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Most people are against cloning though I’ve never understood why. Is it just another technology that will be accepted once it’s possible?

“My prediction: Once a few thousand cloned humans are walking the earth, sneering at clones and people who want them will become as gauche as sneering at IVF babies and people who want them.”

Bryan Caplan on cloning

At least the Japanese can video conference when their bullet trains break

In my last post I discussed the short and medium run effects of increased trade and specialization on a society’s robustness. What is the effect over decades?

Complexity through new technology and specialisation, enabled by interpersonal and international trade, increases the productivity and productivity growth in an economy. Changes in productivity accumulate exponentially over time so in the long run they dominate any other impact. There are two ways this greater productivity can be used: in a purely Malthusian economy (which would include all of the world pre-1800 and the poorest parts of Africa today) all of the extra efficiency goes towards increasing population density while incomes remain roughly constant; in a modern post-Malthusian economy it mostly goes towards making each person richer.

When complexity results in greater population density and unchanged near-subsistence incomes, a society may be more or less vulnerable to collapse than it was before. A disturbance of similar magnitude is just as harmful for each person. The greater number of inputs makes disturbances more frequent, but the larger size of the economy allows greater diversification which is a buffer against some kinds of industry specific shocks. A larger economy can come up with more innovations as there are more people to do experiments and solve new problems. In the views of some historians complexity in subsistence income societies has resulted in the collapse of many large and sophisticated empires through history, so this is some evidence that the net effect is towards greater fragility. If our concern is not the harm a disaster inflicts on each person or the probability of a society collapsing, but rather population falling below an absolute number, which is the case when we worry about human extinction, a higher population is surely better. A disaster has to be much more severe to take the world’s population from 7 billion to zero than from 100 million to zero.

When a society uses complexity to make each person richer it is also unclear clear if it is more vulnerable than before. Though reliance on many inputs would suggest any single good or service is more likely to be disrupted, each person has a bigger ‘buffer zone’ before their income falls low enough to threaten their survival. If every person in Australia found their income halved tomorrow, we could continue surviving comfortably; when the same happened to countries in 1750 were halved, famine, riots and a cascading collapse of law and order were frequent outcomes. A rich society has other advantages that make it more robust. It can afford to stockpile more goods for security or add redundancy to any supply chain to make disruptions less frequent. It will also have more capital, idle labour and land which it can potentially reallocate to make more of anything it is struggling to obtain. A rich society, like a high density society, will have a greater capacity for innovation and problem solving and will foster some people who specialise in that task specifically. As in the Malthusian case, a richer society produces more kinds of goods across more places and sometimes in more varied ways, and this diversification makes it more resistant to shocks to any specific process. As modern industrial society is the first post-Malthusian civilization, the fate of historical empires may not have so much to teach us about the impact of complexity on robustness today.

The picture isn’t all rosy. Though more resources are available to cover for any problems, it is possible that the more complex production techniques familiar to rich countries are hard to scale up (or down) in the short term, and the specialised skills and machines found in complex economies may not be as easily reallocated to different tasks as more basic ones. The time necessary to create the physical and human capital necessary to open a nuclear power plant is probably greater than that for a traditional coal plant; a shovel can be applied to a greater range of tasks than a dental drill. The skills and technologies found in rich societies may also be less adapted to disaster scenarios than those found poorer ones. For example, nobody I know would be able to grow all their own food.

Though there are things about modern societies which make them more robust and others which make them less robust, I think the overall movement is clearly towards robustness. At a guess, rich societies today even with their 20 varieties of mobile phone charger and ‘just in time’ supply chains, are more resilient in the fact of disasters than any others in history and they will become more so the more complex and rich they get. Complexity in the financial system probably contributed to the 2008 financial crisis but after decades of productivity gains a recession is much less painful now than in the 1930s. Then many people went without food, today people tough it out without Wiis. At the other end of the spectrum, any very crowded and poor country which relies on complex technology to get its necessities is probably the most vulnerable to disaster in history.

Related thought from George Monbiot. He is more pessimistic than me.

This is one of the most interesting presentations I’ve ever found online. That is has only 17,000 views is a disgrace, so go watch it now!

Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs – Phillip Tetlock

“From his perspective as a pyschology researcher, Philip Tetlock watched political advisors on the left and the right make bizarre rationalizations about their wrong predictions at the time of the rise of Gorbachev in the 1980s and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. (Liberals were sure that Reagan was a dangerous idiot; conservatives were sure that the USSR was permanent.) The whole exercise struck Tetlock as what used to be called an “outcome-irrelevant learning structure.” No feedback, no correction.

He observes the same thing is going on with expert opinion about the Iraq War. Instead of saying, “I evidently had the wrong theory,” the experts declare, “It almost went my way,” or “It was the right mistake to make under the circumstances,” or “I’ll be proved right later,” or “The evilness of the enemy is still the main event here.”

Tetlock’s summary: “Partisans across the opinion spectrum are vulnerable to occasional bouts of ideologically induced insanity.” He determined to figure out a way to keep score on expert political forecasts, even though it is a notoriously subjective domain (compared to, say, medical advice), and “there are no control groups in history.” – The Long Now Foundation”

In general as a production process gets more complex and requires many specialised and non-substitutable inputs, it is more vulnerable to disruption. This is proposed as a cause of collapse for many sophisticated empires throughout history. The economic fallout from the Iceland volcano fiasco got me wondering: does trade follow the rule that complexity leads to fragility, and if so how can we reduce that?

Short run effects

There is a compensating benefit to trade which increases stability which complicates the situation: unexpectedly low production in one place can be made up by unexpectedly high production in another. To give us some context I’ll consider robustness of food supply, one of the most important production and distribution processes for a society’s stability. For simplicity I’ll imagine three kinds of disruption: local crop failure (a local 30% output shortfall), global crop failure (a randomly distributed 30% output shortfall globally) and a halving of trade (from war, protectionism or natural disaster for example).

Self-sufficiency but no trade: Imagine a world where there is no trade in food between regions. Each region has to aim to produce enough food to feed itself. Each region has to worry about a bad season and regional output can be very variable and if they don’t produce enough food, they will starve. Given this they will aim to produce more food than they need and stockpile lots of grain in order to make a famine very unlikely. They are nonetheless more vulnerable to local shocks than if they could buy food from elsewhere in these emergency scenarios. A global shock has the same impact. However such a situation is not at all vulnerable to trade disruption as nobody relies on trade.

Self-sufficiency and trade: Imagine that in this world trade was suddenly opened up so that all regions could trade with one another. Initially production patterns do not change, so each region is still dedicating the same resources to food production and has the same distribution of expected outputs. In the case of a global supply shock, trade will help a little if a region can get by for a while on a low food supply; those regions with an especially bad crop failure can buy from those regions with a more mild failure. But local crop failure can now be covered with imports from other regions which had bumper crops that year. Vulnerability to trade disruption is no greater now because no region relies on trade except when there is a local crop failure and previously they would have been ruined in that situation anyway. This situation is much more robust than the previous one

No self-sufficiency but trade: Now over time people adapt to this new trade and some regions start producing a lot of food and others start producing less food. In a market system this concentration and specialisation will be based on comparative advantage. Local crop failure is only an issue when trade also fails. Assessing vulnerability to global failure is hard. The total global expected output and stockpiles of food would probably go down a bit over this time. The ‘law of large numbers’ means less excess capacity or stockpiled food is necessary to keep the same risk of famine as existing in scenario 1 because total global food production is less variable than local food production. However, specialization between regions makes food cheaper making stockpiling cheaper and allows us to produce most food in the regions with the least variable output. Compared to self sufficiency and trade we are more vulnerable to trade disruption.

Local crop failure

Global crop failure

Trade disruption

Self-sufficiency but no trade



Not vulnerable

Self-sufficiency and trade

Not vulnerable

Vulnerable (but less?)

Not vulnerable

No self-sufficiency but trade

Not vulnerable

Vulnerable (?)


As we can see, self sufficiency and trade is unambiguously the most robust of the three options, but it is ambiguous which of ‘self-sufficiency but no trade’ and ‘no self-sufficiency but trade’ is the worst. That will depend on how frequently local crop failures, global crop failures and trade disruptions occur and how harmful each is.

What can we do?

If we can have both lots of trade and some back-up systems appropriate for a non-trade world we will be especially robust.

A subsidy for local production to make you less reliant on trade, but open trade when local output falls short is a possibility, though it would be costly and useless against global failures as other countries will proportionally reduce their production. Robin Hanson proposes among other things that previously agreed prices be allowed to rise in emergencies, which gives private parties a reason to maintain excess and robust local production capacity if a supply shock seems likely. The more lucrative opportunities to price gouge during disasters a society commits to having, the more robust it will be.  The subsidy of stockpiles which are only released in a disaster would increase robustness to all kinds of failure, even those where law and order break down. To avoid crowding out other stockpiles or more robust production methods, government stockpiles should commit to sell at high prices rather than give the stockpile away.

In my next post I’ll consider long run effects of trade and complexity on robustness and explain why restrictions on trade or any other policy which reduces productivity growth would be counterproductive.

Carl Zimmerman forwarded me an interesting article challenging the value of maternity leave in breaking through the glass ceiling:

Harriet Harman’s push for longer maternity leave is undeniably positive for mothers who want to return to the same employer, and it can help women maintain a career foothold after motherhood. But such policies can be harshly counterproductive for women in general, as they prompt employers to avoid hiring or promoting younger women at all.

…if mothers do well out of the current system, their right to take maternity leave can still have a detrimental impact on their employers. Take the example of a London secondary school, which recently appointed an energetic young head with a glowing reputation. But within four years the school was failing so badly that it had to be taken over. Part of the problem was that the new head had had two pregnancies, with two long spells of maternity leave, and then struggled to combine caring for two small children with a demanding full-time job. Although undoubtedly skilled, in practice she was unable to properly perform the role for almost four years. The school had, in effect, been headless.

The strongest evidence of this problem comes from Sweden—often cited by advocates as offering the ideal system, with long parental leave, the right to work part-time, time off for sick children and so forth. Yet several studies by Swedish economists have shown that family-friendly employment policies has been the cause of the glass ceiling for women, not the solution to it. The pay gap in Sweden fell from 33 per cent in 1968, before generous maternity protection was first introduced, to 18 per cent by 1981. But it has been rising gradually ever since then. The reason? Onerous maternity protection leads the private sector to systematically avoid hiring women, who then mostly work in the less well-paid public sector.

The sad result is that the more generous the maternity rights, the less likely women are to reach the top. A 2009 paper by Swedish economist Magnus Henrekson confirms that women are much more likely to reach top executive positions in Anglo-Saxon countries—and especially the US, which has only 12 weeks’ unpaid maternity leave—than in Scandinavia. Other research finds that maternity leave of around three to four months helps women’s employment, but that longer periods lead to what economists call “statistical discrimination” against women collectively. Forcing fathers to take paternity leave, meanwhile, has done little to change sex-roles in Scandinavia, while the vast majority of Swedish mothers were against sharing parental leave with their spouses in surveys carried out before the change was introduced.

The basic problem is that businesses are reluctant to employ women who might have kids because they are then likely to leave the firm or do a lousy job. The result is that women are less likely to be put into important positions where they acquire specialised and hard to replace knowledge and skills. That is to say, most highly valued professions.

Apparently this is bad because it increases the gender wage differential and is ‘unfair’ for women who do not intend to have children but are discriminated against as though they will.

There are two extremes we can use to investigate this dynamic.

If the men and women involved do not have any private knowledge about whether they will want to leave their career to care for children in the future or not and are unwilling to commit right away, then actually there is no problem to correct. It is inefficient for people who might drop their careers soon to be in certain kinds of jobs. At the extreme this is obvious: nobody would suggest NASA should be indifferent to the level of commitment someone has to their career before beginning to train someone as an astronaut. For many positions, a long-term and guaranteed commitment to the position is an important qualification. To ignore commitment, even if it made it easier for some female astronauts to be indecisive about having kids, would just be too costly. If in fact women are much more likely to choose to abandon their careers for children, then it is efficient to employ fewer of them in jobs for which commitment is especially valuable.

If a women values both obtaining such a job and having children (or maintaining the option to do so in the future), she could achieve this by compensating her employer with lower wages than men or childless women. This may go some way to explaining women’s lower wages.

Alternatively, let’s imagine everyone knows perfectly well whether they will want to leave their jobs to raise children or not, but their potential employers do not. In this case we have a problem called ‘asymmetrical information‘ which could lead to ‘adverse selection‘ if employers cannot find a way to distinguish between these two groups. If potential employees cannot credibly signal when they are members of the career-committed group or not, people will end up in jobs mismatched to their level of commitment; the career-committed group will be discouraged from working (they will get lower wages than their productivity would call for); and the uncommited group will be encouraged to work more than they should (because they will over their lives get higher wages than their productivity calls for). Fortunately people who are career committed and do not intend to have children can indeed signal this to potential employers through sterilization or, less drastically, through contractual commitments such as fines for having children while in the employment of a firm. If we don’t see such signalling, this presumably means people don’t know their future plans, can signal their level of commitment effectively in other ways or that such methods are impossible (fines are not possible to recover or sterilization can be undone).

Either way, it seems there is nothing a government or do-gooder could do here to improve the situation except facilitate people’s ability to credibly signal their intention to have children or not.

If the fact that women are more inclined to take time off from their careers to raise children and do other non-market labour is judged an unfortunate burden for them (the opposite of the truth in my view given parents in partnerships report preferring caring for children to work), then the best thing would be to redistribute money to women by charging them lower taxes or offering more generous welfare. To be consistent hopefully though they would also be charged through taxes for their higher life expectancies!

Should we change parenting gender norms?

A friend of mine also suggested this:

It would make sense for the government to offer very generous paternity leave, more generous than anything women got. This would help coax more men into become stay-at -home fathers and to leave women as the bread-winners. This would have two advantages: in the long term breaking down genderstyped contraints about work/parenting in society; secondly making it harder for employers to reject women in lieu of a man, if they suspect the woman’s going to leave to have a baby, because men would be just as likely to do the same.

Assuming this paternity leave were successful at coaxing men into becoming stay-at-home fathers, though the story above suggests this is unlikely, would this be beneficial? If gender stereotypes are such that even women who are committed to their careers or men who are committed to being stay-at-home fathers were unable to do so, it might. The above would suggest that women who are truly sure they don’t want to have children are able to display this to potential employers when it is important. But it’s harder for a woman to prove that her husband will look after the kids until he does so so reducing gender norms could be useful for a women in that situation (though it would also increase their number and perhaps the aggregate cost). Potential stay-at-home fathers could be prevented from following their ambition by the disrespect of  friends and family or being unable to find a partner who wants a career instead. Reducing gender norms helps with the first. But increasing preferences diversity within genders makes finding a compatible partner harder: if all women want children and all men want careers it is easier to find a partner who wants the opposite to you than if half of each gender wants each option.

Making both genders equally likely to care for kids also has the downside that it will increase job-commitment mismatch by making it harder for anyone to guess ahead of time who will be committed and who will not.

Given that both market and non-market work (housework and child rearing) has to be done, it’s possible that we’re better off socialising each gender to enjoy a different job. That way nobody need suffer a task they dislike. While in theory we could pick men and women at random and encourage them to value one or the other task, it is easier to socialise genders as a group; messages are easily targetted and made persuasive for gender groups in a way impossible for randomly chosen groups. This benefit is smaller if innate preferences or aptitude for market and non-market work are strong and cut randomly across gender lines (something I know little about).

Reaching The Stars Is Easy Compared to Some Things, from Philhellenes. Very nicely put together. HT Alexander Kruel.

“Since, in the long run, every planetary society will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring — not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive.” – Carl Sagan

Exciting breaking news from the LHC!

Past reasons:

Carl Sagan on Earth

Why existential risk is the most important thing

Reasons to care

Unsurprisingly given our psychology’s origin in evolution, humans spend most of their time thinking about everyday concerns: how to get food, stay clean, find friends, get laid, etc. Most of our thinking and talking about far away issues we don’t have much control over is just for signalling nice things about ourselves. There is little reason to direct those efforts towards the things which really matter most as our views change nothing; instead it’s safest to go along with the idealistic fashions of our social group at any point in time.

Unless you’re really smart. In that case, you can go out and show just how brilliantly smart you are by forwarding strange positions no mediocre wit would feel smart enough to defend. Nick Bostrum, busy signalling his superior smarts with an unusual but consistent worldview, swims against the current of his day and proposes these fairly unusual answers to the most serious problems humanity faces: Death, Existential Risk, Suffering and Mediocre Experiences. If you knew you were going to (have the chance to) be born again in the year 3000, I think these are just the issues you would want us to start dealing with seriously now, not most of the nonsense we ostensibly do to help the future. Or you could just save some money (PPT) for them instead, if you care.

Lucky we have some really smart people: to show us how smart they are, sometimes they go out and say really outlandish but important things.

One way of explaining inconsistencies in human belief and behaviour is to model us as having multiple minds which rarely interact directly. Each set of views and pattern of thinking are brought to the fore by different kinds of questions and different ways of framing these questions. Here is a detailed post on the idea of near-far bias. Because I refer to near-far bias so often, I thought it was worth creating a post with a simple picture to refer to showing the traits which prime either way of thinking. It is from Robin Hanson’s new presentation We Don’t Donate to the Future: Do We Care.

A while back I noted that we naturally trust fiction more than fact, even though fiction can be contrived to say any nonsense an author might want it to say. Robin Hanson today describes how Lord of the Flies grossly misrepresents ‘state of nature’ humans in order to glorify our own civilization:

“This famous novel [Lord of the Flies] suggests that only our “civilized” rules and culture keeps up from the fate of our “savage” ancestors, who were violent dominating rule-less animals.  But though this may be true regarding our distant primate ancestors of six or more million years ago, it is quite unfair slander regarding our face-painting forager ancestors of ten thousand or more years ago.

While our kids are segregated into schools where light monitoring lets them terrorize each other and form dominance hierarchies, forager kids are mixed among forager adults, who enforce their strong social norms against violence and domination.  At school, our kids are rated and ranked far more often than most adults will tolerate, even though this actually slows their learning!”

I particularly liked this (hopefully true) story from the comments:

“When my oldest son was subjected to this book in high school, he got in quite a bit of hot water with the teacher when he responded to a question about what Lord of The Flies tells us about human nature with the observation that as a work of fiction it could say anything at all that the author chose to make up, and therefore it may tell us nothing.”

Parents: warn your kids to beware English teachers, who would try to teach them to value fiction as the equal of fact.

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Robert WiblinHi! I am a young Australian man ostensibly interested in the truth and maximising the total number of preferences that are ever satisfied, weighted by their intensity. I also enjoy reading and writing about the topics listed above. If you share my interests, friend me on , , or or subscribe to my RSS feed .

All opinions expressed here are at most mine alone, and have nothing to do with any past, present, future or far future employers.

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