Author Archives: Robin Hanson

Pondering Plasticity

Tyler recently praised (cultural) anthropologists, and with good reason. I’ve learned a great deal from reading them. Yes, economists often look down on other social scientists (who often complain loudly back), and yes anthropologists are one of the most liberal academic disciplines (e.g. high Democrat to Republican ratio), while economists (including Tyler and I) are less so. But maybe Tyler and I are more broad minded than you think.

Just as supply and demand is the crown jewel of econ insight, the crown jewel of anthropology insight is cultural plasticity. This is the idea that humans are pretty flexible – we can be okay in and with few reservations accept the practices of a wide range of cultures, if we grow up there. Not to say humans are infinitely flexible, but just more flexible that we tend to think.

I usually hear people talk of cultural plasticity as favoring a liberal point of view. For example, Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict Of Visions and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate both describe liberals as seeing human plasticity as supporting the feasibility of ambitious social engineering. That is, liberals imagine they can change cultural rules as they wish, then teach people to accept their new rules, and after a transition period it will all stick.

Conservatives, in contrast, are seen as fearing that because human nature can’t bend much, only certain cultures will work, and so they fear that liberal changes will break everything. E.g., if culture doesn’t support marriage, kids won’t get needed support. Or if culture doesn’t support military virtues, we’ll be enslaved by foreign invaders.

It seems to me that in fact cultural plasticity tends more to favor the conservative position. Yes more plasticity means reduced fears that change will break us. But more plasticity also gives less reason to bother. Why make everyone pay big costs of change if most people are pretty happy no matter what the culture?

The driving emotion of liberal reform seems to me to be a strong feeling that most people are not truly happy in typical non-liberal cultures, and that they’d be more truly happy in liberal cultures. Without liberalism they suffer crushing conformity, excess work, and limited vistas, and they lack authenticity, self-expression, autonomy, self-discovery, variety of experience, blah blah blah. Which is why we must struggle to change culture to be more liberal. This seems to me a rather non-plastic point of view.

In contrast, the driving emotion of conservative reluctance to reform is a sense that things are good and ok just as they have long been. Oh they aren’t perfect, but if it was good enough for grandpa, its good enough for me. What we have binds us together; who do you think you are to demand more? We like who we are, so why take a chance changing to be like some strangers, or like something imaginary? Change might break precious things; what is worth that risk?

We can distinguish two kinds of cultural plasticity – plasticity of happiness and plasticity of function. Plasticity of happiness says that people can be happy in a wide range of cultures. In contrast, plasticity of function says that a wide range of cultures result in similar levels of production, security, innovation, etc.

We economists are pretty confident that there is in fact only a limited plasticity of function. That is, different cultures in fact produce quite different levels of production, security, innovation, etc. In contrast, plasticity of happiness seems a far more plausible position. In fact, the main reason that cultures vary in happiness seems to be because they vary in function. That is, cultures that produce more (or are more secure) are happier, but most other cultural dimensions don’t matter much for happiness.

An emphasis on cultures that just produce well, as opposed to cultures that fit some more direct idea of human flourishing, seems to me a conservative emphasis. It is conservatives who worry more about losing cultural pressures to work, to have kids, or to fight hard against enemies. And it is liberals who focus more on imagining people who suffer because of specific features of existing culture, and wanting to change culture to help those victims.

In the em future that I’ve been exploring, there would be a vast increase in total production and security, but practices and values would move away from typical liberal ideals. This horrifies many with strong liberal inclinations. But I’m more okay with it, as I expect most people will adapt just fine, and be nearly as happy there once it is the world they grow up in. Especially since this world would select strongly for folks who are okay with it. So I guess this means I lean conservative in this respect.

It seems that anthropologists have discovered that human happiness is surprisingly robust to cultural changes, and that economists have discovered that production, security, innovation, etc. vary a lot more with cultures. And overall this seems to favor a conservative emphasis on accepting the culture you were born with, and mainly only considering changes to make your society physically stronger. Spiritual fulfillment will mostly take care of itself.

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“Slow” Growth Is Cosmo-Fast

In my first response to Brin at Cato Unbound (and in one followup),  I agreed with him that we shouldn’t let each group decide if to yell to aliens. In my second response, I criticize Brin’s theory that the universe is silent because most alien civilizations fall into slowly-innovating “feudal” societies like those during the farmer era:

We have so far had three eras of growth: forager, farmer, and industry. … In all three eras, growth was primarily caused by innovation. …

A thousand doublings of the economy seems plenty to create a very advanced civilization. After all, that would give a factor of ten to the power of three hundred increase in economic capacity, and there are only roughly ten to the eighty atoms in the visible universe. Yes, at our current industry rates of growth, we’d produce that much growth in only fifteen thousand years, while at farmer rates of growth it would take a million years.

But a million years is still only a small blip of cosmological time. It is even plausible for a civilization to reach very advanced levels while growing at the much slower forager rate. While a civilization growing at forager rates would take a quarter billion years to grow a thousand factors of two, the universe is thirteen billion years old, and our planet is four billion. So there has been plenty of time for very slow growing aliens to become very advanced. (more)

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Me At NIPS Workshop

Tomorrow I’ll present on prediction markets and disagreement, in Montreal at the NIPS Workshop on Transactional Machine Learning and E-Commerce. A video will be available later.

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Guess Alien Value, Chance Ratios

Continuing the discussion about yelling to aliens at Cato Unbound, I ask:

Regarding a choice to yell on purpose, there are two key relevant parameters: a value ratio, and a chance ratio.

The value ratio divides the loss we would suffer if exterminated by aliens by the gain we would achieve if friendly aliens were to send us helpful info. I’d guess this ratio is at least one thousand. The probability ratio divides the chance that yelling induces an alien to send helpful info by the chance that yelling induces an alien to destroy us. I’d guess this ratio is less than one hundred.

If we can neglect our cost or value regarding the yelling process, then we need only compare these ratios. If the value ratio is larger than the chance ratio, yelling is a bad idea. If the value ratio is smaller than the chance ratio, yelling is a good idea. Since I estimate the value ratio to be larger than the chance ratio, I estimate yelling to be a bad idea. If you disagree with me, I want to hear your best estimates for these ratios. (more)

What are your estimates?

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Thank You GMU Econ!

Ten years ago today the GMU economics department voted to award me tenure. With that vote, I won my academic gamble. I can’t be sure what my odds reasonably were, so I can’t be sure it was a gamble worth taking. And I’m not sure tenure is overall good for the world. But I am sure that I’m very glad that I achieved tenure.

Many spend part of their tenure dividend on leisure. Many spend part on continuing to gain academic prestige as they did before. Many switch to more senior roles in the academic prestige game. And some spend tenure on riskier research agendas, agendas that are foolish for folks seeing tenure.

Though some may disagree, I see myself as primarily in this last category.  And since that would not be possible without tenure, I bow in sincere supplication, and thank my colleagues for this treasured honor. THANK YOU for my tenure.

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AI Boom Bet Offers

A month ago I mentioned that lots of folks are now saying “this time is different” – we’ll soon see a big increase in jobs lost to automation, even though we’ve heard such warnings every few decades for centuries. Recently Elon Musk joined in:

The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year timeframe … 10 years at most.

If new software will soon let computers take over many more jobs, that should greatly increase the demand for such software. And it should greatly increase the demand for computer hardware, which is a strong complement to software. So we should see a big increase in the quantity of computer hardware purchased. The US BEA has been tracking the fraction of the US economy devoted to computer and electronics hardware. That fraction was 2.3% in 1997, 1.7% in 2003, and 1.58% in 2008, and 1.56% in 2012. I offer to bet that this number won’t rise above 5% by 2025. And I’ll give 20-1 odds! So far, I have no takers.

The US BLS tracks the US labor share of income, which has fallen from 64% to 58% in the last decade, a clear deviation from prior trends. I don’t think this fall is mainly due to automation, and I think it may continue to fall for those other reasons. Even so, I think this figure rather unlikely to fall below 40% by 2025. So I bet Chris Hallquist at 12-1 odds against this (my $1200 to his $100).

Yes it would be better to bet on software demand directly, and on world stats, not just US stats. But these stats seem hard to find.

Added 3p: US CS/Eng college majors were: 6.5% in ’70, 9.7% in ’80, 9.6% in ’90, 9.4% in ’00, 7.9% in ’10. I’ll give 8-1 odds against > 15% by 2025. US CS majors were: 2.4K in ’70, 15K in ’80, 25K in ’90, 44K in ’00, 59K in ’03, 43K in ’10 (out of 1716K total grads). I’ll give 10-1 against > 200K by 2025.

Added 9Dec: On twitter @harryh accepted my 20-1 bet for $50. And Sam beats my offer: 

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On Stossel Tonight

I should be on tonight’s (9pm EST) episode of Stossel, on Fox Business TV, talking about biases.

Added 8Dec: I was wrong; the show should air Thursday Dec. 11

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One In A Billion?

At CATO Unbound this month, David Brin’s lead essay makes two points:

  1. We probably shouldn’t send messages out to aliens now on purpose, and more surely we shouldn’t let each group decide for themselves if to send.
  2. The lack of visible aliens may be explained in part via a strong tendency of all societies to become “feudal”, with elites “suppressing merit competition and mobility, ensuring that status would be inherited” and resulting in “scientific stagnation.”

In my official response at CATO Unbound, I focus on the first issue, agreeing with Brin, and responding to a common counter-argument, namely that we now yell to aliens far more by accident than on purpose. I ask if we should cut back on accidental yelling, which we now do most loudly via the Arecibo planetary radar. Using the amount we spend on Arecibo yelling to estimate the value we get there, I conclude:

We should cut way back on accidental yelling to aliens, such as via Arecibo radar sending, if continuing at current rates would over the long run bring even a one in a billion chance of alerting aliens to come destroy us. And even if this chance is now below one in a billion, it will rise with time and eventually force us to cut back. So let’s start now to estimate such risks, and adapt our behavior accordingly. (more)

As an aside, I also note:

I’m disturbed to see that a consensus apparently arose among many in this area that aliens must be overwhelmingly friendly. Most conventional social scientists I know would find this view quite implausible; they see most conflict as deeply intractable. Why is this kind-aliens view then so common?

My guess: non-social-scientists have believed modern cultural propaganda claims that our dominant cultures today have a vast moral superiority over most other cultures through history. Our media have long suggested that conflictual behaviors like greed, theft, aggression, revenge, violence, war, destruction of nature, and population growth pressures all result from “backward” mindsets from “backward” cultures.

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss relevant topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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Yes, Compare Nations

I called for more empirical work on the effects of liberty:

Libertarians focus too much on trying to argue abstractly that liberty would be better, and not enough on just concretely describing how liberty would be different. … From [our] vast literature we should be able to identify many concrete patterns and “stylized facts” about how government-provision and heavy-regulation tends to change products and services. (more)

David Henderson agrees:

The reality is that after Stigler’s speech, many economists did look more at the data and the data tended to show that the free market and economic freedom work better than government control. But Robin is not satisfied. There is more to be done, he says, and he’s right.  (more)

But he does have a criticism:

I do have one main criticism of Robin’s post. … It’s the West/East Germany and the South/North Korea comparisons that I want to defend. With all the variables that could affect economic growth, think about how hard it is to know what some of the most important factors are. … The stark contrast between those two pairs of countries and what that said about some economic freedom versus harsh totalitarianism.

I very much agree that those nation pairs make useful comparisons; sorry that what I wrote could mislead on that point. These comparisons do indeed suggest that “some freedom” is better than “harsh totalitarianism”, and they are good data-points on which to base stylized facts on the general effects of more liberty. Their main limitations are that they don’t say much directly about the effects of a lot more liberty than is found in West Germany or South Korea. To imagine even more liberty, we need those stylized facts.

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