Category: Philosophy

Are nuclear weapons or Rogue AI the more dangerous risk?

I was going to write a long post on this question, as recently I had been urged to do by one of the leaders of the Effective Altruism movement, during a Sichuan lunch.

But then Putin declared a nuclear alert, and I figured a short post might be more effective.  To be clear, I think the chance of nuclear weapons use right now is pretty low.  But it is not zero, if only because of errors and misunderstandings.  So imagine this kind of scenario repeated across a few centuries, with an increasing number of nuclear powers at that.  And this time around, there is a truly existential threat to the current version of the Russian state, and a number of people are suggesting that Putin has gone a little wacko.

And this is in a world where, about one week ago, the conventional wisdom was that Russia would not really invade Ukraine at all, maybe just a limited police action in the east.

As for Rogue AI, here is a long Scott Alexander post (ungated) on the topic.  For now I will just say that it makes my head hurt.  It makes my head hurt because the topic is so complicated.  And I don’t take any particular form of technological progress for granted, not along any time frame.  That holds all the more true for “exotic” claims about what might be possible over the next few decades.  Most of the history of the human race is that of zero economic growth, sometimes negative economic growth.  And how good were past thinkers at predicting the future?  Don’t just select on those who are famous because they got some big things right.

So I see nuclear war as the much greater large-scale risk, by far.  We know nuclear weapons work and we know they can be deployed without any technological advances at all.  And we know they are highly destructive by their very nature, whether we “align” them or not, whether we properly train them or not.

How many people, as public intellectuals, have made “let’s make sure all countries holding nuclear weapons can accurately distinguish between an incoming rocket and a flock of birds” their main thing?  Zero?

What should I ask Daniel Gross?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, noting that he is my co-author on Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World.

Daniel is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist and here is his Wikipedia page.  Here is Daniel on Twitter.  Here is Daniel’s ideas page.  Here is Daniel on his work, including Pioneer.

Since we are co-authors, this won’t just be the standard interview format, how do you think we should do it?  And what should we ask each other?

Wokeism has peaked

Virginia has gone Republican (temporarily, because of school-related issues), San Francisco recalled its school board by a decisive margin, Joe Rogan wasn’t cancelled, and there may be a significant war in Ukraine.  That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column.  Excerpt:

The turning point for the fortunes of the woke may be this week’s school board election in San Francisco, where three members were recalled by a margin of more than 70%. Voters were upset that the school board spent time trying to rename some schools in a more politically correct manner, rather than focusing on reopening all the schools. There was also considerable opposition to the board’s introduction of a lottery admissions system for a prestigious high school, in lieu of the previous use of grades and exam scores.


Another trend is how relatively few immigrants are woke. Latinos in particular seem more open to the Republican Party, or at least don’t seem to have strong partisan attachments. More generally, immigrant political views are more diverse than many people think, even within the Democratic Party.


Wokeism is likely to evolve into a subculture that is highly educated, highly White and fairly feminine. That is still a large mass of people, but not enough to run the country or all its major institutions. In the San Francisco school board recall, for instance, the role of Asian Americans was especially prominent.

In addition:

The woke also are likely to achieve an even greater hold over American universities. Due to the tenure system, personnel turnover is low, and currently newer and younger faculty are more left-wing than are older faculty, including in my field of economics. The simple march of retirements is going to make universities even more left-wing — and even more out of touch with mainstream America.

I hereby inscribe this prediction in The Book of Tetlock.

Jessica Flanigan interviews me and I interview her back

She teaches at University of Richmond, and writes philosophy from perspectives that are broadly libertarian and also Christian.  We spoke about many different matters, as she interviewed me as I interview guests on CWT.  Some of the chat focused on my views on higher education.  When I interview her back, it is mostly about the scope and limits of paternalism.

It was very nice to do another public event with a live audience.  And ignore the talk title, it was about only five percent of the session.

Bram Stoker, Dracula, and Progress Studies

The Dracula novel is of course very famous, but it is less well known that it was, among other things, a salvo in the direction of what we now call Progress Studies.  Here are a few points of relevance for understanding Bram Stoker and his writings and views:

1. Stoker was Anglo-Irish and favored the late 19th century industrialization of Belfast as a model for Ireland more generally.  He also was enamored with the course of progress in the United States, and he wrote a pamphlet about his visit.

2. From Wikipedia:

He was a strong supporter of the Liberal Party and took a keen interest in Irish affairs. As a “philosophical home ruler”, he supported Home Rule for Ireland brought about by peaceful means. He remained an ardent monarchist who believed that Ireland should remain within the British Empire, an entity that he saw as a force for good. He was an admirer of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whom he knew personally, and supported his plans for Ireland.Stoker believed in progress and took a keen interest in science and science-based medicine.

3. The novel Dracula contrasts the backward world of Transylvania with the advanced world of London, and it shows the vampire cannot survive in the latter.  The Count is beaten back by Dr. Van Helsing, who uses science to defeat him and who serves as a stand-in for Stoker and is the de facto hero of the story.

4. One core message of the novel is “Ireland had better develop economically, otherwise we will end up like a bunch of feudal peasants, holding up crosses to fend off evil, rapacious landowners.”  At the time, the prominent uses of crosses was associated with Irish Catholicism.  And is there a more Irish villain than the absentee landlord, namely Dracula?  Dracula is also the kind of warrior nobleman who, coming from England, took over Ireland.

5. In the novel, science and commerce have the potential to defeat underdevelopment.  Stoker’s portrait of Transylvania, most prominent in the opening sections of the novel, also suggests that “underdevelopment is a state of mind.”  And it is correlated with feuding sects and clans, again a reference to the Ireland of his time, at least as he understood Catholic Ireland.  Here is more on Stoker’s views on economic development and modernization for both Ireland and the Balkans.

6. Stoker was obsessed with “rationalizing” (in the Weberian sense) the employment relation and also the bureaucracy  His first non-fiction work was “The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions.”  Progress was more generally a recurring theme in his non-fiction writings, for instance “The Necessity of Political Honesty.”  He called for an Ireland of commerce, education, and without “warring feuds.”

7. For Stoker, sexual repression is needed to further societal progress and economic development, and in this regard Stoker anticipates Freud.  Dracula abides by most laws and norms, except the sexual/cannibalistic ones.  Dracula and Lucy, who give in to their individual desires, end up as the big losers.  For the others, societal order is restored, and the lurid sexuality that pervades the book is dampened by the restoration of order.

8. Christ and Dracula are mirror opposites (the stake, the cross, resurrection at dawn rather than sunset, the role of blood drinking reversed, the preaching of immortality in opposite ways, the inversion of who sacrifices for whom, and more).  A proper societal outcome is obtained when these two opposites end up neutralizing each other.  Stoker’s vision of progress is fundamentally secular.  (See Clyde Leatherdale on all this.)

9. From Hollis Robbins: “Britain’s economic prosperity in the nineteenth century was largely dependent on the adoption of international standards such as Greenwich Mean Time and the universal day, which ensured smooth coordination for trade, legal transactions, railroad travel, and mail delivery. Dracula, whose powers are governed by the sun and the moon rather than clocks and calendars, works to destabilize social coordination. His objective is not only literally to “fatten on the blood of the living,”6 but also more broadly to suck the lifeblood of a thriving commercial economy at the dawn of a global age. Under Dracula’s spell, humans forget the time, becoming listless, unproductive, and indifferent to social convention. At heart, the fundamental battle in Stoker’s Dracula is a death struggle between standard time as an institutional basis for world markets and planetary time governing a primitive, superstitious existence.”

10. In an interview Stoker once said: “I suppose that every book of the kind must contain some lesson, but I prefer that readers should find it out for themselves.”  There are numerous ways to take that remark, not just what I am suggesting.

You want to have strong analytical abilities on your side

No, you don’t always have to agree with the majority of the educated people, but I would say this.  For whatever set of views you think is justified, try to stick to the versions of those views held by well-educated, reasonable, analytically-inclined people.  You will end up smarter over time, and in better places.  Peer effects are strong, including across your ideological partners.

When I hear that a particular group defends liberty, such as the Ottawa truckers’ convoy, while this is partially true it makes me nervous.  As a whole, they also seem to believe a lot of nonsense and to be, in procedural terms, not exactly where I would want them on scientific method and the like.  Fair numbers of them seem to hold offensive beliefs as well.  Whine about The Guardian if you like, but I haven’t seen any rebuttal of this portrait of the views of their leaders.  Ugh.

I recall taking a lot of heat for my 2007 critique of Ron Paul and his movement, but that example illustrates my points perfectly.  Those people did defend liberty in a variety of relevant ways, but so many of them have ended up in worse spaces.  And that is exactly what I predicted way back when.

Look for strong analytical abilities, and if you don’t see it, run the other way.

Here is a defense of the Freedom Convoy.  You can read it for yourself, but it doesn’t change my mind.  Here is I think a wiser account.  I’ll say it again: “Look for strong analytical abilities, and if you don’t see it, run the other way.”  I’m running.

“Context is that which is scarce”

A number of you have been asking me about this maxim, so here is some background on what it means:

1. Ever try to persuade another person?  Let’s say it is even of an uncontested idea such as supply and demand.  You might “final exam them into admitting that the demand curve slopes downward.”  But still, if they do not understand enough of the uses of supply and demand thinking, they will find it hard to think in terms of supply and demand themselves.  They will not have the background context to understand the import of the idea.

2. Why did economists for so long stick with cost of production theories of value, rather than adopting the marginal revolution?  They didn’t see or understand all the possibilities that would open up from bringing the marginal calculus to microeconomics, and then later to empirical work.  Given the context they had, which was for performing simple comparative statics experiments on developing economies, the cost of production theory seemed good enough.

3. One correspondent from a successful company wrote me:

“- I’ve been onboarding ~5 people every two weeks for my team.
– The number of them that actually learn all the important stuff in under a month is zero. The number of them that have a self-guided strategy to learn what is relevant is almost zero.
– Remember these are people with fancy college degrees, that passed a hard interview, and are getting paid $X00k!
– I’m now spending entire days writing / maintaining an FAQ, producing diagrams, and having meetings with them to answer their questions.”

4. Ever wonder about the vast universe of critically acclaimed aesthetic masterworks, most of which you do not really fathom?  If you dismiss them, and mistrust the critics, odds are that you are wrong and they are right.  You do not have the context to appreciate those works.  That is fine, but no reason to dismiss that which you do not understand.  The better you understand context, the more likely you will see how easily you can be missing out on it.

5. I use “modern art” or “contemporary art” (both bad terms, by the way) as good benchmarks for whether a person understands “context is that which is scarce.”  “Contemporary classical music” too (another bad terms, but you know what I mean).  If a person is convinced that those are absurd enterprises, that is a good litmus test for that person not understanding the import of context.  You may not prefer things to be this way, but in many cultural areas appreciation of the outputs demands more and more context (Adam Smith called this division of labor, by the way).

6. If you think a great deal of things are “downstream from culture and ideas,” as I do, you also have to think they are downstream of context.

7. Many attributions of bad motives to people, or attributions of conspiracy, spring from a lack of understanding of context.  It is easy enough for someone to seem like he or she is “operating in bad faith.”  But usually a deeper and better understanding is available.

8. Lack of context is often a serious problem on Twitter and other forms of social media, as they may deliberately truncate context.  In some parts of our culture, context is growing more scarce.  “When I’m Sixty-Four” makes much more sense on Sgt. Pepper than it does on Spotify.

9. So much of education is teaching people context.  That is why it is hard, and also why it often does not seem like real learning.

10. When judging people for leadership positions, or for jobs that require strongly synthetic abilities, you should consider how well they are capable of generating an understanding of context across a broad range of domains, including ex nihilo, so to speak.  How to test for understanding of context is itself a topic we could consider in more depth.

Addendum: MR, by the way, or at least my contributions to it, is deliberately written to give you less than full context.  It is assumed that you are up to speed on the relevant discourse, and are hungering for the latest tidbit on top of where you are currently standing.  Conversations with Tyler also are conducted on a “I’m just going to assume you have the relevant context and jump right in” — that is not ideal for many people, or they may like the performance art of it without it furthering their understanding optimally.  But it keeps me motivated because for me the process is rarely boring.  I figure that is more important than keeping you all happy.  It also attracts smarter and better informed readers and listeners, which in turn helps me keep smart and alert.  I view my context decisions, in particular the choice to go “minimal upfront context” in so many settings, as essential to my ongoing program of self-education.

Samuel Brenner reads *Stubborn Attachments*

An excellent review and interpretation, here is one summary part:

…the fundamental idea of the book is not “economic growth is good” but rather “here’s how to reason under extreme uncertainty”, and that once you adopt Tyler’s view about how to reason under extreme uncertainty, both principles (growth and rights) fall out as the only two important considerations…

My preferred view of the book’s overall argumentative structure is more like the following:

G. Good things are better than bad things
H. We need to act in order to achieve good things
I. But there’s a huge froth of uncertainty, and our actions might be counterproductive
J. So we should have faith
K. And also we should only pursue the actions with really high expected value and which are likeliest to rise above the froth of uncertainty
L. The actions that pass this test best are growth and rights, so we have to pursue both

I would stress this is a complement to other interpretations rather than a substitute for them, in any case an excellent short essay.  And here is “About Samuel Brenner.

Are artificial wombs a left-wing or right-wing proposal?

On one hand, it is pro-natalist, so that makes it right-wing.

On the other hand it is (ostensibly?) feminist, relieving a burden on women, so that makes it left-wing.

It also could be construed as trying to “equalize family,” which would be left-wing or even communist.

Under another reading, it is about “corporate babies,” which pushes it a back into the right-wing camp.

From yet another perspective, no one really thinks it will happen, at least not soon.  So the symbolic message for the world of today is “Women are not that important and they could be replaced by machines.”  Maybe neither the right-wing nor the left-wing like that message (albeit for different reasons), but it has a tinge of “someday this differential burden will be gone and then you left-wing feminists will need to stop whining.”

Which puts it back a bit into the right-wing camp.

So which is it?

My Israel-only Conversation with the excellent Russ Roberts

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, here is the CWT summary:

In this special crossover special with EconTalk, Tyler interviews Russ Roberts about his new life in Israel as president of Shalem College. They discuss why there are so few new universities, managing teams in the face of linguistic and cultural barriers, how Israeli society could adapt to the loss of universal military service, why Israeli TV is so good, what American Jews don’t understand about life in Israel, what his next leadership challenge will be, and much more.

We didn’t shy away from the tough stuff, here is one question:

COWEN: Let me ask you another super easy question. Let’s say we think that under current circumstances, a two-state solution would not lead to security either for Israel or for the resulting Palestinian state. Many people believe that. Let’s say also, as I think you believe, that a one-state solution where everyone votes would not lead to security for a current version of Israel or even a modified version of it.

Let’s say also that the current reliance of the Palestinian territories on the state of Israel for protection, security, intelligence, water — many important features of life — prevent those governing bodies from ever attaining sufficient autonomy to be a credible peace partner, guaranteer of its own security, and so on. From that point of view, what do we do? We’re not utilitarians. We’re thinking about what’s right and wrong. What’s the right thing to do?

Do read Russ’s answer!  (Too long to excerpt.)  And:

COWEN: Now, the United States has about 330 million people, yet there are more Israeli TV shows I want to watch than American TV shows. There’s Srugim, there’s Shtisel, there’s Prisoners of War, there’s In Judgment, there’s Tehran. There’s more. Why is Israeli TV so good?

ROBERTS: I’m glad you mentioned Prisoners of War, which doesn’t get enough — Prisoners of War is in my top five. If I had to list my top five, I’d pick Shtisel, Prisoners of WarThe Americans, probably The Wire, and The Crown. Do you have a top five that you could reel off?

COWEN: The Sopranos would be my number one. Srugim and Prisoners of War plausibly would be in my top five.

We then consider the Israeli topic at hand.  Interesting throughout, a very good dialogue.

What should I ask Lydia Davis?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, and here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Lydia Davis (born July 15, 1947) is an American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and translator from French and other languages, who often writes extremely brief short stories. Davis has produced several new translations of French literary classics, including Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

So what should I ask her?

Anéantir, by Michel Houellebecq

As it happens, Balzac is Houellebecq’s hero. Anéantir not only demonstrates comparable ambition to Balzac; it is also proof of Houellebecq’s tireless work. In his various books he has accumulated notes on: the stages of terminal tongue cancer; the precise topography of the Ministry of Finance; the exact operation of a guillotine (with schematics); the names, composition and texture of processed sandwiches on sale in Parisian train stations; the vernacular of Paris’s best political spin doctor; the triage of dying residents in provincial care homes, and more. When, some time around the 2100s Anéantir is re-published by Penguin Classics, the notes section will take up half the space of the novel proper. The translator will battle to properly convey the Tom Wolfe-like bleak hopelessness encompassed in ‘un sandwich Daunat maxi-moelleux au blanc de poulet-emmental dans son emballage et une Tourtel’.

Like Balzac, many of Houellebecq’s characters are drawn from real life. The book is set in the year 2026. The sitting president is transparently Emmanuel Macron, who’s been re-elected in 2022. Term limits mean he can’t run again: his cunning plan is to push a popular television talk show host to win in 2027, coached by, among others, the minister of finance, thereby keeping the seat warm for a return of ‘Macron’ himself at the 2032 election — a kind of Putin-Medvedev switcheroo.

The book just came out in France, here is more information.  Is Houllebecq best at 736 pp.?  I guess we’ll find out.  In French, on Kindle.  And in German.  When in English?  I have ordered it in German, though I am not sure when I will get to start much less finish it.

What is actually a heretical view?

I was two days ago at Hereticon, and wondering which views actually should be considered heretical.  It seems there are some distinct categories, for instance here are a few categories of the “partially heretical”:

1. Used to be heretical, or on the verge of switching.

Favoring gay marriage, or more on the border thinking that UFOs are of alien origin.  The latter view is now presented with a straight face by former presidents and CIA heads, so it is not heretical any more.  In polls, it is not even so unusual amongst the American public, though some elites will mock it and it remains outside of the mainstream.

2. It’s heretical to say but the actual idea is not heretical.

Presenting “eugenics” ideas is heretical, but talking about “dating” and “matchmaking” is not.  Embryo selection is on the verge of not being heretical, if it ever was.  Or talking about “the feminization of society” is modestly heretical, but believing women have a much greater cultural influence is not heretical at all.  You just have to talk about it the right way.

3. The idea is not heretical globally.

But it might be heretical domestically, such as saying “the CCP is great.”  Or “women should have their kids really young.”  Those are a special category of heretical ideas, extremely common around the world, for better or worse, but still a no-no in some locales.

4. Popular views, but heretical with many elites.

Try “Darwin is wrong,” or “Facebook is fine.”  How about “autocracy is good”?  NB: In all of these discussions, I am not considering whether the belief is right or wrong.

Which would be a truly heretical belief that does not fall into these “partially heretical” categories?  But it can’t be absurd either, for instance it is not “heretical” for me to believe I can jump one hundred feet in the air, rather it is simply stupid.  I am also not looking for beliefs that offend or insult groups per se, as that is too easy.  “Group X is crummy” is not interesting for my purposes.

Maybe here are a few outright heretical views, again noting that I am not endorsing them:

5. ESP works.

6. Whales are smarter than people and deeper thinkers too.

7. In fact you can trust Congress to do the right thing.

8. Ten percent inflation a year is just fine.

9. Fortunately America has so many guns that we couldn’t do very strict lockdowns for Covid.

10. It would be better if humans never had existed, as they have destroyed more welfare than they created.  Most of all because of their effects on non-human animals.

11. Non-human animals suffer more than they enjoy, and it would be better if they did not exist.

12. American TV was much better in the 1960s and 1970s.

What else?

My Holberg Prize talk honoring Cass Sunstein

This is from 2018, I hadn’t know it was put on-line this last summer.  The title is about threats to democracy, but much of the actual 24-minute talk is about Cass.  Cass won the Holberg Prize that year, and I was asked to be one of the honoring speakers at the ceremony.  Here goes:

The fish and chips in Bergen was excellent.

And for this pointer I thank Clara B. Jones.