We’re all doomed – maybe

I read Peter Turchin’s (2023) End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration on a long flight yesterday (I’m at Stanford for a couple of workshops). I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s well-written and an engaging read. The basic idea that there is a pendulum in the strength and health of polities, of generation-long good times and bad times, seems valid enough. The idea that one can model these computationally, I find a bit weird – speaking as one who spent some years early in her career modelling the UK and other economies computationally. Predicting outcomes from those models a year ahead that was tricky enough. This kind of system-wide modelling involves a great deal of judgement whereas this book claims an implausible degree of automaticity. As a sceptic about macroeconomic-modelling I’m a natural sceptic about – whatever we are going to call this – metaeconomic-modelling?

Turchin’s dynamics are driven by two phenomena: the immiserisation of the working class as the labour share of the economy declines, due to a ‘wealth pump’ as successful elites rig the economy to grab ever more of the value; and the over-production of elites who have to compete to benefit from the wealth pump. After a cycle of growth and integration, these mechanisms give way to a cycle of conflict and chaotic politics, driven by a coalition of the impoverished (Trump voters from the former manufacturing heartlands) and the not successful-enough elites (J.D.Vance).

This is a neat model, and seems to correspond to today’s US reality, but I have questions. For example, if expanding education is ‘over-production of elites’, what are we to make of the role of expanded education in technical progress and growth – is periodic conflict simply a cost of investment in human capital that has to be borne? Where does the role of demand in creating jobs for these productive people fit in? Do we need a war to kill off the excess PhDs and return to a stable, integrative phase? The role of excess labour supply in Turchin’s model seems to involve the lump of labour fallacy. All the (UK) evidence I know on immigration is that the effects on local wages and employment depend on (a) how complementary or not the skills of migrants are to local skills and (b) the state of the business cycle. Additional labour supply does not automatically mean immiserisation of workers.

There’s also a long quotation from Jack Goldstone to the effect that the population had grown substantially for 50 years before every major revolution and rebellion between 1500 and 1900. Does this mean the model will predict no more revolutions outside sub-Saharan Africa as populations are now in decline? It’s also a very US centric book despite using historical examples from many countries. For the instance UK labour share has not fallen like that in the US, although median wages have certainly stagnated.

I suppose in the end how seriously you take this kind of modelling depends on your belief about the extent to which human societies can learn and thus escape from past patterns. For what it’s worth, the book predicts the 2020s in the US will stay tumultuous. Of course, one doesn’t need a model to see this. I visit here once or twice a year but might stay away for a bit after early November 2024.

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Hoping, not doing.

My in-pile of books is a bit random at the moment. I just finished a posthumously-published set of essays by Richard Rorty, What Can We Hope For? It’s a strikingly passive title (as indeed was Lenin’s What is to be Done? although less so), and the essays have a notably pessimistic tone. Rorty is known for his prescience about the threats to American democracy posed by grotesque inequality, the crumbling of jobs and the fabric of middle America and authoritarian tendencies. He famously warned of the chance of a strongman dictator 20 years before Trump’s 2016 election. Rorty is known also for his critique of the frivolity of the campus-led American left as well as of the viciousness of the American right. These features are prominent in many of the essays.

However, I enjoyed the earlier section consisting of philosophical essays more than the (then-)current political commentary in the later sections. I haven’t read much by Rorty but am inclined to like his pragmatism: “It does not matter whether we can get consensus on moral principles,” he writes, “As long as we can get it on practices.” And, “The fact that moralities are, among other things, local systems of social control does no more to cast doubt on moral progress than the fact that scientific breakthroughs are financed by people hoping for improved technology casts doubt on progress in the ‘hard’ sciences.” He has some nice comments about the folly of the hardline positivist distinction between the rational and everything else – imagination, emotion – in making sense of the world and particularly political decision-making.

The back of the book claims the essays offer creative solutions for solving the world’s and especially America’s problems. I didn’t spot the solutions, unless ‘creative’ is code for ‘implausible’. Hence, I suppose, the title. Hoping not doing.

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Dis-uniting Kingdom

Another book about which I can’t claim impartiality: my dear colleague Michael Kenny’s Fractured Union: Politics, Sovereignty and the Fight to Save the UK. As the title suggests, it concerns the territorial constitutional arrangements of the UK: progressive devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and (in its distinctive context) Northern Ireland, tentative moves toward devolution within England, and the shocks imposed on the governance arrangements caused by Brexit and the pandemic. None of this within the context of a written constitutional or the clarity that might have provided.

I’ve had two bit parts in this process. One was as Vice Chair and Acting Chair of the BBC Trust during the Scottish referendum campaign in 2013-14. The Trust had been fighting the London-based BBC Executive tooth and nail since our formation as its governing body at the end of 2006 to introduce significant internal devolution of editorial decision making. We considered that the BBC needed to do much better serving the whole country than it was then able to do, being so firmly London-centric. The broader UK political tide away from centralisation was clear. The Executive hated the idea – I think for a mixture of financialrpractical reasons and deep resistance to ceding the idea of agenda-setting and commissioning to others.

Anyway, the referendum campaign froze this internal debate; the BBC had to be at pains to demonstrate its impartiality, which both sides of the campaign hated. I was hosting a box at the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 with then-Culture Secretary Sajid Javid as a guest. The Director-General was in the next box with then-Home Secretary Theresa May as his guest. My husband Rory, who has Welsh roots, was with me and so we bought a bundle of Welsh English flags outside the Albert Hall; it wouldn’t do to have the cameras catch the two central boxes as the only ones with no flag-wavers but we couldn’t choose either Union or Scottish flags. I looked across to our neighbours – and they had no flags at all. I was able to save Mrs May by offering her party some of ours.

My other experience was as the co-ordinator of the work that went into Greater Manchester’s pitch to George Osborne and the Treasury for the first city deal that led to the creation of the Combined Authority; this was the 2009 Manchester Independent Economic Review. It partly aimed to demonstrate competence to the sceptics in the Treasury, and partly to align leaders around the 10 component authorities around a nascent economic strategy for the new GMCA. One of the key lessons I drew from the experience was the importance of that classic political coalition-building, talking – a lot – to everybody who needed to be part of the journey. The city’s leadership impressed me then and has continued to do so. It hasn’t been uncontroversial, but this essay by Joshi Herrman in The Mill seems to me a fair assessment.

Anyway, Mike’s book is absolutely excellent. If anything, I think he perhaps understates a bit how much the rest of the country hates/hated Westminster/Whitehall, and the role this might have played in the Brexit vote (see Ch 7 here by me and Rob Ford). The conclusion I drew was that this story has much further to go.

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Life, the universe and everything

I’m late to Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0. For all its bestseller status, it didn’t do a lot for me. Probably more to do with me than the book. There’s a large chunk about the distant future and existential risk, which I can’t get interested in. There’s also a lot of physics and evolution, philosophy and cognitive science thrown in to the mix, at a very simplified level. And then there’s the love-in with Elon Musk – including a back cover blurb by the billionaire recently referred to by the Daily Star as a ‘car salesman’. Musk funded Tegmark’s Future of Life Institute. Life 3.0 was published in 2017, pre-Musk’s Twitter takeover and voyage into questionable political stances. But fundamentally, I couldn’t figure out what the book is trying to say, beyond that AI is changing things a lot.

Having said all that, there were some points that interested me. One is the idea of the substrate-independence of computation. Another – one that jumps out from the examples of AI use cases and how they can go wrong, rather than being made explicitly in the book – is that communication between AIs and humans will be fundamentally important to avoiding terrible mistakes. The UX design here is surely as important as any prompt engineering. The third is a section about the reported argument (by David Vladek) that self-driving cars whould be required to have their own car insurance, which will incentivise safety in their design. This raises a question about whether AIs could own property, and when you think about it one could instead require the owners of self-driving cars to take out the insurance. But it’s an interesting throught.

I think Life 3.0 is worth a read nevertheless. (Yuval Noah Harari quite liked it – whatever you make of that.) It ranges widely over the kind of issues societies need to be thinking about as they let AIs operate, and is clearly-written – a good flight or train journey book.

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AI needs all of us

There’s no way I can be unbiased about Verity Harding’s new book AI Needs You: How we can change AI’s future and save our own, given that it began with a workshop Verity convened and the Bennett Institute hosted in Cambridge a few years ago. The idea – quite some time before the current wave of AI hype, hope and fear – was to reflect on how previous emerging disruptive technologies had come to be governed. After some debate we settled on space, embryology, and ICANN (the internet domain naming body), as between them these seemed to echo some of the issues regarding AI.

These discussions set the scene for Verity’s research into the detailed history of governance in each of these cases, and the outcome is a fascinating book that describes each in turn and reflects on the lessons for us now. The overall message is that the governance and use of technology in the public interest, for the public good, is possible. There is no technological determinism, nor any trade-off between public benefit and private innovation. The ‘Silicon Valley’ zeitgeist of inevitability, the idea that the tech is irresistible and society’s task is to leave its management to the experts, is false.

The implication of this – and hence the book’s title – is that: “Understanding that technology – how it gets built, why, and by whom – is critical for anyone interested in the future of our society.” And hence the ‘Needs You’ in the title. How AI develops, what it is used for an how – these are political questions requiring engaged citizens. This is why the historical examples are so fascinating, revealing as they do the messy practicalities and contingency of citizen engagement, political debate, quiet lobbying, co-ordination efforts, events and sheer luck. The embryology example is a case in point: the legislation in the UK was based on the hard work of the Warnock Commission, its engagement with citizens, tireless efforts to explain science; but also on years of political debate and a key decision by Mrs Thatcher about its Parliamentary progress. The resulting legislation has since stood the test of time and also set an ethical and regulatory framework for other countries too. The lesson is that the governance of AI will not be shaped by clever people designing it, but as the outcome of political and social forces.

The book is beautifully written and a gripping read (more than you might expect for a book about regulating technology). There are quite a few new books on AI out this spring, and there are others I’ve read in proof that are also excellent; but this will definitely be one of the ones that stands the test of time. Not for nothing did Time magazine name Verity as one of the 100 most influential people in AI. She is now leading a Bennett Institute Macarthur Foundation-funded project on the geopolitics of AI. I’ll be in conversation with her at Waterstones in Cambridge on 14th March.