The Black Briefing. Why well-intentioned policies fail so often, and what you can do about it

The Salzburg Global Seminar turned out to be a starter for many interesting conversations. We will follow up on them in the months to follow.

Halfway through the seminar, I realized that many people assumed that their main problem was to have the ear of the policy maker. If they could do that, policy makers could just effect change in the desired way. I find that to be a dangerous oversimplification.

Therefore, my contribution to the Salzburg deep dive was the Black Briefing. It was a rather bleak talk on what government really is (an agent, subject to evolutionary pressure to survive and grow). I also briefly covered what would-be reformers and change makers can do to factor the nature of government into their plans.

You can download the Black Briefing slides and text. Credit for the title goes to the mighty Vinay Gupta.

The globalist. A route for the 21st century

I have the honor of having been invited to teach (if that’s the right word) at this year’s Salzburg Global Seminar.

This turns out to have been founded in 1947 by Clemens Heller, a Harvard student native of Salzburg, together with two American colleagues. The idea was to

create at least one small center in which young Europeans from all countries, and of all political convictions, could meet for a month in concrete work under favorable living conditions, and to lay the foundation for a possible permanent center of intellectual discussion in Europe.

This discussion was urgent. Europe lay in ruins. Austria itself, like Germany, was occupied by the Allied troops, and dismembered into four zones: the American, British, French and Soviet Zone. It was not at all clear what path Europe would take. Recent history showed that World Wars could and did ride on each other’s wake – only twenty years of increasingly tense “peace” had separated World War I from World War II. It was becoming clear that Western and Central Europeans were no longer the masters of their own destiny. The Soviet Union and the United States both wanted to shape Europe’s future. Europeans, demoralized and exhausted, could hardly stop them.

But there was one thing they could do. They could use whatever little space was afforded by the competition between the two superpowers to pull together, forge a common vision for the Old Continent, and build the capacity to implement it. This was the Salzburg Seminar’s mission: “a Marshall Plan of the mind”, the ability to imagine a different future as a critical element of recovery. This plan was targeted at young people, with the potential to become leaders in postwar Europe and America.

The mission succeeded. Intellectual stimuli were off the scale: Margaret Mead and Wassily Leontief were among the teachers of the 1947 seminar. Over the decades, as Europe grew more peaceful, integrated, and prosperous, the Seminar shifted from a Euro-American focus to a global one. It is now one of several world-class leadership programs.

We find ourselves at a juncture where places like the Salzburg Global Seminar might look like yesterday’s news. We are informed that nationalism, nativism, exceptionalism, de-humanising of political adversaries, even racism – all concepts that Clemens Heller might have thought buried in the rubble of Third Reich – are back. We are told the “perceptions” of our fellow citizens are as important, and as capable of shaping our world, than the facts of science. The narrative of supremacy by bloodright is powerful (padroni a casa nostra, “lords of our own house”, is the slogan of Italian xenophobic party Lega Nord. It is nonsensical in so many ways that I don’t want to even start breaking it down, but it does work). And a scapegoat is always handy in politics. So, this is the new normal, or at least part of it.

I will not stand for this. It is, simply, nonsense. We have huge problems to solve: safeguard the global environment before the Anthropocene wipes out the last tigers and blackens the coral reefs. Rejuvenate our democracies. Build decent capacity in government (don’t get me started). Steer global population down towards a long-term sustainable level. Figure out a way to live in a world with no “jobs”, and engineer a symbiosis with AIs. Preserve, extend and cherish the glorious tapestry of Earth’s cultures.

The task at hand is enormous. We need everyone, every last person who wants to be a full participant and accepts to contribute to humanity’s adventure on this blue planet, our home.  People, almost all of them, are willing to step in as full participants, and work, and love, and learn from each other. So, with the obvious individual exceptions, I want nation states, border guards, police, clergy, TV anchormen and any bloody idiot that thinks they can make them feel unwelcome to stay out of their way. Inclusion, abolition of borders, freedom of trade and movement are better for everyone. You’d think Europeans, of all people, would know this. Clemens Heller did.

And so do I. I am a globalist. I want to build webs of friendship and love and business partnerships, and I want these webs to span the globe. I want to build global knowledge, to spread far and wide. This is our birthright as humans: contribute to the future of the species, and the planet it inhabits. It is a global goal, and needs a global scope. I vow to oppose any political movement that seeks to prevent well-intentioned people from everywhere to work together towards this goal.

In Europe, this means supporting more, deeper, more irreversible integration; and welcome any transfer of sovereignty from States to the European Union, as long as it can be shown to be beneficial to European citizens, especially the least privileged. It also means supporting welcoming new members into the Union. I vow to do those things, too.

Today, the Salzburg Global Seminar is right where I want to be.

The changemaker’s dilemma: picking your fights, knowing when you’ve lost

Crossposted from

Many people around the world are trying to bring about change. If you are hanging out in Edgeryders, you are likely one of them. What we are trying to change, exactly, depends on individual levels of hybris. It can be personal habits, a city, a business, or the whole world. But, at any level, we have two decisions to make:

  • What to start. There are many things we could attempt, but most of the interesting ones are hard. Most will fail. And our resources are scarce: we only get one or two tries every few years, at best. Which one do we pick?
  • When to stop. Picture this: you have been trying to make a certain change for a couple of years. You have not completely failed: you are still standing, and making some progress. But it is not clear your succeeding, either. Your movement is gaining activists, but you are not making a dent in the issue you care about yet. Your company is viable, but it cannot afford to pay market rate salaries yet. Are you winning or losing? Should you keep at it or cut your losses and quit?

I recently spent some time going through the work of Eliezer Yudkowsky. He has a knack for applying tools from epistemology to real-life problems. He has some advice to offer, especially on what to start.

His argument is this: many things, in the world, are broken. But this does not mean they are also exploitable. An exploitable situation is one that is broken, and you can gain immediate advantages by fixing it, and no one is already trying to fix it. At least, not in the same way as you.

Financial markets are not exploitable. If you can figure out a way to “beat the market”, others will imitate you, because this will make them money. Soon everyone will be back on a more or less equal footing. In econ-speak, markets are efficient: if there is any free energy lying around, it is easy for anyone to eat it. So, there is never any free energy lying around. Yes, you economists out there, markets are not always efficient. But this is a story for another day.

Policy errors are not exploitable, for a different reason. Imagine you figure out that the Bank of Japan is making a mistake on its monetary policy. Then what? You cannot make money by delivering a better monetary policy to the people of Japan. The Bank is a monopolist. There is free energy, but you are not allowed to eat it.

So what is exploitable? Yudkoswky’s example is this: he was able to treat his wife’s Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is a common condition, and a treatment exists, but did not work in this case. So, Yudkowsky tried a tweak of the method that did not exist in the medical literature, and that turned out to work. He beat the whole medical profession to it. How did he pick this one fight? Well, he cares about his wife, of course. But besides that?

Yudkowsky thinks tractable problems are those with

a system with enough moving parts that at least two parts are simultaneously broken, meaning that single actors cannot defy the system.

Two of the broken parts in the SAD treatment are academia and academic grantmakers. Academics need to publish in the best journals, or perish. Grantmakers need to see their grants turn into publications in the best journals. Research on the effect of tweaks of existing treatments, reasons Yudkowsky, does not make the best journals. So, it is conceivable that it does not get funded: it does not happen at all. At this point he had a hypothesis: “This tweak on SAD treatment has not been researched.”

Preliminary testing of the hypothesis was easy. A session of Googling, plus skimming a second-hand book on SAD reported nothing. At this point, Yudkowsky decided that trying his tweak was worth a shot. He spent a few hundred dollars on materials (as certain type of light bulbs), and ran a test.

In the toy model of medical research above, neither academics not grantmakers have any incentive to deviate from what they are doing. Mathematicians say the model is in Nash equilibrium. Yudkowsky calls these equilibria inadequate.

The situation is: only inadequate equilibria are exploitable. But only a few of them are: inadequacy is everywhere, but most of it is unexploitable. The money quote is this:

you do not generate a good startup idea by taking some random activity, and then talking yourself into the idea that you can do better than existing companies. Even when the current way of doing things seems bad, and even when you do know a better way, 99 times out of 100 you will not be able to make money by knowing better. If somebody else makes money on a solution to that particular problem, they’ll do it using rare resources or skills that you don’t have. Including the skill of being super-charismatic and getting tons of venture capital to do it.

The solution is to “scan and keep scanning” for “winnable battles”. Warning: they are rare, not only in business but in any competitive environment. And almost always, they don’t involve fixing the systems, but improving it a bit.

Following this advice implies navigating a course between realism and ambition. You should not be modest and defer: sometimes you can do better than anyone else. But you should be humble: most of the times, you cannot.

The same attitude seems useful for deciding when to quit. Most of the times, things that do not succeed fast, will never take off. But sometimes they will. You need to “scan and keep scanning”, and decide when it is time to call it quits.

I’m curious: how do you choose your own battles? And how do you decide when to abandon the battlefield?

Photo credit: Cathy Davey on