Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #15

Off the Marx

The 200th anniversary of Karl Marx's birth has prompted numerous assessments of his legacy and musings on the future of capitalism. There's not a lot of love for Communism, understandably, but equally not much optimism about capitalism. 

The Economist is among the most upbeat, but rightly worries that liberal reformers in the West may not be up to the job of providing a compelling vision of the future. Feng Xiang, one of China's leading legal scholars, goes a step further in the Washington Post and asks whether AI will destroy capitalism (Bonus: Not to be outdone, Henry Kissinger wonders whether AI will end human history - which makes me sympathetic to Jack Clark's argument that ungrounded AI commentary isn't particularly helpful...)

The most interesting part of Feng's argument is that he doesn't say that the nation state is over - in fact, it plays an important role for him - only that the liberal democratic version is dead. This isn't a "Chinese thing" either. We now have an EU member state whose leader openly celebrates the rise of "illiberal democracy". Depressing, indeed revolting, stuff - but isn't it weird that this is a more coherent vision than anything presented by the other side? Time for liberal, democratic capitalists (I count myself one) to up our game...

Basic income, complex implementation

That said, there is one (broadly) liberal democratic policy proposal that is both truly radical and has seen an astonishing rise in prominence in the last five years - Universal Basic Income (UBI), the idea that the government should make unconditional cash payments to every citizen. 

I became very interested in UBI about 14 years ago when I was an undergrad, and it was the fringest of fringe ideas, popular only with a handful of political philosophers. But from about 2016, interest exploded, and now it's relatively mainstream - albeit a long way from being implemented anywhere large. What's interesting is that UBI garners support from across the political spectrum; it might seem a natural fit for the left, but Milton Freedman, Hayek and even Charles Murray (who wrote a book about it) have proposed something like it. Technologists seem particularly enamoured - perhaps because it allows us to worry less about automating away all the jobs?

It's on my mind because Scott Alexander has a brilliant post this week arguing for UBI (and against a popular alternative - a jobs guarantee or "basic jobs"). It's very long, but worth your time. I find it quite persuasive, but it raises for me again a challenge I've noted a couple of times before: there is a tension between the redistribution nation states might want to do and how (and where) wealth will be created in the 21st century. Resolving that seems at least as hard as designing the welfare system we want.

St Paul, the Ray Kroc of Christianity

My book reading has slowed down a lot this year - mainly because of the arrival of a wonderful but distracting baby in January - but I just finished The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere and it's one of the most extraordinary books I've ever read. 

It's part searingly honest memoir, part revisionist history of Christianity and part imaginative reworking of the Bible. It's definitely not for everyone, but if after a glance at James Woods' or Jack Miles' reviews you think you might like it, you almost certainly will.

There are so many fascinating aspects, but the bit I'm most struck by is St Paul's incredible success in spreading Christianity, ultimately to billions of people, despite having never met Jesus and facing significant opposition from his original followers. There's a wonderful passage in which Carrere imagines Paul, previously a persecutor of Christians, turning up in Jerusalem to meet the disciples after his Damascene conversion: 

"Imagine that around 1925 an officer of the White Army, who had distinguished himself in the fight against the Bolsheviks, asks to be received by Stalin in the Kremlin. He explains that a personal revelation has given him access to the pure Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and that he plans to see it triumph all over the world. To that end he demands that Stalin and the politburo give him full powers, but refuses to submit to their authority."

If this sort of thing appeals, it's a real treat.

Quick links

You can't waste time on the internet any more. And that's a bad thing.

No one mentioned Zuck. 538 plays fantasy football with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates

Compute, compute everywhere. The amount of computational power used in AI has doubled every 3.5 months since 2012. (Though see counter-views here and here)

What is it like to be poor? Not fun at all.

GDRP compliance is a pain. Even for people who should know better.

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Until next week,