The OpenAI coup, "deaths of despair", Japan's stagnation, solar panel waste, and the Inequality Wars
I agree that EA is worth rescuing from some of its high-profile advocates, but I'm still worried about being turned into a paperclip.
(Steven Pinker not being worried makes me worry more, because he's reliably wrong about everything outside his area of expertise. I think he and Richard Dawkins must have made some sort of pact.)
re: japan, i still can never really understand economic reports and analysis of japan’s economy. i’ve been visiting japan for the last 40 years and all i see is advancements everywhere and is still the most futuristic place til this day in addition to social stability, social welfare, and overall widespread wealth like ive never seen. you will never ever see distressed people walking around like zombies fiening for their vice of choice on the streets, it’s just not there. what am i missing?
I always look forward to these "five things" posts, because it's rare that i don't find a few informative and thought provoking. This one was for me five for five, so I wanted to thank you for doing these posts.
One comment. I think wealth, rather than income, is a much more important indicator of inequality for the very rich. That's the measure that the 0.1% and above care about. And that's the measure used for comparison purposes among the very rich.
Re: deaths of despair
My sense is Deaton fell in love with a conceptualization of his own that he initially found clever, and wouldn't back off out of pride or stubbornness. It's an understandable and common human foible. But one that is nonetheless damaging.
Americans do tend to die younger than their counterparts in other rich countries. And as far as I know the gap has widened over the years (the USA's relative position would have looked a lot more favorable in, say, 1970). It's not unreasonable to posit that America's greater tolerance of economic inequality and less effective safety net are among the drivers of this phenomenon.
But as I understand it, Deaton tried to come up with a neat and tidy theory that connected the above with the rise of the MAGA movement. And this necessarily focuses on the white working class. And that's where the idea falls apart, because there's overwhelming evidence the particular spike among this cohort is associated with opioids. Needless to say there have been major differences in how America and the rest of the rich world have handled the emergence of the new generation of these drugs. In short, US practices were basically *designed* to get people addicted to drive pharm products. It's not despair that has caused so many working class white Americans to die prematurely; it's been the intersection of brain physiology and very poorly designed painkiller regulations that have done that.
“Income inequality” is one of those expressions that sounds bad but is quite obviously a necessary feature in any robust, competitive economy.
Deaton did point to one feature of as-existing "Capitalism" that contributes to stress/despair: employer "provided" health insurance. Although paid for by employees' lower wages, for any specific employee, it is a cost to the employer, a fixed cost per person. This makes it much higher percentage of wage for the minimum wage employee that the CEO. This inclines employers to substitute capital and higher wage labor for low wage labor and to strategies of part-time, contractor status employment to avoid that cost. It was a mistake of ACA not to have structured the program so that employers could "dump" low-income employees on to a more generous ACA.
I'm no fan of EA, nor an AI-doomer, but your comment on OpenAI seems mistaken to me.
"And “shut it all down” is what the OpenAI board seems to have had in mind when it pushed the panic button and kicked Altman out. But the effort collapsed when OpenAI’s workers and financial backers all insisted on Altman’s return. Becuase they all realized that “shut it all down” has no exit strategy."
It seems plain that "shut it all down" is not what the board "had in mind". If so, then OpenAI would not exist as it currently does.
I would suggest, instead, that the board believed in the principles of the founding of the corporation; that is: "The Company exists to advance OpenAI, Inc.'s mission of ensuring that safe artifical general intelligence is developed an benefits all of humanity." That is, not necessarily to grow or to make a profit (explicitly, regarding the latter). And that they realized (too late, apparently) that running the company as an SV startup ("grow!", "move fast!", "break things!", "get rich!") was not conducive to the goals of the foundation. And likely (also too late, apparently) realized that coupling themselves too tightly to Microsoft was a similar mistake.
Now Microsoft is in the driver's seat, and I don't see the new board as having much focus on the founding principles.
Are people really doubtful about increased disaffection among the US working class? And the supposed European counterexamples aren't too convincing as they're less economically cutthroat than the US--if anything wouldn't that strengthen the argument that there's some causal nexus between US capitalistic culture/socioeconomics and the mounting disaffection? Even if we set aside particular health outcomes or dispute vocabulary like despair and stress, it still seems like there's some pernicious social phenomenon that merits scrutiny.
Combining 2 thoughts from this post: income inequality and deaths of despair. Sociologists who study these topics have data that clearly show the relationship between impoverishment (the bottom end of inequality) and mortality/health (shortened life expectancy, including "deaths of despair" and reduced adult height). Please see Dr. Peter Turchin's data at peterturchin.com. In terms of cause and effect, evidence-based sociologists clearly show a chain of cause/effect in many societies worldwide: inequality > impoverishment > rising fascism, because the impoverished look to a strong leader to destroy the system for them. Noah, please see Dr. Turchin's data and provide your reaction.
Piketty: “inequality denial is as dangerous as climate denial.”
Prices in a properly functioning market act as signals and incentives. That means that in a properly functioning market it is entirely possible that inequality in wages or differences between capital and labor are the signals telling us to invest more in skills and investment and entrepreneurial ideas and less in rote labor. The incentive is to get a better education, move to better jobs, or start your own lawn-care business.
If Piketty or anyone else thinks that rising inequality is de facto a negative, then I would argue they are missing a fundamental grasp of economics. That said, I understand that inequality could be a sign of rent seeking or market distortions, and that rising inequality can create various externalities.
Adding insult to injury, when I see economists decry inequality, top on their list of remedies is usually more powerful unions (which are by definition market distorting, rent-seeking labor cartels).
I saw that in the aftermath of the OpenAI coup, they added Larry Summers to the board and that only added to my existential dread.
Will we all feel better about AI running amok because Larry Summers is there to write a reassuring op-ed about how the AI’s decision to liquidate 70% of us into Soylent is going to be tremendous for the stock market and economy?
And that’s basically all he’s ever been good for. Larry Summers cares so much more about money as a line going up, than he does about people or humanity as a whole.
re: " narratives; Piketty thundered on Twitter that “inequality denial is as dangerous as climate denial.” (Note: No, it is not.)"
Just an ignorant dilatant, but IIRC Piketty argues that inequality distorts economic/public policy decisions to favor the wealthy. The Fossilistas are a prime example.
Noah: I think one of the strongest arguments in favor of renewables at this point is the very long term problem of heat waste. I'd imagine you've read about this phenomenon: many decades from now, global warming will re-emerge as a huge problem even *after* we've completely decarbonized simply because, when humans employ energy to do things, some of it dissipates into the atmosphere and increases temperatures.
Anyway, as I understand it, the only energy technologies that can completely avoid this (very serious) issue, long term, are solar and wind, provided the systems are properly designed. Nuclear doesn't cut it. It's not a problem that will become huge in scale for a very long time (maybe several centuries) but it's a very real issue.
Effective altruism is like macroeconomics: a good intuition pump that some people mistake for all-inclusive blueprints.
I'm very glad the people working on AI are keeping an eye out for the wackier possibilities. The actual data doesn't so far seem to justify either hosannas or panic, but it's good the actual professionals take their own work seriously.
It seems like Piketty’s morally tinged outrage about “inequality denial” rests on the assumption that the outlandish wealth accumulation of the underserving rich somehow impairs the economic welfare of the lower classes and the poor. How true is that?
I mean, if you take consumption as a more direct measure of standard of living, in the US inflation-adjusted personal consumption expenditures per household continues to rise decade over decade.
Which is not to argue that there isn’t some low hanging fruit to improve people’s economic security, like universal health care coverage.
Great stuff re: EAs, despair, and coal. But solar and land use:
Jesse Jenkins: ...[In] The most cost-effective of our net-zero scenarios, [wind] spans an area that is equal to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee put together. And the solar farms are an area the size of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.
Ezra Klein: Holy crap.
Jesse Jenkins: So these are big, big areas.
(Not defending fossil fuels, just saying we need nuclear power to give everyone lots of carbon-free energy.)