Some thoughts on Patient Longtermism

by nora4 min read15th Mar 20216 comments

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Patient altruismLongtermismInstitutional decision-making
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Epistemic status: I have written this fairly quickly with the goal of getting the gist of the ideas out, rather than trying to make a very rigorous argument. Also, I spent a limited time reading up on patient longtermism, and it might be that I am unaware of or misunderstood relevant arguments. If this turns out to be the case, I apologize and will very happily update. 

 

Tl;dr: The question “What sorts of things store and accumulate impact potential?" ought to be one of the central questions of patient longtermism. We can further break it down into a) exploring what such ‘things’ (other than money), with the desired properties (i.e. storing, accumulation), exist, and b) how to render their impact potential commensurable, so as to be able to assess in which one(s) a patient longtermist would want to invest. I believe this question/frame currently receives not enough attention. 

 

This post provides a good, short introduction to the key tenets of patient longtermism. For a more extensive treatment of the subject, see this paper by Phillip Trammel and this 80,000 Hours interview with Phillip

I think considerations raised by patient longtermism are important, and I am in favour of acting upon its implication with some of our resources, in view of diversifying our altruistic portfolio. That said, based on the arguments I’ve heard so far, I remain very sceptical of what one might take as a first-order implication: investing most of one’s money to be used in a couple of hundred or thousand years. 

Patient Longtermism as a reference frame

Arguments about patient longtermism seem to naturally gravitate to discussing money as the key resource under discussion. I don’t mean to say that patient longtermism necessarily implies that investing money is the best way to act upon its implications, nor that people who have thought about it most suggest it does. However, I believe there currently exists, as a matter of fact, such a tendency. Reasons for why this is the case include the fact that money provides a straightforward way to quantify the discussion, or that we understand things about how it accumulates over time (e.g. historical interest rates). However, limiting our analysis to money would be a mistake. 

In particular, I believe that the following ought to be one of the central questions of patient longtermism: 

What types of things can store and accumulate ‘impact potential’ over time? 

I think we should spend more time thinking about a) what such ‘things’ other than money exist, and b) how to render their impact potential commensurable so as to be able to assess in which one a patient longtermist would want to invest. 

I will share a few thoughts on potential contestants for a), and some frugal arguments for how they might compare to money as a means to store and accumulate impact potential. 

Types of things that store and accumulate “impact potential“ over time

My number one contestant is knowledge. I believe that knowledge is critical for any attempts of doing good and steering humanity into a flourishing future. Importantly, I also believe that knowledge has similar "accumulative" properties to invested money. 

Knowledge created now will have us ask better questions tomorrow; knowledge can create better tools for generating more knowledge; and knowledge creation has the potential to uncover critical considerations, illuminate known unknowns and uncover unknown unknowns. Personally, I think the rationale for investing in knowledge creation is extremely strong. If I was given some large sum of money to spend on altruistic causes, I would invest it in knowledge creation rather than longterm financial investments.

Another contestant, although pretty hard to measure, is something like "civic capacity" or "the quality of our institutions". According to me, there are two main reasons in favour of investing in our better institutions. One, institutional development has high path-dependency. This suggests that improving institutions earlier rather than later might have large payoffs compared to the counterfactual scenario. (Some relevant academic work I am aware of on this topic are from Jenna Bednar, Scott Page,  Elinor Ostrom and Douglass North.) Two, institutions interface with nearly every other area of concern, such as economics, science/knowledge creation, innovation, national and international politics. For example, the field of development economics has thought about a version of this issue for some time now and offers a bunch of reasons why investing in good institutions might be extremely "lucrative”, among others because the health of an economy and the nature of its political institutions are tightly linked. 

However, this category does to me definitely seem harder to think about than, say knowledge or money. It is, for example, not straightforward how you get better institutions (“tractability concern”). There are many examples of institutional changes that did in fact not lead to an accumulation of positive consequences downstream. In the case of improving institutions in the developing world specifically, there is already an entire sector trying to work away on this, so that's less neglected (“neglectedness concern”). 

However, I think it would be a mistake to limit the mission of creating better institutions to development economics. For example, I consider AI governance, or more generally the governance of emergent technologies, as part of this category. I, like many others, believe that this is likely a very impactful issue to work on. As a final example of what we might want to consider part of the “better institutions” bucket is something like “getting our social media and information ecosystem dilemma right”. Lots of money in the future but a very confused and fragmented world is likely not the ideal scenario from an altruistic perspective.

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I agree that it's an important insight that financial investments are not the only thing with compounding impact potential over time. And that therefore other actions may be similarly or more attractive than financial investments from a 'patient longtermism' perspective.

If haven't seen it, you might be interested in this post and the comments as they discuss some related points (among others).

Neat, thanks Max! 

Maybe it is because I've been reading a lot on biology lately, but the talk of "storing" and "accumulating" potential over time triggered me to think of DNA as an example of this. Over time, DNA "stores" the beneficial traits that have emerged in a given species, while mutations "accumulate" and those with positive impact stick around. Seeing that our capacity to retain and create knowledge, and come up with constructs like "money" in the first place depended in part on our accumulated traits in DNA, an argument could be made that DNA is the original patient long-termist investment. Improvements in our brains tens of thousands of years ago helped us begin thinking these thoughts and expanding our impacts beyond anything any other species has ever been able to do. So what might be coming next? Preserving humans (and their DNA) to see what beneficial traits accumulate into the long-term future may be an enabler to the other patient long-term investments. Better brains leads to faster/better/more knowledge creation, and may even slowly improve our capacity for cooperation by overcoming wiring issues that hinder our ability to play nice with others.

I haven't thought at all about how to frame this as something in which to proactively "invest", but I can already see difficulties arising from a discussion of how to intervene. I was mainly just wanting to point out the similarities in the concepts and there are some pitfalls to avoid in this concept for sure. For example, how actively, do we intervene, if at all, to "preserve DNA" or to make sure beneficial traits are "stored" and allowed to "accumulate". I think a safer interpretation would just be to observe the benefits we have gained from the long-term existence of our DNA and argue for things like the avoidance of existential risks to make sure that the passive storage and accumulation process can continue. Which probably just brings us back to deciding what specific investments, in things like knowledge or coordination as you mentioned, are needed to meet this goal. Don't want this to be read like "let's go update our DNA to be smarter now!"... 

This made me think of the way David Deutsch talks about knoweldge creation - where knowledge manifests physically in e.g. the way a species is adapted to its niche. The process of natural selection that lead to this adapation is a process of "exploratiin" and "error correction" that accumulates knoweldge. That degree of adaptation is the physical manifestation of kowledge.  DNA is an important substrate of this process - however, I expect that DNA won't be the most fruitful level of abstraction at which to think about the patient longtermist question. 


Still, to explore this framework a bit more ...

  • Re accumulation, one potential implication is that we might want to pay attention to the "error correction" mechanism that is essential to knoweldge accumulation. The scientific method is an example of this. We could try to improve the "machinery of science" that is based on this error correction logic, and we could try to apply this logic of error correction(more/better) to more areas beyond academia. Some examples here might be ways to make it easier to have constructive disagreements (eg. adverserial collaborations, the Letter community, a hypothetical wiki that is structured in a way that shows main disagreeing view poitns on a topic, ...) or more experimentation/evaluation/updating mechanisms, in particualr in policy making. (Some areas, e.g. business or medicine, have figured out a bunch about how to do these sorts of things, but for reasons these insights are not necesarily being applied as widely as they could). 

Good insight, thank you for writing this post! I agree with it. Now that you point it out, I find striking how knowlege has compounded, even more impressively than money.

I would like to add another contestant: influence, within or out of mainstream institutions. As a movement, social capital and influence on other people (especially politicians) could prove very useful to be able to have a large impact when the time is right. I'm thinking especially of the Mont Pelerin society: how they spread in economics academia by convincing people and placing  people in positions of (mostly academic) influence; and how they eventually became orthodox economic policy.

The EA community also seems to be very aware of the MPS. What I'm pointing out is that, under your framework, community building is also an intervention for patient longtermism.

I agree something about influence is important. As a counterpoint, I think many manifestations of "having influence" don't store well (e.g. the fact that at a given time, a relatively large number of EAs have an "influential role" (whatever that means exactly) is only weakly related to how many EAs will have an influential role in t+1 (say a generation later).  

Wrt accumulation, influence also seems less straightforward to grow when you compare it to e.g. money (and to a lesser extent to knowledge) which, thanks to interest rates, accumulates at a certain rate basically for free (without you having to do anything) and fairly robustly. I'm not saying that influence is clearly a worse investment than money when it comes to future impact potenital, but that money is a pretty good and stable baseline that might not be as easy to beat as one might think at first sight. Also I think approaches of using "influence" to store and accumulate impact potential will vary a lot on these dimensions, so we'd probably want to talk about such approaches in the concrete rather than the abstract

> under your framework, community building is also an intervention for patient longtermism

+1 and also worth flagging that e.g. Philip Trammel explicitly says so too in his work on patient longtermism (though he clarifies that this is only true for specific types of community building)