Jimrandomh's Shortform

post by jimrandomh · 2019-07-04T17:06:32.665Z · score: 29 (4 votes) · LW · GW · 11 comments

This post is a container for my short-form writing. See this post [LW · GW] for meta-level discussion about shortform as an upcoming site feature.


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comment by jimrandomh · 2019-07-04T17:09:37.876Z · score: 20 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Bullshit jobs are usually seen as an absence of optimization: firms don't get rid of their useless workers because that would require them to figure out who they are, and risk losing or demoralizing important people in the process. But alternatively, if bullshit jobs (and cover for bullshit jobs) are a favor to hand out, then they're more like a form of executive compensation: my useless underlings owe me, and I will get illegible favors from them in return.

What predictions does the bullshit-jobs-as-compensation model make, that differ from the bullshit-jobs-as-lack-of-optimization model?

comment by mr-hire · 2019-07-04T17:59:28.850Z · score: 22 (7 votes) · LW · GW

When I tried to inner sim the "bullshit jobs as compensation" model, I expected to see a very different world than I do see. In particular, I'd expect the people in bullshit jobs to have been unusually competent, smart, or powerful before they were put in the bullshit job, and this is not in fact what I think actually happens.

The problem being that the kind of person who wants a bullshit job is not typically the kind of person you'd necessarily want a favor from. One use for bullshit jobs could be to help the friends (or more likely the family) of someone who does "play the game." This I think happens more often, but I still think the world would be very different if this was the main use case for bullshit jobs- In particular, I'd expect most bullshit jobs to be isolated from the rest of the company, such that they don't have ripple effects. This doesn't seem to be the case as many bullshit jobs exist in management.

When I inquired about the world I actually do see, I got several other potential reasons for bullshit jobs that may or may not fit the data better:

  • Bullshit jobs as pre-installed scapegoats: Lots of middle management might fit into this role. This could be viewed as a favor (I'll give you a cushy job now in exchange for you throwing yourself on the sword when the time comes.) However, I think the predictive model is to view it in terms of the Gervais principle: The clueless middle managers don't realize they're being manipulated by the sociopaths.
  • Bullshit jobs as a way to make people feel important: Lets say you have a preinstalled scapegoat. You need to keep them happy enough that they'll stay in their position and not ask too many questions. One way to do that for a certain type of person is to give them underlings. But if you gave them underlings with real jobs they could screw things up for the organization, so you give them underlings with bullshit jobs.
    • Another instance of this that I imagined might happen: Someone is really great at what they do (say they're a 10x employee), but to feel important wants to be a manager. You know if you don't promote them you'll lose them, but you know they'll be an awful manager. You promote them, give them a couple underlings with a bullshit job, and now they're still only a 4x employee because they spend a lot of their time managing, but you still manage to squeeze a little bit of productivity out of the deal. This one I'm less sure about but its' interesting because it turns the peter principle on its' head.

Edit: As I continued to inner sim the above reasons, a few feedback loops began to become clear:

  • To be a proper scapegoat, your scapegoat has to seem powerful within the organization. But to prevent them from screwing things up, you can't give them real power. This means, the most effective scapegoats have lots of bullshit jobs underneath them.
  • There are various levels of screwup. I might not realize I'm a scapegoat for the very big events above me, but still not want to get blamed for the very real things that happen on the level of organization I actually do run. One move I have is to hire another scapegoat who plays the game one level below me, install them as a manager, and then use them as a scapegoat. Then there's another level at which they get blamed for things that happen on their level, and this can recurse for several levels of middle management.
  • Some of the middle managment installed as scapegoats might accidentally get hands on real power in the organization. Because they're bad managers, they're bad at figuring out what jobs are needed. This then becomes the "inefficiency" model you mentioned.
comment by Benquo · 2019-07-05T00:37:28.696Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW · GW
In particular, I'd expect the people in bullshit jobs to have been unusually competent, smart, or powerful before they were put in the bullshit job, and this is not in fact what I think actually happens.

Moral Mazes claims that this is exactly what happens at the transition from object-level work to management - and then, once you're at the middle levels, the main traits relevant to advancement (and value as an ally) are the ones that make you good at coalitional politics, favor-trading, and a more feudal sort of loyalty exchange.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-07-05T02:52:13.197Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Do you think that the majority of direct management jobs are bullshit jobs? My direction is that especially the first level of management that is directly managing programmers is a highly important coordination position.

comment by jimrandomh · 2019-07-04T17:22:49.463Z · score: 16 (8 votes) · LW · GW

The discussion so far on cost disease seems pretty inadequate, and I think a key piece that's missing is the concept of Hollywood Accounting. Hollywood Accounting is what happens when you have something that's extremely profitable, but which has an incentive to not be profitable on paper. The traditional example, which inspired the name, is when a movie studio signs a contract with an actor to share a percentage of profits; in that case, the studio will create subsidiaries, pay all the profits to the subsidiaries, and then declare that the studio itself (which signed the profit-sharing agreement) has no profits to give.

In the public contracting sector, you have firms signing cost-plus contracts, which are similar; the contract requires that profits don't exceed a threshold, so they get converted into payments to de-facto-but-not-de-jure subsidiaries, favors, and other concealed forms. Sometimes this involves large dead-weight losses, but the losses are not the point, and are not the cause of the high price.

In medicine, there are occasionally articles which try to figure out where all the money is going in the US medical system; they tend to look at one piece, conclude that that piece isn't very profitable so it can't be responsible, and move on. I suspect this is what's going on with the cost of clinical trials, for example; they aren't any more expensive than they used to be, they just get allocated a share of the profits from R&D ventures that're highly profitable overall.

comment by Elizabeth (pktechgirl) · 2019-07-04T20:27:18.131Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW
they aren't any more expensive than they used to be, they just get allocated a share of the profits from R&D ventures that're highly profitable overall.

Did you mean "allocated a share of the costs"? If not, I am confused by that sentence.

comment by jimrandomh · 2019-07-04T20:46:52.061Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm pretty uncertain how the arrangements actually work in practice, but one possible arrangement is: You have two organizations, one of which is a traditional pharmaceutical company with the patent for an untested drug, and one of which is a contract research organization. The pharma company pays the contract research organization to conduct a clinical trial, and reports the amount it paid as the cost of the trial. They have common knowledge of the chance of success, of the future probability distribution of future revenue for the drug, how much it costs to conduct the trial, and how much it costs to insure away the risks. So the amount the first company pays to the second is the costs of the trial, plus a share of the expected profit.

Pharma companies making above-market returns are subject to political attack from angry patients, but contract research organizations aren't. So if you control both of these organizations, you would choose to allocate all of the profits to the second organization, so you can defend yourself from claims of gouging by pleading poverty.

comment by Elizabeth (pktechgirl) · 2019-07-04T21:05:40.922Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, that makes sense. Thanks for explaining.

comment by jimrandomh · 2019-07-09T02:20:15.059Z · score: 13 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Among people who haven't learned probabilistic reasoning, there's a tendency to push the (implicit) probabilities in their reasoning to the extremes; when the only categories available are "will happen", "won't happen", and "might happen", too many things end up in the will/won't buckets.

A similar, subtler thing happens to people who haven't learned the economics concept of elasticity. Some example (fallacious) claims of this type:

  • Building more highway lanes will cause more people to drive (induced demand), so building more lanes won't fix traffic.
  • Building more housing will cause more people to move into the area from far away, so additional housing won't decrease rents.
  • A company made X widgets, so there are X more widgets in the world than there would be otherwise.

This feels like it's in the same reference class as he traditional logical fallacies, and that giving it a name - "zero elasticity fallacy" - might be enough to significantly reduce the rate at which people make it. But it does require a bit more concept-knowledge than most of the traditional fallacies, so, maybe not? What happens when you point this out to someone with no prior microeconomics exposure, and does logical-fallacy branding help with the explanation?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-07-09T12:50:32.584Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW · GW
Building more highway lanes will cause more people to drive (induced demand), so building more lanes won't fix traffic.

Is this really fallacious? I'm asking because while I don't know the topic personally, I have some friends who are really into city planning. They've said that this is something which is pretty much unambiguously accepted in the literature, now that we've had the time to observe lots and lots of failed attempts to fix traffic by building more road capacity.

A quick Googling seemed to support this, bringing up e.g. this article which mentions that:

In this paper from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, author Todd Litman looks at multiple studies showing a range of induced demand effects. Over the long term (three years or more), induced traffic fills all or nearly all of the new capacity. Litman also modeled the costs and benefits for a $25 million line-widening project on a hypothetical 10-kilometer stretch of highway over time. The initial benefits from congestion relief fade within a decade.
comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-07-11T01:53:19.186Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, I do agree that for the case of traffic, elasticity is pretty close to 1, which importantly doesn't mean building more traffic is a bad idea, it's actually indicative of demand for traffic capacity being really high, meaning marginal value of doing so is likely also really high.