Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

(Resend) TiB 172: Who makes history; Grading our pandemic response; The internet and personal agency; and more...

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How bad was (is) our pandemic response?

If you could go back to 2019 and warn policymakers about COVID-19, how much better could we have done? The question seems relevant for how we prepare for future extreme risks. We discuss it in my podcast episode with Rowland Manthorpe - and, more apocalyptically, it's the animating question of this interesting post by Eliezer Yudkowsky. Another way of getting at the same idea is to ask, compared to the counterfactual ideal response, how well did the world do? Pseudonymous analyst Ghost attempts an answer here and concludes: pretty badly.

Above all, Ghost argues the world underinvested in vaccine capacity. According to Ghost, given that the all-in benefit per completed vaccination is several thousand dollars, governments should have been willing to massively over-procure to speed things up. Instead, they collectively under-procured by a factor of five for the sake of a few tens of dollars per dose. Ghost estimates the ideal response would have saved millions of lives and trillions in GDP. Indeed, they estimate the cost of saving an incremental “quality adjusted life years” (QALY) was ~$3,400 per QALY (The UK NHS is typically willing to spend around 10x that)

So why didn't governments do this? Perhaps vaccine manufacturing was always going to be the bottleneck, but Ghost argues that massive early investment could have overcome this. My intuition is that we failed because the required action just seemed too weird (see also TiB 108). Spend trillions of dollars to overcome a threat that always looks quite small until it's out of control? Look how hard the politics of much smaller interventions were. I was making the same point in March 2020. But, alas, this does not bode well for our collective ability to deal with the even graver (and likely even weirder) threats that our species will face over the next century.

Is history malleable?

Two of my favourite thinkers from opposite ends of the political spectrum published new essays this week that, despite their differing subjects seem to me to share a deep theme: who gets to make history? Conservative Tanner Greer writes about how culture wars are fought and won. Liberal historian Adam Tooze examines the great power clash of the Second World War.

Greer’s core argument is that cultural change happens “gradually then suddenly” as generational turnover shifts which ideas are dominant:

“Cultures do not change when people replace old ideas with new ones; cultures change when people with new ideas replace the people with old ones”

Culture wars are therefore long wars. They can be fought deliberately, but only over multiple generations (“Culture wars are fought for the minds of the unborn", as Greer puts it). I highly recommend the Friedrich Hayek essay Greer cites or, for a left-leaning take, chapter 3 of Inventing the Future, for more on this.

Tooze’s argument is, implicitly, that geopolitical wars are long wars too. He contrasts the fanaticism-in-the-moment of Albert Speer (whose biography by Gita Sereny was one of the best books I read last year) with the Soviets’ multi-decade project to remake the Russian economy. There are some striking parallels between Tooze’s comparison of the Nazi and Soviet strategies and Greer’s accounts of recent culture wars:

"[T]he SS planners sketched their schemes as the fruits of victory and the exploitation of the defeated. It was the reverse of the Soviet project to achieve victory by remaking society”

History may be malleable - but it takes a lot of patience.

Are lives malleable?

Simon Sarris has an excellent new essay on personal agency - and especially the idea that modernity has killed many of the most important "onramps of opportunity" that allow children to develop agency. Modern education is a particular target of Sarris's ire:

"Who could blame young adults for thinking that work is fake and meaningless if we prescribe fake and meaningless work for the first two decades of their existence?"

I sympathise with this (and recommend reading the whole thing) but I'm not fully convinced by the argument.

First, the argument is most compelling for the median person, but Sarris seems most concerned in practice with exceptional individuals. His examples of individuals who benefited from less structured childhoods are some of the great talents of history: Da Vinci, Disney, Steve Jobs, etc. But I wonder if he has confused cause and effect: great talents go "off-script early" because they are great talents (see, e.g., the stories of Vitalik Buterin or Patrick Collison for contemporary examples). We are doubtless missing out on many such people (see TiB 125), but not primarily because of modern schooling.

Second, Sarris underrates the internet. As he acknowledges, "programming is permissionless", but the internet also enables new institutions that welcome people of any age, purely on the basis of talent (or, one might say, "proof of work"). Sarris asks, "Where are the studios, anyway?", referring to the workshops where the young Da Vinci got his start. They are manifold: from open source software and expertise-based communities (e.g. Stack Overflow) to Y Combinator and the Thiel Fellowship (and, I hope, Entrepreneur First). I suspect, in fact, that we will look back and say that the internet ushered in a golden age of individual agency.

Quick links

  1. Requiem for a dream. Listening to music before bed can literally haunt your dreams.
  2. Computer vision meets Lego. Amazing demo. (See also: high-res microscopes made of Lego)
  3. Policy in a cold climate. People vastly underestimate other people's concerns about climate change (and worry more themselves once they realise).
  4. Space (Population 10). Fun chart and facts on space population (The last time we were a fully earthbound species was 31 October 2000)
  5. Trouble and strife? Fascinating summary of a paper on how royal intermarriages kept the peace for centuries

The bit at the end

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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