Ordinary Wisdom

Someone helped me once, when he discovered that I was looking for wisdom, by suggesting that I learn to put wisdom in some sort of taxonomic order. One is careful to observe that teasing out the characteristics of wisdom is no longer the seeking of wisdom, but a philosophical task, creating tools with which to seek wisdom. Here are the tools I developed, and I offer them here to further a conversation about wisdom. In addition, those of us within the traditions of Western Civilization may find the canon developed by the Akkadians and footnoted by all those who followed, namely the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the Phoenicians, with influence from the Egyptians, and later, the Hebrews and their west Canaanite coevals–we may find this canon, as it were, divisible into three recognizable cords.

the Great Cosmic order

a.k.a. natural law, but not quite natural law.

The first rule of wisdom is that there are no such things as rules in wisdom. There is, instead, an order which can be observed, in part, and can be attributed to a metaphysical force, or, in more secular terms, a mystical force which drives all things. The ancients observed that it would do well for the wise to create within themselves a place for an objective reality, inasmuch as an objective reality is possible under the influence of a metaphysical or mystical force. That is not to say that the ancients believed in an objective reality, but that they thought it wise to align oneself with phenomena which are observable (it is what it is).

For example, springtime is seedtime. Autumn is harvest. In between those times, the seed and the rain run their programs without any help from the farmer (except pest control, perhaps, but not contributing to the program of growth). If you get creative, you’ll starve to death, and, worse than that, you’ll be mocked and derided as a fool.

From there the concept of cosmic justice follows: if you are unjust, there will be retribution. So we have received from the ancients a few proverbs to that effect: “The wheels of justice grind slowly, but fine;” and, from the Judeo-Christian tradition: “Blood cries from the ground.”

Moreover, there is an inherent cruelty to the Great Cosmic Order. You may suffer for no particular reason and for no purpose, not because you did anything wrong, but because you are a piece in a game played by unseen authorities and powers. Eventually, however, the wheel grinds in your favor, but not before you acknowledge that “all flesh is grass” and “all is vanity.” Oh, and by the way, you may already be long dead before the wheels of justice get around to your case, but, you know, justice is still yours.

Therefore, the wise relax, trusting in the Great Cosmic Order to indicate when it might be time to sow and when it might be time to reap. Revolution is almost always a very bad idea, perhaps to overthrow a great injustice, but never to overthrow what is, no matter how cruel the evil from the Great Cosmic Order might be. Such as it is, the task distinguishing among the sources of evil and injustice is a heavy burden to the wise.

psychological wisdom

The wise are then instructed, once they have aligned themselves to the way things are, to look to themselves as individuals, finding answers to the question, “Am I up to the task of being me?” The initial answer is always, “No, but here’s some advice.”

First, and most importantly, a wise person acknowledges personal limits and attributes: you are who you are; moreover, you are a necessary component of the Great Cosmic Justice, so it is unwise to go about changing who you are. Even if you are successful in changing who you are, there will be retribution, one way or another.

For example, I (5’11”, 180 lbs., varsity letterman in high school basketball, but never elected to all-state, all-county, or all-city) greatly desired to be the next Michael Jordan (6’6″, 195 lbs., perennial NBA All-Star, driven by an extraordinary competitive will and could dunk from the top of the key). I was unhappy as long as I pursued this desire, listening to all the motivational product commercials (Just Do It) and environmental foolishness (Pain is just weakness leaving the body), in spite of good advice from coaches and my parents, who knew better, until I recognized that I am who I am, and my strengths and weaknesses are not conducive to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA. Thus I came to be wise, and the ancient proverb came to pass in my own life which says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” If only I could have been like many of my peers who listened to advice before experiencing such bitter disappointment!

Thence I pursued a career in Linguistics…

Interpersonal Wisdom

The individual is next instructed to come into alignment with all those who are coming into alignment with the Great Cosmic Order and struggling with the task of being themselves. It is the most difficult task of wisdom for the easily observable eventuality that we are each situated in different dispositions all along the paths of wisdom. Much interpersonal wisdom is summarized thus: The wise keeps his mouth shut. Less breviloquent, but better: “The prudent conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.”

Why? Well, who knows who is ready to listen to advice? And who knows if one is so wise as to be up to the task of giving it? One learns the answer not by giving advice, but by behaving as a guide, working out wisdom with humility: “One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.”

This last one, then, weaves together into one rope the cords of the Great Cosmic Order, the Psychological, and the Interpersonal, to form the ideal society: righteousness vs. wickedness; the righteous individual vs. the wicked ones; neighborliness vs. decadence.

Ordinary Wisdom

Wisdom is often cast as a drama taking place on the Cosmic Stage, usually a king, representing the transcendental, addressing his son(s), representing the mundane, but wisdom is also cast as a family matter, that is, father and mother addressing their children.  In my own observation, I have noted that wisdom is very rarely given as advice for good governance; it is almost always given for a happy household. A happy, content, and prosperous society is built upon the King and his sons or upon Mother and Father and their children. Even when wisdom is addressed to those who govern, it is to the heart of the individual, such as proverbs regarding bribery, usury, and favoritism, among others.

The implication is that wisdom is readily available, accessible with very little mediation from the highest heights right into the marketplace, the bedroom, and the dinner table. In fact, wisdom “shouts aloud in the marketplace” and at the crossroads for the simple, the wise, and the foolish alike. It is most certainly not a design to stratify people from one another, but to distinguish one from another as individuals valuable in small ways; it is to join them in a common endeavor of futility, which acknowledges that the end of wisdom is not in achievement, but in happiness.  Good governance is a by-product of wisdom in the household.

“Ashes to ashes;” “Be content that God gave you something to do while you wait for ashes.” “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.”

“In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death” (Proverbs 12:28).

Do What Humans Do Best, Automate the Rest

AB’s post is inspiring because it touches on an intuition I’ve had that I haven’t seen discussed too much in the technological unemployment debate.

The thing that we think humans are good at is actually what they are terrible at. Namely: reason, logic, strict formal rule-following.

As Kahneman or Baumeister or any psychologist will tell you, something thinking through a lot of math equations is extremely hard for us. Multiplying 3,464,900 by 4,562 in your head without recourse to pen and paper puts a strain on you, and it doesn’t take many such math problems before your capabilities are compromised and you start giving inaccurate answers.

Once we have the concepts of numbers and multiplication, automating that process just makes sense. A cheap computer can give you the right answer to the above question in a fraction of a second. Human laborers will never outperform automation once the algorithm-makers have isolated the nature of what needs to be done over and over.

But that brings us back to AB’s post. Computers aren’t so great at discovery. As AB put it:

But where do these algorithms come from? Who tells the robot how to make a better hamburger? I’ll tell you one thing, it sure isn’t going to be a computer programmer who can’t make anything fancier than ramen noodles himself.

Substitute for “hamburger” the next great X. In AB’s post, it’s the next great line of Toyotas. But X can be just about anything. And it’s hard to believe that finding it will always or even mostly take PhD level skills. The lion’s share of the advancements from the Industrial Revolution came from tinkerers discovering through rote trial and error. Perhaps Tyler Cowen is correct that we have used up all the low hanging fruit in this regard (I’m skeptical), but it seems unlikely that we have exploited many of the possibilities of combining this discovery process with after the fact automation.

You can’t automate what you don’t understand

Continuing the conversation on automation that was initiated by Eli Dourado, I love the way this conversation has turned to fear, history, and rhetoric. Any post that mentions Chaldeans is a winner in my book.

But I’m going to be a bit less high falutin’ than that and look at the technical issue of whether robots are replacing jobs (they are) and what that means for the future (nothing bad, IMO).

Basically, anything that can be automated is going to get taken over by robots. Even highly skills professions like lawyeringmedical diagnostics and anesthesiology are subject to robot take-over, not just middle-skill and low-skill jobs (as our economy has defined such things for the past couple centuries). It’s literally anything that can be reduced to an algorithm that’s in danger.

But where do these algorithms come from? Who tells the robot how to make a better hamburger? I’ll tell you one thing, it sure isn’t going to be a computer programmer who can’t make anything fancier than ramen noodles himself.

We can see an inkling of the future in a Toyota plant in Japan. In an article I read a couple months ago (unfortunately my Google Fu has failed me I cannot find the article now), Toyota described how they are returning in a limited way to human labor for building cars. Not just humans operating a stamping press, but actually hand-forging and hand-welding car bumpers together.

This artisanal “cars made by hand” strategy is not something that can scale, and Toyota has no intention of scaling it up. The number of people doing this is very limited. What’s going on is that Toyota ran into a limit to their ability to extract efficiency from robots and automation, and the limit was the personal knowledge and experience of the people programming the robots.

Within a few months of making car bumpers by hand however, the “car-artisans” (my term, not the article’s) were able to find significant efficiency improvements. The car-artisans turned their experience into an algorithm that improved efficiency by a biggish number I cannot recall now (20%? 40%? Anyway, it was a big bump, not a minor improvement).

This is how I see a big part of the future jobs playing out. It won’t be low skill or high skill as we understand it today, but an approach that more resembles a series of apprenticeships where you spend however long is necessary really learning and understanding a system, improving on it, teaching it to robots, and then moving on to something else.

This sort of system will be a major shift from our current economy. For one thing it will require long term investments in human capital as a person works their way deep into a system’s inner workings. It will emphasize deep learning and creative problem solving. And it will require that people make themselves obsolete and start all over again on a new problem fairly regularly.

But one thing I do not fear, just to anticipate an oft-seen complaint, is the possibility that large swaths of the human population are unsuited for this work. In fact, I think this could be the sort of work that humans are most suited for. Humans are curious, and if given a problem that interests them, very self-motivated. Agency costs are minimal when both the principal wants a problem solved and the agent is driven by his own curiosity to solve it. This is the lesson embedded in the success of the Montessori educational model, which benefits children of all cognitive ranges and interests.

Frankly, I’m looking forward to this future. From an enjoyment perspective, the drudgery of drafting a particular contract or diagnosing a particular cancer for the 1,000th time really isn’t any more fun than the drudgery of tilling a field of wheat. I’m happy to hand that off to a robot. Bring me the new.

Do Robots Wear Whigs?

At the heart of Adam’s conciliatory remarks is an abiding question: “will this time be different?” Most of the time, it’s just a bunch of history repeating, but thinking machines (if Robin Hanson is right, it’ll be brain uploads way before it’ll be AI) really actually are a kettle of horses of a different fish color. It’s probably not accurate to think of a brain uploaded to a piece of mechanical hardware as a “robot”, but it probably is important to think about what it should be called. If rhetoric curates moral intuition, cultivates tender affections, and captivates bright imagination, meatbag humans such as ourselves could be predisposed to truck, barter, and exchange with their mechanical fellow travelers differently depending on whether they view them as “neighbors” or as “others”.

We tend to think of robots and the like as what they are: cleverly-designed I/O machines, but still just lifeless tubes, wires, glass, metal, and plastic after all. Brain emulations or distant-future AI will have moral agency in a way that Google is only just flirting with now that they’re hitching up to deploy driverless cars on the roads of the world. Entities with moral agency can have complex (& emergent) social, legal, & al relationships with other such entities. We here and now probably can’t put a stick in the ground and say, “we need to start thinking of robots or brain uploads the same way we think about our distant fleshy descendants,” but we might be able to ease some concerns by reminding folks that things always look different from a distance. I can appreciate having some anxiety about a world with trillions of tiny uploaded brains performing intricate tasks many thousands of times faster than a soggy, boggy, big-belly human could, but I console myself with the likelihood that many of these uploads (or AIs, depending on how things go) will be quite clever and will probably be more than willing to devote some time and processing power to finding adequate solutions.

The fact that I’m unable to conjure an effective nostrum this far in advance is hardly evidence that none exists. Probably the best I can do from here and now is to remind folks that even in a subsistence world ruled by robot overlords, there will still be plenty of wonderful experiences to go around. Would you rather be you here and now or be Artaxerxes II Mnemon of Mesopotamia in 400 BCE? Indoor plumbing is pretty cool, you guys.

Eli’s right that the work of the future probably won’t resemble the work of today. This should be cause for celebration. We look back on the days when humans were foraging, subsistence farming, or toiling in nasty factories with a mixture of pity and disgust. Who knows what our descendants will think of our labor? Whatever they do think, my petty vanity hopes that they think well of us and our efforts to respect their autonomy, their sovereignty, and their dignity. Folks are adaptable. They’ll adapt to a robotic future.


For more on this topic, I did a podcast with Robin Hanson a little while ago that grazes some of these concerns.

The Uncertain Mechanized Future

Eli’s piece at the Ümlaut yesterday is one of a series of speculative writing the come out in the last few years which taps into our near-primal fear of being replaced by technology. It came in response to a series of Marc Andreessen tweets reassuring people that that was not what was going to happen. Andreessen was less than impressed by Eli’s post.

I’m not here to adjudicate this debate because I honestly have no idea who is correct. What I’d like to do is take a good look at the rhetoric around this debate; a task precisely suited to Sweet Talk as a venue.

Andreessen’s argument should be familiar to students of economics. It combines two concepts: the consumption benefits of technological progress, and the “lump of labor fallacy“.

The first point has always seemed to me the most obvious, yet often is the one most stubbornly overlooked—if we get massively more efficient at producing things, those things will get that much cheaper. At the limit, we will end up in Keynes’ future of pure leisure and consumption, as things have become so cheap that hardly anyone has to put in any time to produce enough to serve everyone’s needs and desires. From this perspective, replacing people with robots isn’t terrifying, it’s a step closer to paradise on Earth.

Of course, even if you can get everything you ever wanted for a single cent, you need to get that cent somehow. So, often while maintaining that getting rid of jobs is a good thing, classical economists introduce the lump of labor notion as a fallacy—that is, the idea that there’s a specific sum of jobs, meaning that any jobs lost result in net fewer jobs, period. It is indeed a fallacy, because “jobs”—meaning tasks which the market has valued sufficiently (or taxpayers are in some way backing) to make it worth someone’s time to perform it—are created and destroyed all the time. The labor market is a dynamic process, not a static entity.

Those of us who have used Andreessen’s rhetoric many times point out how radically disruptive the Industrial Revolution was to agricultural and craft “jobs”, yet innovations ended up created new industries with new tasks entrepreneurs needed employees to perform. The original Luddites look myopic in hindsight; will today’s believers in technological unemployment seem the same a hundred years hence?

The response to this multi-part argument is, naturally, itself multi-part. First, past performance is no guarantee of future success. Just because it’s worked out so well from the onset of the Industrial Revolution through the present does not mean that it always will—there’s an inherent uncertainty to the future, and our institutional environment has changed radically from what it was a hundred or even just fifty years ago.

Second, some version of Baumol’s cost disease will keep us from Keynes’ paradise; usually health care or education are introduced at this stage of the argument even if the cost disease isn’t mentioned specifically. Even if robots make food and shelter and entertainment dirt cheap, poor people won’t be able to afford medical treatment. Or if the robots make that cheap, there will be something; robots can’t solve everything—as Andreessen himself argues quite firmly. If we hit a bad middle where robots merely replace all low-skilled workers but leave a few key areas like education and healthcare with growing rather than falling costs, things could look grim indeed for a lot of people.

Finally, the optimists start speculating about more or less good scenarios that still fit the this-time-is-different diagnosis. Eli talks about people becoming more entrepreneurial. He and I both wonder whether education will have to change to promote hustle or autodidactic tendencies.

I also wonder whether the 9-to-5, steady stream of income, well defined job will become a thing of the past and we’ll move towards a future where a substantial majority of people’s income is highly lumpy.

So what is the underlying rhetoric of each position?

The classical economics position that Andreessen stakes out is one of continuity with the past, in a way that is comforting. Andreessen can point out that people have been having these concerns for over two centuries and been wrong every time. We definitely shouldn’t jump the gun and try to stop progress, because it will only hurt the poor, whose standard of living the availability of cheaper goods has a much bigger impact on.

The technological unemployment position is much more of a many-headed hydra. Some employ it in the process of arguing the inevitability of something like universal basic income. Some employ it and conclude with the types of arguments Eli and I have made; that we’re in for a significant structural shift that will ultimately be beneficial to all, but may be painful in the interim. And some employ it to emphasize Coming Apart and The Average is Over style arguments about the structural inevitability of rising inequality.

The only projection I’m willing to make is that the advantage held by any of these rhetorics in persuading a broader public is probably going to have to do more with short term labor market conditions than with the details of their arguments.

How Deep Are the Ashes?

Over at The Umlaut, Eli Dourado has managed to stir up a rather large sea of anxiety. The creature which arose from the depths grew many tentacles of much girth and long reach. As it was, I mostly sidetweeted, because I don’t know the vocabulary, but a question started to form, then to congeal. At first, I wrote as a comment on the article page:

I wonder if this works outside the traditional manufacturing environment, where robots are robots. The more abstract “robotic” might apply to the automation of clerical jobs as well. Using myself as an anecdote, I won’t hire an assistant for my business because 1) the training is too specialized for the actual labor, and 2) New York State hiring laws are cost prohibitive. My anecdote is common enough and well-known enough that my email and business phone are clogged with messages from entrepreneurs promising me easy data entry and automated filing as has never been known, not since Miss Lemon conquered Hercule Poirot’s office.

That was hours before the conversation wound its way through Twitter. Since then, it occurs to me that Eli has touched on a kind of anxiety that disturbs all civilizations, especially at the level of a civilization’s societies where men and women are concerned about the wherewithal of her institutions. My favorite example of this is the Eighth Century B.C.E. , in which the Assyrians perfected a handful of things, e.g., the chariot, seasonal warfare, iron weapons, equestrian warfare, siege warfare, psychological warfare (seeing a pattern?), and just plain old mean cruelty. Everyone around freaked out, making poor diplomatic decisions to the detriment of their cultures, the Assyrians opened up a can of burn-everything-down-and-then-tax-it, and while they were picking the fat of their conquests from their teeth, the Chaldeans landed an arrow shot in the dark, and a several millennia-old civilization and group of civilizations fell within two hundred years, never to rise from the ashes.

Technology played no small role in that fall, and its use, and its abuse: the Assyrians, apparently, were just mad at everyone for a few millennia of encroachment, so they lashed out with technology they perfected in a furious hurry (I know, I know: that’s pretty tendentious, but I’m right). The response to them, in turn, was a rebuke of the ages.

Isn’t this stark reality–namely that in a couple of thousand years a shepherd might stub his toe on a rock that used to be the top of the John Hancock tower, and historians who were arguing that there never was something such as the Glorious U.S. of A. would hang their heads in shame and write quick journal articles to explain how when they steadfastly denied the existence of said civilization they really meant they denied the “mythology” of the Free Market, Individual Liberty, and the Glory of the Ordinary–isn’t this stark reality the cause of every civilization’s love for the myth of the Phoenix of Fire Which Rises From the Ashes? It gives us a false hope. We are doomed to ashes, and everything we strive, sweat, and bleed for–falls to the unknown.

“Thanks for the technology: we’ll be sure to sweep your ashes into a pile next to Lake Michigan.” But not in my lifetime, right? Or my kids’?