Author: <span class="vcard">Jeremiah</span>

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.


If the phrase “big-bucket-of-science-fiction-awesomeness” made you smile, even a little bit, consider donating. Wordsmithing of that level isn’t cheap. (Okay maybe it is, but still…)


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.


If your own budget is balanced and you’re running a surplus (I know pretty rare these days) then consider donating.


Objectivity: Ford and Kavanaugh

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 have a friend who teaches Gender Studies at a university back east. As you can imagine we have very different ways of looking at things. So different that when I tried to share a few posts with him, he claimed he couldn’t even talk to me about them without understanding my frame of reference and audience. (Also, he may have been trying to figure out how to call me a Nazi without using the word “Nazi”.) Given these difficulties (and the other various frustrations) after several awkward emails back and forth I decided that we should probably not try to talk about it. I suppose he felt similarly. Though, as it turns out, unlike me, he did manage to get some benefit out of the exchange. I found out last month that he was using some of my posts as examples in the classes he teaches. At the time he didn’t get into the details (and based on my previous resolve I didn’t press him on it) but it was clear that my posts were presented as an example of what not to do. Sort of, “Can you believe how clueless this guy is!” Though when I imagine it, I see him standing in front of his class shaking a printout of my writings and yelling, “This is what the patriarchy looks like!”

Of course, he could be entirely correct, it’s possible I’m just as clueless as he claims. As I have said repeatedly, I could be wrong, about everything. And if there was an area I was going to be wrong about it could definitely be everything I say with respect to the current social justice movement. Certainly there are an awful lot of people who think anyone who’s even remotely conservative is not only wrong about most things but hateful to boot, and I think it’s fair to say I’m at least “remotely conservative”. That said, no one is forcing anyone to read my stuff. (The same cannot be said for the millions of students who are daily forced to read whatever passes for the current progressive manifesto.) And much of what I write is just me thinking out loud, and I guess let he who has never had a bad thought cast the first stone?

As you can imagine all of this is leading up to another post which (if my friend reads it) will probably make it into his next class on feminism, as yet another example of my cluelessness, or my privilege, or something similar. But, if I have done poorly in the past, I am going to attempt to do better, or at least do a better job of considering as many viewpoints as possible. And on that note, I’m going to dive into the current political crisis: the Kavanaugh confirmation and the allegations of sexual assault by Ford and Rodriguez. Though before we begin I need to take a slight detour through my process. I work on my weekly post every morning for a couple of hours. Which means that what I’m writing right now was written on Monday the 24th, and so, by the time I publish this on Saturday the 29th, any number of things might have happened. In particular while Ford will have presumably testified by the time this is published, she hasn’t at the time of this writing. Also at this point the Rodriguez accusations are still pretty fresh, and I guess (now it’s the morning of the 25th) last night Stormy Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti has announced that there’s a third accuser? All of which is to say that some of the things I say may be out of date by the time I get around to actually publishing this.

With all that out of the way let’s talk about Kavanaugh, though I guess yet one more preface is in order before I do. It should be stated that I write from the standpoint of someone with absolutely zero influence on whether he’s confirmed or not. This is enormously comforting. Also, as much as I might try to imagine my mindset if I did have an impact, it’s not the same, which means I will probably be too flippant and too confident. There are obviously things going on in the Senate which I am only dimly aware of. Whatever I say has no power to change the course of this confirmation hearing. I can’t delay it until the FBI investigates, nor can I push it through despite the evidence, but, all those caveats aside, it is my intention to approach things from the standpoint of someone who does have some impact in that matter and needs to decide what to do.

Join with me in imagining that you’re a member of the Judiciary Committee or just a Senator, period, and you’re trying to decide whether to confirm Kavanaugh. Let’s further assume that you were going to confirm him up until the Ford revelations, and you’re now trying to decide whether to change your vote based on those revelations. Ideally it would be nice to just know, with 100% certainty whether they’re true or not, in which case your decision is easy. But 100% certainty is not going to be possible in this case. You’ve got to make an absolute decision one way or the other despite the lack of any absolutes in the evidence. Needless to say, you’re operating under serious uncertainty.

For those who may not have been following it closely here are some things which might incline someone to favor one side or the other. All the things which appear to preclude absolute certainty, particularly for someone with an initial inclination to confirm Kavanaugh. Also, it should be mentioned, there are definitely people following this more closely than I, so I may miss something big. To be clear, these lists are not meant to be exhaustive.

Pro-Kavanaugh

  1. The events involved in the accusations happened a long time ago: It would be nice if everyone had a photographic memory of everything that ever happened to them but we don’t. Memory is fallible, and as much as we would like to believe Ford, you do have to take into account that it was 36 years ago. Also if he was a true predator you would expect more recent accusations.
  2. There are no contemporaneous witnesses: As far as I know there is no one (with either of the accusations) who is willing to come forward and say, I remember Ford telling me about it at the time. Yes, if it happened, not telling anyone at the time is totally forgivable on Ford’s part, but it makes things less certain now.
  3. The 65 women who signed a statement in defense of Kavanaugh: You certainly can’t imagine something similar happening with Weinstein, so I’d be inclined to give it some weight, though I’m not sure how much. (A statement which really applies to all these points.)
  4. The stakes of the whole thing: I’ve talked in the past about how the Supreme Court might be considered the true power in the United States, and given that Kavanaugh is likely to be more conservative than Kennedy, this hearing may be as consequential as a presidential election. And if Roe v. Wade is overturned (I don’t think it will be.) Then it would be more consequential. Lying about sexual assault is a rare and extraordinary act, but this is a rare and extraordinary situation.

Anti-Kavanaugh

  1. The vast majority of sexual assault allegations are true: It’s estimated that false rape allegations make up only 2% to 10% of all allegations. Now that’s rape, not sexual assault, but I assume the numbers (which in any case aren’t incredibly precise) are similar.
  2. Ford has sworn statements from people who say she told them about Kavanaugh’s assault before the nomination: three women and Ford’s husband have signed sworn statements saying they remember her mentioning the assault. The first instance of this was in 2012.
  3. The enormous cost of coming forward: Ford has suffered numerous death threats and had to go into hiding. I imagine (particularly if Kavanaugh is not confirmed) that this vitriol will continue for many years.
  4. Circumstantial evidence: Alcohol and partying seemed to be a big part of Kavanaugh’s life. Lots of people have in particular pointed at his statement in his high school yearbook with all sorts of references to drinking and sex. This apparently continued into college. Finally he was a clerk for Kozinski who was embroiled in his own scandal recently and ended up resigning.

Beyond what I’ve said above there are currently thousands of pages of commentary on each item. To say nothing of the motivations of the various secondary actors. (I haven’t mentioned Judge, or any of the senators.) But this should at least give you a taste of the muddy waters of uncertainty we’re jumping into. And here, approximately halfway through things, we’re finally ready to look at the various ways for approaching this uncertainty.

I’d like to start with a method I hope my friend the gender studies professor would appreciate, though it could just as easily fill him with rage. We’ll call it:

The Folded Paper System: Imagine that you take a piece of paper and you fold it. Now imagine that after it’s been folded for a long time you decide that folding it was bad idea and now you want the paper to lie flat. If you just unfold it and set it down the paper will still bend in the direction it was originally folded. It’s only if you fold it aggressively in the other direction that it will actually lie flat. This can be viewed as a metaphor for past injustice. It’s indisputable that in the past men got away with a lot more sexual harassment than they should have. Or to put it another way, in situations of he said-she said, the “he” was believed a lot more often than the “she”. Or to put it yet another way, the standard of evidence for accusations was tilted against women. All of this is the original fold.

Now we want the paper to lie flat. We want everyone to be believed equally, all evidence weighed equally, and a gender-blind justice to prevail. But in order to get to that point we have to instead fold the paper the other way. We have to give women the benefit of the doubt, in cases of he said/she said we have to believe the “she” more often than the “he”, we have to tilt the standard of evidence in favor of women. That in areas of massive uncertainty, like with the Kavanaugh nomination, we should believe the woman.

I’m sympathetic to this system, and the folded paper metaphor is arresting, but I think it only takes you so far. Culture is not a piece of paper, and when you bend stuff back the other way, you’re implicitly saying that unfairness in one direction is going to make up for unfairness in the other direction when in reality you have just compounded the injustice.

The “What’s going to get me re-elected” System: On the one hand you would hope that this isn’t the system any of the Senators are using and on the other hand it’s probably the system they’re most likely to use. For Republicans my guess is that they’re getting a lot of feedback from their base along the lines of, “Ford is lying and if you’re too stupid to see it or to spineless to push ahead regardless then you won’t be getting my vote in the next election.”  (Possibly with several additional profanities thrown in.) And on the Democratic side of things I assume they’re getting something similar, but in the opposite direction.

As I said I hope this isn’t the primary consideration of any of the Senators, but I’m not naive enough to assume that’s actually the case. And even if, by some extraordinary exercise of ethics it’s not the primary consideration it has to be among the considerations. And unfortunately this is not a bug in our system, this is a feature. A feature that may have unfortunate effects in situations of high emotion and polarization, but we also definitely don’t want the reverse, where our representatives never take our opinions into account.

The Wisdom of the Crowds System: Closely related to the above, we could take a broader sample of things. There are various polls and prediction markets with their own take on the accusations. And insofar as these represent a broader snapshot of public opinion than just listening to the most vocal members of the two parties, it could be argued that they’re preferable. On this count we have the favorability of Kavanaugh on steady decline and places like fivethirtyeight.com advising Republicans that the least bad option is for Kavanaugh to withdraw as soon as possible. On the prediction market side of things I don’t see anyone actually predicting whether Ford is telling the truth, but we do have one for whether Kavanaugh will be confirmed which after surging to over 50% on Tuesday dropped to 40% after the latest accusations (The Avenatti/Swetnick accusations, I’ll get to those, before the end.)

Robin Hanson (who coincidentally) invented prediction markets, went a step beyond that and posted a poll on his twitter account. The question was:

What fraction of women assaulted by a nominee for Supreme Court in high school would wait to publicly accuse him not just 30 yrs, but after Congress hearings & just before Congress vote?

He gave people the options of:

  1. < 1%
  2. 1-5%
  3. 5-20%
  4. >20%

The most popular response, with 62% of the vote was “<1%”. Of course he also got many responses claiming that he was “pro-rape” for even asking that question. Though being fairly familiar with Robin Hanson (I just finished Age of Em which I’ll talk about sometime in the next few posts, also I we did meet once, briefly) I don’t think that’s what was going on. He claims he genuinely didn’t know what the response would be. And was surprised to see such a huge percentage in the less than 1% category. I believe him on this point, and I also think that something like this should be a valid question.

We all have an opinion on whether something is likely, but perhaps we’re horribly biased on that question in ways we don’t even realize. And being able to ask a large group of people whether it’s just you or if X seems unusual, should be perfectly acceptable, particularly when it’s consequential. Now the appropriateness of asking the question is separate from the utility of the answers. I totally agree that it was appropriate to ask the question, but I also don’t think twitter polls should carry a huge amount of weight, though if I was a Senator and I came across it, I probably wouldn’t give it zero weight either.

A System of Strict Utilitarianism: While all of the systems I already covered have some degree of utilitarianism to them, this system imagines a Senator making his decision entirely based on long term machiavellian calculus that has nothing to do with the actual accusation. Perhaps it’s a Republican senator who feels so strongly that abortion is wrong, that despite believing Ford and her accusations, votes to confirm Kavanaugh anyway based on the chance that he could be instrumental in overturning Roe v. Wade.

On the other hand you might also have a Senator that firmly believes Kavanaugh, but thinks that elevating him to the Supreme Court would fatally undermine the court and by extension the entire nation leading to some future catastrophe. Or that it would create an immediate catastrophe in the form of widespread civil strife.

I either case the utilitarian calculus could move them to vote against their present best guess of the facts in the favor of some greater payoff later.

Antifragility: I talk a lot about antifragility in this space. Which may appear to be another form of long term machiavellian calculus, though with more focus on embracing short term pain and less focus on any kind of future knowledge, than the previous options. Also with a greater focus on long-term norms. So how would an antifragilist vote? What criteria would they use?

Frankly I’m not sure, the whole situation is a giant mess. It’s kind of hard not to feel that things are definitely off the rails, and it’s far too late and there’s far too much momentum for the actions of any one Senator or group of Senators to avoid a large negative outcome. (Speaking of any one Senator, it’s now Friday morning and I just saw where Flake has agreed to vote for Kavanaugh at least at the committee level.)

I do think there have been a lot of decisions which seemed great in the short term but which had long term costs which are only now becoming apparent. The list of things which contributed to the current debacle include, but are not limited to:

  • Merrick Garland
  • Bill Clinton’s various sex scandals and the lack of any consequences
  • Bush v. Gore
  • The Bork Nomination
  • Roe v. Wade

At this point, I think the best we could hope for is a backroom deal where the Republicans agree to withdraw Kavanaugh in exchange for the Democrats agreeing to confirm Amy Coney Barrett even if the Senate changes hands in November. I can’t see such a deal being made at this point, and maybe even this idea would be just another short term bandaid with long term costs.

Beyond what I’ve just discussed, there are, of course, many other systems you might use. And some might in theory be based on the evidence. Perhaps you’re convinced, after listening to Ford and Kavanaugh, that it’s obvious that one of them is lying and the other is telling the truth. Perhaps you think the evidence shows that women never lie about these sorts of things (I don’t think it does, which makes this more of a folded paper system, but that’s just me.) But I think most such, supposedly evidence-based systems, are just covers for one of the systems I mentioned above, and most likely a cover for the “What’s going to get me re-elected” System. You may have noticed that there was really no new evidence of any substance during Thursday’s hearing and yet everyone seemed more convinced of whichever position they had before the hearing started. Meaning whatever system they were using it wasn’t based on the accumulation of evidence.

In conclusion I’d like to offer up a few miscellaneous observations:

Observation 1- As an example of people following their biases rather than the evidence. We’ve reached the point where how you feel about the credibility of an accusation is entirely based on the party of the accused. From the American Conservative:

According to a recent YouGov poll, 53 percent of Democrats consider Ford’s allegations credible, compared to only 4 percent of Republicans. Ah! Yes! Down with the evil, misogynistic GOP—the “party of rape,” as I’ve seen them called on Twitter.

But wait. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison is currently favored to be elected as the state’s next attorney general despite ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan’s allegations of sustained “emotional and physical abuse.” One poll shows that, while 42 percent of Republicans believe Monahan, only 5 percent of Democrats do.

Observation 2- For a long time people have been complaining that worthwhile candidates for high government office are being discouraged from accepting nominations because of the media circus which immediately ensues. This is certainly not limited to just one side or the other, and it’s hard to see how the Kavanaugh hearing won’t make this problem (whatever it’s actual impact) worse.

Observation 3- There has been a push recently to extend or entirely eliminate the statute of limitation on things like rape, sexual assault, attempted rape, etc. I know that sounds like a good idea, and I totally understand why people want to do it that way. But you can apply the same logic to essentially any crime. Why should any criminal be able to get away with it just because enough time has passed. This is one of those long-term norms I’m talking about. Statutes of limitation date back to Roman Times, Now of course the Senate wouldn’t care about the statute of limitation even if there was one, I’m just making a related but not directly applicable observation.

Observation 4- I’m sorry, I’m calling BS on the Avenatti/Swetnick accusation. It just sounds too much like what people imagine happens at a drunken high school party with evil dudebros. Also Avenatti does not have the best track record on this sort of thing. Finally, I would expect this to be the kind of thing that is so outrageous that it should be easy to verify. And given that this is the first we’re hearing of it despite all the attention, I’m declaring, that this, at least, didn’t happen.

As I end, Kavanaugh has made it out of committee, and Flake has called for an FBI investigation before the full vote. I suspect that means we’ll get one. I think that’s a good thing. Certainly not sufficient to calm anyone down, but I think that’s what I probably would have done as well. Though as I said in the beginning, the biggest takeaway here is that I’m glad I’m not the one deciding.


If you think I should do more posts like this of things that are currently controversial right this minute consider donating as an encouragement to do just that. If, on the other hand you hated this post then you should also consider donating. If we can take anything from politics it’s that money equals influence.


The Founders, Civility, and Godzilla

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Last Friday (the 20th) I went to the 2018 Moral & Ethical Leadership Conference, put on by the BYU Management Society. They had a pretty impressive lineup of speakers, including Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, or as he liked to joke, the “other senator” from Arizona, given that he has been overshadowed by John McCain the entire time he’s been in the Senate. And as it turns out, this is unlikely to change since Senator Flake has decided not to run for re-election (also McCain died recently.) He didn’t get into his reasons during his speech, but most people agree the biggest was that he was unlikely to win the Republican primary. And why was that? Well despite both of them, in theory, being Republicans, Flake and Trump do not get along, at all. And for good or bad (probably bad) these days it’s difficult to win a Republican primary if you’re anti-Trump. Which Flake definitely is, and, unlike most Republicans, has not been shy about expressing, going so far as to write a book, Conscience of a Conservative, where he declares Trump to be a domestic and international menace.

I picked up a copy of Flake’s book while I was at the conference, though I haven’t a chance to read it yet, so I can only speak to what I heard him say, and his primary theme seemed to boil down to a call for greater civility. In fact I would hazard to say that the need for greater civility was the unofficial theme for the conference as a whole. Given the nation’s current political climate and leadership, this is not exactly surprising. Of course, if Flake’s call for civility was entirely unobjectionable he wouldn’t need to give a speech defending it, let alone write a whole book on the subject. But lately, even this principal is controversial, and under attack. I thought that looking into why might make a good topic for a post.

To start, let’s look at the area Senator Flake presumably knows the most about, congress. What does civility look like in congress? Is it just people saying things like, “I graciously yield my time to the Honorable Senator from Kentucky”? I suppose that this sort of etiquette is a small part of it, but only a very small part. No, I think civility in congress, as Senator Flake described it, is more about people calmly working together despite having very different ideologies.

That does seem to be an admirable goal, but unless all members of congress are saints (which clearly isn’t the case), then in order for this type of civility to be present it has to provide some benefit. In the past it may have been enough that it made them look noble and statesman like. But these days, at least among the base, it does the exact opposite, and makes them look traitorous and cowardly. In the past it might also have been driven by a sense of duty, a duty to put aside differences and work together for the good of the country, but the general concept of duty has been on a long slow decline since the early 1800’s (at least according to the Google Ngram Viewer.)

No, getting members of the two parties to work together, no longer makes them look good, and it’s definitely going to require something a lot more concrete than the fading idea of duty. It’s going to require something like money, money for something they want, something that will make the people back home happy, and which will, in turn, help them get elected. Maybe something in a bill? Something set aside specifically to this purpose? Something… “earmarked”?

This history of earmarks is interesting. You can find things which fit the basic criteria going all the way back to 1789, though initially such things were definitely rare. By the end of the 1800’s the practice was common enough that it started to be called pork-barrel politics, but apparently things really took off between 1994 and 2005 (the most memorable example being the Bridge to Nowhere). As you might imagine some people took issue with the practice and in 2010 they were banned (though not for non-profits). And who lead the charge on that? Who was the most ferocious opponent of earmarks? As it turns out, it was Senator Flake. Here’s the relevant section from Wikipedia:

Flake is “known for his ardent opposition to earmarks.”He has been called an “anti-earmark crusader,” and frequently challenges earmarks proposed by other members of Congress. Since May 2006, he has become prominent with the “Flake Hour,” a tradition at the end of spending bill debates in which he asks earmark sponsors to come to the house floor and justify why taxpayers should pay for their “pet projects.” He is credited with prompting House rule changes to require earmark sponsors to identify themselves.

Until September 2010, Flake issued a press release listing an “egregious earmark of the week” every Friday. Usually the earmark will be followed by Flake making a humorous comment; as an example, Rep. Flake once said of Congressman Jose Serrano’s $150,000 earmark to fix plumbing in Italian restaurants, “I would argue this is one cannoli the taxpayer doesn’t want to take a bite of.” The “earmark of the week” releases were ended and replaced with the “So Just How Broke Are We?” series of releases. In March 2010, the House Appropriations Committee implemented rules to ban earmarks to for-profit corporations, a change Flake supported. “This is the best day we’ve had in a while,” he said to the New York Times, which reported that approximately 1,000 such earmarks were authorized in the previous year, worth $1.7 billion.

Senator Flake’s opposition to earmarks is not only easy to understand, it’s laudable. But in retrospect, some people have started wondering whether it might be part of the reason why congress has become so “uncivil”. Their theory is straightforward: Earmarks were one more thing that could be offered as part of the negotiation for a congress member’s vote. One that’s particularly useful when you’re crossing party lines and the member is otherwise opposed to or at least unsure about the bill. You overcome their reluctance by, in essence, offering to “pay” them if it passed. It’s a basic law of economics that you get more of what you pay for and so naturally you ended up with more bipartisan support for bills which contained earmarks. Eliminate earmarks and you have less bipartisan support. And if civility means working together across party lines, that means you have less civility.

Now, I’m not here to say that earmarks are actually good. Or that banning them is solely responsible for the breakdown in civility and working across the aisle. Or to make any insinuation that Flake is a hypocrite, or that he screwed up. Rather, what I want to do is point out how complicated even a simple call for civility ends up being.

As I said, civility seemed to be the unofficial theme of the conference, so what did other people have to say on the subject? Well I just got done asserting that it was complicated, so I guess I should move to the speaker who offered a very simple definition of civility. This was Eric Dowdle, an artist who specializes in drawing very interesting landscapes and cityscapes and then selling them as puzzles. He defined civility as character plus diversity.

You may wonder what qualifies him to make such a definitive proclamation. (Though as a blogger with no especial qualifications myself, I don’t.) Or at least you may wonder what prompted the invitation to speak from BYU Management Society. Well Dowdle, in addition to being an artist, is the founder and chairman of the board for the proposed George Washington Museum of American History. This is an effort to assemble an exhibition of the 250 “Greatest Moments in American History” and then take them on tour of all 50 states in 2026 (the 250th year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence). After which it will have a permanent home in Utah. As you can imagine the Museum has many goals from increasing historical literacy, to a celebration of the Founders, but included in there is a goal to educate people on, what Dowdle feels, are the twin pillars of America: character and diversity. Which, when combined, create civility.

As you can imagine he is also worried about the ills of the nation and the increasing polarization. And he hopes that by educating people about these twin pillars that he will help bring about a return to civility, much like Senator Flake. And, once again, this is another clearly laudable goal, though I’m not sure that his definition entirely captures the full nuance of what civility is. That said, I nevertheless think that it captures something important about what civility means at the present political moment.

I’m a big fan of “character”, but I think it’s place in the equation leads to some weird conclusions. Would he say that people who push diversity, while ignoring civility, must therefore lack character? If so that would be a fairly incendiary claim, and if true would immediately lead to a question of what sort of character do they lack? What aspect of character is not present in their advocacy for diversity? Does character equal a respect for a certain set of ethics? Could it be extended to mean respect for the rule of law? On the other hand, and probably even more inflammatory, are we meant to conclude that people who civilly rail against diversity do it because they have a lot of character? It is interesting to ask what ramifications this equation has if taken to its extreme, but, unfortunately, I think it breaks down pretty quickly.

If we leave aside character, then I still think he makes an important point about the connection between diversity and civility, and the need for increasing civility as society becomes increasingly diverse. (In fact, if we hold character constant then this is certainly one way to read his formula.) And it’s also interesting to draw inspiration, as he clearly is, from the founding of the country. So much of what made it into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was designed to create civility among diverse groups. In that vein, allow me to offer another equation, one that might have been on the minds of the founders: diversity minus civility equals violence. Before the American Revolution there was a lot of violence generated by ideological diversity, something which would have been on the minds of the founders. I refer you to the European Wars of Religion:

The conflicts began with the Knights’ Revolt (1522), a minor war in the Holy Roman Empire. Warfare intensified after the Catholic Church began the Counter-Reformation in 1545 to counter the growth of Protestantism. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which devastated Germany and killed one-third of its population. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) put an end to the war by recognising three separate Christian traditions in the Holy Roman Empire: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Although many European leaders were ‘sickened’ by the religious bloodshed by 1648, religious wars continued to be waged in the post-Westphalian period until the 1710s.

I understand the explicitly religious wars were over by the time of the Revolution, but if you draw a graph from “killing one third of the population”, through continued bloodshed up until 1710, and zero it out at the election of JFK, who won despite people wondering if he was going to take orders from the Pope you’ll see that in 1776, things were still pretty heated, and the founders knew that the only way to avoid violence in the diverse republic they were creating was to bake a lot of rules for civility right into the Constitution.

This is not to say that we’ve always been civil, or that there hasn’t been violence, for example you may have heard of a little thing called the Civil War (which, despite its title was very uncivil). Further, this doesn’t mean that the rules the Founders added were perfect, or that they were were always followed. And it most especially doesn’t mean that there weren’t any trade-offs. A subject I’ll be returning to shortly. But, I think if you look back on things, especially relative to other nations at the same point in history. The US did pretty well at accommodating a diversity of nations and peoples and ideologies with a minimum of violence. In fact, it may be argued, we did so well that people no longer see the need for some of the rules the Founders came up with, in particular Freedom of Speech.

I’ve talked about free speech a lot in this space, and while I tend to be pretty vigorous in it’s defense, I can also acknowledge that much like the other two endeavors we’ve considered, defending free speech is laudable, but, particularly in this day and age, can be complicated as well. This also takes me to another of the speakers from the conference, McKay Coppins, a columnist for the Atlantic. I also picked up his book, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, and even had him sign it, though, once again, I haven’t had time to read it.

As a columnist you might imagine he is a strong supporter of free speech and opened his talk with a Thomas Jefferson quote that’s a favorite of journalists everywhere. (Back to the Founders!)

The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

As I recall he only recited the last bit, but I think it’s worth quoting the first part, since one of the things which has definitely changed since the time of Jefferson is what “full information” means, what “channel” they get that through, and the way it “penetrates”. Which is to say, would Jefferson be as confident in saying, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without social media or social media without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I suspect he might not.

As I said things have become more complicated, and Coppins did acknowledge that in his speech. In particular he talked about fake news, and the waning power of the larger media outlets. To combat this he urged us all to be individual media outlets. To civilly work to combat misinformation when we see it, and help move the national conversation in the direction of the truth. The Jeffersonian idea that more speech is preferable to less speech and that if we encourage as many people as possible to speak that this will create the “full information” necessary for truth to triumph.

I currently agree with Coppins that this strategy is probably the best way forward, but I also know that when presented with this strategy many people argue that it’s largely a continuation of the status quo and as such will allow those with the biggest microphone to continue to dominate the discussion, and that whatever power imbalance which currently exists will continue to exist. Given the overlap in our proposed strategy I was curious to get Coppins take on it, and asked him about it during the question and answer period. He pointed out that when you’re encouraging more speech you’re also encouraging those who haven’t had much of a voice. In fact, you may even offer them more encouragement, and that hopefully as this process continues it won’t be the same individuals and organizations doing all the talking.

All of this finally takes us to the arguments against civility. As I already mentioned, there are those, traditionally on the left, who feel that civility is just an excuse to continue to silence and oppress those who are already powerless. For example this quote my friend Stuart Parker, who’s running for office in British Columbia:

I read a post by a fellow socialist running for office today and I feel I need to make a point about calls for civility: liberalism is about civility. Socialism is not. Socialism is about meeting people who are being screwed-over by the system and hearing them out. And a crucial part of hearing them out is hearing their anger.

And we, as socialists, should share that anger. A full debate, a debate that encompasses the global extinction event, the affordability crisis and the opioid epidemic is a debate that confronts pain, death and loss. It confronts injustice. Our discourse today should not seek to suppress people’s justified rage but to channel it, to hone it, to express it with precision without losing one iota of the urgency and conviction it contains.

British Columbians are outraged. And they are seeking candidates to articulate their rage for them. Let’s not let them down.

Instinctively you’ve got to have sympathy for this position. But as he points out, liberalism, particularly classical liberalism, the liberalism of the Founders, does place a high degree of importance on civility, and I don’t think we should casually toss that aside. It’s been a long time since we’ve experienced true incivility, and as I pointed out in a previous post, we imagine that we can tolerate small amounts of incivility, and censorship and it won’t lead to violence or repression. Or that if it does it will be righteous violence and repression of only evil people. But that’s not how it works. Rather once things start it’s less like a righteous cleansing and more like Godzilla trudging back and forth through your city. In other words, once those norms get broken it becomes difficult to draw a line. I think this is the lesson the founders had learned from the several hundred years before the revolution, and it’s the lesson they tried to impart to us.

To be fair, it is not only people on the left that have turned against civility. It’s also happening on the right, particularly the alt-right, who insofar as they have a point, believe that conservatives have very civilly and very politely lost every single battle in the culture war. Whether or not this is true (though I’ve already written about how it’s basically true) it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should abandon civility. (Though, i guess, there’s always a chance it might mean that…) In fact if it means anything I would opine that it means we need to be more civil and less censorious, especially with respect to the typical Trump supporter, lest we inadvertently confirm this exact belief, the idea that there is no point in being civil. Of course, as far as I can tell this is the exact opposite of the direction we’re headed. In fact, I just barely saw that apparently James Woods has been locked out of Twitter. (Though, as usual with stuff that just happened this may turn out later to be incorrect.)

Putting everything I’ve said together I suppose my central point is that the current situation is more complicated than it may at first appear, and that a simple return to civility may be more difficult and less effective than people think. But, that we should push for it anyway, because the alternative has the potential to be much, much worse.


Every week I try to civilly and with humor ask for donations, but perhaps the week I write about civility should be the one week I abandon all that and just say, “GIVE ME MONEY!” Or maybe not.


Is War Necessary?

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I’d like to start this week by making a point I’ve made over and over again:

It’s probably a mistake to assume that everyone in the past was horribly violent, irredeemably evil or massively ignorant.

Rather, as I have repeatedly pointed out, they probably had a reason for doing whatever it was they did. That reason may no longer exist, the world is a very different place than it was 500 years ago, or even 100 years ago. So we certainly don’t want to automatically assume that it’s a good idea to continue doing things the way we always have, but that hardly seems to be the mistake most people are making. Rather most people seem to be making the opposite mistake, the one I keep pointing out, declaring that all the reasons for how things were done in the past were bad reasons and we can safely ignore them.

If you were going to point out a place where people in the past acted irrationally you might point to the omnipresence of war. Something which, thankfully, seems to have experienced a massive decline since World War II (at least in terms of combat deaths as a percentage of population.) If there’s anything we can all agree is bad, it’s war. Though as it turns out, not everyone does agree with that, or at least a few people have raised some interesting questions.

I talked about one of these people just last week, Robin Hanson, and his assertion that we are engaged in rapid cultural exploration, which carries unknown risks we may not be properly accounting for. In his original post he gives seven examples of risky cultural exploration, including one related to the subject of war:

While the world has become much more peaceful over the last century, this has been accompanied by big declines in cultural support for military action and tolerance for military losses. Is the world now more vulnerable to conquest by a new military power with more local cultural support and tolerance for losses?

Another person to recently question the idea that war is a horrible mistake, is professor Benjamin Ginsberg, who I encountered recently on an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast. (I should say that I’m grateful to frequent commenter Boonton for pointing the episode out to me.) Ginsberg is a political science professor at John Hopkins University and he recently published a book titled The Worth of War. I have not read it, but from what I gather he acknowledges the horrible death toll of war as well as the other associated suffering, but points out that there are some positives to war as well.

To begin with Ginsberg seems reasonably certain that true peace is impossible, that there will be war, and as long as that’s the case we shouldn’t completely demonize it because it will come back to haunt us when war does return. As you can see his thought process is very similar to Hanson’s though I get the sense that Ginsberg is more certain. For my own part it appears that the key question is whether there are cultures with dramatically more support for war and dramatically greater tolerance for losses than our own. And if so, why haven’t they conquered us already?

Off the top of my head it would appear that the Taliban checks both the “cultural support” and the “loss tolerance” box. Which leaves only the question of why haven’t they conquered us already? Well, there are only 34.5 million Afghanis (and not all belong to the Taliban) and there are 326 million Americans. Also Afghanistan’s blue water navy is notoriously underfunded, meaning a direct attack on America is only possible through terrorism. But we can examine our own attempts to conquer them, and as far as I can tell it’s not going well.

Here are a few recent headlines:

Some quotes from the last article.

Even Kabul is not secure. When I’m coming from home and I say hello to my baby and wife, I am thinking sometimes there is no guarantee to be back at home,” says Najibullah Hekmat, a third-generation Afghan surgeon trained and working at the hospital.

ISIS claimed responsibility for Kabul’s latest attack on Wednesday, twin blasts that killed 20 civilians and wounded 70 more.

An escalation in terrorist attacks and fighting between the Taliban and government forces has helped drive the number of civilian deaths this year to its highest point on record — 1,692 civilians killed by June 30, according to the UN.

No one is arguing that the US is in imminent danger of being conquered by the Taliban but despite spending billions and billions of dollars and thousands of lives we’re having a heck of a time conquering them. One would think that our huge advantage in resources and technology would prove to be a decisive advantage, but it has not. Obviously, in part, we’re restrained by humanitarian impulses, which, among other things, restricts indiscriminate killing on a large scale, but even taking that into account, the Taliban obviously have a will to fight, and to suffer hardship and casualties which we don’t.

Is there some future, where the Taliban, or some other nation, pulls even with the US as far as resources and technology, while at the same time maintaining that greater will to fight and sacrifice? This is an important question. As I said I just listened to the podcast, but I get the feeling that Ginsberg’s answer is yes, and that Hanson’s answer is maybe. Personally, I’m on the side of Hanson. It does seem like there might be something about the progress required to get resources and technology, which is inevitably pacifying. That perhaps, when you get to the point where you have a blue water navy and nukes you don’t want to use them. You might argue that the US does, at least, use its navy, but it’s hard to argue we use it in the same way the Taliban would.

Do we have any other examples we can use? On the one hand there is Europe and on the other hand, China. Europe clearly seems like a place which has the technology and resources to be a significant military power, but which also has zero will to fight, and almost as little desire to sacrifice. China has the resources, and is quickly catching up on the tech, and while certainly more aggressive than Europe, it’s unclear when it comes right down to it how warlike they actually are. When was the last time China invaded another country anyway? Does the Sino-Vietnamese War count?

I suppose Russia is also an example, but as with most things, it’s something of an enigma, is their willingness to fight and sacrifice greater now than it was during the Cold War? What about their resources and tech? Their military is certainly smaller than it was during the Soviet era. Though their absolute tech level may have gotten better.  

I guess all of this is to say that if technology has no relationship to a country’s will to fight, then eventually you’re going to have a high tech society (with a blue water navy and nukes and the whole nine yards) who really wants to take over the world, and, if, as Hanson and Ginsberg fear, the US and other developed nations have lost that will, then they’re probably going to lose. (Which, as I pointed out, is kind of already happening in Afghanistan, and it didn’t even require equal resources and technology.)

If, on the other hand, technology and pacifism, are somewhat linked than maybe getting the military necessary to do something like take over the US, automatically means that you’re too “civilized” to actually do it. Perhaps, but to me this seems like a thin premise to bet the future of the nation on.

This idea of preparedness is the first positive Ginsberg points out, that war, or at least a warlike attitude, makes us more likely to emerge victorious when war inevitably arrives. I guess if you’re sure there’s going to be a big game, and if that game is for all the marbles, then it’s pretty silly not to practice. To which, guys like Steven Pinker argue, that there isn’t necessarily going to be another big game, that big games are horrible, and by practicing for them we make them more likely to happen. But this post is not about the likelihood of big games, I have other posts about that. It’s about whether there are any positives to having the occasional big game, so let’s move on to the next one.

Beyond the argument that preparing for war makes it more likely, Pinker and people like him also argue that having a warlike culture has negative effects on the culture itself. Ginsberg argues the exact opposite, and mentions it as a positive. This is another topic I’ve discussed in past posts, but to summarize: Pinker and people like him point out that warlike societies have a much greater risk of death due to violence. Case closed. The argument on the other side is more nuanced, and I’m not sure of the specifics of Ginsberg’s version of the argument, but the best argument I’ve come across is in the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. He points out that psychological problems go away and people report being happier during times of war.

The best example of this argument being played out is among the Native American tribes during the colonial period. On the one side, Pinker points out that people in these tribes had an appallingly high chance of dying due to violence. On the other side, Junger points out this quote from french émigré, Hector de Crèvecoeur, who actually was around at the time (unlike Pinker):

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

Obviously premature death due to violence is bad, but apparently not bad enough to make people prefer the less violent culture over the more violent one. Meaning that when actually given a choice between Pinker’s world or Junger’s world people choose the more warlike world of Junger. The reasons why or whether this can be extrapolated into the present or whether there’s some way to get the happiness without the violence are beyond the scope of this post. (If you’re interested the post where I reviewed Tribe does get into it.) But I think at a minimum it points to a more complicated picture of war than what most people entertain these days. Which is Ginsberg’s whole point.

Before leaving our discussion of the societal benefits of war, I want to also draw your attention to another post I did, which you may or may not have read. In this other post I discussed the book The Great Leveler, which argued that mass mobilization war is one of the few things that has ever reduced inequality. Opinions vary on how bad inequality is, but if you’re one of those people who thinks that it will eventually result in some kind of internal civil war or revolution, then there’s certainly an argument to be made that a nation is better off occasionally going to war, than eventually self-destructing in bloody violence. Or to put it more crudely if it takes death to reduce inequality there’s an argument to be made that deaths outside the nation are preferable to deaths inside the nation.

Ginsberg also spent a lot of time (as it seemed to me) talking about all of the technology which has come out of wars. Here, at least, I’m not convinced the benefit is as big a deal as he thinks. I imagine that most of the technology which was developed to help out during wartime would have been developed eventually even without the war. Also, oftentimes the technology being developed is solving a problem which is only significant because of war. Ginsberg mentions the advances in prosthetics which have occured recently. Advances he says we only have because of the recent wars. And it is true, a lot of people have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan with a missing limb, and as a result we’ve gotten a lot better a building artificial limbs, but to be clear these artificial limbs wouldn’t be needed in the first place without the war. I’m not saying there aren’t other people who lose limbs in other ways (or who are born without them). I’m saying when you consider that most of this technology would have been developed eventually, I’m reasonably certain that spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives to hasten it by a few years is not worth it.

To put it another way, however bad you think the government is at directing research priorities. Imagine that instead of going to war they said here’s $5 trillion (one estimate for the total cost of Iraq and Afghanistan) think of all the technology that might be developed in the course of a war, things like battlefield surgery, prosthetics, drones, etc. And see what you can come up with. Imagining this scenario, can you honestly say that we wouldn’t have developed everything that came out of the war and then some? I imagine we could probably do it for a tenth of that money.

That said, there may be a deeper issue, I can see making the more subtle argument that war forces us to focus on certain kinds of technology, technology that’s better at helping us survive rather than technology that’s better at keeping us happy (though “keeping us distracted” seems much closer to the mark.) I’ve talked in the past about the conflict between prioritizing survival and prioritizing happiness, and it could be that the farther you go down one of the roads, the harder it is to pay any attention to the other road. That the more new technology consists of things like Instagram, Twitch and Coffee meets Bagel, that the harder it will be to develop technology which actually contributes to our survival. Once again I think it just makes things take longer, but, on the other hand, there is plenty of science fiction where the whole course of the future was determined by early choices in what to prioritize, leading to technology that could only have been discovered on the exact path that was chosen. Certainly I have warned of the dangers of a long term focus on lotus eating, so maybe we are painting ourselves into a corner.

This does take us to the final and perhaps most compelling point Ginsberg makes about the benefits of war: War is the ultimate test of rationality. The meaning of this observation should be obvious, though I think people have forgotten it. Why? Because since the end of the cold war the US has been so strong militarily that it didn’t matter whether we had the ideal strategy or the perfect tactics, we were going to win regardless. Such was not the case during the Cold War, when there were huge debates about which ideology would provide the decisive edge in the inevitable war. Now we no longer worry about it because no one worries about war against some vastly inferior power, people only worry about a war when it’s going to be close (as most wars are, otherwise they never begin in the first place.)

From this the argument can be made that when a nation is powerful, (like the US is currently) they and their citizens can engage in irrational behavior for a very long time. Particularly if that behavior doesn’t carry the seeds of its own destruction. If your irrationality doesn’t cause you to starve to death or overdose (which it very well might) or something equally fatal, then it has no natural endpoint. This is particularly true given all of the things we’ve implemented to prevent irrationality from being fatal. But everything I’ve said so far applies only to internal destructive tendencies, not external destructive actors. Once those enter the equation, in the form of war, and if the sides are fairly evenly matched, as they generally are, irrationality will be quickly revealed. As Master Sergeant Farell (played by the late, great Bill Paxton in the criminally underrated movie Edge of Tomorrow) said:

Battle is the Great Redeemer. It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in.

I’m mostly interested in the “fiery crucible” part (though I think “parasitic scum” may have some bearing here as well). And the associated idea that if there is anything present in you or your civilization which doesn’t help you survive, it gets burned away. I realize I am once again making survival the primary value, but I think this is one area where it is definitely justified. Not only is survival directly threatened by war, but if your ideas won’t help you survive than there’s a good chance they won’t continue past your death.

We may not know where our irrationality lies until the moment we’re put to the test. But I can think of some candidates. One of the bitterly fought battles of the culture war has been expanding who can serve in combat, and in the military in general. In 2010 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed allowing LGB’s to serve openly. Then in 2013 the ban on women serving in combat was lifted. And of course just recently we’ve seen the fight over transgender individuals serving. I am not saying that any of these expansions are definitely irrational, though they certainly could be if, when the time comes, they make our military any less effective at its core responsibility of killing the other guy before they can kill us. Or as Hanson alludes to, if it reduces our support for military action and our tolerance for military losses.

What are the odds of that happening? Well there are four possible effects these expansions could have:

  1. They could be a great idea. I could be that if another big war comes our military will fight more effectively than they would have otherwise.
  2. It could be that it doesn’t matter, because we’re done with big, existential-level wars.
  3. It could be that it has no effect either way.
  4. It could be that these policies were irrational, and when put to the test they will have some negative impact on our ability to wage war effectively.

One seems unlikely to me. If it’s a good idea why hasn’t it been done historically? When wars were much more common why did no one arrive at this competitive advantage? Two, kind of seems to be the underlying argument of a lot of people I’ve talked to about this, who seem to consider the expansions more akin to ending job discrimination than anything which impacts military readiness. As far as three, it’s hard for me to imagine that it has zero effect, which leaves only the idea that, if put to the test, it will prove to have been a bad idea.

If it is it won’t be the first bad idea which was only uncovered in the heat of battle. Nor will it probably be the last. But what happens if we no longer have battle to uncover these bad ideas? Hard to say. I hope that we can uncover bad ideas without people dying. That we can decide important issues without the shedding of blood. But I don’t think the trends point in that direction. And this takes me to my concluding point.

As you may have noticed I have a large interest in Fermi’s Paradox. And when Boonton sent me the link to the Art of Manliness podcast he pointed out how it suggested an interesting explanation for the paradox:

War is required to advance civilization, and without it, civilization stalls out. But, once you acquire nukes, war is no longer an option. So either a civilization blows itself up, or it ceases to advance, either way it never ends up expanding outward into space.

As I said at the beginning, people in the past probably had a reason for doing what they did, and one of the things they did a lot of was go to war. Let’s hope that we have progressed past the point where war is necessary, but prepare for the possibility that it still is.


Another example of irrationality (though one which anyone can uncover) would clearly be donating to a marginal blog, specializing in esoteric musings, in an forgotten corner of the internet. Nevertheless I hope you’ll do it anyway.


Burning Man, Dreamtime and Dragons

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Like many people I went on a short vacation over the Labor Day weekend. Mine took me out to the Bay Area, where I attended the Pleasanton Scottish Festival with my family. I should mention that the festival was gigantic. It’s supposed to be the largest Scottish Festival west of the Mississippi and after being there, I can believe it. But the marvels of caber-tossing, bagpipe competitions, and sheep-dog trials (exclusive to the Pleasanton Scottish Festival as far as I can tell) are not what I want to talk about.

I did not realize, until we were on our way back, that the Labor Day weekend is also when Burning Man ends. My first clue was when we checked into a hotel in Reno on Sunday night, and I overheard someone talking about it, only to then realize that basically the entire lobby was filled with burners, as they’re called. Their presence continued to make itself felt on the drive home on Monday. As we drove east on I-80, I would estimate that half of the cars sharing the road with us were on their way home from Burning Man, so much so that my wife and I made a game of pointing them out. It wasn’t necessarily a hard game, people coming back from “The Burn” are pretty distinctive. If nothing else, there’s the distinctive dust of the playa, the dry lake bed in northern Nevada where Burning Man is held. This dust would generally be covering the entire vehicle, though sometimes just the bikes the person had strapped on to the back of their old RV and sometimes just the wheels, as in the case when my wife identified a burner I had missed.

So, then, Burning Man is what I want to talk about? No, or at least not directly. And before I get any farther, there are probably some of you who have never heard of Burning Man, or if you have heard of it, you’re not sure what it is. Well this is not the place to find out, but I have found that this quote from an old article about the phenomenon from Slate, does a pretty good job of encapsulating the weirdness, while also finally making the connection to the subject I do want to cover:

A good friend who’s been to many Burns but (to his tremendous disappointment) couldn’t make it out to the desert this year insisted that I visit him at his New York apartment to receive some pre-Burn instruction and advice. “Burning Man is an effort to reinvent the culture of Earth,” he told me, in dead serious tones. “If you go, you must surrender to the spirit of the endeavor. You have a duty to participate. You can’t just observe. You’ll bring everybody down.” He then solemnly handed me a white fur vest, a spangly blue cowboy hat, and a pair of ski goggles. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to do with them. He assured me all would become clear soon enough.

I’ve never been to Burning Man, though I have several friends who’ve gone, and I get the impression that the tagline “Reinventing the Culture of the Earth in a White Fur Vest and a Spangly Blue Cowboy Hat” would not be very far from the mark. Alternatively the Slate article also described Burning Man as a collection of “unshowered vegans [and] jet-setting art freaks” which also seems pretty accurate from what I can tell. (If you detect some disdain at this point, it might be due to the fact that a group of very loud burners decided to have a conversation right outside my hotel room at 3:30 am when I was in Reno.) But as I said I’ve never gone, so it’s entirely possible that I’m misrepresenting it. But that line about reinventing the culture of the Earth always stuck with me, and it suggests that there are some people who think that a thousand years from now, “Burning” will be viewed as a movement similar in impact to Christianity or Buddhism. Put me down as someone who thinks this is very unlikely, but I do think that even if Burning Man specifically doesn’t end up deserving a special place in history, that this era more generally will. And here, finally, is what I want to talk about.

If humanity is around in a thousand years (and I certainly hope they are, in one form or another.) What place will this era hold in our history? Well first, it might be interesting to ask how how people of the future will demarcate this era. Will it be the era of American dominance? The era of hedonism?

Will they draw a line after World War II because that will have been the last big war? Will they draw a line at the start of the enlightenment? At the invention of the steam engine? At the fall of the Soviet Union?

I could see a case being made for any of the above, but I would vote for a line drawn after World War II. And not necessarily because it was the last big war (I’m on record as saying that it won’t be) but because it was the era when all the rules changed. Previously democracy was rare, now it’s common. Previously hierarchies were explicit, now equality is expected (if not always realized). Previously war was diplomacy by other means, now war is apocalyptic. Previously someone’s rights were abstract and rarely considered, now they’re central and frequently referred to. Now, obviously, this all didn’t happen instantly at the end of World War II, it was a gradual process, and as I said I can see drawing a line at any number of places, from the Civil War to the French Revolution to the impeachment of Trump (should it happen). But I think World War II was (at least for America) when it became apparent that the road ahead was clear, and it was time to put on the gas.

All of which is to say, even if I’m not sure where they’ll draw the line, I think it’s clear that when people look back they will see our time as a distinct era, and an important one as well. Mostly because of all the changes I just mentioned. Though, saying that this is an important and distinct period is not particularly revolutionary or even noteworthy. The real question I’m curious about is, a thousand years on, what will the impact of this era have been? Will I be wrong and people will call it the “Era of Burning Man?” There are apparently some people who think so, but, as I said I don’t think that’s one of the likely scenarios. And, of course, if I’m speaking of likely scenarios for something a thousand years in the future I can only speak very broadly. But in very broad terms here are a few likely scenarios:

  1. The Beginning of Utopia: Though humans a thousand years from now might not give a place a pride to Burning Man, they may still view this era as the time when humanity passed from brutishness to true enlightenment. When the Long Peace started, the peace that eventually turned into the Forever Peace. When the initial faint promise of Transhumanism and AI turned into the Singularity and humans turned into gods. When all the hate and cruelty and inhumanity was done away with and when the era of tolerance and love, and individual flourishing began. Here, I offer my usual caveat. I would love it if this were the case, but even if I thought it were likely I would still argue that all of the rest of the items on this list are bad enough that we should still spend a significant amount of effort hedging against them.
  2. Large Scale Nuclear War Happens: If this ends up happening then people a thousand years in the future will look back on this era as one of unmitigated folly. As the time when we had developed nuclear weapons but went blithely along, unconcerned by how destructive they were and how certain (in retrospect) their eventual use was. (This also would be a powerful argument for starting the era at the end of World War II.) I assume they would also view it as a time of vast hedonistic excess as well, considering everything we did between developing nukes and the eventual war as the worst trade-off of long-term responsibility for immediate pleasure in the history of humanity.
  3. Some Other Negative Black Swan: I could have included nuclear war in this category as well, but I think it’s special enough that it deserves it’s own section. In this scenario we manage to avoid large scale nuclear war, but there is some other large negative event that we should have seen coming, but didn’t. I’ve talked about this a lot in past posts, including this one from just a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into a huge amount of detail here. Particularly since the list of potential swans is nearly endless, and even if it’s one no one thought of, I imagine that the people of the future, much like ourselves, will not cut us much slack if we overlook our eventual doom, no matter how unlikely it seemed at the time.
  4. Adolescent Idealism: Some people have put forth the theory that humanity is passing through something resembling college or maybe high school. A time when you feel like you know everything and the traditions and rules of your parents (and society in general) seem hopelessly antiquated, needlessly repressive and entirely unimportant in light of all the new knowledge you’ve just gained. Oftentimes this is accompanied by the belief that they’re going to change the world through social justice, equality, and radical redistribution. Sometimes these feelings last, but in general people discover that it’s all a lot harder than they thought. People a thousand years from now might look back on this as just such an era of “youthful” idealism. This view could exist alongside of possibilities two and three, or it could be that we avoid major negative events, and yet still appear hopelessly naive to our descendents.
  5. Dreamtime: Many years ago Robin Hanson wrote an article where he speculated that our descendents would look back on this era as something of a “dreamtime”. He mentions many differences which will probably exist between us and our descendants, but he calls it dreamtime because of one huge difference, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” Why is that? Well he offers seven reasons in the original article, but all of them basically boil down to the idea that we are adapted to live in a world very different from the one we live in now. For 99.9% of human history we lived in a world with far fewer people, hardly any wealth, and almost no ongoing technological advancement. This difference is something I’ve mentioned many times in the past, and Hansen hits on many of the same things. The part where it gets interesting is when he points out that these are differences which not only existed between us and our ancestors, but which will exist between us and our descendents as well. Something I’d like to dig into a little bit more.

The idea of far fewer people may be where Hanson is on the shakiest ground. It certainly doesn’t feel, at this point, that this is likely to be that different for our descendents. But if you toss in the idea that we will eventually spread to the stars than this assertion makes perfect sense. Right now humanity is as global and connected as it has ever been, and possibly as it ever will be. I could, in theory, drop everything, hop on Skype and talk to anyone in the world. If, in the far future, the average descendent ends up on a planet light years away from Earth or any other planet, then this will obviously no longer be the case. Also whatever planet that is, it’s unlikely to have seven billion people on it. Now whether this will happen in a thousand years or not, I don’t know, but you can see where the tiny, widely separated colonies Hanson envisions for the future will be more similar to the world of yesterday than the world of today.

When someone says there was hardly any wealth in the past, no one is inclined to argue very much, but when Hanson points out that there will be hardly any wealth in the future, there are plenty of people willing to argue. But as I pointed out in a previous post, The current level of growth cannot continue forever, eventually it has to fall back to the level of “barely above zero” it was for most of human history. Hanson says it this way:

If income only doubled every century, in a million years that would be a factor of 103000, which seems impossible to achieve with only the 1070 atoms of our galaxy available by then.

Finally there’s the idea of almost no ongoing technological advancement. This is another area where things can’t continue forever. Or rather if it can continue forever than this era definitely does represent the beginning of utopia, and we can cease to worry about basically anything else. More likely there are still many things to discover, but the pace of discovery will start to slow, and discovering anything truly new will become rarer and rarer, until eventually we reach, a permanent technological plateau. This ends up being one of the key reasons for Hanson’s claim that future generations will view us as delusional.

Our knowledge has been growing so fast, and bringing such radical changes, that many of us see anything as possible, so that nothing can really be labeled a delusion.

So what should we be doing?

As I said, it may be that this era will be viewed by people in the future as the beginning of utopia, and what we should really be doing is rushing towards it as fast as possible. But I also listed four other likely scenarios which indicate that perhaps we should be exercising both more caution and more humility. Now I don’t claim that because there are four bad scenarios and only one good one that this means that the bad scenarios are more likely by a factor of four to one (though they might be, it’s impossible to know.) On the other hand, I think dismissing those scenarios, as so many people are quick to do, is equally, if not more foolish. The argument I’m making is that we live in a unique era, which, above all else, calls for unique caution. And this takes me to another, much more recent article by Robin Hanson.

He theorizes that one of the things that’s unique about this era is that rather than exploring new physical spaces, that we have moved to exploring new cultural spaces:

I want to suggest that Spaceship Earth is in fact a story of a brave crew risking much to explore a strange new territory. But the space we explore is more cultural than physical.

During the industrial era, the world economy has doubled roughly every fifteen years. Each such doubling of output has moved us into new uncharted cultural territory. This growth has put new pressures on our environment, and has resulted in large and rapid changes to our culture and social organization.

This growth results mostly from innovation, and most innovations are small and well tested against local conditions, giving us little reason to doubt their local value. But all these small changes add up to big overall moves that are often entangled with externalities, coordination failures, and other reasons to doubt their net value.

So humanity continues to venture out into new untried and risky cultural spaces, via changes to cultural conditions with which we don’t have much experience, and which thus risk disaster and destruction. The good crew of Spaceship Earth should carefully weigh these risks when considering where and how fast to venture.

This is a great way of framing what I’ve been saying from the very beginning. And when I assert, as the theme of this blog that, “We are not saved.” One of the reasons for making that assertion is that rather than moving cautiously and slowly into this new cultural space, we appear to be moving faster and getting less cautious with each passing year.

My guess is that there are two reasons why this is happening. First, as I just said, if people believe that this is the start of a future utopia, then it makes sense to be rushing towards it as fast as possible. But, as I have argued, not only is this not a given, it may not even be likely. And paradoxically, rushing into it, may make it less likely rather than more. Second there is the inertia of the status quo, which has had a bias towards “progress” for decades if not centuries, a belief that there is no level at which progress becomes bad, and faster progress is always better than slower progress.

This metaphor of the current era as a ship engaged in risky and rapid (cultural) exploration was the primary thing I wanted to pass along from the article, but Hanson does tie it into the culture war (as you might imagine) and gives the usual plea for more reasonable debate:

The most common framing today for such issues is one of cultural war. You ask yourself which side feels right to you, commiserate with your moral allies, then puff yourself up with righteous indignation against those who see things differently, and go to war with them. But we might do better to frame these as reasonable debates on how much to risk as we explore culture space.

This got me to thinking, people always offer up reasonable debate as a potential solution to this problem.  And it does seem eminently sensible, things would probably go better if there was more talking and less war. I have certainly also advocated for this position, particularly in preference to Godzilla trudging back and forth. But I have also pointed out that there were decades of reasonable debates before the current crisis, and yet it had very little effect on the speed of cultural exploration. Also, in a certain sense, the cultural war is a debate, particularly given that, even using very extreme estimates, there have been almost no fatalities in this war (so far). The problem we’re facing is not that we need to have more debates or that the debates need to be more reasonable (though neither would hurt). The problem is that our policies don’t do a very good job of reflecting the uncertainty we are (or at least should be) experiencing.

I have definitely covered many areas where we should be less certain than we are. This is well covered territory (in this blog and a few others, though not much outside that.) But perhaps framing it as the idea of risky exploration, or of a unique era calling for unique caution makes it clear to some people in a way that previous explanations didn’t. Also, once we realize that humanity is engaged in cultural exploration we can go on to realize that this exploration is proceeding at a faster rate than ever.

What does the future hold? How will this era be viewed a thousand years from now? I don’t know, but I think the next few decades could be very consequential to that future view. The old maps used to mark unexplored areas of the world with pictures of dragons, or sea serpents: here be dragons, as they say. As it turns out there weren’t any dragons, but as we explore the space of culture, we may find out, that this time, there are.


Speaking of unexplored spaces, I’m guessing that many reading this blog have not explored the space of donations. It’s actually not as bad as you think. In fact I guarantee there are no dragons.