Billionaires bear the burden of proof

Sep 15 JDN 2458743

A king sits atop a golden throne, surrounded by a thousand stacks of gold coins six feet high. A hundred starving peasants beseech him for just one gold coin each, so that they might buy enough food to eat and clothes for the winter. The king responds: “How dare you take my hard-earned money!”

This is essentially the world we live in today. I really cannot emphasize enough how astonishingly, horrifically, mind-bogglingly rich billionares are. I am writing this sentence at 13:00 PDT on September 8, 2019. A thousand seconds ago was 12:43, about when I started this post. A million seconds ago was Wednesday, August 28. A billion seconds ago was 1987. I will be a billion seconds old this October.

Jeff Bezos has $170 billion. 170 billion seconds ago was a thousand years before the construction of the Great Pyramid. To get as much money as he has gaining one dollar per second (that’s $3600 an hour!), Jeff Bezos would have had to work for as long as human civilization has existed.

At a more sensible wage like $30 per hour (still better than most people get), how long would it take to amass $170 billion? Oh, just about 600,000 years—or about twice the length of time that Homo sapiens has existed on Earth.

How does this compare to my fictional king with a thousand stacks of gold? A typical gold coin is worth about $500, depending on its age and condition. Coins are about 2 millimeters thick. So a thousand stacks, each 2 meters high, would be about $500*1000*1000 = $500 million. This king isn’t even a billionaire! Jeff Bezos has three hundred times as much as him.

Coins are about 30 millimeters in diameter, so assuming they are packed in neat rows, these thousand stacks of gold coins would fill a square about 0.9 meters to a side—in our silly Imperial units, that’s 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep, 6 feet tall. If Jeff Bezo’s stock portfolio were liquidated into gold coins (which would require about 2% of the world’s entire gold supply and surely tank the market), the neat rows of coins stacked a thousand high would fill a square over 16 meters to a side—that’s a 50-foot-wide block of gold coins. Smaug’s hoard in The Hobbit was probably about the same amount of money as what Jeff Bezos has.

And yet, somehow there are still people who believe that he deserves this money, that he earned it, that to take even a fraction of it away would be a crime tantamount to theft or even slavery.

Their arguments can be quite seductive: How would you feel about the government taking your hard-earned money? Entrepreneurs are brilliant, dedicated, hard-working people; why shouldn’t they be rewarded? What crime do CEOs commit by selling products at low prices?

The way to cut through these arguments is to never lose sight of the numbers. In defense of a man who had $5 million or even $20 million, such an argument might make sense. I can imagine how someone could contribute enough to humanity to legitimately deserve $20 million. I can understand how a talented person might work hard enough to earn $5 million. But it’s simply not possible for any human being to be so brilliant, so dedicated, so hard-working, or make such a contribution to the world, that they deserve to have more dollars than there have been seconds since the Great Pyramid.

It’s not necessary to find specific unethical behaviors that brought a billionaire to where he (and yes, it’s nearly always he) is. They are generally there to be found: At best, one becomes a billionaire by sheer luck. Typically, one becomes a billionaire by exerting monopoly power. At worst, one can become a billionaire by ruthless exploitation or even mass murder. But it’s not our responsibility to point out a specific crime for every specific billionaire.

The burden of proof is on billionaires: Explain how you can possibly deserve that much money.

It’s not enough to point to some good things you did, or emphasize what a bold innovator you are: You need to explain what you did that was so good that it deserves to be rewarded with Smaug-level hoards of wealth. Did you save the world from a catastrophic plague? Did you end world hunger? Did you personally prevent a global nuclear war? I could almost see the case for Norman Borlaug or Jonas Salk earning a billion dollars (neither did, by the way). But Jeff Bezos? You didn’t save the world. You made a company that sells things cheaply and ships them quickly. Get over yourself.

Where exactly do we draw that line? That’s a fair question. $20 million? $100 million? $500 million? Maybe there shouldn’t even be a hard cap. There are many other approaches we could take to reducing this staggering inequality. Previously I have proposed a tax system that gets continuously more progressive forever, as well as a CEO compensation cap based on the pay of the lowliest employees. We could impose a wealth tax, as Elizabeth Warren has proposed. Or we could simply raise the top marginal rate on income tax to something more like what it was in the 1960s. Or as Republicans today would call it, radical socialism.

The backfire effect has been greatly exaggerated

Sep 8 JDN 2458736

Do a search for “backfire effect” and you’re likely to get a large number of results, many of them from quite credible sources. The Oatmeal did an excellent comic on it. The basic notion is simple: “[…]some individuals when confronted with evidence that conflicts with their beliefs come to hold their original position even more strongly.”

The implications of this effect are terrifying: There’s no point in arguing with anyone about anything controversial, because once someone strongly holds a belief there is nothing you can do to ever change it. Beliefs are fixed and unchanging, stalwart cliffs against the petty tides of evidence and logic.

Fortunately, the backfire effect is not actually real—or if it is, it’s quite rare. Over many years those seemingly-ineffectual tides can erode those cliffs down and turn them into sandy beaches.

The most recent studies with larger samples and better statistical analysis suggest that the typical response to receiving evidence contradicting our beliefs is—lo and behold—to change our beliefs toward that evidence.

To be clear, very few people completely revise their worldview in response to a single argument. Instead, they try to make a few small changes and fit them in as best they can.

But would we really expect otherwise? Worldviews are holistic, interconnected systems. You’ve built up your worldview over many years of education, experience, and acculturation. Even when someone presents you with extremely compelling evidence that your view is wrong, you have to weigh that against everything else you have experienced prior to that point. It’s entirely reasonable—rational, even—for you to try to fit the new evidence in with a minimal overall change to your worldview. If it’s possible to make sense of the available evidence with only a small change in your beliefs, it makes perfect sense for you to do that.

What if your whole worldview is wrong? You might have based your view of the world on a religion that turns out not to be true. You might have been raised into a culture with a fundamentally incorrect concept of morality. What if you really do need a radical revision—what then?

Well, that can happen too. People change religions. They abandon their old cultures and adopt new ones. This is not a frequent occurrence, to be sure—but it does happen. It happens, I would posit, when someone has been bombarded with contrary evidence not once, not a few times, but hundreds or thousands of times, until they can no longer sustain the crumbling fortress of their beliefs against the overwhelming onslaught of argument.

I think the reason that the backfire effect feels true to us is that our life experience is largely that “argument doesn’t work”; we think back to all the times that we have tried to convince to change a belief that was important to them, and we can find so few examples of when it actually worked. But this is setting the bar much too high. You shouldn’t expect to change an entire worldview in a single conversation. Even if your worldview is correct and theirs is not, that one conversation can’t have provided sufficient evidence for them to rationally conclude that. One person could always be mistaken. One piece of evidence could always be misleading. Even a direct experience could be a delusion or a foggy memory.

You shouldn’t be trying to turn a Young-Earth Creationist into an evolutionary biologist, or a climate change denier into a Greenpeace member. You should be trying to make that Creationist question whether the Ussher chronology is really so reliable, or if perhaps the Earth might be a bit older than a 17th century theologian interpreted it to be. You should be getting the climate change denier to question whether scientists really have such a greater vested interest in this than oil company lobbyists. You can’t expect to make them tear down the entire wall—just get them to take out one brick today, and then another brick tomorrow, and perhaps another the day after that.

The proverb is of uncertain provenance, variously attributed, rarely verified, but it is still my favorite: No single raindrop feels responsible for the flood.

Do not seek to be a flood. Seek only to be a raindrop—for if we all do, the flood will happen sure enough. (There’s a version more specific to our times: So maybe we’re snowflakes. I believe there is a word for a lot of snowflakes together: Avalanche.)

And remember this also: When you argue in public (which includes social media), you aren’t just arguing for the person you’re directly engaged with; you are also arguing for everyone who is there to listen. Even if you can’t get the person you’re arguing with to concede even a single point, maybe there is someone else reading your post who now thinks a little differently because of something you said. In fact, maybe there are many people who think a little differently—the marginal impact of slacktivism can actually be staggeringly large if the audience is big enough.

This can be frustrating, thankless work, for few people will ever thank you for changing their mind, and many will condemn you even for trying. Finding out you were wrong about a deeply-held belief can be painful and humiliating, and most people will attribute that pain and humiliation to the person who called them out for being wrong—rather than placing the blame where it belongs, which is on whatever source or method made you wrong in the first place. Being wrong feels just like being right.

But this is important work, among the most important work that anyone can do. Philosophy, mathematics, science, technology—all of these things depend upon it. Changing people’s minds by evidence and rational argument is literally the foundation of civilization itself. Every real, enduring increment of progress humanity has ever made depends upon this basic process. Perhaps occasionally we have gotten lucky and made the right choice for the wrong reasons; but without the guiding light of reason, there is nothing to stop us from switching back and making the wrong choice again soon enough.

So I guess what I’m saying is: Don’t give up. Keep arguing. Keep presenting evidence. Don’t be afraid that your arguments will backfire—because in fact they probably won’t.

The Amazon is burning.

Sep 1 JDN 2458729

As you probably already know, the Amazon rainforest is currently on fire. You can get more details about the fires from The Washington Post, or CNN, or New York magazine, or even The Economist; but I think the best coverage I’ve seen has been these two articles from Al-Jazeera.

I have good news and bad news. Let’s start with the bad news: If we lose the Amazon, we lose everything. The ecological importance of the Amazon is basically impossible to overstate. The Amazon produces 20% of the oxygen on Earth. 25% of the carbon absorbed on land is absorbed by the Amazon. We must protect the Amazon, at almost any cost: Given how vital preserving the rainforest will be to resisting climate change, millions of lives are at stake.

The good news is there is still a lot of Amazon left.

This graph shows the total cumulative deforestation of the Amazon, compared against its current area and its original area. The units are square kilometers; the Amazon rainforest has been reduced from 4.1 million square kilometers (1.6 million square miles) to 3.3 million hectares (1.3 million square miles), a decline of about 20% (21 log points). We still have four-fifths of the rainforest remaining—less than we should, but a lot more than we might.

Amazon_cumulative

This graph shows the annual deforestation of the Amazon, with results that are even more encouraging. While the last few years have had faster deforestation than previously, we are still nowhere near the peak deforestation rates of the early 2000s. At peak deforestation, the Amazon was projected to last no more than 150 years; but at current rates of deforestation, the Amazon would not be completely destroyed in more than 400 years.

Amazon_annual

Of course, any loss of the Amazon is bad. We should actually be trying to restore the Amazon—that extra 800,000 square kilometers of high-density forest would sequester a lot of carbon. We probably can’t actually add the 9 million square kilometers (3.4 million square miles) of forest it would take to stop climate change; but any reforestation we do manage will help.

And a number of ecologists have been sounding the alarm that the Amazon is approaching some sort of tipping point where it will stop being a rainforest and become a savannah. If this happens, it may be irreversible. It sounds crazy to me—80% of the forest is still there!—but that’s what ecologists are saying, and I’ll defer to their expertise.

On the other hand, ecologists have been panicking about “irreversible tipping points” on almost everything for the past century. We really can’t be blamed for not taking their word as gospel: They’ve cried wolf about “population bombs” and shortages of food and water for a very long time now. So far their projections on the rates of temperature rise, species extinction, and deforestation have been quite accurate; but their predictions of dire human consequences have always suspiciously failed to materialize. Humans are quite creative and resilient, as it turns out. This is part of why I’m not actually afraid climate change will cause the collapse of human civilization (much less the utterly laughable claim of human extinction); but tens of millions of deaths is still plenty of reason to take drastic action.

Indeed, I think panicking is precisely what we need to avoid. If we exaggerate the problem to the point where it sounds hopeless, that won’t encourage people to take action; it may actually cause them to throw in the towel.

What do we actually need to do here? We need to restore as many forests as possible, and we need to cut carbon emissions as rapidly as possible.

This doesn’t require a revolution to overthrow capitalism. It doesn’t require exotic new technologies (though fusion power and improved electricity storage would certainly help). It simply requires a real commitment to bear real economic costs today in order to prevent much higher costs in the future.

Bernie Sanders has a climate change plan that is estimated to cost $16 trillion over the next ten years. Make no mistake: This is an enormous amount of money. US GDP is about $20 trillion, growing at about 3% per year, so we’re looking at about 6% of GDP over that interval. This is about twice our current military budget, or about our military budget in the 1980s. Notably, it is nowhere near the levels of military spending we reached in the Second World War, which exceeded 40% of GDP. That’s what happens when America really commits to something.

Would this be enough? The UN seems to think so. They estimate that it would cost about 1% of global GDP to keep global warming below 2 C. Even if that’s an underestimate, 6% of the GDP of the US and EU would by itself account for twice that amount—and I have no doubt that if America committed to climate change mitigation, Europe would gladly follow.

And it’s not as if this money would be set on fire. (Military spending, on the other hand, almost literally is that.) We would spending this money mainly on infrastructure and technology; we would be paying wages and creating millions of jobs.

So far as I know Sanders’s plan doesn’t include paying Brazil to restore the Amazon, but it probably should. Part of why Brazil is currently burning the Amazon is the externalities: The ecological benefit of the Amazon affects us all, but the economic benefit of clear-cutting and cattle ranching directly benefits Brazil. We should set up some sort of payment mechanism to ensure that it is more profitable for Brazil to keep the rainforest where it is than to burn it down. How can we afford such a thing, you ask? No: How can we afford not to?