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:
I’m fundamentally an altruist, trying to make the world better, though at times I choose to ally and compromise with particular available alliances.
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?