Tag Archives: Food

Freedom Isn’t Free

The concept of a right to health has been enumerated in international agreements which include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. … equitable dissemination of medical knowledge and its benefits; and government-provided social measures to ensure adequate health. …

Everyone has the right to … food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services. … “responsibility [that] extends beyond the provision of essential health services to tackling the determinants of health such as, provision of adequate education, housing, food, and favourable working conditions” … right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health … each individual holds an inherent right to the best feasible standard of health. (more)

We might want to say that people have a right to food. And in a place like the Soviet Union, where food was centrality produced and distributed, a right to food might be defined in terms of fixed numbers of particular items. So many loaves of bread, kilos of meat, and bottles of milk per week, for example. Such “rights” would be complex, vary by time and place, and result mostly from complex and changing tradeoffs, as well as politics.

While basic ethical principles might influence such rights, that influence may be hard to discern among so many other influences. If a right to food were enshrined in the text of a constitution, it would be hard for courts to have that text and a few abstract principles strongly determine if any given action is taken to violate that right or not. They might accumulate case law on how to make such decisions, but that would mostly be the court defining the right, not the constitution or abstract principles. The court might delegate many details to government agencies, in which case it would be those agencies deciding most details, not the constitution or abstract principles.

In contrast, in a market economy like ours, where individuals can more easily choose the particular foods that they want, it makes less sense to talk having about having rights to particular baskets of bread, meat, milk, etc. One could instead talk about a right to so many calories or grams of protein, but that might be hard to enforce. It could make more sense to talk about a right to a minimum food budget, and to having foods available to purchase at their real costs. (Such a budget might be set by market prices to get min calories, etc.) And it might be work even better to just focus on general redistribution systems expressed in terms of money, allowing each person to choose their own food priorities.

In a market-based economy where rights are implemented via food budgets or overall redistribution policies, outcomes would be influenced more by the constitution text and abstract principles, and by many individual choices, and less by the courts or government agencies.

Similarly, in a centrally-administered medical system, one could make a long list of the particular medical treatments to which each patient is entitled, if they were diagnosed with particular conditions. This long list of medical rights would be context-dependent and change frequently, and it wouldn’t have any clear relation to basic ethical principles or a constitutional text about a right to medicine. Such a list would mostly reflect many practical tradeoffs as well as politics. It seems quite hard to formally define and enforce any simple general “right to medicine” given all this complex variation and context dependence.

When medicine is allocated more by a competitive market, it can make more sense to try to ensure that people are free to buy medicine, medical insurance, and info on medical quality, all at prices that reflect the real costs of such things. One might try to define medical rights in terms of a minimum budget that each person has to buy medicine or medical insurance or info. Or one might focus on a more general system of redistribution expressed in terms of money, and let each person choose their medical priorities. In either of these last two scenarios, abstract principles and a constitutional text, together with individual choices, could have more influence on outcomes, relative to decisions by courts and government agencies.

In this last scenario, if you saw a case where you felt bad that someone who knew about a particular medical treatment didn’t buy that treatment, you might consider pushing to increase the priority of similar people in your more general system of redistribution. So that they could have more money to buy such treatments. If you gave such people more money, but they chose instead to spend that money on other things, you might accept that they have differing medical priorities from you, or you might try to push them to share your priorities. Either way, that dispute doesn’t really seem to be about a right to medicine.

If you are with me so far regarding food and medicine, then in the rest of this post I want to convince you to think similarly about many formal civil rights and liberties. At least regarding rights and liberties whose limits are set mainly by criminal law enforcement considerations. Today our constitutions and courts try to specify many complex related rights and liberties. I will argue that this complexity is to a large degree due to having a centralized government-run system of criminal law enforcement. This is analogous to the complexity we would have if the government ran the food system or the medical system, wherein rights to food or medicine would consist of long lists of the food you could get each week, or the medical treatments to which you were entitled.

I will suggest that we could instead switch to a much more private, open, and competitive system of criminal law enforcement. In such a system, individuals could buy the particular civil rights and liberties that they wanted. We could then work to ensure that people are free to buy these rights and liberties at prices that reflect their real costs, and that people have a minimum budget to purchase such things. Or we might just focus on a more general system of redistribution expressed in terms of money, and let each person use money to express their priorities for rights and liberties re criminal law enforcement. Let me explain.

Today, we have explicitly declared a great many rather specific rights and liberties on how we are to be treated by our systems of law enforcement. Of course your actual rights and liberties vary according to your exact legal jurisdiction, the legal text there, court interpretations in that jurisdiction, and how local law enforcement agencies actually implement court rulings in their actual policies.

You may have have rights to be silent, and to not talk to police, and exceptions to those rights, such as when you must identify yourself. You may have rights and obligations regarding when you may be detained or arrested, and who must give testimony regarding which kinds things about which kinds of associates, including themself. There are rules on when one must be allowed to consult a lawyer, and rules that require lawyers to be available free of charge. You may have have rights to keep some things private, to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures, and there may be exceptions to these based on warrants and on which things are in “plain view” or result from “hot pursuit”. Other exceptions are based on extra powers given to police in certain situations.

You may have rights to assemble with others of your choice, and to travel freely, but these rights may have exceptions limiting where you can go where when, such as curfews and orders to stay away from some places or to stay close enough to other places. You may have a right to speedy trials. Regarding punishment, you may have rights to avoid disproportionate punishment, and cruel and unusual punishments. In prison, you may have rights to minimum qualities of food and medicine, to a lack of racial segregation, to accommodation of your disabilities, to a lack of crowding, and to some kinds of speech, contact with outsiders, and religious activities.

For all of these rights and liberties, you may have complex rights regarding who must monitor to check that they are actually being upheld, and who may sue whom claiming that they are not, and what they would win if they won. Many have claimed that in fact many important groups in our societies don’t actually have many of the rights and liberties that they are supposedly granted on paper. I’m inclined to believe many such claims, which is a big part of why I seek other approaches.

Much of this complexity results from the fact that, in order to enforce criminal law, officials sometimes need to detain, punish, and watch people, and they sometimes need to limit their travel, assemblies, and other activities. Officials sometimes need to collect info about some people from their things and from other people. These many complex rules about rights and liberties are often claimed to be designed to give everyone as many rights and liberties as feasible, while still allowing criminal law officials to do what needs doing to enforce criminal law in a reasonably cost-effective manner. Because the world is complex, these rules must be complex.

But imagine that we replaced our centralized government run system of criminal law enforcement with this:

Consider a fine-insured-bounty (FIB) crime law system. … All (but one) crime is punished officially by fines, everyone is fully insured to pay large fines, and bounty hunters detect and prosecute each crime. In a FIB system, we collectively decide the fine and bounty level for each crime, and manage a judicial system which decides individual cases.

If we set the fine level for each crime to be our best estimate of the social harm produced by one more crime event of that type (divided by the chance that it will be caught, plus enforcement costs), then the insurer-client pair would internalize that social harm, in which case we could leave that pair free to choose punishment types, costs, and levels, as well as (many aspects of) police and prosecutor monitoring and investigative powers. (more)

Within a FIB system, insurer-client pairs choose most details of punishment, including type, size, duration, etc. So within such a system, there’s little need to give people rights to avoid disproportionate, cruel, or unusual punishment. Anyone can choose to avoid any type of punishment, if they are willing to pay associated insurance premiums.

Similarly for monitoring to prevent crime. Insurers will want to promote and enable such monitoring, to avoid having to pay on behalf of clients. So insurers will offer lower premiums to clients who allow more monitoring. No need to guarantee any minimum or maximum monitoring; such levels are chosen by contract. For rights re how one interacts with police, it is possible to not give bounty hunters any more rights than ordinary people have. In which case we’d need no extra rights relative to police interactions.

Now it does seem plausible that the more rights that bounty hunters have to collect evidence, such as by searching places and compelling testimony, the higher the chance that any given crime could be caught, with the criminal’s insurer forced to pay a fine. But what if lowering this chance were the main external cost that resulted from letting a potential criminal choose to make it harder to collect evidence about them? In this case we could correct for this effect via fine amounts. The fine for each crime should depend on an estimate of the chance that crime would have been detected and successfully prosecuted. With decent (and perhaps conservative) estimates of how the chance of catching a crime depends on how open a criminal is to evidence collection, we could adjust fines for this effect, and thus allow insurer-client pairs to choose how open to be to bounty hunters seeking evidence. In which case we don’t need a right against “unreasonable” police searches.

So far I’ve argued that, in a FIB system, we don’t need formal rights and liberties regarding issues where we can just let insurer-client pairs choose, because they internalize the social harm of such choices. I’m not claiming that all civil rights and liberties are of this type, but many are. Creating a more private, open, competitive criminal law system could allow us to greatly simplify civil rights and liberties, and have the results depend a long more on constitutional text and general principles, and on individual choices, and depend less on courts and government agencies. Just as when we have private, open, competitive systems for food or medicine.

What if you felt bad when you saw someone choose fewer civil rights and liberties than you thought right or wise? You might try to persuade them to change their priorities, or you might try to increase the priority that you give to such people in your redistribution system that ensures minimum budgets to buy rights and liberties, or within your more general redistribution system. So that they could more easily afford to buy more rights and liberties if they wanted them. I think this would work better than trying to centrally legislate who exactly should have which particular rights and liberties, as that wouldn’t well take into account individual tastes, costs, and context.

Added 1June: Here’s a way to estimate “how the chance of catching a crime depends on how open a criminal is to evidence collection”. Have the statute of limitations be no shorter than N (=10?) years, and require everyone to keep good private electronic records of their activities for at least that long. Allow L (=4?) different privacy levels that everyone can choose among. Divide the polity into M (=1000?) regions, and every N years force one random region to have the lowest privacy level regarding its last N years of crimes. For each region and privacy level combination, have a prediction market estimating its crime rate (number of crimes weighted by fine level, divided by average-over-period fraction of residents at privacy level) conditional both on being randomly picked, and on not being so picked. That’s 2*L*M/N prices per year. The fine increase factor for each region and privacy level combination is given by a smoothed ratio of the estimated crime rates between the two conditions. Smoothing can take the whole set of prices and find a simpler model that fits them.

Added 5Aug: Here is pdf of slides for talk I gave.

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MRE Futures, To Not Starve

The Meal, Ready-to-Eat – commonly known as the MRE – is a self-contained, individual field ration in lightweight packaging bought by the United States military for its service members for use in combat or other field conditions where organized food facilities are not available. While MREs should be kept cool, they do not need to be refrigerated. .. MREs have also been distributed to civilians during natural disasters. .. Each meal provides about 1200 Calories. They .. have a minimum shelf life of three years. .. MREs must be able to withstand parachute drops from 380 metres, and non-parachute drops of 30 metres. (more)

Someday, a global crisis, or perhaps a severe regional one, may block 10-100% of the normal food supply for up to several years. This last week I attended a workshop set up by ALLFED, a group exploring new food sources for such situations. It seems that few people need to starve, even if we lose 100% of food for five years! And feeding everyone could go a long way toward keeping such a crisis from escalating into a worse catastrophic or existential risk. But for this to work, the right people, with the means and will to act, need to be aware of the right options at the right time. And early preparation, before a crisis, may go a long way toward making this feasible. How can we make this happen?

In this post I will outline a plan I worked out at this workshop, a plan intended to simultaneously achieve several related goals:

  1. Support deals for food insurance expressed in terms that ordinary people might understand and trust.
  2. Create incentives for food producers, before and during a crisis, to find good local ways to make and deliver food.
  3. Create incentives for researchers to find new food sources, develop working processes, and demonstrate their feasibility.
  4. Share information about the likelihood and severity of food crises in particular times, places, and conditions.

My idea starts with a new kind of MRE, one inspired by but not the same as the familiar military MRE. This new MRE would also be ready to eat without cooking, and also have minimum requirements for calories (after digesting), nutrients, lack of toxins, shelf life, and robustness to shocks. But, and this is key, suppliers would be free to meet these requirements using a wide range of exotic food options, including bacteria, bugs, and rats. (Or more conventional food made in unusual ways, like sugar from corn stalks or cows eating tree leaves.) It is this wide flexibility that could actually make it feasible to feed most everyone in a crisis. MREs might be graded for taste quality, perhaps assigned to three different taste quality levels by credentialed food tasters.

As an individual, you might want access to a source of MREs in a crisis. So you, or your family, firm, club, city, or nation, may want to buy or arrange for insurance which guarantees access to MREs in a crisis. A plausible insurance deal might promise access to so many MREs of a certain quality level per per time period, delivered at standard periodic times to a standard location “near” you. That is, rather than deliver MREs to your door on demand, you might have to show up at a certain more central location once a week or month to pick up your next batch of MREs.

The availability of these MREs might be triggered by a publicly observable event, like a statistical average of ordinary food prices over some area exceeding a threshold. Or, more flexibly, standard MRE insurance might always give one the right to buy, at a pre-declared high price and at standard places and times, a certain number of MREs per time period.  Those who fear not having enough cash to pay this pre-declared MRE price in a crisis might separately arrange for straight financial insurance, which pays cash tied either to a publicly triggered event, or to a market MRE price. Or the two approaches could be combined, so that MRE are available at a standard price during certain public events.

The organizations that offer insurance need ways to ensure customers that they can actually deliver on their promises to offer MREs at the stated times, places, and prices, given relevant public events. In addition, they want to minimize the prices they pay for these supplies of MREs, and encourage suppliers to search for low cost ways to make MREs.

This is where futures markets could help. In a futures market for wheat, people promise to deliver, or to take delivery, of certain quantities of certain types of wheat at particular standard times and places. Those who want to ensure a future supply of wheat against risks of changing prices can buy these futures, and those who grow wheat can ensure a future revenue for their wheat by selling futures. Most traders in futures markets are just speculating, and so arrange to leave the market before they’d have to make or take delivery. But the threat of making or taking delivery disciplines the prices that they pay. Those who fail to make or take delivery as promised face large financial and other penalties.

Analogously, those who offer MRE insurance could use MRE futures markets to ensure an MRE supply, and convince clients that they have ensured a supply. Yes, compared to the terms of the insurance offered by insurance organizations, the futures markets may offer fewer standard times, places, quality levels, and triggering public events. (Though the lab but not field tested tech of combinatorial markets make feasible far more combinations.) Even so, customers might find it easy to believe that, if necessary, an organization that has bought futures for a few standard times and places could actually take delivery of these futures contracts, store the MREs for short periods, and deliver them to the more numerous times and places specified in their insurance deals.

MRE futures markets could also ensure firms who explore innovative ways to make MREs of a demand for their product. By selling futures to deliver MREs at the standard times and places, they might fund their research, development, and production. When it came time to actually deliver MREs, they might make side deals with local insurance organizations to avoid any extra storage and transport costs of actually transferring MREs according to the futures contract details.

To encourage innovation, and to convince everyone that the system actually works, some patron, perhaps a foundation or government, could make a habit of periodically but randomly announcing large buy orders for MRE futures at certain times and places in the near future. They actually take delivery of the MREs, and then auction them off to whomever shows up there then to taste the MREs at a big social event. In this way ordinary people can sometimes hold and taste the MREs, and we can all see that there is a system capable of producing and delivering at least modest quantities on short notice. The firms who supply these MREs will of course have to set up real processes to actually deliver them, and be paid big premiums for their efforts.

These new MREs may not meet current regulatory requirements for food, and it may not be easy to adapt them to meet such requirements. Such requirements should be relaxed in a crisis, via a new crisis regulatory regime. It would be better to set that regime up ahead of time, instead of trying to negotiate it during a crisis. Such a new regulatory regime could be tested during these periodic random big MRE orders. Regulators could test the delivered MREs and only let people eat the ones that pasts their tests. Firms that had passed tests at previous events might be pre-approved for delivering MREs to future events, at least if they didn’t change their product too much. And during a real crisis, such firms could be pre-approved to rapidly increase production and delivery of their product. This offers an added incentive for firms to participate in these tests.

MRE futures markets might also help the world to coordinate expectations about which kinds of food crises might appear when under what circumstances. Special conditional futures contracts could be created, where one only promises to deliver MREs given certain world events or policies. If the event doesn’t happen, you don’t have to deliver. The relative prices of future contracts for different events and policies would reveal speculator expectations about how the chance and severity of food crises depend on such events and policies.

And that’s my big idea. Yes it will cost real resources, and I of course hope we never have to use it in a real crisis. But it seems to me far preferable to most of us starving to death. Far preferable.

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