All posts tagged equality

Book review: The Amish, by Donald B. Kraybill.

It feels appropriate to review this book right after The Dawn of Everything (TDOE). There are strange contrasts between the cultural views of the two books.

TDOE clearly exaggerated the extent to which European civilization disapproved of freedom and equality, yet Amish culture shows an important kernel of truth behind that exaggeration.

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Book review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

This book is about narratives of human progress. I.e. the natural progression from egalitarian bands of maybe 20 people, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states, with increasing inequality and domination by centralized bureaucracy. That progress is usually presumed to be driven by changes in occupations from foragers, to gardeners, to farmers, to industry.

Western intellectuals focus on debates between two narratives: Hobbesians, who see this mostly as advances from a nasty state of nature, and those following in Rousseau’s footsteps, who imagine early human societies as somewhat closer to a Garden of Eden. Both narratives suggest that farming societies were miserable places that were either small advances or unavoidable tragedies, depending on what you think they replaced.

Graeber and Wengrow dispute multiple aspects of these narratives. The book isn’t quite organized enough for me to boil their message down to a single sentence. But I’ll focus on what I consider to be the most valuable thread: we should be uncertain about whether humanity made (is making?) a big mistake by accepting oppression as an inevitable price of material wealth.

The Dawn of Everything asks us to imagine that humans could build (and may have been building) sophisticated civilizations without domination by powerful states, and maybe without depending on farming.

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Book review: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why, by Richard E. Nisbett.

It is often said that travel is a good way to improve one’s understanding of other cultures.

The Geography of Thought discredits that saying, by being full of examples of cultural differences that 99.9% of travelers will overlook.

Here are a few of the insights I got from the book, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten from visiting Asia frequently:

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Book review: The Precipice, by Toby Ord.

No, this isn’t about elections. This is about risks of much bigger disasters. It includes the risks of pandemics, but not the kind that are as survivable as COVID-19.

The ideas in this book have mostly been covered before, e.g. in Global Catastrophic Risks (Bostrom and Cirkovic, editors). Ord packages the ideas in a more organized and readable form than prior discussions.

See the Slate Star Codex review of The Precipice for an eloquent summary of the book’s main ideas.

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Book review: Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is decent at history, mediocre at economics, unimpressive at forecasting, and gives policy advice that is thoughtfully adapted to his somewhat controversial goals. His goals involve a rather different set of priorities than I endorse, but the book mostly doesn’t try to persuade us to adopt his goals, so I won’t say much here about why I have different priorities.

That qualifies as a good deal less dumbed-down-for-popularity than I expected from a bestseller.

Even when he makes mistakes, he is often sufficiently thoughtful and clear to be somewhat entertaining.

Piketty provides a comprehensive view of changes in financial inequality since the start of the industrial revolution.

Piketty’s main story is that we’ve experienced moderately steady increases in inequality, as long as conditions remained somewhat normal. There was a big break in that trend associated with WW1, WW2, and to lesser extents the Great Depression and baby boom. Those equalizing forces (mainly decreases in wealth) seem unlikely to repeat. We’re back on a trend of increasing inequality, with no end in sight.

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Most Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposals look a bit implausible, because they want to solve poverty overnight, and rely on questionable hopes for how much taxpayers can be persuaded to support[1].

They also fall short of inspiring my idealistic motives, because they want to solve poverty only within the countries that implement the UBI (i.e. they should be called national basic income proposals). That means even those of us living in relatively successful countries would be gambling on the continued success of the country they happen to live in. I imagine some large upheavals in the next century or so that will create a good deal of uncertainty as to which countries prosper.

Political movements to create national basic income run the risk of being hijacked by political forces that are more short-sighted and less altruistic.

Whereas I’m more interested in preparing for the more distant risks of a large-scale technological unemployment that might accompany a large increase in economic growth.

UBI without taxation?

Manna is a somewhat better attempt. It’s a cryptocurrency with a one account per human rule, and regular distributions of additional (newly created) currency to each account.

It provides incentives to sign up (speaking of which, I get rewards if you sign up via this link). It’s less clear what incentive people have to hold onto their manna[2].

It’s designed so that, given optimistic assumptions, the price of manna will be stable, or maybe increase somewhat. Note that those optimistic assumptions include a significant amount of altruism on the part of many people.

Cryptocurrencies gained popularity in part because they offered a means of trust that was independent of their creator’s trustworthiness.

Manna doesn’t attempt to fully replicate that feature, because they’re not about to fully automate the one-human-one-account rule. They’ve outsourced a good deal of the verification to cell phone companies, but the system will still be vulnerable to fraud unless a good deal of human labor goes into limiting people to one account each.

The obvious outcome is that people stop buying manna, so it becomes worth too little for people to bother signing up.

I suspect most buying so far has been from people who think any cryptocurrency will go up. That’s typical of a bubble.

That may have helped to jumpstart the system, but I’m concerned that it may distract the founders from looking for a long-term solution.

Why use a cryptocurrency?

Some of what’s happening is that crypto enthusiasts expect crypto to solve all problems, and apply crypto to everything without looking for evidence that crypto is helpful to the problem at hand. The cryptocurrency bubble misled some people into thinking that cryptocurrencies created free lunches[3] (manna comes from heaven, right?), and a UBI is a good use for a free lunch.

I recommend instead that you think of manna as primarily a charity, which happens to get some advantage from using a cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrencies provide fairly cheap ways of transmitting value.

The open source nature of the mechanism makes it relatively easy to verify most aspects of the system.

These may not sound like terribly strong reasons, but it looks to me like much of the difficulty in getting widespread adoption of valuable new charities is that donors won’t devote much effort to evaluating charities. So only the most easily verified charities succeed on their merits, and the rest succeed or fail mainly on their marketing ability.


It seems almost possible that the price of manna could be stable or rise reliably enough to act as a good store of value.

But it won’t happen via the thoughtless greed that drove last year’s cryptocurrency buying frenzy. It requires something along the lines of altruism and/or signaling.

It seems to require the “central bank” to use charitable donations to buy manna when the price of manna declines.

It also requires something unusual about the average person’s attitude toward manna. Would it be enough for people and businesses to accept manna as payment, for reasons that involve status signaling? That doesn’t seem quite enough.

It’s also important to persuade some people to hold the manna for a significant time.


There’s little chance that can be accomplished by making manna look as safe as dollars or yuan. The only possibility that I can imagine working is if holdings of manna provide a good signal of wealth and wealth-related status. Manna seems to be positioned so that it could become a substitute for a fancy car or house as a signal of wealth. With that level of acceptance, it might provide a substitute for bank accounts as a store of value.

Signaling motives might also lead some upper-class people/businesses to use it as medium of exchange.

To work well, manna would probably need to be recognized as a charity, with a reputation that is almost as widely respected as the Red Cross. I.e. it would need to be a fairly standard form of altruism.

The main UBI movement wants to imagine they can solve poverty with one legislative act. Manna uses a more incremental approach, which provides less hope of solving poverty this decade, but maybe a bit more hope of mitigating larger problems from technological unemployment several decades from now.


Manna seems to be run by the first group of people who decided the idea was worth doing. Typically with a new technology, the people who will manage it most responsibly wait a few years before getting involved, so my priors are that I should hesitate before deciding this particular group is good enough.

Manna currently isn’t fair to people who can’t afford a cell phone, but if other aspects of manna succeed, it’s likely that cell phone companies will find a way to get cell phones to essentially everyone, since the manna will pay for the phones. Also, alternatives to cell phones will probably be implemented for manna access.

The high-level rhetoric says any human being is eligible for manna, but a closer look shows that anyone under 18 is treated as only partly qualified – manna accumulates in their name, and they get access to the manna when they come of age. The arbitrariness of this threshold is unsettling. We’ll get situations where people become parents, yet don’t have access to manna. Or maybe that’s not much of a problem because someone else will enable children to borrow, using their manna as collateral?

The problems will become harder if someone needs to figure out what qualifies a human being in an Age of Em, where uploaded minds (human, and maybe bonobo) can be quickly duplicated.

I’m not too clear on how the governing board will be chosen – they say something about voting, which sort of suggests a global democracy. That runs some risk of short-sighted people voting themselves more money now at the cost of a less stable system later. But the alternative governing mechanisms aren’t obviously great either.

I’d have more confidence if manna were focused exclusively on a UBI. But they want to also enable targeted donations, by providing verified age, gender, location, and occupation data, and “verified needy” status indications generated by other charities. Maybe a one or two of those would work out well, but I see some important tension between them and the “NO DISCRIMINATION” slogan on the home page.

The people in charge also want to solve “instability … resulting from too much money being held in too few hands and used for reckless financial speculation” without convincing me they understand what causes instability.

I’d be concerned about macroeconomic risks in the unlikely event that manna’s use became widespread enough that wages were denominated in it. Manna’s creators express Keynesian concerns about aggregate demand, suggesting that the best we could hope for from a manna monetary policy is that it would repeat the Fed’s occasional large mistakes. I’d prefer to aim for something better than that.

Current central banks have enough problems with promoting monetary stability. If they’re replaced by an organization which has a goal that’s more distinct from monetary stability, I expect monetary stability to suffer. I don’t consider it likely that manna will replace existing currencies enough for that to be a big concern, but I find this scenario hard to analyze.

Like most charities, it depends more on support from the wealthy than from the average person. Yet the rhetoric behind Manna seems designed to alienate the wealthy.

Is current People’s Currency Foundation sufficiently trustworthy? Or should someone create a better version?

I don’t know, and I don’t expect to do enough research to figure it out. Maybe OpenPhil can investigate enough?

Is this Effective Altruism?

The near-term benefits of Manna or something similar appear unimpressive compared to GiveDirectly, which targets beneficiaries in a more sophisticated (but less transparent?) way.

But Manna’s simpler criteria make it a bit more scaleable, and make it somewhat easier to gain widespread trust.

The main costs that I foresee involve the attention that is needed to shift people’s from charities such as the Red Cross or their alma mater as the default charity, toward manna. Plus, of course, whatever is lost from the charities who get fewer donations. There’s no shortage of charities that produce less value than a well-run UBI would, but the social pressure that I’m imagining is too blunt an instrument to carefully target the least valuable charities as the things that manna should replace.


I don’t recommend significant purchases of manna or donations to the People’s Currency Foundation now. Current efforts in this area should focus more on evaluating these ideas further, figuring out whether a good enough implementation exists, and if it should be scaled up, then we should focus more on generating widespread agreement that this is a good charity, and not focus much on near-term funding.

I give Manna a 0.5% chance of success, and I see an additional 1% chance that something similar will succeed. By success, I mean reliably providing enough income within 30 years so that at least 10 million of the world’s poorest people can use it to buy 2000 calories per day of food. That probability seems a bit higher than the chance that political action will similarly help the world’s poorest.


[1] – e.g. pointing to tax rates that were tolerated for a while after a world war, without noticing the hints that war played an important role in getting that toleration, and without noting how tax rates affect tax avoidance. See Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, figures 13.1 and 14.1, for evidence that tax rates which are higher than current rates haven’t generated more revenues.

[2]Wikipedia says of the original manna: ‘Stored manna “bred worms and stank”‘.

[3] – or maybe the best cryptocurrencies do create free lunches, but people see more free lunches than are actually created. The majority of cryptocurrencies have been just transfers of money from suckers to savvy traders.

Book review: The Life You Can Save, by Peter Singer.

This book presents some unimpressive moral claims, and some more pragmatic social advocacy that is rather impressive.

The Problem

It is all too common to talk as if all human lives had equal value, yet act as if the value of distant strangers’ lives was a few hundred dollars.

Singer is effective at arguing against standard rationalizations for this discrepancy.

He provides an adequate summary of reasons to think most of us can easily save many lives.
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Book review: The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, by Robin Hanson.

This book analyzes a possible future era when software emulations of humans (ems) dominate the world economy. It is too conservative to tackle longer-term prospects for eras when more unusual intelligent beings may dominate the world.

Hanson repeatedly tackles questions that scare away mainstream academics, and gives relatively ordinary answers (guided as much as possible by relatively standard, but often obscure, parts of the academic literature).


Hanson’s scenario relies on a few moderately controversial assumptions. The assumptions which I find most uncertain are related to human-level intelligence being hard to understand (because it requires complex systems), enough so that ems will experience many subjective centuries before artificial intelligence is built from scratch. For similar reasons, ems are opaque enough that it will be quite a while before they can be re-engineered to be dramatically different.

Hanson is willing to allow that ems can be tweaked somewhat quickly to produce moderate enhancements (at most doubling IQ) before reaching diminishing returns. He gives somewhat plausible reasons for believing this will only have small effects on his analysis. But few skeptics will be convinced.

Some will focus on potential trillions of dollars worth of benefits that higher IQs might produce, but that wealth would not much change Hanson’s analysis.

Others will prefer an inside view analysis which focuses on the chance that higher IQs will better enable us to handle risks of superintelligent software. Hanson’s analysis implies we should treat that as an unlikely scenario, but doesn’t say what we should do about modest probabilities of huge risks.

Another way that Hanson’s assumptions could be partly wrong is if tweaking the intelligence of emulated Bonobos produces super-human entities. That seems to only require small changes to his assumptions about how tweakable human-like brains are. But such a scenario is likely harder to analyze than Hanson’s scenario, and it probably makes more sense to understand Hanson’s scenario first.


Wages in this scenario are somewhat close to subsistence levels. Ems have some ability to restrain wage competition, but less than they want. Does that mean wages are 50% above subsistence levels, or 1%? Hanson hints at the former. The difference feels important to me. I’m concerned that sound-bite versions of book will obscure the difference.

Hanson claims that “wealth per em will fall greatly”. It would be possible to construct a measure by which ems are less wealthy than humans are today. But I expect it will be at least as plausible to use a measure under which ems are rich compared to humans of today, but have high living expenses. I don’t believe there’s any objective unit of value that will falsify one of those perspectives [1].

Style / Organization

The style is more like a reference book than a story or an attempt to persuade us of one big conclusion. Most chapters (except for a few at the start and end) can be read in any order. If the section on physics causes you to doubt whether the book matters, skip to chapter 12 (labor), and return to the physics section later.

The style is very concise. Hanson rarely repeats a point, so understanding him requires more careful attention than with most authors.

It’s odd that the future of democracy gets less than twice as much space as the future of swearing. I’d have preferred that Hanson cut out a few of his less important predictions, to make room for occasional restatements of important ideas.

Many little-known results that are mentioned in the book are relevant to the present, such as: how the pitch of our voice affects how people perceive us, how vacations affect productivity, and how bacteria can affect fluid viscosity.

I was often tempted to say that Hanson sounds overconfident, but he is clearly better than most authors at admitting appropriate degrees of uncertainty. If he devoted much more space to caveats, I’d probably get annoyed at the repetition. So it’s hard to say whether he could have done any better.


Even if we should expect a much less than 50% chance of Hanson’s scenario becoming real, it seems quite valuable to think about how comfortable we should be with it and how we could improve on it.


[1] – The difference matters only in one paragraph, where Hanson discusses whether ems deserve charity more than do humans living today. Hanson sounds like he’s claiming ems deserve our charity because they’re poor. Most ems in this scenario are comfortable enough for this to seem wrong.

Hanson might also be hinting that our charity would be effective at increasing the number of happy ems, and that basic utilitarianism says that’s preferable to what we can do by donating to today’s poor. That argument deserves more respect and more detailed analysis.

Book review: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, by Ian Morris.

This book gives the impression that Morris had a halfway decent book in mind, but forgot to write down important parts of it.

He devotes large (possibly excessive) parts of the book to describing worldwide changes in what people value that correlate with the shifts to farming and then industry.

He convinces me that there’s some sort of connection between those values and how much energy per capita each society is able to use. He probably has a clue or two what that connection is, but the book failed to enlighten me about the connection.

He repeatedly claims that each age gets the thought that it needs. I find that about as reasonable as claiming that the widespread malnutrition associated with farming was what farming cultures needed. Indeed, his description of how farming caused gender inequality focuses on increased ability of men to inflict pain on women, and on increased incentives to do so. That sounds like a society made worse off, not getting what it needs.

He mentions (almost as an afterthought) some moderately interesting models of what caused specific changes in values as a result of the agricultural revolution.

He does an ok job of explaining the increased support for hierarchy in farming societies as an effect of the community size increasing past the Dunbar Number.

He attributes the reduced support for hierarchy in the industrial world to a need for interchangeable citizens. But he doesn’t document that increased need for interchangeability, and I’m skeptical that any such effect was strong. See The Institutional Revolution for a well thought out alternative model.

I had hoped to find some ideas about how to predict value changes that will result from the next big revolution. But I can’t figure out how to usefully apply his ideas to novel situations.

See also Robin Hanson’s review.