The Case Against Education

Previously: Something Was Wrong, Book Review: The Elephant in the Brain

Previously (Compass Rose): The Order of the Soul

Epistemic Status: No, seriously. Also literally.

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

for trying to change the system from within

I’m coming now I’m coming to reward them

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

— Leonard Cohen, First We Take Manhattan

This was originally going to be my review of Bryan Caplan’s excellent new book, The Case Against Education. I was going to go over lots of interesting points where our ways of thinking differ. Instead, the introduction got a little sidetracked, so that worthy post will have to wait a bit.

First, we have the case against education.

As in: I See No Education Here.


What is school?

Eliezer Yudkowsky knows, but is soft peddling (from Inadequate Equilibria):

To paraphrase a commenter on Slate Star Codex: suppose that there’s a magical tower that only people with IQs of at least 100 and some amount of conscientiousness can enter, and this magical tower slices four years off your lifespan. The natural next thing that happens is that employers start to prefer prospective employees who have proved they can enter the tower, and employers offer these employees higher salaries, or even make entering the tower a condition of being employed at all.5

Anyway: the natural next thing that happens is that employers start to demand that prospective employees show a certificate saying that they’ve been inside the tower. This makes everyone want to go to the tower, which enables somebody to set up a fence around the tower and charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to let people in.6

Rick (of Rick and Morty) knows:



Nassim Talib knows (quote is from Skin in the Game):

The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding, or better at explaining than doing. So learning isn’t quite what we teach inmates inside the high-security prisons called schools.

Talib considers this fact – that school is a prison – so obvious he tosses it out as an off-hand remark with no explanation. He’s right. If you’re looking at a classroom, you too know. Something Was Wrong. This isn’t a playground designed to teach useful knowledge and inspire creativity. It is a prison where we learn to guess the teacher’s password and destroy creativity.

Robin Hanson knows: School is to submit. Signal submission. Submit to a life of signaling, obeying, being conscientious and conformist.

This cancer has taken our childhoods entirely. Often the rest of our lives as well. It  replaces our hopes and dreams with hopes of survival via official approval and dreams of showing up naked to algebra class. Enough school so cripples your life, between losing time and being saddled with debt, that it severely damages your ability to have children. To get our children into slightly less dystopian prisons, we bid up adjacent housing and hire coaches and tutors to fill our kids’ every hour with the explicit aim of better test and admission results rather than knowledge. Then college shows up and takes everything we have left and more, with a 100% marginal tax rate.

School takes more than all of our money.

In exchange we learn little that we retain. Little of that is useful. Most of the useful stuff – writing, reading, basic math – we would have learned anyway.

In grade school I would often fake illness to get a day of solitary confinement in my room, where I could read books and listen to public radio. Also known as getting an education. I learned far more on those days.

In high school, I went to the hardest-to-get-into school in New York City. I had a great ‘zero’ period when I would do math competitions because I enjoyed them, and a great after school because I’d run off and play games. In between was torture. Literal clock watching. I spent history class correcting the teachers. I tried to take advanced placement classes, and they wouldn’t let me because my grades at boring classes weren’t high enough. So I learned I could take the AP tests anyway, which I did.

I actually entitled my big English class project “get me out of here” and no one batted an eye. 

For college, I majored in mathematics (STEM!) at a well-respected institution. I work with numbers constantly. I have never, not once, used any of that math  for any purpose.

I was intentionally taught to write badly and read badly. I learned non-awful writing by writing online. “Appreciation” classes turned me off music, art and literature. If you compared what I got out of one statistics course (in which I mostly learned from studying a textbook) to what I learned from the rest of my college classes combinedand asked which has proven more valuable, I’m not sure which side wins.

I took one graduate math class, in analysis. The remember three things. One is that they asked us to note on our final exams if we were undergraduates, so they could pass us. The other is that the class consisted, entirely and literally, of a man with a thick, semi-understandable Russian accent copying his notes onto the board, while saying the thing he was copying onto the board.

The third thing is that it was the most valuable class I ever took, because it saved me from graduate school. Thanks, professor!


Is our children learning?

Bryan has the data. Ignore Bryan’s data for now. Read and actually pay attention to Scott Alexander’s recent two posts on the DC public school system.

Instead of asking Scott’s question – why are DC’s graduation rates so low? – ask the question what the hell are these things called ‘high schools’ and what are we doing to the children we put inside them?

I know what we’re not doing. Teaching them to read, write or do arithmetic. That’s clear.

Instead? Fraud. We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn. Or rather, we tried that, and they couldn’t even pretend to learn, so we resorted to massive fraud and plain old not even testing the kids at all. We pretend to teach, and we pretend they pretended to learn.

We can’t even do massive fraud and really low standards right. Massive quantities of students fail anyway, barred from earning a living. Nice system.

Pretending the kids pretended to learn doesn’t work. Why? School isn’t about learning. It’s a prison. The ‘test’ is to be in your appointed cell at the appointed time, every time. Because it’s a prison. We don’t care if the kids can read, write or add. We care if they get credit for time served.

Bizzolt writes:

DC Public Schools HS teacher here (although I’m not returning next year, as is the case with many of my colleagues). As noted, one of the biggest factors in the graduation rates is the unexcused absences–if you look at the results of our external audit and investigation here, you see that for many schools, a significant number of our seniors “Passed Despite Excessive Absences in Regular Instruction Courses Required for Graduation”–over 40% of 2017 graduates at my high school, for example.

So the attendance policy is being strictly enforced now, and you can see how from that alone, a ~30% drop in expected graduates is possible. Some more details about strictly enforcing the attendance policy though:

1: DCPS has what’s called the ’80 20′ rule: A student that is absent for at least 20% of their classes is considered absent for the whole day.
2: Most schools have 5 periods, so an absence in one class would be considered an absence for the whole day.
3: If you have 10 or more unexcused absences in a class, you automatically get an F for the term.
4: If you are over 15 minutes late for a class, that is considered an unexcused absence.
5: A majority of these absences are in first period.
6: A majority of students in my school and many others live in single parent households.
7: These students are typically responsible for making sure their younger siblings get to school, if they have any.
8: Elementary and middle schools in my neighborhood start at the exact same time as high school.
9: Their doors do not open until 5 to 10 minutes before the starting bell, presumably for safety reasons.
10: Refer to point 4.

There’s many other problems at DCPS to be sure, but this set of circumstances alone is causing the largest increase in failing grades and graduation ineligibility at my high school, and basically every other 90+% black school in the district. You could see how this accounts for quite a bit of the difference between white and black graduation rates as well. There’s a reason why across the board, DCPS schools were not strictly enforcing this policy in previous years.

Fifteen minutes late to unnaturally early class so you could take a sibling to their unnaturally early class? You missed the whole day. Do that ten times in a term? We ruin your life. For want of two and a half hours.

I have no idea how one can see this, and present a human capital model of school with a straight face.

The signaling model is optimistic. It thinks students signal to employers, rather than politicians and administrators signaling to and stealing from voters.


Bryan Caplan’s economist hat is permanently glued to his forehead. So he sees school not as a genocidal dystopian soul-crushing nightmare of universal incarceration, but merely a colossal waste of time and money. He looks at the economic costs and benefits,  compares signaling explanations to human capital ones, and calculates when and for whom school is worthwhile. Worthwhile for which individuals, for their private benefit? Worthwhile to what extent for society, as a public good?

Reading The Case Against Education is to watch Bryan think. Bryan goes argument by argument, consideration by consideration, to consider the true costs and benefits of formal education.

At each step, you see the questions he asks, the way he sets up the problems, examines data, considers hypothesis and reaches conclusions. He acts like someone trying to discover how things work, sorting through what he knows and considering what the world would look like if it worked in different ways. You get a book about education, but you also get an education, where it counts – the question of how to think.

Bryan lives the virtue of local validity. This is super important; when Eliezer Yudkowsky calls it the key to sanity and civilization, he’s not kidding.

Because we get to watch Bryan think, we get tons of places where he and I think very differently. Many of them are worth examining in detail. There’s a lot of data that’s difficult to interpret, and questions without clear answers. Often Bryan is extremely generous to education’s case, and shows even generous assumptions are insufficient. Other times, Bryan’s logic leads him to be overly harsh. I got the distinct sense that Bryan would have been very happy to have been proven wrong. We get a consideration of education, its pros and its cons, as Bryan sees them – an explorer, rather than an advocate.

Overall, what does Bryan find? Time and again, Bryan finds that the signaling model of education fits the facts, and the human capital argument does not fit the facts. His arguments are convincing.

Bryan concludes that if you take what you’ve read and experienced and shut up and multiply, no matter how generous you are to school’s cause, you will find that social returns to schooling are remarkably terrible.

That’s most of the human capital you get from school anyway: Reading, writing, basic math and shutting up. You get selfish returns to school by signaling conformity, conscientiousness and intelligence. To not follow the standard procedure for signaling conformity and conscientiousness is to signal their opposites, so we’re caught in an increasingly expensive signaling trap we can’t escape.

Bryan then bites quite the bullet:

Most critics of our education system complain we aren’t spending our money in the right way, or that preachers in teachers’ clothing are leading our nation’s children down dark paths. While I semi-sympathize, these critics miss what I see as our educational system’s supreme defect: there’s way too much education.

He means there’s way too much formal education. I don’t think Bryan thinks people spend too little time learning about the world or acquiring skills! He thinks they do so via other, far superior paths, where they remember what they learn and what they learn is valuable.

People don’t know things. People need skills. It’s a problem. School doesn’t solve the problem, it exacerbates it.

Bryan’s proposed remedy is the separation of school and state. At times he flirts with going farther, and taxing school, but recoils. We don’t really want to discourage school the way we discourage, say, income. Do we?

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Nice Things

Previously (not required): What Is Rationalist Berkeley’s Community Culture?

Response to (at Otium, highly recommended): Naming the Nameless

The strongest attractor is to that which attracts.

To pleasant interactions. To invisible, quiet competence. Things that ‘just work.’ Only the options you didn’t know you wanted. Where that which sounds right, and feels right, is right. A land of smiles and trust.

Nice things. They’re nice.

We can have them!

As Sarah puts it:

But for your typical consumer, the generic California/BoBo style works fine.  It signals elegance, which means, more or less, that it’s designed for educated, high-Openness, upper-middle-class, urban people.  When I enter a space or a website with this aesthetic, or buy a product with this branding, it’s shorthand for “Ahhhh, this place is run by competent professionals who know how to give me a pleasant experience. I will not feel harried or inconvenienced or confused here; I will be well taken care of.  I will easily be able to slot my existing behavior patterns into the implicit “rules” of how to use and navigate this place or device or website.”

I gotta admit it. Nice things are pretty sweet. The best part about nice? When you’re done appreciating how nice it is, you can stop paying attention. Nice becomes background. Focus advances. Life is better.

I wants them.

But, at what cost? What is the price of nice?

Two prices.

The first price, attention to detail. The quest for nice things is a sacred quest. Creation of them, even more so. It requires effort, focus, sacrifice. You have to care.

Otherwise, we can’t have nice things. Because you didn’t make them.

The second price, the equivalence of niceness and rightness. Nice defends itself by banishing the not nice. In ways not nice. It pretends not to notice.

When you can’t or won’t pay for the shields, and don’t preserve them, that too is why you can’t have nice things. Because you break them.

If one uses not nice to banish and hide not nice, what counts as nice matters quite a bit.

Anyone, anything, anywhere that can create and preserve nice things, on any level, deserves praise. I may sometimes think of Berkeley as the devil, or the enemy, but one must give him his due on aesthetics. He’s a man of wealth and taste. On this, devil delivers.

But what, then, in such a place, is nice? Is nice now an aesthetic, a style, rather than a substance? And hence, is it the aesthetic of having the aesthetic? Has the thing been banished by the symbolic representation of the thing? Does this tyranny of superficial niceness inevitably create a particular ideological cascade? It seems to. Does it banish truth, slowly pressuring all into conformity, via the Scott Alexander quote that cannot be repeated enough times, so here it is again:

Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.

Is GT’s Kombucha, the symbolic representation of the symbolic representation of the thing that hates symbolic representations of things, the inevitable endpoint? Inclusive symbols of exclusivity, as we come together to be intolerant of the symbolic representation of intolerance, and hence, inevitably, of actual real things?

Not only the abyss, when gazed into, also gazes into you.








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The Eternal Grind

Previously: Eternal, and Hearthstone Economy versus Magic EconomyCategories of SacrednessSacred Cash

Epistemic Status: Extensive ‘research.’ About card games more than general principles. Those here for the rationality likely want to skip this.

As previously noted, the game Eternal (that is my referral link), created by Magic professionals including lead designer Patrick Chapin, is modern Magic: The Gathering, with some simplifications and tweaks, on a phone, with a Hearthstone interface and economy.

Having played Eternal for several months, I feel qualified to offer a full review. After a brief overview of the game’s rules, I’ll cover Eternal’s limited and constructed formats, its economy, its grind and its special events.

This review assumes basic familiarity with Magic: The Gathering.

Continue reading

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AI Alignment Prize: Round 2 due March 31, 2018

There are still several weeks left to enter the second round of the AI Alignment Prize. The official announcement of the second round, along with the first round’s winners, is here. We’ll be awarding a minimum of $10,000 for advances in technical, philosophical and/or strategic approaches to AI alignment: Ensuring that future smarter than human intelligence will have goals aligned with the goals of humanity. Last time we got such good entries we tripled our announced prize pool, and we’d love to justify doing that again. You can enter by replying to this post, to the original announcement of the second prize, or by emailing

AI alignment is wide open for both amateur and professional ideas. It’s one of the most    important things humanity needs to work on, yet it receives almost no serious attention. Much of the low hanging fruit remains unpicked. We hope to help change that. Even for those who don’t produce new advances or win prizes, more time spent on this problem is time well spent.

Whether or not you’re considering entering, please help get the word out and remind people of the upcoming deadline. Please do repost this notice with a link back to the original (since people won’t be able to enter by replying to the copy). Entries for the second round are running behind the pace from the first round, and second times around risk being less sexy and exciting than the first, despite the increased prize pool. We also didn’t do enough to make it clear the contest was continuing with a larger prize pool.

Paul Christiano is also offering an additional $10,000 prize for the best evidence that his preferred approach to AI alignment, which is reflected in posts at and centered on iterated amplification, is doomed. That one is due on April 20.

Last November, Paul Christiano, Vladimir Slepnev and myself announced the AI Alignment Prize for publicly posted work advancing our understanding of AI alignment. We were hopeful that a prize could be effective at motivating good work and the sharing of good work, but worried we wouldn’t get quality entries.

We need not have worried. On all fronts, it was a smashing success, exceeding all of our expectations for both quantity and quality. We got winning entries both from employees of organizations like FRI and MIRI, and from independent bloggers. Our original prize pool was $5,000 total, but we were so happy that we decided to award $15,000 total, including $5,000 to the first prize winner, Scott Garrabant. Scott has gone on to write many more excellent posts, and has himself observed that were it not for the prize, his piece on Goodheart Taxonomy and many other pieces would likely have remained in his draft folder.

The other winners were Tobias Baumann for  Using Surrogate Goals to Deflect Threats, Vadim Kosoy for Delegative Reinforcement Learning (123), John Maxwell for Friendly AI through Ontology Autogeneration, Alex Mennen for his posts on legibility to other agents and learning goals of simple agentsand Caspar Oesterheld for his post and paper studying which decision theories would arise from environments like reinforcement learning or futarchy.

It is easy to default to thinking that scientific progress comes from Official Scientific Papers published in Official Journals, whereas blog posts are people having fun or hashing out ideas. Not so! Many of the best ideas come from people writing on their own, on their own platforms. Encouraging them to take that seriously, and others to take them seriously in turn when they deserve it, and raising the prestige and status of such efforts, is one of our key goals. The winning entry from the first contest was a blog post breaking down a well-known concept, Goodhart’s Law, and giving us a better way to talk about it. Often the most important advances are simple things, done well.

Here are the rules of the contest, which are unchanged except for which posts to reply to, larger numbers and new dates:


Your entry must be published online for the first time between January 15 and March 31, 2018, and contain novel ideas about AI alignment. Entries have no minimum or maximum size. Important ideas can be short!

Your entry must be written by you, and submitted before 9pm Pacific Time on March 31, 2018. Submit your entries either as links in the comments to the original announcement, this post, or by email to We may provide feedback on early entries to allow improvement.

We will award a minimum of $10,000 to the winners. The first place winner will get at least $5000. The second place winner will get at least $2000. Other winners will get at least $1000.

Entries will be judged subjectively. Final judgment will be by Paul Christiano. Prizes will be awarded on or before April 15, 2018.

What kind of work are we looking for?

AI Alignment focuses on ways to ensure that future smarter than human intelligence will have goals aligned with the goals of humanity. Many approaches to AI Alignment deserve attention. This includes technical and philosophical topics, as well as strategic research about related social, economic or political issues. A non-exhaustive list of technical and other topics can be found here.

We are not interested in research dealing with the dangers of existing machine learning systems commonly called AI that do not have smarter than human intelligence. These concerns are also understudied, but are not the subject of this prize except in the context of future smarter than human intelligence. We are also not interested in general AI research. We care about AI alignment, which may or may not also advance the cause of general AI research.

For further guidance on what we’re looking for, and because they’re worth reading and thinking about, check out the winners of the first round, which we linked to above.


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Sacred Cash

Previously: Categories of Sacredness, Eternal, and Hearthstone Economy versus Magic Economy, Slack

Related (Compass Rose): Kidneys, Trade, Sacredness and Space Travel

Remember when money was sacred?

Thanks to The Great Transformation, there is an increasingly free market in money. We spend money continuously, and get paid continuously.

This is relatively new. Or at least, its universality is relatively new.

It wasn’t so long ago that money was sacred at the bank. They had to give you a toaster instead.

My parents grew up in a different world. They taught me money was sacred. You had a job for a fixed number of hours, paying a fixed amount. That was all the money you got. Earning more was very difficult. Side jobs were lousy and rare. You’d spend lots of time to sell unwanted items at yard or sidewalk sales, at severe discounts. Everyone kept a strict budget. The edge was never far away.

Money spent other than on necessities was a special treat, a grand honor or dire emergency.

This cultural attitude is hard to learn. It is also hard to unlearn. It is quite jarring when you first see it violated.

The Profane

When I moved out to Denver to work at Social Games on the Cyperpunk TCG, I met a group that neither had enough money, had ways to earn more money nor treated money as sacred. 

They’d think nothing of paying a dollar for a Slurpee. On payday, they’d all get takeout. Far from payday, they’d (literally in one case) search their seat cushions to find change with which to gas up their motorcycle, to get to work.

Anything they had, that could have been reasonably sold, would eventually have been.

I did not understand.

In a start-up with one angel investor who lacked the ability to reinvest, and little hope of raising additional funds, they did not prepare for the inevitable cash crunch while trying to sell enough to stem the bleeding. I don’t know if we could have stabilized if given a few more months, but we had a shot only with those months. We likely fail anyway, but to see it all thrown away infuriated me.

MetaMed’s final blow was similar. My replacement as CEO increased our spend, leaving insufficient runway to do the things necessary to raise additional funds, and failed to realize (despite my repeated warnings) that this meant 0% chance of success. The plan’s timeline didn’t work. It was incoherent. Again, we probably fail anyway, but to do that which inevitably fails? Infuriating.

I did not understand.

What was wrong with these people? Money was sacred. 

Sure, it wasn’t automatically sacred, but it was sacred in context. Supply was limited. Being flush today doesn’t change that.

On The Wire, a character who not a day ago was about to be killed for lack of funds burns hundred dollar bills in a bar. His explanation? “When I’m flush, I’m flush.”

In Denver I had some savings, but fully understood I had a terrible salary and acted accordingly. I rented a $400 apartment, lived on $1,000 a month, agonized over buying an occasional luxurious Quiznos sandwich or a pizza, and worked to solve the local Indian casino poker game (it had a strange unique structure for legal reasons) to pay the rent while getting paid in equity to help the company.

Later, I had to train myself out of that. I taught myself that increasingly large amounts of money weren’t sacred to me. It is still a sin (in my code) to waste money or make a bad trade, even for trivial size. I’ve kept some amount of sacredness. I think this is important in a makes-my-12-rules-for-life kind of way. Don’t lose that cringe! But ‘throw money at the problem’ is an option, and ‘buy it even if it’s expensive because you’ll enjoy it’ has its place.

Slack Tax

Money moving from sacred to non-sacred is a huge change.

When money is sacred, so are things one can buy. All worthwhile possessions are prized possessions.

When money isn’t sacred, neither are things one can sell. Only things you cannot efficiently sell can still be prized. Potential trade becomes an enemy.

When one is flush, one buys experiences, memories and hard-to-sell assets.

If one does not, one falls victim to the wealth tax.


The slack tax takes many forms.

In Denver, it took the relatively benign form of obliviousness and hyperbolic discounting. People spent money on themselves, voluntarily, acting as if they were more wealthy than they were, leaving them poorer still.

It has less benign forms. Governments and other bandits look for wealth and take it. Sometimes those bandits are your friends, family and neighbors. A little giving back is a good thing, but in many cultures demands for help and redistribution rapidly approach 100% – life is tough, and your fellow tribe members, or at least family members, are endless pits of need, so any wealth that can be given away must be hidden if you want to remain in good standing. Savings, security and investment in anything but status are all but impossible. There is no hope for prosperity.

In between is commercial pressure, price discrimination and hold-up problems. Agents see free energy and work to extract it by charging for access to complementary goods, holding out promises, creating perception of needs and manufacturing expensive status competitions. The manufacturer of a key component, or the head of the union, demands almost all of your profit margins. Products advertise miracle effects that might solve your problems; you know they’re lying, but what else is there to do? And what would you do without the hot sneakers, the latest handbag, the hip new phone or the most prestigious college degree?

The most insidious traps are explicit slack traps. You must send the signal that you have spent all your resources. Any diamond (or college, or house..) is fine, so long as it cost you everything you had, so I know you love me. You can raise more capital for your start-up, but first you must be broke, or it would be irresponsible to give you more yet. Also would mean I wouldn’t have as much leverage.  

The Slack Tax’s most popular form is the Wealth Tax. But it works on any resource. Thus, for example, the need to create socially acceptable, legibly sacred time.

Without strong defenses, those forces out to get us will find a way. All slack, and thus hope, will be lost.


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Categories of Sacredness

Previously: Eternal, and Hearthstone Economy versus Magic EconomyOut to Get You

On Lesser Wrong, JenniferRM gave a reply that is worth quoting in full:

If I understand correctly, the cognitive process/bias/heuristic/whatever of “sacredness” is relevant here.

Neither nails nor dollars are sacred so you’re free to trade dollars for nails.

A kidney is sacred, so you can’t trade that for dollars, but you can trade it for another kidney (although such trades still feel a bit weird).

Sacred things are often poorly managed in practice, and sacredness is easy to make fun of, but a decent defense of sacredness might be that it is one of the few widely installed psychological mechanisms in real life for managing the downsides of having markets in things. Thus, properly deployed sacredness might let you have “trade” in one area without ending up with “totalalizing trade”?

In the smaller and hopefully lower stakes world of video games, I think the suggestion would be to have card classes with different trading characteristics.

The lowest class of very non-sacred things could be swapped with extremely low transaction costs within the class and also be tradeable directly for money.

Higher sacredness things would have a separate market, perhaps with transaction costs like needing a purchaseable delivery mechanism or imposing delays so that objects go into limbo after the trade is finalized while “being delivered”. The most sacred things would be “inalienable” so they can’t be traded or given away or perhaps not even be destroyed.

Exactly where sacredness should be deployed in order to maximize fun seems like a deep and relatively unstudied problem.

One place in real life where the inalienability of something has large and substantive differences from jurisdiction to jurisdiction is the question of the rights of artistic creators to their artwork. In some jurisdictions, an artist cannot legally sell their right to veto the use of their artwork if deployed in artistically compromising ways (like use in advertising or political campaigns) after mere copyrights have been sold.

In the US artistic moral rights are not treated as very sacred, and the lack of sacredness in art production is probably part of the US’s cultural dominance a la Hollywood, but it has arguably also had large effects in the lives of artists, visibly so with people like Bill Waterson and Prince.

Here, Benquo offers these thoughts:

I don’t think the problem is markets per se – it’s allowing the value of cards to float in the global financial economy, which contains lots of ways to earn currency totally unrelated to playing Eternal. If Eternal’s economy had the right sort of capital controls, price signals could enable local exchange in ways that generate genuine efficiencies, without e.g. making running a totally unrelated pyramid scheme (or running a genuinely good and successful but entirely unrelated business) elsewhere an effective way to win games of Eternal.

Burning Man seems, to some extent, to be able to do this. Actually-mostly-enforced anti-scalping rules mean that many, perhaps most, tickets are allocated on the basis of social capital within the Burner community. While US Dollars are one of many resources that can be converted into Burner currency, you need other inputs as well, not all of which are fungible with Dollars. Transaction costs are high, and there are sharply diminishing returns.

Of course, the Eternal team may legitimately want to make a profit, which means they need to accept money somehow, especially if they don’t want to sell their users as commodities ads. The obvious way to do this is to set up a buy-in structure that bakes in the right diminishing-returns curve (so Mark Zuckerberg can buy an incredible deck if he’s willing to sell Facebook, or a pretty awesome deck for $100,000, or an incredible deck for $10,000 and a year or two of playing the game instead of being a full-time CEO, and broke people with internet access can still compete). They’d also have to force transactions to be public (or at least registered to them) and reserve the right to delete any card that had ever been scalped. Possibly the community would still grow too large for that sort of thing, at least insofar as it relies to some extent on community cooperation, but then you can segment the community in various ways, etc.

I think this might be related to optimal currency zone theory, and am reminded that I still owe the world a review of some of Jane Jacobs’s lesser-known works. One thing she gets very right is that a real city (i.e. a center of economic activity) should usually have its own currency, because currency needs to function as an internal signal of relative priority, for a community to learn how to make more things.

Both point to categories of sacredness. Widgets can sometimes be traded for other widgets, but not sold for dollars. The master’s lessons are free, or you pay in kind. If they cost dollars, you could not afford them.

That’s what sacredness is. Things are sacred if and only if they matter and cannot be bought.

It ties into alienation from one’s labor. If I measure my reward in dollars, I am alienated. Even if I enjoy the task. Preventing that requires sacredness. If my rewards are sacred category, I can stay connected.

Where is it right to deploy this sacredness, for fun or otherwise? How does one make it stick?

Games as Sacred Spaces

All games worthy of the name have sacredness.

You play to win the game. You can’t bring resources in from outside, or take them out.

You can buy the best free agents, or better Magic cards. Once the game starts, your money is no good. If money played, the game would be about money. 

Poker is a game about money – winning money. The winning part is crucial. Otherwise it’s only a (increasingly boring) job. Tournament poker transforms money into sacred chips. Having them means something. Much better!

Metagames are interesting if and only if they are games. 

A sporting event is a game. Managing players over many games to help your team win?  Also a game.

What about drafting talent, signing free agents and trading? We want it to be a game. Salary caps can make team resources sacred, ensuring gameness, and help with balance. Interesting choices are created, much fun is had.

Baseball and real soccer lack salary caps. Rather than the game of winning, teams play the game of business. Dollars are points, winning is profitability. Fans score you points, so entertaining or engaging play is a valid strategy. Fans analyze moves based on profit maximization. Chomsky notes how sophisticated sports fans are. They’re even sophisticated about sports business. Capitalism ho!

The more fungible the players, the less sacred the team-building game. Also the less sacred the teams. We want to root for players, yet end up rooting for laundry.

On each meta level, we protect our game’s sacredness. We create rules and restrictions. We impose quotas and capital controls. As many times as it takes.

Magic: The Gathering is famous for its meta levels. We talk of each format’s metagame, its design and evolution. This includes trading, getting cards you want and building value. I increasingly found that subgame boring, time consuming and distasteful. It detracted.

When I paid for the cards I needed, it didn’t commercialize Magic. It did the opposite. It removed the commercialization from Magic. Relief!

Ideally, game super-systems are modal. You play some sub-games, ignore others. Some players outfit the ship then let the AI steer. Others let the AI outfit the ship, then steer it. Others let the AI do both and fill the hull with trade goods.

So some fans take their team as given and focus on games. Others focus on seasons, player development and team politics. Others focus on team construction and trading. Others focus on gambling odds, or fantasy sports. Some travel and tailgate. Keep only what you want, cancel anytime. To keep engagement non-commercial, choose what things to spend on, buy it then put money aside.

One can only do and care about so many things. Making more of them sacred need not create conflict. Treating eating well as sacred doesn’t make the big game, or family, or church, or politics, or anything else less sacred. They’re rivals for attention and resources, but once you’re spending those, make it count!

Sacredness does make rival sacredness seem less like ‘the only thing that matters,’ which can reduce intensity and payoff. Good! Sacredness that tells you that other things are not sacred is Out to Get You.

Religion (or politics, or any other Serious Business) works largely by turning the world and/or morality and/or all of life into a game. Follow the rules. Accumulate non-fungible resources. Win the game. Ignore other games. They don’t matter. This is your life, and your life is a test.

Trading Away Trade

Trade is central to prosperity. Sacredness inhibits trade. Often wipes it out.

Is that worth it?

It is good when trade or potential trade destroys the value being traded, and bad when trade or potential trade increases the value being traded.

Sacredness adds value for you. Trade distributes value efficiently. Which effect dominates? Where the value lies. High mundane utility items should trade freely.

Items with mostly personal value often should not.

Potential trade can be as valuable or destructive as trade.

Knowing I could buy or sell something efficiently reduces it to dollars and alienates. Likely eventual sale prevents investment and attachment, even when it shouldn’t. To anticipate the end often simulates the end. For best results, play most iterated games as if they never end. Until they do. Beware free trade (The Actual Best Thing Ever) not because they took our jobs. Beware because choices are bad.

Knowing one could sell something makes it valuable. Knowing one could buy something prevents worry and contingency planning.


Consider Tupperware.

Delivery creates a stream of Tupperware. In the days before delivery, one would buy a Tupperware set and consider it shameful to buy more.

This makes Tupperware (low-level) sacred. You manage a limited supply. Choices are made.

Of course, this is silly. Ordering delivery to get Tupperware is crazy, but you can buy more Tupperware. Cheap. But now it’s something to waste. One becomes and feels wasteful. Much value is lost.

But one would get to stop obsessing over the Tupperware.

Fighting the Market

The market is Out to Get You.  It comes for your sacredness.

As always, four options. Get Gone, Get Got, Get Compact, Get Ready.

Get Gone means to give up your sacred activity entirely. Sometimes markets and market values corrupt the sacredness and fun, leaving nothing worth saving.

You could Get Got. Let the sacred become non-sacred, perhaps mass produced. Burn the candle bright. Enjoy gains from trade. Spread the joy. Sacredness creates mundane value. Perhaps it’s time to sell out.

Get Compact draws a clear divide between sacred and non-sacred. Choose a defensible core of sacredness, and put up a sign saying ‘not for sale at any price.’ A fan might accept the market ruling player signings, but treat games as serious business. Politicians define core values they hope they’ll never compromise, and trade or sell off everything else for parts.

Within the sacred zone, you have a code of honor. Dollar prices are zero. Ideally prices are zero in everything, at least by default. There is freedom in that. Choices Are Really Bad. Answer all questions. Accept all challenges. Play for the love of the game. Help anyone non-evil who asks for it. Anyone can attend meetup. Free pizza. Take no payment. Often well worth it. Give away the product forever, be repaid in goodwill.

This requires a zero price to clear the market. It usually does. People don’t ask for things.

Loosening your code is usually a one-way trip. What you give up you cannot easily reclaim. Be very careful giving things up.

Get Ready means fighting for what you want. Get the efficiencies of markets and profit from the sacred, but keep it sacred. That sounds hard. Can it be done?

Not entirely. Fully open markets make kidneys commodities and sins consumer goods. You’ve been got. Smart restrictions needed. What are your options?

You could use capital controls or quotas. You have a market within your sacred area. It’s numerical. You can’t move those units out, and beyond the quota you can’t bring them in. In many cases, you earn the right to move money in.

With enough sacred things worth buying, some way to soak up dollars, and effective enforcement, that’s workable. Enforcement is hard. What prevents trading?

On a large scale, monopolies on force enable capital controls on large amounts if it is clear what is inside, and all outside things are kept outside.

On a small scale, very small groups enforce controls via mutual cooperation or surveillance. The babysitters club could presumably let dollars go in, but didn’t dare, resulting in market failure and a liquidity trap. But I think groups much larger than that lack the required levels of trust.

Asking for Magic Online sell event tickets for a dollar, but not resold for ninety-eight cents, seems quixotic. Asking for New York City to use the yorker rather than dollar seems even more doomed.  I see the plan, where there’s a ‘sink’ in the form of drafts or tax payments, but trade seems unpreventable.

You could force all trades to be authorized by making currency only payable to a chosen few. This is how food stamps work. Supermarkets accept them, and you can’t transfer or sell them otherwise; supermarkets cash them in. One could echo that, again given enforcement. Enforcement seems hard, unless it’s a strict enforcement where everything you acquire is bound to you. That’s how World of Warcraft does it, and it works well; the items bound in this way are sacred, and everything else isn’t. Food stamps now use debit cards.

Thus a fully non-fungible asset. Internal credits can’t buy anything non-sacred, nothing non-sacred can buy credits. At most, you pay to participate at all. Trade a kidney donation only for another kidney donation.

Or pay people, but much less than market price, replacement value or expenses. Terrible trades can’t extract free energy. Without free energy, nothing will attempt to prey on the system. Things remain sacred.

Intentional Draws

I’ll end on the subject of intentional draws. In Magic tournaments, often it is in the interest of both players to agree to a draw rather than play, as a draw gets them most or all of the value of a win. At first, this was considered dishonorable by many. The point of competition is to compete. The defiant slogan rang out: “I came to play.” Which they did! The game was sacred. Tournament-level considerations were profane.

This was not enforceable. Draw rates increased. Match level non-drawing (and non-conceding) sacredness was lost. Rules changes to minimize draws have helped some, but mostly annoyed players. Once not drawing was no longer sacred, barriers only made us all go around them.

When we made the Cyberpunk CCG, we embraced the ethos of that game’s world, and not only allowed but encouraged all forms of collusion during tournaments. That can be sacred too.

You can draw the line almost anywhere, so long as you draw it somewhere.


















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Eternal, and Hearthstone Economy versus Magic Economy

The game Eternal (that is my referral link), created by Magic professionals including lead designer Patrick Chapin, is modern Magic: The Gathering, with some simplifications and tweaks, on a phone, with a Hearthstone interface and economy.

That is super high praise.

Magic: The Gathering is the best game of all time. Eternal gives you the core Magic game play, things like mana bases and Magic-style attacking and blocking and even a stack. It even gives you genuine drafts. And it does all of that on a phone, with a good free play experience. Like Hearthstone, it looks crisp and good, plays light and fun. And in contrast to Magic: The Gathering Online, it works. Which is nice.

Do I have quibbles? Of course I have quibbles! I hate the move to 75 card constructed decks instead of 60. The changes to the color pie don’t work for me. The Eternal community takes its names for the colors and color pairs seriously, as opposed to winking every time they say ‘time’ and ‘primal’ instead of white and blue. Legendary cards are a bit ludicrous. Organized play isn’t where I’d like. I feel like there’s a better way to do social. Things seem copied from Hearthstone or Magic that feel like they don’t belong. But these are quibbles. I can’t argue much. The game is great, and there’s lots of little things I’m really happy about.

Two things rise above quibble.

I want an ‘old school’ Magic experience. I want players’ hands, lands, colors, decks, spells, creatures, right to attack and so forth all up for grabs. Most players, studies show, disagree. Players want to play their cards, cast their spells, fight with creatures. A little control and a little combo is good but mostly men need to be fighting, or players won’t be happy. Eternal certainly has control. But like modern Magic, Eternal can’t surprise and twist its premises. I’d love to see a modern take on old school, with Armageddon and Winter Orb, Mind Twist and Moat. I also miss true power: Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Black Lotus. I have some ideas. But despite the name, that is not Eternal.

What I want to explore here is the economy.

Magic Economy

The original Magic economy is simple. Wizards sells you packs, you get cards you can keep, trade or sell. Cards are worth money. Most are worth very little since supply exceeds demand, a few have limited supply and lots of demand and are worth a lot (e.g. a Black Lotus once went for $20,000).

Players can trade, but that’s work. Work sucks. So the default nowadays is to buy and sell. Offline that’s dollars, online that’s tickets or credits for tickets, the dollars of Magic Online. Offline the bid/ask spread on cards is wide because traders have huge physical costs, so players can’t be turning over collections all the time, but online they can. Using trading robots, the prices for online cards have become standardized and tight, so you only pay a few percent to buy a card and then sell it back later. The trading interface’s terribleness is all that keeps this contained.

Magic events online and offline have prizes, usually packs and sometimes cash or invitations to tournaments. Players can ‘grind’ such events to gain cards at a lower price than buying them, and sufficiently above average players can ‘go infinite’ and outright profit from playing, building collections for free. These prizes push cards into the economy, so the value of packs declines. Buying online packs with dollars, instead of trading for them, is a sucker’s game.

Hearthstone Economy

The Hearthstone economic model, which Eternal copies, binds your cards to your account. You can destroy unwanted and surplus cards to gain dust (sandstone in Eternal) which can be used to make new cards at a much worse rate. So everyone gets the cards they need most, and there’s no check on supply of top legendary (Magic calls them Mythic Rare) cards.

You can also buy packs of cards or other in-game activities in exchange for dollars. As in Magic, you can enter events that offer prizes for winning and give you a better deal than buying packs.

Unlike Magic, there are also rewards you earn from completing ‘quests’ that are available daily, which reward you for things like winning games, winning with different types of decks or in different types of games, or in-game effects like playing resources or dealing damage. Eternal adds to this a prize for your first win of the day against another human.

Studies show the daily quests and rewards are highly addictive and motivating. I am not fully convinced such tactics are ethical, or should be legal! While they remain legal, they will be industry standard.

Hearthstone attempts to calibrate such that if you play well and do the daily quests, you can mostly keep yourself in cards, barely, for free. It’s quite the grind. Eternal aims similarly. A key difference is that Hearthstone draft doesn’t let you keep your cards, so it’s practical to let players who do well ‘go infinite,’ whereas Eternal drafts do let you keep the cards, and therefore exhaust your currency supply no matter how good you are.

Note that Magic Arena, the future Magic digital game, plans as per public announcements to use the Hearthstone model. I’d comment further, but game is in beta and they’ve asked for confidentiality.


Trade is Great!

If you allow cards to trade, the cards have monetary value.

This has huge advantages.

Markets are awesome. Players who want cards most get to buy them. Players who don’t value popular or powerful cards can sell them or trade them for money or other cards. Building a collection means you create something of value, potentially great value; getting into Magic early was quite profitable. We get the joys of trading and speculation, and the ability of Wizards to ‘print money.’

If strategies become powerful, playing them becomes more expensive, whereas other strategies become cheap. This creates a balancing effect and encourages diversity. A funky deck that uses a lot of rares no one wants is still cheap! If the deck doesn’t work out, little is lost.

Compare this to the Hearthstone model. If you want a card, you’ll need to create it. That’s not something players can do often unless they’re spending a lot of money. Dust supplies are highly limited! So when using dust, players aim to create the most powerful and versatile ‘good stuff’ cards they can, or the cards for tested tournament-level strategies. Now the best of the rarest cards are seen everywhere, and the other legendary cards are effectively even more expensive, and mostly unavailable. Creativity and variety are discouraged.

Even worse is the fear of wasting what little dust you have. If you create a card and later open it in a pack, and now have more copies than you can play, you’ve wasted most of that dust. That’s a huge feel-bad moment when you open the card you’ve created, replacing what would have been a feel-great moment when you get the exact card you want, and a fear every time you bust open a pack. Thus the temptation to hoard resources and not spend them, or feel bad about using them, even when you know what you want.

While building your collection, you’re gaining the ability to play, but you’re not building something of value. In theory, I could sell my account, but few will do that, it’s tied to other things, and I doubt it would fetch much cash anyway. When one is done with Hearthstone or Eternal, the cards sit around unused and unloved, forever, and no value is regained. Early adapters don’t get rewarded much.

A whole side of the game, and its rewards, has been cut off.

Trade is Terrible!

If you don’t allow cards to trade, the cards don’t have monetary value.

This also has huge advantages.

Markets are alien things people hate. It says something that I have taken multiple full-time jobs that are primarily about trading, and even I hate trading Magic cards. I hate it. It’s time consuming. It’s annoying. You’re constantly worried about being ripped off, and feel bad ripping others off. It makes everything a commodity, measurable in cash. If I only lose a few percent when I turn cards I randomly open in packs into cards I want to play with, I no longer opened possibility or awesomeness or phat loot. I opened dollar bills. Lotteries are exciting in their own way, but it’s not the same thing.

This then bears on the rewards one gets from playing. If a card game tried to reward me for playing games by paying me money, that would not work outside of professional competition. There’s no way they can offer enough. What’s my hourly rate? A few dollars an hour if I’m lucky? That’s far worse than zero.

Remember Diablo III? Originally it had an auction house where everything could be bought and sold for real money. This turned its phat loot into pennies, making the game no fun. When they took the auction house out, the game became fun. Markets force you to use them, and think in their terms. See Polyani, and beware commodification labor, land, money and in-game digital objects.

Those cool incremental rewards you were handing out? Not only are they worthless, they’re now also worth money. So what happens? An army of bots comes out to collect that money. Now you’re playing whack-a-mole at best, or looking on helplessly at worst. Every reward must be robust to infinite accounts mindlessly clicking infinite buttons. That’s a hard and unsolved problem.

When playing free games like Hearthstone and Eternal, I know there are two modes I can be in. I can play for free and enjoy the fight to be competitive, conserving and growing my resources. Alternatively, I can buy in fully, and have everything I need, with the only goal being to be the best. There’s no in-between. Once the cards are worth money, I’m doomed, since my time is so much more valuable.

Trade Is Life!

We have nice things because of trade. We have Magic in all its glory because of trade. Although the no-trade policies solve a lot of problems, I still can’t get away from them being unhealthy and wrong. They remove market incentives in order to create Skinner boxes. A Skinner box built around an awesome game is still also a Skinner box.

But the problems are real. The no-trade model is winning for reasons.

The key will be figuring out how to evolve into a new mode that gets the advantages of free trade without imposing such a burden, or forcing us to give up so much that people find fun. I believe solutions exist, and I intend to find them.


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