How Do You Determine the Right Level of Suffering?

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In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the first Sunday of every month is the fast and testimony meeting. What this means is that anyone can stand up from the congregation, walk up to the pulpit and say whatever they want. They are strongly encouraged to talk about their belief in Jesus Christ, but it’s basically an open mic, and people have used it as an opportunity to air grievances against the church.

This last Sunday during our fast and testimony meeting an older lady got up and expressed how grateful she was that, when she was raising her kids, they were relatively poor and consequently couldn’t give their kids everything they wanted, particularly at Christmas time. Because if they had been wealthy they probably would have, the temptation being hard to resist, but if they had, it would have been worse for the children because they wouldn’t have learned to go without.

This is not an uncommon sentiment. I think adults have been accusing kids of being spoiled since possibly the time of ancient Greece, but I encountered two unusual forms of the argument just recently. The first place I came across it was The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

“Coddling” is mostly about the current generation of college kids, which the subtitle, “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure”, makes clear. The generation in question is variously call iGen or Generation Z. The authors prefer iGen, after yet another book by Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. This is the generation after Millennials, which is normally defined as everyone born since the start of the millennium, but Twenge noticed a surprisingly sharp generational discontinuity beginning with people born around 1995 and who then went on to enter college around 2013. Lukianoff and Haidt also noticed a change starting in 2013, and, in fact, it served as the genesis of the book. It’s not clear if they noticed it independently of Twenge (or vice versa) but they both feel something significant changed on college campuses starting in 2013.

One change in particular was an obsession with safety, and not merely physical safety, but emotional safety as well, leading many to believe, according to Twenge, “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault, but from people who disagree with you.” I don’t think this has progressed to the point of also demanding safety from the disappointment on Christmas morning we started with, though recent stories about protesting in-class presentations would seem to indicate that we may be headed in that direction.

“The Coddling of the American Mind” blames all of this on the idea that there are three great untruths which have spread far and wide through the education system. This desire for safety stems from the first of these three great untruths:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

On the contray, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, college students (and humans in general) are antifragile. Meaning that exposure to stress and suffering make them stronger. But this stress and suffering is exactly what the various campus movements are trying to eliminate.

That’s the first argument for the benefits of stress, the second comes from last week’s post. You may recall that I mentioned an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox called the “Galactic Stomach Ache” and said I would be talking about it “next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.” It should hopefully be obvious now where I’m headed, but the core of the Galactic Stomach Ache argument is the same as the argument Lukianoff and Haidt are making, that an obsession with safety and reducing harm is paradoxically causing harm. Here’s how it’s explained in, The Great Silence, the book I reviewed last week:

Having removed most of the stress due to our physical and biotic environment, we have with it removed low-level beneficial stress (known as hormesis). Already, the exponentially growing economic costs of maintaining health in the face of these degenerative disorders are huge in comparison to investments in space research and exploration, not to mention utilization of extraterrestrial resources. If such treads continue and are typical, humanity could end up in a state in which almost all material resources and all creative energy are expended on the maintenance of a comfortable lifestyle free of external stressors, leading to a plateau in the development of cognition, and its subsequent diminishing.

Similar to Lukianoff and Haidt, though on a much larger scale, we once again have an argument that at a certain level stress is beneficial, and that the push to eliminate it entirely, while having certain short term benefits, will in the end, on the balance, be harmful. “Silence” doesn’t mention antifragility, but once again that’s the domain we’re in.

As longtime readers of this blog know, I am a huge advocate for antifragility, and thus it doesn’t take much to convince me of both the danger of the “Untruth of Fragility” or the strength of the “Galactic Stomach Ache” explanation. There are certainly arguments to be made about whether Lukianoff and Haidt are exaggerating things or whether they’ve left some things out. And even better arguments could be made about whether “Galactic Stomach Ache” is the explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, but I intend to proceed based on the assumption that both of them describe something that is actually happening, even if the eventual consequences are unclear. If that’s too much for you, then I would hope, at least, that we can proceed under the assumption that humans are antifragile and that stress is important for our development. If you’re still not on board then there’s probably not much point in reading the rest of this post and I would instead direct you to some of my previous posts, or, if you have the time you should just read the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the person most responsible for the idea of antifragility.

If we’re all on the same page about the importance of antifragility then the next question I want to address is, “Why is it a problem now?” Certainly technology has allowed us to reduce suffering and stress from the moment hominids mastered fire. Why should it suddenly reach a tipping point five years ago? Lukianoff and Haidt’s answer is that it’s something of a perfect storm. It all starts with paranoid parenting. This front runs into a blizzard of increased polarization. All of that is bad enough and has been going on for awhile, but then coming in from the south, we have the lifestyle hurricane that is social media. This last item is the proverbial straw (to really mix metaphors) and the kids dealing with all three of these factors first arrived at college starting in 2013.

As I said Lukianoff and Haidt could be overstating how sharp this dividing line is, or how bad the problem is in general, and it’s not my intent to dive into the specifics of their argument. Also, this is just the “Coddling” side of things. The increase in degenerative diseases has been going on for a lot longer than five years. But it’s not hard to imagine a common process behind both of those, and an underlying push which gets us both paranoid parents and the rising costs of dealing with degenerative diseases.

This urge to diminish suffering and stress has been around forever, but it’s only recently that we’ve truly been close enough to eliminating it entirely that it began to seem realistic, if not ideal. Where, in other words, people began to expect it. In part this is due to the increasing power of technology, but we’ve also experienced a period of unprecedented peace and affluence as well. In the past when a mother may have lost at least one or two children to infant mortality, it’s hard to imagine that parenting would ever be so paranoid. And if granny had already lived to be 80, it’s equally hard to imagine that a family who was barely getting by as it was would want to spend any money, let alone thousands of dollars keeping her alive to 85. But at some point these expectations changed, and it had to be relatively recently. I think for a lot of things it happened so subtly that we didn’t notice it. What makes Lukianoff and Haidt’s tipping point remarkable is not that it happened, but that it was so stark when it did.

When speaking of the harm caused from eliminating all stress, and recent evidence thereof, everyone, including Lukianoff and Haidt bring up the hygiene hypothesis, which has already made at least one appearance in this blog. The theory is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty of things to keep it occupied, but that now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, decides to overreact to things like peanuts. In all these cases we see evidence of harm caused by the elimination in low-level stress. The lack of hormesis mentioned in the Stomach Ache explanation, and the embrace of fragility mentioned by Lukianoff and Haidt.

Putting all of this together, the answer to the question of “Why now?” Is that we’re seeing the culmination of several trends which may have started decades ago, but have only recently become problems as a generation reached maturity, or as the impact reached a critical mass of people, or as the trend was finally translated into an expectation. There’s also the element of multiple trends all peaking and coming together at the same time, and probably feeding off each other. As I said we have been using technology to reduce suffering for hundreds of thousands of years, but only in the last couple of decades has it reached the point where it’s reasonable to expect that we can finally eliminate suffering entirely. And probably more than anything else it’s this gap between our expectations and reality which is causing most of the problems. Whether it’s college campuses or healthcare spending.

The next question is, “What should we be doing about it?” If I’m right, and the problem is essentially one of expectations, then our focus should be on changing these expectations. That’s largely the direction of Lukianoff and Haidt’s recommendations. But that may end up being a lot harder than it sounds.

One recommendation they make is for municipalities to implement “free range parenting” laws, like Utah. Obviously I’m always pleased to see a reference to my home state. And I’m in complete agreement that this is a good law, but I’m not sure it will have much of an effect. The big problem is that the law is unlikely to create more free range parents, it just offers protections for the ones who were already so inclined. For example, is there any mother out there who currently walks her kids to school, who will look at this law and decide, “Oh, I guess I should let them walk themselves to school. I was obviously being too paranoid.” I guess there might be a few, but I think the trend has already have gone too far and is too entrenched, for a new law to change the expectations of parents for how much effort they should put towards ensuring the safety of their children.

Once again, I think zeroing in on expectations is key here, and this is where being able to connect the separate instances of fragility comes in handy. Because one of the key drivers of the rise of healthcare costs has been a rise in expectations. Now this is not the only thing increasing costs, but it may be the biggest. As I already pointed out, it was not that long ago that people expected high infant mortality, and a life, that, on average, ended around 55, with anything past 70 as gravy. As technology got better expectations changed and along with them the cost of meeting those expectations. People have been worried about these rising costs since at least the time of Hillarycare, and yet of all the factors that go into rising costs, perhaps the least effort has been spent on changing expectations. Why? Probably because it’s the hardest factor to address. The small efforts which have been made have not merely been unsuccessful they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. There’s no quicker way to lose an election than to threaten to cut government spending on Medicare. You might also be familiar with “Death Panels”? Another example of a very strong negative reaction to the suggestion that reducing healthcare costs might entail reducing the amount of care someone actually expected to receive.

Some people may argue at this point that it’s not healthcare costs that are going to ultimately doom us, it’s the fact that we’re all turning into the overweight, hover-chair bound humans of Wall-E. And that the expectation we can eat whatever we want while being sedentary is easier to change than the expectation that we should be kept alive as long as possible regardless of the cost. The amount of effort we spend on changing these expectations certainly seems to indicate that we think this is a more pliable problem, but despite all that effort there’s no evidence of that trend reversing either.

Some people may dismiss all of the foregoing as the typical rantings of curmudgeonly old people against the dissipations of youth, and further argue that rising healthcare costs are a temporary problem, and certainly not representative of any long term existential crisis. And if that’s the case, there’s nothing I can say in this short post that will change your mind, and in any case, ultimately,  that’s not the point of the post. No, ultimately, my purpose is to examine what it looks like if we decide the world needs a certain amount of suffering.  And to argue that if we do decide that, it’s going to be very difficult to pull off. Let me give you an example of what I mean:

When I was young the start of the wilderness was a couple blocks from my house, and one of my favorite things to do was to set off towards the mountain. I was frequently accompanied by two of my cousins. Both were younger than me, one by a few months and one by a couple of years. We would be gone for hours on these excursions. A favorite destination was Eagle’s Cave. I don’t recall if you had to do any climbing to get there, but we did engage in climbing while we were out. At one point while we were climbing the older of the two cousins fell, and I have a distinct memory of him falling past me, and into the arms of his brother, who was also climbing but somehow didn’t get knocked off. I don’t know what to make of that memory at the remove of nearly forty years, but I talked to the cousin who fell recently and he remembered it exactly as I did. The “nearly forty years” is a hint, but guess how old I was. 15? 12? No the oldest I could have been was 8 because I moved from that house shortly after my 9th birthday.

This is basically exactly what Lukianoff and Haidt are advocating for right? What the advocates of the free range parenting movement are hoping for as well? You might argue that “suffering” is the wrong word to use for what I just described and what those groups are advocating for. And perhaps it is, perhaps “stressors”, or “challenges” is better, but if you don’t think my aunt would have suffered if my cousin had been injured in that fall or worse yet died, then you don’t know my aunt very well.  

Some will argue that letting kids wander into the wilderness is fine, but 8 (or in the case of my younger cousin, 6) is too young. Or that walking to school is one thing, climbing rock walls is quite another. And I totally see their point, but how do we know where to draw the line? How do we know when we have introduced enough suffering into the environment to avoid the harms Lukianoff and Haidt describe or the more theoretical crisis of the Galactic Stomach Ache? If someone says that 8 is too young they’re not basing it on some comprehensive longitudinal double blind study of outcomes based on childhood activities. They’re saying that they aren’t comfortable with 8 year olds wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, it doesn’t match what they expect, but targeting our expectations at our comfort level is exactly how we ended up in this spot.

In a sense, and this just came to me, otherwise I would have brought it up earlier, this whole problem is a supernormal stimuli problem. Evolution has programmed us to worry about our kids, and to extend our lifespan as long as possible, and to eat as much sugar and fat as we could get our hands on, because nature was such that even if we tried our best, kids were still going to undergo a lot of stress, and people were still mostly going to die young, and we were never going to eat too much sugar. But now technology has allowed us to remove most of the countervailing pressure and scarcity, so that now we can keep our kids too safe, or prolong our lives much longer but at great cost, in the same way that we can now eat way too much sugar. And of course while we can make some guess at how much sugar we should be consuming, it’s a lot more difficult to decide how much suffering we should be experiencing (do we end up setting a daily recommended allowance?)

To return to my example, I assume that today most parents would be appalled at the idea of an 8 year old wandering around in the mountains for hours, however much they were on board with the idea of free-range parenting, or providing kids with more challenges. And yet, it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still, at best, only half the man my father is (I don’t have time to get into his childhood stories, but if you think mine was appalling…) And he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if people like Lukianoff and Haidt are indeed correct about what’s happening, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem. In fact, once you combine the scale of the problem with the difficulty of reversing people’s expectations, it starts to look completely intractable. It may be best to hope that I’m wrong, and that the world doesn’t need more suffering.

If, on the other hand I’m right, then we’re really only left with one question: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we also have the wisdom to bring it back?


There is definitely a dearth of wisdom in the world, and this blog is no exception. But I have a plan to create more wisdom, if you’d like to invest in that plan (think of me like an early-stage startup) then consider donating.


The Great Silence (Philosophy and Fermi’s Paradox)

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I just finished The Great Silence: The Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox by Milan M. Ćirković.  Which I was made aware of after corresponding with the author some months ago. At the time, I was on a quest to send my Fermi’s Paradox as Proof of the Existence of God theory to people who had written about Fermi’s Paradox, and his name ended up on the list, though I forget why. He was very gracious and in addition to sending me some papers that touched on my theory for the paradox (none particularly close) he also recommended his forthcoming book. I’m grateful for the recommendation, since, despite having a Google Alert set to notify me if anyone talks about the paradox anywhere on the internet, I don’t think I ever saw an alert for this book. Thus, without the correspondence, I might have completely missed it, which would have been a great shame because it’s fantastic.

(Edit: Actually just this week as I was writing my post, but after composing the first paragraph, I finally got an alert which mentioned Ćirković’s book.)

This post will be split into two parts. In the first half I’ll review the book, and point out things I found particularly notable or interesting about Ćirković’s approach. In the second half I’ll examine the case for including my explanation as a contender using the standards Ćirković has laid out.

Review and Commentary on The Great Silence

Before I get into a discussion of the finer points of the book, I’ll start with a brief general review. In other words I’ll address the question, “Should you read this book?”

“The Great Silence” is the best thing I have ever read about the paradox, though to be fair, that’s a pretty small field. So I’ll point out, additionally, that I thought it was good enough to deserve a spot in the bookshelf on my desk. A bookshelf set aside for the 50 or so books I expect to reference again and again for a long time to come. That praise aside, this is not a book for everyone. It’s very scholarly, and sometimes goes too far in assuming background knowledge which not everyone will posses. (Including me.) But for that narrow slice of people who agree with Ćirković (as I do) that:

[Fermi’s Paradox] is…a conundrum of profound scientific, philosophical and cultural importance. By a simple analysis of observation selection effects, the correct resolution of Fermi’s paradox is certain to tell us something about the future of humanity.

(I would change “something” to “quite a bit”.) Also…

The very richness of the multidisciplinary and multicultural resources required by individual explanatory hypotheses enables us to claim that [Fermi’s Paradox] is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science. (Emphasis original.)

If you are in this group, then “The Great Silence” is invaluable and I could not recommend it more highly.

Like Ćirković I’m going to assume a certain amount of background knowledge as we begin our discussion. If for some reason you’re only marginally familiar with Fermi’s Paradox you should go read the Wikipedia article first. And if you’re familiar with the paradox, but not familiar with my argument for why the existence of God makes a pretty good explanation, you might want to review that post as well before diving in. Those caveats aside let’s proceed.

Obviously the first thing to be done in a book like this is to define what Fermi’s Paradox is, starting with the obligatory discussion of the famous lunch where Enrico Fermi asked his question, “Where is everybody?” Once that’s out of the way, Ćirković breaks his definition up into three levels:

  1. ProtoFP: Exactly what Fermi said. The absence of extraterrestrials on Earth is incompatible with the rest of our assumptions.
  2. WeakFP: The absence of any evidence of extraterrestrials in the Solar System  is incompatible with our assumptions:
  3. StrongFP: The absence of any evidence for extraterrestrials anywhere.

It honestly never occurred to me that someone referring to Fermi’s Paradox would be using any other definition than the strong one, but apparently it happens. Accordingly I’ll include Ćirković version of it here in full and declare that whenever I discuss the paradox I’m referring to the “Strong” version.

Strong Fermi’s Paradox(a.k.a. The Great Silence, Silentium Universi): The lack of any intentional activities or manifestations or traces of extraterrestrial civilizations in our past light cone is incompatible with the multiplicity of extraterrestrial civilizations and our conventional assumptions about their capacities.

The strength of the paradox when stated this way is perhaps most apparent when we consider how easy it is would be to detect traces of humanity if the situation were reversed and we were the extraterrestrial civilization being searched for. There are already many ways for the presence of humans to be detected by someone outside our Solar System and even more ways to detect the presence of life on Earth. All of this technology consists of things we’ve already mastered, and lack only engineering to implement them on the scale required. Meaning that it should be child’s play for a civilization even a few hundreds years more advanced than where we are currently.

Given how detectable advanced civilizations should be, Ćirković makes an interesting point, receiving an alien signal from one other civilization doesn’t necessarily resolve the strong version of the paradox. One could certainly imagine picking up a signal from someone only a few hundred years ahead of us, and still be in a situation of asking, “Where is everybody else?”

The next challenge one faces when discussing explanations for Fermi’s Paradox, is how to organize those explanations. Stephen Webb, who I’ve talked about previously, collected 75 explanations in his book, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens Where Is Everybody? Webb decided to organize them into these three buckets:

  1. They are (or were) here
  2. They exist, but we have yet to see or hear from them
  3. They don’t exist

That’s not a bad system and certainly it covers all of the possibilities, but I think Ćirković’s system is both more clever and more useful. He starts by identifying four assumptions we have made about the universe, and then grouping explanations for the paradox in buckets corresponding to which assumption would have to be incorrect for that explanation to possible.

The four assumptions are:

  1. Realism: The assumption that what we see is reality. Explanations which violate this assumption include things like the Simulation Hypothesis which posits that we live in The Matrix, and the “Include Aliens” flag has been set to false.
  2. Copernicanism: Also called the Mediocrity Principle. This is the idea that there’s nothing particularly special about humans or Earth. Explanations which violate this assumption mostly fall into the “Rare Earth” category, and include things like the theory that multicellular life is exceptionally difficult.
  3. Gradualism: The assumption that things will continue much as they have. That humanity will continue to expand outward, that the galaxy wasn’t markedly more dangerous in the past than it is now, etc. The popular worry that we’re going to wipe ourselves out with nukes is one example of something which violates this assumption.
  4. Non-exclusiveness: The assumption that there is diversity among potential extraterrestrial civilizations, that they are not likely to all behave in exactly the same manner or agree to the same things. This is closely related to the last assumption, for example maybe some civilizations will blow themselves up, but for that to be the answer we have to violate this assumption by assuming all civilizations blow themselves up.

Webb’s method works well as a logic division for all possible explanations of the paradox, but I think Ćirković’s is much better if your goal is to solve it, which takes us to the next requirement of any good book about the paradox, grading the possible solutions, which Ćirković does literally.

There are quite a few D’s and F’s (18 out of 36 total), but we’re obviously interested in the A’s. No explanation gets a straight A because that would be equivalent to declaring it The Solution, but he does give out one A- for the Gaian Window explanation. A Rare-Earth hypothesis which basically states that stable biotic feedback loops are rare, which creates several narrow bottlenecks all of which we managed to pass through, but which no else has.

Rare-Earth explanations are fairly common, indeed that’s the explanation Webb favored in his book, and to be fair there’s a lot to be said for them as potential explanations, but in general they’re the least interesting of the possibilities. In recognition of this Ćirković includes a list of his subjective favorites, these are:

  • New Cosmogony (Grade: B)- I’ll discuss this in the next section.
  • Astrobiological Phase Transition (Grade: B)- Something we don’t understand makes life possible only relatively recently, and may in fact periodically reset things such that life has to start over.
  • Deadly Probes (Grade: B+, the next highest grade and the only B+ given)- There is a galactic ecosystem of self-replicating probes that destroy all intelligent life. I discussed this at some length in my Fermi’s Paradox and the Dark Forest post, and as always the question (which I think Ćirković doesn’t pay enough attention to) is, “What are they waiting for?”
  • Transcension Hypothesis (Grade: B-)- All advanced civilizations get reduced to information flows which are hard to detect, particularly if you don’t know the protocols.
  • Galactic Stomach Ache (Grade: C)- The removal of stress becomes the dominant preoccupation of civilizations, which not only absorbs all their resources, but also removes all the beneficial stress which dominated all pre-technological progress. As you can imagine I really like this explanation, so I’ll be talking about it next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.

I agree with Ćirković that these are some of the more interesting explanations, and I’m glad he lists his favorites even if subjectivity is discouraged in science because it somewhat lets me off the hook for spending so much time on my favorite explanation, which takes us into the second half of the episode.

Supernatural Explanations for the Paradox

In one of the quotes above, Ćirković asserts that the paradox is “the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science”. But one disciple he doesn’t want to bring to the table is the discipline of theology. Specifically he says early on that he’s going to hew to “methodological naturalism” in his search for explanations. This means that he is not going to “invoke supernatural agencies and capacities in searching for an explanation for observed phenomena”. This is entirely appropriate for a book of this sort, and I have no problem with this methodology. Also it’s to his credit that Ćirković unlike so many others at least acknowledges that there might be supernatural explanations which should be in the running, absent this restriction.  No the problem I have, and you knew there was one, is where do you draw the line between the supernatural and the natural?

Ćirković offers several explanations of the paradox where that line has been drawn very expansively. I’d like to look at three of his explanations, and in particular look at where he has drawn the line with each. I’ll will open each with Ćirković’s formal defining statement of the explanation:

Zoo Hypothesis: Advanced Galactic civilizations intentionally refrain from contacting newcomers for ethical reasons, reasons to do with security, or some other reasons (which would be incomprehensible to newcomers). We are located in the Galactic analogue of a zoo or a wilderness preserve—a chunk of space set aside for the low-level civilizations to evolve without interference. This no-contact policy extends to hiding traces and manifestations of their existence. We may be confident that they observe us, as we observe animals in a zoo, a lab, or a wilderness preserve, without us being aware of the fact.

This is one of the more common explanations for the paradox, frequently encountered in popular culture, for example Star Trek’s Prime Directive. According to this explanation our observation of the rest of the universe is being severely restricted. Would it be fair to say it’s unnaturally restricted? Certainly it’s unnatural to stick animals in a zoo or even a wilderness preserve. I could see an objection in jumping from unnatural to supernatural, but at the very least this explanation places limits on our ability to use methodological naturalism to get to the bottom of the paradox, because that methodology is being subverted by our “zoo-keepers”.

The New Cosmogony: Very early cosmic civilizations (…billions of years older than humanity) have advanced so much that their artefacts and their very existence are indistinguishable from ‘natural’ processes observed in the universe. Their information processing is distributed in the environment on so low a level that we perceive it as operations of the laws of physics. Their long-term plans include manipulation of these very laws in order to create new stages of cosmological evolution. Since the whole of the observable reality is, thus, partly artificial, there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Many posts ago I talked about Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. Sagan was deeply interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and appears frequently in Ćirković’s book. “Contact” was his book about SETI, and as a bonus it also gave a fictional answer to the paradox. This answer was what you might expect with a few exceptions, most notably he introduces aliens that are so powerful they can embed a code in pi, such that once you calculate it out to a few billion digits, it turns into a binary code. You can perhaps see why this explanation which involves manipulating the laws of physics reminded me of the novel. But whether it appears in Sagan’s book or Ćirković’s the question we care about is whether this explanation might be supernatural. In my opinion, something which allows you to manipulate the laws of nature is by definition supernatural.

Simulation Hypothesis: Physical reality we observe is, in fact a simulation created by Programmers of an underlying, true reality and run on the advanced computers of that underlying reality. Due to a form of principle of indifference, we cannot ever hope to establish the simulated nature of our world, provided that the Programmers do not reveal their presence. As a parenthetical consequence, the simulation is set up in order to study a rather limited spatio-temporal volume, presumably centered on Earth—there are no simulated extraterrestrial intelligent beings, so there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Another explanation that gets mentioned a lot, and also appears in popular culture, particularly The Matrix. I would assume here that the explanation’s supernatural character is obvious. Not only are “Programmers” gods in all but name, they have also specifically set up an unnatural reality where the laws of physics as we understand them would lead to you expect extraterrestrials, but the Programmers have chosen to leave them out of the simulation, which is hard to label as anything other than a supernatural act. Certainly it appears difficult to apply “methodological naturalism” to the question since nature is entirely what the programmers have decided it should be.

Difficult, but perhaps not impossible, and there have been various proposals over the years for ways we might be able to tell. And I assume that this is the argument most people would summon to create a dividing line between the natural and the supernatural, the dividing line of falsifiability. Which all of these explanations share, at least in theory. In the first, if at some future point we have spread out across the galaxy without encountering any zoo-keepers then that explanation would appear to be false. In the second, the task is a little more difficult, but as Ćirković points out it doesn’t provide a very good explanation for why there are no extraterrestrials technologically between us and those aliens with the power to rewrite physical laws. And I’ve already linked to some attempts to falsify the third explanation.

At this point I am perfectly comfortable declaring that there are certainly some religious explanations which are too supernatural to deserve discussion. Anyone offering up the explanation that the entire universe is only a little over 6000 years old and thus extraterrestrials wouldn’t have time to develop, should not be taken seriously. But that is not what I’m claiming. My explanation, if rendered in the same fashion as the others in the book might run as follows:

God Exists: As expected aliens do exist, and their technology is vastly superior to ours, so much so that it appears miraculous. In order to pass this technology along they need to ensure we will use it responsibly. Existence, as we recognize it, is a test of this. This test is similar to current proposals to minimize AI Risk. And similarly a full understanding of both the test and the alien’s existence would invalidate it. Accordingly they act more subtly through things like miracles and prayer. All of which is to say, that aliens exist, they do communicate with us, Therefore, there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Stated this way I would argue that it sounds similar to all of his other proposed explanations, there’s nothing that sets it apart as being especially supernatural, particularly when compared to the other explanations I just quoted. Some people may object to the fact that I entirely leave out life after death (and in the LDS case life before birth) which is both central to the majority of religions and definitely a supernatural element, but is not the same thing possible, even likely under the Simulation Hypothesis? And yet Ćirković not only includes it, but gives it a B- grade in his assessment of how seriously it should be considered.

As far as falsifiability, I would submit that it does even better here. Most of the explanations given above are only weakly falsifiable, and in fact have a resistance to falsifiability built right into the explanation. It is not any piece of evidence, but rather a lack of evidence, that makes us think Zookeepers and Programmers might exist. On the other hand I can think of at least three straightforward ways for the God Exists explanation to be falsified:

  1. Under Christian eschatology (the one I am most familiar with and the one that fits best with the God Exists explanation) we read concerning Christ’s second coming, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” That said, I think everyone would agree that if it’s going to happen it should happen in the next few hundred years. Let’s round that up to a thousand. I will happily say that if Christ doesn’t return by 3018 that Christians are wrong about everything, including any ways in which Christianity might explain Fermi’s Paradox.
  2. As I mentioned above one of the more interesting things Ćirković points out is that the mere detection of a single alien signal would not resolve the stronger versions of Fermi’s Paradox, though it would falsify some explanations. The God Exists explanation is one of those, and to falsify it we would merely need to detect one other set of intelligent aliens anywhere. Note that none of the other three examples would be falsified by this. (Though, in theory these aliens could have a religion which corresponds to the God Exists explanation of the paradox in which case their discovery would push things the other way, and make the explanation far more likely.)
  3. The God Exists explanation makes several predictions about how things should work. As one example, for it to be true, traditional religious morality would have to have some long term value, even in the face of steadily advancing technology. If 500 years from now all religious societies have been decisively out competed by secular societies, then it would follow that we’d have good reason to reject the God Exists explanation (as well as most of the other claims of religion.) As I discussed in a previous post, the societal benefits of religion are often overlooked. As a more recent example of that, I refer you to the study showing that religion is better than cognitive-based therapy (one of the most recommended forms of treatment) for treating the most depressed.

I’m tempted at this point to give my explanation a grade, but obviously I’m not even close to being objective enough. Perhaps Ćirković will check in and do it for me. I suspect it will be lower than I would like, because even though he calls for greater attention for even radical ideas, this explanation is still probably both too supernatural and too anti-Copernican for his tastes.

I’ve already covered the supernatural angle, so I’ll close by discussing whether the explanation is anti-Copernican. It is true that most religious cosmologies are anti-Copernican. People are quick to point out that this was literally true during the time of Galileo. But here LDS/Mormon cosmology is different. It’s profoundly Copernican. It doesn’t think there’s anything special about Earth, or humanity. In the LDS version of Genesis, God tells Moses that he has created “worlds without number” and that all of them are inhabited. I would be surprised if Ćirković found this to be a very satisfying answer, but it does technically resolve that objection. And as to Ćirković’s more practical concern that latent anti-Copernicanism is fatally undermining SETI efforts, I would argue that LDS cosmology is not contributing to that. All the Mormons I know are excited by the idea.

Many of the explanations involve aliens with godlike powers and motivations, and I for one think injecting a little god and religion into the process is therefore entirely appropriate.


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Stubborn Attachments vs. The Vulnerable World and Fermi’s Paradox

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Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence, which I have referred to more than once in this space.

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

As an example of a “black ball technology” Bostrom asks us to imagine a hypothetical alternate history:

On the grey London morning of September 12, 1933, Leo Szilard was reading the newspaper when he came upon a report of an address recently delivered by the distinguished Lord Rutherford, now often considered the father of nuclear physics. In his speech, Rutherford had dismissed the idea of extracting useful energy from nuclear reactions as “moonshine”. This claim so annoyed Szilard that he went out for a walk. During the walk he got the idea of a nuclear chain reaction—the basis for both nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. Later investigations showed that making an atomic weapon requires several kilograms of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, both of which are very difficult and expensive to produce. However, suppose it had turned out otherwise: that there had been some really easy way to unleash the energy of the atom—say, by sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass.

Having asked us to imagine this alternate history Bostrom asks us to further imagine what would have happened to the world had this been the case. I suspect most of us have a hard time imagining anything other chaos and anarchy.

This is the “Vulnerable World Hypothesis” (VWH) from the title. The hypothesis that somewhere in the urn there is a black ball (and probably more than one). Sure, nuclear weapons ended up being difficult to create, but perhaps engineering new, highly infectious diseases will be as easy as ”sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass”. If there is a black ball in the urn, then the worry is that if we keep drawing from the urn eventually we’ll pull it out, and as I said, the game will be over.

Once you start thinking about this idea, there are some interesting (and frankly frightening) possibilities. One of the things that Bostrom doesn’t go into very much is that the shade of the ball might change after being drawn. To begin with when you do research It’s not always clear what sort of technology you’re going to end up with. For example when Roentgen stumbled on X-rays, that ball may have looked a little greyish, but once their medicinal application became apparent the color of the “X-ray ball” ended up being very white.

One consequence of this, is that in addition to not being able to choose the shade of the ball before we draw, the balls can change color the longer they’re out. You can draw a ball which looks bright white and ends up getting darker and darker the longer the technology is in use. Certainly some people would argue that coal falls into this category. (The gradually darkening of the ball being appropriate in this example.) When people first started burning coal the ball must have seemed pretty white, but now there are at least as many people who think it’s going to destroy the planet (and very few people think it’s great.)

Social media is definitely not as black as coal (pun intended), but I think everyone agrees that it’s getting grayer with every passing year. It’s hard to imagine it will go all the way to black, but once again this illustrates that it’s impossible, if you’re actually drawing balls to not draw ones that are bad because even after you draw them the shade may not be apparent, possibly for decades, or in the case of coal, centuries. Thus even if you think that somehow humanity will coordinate in some amazing and unprecedented way if a true black ball is drawn, we might not know until it’s too late.

As you might imagine this metaphor is not encouraging. The only way humanity avoids drawing a black ball, and thus “losing the game” is if they stop drawing, or if there are no black balls. The first seems possible but very, very, unlikely, though as unlikely as the first one is the idea that there are no black balls seems even more unlikely. I am reminded of Taleb’s Black Swan, just because the only swans you’ve ever seen are white doesn’t mean there aren’t any black swans, but of course this situation is even worse. It’s not as if we have only drawn white balls so far, and can thus plausibly hope that’s all there are. We have already drawn many balls that are very, very grey (thermonuclear weapons anyone?) and many of the balls are getting darker with each passing year.

Interestingly at around the same time as I came across Bostrom’s paper, I also finished reading Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen. You could consider this book a companion to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (and Cowen mentions that book approvingly). Whereas Enlightenment Now’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t abandon the ideals of the enlightenment, Cowen’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t take our eyes off the ball of economic growth. As you might imagine the VWH doesn’t fit in very well with either model, but in particular Cowen could be said to be advocating not only that we continue to draw balls from the urn, but that we increase the speed at which we do so.

If we set aside the VWH for a moment, Cowen’s focus on growth, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, makes quite a bit of sense, and it’s worth laying out the case for it. Here’s the books own summary:

Growth is good. Through history, economic growth in particular has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun.

Cowen is not claiming that growth makes everyone better at the same rate, or that there aren’t pockets of problems. Rather, his claim is that if you compare the world of today with the world 200 years ago that basically everything is better, even if there are individual years within that span that were worse than the previous year. Over a long enough time horizon all the problems of unequal distribution and outcomes are eventually solved..

Some people would counter that modernity has brought a decrease in contentment and happiness, but Cowen argues that this is just a problem with the way we describe happiness.

To give an example, if you ask the people of Kenya how happy they are with their health, you’ll get a pretty high rate of reported satisfaction, not so different from the rate in the healthier countries, and in fact higher than the reported rate of satisfaction in the United States. The correct conclusion is not that Kenyan hospitals possess hidden virtues or that malaria is absent in Kenya, but rather that Kenyans have recalibrated their use of language to reflect what they can reasonably expect from their daily experiences.

In other words happiness is relative, but in absolute terms Americans are way better off than Kenyans. And that this is because of economic growth. This is an important point for Cowen to clarify, and beyond that, there are of course all manner of nooks and crannies to his arguments. For example, he makes a big deal of preserving certain rights and values even if they conflict with maximizing growth. He also has interesting things to say about charitable giving and redistribution, but I don’t have the space to cover most of them. There is however one concept of his which I do need to bring up because it’s so central to the rest of the book, his idea of “Wealth Plus”.

Wealth Plus: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

Thus when Cowen talks about maximizing growth, he’s talking about maximizing Wealth Plus. Which means he doesn’t think people should work fourteen-hour days, nor does he think it’s a good idea to destroy the environment. In fact to his credit Cowen advocates for very low time preference, something we share. And, insofar as leisure time, and amenities and traditional wealth contribute to happiness, maximizing Wealth Plus generates happiness as a useful byproduct.

Recently I have become more and more convinced that one of the central tensions in the modern world is the tension between the values of happiness and survival. Now, Cowen goes to great pains to say that he is not trying to maximize a single value:

…I hold pluralism as a core moral intuition. What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value. It’s not all about beauty or all about justice or all about happiness.

But then he also explicitly says that he wants to maximize Wealth Plus, and as I just pointed out even if Wealth Plus is not a “single value” there is a lot of overlap between it and happiness. Also you’ll notice that survival is not mentioned in his list of potential values, either. And of course all of this takes us back to Bostrom and the urn.

It would appear that regardless of whether Wealth Plus is shorthand for happiness or not, it explicitly calls for us to draw out new balls at an ever faster rate, particularly given Cowen’s assertion that “technological progress [is] a major factor behind U.S. economic growth.”

All of this leaves us with a few possibilities:

1- We stop drawing balls. This would certainly allow us to avoid any black balls, but it’s hard to imagine how we would continue to experience any economic growth let alone the level of growth that Cowen is advocating. Also I can’t imagine any world where the policies necessary to make this happen would be implemented, even assuming they could be enforced.

2- We keep drawing balls, but we implement draconian measures to prevent black balls from truly “ending the game”. This is the suggestion Bostrom puts forth in the paper, and in fact it forms part of his definition:

VWH: If technological development continues then a set of capabilities will at some point be attained that make the devastation of civilization extremely likely, unless civilization sufficiently exits the semi-anarchic default condition.

He then goes on to define “semi-anarchic default condition” as a world characterized by three features:

a) Limited capacity for preventive policing.

b) Limited capacity for global governance.

c) Diverse motivations.

I obviously don’t have the space to go into these three features, but his recommendations end up being quite extreme (think 1984’s Big Brother only worse). They may perhaps be more feasible than stopping technological development all together, but not by much. Making this possibility only slightly more probable than possibility number one.

3- We keep drawing balls, but there are no black balls in the urn. There is no technology that will irrevocably end humanity. For example, I mentioned thermonuclear weapons above, but perhaps their actual effect was to make war so unthinkable that it never happens again (meaning they were actually a white ball.) Or maybe even if there is a nuclear war perhaps over a long enough time horizon it would end up being just be a bump in the road, not any kind of hard stop. I think this is the option most people hope for, though I doubt there is much conscious choice involved. I have some thoughts on how to evaluate the probability of this option, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I suspect it’s lower than most people think.

Thus far none of these possibilities seems especially promising, and none seem to play very well with Cowen’s growth-will-fix-everything model, but perhaps that’s exactly the point perhaps that’s the fourth possibility:

4- Growth will fix everything even the existence of a black ball. Back under possibility number two Bostrom claims that the VWH is only a worry as long as we are in a semi-anarchic state. In an analogous fashion perhaps VWH is also only a worry if you haven’t experienced enough growth or if your rate of growth is too slow. Perhaps the best example of this: many VWH possibilities go away once we have self-sustaining populations on two planets. And it’s also possible that most black balls have a white ball which negates them, we just need to develop it. Returning one more time to nuclear weapons, some have made the argument that once submarine launched nukes were available they provided a guaranteed second strike capability. This made nuclear weapons functionally unusable because the initial aggressor couldn’t guarantee they would escape without retaliation. It could then be argued that nuclear weapons were only a “black ball” during the period between their invention and the invention of submarine launched missiles.]

Perhaps we need to add another shade of ball to the game. A pure white ball, which, when drawn, permanently wins the game once and for all. Perhaps something like creating an omnipotent AI which would fulfill all three of Bostrom’s criteria for moving us out of a semi-anarchic state.

What this means is that even though Cowen’s plan has us drawing balls out of the urn as fast as possible, it might actually be the safest plan, because it leads to the shortest time between a black ball and the white ball which counters it. And if there is a pure white ball we draw it as soon as possible as well. Perhaps this plan will work. Maybe there is a potential future where we can have our cake and eat it to. That focusing on economic growth/happiness is also the best way to ensure our survival as well.

That seems too good to be true, but how can we know? Is there any method which would allow us to evaluate the probability that there are no black balls or that if we just grow fast enough we can counter all the black balls with “defensive” technology, or that pure white balls exist?

Well one thing that would certainly help is if we could point to the example of someone else who had done it. And here we return to our old friend Fermi’s Paradox. Which once again, instead of giving us hope for the future, leads us to the exact opposite conclusion. Could VWH be just one more explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, and further an explanation which puts the Great Filter ahead of us rather than behind us? That black balls exist and that all civilizations eventually draw one, and that’s why we’re alone in the universe?

Long time readers of the blog will know that my preferred explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is that aliens are out there, but they’re so advanced that we just call them “God”. It’s not my intent to revisit that argument here, but it does give us one final possibility:

5- Someone is in charge of the game. If we return to considering possibility number three, the idea that there are no black balls just by chance, that somehow the universe is randomly set up such that there is definitely very destructive technology, but it’s always just this side of being too destructive. This seems suspiciously convenient, also unlikely, particularly when you toss in Fermi’s Paradox. But if you consider my explanation for the paradox, or even religion more generally, there is the possibility that someone is running the game, and it’s designed such that at least some people will eventually “win”. Obviously this takes us into the realm of theology, but that objection aside, I think you’ll agree that it’s clearly the most hopeful of all the possibilities. Of course, there are many people who can’t put this objection aside, which would mean our best hope is possibility four.

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, my very first post talked about being in a race between a beneficial singularity and technological catastrophe. Possibility number four brings us back to the same spot, a race of drawing balls as quickly as possible and hoping we either draw a pure white ball, or that each black ball we draw is quickly negated by a white ball. The only hint we have as to whether this plan will succeed is Fermi’s Paradox, and if it has any predictive power at all we have to assume that this is a race we’re probably going to lose.

Next week I will return to Fermi’s Paradox. I’m continually amazed by how many subjects eventually end up being touched by it, and even though I’ve spent plenty of time talking about it already, we’re going to be talking about it again. I just finished another book on the subject which has revealed even more nooks and crannies to explore.


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SlateStarCodex and Providing Intellectual Cover

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One of my friends was in town for a visit last week. I had been looking forward to the visit, but I was also nervous. I had apparently written some things in this space that set him off, but I wasn’t 100% clear on what they were. When I had tried talking to him about it he said he couldn’t respond until he understood my intended audience. Which seemed strange, but I tried telling him that I mostly write for myself. That, apparently, wasn’t good enough, so after going back and forth a little bit more on it, I told him I would be happy if I could appeal to the same people who enjoyed Scott Alexander and Slate Star Codex. At that point I got the feeling that he had been waiting for this admission, and proceeded to call the whole lot of us “white supremacists” and not “the cute kind”, whatever that means.

That’s a fairly radioactive accusation, but also one that, currently, gets tossed out at the drop of a hat, and applied far too broadly, as well. Which is to say I could certainly imagine nearly anyone getting accused of that, particularly a white male like myself. But I would also expect the person leveling the accusation to identify as progressive, or otherwise hail from the left-side of the political spectrum, which my friend does not.

See, that was the confusing part. This friend of mine is, or at least was, very conservative. My impression is he voted for Trump (at a minimum he attended some Trump rallies). He was excited by the idea of Brexit (I was on Skype with him the night of the vote). And a non-trivial percentage of my previous conversations with him had consisted of railing against liberals. Though, on the other hand, he was getting his PhD in rhetoric, and in connection with that he was on the faculty of the University’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Department. Which, let’s be honest, would be a hard position to maintain for someone who was staunchly conservative. Indeed, whenever I told people about my staunchly conservative friend, the Women Studies professor, they were always baffled.

Perhaps now you can understand why I was nervous about his visit. I don’t think I have a problem being friends with people from nearly any place on the political spectrum. But not knowing where he currently falls on that spectrum was kind of like being invited to a debate without knowing what side I was supposed to take, while also being unclear on the subject to be debated.

Fortunately, as I kind of hoped, being able to talk face to face was enough to mostly clear things up. Yes, he is still pretty conservative. For example, he mentioned that he watched CNN on election night because if the night had gone against the Democrats he wanted to be able to watch the panic, and experience the associated schadenfreude in real time. He felt that Acosta crossed a line with the White House intern, and he was glad Beto O’Rourke lost. But of course all this didn’t necessarily resolve my confusion, I still had to reconcile his accusations both with my behavior and with his actual ideology.

To cut to the chase, apparently his problem with me, and with Slate Star Codex, and the rationality community as a whole was that we provide intellectual cover for bad people. And before I get too deeply into things I should mention I don’t consider myself to be part of the rationalist community (and in fact I’ve frequently been critical of them) and I definitely don’t want to take any undeserved credit for their accomplishments, or saddle them with any of my many faults. However, according to my friend we’re all guilty of this same crime.

The obvious next question is who are these bad people and how do we provide intellectual cover for them. While he brought up the subject of “white supremacists” in our initial conversation online. In person we mostly talked about Men’s Rights Activists (MRA for short), as the bad people in question. I’m still confused about the white supremacist accusation, but perhaps that will have to wait until his next visit. (Also in terms of providing cover there isn’t Trump doing far more of that then a couple of bloggers?)

There is one problem with making this switch. Most people have no problem understanding why white supremacists are bad people, but they may be unfamiliar with the MRA movement. They’re mostly what the title would suggest, sort of the male version of a feminist, but obviously we’re not interested in a bland or neutral take on things. We’re interested in the ways that they’re bad people. For a sense of that, let me quote from the criticism section of the relevant Wikipedia article:

The men’s rights movement has been criticized for exhibiting misogynistic tendencies. The Southern Poverty Law Center has stated that while some of the websites, blogs and forums related to the movement “voice legitimate and sometimes disturbing complaints about the treatment of men, what is most remarkable is the misogynistic tone that pervades so many”. After further research into the movement, the SPLC elaborated: “A thinly veiled desire for the domination of women and a conviction that the current system oppresses men in favor of women are the unifying tenets of the male supremacist worldview.”

Professor Ruth M. Mann of the University of Windsor in Canada suggests that men’s rights groups fuel an international rhetoric of hatred and victimization by disseminating misinformation via online forums and websites containing constantly-updated “diatribes against feminism, ex-wives, child support, shelters, and the family law and criminal justice systems”

These are the bad people my friend is worried about, though in our conversation, I think he was most worried about one specific argument MRA advocates make on the aforementioned forums and websites: the argument that evil women are “withholding” sex and love from “worthy” males.

With the bad people identified let’s move on to a discussion of how I and others might be providing intellectual cover. Like most people on most issues my friend’s sense of the other side’s arguments seemed vague. (I’m sure I’m guilty of this myself.) Which is to say, he didn’t provide any concrete examples. He, nevertheless, brought up an interesting point, and I’d like to steelman it as much as possible. Accordingly, on his behalf, I’ll be providing the three best examples I can find, of posts which could be construed as providing intellectual cover for the MRA. One example will be from SlateStarCodex, one will be from Robin Hanson, and one will be from this blog. (Should you feel there are better examples leave them in the comments.)

Starting with SSC, it was difficult to choose just one post. There’s his Untitled post, which he considers his most controversial post about feminism. There’s his post Lies, Damned Lies, and Social Media (Part 5 of ∞) where he discusses false rape allegations. And then there’s his post I Do Not Understand “Rape Culture” where he argues that there really isn’t a culture of rape. But I think I will actually cover his post Radicalizing the Romanceless, since it seems most on point to the “evil women…worthy males” narrative.

Near the beginning of the post Alexander tells the story of, Henry, a patient he was treating who was picked up by the police for beating his fifth wife. When questioned, he admitted to beating the first four as well. And more interestingly the reason he was beating his fifth wife is that she was yelling at him for cheating on her with one of his ex-wife’s, yes one of the ones who already divorced him because he was violent. Obviously this guy is both not a “worthy male” nor does he have any problem getting women.

I’ve been using the term “worthy males” but another, far more common, phrase you’ll encounter a lot on the internet is “nice guy” as in “I’m a nice guy why won’t girls go out with me?” Alexander says that growing up he was a “nice guy”, not in any kind of absolute or cosmic sense, just that he was nicer than Henry. But contrary to Henry, who as we have seen had no problem attracting numerous women Alexander made it to 25 without ever having been on a date. And unsurprisingly this seemed unfair to him. He didn’t think he deserved to date any specific girl, he just felt that overall he shouldn’t be doing way, way, way worse with girls than a guy like Henry, a literal wife beater.

So here we have a nice guy, who could be said to feel entitled to some success with women. And how do feminists react to this? Well, Alexander then goes on to excerpt from four feminist websites (Jezebel, XOJane, Feminspire, and feministe) all of which basically declare “nice guys” to be infuriating, pathetic, worthy of mockery and in general horrible. In other words it could be argued that this post puts forth exactly the ideology mentioned above, that evil women are “withholding” sex and love from “worthy” males. Which is exactly what my friend was claiming. Now to be clear I think this vastly oversimplifies the point of Alexander’s post, and I’ll be returning to that, but at its core this is my friend’s argument.

Moving on to Robin Hanson. His example is more recent, and you may have heard of it, given that it ended up being national news and was mentioned in Slate, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the NYT (as an opinion piece by Ross Douthat).

It all started with a blog post, though a tweet about that post may have poured fuel on the fire. The tweet said:

Those w/ less access to sex plausibly suffer simiarly(sic) to those with low income, & might similarly hope to organize to lobby for redistribution along this axis. Strikingly, I see little overlap between those concerned about income & sex inequality.

This was written after the Toronto Van Attack by Alek Minassian, a self-proclaimed incel (involuntarily celibate) which ended up killing 10 people. And that attack was mentioned in the associated blog post, so the connection to worthy males being denied sex was obvious. As far as the “evil females” part goes, that’s less explicit, but certainly someone is preventing discussion of sexual inequality, and feminists would seem to be the obvious candidates for that. Also this is the incident I ended up discussing most deeply with my friend and he was of the opinion that the whole topic of sexual inequality was territory which was well covered by feminist intellectuals and that Hanson was opinining about things without reading the relevant literature on the other side. So one way or another it’s not hard to infer an “evil women” angle to the whole thing.

Which I guess takes us to me. While I am reasonably confident everyone I’ve mentioned thus far would confidently assert that they never intended to claim that evil women are denying sex to worthy males, I am absolutely confident that that was never my intention. But once again we’re looking more at the concept of providing intellectual cover than direct advocacy, which could come about without direct intention. Along those lines, if we’re examining my potential culpability, I do have a post called Should All Incels Be Killed Immediately or Just Banished Forever? This was mostly written in response to what happened to Hanson. Though I did go fairly deep into the idea of a sexual underclass. In particular mentioning that I knew people who almost certainly belonged in that category.

In the course of the discussion with my friend I mentioned these acquaintances, and, to his credit, his stance immediately softened. This is not surprising, it’s easy to be mad at faceless internet mobs and hard to be mad at individuals. The same thing happens to me. But to be clear I do believe there is a large sexual underclass; I was advocating for them; and I do think the actions of certain militant individuals, a disproportionate number of whom are militants of the feminist variety, make things harder for this underclass. Meaning I probably fall into the same bucket as Alexander and Hanson. Whatever that bucket is.

Have we now reached the point where we can declare that my friend was right, that we are providing intellectual cover for the MRA movement? I’m sure he might answer yes, but I don’t think the answer is nearly so clear cut, and thus far I have used the term “intellectual cover” without really explaining what it might mean.

In the conversation with my friend he offered up the example of eugenics, and laid out the following pattern: You might have an idea which starts out being uncontroversial (indeed it’s hard to find a public figure in the early years of the 20th century who didn’t support eugenics.) But, later it becomes apparent that this idea can be taken to an unfortunate extreme. In the case of eugenics this happened under Hitler and the Nazis. The same public figures, who previously supported eugenics, recognized the harm that came from the idea, and abandoned their former support. (Whether they did this out of principle or political necessity is something we didn’t get into.)

He argues that we’re seeing the same thing with the examples I gave and the MRA. If I’m understanding him correctly, his point is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with speaking up for the sexual underclass, until it becomes apparent that speaking up in this way emboldens men’s rights activists and incels who then go on to rape women and drive vans into crowds, and that just as eugenics advocacy stopped once it became clear what Hitler was doing, our advocacy (such as it is) should stop now that it’s become clear how bad the MRA and incel movement is.

As an aside it’s interesting to do a Hansonian substitution in that last paragraph, and imagine that we were talking about advocacy for the poor and underprivileged being fine until they resort to violence (as they frequently have) at which point all advocacy has to stop. Of course people are free to argue that the substitution is invalid, because there is no sexual underclass (though what else would you call adults with no access to sex?) or because there is, but they are privileged in other ways that make up for it. And maybe one or the other of those is true.

Beyond the problems of applying the pattern to advocacy for the less fortunate (recall that Eugenics was about culling the less fortunate not helping them) there are many other problems with comparing the MRA and incels to Hitler and the Nazis:

  1. It’s immediately suspect as being a Reductio ad Hitlerum argument.
  2. However bad you think the MRA and militant incels are, the Nazis were literally millions of times worse.
  3. What other examples are there of this pattern outside of eugenics and the Nazis? You might mention racism and the Confederacy. But once again, millions of times worse.
  4. There is at least one example where an ideology caused greater harm than that caused by the Nazis, but that ideology is not off limits. Of course I’m thinking of the example of communism.

If I believe that abortion is murder (or at least a close cousin, which I do) and that certain flavors of strident feminists have increased the rate of abortion (which I also believe, though accurate numbers are hard to come by) then you might put feminism in the same bucket with communism as things we can discuss despite the harm they’ve caused.

I am reasonably certain (though here we are outside the bounds of the things he and I discussed) that my friend would have argued that feminism causes very little harm, and that the harm it does cause is entirely outweighed by the good it does. Being fairly conservative he probably wouldn’t make the same argument about communism (though as far as I can tell MRAs and incels make him much angrier than communists) but there are obviously lots of people who still support communist ideology despite all the deaths.

If we switch from the argument that MRAs and incels do bad things to the argument that the things they do are so bad that it outweighs any conceivable benefit, then that’s a different argument, with a higher standard. Also recall, that my friend’s initial point was not that the people in question are men’s rights activist, but rather that we provide intellectual cover for people who define themselves as such. Meaning the harms he is so worried about are even harder to lay at our feet. Also note that we don’t have to show that MRAs and incels do more good than bad on net, we only need to show that the second order effects of being sympathetic to lovelorn nerds are a net positive.

On the bad side of the equation, have any of the people mentioned (myself included) actually done something objectively wrong?  Can you point to anyone in the community who has committed violence? Anyone who as advocated for violence? On this point, and in the interest of continuing to steelman things, at one point Hanson does say that inequalities of any sort all do frequently lead to violence, but that’s a far cry from calling for violence.

The main bad thing my friend pointed to, as I mentioned above, was speaking without first educating ourselves. Of holding forth on the subject of feminists and sexual inequality without knowing the latest thinking on the subject. And while I disagree with the assertion that, Robin Hanson, for instance, knew nothing about the topic, I wonder if my friend is falling into a similar trap, of not being entirely educated about the sort of advocacy that is happening in the posts I’ve used as examples. And here we turn to the good side of the equation.

As I’ve already made it clear in my previous post I do think there is a sexual underclass. And that some of the people in that underclass are quite literally worthy males and nice guys. The form I’m most familiar with are the socially awkward nerds. Let’s take the experiences of one of them, Scott Aaronson, who could have been used as an example of a blogger providing intellectual cover, but makes a better example as the kind of person we’re actually hoping to support:

(sigh) Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me. In a different social context—for example, that of my great-grandparents in the shtetl—I would have gotten married at an early age and been completely fine.

Now, the whole time I was struggling with this, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away from them. I reminded myself, every day, that no, there’s no conspiracy to make the world a hell for shy male nerds. There are only individual women and men trying to play the cards they’re dealt, and the confluence of their interests sometimes leads to crappy outcomes. No woman “owes” male nerds anything; no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals; everyone’s free choice demands respect.

That I managed to climb out of the pit with my feminist beliefs mostly intact, you might call a triumph of abstract reason over experience. But I hope you now understand why I might feel “only” 97% on board with the program of feminism.

I wish I could say that the feminist portion of the internet reached out to Aaronson with compassion and understanding, but, unsurprisingly, that did not happen.

I think I can confidently say that none of the people I mentioned are claiming that worthy males or nice guys are being denied sex that’s rightfully theirs by evil women/feminist. As you can see from the above quote they’re actually going out of their way to say the opposite. But surely, the kind of experience Aaronson (and others) are having should not be off limits for discussion. Even if my friend is right about the intellectual cover argument, and I don’t think he is, how cruel would you have to be to hear a story like Aaronson’s and respond by telling him to “Shut up!”


Unlike Aaronson not only are you welcome to tell me to “Shut up!” It’s something that probably needs to happen more. But yes it is probably still rude, so if you want to consider softening the blow, considering donating at the same time. Maybe you’ll confuse me as much as my friend did.


Is the World Coming Together or Splitting Apart?

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I ended the last post promising to talk about a future dominated by the clash of civilizations. Some of you may have picked up that that was a reference to the book of the same name published in 1996 by Samuel Huntington. The books full title is The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. When I came up with the idea to write about Midler’s book on China, I realized that it would dovetail right into Huntington’s book, so immediately after finishing What’s Wrong with China I read (actually listened) to Clash of Civilizations. And while I don’t know that you need to read both books in exactly that fashion, the connection is very interesting.

My recollection is that when the book first came out Huntington got a lot of grief for his emphasis on the coming clash between Islam and the West. But he also predicted significant friction between the West and China, which wasn’t commented on as much but may have ended up being more important. And having read Midler’s book (and to reiterate I have no particular expertise on Islam or China) I think in the end China may end up posing the greater problem. The big difference being that the Chinese civilization has, what Huntington calls a “Core State”, while Islam does not. This makes China less inclined to random acts of terrorist violence, but far more unified in whatever actions they do take. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where I’d really like to begin is to look at Clash of Civilizations from something of a historical context. The book, as I mentioned, came out in 1996 but the article on which it was based was published in 1993. This was, as you’ll recall, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and people were trying to figure out what this meant for the future. Two broad theories were advanced. There was Huntington’s of course, and then there was Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History, published in 1992, which advanced a very different theory, and which I’ve mentioned several times in this space. To be clear, I suspect that I’m too hard on Fukuyama, and that there are nuances which I’m missing, and ways in which it was more accurate than I give it credit for. That said if you were going to declare a winner out of the two views I don’t see any way to not declare Huntington the victor.

As you might be able to tell from the title Fukuyama asserted that the future would be fundamentally different than the past. Conspiracy theorist caricaturize this as the New World Order. (Oftentimes referencing the speech by Bush Sr.) I don’t think it ended up being quite as menacing as they thought. In fact, I think it would have been nice if there had in fact been a new world order, and for a while in the 90s it appeared as if there might be, but I think it’s evident now that it was at best a temporary transition period between the ideological conflict which defined the Cold War back to the civilizational conflict which has dominated the rest of human history. A small breather between rounds in a boxing match rather than the start of something long-lasting or genuinely different. Though I think some people still hold out hope that it’s the reverse that what we’re looking at is the last gasp of pre-modern sectarian strife before we finally make the full transition to a true global, universal culture.

As I said, I think it’s clear that the evidence is heavily in favor of Huntington. But the idea that as our world becomes more interconnected we are gradually transitioning to a universal culture, has some evidence on it’s side as well. And it’s always been one of the principal objections to Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Consequently he devotes a chapter of his book to answering it and identifies four ways in which the term is meant:

First it might be referring to the idea that humanity has a universal morality. It is true that nearly all cultures are opposed to murder and in favor of families, etc. But this has so far not prevented any wars between those cultures. If you’re looking for an argument against a clash of civilizations, then this is a fatal flaw.

Second there’s the advance of civilization, increasing literacy, urbanization, and other forms of progress. Once again this is true, but irrelevant to a discussion of civilizational conflict.

Third, and what most people, including Fukuyama, mean by the idea, is a civilization based on a recognizable set of western values like liberal democracy, market economies, individual rights, etc. Huntington actually prefers to call this the Davos Culture, after the annual gathering in Switzerland, which may be a more accurate description. The key problem Huntington points out with this idea, and one of the reasons why he prefers to call it the Davos Culture is that it’s largely only shared among the elites of a society:

Davos people control virtually all international institutions, many of the world’s governments and the bulk of the world’s economic and military capabilities. The Davos Culture hence is tremendously important. Worldwide, however, how many people share this culture? Outside the West, it is probably shared by less than 50 million people or 1 percent of the world’s population and perhaps by as few as one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population. It is far from a universal culture, and the leaders who share in the Davos Culture do not necessarily have a secure grip on power in their own societies… its roots are shallow…

He specifically talks about how many people share the culture outside of the West, but when one considers the election of Trump and Brexit are we sure how many people share it even inside of the West?

The fourth thing people mean when they talk about universal culture is entertainment culture and in particular the dominance of Hollywood movies and Western music (not to be confused with country music). This may be the strongest claim for a universal culture. Because, while the Davos Culture may be limited to a small elite, Hollywood is making almost as much money in China as they make in the US, despite the fact, as I pointed out in my last post, that their culture is otherwise very different.

It used to be said that two democracies have never gone to war. That’s not entirely true, but along those lines can we say that two countries who both enjoy the same movies have ever gone to war? My guess is that they probably do go to war (particularly if Inglorious Bastards is to be believed.) And as Huntington points out, it’s very easy to find young men, say in Iraq. Who wear jeans, drink coca-cola, enjoy Marvel movies, and are still plotting to kill Americans. Furthermore when you look at places like Iraq, Iran and Turkey, are they more or less western culturally than they were 30 years ago?

Speaking of Turkey, their example is an interesting one. I don’t have the time to go into any great depth on it, but basically, in the wake of World War I, Kemal Ataturk rebuilt Turkish society along a western, secular, democratic model. If there was a poster child for transitioning to a universal culture, Turkey was it, and yet if you look at Turkey today, you’ll see a society that’s becoming less democratic, less secular, and less western (particularly if you count freedom of press and speech as a core western value). This is despite it being more modern in most other respects. As Huntington points out:

Modernization, in short, does not necessarily mean Westernization. Non-Western societies can modernize and have modernized without abandoning their own cultures and adopting wholesale Western values, institutions and practices. The latter, indeed, may be almost impossible: whatever obstacles non-western cultures pose to modernization pale before those they pose to Westernization. It would as Braudel observes, almost “be childish” to think that modernization or the “triumph of civilization in the singular” would lead to the end of the plurality of historical cultures embodied for centuries in the world’s great civilizations. Modernization, instead, strengthens those cultures and reduces the relative power of the West. In fundamental ways, the world is becoming more modern and less Western.

This last point is critical, and when you think about it, self-evident. If the West is completely dominant, then there’s a strong motivation to be more Western. And insofar as it’s probably unclear what part of Western practices and culture created their dominance you’re going to want to adopt them all. While this vastly simplifies things, I’m sure that it was something like this going through Ataturk’s mind as he worked to put things back together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But, once you begin to catch up with the West, the dominance gap lessens, and with it the motivation to adopt their culture, particularly those parts that seem to have nothing to do with modernization. This is the case with any country you choose to examine, not just Turkey. It was certainly the case in my last post, where we examined China. When they were struggling there were numerous reasons for change, now that they’re ascendent the impetus for any change, and particularly one which is strictly cultural, decreases more and more.

If you agree that this is a fatal blow to the idea of a universal or Davos Culture, then the next question must be, what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like? Actually, I guess we know the answer to that one, we just have to look back through history. The question is more properly what does a world of numerous clashing civilizations look like when you add modern technology? And more critically, does that modern technology make this competition better or worse?

At this point it’s useful to step back and define what we mean by both “clashing”, and “civilizations”. We’ll start with the second part. What is a civilization? Huntington goes all the way back to ancient Greeks to use the example of Athens and Sparta as different countries, but the same civilization, versus the Persians which was a different country and civilization

Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the Subcontinent.

The emphasis on religion is interesting, both because it gives us a useful shorthand, but also because it immediately draws us back to the issue of a universal culture. Could a proponent of universal culture reopen the argument by claiming that it will come about through the natural progression of secularism? Perhaps claiming that while modernity doesn’t necessary lead to Western universalism, that it does lead to secular universalism and in the end that will be close enough? That we will lose the distinction between separate civilizations at the same time as we abandon religion? There’s always a chance that this is the way it will play out, but secularism also leads to a lower number of births meaning that the percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated is actually expected to go down in the coming decades not up. Which definitely makes it less promising as a path to a universal culture.

More speculatively if the most important element of a civilization is religion, could it be argued that people without religion are also without a civilization? Insofar as one of the key attributes of a civilization is the ability to propagate forward in time, the low secular birth-rates we already mentioned could be a fatal weakness. Might a lack of religion carry other weaknesses with it as well that make it impossible for the irreligious to ever coalesce into a full civilization?

We could get a lot deeper into the attributes of civilizations, including a discussion of the difference between being civilized in the sense of level of modernization (though I prefer to equate it to low time preference) and a Civilization. But I think everyone already has a pretty good idea of what a civilization is. It is, however, worth a brief aside to examine what Huntington (and the other scholars he draws on) count as a civilization:

Western: While Western Civilization definitely encompasses Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, the interesting question here is whether to include Latin America. There is an argument to be made for a separate Latin American civilization, and perhaps if they spoke Spanish in Brazil the answer would be obvious.

Sinic: China, along with much of Southeast Asia, the largest civilization. Definitely on the ascent, and helped out by the advantage of having a very clear core state. Being the largest and possibly the most unified as well is a big deal.

Islamic: The second largest civilization, but hampered by having no definite core state, and by the Sunni-Shia division. But also ascendent, or at least fired up.

Hindu: Narrowly the third largest civilization, at least at the time of the book, though I’m guessing if anything the gap would have widened. Since Islamic birth rates have probably exceeded Indian birth rates. Mostly restricted to a single country, and also on something of a rise.

In terms of population, those four are the big ones, and I should mention that if you include Latin America, Western Civilization would probably jump ahead of Islamic and Hindu. (Though I haven’t bothered to compile recent figures).

After that you get two small (but feisty!) civilizations:

Orthodox: This is basically Russia, with parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and perhaps Greece. As I said feisty, but unclear whether it’s about to slowly be gobbled up by Western, Sinic or perhaps even Islamic civilizations, or whether it’s ready for a re-emergence.

Japanese: This is definitely a single country civilization. And I’m not sure what the future holds here.

You’ll notice that no civilization includes Sub-saharan Africa (North Africa is Islamic). I can only imagine that some people will find that to be inaccurate, or offensive or both, but it would appear to nevertheless be true. This is not to say that one won’t develop, but without a common religion or even a common language, there’s nothing that currently fits the bill.

Once you’ve established that there is no Universal Culture, at least not one with any power. And then gone on to identify the distinct cultures that do still exist. Moving from that to a future where these civilizations clash is an obvious next step. And if, by this point, it doesn’t seem obvious to you there’s a 368 page book on the subject I’d be happy to recommend to you. As I said in the beginning what I’m most interested in is how technology changes these clashes.

First on the list, has to be nuclear weapons. I’ve talked about these a lot in the past, so I’m not going to go into too much depth here, but it boils down to an argument, on one side, for them drastically elevating the violence and destruction of civilizational clashes, and on the other side an argument that their use is so terrible as to make civilizational conflicts almost exclusively non-violent, or at the very least something which generally happens through proxies.

Next on the list, is an item we’ve already covered, does technology lead to some sort of Universal Civilization? The answer we arrived at appears to be no, it does not, despite the ease of communication, and travel and the like. In fact, there’s considerable evidence that it might do the exact opposite, which takes us to our third potential difference.

Rather than bringing us together, technology seems to be fracturing people into mini-civilizations. The internet has allowed geographically scattered people to gather into very tightly defined communities, something that previously wouldn’t have been possible. These ideological echo chambers are definitely not a “Civilization” but it’s unclear how they’ll interact with traditional civilization, particularly as there is some evidence that they can cut across civilizational lines. (Another thing that used to be very difficult.) I can think of several possibilities:

1- Somehow the fracturing, paradoxically, is what actually leads to a universal civilization, perhaps by creating a set of high level rules allowing the various factions to interact which goes on to achieve universal adoption.

I haven’t seen much evidence for this. If it were going to happen you would expect something like the First Amendment to be a very important initial foundation, and instead it appears to be increasingly controversial.

2- These factions will seem like a big deal until something catastrophic happens, like 9/11. At which point all the differences will be put aside and one civilization will rise up in anger against another civilization, and the civilizational clash will happen more or less as it always has.

Of course the post 9/11 civilizational clash we did get was pretty mild as clashes go. But it’s hard to see where it had anything to do with an incipient universal culture. It seems more related to peculiarities of Western Civilization and the fractured nature of the Islamic Civilization.

3- These factions gradually hollow out the larger civilization, sapping civilizational unity and causing most energy to be directed inward in a low intensity civil war, rather than outward at other civilizations.

Based on past experience, I would lean towards number two, but it also seems like two only operates in the presence of some strong external unifying factor. (It has often been said that the Cold War would have ended instantly if the Earth had been attacked by aliens.) And as much as we would prefer that Pinker and the rest are correct and large external catastrophes such as the great wars of the 20th century are largely a thing of the past. I have also pointed out that war might have played an important role. Leaving us in a situation where a given civilization would pull together in a heartbeat if there were another 9/11 (as Western Civilization did after the first one.) But that such catastrophes won’t happen (or won’t happen often enough.) Leaving us with possibility 3, gradually being ripped apart from within.

If civilizational clashes still end up occurring, then those who can generate strong external threats, while minimizing factionalization are going to triumph in these clashes over the long run. That may be so obvious as to go without saying. But this takes us back to the question of how technology will change these clashes, and the answer is, social media has made factionalization considerably easier, while modernity has made external threats far more rare. So yes it’s obvious that external threats bind civilizations together while factionalism tears them apart, but never before has the first been so rare while the second has been so easy.

Once we consider these factors it would appear that other civilizations may have the West beat. Islamic civilization comes with factionalism built in, in the form of the Sunni-Shia split, but we helpfully lob cruise missiles at them every so often, meaning external threats are never very far from their thoughts. And if any civilization was going to be good at reducing factionalism it would be the Sinic/Chinese.

I’m sure there are other ways in which technology changes civilizational conflict, but I think the items I just covered are the big ones. To close out I’d going to toss out a few miscellaneous questions and speculations on the topic that linger after reading the book.

What’s going to happen with Sub-Saharan Africa? If they haven’t already got a civilization are they going to develop one? How does that happen? I get the feeling that it probably helps if you have an empire combined with a religion, and I don’t see any budding African empires, and while Sub-Saharan Africa is mostly Christian, that doesn’t (as far as I can tell) seem to provide much unity to the region. When you combine that with the expected population growth you have a lot of people without a civilization, how would that fit into Huntington’s Model?

Huntington appears to be of the opinion that ideological conflicts were an historical anomaly, a brief detour before returning back to the more typical civilizational conflict. While I agree that there doesn’t appear to be much evidence for a universal civilization as the next step, I’m not convinced that the next step couldn’t be multipolar ideological conflict. As I said social media is making it easier to organize around ideologies even across civilizational boundaries. So far the Davos Culture seems to be doing this most effectively, but rather than being the harbinger of a universal culture could it instead be just the first of many trans-civilizational cultures?

FInally, while I’ve covered some of the possible effects technology might have on civilization there are probably many others. Most of the data we have on how civilizations behave and how the interact with other civilizations comes from a time before industrialization. It could be argued we have some data on post industrial civilizations, but we have essentially zero data on post internet civilizations.

Huntington identified religion as the most important element of Civilization cohesiveness, and so far changes in technology, whether from industrialization or the internet, all seem to have weakened the power of religion. I know I said earlier that the future will have less unbelievers than the present because of birth rate differentials, but that doesn’t mean that those who do believe won’t practice their belief in very different ways. What does that mean for the larger civilization if it’s religious core is constantly being altered?

We’re left in a situation where, even if we accept Huntington’s thesis, there’s still a lot of questions. Enough that we can imagine many possible futures, unfortunately out of all those futures, I think the least likely is one where everyone comes together in a universal culture where all ideological and civilizational conflicts cease. Which is to say, I’m not sure Huntington is correct in every particular, but I am sure that Fukuyama is wrong.


Have you heard that joke about two civilizations waking into a bar? No? Neither have I, but if thinking about that sort of thing is something you want to support consider donating.


China and the Strangeness of Civilizations

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I recently finished listening to the book What’s Wrong with China by Paul Midler. Previous to reading this book I knew that the Chinese viewed the world differently than Americans or Europeans, but I was under the impression that these were differences of degree, not of kind. To put it another way, I thought we were all on the same graph, the average Chinese person was just in a different place on the graph, though as they became more globalized and affluent they would gradually move closer to the western norm. (While at the same time we would probably move closer to them.) I imagine this impression is pretty widespread, but after reading the book I’ve realized it was hopelessly naive. China is not merely a foreign country, it is an ancient and entirely different civilization with an almost alien way of thinking. They’re not on the same graph with the western democracies (hereafter just the “West”). They may be on some graph, somewhere, but if they are they probably don’t even use the same coordinate system (probably polar, I always hated polar.)

You may be inclined to argue that even if I’m correct about this, all that it means is that we just need to work harder at understanding them. Maybe, but if Midler is to believed things are actually moving in the opposite direction, and our understanding of Chinese culture is actually getting worse as time goes on.

This makes a certain amount of sense. There was a time when travel to China was a lot more difficult. When someone could write a book called Fifty Years in China (actually three people wrote books with exactly that title) and you knew that those were fifty long years of actually being immersed in China. With the telephone, and air travel, and especially the internet, these days, a year spent in China is very different than a year spent back then, to say nothing of spending 50 years there. Also, these days, we are more likely to minimize differences, not only because people interested in China are predisposed to be favorable to it in the first place. But also because it’s considered borderline racist to say anything negative about another culture.  Midler asserts that the combination of all these things is leading to a decline in our actual understanding:

It is curious that books written on China in the 1960s–Dennis Bloodworth’s The Chinese Looking Glass is an example–should read finer than most of what is produced these days, and that even these books pale in comparison to the works of the previous generation. The trend appears to go back quite some time. In the 1930s, Ralph Townsend was convinced that his contemporaries wrote nothing as accurate as that which was produced by Arthur Smith and Abbé Huc. The writer G. F. Hudson, a contemporary of Townsend’s, went further by claiming that “China was better known to Europeans in the eighteenth century than in the nineteenth, despite extensions of scholarly inquiry, simply because earlier reports had less cause to misrepresent what they found.”

At this point it’s only natural to ask for examples of the alienness I’m claiming the Chinese possess. Well as someone who’s never been to China, and has only the book to go by, I hardly think I’m qualified to do it justice, but if I don’t provide any examples, it would also severely weaken the point I’m trying to make. So I’ll do what I can.

In America we can imagine buying counterfeit merchandise (say a Prada handbag). And when we imagine it happening we probably picture a slightly shady street vendor, perhaps in New York. But of course you don’t imagine it happening if you walk into the official Prada store on fifth avenue, and yet in China it does. Not because the official store doesn’t sell the genuine article, but because they sell both. The merchant in question has to sell some real merchandise to keep their license, but if they think they can get away with it they’ll sell you the counterfeit version instead, even though they have the real stuff. Midler describes it this way (emphasis original):

This made no sense to me, at least not at the time. How could I be treated fairly while another customer was being taken advantage of in the very same shop? Many of us have a preconceived notion that there are only two kinds of service providers: the good and the bad. You have the reputable mechanic and the dishonest one, the fair attorney and the predatory one.

Chinese business operators instinctively understand how a hybrid model achieves the highest level of economic returns. Businesses that offer a fair deal to everyone leave too much money on the table, but those that cheat indiscriminately risk entirely losing their reputation.

Based on this and other examples I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Chinese don’t really use honesty as a framework for their behavior in anything remotely resembling the way it’s used in the West.

As my second example of the alienness of The Chinese culture, the Chinese are not troubled by mechanical or technological failures, they are troubled by social failures. A couple of quick examples of this:

When a plane or a train crashes in the West (see my last post) there is an enormous inquiry, we want to know what happened and how to keep it from happening again. In China, when one high speed train ran into another which had stopped. The Chinese put very little effort into understanding what had happened. Instead, they immediately moved backhoes in and buried the trains. Under pressure, they eventually did conduct an investigation, but it’s unclear how in-depth it really was. The chief result seemed to be a lot of people getting fired for “official corruption”. According to Midler, the Chinese people were horrified by the accident, but not, perhaps for the reasons you’d expect. Their horror came not because of the systemic failures which allowed it to happen, and not because of the governmental cover-up, and not because of the corruption. They were horrified because the driver of the train that was stopped should have texted the other drivers to let them know. It was the social failure not the mechanical failure which alarmed them.

For the other example, I’ll just quote from the book:

[I was reminded of a story] told to me by an importer from Canada. While he was visiting a supplier, a shop floor worker had lost a finger in a piece of machinery. Holding his injured hand, which was wrapped in a towel and bleeding profusely, the laborer sat on the floor while colleagues went to find the missing digit. The factory boss then rushed over and, after pausing to assess the situation, began hitting the injured employee over the head. “How many times,” he said, while beating the poor worker, “have I told you to keep your damned fingers out of that machine!”

Most western companies would have been worried about putting a system in place to make the machine safer. On the other hand, in sweatshop style conditions, with no regard for worker safety you can imagine the person being callously fired. But this in between business of yelling and hitting is either extraordinarily cruel, or, and this is my opinion, it’s prioritizing the social over the technological and mechanical. Either way it’s very different from what you might expect.

For my final example of Chinese alienness, I’ll balance things out by choosing something which the Chinese probably does better than the West. As it turns out, the Chinese are somewhat baffled by what they see in Hollywood movies, particularly crime capers, where the full deal is worked out in advance. We’ve all seen a movie where everyone agrees to split things equally, and then of course, inevitably, the deal doesn’t go quite the way they expected and mayhem and violence ensue. The same could be said for business deals, where, in the West, contracts are rigorously hammered out in advance. The Chinese don’t do that, they understand that things look different at the end than they did at the beginning and they are very willing to change the deal as circumstances change:

Chinese partnerships appear to us to be far better coordinated because often they are. Chinese do not so easily constrain themselves to the initial terms of a deal, and they show a willingness to reevaluate at any point along the way. This is not to say that those who are in a position of power do not still take advantage of whatever leverage they hold. But, all else being equal, participants have a higher expectation that their contribution will be rewarded in a more or less accurate way on a flexible scale that is subject to adjustments.

This frequently takes the form of there being an understood percentage for performing certain tasks. If an agent brings a new client to a factory it’s understood he’ll get 3% of the deal. This is the case even if he’s never had any previous contact with the factory, and he definitely doesn’t need to have a contract. If the agent’s relationship with the new client is particularly good, he may be able to get 4%. If it turns out the client can barely stand the agent, and never wants to talk to him again, he’ll still walk away with 2%. So there is some wiggle room, but they’re unlikely to be cut out entirely, a situation I’ve seen all the time in the US.

Midler ascribes this to the Chinese having a finely honed sense of fairness and that therefore most entrepreneurial relationships work better.

The ability of the Chinese to accurately assess the value of a person’s contribution—combined with a confident faith that decision makers will act upon this information—opens up endless opportunities.

Those were just a few examples of large differences between Western culture and Chinese culture, and perhaps you remain unconvinced that the differences are all that profound, and you certainly don’t like using the word “alien” to describe those differences. You are obviously entitled to your opinion, but in reality I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are 31 chapters in the book, each detailing a significant difference between the two cultures. Perhaps they are not all equally consequential, but when you put them all together, the whole is almost certainly greater than the sum of its parts. If nothing else, I would assume that you recognize the increasing importance China plays in the affairs of the world, and that you would, consequently desire a better understanding of them. If so I would definitely recommend Midler’s book, even if you aren’t inclined to agree with this central premise, that there’s something wrong with China.

The book is mostly a collection of anecdotes about Midler’s many, many years in China as a western representative working with Chinese factories. And it would be surprising if any nation couldn’t be the basis of a whole book of stories, but that also wouldn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of global impact. Therefore, the question we really should be addressing is what do all of these behaviors mean for China’s larger role in the world and in particular what do they mean for the relationship between the US and China?

As I mentioned at the beginning, after reading the book, one of my biggest worries is that while Chinese culture is, and always has been very different from Western culture, our ability to notice those differences and make allowances for them is as bad as it’s ever been. Somehow greater globalism has decreased our actual knowledge about China. And insofar as they’re a big player on the world stage, and only getting bigger, that’s not an ideal position to be in. We should be striving to get deeper at the truth, even if it might reflect poorly on China and its people because this is one area where we can’t allow cultural sensitivity to blind us to reality, particularly since one of the things China has proved more than capable of doing is using our cultural sensitivity against us. And if anything in the post thus far has made you uncomfortable that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

We’ve arrived at a point where we all agree China is going to be a major player if not the major player going forward, but where we also strongly suspect that our knowledge of their culture and the actions flowing from that culture may be less than ideal. That’s not a good combination. I know a lot of people expect that the next few decades will be similar to the last few decades, particularly that peace and prosperity will continue. But if we fundamentally misunderstand the motivations of one the major players in that future, than there’s a good chance those expectations are going to be incorrect. So what do the behaviors described in the examples I just gave mean in terms of the future? How does all of this play out at a global scale going forward? Well, for each of the examples I gave above (except for the last) I’ll attempt to scale up the behavior and make some (necessarily) vague predictions about where it might lead.

In the first example I talked about the Chinese behavior of mixing dishonest and honest behavior in a constant search for maximum profit. At first glance this might appear to be greedy, but otherwise unremarkable. But I think if you dig a little deeper you’ll see that it’s an example of something far more important, the difference between culture and ideology. In the West we have a culture (though it’s hard to imagine a time when it’s been less influential) but for the last century, with Western Culture ascendent, and therefore largely taken for granted, our focus has moved onto ideology. This was most evident during the Cold War which was entirely a conflict of ideology. So then what’s the difference between culture and ideology? Ideology get’s exported and promoted, culture does not.

As with most things there’s some ambiguity in the middle there, particularly in the West where culture and ideology have been cross-pollinating for quite awhile. But even so, it’s notable how reluctant we are to export or advocate for anything that’s explicitly cultural, while we go to great lengths to promote and export our ideology (think democratic elections, free trade, intellectual property protection, etc.) What are the Chinese ideological exports? I’m having a hard time thinking of any. Certainly, to return to the example, I see no evidence that they’re trying to export an ideology of maximizing profits through a balance of honest and dishonest behavior. We have an ideology of honesty and respect for the law. And we think it’s something everyone should be doing. They see their mixed behavior as a cultural advantage, an advantage they want to preserve as they clash with other cultures and civilizations. This is actually a large subject, which is why I’m going to leave off here, and return to it next week.

The second example was about a Chinese focus on social failures rather than mechanical failures. Once again this may not seem like that big of a deal, but I think it speaks to a cultural difference between the West and China which has existed for a very, very long time. It used to be said that China invented gunpowder, but Europeans invented the gun. That China invented paper, but Europe invented the printing press. I don’t think you’re supposed to point this out anymore. But that is more or less what happened, and while there are many reasons why, one of them is a Western focus on systems over people. Whereas China has had a focus on people over systems (as indicated in the example). Now there are probably some ways in which this focus is better, but when we examine the advance of science and technology, and why the world of 2018 looks different from the world of 1018, it’s in large part due to prioritizing systems over people.

Another example of this is the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Despite the fact that the plane was destined for China, and that 64% of the people on board were Chinese nationals, and that China has a GDP 39x that of Malaysia, the Chinese government only covered 10% of the search cost. Australia, which really had no stake in things except to be nearby, and has a GDP 1/9th that of China, covered 32% of the cost of the search and took charge of it as well. How much of that is due to Australia being culturally western?

My worry is basically this, and it’s entirely possible it’s overblown, but a focus on systems ends up being synonymous with a focus on science and engineering, and despite what you may think, science and invention and academic rigor do not come naturally to humans. It’s all more fragile than we think. If Midler is right (and the examples do seem to back him up) and Chinese culture is less focused on systems, then as they begin to take a larger role in the world there is a good chance that the world as a whole will be less focused on these things. You might offer, as a counterpoint the recent news that China has overtaken America as the largest producer of scientific articles, unfortunately this is less encouraging than you might think. First it’s easy to find plenty of other articles talking about the enormous level of scientific misconduct, fraud, and actual fake research in China. Second, China has a habit of artificially inflating statistics which they feel correspond to having a more developed country. For example Midler, claims (and other sources back him up) that:

Beijing central planners understand that an economy can be considered “advanced” once a certain percentage of its population resides in an urban environment, and so it has chosen to forcibly move people from the countryside into the cities.

Given all the problems with Chinese research I imagine something similar might be happening with scientific articles.

The final Chinese cultural difference I want to cover is their focus on dynastic thinking. In short, while we in the West expect that progress will march on more or less forever, in China their view of how the world works is far more cyclical. The West, particularly if you include America, has only been on top once, but they continue to be on top. China has been on top multiple times, and they’ve also bottomed out multiple times as well, and according to Midler there’s a rush to accomplish as much as possible before the current dynastic cycle ends:

Beijing appears to be in a hurry, but for what?

…When the United States voiced it’s concern over reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing did not respond by cooling down related activity. Quite the opposite, project crews began working around the clock…

In moving fast, Beijing was guaranteeing that the international community would apply greater pressure. But by its own calculations, the window of opportunity was going to close one way or another anyway, so why not put as many points on the board before it did so?

…No, this foolish rush is about something else, something simpler. It’s about ringing the bell. It’s about seeing just how far China can take things before that great window of opportunity shuts.

I suspect they’re right that the window of opportunity will be closing soon, if for no other reason than that’s what they believe will happen. And it should go without saying that a future where China continues to progress at the same rate they have been is very different from a future where China has collapsed. And while the Chinese belief that it will happen makes it more likely, it’s possible that our ignorance of this belief isn’t helping anything either.

It’s possible Midler is wrong about the extent to which Chinese culture is different from Western culture. Obviously there have to be some differences, but I suppose someone might argue that the differences are small; or they’re large, but ultimately inconsequential; or that the Chinese culture is being replaced by a universal culture, and in a few years it won’t matter. As I said you could make these arguments, but I wouldn’t. In fact I’m going to spend the next post making that exact opposite argument. That while ideology has recently been more important than culture, this state of affairs is not going to continue. The world is made up of many different civilizations, each with its own distinct culture. They are not going away and the future is going to be dominated by the clash of civilizations.


Whatever the truth of Chinese profit maximization through a risk of behaviors, I obviously have none of that, and keep trying the same behavior over and over again, If my straightforwardness appeals to you at all, consider donating.


Jockeying for Control of the Airliner

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It’s around 1:30 am on June 1, 2009, and Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris is flying somewhere over the mid-Atlantic when they run into the outer edge of a tropical storm system. Unlike some of the other planes in the area the crew of Flight 447 has not studied the weather patterns and made a request to be routed around the storm, but this is not a cause for especial concern. They do, however turn on the planes anti-icing system, and check the radar.

After determining that the radar hasn’t been set up correctly, they switch it to the correct setting and see that the storm ahead is worse than they thought. They decide to bank left a little bit, and as they do so, a strange aroma floods the cockpit, and the temperature suddenly increases as well. The more experienced pilot in the cabin, David Robert, explains that both phenomena are due to the extreme weather in the vicinity, and that they are nothing to worry about. Despite this reassurance, the combination of the storm, the smell, the temperature and some St. Elmo’s fire experienced a few moments before, start to make Pierre-Cédric Bonin, the youngest pilot, nervous.

Right about the same time as all of this is happening an alarm sounds to indicate that the autopilot has disconnected. This is because the airspeed indicators have iced over. This is apparently the final straw for Bonin, who irrationally starts to pull back on the control stick which puts the plane into a steep climb. This is a problem for two reasons. One, the air is too warm to provide the lift necessary to climb, which is why they didn’t fly up over the storm in the first place. Two, if you’re climbing and your airspeed drops too low (and recall that they don’t know what their airspeed is anymore) then you can stall. And indeed shortly after this happens the plane begins to sound a stall warning.

I am lifting the description of what happened to Flight 447 from a Popular Mechanics article written a couple of years after the fact, shamelessly and nearly verbatim. And you really should read the whole thing, but if you decide not to, their explanation of the stall alarm is particularly good:

Almost as soon as Bonin pulls up into a climb, the plane’s computer reacts. A warning chime alerts the cockpit to the fact that they are leaving their programmed altitude. Then the stall warning sounds. This is a synthesized human voice that repeatedly calls out, “Stall!” in English, followed by a loud and intentionally annoying sound called a “cricket.”

…The Airbus’s stall alarm is designed to be impossible to ignore. Yet for the duration of the flight, none of the pilots will mention it, or acknowledge the possibility that the plane has indeed stalled—even though the word “Stall!” will blare through the cockpit 75 times. Throughout, Bonin will keep pulling back on the stick, the exact opposite of what he must do to recover from the stall.

Of course one of the big questions is, why did they ignore the stall warning so entirely? Well the plane they’re flying, the Airbus 330, is very advanced, and normally it won’t let you do something like stall the plane. Thus they may have been ignoring the stall warning because they didn’t think it was possible for the plane to stall, and that the warning was spurious. But this is only the case under what’s called “normal law”. When the airspeed indicator freezes up, the plane switches to “alternate law”, and under alternate law a plane can stall. It’s quite possible that Bonin, who still has the controls, has never flown under alternate law and thus doesn’t realize that there are far fewer restrictions, and that one of the restrictions which has been removed is the one that prevents him from doing something to make the plane stall.

Robert notices the rapid ascent, and tells Bonin he needs to descend while at the same time realizing that the situation is serious enough to call the captain, who had left the cabin a few minutes before to nap. Bonin levels things off a little bit, enough that the stall warning stops sounding, for the moment. But he isn’t actually descending, he’s just ascending less quickly.

At a certain point, despite the slower rate of ascent the plane has gone as high as it can go, and it starts to fall. Now if at this point Bonin had just taken his hand off the controls, the plane would have picked up speed, the wings would have started generating lift, and they probably would have been okay. What’s even more interesting is that by this point, the de-icing system has kicked in enough that the airspeed indicator begins working again. The plane is entirely functional now, there’s nothing wrong with it at all, but it doesn’t revert back to normal law, it’s still in alternate law.

Around 60 seconds after being summoned the captain arrives, and perhaps if, upon arriving, he had been able to understand exactly what was happening this would have been soon enough to save the plane. But he’s missing several key pieces of information. He doesn’t know if they’re ascending or descending, he doesn’t understand that the plane has stalled, he doesn’t understand that it’s falling at a rate of 10,000 feet/minute, and most important of all Bonin still hasn’t mentioned the fact he has had the stick back the entire time.

Around this time Robert, understanding that they need to descend, pushes his stick forward. But one of the features of the Airbus 330 is that it averages out the input of the two control sticks, meaning that even though Robert is pushing his stick forward, Bonin is still pulling back on his, this averaging of the two sticks, at best would result in them leveling off, but what actually happens is that the nose of the plane remains high. The plane is still in a stall.

Finally, around two minutes after the captain’s arrive Bonin finally tells the other two that he’s had the stick back the whole time. The captain in disbelief, says, “no, no, no, don’t climb!” (“Non, non, non… Ne remonte pas…”) And Robert demands control and puts it into a dive. Unfortunately it’s not only too late, but inexplicably and without warning the other two, Bonin once again pulls his stick all the way back. Meaning that, 40 seconds after finally getting the crucial piece of information, less than three minutes after the captain’s arrival in the cockpit, seven minutes after losing the airspeed indicator and switching to alternate law, the plane slams into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 228 people aboard.

Some stories manage to really burrow in deep when you hear them. This was definitely one of those stories. The whole thing is tragic. But the final words of the pilots really bring that tragedy home:

Robert: Putain, on va taper… C’est pas vrai!

Damn it, we’re going to crash… This can’t be happening!

Bonin: Mais qu’est-ce que se passe?

But what’s happening?

Captain: 10 degrès d’assiette…

Ten degrees of pitch…

They were uttered in that order, one pilot overcome with disbelief. One pilot still not understanding what he had done to cause it all, and one pilot hoping that if he could just understand the details of his situation he could fix it.

As is only appropriate, when a tragedy of this magnitude occurs people want to understand what happened so they can keep it from happening again. And it’s easy to make a list of things that would have made a difference. Most boil down to more and better training for pilots. But some people, including the author of the article in Popular Mechanics, think the crash of Flight 447 reveals an even deeper issue, one that can’t necessarily be solved by training: an over-reliance on technology.

When I initially read the article, this over-reliance on technology also seemed like the obvious secondary lesson, and I didn’t feel any inclination to dig deeper. Now, several years later, I still worry about becoming too dependent on technology, but over the last few months I began to see how Flight 447 might additionally act as a metaphor for our current situation. Particularly the idea of two pilots both trying to move the stick in the opposite direction. Perhaps you can immediately see where I’m going, but if not allow me to explain what I mean.

I see the US (and perhaps the larger world) as being similar to the plane. We’ve run into a storm and we’ve lost our bearings a bit. Some people think the way out of the storm is to pull back hard on the stick, while other people think we need to push the stick all the way forward. It’s not clear if the plane is ascending or descending, and while the two sides fight over the issue, it’s possible that what’s really happening is the plane is falling out of the sky at 10,000 feet/minute and seconds away from slamming into the ocean.

Now you can agree that this is a useful metaphor, but disagree with who the various pilots represent. You may think that Bonin represents people on the right, who have allowed bigotry, xenophobia, racism and fear in general to convince them that something drastic needs to be done, and that pulling back hard on the stick represents the election of Trump, and that no matter how bad Trump gets and no matter how many scandals there are, they just keep pulling back on that stick, negating the attempts of more reasonable people to metaphorically push the stick forward and correct the disastrous course set by Trump and his followers.

On the other hand, Bonin, who was young and inexperienced, could represent the cohort of young and inexperienced people who are so active in political advocacy right now. People who are confident they know exactly what ails the country and equally confident that they know what to do about it, but who have actually fatally misjudged the situation and rather than pulling back as hard as they can on the stick they should be either doing the opposite. Or, failing that, they should recognize that there are more experienced individuals present and they should be deferring them.

If you see a case for either of those situations being reflected in the story of Flight 447 then I don’t blame you. I can see where both make a certain amount of sense, but I see yet a third lesson from all of it. A lesson on the need for calm and moderation. Recall that the plane was doing okay. It did lose its airspeed sensor, but if it had continued on the same course, at the same altitude with de-icing enabled, it would have almost certainly been fine. Twelve other planes followed more or less the same course as Flight 447 and had no problems. Pilots who were put through a re-creation of the situation in a flight simulator also had no problems. The lesson is that the actual circumstances were not that bad, what caused the plane to crash was a misunderstanding of the situation and an over-reaction to those circumstances. And I definitely see a parallel to the over-reaction we see currently.

If your argument is that Trump supporters or social justice warriors have already pulled the stick all the way back, and that now our only choice is to push our stick all the way forward, then I think you may have missed the point. If Bonin had just leveled off when Robert told him to descend, the plane, once again, probably would have been fine. Counterbalancing Bonin’s desire to have the stick all the way back, by pushing the other stick all the way forward didn’t work. Matching one extreme with another extreme was a losing strategy.

Even if it’s too late to level off, even if the only thing left to do is put the plane into a dive, pick up speed and hope you can pull out before you hit the ocean, you to still need convince the other side (Bonin) that this is the correct course of action. If at any point during the final minutes of Flight 447 the other pilots had managed to convince Bonin of the madness of holding the stick back, they might have been okay. Of course neither of the pilots knew that’s what Bonin was doing, which is an excuse we can’t use. It’s pretty obvious that each side is pushing their stick as far as they can in the direction they think will do the most good.

There was another option, when the captain arrived he could have replaced Bonin. But he didn’t, probably because of the wild gyrations the plane was undergoing. We also have a method of replacing people, we hold elections. And maybe this is stretching the metaphor to far, but I think we’re experiencing our own “wild gyrations” which makes this a difficult option for us as well. Also there’s no obviously impartial, more experienced “captain” we can tap to come in and sort things out, finally, we can only replace certain people every four years.

Interestingly enough the last time we had a chance to replace someone, back in 2016, there was another plane related metaphor making the rounds. This metaphor was introduced in an article called The Flight 93 Election. Flight 93 was one of planes hijacked on 9/11, but before the plane could used in the same manner as the other three flights the passengers became aware of what the hijackers intended, and they stormed the cockpit in an attempt to regain control of the plane. Unfortunately this was unsuccessful and the plane ended up crashing in a field in Pennsylvania killing everyone aboard, though, thankfully, no one on the ground.

I remember reading that article when it was published. It’s powerful stuff, and I agree with many of the points he made. And maybe, to combine his metaphor with mine, we’re not only about to plunge into the ocean, but we’re not even one of the pilots. Perhaps, but I’m more looking at Flight 447 as a framework for considering the current situation, then as an absolute prophecy with specific matches between people and events and what’s happening now. (Would the icing up of the airspeed indicator be the failure of the polls in 2016?)

For example let’s turn to a detail I left out of the initial retelling. I mentioned that professional aviators had a difficult time understanding Bonin’s behavior, but he did say one thing in the final few minutes which offers at least a little insight into what he was thinking. While he and Robert were waiting for the captain, Bonin says, “I’m in TOGA, huh?” I’ll let the PM article explain what this means:

Bonin’s statement here offers a crucial window onto his reasoning. TOGA is an acronym for Take Off, Go Around. When a plane is taking off or aborting a landing—”going around”—it must gain both speed and altitude as efficiently as possible. At this critical phase of flight, pilots are trained to increase engine speed to the TOGA level and raise the nose to a certain pitch angle.

Clearly, here Bonin is trying to achieve the same effect: He wants to increase speed and to climb away from danger. But he is not at sea level; he is in the far thinner air of 37,500 feet. The engines generate less thrust here, and the wings generate less lift. Raising the nose to a certain angle of pitch does not result in the same angle of climb, but far less. Indeed, it can—and will—result in a descent.

Unfortunately Robert was apparently focused on getting the captain back to the cabin and didn’t understand what this statement entailed. He may not have even heard it. But as long as I’m trying to make an extended metaphor out of the event, I think this statement and the underlying mindset is very interesting.

One of the points I make repeatedly is that models and ways of thinking which worked in the past may not work going forward. We are, as Robin Hanson points out (and as I expanded on) engaged in cultural exploration. We’ve reached a place we’ve never been before in terms of technology and wealth. And it’s entirely possible that a way of thinking which is perfectly appropriate at “sea level” may have the exact opposite of its intended effect when we’re at the metaphorical equivalent of 37,000 feet. You could certainly take this to mean that we should abandon the superstitions and prejudices of the past. That religion and traditional values may have worked great at sea level, but we need to abandon them now that we’re at 37,000. But as you can imagine that’s not parallel I’m drawing. Rather I see several lessons that point in the opposite direction.

First, even if we temporarily discard all the metaphorical interpretation I’ve added, most people still see Flight 447 as a cautionary tale of over-reliance on technology. And in the final analysis the reason it crashed has far more to do with abandoning fundamentals like lift, thrust, and angle of attack than any over-reliance on the core principles of aviation. I feel confident in saying that if you had shown Charles Lindbergh how to operate the stick and how to increase or decrease engine power that he would not have made the same mistake Bonin did.

Second, to return to more metaphorical territory, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to compare climbing and altitude to technology and progress. Normally they’re not only necessary, but definitional. If you don’t have at least some altitude you’re driving not flying. But this leads people to believe, like Bonin, that if you run into problems climbing to an even higher altitude is always the answer, and there may come a time when it’s not. To connect this to our last point, in the case of Flight 447 adding more technology didn’t solve the problem, it caused it.

Third, from a broad perspective there’s an obvious “small-c” conservative bias to the whole story of Flight 447. If they’d just maintained the same heading and altitude they would have almost certainly been fine. If they had been more cautious, and requested a path around the storm, the problems they encountered would have been less likely to occur. Also, as it turns out, this was a case where age and experience mattered, a lot. Finally there’s this passage from the article:

[Robert and Bonin] are failing, essentially, to cooperate. It is not clear to either one of them who is responsible for what, and who is doing what. This is a natural result of having two co-pilots flying the plane. “When you have a captain and a first officer in the cockpit, it’s clear who’s in charge…The captain has command authority. He’s legally responsible for the safety of the flight. When you put two first officers up front, it changes things. You don’t have the sort of traditional discipline imposed on the flight deck when you have a captain.”

It doesn’t get much more conservative than “traditional discipline”. But perhaps you think I’m making too much of these parallels. That’s certainly possible, but I think in basically every domain you examine, you’ll find that in times of crisis long-term “traditional” values perform the best.

In the end, you could argue, with some justification, that we’re not in a crisis, that our metaphorical plane is doing just fine, or that if we are experiencing a little turbulence that it’s nothing to compare with 1968 and nowhere near as bad as it was in the lead up to the Civil War. To a point I would agree. I don’t think it’s time to storm the cabin, and I don’t think the plane is falling out of the sky, yet. But if we’re not in a crisis, why has one group been pulling the stick back as hard as can for as long as I can remember? And I’ve seen them get angry when anyone pointed out that maybe we had climbed high enough, and we should level it out for awhile. More recently people have stopped trying to convince the other side to stop “climbing”, and have resorted to grabbing their own stick and pushing it as far forward as possible. (And no that’s not a double entendre but maybe it should be.)

Perhaps with the two sides pushing as hard as they can in opposite directions we will level out, and everything will be fine, but I wouldn’t count on it. More likely they’ll eventually come to blows as each becomes convinced that the other is going to end up killing everyone.

It would be nice if there was just one right course of action, like there was in the case of Flight 447. A way of understanding the situation that would make it obvious what was wrong, and what needed to be done to solve it. But unfortunately, while there are many parallels, our actual situation is far more complicated than the one faced by Flight 447. They could understand the effects of air thinning out as you flew higher, because other planes have flown at that altitude. On the other hand, we don’t know what happens at this level of progress and technology. We’re the first civilization to ever “fly this high”. Flight 447 ran into problems because Bonin, at least, was unaware that the controls had shifted from normal law into alternate law when the airspeed indicator froze up, but the Captain might have known that, and if not it was certainly in some manual somewhere. But given the way technology changes civilizations “mid-flight” so to speak, the rules could have changed for us with say, the invention of social media, and there is no manual to look in that will inform us of this fact.

The air is thinning. The world is changing under our feet. Many people are convinced they know exactly what needs to be done. I guess I’m one of them, because I am absolutely convinced that we need to be a lot more cautious and a lot more conservative than we have been.


I heard once that Mark Twain was unable to tell his good stuff from his bad stuff. I sometimes feel like that, but I think this one was pretty good. If you agree consider donating.


What Should We Worry About?

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Everyday when I check Facebook (ideally only the one time) I see fundraising pleas. People who want me to give money to one charity or the other. One guy wants me to fund the construction of a tutoring center in Haiti, another wants me to donate to an organization focused on suicide prevention, and still another wants to use my donation to increase awareness of adolescent mental health issues, and that’s just Facebook. The local public radio station wants my money as well, I get periodic calls and letters from my Alma Mater asking for money, and as of this writing the most recent email in my inbox is a fundraising letter from Wikipedia. Assuming that I have a limited amount of money (and believe me, I do) how do I decide who to give that money to? Which of all these causes is the most worthy?

As you might imagine I am not the first person to ask this question. And more and more philanthropists are asking it as well. It’s my understanding that Bill Gates is very concerned with the question of where his money will do the most good. And there is, in fact, a whole movement dedicated to the question, which has been dubbed effective altruism (EA). EA is closely aligned with the rationalist community, to the point where many people would rather be identified as “effective altruists” then as “rationalists”. This is a good thing, certainly I have fewer misgivings about rationalism in support of saving and improving lives than I have about rationalism left to roam free (see my post on antinatalism.)

From my perspective, EA’s criticisms of certain kinds of previously very common charitable contributions, their views on what not to do, are at least as valuable as their opinions on what people should be doing. For example you might have started to hear criticism recently of giving big gifts to already rich universities. And indeed it’s hard to imagine that giving money to Harvard, which already has a $30 billion dollar endowment, is really the best use of anyone’s money.

While the EA movement mostly focuses on money, there is another movement/website called 80,000 hours which focuses on time. 80,000 hours represents the amount of time you’re likely to spend in a profession over the course of your life, and rather than telling you where to put your money, the 80,000 hours website is designed to help you plan your entire working life so as to maximize it’s altruistic impact.

Of course both of these efforts fall under the more general idea of asking, “What should I worry about? What things are worth my limited time, money and attention, and what things are not?”

If you’re curious, for the effective altruist, one of the answers to this question is malaria, at least according to EA site GiveWell which ranks charities using EA criteria and has two malaria charities at the top of it’s list. These are followed by several deworming charities. For the 80,000 hours movement the question is more complicated, since if everyone went into the same profession the point of diminishing returns would probably come very quickly, or at least well before the end of someone’s career. Fortunately they just released a list of careers where they think you could do the most good. Here it is:

  1. AI policy and strategy
  2. AI safety technical research
  3. Grantmaker focused on top problem areas
  4. Work in effective altruist organisations
  5. Operations management in organisations focused on global catastrophic risks and effective altruism
  6. Global priorities researcher
  7. Biorisk strategy and research
  8. China specialists
  9. Earning to give in quantitative trading
  10. Decision-making psychology research and implementation

This is an interesting list and I remember that it attracted some criticism when it was released. For example, right off the bat you’ll notice that of the ten jobs listed the first two deal with AI. Is working with AI really the single most important career anyone could choose? The next three are what could be called meta-career paths, as they all involve figuring out what other people should worry about and spend money on, for example setting up a website like 80000hours.org which might strike some as self serving? Biorisk strategy and China specialist are interesting, then at number 9 we have the earn-as-much-money-as-possible-and-then-give-it-away option, before finally landing at number 10 which is once again something of a meta option. If nothing else, it’s worth asking should AI jobs really occupy the top two slots? Particularly given that, as I just pointed out in the last post, there is at least one very smart person (Robin Hanson), who does have a background in AI, and who is confident that AI is most likely two to four centuries away. Meaning, I presume, that he would not put AI in the first and second positions. (If Robin Hanson’s pessimism isn’t enough, look into the recent controversy over algorithmic decision making.) One can only assume that 80000hours.org has some significant “AI will solve everything or destroy everything” bias in their rankings.

Getting back to the question of, “What should we be worrying about?” We have now assembled two answers to that question: we should worry about malaria and AI, and the AI answer is controversial. So for the moment let’s just focus on malaria (though I assume even this is controversial for malthusians) The way EA is supposed to work, you focus all your charitable time and money where it has the most impact, and when the potential impact of a dollar spent on malaria drops below that of a dollar spent on deworming you start putting all your money there. Rinse and repeat. Meaning that from a certain perspective, not only should we worry about malaria, it should be the only thing we worry about until worrying about malaria becomes less effective than worrying about deworming.

As you might imagine this is not how most people work. Most people worry about a lot of things. Would it be better if we only worried about the most important thing, and ignored everything else? Perhaps, but at a minimum the idea that some things are more important to worry about while other things are less important is a standard we should apply to all of our worries. A standard we might use to prioritize some of our worries while dismissing others. It’s only fair, at this point, to ask what are some of the things I would advise worrying about. What worries would I recommend prioritizing and what worries would I recommend ignoring? Well on this question, much like the 80,000 hour people, I will also be exhibiting my biases, but at least I’m telling you that up front.

For me it seems obvious that everyone’s number one priority should be to determine whether there’s an afterlife. If, as most religions claim, this life represents just the tiniest fraction of the totality of existence, that certainly affects your priorities, including prioritizing what to worry about. I know that some people will jump in with the immediate criticism that you can’t be sure about these sorts of things, and that focusing on a world or an existence beyond this one is irresponsible. As to the first point, I think there’s more evidence than the typical atheist or agnostic will acknowledge. I also think things like Pascal’s Wager are not so easy to dismiss as people assume. As to the second point, I think religions have been a tremendous source of charitable giving and charitable ethics. They do not, perhaps, have the laser like focus of the effective altruists, and it’s certainly possible that some of their time and money is spent ineffectively, but I have a hard time seeing where the amount of altruism goes up in a world without religion. Particularly if you look at the historical record.

All of this said, if you have decided not to spend any time on trying to determine whether there’s an existence beyond this one, that’s certainly your right. Though if you have made that decision I hope you can at least be honest and admit that it’s an important subject. As some people have pointed out there could hardly be more important questions than: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where will I go when I die? And that you at least considered how important these questions are before ultimately deciding that they couldn’t be answered.

I made the opposite decision and consequently, this is my candidate for the number one thing people should be worried about, above even malaria. And much like a focus on AI, I know this injunction is going to be controversial. And, interestingly, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the two. One set of people saying, I hope there is a God, and one set of people saying I hope we can create a god (and additionally I hope we can make sure it’s friendly.)

Beyond worrying about the answer to life the universe and everything, my next big worry is my children. Once again this is controversial. From an EA perspective you’re going to spend a lot of time and money raising a child in a first world country money that could, presumably, save hundreds of lives in a third world country. I did come across an article defending having children from an EA perspective, but it’s telling that it needed a defense in the first place. And the author is quick to point out that his “baby budget” does not interfere with his EA budget.

From a purely intellectual perspective I understand the math of those who feel that my children represent a mis-allocation of resources. But beyond that simplistic level it doesn’t make sense to me at all. They may be right about the lives saved, but a society that doesn’t care about reproduction and offspring is a seriously maladapted society (another thing I pointed out in my last post.) I’m programmed by millions of years of evolution to not only want to have offspring, but to worry about them as well, and I’m always at least a little bit mystified by people who have no desire to have children and even more mystified by people who think I shouldn’t want children either.

I have covered a lot of things you might worry about and so far with the exception of malaria everything has carried with it some degree of controversy. Perhaps it might be useful to invert the question and ask what things should we definitely not be worrying about.

The other day I was talking to a friend and he mentioned that he had laid into one of his co-workers for expressing doubt about anthropogenic global warming. Additionally this co-worker was religious and my friend suspected that one of the reasons his co-worker didn’t care about global warming, even if it was happening, was that being religious he assumed that at some point Christ would return to Earth and fix everything.  

This anecdote seems like a good jumping off point. It combines religion, politics, baises, prioritization, and money. Also given that he “laid into” his co-worker I assume that my friend was experiencing a fair amount of worry about his co-worker’s attitude as well. Breaking it all down we have three obvious candidates for his worry:

  1. He could have been worried about religious myopia. Someone who thinks Jesus will return any day now is going to have very short term priorities and make choices that might be counterproductive in the long run, including, but not limited to ignoring global warming.
  2. He could have been worried that his co-worker was an example of some larger group. Conservative Americans who don’t believe in global warming. And the reason he laid into his co-worker was not because he hoped to change his mind, but because he’s worried by sheer number of people who are opposed to doing anything about the issue.
  3. It could be that after a bit of discussion, that my friend convinced his co-worker that global warming was important, but my friend worried because he couldn’t get his co-worker to prioritize it anywhere near as high as he was prioritizing it.

Let’s take these worries in order. First are religious people making bad decisions in the short term because they believe that Jesus is going to arrive any day now? I know this is a common belief among the non-religious. But it’s not one I find particularly compelling. I do agree that Christians in general believe that we’re living in the End Times, and that things like the Rapture, and the Great Tribulation will be happening soon. With “soon” being broad and loosely-defined. The tribulations could start in 100 years, they could start as soon as the next Democrat is elected president (I’m joking, but only a little) or we could already be in them. But I don’t see any evidence that Christians are reacting by tossing their hands up, for example most of them continue to have children, and at a greater rate than their more secular countrymen. I understand that having children is not directly correlated with caring about the future, but it’s definitely not unconnected either. And those who are really convinced that things are right around the corner are more likely to become preppers or something similar than to descend into a hedonistic, high-carbon emitting, lifestyle. You may disagree with the manner in which they’re choosing to hedge against future risk, but they are doing it.

 

What about my friend’s second worry, that his co-worker is an example of a large block of global warming deniers and that this group will prevent effective action on climate change? Perhaps, but is there any group which is really doing awesome with it? In the course of the conversation with my friend, someone pointed out (there were other people involved at various points) that Bhutan was carbon negative. This is true, and an interesting example. In addition to being carbon negative, the Bhutanese are also, by some measures, the happiest people in the world. How do they do it? Well, there’s less than a million of them and they live in a country which is 72 percent forest. So Bhutan has pulled it, off, but it’s hard to see a path between where the rest of the world is and where Bhutan is. (Maybe if malaria killed nearly everyone?) Which is to say I don’t think the Bhutan method scales very well. Anybody else? There is the global poor, who do very well on carbon emissions compared to richer populations. But it’s obvious no one is going to agree to voluntarily impoverish themselves, and we’re not particularly keen on keeping those who are currently poor in that state either. On the opposite side, I haven’t seen any evidence that global warming deniers, or populations who lean that way (religious conservatives) emit carbon at a discernibly greater rate than the rest of us. In fact insofar as wealth is a proxy for carbon emissions and a also a certain globalist/liberal worldview it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if, globally, a concern for global warming actually correlates with increased carbon emissions.

Finally we get to the question of how should we prioritize putting time and money towards mitigating climate change? I’m confident that if it was relatively painless the co-worker would reduce his carbon emissions. Meaning that he does probably have it somewhere on his list of priorities, if only based on the reflected priority it’s given by other people, but not as high on that list as my friend would like. As we saw at the beginning, neither the EA or the 80000 hours people put in the top ten. And when it was specifically addressed by the website givingwhatwecan.org they ended up coming to the following conclusion:

The Copenhagen Consensus 2012 panel, a panel of five expert economists that included four Nobel prize winners, ranked research and development efforts on green energy and geoengineering among the top 20 most cost-effective interventions globally, but ranked them below the interventions that our top recommended charities carry out. Our own initial estimates agree, suggesting that the most cost-effective climate change interventions are still several times less effective than the most cost-effective health interventions.

As long time readers of my blog know I favor paying attention to things with low probability, but high impact. Is it possible global warming fits into this category? Perhaps as an existential risk? Long time readers of my blog will also know that I don’t think global warming is an existential risk. But, for the moment, let’s assume that I’m wrong. Maybe global warming itself isn’t a direct existential threat, but maybe you’re convinced that it will unsettle the world enough that we end up with a nuclear war we otherwise wouldn’t have had. If that’s truly your concern, if you really think climate change is The Existential Threat, then we really need to get serious about it, and you should probably be advocating for things like geoengineering, (i.e. spraying something into the air to reflect back more sunlight) because you’re not going to turn the world into Bhutan in the next 32 years (the deadline for carbon neutrality by some estimates) particularly not by laying into your co-workers when their global warming priority is different than yours. (Not only is this too small scale, it’s also unlikely to work.)

From where I stand, after breaking down the reasons for my friends worries, they seem at best ineffectual and at worst, misguided, and I remain unconvinced that climate change should be very high on our list of priorities, particularly if it just manifests as somewhat random anger at co-workers. If you are going to worry about it, there are things to be done, but getting after people who don’t have it as their highest priority is probably not one of those things. (This is probably good advice for a lot of people.)

In the final analysis, worrying about global warming is understandable, if somewhat quixotic. The combined preferences and activities of 7.2 billion people creates a juggernaut that would be difficult to slow down and stop even if you’re Bill Gates or the President of the United States. And here we see the fundamental tension which arises when deciding what to worry about. Anything big enough to cause real damage might be too big for anyone to do anything about. Part of the appeal of effective altruism is that it targets those things which are large but tractable, and I confess that worries expressed in my writing have not always fallen into that category. When it comes right down to it, I have probably fallen into the same trap as my friend, and many of my worries are important, but completely intractable. But perhaps by writing about them I’m functioning as a “global priorities researcher”. (Number six on the 80,000 hours list!)

Of course, not all my worries deal with things that are intractable. I already mentioned that I worry about being a good person (e.g. my standing with God, should he exist, and I have decided to hope that he does.) And I worry about my children, another tractable problem, though perhaps less tractable than I originally hoped. I may hold forth on a lot of fairly intractable problems, but when you look at my actual expenditure of time and resources my family and improving my own behavior take up quite a bit of it.

Where does all of this leave us? What should we worry about? It seems obvious we should worry about things we can do something about, and we should worry about things that have some chance of happening. Most people don’t worry about being permanently disabled or dying on their next car trip, and yet that’s far more likely to happen than many of the things people do worry about. We should also worry about large calamities, and we should translate that worry into paying attention to ways we can hedge or insure against those calamities. I had expected to spend some time discussing antifragility, and related principles as useful frameworks for worry, but it ended up not fitting in. I do think that modernity has made it especially easy to worry about things which don’t matter and ignore things that do. Meaning, in the end I guess the best piece of advice is to think carefully about our worries, because we each only have a limited amount of time and money, and they’re both very easy to waste.


Is it a waste of money to donate to this blog? Well, as I said, think carefully about it. But really all I’m asking for is $1 a month. I think it’s fair to say that’s a very tractable amount…


Age of Em: Races and Rain

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This last Saturday I was hanging out with a friend of mine that I don’t see very often. This friend has a profound technical interest in AI and has spent many years working on it, though not in any formal capacity. That said he’s very smart, and my assumption would be that his knowledge runs at least as deep as mine if not much deeper. (Though I don’t think he’s spent much time on the philosophy of AI, in particular AI risk.) In short, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to call AI a long-term obsession of his.

Part of the reason for this is that he thinks that general AI, a single AI that can do everything a human can do, is only about 10 years away and if he wants to make his mark he has to do it now. This prediction of 10 years is about as optimistic as it gets (and indeed it’d be hard to compress the task into much less time than that.) If you conduct a broader survey of experts and aggregate their answers Human Level Machine Intelligence is more likely than not to be developed by 2060. Though there are certainly AI experts at least as optimistic as my friend and, on the other hand, some who basically think it will never happen. In fact, this might be a good description of the situation given that some of the data indicates there’s a bimodal distribution in attitudes, with lots of people thinking it’s just around the corner, and a lot thinking it’s going to take a very long time, if it ever happens, with few people in the middle.

(Interestingly there are significant cultural differences in predictions with the Chinese average coming in at 2044 and the American average coming in at 2092.)

Just recently, and as promised, I finished Robin Hanson’s book The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth and this whole discussion of AI probability is an important preface to any discussion of Hanson’s book because Hanson belongs to that category of people who think that human level machine intelligence is a long ways off. And that well before we figure out how to turn a machine into a brain, we’ll figure out how to turn a brain into a machine. Which is to say, he thinks we’ll be able to scan a brain and emulate it on a computer long before we can make a computer brain from scratch.

This idea is often referred to as brain uploading, and it’s been a transhumanist dream for as long as the concept has been around, though normally it sits together with AI in the big-bucket-of-science-fiction-awesomeness we’ll have in the future without much thought being given to how the two ideas might interact or, more likely, be in competition. One of Hanson’s more important contributions is to point out this competition, and pick brain emulation, or “ems”, for short, as the winner. Once you’ve picked a winner, the space of possible futures greatly narrows to the point where you can make some very interesting and specific predictions. And this is precisely what the Age of Em does. (Though perhaps with a level of precision some might find excessive.)

Having considering Hanson’s position and my friend’s position and the generic transhumanist position we are left with four broad views of the future (the fourth of which is essentially my position.)

First, the position of the AI optimists, who believe that human level machine intelligence is just a matter of time, that computers keep getting faster, algorithms keep getting better, and the domain of things which humans can do better than computers keeps narrowing. I would say that these optimists are less focused on exactly when the human intelligence finish line will be crossed and more focused on the inevitability of crossing that line.

Second, there’s the position of Hanson (and I assume a few others) who mostly agree with the above, but go on to point out (correctly) that there are two races being run. One for creating machine intelligence and one for successfully emulating the human brain. Both are singularities, and they’re betting that the brain emulation finish line is closer than the AI finish line, and accordingly that’s the future we should be preparing for.

Third, there’s the generic transhumanist position which holds that some kind of singularity is going to happen soon, and when it does it’s going to be awesome. But who have no strong opinion on whether it will be AI, brain emulation or some third thing (extensive cybernetic enhancement? Unlimited free energy from fusion power? Aliens?)

Finally there are those people, myself included, who think something catastrophic will happen which will derail all of these efforts. Perhaps, to extend the analogy, clouds are gathering over the race track, and if it starts to rain all the races will be canceled even if none of the finish lines have been reached. As I said this is my position, though it has more to do with the difficulties involved in these efforts, than in thinking catastrophe is imminent. Though I think all three of the other camps underestimate the chance of catastrophe as well.

The Age of Em is written to explain and defend the second case. Let’s start our discussion of it by examining Hanson’s argument that we will master brain emulation before we master machine intelligence. I was already familiar with this argument having encountered it in the Age of Em review on Slate Star Codex, which was also the first time I heard about the book. And then later, I heard the argument, in a more extended form when Robin Hanson was the keynote speaker at the 2017 Mormon Transhumanist Association Conference.

Both times I felt like Hanson downplayed the difficulty of brain emulation, and after hearing him speak I got up and asked him about the OpenWorm Project where they’re trying to model the brain of the C. elegans roundworm, which has a brain of only 302 neurons, so far without much success. Didn’t this indicate, I asked, that modelling the human brain, with it’s 100 billion neurons, was going to be nearly impossible? I don’t recall exactly what his answer was, but I definitely recall being unsatisfied by it.

Accordingly, one of the things I hoped to get out of reading the book was a more detailed explanation of this assumption, and in particular why he felt brain emulation was closer than machine intelligence. In this I was somewhat disappointed. I wouldn’t say that the book went into much more detail than Hanson did in his presentation. I didn’t come across any arguments about emulation in the book which Hanson left out of his presentation. That said, the book did make a much stronger case for the difficulties involved in machine intelligence, and I got a much clearer sense that Hanson isn’t so much an emulation optimist as he is an AI pessimist.

Since I started with the story of my friend, the AI optimist, it’s worth examining why Hanson is so pessimistic. I’ll allow him to explain:

It turns out that AI experts tend to be much less optimistic when asked about the topic they should know best: the past rate of progress in the AI subfield where they have the most expertise. When I meet other experienced AI experts informally, I am in the habit of asking them how much progress they have seen in their specific AI research subfield in the last 20 years. A median answer is about 5-10% of the progress required to reach human level AI.

He then argues that taking the past rate of progress and extending it forward is a better way of making estimations than having people make wild guesses about the future. And, that using this tactic, we should expect it to take two to four centuries before we have human level machine intelligence. Perhaps more, since getting to human level in one discipline does not mean that we can easily combine all those disciplines into fully general AI.

Though I am similarly pessimistic, in my friend’s defense I should point out that Age of Em was published in 2016, and thus almost certainly written before the stunning accomplishments of AlphaGo and some of the more recent excitement around image processing, both of which may now be said to be “human level”. It may be that after several eras of AI excitement which were inevitably followed by AI winters, that spring has finally arrived. Only time will tell. But my personal opinion is that there is still one more winter in our future.

I am on record as predicting that brain emulation will not happen in the next 100 years, but Hanson isn’t much more optimistic than I am and predicts it might take up to 100 years, and that the only reason he expects it before AI is that he expects AI to take 200-400 years. Meaning that in the end my actual disagreement with Hanson is pretty minor. Also I think that the skies are unlikely to remain dry for another 100 years, which means neither race will reach the finish line…  

I should also mention that in between seeing Hanson’s presentation at the MTA conference and now that my appreciation for his thinking has greatly increased, and I was glad to find that on the issue of emulation difficulty that we were more in agreement then I initially thought. Which is not to say that I don’t have my problems with Hanson or with the book.

I think I’ll take a short detour into those criticisms before returning to a discussion of potential futures. The biggest criticism I have concerns the length and detail of the book. Early on he says:

The chance that the exact particular scenario I describe in this book will actually happen just as I describe it is much less than one in a thousand. But scenarios that are similar to true scenarios, even if not exactly the same can still be a relevant guide to action and inference. I expect my analysis to be relevant for a large cloud of different but similar scenarios. In particular, conditional on my key assumptions, I expect at least 30% of the future situations to be usefully informed by my analysis. Unconditionally I expect at least 10%.

To begin with, I think the probabilities he gives suffer from being too confident, and he may be, ironically, doing something similar to AI researchers, whose guesses about the future are more optimistic than a review of past performance would indicate. I think if you looked back through history you’d be hard pressed to name a set of predictions made a hundred years in advance which would meet his 10% standard, let alone his 30% standard. And while I admire him for saying “much less than one in a thousand”. He then goes on to spend a huge amount of time and space getting very detailed about this “much less than one in a thousand” prediction. An example:

Em stories predictably differ from ours in many ways. For example, engaging em stories still tell morality tales, but the moral lessons slant toward those favored by the em world. As the death of any one copy is less of a threat to ems, the fear of imminent personal death less often motivates characters in em stories. Instead such characters more fear mind theft and other economic threats that can force the retirement of entire subclans. Death may perhaps be a more sensible fear for the poorest retirees whose last copy could be erased. While slow retirees might also fear an unstable em civilization, they can usually do little about it.

This was taken from the section on what stories will be like in the Age of Em, from the larger chapter on em society. And hopefully it gives you a taste of the level of detail Hanson goes into in describing this future society, and the number of different subjects he covers while doing so. As a setting bible for an epic series of science fiction novels, this book would be fantastic. But as just a normal non-fiction book one might sit down to read for enlightenment and enjoyment, it got a little tedious.

That’s really basically the end of my criticisms, and actually there is a hidden benefit to this enormous amount of detail. It not only describes a potential em society with amazing depth. It also sheds significant light on the third position I mentioned at the beginning, the vague, everything’s going to be cool transhumanist future. Hanson’s level of detail provides a stark contrast to the ideology of most transhumanists who have a big-bucket-of-science- fiction-awesomeness that might happen in the future but little in the way of a coherent vision for how they all fit together, or whether, as Hanson points out in the case of ems vs. AIs, they even can fit together

Speaking of big-bucket-of-science-fiction-awesomeness, and transhumanists, I already mentioned Hanson’s keynote at the MTA Conference, and while I hesitate to speculate too strongly, I suspect most MTA members did not think Hanson’s vision of the future was quite as wonderful or as “cool” as the future they imagine. (For myself, as you may have guessed, I came away convinced that this wasn’t a scenario I could ignore, and resolved to read the book.) But of course it could hardly be otherwise. Most historical periods (including our own) seem pretty amazing if you just focus on the high points, it’s when you get into the details and the drudgery of the day to day existence that they lose their shine. And for all that I wish that Hanson had spent more time in other areas (a point I’ll get back to) he does a superlative job of extrapolating even the most quotidian details of em existence.

In further support of my speculation that the average MTA member was not very excited about Hanson’s vision of the future, at their next conference, a year later, the first speaker mentioned Age of Em as an example of technology going too far in the direction of instrumentality. You may be wondering, what he meant by that, and thus far, other than a few hints here and there, I haven’t gone into too much detail about what the Age of Em future actually looks like. And I’ll only be able to give the briefest of overviews here, but as it turns out much of what we imagine about an AI future applies equally well in an em future. Both AIs and ems share the following broad features:

  1. They can be sped up: Once you’re able to emulate a human brain on a computer you can always turn the speed up. Presumably this would make the “person” being emulated experience time at that new speed. By speeding up the most productive ems, you could get years of work done every day. Hanson suggests the most common speed setting might be 1000 to 1, meaning that for every year of time which passes for normal humans, a thousand subjective years would pass for the most productive ems.
  2. They can be slowed down: You can do the reverse and slow down the rate at which time is experienced by an em. Meaning that rather than ever shutting down an em, you could put them into a very cheap “low resource state”. Perhaps they only experience a day for every month that passes for a normal human. Given how cheap this would be to maintain you could presumably keep these ems “alive” for a very long time.
  3. They can be copied: Because you can copy a virtual brain as many times as you want, not only can you have thousands if not millions of copies of the same individual, you’re also going to only choose the very “best” individual to copy. This means that the vast majority of brain emulations may be copies of only a thousand or so of the most suitable and talented humans.
  4. Other crazy things: You could create a copy each day to go to “work” and then delete that copy at the end of the day, meaning that the “main” em would experience no actual work. You could take a short break, but by turning up the speed make that short break into a subjective week long vacation. You could make a copy to hear sensitive information, allow that copy to make a decision based on that information, then destroy the copy after it had passed the decision along. And on and on.

Presumably at this point you have a pretty good idea of what the MTA speaker meant by going too far in the direction of instrumentality. Also since culture and progress are going to reside almost exclusively in the domain of the speediest ems, chosen from only a handful of individuals, it’s almost certain that no matter how solid your transhumanist cred, you’re going to be watching this future from the sidelines. (And actually even that analogy is far too optimistic, it will be more like reading a history book, and every morning there’s a new history book.)

The point of all of this is that there is significant risk associated with AI (position 1). Hanson points out that the benefits of widespread brain emulation will be very unequally distributed (position 2). Meaning that the two major hopes of transhumanists both promise futures significantly less utopian than initially expected. We still have the vague big-bucket-of-science fiction-awesomeness hope (position 3). But I think Hanson has shown that if you subject any individual cool thing to enough scrutiny it will end up having significant drawbacks. The future is probably not going to go how we expect even if the transhumanists are right about the singularity, and even if we manage to avoid all the catastrophes lying in wait for us (position 4).

The problem with optimistic views of the future (which would include not only the transhumanists, but people like Steven Pinker) is that they’re all based on picking an inflection point somewhere in the not too distant past. The point where everything changed. They then ignore all the things which happened before that inflection point and extrapolate what the future will be like based only on what has happened since. But as I mentioned in a previous post, Hanson is of the opinion that current conditions are anomalous, and that extrapolating from them is exactly the wrong thing to do because they can’t continue. They’re the exception, not the rule. He calls the current period we’re living in “dreamtime” because, for a short time we’re free from the immediate constraints of survival.

Age of Em covers this idea as well, and at slightly greater length than the blogpost where he initially introduced the idea. And when I complain about the book’s length and the time it spends discussing every nook and cranny of em society, I’m mostly complaining about the fact that he could have spent some of that going into more detail on this idea, the idea of “dreamtime”. Also his discussion of larger trends is fascinating as well. And, in the end, I would have preferred for Hanson to have spent most of his time discussing broad scenarios, rather than spending so much on this one, very specific, scenario. Because, as you’ll recall, I’m a believer in the fourth position, that something will derail us in the next 100 years before Hanson’s em predictions are able to come to fruition, and largely because of the things he points out in his more salient (in my opinion) observations about the current “dreamtime”.  

We have also, I will argue, become increasingly maladaptive. Our age is a “dreamtime” of behavior that is unprecedentedly maladaptive, both biologically and culturally. Farming environments changed faster than genetic selection could adapt, and the industrial world now changes faster than even cultural selection can adapt. Today, our increased wealth buffers us more from our mistakes, and we have only weak defenses against the super-stimuli of modern food, drugs, music, television, video games and propaganda. The most dramatic demonstration of our maladaptation is the low fertility rate in rich nations today.

This is what I would have liked to hear more about. This is a list of problems that is relevant now. And which, in my opinion at least, seem likely to keep us from ever getting either AI or ems or even just the big-bucket-of-science-fiction-awesomeness. Because in essence what he’s describing are problems of survival, and as I have said over and over again, if you don’t survive you can’t do much of anything else. And brain emulation and AI and science fiction awesomeness are all on the difficult end of the “stuff you can do” continuum on top of this. I understand that some exciting races are being run, and that the finish line seems close, but I still think we should pay at least some attention to the gathering storm.


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Modern Monetary Theory: It’s the Inflation, Stupid

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One of the things lacking in modern political discourse are good-faith attempts to truly understand the other side. Anyone who doubts this need merely look at any of the many political fights over the last few years, including the Kavanaugh nomination I talked about last week. As an antidote to this, several solutions have been offered. The first, is what’s called an Ideological Turing Test, and it was proposed several years ago by Bryan Caplan, a noted libertarian economist. His idea was that someone could demonstrate that they truly understood their opponent’s position if they could explain it well enough to be indistinguishable from an actual supporter of the position. Much in the way that a computer could be said to have passed the original Turing Test by being indistinguishable from a human.

Another proposed solution was offered up by Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex, who urged people to engage in steelmanning. On the internet it’s common to see people strawman their opponents argument, which is to offer up the weakest and most ridiculous version of it, and attack that. To steelman their argument is the opposite, it’s to offer up the very best version of their argument.

Both of these are very similar ideas, and both are things I should do more often. It could be argued that last week’s post might have benefited from a little more steelman. Though I really think last week there were actually three sides. The two sides that are sure that they know what happened, (and what should happen now) and a third side which is sure that no one knows what really happened, and that the first two sides are just displaying their built in political biases, and then attempting to make what little evidence there is seem ironclad. But while I have no desire to go back and revisit last week’s post (okay I have some desire to do that, but I’m also kind of sick of the topic) I can do better this week. And fortunately this week’s post is more amenable to steelmanning or an Ideological Turing Test as well, because this week, unlike last week, my certainty level is high, but there are people who are are just as certain I’m wrong. Accordingly, this week, it’s my intent to discuss one of the opposing arguments, hopefully in a manner which is indistinguishable from an actual supporter.

I suspect I will not do as well as either Caplan or Alexander would hope. Also, if I’m being honest much of the post will be devoted to showing how, even with this new, updated understanding I still think they’re wrong, but I hope, at least, to have moved the debate closer to their actual position. Actually “wrong” is not the word I’m looking for. I actually think they may be right in the abstract, but foolish in the implementation. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I haven’t even said what the subject is. This week we’re going to return to talking about the national debt and the federal budget deficit.

I’m not sure where the national debt would rank on my list of “issues I’m interested in” but it would probably be pretty high, I’ve mentioned it quite a few times, perhaps most notably in my post The National Debt in Three Lists of Six Items. Looking back, the first of those six item lists was a list of reasons why people say we shouldn’t worry about the debt, so it’s not as if I’ve entirely ignored opposing arguments on this subject in the past, but it could certainly be argued that I treated them too flippantly. Perhaps this post will fix that, perhaps not.

To start with, let’s just, ever so briefly, review my position: The national debt is over $20 trillion dollars. This is probably the largest accumulation of money into a single bucket in the history of the world. Insofar as money acts as a proxy for nearly everything, we’ve put, as they say, a lot of our eggs into a single basket. And if this basket/bucket fails in some fashion it would be catastrophic. I’m not sure exactly how it will “fail” but there is significant historical precedent for things failing even if no one could see in advance exactly how it was going to happen, until it did. And that’s being charitable. Currently there are numerous people with equally numerous theories who feel very confident they can see how it will fail. Maybe one of them will turn out to be right, or maybe it will be something no one saw coming. Or maybe nothing will ever go wrong with the debt, but my position is that this is not the way to bet.

If you take a look at the comments on my “Three Lists” post (which unfortunately didn’t make it over to the new site, so you’ll have to go here.) You’ll see that Boonton disagrees with me on this, and I’m grateful to him for pushing me on it, because otherwise I might still think those on the other side of this issue are being hopelessly ahistorical, when in reality they’re probably just too optimistic. So what is their position? What are people really saying when they say that the debt and by extension the deficit doesn’t matter? Let’s start with the six reasons not to worry I mentioned in that last post. To briefly review:

  1. The government does not have an ironbound debt contract. The size of the debt and the payments change as the economy changes.
  2. The national debt is not money we owe to other people it’s money we owe to ourselves.
  3. Our debt to GDP ratio is not that bad when compared to other countries
  4. Borrowing money is currently a very good deal. Interest rates are near historic lows.
  5. Our debt is in dollars, and we can print dollars. Making it literally impossible to default.
  6. Our assets greatly exceed our liabilities.

To be clear all of these are pretty good reasons to not be worried about the debt. However, as I said then, I don’t think they’re sufficient. (If you want to know why you should go back and look at the original post.) Still they are all essentially true and it’s important not to dismiss them, in particular reason number five. The idea that we can print money. Obviously, if you can print money, then you’ll never run out of it, but the problem with that is that if you do too much of it, you’ll get inflation, and too much inflation is bad.

I don’t think there’s any serious disagreement with the assertion that too much inflation is bad (though there might be some quibbling over how much is “too much”.) High inflation is bad because it wipes out savings, and any benefits which aren’t pegged (or are insufficiently pegged) to inflation. It makes the currency going through inflation less desirable. And, in the most extreme cases, such as in the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe (and currently Venezuela) you can end up in the positive feedback loop of hyperinflation. But for me it all comes down to the fact that too much inflation makes planning for the future hard. It makes doing something today vastly different from doing something later. If you’ll recall my definition of civilization consists merely of having a low time preference, That civilization means there’s very little difference between doing something today and doing something in a year. This makes inflation something which eats away at civilization.

All of the forgoing is to say that inflation is something I am particularly worried about. It is true that inflation does not currently seem to be much of a problem, and if anything we may have too little inflation. But this does not mean that this condition will hold forever, inflation will eventually be a problem, a problem which I felt the “other side” was dismissing far too hastily. (At least as far as I could tell.)

Such was my understanding of the argument until just recently when I heard a podcast from Planet Money, which completely flipped my understanding. They were interviewing Stephanie Kelton who is a big proponent of the view that deficits don’t matter and she made the exact opposite argument: rather than saying that inflation doesn’t matter she basically said that it was the only thing that mattered. Now I know that this is a weird place to mention this given that I’m nearly half way through things, but it was this podcast that made me decide to write a post. (In addition to doing more Ideological Turing Tests/steelmanning in the future I should probably also have shorter intros.) I finally felt I had heard a credible argument for the idea that we shouldn’t worry about the deficit or the national debt, as long as we are worried about inflation.

Kelton was Bernie Sanders economic advisor during his presidential run, and is a major player in the Modern Monetary Theory space. Which is the best known framework on the other side of the debt/deficit argument from me (and many, many others).  Now I already know that I am unlikely to do the field of MMT justice in only a thousand or so words, so I would urge you to not only listen to the Planet Money podcast (it’s short, only 22 minutes) but to also pay attention if you come across other mentions of MMT. (I’ve seen several just recently, including this one from The Nation.) But for me, the key aha moment came during the podcast when they were talking about taxes:

[The government] taxes because it wants to remove some of the money that it spent into the economy so that it can guard against the risk of inflation.

This is one of the big ideas of Modern Monetary Theory. Taxes are not for spending. Taxes are for fighting inflation. And spending – that isn’t just to buy stuff the government needs, but the power of the keyboard – the spending from that – can be put to use for doing all kinds of good things – to put money into the economy to give it a boost or to help get to full employment.

So, on the one hand, you have the traditional way of thinking about things, which says that government spending is limited by government revenue which mostly takes the form of taxes, and that if government spending goes above government revenue for too long or by too much some kind of catastrophe will occur.

On the other hand you have the MMT school of thought which says that government spending is limited only by the amount of inflation it causes, and that taxes only correlate to spending insofar as more taxes can reduce the inflation caused by higher spending. From this it follows, as they say, budget deficits and the accumulating debt that results, don’t matter, because they don’t affect the rate of inflation, and that’s all we care about.

There is one other, critical piece of the MMT approach. You not only have to be able to increase the amount of money at will, you also can’t have any debts which are denominated in a currency other than the one you can create. As long as this is the case, they reject, as both unrealistic and unserious, any potential fears of MMT policy leading to hyperinflation like the classic examples of Weimar, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.  Because in each of the cases mentioned, the countries had debts to other countries that were denominated in currencies other than their own. (Weimar owed France money for war reparations and Zimbabwe and Venezuela both had/have debts that are denominated in dollars.)

If things still seem a little nebulous, they offer another way of looking at it in the podcast which may be more concrete. Imagine that the economy has a certain ability to absorb money and turn it into goods and services. The MMT economists compare this to a speed-limit. Returning to the podcast:

The speed limit has to do with what economists call real resources. An economy is not just money… If you want to build a hospital, you can’t build it out of money. You need… those IV bags that hang on those sort of rolling coat-rack things…

So say the factory that makes those wheeling coat-rack things is running at, like, half the capacity that it could. Then, if the government decides to place a big order for those coat-rack things, nothing bad really happens. They just buy them at the normal price, put them in the hospital – great.

But what if the factory is at full capacity? Then, the government has to say, hey, sell to our new hospital instead of to your other customers. And to get them to do it, they’ll have to pay more. That is inflation. Prices just went up.

[Kelton] says that’s what the government should think about – not whether they have enough money, but whether there are enough resources in the economy to soak up that money.

There is more to MMT than the elements just mentioned, but before I move on I should say that the core idea makes sense. Which is to say I don’t see any mistakes from a theoretical standpoint. And the appeal of having more money to do the kinds of things we want to do like fund schools, care for the poor, maintain global military hegemony and rescue the states from their pension crises, is obviously appealing. Probably too appealing, and here’s where we get to my criticism of MMT. (I realize this wasn’t the most comprehensive steel-manning, and if anyone thinks I left anything out, I’m looking at you Boonton, please let me know in the comments.)

The first criticism is brought up in the Planet Money podcast itself, and comes from another left-leaning economist, Tom Palley. Palley also feels that mainstream economics is flawed, particularly its obsession with having a balanced budget, and thus there are some elements of MMT he really likes, but he doesn’t think it’s practical to use taxes to fight inflation:

Politics doesn’t work like that. Taxes are very, very contested. No one wants their taxes raised. It’s very hard for politicians to raise taxes. They’re very slow to do it because guess what? They don’t get re-elected if they do.

Kelton has an answer for that, build in automatic changes to taxation as the economy changes, so that you’re not counting on congress to raise taxes when inflation starts going up, it happens automatically. It’s a clever idea, but it’s not necessarily any more politically feasible to pass a law that automatically raises taxes, than to pass a law which just raises taxes at the time, and it might, in fact, be a lot more difficult, given that congress doesn’t generally like to give away their power.  Also there’s the principle of legislative entrenchment which means they can’t bind a future congress to do anything even if they want to.

The problem, of course, is that any form of tax increase is difficult, even if it’s in the future, and any form of spending is easy. And if MMT’s only contribution is to make it easier to increase spending and harder to increase taxes, then it will almost certainly end up being viewed as a net negative when the full history of this age is finally written.

For the sake of argument let’s assume that we can effortless raise taxes in response to inflation, as effortlessly as the Federal Reserve changes the short-term interest rate. How do we know what level to raise the taxes too? Are we sure we understand inflation and the enormously complicated chain of incentives and behaviors and chaos that comprise the modern economy well enough to not dramatically undershoot or overshoot the mark? Let’s just start with inflation how well do we even understand that? Well interestingly enough, in the podcast I’ve been referencing they quote Kelton as saying:

..nobody has a good model of inflation right now. And she thinks the government could spend a lot more money right now, and we’d still probably be fine.

(Am I the only one who thinks that first “and” should be a “but” and that the word “probably” is worrisome?)

Maybe this is understood better than I think. Maybe there’s some great way for determining exactly what taxes should be implemented which accounts for tax evasion, and the health of the economy, and all potential black swan events whether positive or negative. But even if we master taxes we would still have the question of what happens to the concept of debt, deficit, government bonds and interest rates? Do we just junk all of it? This hardly seems possible, not without catastrophic consequences. Perhaps if we start by considering something smaller. One big worry that deficit hawks have is that there will be a loss of confidence and the interest rate the government has to pay on outstanding debt will start rising. This would mean a greater portion of the budget would go to servicing the debt, leaving less available for everything else. (As a point of reference we currently spend 6% of the budget on interest payments.)

What happens if interest rates start rising under MMT? Do interest payments continue as normal? Do we stop borrowing altogether? What happens to the $21+ trillion we’ve already borrowed? Do we pay it all off in a vast orgy of money creation? I assume not, surely even if nothing else is, that would have to be inflationary. If we keep everything the same with bonds, but switch to MMT with respect spending and taxes, does that cause interest rates to rise through a loss of confidence? (I mean we have just kind of repudiated the whole concept of debt.) But I guess under MMT as long as inflation is in check we don’t care how much we’re spending on interest? But does that make rates go up even more in some kind of positive feedback loop?

Maybe I’m missing something obvious, and maybe they have some straightforward plan for all of this, maybe I’ll eventually have an aha moment similar to the one I had with inflation. A quick Google search came up with an explanation that bonds are used under MMT as a way of setting the short term interest rate, but I’m still not sure how that applies to the behavior of the already outstanding debt. If anyone wants to point me at something on this topic, I’d be grateful.

If they do manage to clear all the hurdles I’ve mentioned thus far, there’s still one final hurdle, which doesn’t need to be cleared now, but will have to be cleared eventually. I mentioned above that the one big caveat of MMT was that all your debts had to be in the same currency as the one you can create. For the moment the dollar is still the world’s reserve currency, which basically means that all debts are denominated in a currency we can create. (This makes us singularly positioned as an MMT candidate.) Now, imagine that we switched over to using MMT as the guiding ideology for federal spending and taxation, and that it works great. What happens to this system when (not if) the dollar loses its place as the world’s reserve currency? Is there some smooth transition back to the old way of doing things? Or does the entire thing explode in a fiery disaster where the living envy the dead? I suspect neither, but this is not something we have any way of knowing, since we’re deep into speculative territory even talking about switching to MMT, let alone a discussion of how we might switch back.

Additionally, one other interesting thing occurs to me. Does switching to MMT hasten the end of the dollar’s status as reserve currency? Are people going to be more hesitant to enter into contracts denominated in dollars if the US government is on record as saying they’re going to create as many dollars as they feel like? It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t, given the already substantial inclination of people to switch to things like bitcoin. An inclination which would only be enhanced by any movement in the direction of MMT.

It should be noted, here at the end, that there is a lot of space between the modern monetary theorists and the people who absolutely insist on a balanced budget. And I’ve only covered a small slice of it. But in many ways people who are “MMT friendly” without directly advocating for it are actually harder for me to understand. These people seem to be saying that the debt will matter at some point, but despite being over $21 trillion dollars and over 100% of GDP that point is not yet. The MMTers at least have a theory for why it will never matter, and it’s definitely theoretically interesting. But practically, I think it’s a horrible idea.

Perhaps the biggest problem is one I keep coming back to. For a system to work it has to, on some level, make sense to the average person (or the average congressperson which might be an even lower bar.) Particularly in light of the fact that we’ve given that “average person” the power to vote. It’s possible that the understanding of the masses won’t matter in our post-democratic futures when the AI overlords realize that debt and deficit are silly, biological fallacies, but until that time comes, no matter how much you try, you’re never going to convince the average person that $21 trillion dollars of debt doesn’t matter, and on this point, I think they’re right.


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