A conversation with Tyler Cowen on 8 April 2014

Participants
• • Tyler Cowen—Professor of economics at George Mason University Nick Beckstead—Research Fellow F!t!re of "!manity #nstit!te at $%ford University& Board of Tr!stees Centre for 'ffective (ltr!ism

Summary
Purpose of the conversation: # contacted Tyler to learn a)o!t his *ers*ectives on e%istential risk and other long+r!n iss!es for h!manity the long+r!n conse,!ences of economic growth and the effective altr!ism movement- # )elieved Tyler was likely to have interesting views on these iss!es that the effective altr!ism comm!nity was generally !naware of- Tyler has written a)o!t some *olicy iss!es for *eo*le who care dee*ly a)o!t distant f!t!re generations we have many friends in common and he s!**orts Give.ell.e had a very wide+ranging conversation )!t two ma/or themes were caring a)o!t the distant f!t!re and the effective altr!ism movement- Tyler agrees with Nick a)o!t the im*ortance of long+r!n o!tcomes for h!manity and the im*ortance of *ath+de*endent o!tcomes in that framework- "owever Tyler e%*ressed significant ske*ticism a)o!t the val!e of *hiloso*hical work on these *ro)lems and the val!e of s*ec!lating a)o!t the im*acts of f!t!re technology at least in com*arison with more historically gro!nded tracta)le iss!es s!ch as innovation international conflict geo*olitics and *andemics- "e also e%*ressed m!ch more *essimism a)o!t h!manity0s *ros*ects for s!rviving and thriving for a very long time 1e-g- millions of years or more2- Tyler s!**orts effective altr!ism )!t doesn0t see it as e%tremely im*ortant in the grand scheme of things& others es*ecially innovators will )e m!ch more im*ortant in his view- .e also disc!ssed a few *hiloso*hical iss!es related to historicism literat!re and rational choice ethicsThese notes reflect the main points made by Tyler in the course of the conversation.

Tyler on caring about the distant future
Tyler’s views on the long-run future vs. Nick’s views
Nick had a look at Tyler0s *a*er 3Caring ()o!t the 4istant F!t!re 5 which arg!es that from a long+r!n *ers*ective the main *!)lic *olicy o)/ective sho!ld )e ma%imi6ing the s!staina)le rate of economic growth- Tyler had a look at Nick0s dissertation *rior to the conversation )!t not a close one- "e agreed that 3o*timi6e *ath+de*endent as*ects of the distant f!t!re5 was a hel*f!l handle for thinking a)o!t

how we sho!ld ho*e to change the distant f!t!re- This is consistent with how Tyler wo!ld now artic!late his view and tho!ght some of the differences in how we framed o!r arg!ments reflects the fact that Tyler writes for economists whereas Nick does not-

Long-run conse uences of increasing the rate of economic growth
.e disc!ssed this iss!e )!t the recording was damaged and # haven0t attem*ted to reconstr!ct it-

Pessimism about the future
Tyler is o*timistic a)o!t growth in the coming decades )!t he doesn0t think we0ll )ecome !*loads or s!rvive for a million years- 7ome considerations in favor of his views were8 9:;<The Fermi *arado% is some evidence that h!mans will not coloni6e the stars(lmost all s*ecies go e%tinctNat!ral disasters—even a s!*ervolcano—co!ld destroy h!manityNormally it0s easier to destroy than to )!ild- (nd in the f!t!re it will *ro)a)ly )ecome increasingly *ossi)le for smaller gro!*s to ca!se severe glo)al damage 1along the lines s!ggested )y Martin Rees2-

The most o*timistic view that Tyler wo!ld entertain—tho!gh he do!)ts it—is that h!mans wo!ld s!rvive at s!)sistence level for a very long time& that0s what we0ve had for most of h!man history-

!"isting efforts to reduce e"istential risk
Peo*le doing *hiloso*hical work to try to red!ce e%istential risk are largely wasting their time- Tyler doesn0t think it0s a serio!s effort tho!gh it may )e good *!)licity for something that will *ay off later- ( serio!s effort looks more like the *arts of the U7 government that trained *eo*le to infiltrate the *ost+ colla*se 7oviet Union and then locate and ne!trali6e n!clear wea*ons- There was also a serio!s effort )y the *eo*le who set !* hotlines )etween leaders to )e !sed to ,!ickly comm!nicate a)o!t n!clear attacks 1e-g- to hel* ,!ickly convince a leader in co!ntry ( that a fishy o)/ect on their radar isn0t an incoming n!clear attack2-This has )een fi%ed in other co!ntries 1e-g- U7 and China2 )!t it hasn0t )een fi%ed in other cases 1e-g- #srael and #ran2- There is more that we co!ld do in this area- #n contrast the *hiloso*hical side of this seems like ineffective *ost!ringTyler wo!ldn0t necessarily recommend that these *eo*le switch to other areas of foc!s )eca!se *eo*le motivation and *ersonal interests are ma/or constraints on getting anywhere- For Tyler his own interest in these iss!es is a form of cons!m*tion tho!gh one he val!es highly-

#rtificial intelligence$ could trying to shape the future of #% be an effective way to change the long-run future&
Tyler e%*ects that artificial intelligence will have s!)stantial effects on wages and G4P- B!t he doesn0t think it will f!ndamentally transform the h!man condition- Tyler wo!ldn0t )e shocked if we had =+9> more years of Moore0s law and im*rovements started to slow down- Peo*le treat Moore0s law as if it were a law of nat!re )!t it isn0t-

Tyler is very ske*tical a)o!t !*loads 1aka 3whole )rain em!lation52 es*ecially claims a)o!t !*loads in the ne%t few decades- "e0d may)e give them a 9 in 9>>> chance of ha**ening- #n his view !*loads are /!st an idea that some *eo*le came !* with most ideas don0t work and most instit!tions are dysf!nctional- Those tr!ths seem more im*ortant for thinking a)o!t the distant f!t!re than any com*licated arg!ments for the feasi)ility and im*ortance of !*loadsTyler doesn0t think that trying to change the develo*ment of (# is likely to )e an effective way of trying to change long+r!n o!tcomes for h!manity- #f he tho!ght it was more likely that (# wo!ld f!ndamentally transform the h!man condition then he might change his o*inion a)o!t this tho!gh it0s !nclear to him how anyone co!ld control (# in s!ch a scenario-

'hat types of issues would be more important than the issues that people in e"istential risk think about&
#nternational conflict wea*ons of mass destr!ction geoengineering and *andemics may )e more im*ortant.ithin international conflict we co!ld go for the o)vio!s tro!)le s*ots—e-g- #ndia+Pakistan #srael+#ran North vs- 7o!th ?orea sanctions *olicy on R!ssia )iological warfare etc- Peo*le can make *rogress on these iss!es- '-g- many tro!)le s*ots have gotten )etter s!ch as conflict in #reland has im*roved or (frica has )ecome more *eacef!l- Tyler )elieves this kind of *rogress red!ces e%istential risk.ithin *andemics we co!ld try to im*rove disease s!rveillance'hat about politics& $nly a small *ercentage of *eo*le are good at *olitics and in that res*ect it0s similar to trying to innovate- B!t )eing good at *olitics is negatively correlated with certain ty*e of *hiloso*hical tho!ghtf!lness- This is less tr!e o!tside of the U7 e-g- in Canada-

!ffective altruism
Question: What are your thoughts on the effective altruism movement in general—how familiar are you with it? If you are, are there things you wish we were doing that we aren t doing or things you wish we were doing differently? Tyler likes it s!**orts Give.ell on his )log and donates to Give4irectly- B!t it0s small *otatoes in com*arison with say innovationTyler0s int!ition is that im*roving marketing is a key iss!e for effective altr!ism rather than fine+t!ning where *eo*le sho!ld )e giving-

(ther philosophical issues
The problem of )fanaticism*
#n Tyler0s view the constr!cts !nderlying the *ro)lem of fanaticism and the Re*!gnant Concl!sion and at )est work locally and not glo)ally- #n s!fficiently e%otic settings these constr!cts fall o!tside the sco*e of meaningf!l disco!rse- 1These are iss!es disc!ssed in Nick0s dissertation and that0s why they were disc!ssed-2

+istoricist philosophy
Tyler thinks a)o!t the f!t!re and *hiloso*hical iss!es from a historicist *ers*ective- .hen considering the f!t!re of h!manity this makes him foc!s on war con,!est *lag!es and the environment rather than f!t!re technology"e ac,!ired this *ers*ective )y reading a lot of history and s*ending a lot of time aro!nd *eo*le in *oor co!ntries incl!ding in r!ral areas- 7*ending time with *eo*le in *oor co!ntries sha*ed Tyler0s views a lot- #t made him see rational choice ethics as more contingent- Peo*le in r!ral areas care most a)o!t things like fights with local villages over watermelon *atches- (nd that0s how we are )!t we0re living in a fog a)o!t it-

,ational choice ethics and the )Straussian truths of the great books*
The tr!ths of literat!re and what yo! might call 3the 7tra!ssian tr!ths of the great )ooks5—what yo! get from "omer or Plato—are at least as im*ortant rational choice ethics- B!t the *eo*le who do rational choice ethics don0t think that- #f the two *ers*ectives aren0t integrated it leads to a)s!rdities— *ro)lems like fanaticism the Re*!gnant Concl!sion and so on- Right now tho!gh rational choice ethics is the )est we have—the *ro)lems of e-g- ?antian ethics seem m!ch m!ch worse#f rational choice ethics were integrated with the 37tra!ssian tr!ths of the great )ooks 5 wo!ld it leadto different decisions@ May)e not—may)e it wo!ld lead to the same decisions with a different attit!de.e might come to see rational choice ethics as an im*erfect constr!ct a flawed )!))le of meaning that we created for o!rselves and sho!ldn0t e%*ect to kee* working in !n!s!al circ!mstances-

-iscussions topics sent to Tyler prior to our conversation
9- The ideas in yo!r 3Caring ()o!t the 4istant F!t!re5 and the e%tent to which they are sensitive to ass!m*tions a)o!t long+r!n economic growth 1e-g- whether it is more e%*onential or logistic2 and yo!r o*inions a)o!t the im*ortance of mitigating glo)al catastro*hic risks as a way of hel*ing distant f!t!re generations:- Ao!r tho!ghts on how contingentBinevita)le yo! think s!stained economic growth is in the distant f!t!re—e-g- what co!ldBco!ldn0t realistically *ermanently c!rtail long+term economic growth@

;- Ao!r tho!ghts on which iss!es are very im*ortant from a !tilitarian *ers*ective that co!nts all f!t!re generations e,!ally—are there s*ecific *olicy iss!es or career areas that yo! think deserve m!ch more attention from this *ers*ective@ <- Ao!r tho!ghts on the effective altr!ism movement in general—how familiar are yo! with it@ #f yo! are are there things yo! wish we were doing that we aren0t doing or things yo! wish we were doing differently@