Is Greed Stupid?

post by adamzerner · 2015-06-23T20:38:34.027Z · score: -6 (18 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 31 comments

I just finished reading a fantastic Wait But Why post: How Tesla Will Change The World. One of the things that was noted is that the people in the Auto and Oil industries are trying to delay the introduction of Electric Vehicles (EVs) so they could make more money.

The post also explains how important it is that we become less reliant on oil.

  1. Because we're going to run out relatively soon.
  2. Because it's causing global warming.
So, from the perspective of these moneybag guys, here is how I see the cost-benefit of delaying the introduction of EVs:
  • Make some more money, which gives them and their families a marginally more comfortable life.
  • Not get a sense of purpose out of your career.
  • Probably feel some sort of guilt about what you do.
  • Avoid the short-term discomfort of changing jobs/careers.
This probably makes my opinions pretty clear:
  • Because of diminishing marginal utility, I doubt that the extra money is making them much happier. I'm sure they're pretty well off to begin with. It could be the case that they're so used to their lifestyle that they really do need the extra money to be happy, but I doubt it.
  • Autonomy, mastery and purpose are three of the most important things to get out of your career. There seems to be a huge opportunity cost to not working somewhere that provides you with a sense of purpose.
  • To continue that thought, I'm sure they feel some sort of guilt for what they're doing. Or maybe not. But if they are, that seems like a relatively large cost.
  • I understand that there's probably a decent amount of social pressure on them to conform. I'm sure that they surround themselves with people who are pro-oil and anti-electric. I'm sure that their companies put pressure on them to perform. I'm sure that they have families and all of that and starting something new might be difficult. But these don't seem to be large enough costs to make their choices worthwhile. A big reason why I get this impression is because they are so short term.
I've been talking specifically about those in the auto and oil industries, but the same logic seems to apply to other greedy people (ex. in finance). I get the impression that greed is stupid. That it doesn't make you happy, and that it isn't instrumentally rational. But I'd like to get the opinions of others.

31 comments

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comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-23T21:53:26.050Z · score: 11 (11 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to assume that you understand the motivations of the involved individuals based on a post that criticises them. That's a bad strategy.

If you don't understand someone's actions based on such analysis, most often it's a bad idea to conclude that they are stupid. It's more likely that you simply don't have relevant understanding of their positions.

Not everyone believes in global warming. If you want to understand other people you have to make it part of your model that they might not believe in it, even if you think the model for global warming is overwhelming.

An executive of General Motors might think that it's bad if General Motors goes bankrupt and has to lay of thousands of workers in Detroit. As a result GM fights against US government regulations that it thinks will reduce it's bottom line.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-24T13:40:11.681Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You seem to assume that you understand the motivations of the involved individuals based on a post that criticises them. That's a bad strategy.

I agree that the bias of the author needs to be taken into account. But a) I've heard this stuff many times before, and b) I see this author as particularly trustworthy. If it were any old author making a claim that I had never heard before, I'd definitely agree with you, but that isn't the case here. That said, I'm no expert/insider in this field, and so I'm not too confident.

If you don't understand someone's actions based on such analysis, most often it's a bad idea to conclude that they are stupid. It's more likely that you simply don't have relevant understanding of their positions.

1) Maybe "stupid" is a bad word. Maybe I should have said "not instrumentally rational".

2) "don't understand" seems to be the key phrase here. It's true that I don't have perfect understanding, but given my limited understanding, my impression is still that it's definitely more likely than not that they're not acting instrumentally rational. I'm sure you agree with me that in theory, this could be true (the idea that you could be >50% sure that someone is stupid based off of limited understanding). As for the specific point in this post, it's definitely debatable.

Not everyone believes in global warming. If you want to understand other people you have to make it part of your model that they might not believe in it, even if you think the model for global warming is overwhelming.

An executive of General Motors might think that it's bad if General Motors goes bankrupt and has to lay of thousands of workers in Detroit. As a result GM fights against US government regulations that it thinks will reduce it's bottom line.

I hadn't even thought about these two things, so thanks! Great points. I forgot how frequently humans bring themselves to believe things like this.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-24T15:36:59.547Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that the bias of the author needs to be taken into account.

I have not said anything directly about bias of the author in the sentence you quote.

But a) I've heard this stuff many times before, and b) I see this author as particularly trustworthy

Did the author interview a single executive of a car company to come to the conclusion that it's greed that drives the decision against EV's?

I'm sure you agree with me that in theory, this could be true (the idea that you could be >50% sure that someone is stupid based off of limited understanding).

If you see that the actions of another person don't make sense based on the motivations you can see from the outside, you have two options: 1) Assume that there are motivations that you don't see. 2) Assume that they are irrational.

Given the amount of knowledge you have in this case, you can't assume that 2) is more likely.

comment by knb · 2015-06-23T22:57:20.467Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I've read that "Wait but Why" post before, the author has a clear agenda, and you should take it with a big grain of salt. In one of the notes, the author uncritically reproduces the spurious conspiracy theory put forward in Who Killed the Electric Car without acknowledging that the claims in it have been thoroughly rebuffed (and frankly were never sensible to begin with).

I think the worst part of that article, which should totally discredit him on the topic, is his belief that electric cars have always been a viable competitor to gas cars. Huge advances in computers, chemistry, aerodynamics, metallurgy, and materials science were needed to get us to where we are, with electric cars just now starting to become a viable alternative to ICE. He seriously makes the claim that it was just a coincidence; Henry Ford happened to like ICE, so all the other automakers in the world obeyed the will of Ford and stopped developing electric vehicles even though they were just as promising. The author shows no understanding of the underlying technology, so it isn't surprising he made this mistake.

Not get a sense of purpose out of your career.

Not get a sense of purpose from solving extremely challenging science and engineering problems to produce the fuel that keeps civilization from collapsing?

comment by TheAncientGeek · 2015-06-24T09:59:26.468Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

He seriously makes the claim that it was just a coincidence; Henry Ford happened to like ICE, so all the other automakers in the world obeyed the will of Ford and stopped developing electric vehicles even though they were just as promising.

You can tell can tell how effort has gone into EV research from patent filings, and its a lot. Countries with a manufacturing base but no oil reserves are particularly motivated.

However there are real problems getting the technology into a form that enthuses consumers

comment by gjm · 2015-06-23T22:40:10.432Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Let us stipulate that (1) global warming is real, (2) it is caused by human activity, (3) keeping car-drivers dependent on fossil fuels makes it worse, and (4) all of (1-3) are firmly and clearly established facts. (I should add that this is in fact approximately my opinion. But that isn't the point right now.) None the less, we should expect that senior people in companies like British Petroleum do not believe (1-4). Anyone who does is likely not to seek a career as a senior oil-industry executive; anyone in such a career will be very strongly motivated not to believe those things. Conversely, they will be strongly motivated to believe (e.g.) that electric vehicles are not ready for prime time, that their current weaknesses (e.g., limited range because of limited battery capacity) are very important, etc.

Therefore, the tradeoff they will see is not the one you describe. They will see that prolonging the dominance of fossil-fuel-based vehicles (1) makes them more money, (2) keeps their employees' jobs going, (3) keeps consumers driving vehicles that are actually better suited to their needs, but (4) exposes them to some ill-informed criticism from tree-hugging environmentalists.

In which case it's not so surprising if they do it.

(There is another possible position, which I know some people in finance hold: "Yes, my job is probably on balance harmful to the world. But it earns me a shedload of money, and I am donating a lot of it to effective charities, and the net effect is more positive than I could have achieved working in a different job." That's an uncomfortable sort of argument to make, and doubtless sometimes people make it insincerely, but I bet it's sometimes correct.)

comment by pianoforte611 · 2015-06-23T21:41:07.770Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Auto and Oil industries are trying to delay the introduction of Electric Vehicles (EVs)

How so? Sorry, I would usually read the article, but its very long and with a high rhetoric to content ratio.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-24T00:45:43.236Z · score: -2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

My understanding is that it's typical lobbying/political stuff.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-06-24T08:08:40.864Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

How many of "these people" does the OP or anyone else here personally know?

ETA: This is not a rhetorical question. If there is anyone here who does move in such circles, I would be interested in their perspective.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-06-25T03:23:46.396Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know them, but I've seen them on tv.

The Stonecutters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZI_aEalijE

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-24T13:44:57.034Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't personally know any of them. But does that matter? I'm not claiming to be >95% sure or anything like that, and so I don't see why I'd need such strong evidence as personally knowing "these people".

comment by RichardKennaway · 2015-06-24T15:50:58.400Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not claiming to be >95% sure or anything like that, and so I don't see why I'd need such strong evidence as personally knowing "these people".

Do you have any evidence at all for your psychologising?

Doing some fnord-extraction on the OP:

"... fantastic post ... these moneybag guys .. here's how I see ... probably makes my opinions pretty clear ... I doubt that ... I'm sure ... It could be the case that ... but I doubt it ... the most important things ... There seems to be ... I'm sure they feel ... Or maybe not ... But if ... I understand that there's probably ... I'm sure that ... I'm sure that ... I'm sure that ... might be ... don't seem to be ... A big reason ... this impression ... seems to apply ... get the impression ..."

This sort of writing, wherever I see it, gives me "the impression" that the writer is putting in the dubifiers to excuse themselves from presenting any evidence.

comment by Unknowns · 2015-06-24T04:32:47.457Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"Because we're going to run out relatively soon" and "Because it's causing global warming" are reasons that work against one another, since if the oil runs out it will stop contributing to global warming.

comment by Manfred · 2015-06-24T17:42:23.090Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

They don't quite work against each other - both are true reasons to go renewable. At worst, they combine to form only one argument, one applicable to a broader audience than either alone. And outside the argument, unfortunately the oil reserves seem sized so that we can both get problematic global warming and run out of oil.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2015-06-24T08:25:08.338Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The actors you should worry about are not human.

comment by Dahlen · 2015-06-26T14:46:58.716Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I tried to engage with the title question, but something in my mind was rebelling against receiving the discussion already framed in these terms.

What's the larger point here? Once you know whether it is or is not stupid, what does that say about greed?

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-26T14:52:16.017Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What's the larger point here?

I'm glad you're thinking about that!

1) I'm not sure, and I'd like to hear others' thoughts on that.

2) If greed is stupid, and if people recognized that, then I think society would be much better off. Because it seems that a lot of people make society a lot worse off in their pursuit of greed. This obviously begs the question of how to get people to recognize it (if it's true).

comment by drethelin · 2015-06-24T18:21:17.928Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe they just believe there's nothing seriously bad about global warming. There's decentevidence that human agriculture and civilization is in fact staving off an Ice Age through the output of greenhouse gasses. Maybe they believe that cars cause global warming, but that global warming is totally fine.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-25T05:40:44.273Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW
  1. Because we're going to run out relatively soon.

This is pretty clearly false, especially when one considers things like Shale gas. Also environmentalists having been panicking about how we're going to run out of oil any day now for the past ~40 years and yet the supply of oil has held more or less steady.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-06-26T01:12:08.917Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Climate change is already affecting the climate in ways we care about, eg: seasonal weather getting more extreme. We'd like that to stop.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-06-26T17:47:19.101Z · score: -2 (6 votes) · LW · GW

That's highly debatable. Heck even the global warming believers who actually know something about the science aren't willing to make that claim.

comment by gjm · 2015-06-27T09:27:35.687Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

aren't willing to make that claim

Simply untrue; see, e.g., this article. What's the source of your information about this? (You should maybe trust it less.)

[EDITED to add: Hello, downvoter(s)! If it happens that you are downvoting me for something actually wrong with what I wrote, do please let me know what. My current hypothesis is that I'm just paying the disagreeing-with-Eugine/Azathoth/VoiceOfRa tax, though.]

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2015-06-25T04:46:43.391Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

People who work in oil & gas probably chose to go in to that career because they weren't especially worried about global warming. Those who become worried will quit their jobs and get replaced by people who aren't worried.

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-24T13:11:36.814Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Was this downvoted because of the topic, or because of my thoughts on it? If the latter, perhaps I should have just posted the discussion topic on its own, because it is something I'd like to have/see a real discussion about.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-24T14:16:16.933Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You mix two topics. The political topic of moving from oil based transport to electric and the general topic of greed.

There no good reason to mix those because "Politics is the mindkiller". If you want to talk about greed it would make more sense to look for someone who publically speaks in favor of greed. Ayn Rand's objectivists would be an example. Find the steelman to know what you are arguing against.

If you want to talk about the economics of electrics cars, then it makes sense to not only read people in favor of electric cars and in general try to understand the moves of various stakeholders. The article you linked is near conspiracy theory. The idea that all other car companies were hostile towards Tesla is without basis. Tesla wouldn't have survived if Mercedes Benz wouldn't have helped Tesla in 2008.

When you want to talk about politics opening a discussion at http://www.omnilibrium.com/ (seeded with LW people) might also be preferable to opening it on LW.

comment by Jiro · 2015-06-24T15:19:38.764Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I won't use a site that refuses to put dates on posts.

comment by Dahlen · 2015-06-29T00:14:41.696Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This got fixed in the meantime.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-29T01:03:28.434Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Successful integration of feedback :)

comment by adamzerner · 2015-06-24T14:24:24.244Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It just hit me that I may have misinterpreted "Politics is the mindkiller". What I got from it is that "politics are often a mindkiller, but they don't have to be". Maybe that's wrong. Maybe there's something sort of inherent about politics that make them too difficult to think rationally about.

I'm skeptical that that's true though. But it just hit me how anti-politics LW is, and this community seems pretty smart, so I'm sure there are things about that that I don't understand. So forgive me if this is a stupid question... but why the avoidance of politics?

You mix two topics.

I didn't mean to. I was using the political topic as an example of greed. I didn't mean for it to be a focus of the post.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-06-24T15:20:28.339Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I didn't mean to. I was using the political topic as an example of greed. I didn't mean for it to be a focus of the post.

The article Politics is the Mindkiller says that if you can choose between a political topic as example and a less political topic, don't pick the political topic.

It doesn't say: "Never discuss a political topic." If you actually want to talk about a political topic then, talk about it. The important thing is to avoid talking about political topics when they are not the main thing you want to talk about.

Choosing a political topic makes it much harder to reason clearly and much easier to fall into the "my opponents are evil/stupid/irrational"-trap. In this case it looks like you have fallen into that trap. You seem to have invested no effort into steelmanning. Even if it would be possible to avoid falling in that trap, your post looks like you have fallen into it and is therefore likely to be downvoted.

comment by eternal_neophyte · 2015-06-23T21:08:14.088Z · score: -6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I believe what motivates the types of people who gun for CEO jobs in the first place is addiction to power and status. Addictive behaviour is not rationally directed, by defintion.