Poor Folks Do Smile

Responding to my saying:

As long as enough people are free to choose their fertility … income per capital must fall over the long run, a fall whose only fundamental limit is subsistence.

Peter McCluskey:

Robin Hanson’s Malthusian-sounding posts prompted me to wonder how we can create a future that is better than the repugnant conclusion. … A mind that barely has enough resources to live could be designed so that it is very happy with the cpu cycles or negentropy it gets even if those are negligible compared to other minds. … what I find repugnant … is … the cruelty of evolution which produces suffering in beings with fewer resources than they were evolved to use.

Bryan Caplan:

Robin’s sounding strangely like a doom-sayer* lately. … For flesh-and-blood lives, as opposed to vivid simulations, I actually agree with Robin.  But there are important – and heartening – caveats that I think (?) he accepts, but isn’t pushing: …

  1. “It has to stop sometime” was as true when our population was 10,000 as it is today.  As far as we can tell … “sometime” is a long way off. …
  2. If you don’t like your family’s per-capita income, you can unilaterally raise it by having fewer kids … and set up a trust on their behalf. …
  3. This “subsistence” regime could still have awesome entertainment, art, science, blogs, virtual reality …

Robin’s claim isn’t that our descendants will be “forced” to slave day and night to feed hungry mouths.  Rather, it’s that our descendants will care a lot more about kids than we do. …

* Robin cares about aggregate, not per-capita welfare.  So he would deny that he’s being a doom-sayer.

Bryan and Peter are both mostly right.  Bryan is even right that there is no population externality in the economist’s sense; free fertility choice and contract is usually economically efficient.

I don’t see our far future as a repugnant doom.  Yes, I doubt we can maintain current growth rates to have 103000 descendants in a million years, since only 1070 atoms are available by then.  But 1070 descendants is still is a grand and glorious future, far far beyond our current 1010.

Yes, I think per-capita income must fall to near subsistence levels, but not only isn’t this repugnant – it is good!  Near subsistence lives are not only worth living, they are well worth living, e.g., with far more pleasure than pain.  Poor folks really do smile.  For the same reason that charity to the poor is good, because of their higher marginal value of money versus the rich, having many poor folks is better than a few rich folks; their total pleasure is much more, and is not outweighed by their added pain.

Our ancestors were designed with pleasure and pain to motivate them in a near subsistence world.  Lives of continuous torture, where they’d rather be dead, were rare.  Our descendants will be similarly adapted to find joy and meaning in their near subsistence lives.  And intense pain may well be eliminated in favor of other ways to inducing the required focus. Contact with virtual worlds and with a vast larger society will be far cheaper for them that it was for our ancestors, though contact with a real wild nature will be more expensive.

So why are so many rich folks so horrified by a vast future of poor folk?

  1. Rich folks often compete to show their concern the poor, by competing to exaggerate how bad terrible is poverty. Saying poor lives are like endless torture beats saying they are happy but sure could use more money.
  2. Rich folks would personal be horrified to have to live so poor. They are very used to their wealth, and for them poverty would be a huge horrifying shameful fall in social status.
  3. Really empathizing with the poor by imagining their happiness would make the rich all the more ashamed about their lack of charity to poor folks.  It is easier to ignore poor folk who seem less than fully human.
  4. Rich folks would have to admit they forgo doing huge good by not making as many kids as they can.

By the way, my only disagreement with Bryan is that our robot descendants might actually be forced to slave near day and night, not to feed kids but just to pay for their body rent, their feed-stocks, their net connection, etc.   Even so they’d be mostly happy.

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  • It seems to me that (2) is also the reason why Social Security is more popular among middle- and upper-class people in developed nations than, say, a simple age-independent guarantee that everyone will be provided some minimal level of income. Social Security is indeed aptly named.

  • Psychohistorian

    The argument that people will chose kids over other uses of their time and wealth seems poorly supported. All we have now are groups comprising a small percentage of the population which outstrip average growth by a small margin. There’s no indication these memes are stable, or will remain stable as these groups become relatively and absolutely larger. Also, many of these groups are in transition, such as recent immigrants, and their children are very likely to execute different memes.

    On the other hand, kids might get a lot cheaper in the future. If that’s the case, though, it suggests rising living standards. This proposition requires some generation or generations where people are worse off than their parents but still have lots of kids. This is possible, but I wouldn’t call it likely. Population and fertility can shift very rapidly in a very short time, so there isn’t much reason to credit the Malthusian scenario.

  • On (4), surely that is contradicted by (2). Indeed, the wish for one’\s children to live better than yourself is a powerful engine of social mobility. Hence also Becker’s point about higher income and lower birth rates.

  • I would add:

    5) When considering the lives of “the poor” in the future, the rich imagine something like today’s poor. A universe full of such people feels like a large step backwards in the development of civilization, which many of the rich have spent their lives (and made their fortunes) advancing.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Rich folks would personal be horrified to have to live so poor. They are very used to their wealth, and for them poverty would be a huge horrifying shameful fall in social status.

    Also, because of the hedonic treadmill, rich folks would suffer materially from poverty more than poor people do (and, neglecting adaptation, probably imagine themselves, and by generalization poor people, suffering even more than they themselves actually would).

    Also, related to #4 and Chris’s #5, plain old scope insensitivity.

  • “Our descendants will be similarly adapted to find joy and meaning in their near subsistence lives. And intense pain may well be eliminated in favor of other ways to inducing the required focus. Contact with virtual worlds and with a vast larger society will be far cheaper for them that it was for our ancestors”

    I am now confused. If you modify your own brain to find the existence you lead joyful and fulfilling, in what sense are you “poor”?

    The economic definition of wealth, from Wikipedia is:

    “Wealth is an abundance of valuable resources or material possessions”

    – suppose that some hypothetical future society is full of beings who have altered their minds to value things like virtual experiences and virtual worlds – which might not be limited by physical resources, so might still be abundant even if there is barely enough energy and matter to sustain these simulations. Suppose you find laughter valuable – laughter and smiling is not a scarce resource – in fact it is the opposite, the more you use it, the more other people have of it.

    Since these people think of these “virtual” things as being the holders of value, in what sense are they poor? What do they care they matter is scare?

    • EDIT:

      What do they care *that* matter is scare?

    • I was not suggesting evolution would make folks value virtual stuff more. Economists have standard ways to define “poor” relative to a subsistence standard.

  • A couple of things.

    1) I don’t think I get why there is no social cost to high fertility. If we are living where the atom constraint is binding then the birth of one person necessarily means less for another.

    In more familiar terms, capital is fixed by the atomic constraint and so each additional person lowers the marginal product of labor for all persons.

    2) Isn’t the case against mass poverty more simple than that? If most existing people had to choose between many poor children or a few rich, they would choose a few rich. Thus they extrapolate that if everyone did this it would be a less preferable world.

    Few people are considering that the people who existed in that world would necessarily have different preferences.

    • The fact that if I have more money your money buys less is not an externality in economic terms.

      • Yeah but what doesn’t quite sit well my intution though is that the number of children changes the fraction of total production going to one family and it is endogenous.

        So it seems as if there is a prisoner’s dilemma problem. Suppose we all prefer a world in which all of our children would be able to earn above subsistance but given that everyone else is going to have a bunch of kids, then I should to.

        How can this be true and there still be no social cost?

      • Anytime someone enters a market that makes life worst for other competitors, but this effect is not an externality, because it does not make supply and demand fail to achieve an economically efficient outcome.

  • Great post as long as you’re a total utilitarian! Notice that the higher the cost of creating someone whose life is neutral, the more desirable it is to invest a lot of resources into them. So with uploads their optimal level of consumption will go down over time.

    My guess is that when contemplating future scenarios most people judge it with an assumption that they exist. This means that the benefit of low consumption/high population scenarios (in which they’re more likely to exist) is lost of them.

    • I expect you are right about assuming that one would exist no matter what.

  • Unnamed

    For the same reason that charity to the poor is good, because of their higher marginal value of money versus the rich, having many poor folks is better than a few rich folks; their total pleasure is much more, and is not outweighed by their added pain.

    This isn’t necessarily true. Once a person exists, spending more resources on that person has diminishing marginal value. But adding a new person (starting out a subsistence level) has a marginal value of the pleasure of being at subsistence level divided by the resource costs of subsistence, and we don’t know if that’s steeper than any part of the marginal value curve for an existing person or if it’s equal to the marginal value at some point on that curve. If the former we maximize value by maximizing population; if the latter, we maximize value by having everyone at that point where their marginal value is equal to the marginal value of adding a new person.

    • Unnamed

      Edit: Actually, my math is wrong. In the latter case you don’t go all the way up to that point, but you still do go above subsistence level.

  • Once individuals are absorbed into the collective, is it going to make much sense to discuss how wealthy they are? Probably not.

    Money is essentially a product of distrust. Universal cooperation seems likely to dispense with it.

    • Dan

      It is an accounting mechanism so yes a product of “distrust” sounds quite plausible.

      Universal cooperation seems likely to dispense with it.”

      The keyword here is universal, just one selfish agent will out compete the “co-operators”. Something is required to identify selfish agents as they emerge and swiftly deal with them.

      In a world with any limits accounting is required. “Free market” accounting works quite well in a world of limited labor and abundant resources, we are seeing this being turned on its head. labor is getting abundant (increasing population and ultimately automation, increased productivity tech etc…) While resources exploitation constantly lags behind, creating constant crunches and bubbles… This situation is ripe for extracting massive rents. I don’t see how this situation is optimal in any way.

      A solution may be quota’s on all natural resources, literally any resource that experiences a crunch is placed under the monopoly control of a single corp, everyone have an equal share they cannot trade that share but can trade the profit from that share.

  • mitchell porter

    “So why are so many rich folks so horrified by a vast future of poor folk?”

    In composing an answer to this question, I am torn between being passionate and being coolly objective. Robin, you must be aware that thousands of people starve to death every day, that hundreds of millions are malnourished, that poor people in the present day are the ones most vulnerable to disease, natural disaster, and civil disorder – ad infinitum. If “rich” people form a judgement about what a future with lots of poverty will be like, they’re going to do so starting with the world we have right now, not from arcane arguments about nano-brains with value systems optimized to enjoy what little they’ve got. In objective mode, I would above all be trying to point out that your psychological guesswork simply fails to take into account a huge chunk of reality which obviously plays a part in how people think about poverty. In the other mode… You are not a bad person, you are not a stupid person, so how can you fail to see this? People who care about global poverty care about preventable infant deaths, economic arrangements which amount to slavery, growing populations living on a shrinking ecological base. And ironically, many such people would be sympathetic to the idea of happiness in poverty, though for rather different reasons than the ones you advance! Anyway, you are at best focusing on secondary matters and missing the basic fact that in reality, right now, poverty really does mean suffering, for very large numbers of people.

    • I’m talking about real poor people now. I get that it would be better that those poor were rich. I don’t get the idea that it would be better if those poor folks had never existed. The poor “suffer” relative to being rich, but they do not suffer overall relative to not existing – they on average overall have good lives.

  • Err

    This is heavily dependent on your priors/values, obviously. Some of would rather live in a world with far fewer people living much better lives than the reverse. Existence is not judged to automatically be better than nonexistence to all of us.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    So why are so many rich folks so horrified by a vast future of poor folk?

    Because they are closer to average utilitarianism than total?

  • Lives of continuous torture, where they’d rather be dead, were rare.

    That’s the wrong standard of comparison, surely. Instead, shouldn’t you ask how many would prefer that they were never born in the first place, with full knowledge that the average standard of living of their siblings and (to a lesser extent) everyone else would be raised in that case?

    (I’m applying my understanding of your ethical system here. This isn’t necessarily the question that I would ask.)

  • Jay

    I do not share your faith that the ultimate limits are far in the future. As far as I can tell, supporting Earth’s current population produces quite a bit of stress on the ecosystem. It seems likely, even, that maintaining our current population requires a large amount of dis-saving of environmental assets, which will eventually become unsustainable.

    As far as virtual humanity goes, I am also skeptical. It seems to me that a simulation of a human personality is not a person, in the same way that a simulation of an earthquake is not an earthquake.

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  • Your making an unjustified assumtion of convergence.

    Yes, in the long term there is an evolutionary pressure toward increased reproduction. However, our ability to affect both our own makeup and the world around us is also increasing at a drastic rate.

    It’s totally possible that the system doesn’t have any nice limiting behavior. We might lurch from drastic attacks on reproductive instincts (cutting them out of our jeans) to warfare to periods of reproductive plenty.

    Also it seems that as far as aggregate utility goes the amount contributed by some poor descendants will be small compared to the difference that we could make by building happy machines/brains and filling up giant mines with them. Even a small chance of following that plan probably outweighs the other consequences.

    Also here is a quick argument that aggregate utility isn’t a useful measure.

    Let’s compare universe A which has reached a steady state with 100 billion people and universe B at a steady state of 200 billion people all having the same level of happiness. If you accept aggregate utility as the desierable end you have to prefer universe B to A (twice the utility!)

    But presumably you retain this preference even if you learn that both universe A and B will persist forever in these steady states. Even though we can biject all the people who will live in universe A with those in universe B. Thus it must be the fact that at any particular time B has twice as much utility as A.

    However, now suppose that both universe A and B lie inside some larger domain and god decides he is going to slow down the passage of time in universe B so that only one second passes in universe B for every one in universe A. Yet now A and B have the same utility per unit (absolute) time so no discounting of the future (should use absolute time) can give you reason to favor B over A. So what remains to make B better than A? Is it the fact that the B experiences are associated with more physical brains?

    I could continue and make the situation even more troublesome but I think you get the argument.

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