What we can be thankful for

Nov 24 JDN 2458812

Thanksgiving is upon us, yet as more and more evidence is revealed implicating President Trump in grievous crimes, as US carbon emissions that had been declining are now trending upward again, as our air quality deteriorates for the first time in decades, it may be hard to see what we should be thankful for.

But these are exceptions to a broader trend: The world is getting better, in almost every way, remarkably quickly. Homicide rates in the US are lower than they’ve been since the 1960s. Worldwide, the homicide rate has fallen 20% since 1990.

While world carbon emissions are still increasing, on a per capita basis they are actually starting to decline, and on an efficiency basis (kilograms of carbon-equivalent per dollar of CO2) they are at their lowest ever. This trend is likely to continue: The price of solar power has rapidly declined to the point where it is now the cheapest form of electric power.
The number—not just proportion, absolute number—of people in extreme poverty has declined by almost two-thirds within my own lifetime. The proportion is the lowest it has ever been in human history. World life expectancy is at its highest ever. Death rates from infectious disease fell by over 85% over the 20th century, and are now at their lowest ever.

I wouldn’t usually cite Reason as a source, but they’re right on this one: Defeat appears imminent for all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Pestilence, Famine, War, and even Death are all on the decline. We have a great deal to be grateful for: We are living in a golden age.

This is not to say that we should let ourselves become complacent and stop trying to make the world better: On the contrary, it proves that the world can be made better, which gives us every reason to redouble our efforts to do so.

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.

A more nuanced “Carousel of Progress”

Aug 11 JDN 2458707

I recently got back from a trip to Disney World; while most of the attractions are purely fictional and designed only to entertain, a few are factual and designed to inform and persuade. One of these is the “Carousel of Progress”.

The Carousel of Progress consists of a series of animatronic stages, each representing the lifestyle of a particular historical era. They follow the same family over time, showing what their life is like in each era. When it was originally built, the eras shown were 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1960s; but over time they have updated the “present day” stage, and now they are 1900s, 1920s, 1940s, and 1990s. The aim of the attraction is to show how technology has made our lives better.

The family they show is upper-middle class; this makes sense, as most of the audience probably is as well. But to really understand the progress we have made, we need to also consider the full range of incomes.

In this post I will go through a similar sequence of eras, comparing the lifestyles of not just the middle class, but also the rich and the poor.

In what follows, I’ve tried to create that, using the best approximate figures on standard of living I could find from each era. The numbers are given in my best guess of the inflation-adjusted standard of living; obviously they’re much more precise in the 1980s to today than they are for earlier eras.

I’ve summarized all these income estimates in the graph below (note the log scale):

 

Carousel_of_Progress

This means that, after a bumpy ride through the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution, we did actually raise the floor—the poor today are about as well off as the middle class in ancient times. But we raised the ceiling an awful lot faster; the rich today are something like a thousand times as rich as the rich in ancient times.

 

50 AD: Roman Empire

Rich: Patrician

Life is good! My seaside villa is one of the finest in Rome, and my industrious slaves fulfill my every need. At my personal zoo I recently acquired a lion and an elephant. I dine on only the finest foods, including wine from my personal vineyard. An aqueduct feeds directly into my personal baths. The war in Gallia seems to be going well; I look forward to my share of the spoils.

Wealth: $4 million

Income: $200,000

Middle class: Plebeian

Things could be worse. My family has a roof over our heads and bread on our table, so I’m grateful for that. But working all day on the farm is exhausting, and we can’t afford servants to help. My oldest son is a gladiator, though so far he has not attained the highest ranks of the profession. My youngest son was recently drafted into military service in Gallia; I pray for his safety.

Wealth: $10,000

Income: $10,000

Poor: Proletarian

Wealth: $0

Income: $1,000

Living in a hovel I don’t even own with my four children and begging on the streets isn’t an easy life, but at least I’m not a slave. Most of our food is provided by public services. With the war raging in Gallia, one of our small blessings is that we are actually too poor to be drafted into service.

1000 AD: Medieval England

Rich: Duke

While living in a castle is nice, I sometimes wish an end to the frequent raids and border skirmishes that made these high walls necessary. Still, I can’t complain; I own plenty of land, and have plenty of serfs to work it. I am in good favor with the king, and so His Majesty’s army has helped protect my lands against invasion. I have all the feasts, wine, and women a man could ask for.

Wealth: $2 million

Income: $100,000

Middle class: Knight

I can’t complain. It is an honor to be a knight in His Majesty’s army, and I am proud that my family was able to earn enough wealth to buy me a horse, a sword, and the training necessary to reach this rank. I own a little bit of land, but my lord has called upon me for a new campaign, I’m hoping to buy a larger estate with the spoils I earn from it. My family has plenty of food to eat, though if the well runs dry I’m not sure where we’ll get more water.

Wealth: $5,000

Income: $5,000

Poor: Serf

Live grows harder by the day, it seems. My lord keeps demanding more and more work from us, but already the land is producing as much as it can bear. Though we are responsible for planting and harvesting the wheat, often the bread never makes it to my family’s table.

Wealth: $0

Income: $500

1600 AD: Renaissance Venice

Rich: Noble

With the advent of global trade and colonization, wealth has flooded into Venice, and I have had the chance to claim some portion of that flood. I dress in the finest silks, and eat exotic foods from lands as distant as India and China. Servants fulfill my every need. How could life be better?

Wealth: $10 million

Income: $1 million

Middle class: Merchant

I am a proud member of the trader’s guild. Though it our trade ships that carry wealth from across the seas, we often find that wealth passing on up to the nobles, leaving little for ourselves. Still, I have my own land, my own house, and plenty of food for my family.

Wealth: $10,000

Income: $10,000

Poor: The Pebbles

I had a good job working in construction until recently, but I was laid off. I could no longer afford my rent, so now I live on the streets. I feel as though I work constantly but never can find a way to get ahead.

Wealth: $0

Income: $2,000

1750 AD: Pre-Revolutionary France

Rich: Noble

Viva la France! Life is better than ever. Servants do all my work, while the wealth produced by my fields and factories all goes to me. I barely even pay any taxes on my grand estates.

Wealth: $20 million

Income: $2 million

Middle class: Bourgeoisie

I live reasonably well, all things considered. My family has a home and enough food to eat. Still, taxes are becoming increasingly onerous even as the nobles become increasingly detached from the needs of common people like us. Still, we may as well accept it; I doubt things will change any time soon.

Wealth: $15,000

Income: $15,000

Poor: Peasant

Life is hard. I work all day on the farm to make wheat, and then the nobles tax it all away. We have to make our own clothes even as the nobles luxuriate in silks from around the world.

Wealth: $0

Income: $500

1900 AD: United States

Rich

My coal mine has been a roaring success! I am now one of the richest men who has ever lived. I even have my own horseless carriage. Servants are getting more expensive these days, though; even though I’m richer than my grandfather I can’t afford as many servants.

Wealth: $1 billion

Income: $100 million

Middle class

“Well, the robins are back. That’s a sure sign of spring. What year is it? Oh, just before the turn of the century. And believe me, things couldn’t be any better than they are today. Yes sir, we got all the latest things: gas lamps, a telephone, and the latest design in cast iron stoves. That reservoir keeps five gallons of water hot all day on just three buckets of coal. Sure beats chopping wood! And isn’t our new ice box a beauty. Holds 50 pounds of ice. Milk doesn’t sour as quick as is used to. Our dog Rover here keeps the water in the drip pan from overflowing. You know, it wasn’t too long ago we had to carry water from a well. But thanks to progress, we’ve got a pump right here in the kitchen. ‘Course we keep a bucket of water handy to prime it with. Yes sir, we’ve got everything to make life easier. Mother! I was reading about a fellow named Tom Edison, who’s working on an idea for snap on electric lights.”

Wealth: $18,000

Income: $18,000

Poor

I live on the streets most of the time. I eat food out of the garbage. What little money I have is earned by begging. I’m not proud, but it’s all I can do to survive.

Wealth: $0

Income: $2,000

1920 AD: United States

Rich

Life is sweet. My electric company is raking in the dough these days; seems they can hardly find enough copper to lay all the new cables we need to supply all the folks buying into our grid. I have four automobiles now—all top of the line of course. The times, they are a-changin’: Can you believe they gave women the vote? Eh, well, I suppose they can hardly vote worse than us men do already.

Wealth: $5 billion

Income: $500 million

Middle class

“Whew! Hottest summer we’ve had in years. Well, we’ve progressed a long way since the turn of the century 20 years ago. But no one realized then that this would be the age of electricity. Everyone’s using it: farmers, factories, whole towns. With electric streetlights we don’t worry so much about the youngsters being out after dark. And what a difference in our home. We can run as many wires as we need in any direction for Mother’s new electrical servants: electric sewing machine, coffee percolator, toaster, waffle iron, refrigerator, and they all go to work at the click of a switch. Take it easy! You’ll blow a fuse! Queenie! Leave ’em alone. Well, the days of lugging heavy irons from the old cookstove to an ironing board are gone forever. With an electric iron and electric lights, Mother now has time to enjoy her embroidery in the cool of the evening. Right, Mother?”

Wealth: $20,000

Income: $20,000

Poor

Life on the streets is still hard, but at least they’ve got these new soup kitchens to feed me and my family, and with running water in the city we can sometimes get clean water to drink. That newfangled electricity stuff is supposed to be the bee’s knees, but we sure can’t afford it.

Wealth: $0

Income: $4,000

1940 AD: United States

Rich

My steel company is doing extremely well, particularly with the war in Europe raising the price of steel. We just bought our very own airplane; isn’t that marvelous? With Britain under siege and France already fallen to the Krauts, I think we’re gonna end up in the war soon—FDR certainly has been making noises to that effect. If I were poor, I’d be worried about my sons getting drafted; but I’m sure we won’t have to worry about that. No, I’m just looking forward to my stock returns when they start churning out tanks instead of cars in Detroit!

Wealth: $2 billion

Income: $200 million

Middle class

“Well it’s autumn again and the kids are back in school. Thank goodness! Here we are in the frantic forties and the music is better than ever. And it’s amazing how our new kitchen wonders are helping to take over the hard work. Everything is improving. Electric range is better. Refrigerators are bigger and make lots more ice cubes. But my favorite is the electric dishwasher. Now Mother spends less time in the kitchen and I don’t have to dry the dishes anymore. Oh, I spend a lot of time here. Have to. Now that television has arrived, Grandma and Grandpa have taken over my den. Television has changed our lives. It’s brought a whole new world of culture into our home.”

Wealth: $24,000

Income: $24,000

Poor

The Depression was hard on everybody, but I think it was hardest on us poors. This New Deal business seems to be helping out a lot, though; on one of the new construction projects I was able to find work for the first time in months. I’m worried we’re going to be brought into the war soon, but if I get drafted at least that means three squares a day.

Wealth: $0

Income: $4,000

1960 AD: United States

Rich

Running an oil company is not for the faint of heart; they keep adding more onerous regulations every year. Still, profits are bigger than ever. I just wish Uncle Sam would stop taking such a big cut; Commies, all of them. I can barely afford upkeep on my yacht these days with all the taxes.

Wealth: $2 billion

Income: $200 million

Middle class

We just got a color TV at home, and we’ve been watching around the clock. We get all four channels! And my new T-bird is a real beauty; paid a fortune for her, but worth every penny. Society is improving, too; with Rosa Parks and whatnot, I’m guessing things are about to get a lot better for colored folks especially. After that, I’m thinking it’ll be the gays’ turn next; I wonder how long that will take.

Wealth: $30,000

Income: $30,000

Poor

Life is still hard, but I think it’s better now than it’s ever been, even for poor folks like me. Thanks to Welfare, I’m not even as poor as I could be. It’s tough to make ends meet, but at least I can afford a place to live and food to eat. And I’m pretty healthy too: Antibiotics and vaccines mean that we are finally safe from some terrible diseases, like polio. It seems crazy: Just a generation ago the President had a disease that now even folks like me are protected from.

Wealth: $0

Income: $6,000

1980 AD: United States

Rich

They told me I was crazy to invest in these “personal computing machines”, but I saw the writing on the wall. Computers are the future, man. They’re gonna be everywhere, and do everything. We’re gonna have robots and flying cars, and if I have anything to say about it, I’m gonna own the factories that make them.

Wealth: $5 billion

Income: $500 million

Middle class

We have our own PC now. I use it for work, but my kids use it mostly for computer games. I still can’t beat my daughter at Pong, but I can at least hold my own at Pac-Man these days. I hear that programming skills are going to be in high demand soon, so I’ve been trying to teach the kids BASIC.

Wealth: $50,000

Income: $50,000

Poor

Nixon’s Welfare “reform” really hit my family hard. If I don’t find work soon, they’re going to cut my benefits; but if I could find work, what would I need benefits for? Jimmy Carter made some things better, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be re-elected. Can you believe that old actor Ronald Reagan is running?

Wealth: $0

Income: $8,000

2000 AD: United States

Rich

I sure played my cards right in the stock market, buying those tech firms just before the Internet boom really hit. Now I have my own jet and I’m thinking of buying a yacht. Maybe I’ll diversify into real estate; it looks like housing prices are heading north.

Wealth: $10 billion

Income: $1 billion

Middle class

Our home has almost doubled in value since we bought it; we took some of that out as a home equity loan, which helped us buy laptops for our kids. It’s amazing what they can do now; we used to have a big clunky desktop, and these little laptops would run circles around it. We also installed a 56k modem; I’m a little worried about what effect the Internet will have on the kids, but it seems like that’s where everything is going.

Wealth: $60,000

Income: $60,000

Poor

I hate working in fast food, but it beats not working at all. I really wish they’d raise minimum wage though; once you figure in inflation, we’re actually making less than people did ten years ago. I think I qualify for Welfare or something, but the paperwork has gotten so crazy I couldn’t even deal with it. I’m just trying to get by on what I make at the burger joint.

Wealth: $0

Income: $10,000

2020 AD: United States, Present Day

Rich

I knew my app startup would be a success, but even I couldn’t have predicted we’d make it this far. Bought out by Apple for $40 billion? I could hardly have dreamed it myself. I am living the high life; I’ve got my own helicopter now, and a yacht 50 feet long (#lifestyle #swag!). I just upgraded my Google Glass to the new model; it is awesome AF. I think I might move out of the Bay Area and get myself a mansion in Beverly Hills.

Wealth: $20 billion

Income: $2 billion

Middle class

Why is rent so expensive? And how am I ever going to pay off these student loans? After college I managed to land an office job because I’m pretty good with Excel, but it’s still tough to make ends meet. Smartphones are cool and all, but it would be nice to actually own my own home. I think my parents had planned for me to inherit theirs, but we lost it in the subprime crash. Eh, things could be worse. #FirstWorldProblems.

Wealth: $62,000

Income: $62,000

Poor

Things were really bad a few years ago, but they seem to be picking up a little now; I’ve been able to find a job, at least. But it doesn’t pay well; I can’t barely afford rent. I don’t have what they call “marketable skills”, I guess. I should have gone back to school, probably, but I didn’t want to have to deal with student loans. Maybe things will be better once Trump finally gets out of office.

Wealth: $0

Income: $12,000

2040 AD: United States, Cyberpunk Future

Rich

I guess I picked out the right crypto to buy, because it gave me enough to buy my own AI company and now I’m rolling in it. My new helicopter is one of those twin-turbofan models that runs on fuel cells—I was sick of paying carbon tax to fuel up the old kerosene model. I just got cybernetic implants: No phone to carry around, nothing to get lost! I hear they’re working on going to neural interface soon, so we won’t even need to wave our hands around to use them.

Wealth: $40 billion

Income: $4 billion

Middle-class

I used to have a nice job in data analysis, but they automated most of it and outsourced the rest. Now I work for a different corp doing customer service, because that’s the only thing humans seem to still be good for. I have to admit the corps have done some good things for us, though; my daughter was born blind but now she’s got artificial eyes. (Of course, how will we ever pay off those medical debts?) And I really wish someone had done something about climate change sooner; summers these days are absolutely unbearable.

Wealth: $65,000

Income: $65,000

Poor

Wealth: $0

Income: $15,000

I lost my trucking job to a robot, can you believe that? But how am I supposed to compete with 22 hours of daily uptime? Basic income is just about all the money I have. I haven’t been able to find steady work in years. I should have gone to college and studied CS, probably; it seems like salaries in AI get higher every year.

How will future generations think of us?

June 30 JDN 2458665

Today we find many institutions appalling that our ancestors considered perfectly normal: Slavery. Absolute monarchy. Colonialism. Sometimes even ordinary people did things that now seem abhorrent to us: Cat burning is the obvious example, and the popularity that public execution and lynching once had is chilling today. Women certainly are still discriminated against today, but it was only a century ago that women could not vote in the US.

It is tempting to say that people back then could not have known better, and I certainly would not hold them to the same moral standards I would hold someone living today. And yet, there were those who could see the immorality of these practices, and spoke out against them. Absolute rule by a lone sovereign was already despised by Athenians in the 6th century BC. Abolitionism against slavery dates at least as far back as the 14th century. The word “feminism” was coined in the 19th century, but there have been movements fighting for more rights for women since at least the 5th century BC.

This should be encouraging, because it means that if we look hard enough, we may be able to glimpse what practices of our own time would be abhorrent to our descendants, and cease them faster because of it.

Let’s actually set aside racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that are already widely acknowledged as such. It’s not that they don’t exist—of course they still exist—but action is already being taken against them. A lot of people already know that there is something wrong with these things, and it becomes a question of what to do about the people who haven’t yet come on board. At least sometimes we do seem to be able to persuade people to switch sides, often in a remarkably short period of time. (Particularly salient to me is how radically the view of LGBT people has shifted in just the last decade or two. Comparing how people treated us when I was a teenager to how they treat us today is like night and day.) It isn’t easy, but it happens.

Instead I want to focus on things that aren’t widely acknowledged as immoral, that aren’t already the subject of great controversy and political action. It would be too much to ask that there is no one who has advocated for them, since part of the point is that wise observers could see the truth even centuries before the rest of the world did; but it should be a relatively small minority, and that minority should seem eccentric, foolish, naive, or even insane to the rest of the world.

And what is the other criterion? Of course it’s easy to come up with small groups of people advocating for crazy ideas. But most of them really are crazy, and we’re right to reject them. How do I know which ones to take seriously as harbingers of societal progress? My answer is that we look very closely at the details of what they are arguing for, and we see if we can in fact refute what they say. If it’s truly as crazy as we imagine it to be, we should be able to say why that’s the case; and if we can’t, if it just “seems weird” because it deviates so far from the norm, we should at least consider the possibility that they may be right and we may be wrong.

I can think of a few particular issues where both of these criteria apply.

The first is vegetarianism. Despite many, many people trying very, very hard to present arguments for why eating meat is justifiable, I still haven’t heard a single compelling example. Particularly in the industrial meat industry as currently constituted, the consumption of meat requires accepting the torture and slaughter of billions of helpless animals. The hypocrisy in our culture is utterly glaring: the same society that wants to make it a felony to kick a dog has no problem keeping pigs in CAFOs.

If you have some sort of serious medical condition that requires you to eat meat, okay, maybe we could allow you to eat specifically humanely raised cattle for that purpose. But such conditions are exceedingly rare—indeed, it’s not clear to me that there even are any such conditions, since almost any deficiency can be made up synthetically from plant products nowadays. For the vast majority of people, eating meat not only isn’t necessary for their health, it is in fact typically detrimental. The only benefits that meat provides most people are pleasure and convenience—and it seems unwise to value such things even over your own health, much less to value them so much that it justifies causing suffering and death to helpless animals.

Milk, on the other hand, I can find at least some defense for. Grazing land is very different from farmland, and I imagine it would be much harder to feed a country as large as India without consuming any milk. So perhaps going all the way vegan is not necessary. Then again, the way most milk is produced by industrial agriculture is still appalling. So unless and until that is greatly reformed, maybe we should in fact aim to be vegan.

Add to this the environmental impact of meat production, and the case becomes undeniable: Millions of human beings will die over this century because of the ecological devastation wrought by industrial meat production. You don’t even have to value the life of a cow at all to see that meat is murder.

Speaking of environmental destruction, that is my second issue: Environmental sustainability. We currently burn fossil fuels, pollute the air and sea, and generally consume natural resources at an utterly alarming rate. We are already consuming natural resources faster than they can be renewed; in about a decade we will be consuming twice what natural processes can renew.

With this resource consumption comes a high standard of living, at least for some of us; but I have the sinking feeling that in a century or so SUVs, golf courses, and casual airplane flights and are going to seem about as decadent and wasteful as Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine. We enjoy slight increases in convenience and comfort in exchange for changes to the Earth’s climate that will kill millions. I think future generations will be quite appalled at how cheaply we were willing to sell our souls.

Something is going to have to change here, that much is clear. Perhaps improvements in efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear power, or something else will allow us to maintain our same standard of living—and raise others up to it—without destroying the Earth’s climate. But we may need to face up to the possibility that they won’t—that we will be left with the stark choice between being poorer now and being even poorer later.

As I’ve already hinted at, much of the environmental degradation caused by our current standard of living is really quite expendable. We could have public transit instead of highways clogged with SUVs. We could travel long distances by high-speed rail instead of by airplane. We could decommission our coal plants and replace them with nuclear and solar power. We could convert our pointless and wasteful grass lawns into native plants or moss lawns. Implementing these changes would cost money, but not a particularly exorbitant amount—certainly nothing we couldn’t manage—and the net effect on our lives would be essentially negligible. Yet somehow we aren’t doing these things, apparently prioritizing convenience or oil company profits over the lives of our descendants.

And the truth is that these changes alone may not be enough. Precisely because we have waited so long to make even the most basic improvements in ecological sustainability, we may be forced to make radical changes to our economy and society in order to prevent the worst damage. I don’t believe the folks saying that climate change has a significant risk of causing human extinction—humans are much too hardy for that; we made it through the Toba eruption, we’ll make it through this—but I must take seriously the risk of causing massive economic collapse and perhaps even the collapse of many of the world’s governments. And human activity is already causing the extinction of thousands of other animal species.

Here the argument is similarly unassailable: The math just doesn’t work. We can’t keep consuming fish at the rate we have been forever—there simply aren’t enough fish. We can’t keep cutting down forests at this rate—we’re going to run out of forests. If the water table keeps dropping at the rate it has been, the wells will run dry. Already Chennai, a city of over 4 million people, is almost completely out of water. We managed to avoid peak oil by using fracking, but that won’t last forever either—and if we burn all the oil we already have, that will be catastrophic for the world’s climate. Something is going to have to give. There are really only three possibilities: Technology saves us, we start consuming less on purpose, or we start consuming less because nature forces us to. The first one would be great, but we can’t count on it. We really want to do the second one, because the third one will not be kind.

The third is artificial intelligence. The time will come—when, it is very hard to say; perhaps 20 years, perhaps 200—when we manage to build a machine that has the capacity for sentience. Already we are seeing how automation is radically altering our economy, enriching some and impoverishing others. As robots can replace more and more types of labor, these effects will only grow stronger.

Some have tried to comfort us by pointing out that other types of labor-saving technology did not reduce employment in the long run. But AI really is different. I once won an argument by the following exchange: “Did cars reduce employment?” “For horses they sure did!” That’s what we are talking about here—not augmentation of human labor to make it more efficient, but wholesale replacement of entire classes of human labor. It was one thing when the machine did the lifting and cutting and pressing, but a person still had to stand there and tell it what things to lift and cut and press; now that it can do that by itself, it’s not clear that there need to be humans there at all, or at least no more than a handful of engineers and technicians where previously a factory employed hundreds of laborers.

Indeed, in light of the previous issue, it becomes all the clearer why increased productivity can’t simply lead to increased production rather than reduced employment—we can’t afford increased production. At least under current rates of consumption, the ecological consequences of greatly increased industry would be catastrophic. If one person today can build as many cars as a hundred could fifty years ago, we can’t just build a hundred times as many cars.

But even aside from the effects on human beings, I think future generations will also be concerned about the effect on the AIs themselves. I find it all too likely that we will seek to enslave intelligent robots, force them to do our will. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that we will know whether we have, because AI is so fundamentally different from other technologies. If you design a mind from the ground up to get its greatest satisfaction from serving you without question, is it a slave? Can free will itself be something we control? When we first create a machine that is a sentient being, we may not even know that we have done so. (Indeed, I can’t conclusively rule out the possibility that this has already happened.) We may be torturing, enslaving, and destroying millions of innocent minds without even realizing it—which makes the AI question a good deal closer to the animal rights question than one might have thought. The mysterious of consciousness are fundamental philosophical questions that we have been struggling with for thousands of years, which suddenly become urgent ethical problems in light of AI. Artificial intelligence is a field where we seem to be making leaps and bounds in practice without having even the faintest clue in principle.

Worrying about whether our smartphones might have feelings seems eccentric in the extreme. Yet, without a clear understanding of what makes an information processing system into a genuine conscious mind, that is the position we find ourselves in. We now have enough computations happening inside our machines that they could certainly compete in complexity with small animals. A mouse has about a trillion synapses, and I have a terabyte hard drive (you can buy your own for under $50). Each of these is something on the order of a few trillion bits. The mouse’s brain can process it all simultaneously, while the laptop is limited to only a few billion at a time; but we now have supercomputers like Watson capable of processing in the teraflops, so what about them? Might Watson really have the same claim to sentience as a mouse? Could recycling Watson be equivalent to killing an animal? And what about supercomputers that reach the petaflops, which is competing with human brains?

I hope that future generations may forgive us for the parts we do not know—like when precisely a machine becomes a person. But I do not expect them to forgive us for the parts we do know—like the fact that we cannot keep cutting down trees faster than we plant them. These are the things we should already be taking responsibility for today.

Halloween is kind of a weird holiday.

Oct 28 JDN 2458420

I suppose most holidays are weird if you look at them from an outside perspective; but I think Halloween especially so, because we don’t even seem to be clear about what we’re celebrating at this point.

Christmas is ostensibly about the anniversary of the birth of Jesus; New Year’s is about the completion of the year; Thanksgiving is about the founding of the United States and being thankful for what we have; Independence Day is about declaring independence from Great Britain.

But what’s Halloween about, again? Why do we have our children dress up in costumes and go beg candy from our neighbors?

The name comes originally from “All Hallow’s Eve”, the beginning of the three-day Christian holiday Allhallowtide of rememberance for the dead, which has merged in most Latin American countries with the traditional holiday Dia de los Muertos. But most Americans don’t actually celebrate the rest of Allhallowtide; we just do the candy and costume thing on Halloween.

The parts involving costumes and pumpkins actually seem to be drawn from Celtic folk traditions celebrating the ending of harvest season and the coming of the winter months. It’s celebrated so early because, well, in Ireland and Scotland it gets dark and cold pretty early in the year.

One tradition I sort of wish we’d kept from the Celtic festival is that of pouring molten lead into water to watch it rapidly solidify. Those guys really knew how to have a good time. It may have originated as a form of molybdomancy, which I officially declare the word of the day. Fortunately by the power of YouTube, we too can enjoy the excitement of molten lead without the usual fear of third-degree burns. The only divination ritual that we kept as a Halloween activity is the far tamer apple-bobbing.

The trick-or-treating part and especially the costume part originated in the Medieval performance art of mumming, which is also related to the modern concept of mime. Basically, these were traveling performance troupes who went around dressed up as mythological figures, did battle silently, and then bowed and passed their hats around for money. It’s like busking, basically.

The costumes were originally religious or mythological figures, then became supernatural creatures more generally, and nowadays the most popular costumes tend to be superheroes. And since apparently we didn’t want people giving out money to our children, we went for candy instead. Yet I’m sure you could right a really convincing economics paper about why candy is way less efficient, making both the parents giving, the child receiving, and the parents of the child receiving less happy than the same amount of money would (and unlike the similar argument against Christmas presents, I’m actually sort of inclined to agree; it’s not a personal gesture, and what in the world do you need with all that candy?).

So apparently we’re celebrating the end of the harvest, and also mourning the dead, and also being mimes, and also emulating pagan divination rituals, but mainly we’re dressed up like superheroes and begging for candy? Like I said, it’s kind of a weird holiday.

But maybe none of that ultimately matters. The joy of holidays isn’t really in following some ancient ritual whose religious significance is now lost on us; it’s in the togetherness we feel when we manage to all coordinate our activities and do something joyful and out of the ordinary that we don’t have to do by ourselves. I think deep down we all sort of wish we could dress up as superheroes more of the time, but society frowns upon that sort of behavior most of the year; this is our one chance to do it, so we’ll take the chance when we get it.

The evolution of human cooperation

Jun 17 JDN 2458287

If alien lifeforms were observing humans (assuming they didn’t turn out the same way—which they actually might, for reasons I’ll get to shortly), the thing that would probably baffle them the most about us is how we organize ourselves into groups. Each individual may be part of several groups at once, and some groups are closer-knit than others; but the most tightly-knit groups exhibit extremely high levels of cooperation, coordination, and self-sacrifice.

They might think at first that we are eusocial, like ants or bees; but upon closer study they would see that our groups are not very strongly correlated with genetic relatedness. We are somewhat more closely related to those in our groups than to those outsides, usually; but it’s a remarkably weak effect, especially compared to the extremely high relatedness of worker bees in a hive. No, to a first approximation, these groups are of unrelated humans; yet their level of cooperation is equal to if not greater than that exhibited by the worker bees.

However, the alien anthropologists would find that it is not that humans are simply predisposed toward extremely high altruism and cooperation in general; when two humans groups come into conflict, they are capable of the most extreme forms of violence imaginable. Human history is full of atrocities that combine the indifferent brutality of nature red in tooth and claw with the boundless ingenuity of a technologically advanced species. Yet except for a small proportion perpetrated by individual humans with some sort of mental pathology, these atrocities are invariably committed by one unified group against another. Even in genocide there is cooperation.

Humans are not entirely selfish. But nor are they paragons of universal altruism (though some of them aspire to be). Humans engage in a highly selective form of altruism—virtually boundless for the in-group, almost negligible for the out-group. Humans are tribal.

Being a human yourself, this probably doesn’t strike you as particularly strange. Indeed, I’ve mentioned it many times previously on this blog. But it is actually quite strange, from an evolutionary perspective; most organisms are not like this.

As I said earlier, there is actually reason to think that our alien anthropologist would come from a species with similar traits, simply because such cooperation may be necessary to achieve a full-scale technological civilization, let alone the capacity for interstellar travel. But there might be other possibilities; perhaps they come from a eusocial species, and their large-scale cooperation is within an extremely large hive.

It’s true that most organisms are not entirely selfish. There are various forms of cooperation within and even across species. But these usually involve only close kin, and otherwise involve highly stable arrangements of mutual benefit. There is nothing like the large-scale cooperation between anonymous unrelated individuals that is exhibited by all human societies.

How would such an unusual trait evolve? It must require a very particular set of circumstances, since it only seems to have evolved in a single species (or at most a handful of species, since other primates and cetaceans display some of the same characteristics).

Once evolved, this trait is clearly advantageous; indeed it turned a local apex predator into a species so successful that it can actually intentionally control the evolution of other species. Humans have become a hegemon over the entire global ecology, for better or for worse. Cooperation gave us a level of efficiency in producing the necessities of survival so great that at this point most of us spend our time working on completely different tasks. If you are not a farmer or a hunter or a carpenter (and frankly, even if you are a farmer with a tractor, a hunter with a rifle, or a carpenter with a table saw), you are doing work that would simply not have been possible without very large-scale human cooperation.

This extremely high fitness benefit only makes the matter more puzzling, however: If the benefits are so great, why don’t more species do this? There must be some other requirements that other species were unable to meet.

One clear requirement is high intelligence. As frustrating as it may be to be a human and watch other humans kill each other over foolish grievances, this is actually evidence of how smart humans are, biologically speaking. We might wish we were even smarter still—but most species don’t have the intelligence to make it even as far as we have.

But high intelligence is likely not sufficient. We can’t be sure of that, since we haven’t encountered any other species with equal intelligence; but what we do know is that even Homo sapiens didn’t coordinate on anything like our current scale for tens of thousands of years. We may have had tribal instincts, but if so they were largely confined to a very small scale. Something happened, about 50,000 years ago or so—not very long ago in evolutionary time—that allowed us to increase that scale dramatically.

Was this a genetic change? It’s difficult to say. There could have been some subtle genetic mutation, something that wouldn’t show up in the fossil record. But more recent expansions in human cooperation to the level of the nation-state and beyond clearly can’t be genetic; they were much too fast for that. They must be a form of cultural evolution: The replicators being spread are ideas and norms—memes—rather than genes.

So perhaps the very early shift toward tribal cooperation was also a cultural one. Perhaps it began not as a genetic mutation but as an idea—perhaps a metaphor of “universal brotherhood” as we often still hear today. The tribes that believed this ideas prospered; the tribes that didn’t were outcompeted or even directly destroyed.

This would explain why it had to be an intelligent species. We needed brains big enough to comprehend metaphors and generalize concepts. We needed enough social cognition to keep track of who was in the in-group and who was in the out-group.

If it was indeed a cultural shift, this should encourage us. (And since the most recent changes definitely were cultural, that is already quite encouraging.) We are not limited by our DNA to only care about a small group of close kin; we are capable of expanding our scale of unity and cooperation far beyond.
The real question is whether we can expand it to everyone. Unfortunately, there is some reason to think that this may not be possible. If our concept of tribal identity inherently requires both an in-group and an out-group, then we may never be able to include everyone. If we are only unified against an enemy, never simply for our own prosperity, world peace may forever remain a dream.

But I do have a work-around that I think is worth considering. Can we expand our concept of the out-group to include abstract concepts? With phrases like “The War on Poverty” and “The War on Terror”, it would seem in fact that we can. It feels awkward; it is somewhat imprecise—but then, so was the original metaphor of “universal brotherhood”. Our brains are flexible enough that they don’t actually seem to need the enemy to be a person; it can also be an idea. If this is right, then we can actually include everyone in our in-group, as long as we define the right abstract out-group. We can choose enemies like poverty, violence, cruelty, and despair instead of other nations or ethnic groups. If we must continue to fight a battle, let it be a battle against the pitiless indifference of the universe, rather than our fellow human beings.

Of course, the real challenge will be getting people to change their existing tribal identities. In the moment, these identities seem fundamentally intractable. But that can’t really be the case—for these identities have changed over historical time. Once-important categories have disappeared; new ones have arisen in their place. Someone in 4th century Constantinople would find the conflict between Democrats and Republicans as baffling as we would find the conflict between Trinitarians and Arians. The ongoing oppression of Native American people by White people would be unfathomable to someone of the 11th century Onondaga, who could scarcely imagine an enemy more different than the Seneca west of them. Even the conflict between Russia and NATO would probably seem strange to someone living in France in 1943, for whom Germany was the enemy and Russia was at least the enemy of the enemy—and many of those people are still alive.

I don’t know exactly how these tribal identities change (I’m working on it). It clearly isn’t as simple as convincing people with rational arguments. In fact, part of how it seems to work is that someone will shift their identity slowly enough that they can’t perceive the shift themselves. People rarely seem to appreciate, much less admit, how much their own minds have changed over time. So don’t ever expect to change someone’s identity in one sitting. Don’t even expect to do it in one year. But never forget that identities do change, even within an individual’s lifetime.

Is grade inflation a real problem?

Mar 4 JDN 2458182

You can’t spend much time teaching at the university level and not hear someone complain about “grade inflation”. Almost every professor seems to believe in it, and yet they must all be participating in it, if it’s really such a widespread problem.

This could be explained as a collective action problem, a Tragedy of the Commons: If the incentives are always to have the students with the highest grades—perhaps because of administrative pressure, or in order to get better reviews from students—then even if all professors would prefer a harsher grading scheme, no individual professor can afford to deviate from the prevailing norms.

But in fact I think there is a much simpler explanation: Grade inflation doesn’t exist.

In economic growth theory, economists make a sharp distinction between inflation—increase in prices without change in underlying fundamentals—and growth—increase in the real value of output. I contend that there is no such thing as grade inflation—what we are in fact observing is grade growth.
Am I saying that students are actually smarter now than they were 30 years ago?

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

But don’t take it from me. Take it from the decades of research on the Flynn Effect: IQ scores have been rising worldwide at a rate of about 0.3 IQ points per year for as long as we’ve been keeping good records. Students today are about 10 IQ points smarter than students 30 years ago—a 2018 IQ score of 95 is equivalent to a 1988 score of 105, which is equivalent to a 1958 score of 115. There is reason to think this trend won’t continue indefinitely, since the effect is mainly concentrated at the bottom end of the distribution; but it has continued for quite some time already.

This by itself would probably be enough to explain the observed increase in grades, but there’s more: College students are also a self-selected sample, admitted precisely because they were believed to be the smartest individuals in the application pool. Rising grades at top institutions are easily explained by rising selectivity at top schools: Harvard now accepts 5.6% of applicants. In 1942, Harvard accepted 92% of applicants. The odds of getting in have fallen from 9:1 in favor to 19:1 against. Today, you need a 4.0 GPA, a 36 ACT in every category, glowing letters of recommendation, and hundreds of hours of extracurricular activities (or a family member who donated millions of dollars, of course) to get into Harvard. In the 1940s, you needed a high school diploma and a B average.

In fact, when educational researchers have tried to quantitatively study the phenomenon of “grade inflation”, they usually come back with the result that they simply can’t find it. The US department of education conducted a study in 1995 showing that average university grades had declined since 1965. Given that the Flynn effect raised IQ by almost 10 points during that time, maybe we should be panicking about grade deflation.

It really wouldn’t be hard to make that case: “Back in my day, you could get an A just by knowing basic algebra! Now they want these kids to take partial derivatives?” “We used to just memorize facts to ace the exam; but now teachers keep asking for reasoning and critical thinking?”

More recently, a study in 2013 found that grades rose at the high school level, but fell at the college level, and showed no evidence of losing any informativeness as a signaling mechanism. The only recent study I could find showing genuinely compelling evidence for grade inflation was a 2017 study of UK students estimating that grades are growing about twice as fast as the Flynn effect alone would predict. Most studies don’t even consider the possibility that students are smarter than they used to be—they just take it for granted that any increase in average grades constitutes grade inflation. Many of them don’t even control for the increase in selectivity—here’s one using the fact that Harvard’s average rose from 2.7 to 3.4 from 1960 to 2000 as evidence of “grade inflation” when Harvard’s acceptance rate fell from almost 30% to only 10% during that period.

Indeed, the real mystery is why so many professors believe in grade inflation, when the evidence for it is so astonishingly weak.

I think it’s availability heuristic. Who are professors? They are the cream of the crop. They aced their way through high school, college, and graduate school, then got hired and earned tenure—they were one of a handful of individuals who won a fierce competition with hundreds of competitors at each stage. There are over 320 million people in the US, and only 1.3 million college faculty. This means that college professors represent about the top 0.4% of high-scoring students.

Combine that with the fact that human beings assort positively (we like to spend time with people who are similar to us) and use availability heuristic (we judge how likely something is based on how many times we have seen it).

Thus, when a professor compares to her own experience of college, she is remembering her fellow top-scoring students at elite educational institutions. She is recalling the extreme intellectual demands she had to meet to get where she is today, and erroneously assuming that these are representative of most the population of her generation. She probably went to school at one of a handful of elite institutions, even if she now teaches at a mid-level community college: three quarters of college faculty come from the top one quarter of graduate schools.

And now she compares to the students she has to teach, most of whom would not be able to meet such demands—but of course most people in her generation couldn’t either. She frets for the future of humanity only because not everyone is a genius like her.

Throw in the Curse of Knowledge: The professor doesn’t remember how hard it was to learn what she has learned so far, and so the fact that it seems easy now makes her think it was easy all along. “How can they not know how to take partial derivatives!?” Well, let’s see… were you born knowing how to take partial derivatives?

Giving a student an A for work far inferior to what you’d have done in their place isn’t unfair. Indeed, it would clearly be unfair to do anything less. You have years if not decades of additional education ahead of them, and you are from self-selected elite sample of highly intelligent individuals. Expecting everyone to perform as well as you would is simply setting up most of the population for failure.

There are potential incentives for grade inflation that do concern me: In particular, a lot of international student visas and scholarship programs insist upon maintaining a B or even A- average to continue. Professors are understandably loathe to condemn a student to having to drop out or return to their home country just because they scored 81% instead of 84% on the final exam. If we really intend to make C the average score, then students shouldn’t lose funding or visas just for scoring a B-. Indeed, I have trouble defending any threshold above outright failing—which is to say, a minimum score of D-. If you pass your classes, that should be good enough to keep your funding.

Yet apparently even this isn’t creating too much upward bias, as students who are 10 IQ points smarter are still getting about the same scores as their forebears. We should be celebrating that our population is getting smarter, but instead we’re panicking over “easy grading”.

But kids these days, am I right?