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Scott Siskind on Capitalism, Wealth, & Power February 15, 2021

Posted by Summerspeaker in Uncategorized.
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Why might anyone be critical of someone as calm & nice as Scott Alexander Siskind? Here is an example of how Siskind thinks about capitalism & wealth, from the Slate Star Codex subreddit on March 23, 2019.

This kind of thing is why I wrote Against Bravery Debates | Slate Star Codex. People can have such different impressions of which position is “in power”, and it can be so infuriating to hear someone saying the opposite of how it feels. I don’t blame you for writing what you did, I think you honestly hold a really different position from me and it’s probably just as justified, but I want to give my emotion reaction to this.

For me, “capital is really ideologically powerful and its propaganda controls your mind” seems so distant from reality. I was probably in college by the time I heard anyone who had anything good to say about capitalism, and it was always weird autistic contrarians who everyone hates like Robin Hanson. Everyone fashionable, high-status, socially-adept, and keyed into organs of information like schools or media seemed to be pushing the same message of “we need more equality”, “greed is evil”, “corporations are fat cat polluters”, “if you don’t want a bigger welfare state you don’t have compassion”. I was shocked and delighted to encounter e.g. Bryan Caplan for the first time. And Bryan strikes me as one of the realest (as opposed to astroturfed) people in the world. If you had to choose either Bryan Caplan or Matthew Yglesias to be a shill hack, well…

When nrxers talk about the Cathedral, I find it tempting – sure, they flirt with conspiracy theory, but it seems they’re at least good conspiracy theories, in the sense that they explain a real phenomenon. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories have their flaws, but one of their strong points is that Kennedy is in fact dead. If you’re coming up with a conspiracy theory to explain why people are biased in favor of capitalism, that seems almost like coming up with an Obama assassination conspiracy theory – not only are conspiracy theories bad, but this one doesn’t even explain a real fact.

Trump got elected after promising tariffs and immigration restrictions that no business or plutocrat wanted. Bernie Sanders was on the top of the prediction market for the next Dem nominee as of last week (today it’s Biden, but Sanders is close behind). The richest people in the world spend most of their time constantly apologizing to everyone for trumped up charges, and loudly (one might say fearfully) confessing they don’t deserve their wealth. This just really doesn’t seem like the world where capitalism in control of the narrative, unless it’s doing some weird judo I’ve never heard communists try to explain.

An alternative would be that socialists, populists, and other anticapitalists have basically won the war of ideas/propaganda entirely, and capitalism still nominally exists in its current form basically because politicians feel pressure not just to please the populace directly, but also to keep the lights on (in the broad sense of having a good economy).

| But you have to acknowledge that capital is really “in power” right?

Not really, no. Capitalists have money, which is great for buying material goods. But it can’t buy power, sex, popularity, or any of a dozen other currencies. It’s helpful for getting those things; I’m sure Jeff Bezos has a better love life than an equally-attractive poor person, and Howard Schultz is at least being taken slightly more seriously as a presidential candidate than Joe Nobody. But Schultz is going to lose miserably. Mark Zuckerberg keeps hoping if he donates enough money to charity everyone will stop hating him, but it doesn’t seem to be working.

The latest studies suggest that the rich do not get their policy preferences enacted more than any other class (a study came out before showing the opposite, but it seems to have been wrong). I’m not sure what else you mean by “capital is really in power,” other than that rich people can be yachts or something.

| Where is the “yes let’s overturn capitalism” side of the debate represented? Certainly not in the editorial line of any major newspaper, TV station or radio station.

I’m tempted to take an extreme contrarian position that everything interesting happens in a parallel status economy. The money economy isn’t “in power”, it’s a (weak) brake on power, or a force orthogonal to power that is helpful in not concentrating power 100%. That’s why overthrowing capitalism keeps producing authoritarians. I mean, it’s better represented than libertarianism. Yes, the Overton Window goes between “slightly more capitalism” and “slightly less capitalism”, but the “slightly less capitalism” side seems to always have the upper hand. I agree the war of ideas isn’t yet a total massacre, I’m just saying the anti-capitalist side always seems to be winning, and pro-capitalist on the defensive. Propaganda victory exerts weak pressure on reality, it doesn’t shift it all at once.

(also, what I said before about keeping the lights on)

& here some possible info into Siskind & company from an anonymous poster in the same subreddit at the same time. Content warning: ableism.

Many of Scott’s house-mates from the rationalist community are extremely weird and awkward (I guess I can’t name them without sharing personal info so you’ll have to take my word for it) and are often sad about their lack of status. They are very wealthy by worldwide standards if not by the absurd local-regional standards which is still enough to at least feel obligated to feel guilty by community standards. (Think: people who are making making donations MIRI well over the US median household income)

If you combine this with the frequent inability of people perceive their own privilege and the high levels of narcissist-like traits exhibited in the rationalist community you end up with people around you saying “I have all this money and yet no one respects for the Gift to the world that I am and instead keeps treating me like a weirdo…” and maybe you start thinking money doesn’t matter much.

Some of this likely stems from conflating status and power as a result of overvaluing what other people think of you as a result of living in a group house (similar to how high-schoolers are stereotyped as thinking their life is over at every bump in their social lives).

Let me offer an alternative explanation (in pseudo mathy terms so the rationalists can pretend that its deeply insightful): Power is a normalized product of many factors: P_you = (F1_you * F2_you * F3_you … * Fn_you)/(sum(product(Fn)_everyone)) and many of these factors are highly correlated with wealth: education, connections to other people with high power: things like free time, safety from starvation, good health, affiliation with socially powerful groups, level of control over the time of others (e.g. owning a business), freedom from biological/social persecution… Some of these factors could rightfully be considered latent forms of wealth in themselves (in that they inevitably result from or lead to wealth). As a result, P changes with wealth raised to some high power but weakness in a non-wealth respect can still handicap you.

So yes, you can have some modicum of wealth and still have low power by being very weak in other respects, such as not having enough EQ to realize when your “just asking” has ventured into extremely offensive and impolitic waters or too much selfishness to cut it out if you do realize. This does not change the fact that wealth is a universal solvent able to radically simply many concerns and a nearly impassable barrier for many goals.

Over time, you become your friends in many respects. Choosing who you spend time with is one of the biggest things someone can do to influence their future personality. Comparing the Scott of today to the one who wrote the anti-libertarian FAQ feels to me like looking at someone who hasn’t made the best decisions of this kind.