The curse of competence

December 2, 2023

Several years ago I worked at an economic consulting firm in Washington DC, using data science and economic theory to support our corporate clients in antitrust litigations. More often than not I was on the side defending the corporation(s) accused of anticompetitive practices. It was a very demanding and rewarding job, but I’ll be the first to admit it didn’t quite line up with my idealistic notion of fulfilling and rewarding work. It filled my pockets more than my heart.

If you’ve ever worked with lawyers (or if you are one), you might know that they can be a little intense, and antitrust lawyers in particular might very well be the peak. I don’t know whether it’s the amount of money at stake or just the culture of the industry, but these women and men are flat-out beasts. I have a ton of respect for their work ethic. What I didn’t love was that their intensity spilled over into our workplace.

At my office we were working long and unpredictable hours, at the beck and call of the lawyers who paid for our services. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit and I went remote and was able to consistently eat dinner with my then-girlfriend, now-wife (thanks, COVID). Even between new employees, the environment was extremely competitive. In some ways, I thrived on the competition. I onboarded at the same time as another guy, and I loved the idea of being just a little bit better and a little bit faster than he was at any given task. I had always been competitive in sports and games, and felt encouraged to turn that energy toward my work. I was never a jerk about it, but I wanted to be seen as one of the best on our team.

A few months in, a colleague assigned me a task. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but I pushed myself to get it done quickly and correctly, and I sent it back her way within a couple of hours. I expected her to dive into next steps, but instead she paused and asked me a curious question: “Have you ever heard of something called the ‘curse of competence’?”

She explained that in this job, good work does not translate to going home any earlier or operating with any less stress. In fact, the opposite is true. As you gain trust from those in charge they supply you a larger workload, with more responsibilities and more leadership opportunities. Before you know it, you’re working harder and staying later just to maintain your positive reputation. It’s a positive feedback loop, a treadmill that speeds up with each step. To be clear, my colleague wasn’t telling me to get out or slack off — quite the opposite. She just wanted me to know the consequences of my trajectory so that I could avoid getting stuck. I’ve always appreciated the candor she and others gave me about our shared work environment.

While I was eventually able to get off the treadmill without too much of a stumble, I think human society is facing a similar dynamic, and I don’t know how graceful our collective dismount will be. More than anything, I want my friends, family, and neighbors to understand the consequences of our collective trajectory. The technical name for the ratcheting-up, “curse of competence” dynamic is the Jevons Paradox.

William Staney Jevons was an English economist who In 1865 observed that improved efficiency in coal use resulting from technological progress would trigger an increase in the rate of coal consumption. At first, this is counterintuitive. If one looks only at a single locomotive running on a specific route, for example, a more efficient engine would by definition require less coal, not more. This is analogous to me working 10% harder at my job. By definition, I’ll spend less time on any given task. In both cases, efficiency leads to a reduction in resource use when the boundaries of analysis are drawn narrowly (i.e., a single locomotive; a single task).

Jevons’ insight was that we should consider a wider-boundary analysis. For competitive firms in a market system, an efficiency improvement (such as a reduction in an input cost) makes it easier to reach the promised land of profitability. Couple this notion with the fact that in 1865 the cost of coal would have been upstream of the cost of transportation, heating, and forging metals, and that these activities were themselves upstream of hundreds of emerging industries, and you begin to understand the surge in demand from improved efficiency in burning coal. Suddenly all those businesses that previously could not make ends meet due to the cost of transporting their goods, heating their factory, or forging their materials — they had a lifeline. The hurdle of profitability had been lowered, and many more entities were able to run in the race. As Jevons predicted, this dynamic led to more overall coal use, despite each individual activity needing slightly less.

The same dynamic holds with respect to oil production today. When the price of a barrel of oil goes up for whatever reason, businesses struggle, families tighten their belts, political institutions start to stress and look for ways to relieve the pressure. But when the price drops, businesses expand, families travel and enjoy luxuries, and political institutions ride the wave, often celebrating the good fortune by investing in ever-more oil-dependent infrastructure. The gains from an efficiency improvement are fed back into the same set of activities.

I’ll give one more example. Say you commute on foot to work, and it takes you about thirty minutes. One day you decide to buy a bike and cut that time in half, getting there in just fifteen. What an excellent improvement in efficiency! Congratulations! What are you going to do with your extra time? You could read the newspaper, chat with a friend, or work in the garden. Whatever your heart desires. At some point, you decide to move to a different neighborhood that’s a little bit farther, and now you’re spending thirty minutes biking. Walking is no longer convenient, but a thirty-minute bike is doable. That goes fine for a while, but eventually you decide it’s time to buy a car, and your commute time drops again to just ten minutes. Once again, you can do whatever you want with your extra time, but you decide to move even farther away, so that now you live a solid thirty minute drive from work. The amount of time you spend commuting has not changed, but thanks to your improved “competence” at commuting, the distance you travel daily has exploded. You could have done whatever you wanted with your efficiency gain, but instead you chose to simply do more of the same activity.

If you’re thinking that this example isn’t quite the same as my situation at work or the economic imperative to use more coal or oil, you’re right. You don’t have to move, and many people choose not to. At the individual level, we sometimes have more agency, more ability to avoid the trap. But I’ll ask you to consider a concept called Marchetti’s Constant, named after Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, but based on research originally done by a transportation engineer named Yacov Zahavi. This concept refers to the fact that across cultures and throughout human history, regardless of technology, people have been willing to spend (on average) about an hour commuting each day (or 30 minutes for a one-way trip). Faster cars, wider highways, even improved public transit — we may cover more distance, but we don’t collectively save ourselves time.

In some ways, the tendency to feed our efficiency gains back into the same activities is completely natural. If we think about how Jevons Paradox might operate for other creatures, we’ll see why. If a gazelle experiences an efficiency improvement due to some genetic variation and gets a little bit faster, it is more likely to escape the cheetahs chasing it and live a happy and productive life. For a while (in evolutionary time), gazelles might be able to spend the extra time they saved eating grass or otherwise relaxing. But soon, the cheetahs will evolve too, as only those fast enough to catch gazelles will survive and reproduce. Before you know it, the gazelles no longer get extra vacation time — they spend as much time running as they did before. They cover more distance than they used to, but so do the cheetahs.

Clearly in nature, efficiency improvements are happening all the time, and the gains are often fed back into the same activities. Jevons Paradox abound! Thankfully, these forces tend to be balanced. If they weren’t, either the cheetahs or the gazelles (or both) might dwindle and even disappear, upsetting the entire ecosystem.

But it isn’t always the case that efficiency leads to more of the same. Sometimes genetic or cultural variation leads to changes large enough that new behaviors become behavioral features, and it is through this process that we see the emergence of all the beautiful novelty and variety in the natural world. Negative and positive feedback loops interact and overlap, creating the dynamic stability of life.

Unfortunately, in the case of human civilization, we have lost sight of that delicate balance. Due to the unique powers our species has stumbled upon, resulting from innovations including but not limited to energy capture (fire, grain agriculture, fossil fuels), physical technology (stone tools, metallurgy, electronics), and information processing (language, writing, computation), we produce new efficiencies at an unprecedented rate. These efficiencies both create novelty and ratchet up existing behaviors as the complexity of society increases.

And now, our civilization has arrived at a crossroads. Our impact has created a new geological era, kicked off a mass extinction event, and actively undermines our future. We talk about improving our efficiency all the time as a way to get out of this mess; energy-efficient cars, electric heat pumps, and every product that claims to have a smaller carbon footprint are all examples. But we don’t talk about how to direct the gains from these efficiencies. Do we drive more (because we pay less at the pump) , heat our homes more often (the energy bill is cheaper), and consume more (because the impact of each individual product is less)?

The extent to which our efficiency gains feed more of the same activities will determine their effectiveness in addressing the issues we face. If we can direct the time and energy we save into caring for the earth, caring for one another, making art and music, and otherwise enjoying our lives responsibly, we’ll be in much better shape.

Of course, I can’t ignore the fact that I’m writing at a time when artificial intelligence is really starting to take off. For better or worse, its applications could be voluminous and extremely impactful, hastening efficiencies at a rate faster than we’ve ever seen in various industries. In my day job as a data scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, I’m having conversations every week about how to responsibly move forward with AI — which use-cases make sense, how should we think about the risks, and what even qualifies as AI anyway? It’s a big topic. But for the purpose of this discussion, the point is that if it is as effective as some experts suggest it will be — how will we direct the energy we save? Will we fall into Jevons Paradox, or will we redirect that saved energy into novel, useful, creative work? As Richard Heinberg recently put it: If you’re driving off a cliff, do you need a faster car?

To close out this essay, I’d like to think briefly about how we can individually and collectively avoid Jevons Paradox. How can we get off this treadmill that just keeps speeding up? As with any destructive behavior, awareness is a good first step. I think about my colleague who took the time to explain the “curse of competence” to me. I was able to take it in, adjust my expectations, and eventually make a plan to go back to school and find my way into a job that has more respect for work-life balance. If more of us are aware of Jevons Paradox, fewer of us will propose energy efficiency as a solution without first thinking through how the gains from that efficiency will be directed.

An important corollary is the ability to recognize “enough” in all areas of our lives. Humans love keeping up with the Joneses. In psychology this is called “social comparison bias,” and it can lead to an arms race because of course the Joneses are trying to keep up with you, too. Before you know it, you’re stuck in a pattern of always needing more: more money, more influence, more power. But if we can take time to understand where our desires come from, particularly whether they are a product of social comparison bias or are a result of a true need, we will have more agency in directing our energy. We’ll be able to make the investments that are truly beneficial: more time with loved ones, deeper connection with nature, and less stress in our lives.

Finally, we should think broadly about where Jevons’ insight came from. His wisdom was to consider a wider-boundary of analysis than conventional thought would have enabled. This is a pathway to thinking in systems — understanding the big picture of how entities are connected and interact. Systems thinking is an extremely useful tool for understanding our collective predicament and avoiding false solutions.

Thanks in part to various biological, technological, and social innovations, humans have become too “competent” for our own good. We are powerful beyond belief, and our habits are unsustainable. What we need now is the wisdom to pick our battles and direct our energy toward the things that are really worthwhile. Without this wisdom, I’m afraid our competence will remain a curse.

Mike Packard

Mike is a Data Scientist with the United States Forest Service and an amateur environmentalist. After growing up outside Boston, Mike went to school in Washington DC, where he majored in economics and later worked in economic consulting. After becoming disillusioned with his chosen field, Mike went to graduate school and found his way into government work. Over the last several years he has developed a keen interest in the great challenges of our time (climate change, environmental degradation, and social breakdown) and has strived to explore appropriate responses through writing and local action. Essay into his journey into this work: - Masters degree from U-Chicago in Computational Social Science, with a thesis titled "Knowledge Production for a Healthy Planet." - Presidential Management Fellow, working at the US Forest Service

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