Monthly Archives: September 2009

Limits To Growth

Me:

Current growth rates simply cannot continue at familiar levels for ten thousand more years.  We’ll eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms, and growth in available atoms will be limited by the speed of light.

Bryan Caplan:

I’m baffled.  You don’t have to be a sci-fi guy to think that in the next century we’ll get working virtual reality.  And once we have that, why couldn’t economic growth of 1% (or 10%) continue forever in simulations?  In the real world, we can’t all be emperor of an infinite universe.  But I don’t see why every one of us couldn’t preside over our own simulated utopias?

As for all this talk of atoms: Economics is about value, not matter.  As long as people regard vivid virtual goods as acceptable substitutes for actual goods, how can the scarcity of atoms stop everyone from having everything he desires?  Robin might respond that computing power will be too scarce to simulate a big virtual world in great detail.  But who really cares if the simulation is accurate down to the microscopic level anyway?

Let’s try some numbers.  Today we have about ten billion people with an average income about twenty times subsistence level, and the world economy doubles roughly every fifteen years. If that growth rate continued for ten thousand years the total growth factor would be 10200.

There are roughly 1057 atoms in our solar system, and about 1070 atoms in our galaxy, which holds most of the mass within a million light years.  So even if we had access to all the matter within a million light years, to grow by a factor of 10200, each atom would on average have to support an economy equivalent to 10140 people at today’s standard of living, or one person with a standard of living 10140 times higher, or some mix of these. Continue reading "Limits To Growth" »

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The Sacrifice Trap

Beware the tendency to oppose improvements that make moot your sacrifice. Kajta Grace:

A pattern … I have noticed before … goes like this. Some people make personal sacrifices, supposedly toward solving problems that don’t threaten them personally. They sort recycling, buy free range eggs, buy fair trade, campaign for wealth redistribution etc. Their actions are seen as virtuous. They see those who don’t join them as uncaring and immoral. A more efficient solution to the problem is suggested. It does not require personal sacrifice. People who have not previously sacrificed support it. Those who have previously sacrificed object on grounds that it is an excuse for people to get out of making the sacrifice. … Some examples of this sentiment:

  • A downside to recreating extinct species with cloning is that it will let people bother even less about stopping extinctions.
  • A recycling system where items are automatically and efficiently sorted at the plant rather than individually in homes would be worse because then people would be ignorant about the effort it takes to recycle.
  • Modern food systems lamentably make people lazy and ignorant of where their food comes from.
  • Making cars efficient just lets people be lazy and drive them more, rather than using real solutions like bikes.
  • The internet’s ready availability and general knowledge allows people to be ignorant and not bother learning facts. …

Is vegetarian opposition to preventing animal pain an example of this kind of motivation? Vegetarianism is a big personal effort, a moral issue, a cause of feelings of moral superiority, and a feature of identity which binds people together.

Most of Katja’s examples are from the left; what are examples from the right?  For example, do folks oppose birth control because it makes their chastity sacrifices moot?

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Alas Shy Academics

Tyler Cowen:

I commonly meet … social scientists who will tell you about the implications of their latest research, yet if you ask them other questions they will respond in hushed tones of the most severe agnosticism. …  Yet I find … these same people will hold very definite political views and act on them in their private lives. … This is one of my pet peeves.  It is defensible to be truly agnostic.  It is also defensible to … have “all things considered” policy views on matters we have not studied closely.  It is not defensible to hold such views but, under the cloak of a not-really-meant agnosticism, refuse to put them on the social science table, so to speak. (I find that bloggers hardly ever suffer from this problem.)

I share Tyler’s peeve, because I just don’t see the point in being an academic who doesn’t aspire to be an intellectual – with coherent and informed opinions on many interesting and important topics.  Oh I see the status-seeking point in the abstract, most academics are that way, but I just can’t relate.

Outsiders assume that if academics spend all this time discussing all those obscure questions, surely there must be armies of them discussing the big important questions.  But in fact, most academics consider it presumptuous to speak there; such questions are reserved for very senior academics in their later “philosophical” years.  Which, alas, means they mostly get ignored.

It is a true pleasure to talk with people smart and careful enough to become successful academics, yet willing to engage many big questions.

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How Is Our Era Unique?

We are entering an era where most anyone can quickly talk to most anyone else who can talk.  Talking will get easier as more people speak English, and perhaps as automatic translation is improved.  Easy talking wasn’t true before the widespread use of telephones, and it won’t be true after our descendants spread across the stars, or think billions of times faster.  The next few centuries will contain the easiest talking era in all of history.

For similar reasons, our current era is likely unique in having the least contact with strange cultures.  Our distant ancestors heard rumors from travelers about distant strange cultures.  Our descendants may also have contact with strange cultures when they re-engineer themselves and fragment Cambrian-explosion-style into a vast space of possible creatures, grouped into local cultures.  Or they may spread across space, and diverge culturally due to the rare slow contact across such vast distances.

I also suspect our era is uniquely rich, in terms of thinking-talking folks having a median income so far above their subsistence levels. (This goes with a uniquely high econ growth rate and low-vs-median income inequality.)  Most animals have always been pretty close to subsistence level, and until the industrial revolution so were most humans.  Today median world income is now roughly five times subsistence level and rising.  But eventually incomes must fall, as we may learn to make people much faster (as in brain ems), or when econ growth rates fall below feasible population growth rates.

In what other ways is our era likely unique?  You will of course have diverse opinions, but I’m most interested in analyses based on assumptions I share: our lineage probably won’t go extinct, we’ll keep growing, spread across space, redesign our minds and bodies, and eventually learn all tech, all within a mostly competitive framework.

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Better Bill Scoring

Megan McArdle says med reform will pass, via bills exploiting CBO budget scoring errors:

I now put the chances of a substantial health care bill passing at 75%, and the chances of the Democrats losing the house in 2010 at about 66%. … The real game changer is that the CBO is willing to score health care savings on the grounds that the bill contains automatic spending cuts.

Conservatives are filled with rage and anguish. …  They are absolutely right:  the savings cuts will not be made, and I doubt that many in the Democratic party leadership, or the liberal wonkosphere believe that they will. …  The fact that the CBO has minimal discretion and uses roughly the same standards for every analysis is, despite its problems, a feature rather than a bug.  We may not like the fact that the CBO scores what’s in the law, rather than what is most likely to happen.  But the alternative is what?  An agency that can give the thumbs up or thumbs down according to how it feels about the legislators? …

This will make it very hard to keep the bill from passing, because legislators are, natch, more concerned about the appearance of fiscal rectitude than actual conservative budgeting.  … The public is probably going to accept the CBO numbers.

The alternative is prediction markets.  Compared to the value of making good decisions on these bills, or to the effort spent in “rage and anguish” on them, the cost to create prediction markets giving quality unbiased estimates of actual bill budgets would be small.

So why don’t now-loudly-wailing conservatives direct some of their energy to creating and promoting bill-scoring prediction markets?  Because they expect better bill budget estimates to make their positions look worse as often as better.  Sure, better estimates would help conservatives in this particular case, but they aren’t fool enough to think liberals lie about budgets more often than conservatives.

But aren’t there substantial organized political groups dedicated to uncovering and promoting the best policies, no matter whose ox they gore?  Apparently not.

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Walmart Med Is Better

Wanna cut some med costs 30+% without sacrificing quality? Just have patients rely more on CVS, Walmart, etc. for care. From the Post:

Walk-in medical clinics run by CVS, Wal-Mart and other retailers provide care for routine illnesses that is as good as, and costs less than, similar care offered in doctors’ offices, hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centers, according to a new Rand Corp. study. … Physicians groups … have raised concerns about the quality of care in the retail clinics, particularly about whether they over-prescribe medications since many of them are owned by pharmacy chains and whether they do adequate follow-up. But the Rand study found no major differences in these areas between the clinics and the other medical sites surveyed. …

The study was published this month in the Annals of Internal Medicine. … Annals also published a related study reporting that one-third of Americans live within a 10-minute drive of such a facility. … The study examined the cases of 2,100 patients … treated for routine illnesses — ear infections, sore throats or urinary tract infections. … The costs of care in retail clinics were 30 to 40 percent lower than in physician offices and urgent care centers and 80 percent lower than in emergency departments” of hospitals. … The study evaluated care based on 14 indicators, including tests given, whether antibiotics were prescribed and whether follow-up treatment occurred. In general, the researchers found that the “scores of retail clinics were equal to or higher than those of other care settings.”

Obama has expressed his extreme eagerness to cut med waste.  Think he’ll be eager to publicly adjust his med reform to give Walmart more business?

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Height Puzzle

Among adults of industrial nations, growth stunting … is associated with worse indicators of adult well-being (e.g., income). … Here we … [consider] the Tsimane’, a foraging-farming society of native Amazonians in Bolivia. Subjects included 248 women and 255 men measured annually during five consecutive years (2002-2006). Nine outcomes (wealth, monetary income, illness, access to credit, mirth, schooling, math skills, plant knowledge, forest clearance) were regressed separately against a stunting dummy variable and a wide range of control variables. We found no significant association between any of the indicators of own well-being and adult stunting. …

In South Africa, a comparison of short-for-age “Cape Coloured” children showed that those growing up under poorer socioeconomic conditions had lower body weight, height, and physical performance than the more advantaged children … Among adults of industrial nations, standing physical stature is positively associated with many indicators of own adult well-being, such as occupation, monetary income, wages, IQ, longevity, and good health.

More here.

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Trust Puzzle

Highly trustworthy individuals think others are like them and tend to form beliefs that are too optimistic, causing them to assume too much social risk, to be cheated more often and ultimately perform less well than those who happen to have a trustworthiness level close to the mean of the population.  On the other hand, the low-trustworthiness types form beliefs that are too conservative and thereby avoid being cheated, but give up profitable opportunities too often and, consequently, underperform.  Our [empirical] estimates imply that the cost of either excessive or too little trust is comparable to the income lost by foregoing college. [emphasis added]

More here.  How much to trust others does sound like a very important parameter, and it makes sense that errors on this could have large consequences.  But it is puzzling that we make such large errors, apparently unable to learn much useful from those around us about how much to trust.  I could see how a lack of trust might prevent one from learning from others that one should trust more, but how does trusting too much prevent one from learning from others to that one should trust less?

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There Is No Science

Eric Falkenstein:

I like listening to journalists talk about science … most of the translation to outsiders comes from non-scientists simply because there are more of them, and some write very well.  Yet, I find many times, when these journalists digress from a specific subject, to science in general they are extremely naive or duplicitous. If you go to The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, you invariably hear a bunch of caricatures of those who disagree with conventional wisdom on science—most of which truly are quacks, but not always—and they pedantically emphasize how these alternative views are ‘not science’: they have beliefs that do not have peer-reviewed tests supporting a falsifiable hypothesis. …

When journalists talk about science in general this is usually a pretext for saying those who disagree with their favorite idea are wrong, because they are unscientific. … They then caricature their opponents, taking the most inarticulate advocates from the other side, and skewering their illogic. They then sit back and take take inordinate pride in their scientific pretensions, as if their selective discussion was objective. The fact is, most ‘big’ scientific issues do not conform to the scientific method, where one puts out testable hypotheses, rejecting ones that are falsified.

He’s right: “science” basically means “study”, and there just is no simple way for outsiders to tell who is studying something well.  The best way to study a subject depends a lot on the details of that subject.  We have a few rough guides to expertise, such as careful language, formalism, attention to detail, years of study, IQ, cleanliness, endorsement by respected folks, etc., but there is no surefire ‘science’ checklist that can tell outsiders if research is good.

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Nature is Doomed

Long ago humans pioneered some very powerful innovations, innovations that have allowed us to grow in capability much faster than the rest of nature.  As humans grew more capable, we learned to live in more kinds of places, and to use more of the plants and animals in each place.  We didn’t always destroy non-human living nature – sometimes we converted it to farms, pets, or parks.  But we only left nature alone when we couldn’t figure out how to make use of it, or of what it used.  Our expanded use of nature has left less for other species, often leading to their extinction.

This trend has continued in recent times: as we learn more ways to use nature, we use nature more.  There has been, however, one notable exception: rising wages over the last few hundred years have made us abandon some old practices.  For example, during the depression my grandparents farmed marginal land in Kentucky that is now forest.  We still know how to farm the land, and with free immigration it would still be farmed, but as it is labor is too expensive for farming.

This reprieve won’t last.  Wages have risen because economic growth rates have outpaced feasible rates of growing well-trained people.  But current growth rates simply cannot continue at familiar levels for ten thousand more years.  We’ll eventually learn everything worth knowing about how to arrange atoms, and growth in available atoms will be limited by the speed of light.  So over this timescale growth rates simply must fall below feasible population growth rates.  (I actually expect a new brain emulation tech to allow very fast population growth in a century or two, but this is tangential to my argument here.)

With familiar competitive habits, this growth rate change implies falling wages for intelligent labor, canceling nature’s recent high-wage reprieve.  So if we continue to use all the nature our abilities allow, abilities growing much faster than nature’s abilities to resist us, within ten thousand years at most (and more likely a few centuries) we’ll use pretty much all of nature, with only farms, pets and (economically) small parks remaining.  If we keep growing competitively, nature is doomed.

Of course we’ll still need some functioning ecosystems to support farming a while longer, until we learn how to make food without farms, or bodies using simpler fuels.  Hopefully we’ll assimilate most innovations worth digging out of nature, and deep underground single cell life will probably last the longest.  But these may be cold comfort to most nature lovers.

Yes, nature would be saved if we destroy ourselves without destroying nature in the process, but hopefully we’ll avoid this scenario.  We might also somehow coordinate to prevent competitive growth.  For example, we might empower a world government to protect nature, prevent innovation, or prevent population growth.  But I honestly see little prospect of this.  We now live in a very competitive world, and even governments mainly just redirect competition, toward controlling those governments.

We like nature, but aren’t really willing to pay the price it would take to save most of it.  Nature than cannot survive as farms, pets, or small parks, is doomed.

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