Saturday, May 23, 2020


I had been hoping to start commenting on another book by now, but the one I was reading wasn't worth it. It was on algorithms and turned out to be too basic and, therefore, though it did cover the general history of algorithms, did not go as far as I thought it ought to have on how they should to be deployed in the future. It is already evident that algorithms control many aspects of human life, and that, well short of AGI (artificial general intelligence), it will be possible to use them to make collective decisions for large populations in a manner that benefits the majority and doesn't hinge on the intractable irrational impulses that often dominate human behavior. This is a rather obvious need at the moment, with poorly-informed populist leaders taking the stage and facilitating preventable deaths while ignoring established science. It is embarrassing to have to think about the ludicrous statements made by Donald Trump, when it is now common knowledge that, besides remaining uninformed on COVID-19, his only motivation is to be reelected in November regardless of the human costs. The cognitive weaknesses embodied by Trump become more dangerous when they are magnified by unrealistic expectations about the efficacy of democratic political processes. One need only look at Trump's political career to see that from the start he has been self-centered, dishonest and unprepared to act in the best interest of voters. Recently he has demonstrated that he is perfectly willing to have thousands of them die unnecessarily if he thinks that it will facilitate his reelection. Even as responsible news outlets expose him on a daily basis as the dangerous charlatan that he is, there remains a foolish belief that the usual political process is the only suitable recourse, regardless of the growing costs of his incumbency.

Speaking of algorithms, I think it would be fairly easy to construct ones that would predict the likely outcomes of political figures in office by studying the backgrounds of politicians and comparing them to their subsequent political careers. For example, although Obama was somewhat successful and was respected as president, it might be shown that his lack of leadership experience, conformity and a desire to please offset his ability to empathize, which had helped him get elected. In the end, his weaknesses rendered him ineffectual as president. The case is more obvious with Donald Trump. Politicians who promote flagrant lies prior to election, such as birtherism, are more likely to lie in office. Similarly, those who conceal their financial records are more likely to have engaged in illicit transactions. With Trump, there remains the possibility that he has bungled most of his business initiatives and is now heavily dependent on money funneled to him through Deutsche Bank from Russian oligarchs. A subtle analysis might reveal some of the more elusive Trump characteristics. He has been using a grifter strategy for his entire adult life and lacks the flexibility to learn or adapt in office. This has only become apparent gradually, because Trump is in the habit of believing his own lies. It didn't emerge until recently that although Trump clearly pressured the government of Ukraine to provide negative information on Joe Biden in return for military aid, he couldn't see anything ethically wrong with it, because he is accustomed to thinking that his transactions are all for his personal benefit, and that he has no responsibility for anyone else. Another Trump habit that has become more obvious over time is his use of new distractions to escape close scrutiny on other questionable actions that he's taken; this particular strategy isn't very sophisticated and is commonly used by con men, but Trump has used it effectively since he was elected, because it keeps his critics off balance. Thus, the Trump presidency has played out as an emerging pathology that, despite being spotted by psychologists at the start, never found its way to public consciousness until it was too late. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has increasingly demonstrated that, not only does he disregard facts that conflict with his narrative, but that he also doesn't understand basic science and remains indifferent to the thousands of lives that have been lost due to his incompetence. I think that research along these lines, working from data on many politicians in many countries over many years, could reveal the predicted outcome for individual politicians in the environments where they work. If that information were publicly available, it would be much easier to avoid future Trump-like debacles. In the end, I think that AGI will be better at governing than humans, but this could be an intermediate step.

One bright spot at the moment is the emergence of Bill Gates as a potential new pundit. It seems that to a large extent competent people have been steering clear of political careers in the U.S. for some time now, because they recognize that they can make more money, do more interesting work, provide greater public service, etc., by pursuing other fields. Although I have been less than enthusiastic about Gates in the past, in this situation he is a breath of fresh air, and with any luck he will attract additional competent people to the realm of public policy. From my readings, the field of public policy, which has improved in recent years, is still in a state of disarray, partly because it doesn't all fall under one academic aegis and is splintered, and partly because much of it is subverted by the influence of commercial interests. For example, private companies have become adept at privatizing institutions such as prisons and schools, only to gut whatever was there and monopolize profits without providing any measurable social benefits. The active involvement of people like Bill Gates in public policy could improve the likelihood of wider implementation of science-based policies. The political process in the U.S. is severely antiquated and could benefit significantly from the help of technocrats.

I haven't had much luck finding any book that I really desire to read, and have settled on Capital and Ideology, by Thomas Piketty, even though it is very long and had mixed reviews. I appreciate the fact that Piketty emphasizes equality far more than most American economists and think it should be the focus of the field. I am also hoping that he will include various cultural and literary anecdotes, which I thought spiced up Capital in the Twenty-First Century and made up for often dull reading.

William has resumed his serial killer habits. This morning there was a dead chipmunk in the basement, and the other day he brought in a dead hummingbird and left it by the sofa while we were watching TV. Most mornings there are new mouse parts on the porch, but at least he hasn't been climbing the screens.

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