Maximum Reasonable Wealth

Assume you endorse basic leftwing principles of equality. How much wealth can you defensibly accumulate? I am explicitly trying to estimate the upper bound of reasonable. I would say a fair line is ‘enough money that you never need to work again’. You can plausibly justify liberating yourself from capitalism. But you cannot justify any more than that.

How much money do you need to safely stop working? I would say the answer is at most 400-500K. The 4% rule says you can safely withdraw 4% of your savings each year and never run out.  The rate was originally computed by assuming:

  • You were invested 50/50 in treasury bonds and the S&P 500
  • You needed to survive 30 years
  • The earliest start date considered is 1925

Four percent was the highest rate that never went broke, even in the worst case. However, this rate is fairly conservative. It assumes you are not going to get any money from social security and or other government programs. I also think it is unreasonable to expect 100% safety. If you have 400K you are objectively much safer than the vast majority of people! If things look bad early you can rebuild your wealth a bit. So I think a 5% rule is probably reasonable.

You can certainly live in most of the United States on 20K. I did it in Pennsylvania for years without any serious effort. It is harder to live in a rich area but being liberated from capitalism does not mean you are liberated to live in San Fransisco. The computations for a committed pair (or trio etc) are more complicated. Obviously, the upper bound of one million holds. But many couples find they save quite a lot by living together. You can compute 20-25 times your combined yearly expenses and see how it compares.

What are the implications of this? If you already have 500K in wealth, unspent income should immediately be donated or given away. If you do not already have 500K, you should definitely still give away money as you make it. Most people who claim they will donate later are just deluding themselves. And even if you really do donate later, amassing resources is always concentrating power. We need equality, not philanthropy. Following these norms can make it hard to own a home in even mid-priced cities. But there is always a leftwing solution. Housing can, and should, be owned collectively. The upper bound should not be used as an excuse to waste money instead of giving it away.

I reiterate this is just an upper bound. If you are comfortable with less of a safety net there is no need to accumulate so much. The advice in this article is only relevant if you have already decided to work a relatively lucrative job. If you are a full-time activist then you are unlikely to face the question of “how much wealth can I justify accumulating?”. But there are many people who identify as leftwing and do have lucrative sources of income.

Computing this sort of number at all can seem like a justification for inequality. But the conclusion has some radical-ish implications. For example, arguably the leading leftist in the United States is Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders has a net worth of around 2.5 million dollars. This is objectively not ok and fellow leftists should say so. It is especially unacceptable given that he is almost 80 years old and has access to many safety nets. He really should immediately sell off his property and donate the proceeds. In ‘Why You Should be a Socialist’ Nathan Robinson defends Bernie’s wealth. Nathan Robinson is a leading leftist figure in the United States and our conclusion is that he is insufficiently radical.

Mass Incarceration

The US incarceration rate is about 0.7%. About 2.3 million people are incarcerated. About 4.5 million more people are on probation or parole. The world median rate is around 0.14%.  This means we incarcerate about five times as many people as we would if we had sane policies. I am skeptical you need to incarcerate anywhere near 0.14% of your population. But you certainly don’t need to incarcerate more!

How bad is this? We have, at least, an extra 1.84 million people in jail. They don’t need to be there to maintain a reasonable level of safety. Many, probably most, of them are in conditions bad enough to constitute torture. A key promise, which I accept and you perhaps do not, is that punishment is never inherently good. We are also well past the point where we are deterring crime by incarcerating people. Givewell says the following:

The best estimate of the impact of additional incarceration on crime in the United States today is zero. And, while that estimate is not certain, there is as much reason overall to believe that incarceration increases crime as decreases it.

Trapping people in jail for no good reason is effectively kidnapping. Kidnapping millions of people and torturing a large percentage of them is very bad! Some people would say I am making the ‘worst argument in the world’. But this is my actual feeling. If you forcibly imprison people you need a very good reason or else you are indeed kidnapping them. Maybe you did not intend to kidnap them but you did.

Mass incarceration in the USA is a human rights abuse on an extremely large scale. You should support any remotely reasonable efforts to reduce the incarceration rate. Certainly, you should support the Black Lives Matter protests regardless of whether some property gets damaged. Even if you quibble with the word kidnapping we are ruining millions of lives for no good reason. This has to end!

 

Please Save Us

Last night I prayed for the first time in over a decade. I don’t think God is very likely to exist. But I cried and begged for help. There are so many earthlings suffering terribly. Pigs are being steamed to death or kept in cages their whole lives. Humans are kept in solitary confinement. Animals in the wild are being eaten alive. The possibility of electronic lifeforms means the future might be even worse. Humanity has used its current power to build hell on earth and torture tens of billions of land animals. What will future humans use their greater powers to do?

But even if humanity comes to its senses wild animals will still be suffering massively. Some people think we should destroy most of the biosphere. But our brothers and sisters in the wild are earthlings too. They have the same right to live that we do.

It all feels like a bad LSD trip. Personal identity is ultimately an illusion. The fact that the suffering isn’t happening to ‘me’ doesn’t make it any less real. There is no escape without truly radical change. All we can do is hope and work for a better future. But I don’t know if I can believe that compassion will win in the end. I don’t know how much hope I have left for a good future.

God, if you are out there, please save your children. I don’t know if we can save ourselves. Our nature is to be cruel to one another. Please save us. Please.

 

People hate non-shockers

There is a well-known thought experiment about bad equilibria that goes something like this:

A society has the following rules:

— Everyone must publicly electro-shock themselves 8 hours per day.

— If you see someone not shocking themselves then you must kill them

— Anyone who violates the second rule must also be killed. The same is true for all meta levels. Non-killers of non-killers of … of non-shockers must be killed.

This equilibrium can get locked in even if every single person dislikes it. I think similar but weaker dynamics apply all the time in normal life. Why is there so much hyperbolic hate directed against furries?

Most are people are very repressed. Society has a norm that you need to keep ‘low status’ or ‘cringey’ aspects of yourself private. Furries openly violate these norms. People feel the urge to punish them even if they are not directly disgusted. Being seen as tolerant toward furries puts them at risk. The furries are effectively forcing people to choose between self-preservation and punishing someone else. People hate being forced to make these choices.

I don’t claim this is the only dynamic at play. People also like to look down on official low-status groups to feel better about themselves. But it is an important dynamic.

Non-Duality

There was once a poetry contest to determine the next Zen Patriarch. Yeno was the chief monk of the Patriarch’s monastery and the heir apparent. He wrote this:

The body is a Bodhi-tree
The soul a shining mirror:
Polish it with study
Or dust will dull the image.

No one openly challenged. Huineng was a low ranked monk who worked in the kitchen. At night he wrote his poem below the chief monk’s.

Bodhi is not a tree;
There is no shining mirror.
Since All begins with Nothing
Where can dust collect?

The current Patriarch chose Huineng as his successor, and Yeno had to flee for his safety. This split Zen into two schools. Huineng’s Southern School taught that enlightenment was sudden. Yeno’s Northern School taught that enlightenment was gradual. Eventually, the schools merged but Huineng’s influence was great. Sudden enlightenment became the standard doctrine of Zen.

The Zen/Chan tradition teaches that we are fundamentally already enlightened.

The Chan tradition does not usually refer to steps or stages. Its central teaching is that we are intrinsically awake; our mind is originally without abiding, fixations, and vexations, and its nature is without divisions and stages. This is the basis of the Chan view of sudden enlightenment. If our mind’s nature were not already free, that would imply we could become enlightened only after we practiced, which is not so. If it’s possible to gain enlightenment, then it’s possible to lose it as well.

The question that immediately comes to mind is, “If we are already enlightened, why do we need to meditate?” There are many traditional answers. The above article offers this response.

In the Chan tradition, therefore, practice is not about producing enlightenment. You might wonder, “Then what am I doing here, practic­ing?” Because practice does help clean up the “furniture” in the “room.” By not attaching to your thoughts, you remove the furniture, so to speak. And once your mind is clean, instead of fixating on the chairs, tables, and so on, you see its spaciousness. Then you can let the furniture be or rearrange it any way you want—not for yourself, but for the benefit of others in the room.

I think it is often useful to look at practical cases. People are commonly advised to “submit to the experience” when they trip. “Be yourself” is such common advice it is a cliche. How can this sort of advice work? Isn’t the feeling of “freaking out and trying to make it stop” a part of the experience of a bad trip? You are already yourself. If you want different results something has to change about your approach. Despite these objections, I think both pieces of advice are quite good. But there is a koan-like quality to any advice that promises positive change through acceptance.

I have a history of struggling with loss of control. I often lucid dream. When I realize I am dreaming I often feel an extremely strong desire to force myself to wake up. This tends to make the experience negative. When I can relax and not try to “prove” I can end the dream I can have a good time.

This all came to mind after a recent experience I had meditating while peaking on shrooms. Meditating made the experience dramatically stronger. Immediately after I started I reached a pretty deep state. I felt like I was standing on the wing of a giant bird flying through space. Things were clearly about to take off and get even crazier. Before things got too crazy I opened my eyes. I had lost an opportunity. But I realized that if I am going to practice acceptance I need to have compassion for my own flaws. I closed my eyes again and had a less crazy but quite good experience.

Last night I lucid dreamed. This time I did not try to wake up.

What does ‘Actually Trying’ look like?

Earlier today I talked to someone about why so few rationalists are continuing the work of developing rationality. I said that there actually seemed to be many rationalists working on mental technology. The problem is that he did not seem to be a fan of what people are actually working on. He would prefer they work on stuff closer to the CFAR handbook. There are some people working on things like that. For example my friend Shrikant and his group.

However a lot of rationalists who are ‘actually trying’ have gotten into somewhat ‘weirder’ things. Here are some of the topics:

It is perhaps not obvious why ‘actually trying’ would correlate with openness to unusual ideas, even among rationalists. But perhaps it is not surprising at all. Eliezer had a lot of weird ideas. People who actually take up his mantle are not going to be afraid of getting into weird stuff. People who just like the community are more likely to stick to the basic rationalist stuff. Personally, I love the people who are carrying on the mantle of the sequences instead of trying to seem normal.

Dzogchen

…there is an ending [to Infinite Jest] as far as I’m concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book’s failed for you.

— David Foster Wallace

You can read Aaron Scwartz explain the ending to Infinite Jest here. It is really a wild ride.

Raymond Arnold has argued that honest disagreements often take years to resolve, even if all participants are acting in good faith. Of course, Ray is descriptively right. Even when reasonable people eventually change their minds, it can take years. But I think we can often do better. It is easy to make mistakes with conservation of expected evidence, but the expected value of the change in your beliefs should be zero.

Often you can feel how the story is going to end. Perhaps you accept a certain argument and one of your true cruxes falls. Sometimes the way this manifests is that you feel an aversion to considering certain arguments. The reason for this aversion is that you don’t actually have a good response. All theories have anomalies. But clear your mind and imagine thinking about the issue for a long time. Or imagine looking back in twenty years. Wherever you feel you will end up in the future is where you should be now.

Dzogchen is a Buddhist practice most associated with Tibet. It has been described as “complete enlightenment in one instant”. Once you feel the parallel lines converging there is no need to draw things out. You can let go. It is genuinely inspiring to interact with people who can change their mind without delay. Become enlightened instantly!

Don’t Eat Animal Products!

Let us estimate the ongoing hedonic utilitarian costs of eating animal products (roughly being a carnist). There are about 70 billion farmed animals. Around two-thirds are intensively farmed. Therefore, the average carnist is responsible for the ongoing mistreatment of about 10 animals. About two-thirds of those animals are being tortured.

This analysis ignores both fish and the severe environmental impacts of carnism. It also ignores the morality of both killing and exploitation. I do not think exploitation is ok and I think consuming animal products is considerably worse than this analysis suggests. But many rationalists and effective altruists endorse extremely low estimates of the harm caused by carnism. I think their analysis tends to be heavily biased and it is useful to have a quick estimate that demonstrates this.

Imagine a person who keeps ten animals in bad conditions in their basement. Two-thirds of those animals are in horrific conditions and regularly tortured. How much would they need to donate to offset their bad behavior? Does offsetting seem like a reasonable idea in this context? Claiming that you can cheaply offset such behavior seems absurd to me.

Some people claim the marginal impact of eating meat is low. But in equilibrium supply should roughly equal demand. Effective altruists have written quite a bit about how we need to avoid overcounting credit. We also need to avoid undercounting blame. If you consume the average amount of animal products, you are to blame for the average amount of animals being farmed.

Something that actually reduces your impact is changing your diet. For example, there are only about 268 million dairy cows. So one cow produces enough dairy for about twenty-six people. And dairy cows have better lives than pigs/chickens. Conversely, a hen lays about one egg per day. So the number of egg-laying hens being tortured on an ongoing basis on your behalf is approximately equal to your average daily egg consumption. (almost all egg-laying hens are treated very badly).

Solidarity with Palestine

I found this vision of the near future fairly disturbing.

On his first day, he was told to download a program called WorkSmart. In a video, Crossover CEO Andy Tryba describes the program as a “FitBit for work.” The modern worker is constantly interacting with cloud apps, he says, and that produces huge quantities of information about how they’re spending their time — information that’s mostly thrown away. That data should be used to enhance productivity, he says. Citing Cal Newport’s popular book Deep Work, about the perils of distraction and multitasking, he says the software will enable workers to reach new levels of intense focus. Tryba displays a series of charts, like a defragmenting hard drive, showing a worker’s day going from scattered distraction to solid blocks of uninterrupted productivity.

WorkSmart did, in fact, transform Rony’s day into solid blocks of productivity because if it ever determined he wasn’t working hard enough, he didn’t get paid. The software tracked his keystrokes, mouse clicks, and the applications he was running, all to rate his productivity. He was also required to give the program access to his webcam. Every 10 minutes, the program would take three photos at random to ensure he was at his desk. If Rony wasn’t there when WorkSmart took a photo, or if it determined his work fell below a certain threshold of productivity, he wouldn’t get paid for that 10-minute interval. Another person who started with Rony refused to give the software webcam access and lost his job.

Of course, the article scared me because I can easily imagine this happening to me. But many workers are already constantly surveilled and pushed to their limits. The article talks about Amazon.

Jake, who asked to use a pseudonym out of fear of retribution, was a “rebinner.” His job was to take an item off a conveyor belt, press a button, place the item in whatever cubby a monitor told him to, press another button, and repeat. He likened it to doing a twisting lunge every 10 seconds, nonstop, though he was encouraged to move even faster by a giant leaderboard, featuring a cartoon sprinting man, that showed the rates of the 10 fastest workers in real time. A manager would sometimes keep up a sports announcer patter over the intercom — “In third place for the first half, we have Bob at 697 units per hour,” Jake recalled. Top performers got an Amazon currency they could redeem for Amazon Echos and company T-shirts. Low performers got fired.

“You’re not stopping,” Jake said. “You are literally not stopping. It’s like leaving your house and just running and not stopping for anything for 10 straight hours, just running.”

As bad as things are for Amazon workers they could easily get worse as technology improves. Technology is now being used to oppress entire societies. Palestine is under constant surveillance. Thanks to technology a fairly small number of Israelis can monitor and suppress millions of Palestinians. China has been rolling out AI-powered technology. Facial recognition is used on a huge scale. Horrifying these technologies are also being used on the Uyghurs in Xinyang. As many as a million Uyghurs are in literal camps. But the other ten million are being monitored on an incredibly intimate level.

For now, many of us have some degree of freedom. But the NSA shows that our freedoms can be violated too. Many of us enjoy freedom in our jobs but that can change rapidly.

While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

— Eugene Debs

There is a metaphorical sense in which the above quote is true. But there is also a more literal sense. The machinery of oppression has not been dismantled until every soul is free. As long as the machinery is operational it can be turned on us. If we want real freedom we need to destroy every system of oppression.

Solidarity with all the oppressed peoples of the world!