Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]

Originally published 14 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017.

Attention Conservation Notice: Robin Hanson has written a provocative book illuminating the contributions social science can make to understanding the future, even if the details are (amply) debatable.

What will the future look like? Social scientists pay a great deal less attention to this question than they should. There are departments of History, but no departments of Future–nor even a great number of academics whose primary research program explores the future.

There are good reasons for this. All of our evidence about how humans and human societies behave exists in the past (yes, literally all of it). The future, by contrast, may not even occur. Theorizing about the future, then, appears from one direction to look like nothing so much as a modern version of medieval Scholasticism–or, as the demotic version goes, like playing tennis without a net.

But the optimal level of effort to be invested in thinking seriously about the future is not zero, or close to zero. Indeed, it’s interesting that businesses and governments are more likely, not less, to invest resources in trying to estimate at least the parameters within which the near future will take place — for instance, as reflected in the US intelligence community’s Global Trends reports or Bill Gates’s now-forgotten The Road Ahead. More to the point, even though all of our evidence comes from the past, none of us will live there–and (almost) all of us will live in the future.

Robin Hanson’s Age of Em represents a significant intervention in debates about what kind of futures to envision, how to envision those futures, and why we should do so in the first place. Hanson’s future concerns a post-human society within the next 100 to 1,000 years in which whole-brain-scanned humans exist as emulations (or “ems”) within a joint virtual-physical world. Within this civilization, the limits of physics trump the limits of biological life, and ems are able to work and live in a population that expands at rates closer to insects or bacteria than to homo sapiens. As a consequence, the GDP of em-world increases rapidly—doubling every month or so—even as the population heads towards the trillions and wage rates plummet toward subsistence (which, Hanson notes, is the historical regularity within human societies over time and for most life-forms generally).

Continue reading “Robin Hanson, The Age of Em [Review]”

Stalin and the Scientists, Joseph Ings [Review]

Somehow, reading about the Soviet history has become my hobby. Readers should therefore appreciate in advance that my comments here are from a particular standpoint. And I should also note that I have no love for the Soviet state: I think that Ronald Reagan was more right than wrong when he called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”


I also grew up in the shadow of the Cold War in the American Midwest. The demotic understanding of the USSR was that they were the bad guys–pre-1991, they were bad guys who wanted to kill (enslave? humiliate?) us, and post-1991 they were the bad guys who lost because their system was bad. The sophisticated explanation, based on a mishmash of Orwell, Chambers, and Koestler (often as translated through third- and fourth-hand impressions of those texts), was that Soviet society was a particular kind of evil, a melange of the gray and the violent.

Reprogramming myself from that perspective began with, surprisingly enough, a Time-Life book called, simply, The Soviet Union. I encountered this on my middle-school library’s shelves, which meant that this had to have happened post-collapse (1993 or 1994). I think I read it eight or nine times; I know for certain I stole it from the library (a sin, to be sure, but I don’t think that I’ve deprived anyone of its circulation!).  I was enthralled by the portrait of Soviet normalcy it portrayed: people getting married, people going to work, people attending poetry readings (a novel thought in more than one way), people engaging in “hero projects” to build the trans-Siberian railroad, and so on. The overwhelming takeaways were that the Soviets were … normal. Poor. Constricted. But normal. Everyday people made their life there, and considered other ways of living strange.

Heady stuff at 12 years of age

I know now about the fine variations in Soviet strategies of rule–the distinctions between 1937, 1957, and 1977 in the USSR are almost as familiar to me now as the parallel changes in, say, British life would be. But it’s in the spirit of that first shock that a culture could exist on so fundamentally different lines that I continue to read about Soviet history. In essence, I’m still trying to square the puzzle of my childhood: how could people living in a system so different from mine nevertheless seem so similar?

Simon Ings’s Stalin and the Scientists speaks more to my chosen career now (although I wish for a companion volume: Stalin and the Social Scientists). How did Soviets at the height of Stalinism do science? Ings’s answer is: cautiously, but with more dedication than one would expect.

Ings’s world of Soviet science focuses on the mixture of the political and the scientific. As he writes (xiv), “In the end, only obedience mattered. Stalin believed that science should serve the state.” For a political scientist, I will confess to a slight frisson at the idea that STEM should be so subordinated to the political; contemporary American discourse makes the opposite claim (frequently to its demerit). Of course, the result of this was awful: “It was counterproductive. It was tantamount to wrecking.” (xv) This led to a bizarre paradox: “By the time Stalin died on 5 March 1953, the Soviet Union boasted the largeest and best-funded scientific establishment in history. It was at once the glory and the laughing stock of the intellectual world.” (xv)

This was the system that produced both the first artificial satellite and Trofim Lysenko’s counter-Darwin explanation of evolution, both the first man in space and the waste of Kazakhstan’s virgin lands. So what happened?

At this point,  I have links to share. To learn more about the Soviet science system, I recommend:

Continue reading “Stalin and the Scientists, Joseph Ings [Review]”

Talking Points for Panel on Trump and Foreign Policy

Donald Trump Signs the Pledge, by Flickr User Michael Vadon

These were my notes for a presentation at a campuswide panel at UMASS delivered on 16 November 2016. They were originally posted then but were lost in the Great Server Mistake of 2017. I’m reposting them here, unaltered.

What can we expect from the Trump administration in its foreign policy?

It is difficult to tell. The Trump campaign is perhaps the least vetted on foreign policy since–ironically–the Clinton ’92 campaign. Trump is long on attitudes and chauvinism (in the literal, textbook sense of that word), but he is short on specifics.

Three major trends seem likely:

  1. The liberal trade order will be substantially modified, if not ended.
  2. The U.S.-led alliance system will be substantially weakened, if not catastrophically eroded.
  3. The post-Second World War period of U.S. leadership and hegemony will likely come to a close.

Let me stress that what I am most certain of is the width of the error bars in my predictions, not in the point prediction itself. The Trump administration could be, at best, weakly mediocre in its exercise of U.S. leadership. The depth of foreign distrust and shock in the Trump administration — and in what it represents for U.S. legitimacy — cannot realistically permit anything more than that. The worst-case scenario, to be frank, is the worst-case scenario, and even if that remains unlikely it is much more likely than it was a couple of weeks ago.

Continue reading “Talking Points for Panel on Trump and Foreign Policy”

Iraq Casualties and GOP Vote Share: A Review of Some Literature

For reasons involving real research, I need to see whether and how much the Iraq war affected the Bush administration’s electoral record. I’m reviewing some of the literature here, partly as a public accountability mechanism, partly as a personal note, and partly to see if anyone else has anything to add.

The theoretical stakes for me here are not, quite, in the realm of voter behavior. Rather, I’m interested in adjudicating whether claims that voters punish incumbents for mishandling foreign policy are well-founded. In particular, what are we to make of the fact that the internationally popular, swift, and decisive 1991 Iraq War was followed by George H.W. Bush’s defeat, while the internationally unpopular, grinding, and essentially doomed 2003 Iraq War was followed by George W. Bush’s victory? Does this mean that Iraq “didn’t matter” for 2004/2006/2008? Such a finding would contrast with the claim that the Iraq war was at the core of Republicans’ electoral reversals in 2006 and 2008.

Although this lit review meandered a bit from a tight focus on the elections, the general findings seem defensible:

  • it’s really hard to establish direct causality between the war and election outcomes–if only we could run experiments!
  • there seem to be clear evidence that war casualties affected evaluations of the president and legislators
  • these effects were mostly driven by local news coverage and local elections (whether that ‘local’ is ‘state’ or ‘county’ remains to be seen)
  • the absolute biggest magnitudes of these effects are distressingly small–enough to shift a presidential election but not to wildly reject a challenger or incumbent on the basis of competence
  • approval for the war and vote returns for presidents seem to track perceptions of success and support for the decision to begin the war as well as costs
  • inference in the first term is compounded by rally effects from 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war
  • to the extent that Republicans suffered because of the war (a finding that seems reasonable), such electoral retribution was largely a result of local casualties  and relatively modest in scope.

Continue reading “Iraq Casualties and GOP Vote Share: A Review of Some Literature”

Conspiracy Thinking In The Age of Trump

Originally written for Formichewhich published an Italian translation.

Americans long held up the quality of their democracy as a standard for the rest of the world to follow. In many political science metrics, other democracies are—literally—measured against American democracy to determine their quality; in theorizing about how “democracy” works, American institutions are routinely adduced as an unproblematic model. One of the supposed strengths of American institutions was that the sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories that appeared in other countries were, allegedly, never influential in the United States.

Continue reading “Conspiracy Thinking In The Age of Trump”

Quick Thoughts On Constitutional Amendments I’d Like

It’s clear to everyone-and I mean everyone-that the Constitution badly needs amendments. Here are my thoughts about what those should be with the caveat that I set a timer for 12 minutes to put these down.

Although I often strive to present relatively evidence-based recommendations in areas of my expertise, what follows is more a spur toward better theorizing than a distillation of disciplinary wisdom. But, lets face it, part of never letting a crisis go to waste is acting on our instincts tempered by evidence. The whole point of a crisis, after all, is that matters are unsettled–and when they are unsettled, extrapolations from the past should be radically discounted.

Continue reading “Quick Thoughts On Constitutional Amendments I’d Like”

The Successes of the Failed State of Texas

Erik Loomis picks up on something hidden in plain sight: the terrible war record of the Republic of Texas. Loomis’s post quotes from a War is Boring post that asks how a country with as pitiful a war record as the Republic of Texas could survive.

Lets get things straight: Robert Beckhusen, the War is Boring writer, is absolutely right. Heres how I describe Texas’s war for independence in my (current draft of my) dissertation:

The case begins with two shocks: the independence of the Republic of Texas and U.S. President Andrew Jacksons refusal to allow its bid for annexation to proceed. Anglo-American settlers had colonized parts of the sparsely inhabited Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas, first at the invitation of the Mexican government and then illegally after Mexico City, worried about U.S. influence, sought to halt colonization. Political turmoil within Mexico led to a revolt among the Anglo-Texans. The Texans victory was unexpected, since they were a population of a few tens of thousands without an effective government fighting a Mexican government that (at least nominally) ruled a country of several millions. The Texans war was mostly disastrous, marked by military calamities such as the defeat at the Alamo, until a decisive victory at San Jacinto on April 2, 1836, that left only a handful of Texans dead but the bulk of the Mexican expeditionary force killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Among the prisoners was Santa Anna, who signed a treaty granting the breakaway republic independence.

Wading through oceans of Texas historiography, I quickly discovered that most people who have written about Texas–and almost everyone who reads about it–wants to give Texas a glamorous past. To the extent that anyones encountered Texas history, then, they’ve come up against the most sanitized, and boring, version of the tale.

Yet simply rejecting the sanitized version of the history is misguided. The real question is, knowing how badly off the Texans were, how was it that they managed to win, and maintain, the country’s independence? As ever, focusing on only one side of the question–Texas’s manifest incompetence–gives an incomplete answer. The real story is the fact that Mexico was even worse off. In other words, the Texans were terrible at war, but the Mexicans were even worse. After all, the Mexicans couldn’t even defeat the Texans. Why?
Continue reading “The Successes of the Failed State of Texas”