Wiki Contributions


I'm all over the bias issues. Because I can address them from my own practical experience, I'm happy working with what I know. The AI safety issues are way outside my practical experience, and I know it.

In the moral parliament, I would constantly move that I am appointed dictator forever. Eventually, I will win the lottery. Except of course that everyone else will do the same, so the odds are that someone else will win before I will. I say this to point out that the interesting parts of the moral parliament end up being the constrains on the mechanism, rather than the mechanism itself. The paper, in fact, handles these constraints by abandoning the mechanism! It says that we'll assume everyone acts as if there will be a lottery, but we'll actually just use straight plurality voting.

Two very small contributions:

  1. In most jurisdictions, companies can have classes of shares with unequal voting power. If one of your concerns is to enable a veto, share classifications can get  you there pretty flexibly. Also, if outright vetoes are not on the table, you could also embrace the mandatory delay. The class B shares can't say don't do it, but they can say don't do it yet.
  2. A spin on Leninist organizations is to have the top of the organization pick the new members at the lowest levels, and the organization has levels that each select the next level up, to the very top. So, you could have 1,000 members selected by the top 10 committee; with the top 10 committee selected by the top 100 council, who are selected by the membership. Within the "selection," you can have any variety of mechanisms -- proportional representation, districts, whatever. But the organization will tend to maintain its identity over time because the people at the top decide who the right people to bring in are.

So, if you are looking for a way to organize a set of class B votes that can only veto and not participate in the economic benefits of ownership, the Leninist spin organization could give you the members who vote the class B shares.

I would point to a different cycle to explain the fall of Rome. Set this against both the Malthusian trap theory and the (many) theories around technology. This is an institutional story.

One of the key problems that the Roman state failed to solve was that of who rules. The Republic was semi-successful at this. It used public recognition and generational advancement in social class as its main methods of controlling elites. This ultimately failed after the Carthaginian wars eliminated the external enemy that kept internal politicking in check. At this point you see a continuous cycle of ambitious elites conquering new territories in the name of Rome and — this is critical — enriching themselves massively and using that fortune to control the Roman state. This led to the civil wars. Ultimately, Octavian triumphed — to my mind, he was the best that Rome could hope for in the circumstances, but he did not really fix the core problem. 

After Augustus, the problem became more specific: the succession. The civil wars had shown that the way to control the Roman state was the control armies. Much of later Roman history is essentially a story of charismatic generals fighting for control of the state. It is the interludes in that story that are most important, though. These are when some great general prevails and stays in office long enough to carry out major reforms. Think Diocletian and Constantine.

History books seem to love these “reforms.” Economists hate them. These reforms — unlike those of Augustus — were entirely about capturing more resources for the state, so that the victorious general and his descendants would be better able to fend off competitors. But even the best of Roman’s economy did not produce massive surpluses. So extracting more was difficult. Near the end, the cost of empire was greater for taxpayers than the benefits. This explains why laws would literally mandate that every son follow his father’s occupation using his father’s property: so that the tax man would know from whom to collect. This eventually becomes feudal serfdom, where peasants were tied to the land.

In a setting where private initiative is so burdened with crushing taxation and repressive regulation, is it a surprise that economic growth reverses or that technological innovation becomes limited to agriculture?

I think that this story has more explanatory power than the energy-constraint story does. But it might compound the energy-constraint story. One of the fundamental problems with seeing energy constraint as the empire-killer is that scarcity of a resource should drive up its price. That should incentivize lots of interesting behaviors: long-distance trade, product substitution, process substitutions for technologies that use less of the resource, etc. We see this in the industrial age’s move from charcoal to coal to oil to electricity. We don’t see that in Roman times. Why? Perhaps because the central government fixed the prices of everything so that it would be easier to collect taxes. If the price of charcoal doesn’t increase when supply decreases, we miss out on all of the incentives that a freer market would have brought. 

So governing institutions are a key component of why Rome fell, because they caused a ratchet effect of ever-increasing tax and regulatory burdens.

This causes me worry about modern politics. On a precautionary principle, it seems to me that we should look askance at the ever-increasing regulatory burdens on business. If they cause civilization to be less effective at producing technology that can save civilization from whatever would cause its fall (asteroid, supervolcano, disease, global warming, whatever), that seems like a bad deal. The fact that, after a fall from civilization, humanity cannot climb the same ladder it did before because it has exhausted all surface-level minerals means that —unlike Rome — this is probably our last shot at assuring super-long-term survival of the human species. So I'd prefer less regulation that we currently endure.

I should note that my final conclusion highly correlates with my priors, so is suspect.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.".

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.

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