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Current Affairs’ “Some Puzzles For Libertarians”, Treated As Writing Prompts For Short Stories

[Taken from here.]


Deep in the forest, thousands of miles from civilization, there is an isolated village. It has not seen contact with any other humans for a long time. It is, however, a pleasant and flourishing community, which strongly values freedom and entrepreneurship. There is, however, one tiny quirk. In this village, there is a ritual. Every year, a boy who reaches 18 is cannibalized. It brings the rains, or something. But despite its taste for cannibalism, this village wishes to live in accordance with libertarian principles. Thus, they will only cannibalize the boy if he consents. In order to encourage this to happen, they will put tremendous social pressure on the boy. All through his youth, they will tell him they believe the future of the village depends on his consenting. His parents tell him that he would bring great shame on the household if he refused, which is true. The choice nevertheless rests with the boy, and whatever he chooses will be respected. The parents and villagers attempt to persuade him, but never lie to him, and make clear that they would never force his choice. However: if the boy refuses to be cannibalized, the village has a backup plan. The boy will be blacklisted. No shopkeeper will sell him food, no hotel will give him a room, no hospital will treat him, no employer will hire him. After all, under libertarian principles, nobody can be told how to use their property. The boy’s parents, ashamed of him, will turn him out of the house with no money. He may leave the village, but it is certain death, for thousands of miles of desolate wolf-infested wilderness stand between him and other humans and he has no food. (The wilderness is also privately-owned, and he cannot pay the admission fee.) He is shunned and despised, left to wander the streets in a futile search for shelter and sustenance. However, no force is exercised against him. He is never touched or arrested. He is treated as nonexistent, as the villagers await his demise. So the boy starves to death. The villagers then cannibalize his emaciated corpse, reasoning that they cannot be compelled to give him a dignified burial (plus he died on private property, collapsing in a flowerbed).

Is eating the boy’s corpse after he dies the only potential violation of libertarian principles in the village? Is every single other aspect of this completely permissible?

The setting sun shone its last few rays on Independence Hall. The delegates were tired, but a thrill of excitement filled the air. The wrangling and deal-making was almost done; nothing remained but a few technicalities.

As the last sunbeam went below the horizon, something stirred in the middle of the chamber. It grew into a wind, then a whirlwind, and then standing among the assembled Founding Fathers was a strange man dressed all in silver, wearing a pair of gold goggles.

“You’ve got to stop!” he shouted. “It’s all lies!”

George Washington had stayed calm through cavalry charges, artillery fire, and the assembled might of the United Kingdom. He flinched only a little here. “Who are you, sir? Where have you come from?

The traveler barely heard. “Listen! You think ‘democracy’ can solve all your problems. But – imagine there’s a village full of cannibals. They have a tradition of picking a child, and killing and eating him when he’s eighteen years old. Well, even if that village is a democracy, then 51% of the population can just vote to kill and eat him! Do you want a child to be killed and eaten? Because that’s what your ‘democracy’ inevitably leads to! Checkmate, liberals!”

The delegates were only less dazed by the man’s speech than by his sudden appearance. Finally, General Washington asked whether anyone wanted the floor. After a scramble of shouts and raised hands, the chair recognized James Madison, delegate from Virginia.

“Thank you,” said James Madison. “Our Traveler may not know this, but I am preparing a Bill of Rights to be added on to the end of this Constitution, severely limiting the powers which the government may exercise. I’m planning one on cruel and unusual punishment, which sounds like it ought to cover killing and eating someone, and there will also be various restrictions on seizure of persons. The Traveler is already wrong that we operate entirely on the basis of 51% of the populace – rather, there will be representatives, senators, and Supreme Court Justices. But even if all these people should agree to kill and eat someone, I am confident that the natural rights included in my bill will restrict such practices.”

“AHA!” said the Traveler. “You’ve fallen for my trap! Because even if the government is banned from assisting in killing and eating someone, it could still happen. Imagine a system where, if the victim refused to be killed and eaten, then everyone in the village refused to house him, or feed him, so that he starved to death. Then he’d be dead anyway, and your precious Bill of Rights wouldn’t be able to do anything about it!”

“Couldn’t the victim just move to a different village?” interjected John Jay.

“The village is in the middle of a giant forest stretching five thousands miles, teeming with dire wolves,” snarled the Traveler, annoyed at such a stupid objection.

“Couldn’t the victim just build his own house, and farm his own food?” asked John Adams.

“The dire wolves would tear up the house, and trample all over the farm!” said the traveler. “You’re splitting hairs here! Why won’t anyone answer my question in the spirit it was intended?!”

There were more shouts and another frenzy for attention. General Washington banged his gavel. “The chair recognizes Alexander Hamilton.”

“Yo,” said Hamilton. “The institutions of our Constitution, give a clear solution to this persecution. The Revolution…”

“The chair unrecognizes Representative Hamilton, and offers the floor to anyone who does not speak in rap.”

“Thank you,” said Benjamin Franklin. “My good Mysterious Traveler, perhaps you labor under the misapprehension that political philosophies are also moral philosophies, and so fail irredeemably if they ever recommend an immoral course of action. I do not believe democracy is always right. But I believe it is a wise way to govern. All that systems of government can do is take nations – with all of their conflicts, ideas, prejudices, and values – as input, and then magnify some impulses and suppress others. Start with a country where every single person is entirely set on doing as much evil as possible, and democracy alone cannot save it; they will simply vote to do as much evil as possible. But start with a country in which there are many different classes, agendas, and visions, and I believe that a democratic system is more likely to magnify those impulses that help the common people, and suppress those impulses that lead to tyranny, than any other system yet devised.”

“So you’re saying,” said the traveler, “that you don’t care that your precious democracy and even your so-called Bill of Rights aren’t good enough to save the life of a child in – ”

“You listen here,” said Benjamin Franklin. “I care plenty. In a village that didn’t have any form of government, as soon as anybody big and strong enough wants to eat you, they can form a mob and drag you away. In a village that operates as a direct democracy, it’s harder. You need 51% of the population to want to eat you before you end up as dinner. And in a village that subscribes to Mr. Madison’s notion of natural rights, it’s harder still. You have to have every single person in the village agree not to feed the victim, without a single kindly old lady leaving food out on her porch at night when it’s too dark out for anyone to see. We have gone from tyranny – a system where, as long as even one person wishes you ill, you perish – all the way to a system where as long as there is a single person who does not wish you ill, you endure. That seems to me to be the best we can do in this world.”

Suddenly the Traveler seemed to warp, or crackle, like a signal from far away was being disrupted. “I must go!” he said. “I’m being recalled to my home time!” he shouted. “Where I will tell people that they should form a government based on socialism, and that it will be great, and nothing can possibly go wrong!”

“Stop!” said Jay. “You must tell us about this ‘socialism’ of yours!”

“Say, before you’re lost to me, at very high velocity, what is this new philosophy, that can prevent atrocity?” begged Hamilton.

But it was Washington, ever the man of action, who jumped up from the chair and grabbed the Traveler by his silver arm, holding him against the winds of Time. “This ‘socialism’ of yours – ” asked Washington. “It can ensure that – even in a barbaric society where literally one hundred percent of the people are wholeheartedly dedicated to do so – nobody ever eats their fellow citizens?”

“Yes!” said the traveler. “Why, in true socialist countries, nobody ever eats anything at all!”

Then he broke free of Washington’s grasp and disappeared forever, just as the first rays of the moon cast their white light on Philadelphia.


Is there a meaningful difference between coercion by the state and coercion by private entities?

The door caved in loudly and suddenly, like a thunderclap. My Golden Retriever ran up, tail wagging, to investigate. Another loud noise, and my dog lay dead, bleeding on the floor in front of me.

“PUT YOUR HANDS UP!” said a man in black body armor and a black helmet. There were five of them, all with guns. My five-year-old son started to cry. “HANDS UP!” he shouted, “I’M NOT GOING TO TELL YOU AGAIN!”

I put my hands up. My son, who was screaming, got the presence of mind to put his hands up also, though not before one of the armored men had put a gun to his head.

“What’s wrong?!” I asked. “Why are you doing this to us?”

One of the men put a gun to my head. “Admit it! You’re growing marijuana here!”

“I’m not!” I insisted.

“Is this 2051 Willow Street?”

“No, this is 2052 Willow Street. 2051 Willow Street is on the other side!”

“Oh. Well, sorry.”

“Sorry? That’s all you have to say? You killed my dog! You terrorized my five-year-old son!”

“Yeah, sorry. We’re McDonalds employees, and corporate headquarters must have given us bad directions.”

“You’re…McDonalds employees? Why are McDonalds employees doing no-knock raids in body armor looking for marijuana?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Then why are you even here? You just think it’s okay to randomly go around, kill people’s pets, terrorize their families, when you don’t know why you’re doing it? How can you justify such a thing?”

“I heard there were a bunch of people who were okay with private coercion, and only objected to coercion when it was applied by the State.”

What? Where did you hear that?”

“I don’t know. Some socialist magazine, I think.”


Can you construct a theory of property rights that does not suffer from internal incoherence or depend on specious natural law assumptions?

Professor Kryzenski sat down in her desk and booted up her computer. It was another quiet morning here at the Harvard Philosophy Department. She had won her position as Department Chair by discovering a complete theory of morality grounded in first principles with no internal incoherence or any specious assumptions, able to determine everything from the optimal number of minutes to spend speaking to your mother each week to how close you could come to beggars before you were obligated to give them money.

She had just finished checking her emails – mostly invitations to speak at various conferences and events – when something started to stir in the center of her office. It turned into a wind, then a whirlwind, and finally, a strange-looking man, dressed in silver with gold goggles.

“Professor!” said the Traveler. “Professor Kryzenski! Terrible news!”

The Professor, whose mind had plumbed the depths of ontology and ascended the heights of metaphysics, was a hard woman to perturb. “Yes?” she asked the man. “What is it?”

“Suppose there’s an evildoer who punishes all evildoers who do not punish themselves. Does the evildoer punish himself, or not?”

Professor Kryzenski realized the implications right away. “My God. It’s a paradox! My complete theory of morality grounded in first principles with no internal incoherence or specious assumptions, able to determine everything from the right amount to tip your waiter to the exact words you need to speak before a sexual act for it to qualify as consensual – lies in ruins!”

“And that means…” began the Traveler.

“That’s right,” said Professor Kryzenski. She and the Traveler spoke in unison: “Nothing is true and everything is permissible.”

“Come,” she said. “I’ve prepared for this day.” She took a key out of a potted plant on the windowsill, then used it to open a locked cupboard in her desk. Inside were two hatchets. She handed one to the Traveler.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“To the daycare down the road, to hack the limbs off the babies,” she said. “Obviously.” The Traveler nodded his approval, and off they went, eyes red with bloodlust.


The Infinitely Rich Man is not infinitely rich. He is just very, very rich. Nobody knows quite how rich. One day, you happened to meet the Infinitely Rich Man in a bar. At first he was friendly, but soon you found yourselves in an argument about horses. You were for them, and he was against them. Or perhaps you were against them, and he was for them. You don’t actually remember how it went. As you parted ways, you expected never to see the Infinitely Rich Man again.

Little do you know: the Infinitely Rich Man now despises you. His sole desire on earth is to see you unhappy. This should hardly trouble you, though. After all, you have a good job at a castanet factory. You own your own home, which has a picturesque lake view. You have a wife, whom you love and who loves you. You also have a prized possession, your 1972 Pontiac Lemans. You don’t have much spare cash, but this never bothers you because of your stable job. The Infinitely Rich Man is also a strict Libertarian. He believes it is illegitimate for anyone to initiate force against another. And because you are fortunate enough to live in a Libertarian world, you are free to enjoy those things you treasure most in the world without being bothered by the state or the Infinitely Rich Man. The Infinitely Rich Man is not discouraged, however. He still believes he can ruin you. He will be a Count of Monte Cristo, but an extremely law-abiding one.

The first thing the Infinitely Rich Man does is buy the castanet factory where you work. He immediately fires you. He also makes sure that if any other employers inquire about you, the castanet factory will refuse to serve as a reference. Not that this matters, for he intends to bribe any other castanet company who hires you into firing you. (There are four castanet companies.) You therefore find yourself unemployed. Fortunately, you have a skill. You know how to make castanets! (Castanets are very popular.) So you scrape together what money you have, and you open a little drive-thru castanet stand out on Route 9. But the Infinitely Rich Man has a plan. He opens a stand next to yours. At his stand, castanets are free. He gives them away by the truckload. He sets the whole world clacking. You cannot compete. You are ruined.

At least you still have your wife, your friends, your lakeview home, your 1972 Pontiac Lemans. But the Infinitely Rich Man has a plan. First, he buys the lake. He fills it with concrete. No more lake view, and your property value diminishes by $100,000. Then, he buys every house around yours, flattens it, and turns it into a landfill. The smell doesn’t reach your home, but it turns the neighborhood unsightly and desolate. Your house becomes worthless. The Infinitely Rich Man buys the heating company and refuses to provide gas to your home at any price. (You try to talk other gas companies into competing, but they refuse; laying a new main for a single home would be absurd, they say.) But you have a wife! And friends! And you get to drive a 1972 Pontiac Lemans! The Infinitely Rich Man offers a bribe. Any of your friends who refuse to speak with you ever again will receive a salary of one million dollars per year. At first, many decline to take the bribe. But sooner or later, most of them have one or another sticky financial situation, and they give in. Goodbye, vast majority of your friends! At least your wife loves you.

But one day, she becomes ill. She finds out that she will die, unless she goes on a treatment regimen for the rest of her life. The regimen costs $100,000 a month. The Infinitely Rich man pops up, and offers to pay. The one condition is that she divorce you, cut contact, and never speak with you again. As soon as she breaks the agreement, he will cease to pay for the treatment. You love your wife, but you do not want her to die. You both agree that it is better that she should accept. At least you can drive your 1972 Pontiac Lemans. Oh, but wait. The Infinitely Rich Man invests heavily in electric energy. Slowly, he makes gasoline-powered transit obsolete. He buys the oil companies, burns the gasoline, and converts every gas pump to a charging station. You can only drive your Lemans short distances, using some of the last gallons of available petrol, which you ordered from the internet. (That is, if the Infinitely Rich Man didn’t outbid you!) They don’t make the Pontiac Lemans anymore. Parts therefore exist only in small quantities. The Infinitely Rich Man buys up all existing Lemans parts. The moment it breaks, you are out of luck. As you sit alone, broke, and starving in the garage of your unheated home, caressing your disabled Lemans, thinking about your long-gone wife, your lake view, and your job, you are thankful that you live in a world of freedom, where nobody can encroach upon the liberty of another.

Questions for Libertarians: Has the non-aggression principle been violated? Should the Infinitely Rich Man suffer any civil or criminal penalties for his actions?

“That,” said Mr. Thaddeus Nett-Worth III, Esq., “is the most benightedly offensive statement I have ever heard.”

“All I said,” I said, “was that horses were basically elongated cows.”

“They are a noble animal, an unparalleled paragon of mammalian perfection!”

“Right,” I said. “Like cows are. Only more elongated.”

“Dastard!” said Mr. Nett-Worth, pounding the table so hard his top hat and monocle almost fell off. “You’ve messed with the wrong captain of industry, believe you me. Let me tell you what I am going to do. You own a castanet factory? I am going to undercut you, undercut you bad. I will destroy your business. Then, I shall buy the lake by your home and fill it up with concrete. I will buy your heating company and refuse to sell you gas. I will bribe your friends never to speak to you again. I will wait until your wife develops a deadly disease, then offer to treat her if only she divorces you. I can do all of it, because we are in a perfectly libertarian society with no laws besides the non-aggression principle, where lawmakers have failed to pass commonsense legislation like ‘making it illegal to hurt someone by legal means’. And then – alone, friendless, shivering in the cold in your hopelessly ugly house – then you will rue the day you ever compared horses to – ” (he almost spits) ” – elongated cows.”

“But, I mean, think about it. Their faces are a little bit longer. Their bodies are a little bit longer. They’re pretty much just elongated cows. I’m sorry this is so hard for you.”

“What? You’re not backing down? You should be at my feet, begging me for forgiveness! Don’t you know all the things I can use my wealth to do to you in our perfectly libertarian society?”

“Yeah, well, about that. I know this guy named David Friedman, whose hobby is designing weird insurance systems for anarcho-capitalist utopias based on, like, the laws of medieval Iceland or something. Anyway, he sells ‘rich person gets a weird grudge against you’ insurance. I have loads of it. However much you try to bribe my friends not to talk to me, his company will pay more to bribe them to ignore you. However much you try to pay for my gas company, his company will pay more to keep my heat on. And if you try to offer my wife free health care to leave me, his company will offer her better health care to stay.”

“What? How did you even know to buy such an insurance?”

“Well, part of it was just a ‘why not?’ sort of thing. The odds of the situation ever happening are so astronomically low that the insurance was incredibly cheap – a few cents per year. Also, the mere existence of the insurance prevents rich people from starting bizarre revenge schemes against the people in it, so they can afford to assume they will rarely have to pay out. I guess the price was so low that it was a no-brainer.”

“But what about transaction costs? Why would you even think to look into such a product?”

“Well, this is going to sound weird, but – I was reading a history book a few months ago, and – you remember that time a time traveler appeared in the middle of the Constitutional Convention, making some kind of point about how democracy wouldn’t work in a village of evil cannibals? Don’t you think that was pretty weird?”

“I had thought it was just one of the many colorful, larger-than-life stories from the Revolution. Like how George Washington was unimpeachably honest, or Benjamin Franklin always had a witty saying ready, or how Alexander Hamilton always spoke in rap.”

“Yeah, I used to think that too. But then I was reading a political science book last month, and – well, isn’t it weird that we’re a perfectly libertarian society? All of the old political philosophers used to say that libertarianism was an ideal system that could only be approached, never reached, and that even the approach would take a dedicated and virtuous population to pull it off. And our population isn’t that virtuous – I mean, just the other day I heard on the news about an ethics professor who went on a violent rampage chopping the limbs off babies.”

“Oh yes,” said Mr. Nett-Worth. “I heard about that too. Terrible stuff, terrible!”

“But it really only clicked a few weeks ago, when these goons from McDonalds broke into my house on a no-knock drug raid and shot my dog, and then muttered something about how surely I couldn’t object to private coercion. And it just got me thinking – what if this whole world is just a thought experiment by a communist with a crappy understanding of political philosophy trying to weak-man libertarianism? And then I thought – frick, I better get some really good vengeful-rich-person insurance, like, right away.”

“I am so confused right now.”

“Well, most sources define libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizing individual autonomy and skeptical of government intervention. Libertarians come to their position for a wide variety of reasons, including belief that bottom-up local knowledge makes better decisions than top-down absolutism, or that government intervention naturally favors the powerful, or that if you actually ask poor people what they want, it’s usually more money, not people taking choices away from them and treating them like children. A fraction of libertarians – I think a small fraction, though I can’t prove it – are also believers in a deontological theory of natural rights which emphasizes non-aggression as the fundamental moral principle. If you’re doing shoddy journalism aimed at inflaming people rather than enlightening them, you might try to tar all libertarians by identifying them with this subset.”

“How does that explain all the weird things going on?”

“Take the cannibal village. If for some reason you believe the Non-Aggression principle perfectly defines the moral outcome in every situation, it must be pretty devastating to learn it can lead to cannibalism. But if you’re a normal libertarian who just thinks of libertarianism as a political position, then it’s no worse than a supporter of representative democracy learning that representative democracy could sometimes lead to cannibalism – which of course it can. In fact, you should be happy to point out that a libertarian village is much more resistant to cannibalism than a direct democratic or monarchical one.”

“What about the ethics professor’s rampage?”

“If for some reason you insisted property rights were based on perfect axiomatized natural law, it might be pretty devastating to learn that moral philosophy can’t get that kind of precision. But you’re a normal libertarian who just thinks of libertarianism as a political position, then learning that you can’t perfectly axiomatize property rights is no more devastating than learning that you can’t perfectly axiomatize caring about the poor, or thinking torture is bad, or not hacking off babies’ limbs. You’re still allowed to care about these things for the usual reasons even if you can’t construct a perfect moral theory around them.”

“And what about the goons from McDonald’s?”

“If for some reason you believe that only the government can do anything bad, and private companies…look, I don’t even want to speculate on who exactly they’re trying to straw man here.”

“Not straw man. Weak man. There are some real libertarians who believe only the non-aggression principle matters.”

“Maybe, some of them. I think in general they believe there are moral values other than non-aggression – after all, many of them are Christian, and believe in all sorts of moral values – but they’re skeptical of the government enforcing them. Remember, it’s not always correct to insta-convert ethics into law. I think in general they believe both that it’s important for a society to be virtuous, and that the government compelling people to exhibit more virtue than they possess can only go terribly wrong.”

“But there has to be some subset who don’t believe in virtue at all, and think the Non-Aggression Principle is literally all there is! And all these weird thought experiments show they’re stupid, right?”

“I disagree with them but I’m hesitant to declare them stupid just based on a few experiments. I mean, I like to say ‘I’m against torture’, and I like to say this is a strong moral principle of mine and not just a maxim of convenience. But with enough effort, you could create a ridiculous ticking-time-bomb thought experiment in which being against torture led obviously and inexorably to horrible results. Have you proven that people who say they’re against torture are stupid? Or would you be willing to cut them some slack in this situation? And are you willing to cut the same slack to this tiny subset of fundamentalist Non-Aggression Principle libertarians? Thought experiments are a useful tool, but sometimes the best lesson to take from them is ‘things are complicated but principles still matter’.”

“But surely, somewhere, there are incredibly stupid libertarians who think morality consists of the Non-Aggression Principle and nothing else, don’t believe in any other kind of virtue, and aren’t just holding it as a sacred but non-final principle the way you hold not torturing people?”

“Okay. Maybe there are. But how does it help to focus on this tiny pathological subset of libertarians and desperately try to convince the world that every libertarian is like this? There are some pretty pathological socialists too – should we demand everyone accept them as the only possible representatives of socialism? Should political discussion just be relentless weak-manning of the other side, with whoever is more simplistic winning the victory?”

Before Mr. Nett-Worth could respond, the bar we were in started to shake. “What’s that?” he asked me. “What’s going on?”

“A disturbance in the Farce,” I said. “This world was created to provide stupid weak-man arguments against dumbed-down versions of libertarianism. I guess what I just said – it threatened the fabric of reality itself. Hold on to your seat. This could get pretty bad.”

The bartender suddenly stood up. “All blue-eyed people need to leave the bar now!” he said. “As a proud bigot, I refuse to serve blue-eyed people. I don’t care how much profit it costs me! And also, this is the only bar in this city – nay, in a five thousand mile radius! Now no blue-eyed person will be able to go to a bar ever again!”

Scarce had he finished speaking when a very-finely dressed woman stood up. “I am a billionaire,” she shouted. “And I will give poor people money to humiliate themselves. Anyone who goes to the farm and rolls around in pig excrement for an hour, I will give ten million dollars! And many of you have terminal diseases that require expensive treatments, so you’ll die if you refuse! Mwa ha ha! Roll in pig shit! ROLL, YOU PEASANTS!”

But her jubilation was interrupted by another man, in the other corner of the bar. “I am a factory owner, and I am off to go sexually harass all my employees. There are no laws against it, so nobody can stop me. And I own the only factory in the world, so my employees can’t leave. And dire wolves eat anyone who tries to start new factories. So there!”

“You fools,” said a wild-haired man near the window. “I will cleanse this city of scum like you. Since there were no laws against making atomic bombs, I have built a nuke in my basement. Soon I will set it off in a great purification. And there’s nothing you can do about it until it’s too late, because there’s no law against owning nukes. Nobody can stop me! NOBODY!”

I took a deep breath. “I can stop you,” I said. “I can stop all of you.”

Every face turned to look at me.

“This world runs on dumb weak-man objections to libertarianism. The only way to fight them is with even dumber weak-man objections to libertarianism. So that’s what I’ll do. Nobody, blue-eyed or not, is going to leave this bar.”

The bartender scowled.

“Nobody, rich or poor, is going to go to the farm and roll in pig excrement.”

The rich woman looked skeptical.

“You’re not going to go your factory and harass your employees.”

The factory owner frowned.

“And you aren’t going to go set off your nuclear bomb. None of you are going anywhere!”

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Technological Unemployment: Much More Than You Wanted To Know

[I am not an economist or an expert on this topic. This is my attempt to figure out what economists and experts think so I can understand the issue, and I’m writing it down to speed your going through the same process. If you have more direct access to economists and experts, feel free to ignore this]

[EDIT: Commenters pointed out that I was confusing the trend in total manufacturing jobs with the trend in percent jobs in manufacturing. This would make me less confident that there is no technological unemployment, except that I think the trend of percent jobs in manufacturing represents women entering the workforce and overwhelmingly going into nonmanufacturing jobs. Unclear that this requires a major change in conclusion.]

Technological unemployment is a hard topic because there are such good arguments on both sides.

The argument against: we’ve had increasing technology for centuries now, people have been predicting that technology will put them out of work since the Luddites, and it’s never come true. Instead, one of two things have happened. Either machines have augmented human workers, allowing them to produce more goods at lower prices, and so expanded industries so dramatically that overall they employ more people. Or displaced workers from one industry have gone into another – stable boys becoming car mechanics, or the like. There are a bunch of well-known theoretical mechanisms that compensate for technological displacement – see Vivarelli for a review. David Autor gives a vivid example:

Consider the surprising complementarities between information technology and employment in banking, specifically the experience with automated teller machines (ATMs) and bank tellers documented by Bessen (2015). ATMs were introduced in the 1970s, and their numbers in the US economy quadrupled from approximately 100,000 to 400,000 between 1995 and 2010. One might naturally assume that these machines had all but eliminated bank tellers in that interval. But US bank teller employment actually rose modestly from 500,000 to approximately 550,000 over the 30-year period from 1980 to 2010 (although given the growth in the labor force in this time interval, these numbers do imply that bank tellers declined as a share of overall US employment). With the growth of ATMs, what are all of these tellers doing?

Bessen observes that two forces worked in opposite directions. First, by reducing the cost of operating a bank branch, ATMs indirectly increased the demand for tellers: the number of tellers per branch fell by more than a third between 1988 and 2004, but the number of urban bank branches (also encouraged by a wave of bank deregulation allowing more branches) rose by more than 40 percent. Second, as the routine cash-handling tasks of bank tellers receded, information technology also enabled a broader range of bank personnel to become involved in “relationship banking.” Increasingly, banks recognized the value of tellers enabled by information technology, not primarily as checkout clerks, but as salespersons, forging relationships with customers and introducing them to additional bank services like credit cards, loans, and investment products.

This kind of thing has been remarkably consistent – so much so that arguments that today is the day technological unemployment happens should be treated with the same skepticism as arguments that today is the day we build a perpetual motion machine that works.

The argument in favor: look, imagine there’s a perfect android that can do everything humans do (including management) only better. And suppose it costs $10 to buy and $1/hour to operate. Surely every business owner would just buy those androids, and then all humans who wanted to earn more than $1/hour would be totally out of luck. There’s no conceivable way the androids would “augment” human labor and there’s no conceivable way the displaced humans could go into another industry. So at some point we’ve got to start getting technological unemployment. Here the vivid example comes from Gregory Clark

There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

There may be some point at which we too stop being worth more than it costs to replace us. And the decline of manufacturing, the increase in labor force nonparticipation and despair in rural Rust Belt communities, etc, suggest that point is fast arriving.

This is a look at which of those arguments is right. Part I will investigate whether unemployment is getting worse. Part II will investigate whether that is because of technology. Part III will investigate what longer-term trends we should expect.

As usual, this is very long.


Is unemployment actually getting worse?

Officially it’s at historic lows.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just assume this for any graph that looks like this.

But the real concern isn’t about unemployment per se, but the labor force participation rate (from here on: LFPR). Unemployment measures how many people are looking for work; LFPR measures how many people are out of work and not looking. If people are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work, this would not show up in unemployment but would show up in LFPR. Here’s LFPR:

Remember, higher means more people working

What’s going on here?

Same data as before, only disaggregated by gender. From 1950 to 2000, workforce participation rises as women enter the workforce. But throughout this time, men are leaving at almost the same rate, leaving only a moderate net participation gain (and incidentally answering the question that confused me here). Around 2000, all the women who want to be in the workforce are there already, and the declining male trend takes over for a net decline. Because women’s increasing workforce participation is shaped by unrelated cultural trends, most of the rest of this article will focus on male LFPR (from here on: MLFPR).

A big fraction of declining MFLPR is Baby Boomers retiring. If most people are young, workforce participation will be high. If most people are old, workforce participation will be low. Economists adjust for this by taking something called prime age male labor force participation rate (from here on: PAMLFPR; if you think all these acronyms are getting annoying, I guarantee you it’s more annoying to read papers that just keep saying “prime age male labor force participation rate” again and again). Here it is:

Source for this and subsequent similar-looking graphs.

In the 1950s, ~97% (!) of prime-age men had a job. Today that number is more like 88%. This is the decline people are worrying about when they talk about technological unemployment or any other threat to work, and it seems to be happening across the Western world:

Frickin’ Germany, always making everyone else look bad.

The next few paragraphs are based on data from a Scott Winship’s Mercatus Center report on this. Their conclusion is contrarian, and they’re a libertarian-ish think tank which means they have some risk of bias. I’m citing them anyway because they have really fascinating data presented much better than anyone else, but keep this in mind.

Winship’s first point is that the decline in PAMLFPR doesn’t seem to be caused by people who can’t find jobs:

The first graph shows officially designated “discouraged workers”, people who were previously unemployed and looking for jobs but eventually gave up. The definition changed around 1990, but they never seem to be more than about 10% of prime age male labor force nonparticipators (from here: PAMLFNPers).

The second graph shows what percent of PAMLFNPers claimed to be looking for jobs, based on a survey that was only given until 1993. It shows only about 20% of them were interested.

The third graph is using slightly differently-parsed data to try to continue the trends after 1993. It’s sort of unfair, because it separates out “disability” into a separate category and assumes none of them want jobs. But about 30% of people on disability do say they want a job. It’s unclear exactly what they mean (are they just saying the wish they weren’t disabled? or that they might be willing to come off disability if a properly non-physically strenuous job became available?) but even if we count them, the percent of PAMLFNPers who want a job never goes above 30%.

If not discouraged workers who can’t find jobs, what’s going on? Here’s Winship’s answer:

Prime age non-working men are mostly on disability. But some are also in school (despite having to be above 25 to be included as “prime age”), retired (despite having to be below 55), or homemakers (remember, these are all men). Again, only about 1% (out of the total of 12%) say they can’t find work.

If we were very optimistic, we could paint a rosy picture of what’s going on here. The increase in disability represents improving social safety net that allows disabled people to be better supported. It’s great that more people are financially secure enough to retire early. It’s great that more people are pursuing a graduate education that has them in school after age 25. It’s great that gender stereotypes are decreasing and more men feel comfortable as homemakers, perhaps supported by a working spouse.

This is basically Winship’s account, although he is concerned that increasing disability benefits are discouraging work. He cites a bunch of papers to that effect which you can find in his footnote 42, and which aren’t super relevant to the question at hand.

But what would the pessimistic interpretation look like?

The next few graphs and some of the analysis below comes from Brookings Institute, another potentially biased think tank

In 1970, educated and uneducated men were about equally likely to be PAMLFNPers. The rate for educated men didn’t change. The rate for uneducated men shot up.

And I won’t show you graphs, but there are similar trends for poor people, ex-convicts, blue collar workers, and minorities. These are not the sort of people who are likely to be able to retire early, pursue graduate school, or defy gender norms. But they are the sort of people who might have trouble finding work. This is pretty suspicious. Also:

Labor force nonparticipation is increasing primarily in poor and lower-middle-class people without a lot of good options, just as their remaining options get much worse. Surely this suggests something worse is going on.

The easiest place for this to happen is disability. It doesn’t require disability fraud, per se. It just requires some people on the threshold of disability who are motivated by marginal cost/benefit analysis.

Suppose that you have bad back pain. You work in the auto factory, like your father and his father before him. Your back pain flares up pretty often, but you know your foreman pretty well and he gives you an easy shift until it passes, and the union makes sure that nobody gives you any grief about it. You like your company and your coworkers and you want to make them happy. Also, if you didn’t work, you would starve to death.

Now suppose that your factory closes, and the only job available is being a home health aide. This involves a lot of bending over and puts you in constant almost-unbearable pain. And it’s run by a giant faceless corporation which always seems to be trying to screw you over. Also, you live in West Virginia and are very manly, and changing diapers in nursing homes seems like undignified women’s work. Also, the pay is half what you’re used to. Also, the government just passed a new law making disability benefits much more generous and easier to get. So…

The graph shows that PAMLFNPers generally have terrible health. So real disabilities must have something to do with this. But Winship presents a lot of evidence that illnesses and chronic pain haven’t gotten worse over time, so it can’t fully explain the rise. The “gradually worsening job pushes person with serious disability over the edge” hypothesis has a lot going for it. Also: although 96% of people on disability say they’re out of work because of a health problem, 46% also say they’re out of work because there are no good jobs available (source).

The problem with this is: disability really doesn’t represent that much of the rise in PAMLFNP since 1960. Looking at our graph above, it goes from 2% of workers in ’68 to maybe 6% of workers now. And surely some large fraction of those people are actually disabled in ways that have nothing to do with their social circumstances. We’re talking like 2 percentage points tops.

Okay, fine. Let’s say you’re our West Virginia factory worker again, only now you can’t get on disability. Now what?

Maybe you choose to retire. And maybe you’re 53 years old and this isn’t the most reasonable financial plan, but you own your house, you get food stamps, and you can do odd jobs around your friends’ farm to make some extra money.

Or maybe you choose to go to that ridiculous Coal Miner To Coder school that got profiled on NPR a little while ago, in the hopes that you can have a pathway to a new career, or just so that you have something to do.

Or maybe you choose to stay at home with your kids, while your wife does the home health aide thing, and if anybody asks, you’re a “stay-at-home dad”.

And then when economists look at the statistics, they say “Oh, look, there’s no problem here, it’s just a combination of retirees, students, homemakers, and the disabled.”

I realize this is a stretch, especially since you would expect such a person, unless they were very self-deluded, to identify as “looking for work”. But the only sense I can make of all this is a model where, the more miserable your work is, and the more decent options you have available to you, the more likely you are to leave work.

If you’re very conservative, you might say – aha, I knew that people were just unemployed because they’re lazy!

But if you’re more progressive, you might ask – exactly how miserable do you have to be before you stop working? Should people with broken legs literally drag themselves on all fours to their workplace, just because it’s not physically impossible? I know that “I refuse to do this job because it’s too undignified for me, let me go on the public dole” doesn’t really win you a lot of social credit. But maybe conservatives could find it in their heart to be sympathetic to our hypothetical West Virginia factory worker with a bad back, who’s proud of having worked his whole life, but who feels like having to pivot at age 53 to changing diapers in nursing homes for minimum wage isn’t his cup of tea?

(remember, the other thing that’s way up among this same demographic is suicide – and probably for the same reason)

But even if we assume half the increase in disability plus a quarter of the increase in the other things is due to employment issues, employment issues still really only explain about 3 pp of the 10% increase since the 1960s. I can’t think of any reasonable assumptions where they explain more than half.

I like Derek Thompson’s discussion of this question, because he’s the only writer who seems to share my sense of puzzlement. There are all these men who seem miserable and who have vanished from the labor force. We all know it’s true. But the statistics don’t really seem to reflect or shed light on it. Somehow we, as a country, have managed to just lose several million working-age men. Maybe Donald Trump is going to look behind the White House couch one day, and find a large portion of the male population of the Southeast under the cushion. I don’t know.

In the next part, we’ll talk about whether automation explains the decline in labor force participation. But let’s keep in mind that the argument that there is a significant meaningful decline in labor force participation to explain, aside from people going to school and having more access to disability benefits and things like that – is not on super-solid ground.


Recently, US manufacturing jobs collapsed. US manufacturing is still doing just fine in terms of number of widgets produced. It just no longer employs that many people.

Source 1, Source 2

The two graphs differ a bit in emphasis. The first, in raw numbers, makes it look like there was a big discontinuity around 2000. The second, in percent, suggests that percent manufacturing has been shrinking for a long time. This could represent a long-term decline in manufacturing – but more likely, it represents women entering the workforce; women are much less likely than men to have manufacturing jobs. The reality is probably somewhere in between the two.

Is the decline in manufacturing – whichever timescale we choose to look on – due to automation, or to other causes like globalization? A Ball State University report argues for the former:

Had we kept 2000-levels of productivity and applied them to 2010-levels of production, we would have required 20.9 million manufacturing workers. Instead, we employed only 12.1 million.

The report gets summarized in a few places as “13% of job loss is due to trade, 87% is due to increasing productivity/automation”, which seems like a fair summary of some of its claims. Although some commenters raise doubts, its numbers are in the same direction as the conclusions of economists Autor, Dorn, and Hanson, who published a series of papers finding that that “import competition explains one-quarter of the contemporaneous aggregate decline in US manufacturing employment”.

Hasn’t productivity actually been growing more slowly than usual recently? See for example this this Brookings paper, which notes that:

The past decade has seen slowdowns in measured labor productivity growth across a broad swath of developed economies. Aggregate labor productivity growth in the U.S. averaged 1.3% per year from 2005 to 2015, less than half of the 2.8% average annual growth rate it sustained over 1995 – 2004. Similarly sized decelerations were observed between these two periods in 28 of 29 other countries for which the OECD has compiled productivity growth data

It continues:

The drops in productivity growth have struck some as paradoxical, given the seemingly brisk pace of technological progress and plethora of new products that have been introduced and diffused throughout the world during the slowdown period. Indeed, many have suggested that the slowdown is substantially illusory, a figment of the inability of current economic statistics to capture the true rate of technological advance in standard productivity metrics.

If the productivity slowdown were illusory, that would help explain the apparent speedup in automation, and all those job losses. Sounds promising, but what do all the economists in the world think?


Justin Fox has some more in-depth analysis here and also concludes productivity is not that great.

Are we allowed to say “that’s just how things work”? Like, agricultural productivity increased for millennia, but didn’t lead people to abandon agriculture en masse until the Industrial Revolution – when it did exactly that. In 1790, 90% of Americans were farmers, even though agricultural productivity had been improving for ages. Today, 2.6% of Americans are. Maybe manufacturing just had the same kind of moment. Advances in technology can put farmers out of work (but shift them to manufacturing) – surely it can put manufacturers out of work (and shift them to ???).

So, if 70% – 80% of manufacturing job losses were due to automation, might automation be responsible for the decline in PAMLFPR, thus revealing the elusive technological unemployment?

The time trend in absolute number of manufacturing jobs reveals a sharp drop around 2000, which doesn’t match change in PAMLFNP. The trend in percent reveals a gradual decline, which does sort of match the PAMLFNP trend, but because the percent is likely to indicate women, who are not included in PAMFLNP, it might not be as significant. But there are two other reasons why these don’t seem to match very well.

First, disability represents the main route by which people could plausibly be leaving the labor force to become PAMLFNPers. Here’s the graph:

There is a general trend of increasing disability since 1985, but a paper by Autor and Duggan suggests this is almost entirely due to a reform of the disability system around 1984 which made it easier to get benefits (also, the size of the workforce increased due to more female participation, meaning the pool of potential disabled people increased too).

Second, it is hard to explain why now. Whether we’re worrying about the past twenty years of automation (collapse in raw numbers of manufacturing jobs) or the past sixty (decline in PAMLFPR, decline in percent manufacturing) – neither corresponds to the several hundred years in which things have been getting more automated. Why didn’t previous eras of improving automation result in job loss?

Let’s go back to all the economists in the world and see what they think:

Economists very strongly believe automation has not historically reduced employment. But they do believe automation is making wages stagnate right now. I don’t really understand what’s going on here. Are they saying that automation can depress wages, but not reduce employment? Surely (given the existence of a minimum wage) that doesn’t make sense. Or are they saying that automation never caused any problems before, but it is causing problems now?

The site offers some of the economists the chance to explain what they meant, and a lot of them seem to be saying that automation has temporarily caused problems in the past, but they always resolved with time as new industries open up. Maybe we’re just in a temporary bad period? Likewise, one economist who agrees that automation caused wage stagnation says that “it may have a short-run impact but there is no reason to believe that it is permanent.”

All of this is a mess. But the impression I get from this mess is that there is little sign of technological unemployment happening today in a historically unique way, or even picking up pace. I get this from a few sources.

First, the official unemployment rate looks great, so if we were going to make this argument we would have to do it off of PAMLFPR.

Second, Winship’s optimistic take on PAMLFPR is hard to easily refute. PAMLFNPers pretty clearly say they’re not looking for jobs, and they’re just perfectly innocuous students, retirees, etc. We have trouble believing them, especially based on their demographics. But it’s very hard to look at the increase and see a place where unemployment issues could have slipped in.

Third, PAMLFPR has been getting worse gradually since about 1960, with no sign of any recent worsening. It is hard to explain why technological unemployment would have started around that time – at least if we limit our explanations to the nature of technology alone. And it doesn’t seem to match the more sudden decline in manufacturing around 2000.

Fourth, most economists appear to remain doubtful of the possibility of long-term technological unemployment.

I realize this goes against common sense. Maybe I’m missing something and totally wrong here. But if I am forced to interpret the data as I see it, I just don’t see the signs of technological unemployment. It’s just not there.

And in my defense, this also seems to be the opinion of David Autor, the main economic expert on this subject. In an interview with The Economist, he said that there was “‘zero evidence’ that AI is having a new and significantly different impact on employment”.


This doesn’t mean everything is great. As the IGM panel shows, even if robots aren’t putting people out of work, they may be causing wages to stagnate. The people getting kicked out of manufacturing jobs may have other jobs available to them (and so not end up affecting the PAMLFPR numbers), but those jobs may not be as good or pay as well. This isn’t “technological unemployment”. But it might be technological underemployment.

Most people expect that technological unemployment will hit the least skilled first, but that doesn’t seem to be entirely true. This chart and some of the following analysis are going to be from the Heritage Association – another potentially biased think-tank, but hopefully without much reason to obfuscate these issues.

The best-paying jobs – managers, professionals, and the like – are doing fine. The lowest-paying jobs, like personal care and food, are also doing fine. It’s the middle-paying jobs that are in trouble. Some of these are manufacturing, but there are also office and administrative positions in the same categories.

This is potentially consistent with a story where the jobs that have been easiest to automate are middle-class-ish. Some jobs require extremely basic human talents that machines can’t yet match – like a delivery person’s ability to climb stairs. Others require extremely arcane human talents likewise beyond machine abilities – like a scientist discovering new theories of physics. The stuff in between – proofreading, translating, records-keeping, metalworking, truck driving, welding – is more in danger. As these get automated away, workers – in accord with the theory – migrate to the unautomatable jobs. Since they might not have the skills or training to do the unautomatable upper class jobs, they end up in the unautomatable lower-class ones. There’s nothing in economic orthodoxy that says this can’t happen.

David Autor and his giant block of citations agree:

Because jobs that are intensive in either abstract or manual tasks are generally found at opposite ends of the occupational skill spectrum—in professional, managerial, and technical occupations on the one hand, and in service and laborer occupations on the other—this reasoning implies that computerization of “routine” job tasks may lead to the simultaneous growth of high-education, high-wage jobs at one end and low-education, low-wage jobs at the other end, both at the expense of middle-wage, middle education jobs—a phenomenon that Goos and Manning (2003) called “job polarization.” A large body of US and international evidence confirms the presence of employment polarization at the level of industries, localities, and national labor markets (Autor, Katz, and Kearney 2006, 2008; Goos and Manning 2007; Autor and Dorn 2013; Michaels, Natraj, and Van Reenen 2014; Goos, Manning, and Salomons 2014; Graetz and Michaels 2015; Autor, Dorn, and
Hanson 2015)

The fall of middle-skill-level jobs has led to a corresponding fall in middle-income jobs:

Note that, contrary to an extremely pessimistic picture, this would suggest that most people who leave middle-paying jobs go to higher-paying jobs

And with a corresponding decline in the fortunes of the middle class:

Note that this does not really back up the optimistic picture from above.

Why is this happening now when technological progress has been going on forever? This gets into the whole decline-of-the-middle-class argument, a giant political morass featuring de-unionization, regulation, automation, globalization, the 1%, and pretty much everything else. Is there also a role for today’s robots just plain being better than yesterday’s Rolodexes and whatever else the forefront of technology was? Or our education system being less able to cope with them? I’m not sure.

As far as I know, there is no economic theory stating that the number (or percent) of high-skilled jobs must always stay the same. I’m also not sure how to include fixed cognitive skills (eg some people are smarter than others) in this question. An optimist might argue that things will get better as today’s obsoletely-trained workforce retires and tomorrow’s trained-for-the-appropriate-jobs workforce graduates. But maybe this is better viewed as a race between two competing forces; generational churn producing students with the right set of skills, and technology making new skills obsolete. I don’t know why this should have increased recently, but it seems like – at least for the middle class – this is a race they are now losing.


Predicting the future is naturally harder than observing the present, since we have data about the present and not the future. But the data about the present is contradictory and incomprehensible and just makes things more confusing, so we might as well try going with the future and seeing how we do there.

We’ll start with those surveys of economists again, since they seem like the people most likely to know. Here’s a panel of top European economists on the future of technological unemployment:

In the same survey, 93% of economists with an opinion on the issue agreed that the economic benefits of robots will be so great that they could be used to compensate the workers who were negatively effected. But in a survey I conducted in my imagination, 100% of people who have not been living in a cave the past two hundred years agreed that this will never happen in real life.

So economists really have no idea about any of this. What are we paying them for, anyway?

Frey and Osbourne analyze what jobs are most susceptible to automation. They claim that “47% of total US employment is at risk”. This sounds suspiciously precise and it’s unclear their numbers have any relationship to reality. They do find “evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation”.

Overall none of this seems to be making things much clearer.

I’ve cited David Autor something like five times already. He is the recognized expert in this area – I blame nominative determinism – and has written widely. His own opinion is:

I expect that a significant stratum of middle-skill jobs combining specific vocational skills with foundational middle-skills levels of literacy, numeracy, adaptability, problem solving, and common sense will persist in coming decades. My conjecture is that many of the tasks currently bundled into these jobs cannot readily be unbundled—with machines performing the middle-skill tasks and workers performing only a low-skill residual—without a substantial drop in quality. This argument suggests that many of the middle-skill jobs that persist in the future will combine routine technical tasks with the set of nonroutine tasks in which workers hold comparative advantage: interpersonal interaction, flexibility, adaptability, and problem solving. In general, these same demands for interaction frequently privilege face-to-face interactions over remote performance, meaning that these same middle-skill occupations may have relatively low susceptibility to offshoring. Lawrence Katz memorably titles workers who virtuously combine technical and interpersonal tasks as “the new artisans” (see Friedman 2010), and Holzer (2015) documents that “new middle skill jobs” are in fact growing rapidly, even as traditional production and clerical occupations contract.

This prediction has one obvious catch: the ability of the US education and job training system (both public and private) to produce the kinds of workers who will thrive in these middle-skill jobs of the future can be called into question. In this and other ways, the issue is not that middle-class workers are doomed by automation and technology, but instead that human capital investment must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for producing skills that are complemented by rather than substituted for by technological change. In 1900, the typical young, native-born American had only a common school education, about the equivalent of sixth to eighth grades. By the late 19th century, many Americans recognized that this level of schooling was inadequate: farm employment was declining, industry was rising, and their children would need additional skills to earn a living. The United States responded to this challenge over the first four decades of the 20th century by becoming the first nation in the world to deliver universal high school education to its citizens (Goldin and Katz 2008). Tellingly, the high school movement was led by the farm states. Societal adjustments to earlier waves of technological advancement were neither rapid, automatic, nor cheap. But they did pay off handsomely.

Do we really have evidence that compulsory schooling was a result of increasing automation? If so, could we tell a story where the gradually increasing length of schooling – from minimal, to primary school, to high school, to “you better get a college degree or you’ll regret it later”, to increasing pressure to go to graduate school – is a reaction to automation and the threat of technological unemployment? Could this be the reason why automation finally seems to be causing problems – a financial and cultural inability to extend schooling any further than it’s already gone?

Or – inspired by Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education – could we tell the opposite story? One where increasing credentialism makes it harder for people whose jobs have been automated to switch careers the way they did before? Higher-paying jobs no longer just require skills, they require a college degree in a relevant field – which is very hard for a mature worker to get. Being an office manager and being a nurse are both middle-income jobs – but in the past, an office worker would have needed about six months of inexpensive training plus a lot of on-the-job apprenticeship to become a nurse, whereas now they would need a four-year Bachelors of Science in Nursing from a university whose price tag has dectupled for no reason over the last half-century. A now-unemployed office manager might have been able to afford the first even if middle-class; the second might be well beyond her reach. Unable to shift into another middle-class job, she is forced to take a lower-class job as a fast food worker or something.

I am not entirely sure how differences in cognitive ability fit in here. My guess is to a first approximation they don’t – if standard economic theory is correct, it should be possible to create middle-paying jobs that use the full potential of people with any amount of cognitive ability, taking advantage of various human cognitive skills that are difficult to automate. Although some naive takes like “everyone should just become a programmer” fail to understand this, I don’t think the entire argument is based on misunderstanding of this point, or that it forms a particularly strong counterargument.

Anyway, if Autor’s prediction is “we will be able to weather this danger as long as our education system is able to rise to meet the challenge”, I’m just going to round this off to “we’re super doomed”. But I think his methodology – of noticing that we always met the challenge before, and trying to figure out what might be different this time – is a promising one.

Finally: we’ve been talking about economists a lot here, but what about the roboticists? Aren’t they relevant too? Grace et al survey top AI researchers on when AI might be able to replace humans in various things; these researchers don’t necessarily know anything about economics, but they at least know something about progress in robotics. On average, they believe AI will reach human performance at truck driving, retail selling, translation, transcription, and bipedal running all before 2030. Whether those robots will be affordable, widely adopted, or able to deal with the long tail of real-world situations like blackouts or vandals or bad weather – is a different story. The point is, roboticists are pretty sure they’ll have their contribution to the economic takeover ready pretty soon.

(they do say robots won’t be writing bestselling novels until 2050, so JK Rowling’s job is safe for now)

They also say that robots will be able to do all human tasks, including novel-writing, science, and further AI research – sometime between 2050 and 2150. At that point, obviously, all bets are off, and we have a lot more than unemployment to worry about.


Here are some tentative conclusions:

1. Technological unemployment is not happening right now, at least not more so than previous eras. The official statistics are confusing, but they show no signs of increases in this phenomenon. (70% confidence)

2. On the other hand, there are signs of technological underemployment – robots taking middle-skill jobs and then pushing people into other jobs. Although some people will be “pushed” into higher-skill jobs, many will be pushed into lower-skill jobs. This seems to be what happened to the manufacturing industry recently. (70% confidence)

3. This sort of thing has been happening for centuries and in theory everyone should eventually adjust, but there are some signs that they aren’t. This may have as much to do with changes to the educational, political, and economic system as with the nature of robots per se. (60% confidence)

4. Economists are genuinely divided on how this is going to end up, and whether this will just be a temporary blip while people develop new skills, or the new normal. (~100% confidence)

5. Technology seems poised to disrupt lots of new industries very soon, and could replace humans entirely sometime within the next hundred years. (???)

This is a very depressing conclusion. If technology didn’t cause problems, that would be great. If technology made lots of people unemployed, that would be hard to miss, and the government might eventually be willing to subsidize something like a universal basic income. But we won’t get that. We’ll just get people being pushed into worse and worse jobs, in a way that does not inspire widespread sympathy or collective action. The prospect of educational, social, or political intervention remains murky.

Five More Years

Those yearly “predictions for next year” posts are starting to reach the limit of their usefulness. Not much changes from year to year, and most of what does change is hard to capture in objective probabilistic predictions.

So in honor of this blog’s five year anniversary, here are some predictions for the next five years. All predictions to be graded on 2/15/2023:

AI will be marked by various spectacular achievements, plus nobody being willing to say the spectacular achievements signify anything broader. AI will beat humans at progressively more complicated games, and we will hear how games are totally different from real life and this is just a cool parlor trick. If AI translation becomes flawless outstanding, we will hear how language is just a formal system that can be brute-forced without understanding. If AI can generate images and even stories to a prompt, everyone will agree this is totally different from real art or storytelling. Nothing that happens in the interval until 2023 will encourage anyone to change this way of thinking. There will not be a Truckpocalypse before 2023. Technological unemployment will continue to be a topic of academic debate that might show up if you crunch the numbers just right, but there will be no obvious sign that it is happening on a large scale. Everyone will tell me I am wrong about this, but I will be right, and they will just be interpreting other things (change in labor force composition, change in disability policies, effects of outsourcing, etc) as obvious visible signs of technological unemployment, the same as people do now. AI safety concerns will occupy about the same percent of the public imagination as today.

1. Average person can hail a self-driving car in at least one US city: 80%
2. …in at least five of ten largest US cities: 30%
3. At least 5% of US truck drivers have been replaced by self-driving trucks: 10%
4. Average person can buy a self-driving car for less than $100,000: 30%
5. AI beats a top human player at Starcraft: 70%
6. MIRI still exists in 2023: 80%
7. AI risk as a field subjectively feels more/same/less widely accepted than today: 50%/40%/10%

The European Union will not collapse. It will get some credibility from everyone hating its enemies – Brexit, the nationalist right, etc – and some more credibility by being halfway-competent at its economic mission. Nobody will secede from anywhere. The crisis of nationalism will briefly die down as the shock of Syrian refugees wears off, then reignite (possibly after 2023) with the focus on African migrants. At some point European Muslims may decide they don’t like African migrants much either, at which point there may be some very weird alliances.

1. UK leaves EU (or still on track to do so): 95%
2. No “far-right” party in power (executive or legislative) in any of France, Germany, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, at any time: 50%
3. No other country currently in EU votes to leave: 50%

Countries that may have an especially good half-decade: Israel, India, Nigeria, most of East Africa, Iran. Countries that may have an especially bad half-decade: Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, UK. The Middle East will get worse before it gets better, especially Lebanon and the Arabian Peninsula (Syria might get better, though).

1. No overt major power war in the Middle East (Israel spending a couple weeks destroying stuff in Lebanon doesn’t count): 60%
2. Mohammed bin Salman still in power in Saudi Arabia in 2023: 60%
3. Sub-Saharan Africa averages GDP growth greater than 2.5% over 2018 – 2023: 60%
4. Vladimir Putin is still in charge of Russia: 70%
5. If there’s a war in the Middle East where US intervention is plausible, US decides to intervene (at least as much as it did in Syria): 70%

Religion will continue to retreat from US public life. As it becomes less important, mainstream society will treat it as less of an outgroup and more of a fargroup. Everyone will assume Christians have some sort of vague spiritual wisdom, much like Buddhists do. Everyone will agree evangelicals or anyone with a real religious opinion is just straight-out misinterpreting the Bible, the same way any Muslim who does something bad is misinterpreting the Koran. Christian mysticism will become more popular among intellectuals. Lots of people will talk about how real Christianity opposes capitalism. There may not literally be a black lesbian Pope, but everyone will agree that there should be, and people will become mildly surprised when you remind them that the Pope is white, male, and sexually inactive.

1. Church attendance rates lower in 2023 than 2018: 90%

The crisis of the Republican Party will turn out to have been overblown. Trump’s policies have been so standard-Republican that there will be no problem integrating him into the standard Republican pantheon, plus or minus some concerns about his personality which will disappear once he personally leaves the stage. Some competent demagogue (maybe Ted Cruz or Mike Pence) will use some phrase equivalent to “compassionate Trumpism”, everyone will agree it is a good idea, and in practice it will be exactly the same as what Republicans have been doing forever. The party might move slightly to the right on immigration, but this will be made easy by a fall in corporate demand for underpriced Mexican farm labor, and might be trivial if there’s a border wall and they can declare mission accomplished. If the post-Trump standard-bearer has the slightest amount of personal continence, he should end up with a more-or-less united party who view Trump as a flawed but ultimately positive figure, like how they view GW Bush. Also, I predict we see a lot more of Ted Cruz than people are expecting.

1. Trump wins 2020: 20%
2. Republicans win Presidency in 2020: 40%

On the other hand, everyone will have underestimated the extent of crisis in the Democratic Party. The worst-case scenario is Kamala Harris rising to the main contender against Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primary. Bernie attacks her and her followers as against true progressive values, bringing up her work defending overcrowded California prisons as a useful source of unpaid labor. Harris supporters attack Bernie as a sexist white man trying to keep a woman of color down (wait until the prison thing gets described as “slavery”). Everything that happened in 2016 between Clinton and Sanders looks like mild teasing between friends in comparison. If non-Sanderites rally around Booker or Warren instead, the result will be slightly less apocalyptic but still much worse than anyone expects. The only plausible way I can see for the Dems to avoid this is if Sanders dies or becomes too sick to run before 2020. This could tear apart the Democratic Party in the long-term, but in the short term it doesn’t even mean they won’t win the election – it will just mean a bunch of people who loathe each other temporarily hold their nose and vote against Trump.

1. Sanders wins 2020: 10%
2. Democrats win Presidency in 2020: 60%

It will become more and more apparent that there are three separate groups: progressives, conservatives, and neoliberals. How exactly they sort themselves into two parties is going to be interesting. The easiest continuation-of-current-trends option is neoliberals+progressives vs. conservatives, with neoliberals+progressives winning easily. But progressives are starting to wonder if neoliberals’ support is worth the watering-down of their program, and neoliberals are starting to wonder if progressives’ support is worth constantly feeding more power to people they increasingly consider crazy. The Republicans used some weird demonic magic to hold together conservatives and neoliberals for a long time; I suspect the Democrats will be less good at this. A weak and fractious Democratic coalition plus a rock-hard conservative Republican non-coalition might be stable under Median Voter Theorem considerations. For like ten years. Until there are enough minorities that the Democrats are just overwhelmingly powerful (no, minorities are not going to start identifying as white and voting Republican en masse). I have no idea what will happen then. Maybe the Democrats will go extra socialist, the neoliberals and market minorities will switch back to the Republicans, and we can finally have normal reasonable class warfare again instead of whatever weird ethno-cultural thing is happening now?

1. At least one US state has approved single-payer health-care by 2023: 70%
2. At least one US state has de facto decriminalized hallucinogens: 20%
3. At least one US state has seceded (de jure or de facto): 1%
4. At least 10 members of 2022 Congress from neither Dems or GOP: 1%
5. US in at least new one major war (death toll of 1000+ US soldiers): 40%
6. Roe v. Wade substantially overturned: 1%
7. At least one major (Obamacare-level) federal health care reform bill passed: 20%
8. At least one major (Brady Act level) federal gun control bill passed: 20%
9. Marijuana legal on the federal level (states can still ban): 40%
10. Neoliberals will be mostly Democrat/evenly split/Republican in 2023: 60%/20%/20%
11. Political polarization will be worse/the same/better in 2023: 50%/30%/20%

The culture wars will continue to be marked by both sides scoring an unrelenting series of own-goals, with the victory going to whoever can make their supporters shut up first. The best case scenario for the Right is that Jordan Peterson’s ability to not instantly get ostracized and destroyed signals a new era of basically decent people being able to speak out against social justice; this launches a cascade of people doing so, and the vague group consisting of Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, etc coalesces into a perfectly respectable force no more controversial than the gun lobby or the pro-life movement or something. With social justice no longer able to enforce its own sacredness values against blasphemy, it loses a lot of credibility and ends up no more powerful or religion-like than eg Christianity. The best case scenario for the Left is that the alt-right makes some more noise, the media is able to relentlessly keep everyone’s focus on the alt-right, the words ALT-RIGHT get seared into the public consciousness every single day on every single news website, and everyone is so afraid of being associated with the alt-right that they shut up about any disagreements with the consensus they might have. I predict both of these will happen, but the Right’s win-scenario will come together faster and they will score a minor victory.

1. At least one US politician, Congressman or above, explicitly identifies as alt-right (in more than just one off-the-cuff comment) and refuses to back down or qualify: 10%
2. …is overtly racist (says eg “America should be for white people” or “White people are superior” and means it, as a major plank of their platform), refuses to back down or qualify: 10%
3. Gay marriage support rate is higher on 1/1/2023 than 1/1/2018: 95%
4. Percent transgender is higher on 1/1/2023 than 1/1/2018: 95%
5. Social justice movement appear less powerful/important in 2023 than currently: 60%

First World economies will increasingly be marked by an Officialness Divide. Rich people, the government, and corporations will use formal, well-regulated, traditional institutions. Poor people (and to an increasing degree middle-class people) will use informal gig economies supported by Silicon Valley companies whose main skill is staying a step ahead of regulators. Think business travelers staying at the Hilton and riding taxis, vs. low-prospect twenty-somethings staying at Air BnBs and taking Ubers. As Obamacare collapses, health insurance will start turning into one of the formal, well-regulated, traditional institutions limited to college grads with good job prospects. What the unofficial version of health care will be remains to be seen. If past eras have been Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Information Age, etc, the future may be the Ability-To-Circumvent-Regulations Age.

1. Percent of people in US without health insurance (outside those covered by free government programs) is higher in 2023 than 2018: 80%
2. Health care costs (as % of economy) continue to increase at least as much as before: 70%

Cryptocurrency will neither collapse nor take over everything. It will become integrated into the existing system and regulated to the point of uselessness. No matter how private and untraceable the next generation of cryptocurrencies are, people will buy and exchange them through big corporate websites that do everything they can to stay on the government’s good side. Multinationals will occasionally debate using crypto to transfer their profits from one place to another, then decide that would make people angry and decide not to. There may be rare crypto-related accounting tricks approximately of the same magnitude as the “headquarter your company in the Cayman Islands” trick. A few cryptocurrencies might achieve the same sort of role PayPal has today, only slightly cooler. Things like Ethereum prediction markets might actually work, again mostly by being too niche for the government to care very much. A few die-hards will use pure crypto to buy drugs over the black market, but not significantly more than do so today, and the government will mostly leave them alone as too boring to crush.

1. 1 Bitcoin costs above $1K: 80%
2. …above $10K: 50%
3. …above $100K: 5%
4. Bitcoin is still the highest market cap cryptocurrency: 40%
5. Someone figures out Satoshi’s true identity to my satisfaction: 30%
6. Browser-crypto-mining becomes a big deal and replaces ads on 10%+ of websites: 5%

Polygenic scores go public – not necessarily by 2023, but not long after. It becomes possible to look at your 23andMe results and get a weak estimate of your height, IQ, criminality, et cetera. Somebody checks their spouse’s score and finds that their desirable/undesirable traits are/aren’t genetic and will/won’t be passed down to their children; this is treated as a Social Crisis but nobody really knows what to do about it. People in China or Korea start actually doing this on a large scale. If there is intelligence enhancement, it looks like third-party services that screen your gametes for genetic diseases and just so happen to give you the full genome which can be fed to a polygenic scoring app before you decide which one to implant. The first people to do this aren’t necessarily the super-rich, so much as people who are able to put the pieces together and figure out that this is an option. If you think genetics discourse is bad now, wait until polygenic score predictors become consumerized. There will be everything from “the predictor said I would be tall but actually I am medium height, this proves genes aren’t real” to “Should we track children by genetic IQ predictions for some reason even though we have their actual IQ scores right here?” Also, the products will probably be normed on white (Asian?) test subjects and not work very well on people of other races; expect everyone to say unbelievably idiotic things about this for a while.

1. Widely accepted paper claims a polygenic score predicting over 25% of human intelligence: 70%
2. …50% or more: 20%
3. At least one person is known to have had a “designer baby” genetically edited for something other than preventing specific high-risk disease: 10%
4. At least a thousand people have had such babies, and it’s well known where people can go to do it: 5%
5. At least one cloned human baby, survives beyond one day after birth: 10%
6. Average person can check their polygenic IQ score for reasonable fee (doesn’t have to be very good) in 2023: 80%
7. At least one directly glutamatergic antidepressant approved by FDA: 20%
8. At least one directly neurotrophic antidepressant approved by FDA: 20%
9. At least one genuinely novel antipsychotic approved by FDA: 30%
10. MDMA approved for therapeutic use by FDA: 50%
11. Psilocybin approved for general therapeutic use in at least one country: 30%
12. Gary Taubes’ insulin resistance theory of nutrition has significantly more scholarly acceptance than today: 10%
13. Paleo diet is generally considered and recommended by doctors as best weight-loss diet for average person: 30%

There will be two or three competing companies offering low-level space tourism by 2023. Prices will be in the $100,000 range for a few minutes in suborbit. The infrastructure for Mars and Moon landings will be starting to look promising, but nobody will have performed any manned landings between now and then. The most exciting edge of the possibility range is that five or six companies are competing to bring rich tourists to Bigelow space stations in orbit.

1. SpaceX has launched BFR to orbit: 50%
2. SpaceX has launched a man around the moon: 50%
3. SLS sends an Orion around the moon: 30%
4. Someone has landed a man on the moon: 1%
5. SpaceX has landed (not crashed) an object on Mars: 5%
6. At least one frequently-inhabited private space station in orbit: 30%

Global existential risks will hopefully not be a big part of the 2018-2023 period. If they are, it will be because somebody did something incredibly stupid or awful with infectious diseases. Even a small scare with this will provoke a massive response, which will be implemented in a panic and with all the finesse of post-9/11 America determining airport security. Along with the obvious ramifications, there will be weird consequences for censorship and the media, with some outlets discussing other kinds of biorisks and the government wanting them to stop giving people ideas. The world in which this becomes an issue before 2023 is not a very good world for very many reasons.

1. Bioengineering project kills at least five people: 20%
2. …at least five thousand people: 5%
3. Paris Agreement still in effect, most countries generally making good-faith effort to comply: 80%
4. US still nominally committed to Paris Agreement: 60%

And just for fun…

1. I actually remember and grade these predictions publicly sometime in the year 2023: 90%
2. Whatever the most important trend of the next five years is, I totally miss it: 80%
3. At least one prediction here is horrendously wrong at the “only a market for five computers” level: 95%

If you disagree, make your own predictions with probabilities. I’m tired of people offering to bet me on these and I’m not interested unless you provide me overwhelmingly good odds.

Current list of updates here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 601 Comments

Even More Search Terms That Led People To This Blog

[Previously in series: Search Terms That Have Led People To This Blog and More Search Terms That Have Led People To This Blog. Content warning: profanity, rape, and other unfiltered access to the consciousness of the Internet]

Sometimes I look at what search terms lead people to SSC. Sometimes it’s the things you would think – “slate star codex”, “rationality”, the names of medications I’ve written about.

Other times it’s a little weirder:

why is my sister so pretty
I mentioned this query last post, probably based on this article, and the onslaught hasn’t stopped.

my sis is so pretty
Sometimes I can pretend it’s just people happy for their family members’ good qualities…

my sister is really pretty
…many people, very very happy…

my sister is so sexy what to do
…and other times, not so much.

sweet sister so pretty
You can stop any time now.

how we attract our sister for sex

sister aroused by my touch
ANNNNNY TIME NOW. sister pic

the fate of a cruel snake re arrange ssc answer
Other times people really seem to think I have an article on something but I have no idea what they mean.

what is the hormone responsible for soliloquising?
Other times I just have no idea.

hivemind ape and young girl army experiment
Garrett Jones, what exactly are you doing over at GMU?

Glasgow coma scale
I got a lot of these from people looking for this.

glassco coma scale
Some of the spellings were very creative

glass go coma scale
glascov coma scale
glasco comma scale
glawcow coma scale
glasscoma scale
glascoma score
glassma coma scale
glascow comma scale
glosvow coma scale
glass cow coma scale
glass comma scale

slate satr codex
slate star xodex
slate static codex
slate star cosex
slate star cpdex
str slate codex
sstar slate codex
astark star codex
slate state kodaks

delay cool condom codex

slate star codex of hate

i canot talret anything
You’re probably looking for the Slate Star Codex Of Hate

rapist linked to prostate cancer

which star sign is most likely to be a rapist

scott alexander the gay guy’s biography

scott alexander is no gay

fuck scott alexander endless

criticize the statement “you can see atoms”
It’s really dumb

fnord soros fnord
…did someone just try to see the fnords by typing it into Google? That’s great.

considered armed and dangerous for cow pox

i am polynesian and so is my husband both with brown eyes however our son has blue eyes how

if hundreds of americans die tragically today, it’ll be on account of sarcastic cocksucker citizens

unreasonable autism cures
It makes me so happy when our medical system is set up to satisfy someone’s needs this perfectly

whale…. medical cartel hoax . borax
I don’t know what conspiracy this person thinks connects all these things, but they should probably put some fnords in there if they want results.

victory lotto forecast for tomorrow tuesday 11-07-17
Nice try.

using secret pyramid to hit 3 digit lottery

was rene descartes racist

what is going on here? how can just the opinion of 1068 people always determine the opinion of the entire population, no matter how large it is? is statistics broken? is 1068 just a magical number?
It’s because of [fnord] the medical cartel, whales, and borax [/fnord].

there are many things i want to say but do not know how to say. hope you will understand

I am [person’s real name removed] iwant to join illumenatic member want can i do or who can help me in order direct me
Find a member of the medical cartel and say the code word “whale”. They’ll do the rest.

i want to join illuminati brotherhood church in uganda, south africa and kenya post comments on usa blogger
Find a whale and say the code word “medical cartel”. What happens next is up to you.

is fentanyl being used for population reduction by the illuminati
No, that’s what the borax is for

jews hate alcoholics anonymous

can i get a s sample ogre biscuit factory dimension

what decisions might the police make base on crime
One would hope all of them.

why is aa mostly bullshit
Looks like we’ve got a Jew here.

list of human experiences
1. Birth
2. Eating
3. Sleeping
4. Being attracted to your sister
5. Misspelling “Glasgow Coma Scale”
6. Using secret pyramid to hit 3 digit lottery

how can we deal with cactus person?

now if we can prove the electoral college was seeded with purely partisan voters for trump, and illegal, then we can have a new vote
[164/777] …and as these documents clearly prove, Putin sent the files to Trump through the medical cartel, hidden in envelopes marked “WHALE BORAX”.

islamists deport murderous racists
Well, that was a wild garden path of a four-word sentence

bigotry xxx yup to video

creators of remote neural monitoring are gay designing an ass weapon

massage with bombastic words of wishing good lucky to all people doing matriculant

how to start a zombie story

100 statements about albion’s seed: four british folkways in america that almost killed my hamster

give directly illuminati

how to summon abraham lincoln

you are my pleasant gustatory sensation

i hate polyamory
polyamory people are ugly
are all polyamorous people ugly
why are polyamorous people ugly
polyamory aspies
polyamory is sick
polyamorists tend to be narcissists


good looking polyamorous
pics of women who are polyamory

versailles ohio alien military genetics
A clone of Louis XIV spliced with whale DNA by aliens is being stored in a secret base disguised as a borax mine beneath Columbus by the medical cartel.

many people agree that there should be “some sort” of restraint considering abortion
I think regardless of our beliefs on this issue, we can agree those “quotation marks” are creepy.

what is cost disease by elephant

victim to organ harvesting yankee bob found murdered
If I were a beneficiary of black market organ harvesting, I would be pretty concerned about the possibility that my new organs came from someone named “Yankee Bob”.

explain d theories of truth n d best one dat suits d saying if u can’t beat dem, join dem using events in university as a case study

you r destiny, you r fate, is the gift that god bestowed me. you so different that i had been before. anh is something special that i must keep. i hope time will help me answer everything. time will help me keep you.
I think this person has too much of the hormone responsible for soliloquizing.

satanic company (that public likes)
Apple. Trust me on this one.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 133 Comments

More Testimonials For SSC

[Content note: various slurs and insults]

Last post I thanked some of the people who have contributed to this blog. But once again, it’s time to honor some of the most important contributors: the many people who give valuable feedback on everything I write. Here’s a short sample of some of…most interesting. I’m avoiding names and links to avoid pile-ons. Some slightly edited for readability.

“A cowardly autistic cuckolded deviant Jew who uses his IQ to rationalize away wisdom”

“He’s part of the self-declared ‘Rationalish Community’. Imagine the ridiculous level of self-regard implied by that. Picture cb2 with a graduate degree. Scott Alexander, if brevity is the soul of wit, you’re a witless soulsucking fuck.”

“Dude sounds like a crackpot. Blaming Republicans for everything and hailing liberals for… well, that part isn’t clear exactly. Thanks for helping me find something to add to my “never read” collection.”

“The men tweeting about how bad the women’s march is are also the guys who didn’t get invited to parties + blamed it on feminism…I know a few men who make this seem like actual fact. Like that guy from Slate Star Codex.”

“I don’t know what I was expecting from a jew quack but I suppose reasonable fits the description.”

“Ross Douthat somehow manages to recommend a person with a theology less plausible than Catholicism”

“I refuse to read Slate Star Codex anymore. It has become the epitome of IYI (Intellectual Yet Idiot) “pragmatic”(i.e. spineless) centrism.”

“He wants his readers to adopt a strategy of misogynist sabotage.”

“Slate Star Codex is THE definition of ‘autism spiral into infertility and death'”

“Scott Alexander is a LessWrong cultist. He has ALWAYS been a tremendous asshole who thinks he’s Mister Fucking Spock.”

“Slate Star Codex is to cognitive dissonance what Goddard was to rocketry.”

“I used to really enjoy Slate Star Codex before joining the dark side, now I find the blog almost insufferably autistic.”

“Laughing my ass off as Slate Star Codex’s “The Anti-Reactionary FAQ” figuratively burns in the fires of Berkeley.”

“I’ve started to be bothered by clothes tags a little bit lately. I blame SSC for putting this idea in my head”

“Slate Star Codex was always a shill, but this was craven even for him”

“He *literally* thinks that humans are horses”

“This is entirely reductive statement from me but I think that in an important sense SSC is just the Scott Alexander ego inflation program. Some of the best blogs can function this way. However a reasonable about the disingenuous use of his explicitly stated preferences for objectivity and the unstated outcomes of his blog can be made. Is Scott a scientist promoting a radical new social program or perhaps he is interested in the cult of personality and trapping of psychiatric performance?”

“Sexist asses: It’s not us, females just genetically hate liberty.”

“You asexual twerp”

“Fucking tech-libertarian cockroaches everywhere preaching total derp. Deeply disappointing.”

“I see you reduced to making excuses for a career criminal [Hillary Clinton] because you’re afraid of change. I expected more from you, Scott. I expected you to remember hope. I never expected the Dark would take you. Enjoy this. The thousands of comments, the last remarks from departing readers. It will never be the same.”

“Honestly, every time I read Scott, I am super conflicted. I have never found a writer whom I agree with so consistently while finding their personality, as expressed through their writing, so intolerable. I always feel like I want to shout, “You’re exactly correct! Now the shut the fuck up!” and pop him one in the mouth.”

“Go figure, Slate Star Codex blog readers are politically *and* literally, a bunch of phags. Look @ weightlifting data [on the survey]; found the problem.”

“Scott isn’t really dogmatic about anything besides niceness, honesty, puns, and growth mindset.”

“Scott Alexander over at the popular blog Slate Star Codex is an interesting case study in classical liberalism; nowhere else will you find someone who better exemplifies the phenomenon of skirting within microns of the event horizon of Getting It before screaming ‘Nooooo’ and zooming off in some other direction; nor will you find many who choose a crazier direction in which to flee.”

“Basically imagine a guy drinking Soylent and having a flamewar about how in the future they will too be able to unfreeze his head and you’ve got a basic idea of the ideology at play here.”

“So we come to answering the question I asked at the beginning: What is it that allows men like Scott Alexander, men of some intelligence and sensitivity, to get so close to understanding, and fail so miserably, over and over? We can find the answer here at the end of his piece: we see that he stumbled, baffled, like a giraffe with a head injury loose in Manhattan, through the entire book, then through an entire long review, without comprehending its basic point.”

“Slate Star Codex: if you’re a man who is involved in tech and not interested in any legitimate philosophical or sociological inquiry, we’ve got you covered”

“He is riddled with all kinds of spooks and leftist ideology and it shows in his commentariat. This also doesn’t bode well for psychiatry if someone as emotionally weak as Alexander is allowed to become a psychiatrist.”

“The Slate Star Codex guy is a living fable against the idea that u can solve problems with pure tedious reason instead of ever reading a book”

“it’s basically one of the hubs for autistic people really into Bayesianism, so like half the posters could either transition or become Nazis. or both idk”

“Hey man I took your survey it made me feel all weird and insecure about my gender identity thanks a lot!”

“Anyway, I don’t mean to pick on Alexander, whose heart is in the right place, but he is a walking, talking, male prophylactic. If I absolutely did not want any grandchildren (say, high risk of insanity in the bloodline) I’d have Alexander teach my sons the birds & bees. He is a weirdo autistic who has no understanding of normal women based on the few writings on sexual politics of his I’ve read, which are filled with the usual libertard lonely-boy pablum about the awfulness of “slut shaming” in our society, and how if we could just get rid of that and any sort of gender roles and treat everyone the same, we’d be living in a flippin’ sexual Nirvana where our genitals would be as happily interoperable as any pair of USB ports. (Alexander, IIRC, is in a relationship a technically female but maybe not womyn-aligned webcam star with whom he may or may not actually be bumping uglies)”

“To be fair to Alexander, the million leaked credit cards #’s from ASHLEY MADISON from men who really think there any normal women out there trolling for one-off sex on the Internet shows the cluelessness out there is pretty broad.”

“Since people are sharing around a Slate Star Codex article let’s have a reminder that he’s a moral cripple”

“$500 Reward. Seeking the testimony of victims of Scott Alexander, human rights abuser. I am also willing to pay for the stories of the victims of any other ‘prominent’ ‘internet famous’ psychiatrists/human rights abusers.”

“I hate to go ad hom, but i can’t think of anyone who would benefit more from TRT and getting laid on the reg.”

“After reading Scott’s article to a friend of mine, he decided to get “Border Reaver” tattooed on his neck”

“So basically he’s an athiest jewish kikeiatrist named Schlomo Schlomovich who mingles with the social elite while still being afraid of antifa? I couldn’t have strung together that many ridiculous stereotypes at once if I tried honestly. This is fucking hilarious.”

“Discovering Scott Aaronson is way into Slate Star Codex is like finding spiders in my favorite flavor of ice cream. Slate Star Codex is ‘Well, actually…’ personified, with a dusting of evil. But mostly it bugs me that it passes for good writing.”

“id like to fight the guy who runs slate star codex, he’s a smarmy faggot”

“Why do people I otherwise like keep insisting to me that slate star codex is good”

“[Slate Star Codex] split off from Less Wrong because even massive faggots sometimes have standards. His clique don’t exactly get along with Yudkowsky and will point out that he’s basically running a cult. Nonetheless, Scott’s still a huge fag and sucks Eliezer’s dick when it comes to rationalism and his fucking gay “Sequences”, which he and his commenters will tell you to read as if it’s the fucking gospel.”

“Slate Star Codex, an extremely verbose blog that I have complicated feelings about.”

“YouTube Skeptics, Slate Star Codex rationalists, Stefan Molyneux and Ayn Rand all ruined “rationality” and ‘logic’ for me. Must be a horseshoe theory conspiracy of sorts.”

“The disturbing thing is that they’re all aware of the criticisms people level at them for their autism, but no matter how many times they’re inundated by people telling them they’re being inhuman spergs, they’re just like ‘Hmm…am I out of touch? No…it’s the normal people who are wrong.'”

“*making racist laser gun noises* computer, engage Near Mode and navigate me to slate star codex please”

“‘Bigoted shits’ is basically the Slate Star Codex demographic”

“[Scott] wants the SJWs to take over. He wants you to dawdle around appealing to ‘reason’ until the Commies have indoctrinated enough of the youth to allow PC Culture to permeate all things.”

“It’s cool to watch the slate star codex guy inch closer and closer to actually knowing something while his comment sections get stupider and stupider”

“Is it just me, or is the guy who runs slate star codex kind of a wanker?”

“But this is… just incredible. I read this SSC article last night, and my jaw dropped. What was I missing? How could Scott Alexander be so fucking stupid? I spent all day with a slow burning anger in my belly. This pure nonsense, from the “Red Tribe vs. Blue Tribe” guy, in the same week as McConnell holding millions of children hostage so he doesn’t accidentally upset the avowed racists over in the House, not to mention Stormy Daniels, McCabe’s loyalty test, Trump trying to fire Mueller, and all the other usual shit that I already forgot all coming to light? And you choose now—January 24, 2018 and not November 9, 2016—to equate George Soros and the Koch brothers not once but twice in an overlong Tumblr note that amounts to saying, “huh I just realized maybe I’m missing something but I still think all politically active people are retarded”? Have you read the news once in the last year, or do you just get summaries from the same place as your political theories—random fucking commenters on your blog? Or was I mistaken this whole time thinking that Scott both lived in America and wanted the world to get better not worse? Because this post would make way more sense if his political climate was actually recess on the fucking playground of a quarantined elementary school for experimental Nazi test tube babies in a bubble on the dark side of the fucking moon.”

“nobody has ever read a slate star codex article to the end”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 333 Comments

We’ve Got Five Years, What A Surprise

Today is the fifth anniversary of Slate Star Codex. Overall I’m very happy with how this project is going so far, and I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who’s made things work behind the scenes.

Trike Apps generously volunteered to host me free of charge. I give them the highest praise it is possible to give a hosting company – namely, that I completely forgot about their existence until right now because I’ve never had to worry about anything. Special thanks to Matt Fallshaw and Cat Truscott for their kindness and patience.

Bakkot has done various things behind the scenes to make the blog more useable – fixing WordPress bugs, helping with moderation tasks, and adding cool new features like the green highlights around new comments. A big part of the success of the comments section is thanks to his innovations; the remaining horribleness is mostly my fault. Rory O and Alice M have also helped with this.

Michael K and Mason H have done other behind-the-scenes work, especially improving the design. Remember when the front page looked like this? No? Thank Michael and Mason.

The subreddit moderation team – led by Bakkot again, but also _Vulture_, coderman9, PM_ME_YOUR_OBSIDIAN, tailcalled, werttrew, utilsucks, and cjet79 – keeps the subreddit in line, and deserves special gratitude for wading through all of your horrible offensive opinions in the process of redirecting them into the Culture Wars thread.

Deluks917 started the Discord, which is thriving. Thanks to him and the rest of the Discord moderation team – Celestia, notaraptor, and vivafringe.

Jeremiah started the podcast, which continues to update very regularly.

Mingyuan runs the general repository of meetups. Thank her if you’ve been able to find an SSC meetup in your area – and if you haven’t, give her a little while, since she’s working on a better and higher-tech version. Thanks also to everyone who organizes meetups. I’m most familiar with David Friedman’s very large and regular South Bay meetups, but I understand there are decent-sized groups all around the world and I’m grateful for everyone who puts work into it.

Cody, Oliver, and other people organized the Unsong wrap celebration so efficiently that I’m still not sure exactly what happened or who did what. I just showed up and everything seems to have worked. Apologies if I am forgetting people or exactly what they did.

Katja has organized the Open Thread system so that it posts on time and with the right decimals. She also gives general moral support and puts up with me. She also arranged the Unsong wrap after-party and has given me lots of interesting things to think about.

Ozy and Elizabeth have guest-blogged here very briefly. Thanks to them – and congratulations to Ozy on the recent birth of their first child.

Roland helped transform my post on antidepressants into a scientific paper that got accepted by a pharmacology journal. Ada Palmer’s thoughts on finally publishing a novel are pretty much how I feel about finally having published a journal article. Preliminary thanks also to everyone currently working with me on similar projects for other posts.

Scott Aaronson, Leah Libresco, and other more established bloggers – plus some Real Journalists like Conor Friedersdorf, Tom Chivers and Ross Douthat – linked to me and encouraged me when I was relatively new to this, and helped convince me that this “blogging” thing might work out.

Thanks to all our advertisers, but especially to Beeminder and MealSquares, who have stuck with me since the beginning and put up with everything from me never remembering to respond to their emails to me gratutitiously and unfairly insulting their products. I actually think they’re both great companies and totally recommend that you Beemind the number of MealSquares you eat, or something.

Thanks to everyone who supports me on Patreon. Your money pays for things like the Mechanical Turk version of the SSC survey, my books and subscriptions, and me having more time to work on the blog.

Thanks to everyone I’ve engaged with. Again and again I’ve had the experience of reading something, criticizing it (sometimes savagely), and having the author be incredibly nice to me, walk me through where we disagree, and then continue being friendly and supportive afterwards. Some people in this category include Ezra Klein, Adam Grant, Nathan Robinson, Curtis Yarvin, Bryan Caplan, David Friedman (again), Dylan Matthews, Brendan Nyhan, Nick Land, Julia Rohrer, and Freddie de Boer. I continue to disagree with them strongly on a lot of things but can’t find even the tiniest bit of fault with their decency on a personal level.

Thanks to all the people who seem to genuinely dislike me and wish me ill, but who have been decent enough not to let it get to the point of doxxing me or threatening my personal safety, my career, or my relationship with my patients.

Thanks to everyone who comments and contributes to discussions. Some people who I’ve heard praised again and again – John Schilling on international affairs, David Friedman on economic issues, Deiseach on religious and cultural issues, and of course Bean on battleships. But everybody is appreciated. Godwin’s Law says that if you want a question answered online, you shouldn’t ask – you should post something wrong and let people correct you. But I have had good luck groping towards the best answer I can, then letting a bunch of experts show up and fill in the details.

Thanks to everyone who takes the (long, often poorly worded) surveys. Without you, interesting findings like this would not be possible – and trust me, there’s more where that came from once I have time to write it up. One of my goals is to find more ways to use this blog’s readership to advance psychological research, and your surprising willingness to waste time on any crazy questions I throw at you has been delightful.

Thanks to everyone who sent me emails, requests, and questions for not being a jerk when I didn’t answer for several weeks or, in many cases, ever. Without your tolerance for my rudeness, I would have much less time to write.

I am probably forgetting all sorts of people – if so, no offense meant. You are all great.

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OT95: Zoetropen Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server. Also:

1. Happy Valentine’s Day! While you’re waiting for blockchain-based dating to materialize, remember that there’s already a rationalist dating site, Go through your Facebook friends and check boxes for which ones you want to date or hang out with, and if they check you too the site will let you both know. It does require your Facebook friends also use the site, but if you’re socially exposed to the rationalist community many of them will. The Reciprocity team wants me to remind you that even if you’re already on there, this might be a good time to go back, update your selections, and see if anyone new has joined.

2. There will probably be an SSC meetup in Berkeley on March 3. I’ll post a clearer announcement later, but just wanted to give some advance warning.

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Guyenet On Motivation

Rereading The Hungry Brain, I notice my review missed one of my favorite parts: the description of the motivational system. It starts with studies of lampreys, horrible little primitive parasitic fish:

How does the lamprey decide what to do? Within the lamprey basal ganglia lies a key structure called the striatum, which is the portion of the basal ganglia that receives most of the incoming signals from other parts of the brain. The striatum receives “bids” from other brain regions, each of which represents a specific action. A little piece of the lamprey’s brain is whispering “mate” to the striatum, while another piece is shouting “flee the predator” and so on. It would be a very bad idea for these movements to occur simultaneously – because a lamprey can’t do all of them at the same time – so to prevent simultaneous activation of many different movements, all these regions are held in check by powerful inhibitory connections from the basal ganglia. This means that the basal ganglia keep all behaviors in “off” mode by default. Only once a specific action’s bid has been selected do the basal ganglia turn off this inhibitory control, allowing the behavior to occur. You can think of the basal ganglia as a bouncer that chooses which behavior gets access to the muscles and turns away the rest. This fulfills the first key property of a selector: it must be able to pick one option and allow it access to the muscles.

Many of these action bids originate from a region of the lamprey brain called the pallium…

Spoiler: the pallium is the region that evolved into the cerebral cortex in higher animals.

Each little region of the pallium is responsible for a particular behavior, such as tracking prey, suctioning onto a rock, or fleeing predators. These regions are thought to have two basic functions. The first is to execute the behavior in which it specializes, once it has received permission from the basal ganglia. For example, the “track prey” region activates downstream pathways that contract the lamprey’s muscles in a pattern that causes the animal to track its prey. The second basic function of these regions is to collect relevant information about the lamprey’s surroundings and internal state, which determines how strong a bid it will put in to the striatum. For example, if there’s a predator nearby, the “flee predator” region will put in a very strong bid to the striatum, while the “build a nest” bid will be weak…

Each little region of the pallium is attempting to execute its specific behavior and competing against all other regions that are incompatible with it. The strength of each bid represents how valuable that specific behavior appears to the organism at that particular moment, and the striatum’s job is simple: select the strongest bid. This fulfills the second key property of a selector – that it must be able to choose the best option for a given situation…

With all this in mind, it’s helpful to think of each individual region of the lamprey pallium as an option generator that’s responsible for a specific behavior. Each option generator is constantly competing with all other incompatible option generators for access to the muscles, and the option generator with the strongest bid at any particular moment wins the competition.

The next subsection, which I’m skipping, quotes some scientists saying that the human motivation system works similarly to the lamprey motivation system, except that the human cerebrum has many more (and much more flexible/learnable) options than the lamprey pallium. Humans have to “make up our minds about things a lamprey cannot fathom, like what to cook for dinner, how to pay off the mortgage, and whether or not to believe in God”. It starts getting interesting again when it talks about basal ganglia-related disorders:

To illustrate the crucial importance of the basal ganglia in decision-making processes, let’s consider what happens when they don’t work.

As it turns out, several disorders affect the basal ganglia. The most common is Parkinson’s disease, which results from the progressive loss of cells in a part of the basal ganglia called the substantia nigra. These cells send connections to the dorsal striatum, where they produce dopamine, a chemical messenger that plays a very important role in the function of the striatum. Dopamine is a fascinating and widely misunderstood molecule that we’ll discuss further in the next chapter, but for now, its most relevant function is to increase the likelihood of engaging in any behavior.

When dopamine levels in the striatum are increased – for example, by cocaine or amphetamine – mice (and humans) tend to move around a lot. High levels of dopamine essentially make the basal ganglia more sensitive to incoming bids, lowering the threshold for activating movements…Conversely, when dopamine levels are low, the basal ganglia become less sensitive to incoming bids and the threshold for activating movements is high. In this scenario, animals tend to stay put. The most extreme example of this is the dopamine-deficient mice created by Richard Palmer, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Washington. These animals sit in their cages nearly motionless all day due to a complete absence of dopamine. “If you set a dopamine deficient mouse on a table,” explains Palmiter, “it will just sit there and look at you. It’s totally apathetic.” When Palmiter’s team chemically replaces the mice’s dopamine, they eat, drink, and run around like mad until the dopamine is gone.

The same can happen to humans with basal ganglia injuries:

Consider Jim, a former miner who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital at the age of fifty-seven with a cluster of unusual symptoms. As recorded in his case report, “during the preceding three years he had become increasingly withdrawn and unspontaneous. In the month before admission he had deteriorated to the point where he was doubly incontinent, answered only yes or no questions, and would sit or stand unmoving if not prompted. He only ate with prompting, and would sometimes continue putting spoon to mouth, sometimes for as long as two minutes after his plate was empty. Similarly, he would flush the toilet repeatedly until asked to stop.”

Jim was suffering from a rare disorder called abulia, which is Greek for “an absence of will”. Patients who suffer from abulia can respond to questions and perform specific tasks if prompted, but they have difficulty spontaneously initiating motivations, emotions, and thoughts. A severely abulic patient seated in a bare room by himself will remain immobile until someone enters the room. If asked what he was thinking or feeling, he’ll reply, “Nothing”…

Abulia is typically associated with damage to the basal ganglia and related circuits, and it often responds well to drugs that increase dopamine signaling. One of these is bromocriptine, the drug used to treat Jim…Researchers believe that the brain damage associated with abulia causes the basal ganglia to become insensitive to incoming bids, such that even the most appropriate feelings, thoughts, and motivations aren’t able to be expressed (or even to enter consciousness). Drugs that increase dopamine signaling make the striatum more sensitive to bids, allowing some abulic patients to recover the ability to feel, think, and move spontaneously.

All of this is standard neuroscience, but presented much better than the standard neuroscience books present it, so much so that it brings some important questions into sharper relief. Like: what does this have to do with willpower?

Guyenet describes high dopamine levels in the striatum as “increasing the likelihood of engaging in any behavior”. But that’s not really fair – outside a hospital, almost nobody just sits motionless in the middle of a room and does no behaviors. The relevant distinction isn’t between engaging in behavior vs. not doing so. It’s between low-effort behaviors like watching TV, and high-effort behaviors like writing a term paper. We know that this has to be related to the same dopamine system Guyenet’s talking about, because Adderall (which increases dopamine in the relevant areas) makes it much easier to do the high-effort behaviors. So a better description might be “high dopamine levels in the striatum increase the likelihood of engaging in high-willpower-requirement behaviors”.

But what is high willpower requirements? I’m always tempted to answer this with some sort of appeal to basic calorie expenditure, but taking a walk requires less willpower than writing a term paper even though the walk probably burns way more calories. My “watch TV” option generator, my “take a walk” option generator, and my “write a term paper” option generator are all putting in bids to my striatum – and for some reason, high dopamine levels privilege the “write a term paper” option and low dopamine levels privilege the others. Why?

I don’t know, and I think it’s the most interesting next question in the study of these kinds of systems.

But here’s a crazy idea (read: the first thing I thought of after thirty seconds). In the predictive processing model, dopamine represents confidence levels. Suppose there’s a high prior on taking a walk being a reasonable plan. Maybe this is for evo psych reasons (there was lots of walking in the ancestral environment), or for reinforcement related reasons (you enjoy walking, and your brain has learned to predict it will make you happy). And there’s a low prior on writing a term paper being a reasonable plan. Again, it’s not the sort of thing that happened much in the ancestral environment, and plausibly every previous time you’ve done it, you’ve hated it.

In this case, confidence in your new evidence (as opposed to your priors) is a pretty important variable. If your cortex makes its claims with high confidence (ie in a high-dopaminergic state), then its claim that it’s a good idea to write a term paper now may be so convincing that it’s able to overcome the high prior against this being true. If your cortex makes claims with low confidence, then it will tentatively suggest that maybe we should write a term paper now – but the striatum will remain unconvinced due to the inherent implausibility of the idea.

In this case, sitting in a dark room doing nothing is just an action plan with a very high prior; you need at least a tiny bit of confidence in your planning ability to shift to anything else.

I mentioned in Toward A Predictive Theory Of Depression that I didn’t understand the motivational system well enough to be able to explain why systematic underconfidence in neural predictions would make people less motivated. I think the idea of evolutionarily-primitive and heavily-reinforced actions as a prior – which logical judgments from the cortex have to “override” in order to produce more willpower-intensive actions – fills in this gap and provides another line of evidence for the theory.

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Predictions For 2018

At the beginning of every year, I make predictions. At the end of every year, I score them. So here are a hundred more for 2018.

Some changes this year: I’ve eliminated a bunch of predictions about things that are very unlikely where I just plug in the same number each year, like “99% chance of no coup in the US”. I’ve tried to have almost everything this year be new and genuinely uncertain. I’ve also included some very personal predictions about friends and gossip that I’m keeping secret for now – I have them written down somewhere else and they’re for my own interest only.

My rule is that I have to make all of these without checking existing prediction markets – otherwise I wouldn’t be learning anything about my own abilities. I’m also not doing any research beyond what I already know, because otherwise this will take forever. I bet some of these are terribly misinformed, but that’s part of what I’m including in my calibration estimate. These were written a few days ago; a few already seem obsolete.

I’m keeping 50% predictions even though everyone keeps telling me they don’t matter. My only excuse is that I write everything down first and then decide what I think the likelihood is, and sometimes my best guess really is 50%.

1. Donald Trump remains president at end of year: 95%
2. Democrats take control of the House in midterms: 80%
3. Democrats take control of the Senate in midterms: 50%
4. Mueller’s investigation gets cancelled (eg Trump fires him): 50%
5. Mueller does not indict Trump: 70%
6. PredictIt shows Bernie Sanders having highest chance to be Dem nominee at end of year: 60%
7. PredictIt shows Donald Trump having highest chance to be GOP nominee at end of year: 95%
9. Some sort of major immigration reform legislation gets passed: 70%
10. No major health-care reform legislation gets passed: 95%
11. No large-scale deportation of Dreamers: 90%
12. US government shuts down again sometime in 2018: 50%
13. Trump’s approval rating lower than 50% at end of year: 90%
14. …lower than 40%: 50%
15. GLAAD poll suggesting that LGBQ acceptance is down will mostly not be borne out by further research: 80%

16. Dow does not fall more than 10% from max at any point in 2018: 50%
17. Bitcoin is higher than $5,000 at end of year: 95%
18. Bitcoin is higher than $10,000 at end of year: 80%
19. Bitcoin is lower than $20,000 at end of year: 70%
20. Ethereum is lower than Bitcoin at end of year: 95%
21. Luna has a functioning product by end of year: 90%
22. Falcon Heavy first launch not successful: 70%
23. Falcon Heavy eventually launched successfully in 2018: 80%
24. SpaceX does not attempt its lunar tourism mission by end of year: 95%
25. Sci-Hub is still relatively easily accessible from within US at end of year (even typing in IP directly is relatively easy): 95%
26. Nothing particularly bad (beyond the level of an funny/weird news story) happens because of ability to edit videos this year: 90%
27. A member of the general public can ride-share a self-driving car without a human backup driver in at least one US city by the end of the year: 80%

28. Reddit does not ban r/the_donald by the end of the year: 90%
29. None of his enemies manage to find a good way to shut up/discredit Jordan Peterson: 70%

30. SSC gets more hits in 2018 than in 2017: 80%
31. SSC gets mentioned in the New York Times (by someone other than Ross Douthat): 60%
32. At least one post this year gets at least 100,000 hits: 70%
33. A 2019 SSC Survey gets posted by the end of the year: 90%
34. No co-bloggers make 3 or more SSC posts this year: 80%
35. Patreon income less than double current amount at end of year: 90%
36. A scientific paper based on an SSC post is accepted for publication in real journal by end of year: 60%
37. I do an adversarial collaboration with somebody interesting by the end of the year: 50%
38. I successfully do some general project to encourage and post more adversarial collaborations by other people: 70%
39. New SSC meetups system/database thing gets launched successfully: 60%
40. LesserWrong remains active and successful (average at least one halfway-decent post per day) at the end of the year: 50%
41. LesserWrong is declared official and merged with 80%
42. I make fewer than five posts on LessWrong (posts copied over from SSC don’t count): 70%
43. CFAR buys a venue this year: 50%
44. AI Impacts has at least three employees working half-time or more sometime this year: 50%
45. Rationalists get at least one more group house on Ward Street: 50%
46. No improvement in the status of (either transfer to a new team or at least one new feature added): 70%

47. I fail at my New Years’ resolution to waste less time on the Internet throughout most of 2018: 80%
48. I fail at my other New Years’ resolution to try one biohacking project per month throughout 2018: 80%
49. I don’t attend the APA National Meeting: 80%
50. I don’t attend the New York Solstice: 80%
51. I travel outside the US in 2018: 90%
52. I get some sort of financial planning sorted out by end of year: 95%
53. I get at least one article published on a major site like Vox or New Statesman or something: 50%
54. I get a tax refund: 50%
55. I weigh more than 195 lb at year end: 60%
56. I complete the currently visible Duolingo course in Spanish: 90%
57. I don’t get around to editing Unsong (complete at least half the editing by my own estimate) this year: 95%
58. No new housemate for at least one month this year: 90%
59. I won’t [meditate at least one-third of days this year]: 90%
60. I won’t [do my exercise routine at least one third of days this year]: 80%
61. I still live in the same house at the end of 2018: 60%
62. I will not have bought a house by the end of 2018: 90%
63. Katja’s paper gets published: 90%
64. Some other paper of Katja’s gets published: 50%

SECRET: (mostly speculating on the personal lives of friends who read this blog; I don’t necessarily want them to know how successful I expect their financial and romantic endeavors to be)
65. [Secret prediction]: 80%
66. [Secret prediction]: 70%
67. [Secret prediction]: 70%
68. [Secret prediction]: 60%
69. [Secret prediction]: 70%
70. [Secret prediction]: 60%
71. [Secret prediction]: 50%
72. [Secret prediction]: 50%
73. [Secret prediction]: 50%
74. [Secret prediction]: 90%
75. [Secret prediction]: 90%
76. [Secret prediction]: 60%
77. [Secret prediction]: 70%
78. [Secret prediction]: 60%
79. [Secret prediction]: 50%
80. [Secret prediction]: 60%
81. [Secret prediction]: 80%
82. [Secret prediction]: 70%
83. [Secret prediction]: 50%
84. [Secret prediction]: 70%
85. [Secret prediction]: 70%
86. [Secret prediction]: 70%
87. [Secret prediction]: 60%
88. [Secret prediction]: 50%
89. [Secret prediction]: 50%
90. [Secret prediction]: 70%
91. [Secret prediction]: 90%
92. [Secret prediction]: 50%
93. [Secret prediction]: 90%
94. [Secret prediction]: 50%
95. [Secret prediction]: 60%
96. [Secret prediction]: 60%
97. [Secret prediction]: 60%
98. [Secret prediction]: 95%
99. [Secret prediction]: 70%
100. [Secret prediction]: 70%

Other properly formatted predictions for this year:
– Socratic Form Microscopy (2017 results, 2018 predictions)
– Anatoly Karlin (2017 results, 2018 predictions)
– Various people from the subreddit
– Very many people on Metaculus

[EDIT: List of predictions I’ve already been convinced are miscalibrated as of 3 AM 2/6/18:
– Bitcoin prices are already too high (they were higher when I wrote these predictions a few days ago).
– Stock market is more likely to have large fall (it was higher when I wrote these predictions a few days ago)
– Chance of Trump’s approval not breaking 50% probably closer to 95% than 90%.]

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Powerless Placebos

[All things that have been discussed here before, but some people wanted it all in a convenient place]

The most important study on the placebo effect is Hróbjartsson and Gøtzsche’s Is The Placebo Powerless?, updated three years later by a systematic review and seven years later with a Cochrane review. All three looked at studies comparing a real drug, a placebo drug, and no drug (by the third, over 200 such studies) – and, in general, found little benefit of the placebo drug over no drug at all. There were some possible minor placebo effects in a few isolated conditions – mostly pain – but overall H&G concluded that the placebo effect was clinically insignificant. Despite a few half-hearted tries, no one has been able to produce much evidence they’re wrong. This is kind of surprising, since everyone has been obsessing over placebos and saying they’re super-important for the past fifty years.

What happened? Probably placebo effects rode on the coattails of a more important issue, regression to the mean. That is, most sick people get better eventually. This is true both for diseases like colds that naturally go away, and for diseases like depression that come in episodes which remit for a few months or years until the next relapse. People go to the doctor during times of extreme crisis, when they’re most sick. So no matter what happens, most of them will probably get better pretty quickly.

In the very old days, nobody thought of this, so all their experiments were hopelessly confounded. Then people started adding placebo groups, this successfully controlled for not just placebo effect but regression to the mean, and so people noticed their studies were much better. They called the whole thing “placebo effect” when in fact there was no way to tell without further study how much was real placebo effect and how much was just regression to the mean. If we believe H&G, it’s pretty much all just regression to the mean, and placebo was a big red herring.

The rare exceptions are pain and a few other minor conditions. From H&G #3:

We found an effect on pain, SMD -0.28 (95% CI -0.36 to -0.19)); nausea, SMD -0.25 (-0.46 to -0.04)), asthma (-0.35 (-0.70 to -0.01)), and phobia (SMD -0.63 (95% CI -1.17 to -0.08)). The effect on pain was very variable, also among trials with low risk of bias. Four similarly-designed acupuncture trials conducted by an overlapping group of authors reported large effects (SMD -0.68 (-0.85 to -0.50)) whereas three other pain trials reported low or no effect (SMD -0.13 (-0.28 to 0.03)). The pooled effect on nausea was small, but consistent. The effects on phobia and asthma were very uncertain due to high risk of bias.

So the acupuncture trials seem to do pretty well. This probably isn’t because acupuncture works – some experiments have found sham acupuncture works equally well. It could be because acupuncture researchers have flexible research ethics. But Kamper & Williams speculate that acupuncture does well because it’s an optimized placebo. Normal placebos are just some boring little pill that researchers give because it’s the same shape as whatever they really want to give. Acupuncture – assuming that it doesn’t work – has been tailored over thousands of years to be as effective a pain-relieving placebo as possible. Maybe there’s some deep psychological reason why having needles in your skin intuitively feels like the sort of thing that should alleviate pain.

I want to add my own experience here, which is that occasionally I see extraordinary and obvious cases of the placebo effect. I once had a patient who was shaking from head to toe with anxiety tell me she felt completely better the moment she swallowed a pill, before there was any chance she could have absorbed the minutest fraction of it. You’re going to tell me “Oh, sure, but anxiety’s just in your head anyway” – but anxiety was one of the medical conditions that H&G included in their analysis. Plausibly they studied chronic anxiety, and pills are less good chronically than they are at aborting a specific anxiety attack the first time you take them. Or maybe her anxiety was somehow related to a phobia, one of the conditions H&G find some evidence in support of a placebo for. (Really? Phobia but not anxiety? Whatever.)

Surfing Uncertainty had the the best explanation of the placebo effect I’ve seen. Perceiving the world directly at every moment is too computationally intensive, so instead the brain guesses what the the world is like and uses perception to check and correct its guesses. In a high-bandwidth system like vision, guesses are corrected very quickly and you end up very accurate (except for weird things like ignoring when the word “the” is twice in a row, like it’s been several times in this paragraph already without you noticing). In a low-bandwidth system like pain perception, the original guess plays a pretty big role, with real perception only modulating it to a limited degree (consider phantom limb pain, where the brain guesses that an arm that isn’t there hurts, and nothing can convince it otherwise). Well, if you just saw a truck run over your foot, you have a pretty strong guess that you’re having foot pain. And if you just got a bunch of morphine, you have a pretty strong guess that your pain is better. The real sense-data can modulate it in a Bayesian way, but the sense-data is so noisy that it won’t be weighted highly enough to replace the guess completely.

If this is true, placebo should be strongest in subjective perceptions of conditions sent to the brain through low-bandwidth relays. That covers H&G’s pain and nausea. It doesn’t cover asthma and phobias quite as well, though I wonder if “asthma” is measured as subjective sensation of breathing difficulty.

What about depression? My gut would have told me depressed people respond very well to the placebo effect, but H&G say no.

I think that depressed mood may respond well to the placebo effect on a temporary basis – after all, mood seems noisy and low-bandwidth and hard to be sure of in the same way pain and nausea are. But most studies of depression use tests like the HAM-D, which measure the clinical syndrome of depression – things like sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance, and motor disturbance. These seem a lot less susceptible to subjective changes in the way the brain perceives things, so probably HAM-D based studies will show less placebo effect than just asking patients to subjectively assess their mood.