Em Redistribution

I’m in the last few weeks of finishing my book The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule The Earth, about social outcomes in a world dominated by brain emulations. As a teaser, let me share some hopefully non-obvious results about redistribution in the em world.

There are many kinds of inequality. Inequality exists between different species, between generations born at different times, and between nations of the world at a time. Within a nation at a time, there is inequality both between families and within families. There is also inequality across the moments of the life of each person. In all of these cases, there is not only financial inequality, but also inequality in status, prestige, pleasure, lifespan, happiness, and more. There is also inequality between the size of families, firms, cities, or nations, even when individuals within those groupings are equal.

Today, we have relatively little intentional redistribution between generations or between nations. Redistribution within the moments of a person’s life happens, but that is mostly left to that person to choose and to fund. Similarly, redistribution between siblings is mostly achieved via differential treatment by parents. Instead, most concern today about inequality, and most debate about redistribution to address inequality, focuses on one very particular “standard” kind of inequality.

This standard inequality looks at differences in average individual financial incomes between the families of a nation, all at a given time. This type of inequality is actually one of the smallest. For example, in the U.S. today financial inequality between families is only one third the size of that inequality between siblings within families, and even that is much less than the inequality between individuals from different nations. We may focus our redistribution feelings on this standard inequality because it seems to us the most analogous to the inequality that forager sharing norms addressed. Alternatively, perhaps it is the most profitable type of redistribution for opportunistic rent-seekers.

This history suggests that the em world will have little redistribution between em generations or city states, and also that each clan is mostly in charge of deciding how to address inequality within that clan. After all, em clan members are more similar and closer to each other than are human siblings, even if they may sometimes be more distant from each other than are typical human life moments. Also, clan members have rather complex relations with each other, making it hard pick a natural sub-clan unit to be the standard basis for counting inequality. So that leaves ems with comparing inequality between clans.

A set of em clans can be unequal in two different ways. One way focuses on individual incomes, or perhaps individual happiness or respect, and says that a clan is better off if its individuals are on average better off. The other way focuses on the overall size and success of a clan. Here a clan is better off if it has more members, resources, or respect. Historically, most redistribution efforts have focused on average individual outcomes. For example, we have seen very little efforts to redistribute between human family clans based on family size. That is, we almost never take from families with many descendants in order to give to families that have few descendants. Nor do we take much from big nations, cities, or firms to give to smaller ones.

Because most em wages are near subsistence levels, unregulated wages have less inequality than do wages today. So em clans naturally have less inequality of the standard sort that is the focus of today’s redistribution. In contrast, em clans have enormous inequality in clan size, resources, and respect. However, history gives little reason to expect much redistribution to address this inequality. It is not very analogous to forager sharing, nor does it lend itself to profitable rent-seeking.

Thus the main kind of redistribution that we have reason to expect in the em era is between the clans of a city, based on differences of average within-clan individual income. But we expect less inequality of this sort in the em world, and so expect less redistribution on this basis.

Income taxes are today one of our main mechanisms for reducing the standard inequality that compares individual incomes between families within a nation. Over the last two centuries, big increases in the top marginal tax rates have mostly followed wars where over two percent of the population served in the military. For example, in the U.S. the top marginal tax rate jumped from 15% to 67% in 1917, during World War I. Controlling for this effect, top tax increases have not been correlated with wealth, democracy, or the political ideology of the party running the government. This weakly suggests that the local degree of individual income redistribution between the clans of an em city may depend on the local frequency of large expensive em wars.

If ordinary humans are included straightforwardly in the redistribution systems of the em world, then the simple result to expect is transfers, not only away from richer humans, but also from humans to ems overall. After all, in purely financial terms typical ems are poorer than the poorest humans. Redistribution systems may perhaps correct for the fact that em subsistence levels are much lower than are human subsistence levels. But if so such systems may also encourage or even require recipients of aid to switch from being a human to being an em, in order to lower costs.

During the em era, humans typically have industrial era incomes, which are much higher than subsistence level incomes. While many and perhaps most humans may pay to create a few ems, they tend to endow them with much higher than subsistence incomes. In contrast, a small number of successful humans manage to give rise to large em clans, and within these clans most members have near subsistence incomes. Thus transfers based on individual income inequality take from the descendants of less successful humans and give to descendants of more successful humans.

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Regulating Government

Wall Street is apparently profiting from helping local governments use an accounting trick to underfund pensions:

Pension bonds … current boom is … being driven … by a new accounting quirk that has largely escaped public notice while morphing into a major marketing tool for Wall Street banks. The quirk stems from a rule change that was meant to force governments to more clearly disclose the health of their pension funds. … If a pension plan is so poorly funded that it is projected to run out of cash, the new rules require it to make less optimistic projections about future returns. That increases the reported pension shortfall. But if governments infuse a big slug of borrowed money into the fund, they can resume using optimistic projections, and the shortfall shrinks. …

A review by ProPublica and The Post of the 20 largest pension bonds issued since 1996 found that in three-fourths of the deals, governments did not make their full required contribution in the years after the bonds were sold. … Because of the underfunding, most of the pension funds now are worse off than before the bonds were issued. (more)

I find it plausible that these pension bonds are often bad ideas, and that some general regulation might be useful to prevent their misapplication. But today I’m less interested in the particular issue of pensions, and more in the general issue of when democratic governments can be trusted to act in the interest of their voters.

Consider also the examples of public employee unions, and of eminent domain. In all these cases we don’t trust democratic governments to make the best choices for their citizens, and so we may empower some other democratic government to regulate or constrain those distrusted governments. For example, it seems we don’t trust governments to choose good wages for their employees, since we empower unions to negotiate with them.

It is not just that some citizens aren’t allowed to vote, or that governments representing different regions may have conflicts, or that the same government at different times can have conflicting time-inconsistent preferences. It seems to also be about a limited ability of citizens to pay attention to government activities. But how is it exactly that citizens can pay enough attention to the regulating government to help it choose a good regulation role, but can’t pay enough attention to the regulated government, tempting that government to make bad decisions? How is this supposed to work, even in theory?

This seems an important issue, and I’m interested in reading more about it. I expect there is a literature out there on this, but I don’t recall ever coming across it. Anyone have some good cites?

This topic is of course related to the possibility that governments may often be over-regulated.

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Effective Altruism Complaints

The Boston Review asked eleven people to respond to an essay by Peter Singer on effective altruism, i.e., on using careful analysis to pick acts that do the most good, even when less emotionally satisfying. For example, one might work at a less satisfying job that earns more, so that one can donate more. Response quotes are at the end of this post.

The most common criticisms were these: five people complained that in effective altruism the people helped don’t directly participate in the decision making process, and three people complained that charity efforts targeted directly at people in need distract from efforts to change political outcomes. Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue?

Charity plausibly has a signaling function, at least in part. Charity can let us show others our wealth, our conformity to standard social norms, and our loyalty to particular groups. Charity can also display our reassuring emotional reactions to hearing or seeing others in need or pain. Charity can also let us assert our dominance over and higher status than the people we help, especially if we control their lives a lot in the process. (There are birds who gain status by forcing food down the throats of others who lose status as a result.)

The main complaint above, on including the helped in decisions, seems closely related to showing dominance via charity that controls. But again, how is this problem worse for effective altruism charity, relative to all other charity?

I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.

This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.

Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.

Those quotes from responses to Singer: Continue reading "Effective Altruism Complaints" »

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Mass Moralizing

When a McDonald’s ad shows a dad and a young daughter bonding in the drive through lane, all smiles and excitement, it is claiming that eating at McDonald’s with one’s child is a way of giving to the child, perhaps repaying the child for neglect, a way to foster warm family relationships. We do not measure this claim against the real world, we measure it against our desires for this to be true, for it to be possible. (more)

That is Phil Hopkins, author of the new book Mass Moralizing. His main argument is we like to buy from producers who offer sermons with which that we want to identify, even when the connections between product and sermon are very weak. Donating to charity is pretty much the same process. More examples from the book:

In a television add for Jeep … we are shown a series of images, beginning with a close-up of a television remote, and proceeding through shots of various locations in the home, office, and gym in which some for of television is present displaying images the marketer clearly wants us to find both trivial and … representative. … “Jeep … ‘Going’ reality isn’t capture by a hidden camera. It doesn’t come in episodes either. You see, I don’t live to live through anyone, ever. So while everyone waits to see the next best `this,’ or an unbelievable ‘that,’, here’s the reality: there’s no `re-run’ when you’re living in the now. So while you tune in, I’ll be somewhere, getting out.” The final image is a white screen onto which fades a Jeep Liberty … and the words: “i live. i ride. i am. Jeep.” …

A mom and a little boy are shown eating a bowl of breakfast cereal together and the little boy asks, “Mom, did nana ever give you Cheerios when you were a little kid?” The mom responds, Yeah, she did.” The boy asks “Were Cheerios the same back then?” The mom responds … “Cheerios has pretty much been the same forever.” The boy looks contemplative for a moment, then says, “So … when we have Cheerios, it’s kind of like we’re having breakfast with Nana.” The mom … tears up at this point, and she nods and says, “Yeah.” She kisses the boy on the head and says again, “Yeah.” Then the Cheerios branded yellow appears on the screen with the single word: “Love” with a single cheerio for a period. …

The first commercial in the [Be A Pepper] campaign opens with a scene in an urban commuter rail station filmed in shades of gray with the camera focusing on one of the anonymous commuters, pausing and standing as if unsure how to proceed, and holding a Dr Pepper can (the only object with color in the scene). A modified version of the ironic Sammy Davis, Jr song, ”I Gotta Be Me,” begins playing, and the Dr Pepper commuter significantly takes a sip from the can and begins to tear off his shirt and tie, invoking the common superhero motif, revealing a red T-shirt underneath with the slogan “I’m One of a Kind.” The “hero” of our ad then begins to move through the crowd with new urgency and purposive air, again, with no clear destination signified, and an unfocused gaze. … As he passes others, they are inspired to tear off their own outer clothing to reveal different versions of the same “I am ..” T-shirts, sporting slogans that identify them by means of stereotypical categories: e.g., “Dreamer” worn by a street musician, “Cougar” worn by a somewhat older woman in tight skirt and high heels, “Fighter” worn by Paralympics athlete John McFall, … and two T-shirts with the slogan “I am One and Only” worn by identical twins jumping rope. …

Dove … let us hear Florence tell us that beauty is everything. … In allowing her to tell us this, Dove tells us this. Such a claim is not in “debate” with society’s definition of beauty. .. It doesn’t offer a counter argument. It merely encourages us to think ourselves as closer to the ideal than we currently do. … However powerful the messages, though, at best, Dove just shows us the problem, not what we can do about it, at least not directly. Its invitation to buy a bar of soap or a tube of cream in order to help make the world a better place is, unlike FEED or TOMS, clearly secondary, if not even more tertiary, and it doesn’t make it easy to see how its “giving” works. Rather, the Campaign is an explicit invitation to join a moral tribe, one that is configured almost completely on the basis of vague, if powerful, sentiments, and a general agreement with their “concern.”

It should be obvious in each of these cases that viewers are persuaded to associate products with attitudes and outcomes that have little to do with those products, in the absence of such ads.

Here someone who writes music lyrics saying something similar: logic has little to do with when we embrace the lyrics of a song:

Music and words together exist in the end in an older realm of magic and enchantment, a place where the nursery rhyme and the church hymn and the pop single all meet. They work as spells do – that is, either entirely, or not at all. We sing and the magic door swings open, or it doesn’t, and there’s no explaining it. … Music is so emotionally overwhelming that it pushes the discursive and explanatory roles of language aside – and it is part of the job of the libretto writer to get out of its way. …

Small fragments of sound and sense strike our hearts as shrapnel strikes our skin. They lodge and wound us, independent of their intended trajectory. The audience responds or it doesn’t. The audience is less like a crew of supercilious analysts and more like a magnet set to one pole or the other. … Our minds make meaning out of music by not making too much meaning out of it. One learns as a librettist to tiptoe to the edge of argument, and then back off to the limbo-land of implication and indirection. (more)

Since other people who hear the same ads and songs tend to make the same vague associations that we do from them, our instincts do help us by telling us what songs, products, charities etc. to associate with in order to make good impressions on others. (Hopkins says the same goes for stories, media articles, and school lessons, which rely on the same process). The problem is that this often has little to do with the actual affects of using products, donating to charities, etc. If you wanted to have accurate beliefs about those things, well all this should just terrify you. Unless you are some kind of alien, unmoved by what moves most folks, you have to realize that your mind isn’t at all set up to infer the true affects of using products, or donating to charities, etc. Beware, and avoid hearing the siren’s song, or the siren’s ad.

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Learn By Doing, Not Watching

Decades ago the famous “gondola kitten” experiment demonstrated that one must actively explore if one is to learn. One littermate in the set-up was free to explore its environment while another hung passively suspended in a contraption that moved in parallel with the exploring kitten. The gondola passenger saw everything the exploring kitten did but could not initiate any action. The mobile kitten discovered the world for itself while the passive kitten was presented a fait accompli-world in the same way that screen images are passively delivered to us. The passive kitten learned nothing. Since this classic experiment we have come to appreciate how crucial self-directed exploration is to understanding the world.

This holds true for humans as well as kittens. In an update of the gondola kitten experiment, researchers recently videotaped an American child’s Chinese-speaking nanny so that a second child saw and heard exactly what the first one did. The second child learned no Chinese whatsoever, whereas the first child picked up quite a lot. (more)

This supports my suggestion to Chase Your Reading; you more learn to figure things out by trying yourself to figure things out, and less by passively listening while writers figure things out in front of you.

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Em Scale Economies

Angle, a relaunched journal from Imperial College London, “focuses on the intersection of science, policy and politics in an evolving and complex world.” The current issue focuses on economies of scale, and includes a short paper of mine on ems:

I focus on two key results related to economies of scale. … First, an em economy grows faster that ours by avoiding the diminishing returns to capital that we suffer because we can’t grow labour fast enough. Second, an economy has larger cities because it avoids the commuting congestion costs that limit our city sizes. (more)

Of course an em economy has many other important scale economies; those where just the two I could explain in the two thousand words given me.

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Doing Good ≠ Being Good

Most of us like to be associated with “idealistic” groups that claim that they are doing good, i.e., making the world better. However, this is usually not our strongest motive in choosing to associate with such groups. Instead, we more strongly want to make ourselves look good, and gain good-looking associations. Most idealistic groups quickly learn to cater to this demand by:

  • Making meetings where people can visibly show off their affiliation with the group, form ties with like-minded others, and affiliate with impressive speakers/leaders.
  • Making ladders of extra recognition, such as awards, and offices.
  • Offering training to develop and credential related skills.
  • Advocating for the world to put more value on the features that this group’s members have, and less value on other features.
  • Advocating to others to join this and related groups, via arguing the virtues of it and its members.

Of course such groups try to frame these activities in terms of making the world better. And yes, groups that really were trying to make the world better might in fact do some of these. The tipoff, however, is their relative neglect of everything else required to actually make the world better. Groups tend to be far clearer on how to tell who is good than on how exactly good individuals make the world better, on what else exactly is required, and on how they are going to manage that.

Let me give some examples:

  • Christianity presents itself as good for the world, but its main activity is meetings centered on impressive people, and at meetings most people are mostly thinking about how good or bad they are or have been. They talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world.
  • I recently talked at a conference of ecological spiritual consciousness raising folks. They had impressive speakers who celebrated features of attendees. Some presented an explicit ladder of higher consciousness, ranked famous people on it, and talked in detail about how to move to higher levels. They want a more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world, but are fuzzy on how exactly spiritual consciousness helps there.
  • The recent movie Tomorrowland seemed on the surface to be about having hope for and working for a better tomorrow. But in fact a secret society was obsessed with finding the few best people in the world, even though it already had enough secret tech to save the world. Most superhero stories are on the surface about heros struggling to help the world against an opposing villain, but actually more about how cool and impressive it would be to have certain abilities.
  • Political disputes seem to easily get distracted by issues of who is better. Immigration becomes all about what immigrants are worthy. School becomes all about how it can makes you better and who deserves a chance to get better. Charity debates become ways to show who has enough empathy, or enough toughness. How to promote innovation quickly becomes celebrating particular innovators.
  • When discussing how to get better predictions, there is far more interest in finding correlates of who personally is a super-forecaster, than in finding better institutions like prediction markets to promote good predictions. Similarly for rationality, there is far more interest in how to spot rational folks, and in rationality training, than in institutions to promote rationality.

Look, yes the world is full of people, and yes the qualities of those people make some different to world outcomes. But a great many other things also matter for outcomes. So if you were really focused on doing good, you’d pay lots of attention to things other than being good. Doing good isn’t just being good, not by a long shot.

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Industry Via Fashion?

What caused the industrial revolution to appear in Europe, clearly in full swing after 1800, yet never before anywhere else in the world? Since causes precede effects, one simple way to try to answer this question is to ask: What is the earliest thing that happened only in Europe that seems plausibly along a causal path to later produce an industrial revolution? For example, there was the scientific revolution in the mid 1600s, the exploration of new continents in the 1500s, and the printing press in the late 1400s. I just came across a plausible earlier candidate: rapidly changing clothing fashion starting in the mid 1300s:

The sociocultural phenomenon called “fashion,” that is, styles being widely adopted for a limited period of time, was not part of dress in the ancient world. (more)

Fashion in 15th-century Europe was characterized by a series of extremes and extravagances. … It is in this time period that we begin to see fashion take on a temporal aspect. People could now be dated by their clothes, and being in “out of date” clothing became a new social concern. (more)

The craze for change year after year took some time to become really established. … The further back in tome one goes, even in Europe, one is more likely to find the still waters. .. The general rule was changelessness. Until toward the beginning of the twelfth century costumes in Europe remained entirely as they had been in Roman times. … The really big change came in about 1350 with the sudden shortening of men’s costume, which was viewed as scandalous by the old, the prudent, and the defenders of tradition. …After this, ways of dressing because subject to change in Europe. At the same time, whereas the traditional costumer had been much the same all over the continent, the spread of the shorter costume was irregular, subject to resistance and variation, so that eventually national styles of dressing were evolved, all influencing each other to a greater or lesser extent. … So Europe became and remained a patchwork of costumes, until at least the nineteenth century. (Braudel pp.315-7)

The new taste for fashion led to a more general taste for the new, which plausibly promoted innovation, exploration, and science. A plausible partial cause of this new taste for fashion was the sudden big bump in wages caused by the Black Death in the mid 1300s.

Added 6p: Its actually a bit of a puzzle. Why do fast fashion cycles seem so robust in our world, happening in so many areas, at yet they almost never happened in any areas in pre-modern societies? A great many theories have been published to explain fashion cycles, but they all seem to explain too much; I can’t find any to explain the lack of ancient fashion cycles.

Added 8p:  on Twitter points to this discussion of limited fashion in Rome. Fits my story of Rome as culturally an almost industry era.

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Error Is Not Simple

At her Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia Galef talked to me about signaling as a broad theory of human behavior.

Julia is smart and thoughtful, and fully engaged the idea. Even so, I’m not sure I convinced her. I might have had a better chance if we’d dived quickly into a detailed summaries of related datums. Instead we more talked more abstractly about her concern that signaling seems a complex theory, and shouldn’t we look to simpler theories first. For example, on the datums that we see little correlation between medicine and health, and that people show little interest in private info on medicine effectiveness, Julia said:

Like the fact that humans are bad at probability and are pretty scope insensitive, and don’t really feel the difference between a 5% chance of failure versus an 8% chance of failure. Also the fact that humans are superstitious thinkers, that on some level, it feels like if we don’t think about risks, they can’t hurt us, or something like that. … It feels like that I would have put a significant amount of weigh even in the absence of signaling caring, that people would fail to purchase that useful information.

Yes, the fact that we follow heuristics does predict that our actions deviate from those of perfect rationality agents. It predicts that instead of spending just the right amount on something like medicine, we may spend too much or too little. Similarly, it predicts we might get too much or too little info on medical quality.

But by itself that doesn’t predict that we will spend too much on medicine, and too little on medical quality info. In fact, we see a great many other kinds of areas, such as buying more energy efficient light bulbs, where people seem to spend too little. And we see a great many other areas were people seem too eager to gain and apply quality info; we eagerly consume news media full of info with little practical application.

As I said in the podcast, but perhaps didn’t explain well enough, we are often tempted to explain otherwise-puzzling behaviors in terms of simple error theories; the world is complex so people just can’t get it right. This won’t explain why we tend to do the same things as others who are socially near, but that we often like to explain as social copying and conformity; we try to do what others do so we won’t look weird, and maybe others know something.

But even conformity, by itself, won’t explain the particular choices that a group of socially adjacent people make. It doesn’t predict that elderly women in Miami tend to spend too much on medicine, for example. It is these patterns across space, time, group, industry, etc. that I try to explain via signaling. For example, relative to other products and services, people have consistently spent too much on medicine all through history, especially in rich societies, and for women and the elderly.

I’ve offered a signaling story to try to simultaneously explain these and many other details, and yes it takes a few pages to explain. That may sound more complex than “its all just random mistakes”, but to explain any specific dataset of choices, that basic error story must be augmented with a great many specific ad hoc hypotheses of the form “and in this case, the particular mistake these people tend to make happens to be this.”

The combination of “its just error” and all those specific hypotheses is what makes that total hypothesis actually a lot more complex and a priori unlikely than the sorts of signaling stories that I offer. Which is why I’d say such signaling hypotheses are favored more by the data, at least when they fit reasonably well and are generated by a relatively small set of core hypotheses.

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Elite Evaluator Rents

The elite evaluator story discussed in my last post is this: evaluators vary in the perceived average quality of the applicants they endorse. So applicants seek the highest ranked evaluator willing to endorse them. To keep their reputation, evaluators can’t consistently lie about the quality of those they evaluate. But evaluators can charge a price for their evaluations, and higher ranked evaluators can charge more. So evaluators who, for whatever reason, end up with a better pool of applicants can sustain that advantage and extract continued rents from it.

This is a concrete plausible story to explain the continued advantage of top schools, journals, and venture capitalists. On reflection, it is also a nice concrete story to help explain who resists prediction markets and why.

For example, within each organization, some “elites” are more respected and sought after as endorsers of organization projects. The better projects look first to get endorsement of elites, allowing those elites to sustain a consistently higher quality of projects that they endorse. And to extract higher rents from those who apply to them. If such an organization were instead to use prediction markets to rate projects, elite evaluators would lose such rents. So such elites naturally oppose prediction markets.

For a more concrete example, consider that in 2010 the movie industry successfully lobbied the US congress to outlaw the Hollywood Stock Exchange, a real money market just then approved by the CFTC for predicting movie success, and about to go live. Hollywood is dominated by a few big studios. People with movie ideas go to these studios first with proposals, to gain a big studio endorsement, to be seen as higher quality. So top studios can skim the best ideas, and leave the rest to marginal studios. If people were instead to look to prediction markets to estimate movie quality, the value of a big studio endorsement would fall, as would the rents that big studios can extract for their endorsements. So studios have a reason to oppose prediction markets.

While I find this story as stated pretty persuasive, most economists won’t take it seriously until there is a precise formal model to illustrate it. So without further ado, let me present such a model. Math follows. Continue reading "Elite Evaluator Rents" »

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