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The phrase "defensive alliance" is ambiguous. The rival meanings are not inherently incompatible. But in practise they tend in opposite directions. When the ambiguity is resolved some-one feels cheated.

To see the problem picture four countries, Timidland, Moralland, Weakland, and Aggroland. Timidland is spending more on defence than it wants to because it fears being attacked by Aggroland. Moralland is also spending more than it wants to on defence because it too fears attack by Aggroland. But the internal politics of Moralland are complicated. The moral thing to do is to build a larger army, attack Aggroland and liberate the people of Aggroland from the tyranny of the Chief Aggro. Or is that the moral thing to do? Isn't war bad?

Timidland and Moralland form an alliance. It is a "defensive alliance" meaning that Timidland will come to Moralland's aid if Aggroland attacks Moralland. But the people of Timidland are aware of the complicated internal politics of Moralland and it is explicit that if Moralland attacks Aggroland, then Moralland is on its own. Even instigating voids the alliance.

The problem arises because history isn't that neat. The 1914-1918 war starts with the Austro-Hungarian Empire giving an ultimatum to Serbia, Russia comes to Serbia's aid, Germany comes to Austria's aid, France and Britain have alliances to honour and end up fighting. If we want political theory to relate to the real world, we need to think about Moralland extending guarantees to Weakland.

Aggroland invades Weakland. Moralland supplies weapons to Weakland. And advisers. Eventually troops. Moralland artillery is shelling Aggroland invaders on Weakland soil from positions in Moralland. Counter battery fire from Aggrotroops in Weakland is hitting positions in Moralland. Does this trigger the defensive alliance and suck Timidland into the war?

Some Timidians argue that they never agreed to give guarantees to Weakland. Given the complicated history of the region, they would have refused to get involved if they had been asked. Others are saying that Moralland are the good guys. Of course Timidland must join the war. What use is a defensive alliance is you don't defend your allies? Peaceful Timidians feel that they have been out manoeuvred, and are being forced to honour guarantees to Weakland that they never made.

If Timidland is pulled into the war by the chains of the alliance, we can be more specific than calling it a defensive alliance. It was a "chaining alliance".

But what should we call a non-chaining alliance? I've picked the word "isolating". That is clearly wrong in theory. The terms of the alliance don't forbid Moralland from extending security guarantees to Weakland, they merely classify that as instigating; Moralland cannot call upon Timidland to help honour the guarantee.

But theory and practice disagree. The internal politics of Moralland has its guns-before-butter faction. They saw the alliance as a matter of building military strength, with a view to regime change in Aggroland, to save the world from the danger presented by the Chief Aggro. Moralland also has a butter-before-guns faction, that see the alliance as an opportunity to economise on defence spending, freeing up money for schools, hospitals, road, pensions, police, industrial policy, the climate emergency, tax cuts,... The list is endless. We see the likely outcome in Europe. NATO agrees that all members should spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. Most don't. The other priorities take precedence. In practice the non-chaining alliance leads to Moralland cutting defence spending. They are after all moral and pensioners deserve higher pensions, etc. The guns-before-butter faction are aghast to find that they have been out manoeuvred. They nearly had the army that they needed to protect Weakland from Aggroland. The alliance with Timidland was supposed to add to the army. In practise it subtracted. Moralland's own army has shrunk and Timidland's army is not available. The isolating alliance has left them isolated, unable to offer security guarantees to Weakland.

Obviously my fine distinction has contemporary resonances, but after World War Three reduces Europe and America to radioactive rubble, the run up to World War Four will involve China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia. Will they continue the tradition of talking about defensive alliances? Or will they embrace the distinction between chaining alliances and isolating alliances? I locate this essay in the British tradition of analytic philosophy, looking at words and attempting to resolve their ambiguities. Not all ambiguities; just those with large consequences.

Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: The Machine Politician Vs the Administrative State

Once upon a time, in the bad old days, American politics was dominated by the so-called “urban political machines.” These machines, composed of unelected, self-appointed elites, chose political candidates based on their own narrow interests and exploited uneducated and impoverished city-dwellers for their votes. By perpetuating a ruling elite based on cronyism rather than competence, they impeded good government and held back progress. Fortunately, around the turn of the twentieth century, a series of reforms broke the power of the urban bosses and ushered in a more enlightened ruling class who governed for the sake of the greater good.

That’s the popular narrative, anyway. Like many (most?) people here on the motte, I’m broadly skeptical of high modernity, progressivism, and Whig history. Accordingly, I’ve always been dubious about the knee-jerk “machine politics=bad” reaction. This skepticism has been intensified by the general failure of western efforts to transplant our own political institutions into the third world, where such clientalist arrangements are still pretty common. Clearly, they’re working for someone, or else everyone, presumably, would joyfully adopt US norms and institutions. I happened to come across a primary source from the hey-day of machine politics, “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall” (available on Project Gutenberg), in which a very successful machine politician described his business in his own words. It was brief but compelling read; I’ll be describing my impressions below, mixed in with some larger thoughts about machines as a form of political organization.

Most people have probably heard of Tammany Hall. From roughly 1789 to the 1930s, the organization exercised a dominating influence in New York city politics, occasionally verging on an outright monopoly. George Washington Plunkitt was a life-long New Yorker and proud “practical politician” associated with Tammany Hall throughout his career. “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall” is largely told in his voice, with occasional notes from his editor. And it’s a compelling voice. Plunkitt may or may not have been a criminal, and he was certainly not a responsible leader by modern lights. But he is a charming and often insightful raconteur. I’m not sure I’d loan him any money, but I’d definitely buy him a beer.

Much of that charm comes down to his frankness. Plunkitt is quite honest about having gotten rich off of politics, though he denies having broken any laws. He claims to practice what he calls “honest graft”, which seems nowadays equivalent to what we could call insider trading, using his knowledge of city politics to make favorable investments. So far as I can tell, this wasn’t actually considered a crime, though it certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. Likewise, Plunkitt is extremely frank about appointing friends and associates to government jobs as a reward for their political support. He expresses shock at the suggestion you would do it any other way. Nothing seems to excite his ire more than “the curse of Civil Service reform” a topic he harangues the reader on frequently, and to which we shall return in a moment. One of the first things that struck me in the text was Plunkitt’s de-emphasis on what we moderns would normally consider a key skill of a politician, public speaking. “The men who rule have practiced keepin’ their tongues still, not exercisin’ them. So you want to drop the orator idea unless you mean to go into politics just to perform the skyrocket act.” Nation-wide media was relatively new in Plunkitt’s time, the trans-continental telegraph only having been completed in 1861. Nation-wide broadcast media was not even a twinkle in Marconi’s eye yet. Presumably, in such an environment the kind of mass popular appeal that politicians today cultivate was much less of a requirement.

There are probably some readers who will point to the general mediocrity of most political speeches today and argue that no, party-elite connections are still what matters. I won’t say these people are entirely wrong, but I don’t think they’re entirely right either. It seems very unlikely to me that, for example, Barack Obama’s popularity within the college-educated demographic was entirely unrelated to his ability to performatively model PMCi-values on a national stage. For that matter, Trump is frequently cited as someone who enjoyed considerable success in spite of a general lack of party-elite connections. I suspect the increasing importance of nationwide broadcast media was a significant contributor to the eventual decline of the machines.

Closely related to this is the role of class dynamics. Plunkitt comes across as something I didn’t realize existed, an urban populist. Speaking of a hypothetical candidate who asserts “I took first prize in college at Aristotle; I can recite all of Shakespeare forwards and backwards; there ain’t nothin’ in science that ain’t as familiar to me as blockades on the elevated roads and I’m the real thing in the way of silver-tongued orators.”, he responds “I guess you are not to blame for your misfortunes, but we have no use for you here.” Its hard to imagine a blunter dismissal of PMC values. Like modern populists, he rails against elites, who he charges with hypocritical moralism and petty tyranny “We don’t own our streets or anything else…we’ve got to eat and drink what they tell us to eat and drink, and…choose our time for eating and drinking to suit them. If they don’t feel like taking a glass of beer on Sunday, we must abstain. If they have not got any amusements up in their backwoods, we must have none. We’ve got to regulate our whole lives to suit them. And then we must pay their taxes to boot.” These elites aren’t only tyrannical, they’re unpatriotic “Nobody pays any attention to the Fourth of July any longer except Tammany and the small boy. When the Fourth comes, the reformers, with revolutionary names parted in the middle, run off to Newport or the Adirondacks to get out of the way of the noise.”

This is striking because historically, cities have been recruiting pools for “progressive” movements, where “progressive” broadly means “someone who wants to replace the established order with something new.” There’s a danger in over-extrapolating from recent history, but this really does seem to be a pattern. Many of the most radical excesses of the French Revolution were driven by attempts to appeal to the sans-culottes of the Paris mob. Conversely, the revolutionaries imposed some of their most brutal repressive measures in the rural Vendee. A century later, orthodox Marxists famously thought that Russia was not yet ready for a revolution because the urban working class was still too small a percentage of the population. This pattern is embedded in our very language. The word “Pagan” derives from the Latin word for “rustic”. It’s modern usage originated in the period where Christianity had become an elite religion but had not yet been fully imposed on bitter-clingers in rural parts of the empire. The modern analogs would be the trumpenproletariat in flyover country.

How do we square this circle? I think part of it is that “populism” in common usage tends to be something intended to appeal to working class voters, who as a group are usually social conservative but economically liberal. In the modern world, populism is associated with rural areas because structural changes to the economy have skewed urban populations towards professionals rather than the working class. Per Wikipedia, in 1910 only 37, 200 Bachelors degrees were awarded across the whole country, in a population of just under 92 million. Of that 92 million, nearly 5 million (4,766,883)lived in New York. 4,766,883/37,200 = .008. In other words, even if every college graduate in the country had lived in New York City, they would have made up less than one percent of the population. By contrast, today 39.5% of NYC has a Bachelors or higher. And NYC isn’t even in the top five most educated cities in America! Likely in the eighteenth-through-early twentieth centuries – the heyday of the industrial revolution – urban populations were skewed in the opposite direction than they are now.

Of course, that doesn’t explain the other instances of urban progressivism cited above. I think we can chalk that up to these movements being an alliance between elite-aspirants and the working class, with the elite-aspirants providing the socially-liberal rhetoric of the movement, while the footsoldiers are largely motivated by pragmatic material concerns. This is as close as I have to working explanation, unless of course you think that the progressivism-urbanism association is all a mirage.

In lieu of ideological appeal, technically wonkery, or even a charismatic public persona, Plunkitt offers a vision of politics based on personal relationships and the rendering of services. He began in politics by getting his cousin to promise him his vote – not to Plunkitt personally but to whoever Plunkitt told him to vote for. Plunkitt offered this vote, along with his own, to the district leader. Then he recruited two of his old school-friends. “Before long, I had sixty men back of me and formed the George Washington Plunkitt association.”

In return for these votes, Plunkitt was offered positions in government. The exact position seems to have changed as the voting blocs he commanded grew in size. Its less clear from the text what exactly these individual voters received. Certainly as Plunkitt grew in power in the organization, he could offer jobs to some of his supporters. Judging by his repeated denunciations of civil service reform, this kind of patron-client relationship was key to the whole edifice. But of course, there couldn’t have been enough full time jobs to hand one out to every voter. The whole thing wouldn’t scale. Plunkitt’s access to the apparatus of government probably meant he could hand out contracting opportunities even when he didn’t have a full time job on hand. He says as much. But a lot of it also seems to come down to small acts of friendship and making people like you. “I know every man, woman, and child in the fifteenth district, except them that’s been born this summer – and I know some of them too…I reach them by approaching them at the right side…I hear of a young feller that’s proud of his voice, thinks he can sing fine. I ask him to come around to Washington Hall and join our Glee Club. He comes and sings and he’s a follower of Plunkitt for life. Another young feller gains a reputation as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball dub. That fixes him. You’ll find him working for my ticket at next election day. Then there’s the feller that likes rowin on the river, the young feller that makes a name as a waltzer on his block, the young feller that’s handy with his dukes. I rope them all in by givin them opportunities to show off.” Presumably the various public observances which Plunkitt alludes to were excellent opportunities for generating this kind of social capital.

These acts of friendship could also take a more practical form. “What tells in holdin’ your grip on your district is to go right down among the poor families and help them in the different ways they need help. I’ve got a regular system for this. If there’s a fire…any hour of the day or night, I’m usually there with some of my election district captains as soon as the fire engines. If a family is burned out I don’t ask whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to the Charity Organization Society, which would investigate their case in a month or two and decide they were worthy of help about the time they are dead from starvation. I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them if their clothes were burned up, and fix them up till they get things running again.”

Obviously there’s no statistics provided. But my intuition tells me this sort of thing was probably pretty effective. I grew up comfortably middle class; I’ve never known what its like to be worried about where my next meal will come from or where I’ll sleep. I’ve never worried about whether my wife or my kid will have enough to eat. If I was worried about that – well I don’t think there’s much I wouldn’t do for someone who solved that problem for me. Leaving intuition aside this model – tangible benefits for friends and family in exchange for loyalty – is arguably what leadership looked like for most of human history. Reciprocal altruism is a bedrock of human behavior. The intimate nature of such exchanges elevates them beyond the merely transactional; emotional ties soon develop and invest these relationships with the aura of the sacred. I’ve little doubt Plunkitt’s methods were effective. For that matter, I have little doubt that from inside, most participants in the machine were perfectly satisfied with the arrangement.

What caused the decline of machine politicians? And were they as bad as modern opinion holds? The first question can be answered more or less satisfactorily. The second is mostly a matter of opinion. The most commonly cited factor in the decline of the machines is the introduction of the direct party primary. Nowadays, we take it for granted that party members come together in a sort of internal election to vote on who they’ll put forward as a candidate for. Since politics is our national sport, presidential primaries often get breathless coverage in the media. But in fact, this wasn’t common for much of our history. Direct primaries were fairly rare prior to the mid-nineteenth century and didn’t really pick up steam until around the turn of the century. Prior to that, it was common for local voters to select delegates to a nominating convention, who in turn would choose the candidate. In theory, the transition to direct primaries allowed candidates to “cut out the middleman” i.e. intra-party elites and “bosses” and appeal directly to voters. Plunkitt and his ilk, who relied on horse-trading rather than offering a coherent vision of the common good, were finished.

This triumphalist narrative remains common. Its not entirely wrong so much as it is incomplete. This study suggests that the introduction of direct primaries was correlated with a decrease in Congressional representatives (both Senate and House) voting in line with party leaders. Insofar as “party leaders” are a proxy for the old school bosses, we can say that that this represents a weakening of their power. But direct primaries are only part of the story.

Another major part is this: technological and demographic changes made interpersonal connections an inefficient way to mobilize voters. In 1793, the House of Representatives was only 105 members. Today, it has 435, a number set by law in 1929. In 1793, there were roughly 34,000 voters per representative. Today the ration is roughly 1: 761,000, an order of magnitude higher. While I don’t have data for state and municipal legislatures, its safe to assume the same trend holds.

“Dunbar’s Number” is the theoretical upper limit on the amount of close relationships anyone can have. Estimates vary between 150 and a little over 200, but the bottom line is this: for most of our existence as a species, humanity operated in relatively small bands of hunter-gatherers. We evolved to handle a certain number of point-to-point contacts. Past that limit, it becomes necessary to start sorting people into categories of one sort or another. A politician in a district with, say, 500 people can personally know a large chunk of them. In a district with 5000, he can know fewer, but his ward heeler subordinates might still know many on an individual level. But by the time you hit 500,000, this sort of personalized relationship is impossible. Even if you maintained a small army of volunteers to go around and engage with individual voters, said volunteers would soon themselves exceed Dunbar’s number, diluting the strength of their relationship to the politico.

Instead of cultivating relationships with individuals, you cultivate relationships with voting blocs. Farmers, lawyers, blue-collar workers, gun owners etc. Legions of specialists search for ever-more-subtle coalitions of interest to solicit. This is where broadcast media becomes important. Broadcast media is a way of efficiently marketing to large numbers of potential voters, far more efficient than simply going door-to-door.

Its not only the politicians who start sorting people into boxes based on professional, ethnic, or social status. The voters will do that themselves. At one time, people’s sense of identity was largely local – their town, their neighborhood, their block. But as the world flattens and the flow of information, goods, and services becomes ever-less constrained by geography, people start to think of themselves in larger terms: a Christian, a lawyer, a Republican, an X, Y, Z. These larger identities have always been present of course, but they make up an increasingly greater portion of any given individuals sense of themselves. Plunkitts’s methods relied on local ties that are increasingly less important.

Another major factor was Plunkitt’s great white whale “the curse of civil service reform.” While Plunkitt was presumably most concerned with New York’s Civil Service reform, these developments were merely reflective of larger trends in the country. For most of the nineteenth century, government administrative jobs had been distributed at the discretion of elected officials. But in 1883, Chester A. Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform act, which provided for certain federal jobs to awarded on the bases of competitive examinations rather than by administrative fiat. Those who had gotten their jobs through competitive examinations could not subsequently be removed for “political reasons”. At the time, the act covered only a small percentage of the executive. But, in a true stroke of genius, the act was written with a “ratchet provision” which allowed the president to add positions to those covered under the Pendleton act. So, if your side was likely to lose the election, you could add all your appointees to the rolls right before leaving office, and your successor couldn’t remove them. After enough iterations of this process, about 90% of the civil service was covered under the act. While the Pendleton act only covered federal civil service jobs, a similar process seems to have taken place within various states.

From the perspective of the twenty-first century, one is half-tempted to ask: do you want the deep state? Because this is how you get the deep state. In the process of enshrining their ideals in law, the professional-managerial class of the day created the legal basis for entrenched bureaucracies to pursue their collective interests even in the face of opposition from the nominal chief executive. Debates about the role of meritocracy aside, Civil Service reform went a long way towards eliminating the middle ranks of the machines, those on whom men like Plunkitt relied.

The bureaucratization of the civil service also contributed to the ballooning of the administrative law sector, which further eroded the ability of elected officials to actually make a difference in the lives of their constituents. Remember when Plunkitt said that local charities would get around to doing something just about the time that a family was starved to death? One of the services machine politicians provided their constituents was the ability to apply pressure on the machinery of the state. If, say, you felt that your property had been unfairly seized, or you had been denied something you were owed, or you had been inconvenienced in some way by The Man, you could turn to your ward heeler, who in turn could bring the matter to your local elected representative. Nowadays – you’d hire a lawyer.

America is almost unique in the extent to which the actions of executive agencies are dictated by lawsuits or the fear of lawsuits. The Equal Protection Clause means effectively, anyone can sue a government agency for virtually anything. The most well-known application of this on the Motte is probably the collection of legal decisions arising from civil rights law which has contributed to the institutionalization of progressive tendencies throughout the public and private sector. This is correlated with explosive growth in the legal profession. In 1960, there was roughly one lawyer for 627 people in the country. By 1987, there was one lawyer for every 354 people. Today, there is roughly one lawyer for every 250 people. Notably, some 30% of Representatives and 51% of Senators have law degrees. To a large extent, the politician as advocate has been replaced by the lawyer as advocate. Instead of being compensated by votes, today’s advocates are compensated in publicity and cash. Rule of law becomes rule of lawyers.

All that said, were the machine politicians so bad? I’ll admit that I am somewhat tempted to romanticize Plunkitt and all his spiritual kin, from Boss Tweed to Enoch L Johnson. Undoubtedly they were self-interested, but no more than any other politician. They made it their business to know their constituents and to provide something meaningful to them. Above all, they seemed to have been accessible. They gave their constituents a sense of agency, a feeling that there was something they could do and someone they could turn to when things went wrong or when they were being pushed around. How many of us can say the same? If, for example, my local police department confiscated my property in a civil forfeiture case, I would have no choice but to pursue a costly and time-consuming remedy through the courts. I’m fortunate enough that I could probably afford it; many others couldn’t.

At the same time, I’ve already discussed the major limitation of such political machines: they simply don’t scale. In the savage war of all against all, scale is everything. The big fish eat the little fish and organizations – political, economic, or social – which can more effectively mobilize greater resources usually out compete the smaller ones. Even if such an arrangement could survive, I expect that in time it would lose the qualities that make it appealing. A political machine would eventually become vulnerable to the same oligarchical dynamics as every other political system, and the machine politicians as detached and self-absorbed as every other elite.

Join me, then, in raising a glass to Plunkitt and all his tribe. Like Haast’s eagle, the woolly mammoth, or the horse nomads who conquered half the world, they were magnificent in their day. But their day has passed. The world has changed; I do not think we will see his kind again, for better or for worse.

As of late I've really lost any deep interest in any culture war issues. I still enjoy talking about them, but even the 'actually important' matters like Trump's trials and possible re-election or the latest Supreme Court cases or the roiling racial tensions of the current era seem to be sideshows at best compared to the two significant developments which stand to have greater impact than almost all other matters combined:

  1. Humanity is seemingly a hop, skip, and/or jump away from emergence of true AGI.

  2. Humanity is also locked into a demographic decline that will eventually disrupt the stable global order and world economy. No solutions tried so far have worked or even shown promise. It may be too late for such solutions to prevent the decline.

I do conserve some amount of interest for the chance that SpaceX is going to jump start industry in low earth orbit, and for longevity/anti-aging science which seems poised for some large leaps. Yet, the issues of declining human population and its downstream effect on globalization as well as the potential for human level machine intelligence seem to utterly overshadow almost any other issue we could discuss, short of World War III or the appearance of another pandemic.

And these topics are getting mainstream attention as well. There's finally space to discuss the topics of smarter-than-human AI and less-fertile-than-panda humans in less niche forums and actual news stories that start raising questions.

I recently read the Situational Awareness report by Leopold Aschenbrenner, which is a matter-of-fact update on where things absolutely seem to be heading if straight lines continue to be straight for the next few years. I find it convincing if not compelling, but the argument that we might hit AGI around 2027 (with large error bars) no longer appears absurd. This is the first time I've read a decent attempt at extrapolating out when we could actually expect to encounter the "oh shit" moment when a computer is clearly able to outperform humans not just in limited domains, but across the board.

As for the collapsed birthrates, Peter Zeihan has been the most 'level-headed' of the prognosticators here. Once again, I find it fairly convincing, but also compelling that as we end up with far too few working-age, productive citizens trying to hold up civilization as the older generations age into retirement and switch to full-time consumption. Once again you only have to believe that straight lines will keep going straight to believe that this outcome is approaching in the near future years. The full argument is more complex.

The one thing that tickles me, however, is how these two 'inevitable' results are intrinsically related! AI + robotics offers a handy method to boost productivity even as your population ages. On the negative side, only a highly wealthy, productive, educated, and globalized civilization can produce the high technology that enables current AI advances. The Aschenbrenner report up there unironically expects that 100's of millions of chips will be brought online and that global electricity production will increase by 10% before 2030ish. Anything that might interrupt chip production puts a kink in these AGI timelines. If demographic changes have as much of an impact as Zeihan suggests, it could push them back beyond the current century unless there's another route to producing all the compute and power the training runs will require.

So I find myself staring at the lines representing the increasing size of LLMs, the increasing amount of compute being deployed, the increasing funding being thrown at AI companies and chip manufacturers, and the increasing "performance" of the resultant models and then staring at the lines that represent plummeting birthrates in developed countries, and a decrease in the working age population, and thus the decrease in economic productivity that will likely result. Add on the difficulty of maintaining a peaceful, globalized economy under these constraints.

And it sure seems like the entire future of humanity hinges on which of these lines hits a particular inflection point first. And I sure as shit don't know which one it'll be.

I'd condense the premises of my position thusly:

Energy Production and High-end computer chip production are necessary inputs to achieving AGI on any timeline whatsoever. Both are extremely susceptible to demographic collapse and de-globalization. If significant deglobalization of trade occurs, there is no way any country will have the capacity to produce enough chips and energy to achieve AGI.

and

Human-level AGI that can perform any task that humans can will resolve almost any issues posed by demographic decline in terms of economic productivity and maintaining a globalized, civilized world.

Or more succinctly: If deglobalization arrives first, we won't achieve AGI. If AGI arrives first, deglobalization will be obviated.

Peter Zeihan argues that AI won't prevent the chaos. As for AGI prophets, I have rarely, in fact almost never, have seen decreasing population levels as a variable in their calculation of AI timelines.

The sense this gives me is that the AGI guys don't seem to include demographic collapse as an extant risk to AGI timelines in their model of the world. Yes they account for like interruption to chip manufacturing as a potential problem, but not accounting for this coming about due to not enough babies. And those worrying about demographic collapse discount the odds of AGI arriving in time to prevent the coming chaos.

So I find myself constantly waffling between the expectation that we'll see a new industrial revolution as AI tech creates a productivity boom (before it kills us all or whatever), and the expectation that the entire global economy will slowly tear apart at the seams and we see the return to lower tech levels out of necessity. How can I fine tune my prediction when the outcomes are so divergent in nature?

And more importantly, how can I arrange my financial bets so as to hedge against the major downsides of either outcome?


Also, yes, I'm discounting the arguments about Superintelligence altogether, and assuming that we'll have some period of time where the AI is useful and friendly before becoming far too intelligent to be controlled which lets us enjoy the benefits of the tech. I do not believe this assumption, but it is necessary for me to have any discourse about AGI at without falling on the issue of possible human extinction.

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

This is your opportunity to ask questions. No question too simple or too silly.

Culture war topics are accepted, and proposals for a better intro post are appreciated.

Be advised: this thread is not for serious in-depth discussion of weighty topics (we have a link for that), this thread is not for anything Culture War related. This thread is for Fun. You got jokes? Share 'em. You got silly questions? Ask 'em.

Transnational Thursday is a thread for people to discuss international news, foreign policy or international relations history. Feel free as well to drop in with coverage of countries you’re interested in, talk about ongoing dynamics like the wars in Israel or Ukraine, or even just whatever you’re reading.

Just about every time there is a meta discussion there are people suggesting that upvotes/downvotes are just agree/disagree buttons, or that we should just get rid of them altogether.

It is less common to see a defense of voting, but I think it is desperately needed.

My main thesis is that votes are accurate at conveying information, but that many people do not like the information they convey. I believe most people treat the vote buttons as basically a like/dislike button. Users do not always enjoy learning that their posts are "disliked" or the posts of their own that they like the most aren't always "liked" as much by others. Hiding votes does not remove the underlying sentiment though, it just makes it harder to pick up on, or delays discovery for the writer.

Looking through my own "top" and "bottom" comments I am not surprised or offended by their placement. My "bottom" comments are often my controversial mod decisions, or times when I have decided to defend viewpoints that are unpopular here on TheMotte (like race blindness, or open borders). The most hated "controversial" comments also seem to be ones where I am closing off avenues of discussion rather than opening them up. My top comments are usually me sharing information/perspective on a culture war topic that others might not have. And a few times of me writing good pieces about culture war stuff. I often find it helpful to look at other user's top/bottom comments when I have to do mod related research. Top comments often provide many reasons for exoneration, and bottom comments can highlight patterns of bad behavior. An important thing to note here is that votes are great for comparing comments within a single user's history, but not between users.


The agree/disagree critique

One common critique that I linked to above is that people just use the buttons as shorthand for agree/disagree and that this signalling of agreement or disagreement would lead to favored views being rewarded too much, and unfavored views being chased off.

However, this is a problem with and without voting buttons. At best your are simply delaying this discovery for a few moments before they get flooded with comments that very clearly indicate people disagree with them. I did not need to wait 24 hours to find out that people disagreed with me on race blindness or open borders. It was very quickly obvious from the responses (and I was aware before hand that these views would be controversial).

I also think votes, and especially visible vote scores can be a bit of a pressure valve. There are sometimes people that just feel the need to express in some way "I don't like your post/views". One way for them to do this is to downvote. Another way for them to do this is to leave a short comment to the same effect. Sometimes the comment might even look like they are interested in a discussion. When I am in the position of getting dogpiled for a controversial view I would universally prefer the downvote to a go-no-where comment that basically says "i don't like your post/views". This is also one of the times when I most wish I could see other people's vote scores. I'd prefer responding to what other people consider the "best" version of the counterarguments.

Finally, what is so bad about signalling agreement or disagreement? People have views and opinions, we don't need to fool ourselves on this. I don't think we are tricking anyone by hiding the votes that these disagreements don't exist.


Ending notes:

  1. I am writing this as a user stating my preferences. There has not been internal mod discussion about changes to voting. Status quo is likely to remain in place.
  2. It is probably a little rude to go through other people's history for examples an counterexamples to voting. I'm fine with anyone doing that with my profile, but its probably best to not drag other users into this discussion unless someone gives explicit permission.
  3. The rdrama codebase that the site is based on had more features and granularity around voting, we mostly do not have those features turned on or fully working on this website.

The Wednesday Wellness threads are meant to encourage users to ask for and provide advice and motivation to improve their lives. It isn't intended as a 'containment thread' and any content which could go here could instead be posted in its own thread. You could post:

  • Requests for advice and / or encouragement. On basically any topic and for any scale of problem.

  • Updates to let us know how you are doing. This provides valuable feedback on past advice / encouragement and will hopefully make people feel a little more motivated to follow through. If you want to be reminded to post your update, see the post titled 'update reminders', below.

  • Advice. This can be in response to a request for advice or just something that you think could be generally useful for many people here.

  • Encouragement. Probably best directed at specific users, but if you feel like just encouraging people in general I don't think anyone is going to object. I don't think I really need to say this, but just to be clear; encouragement should have a generally positive tone and not shame people (if people feel that shame might be an effective tool for motivating people, please discuss this so we can form a group consensus on how to use it rather than just trying it).

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

This is your opportunity to ask questions. No question too simple or too silly.

Culture war topics are accepted, and proposals for a better intro post are appreciated.

This a post that started in response to the question posed by @Amadan in regards to what should be done about Hylnka, and my thoughts in regards to the parent post about the state of the Motte.

The state of the Motte

So I'm a relative newcomer to the space and only lurked on /r/themotte occasionally, so I don't have a strong opinion on Hlynka one way or the other. I don't like him, I don't hate him, because I don't really know him.

But if you believe banning Hlynka is a net negative, that goes to reason that maybe there are some aspects of the rules that need consideration taken into account. I'm going to give my naive take since I haven't seen anyone else really answer the question recently regarding what should be done.

Perhaps there is an optimal ratio of good posts to bad posts that get some leeway. Or put another way, you get a pass for every "x" amount of good posts. Let's start with an extreme example. If someone makes 100 AAQC contributions to 1 ban-worthy post, I personally would rather want them to be allowed to keep posting even if they make 50 ban-worthy posts. I think to a certain extent, the mods already do this by gut feeling, which is why they have been lenient with Hylnka for so long. But because the rules don't allow for this, they don't have a good enough justification to allow for it. In the end, they became a slave to the rules. That being said in my opinion, the rules are actually really lenient and flexible, and I have seen the mods be plenty lenient. A place like Reddit nowadays will just perma ban you, most bans here are for a day or a week.

The more often you post, the more likely it is that one of your posts will be inflammatory or say something that people don't like and report you for. It's not ideal for people to just post and then not respond to people's responses, otherwise it's not that different from posting an article from an outside source. The controversial ideas are the most exciting. It's why the culture war stuff is the most popular. But controversial ideas are the ones that generate the most heat. The person proposing or defending the controversial idea will have many, many people piling on them. It's not easy being on the defending on, even if you deserve it.

Conversations on forums and the internet are weird. Human beings don't engage in conversation like this in the real world. Expecting people to be civil 100% of the time is an unrealistic expectation, especially in a place where your ideas are constantly attacked and challenged. People argue politics with their own family all the time, and these discussions can get heated, but at the end of the day, they still get together to eat at the same table. If someone garners enough goodwill in the community and makes good contributions, does it not stand to reason that they should be given more leeway? Even in our courts, where no man is above the law, the punishment is often adjusted based on the circumstances of the crime. At the same time, a forum means you can take the time to formulate your thoughts before hitting "post". I've seen some posts where people say they wrote this long post, it somehow got deleted, and then they realized how angry/inappropriate/inflammatory they were being and thus were able to write something of higher quality instead.

Are man made for rules, or rules made for man? Do the rules today really serve both sides of the ideas proposed by this place? To optimize for light, and to minimize heat? The common sentiment I see is that currently the enforcing of the rules minimizes heat, but doesn't optimize for light.

How do the people who wanted Hylnka banned feel now that he's gone from space? Do they feel the motte better now or worse for it? Do you genuinely want to see all these long-time posters banned? Why? Is it because you think they are bad for the community? Why do you think that? Are you using the rules for a personal vendetta, or are you genuinely trying to help make the Motte a place where people with opposing viewpoints can come together to discuss ideas to seek the truth? If all the people with opposing viewpoints are banned, how can you achieve that?

You aren't obligated to respond to someone. If they attack you in the comments just block them so you don't have to read it. Should the average user really be concerned with how others might interpret someone's statement? If the concern is how other potential newcomers may feel about the community, is that a valid concern today? When @Armin asked about the state of the Motte, most people agreed it's stagnant or decaying. The newcomers are not really coming.

Where are the people with counterpoints?

For the time I have spent here, I don't think I got any serious challenge from someone across the political aisle from me. I have gotten a few people challenging my ideas which I am immensely grateful for since they helped find the flaws in my thinking, but if I look back on them those don't tackle my core set of beliefs and were over relatively minor things. The one person who I did challenge @guesswho never responded to my response to his ideas almost 4 months ago and he's been gone for a month now. In other words, I have yet to be challenged on my core fundamental beliefs. To be honest, part of me is scared to even have that debate. It's uncomfortable. I'm fairly certain I will take it personally. Maybe the rules make more sense in that kind of environment. But my feeling, and based on reading what a lot of other people have posted, is that environment is long gone. The rules were built for different populations.

Every once in a while you get people from the opposite side of the political aisle, call everyone here nazis/far-right in an inflammatory manner and they get banned. I think their general sentiment is correct, though - this place is currently filled with moderates and people on the right political, and very few on the left. When I make a low-effort comment that would align with the red-tribe, I get tons of upvotes. When I see someone from the opposite side make a high-effort comment, it gets many downvotes. Now upvotes and downvotes don't mean much regarding the truth or quality of the post, but they do reveal the general user sentiment response to it.

Every community is composed of several groups - the mods, the prolific posters, people who post occasionally, people who mostly just upvote/downvote, and the lurkers. Forget about the lurkers, their opinions don't matter. In my opinion, smaller communities like the Motte can exist mainly due to the relationship between the mods and the prolific posters. I don't mean to sound rude but the prolific posters are abnormal. Most users post only occasionally. Most of us only respond to top-level posts and rarely make any ourselves. But the prolific posters have an insane output rate. Many of them have an insane high-quality output rate. Because their output is so high, they tend to be able to dictate the general flow of ideas. In other words, they're the ones that form the core of the community. They're the ones that make most of the AAQC posts. They're the ones whose ideas people will recall and remember the most.

As many others have said, each time a prolific user is banned, you lose a small piece of the community. To maintain or grow a community, you need more such people to come in to fill in the gap. But these people, because they're so abnormal, are rare to come by. For the people who have been here a very, very long time, has the void been filled? As much as the vision and the rules help shape a place, it's ultimately the people that form a community.

Solutions - What should we do?

Having said all that, I do agree with the mod's vision that the rules are what have helped make the Motte into this unique space on the internet. I don't believe in making big sweeping changes to existing communities because once you make those big changes it's no longer the same community. I think people have mentioned how other offshoots from the culture war communities from the SSC days have failed to survive to the degree the Motte has. That indicates to me the rule does have value in them.

My proposal

Here's my modest proposal: Once a month (or longer, maybe twice a year) users on the forum are allowed to propose unbanning someone. Maybe limit who can make these proposals so not just anyone can propose and abuse the system. Then the community can vote to allow someone back in. If a certain threshold is met (for example 60%), then the user is unbanned. If for example, 90% of the community would rather want someone to keep posting even if they make the occasional inflammatory comment, should they deserve to be permanently banned? After all, they said were mean words, they didn't kill anyone, they didn't incite violence, they didn't harass people.

This is an extremely minor change that I think could be implemented. Maybe it's a dumb idea and won't result in anything. Maybe it'll make things worse. The person likely won't come back. But maybe it could be the start of stopping the motte from stagnating.

Of course, like I said, I'm naive in this. I don't really know the history, or the people who have come and gone. I can read and read about but I will never truly understand it. Some of you guys have been around this space for over a decade. Maybe all this has already been discussed and thought about and tried by people multiple times. But this community is still new and exciting stuff to me, and I wish I could get to experience even a little bit of that magic of the past. If I think this place is better than many other places online now, just how much better was the Motte in the past for people to lament the state it is in today?

Criticizing is easy. Pointing out problems is easy. Complaining is easy. Coming up with solutions is hard. Coming up with good solutions is almost impossible. I'm sure the mods have thought about this plenty, and people on the forum too, but I don't really see the full discussions. There's got to be at least 1 person in this place that would have a good idea.

Solutions from other people

Some other ideas I've seen other people propose:

  • Just don't ban long-time high-quality posters. They get a free pass for being here so long and continuing to contribute to the community.
  • Have a separate, no modding no rules thread.
  • Stop (or minimize) tone policing. If there is an argument, in line with the tone policing, then that gets a free pass.
My dumb solutions

To help generate more discussion, I'm just going to throw whatever comes to my head here in this list, whether they are good or bad or feasible or not:

  • If you get banned for inflammatory comments but have made good contributions before, you are limited to just posting top-level comments for a period of time, but you are not allowed to respond. If you break the rules to try to continue a previous conversation you get banned.
  • If a conversation gets inflammatory it gets pushed into a black-box so nobody else can see it, or it auto collapses and you have to opt in to see it
  • Allow users that would have been banned to keep communicating, but users must opt-in into an "I want to see everything" option and they no longer have the rights to request moderation once opted in. All conversations starting from these banned users and subsequent child posts get hidden unless you opt in.
  • If you are banned, you must steelman your opposition point of view to an acceptable level to the person you were being antagonist against in order to get unbanned ahead of the ban timer
  • Every 1 AAQC counters 1 bannable offense
  • A converse to the community unban option - a decision of whether or not to ban of a prolific high-value contributor gets pushed to the community.

Let's have a discussion.

What do you, fellow Mottizens, think? I see a lot of complaining and only a few people have provided some ideas for a solution. This discussion about the moderation and state of this site has been popping up across multiple threads every week. How about the community actually get together and discuss the merits of actual proposed solutions, as well as provide their own solutions, instead of having fights with the mods every time someone gets moderated? Worst case scenario, at least all the discussion is now centralized for a place to reference for the future.

9

This is the Quality Contributions Roundup. It showcases interesting and well-written comments and posts from the period covered. If you want to get an idea of what this community is about or how we want you to participate, look no further (except the rules maybe--those might be important too).

As a reminder, you can nominate Quality Contributions by hitting the report button and selecting the "Actually A Quality Contribution!" option. Additionally, links to all of the roundups can be found in the wiki of /r/theThread which can be found here. For a list of other great community content, see here.

These are mostly chronologically ordered, but I have in some cases tried to cluster comments by topic so if there is something you are looking for (or trying to avoid), this might be helpful.


Quality Contributions in the Main Motte

@gattsuru:

@BahRamYou:

@johnfabian:

@2D3D:

@urquan:

@FCfromSSC:

Contributions for the week of April 29, 2024

@FCfromSSC:

@NullHypothesis:

@Felagund:

@self_made_human:

@Tenaz:

Contributions for the week of May 6, 2024

@gattsuru:

@cjet79:

@SlowBoy:

@Ben___Garrison:

Contributions for the week of May 13, 2024

@gattsuru:

@OliveTapenade:

@NelsonRushton:

@Gaashk:

@ares:

@Folamh3:

@faceh:

@Dean:

@Amadan:

@flitter:

Contributions for the week of May 20, 2024

@Walterodim:

@MadMonzer:

@NelsonRushton:

@urquan:

@FCfromSSC:

@Throwaway05:

@coffee_enjoyer:

Contributions for the week of May 27, 2024

@jeroboam:

@blooblyblobl:

@Rov_Scam:

@FiveHourMarathon:

@satirizedoor:

@blooblyblobl:

@gorge:

Be advised: this thread is not for serious in-depth discussion of weighty topics (we have a link for that), this thread is not for anything Culture War related. This thread is for Fun. You got jokes? Share 'em. You got silly questions? Ask 'em.

Transnational Thursday is a thread for people to discuss international news, foreign policy or international relations history. Feel free as well to drop in with coverage of countries you’re interested in, talk about ongoing dynamics like the wars in Israel or Ukraine, or even just whatever you’re reading.

The Wednesday Wellness threads are meant to encourage users to ask for and provide advice and motivation to improve their lives. It isn't intended as a 'containment thread' and any content which could go here could instead be posted in its own thread. You could post:

  • Requests for advice and / or encouragement. On basically any topic and for any scale of problem.

  • Updates to let us know how you are doing. This provides valuable feedback on past advice / encouragement and will hopefully make people feel a little more motivated to follow through. If you want to be reminded to post your update, see the post titled 'update reminders', below.

  • Advice. This can be in response to a request for advice or just something that you think could be generally useful for many people here.

  • Encouragement. Probably best directed at specific users, but if you feel like just encouraging people in general I don't think anyone is going to object. I don't think I really need to say this, but just to be clear; encouragement should have a generally positive tone and not shame people (if people feel that shame might be an effective tool for motivating people, please discuss this so we can form a group consensus on how to use it rather than just trying it).

This weekly roundup thread is intended for all culture war posts. 'Culture war' is vaguely defined, but it basically means controversial issues that fall along set tribal lines. Arguments over culture war issues generate a lot of heat and little light, and few deeply entrenched people ever change their minds. This thread is for voicing opinions and analyzing the state of the discussion while trying to optimize for light over heat.

Optimistically, we think that engaging with people you disagree with is worth your time, and so is being nice! Pessimistically, there are many dynamics that can lead discussions on Culture War topics to become unproductive. There's a human tendency to divide along tribal lines, praising your ingroup and vilifying your outgroup - and if you think you find it easy to criticize your ingroup, then it may be that your outgroup is not who you think it is. Extremists with opposing positions can feed off each other, highlighting each other's worst points to justify their own angry rhetoric, which becomes in turn a new example of bad behavior for the other side to highlight.

We would like to avoid these negative dynamics. Accordingly, we ask that you do not use this thread for waging the Culture War. Examples of waging the Culture War:

  • Shaming.

  • Attempting to 'build consensus' or enforce ideological conformity.

  • Making sweeping generalizations to vilify a group you dislike.

  • Recruiting for a cause.

  • Posting links that could be summarized as 'Boo outgroup!' Basically, if your content is 'Can you believe what Those People did this week?' then you should either refrain from posting, or do some very patient work to contextualize and/or steel-man the relevant viewpoint.

In general, you should argue to understand, not to win. This thread is not territory to be claimed by one group or another; indeed, the aim is to have many different viewpoints represented here. Thus, we also ask that you follow some guidelines:

  • Speak plainly. Avoid sarcasm and mockery. When disagreeing with someone, state your objections explicitly.

  • Be as precise and charitable as you can. Don't paraphrase unflatteringly.

  • Don't imply that someone said something they did not say, even if you think it follows from what they said.

  • Write like everyone is reading and you want them to be included in the discussion.

On an ad hoc basis, the mods will try to compile a list of the best posts/comments from the previous week, posted in Quality Contribution threads and archived at /r/TheThread. You may nominate a comment for this list by clicking on 'report' at the bottom of the post and typing 'Actually a quality contribution' as the report reason.

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

This is your opportunity to ask questions. No question too simple or too silly.

Culture war topics are accepted, and proposals for a better intro post are appreciated.

Be advised: this thread is not for serious in-depth discussion of weighty topics (we have a link for that), this thread is not for anything Culture War related. This thread is for Fun. You got jokes? Share 'em. You got silly questions? Ask 'em.

Transnational Thursday is a thread for people to discuss international news, foreign policy or international relations history. Feel free as well to drop in with coverage of countries you’re interested in, talk about ongoing dynamics like the wars in Israel or Ukraine, or even just whatever you’re reading.

The Wednesday Wellness threads are meant to encourage users to ask for and provide advice and motivation to improve their lives. It isn't intended as a 'containment thread' and any content which could go here could instead be posted in its own thread. You could post:

  • Requests for advice and / or encouragement. On basically any topic and for any scale of problem.

  • Updates to let us know how you are doing. This provides valuable feedback on past advice / encouragement and will hopefully make people feel a little more motivated to follow through. If you want to be reminded to post your update, see the post titled 'update reminders', below.

  • Advice. This can be in response to a request for advice or just something that you think could be generally useful for many people here.

  • Encouragement. Probably best directed at specific users, but if you feel like just encouraging people in general I don't think anyone is going to object. I don't think I really need to say this, but just to be clear; encouragement should have a generally positive tone and not shame people (if people feel that shame might be an effective tool for motivating people, please discuss this so we can form a group consensus on how to use it rather than just trying it).

Maybe I'm getting old, but I have a hard time reading the tiny font size for posts on my Android phone. I could be in the minority, but if others struggle with this as well, maybe we could increase the default font size a tad on mobile. I'd suggest including a toggle option for all, but that sounds like an expensive feature request.

Separately, I've tried to deal with my aging by using the browser's text scaling feature (setting -> accessibility). However, this site appears to ignore this setting in both Chrome and Brave. While other sites mostly accommodate (it seems to depend on the type of text; some classes adopt text scaling while others ignore it), the Motte appears to completely ignore text scaling requests, at least on Android. This feels like a bug...?