Does Big Business Hate Your Family?

Previously in Sequence: Moloch Hasn’t WonPerfect CompetitionImperfect Competition

The book Moral Mazes describes the world of managers in several large American corporations.

They are placed in severely toxic situations. To succeed, they transform their entire selves into maximizers of what get you ahead in middle corporate management. 

This includes active hostility to all morality and to all other considerations not being actively maximized. Those considerations compete for attention and resources. 

Those who refuse or fail to self-modify in this way fail to climb the corporate ladder. Those who ‘succeed’ at this task sometimes rise to higher corporate positions, but there are not enough positions to go around, so many still fail.

Reminder: Sufficiently Powerful Optimization Of Any Known Target Destroys All Value

This is a default characteristic of all sufficiently strong optimizers. Recall that when we optimize for X but are indifferent to Y, we by default actively optimize against Y, for all Y that would make any claims to resources. See The Hidden Complexity of Wishes.

Perfect competition destroys all value by being a sufficiently powerful optimizer. 

The competition for success as a middle manager described in Moral Mazes destroys the managers (among many other things it destroys) the same way, by putting them and the company’s own culture and norms under sufficiently powerful optimization pressure towards a narrow target.

Does Big Business Hate Your Family?

Consider this comment, elevated to a post at Marginal Revolution, responding to Tyler Cowen’s noting that the National Conservatism Conference had a talk called “Big Business Hates Your Family”:

What would it mean if big business did hate your family?

Would it mean adopting a working culture that made it ever harder to rise to power within it while also having said family? Would it require those with career ambitions to geographically abandon extended family and to live in areas notoriously difficult for raising families? Would it mean requiring long delays on family formation while you got credentialed, worked with little remuneration while getting your foot in the door, and then place huge amounts of time and effort on career growth rather than investing in your family? Does corporate culture act like it hates your family?

Would it mean selling products which have strong correlations with family strife and dissolution? Would it market products known to be destructive to thousands of families relentlessly? Would it market products that consume time in great quantities at the expense of family time investment? Would it routinely mock and denigrate your family roles for cheap publicity?

Would it mean lobbying for policies which are good for the business, but bad for your family? Would it support seeking a larger supply of labor via immigration? Would it support visa restricted immigration of labor that is less able to defy corporate diktat without having legal or financial issues? Would it argue for child care subsidies for the people it wishes to employee rather than for all Americans and all child care arrangements?

I believe businesses are amoral and are just maximizing money, power, and prestige for those in positions of power within them. Yet, this formal indifference seems to be giving rise to a lot of behaviors that are, at best, perceived to be hostile to families.

There is nothing wrong with this, and certainly nothing illegal about it, but I would be shocked if large organizations that are disproportionately filled with the single and childless who are located in regions that are disproportionately single and childless and who are busy virtue signalling to academia, politics, and other left bastions that are disproportionately single and childless managed to somehow not end up at cross purposes for the majority of families. And frankly I would be shocked if this antagonism did not spill over into emotional terms.

Certainly, I am always told that this sort of analysis is why [Structure X] is antagonistic, if only implicitly, against racial minorities. I see no reason why parents or spouses would feel any differently.

Big business, like the AGI, does not hate your family. Big business thinks your family possesses capital, preferences and other assets that could be used for something else. The effects of this on your family are a side effect. Big business also notes that your family is attempting to optimize the world for something other than the profits of big business, and would like to prevent you from doing this, since it would tend to reduce its profits. This is all doubly true if you work for the Big Business in question, since your family is now asserting its preferences and claims to resources in an even more directly competitive way. For morality (or anything else that might have a claim to resources, so basically anything anyone cares about), same thing. Replace “your family” with “morality.”

No, wait. That’s wrong.

The above paragraph, like the quoted text, is misleadingly treating Big Business in general, or a given business in particular, like it is an agent.

We need to fully appreciate that corporations are not agents. There is no agent called Big Business. Nor are any of the individual big businesses agents as such.

Corporations are people. Not only in the ‘corporations are people, my friend‘ sense, but in the sense that corporations don’t act or have preferences, but rather are composed of people that act and have preferences. There’s just a bunch of guys.

The CEO is an individual representing their own interests, like everyone else at the company. The profits they care about are their own. Occasionally they will make some efforts to maximize corporate profits. Often they won’t, or will focus primarily on other things.

English makes it very hard not to make the agent mistake. I will no doubt keep saying that corporations want things and prefer things and think things, because I don’t know of another reasonable and compact way of saying the same thing. But understand that I mean that as an abstraction of what happens as the result of the preferences of individuals, and choices made by individual people, and their interactions.

Let’s reformulate the question.

Do The Managers of Big Businesses Hate Your Family?

When I say these organizations are immoral, it’s not necessarily that the people running major corporations are mustache-twirling villains who hate morality.

Most don’t have mustaches.

Morality causes choices and optimization towards the moral and against the immoral. That interferes with choices and optimization away from the uncomfortable and towards the comfortable. It interferes with choices away from bad for your boss towards good for your boss. Or, in less broken situations and/or with a less cynical perspective, also, from less profitable towards more profitable.

Do enough of that, and some of those involved for long enough do become mustache-twirling villains, because they are humans who are trying to live with what they are doing. You become what you continuously do and say. Eventually one becomes the mask. Mustaches become more common as people get older.

The first-level model says this stays rare. Being a mustache-twirling villain is to have preferences (if nothing else, you prefer having a mustache), and thus is bad for business the same way having morals is bad for business. You want to be completely indifferent, and be seen as completely indifferent.

It is worth taking five minutes here to think about how it might become seen as advantageous by the managers themselves, under these conditions, to become actively immoral, and prefer doing the wrong thing over the right thing because it is wrong.

Lacking all Preferences

None of this has anything to do with morality as such. What they are against is what Moloch is against. Having preferences at all. They are against caring about anything at all other than climbing the corporate (or academic, or government, or other as appropriate) ladder.

It doesn’t matter whether you care about the laws of accounting, wearing the color red, eating meat, cheating on your wife, seeing hit movies on opening weekend, overthrow of third world governments, falsifying scientific data sets, your favorite prime number, different brands of olive oil, genocide, or having a life outside the corporation, or time to watch your kids grow up. Caring about anything not chosen to help your career is a liability. Being seen or thought of as caring about something else can be even worse than actually doing so, as you are preemptively punished slash seen as not having a future, and potential allies want nothing to do with you.

In particular, any sign of, or even worse defense of, an outside life is deadly.

Thus what is called “Pournelle’s iron law of bureaucracy“: In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.

In order to get an instinctive sense of all this, if you have not yet done so, I encourage you to read or at least browse Quotes from Moral Mazes. Some of those quotes will be reiterated later in the sequence. You also may wish to see Moral Mazes and Short Termism

If you are interested enough to power through it (not the author’s fault, but it’s a tough read) and have the time, even better would be to pause here and read the whole book.

Next in sequence: What is Life in an Immoral Maze?


This entry was posted in Immoral Mazes Sequence, Moral Mazes, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Does Big Business Hate Your Family?

  1. James says:

    I tend to believe that people are not really *promoted* into any “upper-upper management” job that actually matters, from within middle-management ranks. I suspect there is a glass ceiling between “servant types” and “master types,” even between consigliere-style top-courtesans and their immediate big-boss superiors.

    However, due purely to mathematics any such promotion would have to be exceptional, i.e. there’s just not much volume at the top of a pyramid. Occasionally (probably due to socioeconomic accident-of-birth) a master type finds himself among the servant types and is “corrected” (promoted).

    I therefore further believe that middle-management types are not ruthless sociopaths (as you imply) when it comes to resources that actually matter like money and power, but rather, that everything they compete over is in regards to quality-of-life and all things office politics and “office politics-adjacent.”

    • TheZvi says:

      Interested to see this fleshed out. Say more?

      In your model, what makes someone into one of these types? Is it an innate characteristic? What are the primary sorting mechanisms? Are the people being quoted in moral mazes already past this filter and master types, or are they servant types, and if they are servants how do you explain what they are saying? And so on.

      • Alsadius says:

        This classic piece from Ribbonfarm seems likely to be the long version of his argument:

        I don’t agree with it all, but it’s genuinely interesting.

      • TheZvi says:

        @Alsadius: Yes, I’ve read it, and it informs this series. We discussed further over email and agreed that the models are compatible – the Gervais Principle is about things close to the object-level – e.g. the first 1-5 (mostly 1-3) of the 25+ levels of these corporations. Everyone in MM is above David Wallace, and everyone above David Wallace is (in GP’s parlance) a Sociopath. As I say later in the sequel I consider GP kind of the prequel to MM. Rao doesn’t deal with inter-Sociopath dynamics much beyond mentioning a few things like Power Talk, because he is deliberately remaining a loser and doesn’t understand them.

        Which, of course, is a very good life choice on his part.

      • anonymousskimmer says:

        People get promoted to middle management (or perhaps even higher-level, non-sales management – say a Chief Science Officer) for being good at their job (and knowledgeable about their specialty within the industry). They are effectively specialists who the line workers recognize as competent, and more knowledgeable/wise than the typical line worker is.

        People get promoted to upper-management for being of an optimize-for-money/marketshare mindset (or being the right heir).

        Explaining elsewise: You promote people like you (or who are driven toward the things you want) into command-officer management. You promote people who have attributes you lack, but recognize as important, into warrant-officer management.

        This actually allows a bunch of differently “optimizing” companies to exist within an industry (as all you need to start a company is a drive to start a company and the ability to access funds through loans or family – and family is not values homogeneous). *Until* private capital starts rolling-up and taking over the major competitors. Private capital almost exclusively “optimizes” (I hate that word) for return on capital, and thus appoints upper managers who are driven for such a return. Private capital also has a history of hiring and training each other, so this drive for return on capital tends to reproduce and spread (to an extent; these people are not carbon copies of each other).

        Possible exceptions for capital organizations such as Berkshire Hathaway, who buy companies because they like the current management, and leave that current management in place.

  2. romeostevens says:

    I’ve been thinking that we need a term besides memes for the emergent organizational thing that we are tempted to associate with agency. By naming it, it can perhaps be more distinctly separated conceptually. They are often associated with egregores by the rationalist community, but this also hews to animism and also often reifies the outcomes of various processes and treats those outcomes as though they were intended by a malevolent entity. This is sticky, memetically, but misleading. So, a name for something like ‘coherent clusters in the space of selection pressures.’ Buddhist psychology has some contribution here with the six realms, but that’s not quite central either. The relevant space within which the selection is happening isn’t always an individual mind.

    • Eric says:

      My dad used to call this kind of thing “Reification” which I think is a fine $5 word to use for this – call it a “reified entity”

  3. David says:

    Thank you author and commenters. Y’all are on to something important here. I am towards the end of what so far has been about 45 years in the workforce. It pains me greatly to see my children deal with the behavior described above.

    It reminds me of the chapter titled something like “ How the worst get on top” in FA Hayeks” Road To Serfdom.

    • TheZvi says:

      You are must welcome.

      I haven’t read Hayek since college, but it’s not a coincidence that the penultimate draft post is called “The Road to Mazedom.”

  4. Robert says:

    I think the reality is more nuanced. It’s not that managers or leadership selects for slavish adherence to some kind of overarching value system, it’s that bureaucracies select for employees that exhibit and perpetuate their value system. For some companies, it’s toxic attitudes and poor work life balance. For others, it’s authoritarian leaning ideas and “don’t question leadership” mindsets.

    At my current company, it’s the opposite. Those who fight against our relatively balanced work life balance are forced out. Those who exhibit toxic attitudes are fired.

    • TheZvi says:

      I do not think we meaningfully disagree. Or at least, everything you are saying fits my model, except that as an organization gets larger and older, MM claims as do I that it trends towards toxic attitudes and disruption of work/life balance both in terms of self/identity and in terms of time spent.

      Congrats on finding a good company that doesn’t do that. No need to share who it is unless you want to, but I’d have two questions. One, how many employees and how many levels of management are there? Two, are there particular steps being taken to defend that culture, and/or what steps were taken to engineer it?

  5. Bloodier Shrimp says:

    “Corporations are people. Not only in the ‘corporations are people, my friend‘ sense, but in the sense that corporations don’t act or have preferences, but rather are composed of people that act and have preferences.”

    What. The “composed of people” sense is clearly the one Romney meant in the first place.

    • TheZvi says:

      I think Romney meant that people *own* the corporation, and therefore get its profits, so any tax on a corporation is a tax on its owners, who are people. This contrasts with ‘the actions of corporations are not the actions of a coherent agent, but rather a glob of different people inside it acting for themselves.’

      To be clear, Romney is trivially correct about his claim. A gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth, etc.

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  12. fkader says:

    > Corporations are people. Not only in the ‘corporations are people, my friend‘ sense, but in the sense that corporations don’t act or have preferences, but rather are composed of people that act and have preferences. There’s just a bunch of guys.

    That’s not really relevant, as preferences and agency can be an emergent phenomenon. People having preferences + reward systems + the market + competition + business frameworks, give rise to particular sets of corporation behavior and dynamics, more alike to any other corporation than different.

    (Well, the same way groups of people are more alike than individuals are).

    Individual people’s preferences have little impact upon those. Even CEOs don’t matter as much in the grand scheme of things (most CEOs would still try to optimize for profit, ignore externalities, and so on, and if they don’t, they will be replaced by the board at some point).

    The exception is privately owned companies – those are more driven by the owner, but even those operate under the same pressures and general goals. Business is not 100% self-expression, like writing poetry for example, most of it is goal oriented and market constraned, and other businesses share the same goals (profit) and the same market constraints.

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