equality

All posts tagged equality

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).

Assumptions

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.

Wealth

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.

Conclusion

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.

Footnote

[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.

Book review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.

This ambitious attempt to explain the rise of civilization (especially the rule of law) is partly successful.

The most important idea in the book is that the Catholic church (in the Gregorian Reforms) played a critical role in creating important institutions.

The church differed from religions in other cultures in that it was sufficiently organized to influence political policy, but not strong enough to become a state. This lead it to acquire resources by creating rules that enabled people to leave property to the church (often via wills, which hardly existed before then). This turned what had been resources belonging to some abstract group (families or ancestors) into things owned by individuals, and created rules for transferring those resources.

In the process, it also weakened the extended family, which was essential to having a state that impartially promoted the welfare of a society that was larger than a family.

He also provides a moderately good description of China’s earlier partial adoption of something similar in its merit-selected bureaucracy.

I recommend reading the first 7 chapters plus chapter 16. The rest of the book contains more ordinary history, including some not-too-convincing explanations of why northwest Europe did better than the rest of Christianity.

Book review: Human Enhancement, edited by Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom.

This book starts out with relatively uninteresting articles and only the last quarter of so of it is worth reading.

Because I agree with most of the arguments for enhancement, I skipped some of the pro-enhancement arguments and tried to read the anti-enhancement arguments carefully. They mostly boil down to the claim that people’s preference for natural things is sufficient to justify broad prohibitions on enhancing human bodies and human nature. That isn’t enough of an argument to deserve as much discussion as it gets.

A few of the concerns discussed by advocates of enhancement are worth more thought. The question of whether unenhanced humans would retain political equality and rights enables us to imagine dystopian results of enhancement. Daniel Walker provides a partly correct analysis of conditions under which enhanced beings ought to paternalistically restrict the choices and political power of the unenhanced. But he’s overly complacent about assuming the paternalists will have the interests of the unenhanced at heart. The biggest problem with paternalism to date is that it’s done by people who are less thoughtful about the interests of the people they’re controlling than they are about finding ways to serve their own self-interest. It is possible that enhanced beings will be perfect altruists, but it is far from being a natural consequence of enhancement.

The final chapter points out the risks of being overconfident of our ability to improve on nature. They describe questions we should ask about why evolution would have produced a result that is different from what we want. One example that they give suggests they remain overconfident – they repeat a standard claim about the human appendix being a result of evolution getting stuck in a local optimum. Recent evidence suggests that the appendix performs a valuable function in recovery from diarrhea (still a major cause of death in places) and harm from appendicitis seems rare outside of industrialized nations (maybe due to differences in dietary fiber?).

The most new and provocative ideas in the book have little to do with the medical enhancements that the title evokes. Robin Hanson’s call for mechanisms to make people more truthful probably won’t gather much support, as people are clever about finding objections to any specific method that would be effective. Still, asking the question the way he does may encourage some people to think more clearly about their goals.

Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg describe an interesting (original?) hypothesis about why placebos (sometimes) work. It involves signaling that there is relatively little need to conserve the body’s resources for fighting future injuries and diseases. Could this understanding lead to insights about how to more directly and reliably trigger this effect? More effective placebos have been proposed as jokes. Why is it so unusual to ask about serious research into this subject?

Book Review: Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility by Lant Pritchett.
This book is primarily written for economists and academics in related fields, but most of it can be understood by an average person.
I was a little hesitant to read this book because I suspected it would do little more than reinforce my existing beliefs. There were certainly parts of the book that I would have been better off skipping for that reason.
But one important effect of the book was to convince me that the effects on the poor of migration to wealthier countries is so large compared to things like “foreign aid” and free trade that anyone trying to help the poor by influencing government policies shouldn’t spend any time thinking about how to improve “foreign aid” or trade barriers.
I’ve long been wondering how to respond to remarks such as Jimmy Carter’s ‘We are the stingiest nation of all’ based the U.S.’s low “foreign aid” to GDP ratio. Pointing out that “foreign aid” is mostly wasted or even harmful requires too much analysis of lots of not-too-strong evidence. Pritchett shows that the wealth affects of allowing the poor to work in rich countries should dominate any measure of how those rich countries treat the poor. By that measure, adjusting for country size, the U.S. ranks better than countries in the EU, but is embarrassingly callous compared to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan.
The book addresses both moral and selfish arguments for restricting immigration. It treats the selfish arguments (even those based on myths) as problems that can’t be overcome, but which can be reduced via compromises. These pragmatic parts of the book are too ordinary to be worth much.
The sections about moral arguments are more powerful. He clearly demonstrates a large blind spot in the moral vision of those who think they’re opposed to all discrimination but who aren’t offended by discrimination on the basis of the nationality a person was assigned at birth. But he exaggerates when he claims that nationality is the only exception to a widely agreed on outrage at discrimination based on “condition of birth”. Discrimination based on date of birth still gets wide support (e.g. the drinking age). And if you’re born as a conjoined twin, don’t expect much protection from surgery that looks about as moral as brain surgery designed to cure a child’s homosexuality should.
Perhaps this book is one small step toward creating a movement with a slogan such as “Tear down that kinder, gentler Berlin wall!”.

Book review: Poverty and Discrimination by Kevin Lang.
This book is designed to make you feel less sure of your knowledge, and it succeeds in that goal. That’s a worthy accomplishment, although it provides much less satisfaction than a book that provides a grand vision for solving problems would. At some abstract intellectual level I liked the book, but my gut feelings often told me that reading the book was unrewarding work that I shouldn’t do unless it was assigned reading for a course I needed.
The book will dissatisfy anyone who wants to view politics as a fight between good and evil. For many issues such as the minimum wage, he provides strong arguments that the effects are small enough that we should doubt whether the issue is worth fighting about.
He gives good explanations of why it’s hard to even have clear concepts of poverty and discrimination by providing examples of how seemingly trivial or unobservable differences can create results that our intuitions say are important to our moral rules.
He provides clear evidence that some discrimination still exists, and then thoroughly explains why there’s large uncertainty about how harmful it is. He presents one moderately unrealistic model in which discrimination is common but doesn’t affect wages. Then he presents a somewhat more realistic model in which a tiny bit of discrimination produces large wage differences. But those wage differences may overstate the harm done, because they’re partly due to minorities spending less on education and to women pursuing careers in lower risk occupations or careers which allow more flexibility to take time off.
There are only a handful of places where I doubted his objectivity.
He reports one study showing evidence of racial discrimination in home loans, but fails to mention any of the contrary evidence such as the Anderson and Vanderhoff paper showing higher marginal default rates for blacks.
The final few pages on policy implications seem poorly thought out compared to the rest of the book (he says that’s the least important chapter of the book). He claims that income taxes on the bottom quintile can be reduced to zero by a 10% increase on the top quintile, but that claim depends on assumptions about how reported income changes in response to tax increases. He doesn’t indicate what assumptions his claim depends on.
He claims “The high rate of incarceration in the United States and the high level of inequality are related.” He gives a plausible theory about why inequality causes the wealthy in some countries to spend a lot protecting their wealth from the poor, but provides no evidence connecting that theory to U.S. incarceration rates.

Book review: Black Rednecks And White Liberals by Thomas Sowell.
Thomas Sowell is a pretty smart guy. It’s unfortunate that he wastes his skills on reinforcing peoples’ existing political opinions. Much of what he says in this book is right, but the new ideas it offers don’t seem like they ought to change the political opinions of anyone who has thought much about racial politics. And the old but wise arguments are written in a style that seems designed to turn off anyone who isn’t already a fan of Sowell’s ideas.
He presents interesting evidence that the culture of black ghettos came from parts of Britain that were uncivilized at the time its bearers moved to the southern U.S. This is the kind of subject where it’s virtually impossible for most readers to tell whether he’s being objective or selecting evidence to fit his biases. More importantly, it’s hard to tell why it matters. Some people pay lip service to the authenticity of black culture, but I find it hard to believe that the origins of the culture several centuries ago plays an important role in peoples’ choice to adopt the culture.
One interesting aspect of Sowell’s story is that the large migration from the rural south to the urban north after WWII did not result in the usual assimilation of the migrants into the culture of the area they moved to. How much of that was due to the number of migrants, to their culture, or to their race? Sowell ignores this subject.
Sowell’s argument that western civilization was responsible for the nearly worldwide abolition of slavery seems mostly right, but I’m disturbed by his exaggerations. He misleads readers into thinking that the first abolitionists were western, but a quick web search told me that Cyrus the Great wanted to abolish slavery worldwide two millennia earlier.
There are several places in the book where he makes confident, unsupported assertions as if they were certain, when I doubt anyone has enough evidence to make anything better than a rough guess. For instance, he thinks George Washington couldn’t have gotten a prohibition on slavery into the constitution without driving the south out of the union (plausible, but it depends on hard-to-verify assumptions about his powers of persuasion), and that slavery would have lasted longer without the union (a controversial enough claim that abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison seemed to reject it, claiming the north would be a better haven for runaway slaves if it seceded and repealed the Fugitive Slave Law). There are probably some leftists who unfairly attack Washington for failing to accomplish more than he could possibly accomplish, but I don’t see signs that they get respect from anyone who would listen to Sowell.
I’m quite suspicious of Sowell’s claim that Hitler’s pretenses of having been provoked into military action were intended only to fool people in Germany. Even if people in other countries had enough information to know Hitler was lying, it’s easy to imagine that a fair number of them were looking for a way to rationalize neutrality, and that Hitler was helping them to fool themselves.

Book review: Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior by Helmut Schoeck
This book makes a moderate number of interesting claims about envy and its economic effects, interspersed with some long boring sections. The claims are mostly not backed up by strong arguments. It was written 40 years ago, and it shows – his understanding of psychology seems more Freudian than modern.
His most interesting claim is that many societies have more envy than ours, and that prevents them from escaping poverty. An extreme example are the Navaho, who reportedly have no concept of luck or of “personal achievement”, and believe that one person’s success can only come at another’s expense. This kind of attitude is pretty effective at discouraging people in such a society from adopting a better way of growing crops, etc.
Unfortunately, his evidence is clearly of the anecdotal kind that, even if I were to track down the few sources he cites for some of them and convinced myself they were reliable, his examples are too selective for me to believe that he knows whether envy and poverty are correlated. His hypothesis sounds potentially important, and I hope someone finds a way to rigorously analyze it.
He describes a few attempts to create non-envious societies, with kibbutzim being the clearest example. He gives adequate but unsurprising explanations of why they’ve had mixed success.
He claims “The victims claimed by a revolution or a civil war are incomparably more numerous among those who are more gifted and enterprising”, but shows no sign that he knows whether this is true. He might be right, but it’s easy to imagine that he’s been mislead by a bias toward reporting that kind of death more often than the death of a typical person.
He mentions that tax returns have been public in some jurisdictions. I wish he did a better job of examining the costs and benefits of this (one nice example he gives is that people sometimes overreport income in order to appear more credit-worthy than they are).
On page 82, he describes Nazis as having “an almost equally fanatical attachment to the principle of equality”. He seems there to be referring to when they were in power, but somewhere else he implies they moved away from this belief when they gained power. He was born in Austria in 1922, and studied in Munich from 1941 to 1945, which gives him a perspective that we don’t hear much these days. How much of the difference in perspectives is due to his flaws, and how much of it is due to our focus on the worst aspects of Nazism? There’s probably a hint of truth to his position, in that hatred of the Jews partly started with an egalitarian disapproval of their success.
I found a number of other strange claims. E.g. “The incest taboo alone makes possible the co-operative and stable family group.”; “Lee Harvey Oswald’s central motive was envy of those who were happy and successful”; “In 1920 President Woodrow Wilson predicted class warfare in America that would be sparked off by the envy of the many at the sight of the few in their motor cars.”.
He says “No society permits totally uninhibited promiscuity. In every culture there are definite rights of ownership in the sexual sphere, for no society could function unless it had foreseeable and predictable rules as regards selection of the sexual partner.” I’m not sure how close-minded that would have sounded in 1966, but there are cultures today which discredit it fairly well.
If you read this book, I suggest reading only these chapters: 1,3,5,8,13,17,21,22.
Update: Mike Linksvayer has a better review of the book.

Book Review: Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile by Daniel Nettle
This book provides a fairly good, but not very novel, description of what does and does not influence happiness, the problems with measuring it, and some bits of evolutionary theory that hint at why it is hard to achieve lasting increases in happiness.
The claim I found most important is that “If you control for social class, there is almost no relationship between income and life satisfaction.” This seems to have important implications for what kind of social equality we ought to be encouraging. I’m disappointed that he doesn’t say enough about this for me to determine how robust this conclusion is to the way it’s measured.
I’m disappointed that he ends with some misleading arguments for an alarming trend of increased distress among the least happy. He reports that suicides have increased among the young in recent decades, but fails to note that overall suicide rates in the U.S. have declined over that period. He claims “People are as hard as they ever have”, but cites no references for that, and Robert Fogel has reported research that reached the opposite conclusion in The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.

Book Review: 1491 : New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
This book does a good job of discrediting several myths about the nature New World civilizations before Europeans arrived. It implies that significant parts of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel are wrong (in ways that Diamond should have avoided by consulting experts) – Indians were quite capable of repelling Europeans when their advantage consisted of guns and steel. After smallpox spread across the Americas (faster than Europeans), guns and steel were largely superfluous advantages.
The book presents evidence (alas, not enough to be conclusive) that most of the land in the Americas had been altered by civilizations that were much more sophisticated and varied than is commonly realized, and the myth that Indians were primitive savages is largely due to people mistaking the disease-ravaged remnants that the typical European colonist encountered for the pre-European norm.
The book also provides a few bits of evidence against historical determinism by pointing out how differently some aspects of civilization developed in the two worlds. For instance, the New World seems to have been first to get the concept of zero, but only used wheels for toys, and valued metals for their malleability rather than strength.
One very intriguing report is that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation society was freer and more egalitarian than European society, and that this caused a number of Europeans to prefer Haudenosaunee society, but no Indians in that region preferred European society. It’s unclear how strong the evidence is for these somewhat controversial claims. I guess I ought to track down the books he references for this subject.
The book also describes the Inka empire as socialist, without any markets, but I’m disappointed at how little the books says about that (e.g. how broad a definition of market is he using?).
The main shortcomings of this book are the numerous anecdotes that add little to our understanding of Indian civilizations.