33.Marginally Zero-Sum Efforts

Some quotations:

Bostrom recently noted the problem of the commons in labeling efforts “important”; each managerial player has an incentive to label their project world-shakingly important, even though this devalues the priority label as used at other times or other projects, creating positive feedback in inflated labels.

This reminds me of how my grandfather, a pioneer in quantitative genetics, regularly bemoans the need to write more and more grant proposals to maintain a constant level of funding.  It’s not that the funding is drying up in his field.  But suppose there’s money for 20 grants, and 21 scientists in need of grants – or one scientist who’d like to run two projects, or receive more funding for one project…  One scientist doesn’t get his first grant proposal funded, so he writes another one.  His second grant proposal does get funded, which uses up a grant that could have gone to another scientist, who now also has his first grant proposal denied, and has to write and send off a second grant proposal too…


I’ve often suspected that a similar effect governs bureaucracies (both government and corporate); the longer you stay at your desk each day, the more you are perceived as a hard worker and get promoted.  But there’s only a limited number of promotions to go around… and only a limited amount of genuinely important work to do.

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