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Watch out for Moloch’s traps in life
Prisoner’s dilemma shapes policy, governs society, and perpetuates culture
Emission and Taxes
A common conservative talking point against taxing corporations for CO2 emission is that those companies will migrate to other countries with lenient tax codes. Total CO2 emission will redistribute, but not decrease, so the argument goes. Any country that dares to impose a costly emission tax will see its factories move oversea, its workers jobless, and its economy falter. To a certain degree, this is true, and represents a pervasive problem in a self-interested society. This problem is named “Moloch,” after a biblical pagan god. Scott Alexander broached it nicely, here: https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/
Moloch is the force that prevents governments from raising emission taxes; he saves the rich from wealth tax; he suppresses worker’s wages; Moloch is the reason the young generation is irredeemably addicted to social media…
Moloch is, essentially, a romanticized alias for a classic game theory problem: prisoner’s dilemma. In the prisoner’s dilemma, two suspects are investigated for a crime. They are sentenced to 2 years in prison. If one of them assists the investigation by testifying against his accomplice, he will have his sentence reduced to 1 year, while the other will face 3 more years in jail. Of course, if his partner betrays him to the police, he will also face 3 more years in jail.
If both prisoners remain loyal to each other, they both serve only 2 years. But if only one of them stays loyal, the loyal one stands to lose, while the other person stands to gain. Such a situation—where coordination leads to positive outcome for everyone, and self-interested decision making leads to negative outcome—occurs frequently in real life. Moloch represents people’s self-interest, which dictates that everyone will make the decision that seems best for herself. But if everyone thinks in the same self-interested way and makes that same decision, everyone gets screwed in the end. If both prisoners think selfishly, and try to reduce their sentence by testifying against the other, they both end up losing. Only through coordination can the prisoners agree to not betray each other, and attain the best outcome for themselves.
Take emission taxes as an example, if every country coordinates and commits to taxing emission, everyone benefits from a greener world. But if only some do, while others maintain a lax tax code to court manufacturing corporations, these “defectors” will end up better off than others. In a self-serving international world order with little coordination, Moloch wins. And we get low/no emission taxes.
For the same reason, it is difficult to raise general corporate taxes. Progressive states that raise corporate taxes unilaterally end up screwing themselves over as corporations flee to conservative states. A universal tax raise, however, may benefit residents of all states.
Moloch also governs the labor market—everything from worker’s wages and benefits to working conditions and working hours. The price and terms & conditions of each market transaction depend on the bargaining power of the producers and the customers. Supply and demand are quantitative proxies of this “bargaining power”: when few people want to purchase an item, I, the buyer, get more say in the terms of the transaction. The power dynamic inverts when lots of customers vie for the same product. Beyond the numerical supply and demand, bargaining power also depends on how important it is for the customer to buy the item. Medical drugs, because of their natural importance to illed customers, are often pushed to high costs.
In the job market, “job” is the salable service. Because it tends to be significantly more important for a worker to keep her job, than for a company to keep the worker, the bargaining power dynamic in the labor market tilt decisively towards companies. It’s tough for workers. Moloch also works against them.
Say, you are working a factory job with a bunch of your comrades. If you go out of your way to demand a pay raise, an hour reduction, or anything that cuts into the profit of the company, you may end up screwing yourself—your boss will scold you, or maybe even fire you. If everyone makes the demand together, the company will have to concede grounds. So, the self-serving, or the Moloch thing to do, is to keep your head down, and wait for other martyrs to make those demands for you. And that was indeed what happened for centuries, until labor unions came into fashion.
The stock market blooms and withers in cycle, like a moon cycling through its phases. Who could guess Moloch has a hand in it? When stocks fall, people lose money. It’s actually quite easy to stop a stock market crash—everyone, just stop selling your stocks! But that never happened in history. Without large scale coordination, every individual will just do what serves his interests—he will get rid of the stocks on his hands NOW so he won’t end up losing more money. Because everyone thinks and acts in the self-serving way, everyone end up losing tons of money.
Some cults have a materialistic culture. And it’s not because their people have a stronger innate liking for expensive luxuries. It’s because Moloch dictates that they must have an interest in those expensive luxuries. In a culture where wearing fancy watches gains you social status, praises, or romantic interests, everyone will rush to buy fancy watches—it’s the selfish thing to do. As a result, the prices of luxury watches sky-rocket, and the culture of materialism is reinforced as people compete more ferociously for wearing the fanciest watch. Everyone ends up wasting more money to no real end. If we consider this group of people as a collective, however, it’s easy to see that the rational thing to do is for everyone to stop caring about fancy watches. Without a cultural worship of luxuries, the materialistic competition would die out, and everyone saves money. But that rarely happens, because Moloch reinforces the culture. To change a culture is to defy Moloch: anyone who tries to deconstruct the materialistic culture by refusing to care about luxuries will end up in martyrdom. If she doesn’t wear a luxury watch, she gets less social and professional attention from a group of people who care about the status symbol of fancy watches. And she ends up suffering the consequences of her contrarian behavior. Moloch perpetuates culture. Moloch punishes heterodoxy to preserve the orthodox.
Social media is bad, but we are all hopelessly addicted to it. Social media is the likely culprit behind the recent depression pandemic. Since social media became prevalent in 2012, teen depression rate exploded by xxx, and suicide rate also increased by xxx. A correlation is not a causation, but it often implies a causation. And this piece shows, quite convincingly, that social media use caused today’s mental health crisis.
Yet, we cannot quit social media. Moloch binds us to it. Social media has replaced a significant portion of our day-to-day social interaction. It drains up our social battery, yet utterly fails to produce fulfilling social interactions. All that it produced is a culture that is chronically online. In the old days—so I’ve heard—you can strike a conversation with a random guy while waiting in line for your morning coffee. Casual in-person interactions used to be the norm. Nowadays, if you try talking to a random stranger, odds are, he will parry you off with a couple pleasantries, and then duck his nose back into his phone. Social media became an excuse for not chatting with others, and a replacement of interactions with your friends. We are content, in today’s society, with staying at home and curling up at the sofa to swipe through Instagram stories, rather than hanging out with a friend. This chronically online culture is difficult to change.
You cannot quit social media to fix your mental health or alleviate your solitude, because everyone else is chronically online, and you have no “random guy at the cafe” to talk to, since he is busy checking his Twitter feed. Quitting social media only reduces the remaining low-quality social interaction you have on Instagram down to zero. So, you stay online, and keep using social media, as Moloch commands, even though social media is bad, overall.
Kindness and its Imitation
Being kind means doing something for the sake of another person. Being kind is disadvantageous: donating half of your income to charity only puts you at a worse financial position than your peers; giving a stranger a ride only loses you time; picking up a littered banana peel only dirties your hand. Kindness is the nemesis of Moloch.
If everyone acts kindly to each other—doing things for the sake of others—the world becomes a better place. Moloch, of course, forbids this utopian vision. Any selfish person can exploit this utopia by pretending to be kind, while secretly acting only in service of her own self interest. In sugar-coated modern linguo, we call her “nice.” Niceness is Moloch’s parody of kindness. And it is the preferred game theory equilibrium to kindness because acting nice is a selfish thing to do, while acting kind is a selfless thing to do.
If everyone chooses kindness, the world is indeed better off. But if only some people choose kindness, they will only be exploited for their innocent selflessness. Hence the virtue of kindness is rare on this earth, and the mask of niceness is everywhere.
Let’s talk about sex. The dating market is a field of competition. Like any other field of competition, it is governed by Moloch. The strength of Moloch’s rule depends on how intensive the competition is. Sexual competitions in developed countries are significantly more intense than in developing countries, for the obvious reason that rich people have more time and money to look pretty.
Take America, male sexual competition manifests as an intense workout culture. People/men work out not for their health, but to increase their chances of getting laid (if they actually wanted better health, they would do aerobic exercises, instead of strength training). Building packs of muscles have no real benefit in modern society, but wastes tons of time. Muscles only increase one man’s attractiveness relative to another. In a predominantly heterosexual dating market, wasting time to compete for attractiveness is a negative sum game. So, why not everyone just stop, and save that extra time for more valuable activities? Because Moloch said no. Even if a competition is negative sum, every self-interested man will still engage in it. Any man who does not engage in it only stand to lose.
On the feminine side, the competition seems to consist of workout, fancy clothes, and makeups. Regardless of the object of competition, the gist is the same: sexual competition is a negative sum game perpetuated by Moloch and reinforced by a culture of its own creation.
Moloch refers to the situation where the self-interested behavior, when performed in masses, leads to terrible outcomes for everyone. Moloch can be anything between a negative sum competitions and a bad cultural practice. Moloch can force us to do things that are unreasonable, in hindsight. I listed a bunch of Moloch traps in this post because to defeat Moloch requires us to recognize him first.
Breaking out of Moloch’s trap requires good societal coordination, and eliminating the trap requires shifting the incentive structure of the situation in question. This can be done via changing people’s culture, since every culture creates an incentive structure where conforming with the cultural practices is rewarded. For example, to break out of Moloch’s trap of materialism, we can popularize a frugality culture that counters the culture of materialistism. To escape the Moloch’s trap of wage, we can cultivate a sense of solidarity around labor unions, and forge a culture that condemns any worker who betrays the union.
But we must be careful with cultivating “cultures”. Every culture, by necessity, rewards orthodoxy and punishes heterodoxy. If a culture is bad, it becomes a Moloch trap itself—because good-willed individuals who try to defy it will be punished for their heterodoxy. Hence, trying to solve a Moloch trap with a “bad culture” inevitably end up further limiting people’s freedom.