Discover more from From the New World
Complexity, Envy Revisited, Sorting, China, AI, Canada, NatCon, Transgenderism, Inflation
I’m taking a bit of a break from my typical writing to disclose some things that I think are important, harder to argue for, and may turn into future articles.
Reaction to Complexity
I think the reaction to complexity is a societal force that is going to be extremely important in the next ten years or more. You see traces of it already with the degrowth left and trad right, as well as the poor quality critiques of EA. This is quite an important cycle in history, captured most strongly during the industrial revolution.
These all describe the same phenomenon in my view, which is what happens when the complexity of a system overhwhelms its human components. This is a very instinctive reaction and in my opinion a pretty much amoral one. Can you critique people for fearing what they literally cannot know? To me this is just a design constraint on social systems, like dunbar’s number or average cognitive ability.
This is a bandwidth problem, and you can’t actually increase the bandwidth so you can either increase the compression of ideas, or shape the incentives so that people don’t need to understand in the first place. There are these periods of tension where technologies (material and social) advance far ahead of their popular justifications where this impulse is most dangerous. This occurs in two ways: advancing where no fictions exist and destroying past convenient fictions.
The next section was originally about unexplored thoughts on populism, but it got too long and was moved to a separate article that probably comes out next week.
Genetic Differences and Egalitarianism
In many ways this is supposed to be a more formal retread of EBASF3, which is a fun post I typed on my phone while on a ninety minute train ride home from jury duty.
Individual differences in intelligence, psychological traits, preferences, and many other attributes are real and heritable. If you aren’t convinced of this yet I don’t even know why you’re still reading this substack. The belief that people have equal ability is factually false and in my view is the most destructive false belief in all of human history. The way we have partly transcended that belief is using markets and IQ tests, which is why those are the most important institutions in modern society.
Rob Henderson mentioned Hierarchy in the Forest By Christopher Boehm in our discussion. It makes an interesting case about hierarchy and violence. Humans have not typically had domination hierarchies with an exponential amount of mates going to the most competent or powerful human. Instead there’s a redistribution that happens because several humans can still kill a more powerful human. In other words, because there’s no rule of law. Rob has a great quote, which I also included in the original post:
Someone in our tribe likes to take down a big animal immediately. We all start mocking him and making fun of him. You know, teasing him for how he runs or how he dresses or you know ah making fun of how he laughs like basically they're trying to cut him down because he did this great Thing. He kills this big animal and helps to feed. The group but they don't want him to think too much of himself. They don't want him to grow arrogant and so immediately all the other men start trying to ensure that he lets him know that hey just because you did this great thing doesn't mean that you're so special. Okay. And I think that Urge is present in all of us and and so I think you know in the modern West It sort of expresses itself in these blank slates where we don't want to acknowledge that. But it's interesting, right? B Blank Slate isn't for everything. It's you know we don't say this for um, you know sense of Humor. Or I think even for things like work ethic. It seems like most of the blank slate stuff I think is primarily isolated to like intelligence and maybe a couple of other traits but not for not for everything.
Full disclosure: my strongest ethical impulse is that this is not just stupid but evil. You’re going to demonize the person who is the reason you’re eating tonight? What awful, awful people. I also put the most “skin in the game” on this ethical belief: I regularly end friendships with people who display consistent envy. Both my parents also hold this belief, not as strongly as me, and anecdotally it’s much more common among Asians than non-Asians. I have a bit of motivated reasoning when I go after social climbers and midwits, but I also think the empirical cases I present stand on their own, regardless of morality.
Institutions are Sorting Algorithms
The origin of my twitter handle is this:
David Shor said on a podcast that politics isn’t as simple as sorting people on a spreadsheet. I think it’s as simple as sorting people in real life.
I view the problem of envy as directly related to the problem of talent allocation. Egalitarianism is directly obstructive to talent search, since the social presumption that people are equal means that without a clear motive, most people won’t try to figure out how individuals differ. Fortunately we live in a country that doesn’t believe completely in egalitarianism, and more importantly has a free market economy, so that clear motive does exist in many cases. I touched on this briefly in my podcast with Tyler Cowen, although I didn’t get to spend as much time on it as I would have hoped.
The primary way my view of economic history differs in emphasis from the mainstream economist / Adam Smith narrative (in emphasis at least) is that I place a high value on implicit or explicit sorting. I see a primary function of every economic system as sorting: separating people who can contribute from people who can’t, separating goods that are valuable from those that aren’t, et cetera. The efficiency of the sorting algorithm increases the economic value which an institution produces. In other words, some people are better than others, and the more honest we can be about which people are better, the more economic value we can create. This honestly sounds a bit tautological to me, i.e. “We should let the better people do the things they’re better at”. But the reason why I think it’s still worth saying is that this isn’t how many institutions in the past and present actually work.
You can see why I think envy and progressivism are so destructive. It obfuscates the sorting algorithm, which is the reason we have a functioning economy! This is also what progressivism does when it gains political power, from the Soviet Union to dispirate impact laws. Of course there are differences in degree. I would rather live under American wokeness than Stalinism. But the directional impact on sorting is the same. This is why removing progressives from institutions is effective altruism (imo).
This is also part of my critique of Trump. It’s pretty clear he values loyalty over competence most of the time and this worsens the ability of the Republican party both to do things that I agree with and to do things that I don’t agree with. To be fair he also picked people like Vance and Masters, so at least he can be convinced by Thielbucks. Some of the right-wing grievance rhetoric also annoys me. The latter is mostly bark rather than bite though.
The best thing about Chinese people is that we will happily and openly compare our children. The worst thing about Chinese people is that we don’t like markets enough. It’s often said that “China has the poorest Chinese people” and I think not liking markets enough has a lot to do with it. This seems to me like a bit of a contradiction and I don’t really know how to explain it.
That being said, I think China will still dominate science soon. I think this would happen even without wokeness, it’s just that China isn’t disadvantaged by its lack of free markets in this area.
A particularly striking data point that I am somewhat personally biased towards is that the four members of the Chinese team won the top four spots of the International Olympiad in Informatics for the second year in the row, and the six members of their International Mathematics Olympiad team each got perfect scores.
The IOI result is particularly impressive to me because for scoring and time control reasons tying for first place is much rarer. This type of “uncapped” competition means that it’s often usually won by people with out-of-this-world obsession and natural talent. One day I’ll write a post in detail about the combination of extreme obsession and talent needed to do reasonably well (read: like me) at olympiads, and how much more extreme in both these aspects the rank 1 people are. Creating a process to find/motivate/train such people, even marginally, is absurdly hard. But evidently not impossible. I put this forward as the strongest case that China knows something very important about solving talent allocation problems that the West doesn’t. I think accusations that I overvalue olympiad results are almost certainly correct, but I also don’t think the weight should be zero. By the way the US IOI team looks like this:
Some people ask me why China is relatively bad at chess. I know a few people who went to the youth chess olympiad and they all tell me mentorship is crucial in chess (it isn’t in OI or MO). This seems like a plausible explanation.
I’m not particularly well informed on Taiwan so don’t have any strong opinions on it. I think that America should keep passing semiconductor subsidies since that has a pretty high likelihood of subsidizing my job if I don’t become a full time poaster.
AI risk is overrated because people are bad at counting step functions in general, and bad in counting step functions in intelligence in specific. For example, how many orders of magnitudes of data separate the average human from one standard deviation above? Some people like Francois Challot are trying to measure this, and well, here’s what he thinks about AI timelines:
There are some more general ways to measure this which begin to give you an intuition about how big these gaps are. I spoke about this with Tyler Cowen the first time I talked to him (NOT the podcast) and I honestly wish I wrote down what I said because I think I articulated it quite well. I think I said something along the lines of “Let’s say you just make an AI that progresses from the current step to the next step of the step function. How long would that take you? Expected value and lower bound?” I think those are the right questions to ask.
In general I think in the short and medium term (<= 30 years) the reaction to AI is much scarier than AI. That being said, there was a twitter poll asking whether there is at least a 5% existential risk due to AI in the next century and I said yes, but a century is a long time.
Canada is more like Italy than the US. Its politics are constantly shaken by comedically corrupt politicians. A good example is the WE charity scandal. Trudeau gave an almost 1bn contract for all the student job subsidies in a year to a “charity” that allegedly embezzled funds, allegedly bribed African charity commissions, and allegedly tried to assassinate one of its employees that allegedly bribed African charity commissions, accordingly to a well sourced report by a pretty far left web publication. They also really like SLAPP lawsuits. Allegedly.
We won’t get Meloni anytime soon. Pierre Polievre, the current Conservative Party leader is a normie libertarian, similar to Ronald Reagan or Ron Paul. He hasn’t done anything obviously corrupt yet, which is a good sign.
I really enjoyed National Conservatism Conference 3. The average quality of attendees was very high, even higher than EA Global DC. I call the people I agree with the most in that coalition the “political theory right”. They seem to have the clearest vision of how to win (both elections and policy), and then how to use that victory to make sure they win more in the future (both elections and policy). People I’ve had on the podcast from this group include Jeremy Carl, Malcolm Kyeyune, and Curtis Yarvin. I disagree with some of them on some things like Trump and immigration, but as usual the most important things to me about people are what are unique and correct from them.
The lesson from gay marriage was that people care more about personal stories than about big philosophical ideas. Contrary to activists’ beliefs, I think this will work against transgenderism. I am at the point where I know detransitioners in person, who probably don’t know anything about my politics. I think that Republicans will be able and very, very, very eager to do detrans Benghazi, that it will inspire thousands of compelling stories nationwide, and that it will work. What I’m less sure about is whether they will be smart enough to use this to gain positions of power within bureaucracies and media and to coordinate around using it to beat Democrats and Democratic-aligned media over the head like Democrats have done with their culture war wins. I think the political theory right will try, but that at the moment they don’t have enough power within the Republican party, which is still the party of undirectional lying. As things stand I think it will be a temporary bump in Republican favorability and little more.
I basically agree with the mainstream position. Stop spending, stop subsidizing demand and restricting supply, reverse student debt forgiveness, raise the interest rate. Also repeal the Jones act. Shoutout to FTNW guest Zvi Mowshowitz’s new lobbying firm.