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Improving long-run civilisational robustness

abolishing all labor law would vastly increase the size of the economy

[citation needed], as the saying goes.

I kind of doubt it. There are virtually no serious non-Marxist economists who believe that artificially raising the cost of labor, capital, or any other economic input diminishes output. The real debate is over whether it is appropriate to do so for other reasons, like fairness, justice, equality, and so on. So, if you really need a citation, I'd say that any first-year economics textbook would do it.

it would probably be a mistake for the list to pick specific economic policies on the basis that they produce the fastest economic growth, since then the discussion would be in danger of being politicized

My main point was about the mental process that generated the list. It a constraint on the process that generates the list is that it must be 100% de-politicized, then I wouldn't put much faith in the list. And it reads to me like it has been.

fastest economic growth should not be the only criterion, unless that really is the only thing that influences robustness

Sure, but that main point again was about the process that led to the list. There's a cost to everything on the list. Just because taxes pay for some item on it doesn't make it free, even in terms of robustness.

As I understand it, RyanCarey is interested in threats to human civilization as a whole rather than to individual human civilizations. Human civilization as a whole doesn't have laws, regulations, taxation, etc. If one nation collapses under the weight of its own regulatory burden then others will presumably take note.

One would hope, but they seem to be moving together for the past 20 years or so toward greater regulation, and hence greater fragility. If you can point me to a country whose published laws and regulations are shorter now than they were 10 years ago, I will happily retract the point (and consider buying a second home there).

And I would say that there are some legal jurisdictions that, if they failed quickly enough, could bring down the entirety of civilization. The US and EU are the two that come to mind. Two EMP devices, or two large enough asteroids, might do it.

How widely held, and how well supported, is the theory that the Roman empire failed because of overregulation and overtaxation?

It was the orthodox explanation in my economic history class that I took in 1988. I sometimes return to the subject to see if anyone has overturned that theory, and have never seen anything along those lines. The regulation was mainly driven by taxation,. The state raised revenues to the point that avoidance was really problematic, then instituted heavy controls on individuals to ensure payment. For example, in the late empire, most taxes were levied in kind; the regulatory response was that the law positively required the eldest son to succeed to his father's profession, property, and station -- so that the authorities could ensure that they were getting the right in-kind taxation. Some Roman citizens abandoned their property in order to avoid taxation, like runaway slaves. There is a theory that this is where serfdom originated, though I suspect the reality was more culturally mixed. The regulation had vast cost beyond the taxes being paid, because it prevented the movement of resources to more productive uses, either by changing jobs or by moving locations.

In any case, the point is that the regulatory structure created civilizational fragility. It didn't take much after that for Rome to fall. I mean seriously -- barbarian invaders? Rome had dealt with that for a thousand years and had always recovered from any reverses. It's like the signature of the Roman Republic that they lost battles, won wars, and came back stronger than before. But the empire became a different thing.

Improving long-run civilisational robustness

This is an intended as a provocation to think outside your box. I hope you take it in the spirit intended.

If you are really brainstorming around the risk of a collapse of civilization due to some catastrophe, it is really hard to think outside your own political preferences. I say this from experience because I shy away from certain solutions (and even from acknowledging the problem). So allow me to suggest that your own limitations are making you avoid what I'd call ugly choices.

You suggest international cooperation as a way to prevent widespread destruction. Well, maybe. But there are two to four countries that have developed or are developing nuclear weapons and missile systems and that the rest of the world seems to treat as unstable. So one solution to that problem is invade them, destroy their facilities for nuclear and missile research, remove their leadership, and remove their relevant scientists and technical personnel. Why neither that problem nor that solution on your list? There is at least one recent example of a country invading another country after taking a public position that the second country had weapons of mass destruction. Was your omission because of that experience?

Many of your proposals seem oriented towards saving as many people as possible, rather than saving civilization. If civilization falls, the resulting economy will probably not produce enough food quickly enough to feed everyone. (Me? I'll starve in year 1 , if I survive that long.) Why propose to spend resources on things that do not actually improve civilization's robustness (like widely distributed gas masks when their recipients starve in the following winter)?

Economic growth creates more resources that can be used for resilience. Our current laws reduce both the maximum potential growth rate and the growth rate we actually have. For example, abolishing all labor law would vastly increase the size of the economy. Why does your list not embrace whatever political policies induce the fastest economic growth?

Relatedly, one major civilization that fell due to its own laws was probably the Roman empire. It choked off its own economic growth through regulations intended to support its taxation structure, until it could not sustain its own weight. Why does your list not include that kind of threat to civilization?

I think there is commonality in these items, but that might be in the eye of the beholder.

Improving long-run civilisational robustness

I concur. The only point to a putting permanent space stations into orbit is if it helps us along the path to putting humans some place that they can live for years after something really bad happens to Earth. That means a full, independent ecosystem that produces sufficient resources and new people to colonize Earth.

... "Colonize Earth" -- what a strange pair of sentences to write.

Improving long-run civilisational robustness

Here is a thread on the "Recovery Manual for Civilization," which I thought is a useful addition to your list:

And here was (most of) my comment in that thread:

My first conclusion was that there are all kinds of events that could lead to a collapse of civilization without exterminating humanity directly. But it may be impossible for humanity to rise back from the ashes if it stays there too long. Humanity can't take the same path it took to get to where it is now. For example, humanity developed different forms of energy as prices of previous forms rose. For example, we started digging up shallow coal when population grew too high to use charcoal produced from wood. But many of those resources are no longer near the surface. All coal, oil, and gas near the surface has been extracted. So humanity, if it rose again, would have to find a different path.

My conclusion was that I would not want to invest enough time into preparing for the end of the world to get personally involved in preparing for the end of civilization. But some people already do: all the survivalists and similar people. So, if I want to help civilization recover after a collapse, my best alternative is not to try to store the information myself. Instead, it is to reduce the information to a useful form and give it to these people. This is far more robust that trying to think of the best way of having the information survive. Give it to a few thousand people in scattered places with different survival strategies, and it is much more likely that the information survives.

These two facts together led me to conclude that a collaboration to prepare some kind of big, easily read manual of technology would be a valuable contribution to the survival of humanity. It would need to build on itself, somewhat like tech trees in strategy games.

Plus, it would be really amusing for the LW community to decide that one of its bets for saving humanity is to help outfit survivalists with technical know-how.

I'd add that a case that fits within the general idea of a disaster that destroys civilization, but does not extinguish humanity would be a few (possibly as few as one or two) electro-magnetic pulse detonations over the eastern or western seaboard of the United States. I can see the follow-on-effects bringing civilization down. I would think that would get worse in the next 50 years or so, as India and China catch up to the level of computerization prevalent in the US.

Request for advice: high school transferring

Here's a link to the base rate fallacy article on Wikipedia:

A thing to avoid in your situation is focusing excessively on the specifics that lead you to conclude that the local public school will be as good as the private school you are attending. Generally speaking, public schools are lower quality than private schools. But getting a little more narrow might be worthwhile: How are the public schools in your general area compared to public schools in the country, using objective statistics on things like SAT rates? Now, can you compare that to your private school or your brand of private school (Catholic, secular, whatever)? Think about other metrics that matter for you: percent getting into Ivy League colleges, or number of assaults on campus per 100 students, or whatever.

Compare those rates before mentally inserting yourself into the situation. Once you mentally place yourself there, a lot of what you know about the statistics of the places can slip away. That is what the base rate fallacy teaches. It helps you focus on the idea that the median experience at each school is likely to be your experience, which helps defeat the "grass is greener on the other side of the fence.".

Request for advice: high school transferring

When thinking that the local public school is otherwise equivalent to your boarding school, you should consider two things in addition to the things that others have noted:

  1. What's the base rate? Generally, private schools are better than public schools. Otherwise, people would not pay for private schools. Anecdotally, I am always appalled by the things I hear about public schools (since my kids went to private school). I'm also appalled by my own memories of public schools. The qualitative difference is usually pretty big.

  2. Public schools' reputations are usually overblown compared to private schools. Generally, you get into a public school by where you live. The reputation of the local public school thus affects property values, giving all the locals a strong incentive to claim that their school is good. Additionally, they feel more comfortable assuring themselves that the school that they are sending their kids to for free is a good school. That is, their conclusions that their schools are good is motivated reasoning. The result is that 75% of people believe that their kids' public school is above average, which is just impossible.

Cheerful one-liners and disjointed anecdotes

Here's my answer for being a lawyer.

Lawyers actually talk about this. We have the phrase "thinking like a lawyer." We debated what it meant all the way back in jurisprudence class. We reached no conclusions. (Hey, we're lawyers: a conclusion arrives only with hourly fees!)

The modes of thinking for a lawyer alternate between two things: issue-spotting and issue-analysis. The key to thinking like a lawyer is being able to move back and forth between the two modes of thought. As you are issue-spotting, you have to edit down by quick analysis. As you are doing analysis, you have to be aware of issues that you might otherwise pass by. So, issue-spot and issue-analyze.

The other critical thing about thinking like a lawyer is being able to hold multiple contradictory descriptions of reality in your head. The states have to include both the facts (in a pretty probabilistic way) and the law (in terms of the arguments that might be made and again some probabilistic sense of their strength). So, two limited quantum multiverses in your head.

Then trivially, I could say things about being able to communicate well in person, and write well, and work well with other people. But really, that should be an "or," not "and." If you can do one thing really well, that's good enough. So, one good social skill.

Am I on track for what you were asking?

Should we admit it when a person/group is "better" than another person/group?

TL;DR: Group stereotyping, when based on actual group data, is most valuable where it is most unfair and vice versa.

Group stereotyping seems like it would be most useful, and also most unfair, where one uses a proxy for a information that is difficult to obtain. It is hard to come up with an example that is not a political or identity-based mind-killer. So here's a metaphor, with the wariness that a metaphor can mislead as much as it elucidates.

Let's say that we are in the business of basket-weaving. It turns out that the median left-handed person makes baskets worth 5% more than than comparable baskets made by the median right-handed person. As an industry, we have no idea why, but it is demonstrably true, and significant to our business. People invent all kinds of reasons, but no research proves out any of the reasons.

A basket business can test for the value of any individual's baskets by hiring them, having them produce baskets for a couple months, and track the sales price of their baskets. But that is a substantial investment just to get the information. The problem here is the cost of information. Group-stereotyping is the most useful when the cost of information is high. So an approach might be to prefer to hire lefties. But (unless there are asymmetries in the cost of information), it also where it is most unfair to the group member, because it is most costly to provide the information to rebut the stereotype. We end up ignoring the earnest righties who tell us for sure that they can make better baskets than the lefties we are hiring -- and they might very well be correct.

It also seems to me that using group stereotypes is most justified and least unfair where there is high asymmetry in the cost of obtaining (and verifying, if needed) the information, such that the group member can provide at trivial cost the information that is highly costly for the decision-maker to get, and the situation prompts the group member to do so. For example, if our righty basket-maker had a letter from a prior employer that explained how unusually profitable the basket-maker's baskets were, that would defeat the stereotype, because we would know to update our stereotype with individualized data that is actually probative. (An aside: in this situation, we have to avoid being distracted by things that are not probative, such as emotional appeals, irrelevant but positive information, the good looks of the applicant, and all the other things that can lead to an unreliable decision.) In our scenario, the availability of a letter of recommendation doesn't help all the novice basket-makers who are applying for their first basket-making job, so it is not a 100% solution.

One potential solution to this problem is prices, but they have their own problems. If, on average, lefties are worth 5% more than righties in making baskets, the basket industry could adopt pay practices that are directly related to the value of the baskets produced. The problem with that is complexity. That's a broad category, but I can't come up with anything else that holds all the instances. Prices are not determined just by one party; they are determined largely by the market, which means that they are path-dependent, but also evolved. In our particular situation, changing compensation models can run into issues that economists study under the heading of agency or the theory of the firm -- basically, the idea here is that we could have all kinds of unanticipated effects by changing how we put prices on the work of our basket-makers. Still, one could see adopting a test period where lefties got paid 5% more than righties, until the results were in. That doesn't really change things all that much, except that it puts a limit on the period of unfairness, and puts a deadline on updating our information.

Technology is another solution to this problem. For example, one could invent the basket-value test. It's a cheap test that is based on an academic observation of a strong correlation between your ability to identify certain visual patterns with the value of baskets produced. Presumably, if businesses are really missing the boat by failing to hire talented righties, then there is an incentive for someone to invent this technology, because it will lead businesses to use a deeper poo of labor (which presumably lowers their wage costs). What we'd really be doing is substituting one group stereotype (performance on the test) for another (handedness). That would be worth doing if the test were more specific or more precise than handedness in predicting the value of basket production.

But until that technology comes along, it does seem unfair to the specific righties to judge their productivity based strictly on membership in a group (even if for a limited period until real data arrives). If you don't agree, steel yourself against mind-killing, then take the metaphor and map it to race and conviction rates.

Open Thread, Feb 8 - Feb 15, 2016

Absolutely. Best thing I've read in years. Reading Twig now.

(For everyone else, It's free.)

The Fable of the Burning Branch

Fair enough. I don't follow the personalities here, so the situations where someone engages in sock-puppetry would totally escape my notice. My priors incline me to preferring good speech as the remedy for bad speech.

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