Month: November 2019

If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now?

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When I was growing up, television was a big deal. Not like impeachment is a big deal, but more like how screen time is a big deal, and in fact worries about screen time are the offspring of worries about kids watching too much TV. But even so worries about TV were different. These days you’ll see recommendations for limiting screen time to two hours a day. When I was a kid, there was a time when I was allowed to choose an hour of TV a week, and we would make out a TV schedule at the beginning of each week. (Imagine something similar being done with screens now). To be fair, I could also watch the TV my siblings selected, which added in a few more hours. And I think if my parents decided to watch TV I might be allowed to watch that as well, but all told I think, at best, I averaged an hour a day. 

(Readers might be curious what I spent my hour on, as I recall Nova and Cosmos were big, but I also loved Robotech.)

An hour a day doesn’t sound much different from the two hours of screen time currently being recommended, but there were other, potentially larger differences as well. We mostly only ever had one TV growing up, perhaps two by the time I was in high school, and the spread among my friends wasn’t much different. There were definitely a couple of them who had zero TVs, and a few that might have had four or possibly five. But I don’t remember any of my friends having a TV in their bedroom, and, in fact, such a thing was viewed as the ultimate abdication in parenting, or at least the most extreme proof you could offer that a child was spoiled. This meant that TVs were in public, well-trafficked locations. It was very difficult to watch TV without your parents knowing about it. (Your best bet was to wait until they had entirely left the house.) 

Another big difference was what was available on TV. We never had cable, so there were only seven stations to choose from, three networks (eventually four) two PBS stations and some local station. And nothing these stations showed was particularly racy. Certainly there was no nudity and definitely no swearing. Despite this there were still shows we weren’t allowed to watch, like Love Boat and Three’s Company. Now there are a lot of things that are like TV (streaming, YouTube, etc.) and the level of choice and the amount of content is orders of magnitude greater. When I was a kid, my parents had pretty much heard of and formed an opinion about every show on TV, now such a thing is inconceivable.

I could go on from here and talk about interactivity, or how niche things can be, or the explosion of pornography but my point is not to document current conditions (which most people are familiar with in any event) but to set the scene for anyone who’s too young to remember a time before the internet. This is important because I’m going to be discussing Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Which was written during the time I’m talking about (1985), the pre-internet era when television was ascendent. I’d like to start this discussion by quoting the entirety of the book’s forward because it may be the best opening ever for a book of social commentary:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Not too long ago I came across this quote and immediately decided I had to read the book, and not necessarily because Postman was correct on every particular—for example I think we’re being ruined by both desire and fear—but because as he points out, understanding the current world is a lot more about understanding Huxley than it is about understanding Orwell. That it’s more about the explosion of options than their limitations. More about a fracturing of society, than it’s unification under a totalitarian rule. And while I do think Orwell was extremely prescient about meaning coming down to a fight over language, I think Huxley came closer to predicting that the biggest issue in that fight is the deluge of speech, not a single codification of it, as with Orwell’s newspeak

All of this may be true, but at this point you’re probably wondering what Postman actually contributes to Huxley’s original diagnosis, but more than that, you may be wondering how Postman’s analysis of the problems with TV hold up in the age of the internet and social media. Let’s start with what Postman adds to Huxley, which is mostly to add Marshall McLuhan into the mix.

McLuhan is famous for his aphorism that “the medium is the message”, and Postman is a long time fan of his, though he claims that he actually came to this conclusion while studying the bible as a young man, in particular the Second Commandment:

I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. [emphasis original]

From all this Postman derives his central claim, that the dominant form of communication in his day, TV, was worsening the quality of US culture. That by habituating people to expect that everything would be entertaining we were “amusing ourselves to death”. In making this claim, he was less concerned with “junk television” and more concerned with adding entertainment to more serious endeavors like news and education. To his view, “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health, 60 minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.”

The common domain inhabited by these more serious endeavors was the concept of epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the origins and nature of truth. Cheers and the A-Team never claimed to be dispensing truth, but that’s exactly the endeavor 60 minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are engaged in. And Postman’s claim is that dispensing truth via the medium of television is different than dispensing it via the medium of print. Here’s how Postman lays it out:

With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations… like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

Obviously I can’t get into all of his arguments, and in fact what I really want to get to is a discussion of the epistemology of social media and the internet, but I think it will be easier to have that discussion if we’ve covered the epistemology of the previous dominant mediums first, and at this point some examples might help.

When print was the dominant medium, then all rhetoric had to fit in with the expectations of that medium. Thus even when people gave speeches they followed the general format of a book or a very long article. The classic example that everyone has heard of is the Lincoln Douglas debates (available on Audible by the way, highly recommended). These debates lasted three hours. One person would have an hour then the other person would take an hour and a half and then the first person would have half an hour for his final rebuttal. Can you imagine anyone listening to a three hour debate on anything in this day and age. And what’s interesting is that the three hour format was the abbreviated version. Previous to this they had engaged in debates lasting seven hours. From this Postman observes:

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? 

For one thing it’s attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. 

All of this is pretty remarkable to imagine, in this day and age. When the timeframe of our political debates are all measured in minutes, not hours, and this is true even when the field has been narrowed to two competitors. But beyond a remarkable attention span Postman argues that the dominance of print led to, and in fact required a better epistemology.

I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

On the other hand, Postman argues, none of the above is true once television becomes the principal means of communication. First, as already alluded to, television has vastly shortened attention spans. Postman mentions that “the average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds”. This has apparently not changed much since then, even when talking about the news where the average shot length in 2019 is 4.8 seconds. Postman claims all of this:

…called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.

Which takes us to the next epistemological change brought on by TV, that to a large extent the degree to which something is entertaining is the degree to which people consider it worthwhile, and by extension, true.

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows…we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” We accept the newscaster’s invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say…A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.

I imagine for many people all of the above is self-evident, and that even for those that are still resistant, if we can at least agree that different messages are easier to deliver depending on the medium they’re delivered in then we can turn to the real question: Which messages are easiest to deliver over the medium of the internet and social media? And does this result in the disproportionate selection of harmful messages? Or as I put it in the title: If we were amusing ourselves to death in the 80s, what are we doing now?

Unfortunately Postman died in 2003, so he isn’t around to answer that question. On the off chance that he wrote something more germane to the question in a later work, I also read Technopoly, one of his final books, and the last one I thought would bear on this question. Technopoly is a fine book with many interesting ideas, chief among them the idea that by needing to apply discrete values to everything that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. But because so much of society is driven by technology we inevitably reduce things into a form that’s easily digestible by computers, and in the process we lose much of the potential “landscape”. That in the end we actually forget that there might be something outside of giving a letter grade, or beyond the four choices available on a multiple choice test.

That said, I came away with the distinct feeling that he was trying to write about a movie he’d only seen the first couple of minutes of. And that, while he had interesting things to say, he was forced to make far too many assumptions. And, most of all, he had nothing new to add to this particular question, so it looks like our best bet is to tackle it by extrapolation. 

Postman argues that what we should be mostly concerned with is the epistemology of a given medium, and the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the medium of social media is “fake news” in all of its many guises. (One of which may be truth disguised as falsehood.) Not an encouraging beginning no matter how you look at it. That said, to simply say that the current media environment merely creates an even worse epistemological environment is a cop-out. Things are far more complicated than that.

As we’ve seen, Postman was a big fan of long form printed content, and I would argue that among some groups this sort of content is going through a renaissance. The internet and social media are fairly text heavy. There is a lot of long form blog-style content out there that seems very popular. And, finally, there’s the popularity of podcasts, and while these are not exactly printed content, they have to be considered closer to being a book than a TV show.

Initially all of this would seem to be cause for optimism, but remember it’s complicated. First, while there may be a lot of new “readers” I think they still represent only a small fraction of the total population. Secondly, even if we just consider people who get their information primarily from the written word, you’re still looking at a huge number of very diverse sub-groups. I know that even before the advent of mass communication (Postman points to the invention of the telegraph as the start of it all) there wasn’t much unity, but there was still a lot more of it than there is now. Back then you might have the people who read the New York Times vs. people who read the New York Post. Now people aggregate at the level of individual blog fan-dom. And I dare say, despite the discipline imposed by textual arguments that each of these blogs has a slightly different epistemological framework.

Further, while there are certainly some whose preferred medium is text, perhaps even more than there were a decade ago, there are still a large number of people who get their “truth” from the TV. But even this medium is very different and more diverse than it once was. The prime example is the numerous people who get all of their information from Fox, and not just in the tuning in at 6 and 10 fashion of the past, but who spend hours watching it. Similarly, there are also people who largely watch only MSNBC or CNN, and beyond that are the people who acquire the bulk of their worldview from a handful of YouTube channels.

There are serious downsides to all of the foregoing, but at least those epistemologies might be said to lead to an ideology that’s coherent even if it isn’t desirable, and if something is coherent we might at least be able to engage with it. But I would argue that the majority of people can’t even summon this level of focus and are actually mired in the modern version of what Postman called the “peek-a-boo” effect. On TV it was most visible as part of the news, You might hear a story about some incomprehensible tragedy which would immediately be followed by a commercial for laundry detergent, or perhaps it would be time to cut to the weather, or sports. Whatever else might be said about the modern world, the typical social media feed has dialed this up to 11, where in a single glance you might see an appeal for donations towards the most recent global tragedy, a cute baby picture, and a vitriolic partisan rant. 

In other words, rather than having a single dominant medium with an associated epistemology, the modern world would appear to be suffering from severe epistemological fracture. And while, somewhere in all of it you might find epistemologies that are better than what existed during the height of television, or perhaps ones that are even superior to the epistemology of the printed word. They are being overwhelmed by hundreds if not thousands of epistemologies that are far worse. And, unfortunately, the medium of the internet and social media seem designed to privilege the bad ones, and have proven to be far more successful at incubating conspiracies than midwifing truth. 

So what is the answer to the question posed by the title? If we’re not “amusing ourselves to death” what are we doing? That’s a tough question. I said above that when Postman tried to grapple with things in his follow-up book, Technopoly, that it felt like he was trying to review a movie he’d only seen the first few minutes of. But I don’t feel I’ve seen the whole movie either. In fact I have the feeling that there’s a major twist that has yet to appear. I guess if I had to take a stab at it, I would title the current book on the subject:

Media Darwinism: Epistemology Red in Tooth and Claw!


I doubt my fan base is big enough to support its own epistemology, but I hope that if it ever does that I can at least beat out TV. If you’d like to help make that happen consider donating, epistemologies aren’t cheap, and they’re definitely not covered by my HMO.


Immigration, Caplan and Buckets

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One of the books I read and reviewed in October was Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan. In that review I asserted that it was possible completely open borders is a great idea, when you consider the world as a whole. But that you’ll never get people to agree to it because, like Communism, it requires a level of selflessness which most humans simply don’t possess. There are actually lots of reasons for this, but I paid particular attention to the idea that almost no one would vote for unlimited immigration if they thought it was going to reduce what they got paid. And that further, this wasn’t just some irrational fear (although that would probably be sufficient by itself), but that even using Caplan’s own numbers, this was likely to happen.

When I posted that review in various places, including to Caplan’s Twitter account everyone accused me of being an idiot (okay maybe the language wasn’t that strong) and ignoring the Arithmetic Fallacy. In the interest of full disclosure I did understand the Arithmetic Fallacy, but I admit to not fully understanding the totality of their argument. Now that I do, I’d like to revisit things. 

To begin with one thing that no one seems to argue about is that the average GDP of the US would drop. Most scenarios have it being cut in half. The Arithmetic Fallacy comes into play when you assume that this means that the average salary of current workers would also be cut, though perhaps not by half. In reality the salary of current workers could go up. Here’s the example Caplan uses in the book:

Average native US income before open borders: $50k

Average foreign income before open borders: $5k

Average US income after open borders: $40k (down from 50)

Average income of original workers after open borders: $60k

Average income of new workers after open borders: $20k 

I never questioned this math. I always understand how the fallacy works. But this is a fairly simplistic version of it. For example it assumes an equal number of current workers and immigrant workers, but it could be a lot more or a lot less. Caplan seems to imagine that the more the merrier, because the secret of mass consumption is mass production, but it’s not clear how those numbers affect things in practice, particularly if they increase very rapidly. But that’s a minor quibble, my big issue is with the way that he sticks current workers and new workers into two entirely separate buckets. Because, while the Arithmetic Fallacy illustrates that the incomes can go up for everyone, while having the average go down at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will. Caplan argues that we don’t have to worry about that possibility because current workers will always be ahead of the new immigrants. That’s the part I didn’t fully absorb when I read it through the first time. 

Let’s take his example of NBA players and preschoolers. He starts the example by asking us to imagine a room full of NBA players with an average height of 6’7”, and then asks us to imagine that a class of preschoolers enter. The average height of the room drops, (say to 4’10) but the pre-schoolers aren’t making the NBA players shorter.

This is obviously true, but if the NBA players represent current US workers, (which they do) and the preschoolers represent immigrant workers (which they also do) and height is a proxy for GDP (again, that seems to be what he’s going for) then while the preschoolers don’t make the NBA players shorter, he is claiming that the presence of the preschoolers metaphorically makes the NBA players taller, and vice versa, just by being in the same room. I understand his argument for saying that this is the case for GDP even if it’s not the case for height, but you can already see where the analogy breaks down pretty quickly. But it is useful because it illustrates one of his central assumptions, that under open borders there will be two buckets of workers: the original workers and the new workers or the NBA players and the preschoolers. 

NBA players aren’t threatened by preschoolers, that would be ridiculous. Even if we’re just talking about height and not ability with basketball, the preschoolers are never going to be called on in place of an NBA player, the very thought is risible. And certainly an NBA player is never going to be mistaken for a preschooler. Accordingly it would be just as ridiculous for the current workers to be worried about being interchangeable with the new workers. Just as NBA players will always be in a separate category as far as height, current workers will always be in a separate category as far as income. Current workers will definitely be in the bucket with the average income of $60k, not the bucket with the average income of $20k.

This assumption of there being two buckets is what I have a problem with, because it seems entirely too neat and clean. “The average salary of the US is going to go down, but don’t worry because as a current worker you’re always going to be above average.” But why would this necessarily be so? Certainly it’s not a law of nature. Caplan offers a few reasons for why this would be. Current workers are more skilled, have a better grasp of the modern world, and above all they are native English speakers. To this I could also see adding a better network, and more beginning assets. But however great these advantages are it doesn’t feel like they’re unassailable or permanent. It would appear to me that the buckets are more permeable than Caplan lets on. 

One reason for thinking this is the book itself. While from an income perspective Caplan seems to regard the divisions as relatively unchanging and immutable. From every other perspective his argument seems to be the opposite, that immigrants aren’t that much different from the people who are already here. That within one generation their English is almost as good as the people who were born here, that culture takes centuries to “spread by persuasion, but only one generation to spread by immersion”, and that “the average immigrant is [only] microscopically more liberal than the average native.” So if they’re so similar on most of these metrics, why would the be so dissimilar in the salaries they can command? Why would the immigrant average be ⅓ that of the native worker? And how is that none of the natives, no matter how low-skilled, never end up in the lower paid bucket? Actually, I’m not suggesting that this is Caplan’s claim, but before I get to that discussion let me propose a different metaphor. 

Imagine that instead of talking about NBA players, preschoolers and their differing heights, that instead we use the example of adults and teenagers and their relative earning potential. Say we have a company that only hires people over 18, and after a policy change they’ll hire anyone 14 and older. And that after this change, the company can use teenagers to double its workforce.

 

This would appear to be a much better analogy than Caplan’s. To begin with I imagine that there are two very clearly defined buckets when you’re talking about teenager salary vs. adult salary. And it’s also possible to imagine that mostly Caplan is correct, that the teenagers make more by working in an adult workplace, and the adults are more productive if they have teenagers around to offload stuff to. But the gap between the two is far more permeable than the gap between NBA Players and preschoolers. You can imagine right out of the gate that at the lower end of the adult skill range that you might have lots of teenagers that also have that level of skill. That 17 year olds are pretty similar to people between 18 and 21. But, perhaps most importantly, teenagers grow up and with each passing year the difference between the teenager bucket and the adult bucket narrows.

I suspect there’s also issues of supply and demand at the lower level of skill. That if you have a janitor making 30k a year, that adding a bunch of teenagers, all fighting for the same low-skilled jobs, lowers that to maybe 15k a year, even if the teenagers increase the salary of the engineers at this company by quite a bit. 

I also suspect that it increases the salary issues at the upper end as well. If you have some high paid developer making twice as much as a younger developer, but who’s actually less productive (say more skills, but less willingness to work 60 hour weeks) the fact that you’ve now got a deluge of young people all looking to be developers has to factor into that.

Perhaps I’m wrong about the last two points, Caplan would seem to be arguing that I am, fair enough, but what he does argue, unmistakably, is that the average salary of the company will be cut in half. Is he also saying that despite this massive reduction in average salary that none of the adults currently working at the company will end up in the same bucket with the teenagers? Will end up with one of those salaries that caused the average to be cut in half? Even if we look ahead five years? Or ten? 

(One mechanism whereby this could happen is ageism. The parallel for immigration would be racism, which I assume Caplan is against.)

I assume that this is not Caplan’s claim, if it is, well then I guess the math works out, but I think he’s wrong. If it’s not his claim, then the question becomes how many adults end up in the “teenager bucket”, or rather how many current workers end up in the immigrant bucket. Let’s review his numbers. 

Average native US income before open borders: $50k

Average foreign income before open borders: $5k

Average US income after open borders: $40k (down from 50)

Average income of original workers after open borders: $60k

Average income of new workers after open borders: $20k 

Is there a cohort of low-skilled American workers who were in the $50k bucket, but, after immigration, end up in the $20k bucket? Is there a cohort of current workers whose salary is going to drop in an open borders world? Caplan talks about how current workers are “normally going to be managing and training the new arrivals.” How many adults do you know that aren’t fit to train or manage anybody? Could that be the cohort I’m talking about? If we’re agreed that there are some people who are, unfortunately, going to be below average, and when the average salary drops their salary drops as well, then the next question is how many? 

The answer to that is unclear, but I’m willing to bet that the number would be significant, and more importantly, even if the number isn’t significant, that a huge number of people are worried about this very thing, and probably understandably so. If you doubt this latter assertion I direct your attention to the 2016 election.

Pulling all of this together, if someone is opposed to immigration because they think they might make less money, then it’s only reasonable to call them irrational if that never (or very rarely) happens. Otherwise I think it’s a rational fear. If a reduction in salary happens to some people, but is unlikely to happen to him you may call him a pessimist. But once again, he is not being irrational. In his own way, he’s hedging against the small chance of a very large harm. Particularly in light of the fact that we still live under capitalism where money is pretty central to everything.

None of this is to suggest that open borders isn’t a terrific, world changing idea for the vast majority of people. Or that it isn’t a fantastic moral good which all men aspiring to any degree righteousness should support. But I am suggesting that it would not be unreasonable for some people to conclude that they would be voting against their own interests by supporting it. 

This is where the selfishness I talked about in my original review comes into play. And the reason I connected it to communism. In both cases people are promised a world much better than the one they currently live in, if they can just abandon their baser emotions of greed and selfishness. Now it’s reasonable to ask whether communism failed because of these baser emotions or whether it failed because it lacked the means to effectively produce the right goods and services, or whether it failed because Stalin and Mao were particularly ruthless tyrants. But the fact that it expected people to abandon their baser emotions certainly didn’t help. 

It’s also reasonable to ask what degree of abandonment is required. In theory you might argue that communism requires a complete and total abandonment of the baser emotions of greed and selfishness, while open borders only requires a small abandonment of these emotions, which are in any case irrational. And perhaps this difference will be enough for Open Borders to succeed where communism didn’t, but I suspect that it won’t be, and I suspect that Caplan’s keyhole solutions (restricting benefits to citizens, delaying citizenship, charging people to enter) have a much better chance of changing people’s mind that telling them that they’ve fallen prey to the Arithmetic fallacy. But given that this is the territory we’re fighting over it is worth trying to get to the bottom of the question: how many people are legitimately entitled to that fear, and how many people are truly being irrational?

As far as I can tell from the book Caplan is arguing that all or very nearly all of these people are being irrational. That if everyone in the US knew the facts that they would embrace open borders, both on humanitarian grounds but also because it would add trillions of dollars to the economy and raise everybody’s wages.

My argument has been laid out in this post. Are there other people arguing that Caplan is wrong as well? As it turns out there are. 

Garett Jones, Caplan’s colleague at GMU, published a working paper arguing more or less the same thing I am.

How would Open Borders—a policy of unlimited immigration—change the wages of current residents of the United States? To answer this question, I begin by running the same quantitative experiment that Caplan runs on page 131 of his graphic novel Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. This experiment presumes that the only two drivers of national income per capita are national average IQ and an unexplained productivity residual.The unexplained productivity residual plays a key role in the case for Open Borders, and I critique that residual. I use the same constant returns to scale framework as Caplan, in which the migration of every human being to the United States would increase global output per capita by about 80%. I then estimate that in the benchmark model, where IQ’s social return is much larger than its private return, the per-capita income of current U.S. residents would permanently fall by about 40%. This is not an arithmetic fallacy: this is the average causal effect of Open Borders on the incomes of ex-ante Americans. This income decline occurs because cognitive skills matter mostly through externalities:because your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, as I claim in 2015’s Hive Mind. Therefore a decline in a nation’s set of average cognitive skills will tend to reduce the productivity of the nation’s ex-ante citizens.

I was going to essentially end with this but I just barely saw Caplan’s rebuttal. And here’s where it gets a little bit tricky. Wading into any long standing argument, let alone an argument between two colleagues, runs the risk of missing all manner of important points which by this point are part of the assumed and unspoken foundation of the argument. Nevertheless despite this risk I’m going to dip my toe into things, mostly because I think it reveals some very interesting things about Caplan’s argument and my problems with it, but first Jones’ argument.

As was mentioned in the quote I included, Jones wrote a book in 2015 called Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own. (If you’re curious, here’s a review.POST) And as you can tell from the title of his book, his argument concerns the IQ of the entire nation, which, Caplan conceded, would probably be lowered under Open Borders. And since, according to Jones, the income of individuals depends almost entirely on the average IQ of the nation as a whole, this leads to his claim that the “per-capita income of current U.S. residents would permanently fall by about 40%”. I’m sure I’m vastly over-simplifying his argument, but since I’m mostly interested in Caplan’s response to that argument, I don’t feel there’s much point in getting deeper into the complexities. 

Caplan’s has an interesting response. First he points out that Jones largely agrees with him about the overall increase to global output, pegging it at 80%, but that in order for this to happen, while still decreasing the income of current residents by 40%:

Garett argues that more than 100% of the gains will go to immigrants! So even though open borders nearly doubles the production of mankind, it reduces living standards of the current inhabitants of rich countries by a massive 40%. [Emphasis original]

First off, and maybe I’m missing something. Is there any possibility that the gains and losses are distributed unequally? That, as I argued above, some of the current workers will drop from 50k to 20k, a reduction of 60%, which is more than Jones’ 40%. While many or maybe even most will see their salaries actually go up? This seems like another example of Caplan having two very well defined buckets. With gains being distributed equally to each bucket. But gains could be unequally distributed to the buckets and within the buckets. But beyond all that, here the debate takes a surprising turn. Caplan continues:

How is this possible?  Drawing on earlier work, Garett insists that the personal payoff for IQ is modest.  1 IQ point raises earnings by about 1%. Since current U.S. IQ is about 11 points above the world average, the current citizens of rich countries will end up earning roughly 60% of what they now earn.  In other words, Garett’s concern is that under open borders, income will be too equal for current residents of high-IQ countries to maintain their standard of living.

The surprising bit, is that as a retort to Jones, Caplan starts arguing for the importance of individual IQ and that gains from it are probably significantly higher than 1%. If you think that the natural consequence of this is greater inequality across the board, then you’re not alone, that was also the thought that occurred to me and Caplan agrees:

Would IQ have a big effect on personal economic success under open borders?  Would there be high inequality under open borders? If you answered Yes to both questions, you should be on my side. [emphasis original]

I would answer yes to both of those questions, and as hard as it may be to believe I am largely on Caplan’s side, but having answered yes, I then have to wonder if there’s large amounts of inequality and IQ has a large effect on success then why does it not follow that some of the current workers with below average IQ would end up in the below average/immigrant/20k salary bucket rather than the 60k average salary bucket?

I realize that it’s really way too late to bring in the idea of a normal distribution, and that also salary isn’t a normal distribution. (Though it’s more of one at the low end than the high end.)  But to put it another way, if someone is three standard deviations below the mean, and the mean drops, it’s conceivable that their salary is going to drop as well.

To conclude what has ended up being a much longer and more rambling post than I initially intended. My argument was never with Caplan’s moral or economic claims, and I am personally in favor of revising immigration policy around the keyhole solutions Caplan advocates. It is probably politically impossible even so (and definitely impossible without such measures) and one of the things that makes it difficult is that, similar to communism, it’s advocates expect that people will be able to shed a host of baser emotions like greed and selfishness. The argument that such baser emotions are irrational, is going to be largely ineffective even if it were true, but I’m not sure it is. There’s certainly ample room for uncertainty.


Perhaps you’re also uncertain about whether to support this blog? Well may I suggest a keyhole solution? Start with a dollar a month. You know donation is the humanitarian thing to do.


The End of Productive War

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As I mentioned in my last post I just finished War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris. As I mentioned in the review he ends up combining a lot of other books I’ve read into another history of progress and at times it seemed like he wasn’t covering much in the way of new territory, but he did introduce me to one new idea, which I thought was pretty interesting: the idea of productive war. Though I should also mention here, at the beginning, that he also acknowledges the existence of destructive wars as well. He doesn’t think all wars are productive

In Morris’ view productive war is war which consolidates nations and people into larger units with greater scope for cooperation, and, according to the central claim of the book, less chance of violent death. Morris’ assertion is that the chances of someone dying violently is in large part based on the size of the community they belong to. And that it’s an inverse relationship, the bigger the community the smaller the chance. So, for a member of a small tribe of hunter-gatherers their chances of dying violently was between 10 and 20%. If, on the other hand, they were a citizen of the Roman Empire or Han China then their chances of dying violently were in the 2-5% range, and for someone living in a modern, developed nation their chances are around 1%. 

Accordingly as wars of conquest created larger communities, deaths went down, and beyond that as trade and commerce expanded, living standards got better as well. So while empires had to begin with a series of bloody wars in order to be created, in the end, through these productive wars they created zones of stability within the borders of the empire where everything was better. This has progressed on down through the ages until now we no longer have regional hegemons, we have global hegemons (Morris actually calls them globo-cops), first with the United Kingdom and then with the United States. Of course in between those two hegemonies there was the cold war where the Soviet Union and the US vied for dominance. And it is also in this period where we start to see the beginnings of the problem I want to talk about.

Historically, when two civilizations competed, eventually one of them triumphed over the other. When that happened the victorious empire absorbed the losing empire and created a new larger empire. Think of Rome and Carthage or even the United Kingdom and India. But lately such absorption, or it’s less brutal offspring, colonization, has fallen out of favor. When the US won the cold war we didn’t absorb Russia and create a new, expanded empire where cooperation, trade and lower violence flourished. Nope, we basically left them alone (though some would argue we wrecked their economy and then left them alone.) 

This is not how it has generally worked historically. Generally when the victors conquered, they Conquered! And we certainly could have done that, particularly at the end of the World War II. (Though I’m not saying it would have been easy.) But we didn’t. By not doing that was World War II less productive in the sense Morris describes than it could have been? Is it possible that over a long enough time horizon that we might actually put it in the destructive column? To come at things from another direction, if gobbling up vanquished foes is no longer an option, how do we expand the zone of cooperation?

Morris asserts that having a globo-cop/hegemon works much the same way, but does it? Sure, a US hegemony definitely contains some elements of the imperial cooperation of the past, but, first, no one would look at current events and say that things were going well with Pax Americana. And second there’s a big difference between ensuring the continuance of global trade or acting as a policeman when nations get out of line and entirely absorbing a nation and its culture. 

Modern morality has made this sort of absorption unthinkable. The US was the first empire to (mostly) eschew colonies. And since that time the idea of colonies and colonization has only become more taboo. Arguably there has been no shortage of American force projection, but it definitely doesn’t lead to colonies, nor is it practical in places much larger than a small failed state. It’s impossible to imagine the US invading and pacifying China or Russia in the same way that Rome pacified Gaul or the British pacified India. Meaning that, as the tide of US power flows out, it reveals entirely intact nations with more lingering animosity than lingering desire-to-compromise.

And, if some nation did want to go back to the “old way” of doing things and start absorbing other countries into a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, like the Japanese of World War II, then that becomes a lot more difficult in a world where nukes exist. There was a time when you might have imagined India conquering and reabsorbing Pakistan. It was unlikely but not inconceivable, but with nukes as part of the equation that will never happen. Or it will happen, which is even worse. Meaning the good guys won’t do it for moral reasons and the bad guys are welcome to try, but it’s likely to end in mushroom clouds. 

The way productive wars used to work is that there would be an initial, short-term spike in deaths, but that would be followed by eventual assimilation leading to integration and cooperation which raises the standard of living for everyone in the new empire. This sort of thing is no longer possible between two nuclear powers because there won’t be any assimilation after the initial spike of deaths because there won’t be anything after that initial spike.

I don’t want to overstate my case. I suppose it is possible to imagine a limited nuclear exchange, where there is still something left of both the conqueror and the conquered, but if this is the best case scenario, we’re in a lot of trouble.

More likely the presence of nukes and the reluctance to colonize might lead to a situation where unity actually starts heading backwards. If a part of a nuclear armed nation manages to secede while hanging on to some of those nukes, is there any scenario where the mother country would go to war to reclaim its lost territory if it knows those nukes might be used? Meaning that if nukes continue to spread we may end up with more countries and less cooperation.

All of this is to say, that the historical process of unification through the means of productive wars which Morris mapped out in the book appears to have stalled. We may have run out of steam right before the final sprint to the finish (a unified world).

Thus far we’ve assumed that achieving unity and cooperation can only be accomplished by means of productive war. And that seems to be Morris’ thesis, but might there be another way?

Certainly most people hoped that international cooperation would grown through peaceful means. That was the goal of the original League of Nations and the current United Nations, but is there anyone who still thinks that the UN will eventually create the level of cooperation we’re talking about? A true world government? Certainly I don’t. From where I sit the UN appears to be getting weaker with each passing year. Indeed, this decline makes a certain amount of sense. In the aftermath of World War II even the most bellicose nations could see the need for an international body to resolve disputes in a less bloody manner. But after 70 years without a great power war, the need for something like the UN is less and less obvious.

In the absence of nations voluntarily unifying, you could imagine that US influence continues to grow until we have a de facto world government. Or at least you could have imagined that at the end of the Cold War. Lately the idea seems laughable. At a minimum we would need some sort of motivation. As I pointed out in a previous post, external threats seem to help. Would Rome have been Rome without Carthage? How much of what the US did was because of the USSR? (space race anyone?) But at this point it seems that regardless of how Russia and China behave our taste for empire is gone, and it’s not even clear that we can keep the “empire” we have, to say nothing of continuing to expand it in the way Morris imagines. 

Which leaves us with a couple of possibilities:

As I mentioned in my review of the book, the possibility Morris favors is that we’ll pass smoothly from an American hegemony to an AI singularity. That Pax Americana will become Pax Technologica. Here’s how Morris describes it:

Everything will hang on the relative timing of the shift from the Pax Americana to a Pax Technologica and the mounting difficulties that the globocop will face—if current economic trends continue—in doing its job. I suggested earlier that in the 2010s and probably the 2020s too, the United States will remain largely unchallenged, but as the 2030s, 2040s, and 2050s go on, it will find it harder and harder to overawe rivals. I also noted that the majority opinion among the futurists is that merging with the machines will reach the Singularity stage in the 2040s. If all of these guesses are right, we perhaps do not have too much to worry about. The world will become increasingly troubled, polarized, and tense as we head through the 2020s, but the globocop will remain strong enough to handle the stresses. As we enter the 2030s, the globocop will be feeling the strain, but it will by then be pulling back anyway as the Pax Technologica begins to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving; and in the 2040s and 50s, just at the point that the globocop ceases to be able to cope, the world will no longer need its services. All will be well.

It would be nice if “all” was truly “well” and things proceeded exactly as Morris describes, but I think he underestimates the number of things that need to go “right” in order for this to happen:

  1. America has to maintain the peace until an AI or something similar is ready to take over. Morris estimates they’ll be able to do that until sometime in the 2030s or maybe a little later. Given current events I’m not sure I’d agree with him that the US is “largely unchallenged” even now, and I’m even more doubtful that will be the case over the next decade.
  2. Pax Technologica, whatever it’s form, has to be ready to step in as soon as the US starts “pulling back”. Morris has said it will “[begin] to make violence irrelevant to problem-solving” in the 2030s. This also seems far too optimistic, particularly since we appear to be headed in the opposite direction. Thus far, our best guess is that machine learning and AI are actually making problem-solving of all strips harder.
  3. Perhaps technology will get better and it will switch to lessening rather than creating conflict. That’s still a long way away from replacing everything that goes into making America the lone superpower. Which includes, among other things, the $639 billion dollars we spend on defense. To replace that we not only need the singularity, we need a rather impressive singularity. 
  4. Morris says that the “majority opinion” is that we’ll reach the “Singularity stage” in the 2040s. This is by far the most optimistic of his predictions. Even Kurzweil, who’s optimistic to the point of being delusional, is saying it won’t happen till 2045. Perhaps in 2013, when the book was written, the majority opinion was the 2040s, but these days most experts are predicting later than that. And these are not predictions of “When will AI be able to take over as the world’s super power?” But more along the lines of, “When will AI be able to replace human surgeons?” (Average answer: 2053)
  5. Which takes me to my final point. What does it mean to “take over”? As I pointed out, Morris appears to have a very specific idea of what that means, and it’s very different from what most people imagine when they talk about AI. But even if we end up with an AI exactly as powerful as Morris hopes, and it happens soon enough to step in for Pax Americana before it collapses. He’s ignoring the whole field of AI risk, which makes the very salient point that we can’t be sure a superintelligent AI will be benevolent. 

If we reject the Pax Americana Pax Technologica transition for the reasons I just listed, and we accept Morris’ thesis. Then that tosses us back into the realm of war. We’ve currently got a globo-cop keeping that war at bay, but many people, including Morris, think we’re getting near the end of that. Meaning that the other possibility remaining to us is actual war. Actual war is bad enough in the short term, particularly since, for all the reasons I’ve laid out, this actual war is unlikely to be one of the ones that’s eventually productive. We’re much more likely to see destructive wars, similar to what followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Morris doesn’t spend much time on this second possibility. Probably because he thinks it’s unlikely to happen. In many senses despite his different outlook he’s still very much in the same school of thought as Steven Pinker. And both appear to believe that the arrow only points in one direction. In particular Morris claims that the 500 years of European colonial expansion from 1415 to 1914 were the most productive wars in the history of humanity. That Hitler was something of an aberration, and that in any case since that time we’ve had the long peace, which is further evidence that we’re in the final act and there will be no more destructive wars. And indeed, the finish line does seem really close, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to cross it. In fact for all of the reasons I mentioned above it feels like the very progress that has gotten us to this point won’t work for the final five yards.

One of the frightening things Morris points out is that a period of destructive wars often follows a period of constructive wars. That a particularly confident nation will conquer all of the surrounding territory unifying it into a larger area where trade and cooperation flourish, but that at some point the nation/empire(/ideology?) runs out of steam. Whether this is because of exhaustion, over-expansion, bureaucratic bloat or something else, the empire can no longer defend all of its territory. When that happens, whatever unity it achieved is lost to the destructive wars which inevitably follow as a consequence of this exhaustion. If Morris is accurate and we just finished 500 years of constructive wars, then even if we didn’t have nukes and an aversion to expansion through colonization it might be time for the pendulum to reverse itself in any case. Also, while it seems difficult if not impossible to have constructive wars if nukes are involved, they’re perfect for destructive wars.

All of this would mean that Pinker and Morris are wrong. (And indeed I’ve asserted that very thing.) And I’d rather not jam a second book in here, right at the end, but I just started reading Only the Dead by Bear F. Braumoeller which was written as a direct refutation of Pinker’s thesis, going so far as to say that it may end up having the opposite effect from what he intended. In support of this claim he includes an excellent quote from one of the reviews of Better Angels:

[T]here is something deeply unsettling about the argument of this book. While I began reading without either smug comfort in my own circumstances or indifference to the violence that remains, by Pinker’s final sentence on page 696 it was impossible to muster any other reaction. Indeed, I want to suggest that Pinker’s book produces the type of reaction that conceivably could stop this important trend dead in its tracks. A world of elites and foreign policy decision makers well-schooled by Pinker in the causes of the decline in violence would be a world unmotivated to work to sustain it.

The logic laid out in the quote seems straightforward enough, but Only the Dead goes on to cite studies which show that as nations become less willing to go to war they actually end up going to war more often. I’ll go into this more when I get around to reviewing it, but add everything together and we seem unlikely to have seen the end of war. And when it does return it appears unlikely to be productive war either, even if we can look past the terrible near term costs.

To be fair to Morris the book was written in 2013, and a lot has changed since then. The election of Trump has made a lot of things written beforehand seem quaint and even naive. Which is not to say that things are that much worse now then they were in 2013, just that we appear to have had significant movement on the catastrophe track without that much movement on the singularity track. This is important, because Morris, unlike Pinker, acknowledges that there will be war. He just thinks having a globo-cop can keep those wars productive. He’s also more realistic than Pinker about how long the US can serve in this role. Where his optimism is equal to or greater than Pinker’s is with what comes after. And it all hinges on the next couple of decades.

Morris hopes that the 2030s will be a decade where the US can still mostly “overawe” its opponents while at the same time “every year will see more [technological] change than happened in the whole period between the 1980s and the 2010s.” And that’s what brings us the Singularity. That rather than descending into destructive war, we’ll narrowly thread the needle between all the potential catastrophes. As I said this is what Morris hopes will happen. I hope it happens this way too, but I would bet a lot of money against it. Anyone want to take me up on that bet? We’ll know who’s right in just 10-20 years.


You have to wonder if there’s any similarity between war and blogging. Is there also a productive phase of blogging? Do bloggers eventually get exhausted? Perhaps running out of things to say? Does the blogging then become destructive? Was my blogging ever productive? If you think it was or still might be, consider donating.


Books I Finished in October (Including a Graphic Novel On Immigration)

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  1. The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation By: Carl Benedikt Frey
  2. Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age By: Arthur Herman
  3. All Creatures Great and Small By: James Herriot
  4. To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian By: Stephen E. Ambrose
  5. War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots By: Ian Morris
  6. The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses By: Dan Carlin
  7. Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics By: Mary Eberstadt
  8. Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration By: Bryan Caplan

The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

By: Carl Benedikt Frey

480 pages

Thoughts

As you probably gathered from the title, this book is all about job losses from automation. Something which has been in the news a lot lately, and was the subject of one of my previous posts. This book covers that topic in great depth and can essentially be divided into two parts, an overview of historical automation and its effect on employment at the time, and then an assessment of how much we should worry about the automation that’s happening right now.

As far as the first part, I found the history of automation to be fascinating, and clearly there are some useful parallels to be drawn between past times and this. But there’s one aspect of the history of automation that I was largely unaware of that I’d like to dive into. 

Everyone knows that the technology for the steam engine existed during the Roman Empire, but it didn’t end up going anywhere, and never escaped it’s status as a novelty. And even if you dismiss that example and insist that what we really should be paying attention to is the steam turbine, that existed in the Ottoman Empire in 1551. The point being that the technology necessary for the industrial revolution existed long before that revolution, but that governments discouraged it’s development precisely because they foresaw the massive social unrest which automation eventually brought. After hundreds of years where the technology existed but wasn’t developed, it was only in 18th century Britain that the right combination of factors existed for automation to finally take hold

There are thus good reasons to believe that relatively cheap labor in preindustrial times created fewer incentives to put worker-replacing technologies into widespread use. In fact, Robert Allen has argued that the reason why the Industrial Revolution began in Britain is that at its onset, it was not economical anywhere else… The critical factor, Allen argues, was that British industrialists were fortunate enough to be sitting on a mountain of coal… Facing low energy prices and high labor costs, British industry began to adopt machines that would not have been cost-effective elsewhere…Examples of technological advances emerging from necessity are in fact seemingly few before the Industrial Revolution.

In addition to expensive labor, and cheap energy, Britain had a culture of science and experimentation which appears to have not been present in any previous civilization. Frey even puts in a plug for my favorite religion, Christianity:

The Romans and the Greeks regarded nature as the domain of the gods: any manipulation of its forces by means of technology was considered sinful and even dangerous. This stands in contrast to medieval Christianity, which historians have argued paved the way for future technological progress as it embraced a more rational God. As Lynn White explains, “Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asian religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”

It seems like a lot of things had to go right for the industrial revolution to actually take off. Which brings me to my criticisms and a discussion of the second part of the book.

Criticisms

The standard refrain of most economists is that the jobs that are destroyed will be replaced by new, generally better jobs, but even if the jobs aren’t better, at a minimum, automation will not cause long-term unemployment. And yes, that’s mostly been the case since the industrial revolution, but given the enormous number of things that had to go right in order for that revolution to actually happen and to shift into this new reality, how can we be so sure that we’ve arrived at some sort of stable trend that will never change?

In the past if someone had said that automation would never happen because it never had, they would have had far more data to support their conclusion than we have to support this one, and yet, in the end they still would have been wrong. At some point there was a state change, things that had been true for thousands of years suddenly weren’t.

What did things look like before that last state change? I imagine if you had asked a sufficiently observant person what the future held on the eve of the industrial revolution. They might very well have been able to predict that things were about to change and that progress was about to take off like a rocket. But for most people, not only was it a surprise but for seven decades the idea of new and better jobs was not the reality for most people. Their standard of living actually decreased during this time, a period known as “Engels Pause” after the author (with Marx) of the Communist Manifesto. 

Similarly there are people today who are also predicting significant disruption. It remains to be seen whether they’re correct, but situations are similar. One of the issues to keep in mind, as we evaluate the probabilities, is the distinction Frey draws between replacing vs. enhancing technology. During Engel’s Pause, apparently much of the technology was replacing (lots of low hanging fruit like carding cotton) and only later did it get sophisticated enough to be enhancing. In our day we have the opposite problem. Technology has long been enhancing and now machine learning and automation have finally taken things to the point where we can truly imagine a complete replacement. And the question on everyone’s mind is what jobs are in danger of replacement?

As you might imagine Frey spends significant time on this subject, and by his estimation fewer jobs than feared are in danger of replacement. In other words, his estimate is lower than most. In a move that is both ironic and too clever by half, he uses machine learning/AI to decide which jobs are in danger. As I said this procedure produces a low estimate for replaceable jobs, and predictably high status professional jobs don’t end up on this list. For example Frey asserts that doctor’s aren’t in any danger, but is this really the case?

Certainly I can see why he says this, the job of a doctor is very difficult. But isn’t it mostly pattern matching? (Here I’m mostly talking doctors not surgeons). Isn’t this precisely the thing that AI is getting really good at? Don’t we already have things like Deep Patient and aren’t they already better than doctors at certain forms of prediction? And perhaps more importantly aren’t health care costs skyrocketing? Meaning we have both the means and the motive as they say. Accordingly, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that doctors are in danger of replacement sooner than Frey thinks, meaning potentially a lot of other things are as well. 

I think the big takeaway is that automation has nearly always brought some kind of civil unrest, regardless of whether the jobs were eventually replaced with better jobs. Meaning that even in the best case, the transition from the current economy to one with far more automation is probably going to be accompanied by significant turbulence. And if people like Frey are wrong, and nearly every job is vulnerable to automation, ‘significant turbulence’ could be a massive understatement. 


Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age

By: Arthur Herman

760 pages

Thoughts

I don’t know how much I learned about Churchill, I think I had a pretty good handle on his life and career already, but I learned an enormous number of surprising things about Gandhi. A few, in no particular order:

  • He was married when he was 13 and his wife was 14, and apparently he had an insatiable sexual appetite. He lived in his father’s house at the time and his father had been in a horrible accident, leaving him an invalid. So every night Gandhi would massage his father’s ‘withered limbs’ before rushing back to bed to have sex. And one night in the midst of this his father died.

The thought that he had been having sex at the moment his father died—that his “animal passion,” as he called it, might even have somehow contributed to his father’s death—would haunt Gandhi for the rest of his life. “It is a blot I have never been able to efface or forget,” Gandhi confessed years later

  • Gandhi was perhaps the least progressive leader you can imagine. Not only was he fixated on religion and chastity (as I mentioned above), he was also obsessed with the traditional Indian spinning wheel and would spend hours every day using it. So far, this might be considered only mildly eccentric, but the spinning wheel was also a huge part of his ideology and politics. He would regularly demand that its use be mandated as part of draft resolutions for Indian independence.
  • As part of this very traditional ideology he really wanted India to be self-sufficient and felt that factories and other signs of encroaching industrialization were awful, both for India and the world. One can only imagine what he would think of the modern India. But suffice it to say that he didn’t work for Indian independence so that it could be a center of industry and technology. Rather he envisioned that its independence would lead to a worldwide spiritual awakening, and he was constantly setting up communes as models for the rest of the nation.
  • Finally, Gandhi had an enormous amount of respect for the British Empire. Near the end he became increasingly frustrated with things, but he acknowledged himself, as I mentioned in a previous post, that his campaign of non-violence would not have worked with a less enlightened culture. 

In summary, this was a great book about two very important people and a very pivotal period in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.


All Creatures Great and Small

By: James Herriot

437 pages

Thoughts

This is one of those books that lurks at the edge of your consciousness. A book you know you’ll enjoy, but which is long past its peak of popularly. As you might imagine I burn through Audible credits pretty fast, so I’m always on the lookout for audio books I can check out from the library which will supplement my stock of books without diminishing my supply of Audible credits, which is how I came to read this. I saw it as I was browsing the library, and I’m glad I did.

This book (actually a series of books which has been made into a TV series as well) is a classic for a reason. The writing is great, the stories are excellent, the characters are both enchanting and relatable. The story of the rubber suit is worth the price of admission all by itself.

And yet again I’ve started another series without finishing any of my previous series…


To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian

By: Stephen E. Ambrose

288 Pages

Thoughts

I often say that this blog is primarily focused on Mormon (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) apologetics. (Albeit a very strange variety.) Ambrose’s book is essentially the same thing except for America. Among the things Ambrose acts as an apologist for are:

  • Thomas Jefferson, in particular his slave owning.
  • George Washington, same as above, plus Ambrose considers him an amazing person in general.
  • Harry S. Truman, for dropping the bomb.
  • Ulysses S. Grant, for ending reconstruction in order to heal the Union.
  • Andrew Jackson, for a whole host of things, even his treatment of the Native Americans. Also he thinks people severely underestimate the importance of the Battle of New Orleans.
  • And even Richard Nixon, about whom Ambrose wrote a three volume biography.

Beyond being an apologist for American leaders he also acts as an apologist for slavery (in a very limited fashion), segregation, and sexism. In most cases he doesn’t try to justify those actions, but rather points out how relatively well the US did on these issues when compared to other countries. 

The book was published in 2003, at despite 9/11 it is suffused with optimism. But now, less than 20 years later, one wonders if Ambrose would have maintained that optimism. The book itself seems hopelessly quaint, but at the same time important and necessary. Though one still wonders what Ambrose would make of the current state of the country. (Would he also be an apologist for Trump?) 


War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots

By: Ian Morris

512 Pages

Thoughts

My initial impression upon reading this book was that it drew very heavily from several other books I have read. In particular this book incorporates a lot of the ideas from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, especially when talking about the lucky latitudes. And the book is so similar to Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature that it feels like a weird non-fiction sequel but written by a different author. (Sort of like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Same characters but entirely different motivations.) It also covers the same territory as a host of other books on history and progress that I’ve read recently. And I’m not sure if all of this was good or bad. On the one hand I definitely had no problem following his argument since it was part of a conversation I’ve been heavily steeped in over the last few years, on the other hand it made the first two thirds of the book seem uninspired and perhaps even a little boring. 

That said, although there was a lot of overlap with Pinker, he did add one element to Pinker’s ideas that was fairly unique. You might be able to guess what it was from the title, the idea that the relative absence of violence Pinker talks about is all due to the ***presence*** of violent war. That short term extreme violence leads to an overall long term lessening of violence. He even goes so far as to take Pinker’s five elements which contributed to lessening violence (Governmental Leviathans, Commerce, Feminization, Empathy and Reason) and says that they can be replaced by just one element: productive war.

This idea is interesting enough, particularly when applied to the modern world that I’m going to spend my next post discussing it, so I’ll leave off for now.

Criticisms

In the subtitle he mentions “Robots” and while it’s hard to talk about the current state of war without discussing robots and AI, not only did the discussion feel tacked on, but it was clear that this was an area where he was out of his depth. I’ll talk about this more in my next post, but as an example his prediction for the near future is that the US hegemony, while fraying around the edges, will hold until the 2030s, or there about, and that since a lot of AI researchers are predicting the singularity will happen around 2040 that what will probably happen is the world will pass smoothly from Pax Americana to Pax Technologica. And that therefore the only thing we really need to worry about is a delay in the singularity, say from 2040 to 2070. 

I bow to no man in predicting that we’re in a race between a catastrophe and a singularity, but Morris seems to be both remarkably calm about the outcome of the race and remarkably specific in exactly what that race looks like. I guess we should hope he’s correct.


The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses

By: Dan Carlin

288 Pages

Thoughts

I love Dan Carlin. I love his Hardcore History podcast and his Common Sense podcast. His series on the Mongols is as good as any history book I’ve ever read. And the latest installment of Supernova in the East which I listened to just before this book was fantastic. Considering all of this it pains me to admit that this book wasn’t nearly as good as even the worst of his Hardcore History episodes.

That is not to say the book wasn’t good. More just that the podcast is so consistently great. To begin with, the book was right up my alley. The unifying theme of the book was a discussion of catastrophes and wars, and in particular the idea that today is not that different from the past. He even had an afterward all about Fermi’s Paradox. It was a book I could have written, and it was full of excellent observations, and interesting history. The section on the Bronze Age Collapse with a discussion of the six possible explanations was particularly enjoyable. Unfortunately…

Criticisms

The genius of Dan Carlin and Hardcore History is that he takes his time and really gets into the nitty gritty of things. For example in the most recent Supernova in the East episode he spent a long time just talking about Douglas MacArthur. In the book he doesn’t do that, it’s much more abbreviated. In fact in audio (which is how I read it) the book is not that much longer than a typical Hardcore History episode. In theory this could have made things tighter, but it didn’t. He admits himself that while the book has a central thesis, more or less, that his examination of that thesis is pretty scattered. Which is why I called it abbreviated. In Hardcore History episodes he wanders into very interesting nooks and crannies. In this book he wanders, but it gets cut off before it has the chance to develop into anything especially interesting.  

Some people are born to excel in a certain medium, and for all that I enjoyed the book, and would even recommend it, it seems obvious that Dan Carlin was born to be a podcaster.


Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics

By: Mary Eberstadt

180 Pages

Thoughts

The central premise of this book is that the sexual revolution fatally undermined the family and in doing so it destroyed the source of identity for those individuals born in its wake. That the question, “Who am I?” is central to human existence and that it used to be answered by reference to one’s immediate family, but that the sexual revolution, by creating smaller families, more divorce, and a host of other anti-familial effects has lead to a situation where there is no stable foundation to provide an answer to that question as in times past.

Consequently people are turning to other markers to provide identity, things like being black, gay or female. And of course because identity is at the core of any individuals feeling of self worth, when you attack this new identity they react just as strongly as if you had attacked their actual family, but they also have less to draw upon to defend this new identity. The connection to a family is easy to identify and tough to argue with. And if it is subject to being questioned (“You’re adopted!” Or, “I never loved you!”) then it’s understandably devastating. These new identities are more difficult to substantiate, and thus people are encouraged to go to more and more extreme lengths to do so. 

Criticisms

This idea, that identity politics exists to fill the chasm left by the disintegration of traditional sources of identity, makes an enormous amount of sense, but laying it entirely at the feet of a specific cause seems to go too far. I am certainly no fan of the sexual revolution and I think the invention of birth control is a bigger deal than anybody wants to acknowledge, but I also think the causes are deeper than prophylactics and promiscuity.

To Eberstadt’s credit she gives space at the end of her book for some commentary by Rod Dreher, Peter Thiel and Mark Lilla. Lilla, a liberal, makes the excellent point that most if not all of the negative consequences Eberstadt blames on the sexual revolution: small families, no siblings, delayed marriage, difficulty with sexual relations, etc. Also occur in China and Japan, but without a similar outbreak of US-style identity politics. 

There are lots of reasons for why this might be. And some of them would preserve Eberstandt’s thesis. But I think laying it all at the feet of the sexual revolution was already on shaky ground before Lilla’s observations, and it looks all but dead after.


Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

By: Bryan Caplan

Illustrated by: Zach Weinersmith

256 Pages

Thoughts

This book has gotten a lot of attention, at least in the circles I run in, and probably most of it is well deserved. This book is a masterclass of presentation, persuasion, and crafting arguments. You might think, being a graphic novel, that it wouldn’t go very deep, and that was one of my worries. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that generally wasn’t the case. It actually covers a lot of ground. Including chapters on counter arguments, immigration as seen from all of the world’s major philosophies, and keyhole solutions (which I’ll get to in a minute). While being impressively thorough, the graphic novel format did what it was supposed to do: create a visually stimulating, easy and enjoyable read.

Caplan’s argument may be obvious from the title of the book, but even if it is, it’s worth repeating. Caplan is in favor of entirely open borders everywhere. And he doesn’t shy away from what that means (though he doesn’t really draw attention to these numbers either). He admits that this would mean that hundreds of millions, if not potentially billions of people might immigrate.

Several years ago I did a post on immigration, and I mentioned people like Caplan:

Now, based on that number [hundreds of millions of immigrants] do you think it would be feasible to get rid of all restrictions on immigration? Of course there are all sorts of reasons for it being infeasible… [and] we’re going to talk about all of these issues in just a minute, but let’s imagine that you’ve already considered all of them, and despite that you’re of the opinion that it is feasible. Perhaps you think free market forces and the invisible hand would end up solving all the difficulties. At this point, if, after coming up with a number and considering feasibility, you think it’s doable, then great. Go ahead and advocate for that, go ahead and fight for that solution. I feel that it’s hopelessly unrealistic, but at least there is zero hypocrisy. At least it’s a coherent ideology. And who knows it might be worth trying. In other words you’re done. You can skip the rest of the post. You already have a solution to the immigration problem.

Indeed, this is what Caplan is doing. Most people would consider absorbing hundreds of millions of immigrants to be infeasible, but Caplan doesn’t and this book is his argument for why, and as I said it’s impressive, but I also remain unconvinced. I have three main objections, but before I get to them, a few minor, unconnected thoughts on the book

  • On two separate occasions Caplan mentions that immigrants “rarely vote” as a positive and reassuring thing. This struck me as weird. I understand why it might be reassuring to nativists, but it sounds insulting otherwise. Also, immigrant voting seems like something that could easily increase over time. 
  • Caplan really did dive into the counter arguments, including the very controversial IQ argument. This may have been the most impressive part of the book. (That he tackled it, not the actual counter argument.) 
  • That said, despite claims to the contrary he didn’t tackle every counter argument. In particular he missed that argument that by raising average living standards you also raise average per capita carbon emissions, making potential climate change more severe. 
  • While the book was comprehensive, a 256 page graphic novel does not have time to go very deep on any particular topic. As a specific example he covered Christianity in his section on how the various philosophies view immigration. In the section he retold the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For me, at least, it came across as something of an, “Aha! Check mate!” But I doubt any Christians are unfamiliar with that parable, and I can’t imagine any who are currently opposed to immigration saying, “Well I never considered the parable that way. Who would have imagined? I’ve been wrong this whole time!”

Objection 1:

Let’s start by talking about the section in the book that might actually change people’s minds: keyhole solutions. This is, not entirely coincidentally, also the part I liked the best. (You might be wondering how this ends up being an objection, but I’ll get to that.) 

Caplan’s argument is not just that open borders would be good, but that it would be fantastic. That it is possibly the greatest wealth-creating, inequality lessening, poverty reducing policy the world had ever known. If that’s the case then it’s supporters ought to be willing to grant significant concessions to their opponents in order to bring it to pass. Caplan is a particularly rational example of such a supporter, and so he not only acknowledges that this is a good trade, he offers some examples of the kinds of things immigration supporters should be willing to offer. 

These are the keyhole solutions I mentioned above. The term comes the idea that rather than performing massively invasive surgery to fix problems as in times past these days they prefer “minimally invasive” surgery, or keyhole surgery. And that this same approach should be taken to crafting policies. Such keyhole policies include: charging immigrants to enter the country, making them pay higher taxes, restricting their access to free or subsidized government services, etc. 

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think such policies would go a long way towards easing people’s concerns about immigration, but (and this is finally the part where the objection comes in) whatever these keyhole policies end up being they’re going to take the form of laws on immigration, and if we can’t enforce the laws we already have what makes anyone think we’ll be able to enforce these laws. To say nothing about passing them in the first place. 

If some particular candidate runs on a platform of Caplan’s keyhole solutions, then I hereby pledge my support. (Assuming they’re not crazy in some other respect.) But my assessment of the anti-immigrant electorate is that they’ve been burned too many times by promises of new immigration laws that never materialized or were never enforced, to make this same pledge of support, or to trust any promises for how things are going to go in general. In other words I think Caplan has some interesting ideas, I just think the moment has passed when they might be implemented. And this is a problem on both sides.

Objection 2:

One of Caplan’s key claims is that completely open borders would increase world GDP by between 50 and 150%. Well the world’s per capita GDP is $11,355, while the US’s is $62,606. Which means that if everything is spread equally, and the US’s per capita GDP converges with the world’s (which, under open borders, has risen from $11k to between $17k and $28k) you’re still talking about cutting the salary of the average American in half under the best case scenario. I understand Caplan’s point that the vast majority of people will be much better off. But the vast majority of people are not going to be the ones deciding American immigration policy. And for those people who do make those decisions, i.e. vote, the effect I just described is going to outweigh just about every other consideration. And it’s telling that, while Caplan does acknowledge that this will happen, he buries this admission in his defense against the IQ argument. Rather than placing it in a more prominent location.

In other words, Caplan acknowledges that under open borders the average American would see their wages cut in half, and if anything, this decrease would be even worse for the poorest Americans who would suffer the most direct competition from low-skilled immigrants. Not only is it impossible to imagine that American voters would ever go for that, but it’s impossible to imagine what sort of practical keyhole policies could make up that difference. Even if we’re willing to give them a try.

Objection 3:

At a high level, open borders advocacy reminds me of the way people advocate for Communism, particularly the way they used to advocate for it. As I pointed out in a previous post, before World War II, it was hard to find an intellectual who wasn’t convinced that Communism was the wave of the future, that not only was it more moral, but that it’s economic output would, as Khrushchev famously said, bury the West. All that needed to happen was for a certain class of people to realize that cooperation is better than competition. The benefits were obvious and people just needed to be smart enough and kind enough to get rid of the laws and customs which were preventing this obvious utopia from coming to pass. Does this sound at all similar to what Caplan is urging? Perhaps identical? This is not to say that it would end in the same way or to minimize the differences, which are many. But there is one big similarity which is hard to get past. Both of these plans require people to be a lot less selfish than they’ve ever been.

In this sense open borders is not merely similar to communism it’s similar to a host of ideas that sound really good on paper, but which ultimately overlook the messy complexity of the real world. None of which is to say that Caplan underestimates the difficulties involved in passing open borders legislation. Rather I think he underestimates the number of things that could go wrong after those laws are passed. 

All that said, this was a truly spectacular attempt at making an argument for something most people think is impossible. And at the end of the day we could use a lot more such attempts.


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