What is it with EA and AI?

Jan 1 JDN 2459946

Surprisingly, most Effective Altruism (EA) leaders don’t seem to think that poverty alleviation should be our top priority. Most of them seem especially concerned about long-term existential risk, such as artificial intelligence (AI) safety and biosecurity. I’m not going to say that these things aren’t important—they certainly are important—but here are a few reasons I’m skeptical that they are really the most important the way that so many EA leaders seem to think.

1. We don’t actually know how to make much progress at them, and there’s only so much we can learn by investing heavily in basic research on them. Whereas, with poverty, the easy, obvious answer turns out empirically to be extremely effective: Give them money.

2. While it’s easy to multiply out huge numbers of potential future people in your calculations of existential risk (and this is precisely what people do when arguing that AI safety should be a top priority), this clearly isn’t actually a good way to make real-world decisions. We simply don’t know enough about the distant future of humanity to be able to make any kind of good judgments about what will or won’t increase their odds of survival. You’re basically just making up numbers. You’re taking tiny probabilities of things you know nothing about and multiplying them by ludicrously huge payoffs; it’s basically the secular rationalist equivalent of Pascal’s Wager.

2. AI and biosecurity are high-tech, futuristic topics, which seem targeted to appeal to the sensibilities of a movement that is still very dominated by intelligent, nerdy, mildly autistic, rich young White men. (Note that I say this as someone who very much fits this stereotype. I’m queer, not extremely rich and not entirely White, but otherwise, yes.) Somehow I suspect that if we asked a lot of poor Black women how important it is to slightly improve our understanding of AI versus giving money to feed children in Africa, we might get a different answer.

3. Poverty eradication is often characterized as a “short term” project, contrasted with AI safety as a “long term” project. This is (ironically) very short-sighted. Eradication of poverty isn’t just about feeding children today. It’s about making a world where those children grow up to be leaders and entrepreneurs and researchers themselves. The positive externalities of economic development are staggering. It is really not much of an exaggeration to say that fascism is a consequence of poverty and unemployment.

4. Currently the main thing that most Effective Altruism organizations say they need most is “talent”; how many millions of person-hours of talent are we leaving on the table by letting children starve or die of malaria?

5. Above all, existential risk can’t really be what’s motivating people here. The obvious solutions to AI safety and biosecurity are not being pursued, because they don’t fit with the vision that intelligent, nerdy, young White men have of how things should be. Namely: Ban them. If you truly believe that the most important thing to do right now is reduce the existential risk of AI and biotechnology, you should support a worldwide ban on research in artificial intelligence and biotechnology. You should want people to take all necessary action to attack and destroy institutions—especially for-profit corporations—that engage in this kind of research, because you believe that they are threatening to destroy the entire world and this is the most important thing, more important than saving people from starvation and disease. I think this is really the knock-down argument; when people say they think that AI safety is the most important thing but they don’t want Google and Facebook to be immediately shut down, they are either confused or lying. Honestly I think maybe Google and Facebook should be immediately shut down for AI safety reasons (as well as privacy and antitrust reasons!), and I don’t think AI safety is yet the most important thing.

Why aren’t people doing that? Because they aren’t actually trying to reduce existential risk. They just think AI and biotechnology are really interesting, fascinating topics and they want to do research on them. And I agree with that, actually—but then they need stop telling people that they’re fighting to save the world, because they obviously aren’t. If the danger were anything like what they say it is, we should be halting all research on these topics immediately, except perhaps for a very select few people who are entrusted with keeping these forbidden secrets and trying to find ways to protect us from them. This may sound radical and extreme, but it is not unprecedented: This is how we handle nuclear weapons, which are universally recognized as a global existential risk. If AI is really as dangerous as nukes, we should be regulating it like nukes. I think that in principle it could be that dangerous, and may be that dangerous someday—but it isn’t yet. And if we don’t want it to get that dangerous, we don’t need more AI researchers, we need more regulations that stop people from doing harmful AI research! If you are doing AI research and it isn’t directly involved specifically in AI safety, you aren’t saving the world—you’re one of the people dragging us closer to the cliff! Anything that could make AI smarter but doesn’t also make it safer is dangerous. And this is clearly true of the vast majority of AI research, and frankly to me seems to also be true of the vast majority of research at AI safety institutes like the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

Seriously, look through MIRI’s research agenda: It’s mostly incredibly abstract and seems completely beside the point when it comes to preventing AI from taking control of weapons or governments. It’s all about formalizing Bayesian induction. Thanks to you, Skynet can have a formally computable approximation to logical induction! Truly we are saved. Only two of their papers, on “Corrigibility” and “AI Ethics”, actually struck me as at all relevant to making AI safer. The rest is largely abstract mathematics that is almost literally navel-gazing—it’s all about self-reference. Eliezer Yudkowsky finds self-reference fascinating and has somehow convinced an entire community that it’s the most important thing in the world. (I actually find some of it fascinating too, especially the paper on “Functional Decision Theory”, which I think gets at some deep insights into things like why we have emotions. But I don’t see how it’s going to save the world from AI.)

Don’t get me wrong: AI also has enormous potential benefits, and this is a reason we may not want to ban it. But if you really believe that there is a 10% chance that AI will wipe out humanity by 2100, then get out your pitchforks and your EMP generators, because it’s time for the Butlerian Jihad. A 10% chance of destroying all humanity is an utterly unacceptable risk for any conceivable benefit. Better that we consign ourselves to living as we did in the Neolithic than risk something like that. (And a globally-enforced ban on AI isn’t even that; it’s more like “We must live as we did in the 1950s.” How would we survive!?) If you don’t want AI banned, maybe ask yourself whether you really believe the risk is that high—or are human brains just really bad at dealing with small probabilities?

I think what’s really happening here is that we have a bunch of guys (and yes, the EA and especially AI EA-AI community is overwhelmingly male) who are really good at math and want to save the world, and have thus convinced themselves that being really good at math is how you save the world. But it isn’t. The world is much messier than that. In fact, there may not be much that most of us can do to contribute to saving the world; our best options may in fact be to donate money, vote well, and advocate for good causes.

Let me speak Bayesian for a moment: The prior probability that you—yes, you, out of all the billions of people in the world—are uniquely positioned to save it by being so smart is extremely small. It’s far more likely that the world will be saved—or doomed—by people who have power. If you are not the head of state of a large country or the CEO of a major multinational corporation, I’m sorry; you probably just aren’t in a position to save the world from AI.

But you can give some money to GiveWell, so maybe do that instead?

Charity shouldn’t end at home

It so happens that this week’s post will go live on Christmas Day. I always try to do some kind of holiday-themed post around this time of year, because not only Christmas, but a dozen other holidays from various religions all fall around this time of year. The winter solstice seems to be a very popular time for holidays, and has been since antiquity: The Romans were celebrating Saturnalia 2000 years ago. Most of our ‘Christmas’ traditions are actually derived from Yuletide.

These holidays certainly mean many different things to different people, but charity and generosity are themes that are very common across a lot of them. Gift-giving has been part of the season since at least Saturnalia and remains as vital as ever today. Most of those gifts are given to our friends and loved ones, but a substantial fraction of people also give to strangers in the form of charitable donations: November and December have the highest rates of donation to charity in the US and the UK, with about 35-40% of people donating during this season. (Of course this is complicated by the fact that December 31 is often the day with the most donations, probably from people trying to finish out their tax year with a larger deduction.)

My goal today is to make you one of those donors. There is a common saying, often attributed to the Bible but not actually present in it: “Charity begins at home”.

Perhaps this is so. There’s certainly something questionable about the Effective Altruism strategy of “earning to give” if it involves abusing and exploiting the people around you in order to make more money that you then donate to worthy causes. Certainly we should be kind and compassionate to those around us, and it makes sense for us to prioritize those close to us over strangers we have never met. But while charity may begin at home, it must not end at home.

There are so many global problems that could benefit from additional donations. While global poverty has been rapidly declining in the early 21st century, this is largely because of the efforts of donors and nonprofit organizations. Official Development Assitance has been roughly constant since the 1970s at 0.3% of GNI among First World countries—well below international targets set decades ago. Total development aid is around $160 billion per year, while private donations from the United States alone are over $480 billion. Moreover, 9% of the world’s population still lives in extreme poverty, and this rate has actually slightly increased the last few years due to COVID.

There are plenty of other worthy causes you could give to aside from poverty eradication, from issues that have been with us since the dawn of human civilization (the Humane Society International for domestic animal welfare, the World Wildlife Federation for wildlife conservation) to exotic fat-tail sci-fi risks that are only emerging in our own lifetimes (the Machine Intelligence Research Institute for AI safety, the International Federation of Biosafety Associations for biosecurity, the Union of Concerned Scientists for climate change and nuclear safety). You could fight poverty directly through organizations like UNICEF or GiveDirectly, fight neglected diseases through the Schistomoniasis Control Initiative or the Against Malaria Foundation, or entrust an organization like GiveWell to optimize your donations for you, sending them where they think they are needed most. You could give to political causes supporting civil liberties (the American Civil Liberties Union) or protecting the rights of people of color (the North American Association of Colored People) or LGBT people (the Human Rights Campaign).

I could spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out the optimal way to divide up your donations and give them to causes such as this—and then convincing you that it’s really the right one. (And there is even a time and place for that, because seemingly-small differences can matter a lot in this.) But instead I think I’m just going to ask you to pick something. Give something to an international charity with a good track record.

I think we worry far too much about what is the best way to give—especially people in the Effective Altruism community, of which I’m sort of a marginal member—when the biggest thing the world really needs right now is just more people giving more. It’s true, there are lots of worthless or even counter-productive charities out there: Please, please do not give to the Salvation Army. (And think twice before donating to your own church; if you want to support your own community, okay, go ahead. But if you want to make the world better, there are much better places to put your money.)

But above all, give something. Or if you already give, give more. Most people don’t give at all, and most people who give don’t give enough.

If I had a trillion dollars…

May 29 JDN 2459729

(To the tune of “If I had a million dollars” by Barenaked Ladies; by the way, he does now)

[Inspired by the book How to Spend a Trillion Dollars]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d buy everyone a house—and yes, I mean, every homeless American.

[500,000 homeless households * $300,000 median home price = $150 billion]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d give to the extreme poor—and then there would be no extreme poor!

[Global poverty gap: $160 billion]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d send people to Mars—hey, maybe we’d find some alien life!

[Estimated cost of manned Mars mission: $100 billion]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d build us a Moon base—haven’t you always wanted a Moon base?

[Estimated cost of a permanent Lunar base: $35 billion. NASA is bad at forecasting cost, so let’s allow cost overruns to take us to $100 billion.]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d build a new particle accelerator—let’s finally figure out dark matter!

[Cost of planned new accelerator at CERN: $24 billion. Let’s do 4 times bigger and make it $100 billion.]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d save the Amazon—pay all the ranchers to do something else!

[Brazil, where 90% of Amazon cattle ranching is, produces about 10 million tons of beef per year, which at an average price of $5000 per ton is $50 billion. So I could pay all the farmers two years of revenue to protect the Amazon instead of destroying it for $100 billion.]

If I had a trillion dollars…

We wouldn’t have to drive anymore!

If I had a trillion dollars…

We’d build high-speed rail—it won’t cost more!

[Cost of proposed high-speed rail system: $240 billion]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had trillion dollars!

Hey wait, I could get it from a carbon tax!

[Even a moderate carbon tax could raise $1 trillion in 10 years.]

If I had a trillion dollars… I’d save the world….

All of the above really could be done for under $1 trillion. (Some of them would need to be repeated, so we could call it $1 trillion per year.)

I, of course, do not, and will almost certainly never have, anything approaching $1 trillion.

But here’s the thing: There are people who do.

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos together have a staggering $350 billion. That’s two people with enough money to end world hunger. And don’t give me that old excuse that it’s not in cash: UNICEF gladly accepts donations in stock. They could, right now, give their stocks to UNICEF and thereby end world hunger. They are choosing not to do that. In fact, the goodwill generated by giving, say, half their stocks to UNICEF might actually result in enough people buying into their companies that their stock prices would rise enough to make up the difference—thus costing them literally nothing.

The total net wealth of all the world’s billionaires is a mind-boggling $12.7 trillion. That’s more than half a year of US GDP. Held by just over 2600 people—a small town.

The US government spends $4 trillion in a normal year—and $5 trillion the last couple of years due to the pandemic. Nearly $1 trillion of that is military spending, which could be cut in half and still be the highest in the world. After seeing how pathetic Russia’s army actually is in battle (they paint Zs on their tanks because apparently their IFF system is useless!), are we really still scared of them? Do we really need eleven carrier battle groups?

Yes, the total cost of mitigating climate change is probably in the tens of trillions—but the cost of not mitigating climate change could be over $100 trillion. And it’s not as if the world can’t come up with tens of trillions; we already do. World GDP is now over $100 trillion per year; just 2% of that for 10 years is $20 trillion.

Do these sound like good ideas to you? Would you want to do them? I think most people would want most of them. So now the question becomes: Why aren’t we doing them?

The alienation of labor

Apr 10 JDN 2459680

Marx famously wrote that capitalism “alienates labor”. Much ink has been spilled over interpreting exactly what he meant by that, but I think the most useful and charitable reading goes something like the following:

When you make something for yourself, it feels fully yours. The effort you put into it feels valuable and meaningful. Whether you’re building a house to live in it or just cooking an omelet to eat it, your labor is directly reflected in your rewards, and you have a clear sense of purpose and value in what you are doing.

But when you make something for an employer, it feels like theirs, not yours. You have been instructed by your superiors to make a certain thing a certain way, for reasons you may or may not understand (and may or may not even agree with). Once you deliver the product—which may be as concrete as a carburetor or as abstract as an accounting report—you will likely never see it again; it will be used or not by someone else somewhere else whom you may not even ever get the chance to meet. Such labor feels tedious, effortful, exhausting—and also often empty, pointless, and meaningless.

On that reading, Marx isn’t wrong. There really is something to this. (I don’t know if this is really Marx’s intended meaning or not, and really I don’t much care—this is a valid thing and we should be addressing it, whether Marx meant to or not.)

There is a little parable about this, which I can’t quite remember where I heard:

Three men are moving heavy stones from one place to another. A traveler passes by and asks them, “What are you doing?”

The first man sighs and says, “We do whatever the boss tells us to do.”

The second man shrugs and says, “We pick up the rocks here, we move them over there.”

The third man smiles and says, “We’re building a cathedral.”

The three answers are quite different—yet all three men may be telling the truth as they see it.

The first man is fully alienated from his labor: he does whatever the boss says, following instructions that he considers arbitrary and mechanical. The second man is partially alienated: he knows the mechanics of what he is trying to accomplish, which may allow him to improve efficiency in some way (e.g. devise better ways to transport the rocks faster or with less effort), but he doesn’t understand the purpose behind it all, so ultimately his work still feels meaningless. But the third man is not alienated: he understands the purpose of his work, and he values that purpose. He sees that what he is doing is contributing to a greater whole that he considers worthwhile. It’s not hard to imagine that the third man will be the happiest, and the first will be the unhappiest.

There really is something about the capitalist wage-labor structure that can easily feed into this sort of alienation. You get a job because you need money to live, not because you necessarily value whatever the job does. You do as you are told so that you can keep your job and continue to get paid.

Some jobs are much more alienating than others. Most teachers and nurses see their work as a vocation, even a calling—their work has deep meaning for them and they value its purpose. At the other extreme there are corporate lawyers and derivatives traders, who must on some level understand that their work contributes almost nothing to the world (may in fact actively cause harm), but they continue to do the work because it pays them very well.

But there are many jobs in between which can be experienced both ways. Working in retail can be an agonizing grind where you must face a grueling gauntlet of ungrateful customers day in and day out—or it can be a way to participate in your local community and help your neighbors get the things they need. Working in manufacturing can be a mechanical process of inserting tab A into slot B and screwing it into place over, and over, and over again—or it can be a chance to create something, convert raw materials into something useful and valuable that other people can cherish.

And while individual perspective and framing surely matter here—those three men were all working in the same quarry, building the same cathedral—there is also an important objective component as well. Working as an artisan is not as alienating as working on an assembly line. Hosting a tent at a farmer’s market is not as alienating as working the register at Walmart. Tutoring an individual student is more purposeful than recording video lectures for a MOOC. Running a quirky local book store is more fulfilling than stocking shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Moreover, capitalism really does seem to push us more toward the alienating side of the spectrum. Assembly lines are far more efficient than artisans, so we make most of our products on assembly lines. Buying food at Walmart is cheaper and more convenient than at farmer’s markets, so more people shop there. Hiring one video lecturer for 10,000 students is a lot cheaper than paying 100 in-person lecturers, let alone 1,000 private tutors. And Barnes & Noble doesn’t drive out local book stores by some nefarious means: It just provides better service at lower prices. If you want a specific book for a good price right now, you’re much more likely to find it at Barnes & Noble. (And even more likely to find it on Amazon.)

Finding meaning in your work is very important for human happiness. Indeed, along with health and social relationships, it’s one of the biggest determinants of happiness. For most people in First World countries, it seems to be more important than income (though income certainly does matter).

Yet the increased efficiency and productivity upon which our modern standard of living depends seems to be based upon a system of production—in a word, capitalism—that systematically alienates us from meaning in our work.

This puts us in a dilemma: Do we keep things as they are, accepting that we will feel an increasing sense of alienation and ennui as our wealth continues to grow and we get ever-fancier toys to occupy our meaningless lives? Or do we turn back the clock, returning to a world where work once again has meaning, but at the cost of making everyone poorer—and some people desperately so?

Well, first of all, to some extent this is a false dichotomy. There are jobs that are highly meaningful but also highly productive, such as teaching and engineering. (Even recording a video lecture is a lot more fulfilling than plenty of jobs out there.) We could try to direct more people into jobs like these. There are jobs that are neither particularly fulfilling nor especially productive, like driving trucks, washing floors and waiting tables. We could redouble our efforts into automating such jobs out of existence. There are meaningless jobs that are lucrative only by rent-seeking, producing little or no genuine value, like the aforementioned corporate lawyers and derivatives traders. These, quite frankly, could simply be banned—or if there is some need for them in particular circumstances (I guess someone should defend corporations when they get sued; but they far more often go unjustly unpunished than unjustly punished!), strictly regulated and their numbers and pay rates curtailed.

Nevertheless, we still have decisions to make, as a society, about what we value most. Do we want a world of cheap, mostly adequate education, that feels alienating even to the people producing it? Then MOOCs are clearly the way to go; pennies on the dollar for education that could well be half as good! Or do we want a world of high-quality, personalized teaching, by highly-qualified academics, that will help students learn better and feel more fulfilling for the teachers? More pointedly—are we willing to pay for that higher-quality education, knowing it will be more expensive?

Moreover, in the First World at least, our standard of living is… pretty high already? Like seriously, what do we really need that we don’t already have? We could always imagine more, of course—a bigger house, a nicer car, dining at fancier restaurants, and so on. But most of us have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on our tables.

Economic growth has done amazing things for us—but maybe we’re kind of… done? Maybe we don’t need to keep growing like this, and should start redirecting our efforts away from greater efficiency and toward greater fulfillment. Maybe there are economic possibilities we haven’t been considering.

Note that I specifically mean First World countries here. In Third World countries it’s totally different—they need growth, lots of it, as fast as possible. Fulfillment at work ends up being a pretty low priority when your children are starving and dying of malaria.

But then, you may wonder: If we stop buying cheap plastic toys to fill the emptiness in our hearts, won’t that throw all those Chinese factory workers back into poverty?

In the system as it stands? Yes, that’s a real concern. A sudden drop in consumption spending in general, or even imports in particular, in First World countries could be economically devastating for millions of people in Third World countries.

But there’s nothing inherent about this arrangement. There are less-alienating ways of working that can still provide a decent standard of living, and there’s no fundamental reason why people around the world couldn’t all be doing them. If they aren’t, it’s in the short run because they don’t have the education or the physical machinery—and in the long run it’s usually because their government is corrupt and authoritarian. A functional democratic government can get you capital and education remarkably fast—it certainly did in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Automation is clearly a big part of the answer here. Many people in the First World seem to suspect that our way of life depends upon the exploited labor of impoverished people in Third World countries, but this is largely untrue. Most of that work could be done by robots and highly-skilled technicians and engineers; it just isn’t because that would cost more. Yes, that higher cost would mean some reduction in standard of living—but it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as many people seem to think. We would have slightly smaller houses and slightly older cars and slightly slower laptops, but we’d still have houses and cars and laptops.

So I don’t think we should all cast off our worldly possessions just yet. Whether or not it would make us better off, it would cause great harm to countries that depend on their exports to us. But in the long run, I do think we should be working to achieve a future for humanity that isn’t so obsessed with efficiency and growth, and instead tries to provide both a decent standard of living and a life of meaning and purpose.

The economic impact of chronic illness

Mar 27 JDN 2459666

This topic is quite personal for me, as someone who has suffered from chronic migraines since adolescence. Some days, weeks, and months are better than others. This past month has been the worst I have felt since 2019, when we moved into an apartment that turned out to be full of mold. This time, there is no clear trigger—which also means no easy escape.

The economic impact of chronic illness is enormous. 90% of US healthcare spending is on people with chronic illnesses, including mental illnesses—and the US has the most expensive healthcare system in the world by almost any measure. Over 55% of adult Medicaid beneficiaries have two or more chronic illnesses.

The total annual cost of all chronic illnesses is hard to estimate, but it’s definitely somewhere in the trillions of dollars per year. The World Economic Forum estimated that number at $47 trillion over the next 20 years, which I actually consider conservative. I think this is counting how much we actually spend and some notion of lost productivity, as well as the (fraught) concept of the value of a statistical life—but I don’t think it’s putting a sensible value on the actual suffering. This will effectively undervalue poor people who are suffering severely but can’t get treated—because they spend little and can’t put a large dollar value on their lives. In the US, where the data is the best, the total cost of chronic illness comes to nearly $4 trillion per year—20% of GDP. If other countries are as bad or worse (and I don’t see why they would be better), then we’re looking at something like $17 trillion in real cost every single year; so over the next 20 years that’s not $47 trillion—it’s over $340 trillion.

Over half of US adults have at least one of the following, and over a quarter have two or more: arthritis, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, current asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, hypertension, stroke, or kidney disease. (Actually the former very nearly implies the latter, unless chronic conditions somehow prevented one another. Two statistically independent events with 50% probability will jointly occur 25% of the time: Flip two coins.)

Unsurprisingly, age is positively correlated with chronic illness. Income is negatively correlated, both because chronic illnesses reduce job opportunities and because poorer people have more trouble getting good treatment. I am the exception that proves the rule, the upper-middle-class professional with both a PhD and a severe chronic illness.

There seems to be a common perception that chronic illness is largely a “First World problem”, but in fact chronic illnesses are more common—and much less poorly treated—in countries with low and moderate levels of development than they are in the most highly-developed countries. Over 75% of all deaths by non-communicable disease are in low- and middle-income countries. The proportion of deaths that is caused by non-communicable diseases is higher in high-income countries—but that’s because other diseases have been basically eradicated from high-income countries. People in rich countries actually suffer less from chronic illness than people in poor countries (on average).

It’s always a good idea to be careful of the distinction between incidence and prevalence, but with chronic illness this is particularly important, because (almost by definition) chronic illnesses last longer and so can have very high prevalence even with low incidence. Indeed, the odds of someone getting their first migraine (incidence) are low precisely because the odds of being someone who gets migraines (prevalence) is so high.

Quite high in fact: About 10% of men and 20% of women get migraines at least occasionally—though only about 8% of these (so 1% of men and 2% of women) get chronic migraines. Indeed, because ti is both common and can be quite severe, migraine is the second-most disabling condition worldwide as measured by years lived with disability (YLD), after low back pain. Neurologists are particularly likely to get migraines; the paper I linked speculates that they are better at realizing they have migraines, but I think we also need to consider the possibility of self-selection bias where people with migraines may be more likely to become neurologists. (I considered it, and it seems at least as good a reason as becoming a dentist because your name is Denise.)

If you order causes by the number of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) they cost, chronic conditions rank quite high: while cardiovascular disease and cancer rate by far the highest, diabetes and kidney disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders, and musculoskeletal disorders all rate higher than malaria, HIV, or any other infection except respiratory infections (read: tuberculosis, influenza, and, once these charts are updated for the next few years, COVID). Note also that at the very bottom is “conflict and terrorism”—that’s all organized violence in the world—and natural disasters. Mental disorders alone cost the world 20 times as many DALYs as all conflict and terrorism combined.

Basic income reconsidered

Feb 20 JDN 2459631

In several previous posts I have sung the praises of universal basic income (though I have also tried to acknowledge the challenges involved).

In this post I’d like to take a step back and reconsider the question of whether basic income is really the best approach after all. One nagging thought keeps coming back to me, and it is the fact that basic income is extremely expensive.

About 11% of the US population lives below the standard poverty line. There are many criticisms of the standard poverty line: Some say it’s too high, because you can compare it favorably with middle-class incomes in much poorer countries. Others say it’s too low, because income at that level doesn’t allow people to really live in financial security. There are many difficult judgment calls that go into devising a poverty threshold, and we can reasonably debate whether the right ones were made here.

However, I think this threshold is at least approximately correct; maybe the true poverty threshold for a household of 1 should be not $12,880 but $11,000 or $15,000, but I don’t think it should be $5,000 or $25,000. Maybe for a household of 4 it should be not $26,500 but $19,000 or $32,000; but I don’t think it should be $12,000 or $40,000.

So let’s suppose that we wanted to implement a universal basic income in the United States that would lift everyone out of poverty. We could essentially do that by taking the 2-person-household threshold of $17,420 and dividing it by 2, yielding $8,710 per person per year. (Why not use the 1-person-household threshold? There aren’t very many 1-person households in poverty, and that threshold would be considerably higher and thus considerably more expensive. A typical poor household is a single parent and one or more children; as long as kids get the basic income, that household would be above the threshold in this system.)

The US population is currently about 331 million people. If every single one of them were to receive a basic income of $8,710, that would cost nearly $2.9 trillion per year. This is a feasible amount—it’s less than half the current total federal budget—but it is still a very large amount. The tax increases required to support it would be massive, and that’s probably why, despite ostensibly bipartisan support for the idea of a basic income, no serious proposal has ever gotten off of the ground.

If on the other hand we were to only give the basic income to people below the poverty line, that would cost only 11% of that amount: A far more manageable $320 billion per year.

We don’t want to do exactly that, however, because it would create all kinds of harmful distortions in the economy. Consider someone who is just below the threshold, considering whether to take on more work or get a higher-paying job. If their household pre-tax income is currently $15,000 and they could raise it to $18,000, a basic income given only to people below the threshold would mean that they are choosing between $15,000+$17,000=$32,000 if they keep their current work and $18,000 if they increase it. Clearly, they would not want to take on more work. That’s a terrible system—it amounts to a marginal tax rate above 100%.

Another possible method would be to simply top off people’s income, give them whatever they need to get to the poverty line but no more. (This would actually be even cheaper; it would probably cost something more like $160 billion per year.) That removes the distortion for people near the threshold, at the cost of making it much worse for those far below the threshold. Someone considering whether to work for $7,000 or work for $11,000 is, in such a system, choosing whether to work less for $17,000 or work more for… $17,000. They will surely choose to work less.

In order to solve these problems, what we would most likely need to do is gradually phase out the basic income, so that say increasing your pre-tax income by $1.00 would decrease your basic income payment by $0.50. The cost of this system would be somewhere in between that of a truly universal basic income and a threshold-based system, so let’s ballpark that as around $600 billion per year. It would effectively implement a marginal tax rate of 50% for anyone who is receiving basic income payments.

In theory, this is probably worse than a universal basic income, because in the latter case you can target the taxes however you like—and thus (probably) make them less cause less distortion than the phased-out basic income system would. But in practice, a truly universal basic income might simply not be politically viable, and some kind of phased-out system seems much more likely to actually get passed.

Even then, I confess I am not extremely optimistic. For some reason, everyone seems to want to end poverty, but very few seem willing to use the obvious solution: Give poor people money.

Reversals in progress against poverty

Jan 16 JDN 2459606

I don’t need to tell you that the COVID pandemic has been very bad for the world. Yet perhaps the worst outcome of the pandemic is one that most people don’t recognize: It has reversed years of progress against global poverty.

Estimates of the number of people who will be thrown into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic are consistently around 100 million, though some forecasts have predicted this will rise to 150 million, or, in the most pessimistic scenarios, even as high as 500 million.

Pre-COVID projections showed the global poverty rate falling steadily from 8.4% in 2019 to 6.3% by 2030. But COVID resulted in the first upward surge in global poverty in decades, and updated models now suggest that the global poverty rate in 2030 will be as high as 7.0%. That difference is 0.7% of a forecasted population of 8.5 billion—so that’s a difference of 59 million people.

This is a terrible reversal of fortune, and a global tragedy. Ten or perhaps even hundreds of millions of people will suffer the pain of poverty because of this global pandemic and the numerous missteps by many of the world’s governments—not least the United States—in response to it.

Yet it’s important to keep in mind that this is a short-term reversal in a long-term trend toward reduced poverty. Yes, the most optimistic predictions are turning out to be wrong—but the general pattern of dramatic reductions in global poverty over the late 20th and early 21st century are still holding up.

That post-COVID estimate of a global poverty rate of 7.0% needs to be compared against the fact that as recently as 1980 the global poverty rate at the same income level (adjust for inflation and purchasing power of course) income level was a whopping 44%.

This pattern makes me feel deeply ambivalent about the effects of globalization on inequality. While it now seems clear that globalization has exacerbated inequality within First World countries—and triggered a terrible backlash of right-wing populism as a result—it also seems clear that globalization was a major reason for the dramatic reductions in global poverty in the past few decades.

I think the best answer I’ve been able to come up with is that globalization is overall a good thing, and we must continue it—but we also need to be much more mindful of its costs, and we must make policy that mitigates those costs. Expanded trade has winners and losers, and we should be taxing the winners to compensate the losers. To make good economic policy, it simply isn’t enough to increase aggregate GDP; you actually have to make life better for everyone (or at least as many people as you can).

Unfortunately, knowing what policies to make is only half the battle. We must actually implement those policies, which means winning elections, which means restoring the public’s faith in the authority of economic experts.

Some of the people voting for Donald Trump were just what Hillary Clinton correctly (if tone-deafly) referred to as “deplorables“: racists, misogynists, xenophobes. But I think that many others weren’t voting for Trump but against Clinton; they weren’t embracing far-right populism but rather rejecting center-left technocratic globalization. They were tired of being told what to do by experts who didn’t seem to care about them or their interests.

And the thing is, they were right about that. Not about voting for Trump—that’s unforgivable—but about the fact that expert elites had been ignoring their interests and needed a wake-up call. There were a hundred better ways of making that wake-up call that didn’t involve putting a narcissistic, incompetent maniac in charge of the world’s largest economy, military and nuclear arsenal, and millions of people should be ashamed of themselves for not taking those better options. Yet the fact remains: The wake-up call was necessary, and we should be responding to it.

We expert elites (I think I can officially carry that card, now that I have a PhD and a faculty position at a leading research university) need to do a much better job of two things: First, articulating the case for our policy recommendations in a way that ordinary people can understand, so that they feel justified and not simply rammed down people’s throats; and second, recognizing the costs and downsides of these policies and taking action to mitigate them whenever possible.

For instance: Yes, we need to destroy all the coal jobs. They are killing workers and the planet. Coal companies need to be transitioned to new industries or else shut down. This is not optional. It must be done. But we also need to explain to those coal miners why it’s necessary to move on from coal to solar and nuclear, and we need to be implementing various policies to help those workers move on to better, safer jobs that pay as well and don’t involve filling their lungs with soot and the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. We need to articulate, emphasize—and loudly repeat—that this isn’t about hurting coal miners to help everyone else, but about helping everyone, coal miners included, and that if anyone gets hurt it will only be a handful of psychopathic billionaires who already have more money than any human being could possibly need or deserve.

Another example: We cannot stop trading with India and China. Hundreds of millions of innocent people would suddenly be thrown out of work and into poverty if we did. We need the products they make for us, and they need the money we pay for those products. But we must also acknowledge that trading with poor countries does put downward pressure on wages back home, and take action to help First World workers who are now forced to compete with global labor markets. Maybe this takes the form of better unemployment benefits, or job-matching programs, or government-sponsored job training. But we cannot simply shrug and let people lose their jobs and their homes because the factories they worked in were moved to China.

Because ought implies can, can may imply ought

Mar21JDN 2459295

Is Internet access a fundamental human right?

At first glance, such a notion might seem preposterous: Internet access has only existed for less than 50 years, how could it be a fundamental human right like life and liberty, or food and water?

Let’s try another question then: Is healthcare a fundamental human right?

Surely if there is a vaccine for a terrible disease, and we could easily give it to you but refuse to do so, and you thereby contract the disease and suffer horribly, we have done something morally wrong. We have either violated your rights or violated our own obligations—perhaps both.

Yet that vaccine had to be invented, just as the Internet did; go back far enough into history and there were no vaccines, no antibiotics, even no anethestetics or antiseptics.

One strong, commonly shared intuition is that denying people such basic services is a violation of their fundamental rights. Another strong, commonly shared intuition is that fundamental rights should be universal, not contingent upon technological or economic development. Is there a way to reconcile these two conflicting intuitions? Or is one simply wrong?

One of the deepest principles in deontic logic is “ought implies can“: One cannot be morally obligated to do what one is incapable of doing.

Yet technology, by its nature, makes us capable of doing more. By technological advancement, our space of “can” has greatly expanded over time. And this means that our space of “ought” has similarly expanded.

For if the only thing holding us back from an obligation to do something (like save someone from a disease, or connect them instantaneously with all of human knowledge) was that we were incapable and ought implies can, well, then now that we can, we ought.

Advancements in technology do not merely give us the opportunity to help more people: They also give us the obligation to do so. As our capabilities expand, our duties also expand—perhaps not at the same rate, but they do expand all the same.

It may be that on some deeper level we could articulate the fundamental rights so that they would not change over time: Not a right to Internet access, but a right to equal access to knowledge; not a right to vaccination, but a right to a fair minimum standard of medicine. But the fact remains: How this right becomes expressed in action and policy will and must change over time. What was considered an adequate standard of healthcare in the Middle Ages would rightfully be considered barbaric and cruel today. And I am hopeful that what we now consider an adequate standard of healthcare will one day seem nearly as barbaric. (“Dialysis? What is this, the Dark Ages?”)

We live in a very special time in human history.

Our technological and economic growth for the past few generations has been breathtakingly fast, and we are the first generation in history to seriously be in a position to end world hunger. We have in fact been rapidly reducing global poverty, but we could do far more. And because we can, we should.

After decades of dashed hope, we are now truly on the verge of space colonization: Robots on Mars are now almost routine, fully-reusable spacecraft have now flown successful missions, and a low-Earth-orbit hotel is scheduled to be constructed by the end of the decade. Yet if current trends continue, the benefits of space colonization are likely to be highly concentrated among a handful of centibillionaires—like Elon Musk, who gained a staggering $160 billion in wealth over the past year. We can do much better to share the rewards of space with the rest of the population—and therefore we must.

Artificial intelligence is also finally coming into its own, with GPT-3 now passing the weakest form of the Turing Test (though not the strongest form—you can still trip it up and see that it’s not really human if you are clever and careful). Many jobs have already been replaced by automation, but as AI improves, many more will be—not as soon as starry-eyed techno-optimists imagined, but sooner than most people realize. Thus far the benefits of automation have likewise been highly concentrated among the rich—we can fix that, and therefore we should.

Is there a fundamental human right to share in the benefits of space colonization and artificial intelligence? Two centuries ago the question wouldn’t have even made sense. Today, it may seem preposterous. Two centuries from now, it may seem preposterous to deny.

I’m sure almost everyone would agree that we are obliged to give our children food and water. Yet if we were in a desert, starving and dying of thirst, we would be unable to do so—and we cannot be obliged to do what we cannot do. Yet as soon as we find an oasis and we can give them water, we must.

Humanity has been starving in the desert for two hundred millennia. Now, at last, we have reached the oasis. It is our duty to share its waters fairly.

2020 is almost over

Dec27 JDN 2459211

I don’t think there are many people who would say that 2020 was their favorite year. Even if everything else had gone right, the 1.7 million deaths from the COVID pandemic would already make this a very bad year.

As if that weren’t bad enough, shutdowns in response to the pandemic, resulting unemployment, and inadequate fiscal policy responses have in a single year thrown nearly 150 million people back into extreme poverty. Unemployment in the US this year spiked to nearly 15%, its highest level since World War 2. Things haven’t been this bad for the US economy since the Great Depression.

And this Christmas season certainly felt quite different, with most of us unable to safely travel and forced to interact with our families only via video calls. New Year’s this year won’t feel like a celebration of a successful year so much as relief that we finally made it through.

Many of us have lost loved ones. Fortunately none of my immediate friends and family have died of COVID, but I can now count half a dozen acquaintances, friends-of-friends or distant relatives who are no longer with us. And I’ve been relatively lucky overall; both I and my partner work in jobs that are easy to do remotely, so our lives haven’t had to change all that much.

Yet 2020 is nearly over, and already there are signs that things really will get better in 2021. There are many good reasons for hope.

Joe Biden won the election by a substantial margin in both the popular vote and the Electoral College.

There are now multiple vaccines for COVID that have been successfully fast-tracked, and they are proving to be remarkably effective. Current forecasts suggest that we’ll have most of the US population vaccinated by the end of next summer.

Maybe the success of this vaccine will finally convince some of the folks who have been doubting the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in general. (Or maybe not; it’s too soon to tell.)

Perhaps the greatest reason to be hopeful about the future is the fact that 2020 is a sharp deviation from the long-term trend toward a better world. That 150 million people thrown back into extreme poverty needs to be compared against the over 1 billion people who have been lifted out of extreme poverty in just the last 30 years.

Those 1.7 million deaths need to be compared against the fact that global life expectancy has increased from 45 to 73 since 1950. The world population is 7.8 billion people. The global death rate has fallen from over 20 deaths per 1000 people per year to only 7.6 deaths per 1000 people per year. Multiplied over 7.8 billion people, that’s nearly 100 million lives saved every single year by advances in medicine and overall economic development. Indeed, if we were to sustain our current death rate indefinitely, our life expectancy would rise to over 130. There are various reasons to think that probably won’t happen, mostly related to age demographics, but in fact there are medical breakthroughs we might make that would make it possible. Even according to current forecasts, world life expectancy is expected to exceed 80 years by the end of the 21st century.

There have also been some significant environmental milestones this year: Global carbon emissions fell an astonishing 7% in 2020, though much of that was from reduced economic activity in response to the pandemic. (If we could sustain that, we’d cut global emissions in half each decade!) But many other milestones were the product of hard work, not silver linings of a global disaster: Whales returned to the Hudson river, Sweden officially terminated their last coal power plant, and the Great Barrier Reef is showing signs of recovery.

Yes, it’s been a bad year for most of us—most of the world, in fact. But there are many reasons to think that next year will be much better.

The cost of illness

Feb 2 JDN 2458882

As I write this I am suffering from some sort of sinus infection, most likely some strain of rhinovirus. So far it has just been basically a bad cold, so there isn’t much to do aside from resting and waiting it out. But it did get me thinking about healthcare—we’re so focused on the costs of providing it that we often forget the costs of not providing it.

The United States is the only First World country without a universal healthcare system. It is not a coincidence that we also have some of the highest rates of preventable mortality and burden of disease.

We in the United States spend about $3.5 trillion per year on healthcare, the most of any country in the world, even as a proportion of GDP. Yet this is not the cost of disease; this is how much we were willing to pay to avoid the cost of disease. Whatever harm that would have been caused without all that treatment must actually be worth more than $3.5 trillion to us—because we paid that much to avoid it.

Globally, the disease burden is about 30,000 disability-adjusted life-years (DALY) per 100,000 people per year—that is to say, the average person is about 30% disabled by disease. I’ve spoken previously about quality-adjusted life years (QALY); the two measures take slightly different approaches to the same overall goal, and are largely interchangeable for most purposes.

Of course this result relies upon the disability weights; it’s not so obvious how we should be comparing across different conditions. How many years would you be willing to trade of normal life to avoid ten years of Alzheimer’s? But it’s probably not too far off to say that if we could somehow wave a magic wand and cure all disease, we would really increase our GDP by something like 30%. This would be over $6 trillion in the US, and over $26 trillion worldwide.

Of course, we can’t actually do that. But we can ask what kinds of policies are most likely to promote health in a cost-effective way.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest improvements to be made are in the poorest countries, where it can be astonishingly cheap to improve health. Malaria prevention has a cost of around $30 per DALY—by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation you can buy a year of life for less than the price of a new video game. Compare this to the standard threshold in the US of $50,000 per QALY: Targeting healthcare in the poorest countries can increase cost-effectiveness a thousandfold. In humanitarian terms, it would be well worth diverting spending from our own healthcare to provide public health interventions in poor countries. (Fortunately, we have even better options than that, like raising taxes on billionaires or diverting military spending instead.)

We in the United States spend about twice as much (per person per year) on healthcare as other First World countries. Are our health outcomes twice as good? Clearly not. Are they any better at all? That really isn’t clear. We certainly don’t have a particularly high life expectancy. We spend more on administrative costs than we do on preventative care—unlike every other First World country except Australia. Almost all of our drugs and therapies are more expensive here than they are everywhere else in the world.

The obvious answer here is to make our own healthcare system more like those of other First World countries. There are a variety of universal health care systems in the world that we could model ourselves on, ranging from the single-payer government-run system in the UK to the universal mandate system of Switzerland. The amazing thing is that it almost doesn’t matter which one we choose: We could copy basically any other First World country and get better healthcare for less spending. Obamacare was in many ways similar to the Swiss system, but we never fully implemented it and the Republicans have been undermining it every way they can. Under President Trump, they have made significant progress in undermining it, and as a result, there are now 3 million more Americans without health insurance than there were before Trump took office. The Republican Party is intentionally increasing the harm of disease.