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.


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Links 2016-12-2

Added the awesome Conor Friedersdorf and Megan McArdle to the Libertarian Web Directory.

First, all the Trump-related links:

I’ve been saying this for a while, but Robby Soave at Reason articulates why the left bears a lot of the blame for Trump due to their aggressive pushing of political correctness.

Slate Star Codex talks about similar problem on crying wolf about Trump.  Even mentioned in Episode 33 of The Fifth Column.

Tyler Cowen on why Trump’s plan to keep jobs in the US is pretty awful.

Nonetheless, also read why Bryan Caplan isn’t freaking out about Trump.

The Nerdwriter, on YouTube, makes the case that Trump is a magician, using the media to distract our attention from where it should be.  Maybe I should stop reading about him so much.

Now, other related political posts not explicitly about Trump:

Megan McArdle had a good piece talking about bridging the gap between the “right-wing media” and the regular “media”. If you want to bring conservatives back into the mainstream, you have to stop politicizing everything and only hiring left-leaning news reporters who only want to cover the local food movement and how evil Walmart is.

Related: Bryan Caplan discusses that if you just talk about how great cohesion is and despair at the political divisions we see, you’ll never get outgroups to come back in, because to them you sound like you’re telling them to conform. You have to actually unilaterally reach out to them and show them respect despite how much you dislike them.

Philosopher Nick Land argues that contrary to the notion that fascism as a societal system has been largely dead since WWII, in fact almost all political philosophies in the world today are largely rooted in fascism, including the major political philosophies of the United States, progressivism and conservatism.

What is the most prominent social science debate happening at Peking University today? The most prestigious university in the still-technically-communist-party-controlled China isn’t about Maoism vs Stalinism, it’s a planned economy vs markets.  

Scott Sumner has a hopeful take on fiscal policy and specifically reducing government budgets.

Here is a terrifying story about the unintended consequences of overcriminalization, and deference to state power. A woman with a previous arrest for prostitution, was picked up and charged with “loitering for the purposes of prostitution”. Loitering is not a criminal activity, but can be applied to anyone standing still. Loitering for the purpose of doing something else is quite speculative. Of course, prostitution itself is already a criminalization of a voluntary transaction, so now anyone who has been arrested for a voluntary interaction other people find distasteful cannot stand anywhere without being accused of a crime. In fact, if cops think women are dressed too lewdly, they can also be arrested for intent to prostitute themselves. Since this woman is relatively poor (thus the loitering for a ride outside of a trailer park), she’s forced to plead guilty to the charges and go to jail for 2 months.  

Related: Adam Ruins Everything this week is about how important prostitution was to settling the American west, and, interestingly, empowering women in that region of the country far before they had similar rights in the east.

Why build higher? This video takes a look at the history of skyscrapers, but also delves into important areas of urbanization and how humanity will live in the future. Cities are more and more important to human civilization, and improving urban areas to exploit efficiencies of concentrated living is one of the most important challenges we face.  

Crash Course has a 10 minute intro video for the philosophy of utilitarianism. Since that’s an important building block for many of the arguments on this blog, I would definitely recommend it.  

Finally, to wrap up the short videos category, Learn Liberty has a great 5 minute video on one of the most fundamental economic concepts: Opportunity Costs. Every choice we make has a hidden cost of what could have been done with those resources and time. Ignoring those opportunity costs can lead to paradoxical ideas like the Broken Window Fallacy.

For the best coverage of the death of the dictator Fidel Castro, this long piece at the Miami Herald is the most comprehensive take available.

Postlibertarian throwback: read about the politics of outrage back in 2014. Unfortunately we have…not fixed our focus on outrage yet. 2017 and the age of Trump isn’t looking so great either.


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The Election Doesn’t Change Trump’s Bad Policies

The Trump Issues

In the Trump election aftermath, many on the left have discussed how best to approach this new challenge. Many have talked about trying to understand the concerns of Trump voters. This is a worthwhile undertaking. The people who voted for Trump have several worries spanning cultural differences, economic hardship, and perhaps even existential fear for the country as a whole. First, let’s go over those concerns.

The first, and perhaps most important concern for Trump voters was that the alternative was Hillary Clinton. This blog had an extensive discussion on Hillary’s shortcoming including her flaunting of the law, her foreign policy, her defense of Obamacare, her tax increases, and her slant towards government power in every sphere. I would argue some of these flaws are also present in Trump, but many Trump voters could at least hope the Trump unknown would deliver something more to their liking than the known failure of a Hillary presidency.

Granting all of Hillary’s problems, why did they think a Trump unknown was worth risking? Broadly, one area we did know where Trump stood was on the culture wars, and for that he was initially hailed as a hero against the left. I think the left has to shoulder a huge part of the blame here, because people have been trying to tell progressives their culture is intolerant for years.  See: Scott Alexander on tribalism and tolerance in 2014, Clarkhat on Gamergate in 2014, this blog last year, another blog, and Robby Soave did a good job summing it up after the election. I don’t think there’s much to add here.

On economic hardship, the more stereotypical Trump supporters (Trump won older voters, rural voters, and uneducated voters) have something to complain about as well. If you want to be depressed, please read this ridiculously long piece called “Unnecessariat “ (or skim this American Conservative piece for some key points). The takeaway is that Trumpland is hurting because it has been economically abandoned, not just culturally isolated. With services dominating the economy, the prospects for those living outside of cities has diminished as well. We are seeing increased suicides, drug addiction, and hopelessness in these areas.

Finally, combine these worries with media that feeds panic about disasters and internet echo chambers, and you get stark existential panic about entirely separate threats.

Cracked had an interesting piece on Trumpism and how we got here, and what caught my eye was the idea of urban culture slowly making its way out to the country. Cracked claims that older, less educated, rural folks saw the abandonment of Christian traditional culture in these hedonistic wonderlands of coastal “liberal” cities and thought there would be dire consequences for the nation. Low and behold, they see: “Chaos…Blacks riot, Muslims set bombs, gays spread AIDS, Mexican cartels behead children, atheists tear down Christmas trees.”

The Trump Solutions

The problem is that many of these perceptions are just wrong. We are healthier, less likely to be murdered, and safer than ever before. Maybe we blame clickbait media, maybe we blame gullible people for believing it, but living in cities just isn’t that scary.

Last year, I met an acquaintance who had grown up in a smaller town in the South, but was now moving to another state near a major urban center. He found out I had grown up in his destination city, and despite having just met 5 minutes prior, he peppered me with bizarre questions about whether I thought it was safe to live there. I assured him that it was a major metropolitan area where millions live and work without a problem every day. He made it seem like he was moving to Afghanistan. Look, I’m sure it was pretty hairy to live in New York/Miami/Chicago/LA in the 80s, but crime rates have collapsed over the last 25 years. The amount of people murdered in the first season of Daredevil in Hell’s Kitchen likely exceeds the total number of murders in all of Manhattan last year. Our perspective is all off. And if we are imagining that law and order is collapsing, our solution is going to vastly over-correct.

That’s part of a bigger point I’ve already made: Trump’s political victory doesn’t mean his supporters have any good ideas about improving the country, or even their own situations. It just means enough people thought there were enough problems for more voters to cast a ballot for Trump over Hillary in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. For instance, I think there is a real basis for complaining about the intolerant left-wing culture that has grown more bold over the last 10 years. But the Trump response has been his own version of intolerance, just copying the left and doing nothing to improve the situation.

On the economy, Trump’s plan is at best a mixed bag. Experts are mediocre at predicting economic growth, so figuring out the best economic policies to help growth may also be difficult. Trump and his supporters might blame globalism for their woes, but putting tariffs on imports and striving to shut down commerce with some of our largest trade partners will hit the poor the hardest. Price increases on low cost imported products will harm low income earners much more than upper middle class households with savings and easier means of substitution. Maybe in the long run this will spur some industrial investment, but I think it’s just as likely to speed up automation. In 4 years, many economic problems scaring Trump voters could easily be exacerbated.

More to the point, the government can’t reverse the decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Short of seizing control of the economy via a 5 year plan, the world has changed. Manufacturing jobs peaked in the early 80s (BLS), and while globalization has accelerated the trend, it didn’t start it. Of course, “globalization” isn’t really an entity either; decisions that changed where firms do business were made by millions of individuals looking at cost-benefit analyses and comparing prices. The government didn’t say “move these factories to Mexico”, the government said “Technology is making it easier to communicate and do business in other countries, so we will reduce taxes and import quotas to make it easier for businesses and shareholders to do things they already want to do”. Trump can’t come back and order companies to make bad business decisions unless he wants a Soviet-style command economy with capital controls.

The United States has such a strong economy due to many factors, including its large, diverse, and skilled working populace, an abundance of natural resources, heavy investment in research and capital, and strong and interconnected financial markets. Our consumer market is the largest in the world, our trade dominates the globe in both goods and services. International economic institutions from the New York Stock Exchange to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are based in (and often dominated by) the United States.

Trump’s push to cut us off from strong trade ties will certainly harm the American centrality to the global economic system. Obviously, to many Trump fans, this is a bonus, not a problem. But long term decline in American trade would likely be connected to more sluggish growth as native industries are protected from competition; for example, Apple has pushed innovation in the smartphone market since 2007 which radically changed the status quo of what phones could do. It has had ripple effects throughout the economy as the spread of widely accessible powerful mobile computers has changed everything from transportation to social interaction to navigation and even shopping. But we should remember that the smartphone revolution was made possible by cheap global supply chains, and without them, we are likely to see stagnation.

And those older, rural, lesser educated Trump voters? No one is going to want to hire them unless the economy is clicking and demanding more workers. Sluggish growth with no competition bred by protectionist policies won’t help them.

Maybe Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation pushes will jumpstart the economy enough to overcome his bad trade polices. It’s possible, but I’m not betting on it. If it doesn’t work, in four years we will simply have the same economic problems just with tons more debt. That’s a big risk he’s taking. And it’s made more risky by Trump’s plan to expand the police state and start deporting at least two million people  (not to mention increasing military spending from the $500 billion a year we spend already).  The ACLU has gone into detail about the difficulties we face if Trump attempts to carry out his campaign promises. It’s very difficult to deport millions of people without doing away with probable cause; how do you find and arrest only the people here illegally? If they aren’t caught by the police while engaged in crime, then by necessity the police must come to them, requiring sweeps of entire residential areas, stopping people with no probable cause at all. At the very least this is grossly expensive, and more likely it will harass and catch thousands of innocent American citizens in a dragnet. And none of this even touches on registration of Muslims, continued mass surveillance, and use of torture.

In four years if the economy hasn’t improved much, debt has accumulated, and the police state has been vastly expanded, will Trump admit his policies haven’t worked? This seems unlikely as Trump has never really apologized for any stances he’s taken or mistakes he’s made. It seems far more likely that he’ll use this built up police state to harass his political enemies.

If Trump is willing to place trade barriers and dramatically reduce the world-leading $2.4 trillion worth of goods imported, how much will he be willing to use government subsidies to pay companies to “invest” in the United States? Does this sound like government direction of the economy? If things aren’t going well, will he seize more control of the economy?

I should note, I haven’t even brought up Trump’s extensive conflicts of interest, where representing American diplomatic interests may run counter to his profit-seeking ones. I also haven’t mentioned that someone who is extremely thin-skinned will be in charge of the nuclear launch codes. Many of the concerns of Trump voters don’t make much sense, many of the policy solutions of Trump and his voters are bad and would make things worse, and on top of that, Trump is irresponsible, incompetent, authoritarian, and many other things I’ve argued before. Continued opposition to Trump’s policies is vital over the next four years.


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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.


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First They Came For The Data Analysts, And I Did Not Speak Out…

Data storage is cheap, and odds are good that any information you store today – if you care just a little about preserving it – can last well beyond your own lifespan. If you’re an intelligence agency and you’re collecting all of the surveillance information you possibly can, the easiest part of your job is probably siloing it so that you’ll have it for hundreds of years. If you’ve got any kind of budget for it, it’s easy to hold on to data practically indefinitely. So, if you’re the subject of surveillance by any of that sort of intelligence agency, all sorts of information collected about you may exist in intelligence silos for decades to come, probably long after you’ve forgotten it. That information exists, for practical purposes, effectively forever.

Suppose that your nation’s intelligence agency decides to collect information in bulk on every citizen it can, including you, and you judge that they are responsible and deserving of your trust, so you don’t mind that they are gathering this information about you and storing it indefinitely. Suppose that they actually are deserving of your trust, and the potentially massive amount of information that they collect and silo about you (and everyone else) is never abused, or even seen by a human analyst. Instead it sits in some massive underground data center, occasionally browsed through by algorithms combing for actual, specific security threats.

Trustworthy governments seem to be pretty stable governments, which is fortunate for people lucky enough to be governed by them. Year after year, there is a very high likelihood that the government will still be pretty great. But that likelihood can never be 100%, which is unfortunate because when you have a non-zero likelihood of something happening and you then compound it over a time scale like “effectively forever”, that puts you in uncomfortable territory. It’s hard to anticipate what sort of threats might exist five years from now, and harder to anticipate what might happen in 20. You have no idea what sort of world you’ll live in 40 years from now, but there are good odds that the extensive information siloed away today will still be around.

When I read Scott Alexander’s review of Manufacturing Consent, it was apparent that throughout the 20th century and clear into the present day, places that were stable at one point in time become unstable, and death squads followed shortly after. The Khmer Rouge killed about 25% of the population of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. 1975 is too close to the present to comfortably say that we exist in a modern world where we don’t have to worry about genocide and mass-murdering states.

We have no idea what the mass-murderers of the distant future will care about. Many of them will probably have fairly commonplace criteria for the groups they want to purge based on such things as race, religion, cultural heritage, sexual orientation, and so on. But some will devise criteria we can’t even begin to imagine. In the middle of the 19th century, only a tiny minority of people had even heard of communism, but a generation or so later that doctrine caused the death of millions of people in camps, wars, purges, and famines. Perhaps we’ve exhausted the space of ideologies that are willing to kill entire categories of people, and maybe we’ve identified all of the categories of people that you can identify and decide to purge.  But are you willing to bet money, much less your life, on the prediction that you won’t belong to some future class of deplorables?

In some of the purges of history, people had a chance to pretend not to be one of the undesirables. There’s no obvious sign that a Pear Party-affiliated death squad can use to identify a member of the Pineapple Party when the Pineapple Party government is toppled, so long as the Pineapplists know that they’re being targeted by Pear partisans and now is the time to scrape off their Pineapple Party ’88 bumper stickers. High-profile Pineapplists have no option but to flee the country, but the average member can try to lay low through the ensuing sectarian violence. That’s how it used to be, at least. But today people can scroll back 5 years in your Facebook profile and see that you were posting pro-Pineapple links then that you’ve since forgotten.

But open support of the Pineapple Party is too obvious. The undesirables of the future may have enough foresight to cover their tracks when it comes to clear-cut evidence like that. But, returning to the trustworthy intelligence agency we’ve mandated with finding people who want to harm us but also don’t want to be found, there are other ways to filter people. Machine learning and big data analysis are mixed bags. If you really, really need them to preemptively identify people who are about to commit atrocities, you’re probably going to be let down. It’s hard to sift through immense streams of data to find people who don’t want to be found. Not impossible, but machine learning isn’t a magic wand. That said, people are impressed with machine learning for a reason. Sometimes it pulls a surprising amount of signal out of what was previously only noise. And we are, today, the worst at discerning signal from noise that we will ever be. Progress in computational statistics could hit a wall next year, and then we can all temper our paranoia about targeted advertisements predicting our deepest, darkest secrets and embarrassing us with extremely specific ad pitches when our friends are looking over our shoulders. Maybe.

But perhaps it’s possible, if you’re patient and have gigantic piles of data lying around, to combine text analysis, social graph information, and decades-old Foursquare check-ins in order to identify closeted Pineapple Party members. And maybe it requires a small army of statisticians and programmers to do so, so you’re really not worried when the first paper is published that shows that researchers were able to identify supporters of Pineapplism with 65% accuracy. But then maybe another five years goes by and the work that previously took that small army of researchers months to do is now available as an R package that anyone with a laptop and knowledge of Statistics 101 can download and use. And that is the point where having gigantic piles of data siloed for a practically infinite amount of time becomes a scary liability.

The scenario where Pearists topple the government, swarm into the intelligence agency’s really big data center, and then know exactly where to go to round up undesirables might be fairly unlikely on its own. But there’s actually a much larger number of less-obvious opportunities for would-be Pearist mass-murderers. But maybe someone finds a decades-old flaw in a previously trusted security protocol and Pear-affiliated hackers breach the silo. Maybe they get information from the giant surveillance silo of a country that, now that we think of it, no one should have sold all of that surveillance software to. Maybe the intelligence agency has a Pearist mole. Maybe the whole intelligence apparatus is Pear-leaning the whole time. Maybe a sizeable majority of the country elects a Pearist demagogue that promises to round up Pineapplists and put them in camps. This sort of thing isn’t behind us.

The data silo is a threat to everyone. In the long run, we can’t anticipate who will have access to it. We can’t anticipate what new category will define the undesirables of the future. And those unknowing future undesirables don’t know what presently-inconspicuous evidence is being filed away in the silo now to resurface decades in the future. But the trend, as it exists, points to a future where large caches of personal data are a liability because future off-the-shelf machine learning tools may be as easy to use and overpowered relative to machine learning’s bleeding edge today as our smartphones are compared to the Apollo Guidance Computer. The wide availability of information on the open internet might itself be dangerous looked at through this lens. But if your public tweets are like dry leaves accumulating in your yard and increasing the risk of a dangerous data-fueled-pogrom wildfire, then mass surveillance silos are like giant rusty storage tanks next to your house that intelligence agencies are pumping full of high-octane petroleum as fast as they can.


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Picture credit: Wikimedia Foundation Servers by Wikipedia user Victor Grigas, licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Narrow Your Gun Debates

On firearms, I’m open to robust gun ownership, but I’m not sold on anything. Like most of my positions, my default is to favor the ability of individuals to operate without restrictions, but I’m by no means a gun purist, to the dismay of many more intense libertarians I know. If there were more stringent regulations on firearms purchases, it wouldn’t be something I cared strongly about.

Nonetheless, many people do feel strongly about gun ownership in the United States, and I wonder if this is a position where efficient advocacy could help us understand whether those feelings are warranted. Unfortunately, gun ownership and gun control are complex issues with many different parts. Continue reading Narrow Your Gun Debates

Links 2016-5-30

Gary Johnson selected former Republican Massachusetts Governor William Weld  to be his running mate. This was pretty surprising for Libertarians considering Weld isn’t really a well-known libertarian guy.  Obviously, the Johnson campaign hoped not to repeat the failings of Jim Gray who was essentially unknown to the national media. During the Libertarian Party convention this weekend, the delegates selected both Gary Johnson and Bill Weld opting for pragmatism rather than party purity.  This is some election year when the libertarians are more reasonable than the Republicans and Democrats.

With 2 former Republican governors on the ticket, the Libertarian Party is now poised to be a real third party alternative. This could be a huge year for them, even if they don’t win. Remember, from our archives, if you reach 5% of the popular vote in a presidential election, you are entitled to real money in the next cycle (the irony of Libertarians accepting Federal handouts not withstanding).

Nicholas Kristof has a follow up to his column “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance” where he condemned the intolerance of progressives especially in the university. Apparently, the left universally scoffed at the thought of tolerating conservatives…which essentially confirmed his point.

The EFF is shutting down their canary watch program after a year. I have previously discussed the importance and usefulness of warrant canaries. It seems the EFF has decided it isn’t worth the effort to keep track of all the notices because they seem to change too much from post to post.  These aren’t bad reasons, but it is a little concerning. It seems likely that you’ll just have to stick to the default that any website you visit has received national security letters asking for information.

Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the difference between Ignorance, Misinformation, and Irrationality in democracies.  Essentially ignorance isn’t exactly the problem in democracies, since if everyone is equally ignorant, then the non-ignorant people will be able to make rational decisions; there is no bias for the ignorant people since they have no opinion. Misinformation can be a problem though, if most people are misinformed, they will make poor decisions. But even if people are misinformed, having a deliberative discussion will help as rational logic should triumph. But irrationality is a serious problem, since even discussions would just spread more misinformation. This relates to the thesis of Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter (Wikipedia, full text for free).  I look forward to reading Brennan’s new book, iconoclastically titled Against Democracy.

Tangentially related: John Oliver has a segment on the flaws of the primary system. Unfortunately, he sort of glosses over the assumption that they need to be more democratic, but do they? He says this time we “got lucky” in that the candidates with the most votes were the ones actually chosen, but we need to change things in the future. I disagree; the candidates we did choose are awful. If the system is working now, making it work better won’t help anything. Check out my previous post for more on this, and forward it to John Oliver if you get a chance. Better than reforming the primary system, let’s try making more parties more viable with some proportional representation in the House of Representatives!

Why Bernie doesn’t quit: Polisci 101 analysis of Bernie Sanders’ intentions. Basically, he wants to stop Hillary from turning towards the center, since he wants the Democratic party to be very a progressive Social Democrat party. This is also the reason that anyone who’s not a Social Democrat wants Bernie out of the race.

Ilya Shapiro at the Cato Institute, who knows his stuff pretty well, called Donald Trump’s list for replacing Justice Scalia’s SCOTUS seat “exceptional”. This is good news in that a Trump presidency would at least have this going for it. I don’t know if all this would make him a better choice than Clinton, but it is a big deal, at least to me.  Doubtful if this alone would be enough to unite all Republicans around him.

Nick Gillespie has two solid blog posts. One is a great overview of a recent Foreign Relations Committee Hearing and the constrasting views of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.  Paul, we should note, won his primary to stand for reelection for his Kentucky Senate seat. This should largely guarantee his victory (PredictIt doesn’t have a market yet but PredictWise has it at 90% Republican).  The other post discusses how Obama’s new overtime regulations are going to harm workers by reducing hours, workers, or both.

Meta-blog post. Do you need more economics blogs? Here is a giant list of them. They’re vaguely ordered by popularity, and you shouldn’t just dismiss it because Paul Krugman is first; there’s a lot of good blogs I didn’t know about.

Dylan Matthews at Vox makes the case for getting rid of the TSA. Doesn’t even mention the financial cost savings (their budget is $8 billion, and cost of time is at least that).

Scott Sumner on the problems with government policy responses to crises. Scott also did a much better job predicting the economy than the Fed. Takeaway: please, please institute prediction markets for the basic macroeconomic indicators.

Cool YouTube video on computational complexity and the P vs NP problem.

Short summary of one of the best essays on markets: Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.

What are the components of airline ticket prices? Great YouTube video explanation.

All the Scott Alexander: Apparently good kindergarden teachers have massive effects on income decades later, but no lasting effect on test scores. There really bizarre studies and all I can tell is that education research is hard.

As part of his ongoing philosophy of niceness and tolerance in society, and relating to my post on tolerance, Scott discusses more on tolerance and coordinated vs uncoordinated meanness.

Scott also has a great post on his experience in the Irish health system, related to the UK junior doctors’ strike.  There are serious barriers to entry to the US medical system because the benefits are so high if you become a doctor. In UK, this is not true, since the state regulates how much doctors can make, so of course many doctors are leaving the UK and Ireland for places where the pay is less regulated. Scott says he’s not sure how to solve labor disputes, but if you have a freer market in hiring and payment, you don’t end up having labor disputes. The American system has problems as well, and if the barriers to entry could be reduced

And finally: Scott Alexander’s review of Albion’s Seed, and his analysis of the importance of culture in determining beliefs.

Apparently non-technical people don’t know this, but Craig Wright isn’t Satoshi Nakamoto. He had an “exclusive” interview with several media outlets discussing how he was really the inventor of Bitcoin. But if you read the story pretty quickly, you notice he doesn’t provide a signature with Satoshi’s private key (the reddit and Hacker News threads found he stole a signature from a transaction in one of the early blocks), and he doesn’t move any of Satoshi’s money to a publicly declared account. Those are very easy ways to prove he is Satoshi Nakamoto, and he didn’t do them, instead relying on some weird demonstration directly to a journalist. I would have guessed most people would have figured he was lying (he has a weird history as well), especially because Satoshi Nakamoto has gone to great lengths to protect his identity, and this guy is clearly trying to get attention. But several news outlets printed it as true. Gavin Andresen, the lead developer of Bitcoin, has declared that he has seen proof, but he hasn’t told us what the proof is.  But you shouldn’t need a really famous person to vouch for someone’s identity, that’s the whole point of Bitcoin; decentralized proof is easy and clear.

From Ars Technica: Death by GPS.

Bryan Caplan on global warming cost-benefit analyses.

The Fourth Amendment apparently no longer applies to the federal government. The FBI can access any data gathered from general warrants issued under the FISA court to the NSA, which is only supposed to be targeting foreign nationals, but which we know just grabs all data a company has.

Marginal Revolution discusses the issue of public bathrooms in context on North Carolina’s recent law.

Links 2016-03-24

Scott Alexander has a new post on happiness and economic growth. There must be a name for this paradox, because it’s blindingly obvious if you think about it: Right now, compare your life to the life of 100 years ago, given your current standing in society. Your life right now is way better, you have time to spend on internet learning and debating about ideas in ways you couldn’t dream of 100 years ago. You have better food choices, longer life expectancy, better pop culture, more stimulating interests, far easier communication with distant relatives, and so on. And yet, the exact same thing will be said about our lives compared to the lives of those who live 100 years in the future. Sure, those lives will be better, but I don’t know how much that bothers us today unless we really think about it. Most people are pretty excited to live today at the frontier of human knowledge, and we don’t see it as a loss that we don’t have cheap self-driving cars and instant delivery groceries for low cost.

But yet, when you do think about it, we hate sitting in traffic or having to go to the store to pick something up, and we wish we had technologies that could get rid of those inconveniences. Yet, I bet people in the future will just have other errands they hate doing just like we hate sitting in traffic. But they will be inconveniences for future people who are tolerating them so that they can do even more awesome things that we can’t imagine, just like people 100 years didn’t sit in traffic because they didn’t own cars at all.

It’s very confusing. On a personal scale, obviously it would be ridiculous to complain about your current standing, because future technologies haven’t been invented yet. So of course everyone is pretty satisfied with what technology level they live in. Yet, our lives are obviously better for having these technologies. How do we reconcile this?

In the last month, I’ve often thought that the closest president we’ve had to Donald Trump is Andrew Jackson; Trump is a loud-mouthed, populist who falls outside of the mainstream party system, yet has significant support from non-elites and were despised by the elites themselves.  This is also the perfect description for Andrew Jackson, who was so successful in this movement, he founded the Democratic Party. David Friedman comes to the same conclusion via a different route.

That last link caused me to run into a real problem with Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson grammatically. One subject is dead and one is alive, so what is the proper verb tense to use? Stack Exchange suggested this, which is honestly kind of lame.

Scott Sumner discusses socialism and France. He makes a short argument that France sounds like a pretty good model country for modern socialism: high amount of skilled civil servants, broad support for socialist policies, a willing government to implement them, and a modern, developed economy.  Yet, Bernie Sanders supporters often reach for the Nordic countries rather than France as the big-welfare state (“socialist”) ideal.  Why is French socialist policy somewhat of a political flop, while Nordic countries are idealized? And would a Bernie-America look like Denmark or maybe better, or perhaps more like France, or even worse? Given the size and diversity of America’s population and economy, France seems closer than Denmark, although both are closer to each other than the US. The only socialistic countries of comparable size seem to be the China and the Soviet Union which have forms of socialism even Bernie Sanders would abhor. Mostly.

Do you have no friends? Never fear, it’s because really, really smart people are better off with few friends.

Bryan Caplan’s model of the Right and Left, and how it’s oddly doing well this election cycle.

Overcoming Bias discusses the cost and benefits of voting. How much would you pay to have your vote count more? His conclusion is that we don’t vote to change the outcome of the election.

Surprise! NSA data will soon be used for routine policing! Coverage from the New York Times, and the Massachusetts ACLU as well.

Bryan Caplan also has a good discussion of libertarian critiques of welfare.  Matt Zwolinski has a good counter post. I like the idea of bleeding heart libertarianism, or market liberalism or whatever, so I think Caplan’s critiques are pointed at exactly what I believe, which is excellent! You always want to have your beliefs critiqued by smart people. I think Caplan is right on many of his points, but I feel like my views are more politically practical. Voters obviously want some form of welfare for the poor, and at least that part could be done more efficiently with my ideas.

This is a good write up on the decentralized crypto-currency-ish entity Ethereum; Reason also did a recent video on it.   Very soon I’ll be able to explain to people what it actually does. Right after I’ve figured out how to install it.  If you want to learn about it without me, here is Ethereum’s website.

Fact checking Trump on trade. Why do we talk about trade deficits? I have no idea why they matter.  Is it a problem if I buy a phone from Apple and I live in New York instead of California? Is there now a trade deficit between New York and California since I sent money out of my local community? No, nobody cares. And for the US, it’s even less relevant, since those dollars that US citizens spent have to come back to the US to be redeemed for goods and services. It would be like if I paid for my iPhone in New York dollars that had to come back to New York. I’m a free trade proponent, but I’m not deaf to some concerns people might have about trade, but this is one of the worst anti-free trade arguments you could make.

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.

 

 

 

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