Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 104: How coronavirus will change politics; the Apollo Missions' lessons for government; the downsides of living forever; and more...

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Coronavirus and the end of an era in politics

Coronavirus coverage is, understandably, dominating the media - and there is an angle for every interest. The most interesting essay I’ve seen is this one by Matt Stoller on “the end of affluence politics”. For Stoller, there’s a core economic assumption that underpins US politics - and a coronavirus recession will fracture it:

“As an affluent society, America automatically produces a surfeit of jobs and wealth, and the problem is solely one of distributing the bounty.”

A coronavirus recession rips this assumption up because it is a true crisis of production, unlike the global financial crisis. The economic danger is not mass death but, as this excellent thread by Dan McMurtrie shows, the havoc that the virus wreaks on supply chains. This is the key line: "Just In Time (JIT) production is a form of operational leverage. And like all forms of leverage, there is a non linear downside effect."

The last 12 years have been dominated by the politics and economics of financial crisis. But this framework - and the interventions central banks have developed for it - will be limited use in a coronavirus recession, as Vitor Constâncio, former VP of the ECB, notes. Stoller compares the situation to the politics and economics of the 1930s - and has some unlikely intellectual allies. We may be at the start of the biggest story of the decade. 

What can government learn from the Apollo missions?

Last night’s meeting of our Organising Genius reading group looked at the Apollo Missions. One of the key ideas is that Apollo was as much a triumph of management technology as of scientific breakthroughs (Interestingly, in the context of recent debates about China’s state capacity, one of NASA Administrator Jim Webb’s goals was to show that democracy could “out-manage” authoritarianism).

This idea has influential fans, not least Dominic Cummings, who has an essay on management lessons from the Apollo missions on his blog. Cummings argues that there was a distinct “systems management" philosophy that underpinned Apollo - and that it’s the mirror image of how most government bureaucracies are run. It’s a useful read for anyone who wants to understand Cummings’ vision for government (and his desire to build an actual moonbase as the motivating goal for a UK ARPA).

For Cummings, the key to systems engineering is the management of interfaces and interdependencies. He shows how Apollo did this - and how challenging it is in Government. It reminds me of this now famous piece, originally published by accident, by ex-Amazon engineer Steve Yegge. He argues that much of his former company’s success is driven by the requirement - on pain of dismissal - that all teams make it painless for their data and functionality to be accessed programmatically. Is that possible in Government? Perhaps we’re going to find out. 

Living forever - what could possibly go wrong?

TiB readers seem to be especially interested in living forever. Both times that I’ve linked to (superb) longevity FAQs - this one and this one - they’ve been the most clicked links of the week. So I was pleased to stumble on this excellent 80,000 Hours interview with Anders Sandberg in which he discusses the technology and second order effects of slowing down ageing.

In particular, there’s a great ~10 minute segment starting at around 11:44 in which host Rob Wiblin and Sandberg discuss some of the possible negative societal effects of much longer lifespans. One interesting case is the impact on totalitarian governments. Death of a dictator is a major source of vulnerability to an authoritarian regime - could much better longevity tech mean more durable totalitarianism?

Sandberg says no. According to Sandberg’s statistical model, immortal dictators would last only four years longer on average, up from an average of 12 (Bryan Caplan is more worried). In fact, Sandberg wonders if we should be more worried about the impact on science. As mentioned last week, there really is evidence for the “science advances one funeral at a time” joke. Probably, nevertheless, a price worth paying. 

Quick links

  1. It was the best of towns, it was the worst of towns. Excellent set of graphics on which global cities contribute most to inequality.
  2. Social experiment. Randomised control trial on Facebook use suggests more pessimistic estimates of consumer surplus than previously claimed.
  3. A house divided. How racism undermined social conservatism in the US.
  4. Of superintelligence and superbugs. Nick Bostrom on how coronavirus is like AI risk
  5. Red state, blue state. Socialism is more popular than capitalism among Democrats in... Texas?

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford