Get A Grip; There’s A Much Bigger Picture

Many seem to think the apocalypse is upon us – I hear oh so much much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if you compare the policies, attitudes, and life histories of the US as it will be under Trump, to how they would have been under Clinton, that difference is very likely much smaller than the variation in such things around the world today, and also the variation within the US so far across its history. And all three of these differences are small compared the variation in such things across the history of human-like creatures so far, and also compared to that history yet to come.

That is, there are much bigger issues at play, if only you will stand back to see them. Now you might claim that pushing on the Trump vs. Clinton divide is your best way to push for the future outcomes you prefer within that larger future variation yet to come. And that might even be true. But if you haven’t actually thought about the variation yet to come and what might push on it, your claim sure sounds like wishful thinking. You want this thing that you feel so emotionally invested in at the moment to be the thing that matters most for the long run. But wishes don’t make horses.

To see the bigger picture, read more distant history. And maybe read my book, or any similar books you can find, that try seriously to see how strange the long term future might be, and what their issues may be. And then you can more usefully reconsider just what about this Trump vs. Clinton divide that so animates you now has much of a chance of mattering in the long run.

When you are in a frame of mind where Trump (or Clinton) equals the apocalypse, you are probably mostly horrified by most past human lives, attitudes, and policies, and also by likely long-run future variations. In such a mode you probably thank your lucky stars you live in the first human age and place not to be an apocalyptic hell-hole, and you desperately want to find a way to stop long-term change, to find a way to fill the next trillion years of the universe with something close to liberal democracies, suburban comfort, elites chosen by universities, engaging TV dramas, and a few more sub-generes of rock music. I suspect that this is the core emotion animating most hopes to create a friendly AI super intelligence to rule us all. But most likely, the future will be even stranger than the past. Get a grip, and deal with it.

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  • 5ive

    I think this is largely true, but, suffers from, you know… what’s the opposite of myopia?

    When my father in law died unexpectedly a year ago, my wife was pretty blue. I’m not religious and neither is she and it actually occurred to me to say something like, “Well, the universe is pretty awesome and it’s going to be around for a long time and maybe it will be full of cool stuff in the future!” Not. Helpful.

    People aren’t upset about the election because they don’t understand that the scale and scope of this election is minor in the grand sweep of history (I hope!). People are upset for the same reason they are upset when anything happens that creates uncertainty and anxiety. “Has the chance increased that the people I care about are going to be less safe, happy and prosperous?”

    “Have you suffered a personal tragedy? Thank your lucky stars that some day the universe will probably be filled with intelligence!” I lack the background in philosophy to clearly elucidate why this isn’t a fully rational, but I suspect that this is irrational for the same reason Pascal’s Wager is irrational.

    • Jacob

      Yeah it’s functionally equivalent to nihilism. “This election doesn’t matter because nothing matters, especially your life personally”.

      I have friends who have witnessed or experienced Trump related harassment since the election. I don’t think they’ll be comforted knowing humanity probably won’t go extinct. As an aside, that’s a seriously low bar for a president.

      • JB

        http://xkcd.com/847/

        Light and high beauty are passing things as well.

        The problem with saying “This too shall pass” is that’s also true of the good stuff. So nihilism at the scale required here is almost definitionally not comforting.

  • https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/ entirelyuseless

    “You want this thing that you feel so emotionally invested in at the moment to be the thing that matters most for the long run.”

    Exactly. People are literally saying things like “this makes me fear for the future of the universe,” and things along the same line.

    But that doesn’t mean any presidential election means much about the future of the universe one way or another. It means the people do not care about the future of the universe, but care about politics. But they would like to feel that they care about the future, so they identify getting their party in power as producing a good future.

    And on the matter of getting parties in power, people should note that whenever you have a two party system, each party will tend to win 50% of elections, for obvious selective reasons, so if you think you are on the “right side of history” and expect your party to start winning all of the elections, you are in for a bad surprise.

    • JB

      The sadness on the left is not that “Oh, Democrats won’t win any elections,” it’s “Wow, the compromises Democrats will have to make to win elections again are going to take them pretty far away from my preferences.” Anyone who treats politics as sportsball will be happy 50% of the time in the long run; anyone who treats politics as a means to an end can be frustrated for decades.

      • https://entirelyuseless.wordpress.com/ entirelyuseless

        I think most people treat politics as sportsball, whether or not they realize it.

      • JB

        True. But the Democrat partisans have a fairly clear divide here–the ones saying “This too shall pass, we survived Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes” are sportsballers, the ones saying “Trump will be appalling in irreversible ways” are consequentialists.

  • Lord

    It is just possible, the reason it won’t matter that much is just this response to it. I view these as marketing messages, not prognostications and for that reason can be constructive at enlightening others at how they feel. It is so easy to dwell in our own world, oblivious to those of others.

  • Psmith

    “you desperately want to find a way to stop long-term change, to find a
    way to fill the next trillion years of the universe with something close
    to liberal democracies, suburban comfort, elites chosen by
    universities, engaging TV dramas, and a few more sub-generes of rock
    music.”

    Modulo a few details, this is a pretty damn accurate and concise description of my views.

  • http://blog.seliger.com jseliger

    that difference is very likely much smaller than the variation in such things around the world today, and also the variation within the US so far across its history

    The key issue is nuclear weapons. If he successfully uses them, or instigates another country to use them, we may be at game over.

    Secondarily to that, one worries about creeping authoritarianism and the possibility of dictatorship in the U.S. While that is better than nuclear war, it is very bad for almost everything, including innovation and the future.

    you are probably mostly horrified by most past human lives, attitudes, and policies, and also by likely long-run future variations

    We didn’t have nuclear weapons until 1945, which somewhat limited the catastrophic potential of bad attitudes and policies in the past.

    I think the nuclear scenario is still unlikely but became dramatically more likely than it was two weeks ago.

    The people who are legitimately fearful (like me) are not worried about policy. They are worried about the death of millions and/or the structure of the U.S. itself. The historical precedence for the latter is very much available, as I’m sure you’re aware.

    • LemmusLemmus

      Exactly. I would have estimated the likelihood of the US president causing nuclear warfare within the next four years near zero had Clinton won; under Trump, maybe 2%.

      If nuclear warfare isn’t sufficiently “apocalypse” for you, you’ve got your mind messed up.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        If nuclear warfare isn’t sufficiently “apocalypse” for you, you’ve got your mind messed up.

        I certainly agree that the well-balanced mind isn’t preoccupied with securing the far future, and regards the prospect of nuclear war with much more concern.

        But your estimates appear purely impressionistic. How do you weigh the danger of nuclear war from an emotional president or from abandoning alliances to the danger from keeping those alliances – and most significantly, in my view, the danger from a Clinton presidency in pressing for her maniacal no-fly zone in Syria and confrontationism against Russia?

      • LemmusLemmus

        Yes, they’re purely impressionistic. Any mathematical model I could present would be retrofitting. And that model, too, would be based on impressions, because we have no past cases of Trump or H. Clinton presidencies.

        I also agree that Clinton is generally the more hawkish candidate. Trump is bonkers, though.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Trump is pure self-aggrandizement. Clinton is a creature of a crazed nation-building ideology. How else could she be incapable of learning the lessons of Iraq and Libya? (Which lessons Trump managed to learn.) [For the record, I spoiled my presidenial ballot, and consider my position vindicated by the lowest electoral turnout rate in 20 years. The greatest danger was that either candidate get a huge mandate.]

        [This is where we could use a prediction market – if only they worked ;)]

      • Mark Bahner

        Hi,

        Oops. I should have read further before posting my previous comment. 😉

        The thing that I see as very different between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is that I see her as surrounded by people, like Bill Clinton, who could bring her back from the edge.

        Plus, I think she has a much more comprehensive view of the world than Donald Trump, and more empathy for human suffering. For example, if one mentioned the movie, “The Day After,” I’d expect that Hillary Clinton would be more likely to remember it and have been emotionally impacted by it.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        “The thing that I see as very different between Hillary Clinton and
        Donald Trump is that I see her as surrounded by people, like Bill
        Clinton, who could bring her back from the edge.”

        -If she had listened to Bill Clinton, she would have won Pennsylvania.

        “Plus, I think she has a much more comprehensive view of the world than Donald Trump, and more empathy for human suffering.”

        -On what basis?

      • Doug

        The only nuclear powers capable of causing “apocalyptic” destruction are the US and Russia. Every other nuclear state could only destroy a few dozen cities at most. Devastating for sure. Probably enough to depress world GDP by 20% for several decades. But certainly not an existential threat.

        Hence the only scenario for nuclear apocalypse in the near future is a US/Russia exchange. I think it’s pretty clear from the respective campaigns that Clinton proferred a much more hardline stance against Putin. Definitely enough to outweigh Trump’s personality impulsiveness.

        That doesn’t necessarily mean that Trump’s position is right. If you think the probability of nuclear exchange is very small, then it might be justified to take a harder-line on Russia. However if your concern is nuclear apocalypse, I think the evidence is pretty strong that Trump’s the lesser risk.

      • consider

        China has the capability of taking out the East and West coast U.S. cities as well as those near the Mississippi river. It could also level all cities in South Korea and Japan with shorter range missiles.

      • Matthew Light

        So, you weren’t at all worried about Hillary supporting the idea of shooting down Russian jets over Syria leading to a disastrous war, leading to a nuclear exchange?

      • oldoddjobs

        I had them both at 2% due to Clinton’s record of warmaking and her stated goals in Syria.

    • KC

      “They are worried about the death of millions and/or the structure of the U.S. itself.”

      I’m in total agreement here, but go bigger: no doubt the first target will be Muslims, and while it’s conceivable (likely?) that atrocities would come to roost in our own land, this is escalating a global conflict on an unprecedented level.

      This one is for all the marbles, from my perspective.

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Oh, come ON, Robin. You KNOW that I would regard galaxies tiled with protein entities with aching knees watching television as only barely distinguishable from paperclips in its wasted potential. Every improvement is a change, not every change is an improvement, and rejecting paperclips as an improvement while explicitly embracing open transhumanism does not make me a Neanderthal anticosmopolitan.

    • Dabbler

      If I might ask, Eliezer- as a person in declared opposition to Donald Trump becoming President, how much change do you believe he has the potential to make for the worse?

      • Mark Bahner

        “If I might ask, Eliezer- as a person in declared opposition to Donald Trump becoming President, how much change do you believe he has the potential to make for the worse?”

        I can’t answer for Eliezer, but I think there’s a greater probability of Donald Trump causing a nuclear war than there was for Hillary Clinton causing one. (I didn’t vote for either.)

      • Matthew Light

        I find this belief extremely difficult to grant credibility to.

        Which candidate was trying to antagonize the Russians, and advised shooting down Russian jets over Syria? Which candidate, while secretary of state, encouraged anti-Russian coups on Russia’s borders?

      • Mark Bahner

        As I commented below, I think Hillary Clinton would have had more people to pull her back from the brink. Needless to say, I hope I’m wrong about Donald Trump. And I freely concede that the chances for nuclear war probably would have increased under Hillary Clinton also.

      • Peter David Jones

        > Which candidate was trying to antagonize the Russians, and advised shooting down Russian jets over Syria?
        Are you saying that because there is specific no Trump-Armageddon route, there is no route? Yudkowsky’s point is that IP is very unstable, and that there are always many unknown, unpredictable routes to Armageddon –you have to judge him by his ability to steer as well as his specific plans.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I accept this about you Eliezer. My claim is about the median person with such hopes.

    • Phil Torres

      Here’s why I think Trump’s victory is very much, deeply relevant to humanity’s collective future. A reply: https://medium.com/@philosophytorres/what-a-trump-presidency-means-for-human-survival-one-experts-take-ed26bf9f9a21#.x26k4acqo

  • Daniel Carrier

    > I suspect that this is the core emotion animating most hopes to create a friendly AI super intelligence to rule us all.

    Eliezer’s comments suggest otherwise: http://lesswrong.com/lw/xl/eutopia_is_scary/

    On the other hand, I never was entirely clear about what’s so bad about Failed Utopia 4-2 http://lesswrong.com/lw/xu/failed_utopia_42/ or Friendship is Optimal https://www.fimfiction.net/story/62074/friendship-is-optimal. I feel like the biggest problem is that they could have made those utopias bigger. The next one down is that they seem like they’re missing out by limiting the weirdness. If you have to be a pony, that doesn’t just mean you can’t be a human. It also means you can’t be a creature that exists in five-dimensional hyperbolic geometry. Or a data entity with no physical avatar, that lives without geometry entirely.

    • Ronfar

      The point of Failed Utopia 4-2 isn’t that it’s *bad*, but that it could have been a lot better.

  • Joe

    I conjecture that many mistaken beliefs stem from people putting too much trust in their models, dismissing the factors that those models don’t capture as irrelevant and not worth consideration.

    For example, some libertarian econ types take the rational expectations model too seriously, refusing to engage with psychology at all. Lots of dubious claims about the capabilities and design of future AI seem to stem from just flat out ignoring computational complexity as an issue. And, I suspect that at least some people who just can’t believe the future will be worthwhile unless we have an AI god freeze human mind design in place, are taking for granted that there is no way to model conscious thought in a general way that will be applicable to entities that aren’t humans or something very close.

  • zarzuelazen27
    • oldoddjobs

      People are going to have to choose between “Trump is a blithering idiot” and “Trump is a master con man”

      • Peter David Jones

        No they don’t. because you someone can con their way into a position they don’t have the competence for. People pose as doctors, for instance.

      • oldoddjobs

        There will be jobs. And safety. And women will fall in love with you. And your favourite band will get back together. And the U.S will be bombing countries in the Middle East for mysterious reasons.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        There will be jobs.

        But will they be old and odd?

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Well, he’s no Bernie Madoff.

      • http://www.twitter.com/macronomial macronomial

        Doubtful. After all, conservatives were happy to propagate “Obama is a spineless coward” and “Obama is totalitarian despot” simultaneously

  • SK

    Sure, compared to variations across the Earth and across the history of humanity the differences between a Trump and Clinton presidency are small.

    But my personhood is not spread across the globe and across the entire timeline of humanity. My personhood is spread spatially across the small number of places I, and the people I care about, will live in; and temporally across a couple of human lifetimes (me, my kids, etc).

    The quality of these lives can be dramatically different between a Trump and a Clinton presidency: Wars, extreme weather events due to climate change, lack of jobs due to poor economic policies etc. can have very real consequences for the quality of my life.

    • Mark Bahner

      “…extreme weather events due to climate change,…”

      I hope I can put you mind at ease on that count. There will be absolutely no difference in the number of extreme weather events due to climate change–certainly in the next few decades–with Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton as president.

      And with Donald Trump president, we might finally get my portable hurricane storm surge protection system built. (It’ll be beautiful. Everyone will love it.) (And by “everyone,” I mean most people living near tropical-storm-prone coasts.)

  • Pingback: Humility and Seeing the Bigger Picture | Entirely Useless

  • http://www.bartking.net/ Bart King

    “This isn’t so bad! Read my book to find out why.”
    —You

    “Please.”
    —Me

  • cjm69

    Shorter version: most of human existence has qualified as nasty, brutish, and short, and in the long run we’re all dead, so silly things like public policy and human rights aren’t really important.

    Yeah, sorry, don’t buy it. The reason people care about politics and policy — indeed the reason I’ve devoted my life to studying them — is that they *do* matter. They affect human quality of life and the direction of civilization here and now, in the near term. And without that, all bets are off as to how or even whether we get to the long term.

    The election of Trump is a black swan moment in American history, and it absolutely merits all the apocalyptic concern people are bringing to it.

  • Unanimous

    Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the profit for media companies?

    The media have done so well to work up their audience segments and get a good rivalry going, it’d be a pitty to waste all that investment in genearating attention to sell to advertisers.

    • oldoddjobs

      “The media” itself (established, corporate media) became a subject of interest in this election like never before. It seemed as if they were being worked up by the unruly audience rather than vice versa!

  • Butler Reynolds

    Part of the anxiety comes from the fact that nobody really has a firm sense of what Trump will seriously try to do while in office.

    The thing that would have made rotten Hillary more comfortable to conservatives and progressives alike is that she would have given us more of the same.

    Most politicians turn out to be different than most people predict.

    LBJ was elected in part b/c a lot of people thought that Goldwater would be a war monger. And how could the Nobel Prize committee have been so wrong about Obama?

    I think people are comfortable about being wrong time and time again in the past as long as it is spread out over years.

    Being proven terribly wrong about the election results within a matter of hours and having no solid notion of what might come next (even if a wrong notion) is causing people to lose their minds.

    • Lord

      That and the shock of it actually happening. If the polls had predicted this and everyone had expected it, people would still be satisfied or disappointed, but not shocked.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        We’re shocked because we were poorly informed regarding the depth of the rage of our rural proletariat. The NY Times has admitted it performed a lousy job. (Prediction markets failed because the bettors shared the biases of their social class.)

        With hindsight, the “silent Trump voter” made perfect sense, given the public shaming anti-migrationists are subject to. And how could Clinton win after having been exposed via WickiLeaks for having separate public and private positions on issues (dramatized by her incredible waffling on trade)?

      • Butler Reynolds

        As far as I can tell, the white rage doesn’t appear to show up in the data. it looks like Trump did about as well as Romney, a little better on minority votes.

        It looks like the game changer was Hillary not being able to attract her base. Imagine that. Every campaign she’s ever been in she’s blown her lead bigly.

        If you’ve got a link to a thorough analysis that shows otherwise, post a link. I’d be interested.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I don’t disagree with your presentation of the data. However, I think Trump’s doing as well as Romney and even better with minorities is quite amazing (given that Trump is crazy, incompetent, unbacked by any section of the establishment, and ignored half of the political norms).

        583 makes a tortured argument against the silent Trump voter: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/shy-voters-probably-arent-why-the-polls-missed-trump/ (Answer to the argument: prole voters may face fewer pressures because of where they live, but they are also less confident in voicing independent opinions.)

      • Butler Reynolds

        Given that I am friends with and am related to Trump voters, I never bought the shy story either.

        Instead of looking for a novel explanation, I think it just comes down to team red and team blue for those who voted.

        As nutty of a person Trump is, my friends and family members who voted for him completely ignored his bowl full of crazy. They aren’t unemployed and they aren’t closet racists. They are a bit too nationalist for my taste, but not hateful of foreigners. Mostly, they think Trump is a tough guy who can get things done and they think Hillary is a complete crook.

        Likewise with the Hillary voters I know. They think she’s just so smart and qualified. Yet they completely ignored her aggressive foreign policy, her chronic lying, and her cronyism. However, they ignored all that and focus on how horrifying Trump is.

        In 1992 I was amazed by the candidacy of Ross Perot. People with widely varying viewpoints supported Perot, each thinking he was his guy. They saw what they wanted to see in him.

        When it boils down to it, I suspect it’s one of two scenarios: 1) people saw what they wanted to see in their candidates or 2) or they simply voted for the lesser of evils.

        I thought one of the CNN exit polls was interesting. Of those who thought that Clinton and Trump are both horrible candidates and unqualified to be president, most of them voted for Trump. I wonder if this was enough to make a difference.

        It’s also interesting to note that this might be nothing new to Hillary. I’ve not fact checked it, but I heard a journalist mention that Hillary has blown a strong lead in every race she’s been in..

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        I know Trump supporters who are like those you describe: loyal middle-class Republicans, viewers of Fox news. Rural proles who support Trump are different. They usually don’t even vote. You don’t ask them who they’re voting for unless you know them pretty well.

        This analysis suggests the election was tipped by late deciders, who went Trump. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/17/how-america-decided-at-the-very-last-moment-to-elect-donald-trump/

        It seems to me these were the shy Trump voters. What better way to avoid expressing a pro-Trump opinion than not to form one until it’s time to vote?

      • Butler Reynolds

        You may have read it already, but I found an interesting post by a liberal today:
        http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/11/16/you-are-still-crying-wolf/

    • Ronfar

      Were they really? Obama wound down US involvement in Iraq, like he said he would, and hasn’t sent “boots on the ground” anywhere. And we have a deal with Iran that keeps things under control for a while. “Not being as bad as Bush” is a pretty low bar, but I think he met it…

  • chaosmosis

    I think that there are three avenues by which claims of apocalypse could be made:

    1. Climate change. Trump is rolling back environmental protections, and certainly won’t be increasing them further.

    2. Foreign policy, specifically a direct risk of nuclear war.

    3. Foreign policy, specifically an indirect risk of nuclear war by damaging whatever factors exist that have led to the current era of Great Power peace.

    1 seems like a highly recent problem, without a lot of relevant historical evidence for us to use to assess risks. 2 seems like a moderately recent problem, with only a few pieces of relevant historical evidence for us to use to assess risks. 3 seems like a moderately recent problem, with only a few pieces of relevant historical evidence for us to use to assess risk.

    So I’m left confused what lessons we are supposed to learn from history, here. Maybe some additional specificity would be helpful.

    I personally don’t think we’re headed towards an apocalypse, but that’s because of analytical reasoning that’s gone through my head, which could certainly be argued against, and not because I have empirical evidence from similar situations in the past that verifies we are safe. The current situation is highly new on the timescale of human history. It’s not new on the timescale of modernity, but I don’t think modernity has existed nearly long enough yet for us to not worry about the existential threats that might accompany it.

  • https://twitter.com/CyborgTribe Kevin Hill

    You know this, but perhaps aren’t applying it correctly. Outputs do not scale linearly with the quality of inputs in competitive environments.

    The issue isn’t if America will burn. It probably won’t. However, it has been a bit of a historical anomaly that 300 million people have created most of the innovation in a world of 7 billion, and a large part of that success has been that we take the bets and brightest from the rest of the world. To make things even more complicated, many of those best and brightest want to come here because we are the seat of innovation. It doesn’t even take actual policy, just perceived isolationism, to disrupt that virtuous cycle.

  • Chris Corliss

    Meh, the same argument works in reverse. I am very small compared to the sweep of history, so I should kamikaze my life if it contributes the slightest nudge.