EA and the Possible Decline of the US: Very Rough Thoughts
This post summarizes some thoughts (mostly possible research questions) around the possible collapse, balkanization, or radical transformation of the United States (collectively, “Collapse”).
To be clear, I do not think that Collapse is either imminent or likely in the foreseeable future. Nor do I even think that Collapse is probably competitive with other top causes. However, I do think that:
p(Collapse within 50 years) is non-trivial (>0.5%).
The disutility from Collapse could be extreme in certain scenarios.
As EAs, we care about expected utility, so Collapse may well be worth worrying about despite being unlikely. Thus, I think it may be worth some EAs exploring Collapse as a possible cause area.
The thoughts here are extremely rough. I normally like to publish stuff that is more polished than this, but I wanted to get this out there and don’t want to invest more in polishing it. I hope others will critique or build on these thoughts.
Note that I had been thinking about this subject from an EA perspective the past few weeks, though Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol certainly made me think about this more seriously.
Meta: Estimating the Probability of Collapse and Specific Scenarios
Here are some rough thoughts on sources of information we could use to estimate the probability of different Collapse scenarios and effects. Overall, studying the expected value of Collapse more seems quite valuable to me.
Evidence from Markets
US equities are at all-time highs, and the US’s bond rating is good. The US is currently able to sell bonds at negative real interest rates. Thus, global financial markets do not seem worried about Collapse, or at least not a Collapse that would imperil the US financial system. (One could imagine, however, an oligarchic government in which US business functioned well but the public was seriously harmed.)
Are there any superforecasting questions about Collapse directly? Which questions would indirectly inform p(Collapse)?
A number of polls (, ) have found that a significant chunk of the US believes we are headed towards civil war. Even if one is skeptical of the public’s ability to accurately predict such events (as I am), the perceptionof an impending civil war could itself be escalatory and therefore self-fulfilling. However, most people seem to be living quite normal lives (and not, e.g., preparing to flee the country), so people’s revealed beliefs may be quite different and less dire.
Disciplines like history and political science could presumably tell us a lot about the probability, indicia, leading indicators, and severity of Collapse scenarios.
How might a Collapse play out? What might its morally relevant effects be?
Civil War Scenario
The most dramatic, but probably least likely, outcome is a civil war.
The US has a population of 328 million. Presumably a civil war in the US would lead to significant loss of life in the US, as well as significant decline in the standards of living and economic activity for its residents.
Other Tumultuous Scenarios
Other tumultuous Collapse scenarios might include:
Bloodless or limited-violence coup d’état
Invasion by a foreign power (including following periods of domestic unrest or after long-term military and economic decline)
Escalation of domestic terrorism and civic unrest
Secession attempts with ambiguous outcomes
Unlawful expansion of federal government powers
Cessation of democratic rule in the US
Collapse need not be violent or tumultuous. For example, there could be a legal agreement to split the country into different independent countries. Although difficult to imagine, the US could also enter into a treaty with an independent country that would integrate the two, fundamentally altering each.
Besides the direct effects of tumultuous collapse scenarios (such as loss of life and economic harms from armed conflict), what effects of Collapse might worry EAs?
A glaring problem during Collapse would be nuclear security. Use of nuclear weapons during a Collapse conflict could be possible. In addition, security of the country’s nuclear arsenal during any transitional periods would become extremely important.
How well prepared is our nuclear arsenal for domestic unrest? What can we do now to ensure the US nuclear arsenal is secure during Collapse?
Science Research Funding
The US leads the world in R&D spending. Disruption from collapse could seriously diminish this spending and therefore key advances in biomedicine and other beneficial technologies.
A number of top AI labs are owned or operated in the US. Collapse could affect these labs by destroying them or their value or destabilizing the environment in which they operate. Collapse could lead to a post-Collapse legal regime in which AI labs were more susceptible to coercion or expropriation. Collapse could make development of AGI or TAI in non-US countries more likely. Seizure of key AI assets or facilities during conflict also seems possible.
In the more distant future, Collapse could provoke militaries into using unsafe AI in conflict situations.
Liberal Democracy and the International Balance of Power
Collapse could mean that the US ceases to be a great power. This may enhance the relative power of the EU, China, and Russia. The implications of this for global security and the continued expansion of liberal democracy are unclear but seem negative. Even more so if the post-Collapse balance of power influences which countries lead in AI and space exploration/settlement.
The US government the largest contributor to international humanitarian aid. Collapse could plausibly result in tens of billions of dollars in reduced international AID.
Flow-Through Economic Effects
In addition to the direct economic effects of Collapse (i.e., on Americans), Collapse could reduce demand for foreign labor and thereby reduce income among the global poor.
Critical Global Infrastructure
What effect could highly disruptive Collapse scenarios have on global infrastructure, such as the Internet or global financial markets? Could this be significant globally?
Possible EA Interventions
If, after much more investigation, we conclude that Collapse is worth taking seriously, what actions might EAs consider taking?
One key sub-cause would be minimizing the degree to which EA suffers as a result of Collapse.
One way to hedge against Collapse could be to invest more in building the EA movement outside the US, to ensure that it survives Collapse. However, the size of the movement in the UK alone is probably sufficient to ensure this already.
Large EA organizations based in the US may want to plan to switch operations to non-US countries if needed, though immigration issues could make this difficult. Where feasible, setting up foreign branches could be wise.
Similarly, large organizations could consider hedging against Collapse by (partially?) switching to non-US financial institutions, investing in non-US assets, and keeping reserves in multiple currencies.
Prevention is often more effective than amelioration. How might EAs reduce the probability of Collapse?
The Center for Election Science is working to implement Approval Voting. Could this help elect unifying candidates? If so, would that reduce p(Collapse)?
Which plausible Amendments to the US Constitution could stabilize the United States?
Could fighting misinformation help reduce domestic sources of violence and instability?
Domestic Law Enforcement
Is it feasible and desirable to expand funding for law enforcement specifically targeted at domestic sources of instability?
Is gun control (to reduce the probability and severity of domestic violence) feasible and desirable?
How can we make Collapse less bad if it does happen? How can we prevent or mitigate the possible bad effects described above?
How can we make a post-Collapse order in the former US as good as possible? What institutions should we build post-Collapse?