Young Idealist Reply

I wrote:

Humans … slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. … When people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. … They want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. … Young folks … should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years.

Alex Waller disagrees:

When I’m 50 I don’t really want the world to be the way it is now. I don’t want to bide my time and merely learn and network idly for another decade or two while someone else is responsible for enacting positive change in the world.

News flash: you are just one of seven billion, so you aren’t going to personally make much difference. The world will have nearly as many problems worth solving then as now, with or without your help.

Let’s say I was the CEO of a small corporation that developed medical devices. … A sustainable revenue stream requires projects with a variety of timelines. Similarly, I shouldn’t only invest my company’s resources in a project with a huge payout that will take 15 years.

The world already has a big portfolio of idealistic projects. If you want your life to be one of those projects, you should accept that it has a natural timescale. There’s a best time to invest, and a best time to reap returns.

Hanson elicits skepticism in the idea that social changes enacted now will positively impact the future, without justification.

I’m not skeptical of future impacts, just of their typically growing in impact faster than financial investments.

However, I’d counter-argue that his position is just as weak: name someone who is making better-than-inflation on their investments in the last 11 years?

The last few years have been quite unusual in finance. Feasible long term financial rates of return are higher than economic growth rates.

If I am to put off charity for 20 years to compound interest, why not put it off 40 years to compound even more? Why not put it off for 100 years?

Why not indeed? If you think that your personal monitoring adds much value, you might want to spend before you die, so you can personally monitor your charities. Else you might instruct your charity fund to grow until it seems that worthy causes are about to run out, or that investments no longer grow.

Hanson totally misguides when he suggests that Young Idealism is sexually motivated.

I said “signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates.” I didn’t mention sex.

Then what explains extra altruism in the old?

I said “people tend more to form associations when young.” This implies only that old folks have a weaker need to signal, not that they have no need to signal.

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  • BDG1

    Are these excerpts from an email Alex sent?  A blog post?  Comments on a blog post?  It seems odd to respond publicly to individual pieces of a (private?) argument without presenting or linking to the whole.

    • RobinHanson

      The link is there now; sorry I’d left it out.

  • Guest (26 M)

    I’m a 26 y.o. male and long-time reader (relatively speaking, here) of the site. Just wanted to say that, Katja’s metafiction aside, this is my favorite OB topic in years. 

    Robin, I don’t think you present a flawless argument. I think there is an argument to be made that one ‘skill’ youth has that experienced adults do not have, or one in which experienced adults necessarily diminish, is exuberance, passion,…might we call it ‘youth.’ Young people are capable of making, and willing to make, giant, risky leaps of faith which adults are ‘wise’ enough not to make; maybe for each individual, this perverse attitude to risk is irrational, but in the aggregate, maybe it can and does create special situations wherein young people ‘change the world’, to borrow a platitude, in unique ways. 

    Individuals in their forties and fifties certainly have the capital, social and professional networking connections, and functional acumen to execute effective, efficient works of altruism – but my biased, 26-year old sense is that they do these things not out of a vocational desire to really “AFFECT CHANGE”, but rather as just another allocation of their personal ‘altruism’ portfolio, which holds assets in coaching Little League, taking wife out to dinner, calling Mom and Dad on Sunday, and donating to the alma mater. 

    That said, Robin – I love your logic and I think a lot of my peers would be wise to take heed of the advice implied. There are a lot of greenhorns out in the help-us places in society and the world – a lot of whom are bankrolled by parental altruism allowances – who become indentured servants to their own youth, that is, they never compound any interest themselves. And what good is that?

    • Drewfus

      “- but my biased, 26-year old sense is that they do these things not out of a vocational desire to really “AFFECT CHANGE”, but rather as just another allocation of their personal ‘altruism’ portfolio, which holds assets in coaching Little League, taking wife out to dinner, calling Mom and Dad on Sunday, and donating to the alma mater.”

      Altruism – who needs it? The concept that is. Those behaviors are just a means to enhancing the social reputation of the individual concerned. In a society based on trade, trust and large-scale cooperation, why would anyone even suppose that an enhanced social reputation was not in an individuals self-interest?

      Indivduals behavior is a mixture of self-interest and enlightened self-interest. Altruism is a redundant concept. So who uses it? – people trying to enhance their social reputation by talking up romantic concepts and attempting to associate themselves with those concepts. I guess it must work on some of us.

    • RobinHanson

      You seem more interested in seeing a clear signal of pure altruistic motivation than in the outcomes that actions produce. Which fits the theory I propose.

  • Richard Silliker

    Argue, debate or discuss all you want.  If you want to change the world the first thing you will need to do is change yourself.  A vivifying person will vivify the world around themselves.

    Try it.  You might be surprised.

  • Faul_Sname

    >>If I am to put off charity for 20 years to compound interest, why not put it off 40 years to compound even more? Why not put it off for 100 years?
    >Why not indeed? If you think that your personal monitoring adds much value, you might want to spend before you die, so you can personally monitor your charities. Else you might instruct your charity fund to grow until it seems that worthy causes are about to run out, or that investments no longer grow.
    This assumes that inflation will beat the rate at which it gets more expensive to help people. As far as I can tell, this is not the case: it costs far less to prevent a malaria death now than it will once we get all the low-hanging fruit (and that’s a good thing). But someone who dies of cheaply preventable malaria is just as dead as someone who would die with a bednet and would have to be treated with antimalarial drugs to live. So unless you think it likely that the interest rate minus the inflation rate will be higher than the rate at which adding a certain amount of charitable value increases, it doesn’t make sense to save the money long-term.

  • Alex Waller

    Thanks for your response. I have rebutted here:

    • Prakash Chandrashekar

      Hi Robin,

      I would like to reiterate this.

      If you have any objections with Robert Wilbin’s post on publicly proclaiming your charity, ( ) please explain to us what are the differences you have. It is not like OB has to provide a party line, but explaining where your differences lie could help us read all OB posts with better perspective and gain value from the same.

      Is the resolution between that post and these posts that the charity proclamation should also be done only in the early 40′s.(peak years)

      But one must provide a regular idea of where and how one wants to change the world right? If people suddenly started talking in the 40′s about changing the world, then others could easily mistake it as a mid-life crisis than a rational calculation.

      • RobinHanson

        I don’t see a contradiction. You can tell people about anything you do, including preparing for future efforts.

  • John Maxwell IV

    If the old have less need to signal, isn’t it possible that people become naturally less altruistic as they age?  So if you’re young and you want to do something altruistic, now may be the time, as you’ll be fighting your instincts when you’re older (or your goals will have changed entirely).

    I remember being more altruistic when I was younger.

  • Jorge Emilio Emrys Landivar

    “Feasible long term financial rates of return are higher than economic growth rates.”
    THIS, THIS is problematic.

  • Drewfus

    What really motivates voting in large electorates? Is voting really about signalling?

    Modern elections occur via secret ballots. If the public are motivated to vote regardless of the miniscule chance their vote will decide the election (or even their local member of parliament), on the basis that the opportunity to signal more than compensates, then why exactly would people want ballots to be secret, when this surely inhibits their potential for signalling? “Secret ballots? No thanks, i want everyone to know how i voted!” Also, why fear personal repercusions of publicly viewable voting records in modern society with its historically ultra-low violence levels?

    Let’s consider the opposite explanation for voting; the opportunity for socially sanctioned anonymous behavior. The thrill of anonymity drives voting, not the opportunity to participate in an election and advertise “pro-social” attitudes and political affiliations. On election day, do/will you want to turn up to vote when the queues are longest, or shortest? But what about the example mentioned in , in which voter turn-out was down 83% in an online-only (digital) election? The fear of the loss of anonymity could explain it – especially considering this was the first time it had been tried (in Oahu), and public trust in online voting had not had sufficient time to be established.
    What greater gift could you offer someone than than capacity to act in a social context, and in ways that normally have major consequences both legally and for personal reputation, but with total anonymity? If you could control an avatar on another planet – a planet otherwise totally unconnected to Earth – what would “you” get up to? Ethics are irrelevant without individual visibility and identity. The desire to be anonymous could reasonably be regarded as a huge motivator generally. How to be partially anonymous? Examples:

    • Vote in a secret ballot• Wear a uniform. Consider workers, soldiers, sports clubs and their fans, and school children in some countries. Even men wearing suits.• Display or project nationalistic signs and associations. Fly the flag or sing the anthem.• Conceal your skin. Mark Changizi describes the “signalling” capacity of skin in his book ‘The Vision Revolution’ By altering blood flow and blood oxidization levels to a region, skin can be made to display almost any color (and “skin-color” is our baseline color (try naming it)). Clothes and makeup are superficially about sending signals. The deeper purpose is to conceal the skin (and our physique). Concealment of our persons is an attempt at partial anonymity. So is wearing a mask, and for a slightly frivolous albiet concerning look at the affects of mask wearing, watch this• Cry. Tears will veil your eyes and “choking-up” will give you a socially accepted excuse for not talking in emotional contexts.• Engage in phishing. Masquerading as a trustworthy entity is a way of acting anonymously.• Comment or trade online using an anonymous pseudonym• Fake physical identification documents• Offer or provide institutional credentials as signs of personal ability or commonly favored traits. Institutions have reputations. This provides great opportunities for anonymity. Professors are partly anonymous to the extent that their department has a discrete reputation. Same thing for the department in regards to the University. Then there are the general reputations of sciences, and all science, that individual scientists can hide behind. [Btw, this problem of institutions might have something to do with why institutional credentials are over-demanded and hence over-supplied. This means seeing the over-demand as a way of compensating for the anonymity problem.]• Join a group. Sing, clap, cheer, jeer or boo together.• Exploit opportunities for responsibility shifting, and/or the anonymity of victims – The Milgram experiment being the classic example.• Claim to be doing the work of or duty prescribed by some higher social or global purpose, or spiritual entity. Perhaps this is stretching the point, but a higher authority does provide a means for people to partially null their personal reputations by means of subordinating to and/or faking obedience to authority.

    Note that all these examples involve things that could also be described as signalling. So signalling is perhaps only one side of a coin – the other being the anonymity motive. Alternatively; signalling is not about the communication or broadcast by individuals of socially desired traits, ideals or skills, but instead about seeming to do these things to distract from the intention to act anonymously in social contexts.

    • Drewfus

      And i meant to post this in the Open Thread :-)

    • srdiamond

      You need a just-so story about why our ancestors would value anonymity.

      • Drewfus

        Ok, i’ll try.

        Social reputation is functionally about shared memory systems – “social memory”. Memory is about familiarity. Familiarity is about the feeling of safety – the familiar is perceived to be safe. See Safety was highly valued by our ancestors.

        Anonymity implies unfamiliarity. Unfamiliarity generates fear and uncertainty. These states of mind can be exploited politically. Hence anonymity has power and status consequences. For example, in wars, enemy personal are portayed anonymously and their absence of individual identity not only creates fear but provides the justification for exempting them from normal social standards. This is well known, but it applies generally. Any reference to collectives – Jews, blacks, Capitalists, workers, classes, genders, to name a few – is an attempt to exploit the “power” of anonymity. I include Affirmative Action in this.

        Anonymity also entails a lack of accountability. This means the ability to avoid social pressures, taboos, regulations and laws – an obvious “competitive advantage” for any one or group who can acheive this.

        Anonymity is also stress relieving. Secret ballot elections allow us to avoid a feeling of responsibility regarding political outcomes. We can distance ourselves from the social backlash of unfavorable outcomes by voting anonymously, but conveniently still criticize governments and politicians to our hearts content.

        Anonymity is also about privacy. Privacy is about defining domains of human action in which social surveillance is deemed out-of-bounds. Surveillance is a costly activity, so privacy is about minimizing social costs. Surveillance is not only costly in resource terms, but also in social harmony terms, in the sense that pinpointing recalcitrant individuals and imposing draconian punishments on them can create general fear and uncertainty – just the opposite of what eliminating anonymity is supposed to result in, and also likely to result in a backlash.

        Privacy is also a source – perhaps the only source – for individual rights. Out-of-bounds activity can create multiple precedents for demonstrating that previously illegal activity is in fact socially benign in its outcome. Not sure about prehistoric man in this respect, but a modern example is the Puritans and their extremely harsh treatment of adulterers. I’m interested in knowing why the treatment suffered by people like Alan Turing would not occur today. We have self-righteous explanations about our superior morality compared to that of previous generations. I’m more inclined to see things less romantically. Alan Turing’s private life would be largely ignored today because we keep learning new examples of why “it doesn’t always pay to survey”. Social surveillance requirements are perhaps also reduced by the capacity of individuals for greater self-awareness. Writing enhances self-awareness. So does photography and audio/video tech. So do high-quality mirrors.

  • Dylan

    Humans do grow exponentially over time but won’t we inevitably hit a level of diminishing returns? What do you think about this whole solar awakening theory. I saw this on reddit and it looks like a really interesting take on the whole 2012 thing.