All of elidourado's Comments + Replies

Eli Dourado AMA

Good catch. Looks like in the district court Geertson sued federal officials as per usual but Monsanto filed a motion to intervene and join the case.

Eli Dourado AMA

The latter, although sometimes they overlap with academia. For example, CGO and Mercatus publish a lot of academics and are situated within universities.

Eli Dourado AMA

Yes, sounds plausible to me.

Eli Dourado AMA

It looks like certain wellness programs that are allowed, but there are limits on what you can do if you make it outcome-contingent.

1Heike Larson1yThanks for that link, Eli. This is exactly the type of context I was looking for. It woulds like there is a regulatory hurdle here with significant potential liability if the program were to get challenged as not meeting those requirements both on the actual program design and on the documentation.
Eli Dourado AMA

The NEPA lawsuit is brought by an environmental org against an agency. I could be wrong but I don't think a different party can appeal the decision.

2Christian Kleineidam1yThis [] list the existing NEPA lawsuits before the supreme court and while some of them have government agencies as the plaintiff many don't. Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms []is one example.
Eli Dourado AMA

I think airships could in principle approach rail costs but it would add a lot of complexity relative to just running another train on the same track. Big container ships are always going to be cheaper, I think.

FAA and pilots get mad about people pointing laser pointers into the sky.

I agree winds are super important and must be designed for and planned for in routing. Using them for sailing (added propulsion) is also promising.

1gojomo1yStably-positioned, heavily-capitalized, professionally-managed, presumably-licensed beamed-power infrastructure, such as terrestrial power stations or solar power satellites, aren't really like random malicious or careless people with portable lasers. So if beamed-power otherwise becomes technically practical/beneficial, this seems a safety/perception/regulation challenge not especially larger than the many others involved here.
Eli Dourado AMA

The ability to charge people more and less based on observed (but not demographic) characteristics got pretty limited by the Affordable Care Act. I'm not sure of the details, however.

Eli Dourado AMA

The party of record is a federal agency, though. I'm not sure IJ can defend them.

1Hersh1yIndividuals don’t have standing to sue when NEPA holds up their projects for years?
Eli Dourado AMA

I like this Alan Watts quote:

“Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.”

And Nietzsche's new year's resolution is words to live by:

“I want to learn to see more and more as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all and all and on the whole: someday I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

I'm amazed that existence exists at all. Every moment is a gift.

Eli Dourado AMA

I still like that idea too, but it's pretty weird and unlikely to pass any time soon. A more likely reform that I also like is ranked choice voting.

Eli Dourado AMA

That's a broad question, but as it relates to progressy things, I think imagination about what the future could hold is certainly a factor in the kind of social ambitions that we aspire to.

It's a common belief among some economic historians, for example, that we have already picked the low-hanging fruit. There are no new inventions in their mind that could match the inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries in terms of providing explosive growth. Maybe they're right, but I can certainly imagine new inventions that could change everything.

As I argued previo... (read more)

Eli Dourado AMA

1. Housing is, depending on the year, 15-18% of GDP, and if we could get that for free, it would tautologically increase productivity. Also, high housing costs limit agglomeration effects by pricing some people out of the most productive markets. There are a bunch of other negative effects of high housing prices. I'd refer you to "the housing theory of everything" for a discussion.

2. I think the "lobbying super-army" we need is elite consensus. If we convinced all the smart people that vetocracy is a bad way to achieve environmental goals, that would basic... (read more)

Eli Dourado AMA

I don't think there is any account of political authority that isn't defeated by the standard objections.

For purely prudential reasons, I think people should give some deference to governments as long as the government is mostly functional and aligned with the population. Living in a state where the government is ineffective is not generally pleasant, and we should all in some sense be rooting for the government to succeed at least at its basic functions.

I don't think there is a set of given-from-on-high proper limits to what the government should do, but ... (read more)

1Jim Muller1ySo well put, the "succeed by its own lights" thing is such an important idea, and probably not articulated enough.
Eli Dourado AMA

I think it's true to some extent that the masses exert some demand for stagnation.

The way I've been thinking about it is that laws and norms are ways of solving iterated prisoner's dilemmas. But because of loss aversion, there isn't symmetry in the kinds of PDs that get solved this way. The "prevent something bad from happening" PDs get solved more than the "make something great happen" PDs do. (This is essentially the Nietzschean distinction between slave morality and master morality, applied to laws as well as morals.)

I don't think the masses are ever go... (read more)

Eli Dourado AMA

The biggest problem that I see in college education is that most people don't actually want to learn very much. College social life is undeniably fun, and although most people find a few classes they enjoy, they're there for the experience + the credential.

I don't know how to fix it because I think there is demand for the current system, but there should be at least one college with unlimited enrollment that is rigorous enough that it weeds out the people who aren't giving it their best effort. Maybe it should be self-paced, with a massive total learning r... (read more)

Eli Dourado AMA

In the short term, I am doing some geothermal projects, and then possibly writing a book.

Longer term, I have a lot I'd like to do. If I ever found myself in a position where I could seize real power, I would take it and use it to promote progressy things.

I really enjoy the part of my job where I talk to people working on promising hard tech startups; often they need a bit of advice or some introductions to people in my network. I'd like to do more to help them, as they are often brought into contact with the barriers and obstacles I spend so much time thin... (read more)

Eli Dourado AMA

I think the kinds of tests that prove that a human is intelligent or sentient or whatever are not the same as the kinds of tests that prove a computer program is sentient.

For example, imagine a test where we timed the test-taker on how long it takes to multiply two 8-digit numbers together. For most humans, this would take several minutes. For even a dollar-store calculator, it would take under a second.

For many decades, Alan Turing's proposal that a computer that could converse indistinguishably from humans would be a sign of human-level sentience and int... (read more)

1occamsbulldog1yHuh, it's hard for me to imagine reaching a 98th-percentile IQ score without the ability to do lots of cognitive work (I'm not talking about some model fine-tuned on IQ tests or whatever, just a general language model that happens to score well on the test). I have different intuitions about the calculator example: the point I take away from it is...we use calculators all the time! I'm perfectly content calling calculators a transformative innovation, though these language models are already much more general than the calculator. Re: "There is no real cognition going on inside ChatGPT. It is spitting out answers based on a statistical function trained on encoded inputs and outputs." This seems like a No True Scotsman that will keep you from noticing how their capabilities are improving. SSC's take [] on GPT-2 was good for this, and imo got extremely vindicated when the GPT family went from an interesting toy to being able to create real economic value. Re: Have you read Gwern's stuff on machine learning scaling []? All of the "we don't really understand it" takes on a very different tone when you read his "deep learning wants to work" take. A technique that AI researchers disdain because it doesn't match their love for theory, that works anyway, that then the whole SV community realizes is really promising...strikes me as something real and useful we accidentally discovered in the world. That we don't understand it doesn't stop it from working, that every basic little trick we try yields more fruit suggests that the fruit is really extremely low-hanging. For me, it's worrying because I think we need good theory to learn how to control it, but the basic case for this being a thing doesn't seem in question.
Eli Dourado AMA

If I understand the tethering question, I don't think that would help. A train or container ship can already carry many times more cargo than an airship can.

When I looked at space-based solar power, I was struck that the wireless transmission was not much denser than solar (otherwise, they would pose a danger to the ground if they missed the receiver). I think putting thin-film solar could buy its way onto the top of the hull if it was cheap and light enough. I have heard about very high-powered laser propulsion systems for high-speed aircraft, but those s... (read more)

1gojomo1ySo theoretical airship-cargo is still way more expensive per container or ton than either rail or container-ships – it just wins by speed or having more endpoints (like trucking)? Hence, 'airship trailers' provide no chance of incremental capacity boosts for surface vessels, if still limited to their speed/endpoints? Capping laser/microwave/etc beamed power density to what's safe for failure situations where it's "missed the receiver" seems prematurely restrictive. What if misses are so rare, & so easily detected/ended-instantly, that such a limit is an inefficient way to increase safety compared to other tactics? If the big market is over unpopulated oceans, is the concern for brief rare misses that high? (And is the "long way off" for things like laser-propulsion or power-delivery really longer than the other engineering/regulatory hurdles involved?) Drones (including airship-bouyant drones, not just multicopters) to ferry full containers to passing-by megaships would be interesting – but I was thinking as small as individual packages, dropping and rising from households & individual businesses. (At some margin, can automated megaships be warehouses/fulfillment-centers?) By my intutions, I find wind issues underdiscussed in these next-generation airship visions. It amazes me the wind conditions in which winged flight remains tractable – but those craft seem to rely heavily on actively avoiding the worst conditions, & their own momentum/strong-propulsion. Airships feel at much greater mercy of winds, for both predictable-service/efficiency & safety. Deeper analyses of how frequently there'd be delays, emergency groundings, service outages, etc from wind conditions would better help sell the vision.
Eli Dourado AMA

Thank you!

The key to the process on this one was first spending several years thinking about cargo airships and how you could make a business around them. I made my first phone call asking if I could buy a cargo airship over three years ago.

All charts other than the one I cribbed from the Review of Maritime Transport are original, either to me or to the engineer that did the trade study.

Once I sat down to write, the narrative came pretty easily. I just wrote what I thought, trying to explain why I thought airships are interesting and why they could be profitable and why it's hard to get there from here (i.e., why I'm not starting an airship startup).

Eli Dourado AMA

I am blessedly exempt from having to deal with any financial or management issues at the CGO, so I don't know. We do get along with the USU administration really well, though.

Eli Dourado AMA

I don't think path dependency is the right way of looking at it. I'd frame it rather differently:

We are doing a bunch of clown stuff that is holding back productivity improvements all the time. There is nothing about that is unique to AI. However, it's possible that it will become especially apparent that we are erecting all these obstacles ourselves as we observe AI getting very productive in unregulated or otherwise functional sectors.

Absolutely, we should be dismantling the clown policies proactively, but it isn't proactive with respect to AI particularly, it's just that we should not have clown policies in the first place.

Eli Dourado AMA

Getting online in the mid-90s was huge. The web was tiny back then, but it was still such a window to the world. I tinkered with everything, taught myself HTML, played with hacker tools, read The Anarchist Cookbook, made myself a Geocities page, etc.

The other formative thing was in college, discovering economics, which was a way of thinking that comes completely naturally to me. Finally, people are making some sense, I thought. In my early 20s, the Econ blogging scene was crucial. These are my people, I thought, and I ended up putting myself at the center of that group by going to GMU for a PhD.

Eli Dourado AMA

It's true, the Supreme Court has ruled against vetocracy with NEPA every time, usually unanimously. I think for potential litigants, there isn't much value in going all the way to the Supreme Court. It's possible the court won't hear your case, so you have to take steps to comply with the lower court's ruling anyway. Once you're doing that, spending more on litigation isn't going to get you anything; you can always just fix the EIS and move forward.

In other words, taking a case to the Supreme Court for the purpose of setting a new precedent is a public good, and a lot of people don't supply public goods all by themselves.

1Christian Kleineidam1yThat still seems surprising to me. The Koch's for example seem to be very willing to spend a lot of money think tanks to advance the public good as they see it. Is there a reason why billionaires like the Koch's who are willing to spend money on policy changes don't care about NEPA?
0Jim Muller1yThis is great to understand.
2Hersh1yBut there are organizations that bring cases as a public good and they pay for the litigation. On the left, ACLU. For libertarians, the Institute for Justice (IJ). IJ identifies laws or regulations they want to dispute and then find a sympathetic plaintiff to represent. Someone like you would probably do a lot of good by convincing IJ to find some NEPA cases to bring.
Eli Dourado AMA


- Very expensive, and we should take fiscal responsibility more seriously than we do.
- Has some good stuff in it.
- Will only translate into significant change in the real world if it is paired with permitting reform and other policies focused on deployment. Right now we are basically subsidizing companies to push through the headaches associated with getting to market, but it makes more sense to reduce the headaches.
- It is more protectionist than I would like, but Europe is the most mercantilist place on Earth, so I don't have a lot of sympathy for th... (read more)

Eli Dourado AMA

I got interested in wireless transmission for space-based solar. A lot of people have had doubts for a long time about whether the math works for space-based solar, but both panels and launch prices have plummeted, so people are giving it a second look.

One of the things about wireless transmission that could add value to space-based solar is being able to shift output on the fly from one receiver on Earth to another on a millisecond-to-millisecond basis. I thought that was pretty cool.

I haven't really looked at it for terrestrial applications, though.

Eli Dourado AMA

A very important question is how long solar prices can continue to drop.

Assuming it continues a while, I have questions about whether it makes sense to transmit electricity long distances in such a world. A lot of smart people think transmission is very important to the clean energy buildout, but I don't know. Transmission adds a fair bit of cost, and if solar gets cheap then it might make sense to pay the rooftop premium rather than the transmission premium.

So if solar keeps dropping in price, it may make sense to have rooftop solar everywhere + off-grid ... (read more)

Eli Dourado AMA

I'm not sure what the privacy implications are, but they can definitely give you the devices for free if it's cost-effective for them to do that.

1jasoncrawford1yI meant more on the question of financial incentives for metrics. Basically, charging healthy people less / charging more for risk factors. Are you allowed to do this? I think some amount of this is allowed in some jurisdictions, but are there crucial limitations on it?
Eli Dourado AMA

As a writer: influencing other people, building consensus on what the problems are, building a network of people that are aligned.

As a researcher: coming up with highly-specific policy solutions to an important problem. Ideally, this would be a small, non-controversial provision that someone could slip into a bill unnoticed.

So for example, I have written a lot about the problems with NEPA and permitting, and I think there's been a consensus developed among a big chunk of the political spectrum that it's a real problem and we need to fix it. At the same tim... (read more)

Eli Dourado AMA

Great question.

I am glad the progress movement is still decentralized and organic. It's more a community of fellow-travelers than a centralized organization setting priorities and allocating funding. I feel like I gain a lot from people in the community who are pursuing very different approaches than I am, and I don't want that to stop.

I think being organic is better for influencing the culture in the long run. For getting specific things done, if we ever agree on what is to be done, we may need to think about some light centralization at some point.

Eli Dourado AMA

1. Deregulate land use (YIMBY stuff)
2. Make transportation insanely great: eVTOL, supersonics, small airports with minimal screening, autonomous dynamic bus service
3. Lower the cost of clinical trials and expand freedom to go around the FDA through informed consent
4. Reform permitting/abolish NEPA/end vetocracy
5. Energy abundance/fix the NRC/fix the nuclear industry/expand geothermal/deploy solar
6. Make government that works and is run by grown-ups (I am a big fan of ranked choice voting for this)
7. Big increases in immigration, with concessions to the xen... (read more)

1Jim Muller1yIs there good writing somewhere on how to lower the cost of clinical trials 10x? If we focus on the actual cost-lowering, rather than pure deregulation, it's a rare area where I've never even seen someone who seems to know what to do.
Eli Dourado AMA

Given the trade you've laid out, I'd take the scientific breakthroughs.

I think there is no agency to regulate nanotech, so it would be a "born free" industry, and we'd see a lot of rapid progress. Benevolent AI too. On the cancer and aging cures, yes, FDA is broken, but they'd get through approval in several years, and then we'd have them.

I do think, however, that the policy environment is worth many years of R&D breakthroughs, perhaps 10 or more. We'd get a revitalized transportation and energy industry, dirt cheap housing, better consumer health tech, and a faster rate of R&D development going forward. It wouldn't take much unbalancing of the scales to make me flip the answer.

Eli Dourado AMA

I kind of did this analysis in 2019 on "how to move the needle on progress" and landed on health, housing, energy, and transportation as important sectors to fix.

If you think about it in productivity terms, in general equilibrium, low-productivity-growth sectors will tend to get bloated as a percent of GDP, while high-productivity-growth sectors will tend to shrink.

I still think the 2019 analysis is basically right, although I would emphasize one particular aspect of tractability, which is having a specific solution in mind. Tom Kalil talks about this as a... (read more)

1Heike Larson1yThanks, Eli! This is a super helpful framing to me as I think about our role here at The Roots of Progress. Follow-on question: when you say "researchy" do you mean academia--or do you mean groups in the more public intellectual policy space (think tanks) that take on more of an explainer rather than activist bend?
Eli Dourado AMA

I think the biggest obstacle is FDA clearance for these devices.

The FDA seems to be concerned about people using consumer-grade products to make medical decisions. Let's say Apple or Google release a smart watch with non-invasive blood glucose capability. Maybe it's not perfectly accurate, but still useful information for non-diabetics to see how their blood glucose spikes after eating and to monitor the speed at which the body clears out the glucose.

If a diabetic customer starts giving themselves insulin shots based on the watch instead of a measurement f... (read more)

1Heike Larson1yThanks for the quick response, Eli. My follow-up is similar to Jasons: I'm wondering not so much why insurance companies don't pay for these devices right now, but more why there isn't a push to use them to financially reward or incentivize healthy behavior or outcomes. For example, if it costs an insurance company $10K more [] to care for someone with diabetes than someone without, what if the insurer offered the patient a deal: if via non-medication means you reverse your diabetes (as measured by insulin and hemoglobin A1C or HbA1c test), we'll pay you $5,000 (or, if they pay privately for their insurance, we'll give you a year-end cost refund of $$). Or, different approach: if you do specific behaviors that we know will lead to your diabetes improving, we'll pay you a certain amount per month each month you meet the targets consistently (e.g., wear a fitness tracker and exercise 5x per week for 30 min at vigorous intensity and wear a continuous glucose monitor and stick to a 10-hour feeding window by practicing intermittent fasting for at least 20 days/month). Of course, the details would need to be worked out and there are lots of questions (e.g., how does this work for people who are already metabolically healthy vs. those who aren't). But there are companies playing this space at a small scale, using biofeedback and clear lifestyle incentives to improve health outcomes (albeit without insurance pay-back), such as VirtaHealth [], Levels [], and HealthyWage [], and commercial supportive counseling programs like Noom []. Given how immense the cost of metabolic disease is for individuals and society I'm surprised that there isn't a larger effort to use these trackers to fundamentally change how the incentives work. Wouldn't it be better if insurance companies actually helped people get hea
1jasoncrawford1yAre there any restrictions on what insurance companies are allowed to do with this kind of info? Health insurance is highly regulated too.
Maybe a little bit of naïveté is good.

Yes, there are benefits to trying new hard things that are not captured by the entrepreneur, so we should want them to try even when the cost/benefit to them is marginal or even somewhat under water.

Draft for comment: Towards a philosophy of safety

Agreed, Jason. I’ll add that it’s trendy among the longtermists to speak of biosecurity, but it seems obvious to me that the FDA, not the legality of admittedly dangerous research, is the biggest obstacle to genuine biosecurity. We could have had vaccines for Covid by spring 2020, and without Eroom’s Law we might have had them by January 2020. And we could have had strain updates in real time. So an agency that was designed to make us safe made us less safe, and many people focused on safety in this domain continue to miss the forest for the trees. Often arguments about safety are problematic because of these kinds of failures, not because safety isn’t a valuable form of progress (it is).

Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

Not to be a double contrarian, but I am also skeptical of a lot of econ research on institutions. Ha!

2jasoncrawford2yThat would make a good topic for a separate post/debate somewhere! In any case, the models discussed here don't have terms for institutions, so clearly there is something important they're not yet capturing…
Draft for comment: Ideas getting harder to find does not imply stagnation

I think TFP is not really ideas. It is deployment of production methods. New ideas give us new production methods, but they don't really help us deploy them. For deployment, we need a lot of effort (1% inspiration, 99% perspiration) and also high-quality institutions.

How do you explain the TFP drop in Venezuela? Did they suddenly lose a bunch of ideas? No, their institutions deteriorated and their deployed production methods declined in quality.

Same in the US. The creation of the NRC reduced the quality of the production methods we could deploy. NEPA too. ... (read more)

1jasoncrawford2yI think that story fits, too. And Romer/Jones would seem to be sympathetic as well. From the “New Kaldor Facts” paper mentioned above (emphasis added): I am curious to hear from people who are skeptical of the crucial role of institutions, or who ignore it, and I'm curious what evidence would resolve the disagreement.
How can we be objective?

Stuart, I'm not seeing how it is a conflict per se to prescribe actions that would generate progress and also study what has worked to generate progress.

In the example you give, certain advocates of charter or public schools skew research on what creates valuable opportunities for children when they give advice. But the problem is that their true objective function isn't aligned with their stated objective function. They claim their goal is to advance opportunities for children, but what they really want is to promote or impede charter schools. So they ske... (read more)

1Stuart Buck2yThose are all fair points, and I might have phrased things a little too strongly in the original post. I do think the education example is interesting, though, because both "sides" (if you will) are convinced that they are the only ones who truly care about improving children's education. The problem is that they're confusing means and ends. To me, whether it's progress studies or education or whatever, there needs to be a significant number of academically-minded folks who agree with the end of improving progress or improving education, but who are resolutely agnostic about the means of doing that, and who are willing to follow the data wherever it leads (including being willing to admit when something doesn't work, or backfires, or has other unintended consequences or tradeoffs).