Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #77

Forwarded this email? Subscribe here. Enjoy this email? Forward it to a friend.

Andrew Yang and the great weirding of politics

The race to be Democratic nominee for President is fascinating. One of the most unusual and interesting candidates is Andrew Yang - an entrepreneur (founder of Venture for America) who has never held elective office before. He’s attracted a cult following and has qualified for the next set of debates. 

Yang’s flagship policy is a Universal Basic Income (see previous coverage) of $1,000 a month for every American. People who have evaluated it seriously say his proposal doesn’t stack up (and neither does any other UBI policy yet) - but that didn’t stop Elon Musk - SpaceX and Tesla founder and embodiment of definite optimismcoming out for Yang and for UBI this week.

Most interestingly, his candidacy reflects the new rules of the post-2016 political era (see, e.g., this profile). The Yang campaign is a product of the internet - from its use of memes to its weird (and perhaps unwanted) popularity on 4chan (one of the less salubrious corners of the web, to put it mildly). Yang’s is the Democratic campaign that has most come to terms with the Trumpian paradigm of politics: nothing needs to make sense any more - from his admission that he calls his UBI a “freedom dividend” “because it tests better” to his naming his infrastructure plan the “Legion of Builders and Destroyers”. He’s very unlikely to be the nominee, but he’s the clearest sign yet that, even if Trump loses, politics will probably never return to "normal"

This time it's different? Work and technology over time

I've been thinking a lot recently about fear of technology and particularly the fear of automation (which is one of the reason for my interest in Andrew Yang; his support for UBI comes from his beliefs about automation). This week I came across this excellent paper - The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth - from 2015. It's the best summary I've seen of how people have thought - and worried about - technological change over the last few hundred years. Do read the whole thing.

In short, the paper demonstrates that human worries about tech - whether power looms or artificial general intelligence - are remarkably consistent. Three (somewhat contradictory) fears dominate: (1) the fear that technology will take all the jobs; (2) the fear that technology will dehumanise or rob people of moral purpose; and (3) the fear that technological progress is over and we're entering a period of stagnation.

But the paper also exposes how contingent many contemporary concerns are. Today we worry that tech blurs home and work life; two centuries ago the fear was the opposite: industrialisation was taking work out of the home, where it had traditionally been situated. Today some worry that a world without work is one without meaning or dignity; our ancestors took every opportunity to reduce work and increase leisure time. Any claims that we know how we'll feel about work decades from now are likely overconfident.

Should economists write about genetics?

Noah Smith (with whom I usually agree on most things) wrote a column this week that argues that economists should leave genetics to biologists. It's partly in response to this paper on "Genetic Endowments and Wealth Inequality". The authors suggest that genes explain a lot of variation in wealth at retirement even when you control for other factors, and that the correlation is not just with labour income, but with financial decision making.

Smith says we don't know enough about the causal mechanisms that map genes to outcomes (he links to this amusing tweet on the perils of correlation and causation in genetics) - and so research like this won't help policy makers. The paper's (liberal) co-authors disagree - see their threads here and here (they emphasise that genes don’t determine outcomes and that policy can mitigate distributional effects) - as do other commentators.

There's a well-founded concern that obsession with genetics can lead to some dangerous places. That's not Smith's argument, but it's common in some parts of the left. The counterargument, though, is this piece by Justin Murphy, which is one of the most interesting essays I've read in the last year. Murphy (writing from a radical left perspective) worries that cutting off certain lines of enquiry as unacceptable damages your ability to change the world in the ways you seek. Whatever your politics, it's a provocative starting point for thinking about where science should and shouldn’t go.

Quick Links

  1. Maybe we're not all closet sadists. Everything you think you know about the Stanford prison experiment is wrong.
  2. Citation needed. Google Scholar lists the most highly cited papers in Nature.
  3. How we left aliens on the moon. Remarkable story about a failed Israeli lunar mission.
  4. How I learned to start worrying. Extraordinary thread on the bombing of Nagasaki (and more here)
  5. Patient capital. Christianity's hockey stick growth curve.

Your feedback

Thanks for reading Thoughts in Between. If you like it, I'd love you to forward it to a friend who might enjoy it. Feel free to hit reply if you have any comments - or talk to me on Twitter.

Until next week,