EA capital allocation is an inner ring

by Milan_Griffes4 min read18th Mar 202115 comments

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Criticism of effective altruismCommunity
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"Ayn Rand is the only writer I've seen get both these points right jointly:

  1. There's no benefit to joining the inner ring except discovering that their insinuated benefit does not exist.
  2. Ignoring inner rings is refusing to protect oneself against a dangerous adversary."

Ben Hoffman, Inner Ring as Adversary (a)

 

Previously: 0, 0.5, 0.75, 1, 2, 3, 4

My request from the beginning still stands.

 

In 1944, just as Britain was starting to realize that it was probably going to pull through the war after all, C. S. Lewis, Grand Master of Clear Discourse, British Propriety & Penetrating Insight, delivered a powerful talk at King’s College to a group of future UK elites. He called this talk The Inner Ring (a). 

I recommend reading the whole thing... as spaciously as you can. 

From the beginning: 

When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising. I shall do my best to gratify it. I shall in fact, give you advice about the world in which you are going to live. I do not mean by this that I am going to talk on what are called current affairs. You probably know quite as much about them as I do. I am not going to tell you – except in a form so general that you will hardly recognise it – what part you ought to play in post-war reconstruction.

It is not, in fact, very likely that any of you will be able, in the next ten years, to make any direct contribution to the peace or prosperity of Europe. You will be busy finding jobs, getting married, acquiring facts. I am going to do something more old-fashioned than you perhaps expected. I am going to give advice. I am going to issue warnings. Advice and warnings about things which are so perennial that no one calls them “current affairs.”

 

From a bit later on:

All this is rather obvious. I wonder whether you will say the same of my next step, which is this. I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. This desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society. But it must be clearly understood that “Society,” in that sense of the word, is merely one of a hundred Rings, and snobbery therefore only one form of the longing to be inside.

People who believe themselves to be free, and indeed are free, from snobbery, and who read satires on snobbery with tranquil superiority, may be devoured by the desire in another form. It may be the very intensity of their desire to enter some quite different Ring which renders them immune from all the allurements of high life. An invitation from a duchess would be very cold comfort to a man smarting under the sense of exclusion from some artistic or communistic côterie. Poor man – it is not large, lighted rooms, or champagne, or even scandals about peers and Cabinet Ministers that he wants: it is the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we – we four or five all huddled beside this stove – are the people who know.

Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore, of course, when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, “Look here, we’ve got to get you in on this examination somehow” or “Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.” A terrible bore… ah, but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons: but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.

Freud would say, no doubt, that the whole thing is a subterfuge of the sexual impulse. I wonder whether the shoe is not sometimes on the other foot. I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not been lost less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the caucus. For of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated. And as for lighter matters, the number of people who first smoked or first got drunk for a similar reason is probably very large.

 

I don't have space today to work out how to articulate the particulars of how this dynamic functions within EA and Bay Area Rationality, so for now that will have to be left as an exercise to the reader...

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15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:27 AM
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Opening with a strong claim,  making your readers scroll through a lot of introductory text, and ending abruptly with "but I don't feel like justifying my point in any way, so come up with your own arguments" is not a very good look on this forum. 

Insightful criticism of the capital allocation dynamics in EA is a valuable and worthwhile thing that I expect most EA Forum readers would like to see! But this is not that, and the extent to which it appears to be that for several minutes of the reader's attention comes across as rather rude. My gut reaction to this kind of rhetorical strategy is "if even the author doesn't want to put forth the effort to make this into a coherent argument, why should I?"

[I have read the entirety of The Inner Ring, but not the vast series of apparent prerequisite posts to this one. I would be very surprised if reading them caused me to disagree with the points in this comment, though.]

"Opening with a strong claim,  making your readers scroll through a lot of introductory text, and ending abruptly with "but I don't feel like justifying my point in any way, so come up with your own arguments" is not a very good look on this forum. "

I wasn't intending the text included in the post to be introductory...


"[I have read the entirety of The Inner Ring, but not the vast series of apparent prerequisite posts to this one. I would be very surprised if reading them caused me to disagree with the points in this comment, though.]"

If you don't want to read the existing work that undergirds this post, why should I expect further writing to change your mind about the topic?

I have read all except one post you linked to. I don't understand how your post related to the two posts about children and would appreciate a comment. I agree with your argument that "EA jobs provide scarce non-monetary goods" and that it is hard to get hired by EA organisations. However, it is unclear to me that any of these posts provide a damaging critique to EA. I would be surprised if anyone managed to create a movement without any of these dynamics. However, I would also be excited to see working tackling these putative problems such as the non-monetary value of different jobs.

(lots of downvotes, so where are all the comments?)

I want to reward you for bringing up the topic of power dynamics in EA. Those exist, like in any community, but especially in EA there seems to be a strong current of denying the fact that EA's are constrained by their selfish incentives like everyone else. It requires heroism to go against that current.

But by just insinuating and not delivering any concrete evidence or constructive suggestions for change, you haven't really done your homework. I advise you to withdraw this post, cut out half the narrative crap, add some evidence and a model, make a recommendation, then repost it.

[-]Aaron Gertler4mo Moderator Comment18

I advise you to withdraw this post, cut out half the narrative crap, add some evidence and a model, make a recommendation, then repost it.

Moderator here! 

This looks like it was intended to be tough love, but it's also a mild-to-moderate case of "unnecessary rudeness". 

Let's try to stay polite in our comments, especially when the issue at stake is "I think your post is unclear" rather than "I think this post will hurt people" or "I think this thing you want people to donate to is a scam".

Would removing the “crap” have been sufficient to make it polite? I like to be direct.

Yes, that would have been sufficient. The "withdraw this post" part seems a bit harsh (and redundant, since editing a post entails "withdrawing" the old version), but not to the point where I'd say anything about it as a mod.

I appreciate your engaging with my comment — it's hard to do mod stuff without coming across as overbearing, but I really value your contributions to the Forum. It's just a struggle to find balance between our more direct commenters and the people who find the Forum's culture intimidating.

Where are all the comments, indeed...


"I advise you to withdraw this post, cut out half the narrative crap, add some evidence and a model, make a recommendation, then repost it."

I think this is basically fair, though from my perspective the narrative crap is doing important work.

I have limited capacity these days so I'm writing this argument as a serial, posting it as I can find the time. 

In the meanwhile, this sequence from a few years ago (a) makes a similar argument following the form you suggest.

It might be better to collate and condense your series into one post, once it's finished (or starting now). These individual posts really aren't convincing, and probably hurt your case if anything. Part of that is the Forum's conventions about content being standalone. But the rest is clarity and evidence: your chosen style is too esoteric.

I don't think it's our unwillingness to hear you out. Some of the most well-regarded posts on here are equally fundamental critiques of EA trends, but written persuasively / directly:

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/bsE5t6qhGC65fEpzN/growth-and-the-case-against-randomista-development

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/jmbP9rwXncfa32seH/after-one-year-of-applying-for-ea-jobs-it-is-really-really

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/DxfpGi9hwvwLCf5iQ/objections-to-value-alignment-between-effective-altruists

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/jSPGFxLmzJTYSZTK3/reality-is-often-underpowered

What about my style stands out as esoteric?

(From my perspective, I'm trying to be as clear & straightforward as possible in the main body of each post. I am also using poetic quotes at the top of some of the posts.)

In this one, it's that there is no main body, just a gesture off-screen. Only a small minority of readers will be familiar enough with the funding apparatus to complete your "exercise to the reader..." Maybe you're writing for that small minority, but it's fair for the rest to get annoyed.

In past ones (from memory), it's again this sense of pushing work onto the reader. Sense of "go work it out".

Yes, I want people to think about this for themselves. (I don't think that's esoteric.)

I don't have any advice to offer, but as a datapoint for you: I applaud your goal and am even sympathetic to many of your points, but even I found this post actively annoying (unlike your previous ones in this series). It feels like you're writing a series of posts for your own benefit without actually engaging with your audience or interlocutors.  I think this is fine for a personal blog, but does not fit on this forum. 

Thank you for this feedback. 

From my perspective, I'm writing both for my own sake and for others.

Even if your intentions are good surely it should be clear at this point that your approach is proving completely ineffective?