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Older people may place less moral value on the far future

On the topic of the outlier age group:

"If it really is the case that the 55 to 64 year old age group is an outlier as the more present-day-centric group, it suggests that a simple “rational” explanation (“why care about the future when I’ll be dead soon anyway”) might not be the best explanation. Other socio-cultural factors may be at play."

I can see two decent explanations for why the 55 to 64 age group would have less longtermist values than either adjacent age cohort.

The first is cohort effects. As the Pew Research Center points out, there is no simple relationship between age and political ideology. While voters tend to become more conservative as they age (along with other effects on time preference, etc), their ideological identity is also greatly affected by the administration under which they come of age politically.

The second is the findings from Ahlfeldt et al. and others that 1) while voters become more conservative as they age, they become rapidly more conservative around retirement age, and 2) the very oldest people seem to experience some "end of life altruism" because they have very weak self-interested reasons (due to so little time remaining) and so their self-interested reasons are dominated by ego-transcending values such as altruism. (See especially the provocative graphs on p. 15 of Ahlfeldt et al.)

If either of these explanations is true, then it could be that the "rational" explanation is empirically adequate, but there are other effects in play as well.

Institutions for Future Generations

More on the question of what best explains these trends:


Ahlfeldt et al. analyze 305 Swiss referenda and argue that aging effects swing free from cohort effects and status quo habituation effects. "The evidence, instead, suggests that voters make deliberate choices that maximize their expected utility conditional on their stage in the lifecycle."

Institutions for Future Generations

I think these trends are not better-explained by the hypothesis that older people are more conservative.

1. In the study, older voters were more likely to support health spending on risks to elderly health and less likely to support health care cost cuts, and less likely to support education spending, public transportation and infrastructure spending, and job creation. They were also neutral on the creation of sports facilities.

While I unfortunately haven't been able to look at the 82 referenda to examine their specific content, on its face this looks less like a division on party lines and more like a division on lines of generational self-interest.

2. The authors report that "[W]e find that controlling for party affiliation (conservatives and greens) and region (Baden vs. Württemberg) reduces the age effect by about one-third (Table 5, columns 3 and 4)."

3. The fact that older people are more conservative itself requires explanation. Part of the explanation is plausibly that conservative ideology and political parties cater to the self-interest of older people. How much can be explained this way I cannot say.

Institutions for Future Generations

Hi Sam,

This is helpful indeed. Thanks for the reply!

1. Good point on clarifying the timescale for the sake of the report. I think the timescale you define for the UK is about right for narrowing the scope of the institutions considered by the report. Then the "effectiveness" evaluation criterion can do the work of identifying which institutions are best by longtermist lights, ranking institutions cardinally as a function of, among other things, their temporal reach.

2. You did previously share your list with me and I'm glad you've reshared it here. Ideas you mention here did not end up on the list I shared to the EA Forum for one of a few reasons: either there exists a similar proposal in the document already or the suggested change is in my list of smaller, incremental changes or I excluded it because I wanted to prioritize concrete, particular proposals over abstract, general ideas. Some of them simply involve ideas that are still on my to-read list. All of your suggestions are included in a more complete list off-site.

3. Max Stauffer also recommended adding a criterion based on strength of evidence. I think this is a good idea. I also like your suggestion to broaden my "political feasibility" criterion to "overall implementability." As you imply, there are considerations beyond political feasibility that are relevant to a design's implementability. I'm incompletely convinced that symbolism should be ignored completely in the context of this report, but I have been convinced by your point that symbolic value depends on contextual interaction with a lot of things, and an otherwise uninspiring change can function as a symbol with the right packaging.

Thanks again for reaching out here and via email. I'll be in touch about collaboration in just a moment.

Institutions for Future Generations

Edit: Upon revisiting I realized that I had already read this paper. It's one of the more useful things I've read in this area, so good nod.

Thanks! I've spoken to the APPG and seen some of their policy statements but I had not seen this particular paper. Super helpful.

Institutions for Future Generations

It's worth noting that one important assumption here is that experts are pretty good at determining the counterfactual value of past policy decisions. I think this is right, but if we gave it up then no system like this one would be effective, since the feedback from future generations would be near-random. On the other hand, if the assumption is correct then there should be some feasible system that provides useful intergenerational feedback of the kind described here, though it may need to include a mechanism for increasing the influence of experts in the decision process.

Institutions for Future Generations


On (1), I'm not currently considering any existing institutions, other than existing variants of the proposals mentioned. You're right that it would be useful to know which institutions we should preserve, and there also might be other things to learn from analyzing these institutions, such as what has worked well about them and what has kept them from working better. I'll have to consider adding these sorts of institutions.

On (2), that's definitely of concern to me in light of the fact that so many recently-adopted future-focused institutions have not been able to survive even one election cycle. I've been including this (the permanence of the institution) under effectiveness, but maybe it's worth graining the categories a bit more finely.

Institutions for Future Generations

I agree it will probably not change voter epistemic behavior. The thought was that it would change the epistemic behavior of the parties catering to voters and the representatives acting on behalf of the voters, since the voting rule will select for parties and representatives which are less short-termist. This of course can't be guaranteed—if parties are not motivationally longtermist but are merely trying to appease voters to hold power, for example, it won't change their epistemic incentives very much unless competing actors (parties, media) can demonstrate to young people that their plans are bad. But even in this case this is plausible.

Institutions for Future Generations

Thanks, I've looked at some of the inclusive wealth and natural capital accounting stuff a little bit and will continue to do so. Do you currently have any sense how useful this sort of accounting will be for general future generations issues (incl. catastrophic risks, positive moral & economic trajectories) beyond concerns related to environmental degradation?

Institutions for Future Generations

I am extremely interested in the question of how religions transmit ideas and values across many generations, but at the current moment I have no idea how they do this so successfully. If anyone has ideas or empirical sources on this I'd be quite keen to get more info on this.

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