Epistemic Status: Reference post. Strong beliefs strongly held after much thought, but hard to explain well. Intentionally abstract.

Disambiguation: This does not refer to any physical good, app or piece of software.

Further Research (book, recommended but not at all required, take seriously but not literally): The Book of the Subgenius

Related (from sam[ ]zdat, recommended but not required, take seriously and also literally, entire very long series also recommended): The Uruk Machine

Further Reading (book): Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

Previously here (not required): Play in Hard ModePlay in Easy ModeOut to Get You

Leads to (I’ve been scooped! Somewhat…): Sabbath Hard and Go Home

An illustrative little game: Carpe Diem: The Problem of Scarcity and Abundance


Slack is hard to precisely define, but I think this comes close:

Definition: Slack. The absence of binding constraints on behavior.

Poor is the person without Slack. Lack of Slack compounds and traps.

Slack means margin for error. You can relax. 

Slack allows pursuing opportunities. You can explore. You can trade.

Slack prevents desperation. You can avoid bad trades and wait for better spots. You can be efficient.

Slack permits planning for the long term. You can invest.

Slack enables doing things for your own amusement. You can play games. You can have fun. 

Slack enables doing the right thing. Stand by your friends. Reward the worthy. Punish the wicked. You can have a code. 

Slack presents things as they are without concern for how things look or what others think. You can be honest.

You can do some of these things, and choose not to do others. Because you don’t have to.

Only with slack can one be a righteous dude.

Slack is life.

Related Slackness

Slack in project management is the time a task can be delayed without causing a delay to either subsequent tasks or project completion time. The amount of time before a constraint binds.

Slack the app was likely named in reference to a promise of Slack in the project sense.

Slacks as trousers are pants that are actual pants, but do not bind or constrain.

Slackness refers to vulgarity in West Indian culture, behavior and music. It also refers to a subgenre of dancehall music with straightforward sexual lyrics. Again, slackness refers to the absence of a binding constraint. In this case, common decency or politeness.

A slacker is one who has a lazy work ethic or otherwise does not exert maximum effort. They slack off. They refuse to be bound by what others view as hard constraints.

Out to Get You and the Attack on Slack

Many things in this world are Out to Get You. Often they are Out to Get You for a lot, usually but not always your time, attention and money.

If you Get Got for compact amounts too often, it will add up and the constraints will bind.

If you Get Got even once for a non-compact amount, the cost expands until you have no Slack left. The constraints bind you.

You might spend every spare minute and/or dollar on politics, advocacy or charity. You might think of every dollar as a fraction of a third-world life saved. Racing to find a cure for your daughter’s cancer, you already work around the clock. You could have an all-consuming job or be a soldier marching off to war. It could be a quest for revenge, for glory, for love. Or you might spend every spare minute mindlessly checking Facebook or obsessed with your fantasy football league.

You cannot relax. Your life is not your own.

Our society even does it to our children. They stay on college and career tracks, fearing one bad grade or mark on their record destroying their whole lives. All is negative selection. Every spare minute is spent padding resumes. In some circles this starts before kindergarden.

It might even be the right choice! Especially for brief periods. When about to be run over by a truck or evicted from your house, Slack is a luxury you cannot afford. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary effort.

Most times are ordinary. Make an ordinary effort.

“You Can Afford It”

People like to tell you, “You can afford it.”

No, you can’t. This is the most famous attack on Slack. Few words make me angrier.

The person who says “You Can Afford It” is saying to ignore constraints that do not bind you. If you do, all constraints soon bind you.

Those who do not value Slack soon lose it. Slack matters. Fight to keep yours!

Ask not whether you can afford it. Ask if it is Worth It.

Unless you can’t afford it. Affordability is invaluable negative selection. Never positive selection.

The You Can Afford It tax on Slack quickly approaches 100% if unchecked.

If those with extra resources are asked to share the whole surplus, all are poor or hide their wealth. Wealth is a burden and makes you a target. Those visibly flush rush to spend their bounty.

Where those with free time are given extra work, all are busy or look busy. Those with copious free time seek out relatively painless time sinks they can point to.

When looking happy means you deal with everything unpleasant, no one looks happy for long.

The Slackless Like of Maya Millennial

Things are bad enough when those with Slack are expected to sacrifice for others. Things are much worse when the presence of Slack is viewed as a defection.

An example of this effect is Maya Millennial (of The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial). She has no Slack.

Constraints bind her every action. Her job in life is putting up a front of the person she wants to show people that she wants to be. If her constraints noticeably failed to bind the illusion would fail.

Every action is being watched. If no one is around to watch her, the job falls to her. She must post all to Facebook, to Snapchat, to Instagram. Each action and choice signals who she is and her loyalty to the system. Not doing that this time could mean missing her one chance to make it big.

Maya never has free time. There is signaling to do! At a minimum, she must spend such time on alert and on her phone lest she miss something.

Maya never has spare cash. All must be spent to advance and fit her profile.

Maya lacks free speech, free association, free taste and free thought. All must serve.

Maya is in a world where she must signal she has no Slack. Slack means insufficient dedication and loyalty. Slack cannot be trusted. Slack now means slack later, which means failure. Future failure means no opportunity.

This is more common than one might think.

“Give Me Slack or Kill Me” – J.R. “Bob” Dobbs

The aim of this post was to introduce Slack and give an intuitive picture of its importance.

The short-term practical takeaways are:

Make sure that under normal conditions you have Slack. Value it. Guard it. Spend it only when Worth It. If you lose it, fight to get it back. This provides motivation for fighting things Out To Get You, lest you let them eat your Slack.

Make sure to run a diagnostic test every so often to make sure you’re not running dangerously low, and to engineer your situation to force yourself to have Slack. I recommend Sabbath Hard and Go Home with my take to follow soon.

Also respect the Slack of others. Help them value and guard it. Do not spend it lightly.

A Final Note

I kept this short rather than add detailed justifications. Hopefully the logic is intuitive and builds on what came before. I hope to expand on the details and models later. For a very good book-length explanation of why lacking Slack is awful, see Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.




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60 Responses to Slack

  1. benquo says:

    Maya is in a world where she must signal she has no Slack. Slack means insufficient dedication and loyalty. Slack cannot be trusted. Slack now means slack later, which means failure. Future failure means no opportunity.

    This points to a key distinction. In some frameworks, only people without Slack can be trusted, because they can be reliably controlled, because they are predictable, because you won’t get any surprises. In others, only people with Slack can be trusted, because they can stop and think before they follow bad orders, because they can resist compulsion by others, because they can correct your errors and not just introduce their own. Because they can introduce information into the system. Because they can generate nice surprises. Because they are morally competent to make and keep promises.

    Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is very good art about this. The basic story is that a poor village, threatened by bandits, retains the services of seven warriors in order to defend the town. It is unambiguous that the oppressed peasants begin the story as moral creditors, and the Samurai – who owe their prowess to Slack obtained by burdening the peasantry – as moral debtors. This is why the Samurai are willing to work for only food and glory.

    Even as disgraced, masterless Ronin, the Samurai have leisure, and the peasants do not. And yet, the peasants are not competent – not only tactically, but as a matter of character – to defend their own village, without the leadership of these upright Samurai. Slack is required for righteousness, which is required for courage applied reliably in defense of the good. This is how the Samurai became the sort of people who might be willing to work for only food and glory, if the cause were sufficiently compelling.

    It is only under the leadership of the aristocracy that the peasants – initially to afraid of the Samurai to properly follow their instruction – discover the ability to hold the line against the bandits threatening their town.

    The morally troubling implication of all this, to those of us who have been brought up in a Judeo-Christian culture, is that oppression can make the oppressed morally worse, and the beneficiaries of the oppression morally better. Not always, but on net. Generally not the actuators of the oppression, they do seem like bad people – but those people are themselves often forced into their roles.

    There’s a strain of contemporary Social Justice thought, that suggests that we should privilege the perspectives of the disprivileged and oppressed, and that correspondingly people privileged to have Slack cannot be trusted. While of course we should take special care to listen to voices that the Powers That Be have tried to suppress, in order to better inform ourselves, the Slack consideration is a powerful argument that leadership should reside in the privilege who do the listening, not the powerless, whose character is under the control of their oppressors, and has been shaped to fit an inhuman control system.

    As usual, there are exceptions, and if you’ve directly observed that someone is of good character, then you don’t need to resort to such generalizations.

    A more convenient consequence of this argument is that we should expect people’s character to improve quite a lot once they have had some substantial amount of time to breathe, relative to their behavior immediately after the boot of the oppressor is lifted from their neck. So there is some reason to extend moral credit here – just not infinite moral credit, and not in cases where you need reliable allies now.

  2. benquo says:

    Another relevant consideration here is that modern financialized corporate capitalism seems optimized to squeeze 100% of the Slack out of the system. Firms have to accumulate savings in order to make long-run investments that generalist moneylenders might not easily be able to evaluate – but savings – including simply not being leveraged as much as possible – makes them a target for leveraged buyouts, greenmail, etc. This seems responsible for a lot of the corporate short-termism we see, and like basically the same dynamic in which even the Cavaliers of Virginia who thought they were doing wrong couldn’t free their slaves, because in most cases the bank had a lien on them. Graeber talks about how Cortez’s rapaciousness was in part motivated by his indebtedness. It’s not so much that people are spontaneously greedy and wicked – it’s that they’re slaves to a system forcing them to behave as though they were greedy and wicked, and this affects their character.

    • michealvassar says:

      Another important point is that if there are implicit moralities which optimize towards increasing everyone’s slack and others optioned towards decreasing everyone’s slack except your own while signalling that you have no slack, every bit of common-sense, advice and established knowledge needs to be categorized in terms of which system, Line or Gun (or somehow, something else) that advice is serving.

      In particular, I suggest that the intuitions of Libertarianism point towards maximizing slack, while the intuitions of Puritans, Amish and Corporate America point towards minimizing it. In particular, the metric GDP seems like a metric on the degree to which actions are economically motivated, e.g. without slack, e.g. coerced. Libertarians fail to even consider the hypothesis that a general policy of reducing slack might be endorsed, so they don’t recognize an example of one right in front of them. The very general intuition of GDP maximization would tend to be interpreted very differently by an implicit slack minimizer and by an implicit slack maximizer.

    • Moloch, granite cocks! Moloch, devourer of slacks!

      • TheZvi says:

        The number of times I’ve heard someone suggest explicitly sacrificing to Moloch has exceeded the number of times I’ve heard someone suggest explicitly NOT sacrificing something to Moloch.

        This seems quite backwards.

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  4. Quixote says:

    I like this post a lot and agree with most of it, both in content and in emotional tone.

    One thing that surprised me though was the difference in attitude to “you can afford it.” To me this is usually a sign that someone is purchasing insufficient slack because of unconscious habits and programing that haven’t been consciously reexamined.

    You were broke in college so you always spent time to cook yourself low cost food. Now you have a job and you are short on time and (relatively) more abundant on money, you can afford to order seamless sometimes and create some slack time for yourself.

    You were a broke as an intern so you got a place far from work that you could afford. Now you have a better job and you are short on time and (relatively) more abundant on money, you can afford to pay more for a shorter commute and create some slack time for yourself.

    For most people, money is less abundant early in life and people adopt habits to spend other resources instead. Later in life you have a different mix and these habits are now suboptimal in terms of resource maximization. Someone reminds you of your new resource mix by saying, “have a cleaning service come by and clean the place instead of wasting your Sunday on it; you can afford it.”

    • TheZvi says:

      I think this points to the difference between “you can afford it” and “I can afford it”. There’s a good version you’re thinking about, where you realize that your heuristics are out of date and update, or you simply have a heuristic that says “this defines a class of things I can afford so as long as the price seems in line, I’m not going to pay the cost of stressing out about it.” That’s good! The flip side is when other people use this on you. This can of course still be good, if they’re pointing to a good trade-off, alas I find that most of the time people are instead trying to use it as justification for a bad deal, rather than pointing out a good one (in which case, pointing out the deal is good should be the central point, in any case).

      Of course, if the positive affect thing wasn’t there, the trick wouldn’t work on us!

    • Cooking a meal doesn’t (usually) require my entire attention but prevents me from doing activities that would. So not having the money to have others cook for you can actually help to ensure some forms of slack in your life.

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  6. James Cropcho says:

    Every time I see the name of the app/company Slack, my brain pops Church of the Subgenius into my mind, to this day.

    Like Zvi I am proudly pro-slack.

    And though the parallels are not one hundred percent, still, my, how far we have come from the Gen-X-ers…

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  24. patrissimo says:

    This touches on something I think about, which is societal design, UBI, aliens, and Hanson’s Dream Time. Consider that competition and evolution dynamics work to squeeze out Slack to increase overall growth in a way that makes things worse for participants. Ie eventually we get ems (or any other restoration of Malthusian dynamics) and exit dream time.

    Now, if we are the only intelligent life in the universe, perhaps we should implement measures to prevent this. We are in a universe of abundance, so let’s design anti-Moloch measures and extend dream time. Don’t let Moloch force us to constant Extraordinary Effort.

    If we live in a Dark Forest, however, then we are in a life and death competition. Likely one decided by seniority and which we can’t affect – but maybe one that we can. We should maximize our growth rates in order to try to beat the other aliens in the race, and preserve as much of a light cone for humanity as we can. An Extraordinary Effort is justified.


    • In a Malthusian society with variable resource availability there will still be slack in the times of relative abundance. I also have a hunch that more optimization will increase the volatility in resource availability since it creates more opportunities for positive as well as negative black swans.

      A different angle: while a billion or two of us humans are quite far from Malthusian conditions memes, which have a large influence on us, are, thanks to modern communication technology, in the most brutal Malthusian competition in which they ever were.

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  39. Nick Maley says:

    The Quality of Sprawl

    Sprawl is the quality
    of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
    into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
    is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
    to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.

    Sprawl is doing your farm work by aeroplane, roughly,
    or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home.
    It is the rococo of being your own still centre.
    It is never lighting cigars with ten dollar notes:
    that’s idiot ostentation and murder of starving people.
    Nor can it be bought with the ash of million dollar deeds.

    Sprawl lengthens the legs; it trains greyhounds on liver and beer.
    Sprawl almost never says, Why not? with palms comically raised
    nor can it be dressed for, not even in running shoes worn
    with mink and a nose ring. That is Society. That’s Style.
    Sprawl is more like the thirteenth banana in a dozen
    or anyway the fourteenth. . . .

    . . . sprawl is full gloss murals on a council-house wall.
    Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.
    Reprimanded and dismissed,
    it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail
    of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.
    Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek
    And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.

    –Les Murray

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  45. Seamus says:

    Is there much familiarity within the rationality community of the blog/book Early Retirement Extreme? Or the many similar frugality/personal finance philosophy blogs, some of which are even more popular (e.g. Mr. Money Mustache)? I originally discovered Slate Star Codex by being linked from the ERE forum. I have never seen SSC or its commenters mention them, which kind of surprises me since it seems like there’s a large amount of philosophical overlap.

    Anyway, I would describe ERE as a system which outputs a TREMENDOUS amount of Slack. Changing your relationship with money so that it is never a bottleneck, and taking full control of ~70,000 of your 80,000 hours for whatever purposes YOU choose (the author advocates becoming a net-positive-externality Renaissance man.)

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