Book review: The Cult of Smart, by Fredrik deBoer.
The Cult of Smart is a sporadically thoughtful book about education politics, sometimes rising above tribal politics, and sometimes repeating tired old tribal rants.Continue Reading
Book review: The Cult of Smart, by Fredrik deBoer.
The Cult of Smart is a sporadically thoughtful book about education politics, sometimes rising above tribal politics, and sometimes repeating tired old tribal rants.Continue Reading
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.Continue Reading
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.
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.
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’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.
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 (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?
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.
 – 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.
 – 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.
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.
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 .
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.
 – 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!”.