World War Technology

[Content Warning: both World Wars, the Holocaust]

I have a very vivid memory of reading Cryptonomicon, where a character explains that the Allies won World War 2 because they worshiped Athena (technology, strategy), and the Germans worshipped Ares (Brute Strength, physical and moral).

[Some of you may be thinking “But German craftsmanship was better, right?  It took 5/10 American tanks to take down 1 German Tank?”  I thought so too, but apparently no.  To the extent it was true, it was craftsmanship, not technology.]

The Axis did do better in encryption originally, but by the end we were reading much more of their mail than they were reading of ours.  Although it’s important to give credit to this to Polish Intelligence, who broke the Enigma code early on, enabling them to keep up as Germany increased its complexity.  If they hadn’t sent their results to Britain just as Germany invaded, Alan Turing et al. may never have been able to crack it.  That was some high leverage work there.

Anyways, I’m reading The Alchemy of Air (Thomas Hager) now, which is about the history of nitrogen chemistry, which played a much larger role in World War 1 than I would have guessed.  Fritz Haber’s invention of a way to transform atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form, something previously only accomplished by lightning and a handful of bacteria, is estimated to have prolonged the war by at least one year, possibly two. We’ll get into why in a later post.  That’s Athena.  According to the book, a lot of what the Allies wanted in reparations was not actually money, but German technology, especially chemistry.

[I do not entirely trust Hager on the relative important of chemistry and money here.  He’s spent the entire book waxing lyrical about the importance and beauty of nitrogen.  The internet was not terrible helpful; I’ve confirmed that dyes and pharmaceuticals were among goods taken as reparations, but not the amounts.  Some guy on Quora says the US, Britain, and Germany were equally competitive in technology in 1914.]

Even if Alchemy is overestimating German dominance in chemistry, I think it’s safe to say that technology was a major force behind German military power in World War 1.  And by World War 2, it wasn’t.  They made some advances and would have done worse without them, but no one ended the war thinking “man, getting access to this German technology will save us 20 years in research”.  But 60 years later, Germany is again a leader in technology, and has one of the more functional economies in the world.

This was going to be a “me wondering about a mystery” post, but once I thought about it the answer to “what changed?” is obvious.  Germany exiled or killed 25% of their scientists.  Fritz Haber, the guy who added years to the war with one invention and went on to pioneer chemical warfare?  Jewish  “Germany hurt itself while killing several million people” is not exactly news, but I think it’s important to note individual stories of how.

Although this puts me in the weird position of honoring the guy who more-or-less created chemical warfare.  But that’s maybe okay, because the same process that made Germany gun powder is also feeding half the world right now.  Utilitarian morality is complicated.



“But they’ve repaid the debt several times over”

This gets repeated a lot in Debt (David Graeber), and in the world in general.  It annoys me.

Would you rather have $100 now, or in a month?  I’m guessing now, unless your tax circumstances are about to change drastically.  How much additional money would it take for you to prefer payment in a month?  $10?  $15?  What if there were transactions costs to receive payment were significant?  What if there was risk involved?  The fact that you would rather have money sooner than later is known as the time value of money.

This is the principle behind interest on a loan: you’re compensating the lender for them not having the money until later.

How much of an increase would you need to agree to delay receiving some money by 50 years, instead of $100 now?  I’m guessing it is a lot.  Many times the original $100.  The implication of the phrase “but they’ve repaid the debt several times over” is that this is morally wrong.  But if you’re not referencing the timespan on which that repayment took place, the statement is meaningless.  To compare apples to apples you need to do a present value calculation, which tells you the equivalent of what they paid if it had been delivered as a lump sum at the beginning.

This statement often gets entangled with the idea of usury (unfairly or immorally high interest rates).  I am not a big fan of the usury taboo: you’re not hurting someone by giving them the option to take a loan .  The counterargument is that deal was opaque (which is a fair criticism) or that the borrowers circumstances were so bad they had no choice.  Which is definitely a thing, but… maybe we should fix the problem at that end?  Much like debt forgiveness this appears to be a call to give poor countries/people more money, with a layer of obfuscation added by debt.  I am extremely curious why this seems to be more attractive than my solution “just give them money”.

Debt: The First 5000 Years (David Graeber)

This book seriously changed my thinking when I first read it, and I’ve shared many cool ideas from it, but I’ve found that when the ideas are challenged I don’t know enough to defend them.  So I’m going to reread the book and really dig in, with the following goals:

  1. Understand and be able articulate Graeber’s ideas without ambiguity
  2. Look up the data he cites and opposing arguments
  3. Update my beliefs based on what I learn

And I’m going to publish it here, probably chapter by chapter but if I need to break it down smaller I will.

What I publish will be a mix of “my understanding of his arguments”, “steelmen of his arguments”, “his argument updated by other things I know” and “things this made me think about”.  I will try to make it obvious what’s my opinion and what is his, but the application of the principle of charity is inevitably biased by what I consider charitable.

A few people have expressed interest in doing a small group chat over Whatever, in response to my “talk to me for an hour” offer.  If there’s enough interest, this strikes me as a good topic for that, so let me know if you’re interested.

And now, Debt: The Introduction.

You know what would be helpful?  A definition of debt.  Here is my idealized definition of debt:

Person A has a way to spend money to make more money later, but not the initial starting money (capital).  Person B has money, but no way to spend it to make more money.  Person B gives person B the money and A gives B money on a set schedule, up to a certain amount.  Everyone is better off.  Hurray.  The difference between debt and investment is that debts are owed no matter what, whereas in investment the risk is shared.

Graeber definitely isn’t using that definition.  There are a number of examples he gives that make me want to scream the chronological distribution of payment is not the issue here.  E.g.:

  • France billed Madagascar for their own invasion, and for the building of infrastructure they didn’t want.  Madagascar not having the cash on hand to pay them, this became a debt paid by onerous taxes.  Graeber claims Madagascar is still paying France, but I don’t trust him that this is the same bill.  He provides no source for this claim and I couldn’t find one.  But the wikipedia article on the subject makes it sounds like France had a bit of a dust up and somehow found itself running Madagascar, so I’m not convinced it’s unbiased.
  • France billed Haiti for the property damaged and confiscated during the Haitian slave rebellion, and convinced the rest of the world to embargo Haiti (unclear how long this lasted).  Haiti finished paying this in 1947.  No seriously, they had to pay France for no longer being slaves.
  • A Japanese legend about a woman who committed various commercial misdeeds, including loaning rice with a small cup and reclaiming it with a large cup.  The problem here is theft by deception.
  • Also in Madagascar: in the early 80s Madagascar had a resurgence of malaria, after almost wiping it out, because they couldn’t pay for their anti-malaria programs any more.  Graeber blames the IMF, which imposed austerity in order to refinance loans made by first world banks to Madagascar.  He makes no mention of whether Madagascar would have been able to pay for mosquito programs absent the loans.
  • As late as the 1970s, moneylenders in the Himalayas would take borrowers’ daughters as collateral and rape them as interest payments.  (source: “Galey 1983”, which probably exists because google scholar found other citations to it, but not the piece itself).  No one would have been happier if fathers had the ability to compel their daughters into prostitution proactively.
  • Graeber’s strongest point is that much of the debt owed by third world countries was taken by dictators and used for either personal enrichment or to repress the populace that is now forced to pay it.  Which is an extremely fair point, but still not any worse than repressive taxation in general.

So that’s a whole bunch of times the economic concept of debt was not the problem.  But… maybe the social constructs around debt let humans do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (this seems especially likely in the dictator case).  This seems curiously tied up with the concept of quantification (which is how he distinguishes between a debt and an obligation).  The way this makes sense to me is that this is an anthropology of debt, not an exploration of the economics


This is not a comprehensive summary of the chapter but it’s odds and ends and I don’t want this to turn into liveblogging, so they’ll all wait till their own chapter.

Special Tax Status for Non-Profits?

Non-profits in America get several tax benefits:

  • Contributions to them can be deducted by donors.
  • They do not have to pay sales or property tax.
  • Exemption from corporate income tax

Should they?

There’s a number of problems with this.  One, it makes deciding what is and is not a non-profit really important.  I’m fine with government subsidies (which is what tax breaks are) to help poor people eat, but not for rich people’s entertainment.  Those two are easy to distinguish, but there’s a lot of room between homeless shelters and operas, and I’m uncomfortable with the government drawing the line. Or what about charities that have beliefs you find abhorrent?  Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 due to its ban on interracial dating, and fear of a repeat apparently drives a lot of the religious objection to same sex marriage.  I think people who oppose interracial dating or same sex marriage are wrong and should be shamed, but I’m really uncomfortable having that much money riding on values judgments by the government.

The sales tax thing isn’t that big a deal, as witnessed by the fact that a lot of charities don’t even bother with it.  But property tax is.  It starves the tax base of municipalities with a large percentage of land occupied by non-profits.  It’s something of a problem in DC and an enormous one in some university towns, especially if the surrounding area is poor.  That’s hard to stomach when prestigious universities have endowments in the billions and a good chunk of their work is making the rich richer.  Lack of property taxes pushes charities to buy property when they would otherwise rent (which means it benefits only those charities with consistent funding), and to occupy more valuable real estate than they otherwise would.

I like that I get a tax deduction for my donations, and I’d probably donate less without that.  OTOH, it creates a distinct gap between “people organizing to do some good things” and Official Charity, which creates a barrier to entry.  It’s not a trivial barrier either- I’ve served in the leadership on both official (my old dojo) and unofficial (Seattle EA) charities.  Among other things, official recognition forces a fairly specific kind of hierarchy on you.   In Utopia of Rules, David Graeber talks about the strain his autonomous non-hierarchical collective experienced when someone had the gall to give them a car.  It ends with them destroying the car with a sledge hammer.

Now we see the violence inherent in the system.
Now we see the violence inherent in the system.

Removing the benefits of official incorporation would let more organizations find their natural structure, rather than a one size fits all government imposed one, and also lead to fewer car destruction parties.

My opinion on the corporate income tax is a post in and of itself, so let’s put that aside for now.  I think there’s a very good case for not exempting non-profits from property tax, and not making charitable contributions tax deductible.  I also think it would be extremely disruptive to abruptly switch, so we should ease over gradually, and the change should be revenue neutral.*

*People say I’m cynical but then I write things like “the government should raise this tax and lower another one so they get the same amount of money” so I don’t know what they’re talking about.

In Defense Of The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Dutch disease is the economic concept that if a country is too rich in one thing, especially a natural resource, every other sector of the economy will rot because all available money and talent will flow towards that sector.  Moreover, that sector dominates the exchange rate, making all other exports uncompetitive.*  It comes up in foreign development a lot because charitable aid can cause dutch disease: by paying what the funders would consider a “fair wage”, charities position themselves as by far the best employers in the area.  The best and the brightest African citizens end up chauffering foreigners rather than starting their own businesses, which keeps the society dependent on outside help.  Nothing good comes from having poverty as your chief export.

I posit that a similar process takes place in corporations.  Once they are making too much money off a few major things (Windows, Office, AdWords, SUVs), even an exceptionally profitable project in a small market is too small to notice.  Add in the risk of reputation damage and the fact that all projects have a certain amount of overhead regardless of size, and it makes perfect sense for large companies to discard projects a start up would kill for (RIP Reader).**

That’s a fine policy in moderation, but there are problems with applying it too early.  Namely, you never know what something is going to grow into.  Google search originally arose as a way to calculate impact for academic papers. The market for SUVs (and for that matter, cars) was 0 until someone created it.  If you insist on only going after projects that directly address an existing large market, the best you’ll ever be is a fast follower.***

Simultaneously, going from zero to an enormous, productive project is really, really hard (see: Fire Phone, Google+, Facebook’s not-an-operating-system).  Even if you have an end goal in mind, it often makes sense to start small and iterate.  Little Bets covers this in great detail.  And if you don’t have a signed card from G-d confirming your end goal is correct, progressing in small iterative steps gives you more information and more room to pivot.

More than one keynote at EA Global talked about the importance of picking the most important thing, and of being willing to switch if you find something better.  That’s obviously great in in some cases, but I worry that this hyperfocusing will cause the same problems for us that it does at large companies: a lack of room to surprise ourselves.  For example, take the post I did on interpretive labor.  I was really proud of that post.  I worked hard on it.  I had visions of it helping many people in their relationships.  But if you’d asked at the time, I would have predicted that the Most Effective use of my time was learning programming skills to increase my wage or increase my value in direct work, and that that post was an indulgence.   It never in my wildest dreams occurred to me it would be read by someone in a far better position than me to do something about existential risk and be useful to them in connecting two key groups that weren’t currently talking to each other, but apparently it did.  I’m not saying that I definitely saved us from papercliptopia, but it is technically possible that that post (along with millions of other flaps of butterfly wings) will make the marginal difference.  And I would never have even known it did so except the person in question reached out to me at EA Global.****

Intervention effectiveness may vary by several orders of magnitude, but if the confidence intervals are just as big it pays to add a little wiggle to your selection.  Moreover, constant project churn has its own cost: it’s better to finish the third best thing than have to two half finished attempts at different best things.  And you never know what a 3rd best project will teach you that will help an upcoming best project- most new technological innovations come from combining things from two different spheres (source), so hyperfocus will eventually cripple you.

In light of all that, I think we need to stop being quite so hard on the sunk cost fallacy.  No, you should not throw good money after bad, but constantly re-evaluating your choices is costly and (jujitsu flip) will not always be most efficient use of your resources.  In the absence of a signed piece of paper from G-d, biasing some of your effort towards things you enjoy and have comparative advantage in may in fact be the optimal strategy

Using your own efficiency against you

My hesitation is that I don’t know how far you can take this before it stops being effective altruism and starts being “feel smug and virtuous about doing whatever it is you already wanted to do”- a thing we’re already accused of doing.  Could someone please solve this and report back?  Thanks.

* The term comes from the Dutch economic crash following the discovery of natural gas in The Netherlands.  Current thought is that was not actually Dutch disease, but that renaming the phenomenon after some third world country currently being devastated by it would be mean.

*Simultaneously, developers have become worse predictors of the market in general. Used to be that nerds were the early adopters and if they loved it everyone would be using it in a year (e.g. gmail, smart phones).  As technology and particularly mobile advances, this is no longer true.  Nerds aren’t powerusers for tablets because we need laptops, but tablet poweruser is a powerful and predictive market.  Companies now force devs to experience the world like users (Facebook’s order to use Android) or just outright tell them what to do (Google+).  This makes their ideas inherently less valuable than they were.  I don’t blame companies for shifting to a more user-driven decision making process, but it does make things less fun.

**Which, to be fair, is Microsoft’s actual strategy

***It’s also possible it accomplished nothing, or makes it worse.  But the ceiling of effectiveness is higher than I ever imaged and the uncertainty only makes my point stronger.

IQ Tests and Poverty

Recently I read Poor Economics, which is excellent at doing what it promises: explaining the experimental data we have for what works and does not work in alleviating third world poverty, with some theorizing as to why.  If that sounds interesting to you, I heartily recommend it.  I don’t have much to add to most of it, but one thing that caught my eye was their section on education and IQ tests.

In Africa and India, adults believe that the return to education is S-shaped (meaning each additional unit of education is more valuable than the one before, at least up to a point).  This leads them to concentrate their efforts on the children that are already doing the best.  This happens at multiple levels- poor parents pick one child to receive an education and put the rest to work much earlier, teachers put more of their energy into their best students.  Due to a combination of confirmation bias and active maneuvering, the children of rich parents are much more likely to be picked as The Best, regardless of their actual ability.   Not only does this get them more education, but education is viewed as proof one is smart, so they’re double winners.  This leaves some very smart children of poor parents operating well below their potential.

One solution to this is IQ tests.  Infosys, an Indian IT contractor, managed to get excellent workers very cheaply by giving IQ tests to adults and hiring those who scored well, regardless of education.  The authors describe experiments in Africa giving IQ tests to young children so that teachers will invest more in the smart but poor children.  This was one of the original uses of the SATs in America- identifying children who were very bright but didn’t have the money or connections to go to Ivy League feeder high schools.

This is more or less the opposite of how critics view standardized testing the US.  They believe the tests are culturally biased such that a small sliver of Americans will always do better, and that basing resource distribution on those tests disenfranchises the poor and people outside the white suburban subculture.  What’s going on here?

One possible explanation is that one group or the other is wrong, but both sides actually have pretty good evidence.  The IQ tests are obviously being used for the benefit of very smart poor children in the 3rd world.  And even tests without language can’t get around the fact that being poor takes up brainspace, and so any test will systematically underestimate poor children. So let’s assume both groups are right at least some of the time.

Maybe it’s the difference in educational style that matters?  In the 3rd world, teachers are evaluated based on their best student.  In the US, No Child Left Behind codified the existing emphasis on getting everyone to a minimum bench mark.    Kids evaluated as having lower potential than they actually do may receive less education than they should, but they still get some, and in many districts gifted kids get the least resources of any point on the bell curve.

Or it could be because the tests are trying to do very different things.  The African and Indian tests are trying to pick out the extremely intelligent who would otherwise be overlooked.  The modern US tests are trying to evaluate every single student and track them accordingly.  When the SATs were invented they had a job much like the African tests; as more and more people go to college its job is increasingly to evaluate the middle of the curve.  It may be that these are fundamentally different problems.

This has to say something interesting about the meaning of intelligence or usefulness of education, but I’m not sure what.

Links 5/22/15

Effective Social Justice Interventions: this is a great example of using EA as a technique to address areas the EA-as-philosophy sphere hasn’t touched.

The Last Day of Her Life:  a psychology researcher’s decision to and process of ending her life as her Alzheimer’s progresses.   Fun fact: state-sanctioned euthanasia requires you be mentally competent and have less than six months to live.  Alzheimer’s patients are mentally incompetent years before they die of the disease.

The (crime-related) Broken Window Theory states that low level visible crime (graffiti, litter) leads to more crime, of all varieties. It is most famous for being Rudy Guilani’s method for reducing crime in New York City.  My understanding was that that had been debunked, and NYC’s drop is crime was caused mostly by demographic trends.  But some researchers did some fairly rigorous tests of it and it held up.  Caveat: they tested visible crime’s evidence on other crimes of similar magnitude, not escalations like theft.

This week’s “beautiful theory killed by an ugly gang of facts” award goes to the meditation chapter of The Willpower Instinct, which promises fantastic benefits from the very beginning.  In fact it says that meditating badly is in some ways better for you than meditating well, because it is the practice of refocusing yourself after you become distracted that is so beneficial.  Unfortunately none of the studies cited show that exact things, and what they do show is a small effect on a noisy variable, in a small sample.

[I don’t want to be too hard on The Willpower Instinct.  It encourages you to do your own experiments and stick with what works, I found some of it helpful, and it’s good for getting yourself into a willpower mindset.  It’s just scientifically weaker than it would have you believe.]

Sine Rider: if xkcd was a video game.