Evolving Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence and Large Language Models Prime Badge

Amidst all the storm and drama I’ve been enjoying learning more about just how the current crop of AI applications (LLMs, or Large Language Models) operate. I don’t want to imply that I understand them at a deep level — my programming career peaked with some piecework programming in Visual Basic that I did in grad school. (Actually, there was also that extremely elegant bubble sort program I wrote in middle school. But I digress …) But it has at least given me some sense of the roots of the limitations that are coming to the fore. Specifically — but not only — the way applications like ChatGPT frequently fabricate false claims clothed in the trappings of facticity. I’m not just claiming this new protein structure exists. I’m citing the specific journal article with the page numbers and date and authors, etc. It’s got to be true!

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Paul Krugman/TPM Briefing Our Must-See Interview with Paul Krugman Prime Badge

On Wednesday we did a TPM Inside Briefing with economist and Times columnist Paul Krugman. I already shared with you the portion of the discussion in which we talked about Democrats’ options for extraordinary/heroic measures to avert a U.S. credit default if House Republicans force the issue. But we covered a lot of other important ground directly relevant to the biggest news stories of the day — the financial viability of Social Security (and Medicare) and the sustainability of the aggregate federal debt in particular.

A substantial percentage of the U.S. federal debt (about a quarter of it) has been run up in just the last three years — largely in response to the COVID pandemic crisis. Is the scale of the federal debt sustainable? Does it require drastic action? Krugman’s answer was basically, no. There’s no crisis. Despite what you hear, it’s not unsustainable at all.

On Social Security, same thing. At some point in the future — probably about a dozen years from now — Social Security will need more revenue to cover all the benefits of the people currently in retirement under Social Security. At that point, we’ll have a simple decision on whether to raise taxes to cover those benefits or cut the benefits. It’s not really an economics decision. Both are totally doable in macro-economic terms. It’s really a values and politics question. Which is more important? Preserving the benefits of retirement beneficiaries (and others covered by Social Security) or preventing higher taxes on upper-income earners? You don’t need to be a PhD economist to decide this question.

Critically, does the problem get worse the longer we put off these decisions? Again, no. All the claims to the contrary are a kind of bums’ rush to force one of the answers over the other — cuts as opposed to taxes.

All these questions and answers about debt, Social Security, Medicare, and the debt ceiling were highly clarifying for me. And I suspect they will be for you as well. If you’re a member, join me after the jump for the full TPM Inside Briefing with Paul Krugman.

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Prigozhin Brags Again About Election Interference Prime Badge
Prigozhin said that he “reacted with pleasure” when he was asked about his financing of the Internet Research Agency.
Feral AI and the Question of Externalities

Artificial Intelligence has jumped to the head of the line as the politico-cultural Rorschach test of the moment ever since OpenAI’s ChatGPT application was released for public use. Views are extreme in both directions. I’m open-minded, cautious but mostly indifferent. But in recent articles I’ve noticed two consistent themes. The various AI engines being rushed to service seem to a) frequently provide incorrect information and b) often demonstrate what in humans we would consider disturbing personality characteristics.

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It’s Still All and Only About Trump

Today Nikki Haley formally announces her thoroughly hopeless campaign for the 2024 Presidential nomination. Give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she’s running for Vice President. Ron DeSantis has gained most attention in recent days for his continued unwillingness to engage Donald Trump’s mounting attacks. Meanwhile every other conceivable contender for the nomination remains mired in low single-digit support. It’s hard to know what to make of this incipient primary campaign, not least because it’s so unprecedented in modern American politics to have a defeated former President running to be President again. But if we step back from the details we can see a clarifying picture. There is no candidate in the race whose campaign isn’t entirely about Donald Trump. And that is probably the best reason to think Donald Trump will be the eventual nominee.

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The Various Ways to Eliminate and Gut Social Security Prime Badge

Since we’re talking about whether Social Security survives for future generations, we should start with understanding the various ways the program’s foes propose to limit or get rid of it. Since Social Security is one of America’s most popular government programs, virtually no one says they want to get rid of Social Security. (Except Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).) Plans to cut it or phase it out entirely are almost all framed as ways to “improve it” or “save” it.

So for instance on CNN this weekend Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) compared Social Security to defense spending. “We’re never going to not fund defense. But at the same time we — every single year, we look at how we make it better. And I think it’s about time we start talking about Social Security and making it better.”

So what are the options?

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DeBamboozling the Social Security Scare Talk

I mentioned a few days ago that political reporters remain way behind when it comes to seeing through the flimflam of Republicans’ schemes to cut or dismantle Social Security. I was reminded in a TPM Reader email a few mornings ago how often the press accounts of the financing of the program itself remain trapped in GOP talking points. In X number of years, we hear again and again, Social Security will become “insolvent.”

But this isn’t true. At best, it’s a totally misleading way to describe how the federal government pays for things.

Social Security and Medicare are funded (almost entirely) by a payroll tax of approximately 15% on wage and salary income up to a statutory cap, which currently stands at $160,200. That tax is split between the employer and the employee. It funds the two programs. A couple generations ago, Congress increased the tax to build up a surplus to pay for the benefits of the baby boom generation. That’s the “trust fund.” Social Security “lent” that extra money to the rest of the federal government, i.e., it purchased government bonds. Eventually the Trust Fund will run out of bonds to cash in. The current estimate is that that will happen in the mid-2030s. This is when Social Security supposedly becomes “insolvent.”

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Inside The Sinema-DC Insider Mind Meld Prime Badge

I’ve had a few readers point me to this new Puck rundown of Kyrsten Sinema’s chances in 2024 and/or her incipient campaign. (It’s subscription-only but you can get like one free article if you really want to read it.) One reader was mystified that reporter Tara Palmeri approached the race on the assumption that Sinema holds all the cards versus national Democrats and the Senate leadership.

So what’s my take?

First of all the reporter, Tara Palmeri, is very much part of the inside D.C. consensus, very much part of the Axios/Politico/Punchbowl “this is excellent news for Kyrsten Sinema!” mindset. Nothing wrong with that. But I just wanted to position the players for you. Palmeri does kind of paint that picture at the head of the article. But perhaps in spite of herself she comes round much closer to the reality of the situation further down in the piece.

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Can We Be Ready #3 Prime Badge

I’ve continued to read up on research into pandemic risks from strains of Avian Flu. I shared TC‘s note in which he argues that the barriers to bird-bound avian flu migrating to contagion among humans are greater than some press reports suggest. But those chances are not nil and they may be growing.

I had two follow up points I wanted to share.

The first is minks. Minks are a problem. A lot of the recent reporting has focused on a avian flu outbreak at a mink farm in Spain. The study behind those reports is published here. It’s somewhat technical but you can still glean a lot from it even if you don’t have any technical background in the relevant science. The group that studied the outbreak concluded that it was likely that the outbreak involved the virus spreading among the minks. So they were contagious to each other. It spread within the population. That’s obviously not good.

They’re not sure though.

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Sen Mike Lee Definitely Positively Doesn’t Want to Ever Phase Out Social Security Prime Badge

Earlier today I posted this video in which Sen. Mike Lee reacts with disbelief and shock that President Biden said some Republicans propose sunsetting Social Security and Medicare. Pure disbelief. Where could Biden get this obviously false crazy idea? Note that he did this while sitting next to Sen. Rick Scott, the guy who actually formally wrote the proposal as the Senate GOP platform position.

Now look at this video from Lee’s first campaign for Senate in which he says, “It will be my objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up by the roots and get rid of it.”

Watch the video here.

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