Time Preference and the Survival of Civilizations
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In my ongoing quest to catch up on those topics I promised to revisit someday but never have, in this post I’m turning my attention to a statement I made all the way back in July of last year. (As I said I’ve been negligent about keeping my promises.) Back then, as aside on the topic of taboos, I said:
Of course this takes us down another rabbit hole of assuming that the survival of a civilization is the primary goal, as opposed to liberty or safety or happiness, etc. And we will definitely explore that in a future post, but for now, let it suffice to say that a civilization which can’t survive, can’t do much of anything else.
Well, this is that future post and it’s time to talk about Civilization! With a capital C! And no, not the classic Sid Meier’s game of the same name. Though that is a great game.
To begin with though, in timing that can only be evidence of the righteousness of my cause (that’s sarcasm by the way.) I recently listened to several interesting podcasts that directly tied into this topic. (By the way, you all know that you can get this blog as a podcast, right?) The first was a podcast titled Here Are The Signs That A Civilization Is About To Collapse. I confess it wasn’t as comprehensive as I had hoped, but their guest, Arthur Demarest, brought up some very interesting points. And if he had had a book on civilizational collapse I would have bought it in a heartbeat, but it appears that his books are all academically oriented and mostly focused on the Mayans. In any case here are some of the points that dovetail well with things I have already talked about.
Civilization allows increasing complexity and connectivity, resulting in increased efficiency. But this connectivity and complexity increases the fragility of the system. Demarest gave the example of a slowdown in China causing pizza parlors to close in Chile.
This complexity also leads to increased maintenance costs, and overhead. And eventually maintenance expands to the point where there’s very little room for innovation and no flexibility to unwind any of the complexity.
When civilizations get in trouble they often end up doubling down on whatever got them in trouble in the first place. Demarest gives the example of the Mayans who built ever more elaborate temples as collapse threatened, in an effort to prop up the rulers.
A civilization’s strength can often end up being the cause of its downfall.
As things intensify thinking becomes more and more short term.
As you may notice we already check most if not all of these boxes and I’ve already talked about all of them in one form or another, but more importantly, what he also points out, and what should be obvious, is that all civilizations collapse. Now you may argue that all we can say for sure is that every previous civilization has collapsed; ours may be different. This is indeed possible. But I think, for a variety of reasons which I mention again and again, that it’s safer to assume that we aren’t different. If we do make this completely reasonable and cautionary assumption, then the only questions which remain are: when is the current civilization going to collapse and is there anything we can do to extend its life?
I mentioned that I had listened, coincidently, and by virtue of the righteousness of my cause (once again sarcasm), to several podcasts which spoke to this issue. The second of these podcasts was Dan Carlin’s Common Sense. In this most recent episode he spent the first half of the program talking about the increasing hostility that exists between the two halves of the country and specifically the hostility between the Antifas (short for anti-fascists) and the hardcore Trump supporters. Carlin mentioned videos of violence which has been erupting at demonstrations and counter demonstrations all over the country. I would link to some of these videos, but it’s hard to find any that aren’t edited in a nakedly partisan fashion by one or the other side. But they’re easy enough to find if you do a search.
This is not a new phenomenon, we’ve had violence since election day, and I already spent an entire post talking about it. But Carlin frames things in an interesting way. He asks us to imagine that we were elected as president, and that our only goal was to heal the divisions that exist in the country. How would we do it? What policy would we implement that would bring the country back together again?
Carlin accurately points out that there’s not some anti-racist policy you could pass that would suddenly make everything all better. In fact it could be argued that we already have lots of anti-racist policies and that rather than helping, they might be making it worse. In my previous post I pushed for greater federalism, which is less a policy than a roll-back of a lot of previous policies. But as Carlin points out this is probably infeasible. First off because that’s just not how government works. Governments don’t ever voluntarily become less powerful. And second there’s not a lot of support for the idea even if the government was predisposed to let it happen.
Carlin spends the second half of the podcast talking about the Syrian missile strike. And in a common theme this discussion flows into his criticism of the ever expanding power of the executive. As you probably all know, only Congress has the power to declare war, and it last used that power in 1942 when it declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Since then it hasn’t used that power, though generally the President still seeks congressional approval for military action, what Carlin calls the fig leaf. He points out that Trump didn’t even do that. These days if someone dares to mention that this all might be unconstitutional, they are viewed as being very much on the fringe. But Carlin, like me, is grateful when people bring it up because at least it’s being talked about.
As I said executive overreach and expansion is a common theme for Carlin and one of the points he always returns to is that whatever tools you give your guy when he’s President are going to be used by the other side when they eventually get the presidency back. And this idea touches on the central idea that I want to explore, and the idea that unites the two halves of Carlin’s podcast, the idea of short term thinking. Both the current political crisis and the expansion of the presidency are examples of this short term thinking. And exactly the kind of thing that Demarest was talking about when he described historical civilizations which have collapsed.
As an extreme example of what I mean let me turn to one final recent podcast, the episode on Nukes from Radiolab. In the episode they examine the nuclear chain of command to determine if there are any checks on the ability of a US President to unilaterally launch a nuclear strike. That is, launch a nuclear strike without getting anyone else’s permission. And the depressing conclusion they come to is that there are effectively no checks. This is not to say that someone couldn’t disobey the order in that situation, but it’s hard to imagine such insubordination would hit 100%. In other words if Trump really wants to launch an ICBM, ICBMs will be launched.
But, for me, this is an issue which goes beyond Trump, and it’s scary basically regardless of who’s president. But it’s also a classic example of short term thinking. At some point it became clear that in the event of a Soviet first strike that there would be no time for a committee to assemble or multiple people to be called, and in that moment and based on this very narrow scenario, it was decided that sole control of the nuclear arsenal would be given to the President. If I remember the episode correctly this policy really firmed up during the Kennedy administration (and if you couldn’t trust Kennedy who could you trust?)
One could potentially understand this rationale for investing all of the power with the President, even if you don’t agree with it. But no thought was given to what should be done if the Cold War ever ended, and indeed when it did end, nothing changed. No thought or effort was even made to restrict this control to just the scenario of responding to a Soviet first strike. As it stands the President can launch missiles entirely at his discretion and for any reason whatsoever.
One would think that if Trump is as dangerous and unstable as people claim that they would be doing everything in their power to limit his ability to unilaterally start a nuclear war. That, at a minimum they would limit the President’s authority over nuclear weapons so that it applied only in situations where another country attacked us first. (I’m not sure how broad to make the standard of proof in this case, but even if it was fairly expansive we’d still be in a much better position than we are now. ) Instead, as of this writing, such a concern is nowhere to be found, and rather the headlines are about another GOP stab at a health bill, or how much the FBI director may have influenced the election or the sentencing of a woman who laughed at Jeff Sessions (the Attorney General).
Perhaps all of these issues will end up being of long term importance. Though that seems unlikely, particularly the story about the protestor laughing at Sessions, and even the story about the FBI director concerns something that already happened, and is therefore essentially unchangeable. It’s even harder to imagine how any of the issues currently in the news have more long term importance than the issue of the President’s singular control of the nuclear arsenal. And that’s just one example of long term dangers being overwhelmed by short-term worries.
You might argue at this point that the stories I mentioned are not unique to this moment in history, that people have been focused on their immediate needs and wants to the exclusion of longer term concerns for hundreds if not thousands of years. I don’t agree with this argument, I do think historically it has been different. And as a counter example I offer up the American Civil War where the focus may have been almost too long term. But even if I’m wrong and historically people were every bit as short-term in their outlook as they are now, the stakes today are astronomically greater.
I wanted to focus on short term thinking because it all builds up to my favorite definition of what civilization is. You may have noticed that we’ve come all this way without even clearly defining what we’re talking about, and I want to rectify that. Civilization is nothing more or less than low time preference. What’s time preference? It’s the amount of weight you give to something happening now versus in the future. As the term is commonly used it mostly relates to economics, how much more valuable is $1000 is today than $1000 in a month or a year. If $1000 today is the same as $1000 in three months then you have a time preference of zero. If you’re a loan shark and you want someone to pay you $2000 next week in exchange for $1000 today then you have a very high time preference, and are consequently engaging in what may be described as an uncivilized transaction, or at least a low-trust transaction, but of course trust is a big part of civilization.
Outside of economics, having a low time preference allows people to plan for the future, to build infrastructure, to establish institutions and perhaps most importantly to rely on the operation of the law, having faith that it’s not important to get justice right this second if you will get justice eventually. Perhaps you can see why I worry about what’s happening right now.
On the other hand it can easily be seen that corruption, the cancer of civilization, is a high time preference activity, people would rather get a bribe right now, because they have no trust in what the future will bring. When people talk about institutions, the rule of law, societal trust, and even the absence of violence they’re talking about low time preference. And let’s all agree right now that it’s a little bit confusing for “high” to be bad and low to be “good”.
Everything I’ve said so far is necessary to show that short-termism isn’t a symptom of the decline of civilization it IS the decline of civilization. But of course things can look fine for quite a while, because of the low time preference which existed up until this point. Meaning that those who came before us invested a lot in the future (because of their low time preference) and we can reap the benefits of those investments for a long time before it finally catches up to us.
Way back in the beginning of this post I stated that if you assume that our civilization is going to eventually collapse then the only question we’re left with is when and is there any way to delay that collapse? I think I’ve already answered the question of “when?” (Not immediately but sooner than most people think.) And now we need to look at the question, “What can we do to slow it down?” A simple, but somewhat impractical answer would be to lower our time preference. But as you can imagine this exhortation is unlikely to appear on a protest sign any time soon. (Perhaps I’ll try it out if we ever have a demonstration in Salt Lake City.) But, if we can’t get people to lower their time preference directly, perhaps we can do it indirectly.
If you were to use the term sacrifice, in place of low time preference, you would not be far from the mark. And restating the entire problem as, “We need greater sacrifice,” is something people understand, and it, also, just might make a good protest sign. But stating the solution this way just makes the scope of the problem all the more apparent. Because the last thing any of the people who are currently angry want to be told is that they need to sacrifice more.
It is, as far as I can tell, the exact opposite. All of the interested parties, left and right, rich and poor, minority and non, citizen and immigrant all feel that they have sacrificed enough, that now is the time for them to “get what they deserve.” Obviously not every poor person or every minority feels this way, but those who do feel this way are the ones who are out on the streets. And once again it all comes back to low time preference. No one wants to wait 10 years for something. No one is content to see their children finally get the rights they’ve been protesting for (if they even have children) and no one wants to wait four years for the next election.
All of this is not to say that people are entirely unwilling to sacrifice. People make sacrifices all the time for the things they want. But what I’m calling for, if we want to postpone collapse, is sacrifice specifically for civilization, which is, I admit, a fairly nebulous endeavor. But I think it starts with identifying what civilization is, and how it’s imperiled. Which is, in part, the point of this post. (In fact, I firmly expect all protesting and unrest to stop once it’s released.)
Joking aside, I fear there is no simple solution even if you have managed to identify the problem, and it may in fact be that there is nothing we can do to delay the end at this point. To return to Carlin’s question about the sorts of policies you might implement if you were made President and your one goal was to heal the country. I do think that creating some shared struggle we could all sacrifice for, would be a good plan, as good as any, and maybe even the best plan, which is not to say that it would succeed. And this hypothetical still relies on getting someone like that elected. Which is also not something that seems very likely. In other words things may already be too far gone.
One of my biggest reasons for pessimism is that I don’t think people see any connection between the unrest we’re currently experiencing (both here and abroad) and the weakening of civilization and more specifically the country. But there are really only three possibilities, the massive anger which exists can either strengthen the country, it can weaken it, or it can have no effect. If you think it's making the country stronger, (or even having no effect) I’d love to hear your reasoning. But rather, I think any sober assessment would have to conclude that it can’t be strengthening it, and it can’t be having no effect, therefore it must be weakening it. Leaving only the question of by how much.
None of this is to claim that anger about Trump or alternatively support for Trump (or any of the other issues) will single-handedly bring down the country. But it’s all part of a generalized trend towards higher and higher time preference. Towards wanting justice and change right now. And I understand, of course, that the differences of opinion which have split the country are real and consequential. But what is the end game? What is the presidential policy that will make it all better? What are people willing to sacrifice? To repeat a quote I used in a previous post from Oliver Wendell Holmes:
Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.
It’s a dangerous road we’re on and I would argue that as thinking get’s more and more short-term that the survival of civilization is at stake. And it’s at stake precisely because long-term thinking and planning is precisely what civilization is.
To come back to the assertion that started this all off, the assertion that I promised to return to. A civilization which can’t survive can’t do much of anything else. Of course at one level this is just a tautology. But at another level it ends up being a question of whether certain things can exist together. Can Trump supporters and Trump opponents live in the same country? Can a country give you everything you think you deserve right now, and yet still be solvent in 100 years? Can you have a system which is really good at reducing violence (as Pinker points out) but never abuses it’s power?
It’s entirely possible that the answer to all of those questions is yes. And I hope that’s the case. I hope that my worries are premature. I hope that similar to the unrest in the late 60’s/early 70’s that things will peak and then dissipate. That it will happen without a Kent State Shooting, or worse. But I also know that civilization takes sacrifice, it takes compromise, and however unsexy and dorky this sounds. It takes a low time preference.
You may have considered donating, but never gotten around it. Perhaps because you have low time preference and you assume that a dollar someday is as good as a dollar now. Well on this one issue I have very high time preference, so consider donating now.