How bad can it all be?
A review of a pessimistic book about everything
Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on Twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here. (I am also part of the CDL Rapid Screening Consortium. The views expressed here are my own and should not be taken as representing organisations I work for.)
If you are a regular reader of this now irregular newsletter, my guess is that you wouldn’t count yourself as an optimist. I mean this newsletter tends to be more bad news than good, in part, because I myself find good news less interesting to have a novel take about. “This happened which is good. So there you have it.” doesn’t play as well as “You thought this was OK news but here is why it is really, really awful.” Anyhow, if you find yourself nodding then you are probably going to (I’m going to say “enjoy,” but that isn’t quite right) want to read Andrew Leigh’s new book, What’s the Worse that can Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics. It is a relentlessly pessimistic book on all of the things that could go wrong for humanity. It is also a breezy read. I finished it in a single sitting.
Before explaining more, some background. A few years back, Andrew Leigh, a former economics professor and co-researcher of mine before turning to become a member of Federal Parliament in Australia, were talking about optimistic and pessimistic takes on the economy. That discussion led to our 2019 book, Innovation + Equality: Creating a Future that is More Star Trek than Terminator. That book was actually pretty optimistic and suggested a raft of policies that would encourage innovation and reduce economic inequality at the same time. We didn’t see those goals as in conflict but indeed could be moved along together with a bit of thought. Suffice it to say, Covid-19 had already appeared in China by the time the book was out and my guess is that the appetite for a set of interesting but not immediately pressing policy ideas just wasn’t there.
While I devoted my energies to the pandemic, Andrew spent his free time as lockdown cancelled what would otherwise be continual meetings and events to go somewhat darker. Now I say this while considering the Andrew I know who is anything but dark and brooding. Just consider this famous family picture.
Most of that family is quite happy and that is pretty much my view of Andrew. He runs a popular podcast in Australia on how to live A Good Life for goodness sake.
In this book, Andrew decides to consider the worst outcomes that might befall us. You know the list. Pandemics, climate catastrophe, nuclear annihilation, asteroids, totalitarianism, and AI superintelligence. He looks at each and then looks at the probabilities that each of these things might wipe us out. On climate change, those probabilities are pretty precise on something but for the rest, it is really hard to tell. But each, in his mind, is a significant enough risk that if we look at people’s more ordinary risk-taking behaviour, they surely wouldn’t choose to live with that risk. Now Andrew misses the most likely risk — alien attack (I basically believe Liu Cixin was essentially right) but I think his “politician’s constraint” would prevent him from really dealing with that one. And what can we do about it anyhow?
I’m not going to spoil the details. If you want to remind yourselves of our peril, that is the job of this book. But I have to admit that I found myself more optimistic on each of these than Andrew at least in terms of these things wiping out humanity entirely — you know the existential part of existential risk. That may have been a past risk but we have ways of dealing with that now. In reality, each of these is more along the lines of wiping our progress, prosperity and our way of life for ourselves and our descendants which is an outcome that is not that far about existential risk anyway.
What I want to focus on was Andrew’s “solution.” He didn’t offer a real solution but a place to look. And it wasn’t economics, it was all about politics. Andrew puts forward two theses. First, that democracy is the way to solve these risks. And second, it would be better if we would all calm down and become more stoic which has a philosophical underpinning but basically means we should be less greedy, more kind and slow the f**k down. He proves neither and nor could he. It is an opinion.
When I thought about it, neither was obvious to me. On being stoic, that seems the opposite of the degree of panic that we surely need to deal with some of these issues. There is a case for being much more worried.
And on democracy, each of these likely messes, it seems like they have absolutely happened on democracy’s watch. There is simply no straightforward case that democracy will solve any of these things even if we may feel better believing it will. On nuclear issues, Andrew argues that we need a few sane people in charge. In my mind, the more distributed the decision-makers the less likely it is we will have total annihilation even if we may lose a city or two. On climate change, we are putting all our eggs on stopping it even as the science tells us there is now little we can do and so should instead be adapting to our warmer and more chaotic climate.
But these thoughts are the point. The book wants us to think about this and not necessarily agree with the author. And, in particular, he wants those in power to think about it. He has served it up nicely for them. I hope they take notice.