Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Democratic Dysfunction May Get in the Way of Everything

Trump's election has been gravely concerning to me for a while now, and as a Bay Area resident the repeated clashes between antifas on the one hand and Milo and friends on the other hand are an additional alarm. As a believer in Enlightenment values who, perhaps conveniently, thinks that widespread belief in and consensus around those values leads to good things (such as economic prosperity and peace), I'm disturbed by what seems like an assault on reason from all sides. On the right, there's the rise of nativism, and on the left, there's an identity-politics reaction that risks enabling the right.12

This has me starting to worry that maybe democratic dysfunction could be an issue above all issues. This piece got me thinking recently, and this blog helped me sort through my thoughts. I tend to think of the most pressing issues in the world as those directly affecting various generally ignored or in some cases inherently disenfranchised groups, including nonhuman animals, beings who will be alive in the future, and humans marginalized by virtue of their nationality, criminal record (and tacitly, race), or place of residence. Redress on any of these issues, though, demands a functional and inclusive system of governance. Democracy seems to yield ever broader moral circles, and without democracy, that effect may shrink.

I'm mostly concerned about this in the U.S., which has outsized power and where institutions appear to be strong but weakening. In Europe, there appears to be less to worry about institutionally, but a lot to worry about in the rise of a similar sort of rightwing movement. (Macron, who talks like a modern day Frederick the Great minus the war, does give me hope. I hope his approval ratings rebound.)

What to do about all this? I'm not sure. Looking for answers is probably the first place.

Maybe one solution is for us to start talking about market-friendly approaches to addressing inequality?  I did not quite understand the severity of male unemployment over the past several decades. Earnings figures give some sense of this issue, but the economic declines are greatest among those who were already the worst off.

Large numbers of unemployed young men is a recipe for conflict and more tribalistic tendencies. That may explain a lot about national politics. Then again, this may be a vicious cycle, as politicians appear to use the disenfranchisement and polarization of the public to further erode the institutions that might be able to stem the tide.

In the U.S., there's generally a choice between redistribution done in a complex, bureaucratic way or no redistribution at all (or policies that are outright regressive). If there were the option of ample (far greater than today) equalizing policy that was done in the least distortionary way possible, maybe there could be some progress made that could trickle up to democracy writ broadly.

1. I mostly sympathize with the left on the basic issues here, but I think the contemporary left makes two main mistakes: (a) The left often frames issues in a way that enables mistaken views. White/male/straight people should make a special effort to listen to others' voices, but wrong for white/male/straight people not to be allowed to speak. (b) The left ignores the impact of its rhetoric on people who disagree. Activists on the left will often justify violence by appeals to how wronged the perpetrators of violence feel, while giving second fiddle to the empirical literature showing that violence is bad for a cause.

2. I would REALLY love some empirical evidence on whether the identity politics on either side drive the reaction on the other side. I've seen a number of pieces of evidence persuading me that Trump's election had a lot to do with racism. Polls find stronger correlations there than on economic issues, and initial negative reactions to immigration seem to drive far-right parties. I read that percentage increases in immigration also seem to drive votes for Trump. It seems pretty common sense that the sorts of politics on the left have a lot to do with histories of oppression there. What I'm curious about is whether the politics on the left drove the racism on the right and vice versa.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Yesterday's Nobel Prize Winner's Work Has More Radical Implications than Most Admit

Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize yesterday for his work in developing behavioral economics. Thaler led the way in unraveling the traditional view in economics that humans are rational decision makers who at least on average will satisfy their goals if left to their own devices. In fact, humans systematically deviate from rationality in ways that give rise to policy prescriptions. I wrote my college thesis on Nudge, the book he co-authored with Cass Sunstein to collect these ideas, and I think behavioral economics is one of the greatest recent inventions.

I think that the implications of Thaler's and others' work in behavioral economics goes deeper than what he and others admit. Experiments show that humans systematically deviate from rationality by being present-biased, prone to temptation, unfocused, and inordinately susceptible to social influence. Thaler points out that these are all things that can systematically stop us from achieving our goals.

They also raise serious questions, though, about whether humans can be said to have coherent goals at all. That's an important question because many of the judgments economists do or do not make on policies depend on the mid-20th century idea that one can help individuals satisfy their preferences but not make paternalistic judgments about those preferences or comparing different individuals. If humans don't have coherent goals (or don't necessarily have coherent goals), then any policy evaluation suddenly involves some degree of paternalism, and the line between policies that require moral judgments and those that do not evaporates.

Economist and blogger Tyler Cowen wrote an interesting piece on the use of nudges by conservatives, countering the predominant view that Thaler's ideas are roughly center-left. When it comes to the theoretical ideas undergirding economics, though, Thaler's findings suggest some quite radical changes. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Hidden Cost of Shifting Away from Poverty

The Center for Effective Altruism and effective altruists active in online spaces have for a while now been shifting away from a focus on poverty toward a focus on the far future and meta-level work (and if not that, animal advocacy). Interestingly, the rank and file of effective altruism does not seem to have made this shift (or at least completed it). I generally agree with CEA and the online community on this. I think it's a shift with solid reasoning behind it. I think there's reason to pause, though, and appreciate some of what EA loses by making this shift.

Much of what EA loses by making this shift has been discussed: things become very abstract in a way that may not be compelling to as many people, and there are concerns about an overly speculative cause.

I believe there are other concerns to be had, though. In particular, there is an immense amount that EAs can learn from the global poverty space and apply to other spaces, and I see very few EAs doing that. The things I see EAs missing out on are a drive toward rigor, institutional capital, and organization.

Drive toward rigor: The "randomista" movement in poverty alleviation illustrated many of the basic concepts that motivate EAs in a concrete and extremely persuasive way. What "randomista" economists such as Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer did in the 1990s and early 2000s was to make rigorous and scientific a field that had been dominated by sentimentality and false hopes. It's easy today to look back and see as obvious the idea of comparing randomly assigned treatment and control groups for poverty alleviation programs, but this was not obvious. This sort of thing was just generally not the way social science was done, because economics is messy, and studying it the way we study medicine would be too difficult. The randomistas blew that idea out of the water.

EAs are increasingly working in theoretical spaces similar to pre-2000s development economics. Animal advocacy, EA movement-building, and cause prioritization could likely learn from the nearly neurotic desire to be empirically rigorous that created the randomization movement in poverty alleviation. Things that appear unmeasurable may actually be measurable with the right amount of determination and inventiveness. Far future causes may be genuinely unmeasurable, although some of the ingredients to improving the far future (such as effectively recruiting technical researchers and persuading others) are not. To learn how to measure those things, though, we need to learn from the greatest, and the global poverty space has a lot to offer there.

Institutional capital: There is a large network of organizations and donors in the poverty space who share virtually all EA values except neutrality with respect to generation and species. Dean Karlan, one of the randomistas, regularly cites Peter Singer in his speeches. The World Bank, the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and many other powerful bodies are invested in evidence-based poverty work and place high value on shifting their funding based on where the evidence points rather than ideology.

As I said, these organizations do not share values many EAs hold with respect to the far future and anti-speciesism, but they do share most of the values that differentiate EAs from the rest of the world, and maintaining relationships with these organizations offers institutional, intellectual, and human capital.

Organization: The evidence-based organizations in the global poverty space now have two decades of experience researching effective policies and putting them into action. Evidence Action has efficiently spread deworming to a number of countries based on a growing body of evidence. There are established academic pipelines to get trained in this space for both research and for effective policymaking.

No doubt the greater amount of money in this area has a large role in its organization, but time plays a significant role as well. Other EA cause areas can speed up progress by learning from the organization that poverty alleviation charities and researchers have developed.

In short, I think that at the very least a larger number of effective altruists interested in non-poverty causes should develop experience in the poverty arena. The level of rigor and institutional knowledge in that area offers something to which other cause areas could aspire.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Another Reading of the Historical Record on Civil Rights

I wrote a blog post a week ago positing that civil rights era protests may not have been as effective as I'd previously thought. My basic claim was that confrontation seemed to kick up a storm, and it might have been possible to kick up less of a storm. I still think it probably would not have been possible, but the strength of my confidence was weakened.

There's an alternative reading, or at least an additional issue, that might be at play in the history of the civil rights movement: that the civil rights movement made serious strategic miscalculations in the specific changes it pushed for and accepted.

The story of racial justice since the civil rights movement is chronicled in a number of places, my favorite of which is Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations. Basically, while legally ordained segregation ended, a number of systems popped up that sustained nearly the same degree of racial segregation in the most intimate and important places: mass incarceration, residential segregation, and school-based segregation. All exist without explicit reference to race. The criminal justice system seeks to put people behind bars, and at every step of the way racial bias creeps in without notice. People choose where to live and send their children to school: white people prefer to live with white people, but nobody is explicitly banned. (In some cases, to be clear, things get more aggressive and explicit, but this is the general pattern.)

According to Pillar of Fire, at a number of points in the civil rights struggle, civil rights leaders considered and decided against a more aggressive push to integrate housing and schooling, particularly in Northern cities. Leaders likely saw this decision as a decision to work on those issues later. Had leaders anticipated the backlash that would result from the movement's confrontation, though, they might have decided otherwise: they might have seen that the opposition would take advantage of whatever issues were not addressed and made greater minimum demands in legislation.

It's impossible to know what exactly is the right course of action in a social movement, and difficult even to guess. The moral may be simply that when fighting for social changes, the specifics of the changes you ask for and accept are critical. Every stone left unturned can cost you for a very, very long time.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Did Confrontation Really Work in the Civil Rights Movement?

I've recently wrapped up reading Taylor Branch's Pillar of Fire, the book covering 1963-1965 in a three-part series on the civil rights movement. I've been reading through the series in large part for its insights for animal advocacy in particular and social and political dynamics in general. The civil rights movement is one of the most commonly cited pieces of evidence for why protests and grassroots activism work. (It's certainly overly cited in the animal advocacy context.) Despite that, I'm ending the book with doubts about whether confrontational activism worked even in the civil rights movement.

To be clear, Pillar of Fire and its prequel Parting the Waters document short-run nonviolent triumph over the forces of segregation: children pushing through firehoses in Birmingham and marches to the Selma voting registrar's office. The civil rights movement's discipline yields political rewards. The political party most allied to them, the Democrats, win an epic landslide in Congress and the White House. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes by a wide margin, to be followed by wide margins for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, which line up with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s increasing concern with poverty.

Yet the now-familiar successes of civil rights protesters that dominate the narrative of Pillar of Fire are laced with the foreboding growth of a white backlash that gathers more power over time. The middle portion of the book covers election year 1964, and the candidacy of Barry Goldwater–a sharp reaction to civil rights–feels eerily similar to Donald Trump's. Things nobody thought could be said are said, a socially forward Republican establishment is undercut, and strange alignments grow between regressive social forces. Goldwater is defeated, but his attack dog Ronald Reagan and the segregationist George H.W. Bush get their start with his election cycle. The civil rights movement succeeds in toppling Southern segregation, but the residential and educational segregation common to Southern and Northern states receive little redress. When King seeks to speak in Northern cities, his words about troubles in the South are celebrated. His words about troubles in the North are shunned and increasingly opposed.

Most strikingly, politicians begin to define their identities with respect to racial problems. Of course, politicians' taking on the fight against racism and defining their identities around it is a good thing, and Lyndon Johnson makes the matter a personal crusade. This is paired, though, with many politicians' taking the other side in the fight: opposing the civil rights movement, and doing so vocally. Southern politicians' growing support for the Republican party is explicitly built around common opposition to federal civil rights action. In short, the debate is polarized, and it is clear in the book where this polarization is headed (see the Southern strategy).

Until now I'd always seen civil rights protests of the 1960s as irrefutably effective. The concrete institutional changes they seemingly achieved ended explicit discrimination and legal segregation, and there are many signs of progress, including a sharp decline in hate crimes and rise in life expectancy. Those changes, though, do not necessarily prove the movement effective because we do not know what would have happened without civil rights demonstrations. In the 1960 election, there was ambiguity as to which party would be more supportive of civil rights: both parties made overtures to civil rights advocates. One can imagine a slower process ending in the same legal changes occurring. It seems clearer from Pillar of Fire that the drama and conflict of civil rights confrontations played a significant role in triggering a white backlash that led to the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and residential and educational segregation on a par with pre-civil rights America.

To be clear, I still think it would be the wrong conclusion to take from the historical record that civil rights era protests led to more backlash than success. At the very least, though, I'm significantly less bullish on actions I'd previously thought to be clearly effective.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Locals Thwart New Kansas Tyson Plant—Why Doesn't This Happen More Often?
In the annals of social movements, one of the ones that most clearly achieved its objectives was the wave of U.S. anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s. Across the U.S., those who lived near nuclear power plants picketed, blockaded, and disrupted construction of plants, including taking strategic advantage of the Three Mile Island incident to effectively end nuclear power across the U.S. Nuclear power in the U.S. now has a monumental stigma against it quite unlike other developed countries—nuclear power is even a primary source for France's energy infrastructure. (U.S. policy is likely mistaken, as nuclear power is relatively safe).

This week, Kansas offers some inspiration for animal advocates on a model we should consider. Tyson is being forced to back out of a huge new chicken facility after 2,000 out of 5,000 residents of neighboring town Tonganoxie protested last Friday over environmental concerns.

Tyson is scrambling and will likely find somewhere to build not too far from there, but if everywhere they went (and everywhere they already are), they had to contend with massive local protests, that would start to impose a serious cost of doing business on them. Beyond that, it would dramatize the issue in a public way, much as the controversial and indirect environmentalist tactic of targeting pipelines has. NIMBYism is hardly admirable on its own, but why not try to steer it in a productive direction? Let's start gathering our friends and family to make more Tonganoxies.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How Sharp a Turn Did Humans Take in the Industrial Revolution?
Luke Muelhauser at the Open Philanthropy Project has a thought-provoking post arguing that most of human history is roughly the same plodding along in boring conditions until the industrial revolution, in which productivity exploded, countering what people have gotten in history. You can see a visual illustration of this in the graph on the right.

I think this gets a whole lot right about the way history has gone. It irrefutably gets a lot right when you talk in terms of sheer magnitude of living conditions: the amount of good things multiplied many times over in a short period of time.
As one of the commenters pointed out, there could still be importance to earlier eras of history–potentially as much importance as in post-Industrial Revolution history. The reason is this: if our interest is in relative progress, then one man's flat line is another man's explosion. If human progress followed an exponential function, then when an "explosion" happens depends on the scale. There's an illustration of this on the left.

Indeed, the original post contains a graph suggesting that things started to take off around the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the right scale:

It turns out, some commentators crunched the numbers and found that there is more evidence to think that the course of human history really did change in kind and not just degree in the industrial era. If it changed in degree, then the change of degree is sharper than exponential, and history follows a "double exponential function" rather than an exponential one.

One thing that worries me, though, and that makes me think the course of history could be closer to exponential than we think, is the question of how accurate measurement has been–from material goods to war statistics–over the course of human history. Error likely increases in magnitude the further back you go, an exponential curve could easily appear more horizontal in the past, as the growth might still have been undetectable.

A number of "big history" type books (Guns, Germs, and Steel; Better Angels of Our Nature) do seem to suggest there was steady progress over the course of human history. Maybe I'm just having disconfirmation bias, or maybe there's reason to be slow to conclude that all of this history is so much flatter than it seems.

Monday, September 11, 2017

What I've Been Reading/Watching/Listening To

Here are some recent things I've been following and would recommend:

Pillar of Fire - The second part in a fascinating three-part series on the civil rights movement.
Tales of the City - Serialized fiction by Armistead Maupin in the 1970s on countercultural life in San Francisco.

The Unilateralist’s Curse: The Case for Principle of Conformity - A philosophy paper that hits on a surprising dilemma and argues for a conclusion most philosophers would not like.
The Resegregation of Jefferson County - A disheartening New York Times Magazine feature on the state of the South.
We need to nationalise Google, Facebook and Amazon. Here’s why - The title speaks for itself, but I think this is a topic that has had surprisingly little discussion relative to its importance.
How bosses are (literally) like dictators - A Vox piece on workplace democracy, or the lack thereof. Another rarely discussed issue with real importance.

Hacksaw Ridge - Mel Gibson's recent movie follows a Christian pacifist in World War II.
The Big Sick - A charming comedy about an Indian American, his white girlfriend, his immigrant family, and their trials.
In & Out - An uplifting comedy that gets at surprisingly deep truths about coming out of the closet.

Kieran Grieg interviewed by Michael Dello-Iacovo - Animal Charity Evaluators and tough questions in that space.
Dr Dario Amodei On OpenAI And How AI Will Change The World For Good And Ill - This one speaks for itself.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sympathizing with the Christian Dissenter in Hacksaw Ridge

I watched Hacksaw Ridge this weekend, Mel Gibson's movie about a literal Christian soldier during World War II who becomes a medic after completing basic training without picking up a gun. He's a Seventh Day Adventist, which makes him a pacifist (as well as a vegetarian).

I found myself empathizing and sympathizing with him more than I'd expected, including in moments that pertained less to his pacifism than to his religion–a puzzling predicament for me as an atheist Jew. Faith is the opposite of how I try to operate. I try to be skeptical of everything and believe things based on proof (all while knowing that this is unattainable).

Yet once I have arrived at a conclusion, and pending further evidence forcing me to revise my beliefs, I believe strongly in acting: whether it's direct activism as I've done in the past, research, or donating money. Acting requires commitment. Even when the evidence points one way, social norms often point the other way. Those social norms require something akin to faith to overcome. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Is Instinctive Conformism an Actually Rational?

Many of us grow up questioning conformity. Even those who don't go through a teenage rage phase get a good deal of anti-conformity in school thanks to the Enlightenment. It turns out some of the human tendency toward conformity may be rational, and for fairly subtle reasons.

Australia has a large population of wild rabbits from someone acting
I read up last week on the Unilateralist's Curse, the problem covered in a brilliant philosophy paper by Cambridge's Nick Bostrom (h/t Buck Shlegeris). The Unilateralist's Curse occurs when a member of a group sharing a common altruistic goal takes an action that hurts the goal because that member mistakenly believes the action to be helpful. If members of a group are each appraising the likelihood of an action being helpful and choosing whether to take the action independently, the action is more likely to happen than it should be.

An example is this: five people have discovered a technology with the potential to cause grave harm and are deciding whether to release it or not. Even if four out of the five decide it is too dangerous, all it takes is one person to release the technology, and so the technology is more likely to be released than it should be since people have mistaken judgment, and the more people there are in the group, the more likely one of them chooses to release it.

Bostrom recommends we resolve the problem by agreeing to a principle of conforming to groups in situations like the above. This of course goes against a modern tendency to praise defiance of groups and avoid doing something simply because others are.

I find it to be a particularly interesting example of the contrast between thinking of humans as rational agents and thinking of humans as biased agents. Harvard scholar Cass Sunstein, who comes more from a biases perspective, argues that groups make colossally irrational decisions because of humans' tendency toward conformity, which creates groupthink. Sunstein endorses policies to prevent groupthink. Yet here we have a philosopher arguing that for individuals to behave truly rationally, they actually should conform more than they otherwise would do.

Maybe, in fact, humans already are doing what Bostrom advises, but unconsciously. If people conform more than they should in a situation of solitary rational deliberation, we may actually conform to an optimal degree in the unilateralist's curse situation. If that's the case, acting consciously by a "principle of conformity" would not make as much sense as Bostrom advises, because it would push us over the optimal degree of conformity.

The optimal degree of conformity is hard to know. Are we all more rational than we've been led to believe?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Some Answers about Policy Outreach on Artificial Intelligence

I asked a question last week about whether efforts to ensure that artificial intelligence is developed safely should include public outreach. This goes significantly against the grain of most people working on AI safety, as the predominant view is that all that is useful right now is research, and even outreach to elites should wait. While I'm still not persuaded that public outreach would be harmful, I was moved toward seeing why it might be a bad idea from a few answers I got:

1) On the core issues, the policy asks have yet to be worked out for ensuring safe development of artificial intelligence. Nobody knows how we actually program AI to be safe, yet. We are so far from that there is little to say.

2) Regulation could tie the ethical AI developers' hands and let bad actors be the ones who develop AI. This argument closely resembles arguments about other regulations: industries flee countries with the most regulations, causing industries to move to less-regulated countries. In most cases I think it's still worth passing the regulation, but it's at least plausible that AI is a case where regulation right now would be bad, especially given (1).

3) Working on AI safety today is very different from working on a risk like climate change because climate change is already happening, and AI safety problems are almost entirely in the future. (There are some today, though.) Working on AI safety today is like working on climate change in 1900.

4) On the specific question of lethal autonomous weapons, it's not clear how harmful these are. A recent post on the effective altruism forum persuaded me that the effect of AI weapons is closer to ambiguous than I'd thought.

Still, I have reservations:

1) It seems there are policy goals that could be achieved in this area. One would be more coordination by the main actors. Another would be regulation on the things that are here today like lethal offensive autonomous weapons, even if a ban may not make sense. Getting the infrastructure in place to deal with these issues could pay off down the road.

2) I don't buy the idea that getting members of the public on board with AI safety would be counterproductive. Sure, members of the public have a worse time understanding and explaining things, but most people are somewhat literate, and scientific literacy is increasing. Polarization does not seem an inevitable result of careful, friendly public outreach–only confrontational outreach. Also, poor explanations and polarization can be outweighed by upsides.

At the end of the day, it does seem clear that this is a conversation to keep having. Outreach directly on the topic of superintelligence may not be helpful, but I still wonder about whether more preparations for the day that superintelligence is near might make sense.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Insects Are Going out the Window. How Should We Think About This?

Insect populations are rapidly declining according to scientists (and our cars' windshields):
An amateur German group called the Krefeld Entomological Society has been monitoring insect numbers at 100 nature reserves in Western Europe since the 1980s. Although there were the annual fluctuations they discovered that by 2013 numbers began to plummet by nearly 80 per cent.

Most people likely see this as a huge loss, particularly animal advocates. Environmentalists will of course see this as a huge loss given the effects on many ecosystems.

There's a growing body of literature, however, that suggests a different reaction (for instance, see Simon Knutsson). Much of it is done by lay people, but I hope to be able to study this question academically before long. If insects do feel pleasure and pain, then their lives look pretty lousy. In the vast majority of cases, "being an insect" means being born and promptly starving, being eaten alive, or dying in another horrific way.

It seems too early to take much action on insect suffering (besides research), but it is thought-provoking to wonder whether this trend is instead a merciful one.

Monday, August 28, 2017

I'm a City Dweller

I woke up living in an apartment building for the first time in my life. (I'd previously woken up in apartment buildings, but did not live in them.) Having spent most of my life in the suburbs and my high school years having envy for my friends' access to public transit, this is an interesting moment for me. I've always admired cities, and the moment has had me reflect on my place in one.

It had me thinking about cities and what I've read and learned about them. In college I did a program called FOCUS on New Haven that introduced us to urban politics and then took a course on New Haven and American cities based off the book City: Urbanism and Its End. There's a lot more to learn from reading about New Haven than many people think. Its history has a rare degree of historical documentation given the presence of Yale. It typifies the history of many formerly great American cities, going from a geographically blessed religious haven to an industrial behemoth (in this case guns and cotton gins) with a thriving arts scene and machine politics to a city mired in racial tumult and failed urban renewal programs to, now, an increasingly gentrified city buoyed by "meds and eds." I guess I'm part of this last wave, though I wish in lieu of segregation or gentrification cities could have genuine racial equity.

The Working Families Party took the Bridgeport Board of Education by storm when I was teaching, prompting a showdown with the more corporate, charter-friendly superintendent and school administration.
I never was particularly enthralled by urban politics until I started reading more about how many global problems really come down to local arrangements. I first saw this as a teacher in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where I was witness to the intense wars raging over education with children and their families in the center of it. Money, power, politics, and systemic racism all appear in striking form. You can read the story from the hopeful first day of school to the decline and scandal at the school.

I still struggle to understand what created the problems I saw in Bridgeport. The best explanations I can see all center on the racism at the core of American cities. This American Life captures the problem of school segregation in "The Problem We All Live With" and Ta-Nehisi Coates nails residential segregation and the concentration of poverty and oppression in black neighborhoods in "The Case for Reparations". Many other policies, from education reform to urban renewal efforts, are piecemeal attempts to get around the real problems of structural racism and generational poverty.

I see cities, though, as ultimately places of hope: places where, often, problems do get worked out. Steven Pinker discusses how the coming together of different people in cities has driven many declines in violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Cities are the places where social change tends to happen. There's salons during the Enlightenment era, labor movements in the 19th century, the Castro district in the gay rights movement, and the births of everything from recycling to prohibitions on smoking. I want to live a life of creating change, now and in the future, and cities more than anywhere else symbolize change.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

RIP Village Voice

The Village Voice is ending its print addition today and is being hailed for its long run. It was once introduced to me as a gay newspaper, which I think indicates the way people think about it. The funny thing is that the paper had a huge fight with gay rights activists in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots, which it referred to as "The Great Faggot Rebellion" and refusing ads with the word "gay" in them. Here's their article from the night of the Stonewall riots, a fun historical artifact:
Here, on the other hand, is their guide to 2017 Pride. Let's just say #SocialChange.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Does AI Safety (and the Effective Altruist Technocracy) Need More of a Grassroots?

The Future of Life Institute released a letter today to the UN’s Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) conveying concerns regarding lethal autonomous weapons (signed by Elon Musk and covered in The Washington Post and elsewhere). The concerns are grave:
Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.
I used to be unduly dismissive of far future concerns (as did many other EAs), but I've been persuaded by books like Superintelligence that getting artificial general intelligence right is one of the most pressing global problems. Given the danger an AI smarter than humans poses, preventing an AI from having lethal weapons at its disposal seems like a really, really big deal.

If that's the case, then I have a knot in my stomach about the circumstances surrounding the UN's decision-making on the matter. A ban on "killer robots" (not explicitly called for in the letter but something the WaPo and others took as implied) is not an easy policy for a government to stomach. What happens when the UN rejects the proposal and adopts an overly weak one that leaves the world as unprepared for killer AI as it was for nuclear weapons?

With many of the countries signing the convention being at least partially democratic, I wonder if public pressure is part of the answer. Even for non-democratic governments, public pressure can matter. I've previously made the case, which I believe still stands for pressing causes, that collective action is an effective way of creating change. Is there a need for a grassroots movement on this issue?

I know many people who have studied this more than me disagree, but there needs to be a way to translate expert opinion and knowledge into policy. How do we do this, and why is or is not a public movement part of the answer?

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Washington Post's Omission on Voter Suppression

The Washington Post this weekend had a sharply-worded editorial condemning efforts to disenfranchise voters with which I of course agree, but the editorial missed the crucial point. Here's the key paragraph:

Yet even if all 1,500 Confederate symbols across the country were removed overnight by some sudden supernatural force, the pernicious crusade to roll back voting rights would continue apace, with voters of color suffering its effects disproportionately. Pushing back hard against those who would purge voter rolls, demand forms of voter ID that many Americans don’t possess, and limit times and venues for voting — this should be a paramount cause for the Trump era.
All the forms of voter suppression listed deserve to be combatted, but the chief cause of disenfranchisement in the United States is one that is still rarely challenged: disenfranchisement of those with felony convictions. It's difficult to get a good estimate of the number of people prevented from voting by the most-talked-about forms of voter suppression, but estimates put the number in the hundreds of thousands or low millions. Felony disenfranchisement alone revokes the right to vote for 6.1 million people according to the Sentencing Project, including nearly 10% of African Americans. Of course, many if not most of those barred from voting would not vote anyway, but if even a third did, that would likely outweigh the number of people disenfranchised by all voter ID laws, voter roll purges, and other restrictions.

Felony disenfranchisement, in turn, has huge knock-on effects by enabling the continued incarceration of a massive portion of the American populace and a particularly large portion of the African American populace. Any effort to fight for voting rights in the 21st century that wants to do more than tinker around the edges needs to fight felony disenfranchisement.

Friday, August 18, 2017

How Should Animal Advocates Think About Anti-Big Ag Political Coalitions?

Pooh-poohing the weakness of mainstream political parties toward Big Ag is rightly a hobby for animal advocates. The laxness (or supportiveness) of U.S. federal and state agencies toward Big Ag is strikingly out of step with the American publicAnimal advocates should be heartened this week by a piece in The Nation that argues that Democrats can seize the current anti-corporate fervor to challenge the Cargills and Smithfields of the world. The wrinkles of the piece, though, lay out some more complex strategic challenges than animal advocates may notice.

The article introduces us to Joe Maxwell, "a fourth-generation hog farmer and former lieutenant governor of Missouri" who led the fight against Oklahoma's "Right to Farm" bill, which ended in a rout of Big Ag. A "Right to Farm" bill is well worth fighting. So too are efforts to up the ante on USDA regulations and enforcement.

Then the piece gets to the biggest goal:
But the biggest demand from Family Farm Action is for the government to reinvigorate the antitrust laws that ensure open competition and prevent collusion. A major case involved the rigging of a key benchmark price grocery stores use to buy poultry, which cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars. “If the legal definition of collusion doesn’t give the Department of Justice the ability to prosecute, then we need to change the laws,” Maxwell said. The organization also supports using the Sherman and Clayton Acts to break up concentrated agricultural markets.
The catch here should be evident to many: anti-competitive practices, collusion, and price gouging may generally sound like bad things, but one key effect of them is to decrease the amount of a "product" being produced: that is, they should lead to fewer animals being raised. For consumers, small farmers, and potentially environmentalists, anti-competitive practices are indeed bad, but for animal advocates it may be a good thing that agriculture is so monopolized.

That does not necessarily mean that animal advocates should hop off this political bandwagon. It may be worth trading this issue for others. Even on this demand, though, there are more wrinkles than the number of animals raised. Monopoly power gives the industry extra money with which to lobby politicians, push anti-animal policies (even laws penalizing animal advocates), and get away with more egregious abuses. That said, it's not clear how much government policies actually do prop up industry. The Open Philanthropy Project's Lewis Bollard looked into a few of these policies and found that they did not make as much of a difference as many of us think.

There may be a greater reason for a political coalition, though, that outweighs the concern about how such a coalition would affect the numbers of animals raised for food in the short term. An anti-Big Ag rural coalition may reshape the social landscape in ways that down the road may lead to greater change. Connecting animal advocates with greater resources and voters could pave the way for bigger battles ahead. Public mobilization around Big Ag may be far more critical to the future of nonhuman animals than the policies of today. If political coalitions can pave the way for public mobilization, they may be worth doing despite problems like those above.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What Should We Make of India's Cow Protection Movement?

"[O]n April 21, 2017, in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir state, a mob brutally attacked five members of a nomad cattle-herding family, including a 9-year-old girl, on suspicion that they were taking their cows for slaughter. A video posted on social media showed a group of men chanting slogans commonly used by BJP supporters, breaking down the family’s shelter, beating an elderly man with rods and sticks even as women begged for mercy, and finally setting the shelter on fire."

This episode is the latest in a trend sweeping India of "cow protection" that has won praise and accolades from some animal advocates, from up and down my newsfeed, and from Leonardo DiCaprio. The tide has swept high enough that India recently banned the sale of cows for slaughter. It's now reached the point at which the movement turns to violence, high on its own success.

What should animal rights activists make of this movement? The turn to violence is something to oppose given studies on 60s urban riots, French labor movements, and civil resistance more broadly. The campaign also deserves condemnation as an instance of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim bigotry (not all that different from the alliance between some European animal advocates and anti-Muslim forces).

What should we make, though, of the campaign's impact on animals, as well as campaigns to, say, tax cow flesh because of its impact on climate change?

Many animal advocates are inclined to praise such achievements as incremental changes that lead down the path to protection for all animals. I think this view is flawed. While I'm inclined to look at the path of history as bending toward justice, that does not mean that any policy change necessarily does so. To know whether a policy change will have the right effect, we should think of the way it affects political forces at play in shaping policy.

In this sense, "cow protection" has a few effects relevant to animals:

1) It satisfies the forces pushing for cow protection or a cow flesh ban. In India's case, this is primarily Hindus, although American environmentalists have provided support as well. By satisfying these forces, those forces will be less willing to advocate for a broader policy that includes the goal of banning cow flesh in the future.

(In India's case that may not be this concerning, as an alliance with Islamophobic nationalists is probably not an appropriate move for animal advocates, but with environmentalists this should be a serious concern.)

2) It sets a cultural signal - although this could go both ways. It says that banning animal products acceptable, which can make other bans more plausible, but it also says that cows are a particularly bad animal to exploit, which actually goes against what we should do based on the sheer numbers of animals exploited.

3) It leads to people eating fewer or no cows and eating chickens, fishes, and pigs instead. Given that a "serving" of chicken, fish, or pig flesh contains far more suffering than a serving of cow flesh, this means more suffering and death by more animals. Perhaps because of environmentalist arguments against eating cows, American cow consumption seems far more troubled than American chicken consumption.

By my assessment, the longer-term picture is bleak, although slightly ambiguous, and the short-term picture is less ambiguously bad. Given that, animal advocates should not support the cow protection movement.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trump's Supreme Court Nominee May Be the Most Important Thing Trump Does to Animals

Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on a fishing expedition with Antonin Scalia
As much as Trump promises to empower the most extreme voices on civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and immigration, animal advocates have long had good reason to fear the Trump administration. Trump's ties to notorious ag empresarios and persecutors of activists from Forrest Lucas of Protect the Harvest to Bruce Rastetter of "ag gag" fame give cause for worry. Despite this all, potentially the most important - that is, damaging - nomination for animals is Trump's Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.

Why the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court touches on all sorts of issues - LGBTQ+ and women's rights, voting rights, civil liberties, federalism, etc. - but when has it ever played a major role in animal rights? How could we even predict how a Supreme Court nominee would rule?

Trump with nominee Neil Gorsuch
The thing to note is that while nominations, personal ties, regulations, and even laws come and go, it takes a much longer time for a Supreme Court nominee to come and go. At 49, Gorsuch is the youngest nominee to the court in 25 years. He will likely be on the court for 30 years at least - and possibly up to 40 given his health and excellent healthcare. The question is not what cases are before the court today, but what cases will be before the court in the next 30 - or 40 years.

Based on the answers I've heard from leaders of our own movement, most of us think we will achieve something close to animal liberation, or at least the end of factory farming, in that timeframe. This is not just DxE; at a panel at last year's Effective Altruism Global x in Boston, Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, Jon Camp of The Humane League, and Sharon Nunez Gough of Animal Equality all offered a similar timeline. Add to this that there has not been a major movement for the rights of an oppressed class - not civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, disability rights, or LGBTQ+ rights - that avoided the court, and it becomes exceedingly likely that our movement will have a vital, life-and-death (or rather life-and-mass murder) case under Justice Gorsuch and anyone else nominated any time soon.

What sorts of cases might come before the court? There are an array of possibilities, and there likely will be an array of cases, but here are two:

A screenshot from "Unlocking the Cage"
-Cases regarding the legal standing of animals and rights owed to animals under pre-existing laws. The Nonhuman Rights Project, should it succeed in getting lower state courts to grant nonhuman animals limited rights and legal personhood, will likely see repeated appeals and could very well make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Indeed, that seems like a necessary step to get the sort of sweeping precedent NhRP would like. Down the road, one could imagine ideas previously seen as ridiculous - like PETA's case against orca slavery under the 13th amendment or a case for equal protection under the 14th amendment - come before the court. Courts are often critical to the protection of groups with less political power from a tyrannical majority. Who has less political power than nonhuman animals?

-Cases regarding the degree to which regulations at both the federal and state level can stand. The Supreme Court has a lousy track record here, having struck down a California animal welfare law, saying that it was pre-empted by a weak federal law, the Federal Meat Inspection Act. In a unanimous ruling, conservatives achieved their anti-regulatory goals and liberals achieved their goal of strengthening the federal government all at the expense of animals, which neither side currently cares about. Hopefully the court's liberals will start to care about animals more as time goes on, but the more conservative the court is to start, the more difficult the climb will be.

There are other types of cases we likely can't imagine that may surprise us, and the best way to prepare for unforeseen cases is to have the best people on the court possible.

Given that we know next to nothing about Gorsuch's views specific to animals and basically never know anything about a nominee's specific views on the matter before they are confirmed, how are we to judge?

Well, despite all the talk in the animal rights movement about how animal rights and other progressive views do not imply each other and vice versa, it's generally true that the more progressive someone is, the more supportive they'll be of animal rights. Groups like HSUS argue that animal rights is a nonpartisan issue while others point out that many animal rights activists are xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, or sexist.

The truth is that while these both may be true, progressives and people who identify as Democrats tend to be more supportive of animal rights. Animal rights shares an intellectual kinship with progressive values, particularly the sorts of progressive values held most deeply by those trained in reason and logic, i.e. lawyers and judges. So while liberals on the court are failing animals, there's a lot more hope that they'll come around. Another conservative on the court, on the other hand, is a very bad thing for animals - for decades and decades.

Update: Another point worth noting is that Gorsuch has critiqued Peter Singer's utilitarian philosophy at length on the topic of euthanasia. This is yet more reason to think that Gorsuch will be unsympathetic to animal advocates. Thanks to Harrison Nathan for pointing this out.
Want to take action? Call 202-224-3121 and ask to be put through to the Senator for your state. Tell them to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Vox's Piece Against Bill Gates's Chicken Donation Misses A Major Externality

Economist Chris Blattman (a Principal Investigator where I work, Innovations for Poverty Action) writes an on-point criticism of Bill Gates's push for donating chickens at Vox, but he misses a major cost. It's a cost that many of the forefathers of modern welfare economics, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill noted well ahead of their time. The cost is the lifelong suffering and complete obliteration of individuals - chickens - who possess all the morally relevant characteristics of economic agents for welfare economists to consider them.

There are many reasons why economists ignore animal suffering when analyzing agriculture. One is likely simple speciesism. There's a deeper set of reasons that I think make economists ignore animal suffering, though, and they show how far modern economics has strayed from its roots in many ways. The reasons start with this: a refusal to make a "moral" judgment.

The basic premise of modern welfare economics is that there is no way to compare how well-off two people are (what's called an interpersonal comparison of utility). This belief stems from mid-20th century economist Lionel Robbins. Of course, the belief is absurd on its face: the idea that there is no way to compare the happiness of a poor Nigerian family with an American billionaire is ridiculous. Economists have leaped from the idea that there is no way to prove or know that the billionaire is better off to the idea that there is no way to have high confidence.

In practice, few economists believe what is taught as a premise in Econ 101. Professor Blattman and just about every economist I've worked with at IPA is in that field precisely because of a belief that people in poor countries are worse off than most people in wealthy countries. Just about every measure of overall economic well-being, like GDP or the poverty rate, lumps an imperfect measure of people's well-being together and assumes that well-being is in fact comparable.

The residue of the idea that you can't compare well-being, though, sticks around, and the complete exclusion of animals from economic calculations is its most radical implication. From the perspective of an economist, a dog or a chimpanzee is no different from a chair. This flies in the face of scientific consensus. The scientific consensus is hardly revolutionary: from Greco-Roman to Judeo-Christian to Buddhist to Hindu thought, the view that animals deserve moral consideration is ancient. The scientists merely confirmed what we all could have presumed.

Interestingly, the reasons to care about animals in economics extend even further: many animals have the characteristics of an economic agent. There's an entire field of animal welfare science that, while it is still rife with bias and support for hurting animals, takes as its basic assumption that animals express preferences, an assumption that economists know as the weak axiom of revealed preference in the human case. Neurological studies of what goes on in animals' brains when they make these choices suggest that this is accurate: where we have measured it, animals' reward and decision-making systems parallel humans' brains when making decisions.

In light of these findings, it is indefensible to classify animals in the same category as furniture in economic analysis. If we do that, then the costs of a program like Bill Gates' stack up immediately. Chickens are generally killed as babies at a fraction of their age. In poor countries like those where he will give these chickens, animals are often slowly hacked to pieces when it comes time for slaughter. Before their death, as anyone who's walked the streets in a developing country will know, birds are confined in wire cages little better than American battery cages (something Bill Gates himself is working to combat).

If that's not enough, though, think about this: at a time when industrialized countries are realizing the toll of factory farming, the giant animal suffering factories of America and Europe are desperately seeking to expand in developing countries. What better way to spread the idea of mass animal product consumption than teaching people to raise chickens? Gates is condemning not just the chickens he distributes but generations of chickens beyond them to lives of misery.

All this suffering is not worth $5 per bird, and that's the optimistic estimate of a chicken "donation" program's effectiveness.
We can quibble about the human costs and benefits of a program like Gates', but the animal cost is glaring.

Professor Blattman writes of some imaginary Gates advisor, "They sold you on the benefits, and didn't tell you how much it all costs." When it comes to animals, the same could be true for anyone who's studied economics and agriculture. When it comes to animal agriculture, economists have been sold on the human benefits but neglect the animal costs.

Friday, January 6, 2017

2016 Was a Good Year and a Bad Year for Humanity, Depending on How You Count It

Though the end of 2016 was greeted by most people I know with a sigh of relief and by pundits as being the end of a very bad year, people who look carefully at the evidence on social trends have been pushing back. Economist Max Roser and representatives of Innovations for Poverty Action (where I work part-time) both recently wrote columns in the Washington Post about why 2016 was, in fact, a great year for humanity. Worldwide poverty continued its massive decline, and there was no great increase in violence despite what people seem to think, leaving us still far ahead of humanity and pretty much any time in the past when it comes to the likelihood of dying a violent death, as psychologist Steven Pinker chronicles in the Better Angels of Our Nature and a more recent interview. All in all, humanity is likely doing better now than we were a year ago, in a continuation of an ongoing trend.

Odd, though, that so many people think things are so bad. At the end of 2015 there was a similar debate following the rise of ISIS (which has continued), the Ebola outbreak (which has largely been tackled), and so on. In 2015, I was inclined to agree with the view that the year had actually been a good one without reservations, but in 2016 I can't. What seems to be going on in many of these conversations is that the public looks at how much violence they see, and the public says, "too much." Then, academics look at how the amount of violence is changing and say, "but it's getting so much less bad!" The unanswered question is whether that change is likely to continue or revert: are things continuing to get better at the same rate, and does it look likely that this will continue to happen, or not? On that metric, I think 2016 was probably a very bad year.
Was 2016 like this...?
...Or like this?  
The rise of nationalist populism in the West, including Brexit, Trump, Italy's referendum, and more, is a marked change, as far as I can see, from the past several decades at least. Not only is it a marked change, though - it's a change from basically all the good trends that have led to a striking decline in violence over the course of human history (again, see Steven Pinker). It's a shift away from international cooperation toward narrow tribalism, away from norms against violence to norms increasingly accepting of it, away from feminism and ideals of equality toward hyper-masculinity and seductive hierarchy, and a shift away from any patina of economic reasoning toward instinct-driven policy.

Now, there are optimistic signs outside of rich Western countries - from Estonia to Ghana - but there are also countries like Brazil and the Philippines whose leaders make Trump seem like a wise statesman.

Worse than anything, though, is that the current trends seem to increase the probability of black swans - rare, catastrophic events with the ability to destroy or inflict misery on vast numbers of people and that books like The Better Angels of Our Nature probably don't quite account for. Trump seems determined to make nuclear war more likely and put exactly the right people around him to make it happen. His team's indifference to climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence does not bode well for other technical risks like an extremely harmful artificial intelligence or nano- or biotechnology run amok.

A few bad leaders is well below the norm for world history, but the increase in leaders bad in such particularly meaningful ways is cause for concern. 2016 may have been a good year for humanity in terms of sheer improvements, but it also brought signs that we might get a lot fewer improvements - and maybe some catastrophic steps backward - in the years ahead. To me, that's what's most striking - and terrifying - about 2016.