Sunday, May 15, 2022

The (False) Law of Conservation of Effort and Reward

Most people seem to think within the framework of a supposed "law of conservation of effort and reward" (LCER) and its corollary "law of conservation of happiness". One might think of these as a spin on the forever-popular and equally incorrect labor theory of value. 

The thinking goes that somehow there should always be a linear and somewhat direct trade-off between work/life balance--that is, the effort one puts into something should be proportional to what one gets out, and there should be a trade-off between the chosen path and the "obvious" alternative path that together net out. Tightly zero sum. 

People resent the very idea that someone could have it all. The working mother should have delinquent kids who don't love her; the investment banker should long for relaxing weekends and be doomed to an unfulfilling life without meaning. 

The problem with these laws is that they conflict starkly with the magical human ability to tap the power of scale and compounding. The dynamics that these forces bring separate man from nature. Animals cannot coordinate nor plan for the future nor command exponential growth in any meaningful sense the way people can. 

Therefore, it should not be any surprise that some people and organizations can get more out of less and excel along multiple dimensions. In thinking about jobs, sometimes the grass is actually almost always greener

Consider how many people look to sports stars and other icons as “great follows” in social media making them big influencers succeeding in a realm outside of their primary area of success. Many adherents to LCER dismiss this as some obviously irrational behavior on the part of those less enlightened than themselves. The truth is these influencers probably are above average in ways that impact both the direct source of their fame (say basketball skills or acting ability) as well as many other areas. IQ becomes more and more important in sports the higher and higher the level. Dumb athletes don't last long at the pro level. 

Jeff Bezos would probably be an above average gardener. The reason he doesn't mow lawns and trim bushes isn't because he wouldn't be very good at it. He might in fact be better than the people who do the job for him at his own house(s). If you think he doesn't do those jobs himself because he is rich, you're right for the wrong reasons. The reason he doesn't is because of the very real law of comparative advantage

At the same time I think that some of what makes amazing people amazing often has a dark side. This might make them a bit eccentric or frustrating or detestable. It varies and is not always the case. This might sound like a contradiction, but I don’t think so. Rather it is part of the complexity and mystery of it all—what distinguishes elites. This is very much in agreement with point #6 here

Arnold Kling makes related points calling this the "convergence assumption":
What I call the convergence assumption is the assumption that everyone is fundamentally the same, so that it is more natural to expect people to develop the same skills and adopt the same values than for divergence to persist.
We are not all the same. This makes moral issues very complicated. When we acknowledge genetic and cultural differences, what is the meaning of equality? When should we suppress differences and when should we accommodate them?
I think that the great appeal of the convergence assumption is that it allows us to avoid the challenge and complexity posed by these problems. But avoiding complexity is not a good approach if the complexity is an important characteristic of the environment.

Exceptional people are generally and not just specifically exceptional. How this maps onto agreement with you will vary along dimensions of morality as well as taste among others. Those differences are not tradeoffs they are making such that in some cosmic justice sense you and they are on equal footing when all is balanced out.  

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