Links 2017-1-12

As we approach the time when free trade is the heretical advice rather than the obvious logical one, it’s time to brush up on our free trade arguments. Here’s an interesting one: would you ban new technology to save the jobs tied to the technology it replaces? Would you ban light bulbs to save candlemakers? Cars to save horsebreeders? It’s a ridiculous proposition to freeze the economy at a certain point in time. Well, there’s no economic difference between new technology and free trade. In fact, we can treat international trade as a fancy machine where we send corn away on a boat and the machine turns the corn into cars.  

And speaking of free trade, this is the economic modeling for why a tariff is unequivocally inefficient. One of the impacts of a tariff, by the way, is an increase in the market price of a good. Anyone saying that a tariff won’t have negative effects on consumers is just plain wrong.

The excellent open source encrypted messaging app Signal is so useful, it has to avoid having its application servers blacklisted by oppressive regimes. It uses a workaround of having encrypted connections through content delivery network, in this case, Google itself. Moxie Marlinspike, the creater of Signal says “Eventually disabling Signal starts to resemble disabling the internet.”

One of the biggest problems with Trump I pointed out last year was the total unknown of his policies. He keeps changing his mind on almost every issue, and when he does speak, he wanders aimlessly, using simplified language that is more blunt and less precise. Fitting right into this pattern, Trump has taken to Twitter for much of his communication, even since winning the election. Twitter is a short and imprecise tool for communication, and this New York Times article shows just how much uncertainty Trump creates with his tweets.

Related: Bill Perry is terrified of increased nuclear proliferation. The article is a little alarmist, but it’s worth remembering that nuclear war was a real threat just 30 years ago. It should not be taken for granted that nuclear war will never occur, and Trump seems the most likely of the post-Soviet presidents to get involved in a confrontation with a major nuclear power.

Scott Alexander reveals his ideal cabinet (and top advisers) if he were president. It’s not only remarkably better than Trump’s, it’s probably better than any cabinet and appointees we’ve ever had (Bernie Sanders notwithstanding). Highlights include: Alex Tabarrok as head of the FDA, Scott Sumner as Chairman of the Fed, Charles Murray as welfar czar, Peter Thiel as Commerce Secretary, and Elon Musk as both Secretary of Transportation and Energy.

Speaking of cabinets, George Will details just how out of touch soon-to-be-Attorney General Jeff Sessions is, recounting his 2015 defense of unlimited civil asset forfeiture, a procedure by which the government takes cash and property from civilians who have been convicted of no crime and therefore have no recourse or due process protections. Don’t buy into the story that all of Trump’s appointees are horrific and terrifying; there is a gradient of his cabinet appointments depending on their authoritarian tendencies and the importance of their department, and unfortunately Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is by far the most concerning.

Missed this earlier last year, and worth keeping in mind as BuzzFeed gets hammered this week over their publishing of an unverified dossier: apparently the FBI already has daily aerial surveillance flights over American cities. These seem to be for general investigative use, not vital national security issues: “But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays.” 

Speaking of BuzzFeed and the crisis of “fake news”, which itself may not even be anything compared the crisis of facts and truth itself, Nathan Robinson has an excellent take on the matter (very long read). With the lack of facts in the election, the media and Trump’s critics generally have to be twice as careful to rebuild trust in the very concept that objective truth exists and can be discussed in a political context.

Government regulations have hidden, unexpected costs. These regulations hurt people regardless of their political affiliations, as a Berkeley professor found out when trying to evict a tenant that refused to pay rent. California’s rather insane tenant laws mean that serial rent-cheaters can go from place to place staying rent free for months at a time.

I’ve often thought about the right ordering of presidents from best to worst, taking into account a libertarian, liberty-promoting approach. One difficulty is the non-comparability of presidents separated by centuries. However, this blog post from 2009 actually does a nice job of scoring the presidencies. I don’t agree with each one, but it’s a rough categorization that makes sense. It even gave me an additional appreciation for Ulysses Grant, who I figured was mostly president by the luck of being the general in charge when his army won the Civil War. Other highlights include William Henry Harrison scoring 11th, thus beating over three quarters of the competition despite only being in office for a month. I feel like I could have found more worse things on Andrew Jackson, and in general I feel like I agreed with the list more the closer I got the end.

Jeffrey Tucker at FEE has a nice article about the difference between spreading ideas and actual economic production of goods. His thesis is that we have much less control over the developing of ideas than we do of developing normal rivalrous goods. And since libertarians are pretty solid at grasping the idea that the production of goods cannot be controlled from the top down, we should also acknowledge that top-down approaches to developing ideas are even more preposterous, especially in the digital age of decentralized information. I’ve thought about this a fair amount considering I like I blogging but I’m well aware few people read this blog. The simplest way to restate Tucker’s point is that you have to have good ideas more than good distribution. I don’t know if that’s an accurate take, but certainly good ideas are the single most important part of spreading your ideas.

There’s a saying on the internet that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch”. The 2016 election is excellent demonstration of just how poorly democracy can fail, but what our all alternatives. How about Futarchy? This is Robin Hanson’s idea to improve public policy: “In futarchy, democracy would continue to say what we want, but betting markets would now say how to get it. That is, elected representatives would formally define and manage an after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare.” Let’s hold a referendum on it; those seem to work out.

Bitcoin has been on the rise in recent months. So have other cryptocurrencies. But rather than focus just the price of the cryptocurrency, why not look at the total market valuation of those currencies? Sure, you might have heard that Bitcoin was up to $1000 again recently, but did you know that its total market cap is ~$13 billion? At the very peak of the Bitcoin bubble in 2013, all Bitcoins together were valued around $13 billion, but only for a matter of days. This time Bitcoin has kept that valuation for over 3 weeks. With more markets and availability, Bitcoin is becoming a real alternative for people whose national currencies have failed them. 

Postlibertarian throwback: When Capitalism and the Internet Make Food Better. A reminder that the despite the ongoing horrors of government we are witnessing, the market is still busy providing better products and cheaper prices.

Leave a comment on the official reddit discussion thread.

The Age of Em


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.


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.


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.

Links 2016-4-17

Counting past infinity is easy! It was the infinity raised to infinity and infinite number of times that I really got lost.

I’ve settled on the right way to show the date in these links posts: the international standard ISO-8601.  It’s about time since that has been the standard since 1988.

Niskanen center names social justice aware libertarianism as “neoclassical libertarianism“. I like this idea, as it’s strictly superior to progressivism, and I’ve been trying to come up with a good name for it. Scott Alexander called it left-libertarianism-ist, which just isn’t as catchy. Of course, maybe pure libertarianism is better, but neoclassical liberalism is far more politically palatable. It is also more “conservative”, meaning that it is closer to the status quo.

Merrick Garland would not be a good SCOTUS justice. Randy Barnett discusses with Reason why he opposes Garland’s nomination: he’s completely deferential to executive and legislative authority and does not protect individual rights from the state. Does it make sense for the Senate to not give him a hearing? Maybe, maybe not. Did it make sense to declare prior to his announcement that any candidate wouldn’t get a hearing? Hard to say; if that hard line approach made Obama nominate an old white guy who endorses state power in the name of national security, that’s certainly a win for neoconservatives. I don’t think anyone should take an outrage stance on the Supreme Court opening because this really is a complicated game theory situation with nested layers of strategy. Even though I’m sure he is one of the most un-libertarian nominees ever, it’s impossible to say if he would be worse than a Hillary appointee or even a Trump appointee.

How to fight the War on Drugs: hit their wallets. Legal marijuana causes Mexican drug cartel revenues to plummet. 

Heard through Slate Star Codex, anti-censorship blog Status 451 (linked in the sidebar) held a fund-raiser for LambdaConf, a functional programming conference I had no idea existed until a week ago. Apparently, after an anonymous analysis of submitted papers, the Lambdaconf organizers selected a paper to be presented at the conference by Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug, perhaps the most well known neo-reactionary.  Certainly I think neo-reactionaries are a bit nuts, but Mr. Yarvin has also invented the intriguing functional programming language Urbit. We don’t agree with him politically, we can learn and grow our knowledge by understanding what he has to say, especially in technological areas he is an expert in! Alas, as Eric S. Raymond recounts, the social justice movement did not see it that way and pressured LambdaConf to remove Yarvin from the event. Lambdaconf refused and the activists moved to forcing sponsors to drop out. Incredibly, Status 451 started an indiegogo campaign to save LambdaConf, which was funded within the day. This is a big victory for anyone who wants to live in a tolerant, knowledgeable, and free society, but if you want to know their motivations firsthand, please read what they have to say.  Status 451 are also true believers, calling out some on the right for their similarly censoring response.

Related in Not the Onion news: Emory vows to hunt down students who politically disagree with the Left.

Bryan Caplan on liberalizing expertise and the link with defending free speech from the attacks of economic licensing.

A great write up on derivatives, what they are, how they work, and why it’s misleading to suggest that the derivatives market has a quadrillion dollars in risk.

Another excellent reddit post, this one asking soldiers what things they don’t tell you about war. In short: the smell.

Apparently the music industry thinks the DMCA doesn’t do enough to stop copyright infringers (more on the RIAA at TorrentFreak). It seems they’d like to target the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA, the only parts of it that are useful. Techdirt has a great series of posts from the other side, detailing the many abuses of DMCA takedown notices. Right now, there is no legal check on whether a takedown request comes from someone who actually owns the copyright, or even if that copyrighted work is utilized fairly for criticism or commentary. This isn’t an easy problem to solve by any means, but we should remember that the point of copyright is to encourage production of new works, and if there’s anything that YouTube does right is making it easier to create new content. Moreover, it’s helpful to remember that YouTube is run at a loss of more than $150 million a year. Trying to force YouTube to pay for content policing is one of the dumber ideas they’ve ever had, which is saying something. So what should be done instead? A good start would be to make false copyright claims a criminal offense, and require you to prove you own the copyright in the claim.  It would also be good if it turned out your copyright claim was wrong, the ad-money would not go to the claiming part, but would be held in escrow until the dispute is resolved. This would allow YouTube to better focus on actual infringers and stop the torrent of false claims. Of course, another big looming problem for the RIAA is Facebook video, which doesn’t even have the semi-transparent (though flawed) takedown-notice system of YouTube.  Ultimately, given how little money YouTube makes after 10 years on the internet, if YouTube was allowed to be held liable for infringing uploads, YouTube would either go out of business, or cease becoming a free platform anyone could use. This would be a monumental failure of the copyright regime; yes, it might end up getting RIAA members more money, but that is not the purpose of copyright. Copyright exists to help make new content, not destroy content platforms.

California is raising its minimum wage, eventually to $15 an hour. FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman is excited at least to get some data on large minimum wage hikes, although judging from the headlines, it seems like he thinks this is a good idea. I’m fairly confident it is not, and Matt Zwolinski makes one good point to support me: the minimum wage doesn’t fight poverty.  There’s a lot of data surrounding the minimum wage. And it’s apparent that unemployment does not automatically rise when minimum wage increases occur.  Nonetheless, longer term unemployment effects are essentially impossible to study, and it’s likely there are some effects on businesses. If businesses could absorb 20-40% increases in labor costs easily, then why aren’t businesses getting more out of their employees, or more firms entering the business due to excess profits? There is evidence of long term job growth being harmed, as well as higher prices (see last link).  Ultimately, I predict there will be negative consequences for California, but it’s hard to find something that is worth predicting. I could predict that California’s employment and workforce participation rate will be lower than the country average by more than they are now (check this in the future). It’s also likely that low cost goods will see price increases, but I don’t have an easy way to check that over the next five years.

Robin Hanson has a good thought experiment to show that most people don’t vote to change the outcomes of elections. This would explain why anyone votes at all, given the uselessness of voting generally.
GiveWell tries a new tactic to persuade more people to fund their top researched causes: ” First of all. Just so you understand, this guy is a total loser. He begged me to be his peer reviewer, I said ‘NO THANKS.’ Pathetic!”

Related: We can’t stop here, this is Cruz country!

Daniel J. Bernstein taking over crypto is good.

Links 20160216

In my previous blog, I used to compile lists of interesting links. I’ll start doing that here on an irregular basis.

Scott Alexander has a new post in the “Slate Star Codex critiques social justice” series. It discusses a study which looked at the effects of coder gender on Github pull request approval.  It looks like the study had fairly neutral results but was widely reported by the scientific press as proving sexism in tech.  As someone who works in the tech industry, all I learned was that I need to contribute more to open source projects.  If you want to get fully paranoid about social justice, read Scott’s long comment on the social justice movement on the same post (reposted to reddit).

Justice Scalia passed away this weekend. He was a big deal, whether people liked him or not, and now there’s a big political fight on whether the Republican Senate will allow Obama to appoint a nominee. I’m pretty certain (90%) that Obama will nominate someone, even if congressional Republicans say they don’t want to confirm anyone. I have no idea what the chances are of a person being confirmed. Michael Cannon at Cato says the Senate has the power to deny a nomination until next year. I bet a lot of progressives would be horrified and yell about how Obama won the election in 2012, but I think the claim is pretty solid; Congress is supposed to be the most powerful branch after all. Senators were all elected as well, and court appointees are required to have input from both the President and Senate.

It’s also interesting because I’ve been recently watching Crash Course: U.S. Government and Politics.  The episode on separation of powers is relevant to our Scalia discussion.

Robin Hanson on “Why I Lean Libertarian”.  His reasoning is pretty close to mine.

Amusing post on Status 451: San Francisco has a Shameful Homeless Problem.

From Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog: First-order Libertarianism, Second-Order Public Reason Liberalism. It concerns the question of whether libertarians can allow non-libertarians to set up their own society in a libertarian world.

Great introductory crypto video for public key cryptography.  It discusses the discrete logarithm problem and a Diffie Hellman key exchange. That channel actually has a lot of good videos concerning encryption, although nothing explaining exactly how elliptic curve crypto works.  It’s obviously dark magic.

Scott Sumner mentions a comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky on EconLog.  The post is a fairly complex way of discussing the issues the Fed is facing in trying to jumpstart the economy, but it has a cool reference to Newcomb’s Paradox.

I haven’t mentioned it before on this blog, but I really hate Daylight Savings Time. It’s just so dumb. The Washington Post has an interesting article about a proposal to get rid of all timezones. It would take a huge amount of getting used to, but it seems possible. For example, in China, the entire country is on Beijing time; people out west just wake up and go to sleep later…which I’m sure they were doing already, but now they don’t need to worry about time changes across the country. I like it, but mostly because it would end Daylight Savings Time.

Old post, but interesting: How to Change Public Opinion from the Niskanen Center.