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May 21, 2009


such displays can be beneficial when they reflect an actual increase in admiral things. the problem is that they go hand in hand with "signal hacking", finding a cheaper way to signal some expensive quality (see: the history of the USSR).

You have kids? That wasn't very rational.

I've noticed this anti-mercenary instinct before in my history books. Traders/merchants are somehow historically even less trusted than hereditary nobles, who seem like a classic case of a truly unhelpful group.

"Worse off" by what standard? If we value "drawing, singing, sporting, writing, joking, helping, and so on" most highly, then it isn't clear by what standard you are judging there to be an excess of these things. (It isn't clear that an informed person with these values would be forced to conclude that there was "too much" art and singing in the world.)

I agree that the anti-trader bias is silly and unfortunate. But, unlike the other examples, this one is not plausibly a terminal value.

A random thought - anti-trader bias seems so common across cultures that it would be surprising if it didn't have any rational basis. Any guesses what that basis might be?

Here's one guess - Was a typical trader an oligopolist abusing his position, with morals of a stereotypical used car salesman? Perhaps this anti-trader bias is simply expression of a healthy level of mistrust - you could rely on most of your fellow neighbours, but with a trader you should be very cautious or he'd take advantage of you (the ones that abused their position the least would be the first to fall out of business, in the typical capitalist race to the bottom).

It doesn't have a "rational" basis; as Robin pointed out it has a fairly obvious evolutionay basis, having to do with loyalty and power. See also Jane Jacobs's "Systems of Survival" for a rather different view of "Guardian" versus "Commercial" "syndromes".

Tomasz, I am hard pressed to think of any traders who were more oligopolist/monopolist than their "warrior" neighbors. I would add though that distrust for "middlemen" seems nearly universal, and even occurred among WW2 POWs with an economy purely based on Red Cross packages. Thomas Sowell discusses it in "Are Jews Generic?", which you can read from here.

Off-topic, but Robin Hanson's "futarchy" idea has been vitriolically attacked here, perhaps not so much on its own merits but as a synechdoce for the author's complaints about modernity. It's excessively long-winded so I haven't really read it all.

If anyone is inclined to read the attack on futarchy TGGP notes, I can save you some time.

The author makes one valid but noncontroversial point about decision markets: that the US Government is unlikely to be very receptive to them, so Robin's efforts to peddle the idea to them (e.g. PAM) was probably destined for eventual failure. I did like this quote:

"After all, those who know USG know that daring procedural innovation is not exactly its strength. If futarchy or predictocracy is truly an effective new way to make decisions, don't you think our good professors would have better luck in marketing it to, say, Apple?" (nb: both Google- with help from the awesome Hal Varian- and Microsoft claim to use predictive markets internally for decisionmaking, so if Apple is not, perhaps they are falling behind their industry competitors)

The rest of the article, unfortunately, is big on bile and rhetoric and short on reasoning. The author understands nothing about prediction markets, does not even seem to wholly understand elementary probability. He uses a lot of words, many of which he clearly does not understand the meaning of. There may be a brilliant critique of futarchy out there worthy of serious attention, but I have not read it, and this is not it.

as per Paul Graham's Essay "Mind the Gap", the well to do are looked down upon because until very recently the only way to gain a fortune of considerable size was through rather unpleasant means.

so make sure our kids enjoy and succeed at appropriate skills ;-)

is this that hard? cannot any adult design learning opportunities?

or should life be fully reactive? as in, oh, cr*p, did Christmas come again?

nazgulnarsil: The "until very recently" disclaimer is not really necessary. Abusive behaviour and luck are still two main ways of getting your hands on a large fortune, it's hard to point at many people who got theirs without either of the two being very significant factors.

Richard, valuing the people who do something well is different from valuing doing the thing.

Robin - "valuing the people who do something well is different from valuing doing the thing."

Does that mean your evaluation/advice is merely targeted at people who don't actually value art, singing, sport, etc.? That is: "Don't admire artists if you don't value the production of art!" Good advice, as far as it goes, but I assumed you were going for something a little less obvious...?

At the end Robin Hanson says: "But if we economists know anything it is that overall societies tend to hurt, not help, themselves by discouraging trade."

...tend to hurt...
But what are the metrics?

Didn't the discussion in Capitas Vs. Per Capita show that the metrics are unclear?

Or: economies (whatever that means) tend to hurt themselves (whatever that means) when they discourage trade (whatever that means).

The above is akin to saying that if economists know anything it is they know their model.

Richard, I'm claiming that the details of our behavior are better explained by us valuing the people who do admirable activities than us valuing the products of those admirable activities. We love the art because we love the artist, not vice versa.

"But if we economists know anything it is that overall societies tend to hurt, not help, themselves by discouraging trade."
In regards to this notion of economists, it seems to be somewhat contradicted. Human beings as primitive hunter-gatherers were probably happier, less stressed and had a lot more free time. There weren't many of them, and there were a lot of things they couldn't do anything about.
As they increased their horizons, integrations and developed some form of household (and eventually exchange) economy, the vastly increased resources allowed further proliferation as well as assertions of dominance and benevolence.

Societies which discourage trade and commerce are not necessarily hurting themselves, IE impeding the actual sense of well-being of their members. What they are hurting, though, is their competitiveness and sustainability. Because if you make 35 cents a day, the guy who can pay you $10 an hour is going to be able to reshape the cultural environment with some efficacy.

When it's hard to find the cause for something, you may be looking for causality in the wrong direction.

Most societies control access to all desirable occupations. High-status jobs are available only to people from high-status families. Only those of high birth and/or wealth could be knights, much as today, only those who have gone to Harvard can get the high-paying jobs on Wall Street. Craftsman positions were often controlled by guilds, by inheritance, or by master craftsmen. Trading has for a thousand years been the best occupation available to social outcasts. (Banking is only available to well-off social outcasts.)

So it may be that people who were looked down on became traders, rather than the other way around.

When my kids were young and played a new game, the pattern was clear: If they won, they liked that game and wanted to play it again.

Reminds me of how teacher evaluations tend to be evaluations of student's own performance. Teacher evaluations are anonymous, but you can see how the instructor's average score rises and falls with the class average. If I could peer into the data, I suspect there would be a nontrivial correlation between individual student grades and their teacher evaluations.

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