Thursday, March 30, 2017

Existential Nihilism At Work

You’re an accomplished surgeon with a long career. Then someone published a paper proving, via randomized controlled trials and placebo surgeries, that what you’ve been doing for the past twenty years is not helpful. In fact, it’s more likely harmful.

You’re an excellent teacher beloved by the vast majority of your students. Then somebody publishes an iron-clad study showing that teacher quality does not matter to life outcomes. You could have been phoning it in the whole time and your students would have been no worse off. In fact, most of your students don’t remember a single factoid you taught them, just that you were “a pretty cool teacher.”

You've been an employee for twenty years at a government agency that rehabilitates ex-convicts after they emerge from prison. A very carefully controlled trial finds that the "rehabilitation" you've been running is completely useless and has no effect on recidivism rates or future employment or lifetime earnings or anything other measure of "successful rehabilitation."

I’m a property and casualty actuary. I run big predictive models that measure the risk of an auto policy holder, given things like age, prior accidents, credit history, etc. The statistics for this are sophisticated and always getting more sophisticated. Sometimes I’m hit with the thought that this is all a big arms race with no net social value. Sure, I convince myself, if we make the price high for high-risk people, they might forego driving altogether. If insurance pricing gets these people off the road, that’s a good thing. But it’s likely this is a small effect, or that those people just drive anyway but do so without insurance. Or here’s another justification: If we don’t price for relative risk, we can very suddenly bring on a lot of very bad risks without knowing it. Rapid growth is the biggest cause of insurer insolvencies, and an insolvency means some people don’t get the money they were promised. So maybe we’re creating net social benefit by guarding against this kind of social cost? But again I find myself saying “Meh.” If my employer were to go under, someone else would simply take their market share. At any rate a fairly crude form of predictive model could guard against this kind of insolvency risk, provided you don’t have one or two insurers who are light-years ahead of their competitors. Insurers can make their predictive analytics more and more sophisticated in order to outdo each other. In this arms race, my model identifies a population that is overcharged by the market, so my company offers them a discount and we add that population to our market share. Competitors lose. A competitor’s model identifies a risky population and surcharges them accordingly; our model fails to identify them as a high-risk population and so we take them on at a price that’s too low. We lose. Perhaps we'd all be better off if we called a cease-fire and stopped experimenting with clever ways to improve predictive analytics. Maybe all the resources that get dumped into this arms-race are a dead-weight loss from the viewpoint of society as a whole.

I worry about these kinds of things that nullify a person’s social contribution. We like to believe that we’re not just “making money,” but actually providing something of social value to the world. I don’t know a good way to guard against this. Even if you actually build something physical, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ve created real value. I imagine this exchange:

Person 1: “Look, I built a house! And an electric car!”

Person 2: “Yeah, but the house-building was based on an artificial demand created by bad macroeconomic policy. Your house sits empty. And demand for the electric car is based on a subsidy that has since expired. With the subsidy gone, we can see demand for such cars isn’t real.”

Basically, it doesn't take that many people to make all the "stuff" we have, so most of the value added comes from "services." Maybe 3% of the population grows all the food, and another 10% or so make widgets and gadgets, cars and homes. The rest of us have to find some useful way to add value to the lives of our fellow creatures. Some of these schemes really do create value, and some are nice tries but turn out to be useless in the end. Sometimes a nice try isn't wasteful. Nobody would have known it wouldn't pan out until someone tried it, right? Still, it can be maddening to think you've wasted your time, even an entire career, on such a failed project.

I don’t have any great advice or deep thoughts here, just sharing a thought that I’m guessing others have had. Try to do the best you can, and make sure you’re happy doing it. 

Coda: If this is a depressing thought, don't despair. There is low-hanging fruit. I think people have a lot of untapped opportunity to make their personal lives better. Make your spouse and children happy, do more useful stuff around the house, be pleasant to your friends and co-workers, improve your personal health, acquire healthy habits and stop the unhealthy ones, take up a hobby, etc. There is a lot of "value" to add in this much-overlooked realm. Maybe you think of all those service jobs as just bullshit make-work to occupy the 85% of us who aren't making physical stuff. That's fine. Take a job, any job, even if it's a bullshit job, and think of it as a way to finance your "real" project of creating a happy home. That's what I've told people who have hobbled their own careers because they wanted the most perfect most meaningful job in existence. I think it's probably good advice. 

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