Cash and Global Poverty

As a person trying to find a way to devote time and effort to charitable causes, there are a lot of different things to consider before making a decision: Where should I volunteer? Where should I donate? Where should I work?

But here, I want to examine a much smaller question: If I was committed to giving money, right now, to charitable causes focusing on global poverty, where should I donate?

I am not saying that donation is the best way to do charity, nor that people should donate right now, nor that global poverty is the best use of your money or time. But if we granted all of these assumptions, what do we do next?

This brings us into the domain of the Randomistas, who look carefully at different interventions aimed at helping people in developing countries. This is harder than it may seem, since many well meaning efforts can go awry. Some programs can have positive effects:

Individuals who received 2 to 3 additional years of childhood deworming experience an increase of 14% in consumption expenditure, 13% in hourly earnings, 9% in non-agricultural work hours, and are 9% more likely to live in urban areas.

But some can be disappointing:

A randomized evaluation in rural Kenya finds, contrary to the previous literature, that providing textbooks did not raise average test scores

A main issue here is that doing good experiments is extremely hard. Properly controlling trials, correcting for confounding effects, and ensuring that positive results due to random chance requires a dedicated set of researchers. Additionally, the effects of different interventions are very sensitive to context. Programs that work in southeast Asia may be useless in sub-Saharan Africa.

But there is one intervention which we have a lot of evidence for and is very robust: cash transfers. Cash transfers have demonstrated efficacy in dozens of places with different wealth levels, cultures, and governance. Few interventions are so well supported by evidence and so robust to changes in context. Additionally, cash transfers often beat other interventions.

This robustness is heartening because things are changing all the time, especially in the developing world. For example, we wouldn’t want to buy a bunch of malaria bednets and then have a vaccine for malaria be developed. As economies grow and cultures change, peoples needs will change. With cash transfers, recipients are able to adapt to changing circumstances, unlike with other interventions.

In other words, poor people can buy what they need instead of receiving goods chosen on their behalf. In this framing, providing goods like bednets or textbooks is somewhat paternalistic; this should raise our skepticism of the benefits of these programs relative to cash transfers.

Additionally, many other interventions require research to determine if they are effective and to determine how best to scale up. Collecting evidence is expensive, and this reduces the percent of the money which actually reaches the poor.

Following this line of reasoning, if we actually asked people in developing countries whether they wanted to continue randomized trials or to receive cash from those trials, what would they choose? Has anyone asked this question before? I would find it a little concerning if no one has.

I don’t want to overstate this point because the value of fine-tuning an intervention can be higher than the cost of research, but the cost of new research does militate in favor of already-well-understood cash transfers.

While giving cash is better than a lot of other interventions, what about the very best interventions? Many of Givewell’s top charities might outperform basic income, so why not just give to those?

Cash has other benefits beyond what is typically studied. First, giving many people cash can incentivize entrepreneurship and innovation in poor countries. By increasing the size of the market in poor countries we can greatly increase the rate of innovation directed towards markets in the developing world.

Currently, there is a lot of focus on western engineers making products for people in poor countries. But this is somewhat backwards, how do western engineers know what consumers in poor countries need? Like other interventions, this is a somewhat paternalistic approach, deciding what innovations to provide to other people instead of allowing them to invent on their own. What would poor people build if they had more cash to fund their own enterprises?

In addition to this, the existing inequality between rich and poor countries means that research is skewed towards the needs of rich countries. More capital in developing nations will encourage new inventions tailored to emerging markets, many of which will be unexpected from a western viewpoint.

Second, utilizing enough cash may successfully remove a poverty-trap. Oftentimes local institutions in poor countries make it hard to move to opportunity, start a business, or obtain enough capital to grow. This confluence of different factors which prevent personal growth needs to be addressed for a program to have a lasting impact. It is possible that cash transfers might fix this problem in some cases, allowing recipients to get “over-the-hump” and on the path to self sufficiency.

Third, consistent income to poor countries might help raise mobility inside and outside of those countries. For example, when the GDP per capita of poor countries rises, emigration rates increase. This has beneficial knock-on effects for the global economy, moving workers to more productive areas. Higher mobility between countries is also an important step towards open borders and the Archipelago.

Fourth, growing economies can help support better institutions in developing countries. Larger incomes, increased mobility, and higher innovation lead to higher tax revenues for governing bodies, allowing them to fund public goods, enforce laws, and build functional institutions. Additionally, having tax revenue derive from citizens themselves makes these institutions more accountable to the people, the opposite of a resource curse. With financial resources and basic needs met, citizens can engage politically, building better governance.

These arguments imply that the effects of cash transfers may be better than their already impressive track record makes it seem.

But these warm feelings towards cold hard cash suggest a new challenge: What about interventions which raise income? For example, interventions such as deworming may increase lifetime income by 13% in the long term. This would provide a greater increase in income than simply using the money for cash transfers.

Though the evidence on the long term income effects of these programs is sparse (and debatable), I think it is fair to consider the least convenient possible world where these programs really do increase income more than straight cash.

In this case, I have to concede the point: if we had robust evidence that these programs outperformed cash transfers in net present value terms, they would necessarily be better than cash transfers, for all of the reasons presented above, in addition to the quality of life improvements that these programs provide independent of money.

But this exception is part of a larger rule: looking at the direct effect on peoples wallets should be one of the most important outcome measures for any intervention in the developing world. Money has the power to directly fix many of the issues that poor people face, whereas changing health or education levels are of value because of their secondary effects on quality of life and income.

I think for all of these reasons, direct cash transfers are (still) an underrated tool for alleviating global poverty. This passes a common-sense test: if poverty is defined by a lack of money, why not just give some away? Considering income effects is a quantifiable way to make direct comparisons between diverse interventions, and this should be a major part of the toolkit in development research. In addition, more research should investigate the long term financial effects of different programs.

Of course, charitable organizations are loathe to focus on these effects of their interventions, since they do not give donors a warm fuzzy feeling. “Our charity increased incomes by 13% twenty years in the future” is a result only an accountant could love. But, for the reasons given here, the financial effects of different programs should be on the forefront of altruist’s minds, if not their hearts.

Some Notes on Writing Frequently

Since I am about 15 posts into this blog, I want to step back and review what helps me write regularly and offer some advice to others looking to start a blog. I see plenty of advice on how to write well or maintain a blog long-term, but I want to provide assistance to someone who is starting a blog and trying to develop the habit of writing something regularly, even if it is not of high quality.

I don’t have insight on how to write well, or obtain international acclaim, or to gather a following, but I can cover what has kept me motivated so far. Consider this approach as a way to bridge from “not writing at all” to writing something (anything!) once a week. Hopefully, once you have a habit of writing, you (and I) can move to producing better writing.

Lets dive in.

Essentially, you want to have a pipeline of good ideas that you develop into posts depending on your moment-to-moment interests. You should have several things at each stage to avoid boredom. I have 4 levels of writing development:

  1. A messy list of things you might want to write about. Add to this list immediately any time you have a new idea for something to write. I use a technique I have detailed before to make this as effortless as possible.
  2. An organized list of important posts that you definitely want to write about. These might be sequences on a particular topic which you have planned out or independent posts which you haven’t gotten around to writing. Oftentimes these are rough ideas from stage 1 which, after considering for a while move to this “to do” list.
  3. Messy outlines and drafts. This could simply start as a list of items in your outline, a summary, or a handful of good sentences that you thought up. I try to have 1-3 of these at any one time.
  4. Drafts which you are editing. These are much more complete, but still have sections to fill out. I typically have ~2 of these at any one time.

The main idea with this pipeline is to be able to work on any level of the hierarchy whenever you feel like it. You might have a couple great ideas for posts: write them down! You might feel like editing a particular paragraph: go for it! The key is to have several things running in parallel so you can work on what momentarily interests you. Inspiration in writing is so fickle that it is important to use your effort when you are feeling productive rather than forcing yourself to write. This way, writing becomes a rewarding task you keep coming back to; this is essential to forming a habit.

Like the hierarchy of writing stages, it is also important to have several different things to work on within each stage. This way, even if you are tired of looking at a particular post, you have plenty of other pieces to put your momentary energy into.

When it comes to transforming items from #3 to #4 it is important to write shitty first drafts. Don’t fret over a bad paragraph and to skip sections you don’t feel like writing; it is more important to produce a volume of work now and refine it later.

Shouldn’t there be a “Stage 5” where you spend time editing a post to make it perfect? No! This kind of perfectionism can prevent you from posting often and forming a habit. The main goal here is to make writing second-nature to you, and, once that happens, you can work on other writing skills.

The corollary to this is that you should focus on getting several posts published at the beginning even if they are bad. In other words, if you write nothing and post nothing, you will have nothing to work with, if you write crap and post crap, you will at least have something to refine and you will have developed a habit of writing. This is much better than a few really good posts.

Some other notes:

  • Even if I am not feeling like it in-the-moment, I try to at least visit my writing setup regularly. On several occasions, I have not felt like writing, opened a draft anyways, noticed a flaw, fixed it, added a sentence, lost track of time, and suddenly the post is done! Since writing productivity changes so often, it is important to give yourself many opportunities to be productive.
  • Set really small goals like “start an outline” or “write one sentence”. Just like the practice of visiting your writing regularly, achieving a small goal can give you the motivation to do a lot more writing. You might start writing a single sentence for a post and then find yourself writing an outline for another post, for example.
  • Subtract, don’t add. Cutting out paragraphs makes editing easier, and smaller posts are easier to finish. Delete drafts and outlines you are not happy with to avoid working on pieces that bore you. Like before, it is more important to build a habit and stay motivated to write, rather than make sure you have been comprehensive.

Hopefully this approach will help someone else start a blog, but remember that there is a lot of other writing advice out there. Make sure to try different approaches and see what works for you.

Innovations for Fertility

Many people argue that fertility rates are lower than they should be and that society is approaching a phase of where population begins to decline, ending our main source of economic growth and prosperity. To this point, fertility rates are already below replacement in many developed countries and are rapidly decreasing in developing countries, creating potential demographic problems as the population of countries (like Japan) age quickly.

But how do we get more people?

There is an existing literature examining the reasons for the decline in fertility along with policy remedies. But I want to take a different tack and look at what technological advances might get populations in developed countries growing again.

This is important because innovations which increase fertility seem understudied compared to their potential benefits. This is probably due to the fact that the choice to have children is a very private topic. Additionally, many of the technologies in this space have associated cultural taboos. This makes it even more valuable to look for progress here, since not enough people have actually looked.

Admittedly, some of these innovations may seem strange in the modern day (and for some, it is hard to imagine them reaching cultural acceptance), but they are still worth considering. The strangeness of a new technology has rarely stopped the next generation from adopting it, and, even in our era, many strange technologies have become widely accepted, so who are we to judge?

Note that innovations which increase overall fertility involve reducing the global costs associated with having a baby. These range from the literal monetary costs of raising a child, to non-monetary costs (such as health risks) associated with childbirth.

Easier Pregnancy and Delivery: Pregnancy and childbirth are already a huge investment of time, money, and discomfort. This means that finding ways to reduce the difficulty and complications involved in bringing a child to term reduces the associated cost. Simply increasing global access to high quality obstetric care would lead to massive reductions in birth complications and child mortality.

Better Infertility Treatment: Finding ways to help infertile couples conceive has long been a topic of research. Stem cell therapies might help create viable sperm or eggs in people who do not produce gametes normally. Taken further, utilizing stem cells to generate sperm or egg cells would allow much older couples to have children via gestational surrogacy. The research in this direction seems promising.

Scalable Childcare and Education: Some of the predominant financial costs of raising a child stem from the costs of childcare and education down the road. Finding ways to care for and educate children at a higher quality and lower price would dramatically reduce the financial burden of raising a child. Perhaps robotic caretakers and online education will provide solutions to this problem.

Cheap, Easy IVF: IVF is not only an important treatment for many infertile couples, it is also a prerequisite for gestational surrogacy. However, IVF cycles are very expensive and have high failure rates. Innovations which make IVF cheaper and more effective would have downstream benefits for many other technologies here.

Long-Term Sperm and Egg Storage: This would allow couples to expand the window of possibility for having children long past the window when they are fertile. By storing eggs and sperm over the long term, couples can wait until they are personally and financially ready to have children via surrogacy.

Embryo Selection: By sequencing the genes of several embryo’s, parents can then select an embryo for implantation in the womb. This gives parents more control over the offspring they have and reduces some of the uncertainties associated with having a child, thus reducing the overall cost.

Sperm-Egg Inter-conversion: This would allow same-sex couples to have children who share both of their genes, opening up childbirth to a large number of couples who are typically excluded from it. This would involve either swapping the genes of a sperm into an egg (so that gay couples could have children) or putting the genes of an egg into a sperm (so that lesbian couples could have children). It would also require changing the sex chromosomes in the egg/sperm appropriately (since a child cannot have 2 Y chromosomes).

Gene Editing: The ability to edit an embryo’s genome is a fraught topic in bioethics circles. But regardless of whether it is deemed ethical, the existence of cheap, legal genome editing would increase the choice parents have when deciding to have a child. At an extreme, this would give parents precise control of their child’s attributes. Additionally, combining large tracts of DNA would also allow for children with more than 2 genetic parents.

Cloning: Like with embryo selection and gene editing, the ability to create a genetic copy of someone gives parents more choice. In fact, cloning removes the need to have a second genetic source involved in childbirth and reduces the uncertainties associated with the sexual recombination of genes.

Artificial Wombs: Being able to carry a child to term without the need for a human mother would drastically reduce the obstacles to having a baby. This technology conjures up images of Huxley’s Brave New World, where each citizen is grown in a vat before being artificially birthed. Regardless, we are far from being able to implement this technology.

What might be some of the side effects of these inventions? Technologies which allow for the selection of different genes can inadvertently cause a reduction in global genetic diversity. Because genetic diversity is important for overall population resilience, it might make sense to institute a gene-selection tax to prevent children’s genomes from being too heavily selected. Other technologies (such as stem cell production of gametes) could actually increase overall genetic diversity since they give new couples the chance to have children.

Of the listed innovations, improvements to IVF and production of gametes from stem cells seem like the most important possibilities to study in the near term. IVF is complimentary to many of the other innovations on this list while stem cell therapies would make it possible for virtually everyone to have a child. In terms of reducing costs, making education and childcare cheaper would have the largest effect, though arguably policy interventions in housing or parental tax breaks would have a bigger influence on overall costs.

Each of these innovations gives people who are typically excluded from having children the chance to have kids of their own. I would argue that this is a good thing, not just for the parents and the child, but for society as a whole.

Counterfactual Contracts

Imagine coming home from work (back when that was a thing). As you walk in the door, your roommate says “Hey! I bought you a burrito for dinner, mind paying me back?” Some possible responses:

“Thanks! That’s exactly what I wanted for dinner, I will gladly pay you back.”

Or:

“What?! I hate burritos and you know that, I’m not paying you.”

Or:

“I normally love burritos, but I don’t want one right now. You couldn’t have known that though, so I will pay you for it anyways.”

The first two responses seem sensible (except for the not-liking-burritos part), but what’s up with the last one? Why buy a burrito you don’t want? And why is your roommate buying you things without asking?

1.

Let’s move to a simpler example. What if a strange man approached you and said “If you give me $1, I will give your friend Alice $3”? It seems like a good deal, so you call Alice and she agrees to split the money she receives with you. Now, you can both make a profit.

What if the strange man tells you that you can’t call Alice before accepting the deal? Now, you have to infer whether or not Alice wants $3 and make a decision on her behalf.

I see several possible outcomes here.

  1. If you decide to give $1, Alice might be happy with your decision after-the-fact. She might even agree to pay you $1 to compensate you for what you paid. Even better, she might split the money with you so that you can both make a profit.
  2. Alternatively, if you give $1, Alice might be mad at you for making assumptions about what she wants.
  3. If you decide not to give $1, Alice might be disappointed that you didn’t take the deal.
  4. If you decide not to give $1, Alice might be glad that you didn’t take the deal because she does not like people making assumptions about what she wants.

This problem of making decisions on someone else’s behalf without being able to communicate with them is what I call a counterfactual contract. Essentially, you are trying to figure out what they would agree to if you actually could talk to them.

These counterfactual deals can be quite complicated, which is why I refer to them as “contracts”. To make the right choice, you not only need to know what they want, but also how they would respond to the fact that you made a choice for them.

The burrito example is just another version of the problem I just presented. Your roommate tried to decide whether or not to buy you a burrito, based on what they know about you, and without communicating beforehand. They guessed that you would appreciate receiving a burrito (and pay them back), so they bought one on your behalf.

What is the right thing to do in these situations?

Being the person acting on Alice’s behalf is pretty easy. If you have a good understanding of her needs, just choose what you think she would prefer, otherwise, don’t do anything on her behalf.

In the burrito scenario, the statement of the counterfactual contract looks like this: “If I predict Alice will appreciate me buying her a burrito, I will buy her a burrito.”

You could also be a little more selective, requiring that Alice pay you back for your efforts: “If I predict Alice will appreciate me buying her a burrito and will pay me back, I will buy her a burrito.”

In other words, when acting on Alice’s behalf, you draft up a contract you think she would agree to, and you find out later if she actually appreciates it. If Alice agrees to the contract after-the-fact then both parties follow its terms. If she disagrees with it, then she is under no obligation to participate (e.g. pay you back).

What kinds of contracts should Alice agree to?

I think its clear that Alice should reward people for making good choices on her behalf. That is, if she appreciates the contract after-the-fact, she should stick to it. This establishes Alice’s reputation as someone who is willing to honor these kinds of beneficial deals, opening up opportunities for her.

Conversely, she should punish people for making bad choices on her behalf. Alice has no obligation to accept any counterfactual contracts, and she certainly shouldn’t agree to contracts which are net negatives for her. If she agreed to all sorts of bad deals, people would quickly take advantage of this.

This thinking extends to gambles as well. If someone bought a good (but risky) investment on Alice’s behalf, she should reward that (regardless of whether it worked out), if they buy a bad investment (e.g. a lottery ticket), she should punish that.

What if someone is mistaken about your needs? For example, someone might know you like ice cream, but they buy you strawberry ice cream when you would have preferred chocolate. I would argue that even in this case you should generally reward people’s good intentions. Note that there is a principal-agent problem here, you want to incentivize people to make good choices on your behalf while not being too lenient.

Overall, you want to be the kind of person who rewards people trying to benefit you, even if they are somewhat mistaken about your needs. If you didn’t do this, you would miss out on opportunities where someone wants to help you but doesn’t because they don’t think you will reward them after-the-fact. Essentially, you are making the act of helping you less risky for other people. This corresponds to the last response in the burrito scenario.

Why does this matter? When do counterfactual contracts actually come up? Admittedly, a lot of the examples I have used so far are contrived or unrealistic, but there are some important situations where counterfactual contracts come up. Even better, counterfactual contracts can neatly connect many problems in decision theory and ethics.

3.

Street performers are a perfect example of a counterfactual contract in action. They perform in public, for free, and collect tips. No one promised they would pay before seeing the show, but some people pay anyways, even though they have already gotten the enjoyment from the show. Though not everyone gives, it is interesting that some people have an instinct to pay the performer. Here, the counterfactual contract reads “I will perform for you if I predict you will pay me for it afterwards”.

Like with the street performer, joining a union looks a lot like a counterfactual contract. When unions negotiate for all workers, new workers can enter the job with higher pay. How can the union convince these new workers to join the union? The union’s best argument for joining is: if they had not negotiated beforehand, the new worker would not be receiving higher pay. The new worker needs to be the kind of person who pays in order to receive these benefits in the future. The counterfactual contract looks like this: “I, the union worker, will fight to get new workers a raise if I predict they will to pay me once they start working here”

These examples suggest a new system for funding things like public goods. Simply build a public good and then ask people to pay you afterwards! Essentially, you are offering everyone a counterfactual contract “I will build this public good if I predict enough people will pay me afterwards”. The public good can be financed by selling future shares of the after-the-fact payments (the price of these futures also provides information on which projects are worthwhile).

Why would anyone pay after-the-fact? Because establishing a reputation as someone willing to pay for these kinds of goods means that you will get more of them! In a world where cyclists are willing to pay someone after-the-fact for the construction of a new public bike path, that bike path will get built! Alternatively, if the cyclists say “we’re not paying for the bike path, it’s already there” you can expect that nobody will bother to build another public bike path in the future.

I wonder to what degree this kind of thing is happening today. For example, plenty of writers publish their work for free, hoping for support via donations (ahem). Do the interests of people who are willing to pay after-the-fact for writing influence the kind of writing that gets published?

Stepping back, the most important counterfactual contract we must consider involves making decisions on behalf of future generations. We cannot literally ask future generations what they want, but that doesn’t stop us from making choices for them.

Though we don’t entirely know what future generations will want, we can be pretty sure that they would like to live in a world of peace, prosperity, and ecological balance. Ideally, we would make policy decisions which ensured a better world for all subsequent generations.

But we are not limited to doing charitable things for future generations, with counterfactual contracts, we can actually trade with them! Debt finance is an example of this. “We, the citizens of the present, incur debt today to build a park because we predict the citizens of tomorrow are willing to pay part of it.”

Elder care and the the U.S. Social Security system can be framed in this way as well. These institutions can be viewed as a system for younger generations to support older generations in return for the good choices of the older generations. “We, the citizens of the present, will make good choices on behalf of other generations in return for support in our later years”. This raises some uncomfortable questions. Under this framing, is Social Security underfunded or overfunded? Were the choices that older generations made on behalf of younger generations wise? Note that elder care should not depend entirely upon past decisions, since there are important welfare and reciprocation components to these institutions as well.

The decision to have children is a small scale example of making choices on the behalf of future generations. You have to choose whether or not to bring a person into the world, without being able to ask. You have to infer whether or not your child would look back and appreciate that you choose to have them. The counterfactual contract reads “I will have a child if I predict that my child will appreciate existing”.

If it becomes possible to create digital minds, the decision to create a new digital mind is analogous to deciding to have a child. However, we will likely know more about the digital mind’s opinions than our future child’s. For example, you might consider whether or not to make a copy of yourself. You might think, “if I came into being like this, I would appreciate that a person took the time to create me”. In this scenario (without major resource constraints), it would be a good idea to create a copy of yourself. But these deals can get more complicated: the contract “if I came into being, I would be willing to do 1 hour of reasonable work to thank the person who created me” suggests that you could ask your copies for something in return in exchange for creating them. Deals like this may be essential to the Age of Em. There are many nuances to creating these kinds of deals (what happens if an em is not happy about being created or the work they are asked to do?), but that is a discussion for another time.

So far, we have talked about counterfactual contracts which are a good deal for both parties. But this framework can also handle situations where you are offered a bad contract. As discussed before, it is important to establish a reputation of saying “no” to these offers. Mugging is one example of a bad offer. We can think of the mugger as reasoning: “I will threaten my victim if I believe they would prefer paying me over getting a beating”. I admit that this method of framing extortion is strange, but the conclusion is quite natural. Since the mugger is offering you a contract that you would not have agreed to before-the-fact, you are under no obligation to follow it’s terms. In the real world this means that agents should establish a reputation of not giving in to extortion. This is why governments “don’t negotiate with terrorists” and Gwern publishes accounts of failed blackmail attempts.

4.

You have gotten this far into the post, so perhaps you are of a more “theoretical” bent. As promised, counterfactual contracts can unite several problems in decision theory and ethics.

Counterfactual mugging is a problem in decision theory which can be reformulated into a counterfactual contract. In the original scenario, you are approached by a predictor who claims “I flipped a coin, if it came up tails, I ask you for $100, if heads, I would give you $10000 if I predicted that you would pay me if the coin comes up tails”. If the mugger had been able to talk to you beforehand, they could ask “will you agree to pay me $100 if a coin flip comes up tails if I pay you $10000 if a coin flip comes up heads?” instead, they are offering the contract after the coin flip. This reads exactly like the other scenarios above. The mugger reasons that you would be willing to agree to a fair coin flip where you make money on average, so they flip the coin and ask for the money if it is tails.

There is lots of disagreement about whether or not it is rational to pay the mugger but I would argue that if the mugger is true to his word, you should pay him since you make money in net. There is one caveat which counterfactual contracts cover neatly. In situations where you don’t have much money, you can reject the offer. For example, if your life savings is $100, it would be a bad idea to pay the mugger, you should reject his counterfactual contract. In the counterfactual contracts framing, the mugger is mistaken about the coin flip being a good deal for you, since you are close to broke, thus you have no obligation to accept the contract and pay after-the-fact.

Newcomb’s paradox is another problem in decision theory which can be re-framed as a counterfactual contract. Essentially it is a counterfactual contract between the player and the Predictor. If they could speak beforehand, they could sign a contract where the player promises to only take box B if the Predictor promises to put $1 million in box B. In the actual game, the player and the Predictor don’t talk beforehand. Instead, the Predictor reasons “If I predict that the player would promise to take only box B if I put $1 million in box B, then I will put $1 million in box B” the player then accepts the contract after-the-fact by either taking only box B or rejects the contract by taking both boxes. If the Predictor puts money in box B, they are trusting you to only take box B. Like before, you want the be the kind of person who accepts deals like this, because, if you do, you will walk away with $1 million. Similarly, you can reformulate Parfit’s Hitchhiker and Kavka’s Toxin as counterfactual contracts.

Turning to ethics, Rawls’ Original Position can be reformulated as a counterfactual contract as well. The contract reads, “If I predict you would have signed a contract to spread our wealth more evenly before-the-fact, I will share my wealth after-the-fact”. Welfare, insurance, and income share agreements can all be thought of in this way.

5.

Though it is pretty clear how a person should respond to these scenarios, people often do not act this way in real life. Many people don’t pay street performers, or unions, or support welfare, or advocate for future generations. Though it is easy to say “I don’t owe them anything, they didn’t ask me first” the world would be a better place if we all were the kinds of people who agreed to these counterfactual contracts. This isn’t some wishful thinking, societies and individuals who engage in counterfactual contracts actually are better off. Encouraging this kind of thinking at the government level would, at minimum, improve long-term decision-making.

Counterfactual contracts are not really a new insight, they are just a new (and sometimes awkward) way to frame many well understood problems. Nevertheless, I still think this approach is a useful way to think about these topics because it connects so many different questions and suggests new answers. Counterfactual contracts shape my thinking in a lot of matters and will help inform my reasoning in future posts.

Thoughts on Existential Risk

Existential Risk is an important topic for long-termists. The idea being that since humanity has the potential to spread to the universe (or at least continue existing), any extinction event would prevent potentially trillions of happy lives from occurring. In other words, extinction has a high opportunity cost. Nick Bostrom refers to this as “Astronomical Waste“.

If you accept this premise, then it becomes critical to reduce the chance of human extinction. This warrants work in asteroid defense, AI safety, and nuclear disarmament, among others. One could even argue that these fields are vastly more important than others (though this is not a common view in my understanding, even among long-termists).

I want to point out several crucial distinctions here.

First, there is an important difference between a global catastrophic risk and an existential risk. Catastrophic risks are situations where a massive loss of human life or damage to society occurs. For example, detonating a nuclear weapon could lead to the loss of millions of lives. This would be catastrophic, but it does not fall into the category of an existential risk. This is because detonating a single nuclear weapon presents virtually no threat to wiping out humanity as a whole. Catastrophic risks are very important to prevent, but from the point of view of existential risk, they are not a priority. For someone concerned with the long term future of society, catastrophic events are something humanity can recover from. In fact, we have faced many such catastrophic events in our history (wars, pandemics, natural disasters) but continued to advance despite them. Existential events are of an entirely different flavor. By definition, we have never been through a species ending event, and it would only take a single such catastrophe to prevent billions of years of human society. Additionally, there is no way to learn from our mistakes like we can with catastrophic risks. As such, it becomes important to eliminate any chance of human extinction.

To be clear, I believe that catastrophic risks are very important, but the “existential risk lens” that I am adopting in this post prioritizes the long term, seeing catastrophic risks as more manageable. The confusion over this distinction is clear in this Hacker News thread.

Second, there is a large difference between ending humanity and ending all life. Ending all life on earth is extremely hard. Life has been around for a while and has gotten into everything. Even a large asteroid impact wouldn’t be able to eliminate life in the deep ocean. This is important because intelligent life developed in only 500 million years from small multicellular organisms. It is possible that even if humans get wiped out, intelligent life will re-form, build a society, and spread to the universe anyways. Of course, we shouldn’t take this possibility for granted (What if intelligent life never re-forms? What if a catastrophe occurs while it is forming? What if their society never leaves earth? What if their society contains more suffering?).

Third, we only care about the things we can change. There is no point in worrying about an unstoppable black hole hurtling towards earth if we don’t have the ability to get out of the way! We should instead focus on the things we have the ability to prevent.

Fourth, the higher amount of background existential risk, the lower value we should place in existential risk reduction! Reusing my example, if an unstoppable black hole is hurtling towards earth, there is no point in worrying about (say) asteroids.

Fifth, some non-humanity-ending events can still prevent people from going to the stars or vastly reduce future population. For example, a global totalitarian government could ban space travel, reducing overall human population. This isn’t typically included in considerations of existential risks but I will write about this below.

With that aside, lets look at some possible existential risks:

Supervolcano: A volcanic explosion which blocks the sun for extended period could potentially end humanity if we are not prepared. Fortunately, these are unlikely.

Cosmic Disasters: This include things like gamma ray bursts and asteroid impacts. These would likely end humanity if they were large enough. Asteroid impacts are preventable, GRB’s probably are not. Both are very infrequent.

Nuclear war: This would be catastrophic, but could it end humanity? Probably not. Though, reducing nuclear stockpiles would make me feel safer in this regard.

Runaway Climate Change: This would be catastrophic but many societies live in places which would be able to adapt to a much warmer earth. Thankfully, most known feedback loops are pretty slow. Still, the uncertainties here are high, so emissions reduction and further research on climate feedbacks are important.

Nanotechnology disaster: We don’t have anything near to this technology (it many not even be practical) so this risk is harder to assess. I believe this is more of an AI risk anyways. If it did happen, we could likely find a way to prevent the nanobots from eating everything (nanobot eating nanobots?).

Particle physics disaster: Extremely unlikely with current technology. A mini-black hole would probably evaporate quickly anyways.

False Vacuum: Extremely unlikely, and probably impossible to prevent.

Pandemics and Biotech accidents: I see the irony in writing this during a pandemic, but it seems very unlikely that a pandemic could end the human race. It clearly would be (and has been) catastrophic, so investments in mitigating future pandemics are crucial (EDIT 12/27: it seems to me that pandemics present the most important catastrophic risk). Fortunately, the physical isolation of many settlements, genetic diversity of the human population, human immune system, optimal virulence, and innovations such as vaccines, variolation, and antimicrobials suggests that it would be extremely hard for (even engineered) pathogens to end humanity. The probability this happening is uncertain, so more research on these risks is important.

Global Totalitarianism: It is hard to assess how likely this is. It is possible that this global government could prevent space travel and human flourishing. However, successful space travel only has to happen once for humanity to spread the stars and out of the reach of totalitarianism. The Archipelago might also be a way to combat this risk.

AI Risk: This has an unknown likelihood and unknown impact. It is feasible that an AI could end humanity (though this seems unlikely). These uncertainties make it one of the more important risks.

Thankfully, it is very hard to prevent humanity from carrying on. This makes it rare for something to present a true existential risk. Additionally, we can bound the overall risk of human extinction from “natural” causes like asteroids, supervolcanos, and other risks of non-human origin. I think this suggests that we should focus on human-made risks (e.g. AI, biotechnology, climate change, etc.) over others. It is important to note that for several of these problems we can “kick the can down the road” and rely on future generations to solve them, but for some, it is important to act now. Overall, AI risk and global totalitarianism stand out to me as the most dangerous, immediate, and neglected risks, but there are good arguments for many of the items on this list.

Before rushing to study existential risks, we face an important unanswered question. Does reducing existential risk matter more than the other things we could spend our time on? Catastrophic risks seem important in their own right, why worry about the long term if, as Keynes put it, “in the long run we are all dead”? Aside from these morbid topics, there is a host of charities making a positive impact today. How do these stack up against work on the topics I have listed? Attempting to answer these questions is a topic for future posts.

Is Immortality Ethical?

Summary: At a steady state of population, extended lifespan means taking resources away from other potential people. Technology for extended life may not be ethical in this case. Because we are not in steady state, this does not argue against working on life extension technology today.

Many people research radical life extension, dreaming of a day when we might live forever. But I fear that advocates of life extension have overlooked an important concern about immortality: is it ethical?

The argument here is simple, in a world where the population has reached a steady state, another year of life for me reduces the resources available to everyone else. This not only means less resources for existing humans, it also means there would be less resources to support a larger population. In this circumstance, choosing to live another year means preventing someone else from living another year. No one would argue against a 25-year-old choosing to live another year, but what if they are 1000 years old? In steady state population, if they chose to continue for another 1000 years, they are essentially preventing 10 normal human lifetimes within that span. If you were to treat potential or future humans as moral agents in their own right, it might make sense to ask the 1000-year-old to let someone new take their place.

The above argument makes two important assumptions. The most important is that population is in steady state. If population is growing, the above argument becomes much weaker since there are no major resource constraints on creating new life. The second assumption involves taking future generations and potential lives into account. If you don’t care about future people then it doesn’t matter if you are taking resources from them! Similarly, if you do not believe in taking into account your impact on potential human lives, it doesn’t matter that you could give your resources to them.

The first assumption seems like it could be reasonable in the far future (though it may be possible for humanity to continue expanding into space forever). The second assumption is a deep philosophical issue which I will not get into here, but it seems reasonable to me. Taking both of these assumptions as a given, I want to develop some intuition for this problem and suggest some solutions.

At it’s core, immortality is a problem of inequality. In a world of immortals, some people could enjoy centuries of life, while others will never be born due to resource shortages. It seems strange to imagine ghostly people waiting for their chance at life while living people enjoy their extended lifespans. Here is a better counterfactual:

  1. A world with enough resources to be inhabited by 1 person (Bob) who lives for 10,000 years, spending his days engaging in solitary activities such as meditation and blogging.
  2. A world with 100 people (including Bob) each living for 100 years, engaging in group activities such as chess tournaments and Shakespeare-in-the-park (in addition to solitary activities).

Note that these scenarios have the same total life-years and total resources consumed. It is clear that the first scenario involves much higher concentration of life into the hands of one person, whereas the second scenario is more egalitarian.

The second scenario also highlights the fact that with more people, there are more possible activities to do and more opportunities to make friends. This suggests that spreading life-years out more might lead to more overall enjoyment (even for Bob).

Another argument against scenario 1 calls upon on diminishing returns. What happens if Bob runs out of stuff to do after only 1000 years? What would you do for 10,000 years? Each additional year of life will become less and less exciting as you run out of things you haven’t tried. On the other hand, each year of life for a young person is full of wonder, everything is new. Wouldn’t it make sense for an immortal to donate a lifetime to a child? In this framing, scenario 2 looks like a much better deal.

Say we are convinced by the above arguments. What should the immortal citizens of this steady state population do? What laws would encourage people to share life? One simple approach is to allot each person the same number of years of life; after (say) 1000 years of life, a person is required to pass on and make room for someone new. A clever tax scheme could also be used, charging a larger tax for each additional year of life. A complete approach to this problem would require taking into account a persons benefits to society, the strength of their desire to live more, and the benefit of bringing a new person into the world.

This argument does not imply that we should stop trying to extend natural lifespan today, it would be pretty shocking if current the current human lifespan perfectly balanced happiness with equality. Rather, it is important to develop life extension technologies and then think carefully about how to use them. In fact, this might not even become a major issue once such technologies are built. It is possible that many people will choose to pass much sooner than they would be required to. Fortunately, since this future is a long way off, for now this problem is merely interesting to ponder.

The Archipelago, Part 3: Practical Concerns

Part of a series on the Archipelago: Part 1, Part 2

For this final post in the series on the Archipelago, I want to look at some practical concerns we might find there.

One major unsolved issue is macroeconomics. Since the Archipelago will likely maintain a common currency (in addition to local currencies at the country level), there needs to be a way to do monetary policy which supports economic growth across all states. Rule based monetary policy may be important to prevent states from manipulating monetary policy in their favor.

The need for independent, monetary policy suggests there should be independent fiscal policy as well. The Archipelago government needs to remain uninfluenced by the countries it leads. This helps to prevent state manipulation of spending. However, unlike in many countries today, the overall spending of the Archipelago will likely be much smaller than that of the component states, making this a smaller issue. In addition, much of the taxation (Pigouvian taxes, land value taxes) and spending (basic individual income, basic state income, public goods finance) will be automatic.

While the Archipelago must be protected from state manipulation, the states must also be protected from the Archipelago! If the Archipelago can withhold money from states as it sees fit, it can coerce these states and reduce their ability to control their own policy. This happens in many countries today. The automated spending and tax rules cut both ways, preventing countries and the Archipelago from manipulating one another.

These points about non-manipulation tie in with the discussion of government manipulation of people’s moving choices from part 2 of this series. For completeness, the Archipelago should be prevented from manipulating peoples movement (say, by publishing biased information about certain states or preventing immigration), people should be prevented from manipulating the Archipelago, and states should be prevented from manipulating each other. This all suggests an additional role for the legal system in the Archipelago.

But even if there are no state-imposed moving barriers, moving frictions present a very serious issue. Empirically, moving frictions can be very strong. The pressures of friends, family, and work all add to the existing costs of moving. This reduces the amount of competition governments face, making them less responsive to their citizens needs. How do we remedy this? Transfer credits are a simple approach, by paying citizens to move we can overcome some of these moving costs. Additionally, having some basic requirements that each citizen “try out” one other country could help people learn what it is like to live in another state, reducing the risk of regret. The Archipelago could fund innovations such as movable housing or public transit to make moving and maintaining social connections across borders easier. It could also enforce assurance contracts for collective movement, similar to the Free State Project, making it easier to move with friends. These systems will also help reduce barriers to the formation of new states.

How would we reapportion land as countries grow or shrink? How would new land be given to groups which want to start a new government? One natural solution is to provide each citizen with an equal allotment of land which follows them around. If they join a new state, that state is allotted their parcel of land. If the same citizen wants to start their own government, they can use their parcel of land for it. There are some nuances here, since it would be difficult to have state borders fluctuating constantly. Border adjustments could occur every couple of years instead. Additionally, some states may not need of new land, so there should be a system of trading parcels of land between states. For example, states should be able to buy up or borrow land from one another. Some market-supporting infrastructure will be necessary here such as land-clearinghouses, systems to reduce land price volatility, and so on. A land value tax is essential here as well.

With the problem of gathering land for new governments solved, we now need ways to reduce entry barriers to forming a new state. In addition to some of the immigration-supporting policies I outlined, providing education to citizens about how to start a new state is important. Consulting services (subsidized by the Archipelago itself) can also help groups of citizens get started. Helping new states grow increases the diversity of the Archipelago and helps prevent collusion between states.

The final issue to resolve is whether or not states can prevent people from joining the country. I tentatively believe states should be able to do this, but it does seem like it would restrict free movement. Fortunately, the rejected people of a state can always create a copycat state to satisfy their desires. Alternatively, the Archipelago can encourage a system where people pay a variable citizenship fee, allowing them to move to a country while also compensating the state they are moving to. Some degree of assistance to people who want to move but cannot pay the citizenship fee would make sense here too.

Though there are many intricacies in Archipelago governance, there are often good answers to how we should approach each issue. This ends my introductory series on the Archipelago, but expect to see much more on this topic in the future.

The Archipelago, Part 2: Theory

Part of a series on the Archipelago: Part 1, Part 3

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed Scott Alexander’s Archipelago. In short, by having different states compete for citizens, the Archipelago encourages states to create public goods (like in the Tiebout model) and provide competent governance. Additionally, the diverse governance this creates can help meet peoples diverse needs.

Here, I examine several theoretical issues with the Archipelago and how to approach them. As you will see, many issues in the Archipelago are analogous to issues within a single government, but are easier to solve at a larger scale.

Scott Alexander identified one of the most important pieces of the Archipelago: peace. There needs to be a system to prevent wars between states. Alexander suggested having some conscription system wherein each state provides soldiers to a peacekeeping army. Alternatively, each member-state could provide yearly funding for this military if they did not want to provide citizens. This system might end up looking a lot like NATO, defending threats from the outside as well as preventing threats within. In an extreme case, the Archipelago could maintain peace by being the sole possessor of nuclear weapons (or by giving each state an equal stockpile), but this seems unnecessary. By having strong norms for peace as well as interdependent trade between states, peace can be maintained and individual governments can avoid wasteful spending on arms races.

What about smaller acts of aggression like a cyber-attack? For this, the Archipelago will need to foster a system of courts or potentially create arbitration agreements between member states. As punishment for acts of aggression, states can be fined to prevent future attacks. Overall, this system seems like it would be relatively straightforward to implement.

The logistics of keeping the peace raise another issue. Security is a public good, so how exactly do you fund public goods across states? The Archipelago requires funding to provide security, a court system, and administer governance. In practice, institutions like the World Bank provide some global public goods, but it falls short in general. I have looked at this briefly in a previous post, but it seems there is more work to be done here. Fortunately, some of the questionable assumptions made in the mechanism design literature concerning individuals might be reasonable when considering governments. For example, at the state level, quasilinear utility in money may be reasonable, suggesting that the VCG mechanism may be appropriate. Even if we ignore the possibilities of mechanism design, taxation may solve our problem. By taxing member states, revenue can be generated for public goods. For example, the net imports and exports of a country could determine that country’s net income and could be taxed at a flat rate. Alternatively, each transaction between states could be taxed using a VAT. Taxing states as a constant percentage of their GDP would be even simpler. Note that some of these systems (like their individual counterparts) could induce deadweight loss. One interesting approach would be to adapt a Land Value Tax to this system.

Are externalities an issue in the Archipelago? I would argue they largely are not. First, a system of taxation can be built on top of the existing public goods infrastructure to discourage negative externalities (such as pollution) and reward positive ones (e.g. innovation). Second, most issues occurring between two member states can be worked out by those member states independently. This is Coasean bargaining at the state level. However, unlike between individuals, a large difference in information or high transaction costs are unlikely at the level of governments, making the Coase theorem more applicable. This suggests that as long as the Archipelago has a system to enforce contracts, most issues between states will work themselves out.

Thus far, we have tackled straightforward issues in governance. Peacekeeping, taxation, and trade are routinely dealt with on the individual and state level today. Now, lets look at issues specific to the Archipelago.

Since the Archipelago involves competing for citizens, several dangers can be anticipated by extending problems already found in economics and finance. For example, a “state-level Ponzi scheme” is possible here. Simply have each new citizen pay a “citizenship fee” and find new citizens to add to your state. This Ponzi government can entice people to join using flashy parks and monuments, advertising a quality of life the state cannot support. The population will grow until no new immigrants can be found, at which point, the government will collapse and the citizens will move to other states. Popularity bubbles like this can range from relatively harmless to disastrous. The Archipelago can help prevent this by investigating the revenue streams of each government and providing useful public information in this regard. However, this mostly seems like a non-issue, as governments like this cannot outlast honest governments and citizens join or leave of their own accord.

Similarly, a state could inflate it’s value to potential citizens and then not deliver on its promises. The boundaries between a government being genuinely optimistic and outright deceptive are murky, and I treat this as a “practical” issue in the next post in this series.

Alternatively, citizens could manipulate states using mass migrations. For example, a group of green activists could leave a country if the country does not meet their demands for a wildlife preserve. I am not sure to what extent this is really a problem as much as a sign that the system works. To the extent that people might leave a country which is independent of that country’s overall quality of governance, there should be plenty of people ready to take their place.

It is important to note that this ability to pick up and move somewhere else is essential to the function of the Archipelago, but it is not without its downsides. Being able to move easily creates moral hazard where citizens and governments take more risks than they normally would. Though encouraging risk taking could also be considered a benefit of the Archipelago, so whether or not this is a problem depends on the implementation details.

One could also imagine that sometimes peoples movement might be too free. The collapse of one country could create large immigration flows into another, damaging institutions there. Rapid changes in net migration might outpace the ability of different countries to build houses or adapt their economies. As such, the Archipelago will need to develop a clearing house for citizenship. Essentially, there needs to be a method for smoothing large scale transitions between states and providing housing when there is not room in other countries. One approach might be to require large, unused housing supply in each state which gets filled when migration flows are high, having immigrants spend a few days there to smooth the transition into a new country. Alternatively, people could face “surge pricing” to enter a country when demand is high there, encouraging people to move to countries which are more able to deal with new migrants.

Free movement is the greatest strength of the Archipelago, so it is important to protect citizens’ right to move. Scott Alexander anticipated that states may coerce citizens to stay in their country and recommended strong enforcement measures against this. But there are also less obvious ways for a state to hold on to it’s citizens. One of the easiest ways to do this is through propaganda. If a country can convince it’s citizens that every other country is terrible, then nobody would leave! It is revealing that many totalitarian regimes already do this, suggesting that propaganda is an efficient way to control citizens. As such, free sources of unbiased information about other states will be needed to help people make good decisions about where to move.

It is arguably more important to make sure that children are well informed in the Archipelago. In theory, states could use their education systems to brainwash children into staying in the country, never exploring new ways of life. Alexander proposed a simple solution to this where each student receives unbiased instruction about the different states within the Archipelago, preventing parents from brainwashing their children about the danger of leaving. Another approach may be to give students sponsored field trips to other countries, or require each citizen to spend some time in a different state than the one they grew up in.

Beyond propaganda and coercion, there are several ways which citizens may get “stuck” in one country. One benign possibility is that people may stay in a less-than-ideal country because their friends or family live there. Finding ways for small groups of people to move together to new places would help, but to some degree, people will always face a trade off between their social lives and the quality of governance.

More seriously, one country may possess important job opportunities which cannot be found somewhere else. This would mean that, despite low quality governance, the country would continue to retain citizens because they are tied to their employment. This happens today with places like the Bay Area retaining tech workers, despite increasing housing costs, due to network effects. Relatedly, a country may possess properties such as good weather which are unrelated to their quality of governance. In both cases, the local government collects “rent” on its strong economy or good weather. Because of this problem, the Archipelago could encourage companies to establish locations in several different states. If the employment opportunities in question are physically centralized (e.g. mining) the Archipelago could require that several states share access to that location. This might result in cities divided into subsections controlled by different governments with free movement between parts of the city. Furthermore, to compensate for inequalities between countries based on natural resources or climate, taxes can be paid to share this good fortune more equally.

The existence of natural inequalities between different countries suggests a system of welfare at the government level may be necessary. In other words, each government in the Archipelago should receive a certain amount of resources, population, and financing to help get things started and maintain stability. The details of this depend on the specifics of the Archipelago, but one can imagine giving each state a slice of total tax revenue as a “basic income”. This will allow new states to weather any volatility, essentially acting like startup funding. A consistent revenue stream will also give states some slack as well, helping them find better modes of governance. Additionally, lowering the barriers to entry for new governments helps maintain healthy competition between states, preventing collusion.

If we are providing welfare for states, doesn’t that mean we should provide welfare for citizens? Though I expect people will differ on this, I believe we should. Some citizens may be born to unfortunate circumstances, have little education, or struggle with mental illness. The Archipelago could provide assistance to these citizens and help them integrate into the society of their choice. Recognizing that some citizens will require more state resources, the Archipelago could provide assistance to states willing to help these individuals.

The Archipelago probably doesn’t fundamentally change your views on governance, nor change the fundamental problems, it just moves these things up a level. I anticipate that the same disagreements about taxes and welfare today would occur at the state level if the Archipelago were built. But the main benefit here is that these problems become smaller in the Archipelago. This is because, for your day-to-day life, the details about how your state is run are a bigger deal than how the Archipelago is run. By pushing difficult questions up to the level of the Archipelago, we have shrunk the importance of getting the specifics correct. Because of this, the Archipelago can bring us closer to an ideal system of government, not by solving problems, but by reducing their importance. Even better, we no longer have to agree on the best system of governance! You can live in your utopia and I can live in mine, turning major differences we might have into nitpicking about how to run the overarching system.

In the next post in this series, I will examine more practical issues with the Archipelago, looking at what local governance and immigration in the modern day can tell us about the challenges of creating one.

The Archipelago, Part 1: Introduction

Part of a series on the Archipelago: Part 2, Part 3

Summary: Introduce Scott Alexander’s Archipelago Communitarianism and highlight it’s potential as a system of governance.

Scott Alexander’s piece Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism identifies a tension between the liberal principle of “Do as you will, so long as it harms none” and the reality that people are strongly influenced by their local culture, making it hard to view legal choices (e.g. allowing pornography) through an individual choice lens. Alexander then suggests a solution. He outlines a world where a new Archipelago is discovered, and the land is opened up to anyone who wants to gather a group of friends and start a self-sustaining colony:

And so the equivalent of our paleoconservatives go out and found communities based on virtue, where all sexual deviancy is banned and only wholesome films can be shown and people who burn the flag are thrown out to be eaten by wolves.

And the equivalent of our social justiciars go out and found communities where all movies have to have lots of strong minority characters in them, and all slurs are way beyond the pale, and nobody misgenders anybody.

And the equivalent of our Objectivists go out and found communities based totally on the Strict Principle of Harm where everyone is allowed to do whatever they want and there are no regulations on business and everything is super-capitalist all the time.

And some people who just really want to lose weight go out and found communities where you’re not allowed to place open boxes of donuts in the doctors’ lounge.

Usually the communities are based on a charter, which expresses some founding ideals and asks only the people who agree with those ideals to enter. The charter also specifies a system of government. It could be an absolute monarch, charged with enforcing those ideals upon a population too stupid to know what’s good for them. Or it could be a direct democracy of people who all agree on some basic principles but want to work out for themselves what direction the principles take them.

He then goes on to discuss several important ways to strengthen this system by creating an overarching government which controls all of the sub-governments. For one, this government has to prevent violence between the states. For another, there needs to be a system for dealing with externalities. For example, if one nation’s pollution is harming others, there needs to be a way to stop them. Third, people should be free to leave communities whenever they want and move to a different one (this is a crucial point). Finally, this overarching government carefully regulates the education of children in the Archipelago, making sure no community brainwashes children into staying in a community they dislike.

This system is special for a few reasons. First, it allows each person to choose the kind of community they live in, one which reflects and reinforces their values, encouraging them to become the kind of person they want to be. For example, people who want to live an active lifestyle could join a mini-state which is all about exercise, helping to reinforce their exercise habits.

Second, it creates beneficial competition to create the kinds of societies that people want to live in. This encourages governments to be rational and effective. For example, a government which taxes too much and provides poor public services will soon see its population (and tax revenue) fall. Conversely, states which provide for their citizen’s wellbeing will see their population grow. Just like a market, states will form to provide high quality governance which meets the diverse needs of the populace.

Third, it creates diverse approaches to society which can better innovate, handle shocks, and avoid tyranny. One could imagine a pandemic hitting the Archipelago, with some states dealing with outbreaks better than others (ahem). Having a diversity of governance structures makes the system more dynamically stable. A single government only has to make one mistake to cause total collapse, but many, diverse countries are much harder to topple. Additionally, the states that perform better can induce imitation, with each state testing out new ideas in governance.

In some sense, this already exists. Many countries like Switzerland or the U.S. allow sub-states to have significant control over their own laws as well as free movement between states. But in these cases the central government still wields too much power by imposing federal regulations and taking significant tax revenue. The choices of individual states are restricted by choices at the national level and states are dependent on resources from the federal government, creating more homogeneous laws and culture.

So, how do we get to a true Archipelago? There are some exciting early steps, such as the Charter Cities movement and Seasteading. Additionally, simply allowing freedom of movement across the globe can induce similar beneficial competition and diversity. This is one of several reasons the Open Borders movement has promise. Regardless of whether you believe the Archipelago is the right end goal for society, it is still probably useful to figure out how we can move towards it.

For me, the Archipelago represents a practical approach to utopia. Or at least something to strive for. It is a little disheartening that Scott Alexander (quoting himself) doesn’t think the same:

“Even aside from the international problems of gaining citizenship, dealing with a language barrier, and adapting to a new culture, people are just rooted – property, friends, family, jobs. The end result is that the only people who can leave their countries behind are very poor refugees with nothing to lose, and very rich jet-​setters. The former aren’t very attractive customers, and the latter have all their money in tax shelters anyway.

So although the idea of being able to choose your country like a savvy consumer appeals to me, just saying “exit rights!” isn’t going to make it happen, and I haven’t heard any more elaborate plans.

So although the idea of being able to choose your country like a savvy consumer appeals to me, just saying “exit rights!” isn’t going to make it happen, and I haven’t heard any more elaborate plans.”

I guess I still feel that way. So although Archipelago is an interesting exercise in political science, a sort of pure case we can compare ourselves to, it doesn’t look like a practical solution for real problems.

Yikes!

Alexander does go on to argue for becoming “becoming more Archipelagian on the margin” and talks about having more cultural norms which favor Archipelagos. He also expresses hope that internet communities and virtual reality will help create online spaces independent of government, an Archipelago of sorts.

Developing independent internet communities and VR would be good, but Alexander gives up too quickly on the possibility of a real world Archipelago. I also believe that moving frictions are a major problem, but they shouldn’t stop us from working out the theoretical and practical difficulties with the Archipelago, and then, perhaps, implementing it.

In the next posts in this series, I will do just that, anticipating theoretical and practical issues as well as new ideas in implementation.

A List of Major, Future Innovations

Note: this list is continually edited and will change over time.

Spending time on social media or reading the news, I am struck by the negative outlook most people hold for the future of the planet. Survey data seem to agree with this observation. This is in sharp contrast to the spectacular improvements in the quantity and quality of human life across the globe for decades.

Optimism is an important value for me, and I believe spreading an optimistic outlook is key to encouraging progress in our society. As a remedy to the problem of pessimism in wealthy countries, I am maintaining a list of major innovations which, if successful, will dramatically improve our society.

Of course, there are countless other, smaller improvements which will be made to the world, but these are hard to anticipate. I have instead focused on large innovations which which could have huge impacts, broken down by category.

Note that the innovations in culture are prerequisites for many of the other innovations and that most innovations don’t fit neatly in a single category. Most are ideas that many are familiar with, but some are new.

Culture

Market Norms: Distaste for surge pricing, suspicion of big business, and a pessimistic view of the future are all symptoms of a greater misunderstanding about markets. A deeper understanding of how markets work (and where they don’t work) would greatly improve policy and voting decisions and hopefully give people a better outlook on our future.

Optimism: Essential for a society that wants to improve and take risks. Perhaps industrial literacy, optimistic Sci-Fi or requiring everyone to spend time perusing Our World in Data will help with this.

Acceptance of Experimentation: There are a lot of areas which would benefit from aggressive experimentation, such as education, policy, medicine, and charity. But there is often resistance to experimentation, seeing the possibility of harm as too great while ignoring the potential benefits. Culturally, we need to see the tremendous upside which careful, open experimentation provides. Ideally, an acceptance of experimentation at a large scale would encourage individuals to take more risks individually. In particular, a greater openness to experiment with living in new places is essential to several other innovations in this list.

Unbundled Relationships and Better Matching: Our social sphere dominates our well being. Yet unlike most other areas of life, we do not have an organized way of making friends or finding romantic partners. Of course, even the thought of an organized system of personal relationships seems strange. But, how sure are you that the current system of making friends is effective or equitable? And, like it or not, dating apps, friendship apps, and social media are already changing the rules of engagement and making them more systematic. I see many possibilities for building better relationships, from incorporating classes on relationships into education, to designing systems to ensure that no-one is lonely. One interesting idea is to develop norms for unbundled relationships: sets of friends or partners who meet specific needs in your life rather than a few "best friends". I hope to write more about this soon.

Improvement in Common Morality: If The Expanding Circle is to be believed, we can expect that our kindness towards other people as well as animals will increase. Additionally, developing flexible frameworks for morality which encourage consistent thinking can help us make better moral choices and have better debates.

Policy

Practical Public Goods Provision: Public goods problems are everywhere. Though we have some mechanisms for providing public goods at a local scale through governance, our current system seems to be slow or unable to provide clear successes such as infrastructure spending. Worse, local public goods can only take us so far since society faces challenges which require global solutions to many problems. What if there was a widely used, free-rider resistant, method for citizens to collectively fund CO2 emissions reduction? What if each artist could release their work freely to the public and receive compensation, without having to hide behind a paywall? The academic literature is filled with theory on public goods mechanisms, or experimental public goods games, but until recently we haven’t even tried to make decentralized public goods funding a reality. I have written about a first attempt at this here.

Global Redistribution: Yes, we already do this to some extent. But not nearly as much as we should, or in a very organized way. In a world where $5000 can save a life it is clear that a lot of human suffering can be prevented (and new economic value created) through better investment in the world’s poor.

Open Borders and Zoning Reform: More than simple redistribution, there are massive gains to be had from allowing more immigration to developed countries and better movement within countries. More details on the arguments for and against open borders can be found here.

Population Increase: If it is clear that having more people move to productive places helps the world by producing more innovation and utilizing economies of scale, why not also have more people? Not only is there a pro-natalist argument for increasing population, having more people can also benefit the current population. Many developed countries are expected to face demographic issues as there are not enough workers to care for their aging populations. Additionally, more people can generate new ideas and create larger (and more efficient) markets which incentivize new innovation. Even better, having more people increases diversity and allows new cultural niches to thrive, which promotes specialization and specialized innovation. Reductions in the cost and difficulty of IVF, cheap storage of egg and sperm cells, and cultural acceptance of these technologies will help.

Scientific Funding Reform: Not only is research a smaller portion of the federal budget today, but we are far too risk averse in how we allocate funds. Worse, science is probably slowing down due to a loss of low hanging fruit. The slowing of science suggests we need to be even better about how we allocate funding, and search more widely for new ideas, rather than fund easy wins.

Education Experiments: The possibility that Blooms Two Sigma phenomenon could be scaled up has driven much research into educational interventions. Unfortunately, these interventions have mostly run into the iron law of evaluation. Additionally, education policy is highly political, and even good interventions can be blocked from actual implementation. More freedom to experiment and responsive policy could change the lives of millions of children.

Maternal and Child Health Interventions: Early investments in maternal and child health can have large impacts later in life, especially in developing countries. A lot of interventions studied in this area would pay for themselves in terms of tax revenue, and have the additional benefit of increasing population.

Archipelago Communitiarianism: By allowing people to "vote with their feet" we can make governance more competitive and more specialized to suit peoples needs. Arguably, the U.S., E.U., India, and Switzerland already do this to some extent. But more directly applying the ideas of the archipelago to governance could allow for better, more diverse, governance. Working out how to do this right will be a major theme of this blog. See this series for an introduction.

Prediction Markets: A clearinghouse of information which gives everyone access to precise, decision-relevant judgements could have amazing benefits for business decisions, individual decisions, and policy decisions.

Engineering

Space: The final frontier has an unfathomable amount of resources, if only we knew how to leave earth in an efficient way. There are huge opportunities for mining, colonization, and energy generation, which can help support populations on earth and beyond.

Agriculture: With a growing population we need to continue the amazing progress we have made improving agricultural efficiency. Vertical farming, desalination, improved nitrogen fixation, and hydroponics all hold promise for feeding the world. I have even more ambitious goals for future agriculture.

Shipping: Shipping is the lifeblood of global markets and essential to realizing efficiency gains from economies of scale. There are many ways to improve current shipping practices using self driving cars, blimps, drones, high speed rail, and supersonic transport.

Fusion: It’s proponents claim limitless, clean energy. I’m not so sure, but even a new type of power plant with similar density and LCOE to nuclear, without all of the branding issues, would be useful for generating clean energy.

3D printing: the typical vision for 3D printers has people making all of their products at home, but this ignores economies of scale. Rather, 3D printing factories can provide cheaper, higher quality manufacture for many household goods.

Automated Experiments: Like I noted before, science is slowing down, requiring more input for discoveries of similar impact. Part of this could be a Baumol effect where experiments performed by grad students and research are getting more expensive. What if we could run millions of tests simultaneously? We could literally test millions of different solar cell materials, cancer drugs, and superconductors to find the best ones to scale up. This vast amount of data will lead to new scientific insights as well, at a fraction of the cost of today’s experiments.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality: New forms of entertainment and communication, accessible to everyone. Of course, infrastructure and norms will need to develop in these new spaces.

Biotechnology

Cryonics: I am not even sure I would use cryonics if it had a good safety record today, but I certainly want people to have the option! Why is cryonics so exciting? because safe cryonics is, in a sense, time travel into the future. Not only can people use cryonics to escape their current time or hold out for a miracle cure, we can better allocate talent through time. Would also provide a major boost to interstellar travel. More on dealing with this quirky allocation problem in a future post.

Drug design: Pharmaceuticals are like magic, curing illness, fighting depression and eliminating pain. But there is a lot of room to improve current pharmaceuticals. Additionally, there are a lot of drug categories which have barely been explored. What if a drug could safely reduce sleep need, increasing the hours in a day a person could spend on leisure (more on this later.)? What about drugs which increase happiness or productivity? New computational methods and automated experiments could vastly increase the quality and applications of pharmaceuticals.

Bioreactors and Directed Evolution: With so many designer drugs, we will need a way to manufacture these compounds efficiently. Luckily, we already have tools for manipulating yeast and bacteria to make a variety of complex chemical products.

Genetic Modification: Like drugs, this will have immediate applications in preventing or curing disease, but in the longer term, what if we changed our biology to better suit our needs?

Brain Stimulation: This includes TCMS, transcranial pulsed ultrasound, and electrical brain stimulation. I will admit that the current state of the research seems suspicious since it is hard to have proper placebo controlled studies. But the possibilities for general purpose treatment of mental illness and manipulation of mental states are too exciting to pass up.

Domestication of Diseases: What if, rather than work to prevent diseases or mitigate pandemics, we took an active role in cultivating pathogens? By selectively spreading mild forms of similar pathogens and evolving viruses to lower virulence, we can create a world where we live alongside diseases. Essentially, we would "domesticate" pathogens by breeding for lower virulence.

Computer Science

AI: Developing scalable, safe AI would be exciting for doing menial tasks and making certain services cheap. But I am more interested in what we do with AI after it has become a common tool for basic tasks. Extremely cheap entertainment, AI run experiments, and AI based governance all have exciting possibilities (and dangers).

Brain Emulations: Perhaps the easiest way to achieve AI would be to make a copy of the human brain and just run it faster. Brains-on-computers have a lot of interesting implications discussed in Age of Em. This would entirely change the way we do things, but the implications are too vast to discuss here.

Brain Computer Interfaces: These enable a new domain for us to iterate on, better understanding the intricacies of the brain and better aligning us with our technology. This could lead to new, better forms of entertainment and communication. Of course, new privacy issues abound.

Better, Widely Accepted, Cryptography: Privacy is already a big issue today. Cultural acceptance of privacy concerns, higher demand for secure devices, anonymous personal ID systems, and greater use of cryptocurrency-based finance will all help mitigate many privacy concerns.