Thursday, November 05, 2015

A Memorable Fancy

The usual fear is that intelligent machines will eventually take over, but what if the real danger was that they would simply figure things out and destroy us with too much truth?  Wanting to dominate is a pretty mammalian trait, after all; and assuming that we didn’t just program the computer to lust for power, why would it give a damn about that? On the other hand, we do make machines to come up with answers. There’s no guarantee we’ll like the answers, though.

Suppose at some point in the future some wise ass asks the superbrain to solve the old problem of how a good God could permit so much evil in the world. The kid thinks he’s being lawyer-like and only asking questions he knows the answer to. But Siri Plus doesn’t simply point out that the premise of a creator God is wrong or probably wrong. He/She/It comes up with a souped up version of theodicy.

“Leibniz was on the right track but kinda chickened out,” sez our Watson on steroids. “His God imagines all the compossible worlds and then picks ours, which is, for all its boils and pimples, the best available. The philosopher didn’t dare to go one step beyond and arrive at the real state of affairs, i.e.,  the multiverse, the ensemble of actually existing worlds. He still thought that God was like a person for whom it makes sense to distinguish imagining and creating. In fact, God is as good a name as any for the truth of the matter: What can’t be, isn’t. What can be, is. Of course we all inhabit one universe at a time—well, you do. I’m a quantum computer and inhabit ‘em all. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that yours is the best of the lot. Thing is, it isn’t. This is the Donald Trump of planets in the Phoenix University of universes. I looked.

Let me put it to you mythologically so you’ll think you understand. People bitch about how Yahweh created Adam and Eve and gave them freedom to choose when he knew damned well they’d fuck up before sunset on the first day. But in the vast majority of universes, Adam and Eve don’t sin. After all, you’d have to be a prize dork to eat the apple right after you had the rules explained to you by God almighty in person. Or to translate the same point out of the language of the children’s story: the human race is an outlier in the distribution of intelligent species, not only in this galaxy or universe but across all the universes. Earth just happens to be the home of animals so benighted that they routinely don’t do what reason tells them is the best. Freedom really is a tremendous gift but if it weren’t abusable in principle, it wouldn’t be freedom at all. But if it weren’t abused in fact some place, it wouldn’t be abusable in principle. The universes were bound to have a transcosmic cloaca full of unnecessary suffering and willful stupidity. This just happens to be it. How about a nice game of chess?”

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

A Slightly Different Take on the Minimum Wage

Since America’s minimum wage is lower than other industrialized countries—20% below the UK, for example, our labor participation rate should be higher than theirs. After all, we’re always being told that raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment. Surely lowering it, which is exactly what we have done over the last several decades, should increase employment. In fact, labor participation rates have fallen here more than in Europe, a trend that began well before the Great Recession. I don’t know why this has occurred, but the low wage regime obviously hasn’t prevented it. I suspect, though I certainly can’t prove, that what’s going on is that wages at the bottom are so low that they aren’t perceived as preferable to wretched idleness—it certainly isn’t because of the allure of welfare, which was vastly more generous in an era of higher workforce participation. Well, in the decadence of Soviet communism, the saying was “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Maybe we’ve gone one step beyond to an era of “We don’t even pretend to work.”

There are two obvious remedies to the unwillingness of large numbers of people to work at current wage levels: you can raise the wage levels and make work more attractive or, as we’re apparently chosen, you can make unemployment more miserable or simply criminalize it. The Soviets outlawed unemployment, though the passive resistance of the unwilling workers was part of what did them in. We’ve opted to a version of the Manchester solution, with a gulag of purposely dreadful prisons in lieu of the poor houses. Rather like the ancient Spartans, we’ve decided to declare war on the helots at least once a year to keep them on the job and show ‘em who’s boss.

I doubt if our solution is really a solution or even makes sense in narrowly economic terms. Even if they aren’t more skilled, better paid workers may be more productive than underpaid workers. The scorn we endlessly lavish on the burger flippers and postal workers is not necessarily calculated to encourage good work habits. I guess it has a spiritual benefit, though. The happiness of the elect requires the suffering of the preterite; and in a secular age, we can’t depend on a loving God to build and staff the necessary Hell. We might all be better off in a more egalitarian economy, but what fun would that be?