Tag Archives: Slavery

“Human” Seems Low Dimensional

Imagine that there is a certain class of “core” mental tasks, where a single “IQ” factor explains most variance in such task ability, and no other factors explained much variance. If one main factor explains most variation, and no other factors do, then variation in this area is basically one dimensional plus local noise. So to estimate performance on any one focus task, usually you’d want to average over abilities on many core tasks to estimate that one dimension of IQ, and then use IQ to estimate ability on that focus task.

Now imagine that you are trying to evaluate someone on a core task A, and you are told that ability on core task B is very diagnostic. That is, even if a person is bad on many other random tasks, if they are good at B you can be pretty sure that they will be good at A. And even if they are good at many other tasks, if they are bad at B, they will be bad at A. In this case, you would know that this claim about B being very diagnostic on A makes the pair A and B unusual among core task pairs. If there were a big clump of tasks strongly diagnostic about each other, that would show up as another factor explaining a noticeable fraction of the total variance. Making this world higher dimensional. So this claim about A and B might be true, but your prior is against it.

Now consider the question of how “human-like” something is. Many indicators may be relevant to judging this, and one may draw many implications from such a judgment. In principle this concept of “human-like” could be high dimensional, so that there are many separate packages of indicators relevant for judging matching packages of implications. But anecdotally, humans seem to have a tendency to “anthropomorphize,” that is, to treat non-humans as if they were somewhat human in a simple low-dimensional way that doesn’t recognize many dimensions of difference. That is, things just seem more or less human. So the more ways in which something is human-like, the more you can reasonably guess that it will be human like in other ways. This tendency appears in a wide range of ordinary environments, and its targets include plants, animals, weather, planets, luck, sculptures, machines, and software. Continue reading "“Human” Seems Low Dimensional" »

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Power Corrupts, Slavery Edition

I’ve just finished reading a 1980 book Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South, which mostly quotes US slave owners from the mid 1800s writing on how to manage slaves. I really like reading ordinary people describe their to-me-strange worlds in their own words, and hope to do more of it. (Suggestions?)

This book has made me rethink where the main harms from slavery may lie. I said before that slaves were most harmed during and soon after capture, and that high interest rates could induce owners to work slaves to an early death. But neither of these apply in the US South, where the main harm had seemed to me to be from using threats of pain to induce more work on simple jobs.

However, this book gives the impression that most threats of pain were not actually directed at making slaves work harder. Slaves did work long hours, but then so did most poor European workers around that time. Slave owners didn’t actually demand that much more work from those capable of more work, instead tending to demand similar hours and effort from all slaves of a similar age, gender, and health.

What seems instead to have caused more pain to US south slaves was the vast number of rules that owners imposed, most of which had little direct connection to key problems like shirking at work, stealing, or running away. Rules varied quite a bit from owner to owner, but there were rules on where and when one could travel, times to rise and sleep, who could marry and live with who, who could talk to who when, when and how to wash bodies and houses, what clothes to wear when, who can cook, who can eat what foods, who goes to what sorts of churches when, and so on. Typical rules for slaves had much in common with typical “upstanding behavior” rules widely imposed by parents on their children, and by schools and armies on students and soldiers: eat well, rise early, keep clean, say your prayers, don’t drink, stay nearby, talk respectfully, don’t fraternize with the wrong people, etc.

With so many rules that varied so much, a standard argument against letting slaves visit neighboring plantations was that they’d less accept local rules if they learned of more lenient rules nearby. And while some owners emphasized enforcing rules via scoldings, fines, or reduction of privileges, most often violations were punished with beatings.

Another big cause of pain seems to have been agency failures with overseers, i.e., those who directly managed the slaves on behalf of the slave owners. Owners of just a few slaves oversaw them directly, and many other owners insisted on personally approving any punishments. However still others gave full discretion to overseers and refused to listen to slave complaints.

Few overseers had a direct financial stake in farm profitability, and many owners understood that such stakes would tempt overseers, who changed jobs often, to overwork slaves in the short run at the expense of long run profitability. Even so, short run harvest gains were usually easier for owners to see than long run harm to slaves, tempting overseers to sacrifice the former for the latter. And even if most overseers were kept well in line, a small fraction who used their discretion to beat and rape could impose high levels of net harm.

US south slave plantations were quite literally small totalitarian governments, and the main harms to such slaves seems to parallel the main libertarian complaints about all governments. A libertarian perspective sees the following pattern: once one group is empowered to run the lives of others, they tend to over-confidently over-manage them, adding too many rules that vary too much, rules enforced with expensive punishments. And such governments tend to give their agents too much discretion, which such agents use too often to indulge personal whims and biases. Think abusive police and an excess prison population today. Such patterns might be explained by an unconscious human habit of dominance via paternalism; while dominant groups tend to justify their rules in terms of helping, they are actually more trying to display their dominance.

Now one might instead argue that the usual “good behavior” rules imposed by parents, schools, militaries, and slave owners are actually helpful on average, turning lazy good-for-nothings into upright citizens. And in practice formal rule systems are so limited that agent discretion is needed to actually get good results. And strong punishments are needed to make it work. Spare the rod, and spoil the child, conscript, or slave. From this perspective, US south slave must have led decent lives overall, and we should be glad that improving tech is making it easier for modern governments to get involved in more details of our lives.

Looking to the future, if totalitarian management of individual lives is actually efficient, a more competitive future world would see more of it, leading widely to effective if not official slavery. Mostly for our own good. (This fear was common early in the industrial revolution.) But if the libertarians are right, and most dominant groups tend to make too many overly-harsh rules at the expense of efficiency, then a more competitive future world would see less such paternalism, including fewer slave-like lives.

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Oarsman Pay Parable

Imagine an ancient oarsman, rowing in a galley boat. Rowing takes effort, and risks personal injury, so all else equal an oarsman would rather not row, or row only weakly. How can his boss induce effort?

One simple approach is to offer a very direct and immediate incentive. Use slaves as rowers, and have a boss watch them, whipping any who aren’t rowing as hard as sustainably possible. This actually didn’t happen much in the ancient world; galley slaves weren’t common until the 1500s. But the idea is simple. And of course the same system could also work with cash; usually make positive payments for work, but sometimes fine those you discover aren’t working hard enough. Of course the boss can’t watch everyone all the time. But with a big enough penalty when caught, it might work.

Now imagine that the boss can’t watch each individual oarsman, but can only see the overall speed of the ship. Now the entire crew must be punished together, all or none of them. The boss might try to improve the situation by empowering oarsmen to punish each other for not rowing hard enough, and that might help, but rowers would also use that power for other ends, creating costs.

An even worse case is where the boss can only see how long it takes for the boat to reach its destination. Here the boss might reward the crew for a short trip, and punish them for a long one, but a great many other random factors will influence the length of the trip. Why bother to work hard, if it makes little difference to your chance of reward or punishment?

There is a general principle here. As we add more noise to the measurement of relevant outcomes visible to the ultimate boss, the harder it is to use incentives tied to such outcomes to incentivize rowers. This is true regardless of the type of incentives used. Yes, the lower the worst outcome, and the higher the best outcome, that the boss can impose, the stronger incentives can be. But even the strongest possible incentives can fail when noise is high.

Yes, one can create layers of bosses, with the lowest bosses able to see specifics best. But it can be hard to give lower bosses good incentives, if higher bosses can’t see well.

Another problem is if the boss doesn’t know just how hard each oarsman is capable of rowing. In this case most oarsmen get some slack, so that they aren’t punished for not doing more than they can. This is just one example of an “information rent”. In general, such rents come from any work-relevant info that the worker has that the boss can’t see. If rowers need to synchronize their actions with each other or with waves or wind or time of day. If a ship captain needs to choose the ship’s route based info on weather and pirates. If a captain needs to treat different cargo differently in different conditions. If a captain need to make judgements about whether to wait longer in port for more cargo.

In general, when you want a worker to see some local condition, and then take an action that depends on that condition, you must pay some extra rent. So the more relevant info that workers get, the more choices they make, and the more that rides on those choices, the more workers gain in info rents.

A related issue is the scope for sabotage. Angry resentful workers can seek hidden ways to hurt their bosses and ventures. So the more hard-to-detect ways workers have to hurt things, the more bosses want to treat them well enough to avoid anger and resentment. Pained, sullen, or depressed workers can also hurt the mood of co-workers, suppliers, customers, and investors whom they contact. And the threat of pain can stress workers, making it harder for them to think clearly and well. These issues tend to argue against often using beatings and pain for motivation, even if such things allow stronger incentives by expanding the range of possible outcomes.

Overall, these issues are bigger for more “complex” work, i.e., for more cognitive work, work that adapts more to diverse and new local conditions, and work in larger organizations. In the modern world, jobs have been getting more complex in these ways, and the organization and work literature I’ve read suggests that finding good work incentives is a central problem in modern organizations, and that more complex work is a big reason why modern workplaces substitute broad incentives and good treatment for the detailed and harsh rules and monitoring more common in past eras.

The literature I’ve read on the economics of slavery also uses job complexity to explain the severity of treatment of slaves. Slaves in artisan jobs, in cities, and in households were treated better than field slaves, arguably because of job complexity. They were beaten less, and paid more, and might eventually buy their own freedom.

Bryan Caplan has argued that ems would be treated harshly as slaves: Continue reading "Oarsman Pay Parable" »

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Caplan Debate Status

In this post I summarize my recent disagreement with Bryan Caplan. In the next post, I’ll dive into details of what I see as the key issue.

I recently said:

If you imagine religions, governments, and criminals not getting too far out of control, and a basically capitalist world, then your main future fears are probably going to be about for-profit firms, especially regarding how they treat workers. You’ll fear firms enslaving workers, or drugging them into submission, or just tricking them with ideology.

Because of this, I’m not so surprised by the deep terror many non-economists hold of future competition. For example, Scott Alexander (see also his review):

I agree with Robin Hanson. This is the dream time .. where we are unusually safe from multipolar traps, and as such weird things like art and science and philosophy and love can flourish. As technological advance increases, .. new opportunities to throw values under the bus for increased competitiveness will arise. .. Capitalism and democracy, previously our protectors, will figure out ways to route around their inconvenient dependence on human values. And our coordination power will not be nearly up to the task, assuming something much more powerful than all of us combined doesn’t show up and crush our combined efforts with a wave of its paw.

But I was honestly surprised to see my libertarian economist colleague Bryan Caplan also holding a similarly dark view of competition. As you may recall, Caplan had many complaints about my language and emphasis in my book, but in terms of the key evaluation criteria that I care about, namely how well I applied standard academic consensus to my scenario assumptions, he had three main points.

First, he called my estimate of an em economic growth doubling time of one month my “single craziest claim.” He seems to agree that standard economic growth models can predict far faster growth when substitutes for human labor can be made in factories, and that we have twice before seen economic growth rates jump by more than a factor of fifty in a less than previous doubling time. Even so, he can’t see economic growth rates even doubling, because of “bottlenecks”:

Politically, something as simple as zoning could do the trick. .. the most favorable political environments on earth still have plenty of regulatory hurdles .. we should expect bottlenecks for key natural resources, location, and so on. .. Personally, I’d be amazed if an em economy doubled the global economy’s annual growth rate.

His other two points are that competition would lead to ems being very docile slaves. I responded that slavery has been rare in history, and that docility and slavery aren’t especially productive today. But he called the example of Soviet nuclear scientists “powerful” even though “Soviet and Nazi slaves’ productivity was normally low.” He rejected the relevance of our large literatures on productivity correlates and how to motive workers, as little of that explicitly includes slaves. He concluded:

If, as I’ve argued, we would copy the most robot-like people and treat them as slaves, at least 90% of Robin’s details are wrong.

As I didn’t think the docility of ems mattered that much for most of my book, I challenged him to audit five random pages. He reported “Robin’s only 80% wrong”, though I count only 63% from his particulars, and half of those come from his seeing ems as very literally “robot-like”. For example, he says ems are not disturbed by “life events”, only by disappointing their masters. They only group, identify, and organize as commanded, not as they prefer or choose. They have no personality “in a human sense.” They never disagree with each other, and never need to make excuses for anything.

Caplan offered no citations with specific support for these claims, instead pointing me to the literature on the economics of slavery. So I took the time to read up on that and posted a 1600 summary, concluding:

I still can’t find a rationale for Bryan Caplan’s claim that all ems would be fully slaves. .. even less .. that they would be so docile and “robot-like” as to not even have human-like personalities.

Yesterday, he briefly “clarified” his reasoning. He says ems would start out as slaves since few humans see them as having moral value:

1. Most human beings wouldn’t see ems as “human,” so neither would their legal systems. .. 2. At the dawn of the Age of Em, humans will initially control (a) which brains they copy, and (b) the circumstances into which these copies emerge. In the absence of moral or legal barriers, pure self-interest will guide creators’ choices – and slavery will be an available option.

Now I’ve repeatedly pointed out that the first scans would be destructive, so either the first scanned humans see ems as “human” and expect to not be treated badly, or they are killed against their will. But I want to focus instead on the core issue: like Scott Alexander and many others, Caplan sees a robust tendency of future competition to devolve into hell, held at bay only by contingent circumstances such as strong moral feelings. Today the very limited supply of substitutes for human workers keeps wages high, but if that supply were to greatly increase then Caplan expects that without strong moral resistance capitalist competition eventually turns everyone into docile inhuman slaves, because that arrangment robustly wins productivity competitions.

In my next post I’ll address that productivity issue.

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The Future of Slavery

Bryan Caplan made strong, and to me incredible, claims that econ consensus predicts all ems would be fully slaves with no human personality. As he won’t explain his reasoning, but just says to read the slavery literature, I’ve done a quick lit review, which I now summarize, and then apply quickly to the future in general, and to ems in particular.

The ability to control your pain, actions, and income are distinct property rights. When someone else owns them all, you are said to be a slave, especially if they allocate these rights via something close to a “full control” package. In this package, you have little control over assets or actions. Pain is usually threatened, and often implemented, to force specific disliked but demanded actions. (Pain was used more on children than adults.) Think of rowing for a galley ship, digging up silver in a mine, picking cotton, or advancing on a simple war front line.

A second “mixed control” package allocates these rights by letting you retain control over many action details, only rarely causing pain, and letting you earn a residual income or status. This scenario was more common for domestic slaves, for slaves with better options for sabotage or escape, and for complex jobs where motivation matters more, via worker discretion, responsibility, attentiveness, pleasantness, intelligence, or creativity. By collecting a residual income, slaves might eventually buy their freedom. Free people have often sold this package of rights for short durations in traditional jobs. The main difference is your ease of changing jobs; the harder it is to change jobs, the more like this kind of slave you are.

In a third “debt” package, you must pay off a loan but are otherwise mostly free to choose your own job, location, and living arrangements. The option to impose pain is reserved for rare situations. Closely related is “share cropping” wherein the owner demands a percentage of income earned. Some combination of a fixed payment plus a percentage of income was a common scenario for slaves in southern US cities. This is also the usual way state rulers extort the locals they “own” via taxation. Many people voluntarily choose to go into debt, and sell percentages of their business income, and most legal systems reserve the right to impose pain in rare situations, a situation most people are okay with.

A fourth “ransom” approach sells these rights back to some combination of you and your associates. Often this converts these rights into debt held by someone who is better able to motivate and monitor you.

Many considerations influence the efficiency of these allocations, including costs of monitoring and restraint, losses from theft, rebellion, escape, and sabotage, individual preferences for pain, status, autonomy, and work style, effects of pain, status, and control on motivation and focus, information rents from workers being better aware of work details, complementary investments in training and capital, who knows better and has better incentives to use control rights, and signaling status, productivity, etc. to outsiders.

Historically, even when slaves were common, they were usually a minority of the population. (Beware, the term “slave” is used in different ways.) About 10% in the Roman Empire and US south. Foragers didn’t do slaves at all. About 0.3% of the world is in slavery today, mostly in forms of debt bondage.

The common existence of slavery that wasn’t converted immediately into debt or ransom does suggest that it was sometimes locally efficient as a resource allocation, ignoring larger social externalities, even given substantial costs of monitoring, enforcement, and worse motivation and allocation of skills.

Sometimes during hard times people would sell themselves or their children into slavery; better to be fed than dead. Sometimes slaves were created as collateral for loans, and freed when the loan was paid. Sometimes slavery was the contractual result of a failure to pay loans. Sometimes people sold themselves into slavery for a limited time, as with apprenticeships and indentured servitude.

But historically, slaves were mostly created in war. Drafted soldiers are slave-like. When a winning side didn’t expect to hold the territory, and feared leaving the vanquished to recover then retaliate, their remaining options were death or slavery. But slaves were only valuable when delivered to a useable location. So the worse treatment of slaves has been in transit immediately after capture.

Slave populations usually dwindled until replenished by war, probably because through most of history interest rates were too high to justify the long term investment of raising human children. Domesticated crops and animals grow much quicker. This same short term focus also often induced slave owners to work their slaves to death. A short term focus was often increased by distant ownership, as local manager’ incentives were tied more to immediate production. Workings slaves to death induced more slave revolts.

The US south was unusual in that it grew long-lived slaves from birth. Interest rates were unusually low, peace lasted long, and once US law forbad importing slaves, owners were highly motivated to preserve their big plantation industry. Slaves weren’t converted into debt perhaps because of credit market failures, or more plausibly because the full control approach was especially productive on plantations. (The sex story is overrated, as only 1-2% of slave babies were fathered by white men.)

That is, on plantations slaves plausibly produced more when threatened with pain, even if their utility was lower. The fact that humans can feel strongly disliked pain while living a long productive life and successfully reproducing does suggest that our pain signals are biologically maladaptive. But given how different is the modern world from the one where our pain signals evolved, we should expect this sort of thing sometimes.

Data on US south slave prices tells us what was valued in slaves then. For adults, age was bad, as were slaves from distant places within the US, and slaves that the owner chose to sell, as opposed to being forced to sell. New slaves imported from overseas were no more or less valued. It was good to be male, light-skinned, have artisan skills, and be guaranteed not to be sick or run away.

I didn’t find any data on slaves and docility, though I did find how docility fits into the standard five factor personality framework. Docility is lumped with “submissive, dependent, pliant” as part of “passivity”, which correlates most strongly and positively with neuroticism, but also positively with agreeableness and negatively with openness. In general only the agreeable part suggests more productivity in most jobs today; neurotic people are less productive, and the effect of openness depends more on job type.

What is there to dislike about slavery? The war and theft that cause slavery are clearly lamentable. And the possibility of slavery increases the range of possible inequality, at least if you ignore the dead. But the full control allocation package seems the main reason to dislike slavery. Other packages seem much closer to those resulting from free choices, and when they result from free choices they don’t seem strongly objectionable.

Today slavery, especially full control slavery, is discouraged not only via moral censure and political coordination, but also by stronger nation-states, few wars, better credit markets, increasing wealth, increasing vulnerability to sabotage, more automation, and more complex jobs. The only contrary factors I can think of are easier monitoring and preventing escape. If all these trends continue in the same relative proportions, we should expect a continued decline in slavery.

In the world of my book, The Age of Em, many of these trends continue. Nation-states and credit markets get stronger, and war remains rare. Automation advances, and jobs get even more complex, with motivation and sabotage mattering even more. Monitoring and preventing escape also get easier.

Individual em incomes do fall, which gives a thicker lower tail of outcomes, and in traditional societies that allowed slavery this low tail was often filled with slaves. However, ems can fall via running slower while remaining free, and this option would reduce the fraction that fall into slavery, even if slavery were allowed.

Ems are initially created via destructive scanning of high income human volunteers at the peak of their careers, in a world that forbids slavery. Soon after they are destructive scans of the most promising young children. So these volunteers do not expect to become slaves, and the world around them, being like ours, initially tries to discourage that transition.

However, since a lot changes we can’t offer much assurance that attitudes toward slavery don’t change. Also, labor supply factors matter a lot less; if even one productive em is enslaved, and slavery is allowed, then copies of it could fill a whole slave sector. What matters far more is demand, i.e., what are the more efficient ways to allocate labor? If allowed, there are probably some jobs where full control slavery is more efficient; the em world is big, with many corners. But most jobs are complex, where the full control scenario is inefficient. And the debt or mixed control allocations that are more efficient for typical jobs are probably not substantially more efficient under slavery, as slavery hurts motivation. Debt should be good enough.

So, bottom line, after a quick review of the econ of slavery literature, I still can’t find a rationale for Bryan Caplan’s claim that all ems would be fully slaves. Ancient society never got close to that state of affairs. And I see even less rationale for his claim that they would be so docile and “robot-like” as to not even have human-like personalities. Which is his main reason for saying 80% of my book is wrong. Neither the literatures on choosing employees today, nor that on choosing slaves in the past, put much emphasis on docility. And even if they did, the idea that they’d emphasize it so much as to eliminate human personality, that just sounds crazy.

So Bryan, how about actually giving an argument, instead of waving your hands in the general direction of the literature?

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