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What I've Been Reading (June 2021)

Religion, faith and the future, level vs. growth effects, the Cuban Missile Crisis, science fiction, and more.

Leopold Aschenbrenner
Leopold Aschenbrenner
4 min read

1) The Gospels, a new translation by Sarah Ruden. Fergus McCullough’s review puts it best: “Do you know how weird the gospels are?”

I grew up in a totally secular household, so this is all quite new to me. Religion is probably the most important force I understand the least.

Think of religious texts as having a very low discount rate. What else from 2000 years ago still has so much relevance? And what else is this likely to be relevant 1000 years hence? Tyler Cowen says you should read more about religion.

2) I’ve also been dabbling in the Book of Mormon. My favorite part so far is 2 Nephi 2–3 on the Mormon interpretation of the Fall of Adam and Eve and on agency. Also the story of Nephi and Laban.

If you haven’t read it already, I can’t recommend enough McKay Coppin’s excellent piece on Mormonism in The Atlantic. And Simon Critchley on "Why I Love Mormonism" (NYT).

The Mormons seem especially longtermist to me, by the way. They believe in “eternal family”: marriage vows are “for time and all eternity,” not “till death do us part." Their emphasis on genealogy might give them a better appreciation of the long arc of time. And of course they have high fertility rates.

3) Stubborn Attachments, by Tyler Cowen. I read this a while ago but thought it was worth rereading.

One passage that stood out to me (p.71–72):

We can also see the importance of faith to the overall argument. To fully grasp the import of doing the right thing, and the importance of creating wealth and strengthening institutions, we must look very deeply in to the distant future. As I have argued at length, this is a conclusion suggest by reason. But in the real world of actual human motivations, the application of abstract reason across such long time horizons is both rare and unhelpful when it comes to getting people to do the right thing. The actual attitudes required to induce an acceptance of such long time horizons are, in psychological terms, much closer to a kind of faith. We cannot see these very distant expected gains, but we must believe in them nonetheless, and we must hold those beliefs near and dear to our hearts. In this sense, we should strongly reject the modern secular tendency to claim that a good politics can or should be devoid of faith. …
The lack—and, indeed, the sometimes conscious rejection—of the notion of faith, as is common in secular rationalism, is one of the most troubling features of the contemporary world. It has brought us some very real gains in terms of personal freedom, but it also threatens to diminish our ability to make the very best choices.

I also liked Tyler’s discussion of the “Solow” vs. “increasing returns” growth models. This was one concern I had with Tyler’s argument as I learned more about growth theory: in our best growth models, almost all potential interventions yield only a one-time level effect rather than permanently raising growth rates. So Tyler’s logic about the compounding effects of growth wouldn’t hold. But he makes a good counterargument. Even if “increasing returns” models are not our single best current theory of growth, there is some probability they are correct. And so, in expected value terms, social choices have an impact on future rates of economic growth.

See also Applied Divinity Studies’s extensive review of Stubborn Attachments. (One good point ADS highlights: why doesn’t Tyler accept a similar expected value argument about the possibility of a very long-run future beyond his 700-year-lifespan for humanity, and thus prioritize avoiding existential risk more?)

4) The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg. Before he leaked the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg was working at RAND and in government on high-level nuclear planning in the 50s and 60s. His tales hammer home the insanity of the Cold War, too easily forgotten nowadays.

Ellsberg’s very best chapters are on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of what you know about the Cuban Missile Crisis is probably wrong, just-so stories that paper over just how close we came to the precipice. For example, only in 1992 did the US learn that the Soviets had deployed tactical nukes to the island and pre-authorized their use by local commanders. Ellsberg documents how Khrushchev thought he was about to lose control and it was this that led Khrushchev to relent. The oft-cited deal with Kennedy to withdraw US missile from Turkey only came after. Ellsberg’s account is very much worth reading.

Not really related, but I also liked Paul Fussell’s essay, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb”.

5) Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. A fun read. Amazingly predictive of the influence of Twitter on world affairs (published 1985!).

I’ve been trying to read more science fiction, in part to spur my imagination on what this next century could hold. I just started Asimov’s Foundation; it’s been fantastic so far. I wonder how much Asimov is the true progenitor of modern longtermism?

I also enjoyed Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, the author of The Martian.

6) Soumission/Submission, by Michel Houllebecq. A novel about an Islamic takeover of France. The first level reading is about the specter of Islam, the second level reading about Western decadence and Islamic takeover as an optimistic vision, and there are many more levels after that. See also Ross Douthat’s review.

7) Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. This book inspired one of my favorite Chad Jones papers. And the impending worldwide population decline is still one of the very most underrated issues. But the book itself was too anecdotal for my liking; I would have preferred a more empirical approach. So I’m not sure I would recommend it.

Most of all it hit home to me just how universal the fertility decline is, driven by education and urbanization. For example, the book describes devoutly Catholic young women in South America avoiding contraception and having kids in their early 20s—but then having their tubes tied after, say, two children.

Please email me all your reading recommendations! I would be particularly interested in other books on the fertility decline.