Do We Live in a Simulation, Or Are We Already Dead in the Real World?

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Some say that we live in a computer simulation, and that we just don’t know it yet. Perhaps God-like creatures, on another planet somewhere, have colonised us and put us in Matrix-style liquid-filled pods, our brains attached to a computer and fed with fake experiences. Proponents of the simulation hypothesis rightly point out that it may be wrong to call such experiences “fake”. We do have them after all, and whether these experiences come from a real world interacting with us or from a computer program pretending to be a world doesn’t make a lot of difference as long as we don’t know the truth of the matter. “Truth” may be a similarly slippery concept. (Nozick’s experience machine is a whole different case, because in that thought experiment the point is whether we would choose to live in such a machine. Here we assume that we don’t have such a choice).

Elon Musk has recently popularised the simulation hypothesis, although it’s centuries old. Descartes’ “dieu trompeur” is a famous example: an evil demon presenting a complete illusion of an external world to our senses, or maybe directly to our minds, or mind in the singular.

Also, rather than Matrix-style pods, we may simply be brains in a vat, or even less: emulations of brains “living” in a computer.

Whatever the merits of this hypothesis, I think they pale in comparison to another one: we are, in fact, already dead. The latter is, in my opinion, much more likely and fits better with the available evidence. Let me have a go.

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The simulation hypothesis can indeed explain all the evidence – since all evidence is facts and all facts can conceivably be simulated by some or other entity. The problem however is precisely this entity. Who or what could it be? The most likely explanation is that the simulating entity is part of humanity itself, perhaps a future generation. But why? Why on earth (or elsewhere) would they enslave physical human bodies, put them to sleep, immerse them in vats and connect them to computers in order to feed them sensations of a non-existing world? Why would they remove their brains or emulate their brains? I don’t see the point. The Matrix plot – humans as a power source – is obviously ridiculous. Emulated brains as instruments of computing power is a similarly weak rationale for the simulation hypothesis (when it becomes technologically possible to emulate brains, there won’t be a reason to fool them; just use their computing power if you don’t have better, non-brain based computing machines, which seems unlikely to me). The same lack of rationale applies to the possibility of aliens or Gods as simulating entities. It seems likely that they as well, just like future humans, would have better things to do.

Whomever is the simulating entity, it must have a reason for its actions. Even the fun of it or outright sadism could not support the simulation hypothesis: it wouldn’t be much fun to the simulators, not even if they’re sadists: our possibly simulated world is often awful but not awful enough to be the product of a sadist entity seeking to enjoy itself at our expense.

So the evidence seems to be against the simulation hypothesis. What about my alternative? Let’s call it the Cotard hypothesis after the well-known Cotard delusion: a mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that he or she is already dead. Although of course in this case we’re not dealing with a delusion. The delusion would be that we’re still alive.

Think about unrequited love, the glances in the subway that went unnoticed, the promotion that you failed to get, the times that your husband ignored what you were saying… Often trivial and banal occurrences, but taken together they may have some weight. Perhaps more weight than the simulation hypothesis. Countervailing evidence can also be explained. The times when you weren’t ignored may have been wishful thinking. After all, it’s easier to believe that you are alive than that you are dead, and so your mind may fabricate “evidence” to convince you that you are in fact alive. Such fabrications are not unheard of: there’s the just world fallacy, we have adaptive preferences and suffer from confirmation bias. And a lot of these biases are unconscious.

Think also about the sadness of some of the memories of early childhood. Good memories maybe, but also sad at the same time because that world is gone, that life is gone. Your life is gone. This fits also nicely with the increasingly popular notion that there is no such thing as en enduring personal identity. We “die” every moment.

(An interesting fictional treatment of the Cotard delusion is the TV-series Talking to the Dead – forget the IMDB ranking, it’s BS. And there’s of course The Sixth Sense).

Universal Basic Income as the Foundation of Freedom

I favor a Universal Basic Income (UBI) because it offers financial security and predictability, which in turn provide freedom from necessity. This “freedom from” is required for any meaningful “freedom to“. By allowing people to effortlessly and foreseeably pay for the material resources that they need for a minimally decent life, a UBI liberates them to pursue the goals they have set for their lives – or even set these goals in the first place. Life’s pursuits all too often get pushed aside by urgencies, necessities and bouts of bad luck. The struggle to survive may even imply an incapacity to formulate goals.

What matters … is not only the protection of individual rights, but assurances of the real value of those rights: we need to be concerned not only with liberty, but, in John Rawls’s phrase, with the “worth of liberty.” At first approximation, the worth or real value of a person’s liberty depends on the resources the person has at her command to make use of her liberty. So it is therefore necessary that the distribution of opportunity – understood as access to the means that people need for doing what they might want to do – be designed to offer the greatest possible real opportunity to those with least opportunities, subject to everyone’s formal freedom being respected. Philippe Van Parijs (source)

There’s another type of “freedom from” that a UBI would achieve: it would liberate us from alienated labor (to use a strong term). I personally believe that the alienating characteristics of our current system of work are sadly ignored (read this and this). A basic income gives people the freedom to turn down unattractive work and to start cooperative ventures that are more rewarding, in the sense of more pleasant but also more in line with the goals people have set for their lives.

As a pleasant by-product, we would be able to shake off some recurrent criticisms of our existing welfare systems:

  • No more discussions about welfare queens, social security fraud, the undeserving poor, a culture of poverty, etc.
  • No more government intrusion in the private lives of welfare beneficiaries, no more means testing, fraud investigations, social security inspections, income audits, family structure controls etc.
  • We would be able to implement drastic reductions in the level of regulation, legislation and government bloat inherent in our current social security systems. A smaller government, suitably defined, may also lead to an increase in the overall level of freedom.
  • Healthcare consumption would become more wise and efficient since people have to use their basic income to pay for all of their non-catastrophic health problems. (Perhaps this rationalization could offset some of the fiscal criticism leveled against a UBI).
  • Unemployment would no longer be a problem: the concept of unemployment would become meaningless.

Some additional advantages of a UBI:

  • We would no longer be fixated on economic growth since the main justification of growth is its perceived role in the reduction of unemployment. Hence we would perhaps be able to meet some environmental concerns.
  • Increased gender equality. Wives, often still the main caregivers within families, would be less economically dependent on husbands if they have a basic income. With less dependence comes more freedom and equality. Women – as well as caring men – could even use their basic income to start up cooperatives for the caring function, making use of advantages of scale and becoming more economically active outside of the home. That as well would increase their independence.

Let’s Get Rid of Wage Labor

I’m serious: make it illegal. But not before we have a universal basic income. A UBI will encourage self-employed or cooperative ventures freely chosen by those who engage in it. In the absence of a UBI, many of us have a job not because the activities associated with the job allow us to pursue our goals, but because the job comes with a salary and because this salary can buy the necessities of life. We then either pursue our goals during our leisure time, or convince ourselves that the goals of our jobs are somehow also our own goals (the burger-flipper telling himself that “making kids happy is all I want”).

A UBI has to cover the costs of the necessities of life: a decent place to live, sufficient food, clothing, basic healthcare (catastrophic healthcare costs would be paid for by a fund for which people are forced to buy insurance), transportation and some appliances, machines or utilities (a car, a washing machine, a fridge, a cell phone etc.). Because it covers the costs of necessities, a UBI liberates us to pursue the goals we set for our lives, goals which all too often get pushed aside by the urgencies of the daily struggle to survive, to have a decent house and to have some savings for when times get bad.

Would a UBI not be sufficient to allow people to pursue their goals? Why also prohibit wage labor? A UBI indeed loosens us from the system of wage labor – it provides a financial cushion that removes the risks inherent in abandoning a job and pursuing our “true destiny” – but it doesn’t go far enough. It gives us the freedom to turn down unattractive work but the pursuit of life’s goals often requires cooperation. Only the prohibition on wage labor makes cooperative ventures more common. A UBI by itself only pushes us towards more satisfying jobs and leaves some of the drawbacks of wage labor intact:

  • Wage labor means that the ownership of the means of production is in the hands of a minority. It’s this minority that determines the goals of labor, and they hire workers to achieve these goals. The workers themselves have no say in this and end up pursuing other people’s goals. Control is a distant dream for most if not all wage laborers. The owners have few incentives to organize production on a cooperative basis because cooperative labor would mean that they lose their right to unilaterally decide the goals of their organization; it would also mean sharing the proceeds of the organization with the workers.
  • Wage labor is inherently authoritarian rather than cooperative, not only with regard to the ultimate goals but also on the level of the means. People who generally detest authoritarian political structures nevertheless submit every morning of every working day to the authoritarian rules of their employers.

A prohibition of wage labor might look like a revolutionary proposal. What are some of the risks we take?

  • Do we have to expropriate the owners of the means of production? After all, it’s no use setting people free to engage in cooperative ventures if they can’t freely use the means of production. However, there’s little dispute about the undesirability of large scale expropriation. So what do we do? To some extent, cooperative ventures will produce their own means of production, and in an economy that is increasingly focused on services and the internet, the category of means of production loses some of its meaning. We can also look at how taxes on means of production would set some of them free for communal use.
  • The biggest risk, I think, is a reduction of economic activity. If that happens, we’re not going to have an economic basis large enough for the required level of taxation necessary to fund the UBI. However, I’m tempted to assume that people will want to be economically active and that the UBI combined with the end of wage income will set loose a lot of initiative and ambition, but all that is hard to predict. Maybe I’m being too optimistic. The “entrepreneurial” spirit in the common man may be lacking, or may have been destroyed by ages of wage dependence. Maybe most people just want to work for an income, no matter which kind of work, as long as they don’t have to take responsibility for their own freedom. Or maybe many of us will use the opportunity to do what we always wanted to do when we can no longer work for a wage and when we have the cushion of a UBI. The additional advantage that we can share the proceeds of cooperative ventures – proceeds which now go to the owners of the means of production – will make it even more exciting to do something.
  • If people can’t work for a wage, many of the “dirty jobs” may not get done anymore. I can list many activities – toilet cleaning, waste disposal, mining etc. – which probably won’t be organized in voluntary cooperative ventures if there’s no longer a possibility to pay people a wage to do them. But then perhaps we’ll be forced to clean up after ourselves. And perhaps automation will help as well. In any case, every rule has exceptions.

Indeed, we may have to settle for policies that discourage rather than prohibit wage labor, one sector at a time. However, if even this is deemed unrealistic or undesirable, then at least let us agree to make work more democratic. If privately owned large corporations continue to exist and dominate the market, and if therefore wage labor persists, then the employees should be given a larger say in how these corporations are run and what their ultimate purposes should be. Corporate democracy, combined with a UBI that allows people to change jobs easily, can make it more likely that people are able to pursue their goals. Which is what all this is about, after all.

More here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (31): Automation and the Hollowing Out of the Labor Market

Conventional wisdom has it that automation comes at the expense of low-skilled jobs and aggravates income inequality because of labor displacement at the bottom of the income distribution. It turns out that this is a bit too conventional, and not only because it runs afoul of the lump of labor fallacy (machines need to be built and people can go on and do other things). Mid-level jobs are also hit by automation, and perhaps even more than jobs at the bottom of the skill continuum. This has been called the “hollowing out” of the labor market. This hollowing out, caused in part by automation, in turns causes an increase in income inequality. This is mere arithmetic: if the middle drops, then the extremes become relatively more important and inequality rises. Ryan Avent puts it well:

Work published in 2006 by David Autor, Lawrence Katz, and Melissa Kearney argued that employment and wage growth in America have “polarised” in recent decades, a conclusion that has been reinforced by subsequent research. Employment in high- and low-skill positions has risen substantially relative to middle-skill jobs. The resulting employment distribution generates a distribution of wages that is similarly polarised and more unequal than that which prevailed prior to this period. (source)

Why does technological automation focus mainly on middle skill levels?

Daron Acemoglu and Mr Autor pioneered a “task approach” to labour markets. Tasks can be completed by either labour or capital. The more routine a task is, the more susceptible it is to automation. But whether or not a task is automated depends upon the relative supply—and the real wage—of workers of various skill levels. Subsequent work has shown that automation and trade are responsible for displacement of routine tasks previously done by middle-skill workers, in both manufacturing and clerical or service activities, leading to polarisation of local and national labour markets.  (source)

Technological automation focuses mainly on middle skill levels because it’s relatively easy at that level, easier sometimes than at the extremes of high and low skilled tasks. “Easier” here means both technologically easier and more cost effective. Highly skilled tasks, such as teaching a philosophy course, are difficult for machines to do because they are complex (although we do sometimes see high-skilled jobs being automated, such as legal research for example). In the case of low-skilled tasks, some of these are surprisingly hard to automate, as in the case of truck driving or toilet cleaning. Even low-skilled jobs that aren’t technically hard to automate aren’t always automated because the pay-off may be too low – people doing those jobs are poorly paid so developing expensive machines to do it for them isn’t worth the trouble.

And then there’s the added worry that displacement of many low-skilled workers would create a permanent underclass unable to participate in the economy – unable, in other words, to buy the goods and services produced by machines. There’s a famous anecdote about Henry Ford mocking a labor union president in one of his factories, saying it wouldn’t be easy to get the robots to pay their union dues. To which the union president responded that Ford wasn’t going to get the robots to buy his cars.

The hollowing out of the labor market, driven by mid-level automation, has therefore a direct effect on income inequality, but it also a few indirect effects. For example, automation means lower production costs, and the savings or the added value go primarily to shareholders through capital gains and stock appreciation. Since stock ownership and capital income are concentrated among those already better off, income inequality is further increased.

If technology decreases the relative importance of human labor in a particular production process, the owners of capital equipment will be able to capture a bigger share of income from the goods and services produced. (source)

Another indirect effect: increasing automation of manufacturing jobs pushes unionization rates down, which in turn decreases bargaining power among low-skilled workers. This, in the end, aggravates inequality yet again.

More posts in this series are here.

We Need to Start Working Differently

Unemployment, starvation, war and unrequited love are probably more important and more urgent concerns, but the almost complete lack of serious thinking about the nature of work never ceases to amaze me. Most of us work and we spend a considerable portion of our lives doing our work, and yet how many of us do a job only because we need the paycheck? Far too often, work is a toil, not always a physical toil for us Westerners but a psychological one, because we work in systems we don’t understand, let alone control, or because we contribute an insignificant, boring, detailed part of a larger process we don’t really care about. We go to work, not to produce, be creative or self-develop, but simply to make a living, to have some cash, and in a few cases to have prestige, status, power or some other good external to the production process in which we engage or the product to which we contribute.

Work is not connected to who we are or wish to become. Who does not dream of another life? The statistics about job satisfaction and job motivation are depressing.

Work should be about creativity, excellence, development and self-expression rather than wages, survival and status. How do we get there? That will be tough, but giving workers more control of their factories or businesses and increasing automation of the uninteresting parts of work would be a good start. Even if many of us – in the West at least – are no longer machine appendices in the style of Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, we’re often still tied to routine jobs that are part of a system the purpose of which is obscure to us or leaves us indifferent. Our contribution is not insignificant – or we wouldn’t get paid – and yet we are replaceable. The larger purpose of it all escapes us or doesn’t matter.

We shouldn’t forget that the division of labor into fragmented tasks in a highly hierarchical organization – and “organization” here also means markets (a taxi cab’s ride is just as much his boss) – is probably not so much a requirement of modern markets or production technologies but rather the consequence of a very specific way of viewing work relationships, namely relationships between highly qualified “managers” and simple executors. Other ways of working are possible and should be promoted.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (29): The Declining Share of National Income Going to Labor

What I want to do here is look at a possible cause of increasing income inequality, namely the relative shares of labor and capital income. Your labor income is your wage, your pension, your bonus, your company health insurance etc. Most people have a labor income. You only have capital income if you receive dividend payments, capital gains, interest payments on savings etc.

During the last decades, the share of labor compensation in total national income has declined, and this has been a global phenomenon, occurring in most countries.

Can we blame this decline for the increase in income inequality during the same period? Only in part, I think, because there has also been a divergence within labor in the sense that some people, mostly high earners, have seen their labor income rise much faster than others. Income inequality is indeed, to some extent, wage inequality. The growth of the finance sector, where people are well-paid, is part of the explanation for the increasing wage inequality, at least in some countries. Tax policy, declining bargaining power among the low earners and wage competition from poorer countries – again affecting mainly low-end workers – may be other explanations for rising wage inequality, also depending on the country (unionization rates, for example, haven’t evolved in the same manner everywhere).

But I guess it’s true that not all of income inequality is wage inequality and that incomes from capital, such as profits, dividends, stock options etc. also explain something. Capital income is, compared to labor income, unevenly distributed across a population, and concentrated among the wealthy.

If capital income is more concentrated among the wealthy then a rise in capital income leads to a rise in income inequality. Part of this is just arithmetical: the flip-side of a lower share of national income coming from labor is a higher share of income coming from capital. Capital income needn’t be higher in absolute terms in order to get a larger share. If there’s widespread wage stagnation – perhaps due to international wage competition, trade and outsourcing – then capital income may rise relatively, if not absolutely. However, in some countries such as the US we also see an absolute rise of capital income.

More on capital gains here. More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (48): The Arguments Against Immigration, and How They Are Mistaken

I’m going to try to list the most common arguments against immigration, and show how they are devoid of any basis in facts. Since I’m talking facts, I’ll include some handy references to scientific evidence debunking the arguments. (The references will sometimes be found in older blogposts, so you may have to click through a few times. If you feel that I’m shamelessly overlooking some seminal papers, please tell me in comments).

1. The labor cost argument

Claim:

Immigrants are willing to work for low wages, especially the illegal ones. The result is unfair wage competition with natives who will see their wages drop as a result, or who may even be priced out of the labor market altogether. The welfare of native workers requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Immigration actually increases native wages because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. Low skilled immigrants also make it possible for natives to spend less time on non-paid, low-skilled activities that they can outsource. As a result, the latter can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. The wage competition claim can also be refuted by pointing to the fact that native workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations.

Not only is there a positive wage effect of immigration (with perhaps a small exception for native high school drop outs), but immigration also creates or saves jobs. The easier it is to find cheap immigrant labor at home the less likely that production will relocate offshore. More here.

2. The social safety net argument

Claim:

Immigrants come over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits, since the income of even the relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to the welfare benefits in rich countries. This is unsustainable, since welfare benefits have to be financed, and working native populations often have a hard time producing enough tax revenue in order to support native welfare beneficiaries. Allowing immigrants to come but then excluding them from welfare benefits seems harsh and unjust. Hence it’s better not to allow them to come in the first place.

Facts:

Immigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. The labor force participation rate for illegal immigrants in the US is higher than that of the native-born. In the UK, immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits.

3. The “importing poverty” argument

Claim:

Immigrants are less well off than natives. That’s precisely why they want to migrate. Allowing them in reduces the average wealth of the destination country.

Facts:

Many immigrants are indeed less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re often less skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration may push up the national poverty rate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same immigration flow will probably push down the global poverty rate: migrants usually improve their lot by migrating – they probably wouldn’t migrate if that were not the case.

4. The crime argument

Claim:

Immigrants cause an increase in the crime rate. They often come from countries with dysfunctional states and bad enforcement institutions. Hence, they have grown to be more tolerant of violations of the law. The poverty of their countries of origin also pushes them towards more crime. Less crime is a good thing, hence less immigration is also a good thing.

Facts:

Immigration is associated with lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates.

5. The lack of integration argument

Claim:

Immigrants, especially those from other cultures (and that would be most immigrants, since it’s the poor who want to migrate and the poor are almost by definition from outside the West), find it hard to fit in. As a result, there will be frictions between the immigrant population and the original inhabitants. These frictions benefit nobody, hence we should restrict immigration.

Facts:

Natives are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior like bullying, dropping out of school, domestic violence, harassment, vandalism etc. The evidence is here.

6. The cultural argument

Claim:

The local culture will not be able to survive a large influx of high fertility immigrants from completely different cultures. People have a legitimate interest in the preservation of their distinctive cultural identity. Hence immigration should be restricted.

Facts:

A cultural identity is obviously a valuable good. However, it’s not at all clear that immigration threatens the cultures of destinations countries. Those destination countries are multicultural to begin with. Most immigrants are also  willing and able to adapt (see previous point). Moreover, cultural change is not by definition a bad thing, both for those arriving and for those already there. And finally, cultural change is not always likely to happen anyway: throughout history, even those minority cultures living in highly hostile environments where the majority controls the state have been able to survive and flourish. Often a threat to a culture is the cause of increased cultural awareness.

7. The educational argument

Claim:

Immigrant children push down the quality of schools and therefore harm the education of native children. Immigrant children have different types of disadvantages: they speak the local language less well, they have cultural burdens inhibiting education, and perhaps even IQ burdens. The welfare of native children requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Higher rates of immigration encourage native children to study harder – to complete high school and to go to university – so that they can avoid competing with immigrant high-school dropouts in the labor market.

Conclusion

All of these claims about immigration are based on supposed harms to the population of the destination country. (There’s one argument I didn’t mention, namely the brain drain argument, that focuses on the effects of migration on origin countries, but that one is just as flawed as the rest). Not only is this a very selfish mode of argument, ignoring the clear benefits for (potential) immigrants, but – as it turns out – also a very misguided one, based on factual errors. However, even if it were the case that immigration imposes some form of financial costs on host countries, then that wouldn’t necessarily be the final argument against immigration, since these cost can be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice.

More posts in this series are here.