Month: October 2017

Speculative Attempts to Complicate Through History

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

I’m an okay chess player. But I’m a voracious reader, and so the amount of reading about chess I’ve done is high relative to my skill. (If you were being technical you might say I have a high pages/Elo rating, which is actually bad.) All of this is my way of saying, when I start talking about chess, which I’m about to, that I’m not trying to put myself forward as some sort of chess savant, merely someone who’s read a lot. And in that reading I came across an idea which has ended up being a useful framework for thinking about a lot of situations that have nothing to do with chess. It’s the idea of a “speculative attempt to complicate” and as far as I can tell I am the only one who’s adopted it for use outside of chess, given that a search on the term (in quotes) yields only seven results.

(As a tangent if you ever doubt my mastery of search engine optimization, just watch me rocket to the top of that seven, now eight item search, with my well chosen title.)

What is a speculative attempt to complicate? In chess notation you use an exclamation mark for good moves (more is better) and question marks for bad moves (more is worse) but you’ll also occasionally see an exclamation mark and a question mark, and if the question mark is first (i.e. “?!”) it means “A speculative attempt to complicate”. The idea being that the game isn’t going great for the person making the move, so they make some speculative, chaos-causing, non-standard move, hoping that out of the chaos a new setup will emerge where they’re in a better position. The idea being that if they do what’s expected they’ll just lose, but if they cause some chaos, or if they complicate the game, the possibility exists, that once the complication is resolved, that their position will be better.

In 1787 the King of France, Louis the XVI, was losing the game of running the country. And to be fair the deck was stacked against him (to mix metaphors). At the time, people were dealing with the heady ideals of the enlightenment. There was a rising, and restless middle class, not to mention, social unrest, famines and wars. And, speaking of wars, the American Revolution was of particular impact, in that it not only served to stoke revolutionary fervor in France, but added an immense amount of money to France’s already substantial debt. And as it turned out this debt was getting to be a problem, though, at least here, the King was not blameless, since he, his father and his grandfather had spent an enormous amount of money on themselves (you may have heard of a little thing called Versailles?) In fact while things like social unrest and war and famine may have been more important in the final analysis, it was the country’s debt which really started the ball rolling, or as historian John Shovlin said:

It is a truism that the French Revolution was touched off by the near bankruptcy of the state.

For those paying attention you may see why this post follows my last post. And, to be clear, I’m not claiming that the debt caused the revolution. It wasn’t the biggest problem, but in 1787, on the eve of the revolution, it was the most immediate problem. Obviously neither the King nor his finance minister were unaware of this problem and the quick succession of ministers who were dismissed after failing to solve it, should give some clue as to its severity. However despite the number of people who made the attempt, the problem proved impossible to resolve. Eventually, in desperation the King convened an Assembly of Notables. The arcana for why he convened the assembly and what he was hoping they would accomplish is too lengthy to get into, but structurally, although the assembly probably wanted to do something, they ended up being largely ineffectual. (One wonders if that would have changed if the nobles had known what was coming.) With the notables/nobles unable to get on top of the problem there was only one thing left to do, convene the Estates General. While convening the Assembly of Notables was kind of a risky move, convening the Estates General was the King’s true speculative attempt to complicate. Perhaps the fact that it had been 175 years since the last time they were convened (1614) will give you some sense of how risky, unprecedented and desperate this move was.

It’s interesting to imagine what would have happened if the King had not made this move. I’m no expert on the French Revolution, and given all the revolutions that subsequently occurred, just in France, it may be that the overall arc of things would not have been that different. Perhaps the King would eventually have to have abdicated in favor of someone else. Perhaps if he hadn’t convened them everything would have been a lot worse. What is clear is that none of the major players, and particularly the king, would have convened the Estates General if they had known what was going to happen: Robespierre, the execution of the King, the rise of Napoleon, etc. etc. (One wonders if even Napoleon, who was 20 at the time, would have “pulled the trigger” if he had known the whole arc, probably, but it’s hard to say.)

Also one other thing about speculative attempts to complicate. By this point you have probably realized that we do have other terms for what the King was doing that are in more common usage. Someone can “go out on a limb”, “roll the dice” , or “throw a hail mary”. But the problem with these terms is none of them mention the idea of complicating the situation as a way of turning around a losing game. Rather these terms just represent desperate gambles that will either clearly fail or clearly succeed. The pass is either caught or it isn’t. Had Louis the XVI asked the UK for help (totally inconceivable I realize), or had he implemented a radical new tax, or if he had executed the latest finance minister rather than firing him, those are all hail mary’s, but by convening the Estates General he was complicating matters, primarily by granting de facto authority to a lot of new people, all of whom were wildcards to a certain extent.

Lately a similar idea has been getting press in the US and the parallels are a little bit eerie. We are also in a situation where there’s broad agreement that government is broken. There’s even some agreement that one of the main problems is financial, though, to be clear, despite what I said in the last post, I don’t think the US is heading towards bankruptcy in the same fashion as the French Monarchy. (History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes.) But, for those who are the most worried about financial crisis, there is an unused clause of the constitution, that may allow them to make a speculative attempt to complicate in a game they feel like they’re otherwise going to lose, just like the king.

This particular speculative attempt to complicate involves calling a constitutional convention, as provided for by Article V. In one of the recent articles about this possibility from the Economist, they explain the interesting backstory of the convention clause:

THE I’s had been dotted; the T’s were crossed. The 55 delegates to America’s first and so-far-only constitutional convention had hammered out compromises on the separation of powers, apportionment of seats in the legislature and the future of the slave trade. But on September 15th 1787 George Mason, a plantation owner from Virginia, rose to his feet to object.

Article V of the draft text laid out two paths by which future amendments could be proposed. Congress could either propose them itself, or it could summon a convention of representatives from the states to propose them. Mason warned that if the federal government were to become oppressive, Congress would be unlikely to call a convention to correct matters. To protect the people’s freedom, he argued, convening power should instead be vested in the states. Should two-thirds of their legislatures call for a convention, Congress would have to accede to their demand: a convention they should have.

The constitution was signed two days later, with Article V changed as Mason had suggested. Since then 33 amendments have been proposed, with 27 subsequently ratified, a process which requires approval in three-quarters of the states. Whether the issue was great (abolishing slavery) or small (changing the date of presidential inaugurations), all 33 of the proposals came from Congress. Mason’s mechanism for change driven by state legislatures has never been used. Even politically informed Americans often have no idea it exists.

As mentioned it’s never been used, so that gives us yet another parallel, it had been 175 years since the last time the Estates General were convened, it has been 230 years since the last constitutional convention. It may be too early to queue the ominous music, but you can see why it’s interesting.

As the article mentioned even well-informed people often have no idea that such a thing is possible, and if you are one of those people who had no idea you may be experiencing some combination of curiosity, fear or possibly boredom. Let’s start with boredom.

You might be experiencing boredom because your immediate reaction is to view it as one more thing which, while technically possible, is very unlikely. Something like Evan McMullin becoming president in 2016 if he had won in Utah and the electoral college was otherwise deadlocked, or like the Secretary of Housing and Urban development becoming President after everyone else is killed. Well, one of the reasons it’s in the news is that it may be more likely than you think. At this point 27 states have requested a convention. A convention only requires 34, which leaves just 7 more states. Conveniently, there are 7 Republican states who haven’t requested a convention and in the next couple of years they’re all going to consider the issue.

What does being Republican have to do with it? Well the major impetus for all of this is a balanced budget amendment. These are the people I mentioned who are really concerned about the financial crisis and are attempting their own speculative attempt to complicate. In any event, what this all means is that, according to the article, opponents and supporters are giving even odds of it happening by 2020. Thus it may not be as unlikely as you think. Better odds than people gave Trump and we all know how that turned out.

From this you may be ready to move to curiosity, but before we do that, let’s look at one other reason for boredom. The subtitle of the Economist article is “If it did, that would be a dangerous thing.” Okay, admittedly that’s not a phrase that immediately brings boredom to mind. But in the letters section of the next issue one of the supporters of Article V, wrote in and retorted that holding a constitutional convention wasn’t dangerous, and that, in fact, it isn’t even an actual constitutional convention. That it was rather a “convention for proposing amendments”, in other words it’s only point would be to get a narrowly worded amendment approved for voting, in the current case the balanced budget amendment. Thus while the convention wouldn’t necessarily be boring per se, it would be a lot less exciting than The Economist (or any of the other articles) is claiming.

But, of course, I’ve come a long way without saying why the Economist called it dangerous or why Esquire called it a constitutional crisis. And if you’re still with me, at this point, you’re probably more curious than bored. And to satisfy that curiosity I suppose we should actually look at Article V:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress;

I think the key word in the clause about the state conventions is, “amendments” plural. I know the guy who wrote the letter to the editor in The Economist seemed pretty knowledgeable, and cited a lot of legal precedents, but at a minimum, from my reading, it looks like there would be grounds for someone to try and go beyond just the balanced budget amendment to propose numerous amendments. Even if they did, it still appears, that this just puts the amendments on the “ballot”, so to speak, and that you would still need 3/4ths of the states to approve them.

Three-fourths of the states is a pretty high hurdle, and even when you toss in the possibility of multiple amendments, it’s not, on it’s face, “dangerous” or a “crisis”, but this is why I started by talking about speculative attempts to complicate and the convening of the Estates General. The king didn’t convene them because he wanted to be beheaded in four years. He convened them for the very narrow purpose of fixing the financial crisis. Just like the, suggested, constitutional convention is being organized for the very narrow purpose of proposing a balanced budget amendment.  And the danger and the potential crisis come from the idea that just like the Estates General went WELL BEYOND their original purpose, there is some possibility that a new convention would go well beyond it’s original purpose. This is where fear enters into the picture.

But what reason would the convention have to go beyond it’s original purpose? I think when people consider the current divisiveness and anger, the answer to that question is obvious. Though, to be clear, things were a lot worse in 1789 than they are in 2017. That point aside I’d like to draw your attention to another issue which goes unmentioned by any of the articles I’ve read. The other method in Article V for proposing amendments, the congressional method,  is broken. The last amendment was passed in 1992, 25 years ago, and given that it was initially proposed in 1789, I don’t think it should win any awards for either speed or efficiency. Nor was it particularly controversial.

The last one before that was 1971, 46 years ago. And it was the relatively uncontroversial amendment of lowering the voting age to 18. As evidence of how uncontroversial it was, it was the shortest time from proposal to ratification of any amendment. And, though I won’t bother to go through each amendment one-by-one, I would say that you have to go all the way back to 1920, or nearly 100 years, to find an amendment that was actually controversial. I’m referring to Amendment 19, the one giving women the right to vote, (an idea that’s completely uncontroversial now.) It could possibly be argued that the 24th, eliminating the poll tax, was controversial, but if so, it’s the only one in 100 years that was.

As I have argued previously, the Supreme Court has mostly usurped the role of the amendment process. Making it largely unnecessary, particularly for those on the more liberal side of things. And thus one way of looking at this may be as a battle between the liberal method for amending the Constitution and a new way the conservatives are trying to implement. And in part I think that’s why people are worried. If this convention does happen and it does end up being yet another battleground, how could the left/Democrats/progressives sit it out? Perhaps if they’re sure, like the letter-writer I mentioned earlier, that the judiciary will keep things tightly contained, they might not worry. But I wouldn’t count on it.

If you’re looking for reasons to worry, the soonest a convention could happen would be 2019 (blame Montana) and it probably wouldn’t happen until 2020, and a lot can happen in 3 years (just ask Louis XVI). Imagine that in that time, Trump has managed to appoint another justice to the Supreme Court. And imagine that with both Gorsuch and this new judge that things start moving in a direction the left doesn’t like. Imagine that some of the rulings which act like amendments, for example Roe v. Wade, are in danger of being overturned. Imagine further that before the convention can be held that Trump wins re-election. None of these scenarios is that unlikely (though I acknowledge that the cumulative probability is low). If a convention is held and all of these things have happened, does anyone imagine that the convention would be a nice quiet affair?

I’ve gone fairly deep on this one example of a speculative attempt to complicate, and to wrap things up I should probably go wide. Perhaps you’re convinced that the convening of the Estates General was an attempt to complicate and that it went poorly. And maybe you’re even convinced that the proposed constitutional convention bears enough resemblance to what happened then for people to be concerned. Despite all this, you’re almost certainly looking for other examples, which is what I mean by going wide. Making one connection doesn’t prove much of anything, but what if there are dozens of examples of speculative attempts to complicate? I would argue that there are, and that, in fact, they’re everywhere once you start looking. However, this doesn’t mean that the individuals making these “moves” always realize that that’s what they’re doing.

A couple of examples:

After 9/11 the US was losing to the terrorists (or at least that’s how it felt), Saddam was still in power and the Middle East was a mess. After considering all of this President Bush decided to make a speculative attempt to complicate by invading Iraq, though he probably didn’t think of it that way. And here we see one of the key features of the unknowing speculative attempt to complicate. The people attempting it often only see the likely, good outcomes, not all the possible outcomes. In this case Bush thought that overthrowing Saddam was obviously a good thing, and there was even a chance that he could turn Iraq into a peaceful and stable democracy that would be a beacon to the rest of the Middle East. I assume that there was always a chance that this is exactly how it would go, and Saddam was a bad guy, and, as I said, the Middle East was a mess. Finally, It did feel like we were already losing, and how much worse could it be? Well we got our answer. Iraq is basically a client state of Iran. (Or so my Lebanese cab driver claimed.) ISIS replaced Al Qaeda. And while Iraq may have provided the spark for the Arab Spring, that’s definitely been a mixed bag, particularly when you consider the Syrian Civil War. Meaning, whatever else you may think of it, Iraq was a speculative attempt to complicate, and it didn’t work out.

Wars are the biggest example of this sort of thing, and World War I in particular really took the cake. Gavrilo Princip and the Bosnian Nationalists were losing their quest for independence so they made a speculative attempt to complicate and assassinated the Archduke. Germany was losing the game of colonies and they made their attempt by starting the war and invading Belgium. Britain was worried about staying on top navally and they joined in on the side of the allies. The Austro-Hungarian empire was crumbling so they decided to invade Serbia. And the list could go on. Many people honestly thought a war was exactly what was necessary to shake things up. They also believed, almost to a man, and on all sides, that it would be a quick war. I was just reading the World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig (of which I may say more in a future post), who was there during this period. He talked about exactly this feeling playing out at the beginning of the war in Austria, where young men were “honestly afraid” that the war might be over before they could get there. And I’ve read other books that described exactly the same thing happening in other belligerent nations. Numerous speculative attempts to complicate, all made by people who were only looking at only the potential good outcomes, not loss of empire, execution by the Bolsheviks, hyperinflation, or another, worse war 25 years later.

Currently I see speculative attempts to complicate everywhere I look: the debt ceiling brinksmanship, Catalonia voting to secede, Brexit, Kim Jong Un’s nuclear posturing, or perhaps the biggest one of all, the election of Trump…

Is donating to this blog a speculative attempt to complicate? Maybe, it is complicated and unlikely to make much difference. But it might nevertheless yield interesting results.

The Nation Debt in Three Lists of Six Items

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

I mentioned last week that I “feel a post about the deficit coming on.” Which makes it sound a little bit like a bowel movement. Perhaps that’s a valid comparison. Certainly it’s a subject that affects our lives a lot more than we would like to admit, but also rarely discussed in polite society. Finally, if things get out of whack, there can be disastrous consequences.

I don’t recall specifically thinking about this at the time, but I’m sure the news that the national debt recently passed 20 trillion dollars had to play a part in my desire to write about it now.

Perhaps you also heard the news that the national debt had passed $20 trillion, but it’s equally probable that you didn’t. It didn’t appear to be very big news, at least from my perspective. Certainly people mentioned it, but I think the news was dominated by Irma and as usual, i.e. Trump. As I said, it’s possible that it was just me, but in an effort to find a more objective source I stumbled onto the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. Searching a period from September 11th (I’m sure that’s part of the problem) to today (October 20th) There were zero stories which mentioned the “deficit”, 4 stories which mentioned “debt” (and none of them actually appear to be talking about the national debt) versus 109 stories which mentioned the word “hurricane” and 190 stories which mention Trump. Leading me to conclude it wasn’t just unremarked on from my perspective.

I do understand that $20 trillion is somewhat arbitrary, and it would be difficult to make the case that somehow $20 trillion is qualitatively different than $19.5 trillion. Still they’re both staggering numbers, high enough to deserve some comment, I would think, even if we hadn’t passed a major (albeit somewhat arbitrary) milestone. My go to source for the a snapshot of the problem and all its facets is the US Debt Clock, which is equal parts illuminating and frightening. As of this writing the debt, stands at $20.424 trillion (meaning we’re closing in on halfway to our next trillion.) The debt clock helpfully translates this into more easily understandable numbers and tells us that this equates to a debt of $63,646 per citizen and $169,251 per taxpayer.

I would hazard to predict that most people start worrying when they hear these numbers, but it’s most likely a directionless worry. What can the average citizen do about a $20 trillion dollar or even a $63k of debt? Of course there are people whose job it is to worry about these sorts of things and to offer advice about what should be done. This includes people with direct responsibility like those who actually work at the Treasury Department, but I would also extend it to include people outside the system, like economics professors and newspaper columnists. And many, if not most, of these people, the most notable of which is Paul Krugman, contend that there’s really nothing to worry about.

Why aren’t they concerned? Well, if you look into it you’ll come across a few different reasons for this. I’ll provide a brief overview of several of them, though this list is not comprehensive. And then later I’ll look at why, despite these reassurances, we might still need to worry.

  1. Unlike individuals who are obligated to pay back their debt according to the terms of the original loan, governments are not so obligated, they just have to, as Krugman said, “ensure that debt grows more slowly than their tax base. The debt from World War II was never repaid; it just became increasingly irrelevant as the U.S. economy grew, and with it the income subject to taxation.”
  2. Krugman also points out (from the same article) is that, unlike individual debt, which is money we owe to someone else. The national debt is money we owe to ourselves. Just to be clear this is true for the majority of the money, but there’s still $6 trillion dollars which is owed to foreign investors.
  3. When you compare the debt to the national GDP, and compare the US’s indebtedness to other countries it’s not that bad. The US is only number 8 in terms of indebtedness, and based on debt as a percentage of GDP, we’re only half as bad as the #1 country, Japan. (Over 100% vs. well over 200%.) And Japan is doing okay, meaning presumably we have a long way to go before we have to worry.
  4. Borrowing money is currently a very good deal. Ever since the financial crash the interest rate the government has to pay to borrow has been extremely low. To once again use the analogy of a typical consumer, sure it’s stupid to borrow money on a credit card that charges 18%, but borrowing money at 1.5%, particularly if you could find a way to reinvest it at 5% would be a great deal.
  5. Our debt is in dollars, and we can print dollars. One person compared defaulting on our debt to the difficulty of starving to death in a warehouse full of food. It’d be possible, but not very likely.
  6. Our assets greatly exceed our liabilities. The US government owns buildings, land, infrastructure, and some exceptionally valuable nuclear missiles. Our debt may be a huge negative value, but our net worth is an even huger positive value.

Those are a selection of the most common reasons the experts give for not worrying about the national debt or the current deficit. I may have missed one or two, but I think I got all the big ones. And now, if you’re anything like most people you may be torn between the gigantic size of the debt, and your long standing belief that debt is bad, on the one hand and the “experts” telling you, on the other hand, not to worry about it.

Unless this is the very first post of mine that you’re reading, you can probably guess that I think the debt, and the ongoing deficit, are problems. Problems we should be worried about. That being the case, what would I say in response to the six reasons listed above urging me and everyone else not to worry?

  1. Krugman says that we just have to ensure that the debt grows more slowly than the tax base. I agree, but I don’t see any evidence that this is happening. The government consistently spends about 18% more than it takes in, and most future projections show that this will only get worse. I’ll have a lot more to say about this point.
  2. I also understand that this is money we owe to ourselves, but that doesn’t make it frictionless. It’s not like when my wife owes me $20, but really she doesn’t, because we have a joint checking account. This joint ownership has significantly more players involved, with significantly less affection. As a thought experiment, imagine the US reneging on the domestic portion of the debt with a cheery, “Well it was all money we owed ourselves!” And see if, afterwards, anyone is still making that argument from the smoking ruins of Washington DC.
  3. I agree that other countries have it worse. And perhaps as long as Japan is fine we can confidently continue on our course, but just because Japan is fine now (though there’s argument even with that) doesn’t mean they’ll be fine forever, nor does it even mean that we’ll be fine until we hit the same level as Japan. Japan is one data point, and not even a very good comparison to the US, given the vast differences.
  4. Yes, interest rates are currently low, but it’s not as if there’s some method whereby the minute they go up we pay off the $20 trillion dollars and go back to being financially prudent. Rather we still have that debt (and probably a lot more) and we start to have to pay the higher rate of interest, which takes up an increasing percentage of the total budget. Federal debt isn’t a 30 year fixed rate mortgage it’s an adjustable rate mortgage that lasts forever.
  5. It is true that our debt is denominated in money we can print, but that doesn’t mean that printing money is free of consequences. You may have heard of a little thing called inflation? I suppose this technically does mean we can’t default on our debt, but that doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen and that we shouldn’t be worried.
  6. Finally, getting back to friction, we do have vast assets, but how liquid are those assets? If it comes to it, who’s got the money to really buy an aircraft carrier? I’m sure China would, but that’s a situation where the cure is worse than the disease. People like Krugman make a lot of noise about how you can’t compare household debt to government debt, and in this case, you can’t compare household assets to government assets. There is no ebay for the Pentagon.

At this point we have a bunch of clever reasons not to worry about the deficit and a bunch of clever responses for why we still should. And if asked to choose between the cleverness of a Nobel Prize winner like Krugman and my cleverness, or what I’m attempting to pass off as cleverness, it’s perfectly reasonable to want to choose the Nobel Prize winner over me. But before you do that, there are some additional things for you to consider. First there is no true cleverness here or on the other side. No one really knows anything. Having a debt of $20 trillion dollars is so far outside of the range of normal human and historical experience that neither the expert’s reasons for calm, nor my responses are based on anything actually resembling data.

This is not to say people haven’t tried. As I mentioned above, when you compare the US to Japan our debt as a percentage of GDP looks pretty good. But how strong is this comparison? Well, by the normal standards of scientific rigor it’s really, really weak. On the other side of things Reinhart and Rogoff released a study which showed once your debt to GDP ratio got over 90% that economic growth slowed. This at least was more than a one to one comparison between the US and Japan, but it also had some problems, not the least of which was the lack of real data. In other words, it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, we’re definitely in uncharted territory. Which is fine, if the consequences for being wrong are small, but the consequences for being wrong are not small, the chances of being wrong may be small, but the consequences of being wrong definitely aren’t. (And I don’t think the chances of being wrong are especially small either.) The US Government Bond market represents a single point of failure, and if it fails, it would be catastrophic in ways you could hardly imagine.

All of which takes us to a point I make again and again, certain risks are so great that even if the probability is low, making sacrifices to prevent that catastrophe are not only warranted but wise. And while I agree that in the short term the danger is pretty low, no one is sure what the endgame is going to be, and that’s where I’d like to turn now.

To begin with, let’s return to Krugman’s assertion. That debt just needs to grow more slowly than the tax base. Once again, I agree, but this last happened around the year 2000, and it was a tiny blip even then. I don’t see any reason to suspect it’s going to happen again, certainly not in the foreseeable future, particularly when you consider the enormous, and increasing cost of the entitlement programs. Thus even if we grant that a certain amount of debt is okay and maybe even beneficial, I don’t think anyone believes that we can take on infinite debt. But if debt continues to grow faster than taxes, something is going to have to give. That might not even happen until debt is 1000% of GDP, but regardless, as long as debt grows faster than taxes something will have to change. So what are the options?

Given that it’s worked so far, let’s turn to another list of six items. This time a list of options.

  1. Grow our way out of debt:  As I have already mentioned this is the ideal way to deal with debt. But as I have also pointed out it doesn’t seem very likely to happen. Since 1967 the debt has grown at an average rate of 8.65%, while GDP has grown at an average rate of 2.85% during that same period. Increasing the tax rate can overcome some of this gap, but that will only take you so far. (See Option 3) Also if anything growth appears to be slowing while the budget (particularly mandatory spending) just keeps getting bigger. Again I agree with Krugman that as long as our growth keeps up with our debt, we probably have bigger things to worry about, but I don’t see the slightest evidence that this is happening.
  2. Cut Spending: Obviously this is where all the arguments are taking place. Though despite all the Sturm und Drang over entitlement cuts and the revocation of Obamacare, I haven’t seen much evidence that anything like this is going to happen.  And if you look at the amount that would have to be cut, it’s frankly ridiculous. Imagine that you wanted to get the debt down to 50% of GDP within the next 20 years. Assume that the economy grows at 3% per year without a recession. (Which is extremely optimistic.) Our current GDP is around $18.5 trillion, so in 20 years it would be $33.5 trillion, meaning 50% is $16.75 trillion. That’s $3.25 trillion dollars less than our current deficit, meaning we’d have to not only balance the budget, we’d have to be 162 billion dollars under budget on average, every year for 20 years. In the recent history that did happen from 1999-2001. But 3 years in a row is a lot different than 20 years in a row, particularly given that in less than 20 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office projections, entitlements and interest are expected to consume 100% of revenues. Finally, even if we assume that the right mix of politicians could do this, how would they ever get elected?
  3. Raise Taxes: Obviously these first three options are all closely related, and, to me, they all appear extremely unlikely, though I know that some people feel that raising taxes would be the easiest of the three. That said it’s not as straightforward as people think. There’s a functional limit to how much you can extract both practically and politically in taxes, and the tax rate has less to do with it than you think. Look at this graph and observe how despite the top marginal rate being all over the place (at one point as high as 90%) the actual revenue collected since World War II, as a percentage, has barely budged. And as I mentioned, there’s very good reason to believe that growth is slowing, and when that’s combined with increased spending, which is already locked in by law, the tax increases would be pretty staggering. In the near term 50% is not out of the question, and in the long term, if trends continue as they have, you could be looking at having to double tax revenue. If you thought it was hard to get elected by promising to cut the deficit, imagine how hard it would be if you promised to double taxes.
  4. Inflate the debt away: From 2008 to 2009 Zimbabwe entered a period of hyperinflation. The numbers are astonishing, and almost hard to grasp (how often do you hear someone use the term  “sextillion percent”?) But one illustrative example is that at the beginning of things they were printing 10 dollar Zimbabwean Bills, and by the end they were printing 100 billion dollar Zimbabwean Bills. Meaning, if the same thing happened to the US, you might be able to pay the entire debt off with the equivalent of 2,000 pre-hyperinflation dollars (presumably in gold or something like that). This is a particularly extreme example, and I’m not suggesting that’s what will happen in the US, if it did the cure would be much worse than the disease. The question is, is there some less extreme version of this? There might be, but I’ve never seen a good explanation of how it might work. But at a minimum if the gap between debt growth and GDP growth continues at 5.8% (see figures in option 1) then inflation would have to be at least that much, and that assumes that the debt doesn’t start growing faster, but it almost certainly would since much of spending is indexed to inflation, and even the stuff that isn’t indexed to inflation would still be influenced by it.
  5. Default on the debt: Given that this is precisely the cataclysm we want to avoid, I don’t think it’s an option anyone would choose voluntarily. But it is an option, and definitely the option that is mostly likely to happen without warning and without any planning, and perhaps without even much advance warning. Needless to say while most people acknowledge this it’s a possibility, no one wants to discuss it. And to use a quote from Douglas Adams: “The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.” I’ve already linked to people who say we can’t possible default on our debt. I hope they’re right, but consider that there have been all manner of things which cannot possibly go wrong, but have gone wrong despite this.
  6. A singularity: Long time readers of this blog were probably wondering when this was coming. And for those that are just joining us. Here I refer to something that changes the rules in such a way that none of the previous assumptions are valid. In this case it would probably have to be something big enough that it eliminated the need for money all together. A nanotechnology manufacturing revolution which creates a post-scarcity society. Brain digitization into a virtual world where nothing costs anything because it’s digital. Something of that nature. Of course, what this amounts to in essence, is hoping for a miracle. Or at the very least they’re hoping that something will come along in the future and fix it. A more accurate name for this is kicking the can down the road.

I don’t think most of the people telling us not to worry about the debt will actually come out and say they’re advocating kicking the can down the road, but if they’re not, which of the other solutions I listed above are they proposing?

I honestly don’t know. There are people who argue that we don’t need to worry about the debt, but they mostly seem to be arguing that we don’t need to worry about it right now. Primarily because the US can still borrow very cheaply and there’s no sign of that anyone is losing trust in our ability to repay the debt. That does appear to be true, for now. The question no one knows the answer to, regardless of what they claim, is how long that will last.

The national debt is a giant source of fragility. And the best plan for dealing with it seems to be “ignore it and hope something comes along later to solve it.” Which takes us back to a theme I’ve been emphasizing since the beginning, we’re in a race between singularity and catastrophe. And as far as the national debt goes, I think catastrophe has a sizable lead.

The Federal Government needs an enormous amount of money to run, you know who doesn’t need an enormous amount of money? Me. In fact I’d be happy with a buck a month. If you enjoy this blog and can spare it, consider donating.

The Long Swing of the Political Pendulum

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

In my last post I mentioned that I had spent a long time neglecting the actual theme of this blog, and I resolved to use that post to rectify it. Accordingly, I proceeded to go on a deep dive into what salvation might look like from a scientific perspective.  Unfortunately, for all the time and ink I spent on the effort, I don’t feel it was sufficient to absolve me of my long neglect. Additionally, in my last post I mentioned in passing that there was a discussion to be had about the connection between the blog’s theme and my frequent posts on politics, but that I was going to save it for another time. This is that time, and in a classic case of attempting to strike two birds with a single stone, I am going to attempt to both further absolve myself and make good on my commitment.

Right off the bat it’s important to clarify what I mean by politics. As is so often the case, politics is one of those words which can mean a lot of different things. For instance, it can mean anything from a local school board candidate going door to door soliciting support to vast cultural changes that have a worldwide impact.

If you’ve read much of the blog I’m sure you realize that when I say politics I generally land on the vast cultural change side of things as opposed to the door-to-door school board side of things. But beyond issues of scale, there is another way in which people use the word politics, which I think is important to clarify. People also use it to mean important topics on which there is still disagreement. And because of this disagreement we are often urged to avoid talking about politics all together, because by highlighting the disagreement we may bring about this discomfort. I bring up this separate definition of politics because, a large part of what I mean when I say I’m going to talk about politics, is just me saying I’m going to talk about things that make some people uncomfortable.

Once you start looking at it that way, then you can’t talk about “Not being saved,” without causing some discomfort, which means, following the definition I just provided, you also can’t talk about it without getting into politics. Thus politics is unavoidable in the general sense, but it’s also unavoidable in the specific sense, as it implies both that the status quo won’t save us, and even more specifically that your favorite candidate won’t change the status quo. In other words, the question of salvation, particularly once you leave religion behind, as I did starting with the last post, is essentially a political question, since science only saves us if politics makes it possible.

Once you start talking about politics, while people are interested in the latest ridiculous Trump tweet, the results of the recent German election, or the latest failure to repeal Obamacare, what they’re most interested in is what’s going to happen. This is where my interest lies as well. Of course what’s going to happen depends a lot on what’s currently happening, and as a result it’s frequently necessary to wade into current events, which is where the political discomfort mentioned above generally comes into play.

At this point I was going to offer up an example of an historical event which no longer caused any discomfort and my mind immediately went to the Civil War, and I then thought, “Oh,right  I guess I need to go farther back than that.” (Maybe the English Civil War?)

In addition to the discomfort, sampling the present as a way of predicting the future is fraught with all manner of uncertainty, and thus I try to confine my statements not to what’s going to happen, but rather how to develop antifragility so that it doesn’t matter what happens. That said, I can’t resist the temptation of talking about broad trends, though even in this case, I’m not trying to predict what’s going to happen, but rather develop a map of the possibilities. Accordingly I am not going to tell you whether I think Trump will be impeached (I would bet against it, but I think he’ll teeter on the edge of it his entire first term) but I will explain the various, possible futures I see stretched out in front of us. The farthest I will go in terms of prediction is to offer my opinion on the likelihood of each of these possibilities, though I have no problem if you ignore that part.

Let’s start by talking about the broadest trend of all. Which direction are things headed? I have already said that I think things have been moving leftward for a very long time, and I stand by that, but where do they go from here? Broadly there are three possibilities. They can continue to move that way, they can plateau, or they can reverse in the fashion of a pendulum.

(If you don’t agree with my claim that things are moving leftward then the possibilities are still essentially the same, it’s only the starting point that is different.)

Any look at the past will convince you that things are unlikely to plateau, and if for some reason they do, it would probably be the best outcome we could hope for. We already have a fair amount of experience in dealing with things as they are, and if they just continue in the same vein our competence will only increase.

This leaves continuing to move in the same direction or a pendulum as the two possibilities which are both likely and worrisome. Let’s talk about the pendulum first.

For a long time this is what I figured, that the pendulum had to be close to swinging back.  Sure, campus radicals are getting increasingly demanding. Sure, identity politics are spiraling out of control. Sure, we have voted ourselves massive benefits, far beyond what we can afford. And sure, we live in a society with a morality that would make Sodom and Gomorrah jealous (not everyone agrees that this is a bad thing.) But all of these extremes were precisely why I thought we were near the end of the swing. And it gave me a certain amount of comfort. I don’t think I was alone in this, whenever I would bring up the latest leftist insanity with my friends on that side, often times, rather than defending it, they would agree that it was alarming, but that it was an outlier. That it didn’t represent the beginning of a trend, but rather the end of one. Which is to say they also thought the pendulum had reached the end of it’s swing and was about to return.

When you look for analogies, the closest in time and space is the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly one can see something of a pendulum there. There was lots of societal unrest and violence (much more than today) and then it mostly went away. And then, a decade or so later, the cold war ended, and it appeared to a lot of people like we had reached a plateau, and a nice one at that.

I never thought we had reached a plateau, as I said I figured there was a pendulum, and on a long enough time horizon, this is still my model for what I expect to happen, but lately I’ve become more aware that there’s no law that says a pendulum has to swing back before it causes too much damage, and in fact perhaps the metaphor of a pendulum is fatally flawed, since pendulums are so regular in their return that we use them to keep time. Whereas if there is a pendulum in human affairs, I doubt it has any kind of regularity, and in fact it can go on long past where we think it should, before it reaches it’s maximum.

The maximum I mentioned in the late 60s/early 70s was relatively mild, but if you look back through history you’ll realize as social unrest goes, it was the exception rather than the rule.

It’s far more common for millions to die before things start to swing back than it is for the revolutionaries to be co-opted by academia and Reagan to be elected. Also, it’s important to point out before we get any farther that to describe human affairs and political upheavals as things which travel only along one axis and which have a definite end point and a smooth progression is also a vast oversimplification of how these things normally work as well.

As I already mentioned, belief in a pendulum isn’t limited to people on the right. In addition to using the idea of small pendulum swings to dismiss the worst excesses of their “side”, people on the left also fear a large swing which will undo many of gains they’ve made. And it’s certainly understandable that many of them view the election of Trump as the beginning of exactly that. Going back to what I said in the beginning. I’m assuming that the left has been ascendant for awhile, but the possible directions are the same regardless of your initial assumptions.

For those who are on the left, and who feel that they’re nearing the end of a swing, the next thing to consider is what can be done about it? Unfortunately, part of the idea behind the pendulum is that its swings are inexorable, that once stuff starts to reverse, you can’t stop it. I assume that despite this that there will be people who try. I also wonder how much of the current frenetic pace of the left is driven by the idea of a coming reversal, and a consequent desire to “get theirs” while they still can. For example, maybe tearing down confederate monuments has to be done now before the pendulum swings the other way and white supremacists retake power. As I have said before I don’t think this is very likely, but it is a narrative of the whole situation which is somewhat more flattering than the dancing in the endzone narrative, though, if you do think the pendulum is going to swing back then it may be a bad idea to antagonize your future insect overlords. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist a Simpsons reference.)

For myself over the last few years I’ve become less convinced that things are about to swing back the other way. And unlike most people, I view the election of Trump not as evidence of a rightward swing, but rather as evidence that the pendulum still has a long way to go. I’ll offer still more evidence for this in a bit, but before I do I want to point out that the two choices we have remaining to us, history as a pendulum or history as a leftward trend which goes up forever, are indistinguishable unless the pendulum is already at the end of it’s swing. In other words if you’re not at an inflection point you’re on a slope and the only question is how steep the slope is. Which means, what all of this really boils down to is, what does our present slope look like, and is there any evidence that it might be flattening?

I mentioned “leftist insanity” previously, along with the observation that people on that side of things often use a variant of the pendulum theory to dismiss this insanity, particularly when it comes out of academia. Oftentimes they justify it by mentioning that college students are young, and that they’ll grow out of it. If it turns out to be a professor, they might counter with pointing out that professors are not elected officials, and that, moreover, their influence is very limited. Or they may directly reference the idea of a pendulum by saying that this is just a temporary spike in attention being paid to social justice, and that it’s confined to a limited number of universities and colleges and those have always been places where extreme ideas are discussed, so forth and so one, But in any event, they will contend that there’s nothing to worry about.

I confess that this argument has its merits. Academia is in something of a bubble, and what goes on there is less of the metaphorical “canary in the coalmine” and more a metaphorical “weird cousin who spouts conspiracy theories and refuses to work for the man.” Of course this doesn’t mean that the bubble doesn’t create problems, just that it may not be predictive. And so for quite a while I’ve been keeping my eye open for something crazy which wasn’t ultimately about academia. Some of the coverage of the Antifa has definitely fallen into this category, and there’s also the occasional journalist from a left wing network who will end up saying something which really should be outside the bounds of polite discourse. But none of this really affected actual elected officials, or the actual government, until the cartoon controversy in Illinois.

My guess would be that you probably haven’t even heard of this controversy. I only came across it myself by trolling through my contacts in the resistance, and consequently re-telling is in order.

Back in August a libertarian think tank called the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), an organization which largely concerns itself with issues like school choice and charter schools, published a editorial cartoon, which was so explosively racist that the following things happened:

  • The Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner, who despite being a Republican, is an outspoken critic of Trump, spent untold hours and days defending himself against accusations of racism related to the cartoon. “Wait,” you’re thinking, “how did the Illinois Governor get wrapped up in things?” Well he donated money to the IPI and hired some people who used to work there. So yeah, there’s a connection, but I don’t see anything that implies responsibility, I mean he didn’t retweet it, or like it and he certainly didn’t draw it. In fact I’ve seen no evidence he was even aware of it, before people started complaining. It was enough that he was connected to the organization who did publish it. And believe me if you know anything about politics, it’s often times easier to identify which organizations a politician isn’t connected to then which ones they are.
  • Despite, no actual direct responsibility for the cartoon, four people from the governor’s office ended up resigning over it. As near as I could tell they resigned because they weren’t better at deflecting responsibility… for something they weren’t responsible for.
  • Outside of the governor’s office, the Illinois House spent an entire day denouncing the cartoon. At one point one of the representatives, nearly in tears, called the cartoon “shit” and got a bipartisan standing ovation.
  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the cartoon “unambiguously racist” and a disgrace.
  • Just last week, the governor’s chief of staff resigned, in part because of the chaos caused by the cartoon.

After all of this I assume you’re just dying to see the cartoon. Well prepare yourself, for it to have caused this much fuss it has to be a doozy, right? I mean truly appalling. You’re sure you’re ready? Okay here it is.

It may be that I have talked you out of clicking on the link, that you really don’t want to see the cartoon if it’s as awful as all this. If that’s the case (and given that this post is also going to be turned into a podcast) I’ll describe it for you. The cartoon has a small, obviously black child, sitting against a brick wall in a classic pan-handler position, and in addition to the bowl at his feet he’s holding a sign that says, “Need Money 4 School.” An obviously rich, old, cigar-smoking white guy walks by and shows him an empty pocket, saying “Sorry kid, I’m broke.” While meanwhile, out of sight of the child his other pocket bulges with money. The money is labeled “TIF $”.

A rich, old white guy holding back money from public schools, which are represented by a needy minority student… Are we sure Bernie Sanders or the teacher’s union didn’t commission this cartoon? If you’re confused, so was I. Digging into it, there’s apparently some arcana involved with the TIF program and whether it actually could be diverted to public schools, but that hardly seems sufficient to raise the fuss I described above, particularly when most people’s complaints are similar to this one:

Imagine being a child of color and seeing this @illinoispolicy cartoon depiction of you as you return for a new school year.

I find it hard to believe that if you’re worried about the children, that it’s because of the reference to a little know property tax program, and indeed most people seem to be concerned with the way the kid is something of a racial caricature. (Also apparently the fact that he’s wearing a Cubs hat also seems to play into it in a way that has escaped me…) I would say that I’m not qualified to comment on whether the cartoon depicted the child in an unflattering light, but the governor tried that (after saying he had nothing to do with the cartoon) and it just got him into more trouble.

That, in any case, is the story, but what point does it illustrate and specifically, why is it a different sort of story than the academic craziness you normally hear about?

Before we get into that, I’m aware that we have to worry about reading too much into a single event. As I have already said, a couple of times, you could completely disagree with me on what the current trends are. But we still have a situation where the trend has to either be getting better, getting worse or staying the same. And I know depending on the trend we’re talking about people will disagree about what’s better and what’s worse. But, perhaps if you don’t believe in my narrative of victory by the left, you can at least see this story and other’s like it as a sign that the trend of polarization, and disagreements over tiny issues is definitely getting worse, without necessarily agreeing with me that one side is winning. And, from this larger perspective, I think the evidence that we’re about to turn a corner or level off is even less compelling.

With that caveat in place I’d like to end by examining three lessons I think we can draw from this story.

The first lesson I want to draw is the one I alluded to earlier: That, political correctness (for lack of a better descriptor) has reached a new level. That outrage over a minor, and to my mind, inconsequential issue has made a major impact outside of academia. This event had definite consequences (including people losing their jobs) in the governance of our fifth largest state. And, further, since it seems to matter, it wasn’t about Trump. The Governor of Illinois, while still a Republican, had done everything possible to distance himself from the President.

The second point I want to make is about the accusation of racism. I think this is a deep enough topic, that it’s yet one more thing that deserves it’s own post (though probably not next week I feel a post about the deficit coming on.) But I think all objective observers agree that it’s something which is losing it’s meaning, and consequently in danger of losing it’s power. Certainly we have seen how Trump is largely unaffected by these accusations, and if this is yet another trend, this is one place where I think that most people don’t want the pendulum to swing back to the point where accusations of genuine racism are meaningless, but we risk that happening when we use it for something as trivial as this editorial cartoon.

The last thing I want to draw your attention to, and one which I’m always coming back to is the fragility vs. antifragility axis. As a reminder, fragility comes when you realize frequent, small, limited returns at the cost of infrequent, but large and unbounded costs. Antifragility is the opposite, you suffer frequent small, but limited costs in exchange for infrequent, but large and unbounded returns. In this scenario there was probably some small benefit to those who wanted greater attention paid to racism, but it was extremely limited, and continued incidents like this risk not only completely derailing the workings of government, but also creating significant societal divisions, over tiny issues. On the other hand, if they had ignored this cartoon, there is some cost to that, but maybe, public schools actually get more funding which appears to be what both sides want. And maybe, just maybe, the two sides are able to accomplish something together which neither could accomplish alone. Which I’m sure is a lesson with application far outside the borders of Illinois.

I’ll tell you one trend which I hope keeps increasing, the number of donors. Oh yeah! Was that too much? Maybe that was too much…

The Depressing Limitations of Salvation Through Science

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3

This is supposed to be, at least occasionally, a Mormon/Religious blog, but other than last week you would be forgiven if you had missed that point. Even easier than missing the religious element of the blog would be missing the theme of the blog, which I haven’t touched on in quite a while. This post will attempt to rectify that.

Given that it has been so long it might be worth a brief review. The theme of the blog comes from the Book of Jeremiah chapter 8 verse 20:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Which I sometimes amend to say, “The harvest [of technology] is past, the summer [of progress] is ended, and we are not saved.” Meaning that I am more interested in the interplay of religion and progress than I am about one or the other. (You may wonder where politics enters into it, given the amount of time I spend there, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Writing about this interplay can be difficult, particularly given that conventional wisdom views them as being exact opposites of one another. And there’s a good reason for that. But they also have many things in common, and it’s one of those commonalities that I want to focus on.

Returning to the theme, I’m saying that technology and progress have not saved us, but what does it even mean to be saved? From a religious perspective salvation is pretty straightforward. For most religions it’s living forever, ideally in a fashion which doesn’t suck. And unless they’re a truly hardcore atheist most people would agree that there is some chance of this salvation coming to pass, with the actual odds of it happening varying with the belief of the individual.

Outside of religion the concept of salvation is less clear. And I can certainly see some people, encountering my theme, and saying of course progress and technology haven’t saved us, because that’s a religious concept which doesn’t mean anything outside of religion. But I would argue that these people are in the minority. Though the majority which remains may not recognize that “salvation” is what they’re really after when they lay their chips on the space marked progress.

In other words everyone wants to be saved, and everyone who’s not actively religious has decided to use technology and progress to accomplish that. They just may not call it salvation or realize that that’s what they’re doing. So what does salvation mean for these people?

At the lowest level, for many people “salvation” consists of nothing more than a life enjoyable enough that it’s preferable to not being alive. You would hope that very few people would be on the fence about this. But unfortunately some people are, and many of those people go on to attempt, and in far too many cases succeed at, committing suicide. Perhaps equally unfortunate, progress and technology don’t seem to be doing much for this group of people, and they may even be making things worse, since if anything progress seems to be positively correlated with suicide risk. I already mentioned in a previous post how suicide was essentially unknown in pre-industrial societies. And lately the rate has continued to increase. This is worse than it appears, since if anything advances in trauma care should be making attempted suicides less likely to succeed. And indeed I just saw a journal article which claimed that suicide attempts were up over 25% between 2005 and 2013, with a disproportionate increase among younger adults with no college degree.

Above this level, there is the “salvation” of being able to live the life you want to. And this is definitely the level where technology and progress have made the biggest impact. For most people the standard of living is at levels unheard of even 50 years ago. This includes inventions people barely dreamed of, travel at speeds which would have baffled our ancestors, and rights that would have been unthinkable. In other words for gay couples, who love posting pictures of their European vacation on Facebook, technology and progress have been very good to them.

Of course even if you have “saved” yourself in this life, that’s a pretty short span of time, and that’s just if you consider things from an historical perspective, if you consider things from the potential of eternity it’s even more stark. However, I’m guessing that people at this level don’t consider things either from an historical perspective or an eternal perspective. Making the decision, even if not consciously, that they’re going to ignore any possibility of an afterlife in favor of maximizing this life. Meaning, deliberately or not, that this is the “salvation” they have chosen.

At the next level, are people who contemplate achieving “salvation” by leaving behind a legacy of sorts, but who stop short of considering actual immortality (or maybe in addition to immortality.) This contemplation takes a wide variety of forms, from people who hope to be remembered by their descendents, to authors, artists and even politicians who hope to achieve a form of immortality through their work, to the philanthropist who has a building named after them. These efforts have the advantage of past evidence of success, though this evidence is only for other people, you’ll have to take it on faith that it will work for you. And it might not. For example, if you’re hoping to be remembered by your descendants you will actually have to have descendants, which an increasing number of people do not. And even then, once a few hundred years are past you’ll be lucky to be remembered as anything more than a name and a few dates.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping to be remembered for your work, then the chances of success are even smaller (though the potential reward is correspondingly greater.) To begin with the number of people who are remembered by the general public after they’re gone is always going to be tiny and most, even of those, will not be remembered for more than a few hundred years. If you wish to be remembered forever then the competition is even fiercer.  It is possible that Socrates and Caesar will be remembered for as long as there are humans, but I doubt if there are more than a few such people every century.

Next we move on to people for whom salvation is a group effort. Meaning that whatever else they may believe, they would really like to see humanity continue to exist. Obviously, there will be some overlap between the various levels, meaning there are certainly some people who are individually happy to find “salvation” in the life they’re leading right now, but also take comfort from the fact that humanity will continue on after they’re gone. Out of this group there is a smaller group who takes more comfort in this continuation if they know their descendents are going to be part of it, while for others it doesn’t matter.

At least in the near term, the chances of humanity continuing are quite good. There are some potential extinction level events, but it’d have to be something pretty big, as I said before, even a nuclear war would probably not lead to humanity’s extinction.

The final level are those people who will consider salvation to have occurred only if they, personally, achieve immortality. If you hope to achieve this through the religious route, the path is pretty straight forward. Most religions provide clear instructions on how to achieve immortality. The only question is how likely are those instructions to work. But if you’re hoping for technology and progress to provide this salvation, either because you’re not religious, or because you’re hedging your bet, or you’re a religious transhumanist and you’re hoping to combine the two, then your options for technological immortality are broad, but so far unrealized.

There’s cryonic suspension, e.g. freezing your body (or possibly just your head) when you die. This is a gamble, since thus far no one has successfully been revived from such a condition (and I’m record as saying that no one ever will be.) Also, I heard recently that thus far only 300 people have entered cryonic suspension in the US, so even if it will eventually be possible the number of people who can be saved through this method is a tiny fraction of people alive today, and an infinitesimal percentage of the people who have ever lived.

Outside of cryonic suspension you have the dreams of the transhumanists, who, while not eschewing cryonics, have pinned their hopes more on medical advances, technological augmentation, and eventually brain digitization. Each of these areas holds some promise, but even medical advances, the area where the most progress has been made, has mostly extended the length of life without doing much to preserve its quality.

I think with the exception of a couple of fringe ideologies we’ve basically covered all of the various paths for a human to achieve some degree of salvation. Which, means, returning to my theme. If you want to claim that I’m wrong, that, “We are saved.” Those are your options. Hopefully you’ll agree that the first two levels, which consist of focusing just on this life, at either the survival or the enjoyment level, do not really constitute salvation except in the loosest sense, and even if we accept that they represent individual salvation, they certainly don’t represent ways in which “We” are saved. For that we need something more.

Salvation as being remembered after death, is more promising, as a means for group salvation. I imagine that you might be able to say that the Sumerians have achieved a degree of salvation to the extent that they’re still remembered. Still if humanity as a whole goes extinct, then the memory of the Sumerians will perish with them. Which leaves us with only the last two levels as offering potential, true salvation: the continuation of humanity, or individual immortality.

I suppose at this point one might argue that they don’t actually care about these levels of salvation, but I suspect if anyone feels this way that they haven’t really thought it through. Eliezer Yudkowsky, who apparently I can’t get away from, mentioned how odd it is that someone could be horrified by say, what just happened in Las Vegas, but contemplate the extinction of all humanity with a calm detachment. Perhaps even offering up a facile explanation like, “Well I guess humanity didn’t deserve to survive.”  If you aren’t interested in salvation for the whole of humanity, then I guess there’s not much left to say, but if you are, there’s only two ways to bring that about: Religion or Science (or both if you’re in the MTA.)

As usual I find the overlap between Religion and Science to be very interesting. Essentially both promise the same thing, more or less, the difference comes in the degree to which we’re saved (presumably actual exaltation would dwarf even the grandest dreams of transhumanism) and the odds of that salvation happening (the assessment of which varies from person to person). The spectacular advances of science and technology have served to convince most people that the odds of salvation through science are a lot better than was previously expected and the odds of salvation through religion, a lot worse. As you might gather I disagree with this. In my opinion, the odds of salvation through progress and technology are a lot lower than people think, and the odds of salvation through religion are much higher, also I think playing the odds with respect to religion is easier and more rational than most people think.

This blog, while not shying away from religion, is not primarily concerned with convincing people to look for salvation through religion, i.e. I’m not trying to convert you. There are lots of people working on that. (Some of them are young men and young women who roam around two by two. You should chat them up. They’re invariably very nice.) This blog is more about convincing you that odds of salvation through science are not as great as you’ve been led to believe. In particular it will be a lot harder and entail more sacrifices than people imagine.

I recently read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. And I think it did a great job of illustrating exactly this point. And unfortunately to explain how, I’m going to have to spoil the book. So if you were hoping to read the book, and don’t want to be spoiled, you should skip the next five paragraphs.

Aurora takes place on a generation ship sent to colonize Tau Ceti, and whereas in most science fiction involving interstellar expansion by humanity, the expansion is viewed as inevitable, almost triumphal, this novel was decidedly different. In Aurora, it turns out that extrasolar colonization is so difficult that the novel revolves around the fact that after getting to Tau Ceti, about half of the crew decides to turn around and head back to Earth. (The half that remains eventually perishes.) I didn’t find the twist to be that revolutionary, but I’ve talked to other people whose minds were blow by the idea of a science fiction novel where a space ship gives up on colonization and expansion, turns around and goes home.

In the novel, the difficulty of colonization isn’t limited to the Tau Ceti system, the Aurora mission (Aurora is actually the name of the moon they’re supposed to colonize) was one of many generation ships, and they basically all failed. It turns out extraterrestrial colonization ends up being ridiculously difficult for a variety of reasons. As just one example, every planet needs a large amount of terraforming which, in the novel, is something they have trouble accomplishing even on Mars, and it’s right next to Earth. Once you’re outside of the Solar System, terraforming is functionally impossible. As an aside, this is somewhat humorous if you’re familiar with Robinson’s best known work, The Mars Trilogy which is all about terraforming Mars, and in that series it ends up being pretty straightforward.

Robinson offers up these difficulties as a potential explanation for Fermi’s Paradox. And I can see how if a species is restricted to a single Solar System that it could make things difficult. Still, we haven’t even made it off our home planet, and we have the technology to engage in interstellar communication, to say nothing of something like a von Neumann probes (self-replicating spacecrafts). Meaning that this is another explanation for the Paradox I find unconvincing. Still it’s undeniable that if you can’t get out of the Solar System that your chances of being completely wiped out are going to be higher than if you can.

Anyway, returning to the book, and as you may already be thinking, yes it is a work of fiction, and therefore we shouldn’t read too much (or too little) into its description of the difficulties of extrasolar colonization. And really that’s not what I want to focus on in any event. For me, the key scene comes after the main character, Freya, has made it all the way back to Earth. In the course of her journey it has become apparent that extrasolar colonization is doomed to failure, and that the people who originally sent out the generation ships, along with the crews of those ships, were deluded and narcissistic; sending people out to slowly die in space, because of some exaggerated view of the inevitability of human progress and expansion.

Once back on Earth, Freya ends up at conference where the topic is sending more ships into space, even though all previous attempts have been unsuccessful.The reasoning being that they will just have to keep trying until they do succeed. At this point Freya punches the person saying this, and I think it’s fair to call the punch the moral climax of the book. But regardless of how heartless the person is being when he makes this claim, from the perspective of salvation through science, it’s essentially true. Regardless of how hard it is, regardless of how many attempts it takes before you succeed, regardless of how many people die, in order to be saved by science, you have to get out of the Solar System. Because, on a long enough time horizon being confined to a single star is just too fragile.

All of this is to say that science does not have any inherent morality, it does not have any built in kindness or compassion. As the novel illustrates there is no law that says it has to be easy to colonize other planets, no law, in fact, which says it has to be even possible, and most terrifying of all there’s also definitely no law guaranteeing humanity’s continued survival.

The truths of science are often very difficult. As an example, one truth which science fiction has had to grapple with (though it’s just as often ignored) is the speed of light, which is 670 million miles an hour, but even at that speed it takes over four years to get to the nearest star. Even if we restrict ourselves to something more manageable, I’ve already discussed how hard even a colony on Mars would be.

To bring religion back into the discussion, religious salvation depends on kindness, and justice, and love. Science doesn’t, science only cares about how well your beliefs match reality. And on that count I don’t think we’re doing as well as people think. Now I’m religious, so I’m expecting love and kindness (along with stuff like faith and chastity) to save me. But I think there are a lot of people who aren’t religious, but who are expecting love and kindness to save them as well. I’m not complaining, but I’m not sure that they recognize that love and kindness are not going to get them to Tau Ceti. They’re not even going to get them to Mars. And given that science doesn’t care about love and kindness is it possible being too kind actually thwarts scientific progress and technological advances?

I can think of one major example of this right off the bat: nuclear power, specifically nuclear waste. Is it science that keeps the Yucca Mountain Repository from being used, 30 years after it was designated or is it kept from use by being too kind to those who oppose it? Perhaps you might argue that it’s not love and kindness, but the will of the people. Well the will of the people doesn’t necessarily have any connection to science either, and in fact under our democracy we spend a most of our money on stuff that has nothing to do with science. And if you’re honestly expecting science to save you then isn’t every dollar spent on something other than science a dollar wasted?

Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps we have enough money to do both, perhaps spending more money on science would just corrupt it. But the point I’m trying to get at, is that because science doesn’t care about democracy, or kindness, or happiness, or whether we live or die, that there will very likely come a time, when if you’re expecting to be saved through science you’re going to have to choose between science and minimizing danger, or science and the will of the people, or, almost certainly, science and your vision of fairness. Or to put it another way between the way the world actually is and the way you want it to be.

As evidence of this I once again direct your attention to Fermi’s Paradox. While it’s certainly possible that there are civilizations out there who achieved their own salvation through science. And are consequently spread throughout the galaxy. And we have just, thus far, completely missed all the evidence of this. It’s becoming more and more likely that there is some kind of filter, a chasm if you will, a chasm no one else has been able to cross. Hopefully this uncrossable chasm is behind us, and we are the lucky ones, but if not, and the chasm remains to be crossed, then we still need to make a leap which no one else has. Meaning it can’t be easy. Meaning it will require some hard choices. Choices like spending money on space exploration or on welfare. Choices like whether to switch to nuclear power or to continue to use coal (while pretending to switch to renewables.) Choices about whether we should send people to Mars if we can’t get them back, and they’ll probably die there or whether we should only send them if we’re sure they’ll survive. And eventually the choice of whether to send out the 100th generation ship, even though the first 99 have failed.

Salvation is only going to come from science or religion, and if you believe it’s science then there may come a time when we have to abandon many if not most of our cherished beliefs about love and fairness and equality for the cold hard realities of a universe that doesn’t care about us.

Salvation is almost certainly not going to come from reading this blog. So I guess you definitely shouldn’t waste any resources by donating to it. Yeah, I guess I really painted myself into a corner on that one didn’t I?