Tag Archives: Charity

Grabbing Now Versus Later

Today and yesterday’s Democratic debates suggests a big recent bump in tastes for regulation and redistribution, in order to lower the status of big business and the rich, and to spend more on the needy and worthy causes. South Korea, which I’ve just visited, sees a similar trend, as does Europe:

Europe’s mainstream parties are going back to the 1970s. In Germany, the U.K, Denmark, France and Spain, these parties are aiming to reverse decades of pro-market policy and promising greater state control of business and the economy, more welfare benefits, bigger pensions and higher taxes for corporations and the wealthy. Some have discussed nationalizations and expropriations. It could add up to the biggest shift in economic policy on the continent in decades. (more)

While I often hear arguments on the moral and economic wisdom of grabbing to redistribute, I rarely hear about the choice of whether to grab now versus later. The issues here are similar to those for the related choice in charity, of whether to give now versus later:

Then Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias got up and just started Robin Hansonning at everybody. First he gave a long list of things that people could do to improve the effectiveness of their charitable donations. Then he declared that since almost no one does any of these, people don’t really care about charity, they’re just trying to look good. … he made some genuinely unsettling points.

One of his claims that generated the most controversy was that instead of donating money to charity, you should invest the money at compound interest, then donate it to charity later after your investment has paid off – preferably just before you die. … He said that the reason people didn’t do this was that they wanted the social benefits of having given money away, which are unavailable if you wait until just before you die to do so. And darn it, he was totally right. Not about the math – there are severe complications which I’ll bring up later – but about the psychology. (more)

Others … argue that giving now to help people who are sick or under-schooled creates future benefits that grow faster than ordinary growth rates. But … if real charity needs are just as strong in the future as today, then all we really need [for waiting to be better] are positive interest rates. (more)

You may be tempted to move resources from the rich and business profits to the poor and worthy projects, because you see business exploitation, you see low value in the rich buying mansions and yachts, you see others in great need, and you see great value in many worthy projects. But big business doesn’t actually exploit much, the consumption of the rich is less of real resources, and the rich tend to consume less relative to investing and donating.

So instead of grabbing stuff from the rich and businesses today, consider the option of waiting, to grab later. If you don’t grab stuff from them today, these actors will invest much of that stuff, producing a lot more stuff later. Yes, you might think some of your favorite projects are good investments, but let’s be honest; most of the stuff you grab won’t be invested, and the investments that do happen will be driven more by political than rate-of-return considerations. Furthermore, if you grab a lot today, news of that event will discourage future folks from generating stuff, and encourage those folks to move and hide it better.

Also, the rich put much of what they don’t invest into charity. And there’s good reason to think they do a decent job with their charity efforts. Most have impressive management abilities, access to skilled associates, and a willingness to take risks. And they can more effectively resist political pressures that typically mess up government-managed projects.

Finally, when the rich do spend money on themselves, much of that goes to paying for positional and status goods that generate much less in the way of real wastes. When they bid up the price of prestigious clubs, real estate, colleges, first-class seats, vanity books and conference talks, etc., real resources are transferred to those who get less prestigious versions. And our best model of status inequality says that allowing more of this doesn’t cause net harm.

So the longer you wait to grab from the rich, the longer they will grow wealth, donate it well, and transfer via status goods. Just as it is dangerous to borrow too much, because you may face big future crises, it can be unwise to grab from the rich today, when you could grow and farm them to create a crop available to harvest tomorrow. South Korea would have been much worse off doing big grabs in 1955, relative to waiting until today to grab.

Added 29June: Some people ask “wait how long?” One strategy would be to wait for a serious crisis. This is in fact when the rich have lost most of their wealth in history, in disasters like wars, pandemics, and civilization collapse. Another strategy would be to wait until there’s so much capital that market rates of return fall to very low levels.

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Low Prestige Hurts More

It can feel terrible to feel unwanted. Unwanted by schools, labor markets, sport teams, music bands, acting troupes, or romantic partners. We feel bad when we feel unwanted, and we often pity others to see them unwanted. Though we don’t usually pity enough to actually choose them over alternatives. And they can feel even worse to see our pity, as it affirms the visibility of their rejection.

Ever since we were foragers, humans have distinguished two kinds of status: dominance and prestige. Dominance is illicit, and we have norms saying to prevent and resist it, while prestige is not only allowed but encouraged. So one way to sympathize with and support someone who is unwanted is to frame their rejection as illicit dominance.

Since rich folks and big for-profit firms are easily portrayed as illicit dominators, it is easy to blame their illicit dominance when they reject people. So many people like to support those rejected by firms, such as for jobs at firms or loans from banks, by blaming firm dominance. Big firms can also be blamed when the products and services they sell explain why people are rejected by others. E.g., video games, tobacco, and payday lending.

This all helps explain why so many are so quick to blame “capitalist” firms and a larger culture and “system” of capitalism, such as for many kinds of discrimination leading to unfair rejection. Such blamers can then self-righteously sympathize with the rejected without having to actually choose them.

Note that economists often blame public pressures to cut firm rejections for bad economic effects, such as high unemployment in Europe where it is hard to fire workers, and excess home loans to risky households before the 2008 financial crisis.

This perspective also helps explain why people are reluctant to blame their “systems” of romance, friendship, conversation, sport, music, arts, which also result in rejections that make so many feel unwanted. Those systems tend to be associated more directly with prestige, and lack identifiable villains to blame for dominance. Except when big business gets involved. Rejection there can also be blamed on a larger “capitalist” culture causing discrimination, such as re sexual preferences or gender identities.

But here’s the thing: even without any illicit domination, some will have lower prestige than others, and that will hurt. Badly. In fact, it probably hurts even more than having low dominance, as that can be self-righteously blamed on others’ illicit pursuit of high dominance. Being low prestige, in contrast, elicits little sympathy from others, as showing sympathy toward such folks risks being pushed to not reject them, and being seen has having poor evaluation abilities regarding prestige.

The only simple solutions I see are an easy one, ignore it all, and a hard one: sometimes actually and honestly sympathize with the low in prestige. And let them see that sympathy. Which yes, will sometimes lead you to make “pity” choices you might not otherwise make. Do it because it hurts. (Some propose more complex solutions; they must wait for another post.)

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Best Cause: New Institution Field Trials

“Altruist” is not one of my core identities, though many identities that I cherish (e.g., “accurate”, “innovator”) have altruistic effects. But over the last decade I’ve met many who identify directly as altruists. If you are such a person, this post is for you. In it, I will make the case for a particular altruistic cause, a cause that combines two big altruism levers: innovation and institutions.

Innovation: If you care about helping people, you should care a lot about the future, because most of the people you could help live there. In addition, typical interest rates put less weight on future consequences, compared to consequences today, which means that all else equal you can buy future help at a much lower cost.

The main reason that our world today is better off than past worlds is innovation; we have accumulated more better ways to do many things. This strongly suggests that innovation is the main way that people today will help the future. Which suggest that this is how you should also try to help. In addition, there seems to be too little innovation today because many innovations are hard to own, and even when owned most of their value leaks out to folks who pay little for them.

Many steps are typically required for successful innovation. A problem must be perceived, solutions invented, trials test, and winners diffused out to new contexts. Usually a lot of adaptation detail is required to enable a simple elegant idea to actually be useful in complex contexts, and also to readapt solutions that worked well in some contexts to new differing contexts. The most effective way to help innovation is to subsidize the steps that are now currently neglected. Our world typically offers larger rewards for generating simple ideas, and for adopting into ordinary practice well adapted and tested solutions. Thus one can help most by subsidizing the neglected efforts to adapt and readapt, especially in contexts where it is hard to own or sell an innovation. Such as:

Institutions: We each make many choices in our lives. And you can help others by advising their choices. However, when people are directly subject to the consequences of their choices, they tend to have good incentives to figure out their best choices. You can help more by subsidizing the individual choices that tend more to benefit others. This can include the choice to collect more decision related info, when that info could benefit many others with similar choices.

Most individual choices are made within larger social equilibria over which each person has little personal influence. For example, we each drive on the right side of the road mainly because everyone else drives on the right. That is, we tend to take larger equilibria and systems as given when making our individual choices. Yes we can try to coordinate to change these systems, but coordination is hard, most of benefits go to others, and it is hard to own most systems.

Collecting info to advise an effort to coordinate to change equilibria is especially neglected, as we tend to neglect both info and coordination. Info collection efforts are especially neglected when it is hard to claim person altruistic credit for the info that one has contributed, either because that effort gets mixed up with the efforts of others, or because non-altruistic motives are plausible.

Each social equilibria can be thought of a combination of a set of visible and relatively formal rules, together with other less visible “cultural” factors that produce matching expectations and behaviors. That first more visible part we call “institutions” or “mechanisms”. Useful changes of social equilibria require not just changes in visible institutions, but also well-matching changes to local culture.

It is easier to change systems when the new system that one might want to create is already working well in other social contexts. In such cases, we must only work to adapt existing systems into our new context, via some combination of analysis and trial and error, and also work to coordinate to actually make this change. It is easier to work explicitly and analytically on the more visible institutional parts; for the less visible cultural parts one is forced more to rely on simple trial and error. It is hardest to change systems when the desired new system is not already working well somewhere, and so it must be invented, adapted, and tested before it can be applied.

Innovating Institutions: You can gain especially strong altruism leverage by combining these two levers, innovation and institutions. That is, you can help to collect and share info to allow innovation of shared social systems. As the most neglected step in the innovation process is context-specific adaptation and re-adaptation, that is the highest leverage place to help. As social systems are very important but hardest for individuals to own or choose, innovators neglected these the most. And as institutions are the visible part of social systems that one can actually work on, that is where visible efforts must focus.

Back in 1993, at the age of 34, I started a Ph.D. program to study institution and mechanism design, exactly because I had come to this conclusion, that institution innovation had a huge neglected potential. I spent many years studying this academic area, and I can tell you now with confidence: academics know many useful things about institutions, and have many good elegant simple ideas for institution change, ideas that they have explored in math and lab experiments.

Some say that while past social innovations were important, future ones are not, because there is little left to learn about social systems; we know most all worth knowing. But that’s just very wrong. The space of possible social systems is vast, and we’ve hardly explored but a tiny corner of that vast space.

I can also tell you with confidence: academics usually drop the innovation ball after they’ve extracted the academic rewards that they can from an institution idea. Academics can be rewarded for studying existing social systems, including both institutional and cultural elements. They can also be rewarded for proving theorems about new institution ideas, and for testing predictions of these theorems in highly-abstracted lab experiments. Sometimes even in simple well-controlled field experiments. But academics are not rewarded for further efforts to adapt promising ideas to messy social worlds, and so they do little of this.

Business people are often willing to take a social innovation that has mostly been adapted well and do the last few adaptation steps, if those last steps are cheap enough and if they think they can own something about it (e.g. software), or if they can gain direct value from its application. However, business people are far less eager to contribute to earlier steps of the innovation process. Thus it is the intermediate innovation steps, of adaptation and re-adaptation, that are neglected by both academics and business.

As charities claim to be altruistic, you might think they would step in to pay for these key high leverage missing steps. But while many charities pay for academic research, and some pay to apply mostly-worked-out new institution ideas in charity contexts, almost none pay for the neglected adaptation of social innovation ideas in other contexts. Charity patrons either don’t understand why that would be helpful, or don’t think that the audience they seek to impress with their charity efforts would understand. But if you really are a direct altruist, who cares more about helping than about getting others to think you are helping, then this cause might be the one for you.

While money can help, the key resource needed for institution adaptation efforts is actually real organizations willing to risk disruption and distraction to work on adapting promising institution ideas. This is where I’m stuck with decision markets. There’s lots of money for abstract academic work, and many businesses ready to apply mostly-proven mechanisms. But organizations willing to do trial and error to search for less disruptive variations, those are hard to find. If you have or can create such an organization, you are sitting on altruism gold, if only you will dig it up.

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Long Legacies And Fights In A Competitive Universe

My last post discussed how to influence the distant future, using a framework focused on a random uncaring universe. This is, for example, the usual framework of most who see themselves as future-oriented “effective altruists”. They see most people and institutions as not caring much about the distant future, and they themselves as unusual exceptions in three ways: 1) their unusual concern for the distant future, 2) their unusual degree of general utilitarian altruistic concern, and 3) their attention to careful reasoning on effectiveness.

If few care much or effectively about the distant future, then efforts to influence that distant future don’t much structure our world, and so one can assume that the world is structured pretty randomly compared to one’s desires and efforts to influence the distant future. For example, one need not be much concerned about the possibility that others have conflicting plans, or that they will actively try to undermine one’s plans. In that case the analysis style of my last post seems appropriate.

But it would be puzzling if such a framework were so appropriate. After all, the current world we see around us is the result of billions of years of fierce competition, a competition that can be seen as about controlling the future. In biological evolution, a fierce competition has selected species and organisms for their ability to make future organisms resemble them. More recently, within cultural evolution, cultural units (nations, languages, ethnicities, religions, regions, cities, firms, families, etc.) have been selected for their ability to make future cultural units resemble them. For example, empires have been selected for their ability to conquer neighboring regions, inducing local residents to resemble them more than they do conquered empires.

In a world of fierce competitors struggling to influence the future, it makes less sense for any one focal alliance of organism, genetic, and cultural units (“alliance” for short in the rest of this post) to assume a random uncaring universe. It instead makes more sense to ask who has been winning this contest lately, what strategies have been helping them, and what advantages this one alliance might have or could find soon to help in this competition. Competitors would search for any small edge to help them pull even a bit ahead of others, they’d look for ways to undermine rivals’ strategies, and they’d expect rivals to try to undermine their own strategies. As most alliances lose such competitions, one might be happy to find a strategy that allows one to merely stay even for a while. Yes, successful strategies sometimes have elements of altruism, but usually as ways to assert prestige or to achieve win-win coordination deals.

Furthermore, in a world of fiercely competing alliances, one might expect to have more success at future influence via joining and allying strongly with existing alliances, rather than by standing apart from them with largely independent efforts. In math there is often an equivalence between “maximize A given a constraint on B” and “maximize B given a constraint on A”, in the sense that both formulations give the same answers. In a related fashion, similar efforts to influence the future might be framed in either of two rather different ways:

  1. I’m fundamentally an altruist, trying to make the world better, though at times I choose to ally and compromise with particular available alliances.
  2. I’m fundamentally a loyal member/associate of my alliance, but I think that good ways to help it are to a) prevent the end of civilization, b) promote innovation and growth within my alliance, which indirectly helps the world grow, and c) have my alliance be seen as helping the world in a way which raises its status and reputation.

This second framing seems to have some big advantages. People who follow it may win the cooperation, support, and trust of many members of a large and powerful alliance. And such ties and supports may make it easier to become and stay motivated to continue such efforts. As I said in my last post, people seem much more motivated to join fights than to simply help the world overall. Our evolved inclinations to join alliances probably create this stronger motivation.

Of course if in fact most all substantial alliances today are actually severely neglecting the distant future, then yes it can make more sense to mostly ignore them when planning to influence the distant future, except for minor connections of convenience. But we need to ask: how strong is the evidence that in fact existing alliances greatly neglect the long run today? Yes, they typically fail to adopt policies that many advocates say would help in the long run, such as global warming mitigation. But others disagree on the value of such policies, and failures to act may also be due to failures to coordinate, rather than to a lack of concern about the long run.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of future neglect is that typical financial rates of return have long remained well above growth rates, strongly suggesting a direct discounting of future outcomes due to their distance in time. For example, these high rates of return are part of standard arguments that it will be cheaper to accommodate global warming later, rather than to prevent it today. Evolutionary finance gives us theories of what investing organizations would do when selected to take a long view, and it doesn’t match what we see very well. Wouldn’t an alliance with a long view take advantage of high rates of return to directly buy future influence on the cheap? Yes, individual humans today have to worry about limited lifespans and difficulties controlling future agents who spend their money. But these should be much less of an issue for larger cultural units. Why don’t today’s alliances save more?

Important related evidence comes from data on our largest longest-term known projects. Eight percent of global production is now spent on projects that cost over one billion dollars each. These projects tend to take many years, have consistent cost and time over-runs and benefit under-runs, and usually are net cost-benefit losers. I first heard about this from Freemon Dyson, in the “Fast is Beautiful” chapter of Infinite in All Directions. In Dyson’s experience, big slow projects are consistent losers, while fast experimentation often makes for big wins. Consider also the many large slow and failed attempts to aid poor nations.

Other related evidence include having the time when a firm builds a new HQ be a good time to sell their stock, futurists typically do badly at predicting important events even a few decades into the future, and the “rags to riches to rags in three generations” pattern whereby individuals who find ways to grow wealth don’t pass such habits on to their grandchildren.

A somewhat clear exception where alliances seem to pay short term costs to promote long run gains is in religious and ideological proselytizing. Cultural units do seem to go out of their way to indoctrinate the young, to preach to those who might convert, and to entrench prior converts into not leaving. Arguably, farming era alliances also attended to the long run when they promoted fertility and war.

So what theories do we have to explain this data? I can see three:

1) Genes Still Rule – We have good theory on why organisms that reproduce via sex discount the future. When your kids only share half of your genes, if you consider spending on yourself now versus on your kid one generation later, you discount future returns at roughly a factor of two per generation, which isn’t bad as an approximation to actual financial rates of return. So one simple theory is that even though cultural evolution happens much faster than genetic evolution, genes still remain in firm control of cultural evolution. Culture is a more effective ways for genes to achieve their purposes, but genes still set time discounts, not culture.

2) Bad Human Reasoning – While humans are impressive actors when they can use trial and error to hone behaviors, their ability to reason abstractly but reliably to construct useful long term plans is terrible. Because of agency failures, cognitive biases, incentives to show off, excess far views, overconfidence, or something else, alliances learned long ago not to trust to human long term plans, or to accumulations of resources that humans could steal. Alliances have traditionally invested in proselytizing, fertility, prestige, and war because those gains are harder for agents to mismanage or steal via theft and big bad plans.

3) Cultures Learn Slowly – Cultures haven’t yet found good general purpose mechanisms for making long term plans. In particular, they don’t trust organized groups of humans to make and execute long term plans for them, or to hold assets for them. Cultures have instead experimented with many more specific ways to promote long term outcomes, and have only found successful versions in some areas. So they seem to act with longer term views in a few areas, but mostly have not yet managed to find ways to escape the domination of genes.

I lean toward this third compromise strategy. In my next post, I’ll discuss a dramatic prediction from all this, one that can greatly influence our long-term priorities. Can you guess what I will say?

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Be A Dad

A key turning point in my life was when my wife declared that her biological clock said she wanted kids now. I hadn’t been thinking of kids, and the prospect didn’t inspire much passion in me; my life had focused on other things. But I wanted to please my wife, and I didn’t much object, so we had kids. I now see that as one of the best choices I’ve made in my life. I thank my wife for pushing me to it.

Stats suggest that while parenting doesn’t make people happier, it does give them more meaning. And most thoughtful traditions say to focus more on meaning that happiness. Meaning is how you evaluate your whole life, while happiness is how you feel about now. And I agree: happiness is overrated.

Parenting does take time. (Though, as Bryan Caplan emphasized in a book, less than most think.) And many people I know plan to have an enormous positive influences on the universe, far more than plausible via a few children. But I think they are mostly kidding themselves. They fear their future selves being less ambitious and altruistic, but its just as plausible that they will instead become more realistic.

Also, many people with grand plans struggle to motivate themselves to follow their plans. They neglect the motivational power of meaning. Dads are paid more, other things equal, and I doubt that’s a bias; dads are better motivated, and that matters. Your life is long, most big world problems will still be there in a decade or two, and following the usual human trajectory you should expect to have the most wisdom and influence around age 40 or 50. Having kids helps you gain both.

And in addition, you’ll do a big great thing for your kids; you’ll let them exist. It isn’t that hard to ensure a reasonably happy and meaningful childhood. That’s a far surer gain than your grand urgent plans to remake the universe.

Having kids is actually the best-proven way to have a long term influence. So much so that biological evolution has focused almost entirely on it. By comparison, human cultural mechanisms to influence the future seem tentative, unreliable, and unproven, except when closely tied to having and raising kids. Let your portfolio of future influence attempts include both low-risk, as well as high-risk, approaches.

Added 2p: Of course our biases help us make our meanings, in parenting as elsewhere:

Belief in myths idealizing parenthood helps parents cope with the dissonance aroused by the high financial cost of raising children. (more; HT Eric Barker)

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Foom Justifies AI Risk Efforts Now

Years ago I was honored to share this blog with Eliezer Yudkowsky. One of his main topics then was AI Risk; he was one of the few people talking about it back then. We debated this topic here, and while we disagreed I felt we made progress in understanding each other and exploring the issues. I assigned a much lower probability than he to his key “foom” scenario.

Recently AI risk has become something of an industry, with far more going on than I can keep track of. Many call working on it one of the most effectively altruistic things one can possibly do. But I’ve searched a bit and as far as I can tell that foom scenario is still the main reason for society to be concerned about AI risk now. Yet there is almost no recent discussion evaluating its likelihood, and certainly nothing that goes into as much depth as did Eliezer and I. Even Bostrom’s book length treatment basically just assumes the scenario. Many seem to think it obvious that if one group lets one AI get out of control, the whole world is at risk. It’s not (obvious).

As I just revisited the topic while revising Age of Em for paperback, let me try to summarize part of my position again here. Continue reading "Foom Justifies AI Risk Efforts Now" »

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Presumed Selfish

Imagine that some person or organization is now a stranger, but you are considering forming a relation with them. Imagine further that they have one of two possible reputations: presumed selfish, or presumed pro-social. Assume also that the presumption about you is somewhere between these two extremes of selfish and pro-social.

In this situation you might think it obvious that you’d prefer to associate with the party that is presumed pro-social. After all, in this case social norms might push them to treat you nicer in many ways. However, there are other considerations. First, other forces, such as law and competition, might already push them to treat you pretty nicely. Second, social norms could also push you to treat them nicer, to a degree that law and competition might not push. And if you and they had a dispute, observers might be more tempted to blame you than them. Which could tempt them to demand more of you, knowing you’d fear an open dispute.

For example, consider which gas station you’d prefer, Selfish Sam’s or Nuns of Nantucket. If you buy gas from the nuns, social norms might push them to be less likely to sell you water instead of gas, and to offer you a lower price. But you might be pretty sure that laws already keep them from selling you water instead of gas, and their gas price visible from the road might already assure you of a low price. If you start buying gas from the nuns they might start to hit you up for donations to their convent. If you switched from them to another gas station they might suggest you are disloyal. You might have to dress and try to act extra nice there, such as by talking polite and not farting or dropping trash on the ground.

In contrast, if you buy gas from Selfish Sam’s, laws and competition could assure you that get the gas you wanted at a low price. And you could let yourself act selfish in your dealings with them. You could only buy gas when you felt like it, buy the type of gas best for you, and switch it all when convenient. You don’t have to dress or act especially nice when you are there, and you could buy a selfish snack if that was your mood. In any dispute between you and them most people are inclined to take your side, and that keeps Sam further in line.

This perspective helps make sense of some otherwise puzzling features of our world. First, we tend to presume that firms and bosses are selfish, and we often verbally criticize them for this (to others if not to their faces). Yet we are mostly comfortable relying on such firms for most of our goods and services, and on bosses for our jobs. There is little push to substitute non-profits who are more presumed to be pro-social. It seems we like the fact that most people will tend to take our side in a dispute with them, and we can feel more free to change suppliers and jobs when it seems convenient for us. Bosses are often criticized for disloyalty for firing an employee, while employees are less often criticized for disloyalty for quitting jobs.

Sometimes we feel especially vulnerable to being hurt by suppliers like doctors, hurt in ways that we fear law and competition won’t fix. In these cases we prefer such suppliers to have a stronger pro-social presumption, such as being bound by professional ethics and organized via non-profits. And we pay many prices for this, such as via acting nicer to them, avoiding disputes with them, and being reluctant to demand evaluations or to switch via competition. Similarly, the job of being a solider makes soldiers especially vulnerable to their bosses, and so soldier bosses are expected to be more pro-social.

As men tend to be presumed more selfish in our culture, this perspective also illuminates our male-female relations. Men commit more crime, women are favored in child custody disputes, and in dating men are more presumed to “only want one thing.” In he-said-she-said disputes, observers tend to believe the woman. Women tend more to initiate breakups, and find it easier to get trust-heavy jobs like nursing, teaching, and child-care, while men find it easier to get presumed-selfish jobs like investors and bosses. Female leaders are more easily criticized for selfish behavior, e.g., more easily seen as “bitchy”. Women tend to conform more, and to be punished more for nonconformity.

This all makes sense if men tend to feel more vulnerable to hidden betrayal by women, e.g. cuckoldry, while women can more use law and visible competition to keep men in line. In traditional gender roles, men more faced outsiders while women more faced inside the family. Thus men needed more to act “selfish” toward outsiders to help their families.

When those who are presumed selfish want to prove they are not selfish, they must sacrifice more to signal their pro-sociality. So men are expected to do more to signal devotion to women than vice versa. Conversely folks like doctors, teachers, or priests, who are presumed pro-social can often get away with actually acting quite selfishly, as long such choices are hard to document. Few with access to evidence are willing to directly challenge them.

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World Basic Income

Joseph said .. Let Pharaoh .. appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years. .. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine. And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh. (Genesis 38)

[Medieval Europe] public authorities were doubly interested in the problem of food supplies; first, for humanitarian reasons and for good administration; second, for reasons of political stability because hunger was the most frequent cause of popular revolts and insurrections. In 1549 the Venetian officer Bernardo Navagero wrote to the Venetian senate: “I do not esteem that there is anything more important to the government of cities than this, namely the stocking of grains, because fortresses cannot be held if there are not victuals and because most revolts and seditions originate from hunger. (p42, Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution)

63% of Americans don’t have enough saved to cover even a $500 financial setback. (more)

Even in traditional societies with small governments, protecting citizens from starvation was considered a proper of role of the state. Both to improve welfare, and to prevent revolt. Today it could be more efficient if people used modern insurance institutions to protect themselves. But I can see many failing to do that, and so can see governments trying to insure their citizens against big disasters.

Of course rich nations today face little risk of famine. But as I discuss in my book, eventually when human level artificial intelligence (HLAI) can do almost all tasks cheaper, biological humans will lose pretty much all their jobs, and be forced to retire. While collectively humans will start out owning almost all the robot economy, and thus get rich fast, many individuals may own so little as to be at risk of starving, if not for individual or collective charity.

Yes, this sort of transition is a long way off; “this time isn’t different” yet. There may be centuries still to go. And if we first achieve HLAI via the relatively steady accumulation of better software, as we have been doing for seventy years, we may get plenty of warning about such a transition. However, if we instead first achieve HLAI via ems, as elaborated in my book, we may get much less warning; only five years might elapse between seeing visible effects and all jobs lost. Given how slowly our political systems typically changes state redistribution and insurance arrangements, it might be wiser to just set up a system far in advance that could deal with such problems if and when they appear. (A system also flexible enough to last over this long time scale.)

The ideal solution is global insurance. Buy insurance for citizens that pays off only when most biological humans lose their jobs, and have this insurance pay enough so these people don’t starve. Pay premiums well in advance, and use a stable insurance supplier with sufficient reinsurance. Don’t trust local assets to be sufficient to support local self-insurance; the economic gains from an HLAI economy may be very concentrated in a few dense cities of unknown locations.

Alas, political systems are even worse at preparing for problems that seem unlikely anytime soon. Which raises the question: should those who want to push for state HLAI insurance ally with folks focused on other issues? And that brings us to “universal basic income” (UBI), a topic in the news lately, and about which many have asked me in relation to my book.

Yes, there are many difficult issues with UBI, such as how strongly the public would favor it relative to traditional poverty programs, whether it would replace or add onto those other programs, and if replacing how much that could cut administrative costs and reduce poverty targeting. But in this post, I want to focus on how UBI might help to insure against job loss from relatively sudden unexpected HLAI.

Imagine a small “demonstration level” UBI, just big enough to one side to say “okay we started a UBI, now it is your turn to lower other poverty programs, before we raise UBI more.” Even such a small UBI might be enough to deal with HLAI, if its basic income level were tied to the average income level. After all, an HLAI economy could grow very fast, allowing very fast growth in the incomes that biological human gain from owning most of the capital in this new economy. Soon only a small fraction of that income could cover a low but starvation-averting UBI.

For example, a UBI set to x% of average income can be funded via a less than x% tax on all income over this UBI level. Since average US income per person is now $50K, a 10% version gives a UBI of $5K. While this might not let one live in an expensive city, a year ago I visited a 90-adult rural Virginia commune where this was actually their average income. Once freed from regulations, we might see more innovations like this in how to spend UBI.

However, I do see one big problem. Most UBI proposals are funded out of local general tax revenue, while the income of a HLAI economy might be quite unevenly distributed around the globe. The smaller the political unit considering a UBI, the worse this problem gets. Better insurance would come from a UBI that is funded out of a diversified global investment portfolio. But that isn’t usually how governments fund things. What to do?

A solution that occurs to me is to push for a World Basic Income (WBI). That is, try to create and grow a coalition of nations that implement a common basic income level, supported by a shared set of assets and contributions. I’m not sure how to set up the details, but citizens in any of these nations should get the same untaxed basic income, even if they face differing taxes on incomes above this level. And this alliance of nations would commit somehow to sharing some pool of assets and revenue to pay for this common basic income, so that everyone could expect to continue to receive their WBI even after an uneven disruptive HLAI revolution.

Yes, richer member nations of this alliance could achieve less local poverty reduction, as the shared WBI level couldn’t be above what the poor member nations could afford. But a common basic income should make it easier to let citizens move within this set of nations. You’d less have to worry about poor folks moving to your nation to take advantage of your poverty programs. And the more that poverty reduction were implemented via WBI, the bigger would be this advantage.

Yes, this seems a tall order, probably too tall. Probably nations won’t prepare, and will then respond to a HLAI transition slowly, and only with what ever resources they have at their disposal, which in some places will be too little. Which is why I recommend that individuals and smaller groups try to arrange their own assets, insurance, and sharing. Yes, it won’t be needed for a while, but if you wait until the signs of something big soon are clear, it might then be too late.

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Scared, Sad, Angry, Bitter

These four emotions: scared, sad, angry, and bitter, all suggest that one has suffered or will suffer a loss. So all of them might inspire empathy and help from others. But they don’t do so equally. Consider the selfish costs of expressing empathy for these four emotions.

While a scared person hasn’t actually suffered a loss yet, the other kinds of feelings indicate that an actual loss has been suffered. So the scared person is not yet a loser, while the others are losers. When there are costs with associating with losers, those costs are lowest for the scared. For example, if it takes real resources to help someone who has suffered a loss, the scared person is less likely to need such resources.

People who are angry or bitter blame particular other people for their loss. So by expressing empathy with or helping such people, you risk getting involved in conflicts with those other people. In contrast, helping people who are just sad less risks getting you into conflicts.

People who are angry tend to think they have a substantial chance of winning a conflict with those they blame for their loss. Anger is a more visible emotion that drives one more toward overt conflict. Angry people are visibly trying to recruit others to their fight.

In contrast, bitter people tend to think they have little chance of winning a overt conflict, at least for now. So bitter people tend to fume in private, waiting for their chance to hit back unseen. If you help a bitter person, you may get blamed when their hidden attacks are uncovered, and your support may tempt them to become angry and start an overt fight. So by helping a bitter person, you are more likely to be on the losing end of a conflict.

These considerations suggest that our cost of empathizing with and helping people with these emotions increases in this order: scared, sad, angry, and bitter. And this also seems to describe the order in which we actually feel less empathy; we feel less empathy when its costs are higher.

Note that this same order also describes who has suffered a larger loss, on average. Scared people expect to suffer the smallest loss, while bitter people suffer the largest loss. (Ask yourself which emotion you’d rather feel.) So our willingness to express empathy with those who suffer a loss is inverse to the loss they suffer. We empathize the most with those who suffer the least. Because that is cheapest.

Thanks to Carl Shulman for pointing out to me the social risks of helping bitter folk, relative to sad folk.

Added 18Feb: Interestingly, many lists of emotions don’t include bitterness or an equivalent. It is as if we’d like to pretend it just doesn’t exist.

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Yay Soda Firms

It is usually bad for people to die, and so good for them to keep living. Overall in our society, people who weigh more for their age and gender tend to die more, and so many are concerned about an “obesity epidemic”, and seek ways to reduce people’s weight, such as by getting them to consume fewer calories. Such as from drinking sugary soda.

TIME magazine says that evil soda firms, like evil tobacco firms before them, are lying about science to distract us from their evil:

You may not have noticed it yet, but sodamakers are working hard to get you off your couch. On Aug. 9, a New York Times article revealed that Coca-Cola was quietly funding a group of scientists called Global Energy Balance Network that emphasizes the role of exercise, as opposed to diet, in fighting obesity. … This has some nutrition and obesity experts charging soda companies, whose sales of carbonated soft drinks have hit a 20-year low, with cherry-picking science to make its products more appealing. … Indeed, there isn’t strong evidence to show that exercise alone … can help people shed pounds and keep them off. … It’s not the first time science has been used to sway public perceptions about the health effects of certain behaviors; the tobacco industry famously promoted messaging passed on studies that claimed to prove that “light” or “low-tar” cigarettes were less harmful that regular ones. (more)

Yes, it is true that the literature usually suggests that for most people exercise won’t do much to change their weight. However, another consistent result in the literature (e.g., here, here) is that when we predict health using both weight and exercise, it is mostly exercise that matters. It seems that the main reason that heavy people are less healthy is that they exercise less. Obesity is mainly unhealthy as a sign of a lack of exercise.

So if we cared mainly about people’s health, we should cheer this effort by soda forms to push people to exercise. Even if that also causes people to cut down less on soda. A population that exercises more doesn’t weight much less, but it lives much longer. In fact, exercise seems to be one of the biggest ways we know of by which an individual can influence their health. (Much bigger than medicine, for example.)

I suspect, however, that what bothers most people most about fat people isn’t that they’ll die younger, its instead that they look ugly and low status, and so make them also look low status by association. So we don’t want people near us to look fat. All else equal we might also want them to live longer, but that altruistic motive can’t compete much with our status motive.

So boo soda firms if you want your associates to not seem low status. But yay soda firms if you want people to live and not die (sooner).

Added 11a: The New York Times reports this as the main message:

… Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise. Health experts say this message is misleading …

Actually that message seems exactly right to me, and not at all misleading.

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