21 November 2022. ‘Long-termism’ | Football
The collapse of the crypto exchange FTX and the ideology of ‘long-termism’. // The World Cup has always been about politics.
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1: The collapse of FTX and the ideology of ‘long-termism’.
The crypto-currency group FTX has collapsed owing billions, and its founder Sam Bankman-Fried (whose name always seemed a little Dickensian to me) may or may not be in custody somewhere. Meanwhile, things at FTX are in the hands of the bankruptcy specialist John Ray III,
who oversaw the liquidation of Enron, said in earlier filings he had never seen “such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information”.
It’s still quite a fast moving story, and I’m not going to try to follow it here. But I was interested in a piece in Salon by the philosopher and historian Emile Torres, who noted Bankman Fried’s commitment to the ideas of “longtermism,” and wondered whether the long-termist movement might also be a casualty of the collapse.
(Sam Bankman-Fried at the 2021 Crypto conference. He told an interviewer that”institutions are desperate for crypto.” Photo by Cointelegraph via Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0)
It should be said that Torres is a long-standing critic of long-termism, by the way, and the article does say ‘I told you so’, if in rather more words. But maybe that’s fair enough, since the long-termists have been keen to promote their views and to be dismissive of critics.
For years, I have been warning that longtermism could "justify" actions much worse than fraud, which Bankman-Fried appears to have committed in his effort to "get filthy rich, for charity's sake."
It’s a long, long piece, and goes deep into the ideology of long-termism, quoting extensively from its proponents. (I had a piece here recentlythat looked at a review of the recent book by William McAskill, one of the leaders of the effective altruism movement that goes hand in hand with long-termism).
There are different flavours of long-termism, as Torres notes, but both flavours essentially include a combination of techno-utopianism with a utilitarian calculus about the future:
If taken literally by those in power, radical longtermism could be profoundly dangerous. The reason — and this is something that every politician and journalist needs to understand — is that it combines what can only be described as a techno-utopian vision of the future, in which humanity creates astronomical amounts of value by colonizing space and simulating vast numbers of digital people, with a broadly utilitarian mode of moral reasoning. Over and over again throughout history, the combination of these two ingredients — utopianism and the belief that ends justify the means — has been disastrous.
One of the consequences of these long-term futures is that the number of humans in the futures will dwarf the numbers of those who have lived in the past, and therefore protecting these future people from the risk that their future won’t happen becomes critical.
Long-termists spend quite a lot of time worrying about existential risk (but not much time on climate change, which I have always found odd, but that’s because they don’t see it as an existential risk.) And generally, they argue that mitigating existing suffering is a distraction. The ‘utility’ of the billions of future humans always trumps the utility of present-day humans.
Torres suggests that there are two main issues here:
its danger can be understood as twofold: first, it leads adherents to ignore, neglect and minimize current-day suffering. If a problem doesn't pose an existential risk, then it shouldn't be one of our top four (or five) global priorities. Second, it could end up justifying, in the eyes of true believers, harmful actions for the sake of the greater cosmic good.
But the other problem with long-termism is that it has become influential among a group of people with lots of money and not much empathy: Silicon Valley billionaires. (And of course, you can see why it might appeal).
Elon Musk calls it "a close match for my philosophy." A UN Dispatch article reports that "the foreign policy community in general and the United Nations in particular are beginning to embrace longtermism." The ideology is pervasive in the tech industry, motivating much of the research on how to create superintelligent computers that might someday replace us. It's the worldview that Bankman-Fried was passionate about, and which may have led him to believe that a little fraud — assuming he committed fraud, which, again, seems probable — might be OK, since it's for the greater cosmic good.
The philosopher Peter Singer has done much to shape the philosophy of effective altruism, but is sceptical about long-termism. He frames the problem like this:
the dangers of treating extinction risk as humanity's overriding concern should be obvious. Viewing current problems through the lens of existential risk to our species can shrink those problems to almost nothing, while justifying almost anything that increases our odds of surviving long enough to spread beyond Earth.
Or, as Torres summarises: “radical longtermism... minimizes all sub-existential problems facing humanity and it could potentially inspire acts of terror and violence in the name of the greater cosmic good.“
Clearly the collapse of FTX is not an act of literal physical violence, although some of its investors, who have lost heavily from it collapse, might not agree. But I’m willing to accept the suggestion in his article that if you are committed to a long-termist view, you might be cavalier in dealing with mundanities like “trustworthy financial information” and details like “corporate controls”.
Torres suggests that the collapse of FTX could, and indeed, should damage the idea of long-termism, and alert politicians and policy-makers to its risks:
What surprises me most isn't that a cryptocurrency Ponzi scheme run by a utilitarian longtermist imploded, but that the first major blunder involving longtermism wasn't even worse. If this ignominious debacle doesn't take the longtermist ideology down entirely, it should at least provoke an extended reflection by the movement's leaders on whether they should have listened to its critics long ago.
2: The World Cup has always been about politics
The men’s football World Cup kicked off in Qatar yesterday, amid controversy. Normally I’d be looking forward to the matches, but I’m going to find it hard to watch. When the grotesque figure of Sepp Blatter, the former long-serving FIFA President, says that awarding the tournament to Qatar was a ‘mistake’, the smell is starting to fill the room.
The current president, Gianni Infantino, probably didn’t help with his rambling monologue that managed to highlight pretty much every concern that anyone had about the tournament. And certainly Qatar has taken ‘sports-washing’ to a new level, certainly when measured by its cost. Even if this Bloomberg chart, which isn’t adjusted for inflation, is a tiny bit misleading:
All the same, Mark Perryman, who co-runs the site Philosophy Football, has an article there urging a bit of historical perspective. The World Cup, he says, has always been political.
as the terrace chant goes 'If you know your history...' because the idea Qatar is 'like no other' is the product of a deep-seated ahistoricism. Qatar is simply the latest World Cup to be used as a political platform.
Perryman runs through some of this history in the piece.
The 1934 World Cup, host Mussolini's Italy, his Blackshirts explicitly used the Italian national team to build support for fascism, winning their home tournament, and France 1938 too, the first team to win an away World Cup... World Cup 1974 the USSR team are expelled from the tournament for refusing to play Chile following Pinochet's coup, Chile take part in their place. Or the last World Cup, 2018, Putin's World Cup, just four years after his annexation, aka invasion, of Crimea, this time round 2022, all Russian participation banned.
Even closer to home a little self-reflection might be a good idea. The England football team flew to Qatar in a plane that had been renamed ‘Rainbow’ for the occasion, and plan to defy FIFA by wearing armbands in support of Pride in their opening match. But:
on that plane there wasn't a single out gay male player, nor do any of the squad play alongside any out gay men, none managed by an out gay man. To be gay and out in England isn't illegal, yet to play professional football it might as well be.
I don’t want to do Perryman a disservice here. He’s as aware as anyone of the problems associated with the holding the tournament in Qatar:
the mistreatment and appalling deaths of migrant workers who bult the magnificent stadiums teams are so much looking forward to playing in near the top. The corrupt way in which the bid was secured too. Though England were part of that round of bidding too and played an international in Trinidad and Tobago with the sole intention of getting that country's vote. England won, lost the vote, moral high ground abandoned.
At the same time, he observes, there are reasons to welcome a World Cup tournament in the Middle East—which is a first. In this he’s drawing on his experience of travelling to four previous World Cups as a fan (something he’s also written a book about). They just aren’t reasons that the media are likely to mention much:
being there (at a World Cup as a fan) is also hopelessly mixed up with, despite the unfamiliar and difference, what we shared as visitors with our hosts, the love of football, not as tourists, but as fans, united. That's what Qatar should be about. The first Middle Eastern World Cup, good. The first in a majority Muslim country, good. The first that recognises not the entire world follows the European (not even all of Europe) league season calendar, August-May, good.
Even held in Qatar, the men’s football World Cup will be “a festival of popular internationalism.” Although only European and Latin American countries have won the tournament, teams from all continents have reached the quarter-finals. Perryman’s conclusion? You can love football without having to love FIFA.
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Although he isn’t above using the controversy surrounding the tournament to settle some scores, of course.