The future (Julian Simon and Matthew Yglesias) in The Amalgamated Aggromulator

  • Sept. 18, 2023, 7:46 a.m.
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Let’s try this again. I mean Prosebox.
I come into the “create new entry” box and I find a mostly finished entry on Putin’s psychology in regard to Ukraine. Written sometime since February 2002, that’s all I know… I deleted it with barely a pang. So much time wasted worrying about the thinking of the worst people. I spent so much time trying to deal with the peculiar inner states of Donald Trump, and it helped my general trailing off in here.

Elsewhere, in Facebook, I recently admitted that I seemed to have completely stopped expressing myself at length in writing, in part because I could no longer seem to pretend anyone was listening. But - there has since been an increasing mental rumpling that is not consistent with this conclusion, that seems to be resulting from indigestion about that admission. The world is still interesting. And if I’m not engaged in being actively interested in the world and the ways it is being thought about… well, otherwise I’m not that interested in myself!

The long silence seems to have starved my insecurity. If I no longer really believe-or-pretend-to that anyone will be listening, I don’t seem to be worrying about that listening that isn’t going on. So the pressure’s off. Hmm.

So, Prosebox. The place where long-form writing fits (Facebook is a really poor place to do it). Let’s see where this goes. What have I been thinking about?

I have been worried that the topics of thinking about the future have become a bit muddled in people’s minds - what I mean is that I’ve worried that people don’t have so good a grip on the better questions and better answers that have been come up with about the future, and also that the future seems to me to have become obscured by a veil of careless lack of interest - that, even when worries now point toward the future, the view is carelessly rendered. Which is a sense that would be a bog to try to say better, so I’d better move on to one specific thing.

Which is this.

I recently read this article about two bets about the future, one of them by a certain fellow named Julian Simon. Julian Simon wrote a book titled The Ultimate Resource, which is one of the very, very few books that I have actually thrown across the room and is probably the book that I have thrown with the greatest force. Here is the link to the article:

“The Two Bets”, by Dave Karpf

The article (the first part of it) discusses a bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich about whether the price of some minerals would rise or fall.

It has some things to say about the players. Paul Ehrlich is the guy who made overconfident predictions of immediate, definite civilizational collapse. The failure of those predictions inoculated a great many people against any interest in or concern with large-scale ecological dangers at all. An utterly maddening figure.

But Simon, now. The article describes him rather savagely. The part I want to focus on is this line:

He also, ohbytheway, believed that there was an infinite supply of copper because, at the right price point, humankind would just figure out how to transmute copper from other metals."

There the article brushes the flank of just how bizarre Julian Simon was.

Julian Simon believed that innovation was infinite - that innovation in any area was infinite. Innovation came from smart people, and those people were encouraged to innovate by economic incentives. The only constraint there could be on the amount or the rate of innovation was the number of smart people.
And that innovation had no limits. Any physical constraint that got in our way could be gotten around by future innovation - forever.

Notice that - at some point - infinite possibility-expanding clearing of obstacles in any area must involve just flat rewriting the basic laws of the universe… not merely “our present understanding of them”, but the actual state of them. At this point, a clever person is a mage.
For him, this wasn’t even a concern. Innovation was a magic box he drew on his economist’s chalkboard. Resources would be infinitely increasable and other resources would be infinitely substitutable for them for any purpose. More and more, for all eternity.

He thought that the best condition would be a permanently rapidly increasing human population, because that way the number of geniuses born would be rising along with it, and they would clear the way with an eternal bow wave of possibilities and prosperity.

Now, something I’ll be returning to is an idea he subscribed to that he thought of as “human life is good”, but that goes a fair way beyond that. He thought that more people is always good - and in a way that outweighs other priorities, not merely as one priority among many. More of us means more miraculous sapient humans experiencing life.
He thought that, if you had to choose between X number of people existing, and those people having a high standard of living and being happy, and 1000X number of people existing, and those people having a low standard of living and being generally miserable, you would have to prefer the second, because it would be a thousand times more human life, and human life is good.
But for Simon this choice can never exist even in theory. Because for him so many people would make everything turn out wonderfully.

(It really is difficult to get across how strange Simon’s sunny perspective is. The fabric of the universe seemed to be curved in his eyes, in the manner of gravity, so that humans are really unable to make anything worse at all, ever. He writes somewhere that if we run a strip mine and leave a massive hole in the ground, we have made things better, because look, someone could now keep things in this hole!)

I could at this point break off to talk about how running into this strangeness (along with Ehrlich’s mistake) helped me to work out my own thinking on the future and technological innovation. But I won’t, because I want to link in the reason why this phantom wisp of economic theory is on my mind just at this particular moment.

A couple of weeks ago I ran across the fact that Matthew Yglesias has written a book that proposes that the United States should make a priority out of tripling its population. The title of the book is One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.

Now, here I want to be careful. I am going to criticize something, a couple of things, about Yglesias’s thinking, but I do not quite want it to come across as entirely damning the book, which I have not read. There can be good reasons and arguments for aiming for such an increase. There are reasons for more immigration, certainly for the people involved. I see that Yglesias does namecheck some things that should go along with it - among them, from the Amazon blurb, “more housing, better transportation, improved education, revitalized welfare, and climate change mitigation”.

But in an interview with him I read something…

Here is the link to the interview: “The case for more — many more — Americans”, by Kelsey Piper

I don’t want to entirely damn the interview, either. But this part is what got me - in a quiet way it is sort of a master class in how you get Alex Russell to curdle:

**Kelsey Piper**
Another direction from which I’ve seen some pushback is that it seems like a lot of progressives just don’t totally believe that there being more people is good, for environmental reasons or the ways it’s tied to American hegemony.
**Matt Yglesias**
I think there are two big disagreements. One is just philosophically, is more people better, or not? And I think it is right, but I don’t have a prolonged defense of this in the book. It’s a big issue people talk about in the in the moral philosophy world. But I think a universe of seven really happy people all being treated really fairly, is worse than a thriving planet of 7 billion, even if some of those 7 billion people are living in worse conditions than what existed in the seven.
The other [disagreement] is the extreme of eco-pessimism. If you look at what is the actual public policy of the United States of America, climate change is a much more serious problem than our current policy makes it seem. We should be doing a lot more than we actually are. It is a much bigger deal than it’s treated as.
At the same time, if you ignore actual policy, and you just look at takes written ... it’s not as bad as they say. I don’t want to “both sides” it — actual public policy is really important here. But we’re not teetering on the brink of human extinction.

I must say that that last paragraph in my quote hit me like a squirt of lemon juice. Because one of the things that bothers me about the idea of a threefold increase in the U.S. population is the sharpening of difficulties and impact and trade-offs… what happens if that raft of constructive policy initiatives he mentions bogs down or doesn’t actually happen or doesn’t work, and also all the things that aren’t quite included in it. Things can get tighter. We do not have our house in order, and it can become more difficult to get our house in order. Environmental stuff comes very easily to mind in this connection.

In which light that last paragraph hits entirely the wrong note. I cannot quite get clear the application of that last sentence. You’d think it implies, but with a pregnant vagueness, that it is about climate change, but the mention of eco-pessimism, and the proximity to the very Julian Simon idea about more people being better, suggests that it is also a broader statement.

Which sounds like the effects of Paul Ehrlich’s inoculation, in a way I have seen before. “The world isn’t going to end!” When the real topic is all these matters of damage and costs and tightened trade-offs and narrowed ability to navigate if the world more or less continues! But everything is downplayed and muffled, it’s interest-offramped, because it’s not a matter of landslide doom and going extinct.

(By the way, a reason that I do not give comfortable credence to the respect Yglesias appears to give climate change concern there is that I have been reading pieces by him in which he proposes and explains that the best idea for the Democratic Party is to betray and let down green progressives, and to be seen to be doing so, so that the Democrats can do well and get power, so that they can then pursue a course of doing the same and being seen to do the same, so that they can consolidate power and pursue more popular policies, which are in other areas. In those essays he does not reveal any qualms about the implications of this for, well, the urgent matter of climate change. I do not see how action on climate change can be taken by specifically and intentionally taking little action. It seems to reveal a dumbfounding translucency at best in his interest in the matter.)

And what is this business of “well, the reality is serious; at the same time, in regard to the way it’s talked about…”? Benjen Stark’s comment that “nothing someone says before the word ‘but’ really counts” can be extended to the phrase “at the same time”. It’s just a weird thing to do. If the reality is on the table, then the reality is the topic, so why go over there? Because… that’s where you want to go.

What Yglesias says about people is in its way no more reassuring, and in fact it is an example of shiny-object thinking. The way in which he says it is.
He uses an extreme case. Only seven people in the world would be a fantastically limited situation; it is very easy to think of ways we think the world should consist of just flat more than that. But if you are instead comparing one incomprehensibly vast number of people with a different incomprehensibly vast number of people, there is no longer any such clear way to compare them - which is why the things you can point to are what you should generally navigate by. Yglesias’s use of the simple example points the opposite way - it points to a guiding frame where there should, really should, be many more people even if it makes things worse in some way, in any way, or even in every way. (See? Happiness itself is outweighed.) Such possibilities are therefore not arguments against it.

Because of the intrinsic wonder of a conscious person experiencing life. Which is additive.

Who could argue with that?

It is a shiny object, an intrinsic (talismanic) conclusion, the sort of thing that a smart person can be beguiled by and then give the status of a great morally compelling insight because he or she, a smart person, is so struck by it.

Why do I so characterize it? Because of every fucking counterargument and quibble that it dismisses. In short, the entire rest of the universe of priority.

As I say, I do not mean to entirely damn the entire book unseen; there can conceivably be strategic reasons why the United States should be larger in population with respect to the rest of the world, or there can be ways in which a larger population could help us pursue and uphold our instrumental priorities.

But I do think I have gotten across a reason why I do not trust Matthew Yglesias’s perspective as a guide in this matter. And why I have an ambient distrust of it in general. His specific good arguments when he has them, sure. Otherwise… it’s amazing what a professed moderatist will lock onto.

It was something, to see Julian Simon’s ghost resurface. (At least Yglesias didn’t mention Simon’s cornucopian theory.)

I do worry about how we see the future, and about how we see the question of addressing it. Neither Paul Ehrlich nor Julian Simon helped, especially not Simon. (I wish Herman Daly were more well-known.)

I would launch into the view that I do think we should take, but I’m worried I will obscure what I’ve done here. Well, maybe I can say one thing, maximally short:
Technological advancement is fundamentally unpredictable, but we can expect to discover that some things will be easy and some things will be hard. We should be pushing to explore the landscape of that as early as possible. And we should have a pronounced respect for the latter. We should be acting to bend things to increase options and to incrementally reduce the severity of trade-offs. We should not rush into risking sharpening trade-offs.

The articles are worth reading. With the second one you can try to make out whether I’ve been fair to Yglesias. I certainly did pick out one little bit… but surely a thought-provoking bit. Or just provoking.

Last updated September 18, 2023

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