The Age of Em

I.

I recently had the opportunity to see George Mason Professor Robin Hanson talk about his book, The Age of Em. I also was able to work my way into having a long conversation with him after his presentation.

For those who don’t know, it’s perhaps the strangest book you’ve ever heard of. Hanson looks to project forward in time when the technology exists to easily upload human brains into computer simulations. These “emulated” brains will have certain characteristics from residing in computer hardware: they can make copies of themselves, save versions of themselves for later, or delete versions of themselves. They will even be able to run faster or slower than normal human brains depending on what hardware they are running on. Hanson spends the book working through the implications of this new society. And there are a lot of fascinating insights.

Hanson discusses the pure physics of this world, as suddenly speed of light delays in communication mean a lot; if an em is running at a million times human speed, then a bad ping of 50 ms is equivalent to over 12 hours for a message to get sent today. This leads to very close physical locations of ems, which concentrates them in large cities. Their economy also grows much faster than ours due to the rapid speed at which their brains are thinking, although they may be physically restrained by how quickly the physical manufacturing of their hardware can occur. The economy also quickly moves to subsistence wages, as even the most productive members of society can have their brains copied as many times as needed to fill all roles. Elon Musk is no longer a one of kind genius, and in fact anyone who cannot compete with an Elon Musk version in their job would likely be cast aside. For a more detailed summary and examples of bizarre ideas, I recommend Part III of Scott Alexander’s post on the book.

II.

In that blog post, Scott goes on to discuss in Part IV the problem of value drift. Hanson does a good job pointing out that past human societies would not have approved of what we now consider acceptable. In some areas, the change in values in stunning. Merely 10 years ago, many had reservations about gay marriage. Merely 50 years ago, many Americans had serious reservations about interracial marriage.  On the scale of humans’ existence as a species, the amount of time we have accepted that people have the right to worship their own religion is minuscule. The section of human history where subsistence existence was not the only option is likewise small. Professor Hanson told our group that by far the most common reaction to his painting of the future was rejection.

I even asked him specifically about it: Hanson had stated several times that it was not his job or intention to make us like or hate this future, only to know about it. I pointed out that many AI researchers were very concerned about the safety of artificial intelligence and what it might do if it hits an intelligence explosion. To me, there seems to be little difference between the AI intelligence explosion and the Em economy explosion. Both would be human creations, making decisions and changing their values rapidly, at a pace that leaves most “normal” traditional physical humans behind. If many of the smartest people studying AI think that we should do a lot of work to make sure AI values line up with our own, shouldn’t we do the same thing with Ems? Hanson’s answer was basically that if we want to control the value systems of our descendants thousands of mental years in the future, well good luck with that.

Scott in Part IV of his review demonstrates the problem with just allowing this value drift to happen. Hanson calls the era we live in the “dream time” since it’s evolutionarily unusual for any species to be wealthy enough to have any values beyond “survive and reproduce”. For most of human history, there wasn’t much ability to build cities or share knowledge because too many resources were focused on survival. Today, we have become so productive and intelligent that humans have elevated Earth’s carrying capacity high above the amount of people we have. We don’t have to spend all our resources on survival and so we can come up with interesting philosophical ideas about morality and what the meaning of life is. We’ve also harnessed this evolutionary competitiveness to fuel our market economy where the determiner of what survives isn’t nature, but human desires. Unfortunately when you switch to the Age of Em, suddenly the most productive part of the economy is plunged back into a Malthusian trap with all resources going to keep the Ems alive. Fulfilling human wants may be what drives the economy, but if there are other pressures on Ems, they will be willing to sacrifice any values they have to keep themselves alive and competitive. If the economy gives up on fulfilling human demand, I wouldn’t call that a drift in values, I’d call that an absence of values.

If we live in the dream time, then we live in a unique situation where only we can comprehend and formulate higher morality and philosophical purpose. I think we should take advantage of that if we can.

III.

Hanson’s observations given his assumption that the Age of Em will happen are excellent, considering he is predicting far into the future. It’s likely things won’t work out exactly this way, as perhaps a single company will have a patent on brain scanning for a decade before the market really liberalizes; this could seriously delay the rapid economic growth Hanson sees. He acknowledges this, and keeps his book more of a prediction of what will happen if we don’t oppose this change. I’m not sure how far Hanson believes that regulation/intellectual property will not be able to thwart the age of em, but it seems that he’s more confident it will not be stopped than that it will be. This may be an economist mistake where regulation is sort of assumed away as the realm of political science. It’s not unprecedented that weird inefficient institutions would last far into the future. Intellectual property in the digital age is really weird, all things considered. Software patents especially seem like a way to patent pure logic. But there are others: banking being done with paper checks, daylight savings time, the existence of pennies, and, of course, Arby’s. There are also plenty of examples of new technologies that have evolved much faster than regulation, like supplements, e-commerce, and ride-sharing. It remains to be seen what brain emulations will be.

There is also the possibility that emulated brains won’t be the next big shift in human society. Hanson argues that this shift will rival that of the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. This makes a lot of sense if brain emulation is indeed the next big change. Eliezer Yudkowsky (and Scott) think this is incorrect and artificial intelligence will beat it. This seems like a real possibility. Scott points out that we often come up with technological equivalents of human biology far before actually emulating biology. This is mostly because biology has accidentally figured things out via evolution and thus it is often needlessly complicated. For example, aircraft usually fly via fixed wing aerodynamics, not by flapping. It seems likely that we will reach human level problem solving via software rather than via brain scanning. Even if we don’t, it seems likely that software could quickly optimize a simulation based on a preliminary brain scan that was too rough to get a proper brain emulation into hardware. But software assisted reconstruction could start experimenting with neuron simulation and create a software assisted brain emulation that is better designed and more specialized than any human brain emulation.

It also seems possible that other things could happen first that change human history, like very expensive climate change, a crippling pandemic (anti-biotic resistance), genetic and epigenetic engineering  and of course some technological revolution we haven’t even imagined (the unknown). Certainly if we assume continued economic growth, either brain emulation, artificial intelligence, or genetic engineering seem like likely candidates to transform humanity. Hanson thinks AI research is really overrated (he used to be an AI researcher) and isn’t progressing very fast. But he was an AI researcher about 25 years ago and we’ve seen some pretty impressive improvements in machine learning and natural language processing since then. We’ve also seen some improvement in brain emulation technology as well to be fair. Genetic engineering was hailed as the next revolution in the 1990s, but has floundered ever since. Last year though, the use of CRISPR in genome engineering has dramatically increased the feasibility of actually picking and choosing specific genes. Any of these could drastically change human society. Perhaps any genetic improvements would be overshadowed by brain emulation or AI. I guess it depends on the importance of the physical world vs the digital one.

Of course, not all changes could be from improved technology. There’s a significant risk of a global multi-drug resistant pandemic. Our overuse of antibiotics, the difficulty in making everyone stop overusing them, and our highly integrated world means we’ve created an excellent scenario for a superbug to appear and spread. Anything resembling the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic could be devastating to the world population and to economic growth. Climate change poses a similar risk to both life and the economy. If either of these were to happen, it could significantly deter the Age of Em from occurring or at least delay it, along with a lot of the progress of our civilization. And that’s not even mentioning additional freak natural disasters like coronal mass ejections.

Overall, predictions are very difficult and if I had to bet, I’d bet that the next big change in human civilization won’t be emulated brains. A good competitor is definitely artificial superintelligence, but when you add in genetic engineering, natural disasters, drug resistant bacterial epidemics, and so on, you have to take the field over brain emulations.

Nonetheless, this book really does make you think about the world in a different way with a perspective both more global and more forward looking. It even makes you question what it means to be human. The ins and outs of the 2016 election really fade away (despite my continued interest and blogging). Political squabbling doesn’t compare to the historical trends of human civilization and the dawn of transhumanism.


Comment on reddit.

Against Trump

In my last post, I made the case for why voting for a main party was far more likely to be a wasted vote than a vote for third party.  I made this argument on the basis of the presidential voting system itself, regardless of any voter’s actual policy preferences.

Nonetheless, if you think Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump have the best policies or ideology, at best my argument should make you indifferent between voting for one of those candidates or leaving it blank (I advocated that one should still vote because of the often overlooked importance of local elections). If you prefer Donald Trump, this post will be my argument for why you shouldn’t. This is not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and I hope to write a post against her candidacy next. But there is a third option. I’ve already laid out the case for why it is more practical to vote for a third party rather than waste your vote on the Democrats and Republicans, but this post will show why you should prefer Gary Johnson’s moderate-limited-government-libertarianism to Trump.

Trump: The Troll

The most basic foundation of Trump’s appeal is his fervent opposition to the cultural left, especially the social justice movement and political correctness. In some sense, it doesn’t matter what he says; because he has said ridiculous and outrageous things, he has provided a “safe space” for people who can’t stand the recent domination, real or perceived, of left-wing outrage politics. The cultural left has created a tough situation for their opponents: if you don’t agree with them, they label you as a misogynist, fascist, and white supremacist. The alt-right was a fairly typical human response: they took the insults as a badge of honor.

So what has the left done about Donald Trump? A pretty common response (New York Times, Huffington Post, Vox) is to call him racist! Take a look at these accusations from that Huffington Post article:

  • He attacked Muslim Gold Star parents Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan. His attack didn’t address their criticism, but suggested Mrs. Khan didn’t speak because of her religion.
  • The Justice Department sued his company in 1973 for not renting to black applicants, and there are stories from employees alleging that he was racist
  • He didn’t condemn David Duke’s support until the next day
  • He questions whether Obama was born in the US
  • He tweeted a picture of him eating a taco bowl to show he loves Hispanics
  • He condoned the attack by his supporters of a Black Lives Matter heckler at a campaign event
  • He claimed Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased because of his Mexican heritage (Curiel was born in Boston).

These are all awful, insensitive, and moronic actions, but calling them racist or Trump a racist for doing them tries to equate Trump to the level of the KKK. If Trump is fundamentally appealing because he doesn’t back down from outrage tactics, and his supporters are tired of the left screaming that every deviation from progressive orthodoxy is white supremacy, then calling Trump racist is the worst thing you can do. And honestly on many of these issues, Trump is professionally trolling, going just over the line on what is acceptable to draw the outrage.

For example, Trump says he responded to the Khans because they criticized him first, which is true. His response was characterized by an attack on Ghazala Khan and an assumption about her actions due to her faith. This isn’t directly saying that Muslims are inferior, even though there is an implication. But if we just call this out as being “racist”, we really lose out on our argument demonstrating just how awful this episode was for Trump. In fact, Trump supporters can point out that many Islamic countries treat their women poorly and so this is worth questioning. By doing this, we let Trump deflect just how abysmally he managed that political catastrophe; instead, we should be discussing that Trump had no actual response to Khan’s accusations of his unconstitutional policies, and instead had to resort to unfounded assumptions and speculation. He would rather make up things about a family whose son died serving this country because he felt insulted than suck it up and avoid any more fallout. The sheer political incompetence is unspeakable, and the unconstitutionality of many of Trump’s policies remain unanswered.

Many other examples I listed also let Trump get away with absurd positions by jumping immediately to racism. His run-in with the Justice Department is important, but was also over 40 years ago. Was it his fault or his company’s, and does he still have those opinions? The idea of a government agency forcing him into a settlement on allegations of racism is also exactly the conspiracy narrative Trump wants. It seems likely he knows who David Duke is, but I’ve continually overestimated Trump’s abilities in other areas. And just having terrible people endorse you doesn’t automatically make you a bad person too. Trump likely supported the story Obama was born in Kenya because Obama’s father was originally a Kenyan national. It seems pretty easy for Trump supporters to argue he would have demanded a birth certificate of any person whose parentage was outside the US. Calling this racist really lets Trump change the subject to how PC culture is bad, when really we should be focusing on how much of an idiot you have to be to waste so much political capital on a conspiracy theory that was obviously wrong. There were plenty of grounds to criticize Obama’s policies, yet Trump decided to focus on discrediting his legitimacy through a conspiracy theory rather than actual ideas.

Calling it racist when Trump condoned an attack on a protester at his event is sort of the epitome of political correctness gone wrong: it implies that as long he condones violence against protesters of all races at his campaign events, it’s ok. The problem is not the race of the victim, the problem is that he’s condoning violence against people who disagree with him.  His statement against Judge Gonzalo Curiel is almost blatantly racist, as even Paul Ryan states, yet Trump could have easily cited Sonia Sotomayer’s “wise Latina” quote as evidence for why he believed a judge’s ethnicity could influence their opinions. If we get outraged about this, we fuel the perception that social justice not only has a monopoly on outrage politics, but that when the exact ideas that are promoted by the left are used by the right/conservatives/whatever-Trump-supporters-are, only they are attacked. It seems to be targeting of tribes, not even of ideas.

And that’s the point. Trump engages in a motte-and-bailey doctrine where he says things that obviously imply bigotry or outright harming non-Americans, but then if you call him on it, he deflects or calls it a joke. This is an annoying tribalistic tactic (often employed by social justice warriors and also Ann Coulter) where a group will make a ridiculous claim, but really support a weaker version of that claim (see part IV here). As Scott Alexander says, social justice warriors seem to imply ridiculous things like “men can’t be part of a discussion on gender”, but when challenged, they state more defensible positions like “men shouldn’t interject into safe spaces for women”.  Trump says some Mexicans coming over the border are rapists, with the implication being that the average illegal immigrant is a violent criminal. But if you call him on it, he’ll say that he also said “many of them are good people!” which is technically true. He also didn’t say 2nd amendment supporters should shoot Hillary Clinton, but he left it open.

Trump is in part successful (and especially appealing to the alt-right) because he meets social justice warriors with their own methods, and it’s hard to pin him down on anything because his entire presidential run is a giant troll. Of course, I really dislike many of the tactics of the social justice movement and the outrage tactics of internet culture wars. I’ve gone on the record about why I think their ideas and methods are bad. I understand the appeal of fighting fire with fire. But it won’t solve our problems. All of the criticisms aimed at the social justice movement still apply to Trump. We should be trying to elevate our society and discussions, not give in to the temptation to debase them. Collectivism is evil in all its forms, left-wing, right-wing, and bi-partisan.

Many Trump supporters have bought into his campaign as the only way to fight the social justice left. They are wrong on many levels; trolling can’t beat trolling, flip-flopping and incompetence can’t beat Hillary’s political machine, protectionism can’t beat markets, and nationalism and authoritarianism can’t beat freedom. In fact, by allowing Hillary Clinton, one of the weakest presidential candidates in recent history, to continue to dominate this election, Trump has handed the left one of their biggest political victories and squelched one of the biggest opportunities for American conservatives.

And Trump is not the only way to fight back against the worst methods and ideas of blue tribalism. One can oppose collectivism without sacrificing principles or lowering the level of dialogue. As I go through the following deep flaws that Trump has, keep in mind that Gary Johnson has none of them.

The Unknown

What does Trump actually believe? It’s almost impossible to know. These are just the positions I could find so far. I don’t think this list is comprehensive, but I want it recorded somewhere. Many of these are from this ABC news post, this CNN article, and this extensive NBC news article if they’re not otherwise cited.

  • He used to think pretty highly of Hillary Clinton and even invited the Clintons to his wedding, and now apparently thinks they are terrible.
  • Trump declared that he thought Obama was the founder of ISIS, and when pressed on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, he doubled down. Then after a full day of focusing on this point, he abruptly tweeted that it was sarcasm.
  • Trump was going to self-fund his campaign and not fund raise. But he’s gone back on that promise and is now taking money from whomever will give it to him. He was so short on money, he hadn’t even bought TV ads until the last week of August.
  • Trump started out ok with taking Syrian refugees, and then reversed his position and now wants to send them back.
  • Trump initially stated that Japan and South Korea should defend themselves, including with nuclear weapons. Now he says that’s preposterous and he never said that. How do you suffer amnesia about advocating the biggest change in US nuclear policy in history?
  • Trump has relentlessly hammered Clinton for supporting the Iraq War in 2003. It turns out in 2002, he backed the Iraq War too. Also, when asked about Mike Pence’s support of the war, he said it didn’t matter to him. But it still matters that Clinton backed it.
  • Trump made headlines stating he wanted to be a “neutral guy” in the Israel-Palestine conference (a big change from US policy which has held a strong alliance with Israel), and then said Israel was being treated like a second-class citizen later on.
  • Trump has also called the Libyan intervention a total disaster, but he in fact backed this intervention as well. When shown a video of his previous support, he acknowledges it and says he only wanted a “surgical” strike.
  • Trump was originally pro-choice and is now pro-life and even advocated that there should be “punishment” for women who get abortions. Admittedly in that interview, Chris Matthews did a good job of cornering Trump and not letting him get away with dodging the question, so maybe Trump doesn’t actually believe that. But that’s my point: we have no idea what this guy is going to do.
  • Trump advocated the use of torture especially against ISIS and suspected terrorists. When dozens of military advisers pointed out he would effectively be telling people to commit illegal acts, he stated “if I say do it, they’re gonna do it.” The next day Trump said he would be bound by laws just like any president, and then proceeded to call for waterboarding and torture in subsequent speeches.
  • Like abortion, Trump used to have a very different view on gun laws and actually supported an assault weapons ban. Now he’s a strong 2nd amendment supporter. Except in classrooms. Unless it’s a teacher in a classroom. What?
  • Trump was against raising the minimum wage, then for it, then said he wanted to leave it to the states, now says it should be over $10 and left to the states.
  • Trump has been for a single-payer system in the past and has praised Canada’s and Scotland’s system. But he hates Obamacare. But maybe he still likes the mandate. But he doesn’t know what he’d replace it with. His current website’s plan is a pretty good free market approach, but what would he actually pursue?
  • Trump was going to increase taxes on the rich, then said he would cut everyone’s taxes by huge amounts in an online proposal (that this blog looked at), then reduced the amount he would cut, and now it’s a pretty standard small income tax cut with an additional tax break for childcare
  • Trump seems to have called for a renegotiating of U.S. public debt similar to a debt restructuring for an insolvent firm. He seemed to have no idea that U.S. treasuries are so cheap to borrow with because they are never defaulted on. He even indicated that the U.S. can always print more money. Then he seemed to walk it back and say he wouldn’t renegotiate the American debt.
  • Last December Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” In May, this changed to a “suggestion”. Then he added the idea of banning people from places with a “history of terrorism”, then added there would be “extreme vetting” (so not an outright ban?). Trump and his people also added that there had been “no change” in their policy since December.
  • Trump has stated that he would deport 11 million people currently residing in the US illegally. This is significantly larger than the current population of New York City. Then he said he would deport them all, but bring back the “good ones” legally. Buzzfeed even reported that Trump stated off-the-record that deporting all 11 million is just a starting point for negotiations. Just a couple week’s ago, Trump seemed to abandon deportations altogether. Now it seems they are in full force again.

I should also note that Trump said he would call Bill Gates and get him to shut down the internet if need be. I didn’t list that here because I don’t think he ever repudiated that position so it’s not a “flip-flop”.  Trump also suggested Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. Even on Trump’s most common talking point, his “wall” on the border with Mexico is obviously not true because, as John Oliver points out, it will cost far more than Trump says it will, and there is no way we can force Mexico to pay for it. Adding a tariff on Mexican imports does not force Mexico to pay for anything, it forces American consumers to fund the wall.

This is related to questions of Trump’s temperament; it appears that on many of these interviews, Trump has either never thought about the issue presented to him, lied about his position last time so he can’t remember what his position was, or just honestly changes his position because he’s not smart enough to have foreseen the objection, but wants to appear knowledgeable and so says that was his position the whole time.  The bottom line is that on virtually every issue, even the core issues he’s maintained, we have no idea what he will do.  On top of all this, Trump is capricious and easily offended. He has consistently filed lawsuits against press organizations that have criticized him, regardless of their ineffectiveness and potential attack on free speech. Do we want someone who has no principles, who has no idea where he stands on issues, and can be easily manipulated by his political enemies (“I don’t have thin skin”) to be in charge of our country’s national defense? The Supreme Court is an important issue in this election, but what makes us think we can trust Trump to actually pick from among the names he has mentioned before when he has changed his mind on everything else?

On many issues, he has taken positions not just worse than Gary Johnson or Hillary Clinton, but positions worse than any president in history. Will these be the positions he takes or will they change? Will any of his positions that sound reasonable stick around once he is president? We don’t know.

The Incompetence

Trump has a record of questionable business acumen as well as straight-up fraud. He certainly has done well in the real estate market, but in other ventures he’s been mostly a flop.  He has also widely exaggerated his net worth by constantly trying to tout his own brand. And, by admission of its own employees, Trump University had no interest in teaching any of its customers, only in selling them the most expensive seminars it could.

His political campaign has also been questionable. We will get to policy in the next section, but for now let’s just talk about Trump’s job as a politician, which is to get people to vote for you.  As I noted in May, Trump was one of the worst candidates the Republicans have had as far as political appeal.  He won the Republican presidential primary with only 45% of the vote. By itself, a number that low isn’t unprecedented, but when combined with the fact that most of his primary opponents have decided against endorsing him, he was one of the least liked Republican candidates among Republicans in recent memory.  He’s also only averaged above 40% in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average and above 44% in RealClearPolitics’ average for a couple weeks in July. He has never really pivoted to the general electorate. Trump has had several changes in his campaign management due to apparent incompetence. He will be the first presidential candidate since Nixon to not release his tax returns, and he has just started airing TV ads. That’s correct, Gary Johnson was outspending Trump on TV time until September.

Trump’s response to his abysmal appeal has been to suggest that all polls that don’t show him winning are rigged. In fact, Politico even published a column entitled “What if Trump doesn’t accept defeat?”  As already mentioned in this piece, he got into a very public spat with the parents of a Gold Star soldier who had given his life in 2004. He also said that “there must be some form of punishment” for women who get abortions, and then Ben Carson said that Trump wasn’t expecting that question. Trump wasn’t prepared for a question about abortion in a political event while running for President? You cannot be serious.

What is Trump’s plan in office when foreign heads of state ask him obvious questions he should know the answer to? What is he going to do when people don’t automatically like what he has to say? He has failed in essentially every venture that wasn’t real estate or a reality TV show. The inability to make changes for a better long-term strategy combined with the need to retaliate over every perceived insult disqualify Trump from being Commander-in-Chief.

The Policy

As I’ve stated, it’s hard to nail down what Trump believes on anything.  It often appears like he has never thought about policies or the implications of policies until objections are brought up to him.

One aspect that had been central to Trump was a hardline stance on immigration and deporting illegal immigrants. As of a couple weeks ago, he appears to have flipped on that and now flipped back, but his website still has language that appears to indicate serious criminal charges for anyone living here illegally. Even if Trump has become less focused on deportations, his immigration policy comes with absolutely massive costs, both fiscal and legal. As noted by John Oliver, his “wall” on the Mexican border will likely cost several times as much as he’s claimed, not to mention the hidden costs of wasting construction time and resources on building a concrete wall literally in the middle of nowhere.  If this project ever does happen (which it won’t), it will cause the cost of construction and related services to go up as resources are pulled into a giant wasteful wall. Moreover, as Trump’s website acknowledges, most illegal immigrants don’t sneak over the border; they cross with legal visas and overstay them, and so this wall will do almost nothing to stop illegal immigration.

There are also effects on American citizens as well who are forced to deal with questionably constitutional Border Patrol stops where people are pulled over with no reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Trump has also focused on crime caused by illegal immigrants, despite the fact that crime rates are much lower among this segment of the population than among American citizens. Terrorism, as noted by this blog, is so unlikely that the threat of terrorism via immigration is not even worth addressing.

Moreover, there is a self-evident free market argument for immigration; if the economy would work more efficiently without immigrants, they wouldn’t be coming. Specifically in the United States, immigration helps to expand our workforce while European economies shudder under high levels of retirees and low birthrates.  The OECD has also found that because immigrants come to work, they are productive enough to pay more in taxes than benefits they get out. Trump’s arguments for making H1-B visas harder to give out and more expensive just creates an incentive to ship jobs overseas rather than keep them here. Overall, it seems better for Americans (and likely the global economy) to keep immigrants coming here than to ship the jobs overseas.

There is certainly an argument that we haven’t seen this level of immigration in the United States in a while, even on a percentage scale. Immigrants now make up 13% of the population, but that’s still less than was common during the late 19th century. There’s also the true point that most immigration prior to the ending of national origin quotas in 1965 was from Europe.  Yet, since this is essentially a cultural and not an economic argument, at best this still argues that we should have open immigration–just from some countries and not others. It also doesn’t offer resistance to other forms of open immigration, such as for advanced degree holders (especially graduates of American universities).

We also have to acknowledge that there really are serious obstacles for potential immigrants right now…which has only resulted in illegal immigration. Trump acknowledges the economic burden of an over-regulated economy, but then proposes tons of new regulations on immigration. Using the state to pick winners and losers in the economy is a dangerous thing to do.

Trade is the other area Trump has been most outspoken on. Here, unlike immigration, there is no cultural argument, there is only economics. And it’s clear that when it comes to trade economics, Trump has no idea what he’s talking about. He would add tariffs to goods, making them more expensive for average Americans and cutting into middle-class purchasing power. He would start trade wars with China, and attempt to reverse foreign governments subsidizing their own exports which directly deposits foreign tax revenues into the pockets of American consumers. The protectionism he advocates is essentially an argument for the global economy to leave the US behind and to ensure that new technology and innovation is happening elsewhere while our economy stagnates and our lack of dynamism and competition gets even worse.

Why is Trump suggesting this? Bryan Caplan points out in The Myth of the Rational Voter that voters are subject to many biases, most of which you can find in Trump’s policies. This includes, among others, an anti-market bias and an anti-foreign bias, where voters tend to underestimate the benefits of market systems as well as underestimate the benefits of interacting with foreigners. But despite these biases, free trade is immensely good for the economy. Tariffs being some of the most regressive taxes we have, freer trade is also a big tax break for poor Americans relative to the rich.  Trade, along with immigration, is one of the best areas in which American policy can directly improve the world.

The Authoritarianism

Let’s take a quick history detour: in 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the DNC’s Headquarters in the Watergate Complex. They had been sent by the Nixon reelection committee, and the Nixon administration immediately sought to cover up their involvement. Nixon actually ordered the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation into the burglary, claiming national security issues.  The administration hoped that would prevent any further prying, but as more details came out, a Senate select committee was established in February 1973 to investigate a possible cover-up, and a special independent investigator was appointed by the attorney general.

When a Senate hearing uncovered that there were tapes of all Oval Office conversations, the Senate and special prosecutor subpoenaed the tapes, which Nixon refused to turn over, citing executive privilege. When the prosecutor persisted, Nixon actually ordered the attorney general to fire him, and the attorney general resigned in protest. Solicitor General Robert Bork eventually complied, but under political pressure, Nixon appointed a new special prosecutor. Edited transcripts were released in early 1974, which showed Nixon in a poor light, although they did not fully incriminate him. The new special prosecutor subpoenaed specific tapes which Nixon again refused to turn over. The case went to the Supreme Court which ruled unanimously that Nixon had no unqualified privilege of immunity from investigation, and that he had to turn over the tapes. Nixon did. They revealed clear wrongdoing on his part, and the House Judiciary committee recommended impeachment on several counts. Knowing he would soon be impeached and likely removed by the Senate, Nixon resigned.

There was a backlash against the office of the presidency after Nixon, but we have fully reversed that trend today. The Bush and Obama administrations have undertaken naked power grabs that have helped create an imperial presidency beyond anything Nixon ever dreamed of. Many libertarians have been warning about these massive power expansions for years. Now in the face of the Trump administration, we’ve created all the tools a tyrant would need to run amok.

As Conor Friedersdorf notes in The Atlantic:

  • The president can order American citizens killed in secret.
  • The president can detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial.
  • The president can order drone strikes at will in countries against which no war has been declared.
  • The president can start a torture program with impunity.
  • The president can conduct warrantless surveillance on tens of millions of Americans.

To that I would also add that if deemed a troublemaker, the government has plenty of options to attack you without disappearing you. We know at least the DEA and IRS have used NSA information gained through mass surveillance of Americans, and then obscured this source by finding another stated reason to stop a suspect. The enormous amount of statutes on the books means it’s almost certain average people break laws every single day, and so these law enforcement agencies can always find probable cause to arrest you. Then they can stack up charges to force a plea deal, all at the discretion of prosecutors.  As it stands right now, there’s a strong case that the criminal justice system is biased, slow, and unfair, and that it deprives individuals of their rights. But now imagine Trump in charge of the DEA, FBI, intelligence services, and the military.

Trump administration could be even worse than Nixon; given Trump’s continual flip-flopping, his trolling, his total unpreparedness for obvious challenges, and his terrible policy ideas, we don’t actually know if Trump understands how government works. Many of his fantastical policy ideas on his website go beyond the usual politicians’ wishlists; it’s unclear whether he would even try to sell his agenda to Congress, or just try to implement it with executive authority, or indeed if he would understand the difference.

For example, nestled in his immigration policy is a call to end birthright citizenship. Does Trump acknowledge what that would require? As Rand Paul has noted, the 1898 case US v Wong Kim Ark declared that children of legal immigrants were automatically citizens. It seems that Trump wants to overturn this case, which would require a constitutional amendment. It’s possible Trump wants only to stop birthright citizenship of illegal immigrants (he keeps changing his positions on everything), but does he want to do this with a law, or a legal battle? Does he realize that the president can’t pass laws unilaterally? It’s also worth wondering what Trump believes he can actually do on abortion. We’ve already discussed his bewildering stance that women should be punished for getting an abortion, a position basically no one else has ever advocated for. But does he realize that he would need to pass a constitutional amendment to achieve that goal?

Another example, he declared on a debate stage that if he told the military to commit war crimes they would do it. That’s not only against US law, that’s against international law. If he thinks that he can do things as president that are already illegal, what makes us think he would be waiting for Congress to do anything? How about shutting down parts of the internet? In Trump’s own words: “Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.” How about banning people based on their religion? Do we think Trump will wait for Congressional approval of obviously unconstitutional ideas? Or will he just order that they be done without thinking, just like everything else in his campaign?

The ACLU has released a 27 page memo on things Trump has said that are blatantly unconstitutional. It makes an excellent legal case against Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the country as well as his mass deportation of illegal immigrants. The magnitude of individual rights violations from deportations specifically would be staggering, as there is no way to arrest millions of immigrants without also arresting regular American citizens and legal residents as there is no way to tell them apart. Arrests would have to be done without probable cause and largely based on racial profiling with likely hundreds of thousands of law abiding people caught up in the dragnet. The police state necessary to accomplish such an action is likely beyond even the secret police organizations of former communist nations.

The ACLU memo also makes an important point concerning Trump’s promise to “open up the libel laws”: there are no federal libel statutes. What exactly Trump would do were he to be president and then find out that there are only state libel laws, I have no clue. But imagine the powers of the Justice Department in the hands of someone who has a history of abusing eminent domain and using the power of the justice system to silence critics. He has already blacklisted media outlets he doesn’t like and banned them from his campaign events. As Damon Root of Reason notes: “Just like a crybaby advocate of political correctness, Trump wants to hollow out the First Amendment in order to make a ‘safe space’ for himself.”

It’s not hard to see the abuses of the Nixon administration repeated under a hypothetical Trump one. But in 1974, when Nixon lost his appeal to the Supreme Court, he still turned over the tapes. I don’t know if we realize how vulnerable our constitution was in this moment. Constitutional power is not something physical; as Abraham Lincoln proved, the Supreme Court has no enforcement arm. In retrospect, if Nixon had just wanted to maximize his political power, it seems that his best plan would have been to not release the tapes and accept whatever political fallout that was. Maybe he would have been forced to resign, maybe not, but he only risked being in the same situation that actually happened. Trump has arguably already promised to do more unconstitutional things than Nixon ever did, and he’s less popular than Nixon ever was before Watergate. If in a similar situation, would Trump comply with the Supreme Court? With Congress? He’s already calling the election rigged before it’s even happened, and he doesn’t seem to believe polls that report him far behind Clinton (which he is). If he found himself thwarted by the other branches of government, would Trump allow the rule of law to occur, or subvert it using his executive authority? Would he even care that his actions were unpopular given how unpopular he already is?

Most of the problems in this section also apply to Hillary Clinton, and it is likely she would continue to abuse government power just like the Bush and Obama administrations. But while Trump may be running against Hillary, I’ve already made the case that your only decision in voting is whether to waste your vote on a main party, or help get a third party better ballot access. Gary Johnson specifically has been an outspoken critic of the advances of government power and the growing authoritarianism centralized in the presidency. If you want to stand against the increasing authoritarianism of the federal government, there is no way to justify voting for Trump over Gary Johnson.

Trump has many problems as a candidate: he is inconsistent, incompetent, and he reduces our ability to have real discussions. His policies are bad, but his authoritarian threats should give us the greatest pause. Would you vote for Richard Nixon today if Nixon told you he was going to abuse executive authority to preserver his own power? If he continuously attacked free speech and criticism, if he promised to arrest millions of people living in the US, do you think voting for him would be a good idea? Well, it’s not a hypothetical, all of these policies are literal quotations from Trump himself. You shouldn’t vote for Nixon, and you shouldn’t vote for Trump.


Comment on reddit.

Picture credit: Gage Skidmore, modified by postlibertarian.com (grayscale), licensed under BY-SA-2.0.

Abortion is way more complicated than you think it is.

Disclaimer: I am a man, and this article is written with respect to the development of my understanding of the issue While both men and women can and should have a say in such a philosophical debate, a woman will probably have given more thought to a matter that directly affects her.

I am neither “Pro-choice” nor “Pro-life”. A year ago, after changing my opinion on the matter for a fourth time, I realized that the issue was so complex such that I didn’t know enough to defend a particular opinion. From my experiences, I don’t think there are many people who do. Yet, reasoned discussion is stonewalled by the adamant insistence on the most basic and simple reasoning of each perspective.

Most libertarians can identify that the key arguments surrounding abortion are based in conflict between two human rights: the right of life and the right to one’s body. This conflict is not elucidated by objective science, but by subjective philosophy. If a fetus or embryo is a life, then ending it could be morally wrong, but if not, then restricting a woman’s control over its viability could be morally wrong.

However, abortion goes beyond these foundation arguments. Some assert that even if a fetus is alive,  it is similar to someone on a life support system, only the support system requires another’s body. Many would agree that being obligated to lend your body to a sick person is wrong; however, the fact that a fetus is brought into existence in this situation presents a possible exception. If a child were born in such a way that it was connected to other being, and needed to be so to continue life, would severing the connection not be an act of killing?

On the other hand, a “Pro-life” objection to the traditional “Pro-choice” argument asserts that even if a fetus is not a life,  terminating its development into a life is immoral. One argument for this, presented by philosopher Don Marquis, asserts that ultimately, killing a person is wrong because it deprives them of a future, and abortion is wrong on the same grounds. However, this has been countered by questioning if, by the same logic, a killing a sperm or egg would be wrong as well.Abortion Flowchart2

These arguments, presented simply in this flowchart, only scrape the surface of the complex issue of abortion. They all have their own rebuttals and counter-rebuttals, and they don’t even begin to address utilitarian arguments or exceptions for rape, incest, or the mother’s life. However, by presenting some of the complexities, I believe I have illustrated the complexity of issues to be considered before being able to justifiably claim oneself as “Pro-choice” or “Pro-life”

Efficient Advocacy

It’s incredible how simple and yet revolutionary the principles are behind effective altruism as well as the ideas behind GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project; if you want to help people, don’t just donate to a charity that is looking to cure a rare disease, donate in a way that can do the maximum amount of “good” per dollar.  That often means donating to a problem that affects many people, that has known, measurable, positive solutions, and that has lots of room for additional resources to combat the problem.   If you don’t know about those organizations, you should definitely check them out.

Of course, there is an obvious elephant in the room when it comes to effective altruism: politics is complex, unscientific, and unpopular. In fact, GiveWell largely sidesteps the political sphere, ignoring a big swath of human activity which has tremendous impacts on society.  Of course, they have good reason to do this; it allows them to focus on doing good things without harming anyone’s tribal identities or alienating their donor base. Moreover, it’s hard to get good unbiased data on what political policies would actually provide benefits; if there was, politics wouldn’t be so divisive.

However, I don’t have a donor base, and I have slightly different feelings on which policies would be most effective than the average American or even the average effective altruist.  I wanted to see what would happen if we could assume away some of the unknowns about political policy.  Let’s assume that the postlibertarian philosophy this blog espouses is correct: markets are pretty good at allocating resources efficiently, government policy can help address some economic areas where markets might not work (inequality, externalities), giving the state power is generally a bad thing and must be justified, and individuals should have robust protections from their government. We aren’t assuming away the current political landscape of the US, we’re just assuming we’re right.

So what would a libertarian trying to maximize efficiency in advocacy do? Do you try and emulate the Koch brothers and create or fund political organizations that change policy outcomes? Do you focus on viable candidates? How much do you accept the political process as given? Do you focus on political reforms (proportional representation), education (IHS, Economics of Library and Liberty), or do you try to work on making your own rules (crypto, seasteading, space exploration)? Let’s leave those hard questions for another time, and focus on perhaps the most mainstream approach to politics: how should you prioritize the importance of various political issues? People usually have specific issues they care about that determine which candidate they’d like to back, and the Open Philanthropy Project even has a U.S. policies page.   But which issues are actually the most important? Continue reading Efficient Advocacy

Why Vaccines Should be Mandatory and Guns Should be Legal.

communityImmunityGeneric
A summary of herd immunity

The advent of vaccines has led to a dramatic rise in the quality of life in the 20th century. Vaccines have reduced morbidity of diptheria, mumps, polio, and several other diseases by over 99%. In the wake of such overwhelming success, many government policies have moved to make vaccines mandatory, but many libertarians and conservatives have argued that this infringes on the individual right to his or her body. However, I believe that mandatory vaccines may in fact protect rights.

When evaluating individual rights, the quote “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins” is important to consider. Does the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate harm other individuals? In the sense that you enable yourself to transmit disease to unvaccinated individuals, yes. But the act of not vaccinating could easily be considered a conscious choice to be more vulnerable to a disease.

The problem with this logic falls in the concept of “herd immunity”. “Herd immunity” is when such a large percentage of a population is immune to a disease that, even if one susceptible person becomes ill, the disease is unlikely to spread. For example, if 96% of a population has received a measles vaccine, when one individual gets measles, it is unlikely that they confer the disease to the other 4% of people, because the individual is surrounded by so many who are immune (This Romina Libster TED talk explains the concept well).

These individuals aren’t all free riders either. Vaccines are not 100% effective, they cannot be used on people of all ages, and some people are allergic to them. These individuals did not make a conscious choice to be vulnerable to a disease, and by one person choosing not to vaccinate, their “herd immunity” is weakened, significantly increasing their risk of becoming sick.

This has happened several times before, particularly after Andrew Wakefield’s false autism link. In 2014, a measles outbreak occurred in California, only 45% of measles cases occurred in unvaccinated individuals, and among those 12 were in infants too young to be vaccinated.

In defending mandatory vaccines, I have been asked if this same argument could be applied to justify gun control. While the data is conflicting depending how it’s looked at, even if there is a link between gun ownership and gun violence, I don’t believe that the increased risk associated with gun ownership is not grounds considering it a right infringement. With guns, the decision that puts others in harm’s way is not the decision to purchase, but the decision to fire. Furthermore, the decision to fire is already controlled by the illegality of assault, manslaughter, and murder, while the decision not to vaccinate cannot be controlled by anything other than laws mandating it.

Vaccines are one of the most important health advancements of the 20th century, but there are many people that they cannot directly protect. For this reason, it is critical that we prevent healthy adults from making a choice not to vaccinate.

Legalize Organ Markets

In 1996, Hurricane Fran hit Raleigh, knocking out power and trees. Duke Political Science Professor Michael Munger describes the response of several citizens from a neighboring town who decided to exploit the situation.  These budding opportunist entrepreneurs rented some refrigerated trucks, filled them with ice and drove to Raleigh, where they sold the bags of ice for about $8 each.  Raleigh police eventually arrived, arrested them for price gouging, and allowed the ice to melt with virtually none distributed to the locals.

Continue reading Legalize Organ Markets

On Tolerance

The tension between the social justice movement and the liberal ideals of tolerance and free speech came crashing into the mainstream last week, as activists at the University of Missouri and Yale gained widespread attention for events occurring on their respective campuses. There has been a lot of coverage, so if you are not familiar with the situation, I would recommend (sorted by brevity) this video, reading Popehat’s two posts here and here, Robby Soave at Reason, Jonathan Chait in NY Magazine, and for a longer piece, Connor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic.

Having observed many events and effects of the social justice movement, I’d like to propose a way to think about the liberal value of tolerance, a value that social justice activists have generally disregarded. There are other issues with the movement’s methods, and for more on that, I would recommend some Slate Star Codex links in the first footnote (1).

Recent events have indicated that many social justice activists are not concerned about the movement’s chilling effects on free speech. I think the coverage of the events and general political sentiment recognize this is a dangerous situation, and that free speech must be defended, even for speakers with whom we disagree (2). But I’d like to submit a broader defense of tolerance, especially in light of what free speech does not defend. Randall Munroe of xkcd (3) presents the counter-thesis, essentially arguing for intolerance as long as it is allowed by law:

Use of this comic for criticism purposes qualifies as fair use under Copyright Act of 1976, 17 US Code Section 107.

Although Munroe is correct in that it is totally legal to advocate for people who you disagree with to lose their jobs, I think it is a pretty disturbing, intolerant position. But I want to better understand what tolerance means by looking at a thought exercise I call the Tolerance Gradient. Continue reading On Tolerance

I’m Not Afraid Of The Next President

This is my last post (with 75% certainty). Not only do I have no time to blog, I have no time to maintain the site enough to keep everything updated and secure. If you’re interested in buying the domain to inherit some ephemeral backlinks contact me at the sidebar email.

Last week I spent two and a half hours watching the second GOP presidential debate. I knew that almost none of it would matter in twelve months. I knew I could more efficiently read a few articles in the morning. But my willpower wasn’t strong enough to resist the immediate gratification.

I was struck by how much the candidates are selling fear. Carly Fiorina wants me to fear ISIS and Iran. Donald Trump wants me to fear immigrants. Mike Huckabee wants me to fear gay rights. Ted Cruz wants me to fear Obama. Rand Paul wants me to fear the government’s assault on civil liberties.

While the candidates are all trying to sell themselves with fear about everything, everyone else is busy trying to make us afraid of the candidates themselves. And no matter who wins the nomination of either major party, great sums of money and time will be spent selling fear of both of them. Fear that Trump would be a reckless diplomat. Fear that Fiorina would be way too militaristic. Fear that Clinton’s corruption would damage the nation. Fear that Bernie Sanders’ socialism would destroy the economy. Fear fear fear fear fear.

It probably says more about who I am these days than any of the candidates, but as I watched the politicians and wanna-be outsiders evade questions and recite rhetoric during the debate, I thought to myself, you know, I’m not really afraid of any of these guys. I guess I’m supposed to be afraid that Jeb Bush isn’t a true conservative, or that several of the leading candidates show little interest in preserving civil liberties or restraining the unintended consequences of military intervention, but I just can’t get worked up about it anymore.

To hear the candidates talk about Iran, you’d think the threat of a country that doesn’t even have nuclear energy was on the same level as the Cuban Missile Crisis. To hear them talk about the economy, you’d think we were still at the peak of the Great Recession, not rolling through sixty-something months of job growth.

It’s not that I think the country has no challenges. It’s not that I don’t have concerns about how certain candidates would address them. But on the one hand I don’t think things are as bad as they want me to think, and on the other hand I don’t think they have as much power as they pretend to affect those things anyway. When you consider the limits and effects of Congress, financial realities, demographic changes, black swan events, and more…

It’s just hard for me to get excited about opposing any of these folks as The Wrong One For Our Country. I can’t buy the fear they’re selling, and I can’t buy the fear of their fear, either. The opportunity cost is too high; I’d rather spend my mental cycles on other things.

Baby Boomers and the Stock Market, T+3

It’s been over three years since I mused about a rare flat decade in U.S. stocks.

stock-market-2000-decade

Since then, millions of Baby Boomers have retired, and…. stocks are up 50%…

Dow Jones Industrial Average 2001-2015

Apparently, demographic realignments are no still match for the dynamism of the modern American corporate machine and its ability to turn invested dollars into innovative dividends. My pessimistic musings based on ten years of evidence are looking increasingly naive compared to the roaring hundred-year-based optimisms of Mr. Money Moustache and jlcollinsnh. Maybe this time, it’s… not different?

The unemployment rate has been dropping. Pundits like to point to the labor-participation rate or the employment-participation rate and argue about how much can be blamed on retiring Baby Boomers and how much it matters. There seems to be a significant chunk of people quietly hiding under the rug of Social Security disability (if you haven’t seen the excellent This American Life podcast). The less well-known fund is set to run dry at the end of 2016, leading to all sorts of interesting political game theory.

Labor Participation Rate 1948 to 2014Some people seem to assume that falling employment rates are a problem. The labor participation rate is the lowest SINCE 1977!! With every drop, the year goes back and sounds more ominous. Yet every time, I think, well how did the country survive 1977 anyway? We went through several decades with a lower proportion of people employed than today.

What changed between then and now? Participation rates went up as lots of women started working and now goes down as Baby Boomers retire while living longer. So we’ve essentially traded a world where men worked to support their wives for a world where men and women both work to support their grandparents. The biggest difference, of course, is that the support is channeled through the government at mismatched levels, essentially relying on foreign investors to give those grandparents better support.

Some seem to see the downfall of America and its self-sufficient legacy in the growing numbers of non-workers. If we include children under 16, surely the number of productively employed people supporting the rest of the country is less than 50%. Yet there does not seem to be any fundamental problem with that proportion. We used to do it all the time, and we were far less productive then.

Are We Reaching A Turning Point In The Politics Of Outrage?

According to Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer is “No.” But it appears that there a growing number of pundits who agree with me about the negative utility of political outrage.

Earlier this month Slate published a beautiful recap of 2014 as “The Year of Outrage.” (hat/tip @NickSacco55) A giant grid depicts their dutiful tracking of what they considered the most outrage-inducing story of every single day of the year, It’s stunning to look back at all the outrages I forgot about or never knew about in the first place. It’s interesting to ponder how many of the ephemeral outrages I avoided with my blogging hiatus.

It’s illuminating to see the stupid outrages side-by-side with the serious ones.

Throughout the piece(s), there’s a mournful tone about how the silly outrages distracted from the genuinely important issues (which naturally are the ones featuring the greatest crimes against Slate’s writer’s progressive political positions). Their conclusion is relevant for pundits of all stripes:

it’s fascinating to look at how our collective responses skipped from the serious to the picayune without much modulation in pitch.

When everything is outrageous, nothing is.

But it’s not just liberals who are questioning the long-term value of our obsession with outrage. Mollie Hemingway took on those trying to tie the NYPD police murders to Democratic politicians, reminding us of a similar Palin-blame game and asking if we can all “try to see the best in each other’s arguments.” An Atlantic feature on Erick Erickson noted that the Red State hero has been questioning the anger that made him famous:

In August, he wrote, “I increasingly find conflict between my faith and some conservative discourse.” He cited the right-wing furor over undocumented minors, Ebola, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri…

He told me about a man who had come up to him to rant about immigrants ruining schools and neighborhoods. “I’m like, ‘Why are you so angry?’ ” He thinks conservatives suffer from a persecution complex…

Most of our modern political groups do. I’m encouraged to see more pundits recognizing the problems of outrage. Perhaps the movement will continue to grow, though I suspect the demand remains too strong for such things. Nash equilibria do not tolerate vacuums. Even if Red State manages to fend off the temptations to keep peddling its own outrage, will that just send more readers to the Matt Walshes of the world? Or can leaders like Erickson help bring down the demand curve while shutting off the supply?