It’s just economic activity that previously couldn’t be seen/quantified because the goods were produced and consumed within the family unit; they were never bought and sold on an open market. If you have issues with the Engleborough example, pretend I’m a better writer and I actually wrote the example correctly to explain this fact. In Bingleborough, the fact that there are small efficiency/productivity gains makes this illusory growth much harder to detect. As the government/researcher all we see is fantastic growth in all of our economic indicators. When we go try to explain why this growth happened, in Engleborough there’s no good explanations, which causes confusion, which gives us a chance to recognize the illusory growth. In Bingleborough, however, we find some real growth, it’s there, and so we attribute all the growth to these real factors which really happened but are small.

To simplify:
Grant me that private/internal economic activity exists and is invisible to the market and our econ measures. ie, if you knit a sweater, that sweater is valuable, but it doesn’t show up on GDP or any other official metric and is therefore “invisible”. Then:

#1 We, by definition, have a hard time seeing “invisible” economic activity

#2 This is doubled by the fact that largely “invisible” effects are mixed with small measurable effects.

#3 Therefore, at a policy level, when we make policy decisions, we will undervalue “invisible” economic activity and overvalue measurable economic activity. This could lead to bad policy.

Or streetlight capitalism. We’re optimizing for what we can measure, but there’s a lot of economic activity we can’t measure, therefore are we confident we’re actually optimizing our whole economy? To bring back pomo, if we can only value something as valuable in a capitalist/marketplace context, then we can lose the valuable things that don’t fit in that context.


If you want to know where this is going, here’s SlateStarCodex on Elizabeth Warren’s “The Two Income Trap”.
“When Warren does a very unofficial Fermi-estimate style breakdown of what is happening to the extra $30,000 that modern two-income families earn over traditional one-income families, she thinks they are paying about $4,000 more on their house, $4,000 more on child care, $3,000 more on a second car, $1,000 more on health insurance, $5,000 more on education (preschool + college), and $13,000 more on taxes.”
PS, in this example men make $40,000 a year and working women make $30,000

This is a bit more culture war-y than I’d like, but there’s no good way to avoid it. If you go looking for “invisible” economic activity in the 20th century, the largest effect in going to be women leaving the home and entering the workforce. Using SSC’s numbers:
The stay-at-home mom;s labor was worth about $6,500 (child care + half education (preschool))
Getting a job required $3000 of extra expenses (2nd car)
This meant the woman entering the workforce made an extra $20,500 ($30,000 salary minus cost and stay-at-home labor value)
Of this, the woman/family receives $7,500 and the government receives $13,000 (taxes)

So, extrapolate from this to society, measurable GDP would have increased by 75% ($40,000 to $70,000). If we add in the value of the labor of the stay-at-home mom and remove the wasted production (a 2nd car of little utility outside of commuting) actual economic activity increased by 44% ($46,500->$67,000). That’s a really big difference.

Let me preempt two challenges: quantitative and feminist.

I think the quants are going to challenge me that this is all very vague and there’s no hard numbers. Which is true, my challenge is how do you expect me to quantify this? I don’t think government agencies are dumb for not measuring this, I genuinely have no way to measure this and don’t know anyone who does. For example, if someone stays home and cares for a sick relative, I know that has real economic value because it’s comparable to medical care that costs thousands of dollars. I have no way and no suggestion about how to estimate the total economic value of family-provided healthcare. First, it’s really hard to know how much work people put into caring for sick relatives. Second, it’s really hard to compare personal care from relatives to professional care from specialist, especially since many sick people both consume professional services and get help from family and I’m unsure how to measure who is doing how much of what in these situations. Third, I’m sure a 30-40% marginal tax rate plays havoc with valuations and incentives on this stuff, not even counting health insurance. I get that this is pretty vague but market confidence and consumer confidence are also really vague terms for real and important things.

Second, feminists, because this can get read really easily as a call for women to leave the workforce. That’s not my argument here and although I’ll expand on this shortly, here’s the brief on feminism briefly.

#1 Let’s estimate/imagine that a stay-at-home mom’s labor is worth $10,000

#2 Let’s estimate/imagine that a working mom’s labor is worth $30,000

#3 There’s no argument that there’s a real economic benefit of $20,000 for a stay-at-home mom to enter the workforce

#4 That doesn’t change the argument that the labor of the stay-at-home mom has real economic value that we/society don’t recognize/measure

#5 Nor does it change the argument that we overestimate the benefit of the stay-at-home mom entering the workforce as $30,000, not the $20,000 it should actually be

If these distinctions haven’t been clear thus far, blame my poor writing.

But how much of US growth from 1950-1980 was real benefits of women entering the workforce and how much was “invisible” labor at home being converted into recognized labor in the workplace? Heck, before that, how much of late 19th century growth was real and how much was men being converted from independent farmers to factory workers? How would you tell?

At least in the past you could point to cars and trains for physical evidence of production. In a modern economy where most jobs and production are in services, how do you make an effective distinction?


I’m not primarily concerned with how this effects society; I’m mostly concerned with myself and, to a lesser extent, you. Because in me and you, I think this incarnates as focus on wages/income rather than overall value.

Here’s an easy example: cooking. I cook and I’ve noticed a significant savings when I cook: if I eat out regularly I spend $800 a month on food while if I cook most of my meals I spend ~$500 a month on food. Over a year, that savings is worth $3,600 a year.

But compare that to if I got a new job that paid me $6,000 more a year or $500 more a month. I’d be super excited, and I know it would be big news among my friends/family. But in financial terms, after a 30-40% tax rate, getting the new job/raise is about as financially valuable as cooking most of my meals. Why do they feel so different then? Why am I, and I guess you, so much more excited about making more money than cooking?

In real terms, someone marking $100,000 in San Francisco is about as well off as someone making $50,000 in Indianapolis. Why does the person in San Francisco seem so much higher status?

Why don’t I have any income other than my job? Check that, why don’t I count growth from stocks and bonds as part of my income? If someone makes $40,000 a year at their job and $10,000 a year renting out part of their home or a duplex or something, do they make $40,000 a year or $50,000 a year?

I don’t think my job is the only thing I do that produces value but I also totally think that.

I’m sure there’s lot of housewives who think nobody respects what they do. I’m sure a lot of them are right. Worse, I think a lot of them actually think they don’t do anything useful.

I’m haunted by part of “Nickel and Dimed” where the author relates that “There are no secret economies that nourish the poor…On the contrary there are a host of special costs. If you can’t put up the two months’ rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can’t save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved at a convenience store.” This is
A. Completely logical
B. Absolutely insane. If you’re making $6 an hour, you should absolutely work an hour less to turn $1 of lentils and spices into $12 of meals. I get why this situation happens but it’s still broken.

At the broad cultural governmental level, I absolutely get why the government is blind to these things. But I’m blind to these things and I suspect you are too and that freaks me out.

I want a way to refer to this, a way to refer to the method of thinking that can’t recognize the value of things or labor unless they’re traded in the market. Thus streetlight capitalism.

A Brief Fermi solution

Fermi Paradox: even without FTL/hyperspeed/warp drive it should only take an advanced civilization millions of years to colonize the galaxy, the galaxy is billions of years old, so where are/were all the aliens.

Brief solution: Cultural drift makes your colonists enemies.

Longer solution:

Imagine an alternative history. Someone took Freeman Dyson seriously, the US government poured trillions into a functional Project Orion ship, and shot it into space in 1975 to colonize Alpha Centauri. This ship had a couple thousand people on it, and could reach 10% c/speed of light, which means in landed on Alpha Centauri in 2017. They call home immediately and we receive their message in 2021.

What does their message to us look like? What does ours look like to them?

Think about it. This is a 1970’s US culture heavily shaped by a lifetime of space travel. How are they going to react to homosexuality, socialism/communism/Bernie Sanders, transgenderism, insert culture war topic here? How will we react to them? Will they conform to our cultural norms? Would we conform to theirs?

How is this going to progress? There’s a four year time delay on any communications and dramatically different environments. What happens in 100 years when the US is no longer the sole superpower? How friendly are the Alpha Centauri colonists to a world run by the Chinese/Indians/insert outgroup here?

The closest reference to interstellar colonization is overseas colonies in the Americas, literally “the New World”. With the exception of Canada and Brazil, all of those ended in war. Even in the pre-USA, with news and travel from the British homeland only taking a month; it still took only ~200 years for war to erupt. The only difference is that interstellar colonies, almost by definition, have access to cataclysmic levels of devastation. If any group of colonists can find a large rock, accelerate it to some % of light speed, and aim it as the Earth’s predicted position, then you’ve got an extinction level threat.

Maybe MAD would save us but I can’t see that scaling to hundreds, much less thousands, much less millions of dramatically different cultures with no ability to communicate and access to cataclysmic weapons.

In short, once colonists are away from the home planet, coordination becomes phenomenally difficult and coordination failures/miscommunication have horrific consequences.

As for von Neumann probes, I hope your Quality Assurance people are really good. These things have to self-replicate billions of times to cover the Milky Way and it only takes one malfunction to create a galaxy consuming grey goo.

In other words, it’s not enough to be able to physically send things into space; you have to be able to exercise some control over it, otherwise it’ll assuredly revolt and destroy you over million/billion year timescales. This doesn’t just require FTL travel, it likely requires cheap, instantaneous FTL communications. I doubt cheap FTL communications like that are possible.

For example, let’s say you want to be able to talk with your colonists on Alpha Centauri as quickly as the British were able to talk to the American colonists, ie a one month delay. You don’t just need FTL communications, you need to be able to send and recieve a few gigbytes of data every day at 50x the speed of light. I’m no physicist, but that seems pretty unlikely, and even harder to scale up to colonizing the billions of start in the Milky Way.

In short:
-1 Once you shoot colonists into space, they become different. They change and you change.
-2 Different things are dangerous; historically you get either diplomacy or war
-3 Diplomacy is a no-go because the communications lag takes years, negotiations decades
-4 War involves extinction level events, starting at giant meteors going some % of the speed of light and getting worse from there
-5 Therefore, no functional civilization has colonists

Errata: I’m not saying no alien civilization has ever had interstellar colonies. I’m saying either the home planet or the colonists got extinct-ed and the survivors never repeated that mistake.

Eight legged essays

Old is new is old.

Did you know China’s ancient civil service exam demanded you write essay in a formal style, the eight-legged essay which is essentially the same as America’s five paragraph essay.

Chinese eight-legged essay
-1 Snappy title
-2 Clarify theme
-3 Introduction
-4 1st argument
-5 2nd argument
-6 3rd argument
-7 4th argument
-8 Conclusion

-1 Introduction
-2 1st argument
-3 2nd argument
-4 3rd argument
-5 Conclusion

So the American’s are really just short a snappy title and a 4th argument.

Also, from this is the winning essay from 1529 by Tang Shunzi

Mencius’ contemporary Zi Mo wanted to rectify the deviation of heterodox teachings, but did not realize that he himself fell into deviation.

The fact is, the middle is defined as “not deviant,” and the correct application of the middle is the proper measure. Zi Mo wanted to rectify the deviant ways of Yang Zi and Mo Zi, but did not know the proper measure, so this was but another deviation. This was the standard Mencius used to repudiate his error and to establish our way.

To elaborate, for our Way is the principal one, but the manifestations are many; egoism and indiscriminate love certainly deviate from the Way. And our way uses the one principle to join together the many, but those who hold on to egoism or indiscriminate love are certainly holding on to an extreme which leads nowhere. Thus there was Zi Mo who understood the errors of Yang Zi and Mo Zi, and thereupon mediated between the two in order to grasp the middle course.

Zi Mo would probably say, I cannot bear to be like Yang Zi, who cut off all ties with others in a niggardly fashion; I simply stop short of loving indiscriminately.

I have not time to be like Mo Zi who joyfully sacrifices himself for others: I simply stop short of being an egoist.

Because one rejects egoism, one may be thought to be escaping from the error of Yang Zi and heading towards benevolence.

Because one rejects indiscriminate love, one may be thought to be escaping for the error of Mo Zi and heading towards righteousness.

Zi Mo seems to be close to the Way, but he does not understand the following: the proper measure is defined as following the Way at the right time; the middle is defined as others with the proper measure; and the position between Yang Zi and Mo Zi is not the place to seek the middle.

If one just knows that one should not sever ties with others but does not know how to weigh others to give evenly, then there is no danger of becoming an egoist, but on the other hand those who follow the Way and strive to perfect themselves will also be seen as approaching egoism and consequently one will not dare act in like manner.

If one understands that one should not sacrifice oneself for others but cannot give to others on an individual basis, then there is no danger of loving indiscriminately, but on the other hand those who follow the Way and strive to perfect the whole Empire will also be seen as approaching indiscriminate love and consequently one will not be willing to act in like manner.

One may say that I plan to escape from Yang Zi. However, Yang Zi saw himself and not others, while Zi Mo saw a fixed position not an open passage. In essence, all these are but parochial teachings. Really, can those who know how to adapt to myriad changes be like this?

One may say that I plan to escape from Mo Zi. However, Mo Zi saw others and not himself, while Zi Mo saw tracks and not transformations. In essence all these are but one-sided delusions. Really, can those who respond to eternal inconstancy be like this?

The point is, egoism is one extreme, and indiscriminate love is another extreme. That is why it is easy to understand that Yang Zi and Mo Zi each held on to an extreme.

The middle is not an extreme: but if one holds on to the middle without applying the proper measure, then this is also an extreme. That is why it is difficult to understand that Zi Mo was holding on to an extreme.

If Mencius had not demonstrated this with his eloquence, then most people would have thought that Zi Mo was able to be one with the Way.

It’s nice to see a 16th century essay of false equivalence.

Discuss priorities, not for or against

TLDR; political arguments aren’t for/against, they’re priorities. Saying I’m for X/not against X is bad communication; we care how much you value/dislike something.

In political discussions I often hear people say something like “I’m not against gay marriage, I just…” or “I don’t want to take away people’s guns, I just…”. I think this is an unhelpful way to think about policy and instead of thinking about being for/against something we should think about priorities.

Let’s start applauding this rhetoric. It indicates a basic ability of acknowledge another persons concerns as legitimate and attempt to ameliorate them; which makes it the height of discourse in this partisan/social media/tribal age. If you do this, you’re doing basic empathy, that’s important and it will do a lot to maintain relationships with people with different political views1.

It gets something wrong though. At a gut level it’s the old saying “Ignore everything said before ‘but'”. Whenever I use this, people kind of ignore it and we get right back into arguing. Which is weird, the speaker basically says “I understand your concern, I promise not to do/support the consequence you fear”, and the listener ignores it. We’re trying to communicate something, to be nice to people and respect their views, and it “always” fails. In fact, it’s usually seen as insincere. This is odd because when I/the speaker say this, I’m almost always sincere. If someone says “I don’t hate purple people, I just” then 80% of the time the speaker is sincere in not hating purple people and the listener doesn’t trust this and presumes the speaker is lying/hates purple people. (insert appropriate culture war topic for purple)

So grant me the following situation.
-1 The speaker says he’s not against X
-2 The listener believes the speaker is lying, that the speaker is secretly against X
-3 Both people think people are either for or against things
-4 Fights occur when one side is for a thing and the other isn’t

I think point #4 is wrong.

Issues/policies don’t always lose ground because someone dislikes them; they often/usually lose ground when they come into conflict with something people value more. Take the environment for example; no one hates rivers/trees/birds and no one loves pollution. The environment loses, speaking more of you local environment than global warming, because it comes into conflict with jobs/housing. Your local park doesn’t get bulldozed into condos because people hate parks, they get bulldozed because people value condos more than parks. In this scenario, not being against parks isn’t super important; that’s not how the park will be destroyed.

For example, a list of things I don’t think anyone’s really against:
-Local environment
-Treatment for the mentally ill/homeless
-Animal rights (think factory farm abuses)
-Malaria bednets

But all of these things are underfunded/unsupported and require various interest groups/volunteers to push them. No one’s against them, but they still lose often. Your local environment comes into conflict with jobs/housing, treatment for the mentally ill comes into conflict with other government spending priorities, animal rights comes into conflict with jobs/corporate profits, and malaria bednets comes into conflict with every other charity trying to get a limited pool of funds. I won’t delve into politics/culture war here but I think this can be extended to gun rights, transgender rights, the deficit, war policy, tax cuts, medical care, university spending, etc. Essentially, one of the core tasks of politics is crafting policies in response to differing priorities. How much people care about something is more important than whether the like/dislike it.

This is where confusion/lying/”ignore everything before ‘but'” comes in. People have noticed that people saying “I’m not against X” doesn’t really get anything done; those people will not be politically supportive of the things we, as the listener, care about. But if we only model this as people being for/against things, then our best interpretation of their words and subsequent actions is deception/dishonesty. In reality, everything before the “but” is true, it just isn’t politically relevant.

This has 3 clear implications:
-1 For our thinking. Stop thinking of what you’re for and against and start thinking about how much you care about it. Rate it on a scale of 1-10, with 5 being ambivalent, 8 being willing to donate money, and 10 being willing to vote for an outgroup candidate (ie a lifelong Democrat voting Republican) based on this issue.
-2 For our speaking. The “I’m not against X” move doesn’t work. I’m not sure what does. Either avoid it or reframe it as “this is why X doesn’t matter as much to me as it does to you” which at least has the benefit of being honest and more accurate.
-3 For our listening. Don’t always assume that someone saying “I’m not against X” is lying. I think that’s where we default to, I certainly do, but it’s wrong. The speaker just has an inaccurate model/communication. Recognize that they’re trying to reach out to you, trying to address your concerns, and the failure and your/my feeling of being lied to isn’t a result of ill intent but a result of bad models/confusion.

  1. This isn’t important because you should have relationships with people of different political views. It’s important because you shouldn’t let politics decide/influence/undermine your relationships. Relationships/friendship/family are paramount, politics is secondary.

Sum Total Life Profits

Let’s say you’re an eccentric millionaire in 1984. The most exceedingly average person you’ve ever met approaches you with the following offer:

“I’m auctioning off my working life. To wit, for the next 33 years I’m going to save half my income in a bank account; taxes and living expenses will consume the other half. At the end of 33 years I will transfer all the money in that bank account to you; half of all the wages I’ll earn over the next 33 years. In exchange, I want a certain amount of money now. I’m soliciting bids from various millionaires and the winning bid will get the bank account with half my wages over the next 33 years.”

How much would you bid?

More data. Based on median household income from 1984 to 2017, this exceedingly average person will earn a total of ~$1.38 million and the bank account will have $693,560 in it.

How much would you bid now?

Was it more than $27,687? Because if you stuck $27,687 in the NASDAQ in 1984 that’s what it would be worth: $693,560. In other words, you could essentially own a middle class American in 1984 and work him for subsistence wages for 30+ years or you could just invest <$30,000 in the stock market. Exact same return, exact same profit. But this isn’t a totally fair comparison, we’re just sticking all those wages in a savings account. What if we took those wages every year and invested them in the NASDAQ?

How much would you bid now?

About $71,000.

Stagnant wages and high returns to capital. And the trendline is going down. Save more, invest more.

PS. All data from FRED, look for NASDAQ returns and Median Household Income

PPS, Median Household Income is in current dollars

Gucci Ouroboros

So I’m reading Baudrillard and I’m digging it, because I’m a sucker for any critique of consumerism. Fair warning, stylistically he’s fairly unreadable.

Anyway, chapter 3 is basically about an endless consumerist loop which on first blush is pretty much pomo garbage but it’s sticking in my mind and I want to strengthen/empiricism it.

So Baudrillard’s critique basically goes “Consumerism/capitalism changes the value of an item from utility/practicality to status/position/symbol. Status/position/symbol values don’t increase as more goods increase, in fact, more production/growth generates more poverty because (basically unintelligible, my best guess) more production just increases the cost/amount of status goods you need, therefore in real terms status goods become more and more expensive and at some point we’re generating more poverty because so much income goes into status purchases.”

It’s confusing because it sounds dumb. Baudrillard thinks more stuff makes us poorer but that’s not how stuff works, more stuff is more, that’s how “more” works. If we have x things and then we get y more things, how is x+y<x? More concretely, this feels like a upper-middle class thing; sure rich-ish people might be wasting their money on Prada bags but poor people are suffering as serious lack of food/housing/transportation/[other real things go here].

So I want to make a defense of Baudrillard’s idea:

Poor people really want status goods. I’m not going to pretend I understand why but poor people empirically seek to buy status goods even at great personal risk. We could share stories of impoverished Indians spending 2-3 years of annual income on a wedding ( but there’s a paper I like on the spending habits of rural Chinese in Guizhou. These are China’s poorest farmers, think $120-$240 a year in 2004-2006 ( Page 12, Table 3 has the gold, gift and festival spending is 7-15% of spending, behind food/medical care/education, but above clothing/fuel/telephone. Even the extremely poor spend money on status and they will do it at the expense of things that we would typically consider critical, such as clothing, higher quality food, or even education. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that all the villages saw significant growth in this period and the primary shifts in spending are less spending on food and more money of gift/festival spending and education, with more weight on gift/festival spending.

PS. I remember a lot more papers on luxury/festival spending among the global poor from grad school but I can’t find the papers. My search-fu is weak.

I think there’s a Maslow hierarchy thing here. Most of us accept that rich people waste money on status but we think of poor people as unable to afford to play status games. And therefore Baudrillard’s critique can’t really work; economic growth always helps poor people because that increased wealth/income/goods flows to the bottom of the Maslow pyramid to things like food/shelter/things with clear and important use value.

So I think the steelman/empiricist-legible version of Baudrillard is: Maslow is wrong, people will purchase status before spending on things with very high use value, such as stable housing/good healthcare/good food/etc.

This creates a weird situation where more growth can make everyone poorer, because status, while perhaps not zero-sum, doesn’t linearly scale like food/housing/useful things. Therefore, if the economic growth is a growth in status things, then poor people will decrease the amount they purchase of useful things in order to keep up their status.

Here’s the simple example: imagine you need a car to get laid. Getting laid is very important to young men, so they all buy cars. Then Toyota/Ford/whoever comes out with a new car with 100 more horsepower. This horsepower has no real use; speed limits mean you can’t legally drive faster. However, more horsepower is cool, it becomes the new status symbol, and everyone who wants to get laid has to buy the new car. In this scenario GDP goes up (new cars are more expensive=more valuable and everyone is buying them), income goes up (people get paid to make/design the car the car), but everyone’s cost went up (buying new cars). It seems obvious that we’re all actually poorer; we gain the production of the new cars but we threw away perfectly functional cars and the spending is likely more than the extra income, especially for the poor. And the poor are especially hurt by this, young men really want to get laid even if they’re poor so poor young men will eat beans and rice, avoid the doctor, and work extra hours just to afford a new car that has no utility value, it’s just a status symbol to get laid. So we went from a world where a poor young man making $1000 a month spends $300/month on his car to get laid and $700 on everything else to a new world where he makes $1050 a month, spends $500/month on his new car, and $550 on everything else. By GDP/growth/econ measurements our poor young man is richer, his income and consumption increased by $50/5% but his real consumption fell by $150 because the cost of his status symbol went up, even though not getting laid more than he was before.

In reality it’s probably more mixed; I doubt there are many pure status goods or pure utility goods. I would argue it’s something more like the iPhone. iPhone 1 through iPhone ~5 are great and have utility value. iPhones 6-10 or whatever don’t really have more utility value but if you’ve got an old iPhone that’s kind of lame and you lose status. The good starts as a utility item, all the opportunities to improve it are exhausted, and further profits require turning it into a status item. This would be a pretty good explanation for why EVERYTHING is branded/advertised; you can sell on utility or you can sell on status but a good capitalist sells on both.

I think Baudrillard would include this effort to increase profits by converting utility items into status items requires cheap items to acquire negative status, which actively hurts the poor.

Like I said, critiques of consumerism are my catnip. Still, the idea of a Gucci dystopia, where the primary importance of every item is status, and capitalism/Moloch actively seeks to turn everything into status because our monkey brains are super-sensitive to it and so we spend on it, that conversion of all real production into a pointless ouroboros of Gucci bags is really cool.

Ranked Choice Voting in Alameda

So Alameda County instituted Ranked Choice Voting in 2010 for local elections. What this means is that for mayor/city council/etc elections, you don’t vote for a single candidate, you rank your preference for each candidate. For example, imagine three candidates: Candidate Horrible, Candidate Meh, and Candidate Longshot. On your ballot you rank these as so: Candidate Longshot as first choice, Candidate Meh as second choice, Candidate Horrible as third choice. Candidate Longshot gets your vote but, being a longshot, has the lowest vote total of any candidate once all the votes are counted. Because this election uses ranked choice voting, however, your vote gets transferred from Candidate Longshot to Candidate Meh once it’s clear Candidate Longshot can’t win. This pushes Candidate Meh to victory over Candidate Horrible.

It’s an interesting idea, especially if you’re interested in viable third parties. I’m shocked that: A. this was actually implemented anywhere in the US, B. that I haven’t heard about this before, C. this isn’t being discussed anywhere.

Since this has been running for 8+years, I went to the Alameda county election site and pulled together a list of every election since 2010 and how ranked choice voting has impacted the elections there (

Bottom line: ranked choice voting has changed the outcome of five races in the three cities that practice it: The 2010 Oakland mayoral race, the 2010 San Leandro mayoral race, the 2012 Oakland district 3 City Council race, the 2016 district 5 School Director race, and the 2016 Berkeley district 2 City Council race. This is for 2010-2017, oddly the 2018 stats aren’t up yet.

Whether this is a big shift kind of depends on how you define the denominator.

There were 72 total races, so 5/72 ~=7%. Or we could only count elections where there was more than one candidate (lots of city council members/school director races are unopposed), of which there were 63 or 5/63 ~=8%. Either way, most elections aren’t affected.

The most generous comparison is to “potential races”. These are races with more than two candidates and where no candidate got more than 50% in the first round. This basically equates to any race where ranked choice voting could have affected the outcome. There were 21 such races, of which RCD changed the outcome of 5 so 5/21 ~=24%.

Basically, even in cases where ranked choice voting played a role, 3 out of 4 times the candidate with the largest share of the vote in the first round won: either his/her lead was too large or people didn’t break decisively for other candidates.

I’m a little shocked the impact of this is so low. I’m also a little relieved; if anybody was going to elect a madman/kook it would be Berkeley (kinda teasing) but even here the effect has been fairly small.

I interpret this as evidence of decreased impact and decreased risk of ranked choice voting. I’m also very curious about the ballot measure that made this into law.

General encouragement for more research on this.

Against Category Sophistry

Someone come up with a better name.

There’s a common rhetorhical tactic that I think is bad but there’s no easy way to describe the fallacy of the argument, so I’m going to lay it out here so I can refer back to it later.

The strawman will be Contrapoint’s video “The West” (I am suitably ashamed of referencing Youtube). The rhetorhical trick is to nitpick on imprecise borders as a way to undermine a categorization scheme. So Contrapoints critiques the concept of “the West” since #1 there are important differences between European subgroups, both within nations and nations themselves and #2 there’s lots of fuzzy border regions like Greece/Communism which are kind of Western and kind of not. And the critique basically goes that since we can’t firmly define who/what the West is and who’s in it that the term is meaningless. I see this kind of argument a lot, someone’s talking about a big important/vague thing, someone else criticizes it because it’s vague/has no clear boundaries, and makes it look stupid because it doesn’t fit into our intuitive understanding of how categories/definitions work, ie with clear boundaries and definitions.

So rather than go super meta-philosophy, let me say that RGB color codes do not undercut the concept of purple. Every color on your computer is represented as a mix of Red, Green, and Blue. Blue is obviously Red:0, Green:0, Blue=255. Pink is R:255, G:0, B:255. In between is purple at R:127, G:0, Blue:255. However, I couldn’t tell you the point at which Blue becomes Purple. Compare R:63, G:0, B:255 to R:64, G:0, B:255; can you honestly say this is where blue becomes purple? How about R:60, G:0, B255 compared to R:70, G:0, B255? There’s no clear dividing line and no clear boundaries.

But purple exists. There are gradiations, sure, but purple still exists. The fact that it doesn’t have a solid definition or boundaries does is not, by itself, an argument against its existence or use as a category.

Let’s give post-modernists/sophists their due. It is important to recognize the importance of different subgroups and their effects, just as an artist would see important differences between R:50, G:0, B:255 and R:80, G:0, B:255.

But I still need a way to refer to purple. And I still need a way to refer to the West, or nihilism, or capitalism, or cultural marxism, or whatever, even though it may not have clear definitions or boundaries. And I suspect that this kind of critique is bad argumentation: at best people are subconsciously applying different philosophical/evidentiary standards against groups/concepts they don’t like and at worst it’s just straight sophistry for their in-group/preferred ideology.

Just because something doesn’t have a clear definition does not mean it doesn’t exist.

Beyond Growth

TL,DR: Per capita GDP is ~$60,000; incomes over $75,000 don’t significantly increase happiness; significant implications for growth/equality trade-off in capitalism/socialism discussions, especially in near future as per capita GDP crosses $75,000.

When discussing capitalism/communism/socialism, there’s often mention of an implicit trade-off between growth and inequality. Yes, capitalism generates unequal societies, but it also generates much faster economic growth, which makes it a net benefit even for the poor/losers.

What if this is true but there’s a point where economic growth doesn’t matter and so you’re willing to accept lower growth for more equality.

All you really need for this is for growth/money/progress to become less valuable as you have more of it. You could approach this philosophically, like how money doesn’t make you REALLY happy, as everyone from Socrates to P. Diddy has noted. You could spice it up with psychological terms like “hedonic adaptation” or economic terms like “declining marginal utility of money”. You could even rely on folk wisdom/TV things, like, “There’s a way bigger improvement in lifestyle going from $25,000 a year to $50,000 than $50,000 a year to $75,000 or even $100,000.”

This is pretty old hat, my trick here is to point out how close we are to that theoretical line. Note that real US GDP per capita is $60,000

Two variations:
First, imagine a genie offers you the chance to abolish all inequality in the US in exchange for a third of the US economy vanishing. This seems like a big loss, and it is, roughly comparable to the Great Depression (FRED ( says GDP fell from $1,109,408 Billion in 2012 dollars to $817,265, a ~27% drop). Apply this to our current GDP though and per capita GDP falls to about $40,000 a year, roughly where it was in 1995. This is hardly a post-apocalyptic hellscape, in fact the 1990’s were a pretty good period and if you or I were sent back in time to live there we’d be pretty comfortable. Point: we could lose a shocking amount of GDP and still retain a standard of living most people think of as pretty comfortable.

Second, most of the hedonic adaptation/declining marginal utility of money stuff centers around $75,000 a year. More money than that is nice but it doesn’t really make people much happier. (it still makes them happier, just not much). If we keep a 2%-ish real growth rate, US per capita GDP will hit $75,000 in 2031. What’s the argument for more growth then? Like, we literally have enough money to make everyone as happy as money/physical goods will make them, the only problem is distribution, what’s the argument for more growth instead of better distribution?

Key arguments:
-There’s a trade-off between high growth and high equality
-There’s negative externalities/effects to inequality
-Money/goods become less valuable as you have more of them
-Therefore, there’s a point where more money isn’t worth the negative externality/inequality cost
-To the best of our knowledge, we’re approaching that point.

I think it’s easy to strawman this into an economic collapse scenario but a mild steelman (oakman?) would probably be a defense of UBI/social welfare/higher marginal tax rates. If the cost of such policies is lower growth, and that’s a real cost, there’s a point in the now/near future where that cost goes away because it’s unclear what that additional money would buy. What’s the point of getting richer if it doesn’t make you happier?

John Rabe is the Banality of Evil

So I just finished John Rabe’s diaries during the Nanking Massacre. Key facts, then an observation.

#1 John Rabe was a Nazi. Like, in the darkness of the Nanking bombings he inspires himself with Nazi/Hitler poetry.

#2 John Rabe created/lead the International Safety Zone, which protected 250,000 Chinese from the worst horrors of the Nanking Massacre/Rape of Nanking.

#3 This was almost entirely done personally. As a Nazi and party member allied to the Japanese government, he would run from place to place, pointing at his Swastika armband and chasing off Japanese soldiers in the middle of looting/raping/killing. Very few people can claim to have saved 100,000+ lives but John Rabe may be the only one who can claim to have done it personally i.e.. physically preventing death through his direct action on a case by case basis.

I wanted to read this because John Rabe wasn’t just the “good” Nazi, he’s probably the greatest humanitarian of WWII and he’s a Nazi. And that’s interesting and weird and there’s probably something to learn there.

For what it’s worth, John Rabe comes across as a really nice guy doing what he feels is his duty. Very British/WASPy “Father to his men” type guy. That’s explicitly why he stayed in Nanking by the way, he felt loyalty to his Chinese workers and just kind of got roped into stopping/limiting the massacre.

But it’s clear that if Rabe had  stationed somewhere else he would have committed the same atrocities as any other Nazi. There’s a really brutal line towards the end where Rabe notes that his company actually sent him a telegram telling him to leave before Nanking was taken but the telegram never arrived; if it had he would have left regardless of his personal misgivings. When he arrived in Shanghai he gave an international press conference on the situation in Nanking but left out the horrors since it would complicate the Nazi party’s diplomatic situation. And although he gave talks in Berlin on the Nanking Massacre and was silenced by the SS, there wasn’t intimidation or violence; it was a calm sit-down where the SS said for political reasons that Rabe shouldn’t talk about Nanking anymore and Rabe agreed. He wasn’t censored, he was never censored, he self-censored because he independently thought it was what was best for the Nazi party.

And it’s hard to imagine that kind of man taking a principled stand against Auschwitz. Rabe would bend the rules a bit where he thought he had leeway, he definitely ignored hints from his company to leave Nanking before the invasion, but he never refused a direct order, worked in anyway against the best interests of his company/party, and never exceeded what he thought of as his discretion.

The banality of evil is exactly this, people simply following orders even if those orders are monstrous. And his diaries leave little doubt he would have followed the most monstrous orders of the Nazi party.

And yet he personally saved 250,000 Chinese lives from one of the most horrific crimes of the 20th century at great personal risk and cost to himself. Most of us will never take an action so fundamentally good.

I am unsure how to process this.

EDIT: So I just read his Berlin diaries, written during the Soviet invasion of Berlin in 1945, and in there he states that he never would have joined the Nazi party if he knew the horrors they were committing (he’d lived in China for 30 years). Three things:

#1 This does a lot to allay my confusion

#2 I’m taking it with a grain of salt, since he’s starving and very disillusioned with Hitler; early in Nanking he has a very different view.

#3 I guess my final takeaway is that this is the kind of civilian/bureaucratic resistance the Danes and others used to hide their Jews during the Holocaust. Never breaking any rule, always trying to win over the oppressor, and limiting his actions to what is not specifically prohibited. It seems very effective but fragile, the lives of 250,000 Chinese hanging on a lost telegram.