By Parham Negahdar

Inescapable Tradeoffs

Trade-offs are everywhere. They are the gradients on which we navigate life. In deciding which set of trade-offs we prefer, we draw the branches of our lives. Just a few moments ago I decided that a succulent Al Pastor taco 🌮 from a street vendor in Mexico was worth facing Moctezuma again. And yes, it was absolutely worth it, at least until it’s not.

There’s a class of trade-offs I call inescapable trade-offs. These are they types of trade-offs that are inherent to the operating mode of a given system. They’re inescapable because to avoid the trade-off in question, you’d have to change the system itself to work a different way.

This is an important distinction because when a trade-off is inherent to a system or is inescapable, you hit a bottom of sorts in discussing the trade-off intelligibly — you either succumb to spiritually accepting the trade-off as the right one or you opt to change the system to operate in a different mode.

I’ve started jotting down these sorts trade-offs and the common modes of operation they reduce to. These are the ones that seem very cross-domain to me. I’m doing this just so I can link to the right section in this post the next time I hit the same impasse in an argument about immigration or programming languages.

“Classic centralized vs decentralized arguments apply, dude”

If you take away one thing from this, I hope it is to be more aware that there are strong merits to the flip side of the trade-offs you prefer. While we discover our preferred versions of the world through these preferences, we certainly don’t find universal truth. Give that the respect it deserves.

I’m still building the list, so feel free to send me more examples you can think of. I’m on Twitter here.

Central vs Decentralized

Centralized systems:

  • Success dependent on how good the controllers of the system are
  • Have a very low cost of coordination and synchronization
  • Can react quickly to changes
  • High volatility on efficacy and alignment with agents which is highly dependent on controllers
  • Allow for ad-hoc protocols
  • Rely on the benevolence of the controllers
  • Provide a single source to place blame on in the event of failure
  • Makes censorship and suppression easy

Decentralized Systems:

  • Success depends largely on how good the underlying protocol is
  • Have significant synchronization and communication overhead for their agents
  • Are slower to change as they require widespread consensus
  • Have lower volatility and their operation
  • Less exposure to the principal-agent problem
  • Often end up creating centralized sub-systems for certain problem classes
  • Rely on the benevolence of the majority
  • Makes censorship and suppression very difficult

Where we see it:

  • Fiat v. Crypto: Pretty much every argument in fiat versus crypto come down to these tradeoffs. From transaction/scalability limits, reactive monetary policy, the F*** the Fed attitude, to the "its only good for drugs" mentality. It's very likely that ultimately both will be just as present in our final monetary system.
  • Governments vs Nuclear Families: In the US, the distributed force that combats the centralized nature of the government is the nuclear family. The balancing of these two has played a massive role in the development of the laws and libertarianism of the land. For the large part, you and your family can do what they want on their property, and the central government can f*** right off. Whether it's home-schooling your child to teach them "college" math at 4 years of age, or avoiding vaccines.
  • Social networks: There have been many attempts at creating distributed social networks that have mostly failed. On one hand you have the issue that the president can get canceled with minority consensus amongst media companies, on the other hand you have the issues with crime, vitriol and public safety if you eliminate censorship completely.

Bundled vs Unbundled

Where we see it:

  • Mergers and Acquisitions
  • The Apple Experience
  • Netflix vs Cable Packages
  • Trade unions

Simple vs Complex

Where we see it:

  • software and UIs
  • Public policy
  • Watches
  • Organization structures

Open vs Closed

Where we see it:

  • immigration policy and nationalism
  • Love
  • Software development
  • Parents and organizational secrets

Top down vs Bottom up

Where we see it:

  • Academic organizations
  • Religious institutions
  • Memes and Internet campaigns

Authoritarian vs Democratic

Where we see it:

  • USA vs China
  • Design by Committee
  • American corporatism