Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Em Who Was Thursday

Kevin Erdmann takes a brief respite from housing market analysis to conduct a bit of housing political analysis.

Here too.

As it happens, I'm also in the middle of Robin Hanson's first (among many to come, I hope) book The Age of Em. I was fortunate enough to review Robin's very first pass at an outline, and I'm pleased to see my high expectations exceeded. I mention the two together because the housing kerfuffle and its aftermath suffer from the classic political problem of vocal, well-organized competing constituencies with narrowly-defined policy preferences. I cannot help but wonder how badly these sorts of problems might plague a society with trillions of... well, I can't quite call them "individuals" since one of the key features of ems is that they're able to be copied quickly and cheaply. Let's just go with Robin's convention and call them "Ems".

For illustration, let us return again to the fair nation of Mungerica. Time passes differently in Mungerica thanks to the estuary effects of the tides or something. Each Mungerican day that passes corresponds perfectly to either a single political problem or a single political resolution. Therefore, on Monday, citizens might notice that mice are raiding the palace cheese and petition the king to do something about it. On Tuesday, the king resolves to import a thousand cats. On Wednesday, other citizens, ones unmolested by mice, but deadly allergic to cats, notice the surfeit feline population, and beg His Majesty to rid the grounds of the kitty menace. On Thursday, the head of state, ever vigilant to the needs of his people, imports a bunch of dogs to chase the cats away. On Friday, another third, previously silent, chunk of the population succumbs to their natural fear of dogs and pleads the throne evict the mongrels. On Saturday, the king imports a shipment of lions. On Sunday, the kingdom of Mungerica rests (shomer shabbos).

Erdmann's political cycle mess isn't all that different than the sorry, abused Mungericans (though he swaps in "we" to stand in for what may be different minority coalitions with different political goals). A group of citizens sees a problem, begs Congress for help, and shrugs when the inevitable unintended consequences happen, since those consequences are of little interest. What's a little debt crisis, after all, when the important thing is that marginal consumers get access to homes, higher education, medicine, fill-in-the-blank? What am I, a banker? Similarly, if I'm an index fund manager for a pension portfolio, while it might be nice for folks to get a starter home a few years ahead of schedule, my primary obligation is to my clients: if my fund goes t.u., a lot of good, honest people will be that much closer to eating cat food while they wait for their stipend to arrive. Put another way, system stability is often a secondary consideration when narrow, highly-regarded interests are at stake. Ideally, political representatives would be chosen who most highly value long-term stability, but that seems to be a historical rarity.

In Em-world, many thousands of subjective years can pass in the course of a single orbit of the planet around the sun. To slow-speed outside observers, this incredibly fast civilization might spawn empires that rise and fall in the span of a single breath. I wonder what the present-day policy implications might be for the prospect of uploading minds not-especially well suited to the task of rigorous backward induction and political stability.

The important questions I have is these: are the forces that select for electoral success the same as the forces that select for the stability of civilizations? Are the moral intuitions that interfere with folks' ability to freely exchange enough of an obstacle to worry about?

Put another way:

via SMBC


  1. If em city-states compete, then those with political structures that discourage inefficient policies may lose out. That might well mean democracy loses.

  2. Thanks Samuel. Fun read.

    2 points:
    1) I normally would try to avoid "we", too. But, on this topic, the constituency expecting (demanding, really) a contraction in housing prices seems to have been fairly universal. If prices weren't in a "bubble", then that consensus required an economic dislocation large enough to push home prices down. Oddly, even among observers who might be amenable to my way of thinking, the roadblock for them to accept my hypothesis about the period is that they usually can't accept the idea that optimal policy would have kept housing prices stable. They can't accept the idea that we weren't in a bubble.

    2) This reminds me of the debate about whether AI would be dangerous because it would develop a morality that considered humans expendable. Powerful humans tend to consider humans expendable. Powerful humans have tended to kill mass numbers of people. That wouldn't make AI an aberration. It would make AI like us. AI would have to develop a novel morality in order to NOT kill all of us.

  3. If we talk about interest rates than we can surely get higher rate every time we spent.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?