Subconscious Reading; Conscious Learning; Getting Advanced Skills

Yesterday I wrote about practicing when you find any hard parts while reading. I have more to say.

First, noticing it was hard is a visible problem. What you noticed is usually under 10% of the actual problem(s). The problem is probably at least 10x larger than you initially think. So don’t ignore it. When you find visible problems you should be really glad they weren’t hidden problems, and assume they might be the visible tip of an iceberg of problems, and investigate to see if there are more hard-to-find problems near the visible problem. A visible problem is a warning something is wrong that lets you know where to investigate. That’s really useful. Sometimes things go badly wrong and you get no warning and have no idea what’s going on. Lots of people react to visible problems by trying to get rid of them, which is shooting the messenger and making any other related problems harder to find. If you have a habit of “solving” problems just enough that you no longer see the problem, then you’re hiding all the evidence of your other less visible problems and entrenching them, and you’ll have chronic problems in your life without any idea about the causes because you got rid of all the visible clues that you could.

Second, if people practiced hard reading once a day (or once per reading session) regardless of how many hard parts they ran into, they would make progress. That would be good enough in some sense even though they ignored a bunch of problems. But why would you want to do that? What is the motivation there? What part of you wants to ignore a problem, keep going, and never analyze it? What do you think you’re getting out of getting more reading done and less problem solving done?

Are you reading a book that you believe will help you with other urgent problems even if you understand it poorly? Is finishing the book faster going to be more beneficial than understanding it well due to an urgent situation? Possible but uncommon. And if you’re in that situation where you urgently need to read a book and also your reading skill is inadequate to understand the book well, you have other problems. How did you get in that situation? Why didn’t you improve at reading sooner? Or avoid taking on challenges you wouldn’t be able to do with your current skills?

Do you think your current reading, when you find stuff hard to read, is actually adequate and fine? You just think struggling while reading – enough to notice it – is part of successful reading and the solution is extra work and/or a “nobody’s perfect” attitude? Your knowledge can never be perfect so what does it matter if there were visible flaws? It could be better! You could have higher standards.

If you notice reading being hard, your subconscious doesn’t fully know how to read it. Your reading-related habits and automatizations are not good enough. There are three basic ways to deal with that:

  1. Ignore the problem.
  2. Read in a more conscious way. Try to use extra effort to succeed at reading.
  3. Improve your automatizations so your subconscious can get better at reading.

I think a ton of people believe if they can consciously read it, with a big effort, then they do know how to read it, and they have nothing more to learn. They interpret it being hard as meaning they have to try harder, not as indicating they need better skills.

What are the problems with using conscious effort to read?

First, your subconscious isn’t learning what you read well in that case. So you won’t be able to implement it in your life. People have so many problems with reading something then not using it. There are two basic ways to use something in your life:

  1. You can use it by conscious effort. You can try extra hard every time you use it.
  2. You can learn it subconsciously and then use it in a natural, intuitive, normal way. This is how we use ideas the vast majority of the time.

We don’t have the energy and conscious attention to use most of our ideas consciously. Our subconscious has 99% of our mental resources. If you try to learn something in a conscious-effort-only way, you’re unlikely to get around to ever using it, because your conscious attention is already overloaded. It’s already a bottleneck. You’re already using it around maximum capacity. Your subconscious attention is a non-bottleneck. Teaching your subconscious to do things is the only way to get more done. If you learn something so you can only do/use it by conscious effort, then you will never do/use it unless you stop doing/using some other idea. You will have to cut something out to make room for it. But if you learn something subconsciously, then you can use it without cutting anything out. Your subconscious has excess capacity.

So if reading takes conscious effort, you’ll do way less of that reading. And then every idea and skill you learn from that conscious reading will require conscious effort to use, so the reading won’t change your life much. The combination of reading not improving your life, plus taking a lot of precious conscious effort, will discourage you from reading.

It’s possible to read with conscious effort, then do separate practice activities to teach your subconscious. Even if your subconscious doesn’t learn something by reading, it can still learn it in other ways. But people usually don’t do that. And it’s better if your subconscious can learn as much as possible while you read, so less practice is needed later. That’s more efficient. It saves time and effort.

Also you can’t read in a fully conscious way. You always use your subconscious some. If your subconscious is making lots of mistakes, you’re going to make more conscious mistakes. Your conscious reading will be lower quality than when your subconscious is supporting you better. You’ll have more misunderstandings. You can try to counter that by even more conscious effort, but ultimately your conscious mind is too limited and you need to use your subconscious as an effective ally. There is an upper limit on what you can do using only your conscious mental resources plus a little of your subconscious. If your add in effective use of your subconscious, the ceiling of your capabilities rises dramatically.

Also, if you’re reading by conscious effort, you might as well use it as practice and teach your subconscious. The right way to read by conscious effort involves things like making tree diagrams. If you do that a bunch, your subconscious can learn a lot of what you’re doing so that in the future you’ll sometimes intuitively know answers before you make the diagrams.

What people do with high-effort conscious reading often involves avoiding tree diagrams, outlines, or even notes. It’s like saying “I find this math problem hard, so I’m going to try really hard … but only using mental math.” Why!? I think they often just don’t know how to explicitly and consciously break it down into parts, organize the information, process it, etc. If you can’t write down what’s going on in a clear way – if you can’t get the information out of your head onto paper or computer – then the real problem is you don’t know how to read it consciously either. If you could correctly read it in a conscious way, you could write it down. If you had a proper explicit understanding of what you read, what would stop you from putting it into words and speaking them out loud, writing them down, communicating with others, etc? It’s primarily when we’re relying on our subconscious – or just failing – that we struggle to communicate.

People don’t do tree diagrams and other higher-effort conscious analysis mostly because they don’t know how. When they try to do higher effort conscious reading, they don’t actually know what they’re doing. They just muddle through and ignore lots of problems. They weren’t just having and ignoring subconscious reading problems. They were also having and ignoring conscious reading problems. Their conscious understanding is also visibly flawed.

What should be done? You need to figure out how to get it right consciously as step one of learning a skill. Then once you’re satisfied with how you do it consciously, you practice that and form good habits/automatizations in your subconscious. This is the general, standard pattern of how learning works.

If you just keep reading a bunch while being consciously confused, you’re forming bad subconscious habits and failing to make progress. You’re missing out on the opportunity to improve your reading skills. You’re a victim of your own low standards or pessimism. If you want to be a very good, rational thinker you need to get good at reading, both consciously and subconsciously. If you don’t do that, you’ll get stuck regarding fields like critical thinking and you’ll run into chronic problems with learning, with not using and acting on what you read and “learn” (because you can’t act on what you never learned properly – or even if you managed to learn it consciously that won’t work because your conscious is already too busy – to actually do something you have to either stop doing something else or else use your more plentiful subconscious resources).

If you want to get better at reading beyond whatever habits you picked up from our culture, school, childhood, etc., you have two basic options.

Option 1: Read a huge amount and you might very gradually get better. That works for some people but not everyone. It often has diminishing returns. If you’re bad at reading and rarely read, then reading 50 novels has a decent chance to help significantly. If you’re already experienced at reading novels, then you might see little to no improvements after reading more of them. This strategy is basically hoping your subconscious will figure out how to improve if you give it lots of opportunities.

Option 2: Consciously try to improve your reading. This means explicitly figuring out how reading works, breaking it down into parts, and treating it as something that you can analyze. This is where things like outlines, grammar, sentence trees, paragraph trees, and section trees come in. Those are ways of looking at text and ideas in a more conscious, intentional, organized, explicit way.

I think people resist working on conscious reading because it’s a hassle. They read mostly in a subconscious, automatic way. Their conscious mind is actually bad at reading and unable to help much. So when they first start trying to do conscious reading, they actually get worse at reading. They have to catch their conscious reading abilities up to their subconscious reading level before they can actually take the lead with their conscious reading and then start teaching their subconscious some improvements. I suspect people don’t like getting temporarily worse at reading when trying to do it more consciously so they avoid that approach and give up fast. They don’t consciously know what the problem is but they intuitively didn’t like an approach where they’re less able to read and actually quite bad at it. Their conscious reading is a mess so they’d rather stick with their current subconscious reading automatizations – but then it’s very hard to improve much.

The only realistic way to make a lot of progress and intentionally get really good at this stuff is to figure out how to approach reading and textual analysis consciously, gain conscious competence, then gain conscious higher skill level, then teach that higher skill level to your subconscious. If you just stick with your subconscious competence, it works better in the short term but isn’t a path to making much progress. If you’re willing to face your lack of conscious reading skills and you see the value in creating those skills, then you can improve. It’s very hard to learn and improve without doing it consciously. When you originally learned to read, your conscious reading ability was at least as good as your subconscious reading ability. But then you forgot a lot of your conscious reading skill after many years of reading mostly subconsciously. You don’t remember how you thought about reading when you were first learning it and were making a big conscious effort.

You do remember some things. You could probably consciously sound out the letters in a word if you wanted to. But you don’t need to. Your reading problems are more related to reading comprehension, not about reading individual words or letters. Doing elementary school reading comprehension homework is a perfectly reasonable place to start working on your conscious reading skills again. Maybe you’d quickly move up to harder stuff and maybe not and it’s OK either way. I’ve seen adults make errors when trying to read a short story aimed at third graders and then correctly answer some questions about what happened in the story. It’s good to test yourself in some objective ways. You need an answer key or some other people who can catch errors you miss. They don’t necessarily have to be better than reading at you. If you have a group of ten people who are similarly smart and skilled to you, you can all correct each other’s work. That will work reasonably well because you have different strengths and weaknesses. You’ll make some mistakes that other people don’t, and vice versa, even though on average your skill levels are similar. There will also be some systemic mistakes everyone in your group makes, but you can improve a lot even if you don’t address that.

Doing grammar and trees is a way to try to get better at reading than most people. It’s part of the path to being an advanced reader who knows stuff that most people don’t. But a lot of people should do some more standard reading comprehension work too, which is aimed at reducing reading errors you make and getting more used to practicing reading skills, but which isn’t aimed at being an especially advanced reader. I think a lot of people don’t want to do that because of their ego, their desire to appear and/or already be clever, and their focus on advanced skills. But you’re never going to be great at advanced skills unless you go back through all your beginner and intermediate skills and fix errors. You need a much higher level of mastery than is normal at the beginner and intermediate stuff in order to be able to build advanced skills on top of them. The higher you want to build skills above a level, the lower error rate you need at that level. The bigger your aspirations for advanced stuff, the more perfect you need your foundational knowledge to be to support a bunch of advanced knowledge built on top of it.

You can think of it in terms of software functions which call other functions (sub-functions) which call other functions (sub-sub-functions). The lower level functions, like sub-sub-sub-functions, are called more times. For every high level function you call, many many lower level functions are called. So the error rate of the lower level functions needs to be very very low or else you’ll get many, many errors because they’re used so much. This is approximate in some ways but the basic concept is the more you build on something – the more you’re relying on it and repeatedly reusing it – the more error-free it needs to be. If something gets used once a month, maybe it’s OK if it screws up 1% of the time and then you have to do problem solving. If something is used 10,000 times a day, and it’s a basic thing you never want to be distracted by, then it better have a very low error rate – less than a 1 in 100,000 chance of an error is needed for it to cause a problem less than every 10 days on average.

So don’t lose self-esteem over needing to improve your basic or intermediate skills, knowledge and ideas. If you’re improving them to higher standards (lower error rates) than normal, then you aren’t just going back to school like a child due to incompetence. You’re trying to do something that most people can’t do. You’re trying to be better in a way that is relevant to gaining advanced skills that most people lack. You’re not just relearning what you should have learned in school. School teaches those ideas to kinda low standards. School teaches the ideas with error rates like 5%, and if you’re a smart person reading my stuff you’re probably already doing better than that at say a 1% error rate but now you need to revisit that stuff to get the error rate down to 0.0001% so it can support 10+ more levels of advanced knowledge above it.

For more information, see Practice and Mastery.

And I recorded a podcast: Reading, Learning and the Subconscious | Philosophy Podcast

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Problem Solving While Reading

I'd urge anyone who has trouble reading something to stop and do problem solving instead of ignoring the problem or giving up. This kind of thing is an opportunity to practice and improve.

You could e.g. take a paragraph you have trouble with and analyze it, possibly with a paragraph tree.

If you do that kind of activity many times, you will get better at reading that type of material and reading in general. You can automatize some of the analysis steps so, in the future, you automatically know some of the results without having to go through all the steps. A way to look at it is if you do those activities enough, you'll get faster at it, and also some of the conclusions will become predictable to you before you've consciously/explicitly done all the steps.

When stuff is hard, slow down and figure out the correct answer – the way you ideally want to do it – so you end up forming good habits (a habit of doing what you think is best when you go slowly and put in more effort) instead of bad habits.

This is the same as improving at other kinds of things, e.g. typing. If you’re typing incorrectly (e.g. hitting a key with the wrong finger, or looking at the keyboard while typing), you should slow down, fix the problems, then speed up only when you’re doing it the way you want to. It’s hard to fix errors while going fast. And you should avoid habit-forming amounts of repetition of the activity until you’re satisfied with the way you’re doing it.

You can never be perfect. It’s also important to sometimes change your habits after they’re formed. Sometimes you’ll learn something new and realize a habit or subconscious automatization should be changed. But forming habits/automatizations and then changing them soon after is inefficient; it’s more efficient to make a serious effort to get them right in the first place so you can reduce the need to change habits. You don’t want to form a habit than is worse than your current knowledge.

If you do this text analysis stuff consistently whenever there are hard parts, it will be disruptive to reading the book. It'll slow you way down and spread your reading out due to taking many breaks to practice. You won’t get much reading flow due to all the interruptions. Here are some options for dealing with that problem:

  1. It doesn't matter. Improving skills is the priority, not understanding the book. You can read the book later including rereading the sections you had many stops during.
  2. Read something else where you run into harder parts infrequently so stopping for every hard part isn't very disruptive.
  3. Make trees, outlines or other notes covering everything so you get an understanding of the book that way rather than from direct reading. E.g. do paragraph trees for every paragraph and then make section trees that put the paragraphs together, and then do trees that put the sections together, and keep doing higher level trees until you cover the whole book.
  4. Read a section at a time then go back and do the analysis and practice after finishing the section but before reading the next section, rather than stopping in the middle of a section. That'll let you read and understand a whole chunk at once (to your current standards). Analyzing/practicing/etc. in between sections shouldn't be very disruptive.

With option 4, it’s very important not to cheat and read multiple sections in a row while planning to go back to stuff eventually. Even if you try to go back later, the hard stuff won’t be fresh enough in your mind anymore. If you’re procrastinating on doing any analysis, it’s because you don’t actually want to do it. In that case you need to do problem solving about that. Why are you conflicted? Why does part of you want to improve intellectually and do learning activities, etc., while part of you doesn’t? What part doesn’t and what is its motivation?

Also how big a section should you use? It depends on the book (does it have natural break points often?) and your memory (if a section is too big you’ll forget stuff from the earlier parts) and your skill level. If a section is too big, you’ll also have too many hard parts you need to do (e.g. 20) which may be overwhelming or seem like too much work. Also by the time you analyze the first 19 hard parts, you won’t remember the 20th one because it’s been so long since you read the end of the section. And if you’re trying to analyze and revise how you understood 20 parts at once, it’s hard to take those all into account at once to update your understanding of what the book said. Doing it closer to “read something, analyze it right away to understand it correctly, keep reading” has clear advantages like letting you actually use your analysis to help your reading instead of the analysis being tacked on later and not actually being used. So you might need to use sections that are pretty short, like 2 or 3 pages long, which could give you more uninterrupted reading flow without being too much to deal with at once. You could do it based on reading time too, like maybe 5 or 10 minutes would be a reasonable chunk to read at once before you stop to analyze (depending on how many problems you’re having). Also if you have a big problem, like you’re really extra confused about a sentence, paragraph or argument, you may want to stop early.

Also, it’s important to analyze and practice regarding small problems and slightly hard parts, not just major problems. Some people only want to focus on the really visible problems, but optimizing smaller stuff will help you get really good at what you’re doing. Also if something is actually a small difficulty then working on it should go fast. If it takes a long time and seems like a hassle, then you needed the practice and it wasn’t that small for you after all. Though if it feels like a hassle, that means you’re conflicted and should investigate that conflict.

If you’re conflicted, here are relevant articles by me:

And I wrote a part 2 for this post:

Subconscious Reading; Conscious Learning; Getting Advanced Skills

And recorded a podcast:

Reading, Learning and the Subconscious | Philosophy Podcast

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Better Economics Introduction

The Mises Institute put out a bad Economics for Beginners resource. Rather than focusing on criticizing it, I decided to make something better. I wrote my own alternative answers for their prompts. You might find it interesting to compare my answers with theirs. Note that theirs took a long time and received a bunch of editing and polishing, and had a budget from a donor, while mine didn’t. I also share a few criticisms at the end.

What Is Economics?

Economics is a field of study. Topics include prices, money, wealth, production, trade, markets, division of labor, scarcity, supply, demand, profit, cost and capital. Economists use rationality and math to do calculation and planning.

Economics is primarily about how multiple people can cooperate for mutual benefit. Some concepts would be useful to a man alone on an island, but most economic study is oriented towards groups of people or whole societies. Typical economics topics include buying and selling goods and hiring people for jobs, which involve multiple people.

A good economic system is good at creating wealth – material prosperity for society. Economists study big picture issues like which policies increase or decrease wealth. They also study detail issues like the nature of a single trade and they try to connect the big and little issues into a unified understanding.

What Is Cost?

A cost is something you give up. Costs are most commonly stated in terms of money, e.g. $3 for a loaf of bread. But costs can be stated in terms of any resource, e.g. reading a book could cost you 5 hours. The cost of an action should be compared to the benefit, and you should avoid it if you consider the benefit lower than the cost.

What Is Money?

Money is the standard means of exchange (trade).

It’s inconvenient to trade shoes for bread or accounting services for massages. The person selling bread might not currently want shoes. So I trade shoes for money then trade money for bread. Money is the most generically desirable and easily tradable good. It makes trading more convenient.

Trading something for money is called “selling”. Trading money for something else is called “buying”. Trades that don’t involve money are called “barter”.

A good money can be saved for later. A perishable good like milk wouldn’t work well as money. It’s also beneficial for money to be small, light, divisible and hard to counterfeit. Gold and silver worked well as money before the switch to paper money.

What Is Profit?

Profit is the amount of benefit you get minus the cost. If profit is negative, it’s a loss rather than a profit.

Profits are most commonly calculated in dollars. For example, a business buys (or rents) raw materials, tools, land and buildings, and hires workers. All of those are costs in money. It produces and sells some goods. The income from those sales is called revenue, which is also in money. The revenue minus the costs is the profit (or loss).

What Is Capitalism?

Capitalism is an economic system in which individuals are free to choose what economic activities to do. Each person does his own planning and decision making, although he’s welcome to listen to the advice of others. It’s called a free market because each individual can freely make his own choices. Other people may be involved in your business only by their voluntary consent. If you want business partners or workers, you must offer good enough deals that they choose to deal with you instead of others.

According to capitalism, the government’s job is to protect men from force. That includes policing violence, theft, fraud and breach of contract. Put another way, the government’s job is to make sure that producing a lot of wealth is the only way to become wealthy (or receiving wealth as a gift).

The more people invest their wealth in increasing future production, the wealthier society as a whole can become. This is called capital accumulation. Under capitalism, individuals are incentivized to reduce consumption, and contribute to capital accumulation, because the more they do that the wealthier they can become.

Capitalism also incentivizes specialization. If I focus on making shoes, and you do computer programming, we can get way better at our jobs than if we each had to do every job ourselves. If I can skip learning some things, and trade, then I can benefit from other people’s knowledge and focus on being great at only a few things. If many people do this, then the average skill that people use to do things is a lot higher, so we all end up better off. Capitalism doesn’t force anyone to specialize, but it enables the division of labor. Most people voluntarily participate because the more skillfully you do things, the more money you can make, so specializing is a way to increase your income.

What is Cronyism?

Cronyism is when people get special privileges from the government, instead of the government treating everyone equally and fairly. Cronyism is a way to get rich without producing a corresponding amount of wealth.

If someone gets rich by being especially productive, there’s no harm to society. He made our total wealth bigger and kept a significant chunk of what he created. Society is more wealthy than before, not less.

But a cronyist becomes rich without producing enough. He becomes rich at the expense of others, not in a way that offers some positive benefit to others. He has the government use taxpayer money to pay too much for his products, or to give him subsidies. Or he uses laws and police to suppress competition or otherwise unfairly benefit himself, e.g. by charging extra taxes on competing products or making regulations which fit what he’s already doing and prevent competitors from using different approaches. Instead of just trading on a free market, he gets some kind of special privilege from the government.

Price controls (government-dictated minimum or maximum prices for some good or services) are a type of government policy which benefits or privileges some people while harming others.

The cronyism problem involves the government having powers it shouldn’t and anti-social men exploiting the situation for personal gain at the cost of harming society.

What Is Socialism?

Socialism is collective ownership of the means of production. The means of production include factories, tools and natural resources. They exclude consumption or consumer goods, like food and clothes, which we use in our homes. The distinction is approximate, not exact.

Socialism often involves government central planners who try to run the economy instead of letting individuals make their own decisions. It could also involve voting on policies.

If people were allowed to buy and sell ownership of the means of production, that would just be capitalism with a stock market. Then some workers might sell off all their ownership of the means of production, and someone else might buy full, individual ownership of a whole factory. To ensure collective ownership, the means of production can’t be traded.

What Is Progressivism?

“Progressive” is a vague political term often used by socialists or other left-of-center people who at least partially oppose free market capitalism. They generally want government power to be used to solve economic problems. They tend to favor a less limited government. This enables cronyism.

Why Experts Can't Predict the Future

Reality and our civilization are really, really, really complicated.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with experts. The problem is using expertise as a justification for power over the lives of others. If an expert is mistaken, but he has no power over me, then I can ignore him. But if he can make laws or tell the police what to do, then his mistakes can ruin my life. If I have the freedom to control my own life, then experts aren’t a threat to me even when they’re wrong.

Why Economics Matters

We want to know what individual actions and economic systems will lead to material prosperity and better satisfaction of people’s wants. We need ways of deciding which goods and services to produce and which not to. We need ways of deciding what manufacturing processes are efficient. We often face tradeoffs. Is it better to use up this or that raw material? Is a more labor intensive process better or worse than putting a bunch of resources into automation? Economics helps us make good decisions.

Money, buying, selling, jobs, business, property, consumption and government economic policies are important parts of our lives. It’s good to have some understanding of how these things work. Mistakes can lead to debt, being able to afford fewer things you want, or to national or global problems like recessions, inflation and mass unemployment.

Learn More

I wrote an essay called Liberalism: Reason, Peace and Property. For more, I recommend the books of Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt and George Reisman. They all have free ebooks which are easy to find online.

Elliot’s Criticisms

The prompts weren’t very good. They seemed oriented towards political debates against socialists and advocates of government power, rather than focusing on teaching economics concepts like how money and trade work or what freedom, force and voluntary interaction are. The Mises Institute seems more interested in fighting against rival tribes than educating people about useful economics ideas.

I also noticed that the answers kept failing to answer the questions. For example:

What Is Money?

It is common to hear that “money is the root of all evil.”

We are told that money is synonymous with greed, and that desiring it is somehow inherently bad.

This is not true. Money is perhaps the single most important creation in the history of mankind. Just take a moment to consider a world without it.

This is more interested in praising money than defining it. It’s about a political agenda, not teaching economics.

What Is Profit?

It is common to hear profit attacked as exploitation and greed. How many supervillains have appeared in TV shows, books, or movies with the diabolical plot of putting “profits over people”?

In reality, profit is a powerful mechanism for human cooperation, and serves to make sure that the earth’s resources are maximized to serve the best interests of humanity.


Think of profit as the reward for making good decisions.

Profit doesn’t have to be only about money…

This talks about profit but doesn’t tell you what profit is. And it purposefully politicizes the issue.

Similarly, their first sentence answering “What Is Economics?” says “Economics often is considered a dry or “dismal” science.”

Their answer to “What Is Cronyism?” begins “Activists blame “capitalism” for the world’s biggest problems, like the high costs of healthcare.” It gives a definition of “cronyism” in the middle of the second paragraph – and then continues with more political talking points. Also the high cost of healthcare is a U.S. issue, not one of the world’s biggest problems. Many other wealthy countries have government-provided healthcare, which has different problems. And many less wealthy countries have cheaper but lower quality healthcare.

Besides not caring about defining terms and giving direct answers to its own questions, the site gets opportunity cost wrong.

Overall, the site presents itself as basic, introductory economics education, but it’s more focused on a political agenda. Propaganda mislabelled as education makes it harder for people to find genuine educational resources. Sites like this result in people giving up on learning or being indoctrinated.

And this site is much more likely to alienate, rather than persuade, someone who already has an anti-capitalist opinion. It’s then harder to persuade anti-capitalists that actually capitalism is a good idea. If they know that prominent capitalists, like the Mises Institute, have poor arguments and integrity, they will assume capitalism doesn’t actually have good arguments (or else the Mises Institute would have known about and used those arguments instead of putting out propaganda). This kind of site makes the political tribalism problem worse and harms the world. (And they’re doing it in the name of Ludwig von Mises, and trashing his reputation after his death, and discouraging people from reading his great books.)

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Mises Institute and Opportunity Cost

In Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, George Reisman wrote:

Contemporary economics, in contrast, continually ignores the vital connection of income and cost with the receipt and outlay of money. It does so insofar as it propounds the doctrines of “imputed income” and “opportunity cost.”

Reisman is one of the best living Austrian economists. He studied under Ludwig von Mises personally. He covers opportunity costs at much more length in his book.

But, ignoring Reisman while offering no rebuttal, the Mises Institute is putting out confused claims about opportunity costs. In 2023 they tweeted a short video with the text:

The proper way to think about costs is not simply to consider the money we're spending on a certain item, but all of the other possibilities we're giving up in order to obtain that item.

Their Begin Economics website (released in 2020) says:

When we think about “cost,” we often think about prices, such as comparing the prices of cars. But the proper way to think about costs is not simply to consider the money we're spending on a certain item, but all of the other possibilities we're giving up in order to obtain that item.


What Hazlitt described is called opportunity cost. The money spent on the new window is not simply the dollar price of his purchase, but of all the goods and services he could have purchased with that money.

They call an opportunity cost “money spent”. From a literal-factual perspective, it isn’t. They also seem to suggest summing every foregone alternative. And they put Hazlitt’s name all over their errors.

They also link to Per Bylund (a Senior Fellow of the Mises Institute) writing in 2019:

The concept of economic cost seems to confuse people. It is not the price you pay for a good, but the reason you pay it.

The cost of one action is the value you could otherwise have gained from taking another action.... The cost of it is not the $100, which you give up to purchase it, but the value of the other good, which you can no longer purchase. That other good is the opportunity foregone by your action, the true cost of your action —the economic cost.

This doesn’t make sense. The reason you’re willing to pay a price for a good because of the benefits the good provides, not due to the cost.

And when you trade $100 for a good, then the $100 is the cost. It’s the thing you gave up in exchange for the good.

When trying to understand how useful $100 is (and therefore better understanding the cost), it helps to consider alternatives that you could buy with $100. But that doesn’t mean those alternatives are the cost. The cost you paid was the money.

The Mises Institute made no effort to give counter-arguments to Reisman’s criticism of opportunity cost. Nor will they listen to my criticism, nor do they have any organized debating policies so that I or anyone else could debate them and correct their error (or, in the alternative, learn why they’re actually right).

Also, the wordings they use differ every time and are sloppy and confusing. Even if they were right about the main point, they’re so imprecise it’s problematic. Most scholars and institutions are like that, and it’s a huge problem.

Also, the Mises Institute seems to be influenced by mainstream, conventional economics, rather than advocating for something different and separate. It’s sad to see the Austrian school of thought embracing mainstream errors. The loss in intellectual diversity, and lack of critical outsiders, is bad.

Quoting from Capitalism again regarding opportunity costs:

The treatment of the subject by [popular, mainstream economics textbook authors] Samuelson and Nordhaus is typical:

. . . the economist generally includes more items in cost than do accountants or businesspeople. Economists include all costs—whether they reflect monetary transactions or not; business accounts generally exclude nonmonetary transactions. We have already encountered . . . examples of true economic costs that do not show up in business accounts. The return to an owner’s effort, the normal return on contributed capital to a firm, a risk premium on highly leveraged owner’s equity—these are all elements that should figure into a broadly conceived set of economic costs but do not enter business accounts. . . . The notion that can help us understand this distinction between money costs and true economic costs is the concept of opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of a decision consists of the things that are given up by taking that particular decision rather than taking an alternative decision.[30]

Note that the “true cost” wording was repeated by Per Bylund. Capitalism continues:

The opportunity cost of a decision is subsequently described as “the value of the best available alternative.”[31]

That’s what I thought the Mises institute meant but didn’t say. They said to consider the cost of all alternatives, not just the best one.

And this opportunity cost stuff is included in a 30 minute beginner lesson. This is one of the highest priority things they want to say. Why? Is it useful? Or does it seem “mind blowing” to people precisely because it’s clever/confusing/counter-intuitive? Unfortunately, a lot of the lesson is actually even worse, because it’s tribalist politics. They say the site is an educational effort that respects your time but then they actually focus on their own agendas.

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Capitalism or Charity

In an ideal capitalist society, a pretty straightforward hypothesis for how to do the most good is: make the most money you can. (If this doesn’t make sense to you, you aren’t familiar with the basic pro-capitalist claims. If you’re interested, Time Will Run Back is a good book to start with. It’s a novel about the leaders of a socialist dystopia trying to solve their problems and thereby reinventing capitalism.)

Instead of earn to give, the advice could just be earn.

What’s best to do with extra money? The first hypothesis to consider, from a capitalist perspective, is invest it. Helping with capital accumulation will do good.

I don’t think Effective Altruism (EA) has any analysis or refutation of these hypotheses. I’ve seen nothing indicating they understand the basic claims and reasoning of the capitalist viewpoint. They seem to just ignore thinkers like Ludwig von Mises.

We (in USA and many other places) do not live in an ideal capitalist society, but we live in a society with significant capitalist elements. So the actions we’d take in a fully capitalist society should be considered as possibilities that may work well in our society, or which might work well with some modifications.

One cause that might do a lot of good is making society more capitalist. This merits analysis and consideration which I don’t think EA has done.

What are some of the objections to making money as a way to do good?

  • Disagreement about how economics works.
  • Loopholes – a society not being fully capitalist means it isn’t doing a full job of making sure satisfying consumers is the only way to make much money. E.g. it may be possible to get rich by fraud or by forcible suppression of competition (with your own force or the help of government force).
  • This only focuses on good that people are willing to pay for. People might not pay to benefit cats, and cats don’t have money to pay for their own benefit.
  • The general public could be shortsighted, have bad taste, etc. So giving them what they want most might not do the most good. (Some alternatives, like having a society ruled by philosopher kings, are probably worse.)

What are some advantages of the making money approach? Figuring out what will do good is really hard, but market economies provide prices that give guidance about how much people value goods or services. Higher prices indicate something does more good. Higher profits indicate something is most cost effective. (Profits are the selling price minus the costs of creating the product or providing the service. To be efficient, we need to consider expenses not just revenue.)

Measuring Value

Lots of charities don’t know how to measure how much good they’re doing. EA tries to help with that problem. EA does analysis of how effective different charities are. But EA’s methods, like those of socialist central planners, aren’t very good. The market mechanism is much better at pricing things than EA is at assigning effectiveness scores to charities.

One of the main issues, which makes EA’s analysis job hard, is that different charities do qualitatively different things. EA has to compare unlike things. EA has to combine factors from different dimensions. E.g. EA tries to determine whether a childhood vaccines charity does more or less good than an AI Alignment charity.

If EA did a good job with their analysis, they could make a reasonable comparison of one childhood vaccine charity with another. But comparing different types of charities is like comparing apples to oranges. This is fundamentally problematic. One of the most impressive things about the market price system is it takes products which are totally different – e.g. food, clothes, tools, luxuries, TVs, furniture, cars – and puts them all on a common scale (dollars or more generally money). The free market is able to validly get comparable numbers for qualitatively different things. That’s an extremely hard problem in general, for complex scenarios, so basically neither EA nor central planners can do it well. (That partly isn’t their fault. It doesn’t mean they aren’t clever enough. I would fail at it too. The only way to win is stop trying to do that and find a different approach. The fault is in using that approach, not in failing to get good answers with the approach. More thoughtful or diligent analysis won’t fix this.)

See Multi-Factor Decision Making Math for more information about the problems with comparing unlike things.

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Shoddy Argument Pattern

There’s a standard pattern where people want to refute what you said, but it’s hard, so they do this:

  • Come up with a new argument that you didn’t preemptively address that says you’re wrong (and often also dumb).
  • The argument is extremely shoddy and wouldn’t hold up in debate.
  • But they avoid debating it.
  • Then they think they’re right and that you can be dismissed.

Using a low quality argument works well here because people try to think of and address potential high quality objections. And other critics will likely have already told them every reasonable objection that’s easy to think of. But no one can anticipate and pre-answer every dumb objection. It may be hard to think of a reasonable criticism that other people haven’t already brought up, but it’s always easy to think of a dumb new criticism. Coming up with dumb criticisms is easy, and you can probably think of one that no one has already pointed out is dumb.

Dumb criticisms don’t do very well in debate. You need to think of it, declare victory, and then avoid debate. There are several standard tactics for avoiding debate:

  • Do this to an author who put an argument in a book, so you aren’t actually in a conversation with them.
  • Be too busy to talk more.
  • Insult people who want to debate. Say they’re too dumb or unreasonable to be worth debating.
  • Refuse to discuss for other reasons, e.g. saying you don’t owe this person answers or saying that they should go debate with someone else.
  • Don’t tell anyone your argument. Just think it in your head, decide you’re right and your opponents aren’t worth engaging with, and move on.

People frequently do this to me using the unstated arguments technique. They come up with some reason in their head that I’m wrong, don’t say it, and use it to justify not respecting me, ending discussion, believing they’re right, etc. The unstated arguments are usually very shoddy. They often do this after they are losing a debate. Then they come up with worse arguments than the ones that were losing the debate, but keep those arguments to themselves and pretend the arguments are great.

Economics Example

Another part of the pattern is sometimes people use arguments that you did anticipate, and pre-refute, in writing. They just ignore that you did that. They can rely on most of the audience being ignorant and not well-read. For example, from the introduction of The Critics of Keynesian Economics by Henzy Hazlitt (page 2):

… I have included two selections— those from Jean Baptiste Say and John Stuart Mill—that long antedated the General Theory [by Keynes] itself. The truth of the basic propositions of the General Theory rests (on the contention or admission of most Keynesians) on the truth of Keynes's "refutation" of Say's Law. But when we turn to the original statement of this law in the words of the economist after whom it is named, and to its elaboration by the classical economist who argued it most fully, we find that these statements in themselves, particularly the one by Mill, anticipated the objections of Keynes and constituted a refutation of them in advance.

Keynes made shoddy, pre-refuted arguments and has gotten away with it, and become the most influential economist in the world, due to the lack of rational discussion and debate in the world today. See also Hazlitt’s book-length, detailed refutation of Keynes (from 1959) which, as far as I know, no Keynesian has ever made a serious attempt to refute with counter-arguments. (Note that Hazlitt was pretty famous and prestigious. He published two dozen books and wrote for major newspapers for decades, including 12 years at The New York Times. But opponents still wouldn’t even try to answer his arguments.)

Listening to Keynes instead of Ludwig von Mises has made humanity many trillions of dollars poorer. Doing it when Keynes made pre-refuted, shoddy arguments … and despite Hazlitt’s books and other attempts to point that out … is really sad. And it’s a really important fact about the world. It implies e.g. that if people were a bit more rational it would have a huge impact. Better rationality could easily have changed this one thing, and many other things too. And this is still an ongoing problem: as I write this, Keynes is still the most influential economist on government policy and it’s still doing massive economic harm every year. Rational debate over the matter is still not happening.

AI Alignment Example

Another example of the shoddy argument pattern is an AI Alignment researcher (Olle Häggström, a professor and author) responding to David Deutsch’s arguments about universal intelligences. His response is that even if Deutsch is right, and AGIs won’t have super intelligence or inhuman capabilities, and there will be no singularity … it doesn’t matter. Human/AGI equality regarding intelligence is logically compatible with military inequality, so they might wipe us out. But how will the robots get a huge military advantage without being smarter than us!? We’re told that humans are currently imperfect and flawed, so I guess the claim is the robots will lack human flaws somehow despite having equivalent mental capabilities to us? Why?

This is a vague, shoddy argument. Deutsch criticized a major, important claim of his side and he didn’t even try to defend that claim. He just carelessly said that it doesn’t matter because that was easier than attempting to refute Deutsch’s argument. He changed the topic away from the arguments Deutsch made to a dumb side-issue that Deutsch hadn’t already written about. And he put it in a book, declared victory before Deutsch could respond, and insulted Deutsch’s ideas, intelligence and rationality. I don’t mean it’s an insult by implication. He just directly put an insult in his book: “Deutsch seems to have fallen in love with his own abstractions and theorizing to the extent of losing touch with the real world.” He also focused more on insults than arguments when he talked in his blog comments.

If Deutsch actually refuted the super intelligence and singularity ideas, but then got something else wrong, that’d be worth praising and engaging with. It’d be a major contribution to human knowledge. It’d be really impressive, not insult-worthy.

Insulting Deutsch also helps prevent a debate with Deutsch from every happening. Being a jerk can be an effective strategy so that the people you’re avoiding debating don’t actually want to talk with you anyway.

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Do You Actually Want to Make Progress?

I’ve written a lot to help people make progress. The basic premise is a reader who wants to make progress but runs into some problems. He fails to solve some of the problems. He gets stuck. He could, therefore, be helped with advice, with new approaches to try, by learning new skills that could improve his problem solving abilities, and with other knowledge.

But even the self-selected few who read my work generally do not seem to want to make progress. I think that is what stops them. They aren’t blocked by obstacles. They are blocked by not trying, not caring, not doing much. (It’s not that they are opposed to making progress, either. They merely don’t actively, positively want to. They’re approximately neutral on the matter.)

You could say that not valuing progress much is a problem. But it’s a different sort of problem than, say, being unable to calculate a mathematical expression, being ignorant of what sentences mean, making logical errors, or being biased.

People have those other sorts of problems. They may be bad at grammar and logic, and that may prevent them from e.g. productively debating philosophy or even from productively reading Popper. But I don’t think they have those problems so badly that they’re stuck with no way to make progress. They could work on things step by step. Often they don’t want to work on more basic skills; they want to work on advanced stuff but skipping steps doesn’t work so they get stuck.

Apparently, a lot of people value engaging with clever, impressive stuff. They want to work on complex philosophy not arithmetic. They want to talk about science not what paragraphs mean. In that case, they don’t really value progress itself in a way that would motivate them to work on prerequisites and develop their skills. They value some of the results they think progress would give them. Or maybe they think skill building would take too long, so they give up and look for shortcuts (which then don’t work).

A theme in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is that most people don’t value their lives, don’t really want to live, and don’t really try to make progress. (Nor do most people particularly want to die. They are bad at wanting things, valuing things or having goals.)

People who say they are ambitious, and claim to care deeply about making progress, are usually lying to themselves. If we talk, that results in them repeating the lies to me. Lying to yourself leads to lying to others. So I cannot trust people who say they want to make progress.

So I’m left considering options like:

  • Only talk to people who already have done a lot, e.g. written 100,000 words of philosophy that didn’t suck (prior to that, they’re welcome to read my stuff, and perhaps even have very brief exchanges with me on my forum, but no serious or lengthy conversations with me).
  • Write for people who want to make progress, should any exist, and not worry about the rest.
  • Have more ways to test people, more ways they can differentiate themselves.
  • Let them figure out for themselves some ways to differentiate themselves, if they can.
  • Try to figure out why people are so passive and lacking in values, and try to solve that problem which is very foreign to me, even though they don’t want me to solve that problem and will not help me (they aren’t opposed to me solving it either; they don’t know how to particularly care).

I can’t trust high prestige people to be better. Social climbing isn’t a good sign. Someone being respected or famous or rich doesn’t mean they’re very rational, or that they want to make progress, or that they’ll have much interest in learning and self-improvement. Conventional track records mean little.

The people who are so neutral, passive, boring and gray usually do care a lot, and react strongly, to some things. Some have a political tribe or care about celebrity gossip. Broadly, they’re second-handers who react to the opinions of others. Instead of having and living by their own values, they try to use the values of people around them as substitutes. The people around them are the same way, so you can get a chain of people trying to use the second-hand values of other people who are doing the same thing with other people still who are doing the same thing, and so on. Like in The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand:

A world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought in the brain of his neighbor who’ll have no thought of his own but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbor who’ll have no thought—and so on, Peter, around the globe.

Anyway, I think I’ve assumed too much that people want to make progress instead of addressing the hard problem that they don’t really. And it’s hard to speak to someone who doesn’t really want to make progress, because what do I have to offer them? I can offer things like more effective ways to achieve goals, but what good is that to someone who doesn’t really care about their goals or their life? People generally don’t take their own goals very seriously.

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Breaking One’s Word

Most people seem to think it isn’t a big deal to break their word. It’s a “small” error to say they will do something and then not do it. Or maybe not even an error: they seem to do that on purpose as a conflict avoidance strategy. That’s often sabotaging: if they hadn’t said they would do it, other arrangements would have been made to get it done.

This has come up with rational debate policies. Due to my ideas, several people besides me have posted policies in writing. But none of them could be relied on to keep his word, and some have broken their word. A policy offering guarantees/promises doesn’t mean much unless the author is trustworthy, and most people aren’t trustworthy.

Trust also comes up when writing policy conditions. Suppose my policy says “If you agree to do X, then I will do Y.” Unfortunately, many people will simply agree to X, get Y, then break their word. Policies based on other people agreeing to stuff only works well if they aren’t liars.

Making the other person go first can help deal with untrusted people but often doesn’t work. E.g. I might want them to agree to a condition for how a debate may end, in which case I’ll have to have to talk with them for a while before we get to the end where they might break their word. Or I might want them to agree to a condition for how to behave during a debate or what procedures to follow, and they might do what they said for a while, then break their word midway through the debate.

Potential solutions include only making agreements with people with substantial reputations or requiring people to put thousands of dollars in escrow, with a neutral arbiter who will give it to me if the person didn’t follow the rules they agreed to. These approaches are problematic and would prevent most discussions from happening. But there are no serious consequences when people with no reputation, and no money at stake, break their word. And I generally only want discussions that meet some criteria that are mutually agreed upon in advance, not just any discussion with no standards whatsoever.

It’s questionable how much breaking one’s word affects people with big, positive reputations. Often I think it wouldn’t matter much anyway. Their fans wouldn’t care or might not even find out that it happened. Most people with a lot of fans wouldn’t give me any way to tell all their fans that they broke their word. They don’t have anything like a forum where I can write something that most of their fans would see. Instead, they can communicate with lots of fans with e.g. a newsletter, tweets, or new facebook posts – but if they break their word to me, they will never give me access to those things to tell their fans what they did.

My main goal with rationality policies is to explain what is rational. I’m trying to understand what people could do that would work if they did it. Creating practical solutions, that will work today, is secondary. I try to offer realistic options, and not everyone is dishonest, but many people are and I don’t have a great solution for this situation. People could study integrity as a prerequisite for having a debate policy, but I don’t expect people lacking integrity to actually do that.

One of my main motives for placing conditions on discussions is that people abruptly leave in the middle. I don’t want half-discussions. Why? Because I’ve already had the first half of too many discussions too many times. It’s the second half that contains more new information. The first half often goes over standard, well-known issues in order to get to the point of saying new things.

If people would make it a very high priority to keep their word, they would be better people, have better lives, and treat others better. But they don’t want to.

People find it socially convenient to lie. It helps them avoid conflict by lying to hide disagreements. It helps them avoid being judged negatively by lying to avoid admitting to believing anything that the person they’re speaking with considers wrong or stupid. It helps them pretend to be agreeable by agreeing to things they won’t do. Lying helps them flatter others to try to manipulate them. Lying helps them prop up their self-esteem and reputation by pretending to be something they aren’t. Lying helps them avoid the effort of thinking about what they will and won’t do, or do or don’t believe, or under what conditions their plans might fail.

People often plan to do something, say they will do it, but don’t make reasonable arrangements to make sure it actually happens. They don’t bother to set an alarm, then forget. They have no reliable project management approach – such as a todo list that they habitually check several times per day – and then say they will do something even though they aren’t in a position to reliably do anything that isn’t a habit. They don’t want to face the reality of how unreliable they are. The core problem is often that they don’t know how to follow through on their plans, and they then tack on lying to people to avoid facing reality. They tell themselves it wasn’t lying because they said they would do something and genuinely intended to do it at the time they said that. But it is lying to say you’ll do something if you aren’t going to make appropriate plans and arrangements so that it actually, reliably gets done.

Regarding debates or other interactions, I could ask people what they’ve done to improve their integrity (and rationality and skill) to be way better than culturally normal. If they haven’t put in the work, then they shouldn’t expect to be significantly better than convention at integrity, even in their own opinion. If they claim to be better anyway, they are demonstrating a lack of integrity. And if they don’t claim to be better, then they should agree with me that they aren’t in a position to agree to the debate rules – they don’t know if they will actually keep their word about that.

There are various other ways I could ask hard questions and filter people out, but I want to allow people to actually have some discussions with me. I don’t want to reject everyone as too flawed even if I’m correct about the flaws.

There are problems here that could use better solutions.

See also my article on Lying.

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