Stupid smart people

I think I’ll start a series called “stupid smart people”. To keep things
interesting, I’ll try to avoid run-of-the-mill smart-people stupidity
covered by Derb’s aphorism

The fact is that political stupidity is a special kind of stupidity, not well correlated with intelligence, or with other varieties of stupidity.

or Buckley’s quip

I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.

I will also resist the temptation to simply label everyone I disagree with as stupid (even when softened by the back-handed oxymoronic “smart”). Thus, while I think Ken White is completely wrong for painting Derbyshire as illiterate white trash, I wouldn’t call it a stupid mistake. Alt-right’s tent isn’t sufficiently crowded to be able to afford to be particularly picky and sure does attract its share of kooks. An outsider like Ken can be excused for lacking the subtlety to discern the wheat from the chaff.

Also, the smart-person stupidity has to be plain and down-to-earth, not esoteric. It must lend itself to pithy summary, and not span several books. By this criterion, Chomsky won’t make the cut.

So how about some positive examples? Here’s a recent one. Smart-person Steven Weinberg (Nobel/physics’79) said he’ll ban (in violation of state law!) students from concealed-carrying in his class. Given that it’s concealed carry, it’s not clear how this post-tenure scofflaw plans to accomplish his nefarious goal. Will he X-ray his students, set up metal detectors, or perhaps opt for the more up-close and personal approach?

However, for the official premiere, I’ve got my sights on a more interesting specimen: Eliezer Yudkowsky. Here is clearly a very accomplished autodidact. Managed to publish a few peer-reviewed conference and journal papers — without a formal college education or a PhD. (These wouldn’t get him hired at any decent CS department, but still impressive for an amateur.)

This interview showcases the breadth of his erudition. No, he does not spend all of his time just thinking about AI; he knows that Singapore has the world’s best-rated healthcare system (a fact I’d encountered just a week or so ago, by complete accident) and that Estonia has a particularly efficient e-government system (something I don’t recall ever knowing, but am happy to take it on his authority). And yet… Let’s look at the full quote:

[Interviewer]: If you were King of the World, what would top your “To Do” list?

Yudkowsky: I once observed, “The libertarian test is whether, imagining that you’ve gained power, your first thought is of the laws you would pass, or the laws you would repeal.”  I’m not an absolute libertarian, since not everything I want would be about repealing laws and softening constraints.  But when I think of a case like this, I imagine trying to get the world to a condition where some unemployed person can offer to drive you to work for 20 minutes, be paid five dollars, and then nothing else bad happens to them.  They don’t have their unemployment insurance phased out, have to register for a business license, lose their Medicare, be audited, have their lawyer certify compliance with OSHA rules, or whatever.  They just have an added $5.

I’d try to do all the things smart economists have been yelling about for a while but that almost no country ever does.  Replace investment taxes and income taxes with consumption taxes and land value tax.  Replace minimum wages with negative wage taxes.  Institute NGDP level targeting regimes at central banks and let the too-big-to-fails go hang.  Require loser-pays in patent law and put copyright back to 28 years.  Eliminate obstacles to housing construction.

Copy and paste from Singapore’s healthcare setup.  Copy and paste from Estonia’s e-government setup.  Try to replace committees and elaborate process regulations with specific, individual decision-makers whose decisions would be publicly documented and accountable.  Run controlled trials of different government setups and actually pay attention to the results.  I could go on for literally hours.

I found myself agreeing with much of the first paragraph. Second paragraph also — without having any clue as to what NGDP is. It’s clear that he’s thought these things through much more thoroughly than I, and is much better informed. (“Eliminate obstacles to housing construction”? Well, maybe some obstacles… I’m sure we have too many now.)

Can you spot the point in the third paragraph where he completely lost me? Or rather, revealed a gaping hole in his reasoning? It’s the copy-paste business, and the implicit blank-slate assumption that a legal system will function independently of the population it’s being applied to. C’mon, Eliezer — if we copy-paste the US constitution in Zimbabwe, will it suddenly start producing Ben Franklins and Thomas Edisons? Conversely, you copy-paste enough third-world migrants over to where you live and see how that constitution holds up.

Being the super-intelligent, super-rational being that you are, Eliezer, I’m sure you’ll read this blog entry and update your Bayesian beliefs. You’re welcome!


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