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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Efficient and Effective

Just a quick dive into a useful distinction, because these aren’t the same:

Effectiveness is all about outcomes. (You know, effects.)

Efficiency is all about the ratio of outcomes to inputs.

This is a distinction we’re really clear on when we play sports and games, but way less clear on when we do ethics. And that’s strange, because the difference is so much starker in real life.

In basketball, you can be pretty effective without being very efficient.

You might even win an MVP for averaging a triple double.

Russell Westbrook has always done everything for his team—maybe a little too much. As MVP, he used as many possessions as two guys (41.7% usage), assisted most (57.3%) of his teammates' shots while he was on the floor, and dribbled over 40,000 times. Everything ran through him.

But Westbrook’s efficiency has always been limited by his questionable decision-making and jump shooting. And as a result, his teams have only been so effective.

When he won MVP in 2017, his Thunder finished 47-35, good for sixth in the Western Conference. That team had more young talent than you remember in Victor Oladipo (24), Domantas Sabonis (20), and Jerami Grant (22), but we didn’t know how good they could be with the ball in their hands yet.

Oladipo won Most Improved Player the next season after getting traded to Indiana and looked better than Westbrook!

Westbrook is more of a a floor-raiser than a ceiling-raiser. Floor-raisers can improve a bad team. Ceiling-raisers can improve a good team. But ceiling-raising demands efficient play. In basketball, we can only play five guys at a time, and there are limited possessions to go around. To make a good team even more effective, you have to make them even more efficient. Individual efficiency is easier to measure on offense than defense, and boy can we measure Nikola Jokic’s individual efficiency on offense!

Look out, here comes the advanced stat of ‘how far away he shoots’.

This season, Jokic led the league in True Shooting Percentage, ahead of occasional dunkers like Nic Claxton and Mason Plumlee who shoot, on average, less than 3 feet away from the basket. (Jokic’s average shot distance is 8.6 feet.) He did this while scoring 24 points per game and bringing the ball up the floor as a center. And did I mention he’s an absolute A+ passer on par with Magic Johnson and Steve Nash who makes his teammates more efficient, too? I still haven’t discussed his efficiency without the ball given his terrific screening, shooting gravity, offensive rebounding… Okay we get it, Jokic is an astonishing ceiling-raiser who would make just about any team better. Because he can be efficient using so many possessions, he’s super effective.

Lesson learned: If you want to be effective, try hard (to increase your inputs) and be efficient (to increase your ratio of outcomes to inputs).

We’re pretty clear on the relation between effectiveness and efficiency in games. Indeed, they’re pretty central to our notion of what games are.

Competitive games dare us to be effective enough (pursuing their values) to win. Basketball challenges me to outscore you. Chess challenges me to checkmate you first. Mario Kart challenges me to cross the finish line ahead of everyone oh God why am I driving into every banana. But they also dare us to be efficient enough (within their rules) to win. In a competitive game, everything occurs under certain restrictions. You can’t travel, and you definitely can’t pull a gun on me if I call you out for it. Only certain inputs are allowed by the rules.

Bernard Suits notes that the rules of a game artificially make us less efficient. If we’re playing basketball, it would be way too easy (and unskillful) for me to score at the rim if I could run around holding the ball above my head. That’s why the rules prohibit traveling. (It’s also why the best players in the world continually test the line of what the rules allow, and expand it over time.) But within that artificial inefficiency, competitive games challenge us to be effective. They can even free us to maximize effectiveness within their value structures and constraints, trusting that the experience of doing so will be worth having for its own sake. As long as we follow the rules, we can go all out, and in a good game, the experience will be worthwhile. And that’s really cool. Because usually, going all out on a narrow conception of value is a recipe for disaster. Trying to maximize my outcomes on one value is very likely to jeopardize all the other values in my life. Say I want to read more books this year. That quietly incentivizes me to find short, easy reads that aren’t challenging, and to keep turning the pages whether or not I find the experience enriching. Being too effective at maxing out on this value would undercut my whole purpose of pursuing it! Even when our aims look pretty good, pursuing them with maximum effectiveness is deeply suspect in the real world. It can make us blind to other values, and even a little closed-minded about the possibility that the values we’re single-mindedly maximizing aren’t fully-formed. Consider effective altruists, who I’ve spoken about before. These folks want to make the world a better place (they’re altruists), but they care about increasing or even maximizing outcomes (they’re effective). So they’re asking, what’s the most good we can do? Sounds great, right?

Ironically, William MacAskill wrote an almost identical book (Doing Good Better) the very same year.

Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.

But trying to maximize effectiveness leads to some well-known problems. As long as your next dollar would do more good in someone else’s hand, shouldn’t you give it away? And so, shouldn’t you impoverish yourself to the level of the world’s very poorest?

Not so fast, says the effective altruist, the ethical career choice is actually becoming a banker so I can donate lots of money to highly effective charities that would otherwise be wasted by some other, less ethical banker on sports cars or mansions or whatever. That does way more good than immediately impoverishing myself in a short-term burst of martyrdom!

Phew, glad the math worked out that way or we’d have to have a serious discussion on how much I should be expected to stand up to political institutions or make personal sacrifices for the benefit of others.

There are also some less obvious problems. Initially, it seems like doing the most good would involve colonizing the stars so we can pump out as many happy people as we can.

But if you really want to do the most good, it’s unlikely that humans beings are molecule-for-molecule the most computationally efficient hedonists possible. If you want to maximize outcomes, maybe we should colonize the stars to produce 10^58 virtual hedonists living pleasurable simulated lives instead.

But even that number is based on running human brain simulations for a hundred years each. Maybe some other brain structure should be simulated which would be able to produce more intense and consistent pleasures with greater efficiency? After all, we’re a mess. We suffer, we get used to the good things in our lives and start taking them for granted. Maybe if we could be replaced with something simpler that would produce a lot more simple pleasures, or if we could be replaced with something more complex, that would produce far grander pleasures... What does the most good? (No, really.) I don’t think this is a helpful question. Competitive games can make maximizing an enjoyable experience, but we should be suspicious of trying to maximize our values in real life. The goal of basketball is to outscore the other team, but running up the score needlessly can be poor form. After all, our values can’t be neatly boiled down to a scoring system you could intelligibly maximize. So there’s no single sense of effectiveness at work in our lives. (And even if there were, effectiveness would not be the only value worth caring about! We value other things besides effectiveness, like how we achieve results.) So let's review:

Lesson 1: Being efficient helps you be more effective. Lesson 2: But effectiveness isn’t everything. Lesson 3: Games can let us really go for it pursuing effectiveness, as they define it. But that’s dangerous for our real life values.


Wanna think more about efficiency, effectiveness, and value capture? Would love to chat and hang out with you here this Sunday! Cheers, Ricky

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