Tag Archives: Regulation

Stubborn Attachments

Tyler Cowen’s new book, Stubborn Attachments, says many things. But his main claims are, roughly, 1) we should care much more about people who will live in the distant future, and 2) promoting long-run economic growth is a robust way to achieve that end. As a result, we should try much harder to promote long-run economic growth.

Now I don’t actually think his arguments are that persuasive to those inclined to disagree. On 1), the actions of most people suggest that they don’t actually care much about the distant future, and there exist quite consistent preferences (including moral preferences) to represent this position. (Also, I have to wonder how much Tyler cares, as in the 20 years I’ve known him I’ve often worked on distant future issues, and he’s shown almost no interest in such things.)

On 2), while Tyler mainly argues for econ growth by pointing to good trends over the last few centuries, many people see bad trends as outweighing the good, and many others see recent trends as temporary historical deviations. Tyler also doesn’t consider that future techs which speed population growth could cut the connection observed recently between total and per-capita growth; I describe such a scenario in my book Age of Em.

Tyler being Tyler, he is generally vague and gives himself many outs to avoid criticism. For example, he says that rights should take priority over growth, but he doesn’t specify those rights. He says he only advocates growing “wealth plus” which includes any good thing you could want, so don’t complain that growth will hurt a good thing. He notes that the priority on growth can justify the usual intuition excusing limited redistribution, but doesn’t mention that this won’t at all excuse not doing everything possible to promote growth. He says he isn’t committed to econ growth being possible forever, but only to a finite chance of eternal growth. Yet focusing all policy on trying to increase growth within some tiny-chance eternal growth scenario is overwhelmingly likely to seem a huge mistake later.

However, as I personally happen to agree with his main claims, at least the way I phrased them, I’d rather focus on their implications, which Tyler severely neglects. The following are the only “concrete” things he says about how exactly to promote long term econ growth:

For some more concrete recommendations, I’ll suggest the following: a) Policy should be more forward-looking and more concerned about the more distant future. b) Governments should place a much higher priority on investment than is currently the case, in both the private sector and the public sector. … c) Policy should be more concerned with economic growth, properly specified, and policy discussion should pay less heed to other values. … d) We should be more concerned with the fragility of our civilization. … e) We should be more charitable on the whole, but we are not obliged to give away all of our wealth. … f) We can embrace much of common sense morality with the knowledge that it is not inconsistent with a deeper ethical theory. … g) When it comes to most “small” policies affecting the present and the near-present only, we should be agnostic.

More “investment” and “growth”, that’s it?! We actually know of many more specific ways to encourage choices that promote long term growth, but they mostly come at substantial costs. I don’t how much you actually support faster long-term growth until I hear which such policies you’ll support. Continue reading "Stubborn Attachments" »

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Gossip Cabals

Four actresses relayed their suspicion that, after rejecting [Harvey] Weinstein’s advances and complaining about him, he had them removed from projects or persuaded others to remove them. A number of Farrow’s sources said Weinstein had referred to his success in planting stories in the media about individuals who had crossed him. … He told them that complying with his demands would help their careers, repeatedly mentioning Paltrow (without the actress’s knowledge) as someone he claimed to have had sex with. … these activities were enabled by employees, associates, and agents who set up these meetings, and lawyers and publicists who suppressed complaints with payments and threats. (more)

Ashley Judd … refused, and says he got revenge by seeking to damage her career. Director Peter Jackson has come forward to say he removed her from a casting list “as a direct result” of what he now thinks was “false information” provided by Weinstein. … Like with Ashley Judd, Peter Jackson said Weinstein warned him off casting [Mira Sorvino]. … Heather Graham … alleges he implied she had to sleep with him to get a film role, telling her that his wife would have been fine with it. … He insisted on listening to [Louisette Geiss] pitch in his hot tub, then asked her to watch him masturbate, she says – and told her he could green-light her script if she did so. … Daryl Hannah … suffered physical repercussions as her flights were cancelled and she was left stranded after she turned him down on one occasion, she adds. … Rosanna Arquette … says she rejected Weinstein’s advances and that she believes her acting career suffered as a result. (more)

What power exactly did Harvey Weinstein possess, to let him harass and rape with impunity for decades? He was an actor’s agent, who negotiated deals between actors and studios, but many agents do that. If one agent makes unreasonable demands, why not switch to another? How hard can it be anyway to evaluate an actor and suggest which projects they might be well suited for?

Well, okay, maybe it takes years to acquire good judgement, and some agents have much better judgment than others. Even so, if many agents are capable of evaluating and matching actors, how can one agent gain so much power over an actor who could easily switch to other agents?

Okay, yes, also, an actor-agent relation might develop slowly over a long time, and as with quitting a on marriage or a family, someone might put up with modest abuse before calling it quits. But Weinstein seems to have had far more power than most partners who increase in value over time.

Some say that wannabe actors are far more irrational and desperate than are most people in most relations. So they’ll do almost anything for a tiny increase of a chance for acting success. Maybe, but I want to explore other explanations, before I’m willing to conclude that.

One scenario is that corrupt agents offer to overestimate an actor’s suitability if they accept agent demands. But if the agent reneged on their promise, how would an actor enforce it? This strategy could result in studios giving them a try, seeing they are subpar, and then realizing that they are getting lower quality advice from that agent, reducing demand for that agent. And if there’s a limit to how much they could plausibly exaggerate quality, an agent could only plausibly use this strategy on the few best actors, as the rest will be rejected in any case.

Another scenario is that corrupt agents threaten to underestimate an actor’s suitability if they reject agent demands. Here enforcement is more reliably handled by the agent. If most actors give in to the threat, then most threats need not be carried out, and so the quality of signals sent to studios will be much less degraded. If the threat is carried out, studios will likely reject, and so not see that they got a bad signal. Also, this threat can be given to all types of actors, good and bad. So underestimation threats seems more effective overall than overestimation promises.

However, if an actor could easily switch to dozens of other agents, even this underestimation threat seems weak. I doubt such a threat would have moved me much when I was working with a book agent. But what if someone like Weinstein could credibly threaten, “If I give the word, you’ll never get another job in this town/industry again?”

This threat might be credible if the major acting powers formed a cabal where they agreed to believe their negative evaluations of others. Then Weinstein could tell other powers, like director Peter Jackson, that you are difficult, and none of them would audition you. If Jackson defied Weinstein and auditioned you anyway, then Weinstein could tell the other powers that Jackson is difficult. So an equilibrium could be formed where all the powers take each others’ strong negative evaluations of others at face value, for fear that otherwise they will become a target. And they could collectively benefit from this equilibrium, as they can each now make stronger credible threats to outsiders.

This sort of equilibrium seems to me very common part of human behavior. For example, academic elites in an area tend to all treat each other’s claims with respect, and endorse any of their dismissals of outsiders. In a social media mob pile on, where a big mob all says person X is bad, someone who speaks up saying X isn’t so bad should reasonably fear the mob would turn on them. And the set of top bosses in a firm typically shares an inclination to jointly reject any lower level person who challenges any one of those bosses. (“We can criticize each other privately, but we are unified in rejecting public criticism by outsiders.”)

In this sort of equilibrium, elites will in public usually say “We are the best people in this area, as proved by the fact that we all say we are best. If we all say someone else is bad, you can take that to the bank.” Sometimes they will say “George used to be good, but we all now agree that George has turned bad.” And in private each elite can say to wannabes, “Unless you do everything I demand, I’ll tell the other elites you are bad, and you’ll be out of this area for good.”

We economists tend to worry about firms colluding on prices, to keep them high, or colluding on entry, where I won’t enter your area if you don’t enter mine. But I suspect that gossip collusion like this is a far bigger problem. It happens not just in business, but in politics, arts, religion, sports, academia, journalism, law, etc.

While it would be hard, I could imagine attempts to more strong regulate and discourage this sort of behavior. But the striking thing is, we hardly even try.

Added 26Sep: Oops, seems Weinstein was a producer, not an agent. But producers serve a related role of evaluating and matching actors. A big part of the demand for him as a producer would be his ability to do those well.

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Compulsory Licensing Of Backroom IT?

We now understand one of the main reasons that many leading firms have been winning relative to others, resulting in higher markups, profits, and wage inequality:

The biggest companies in every field are pulling away from their peers faster than ever, sucking up the lion’s share of revenue, profits and productivity gains. Economists have proposed many possible explanations: top managers flocking to top firms, automation creating an imbalance in productivity, merger-and-acquisition mania, lack of antitrust regulation and more. But new data suggests that … IT spending that goes into hiring developers and creating software owned and used exclusively by a firm is the key competitive advantage. It’s different from our standard understanding of R&D in that this software is used solely by the company, and isn’t part of products developed for its customers.

Today’s big winners went all in. …Tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple—as well as other giants including General Motors and Nissan in the automotive sector, and Pfizer and Roche in pharmaceuticals—built their own software and even their own hardware, inventing and perfecting their own processes instead of aligning their business model with some outside developer’s idea of it. … “IT intensity,” is relevant not just in the U.S. but across 25 other countries as well. …

When new technologies were developed in the past, they would diffuse to other firms fast enough so that productivity rose across entire industries. … But imagine instead of power looms, someone is trying to copy and reproduce Google’s cloud infrastructure itself. … Things have just gotten too complicated. The technologies we rely on now are massive and inextricably linked to the engineers, workers, systems and business models built around them. … While in the past it might have been possible to license, steal or copy someone else’s technology, these days that technology can’t be separated from the systems of which it’s a part. … Walmart built an elaborate logistics system around bar code scanners, which allowed it to beat out smaller retail rivals. Notably, it never sold this technology to any competitors. (more)

A policy paper goes into more detail. First, why is the IT of some firms so much better?

Proprietary IT thus provides a specific mechanism that can help explain the reallocation to more productive firms, rising industry concentration, also growing productivity dispersion between firms within industries, and growing profit margins. … There is a significant literature that identifies IT-related differences in productivity arising from complementary skills, managerial practices, and business models that are themselves unevenly distributed. Skills and managerial knowledge needed to use major new technologies have often been unevenly distributed initially because much must be learned through experience, which tends to differ substantially from firm to firm.

Yes, skills vary, but there are also just big random factors in the success of large IT systems, even for similar skills. What can we do about all this?

While there may be other reasons to question antitrust policies, the general rise in industry concentration does not appear to raise troubling issues for antitrust enforcement at this point by itself. …

Both IP law and antitrust law pay heed to … balancing innovation incentives against the need for disclosure and competition, balancing concerns about market power against considerations of efficiency. … This balance has been lost with regard to information technology … the policy challenge is to offset this trend. … This problem might require some lessening of innovation incentives. … The challenge both today and in the future for both IP and antitrust policy is to facilitate the diffusion of new technical knowledge and right now the trend seems to be in the wrong direction. …

To the extent that rising use of employee noncompete agreements limits the ability of technical employees to take their skills to new firms, diffusion is slowed. Similarly, for extensions of trade secrecy law to cover knowhow or the presumption of inevitable disclosure. Patents are required to disclose the technical information needed to “enable” the invention, but perhaps these requirements are ineffective, especially in IT fields. And if patents are not licensed, they become a barrier to diffusion. Perhaps some forms of compulsory licensing might overcome this problem. Moreover, machine learning technologies portend even greater difficulties encouraging diffusion in the future because use of these technologies requires not only skilled employees, but also access to critical large datasets.

It seems that making good backroom software, to use internally, has become something of a natural monopoly. Creating such IT has large fixed costs and big random factors. So an obvious question is whether we can usefully regulate this natural monopoly. And one standard approach to regulating monopolies is to force them to sell to everyone at regulated prices. Which in this context we call “compulsory licensing”; firms could be forced to lease their backroom IT to other firms in the same industry at regulated prices.

Note that while compulsory licensing of patents is rare in the US, it is common worldwide, and it one of the reasons that US drug firms get proportionally less of their revenue from outside the US; other nations force them to license their patents at particular low prices. So worldwide there is a lot of precedent for compulsory licensing.

The article above claimed that backroom IT is:

inextricably linked to the engineers, workers, systems and business models built around them. … While in the past it might have been possible to license, steal or copy someone else’s technology, these days that technology can’t be separated from the systems of which it’s a part.

I’m not yet convinced of this, and so I want to hear independent IT folks weigh in on this key question. I can see that different IT subsystems could be mixed up with each other, but I’m less convinced that the total set of backroom IT of a firm depends that much on its particular products and services. Maybe other firms in an industry would have to take the entire backroom IT bundle of the leading firm, rather than being able to pick and choose among subsystems. But when the leading IT bundle is so much better, I could see this option being attractive to the other firms.

The leading firm might incur some costs in making its IT package modular enough to separate it from its particular products and services. But such modularity is a good design discipline, and a compulsory licensing regime could compensate firms for such costs.

Note that I’m not saying that it is obvious that this is a good solution. I’m just saying that this is a standard obvious policy response to consider, so someone should be looking into it. At the moment I’m not seeing other good options, aside from just accepting the increased IT-induced firm inequality and its many consequences.

Added 12:30: Okay, so far the pretty consistent answer I’ve heard is that it is very hard to take software written for internal use and make it available for outside use. Even if you insist outsiders do things your way.

So assuming we are stuck with industry leaders winning big compared to others due to better IT, one worry for the future is what happens when leaders of different industries start to coordinate their IT with each other. Like phone firms are now coordinating with car firms. Such firms might merge to encourage their synergies. They we might have single firms as big winning leaders in larger economic sectors.

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Hazlett’s Political Spectrum

I just read The Political Spectrum by Tom Hazlett, which took me back to my roots. Well over three decades ago, I was inspired by Technologies of Freedom by Ithiel de Sola Pool. He made the case both that great things were possible with tech, and that the FCC has mismanaged the spectrum. In grad school twenty years ago, I worked on FCC auctions, and saw mismanagement behind the scenes.

When I don’t look much at the details of regulation, I can sort of think that some of it goes too far, and some not far enough; what else should you expect from a noisy process? But reading Hazlett I’m just overwhelmed by just how consistently terrible is spectrum regulation. Not only would everything have been much better without FCC regulation, it actually was much better before the FCC! Herbert Hoover, who was head of the US Commerce Department at the time, broke the spectrum in order to then “save” it, a move that probably helped him rise to the presidency:

“Before 1927,” wrote the U.S. Supreme Court, “the allocation of frequencies was left entirely to the private sector . . . and the result was chaos.” The physics of radio frequencies and the dire consequences of interference in early broadcasts made an ordinary marketplace impossible, and radio regulation under central administrative direction was the only feasible path. “Without government control, the medium would be of little use because of the cacaphony [sic] of competing voices.”

This narrative has enabled the state to pervasively manage wireless markets, directing not only technology choices and business decisions but licensees’ speech. Yet it is not just the spelling of cacophony that the Supreme Court got wrong. Each of its assertions about the origins of broadcast regulation is demonstrably false. ..

The chaos and confusion that supposedly made strict regulation necessary were limited to a specific interval—July 9, 1926, to February 23, 1927. They were triggered by Hoover’s own actions and formed a key part of his legislative quest. In effect, he created a problem in order to solve it. ..

Radio broadcasting began its meteoric rise in 1920–1926 under common-law property rules .. defined and enforced by the U.S. Department of Commerce, operating under the Radio Act of 1912. They supported the creation of hundreds of stations, encouraged millions of households to buy (or build) expensive radio receivers. .. The Commerce Department .. designated bands for radio broadcasting. .. In 1923, .. [it] expanded the number of frequencies to seventy, and in 1924, to eighty-nine channels .. [Its] second policy was a priority-in-use rule for license assignments. The Commerce Department gave preference to stations that had been broadcasting the longest. This reflected a well-established principle of common law. ..

Hoover sought to leverage the government’s traffic cop role to obtain political control. .. In July 1926, .. Hoover announced that he would .. abandon Commerce’s powers. .. Commerce issued a well-publicized statement that it could no longer police the airwaves. .. The roughly 550 stations on the air were soon joined by 200 more. Many jumped channels. Conflicts spread, annoying listeners. Meanwhile, Commerce did nothing. ..

Now Congress acted. An emergency measure .. mandated that all wireless operators immediately waive any vested rights in frequencies ..  the Radio Act … provided for allocation of wireless licenses according to “public interest”.  .. With the advent of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, the growth of radio stations—otherwise accommodated by the rush of technology and the wild embrace of a receptive public—was halted. The official determination was that less broadcasting competition was demanded, not more.

That was just the beginning. The book documents so so much more that has gone very wrong. Even today, vast valuable spectrum is wasted broadcasting TV signals that almost no one uses, as most everyone gets cable TV. In addition,

The White House estimates that nearly 60 percent of prime spectrum is set aside for federal government use .. [this] substantially understates the amount of spectrum it consumes.

Sometimes people argue that we need an FCC to say who can use which spectrum because some public uses are needed. After all, not all land can be private, as we need public parks. Hazlett says we don’t use a federal agency to tell everyone who gets which land. Instead the public buys general land to create parks. Similarly, if the government needs spectrum, it can buy it just like everyone else. Then we’d know a lot better how much any given government action that uses spectrum is actually costing us.

Is the terrible regulation of spectrum an unusual case, or is most regulation that bad? One plausible theory is that we are more willing to believe that a strange complex tech needs regulating, and so such things tend to be regulated worse. This fits with nuclear power and genetically modified food, as far as I understand them. Social media has so far escaped regulation because it doesn’t seem strange – it seems simple and easy to understand. It has complexities of course, but behind the scenes.

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Power Corrupts, Slavery Edition

I’ve just finished reading a 1980 book Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South, which mostly quotes US slave owners from the mid 1800s writing on how to manage slaves. I really like reading ordinary people describe their to-me-strange worlds in their own words, and hope to do more of it. (Suggestions?)

This book has made me rethink where the main harms from slavery may lie. I said before that slaves were most harmed during and soon after capture, and that high interest rates could induce owners to work slaves to an early death. But neither of these apply in the US South, where the main harm had seemed to me to be from using threats of pain to induce more work on simple jobs.

However, this book gives the impression that most threats of pain were not actually directed at making slaves work harder. Slaves did work long hours, but then so did most poor European workers around that time. Slave owners didn’t actually demand that much more work from those capable of more work, instead tending to demand similar hours and effort from all slaves of a similar age, gender, and health.

What seems instead to have caused more pain to US south slaves was the vast number of rules that owners imposed, most of which had little direct connection to key problems like shirking at work, stealing, or running away. Rules varied quite a bit from owner to owner, but there were rules on where and when one could travel, times to rise and sleep, who could marry and live with who, who could talk to who when, when and how to wash bodies and houses, what clothes to wear when, who can cook, who can eat what foods, who goes to what sorts of churches when, and so on. Typical rules for slaves had much in common with typical “upstanding behavior” rules widely imposed by parents on their children, and by schools and armies on students and soldiers: eat well, rise early, keep clean, say your prayers, don’t drink, stay nearby, talk respectfully, don’t fraternize with the wrong people, etc.

With so many rules that varied so much, a standard argument against letting slaves visit neighboring plantations was that they’d less accept local rules if they learned of more lenient rules nearby. And while some owners emphasized enforcing rules via scoldings, fines, or reduction of privileges, most often violations were punished with beatings.

Another big cause of pain seems to have been agency failures with overseers, i.e., those who directly managed the slaves on behalf of the slave owners. Owners of just a few slaves oversaw them directly, and many other owners insisted on personally approving any punishments. However still others gave full discretion to overseers and refused to listen to slave complaints.

Few overseers had a direct financial stake in farm profitability, and many owners understood that such stakes would tempt overseers, who changed jobs often, to overwork slaves in the short run at the expense of long run profitability. Even so, short run harvest gains were usually easier for owners to see than long run harm to slaves, tempting overseers to sacrifice the former for the latter. And even if most overseers were kept well in line, a small fraction who used their discretion to beat and rape could impose high levels of net harm.

US south slave plantations were quite literally small totalitarian governments, and the main harms to such slaves seems to parallel the main libertarian complaints about all governments. A libertarian perspective sees the following pattern: once one group is empowered to run the lives of others, they tend to over-confidently over-manage them, adding too many rules that vary too much, rules enforced with expensive punishments. And such governments tend to give their agents too much discretion, which such agents use too often to indulge personal whims and biases. Think abusive police and an excess prison population today. Such patterns might be explained by an unconscious human habit of dominance via paternalism; while dominant groups tend to justify their rules in terms of helping, they are actually more trying to display their dominance.

Now one might instead argue that the usual “good behavior” rules imposed by parents, schools, militaries, and slave owners are actually helpful on average, turning lazy good-for-nothings into upright citizens. And in practice formal rule systems are so limited that agent discretion is needed to actually get good results. And strong punishments are needed to make it work. Spare the rod, and spoil the child, conscript, or slave. From this perspective, US south slave must have led decent lives overall, and we should be glad that improving tech is making it easier for modern governments to get involved in more details of our lives.

Looking to the future, if totalitarian management of individual lives is actually efficient, a more competitive future world would see more of it, leading widely to effective if not official slavery. Mostly for our own good. (This fear was common early in the industrial revolution.) But if the libertarians are right, and most dominant groups tend to make too many overly-harsh rules at the expense of efficiency, then a more competitive future world would see less such paternalism, including fewer slave-like lives.

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Regulating Self-Driving Cars

Warning: I’m sure there’s a literature on this, which I haven’t read. This post is instead based on a conversation with some folks who have read more of it. So I’m “shooting from the hip” here, as they say.

Like planes, boats, submarines, and other vehicles, self-driving cars can be used in several modes. The automation can be turned off. It can be turned on and advisory only. It can be driving, but with the human watching carefully and ready to take over at any time. Or it can be driving with the human not watching very carefully, so that the human would take a substantial delay before being able to take over. Or the human might not be capable of taking over at all; perhaps a remote driver would stand ready to take over via teleoperation.

While we might mostly trust vehicle owners or passengers to decide when to use which modes, existing practice suggest we won’t entirely trust them. Today, after a traffic accident, we let some parties sue others for damages. This can improves driver incentives to drive well. But we don’t trust this to fully correct incentives. So in addition, we regulate traffic. We don’t just suggest that you stop at a red light, keep in one lane, or stay below a speed limit. We require these things, and penalize detected violations. Similarly, we’ll probably want to regulate the choice of self-driving mode.

Consider a standard three-color traffic light. When the light is red, you are not allowed to go. When it is green you are allowed, but not required, to go; sometimes it is not safe to go even when a light is green. When the light is yellow, you are supposed to pay extra attention to a red light coming soon. We could similarly use a three color system as the basis of a three-mode system of regulating self-driving cars.

Imagine that inside each car is a very visible light, which regulators can set to be green, yellow or red. When your light is red you must drive your car yourself, even if you get advice from automation. When the light is yellow you can let the automation take over if you want, but you must watch carefully, ready to take over. When the light is green, you can usually ignore driving, such as by reading or sleeping, though you may watch or drive if you want.

(We might want a standard way to alert drivers when their color changed away from green. Of course we could imagine adding more colors, to distinguish more levels of attention and control. But a three level system seems a reasonable place to start.)

Under this system, the key regulatory choice is the choice of color. This choice could in principle be set different for each car at each moment. But early on the color would probably be set the same for all cars and drivers of a type, in a particular geographic area at a particular time. The color might come from in part a broadcasted signal, with the light perhaps defaulting to red if it can’t get a signal.

One can imagine a very bureaucratic system to set the color, with regulators sitting in a big room filled with monitors, like NASA mission control. That would probably be too conservative and fail to take local circumstances enough into account. Or one might imagine empowering fancy statistical or machine learning algorithms to make the choice. But most any algorithm would make a lot of mistakes, and the choice of algorithm might be politicized, leading to a poor choice.

Let me suggest using prediction markets for this choice. Regulators would have to choose a large set of situation buckets, such that the color must be the same for all situations in the same bucket. Then for each bucket we’d have three markets, estimating the accident rate conditional on a particular color. Assuming that drivers gain some direct benefit from paying less attention to driving, we’d set the color to green unless the expected difference between the green and yellow accident rate became high enough. Similarly for the choice between red and yellow.

Work on combinatorial prediction markets suggests that it is feasible to have billions or more such buckets at a time. We might use audit lotteries and only actually estimate accident rates for some small fraction of these buckets, using bets conditional on such auditing. But even with a much smaller number of buckets, our experience with prediction markets suggests that such a system would work better than either a bureaucratic or statistical system with a similar number of buckets.

Added 1p: My assumptions were influenced by the book Our Robots, Ourselves on the history of automation.

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Against DWIM Meta-Law

Smart capable personal assistants can be very useful. You give them vague and inconsistent instructions, and they “do what I mean” (DWIM), fixing your mistakes. If you empower them to control your interactions, you need less fear mistakes messing up your interactions.

But one thing a DWIM personal assistant can’t help you so much with is your choice of assistants. If assistants were empowered to use DWIM on your choice to fire them, they might tend to decide you didn’t really mean to fire them. So if you are to have an effective choice of assistants, and thus effective competition among potential assistants, then those same assistants can’t protect you much from possible mistakes in your meta-choices regarding assistants. They can protect you from other choices, but not that choice.

The same applies to letting people choose what city or nation to live in. When people live in a nation then that national government can use regulation to protect them from making many mistakes. For example, it can limit their legally available options of products, services, and contracts. But if people are to have an effective choice to change governments by changing regions, then such governments can’t use regulation much to protect people from mistakes regarding region choice. After all, a government authorized to declare your plan to move away from it to be a mistake can stop you from rejecting it.

Similarly we can elect politicians who pass laws to protect us from many mistakes. But if we are to have an effective choice of politicians to represent us, then they can’t protect us much from bad choices of politicians to represent us. We can’t let our current elected leaders much regulate who we can elect to replace them, if we are to be able to actually replace them.

I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of private law, wherein people can stay in the same place but contract with different legal systems, which then set the rules regarding their legal interactions with others. Such rules might in effect change the laws of tort, crime, marriage, etc. that people live under. And so such competition between private laws might push the law to evolve toward more efficient laws.

One of the things that legal systems tend to do is to protect people from mistakes. For example, contract law won’t enforce contracts it sees as mistakes, and it fills in contract holes it sees resulting from laziness. Law is often DWIM law. Which can be great when you trust your law to choose well. But if one is to have an effective choice of private law, and real competition for that role, then one’s current law shouldn’t be able to overrule one’s choice of a new law. Instead, one’s choice of a private legal system, like one’s choice of nation, needs to be a simple clear choice where one is not much protected from mistakes.

Today we don’t in fact have such private law, because our standard legal system won’t enforce contracts we sign that declare our intent to use different legal systems. To achieve private law, we’d need to change this key feature of our standard legal system.

Your choice to change nations, either for temporary travel or for permanent moves, can be a big mistake. It might result from temporary mood fluctuations, or from misunderstandings about the old nation or the new. Nevertheless we have little regulation of such choices. Instead individuals are mostly fully exposes to their possible mistakes. For example, while Europe is heavily regulated in general, European teens today can decide to go join ISIS, even when many others greatly regret such choices. We disapprove of nations that prevent people from leaving because that cuts competition between nations to serve people.

Similarly, if we want completion between legal systems without forcing people to move, we’ll have to change our law to accept our not protecting people from bad choices of legal systems. There will have to be a simple clear act by which one chooses a law, a choice not much subject to legal review and reversal. We’d want to encourage people to take such choices seriously, but then to accept the choices they make. Freedom of choice requires a freedom to make mistakes. For big choices, those can be big mistakes.

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Why I Lean Libertarian

Imagine that one person, or a small group, wants to do something, like watch pornography, do uncertified medical procedures, have gay sex, worship Satan, shoot guns, drink raw milk, etc. Imagine further that many other people outside that small group don’t want them to do this. They instead want the government to make a law prohibiting similar groups from doing similar things.

In this prototypical situation, libertarians tend to say “let them do it” while others say “have the government make them stop.” If we take a cost-benefit perspective here, then the key question here is whether this small group gains more from their activity (or an added increment of it) than others lose (including losing via their “altruistic” concern for the small group). Since this small group would choose to do it if allowed, we can presume they expect to gain something. And if others complain and try to make them stop (or cut back), we can presume they expect to lose. So we are trying to estimate the relative magnitude of these two effects.

I see three considerations that, all else equal, lean this choice in the libertarian direction.

  •  Law & Government Are Costly – It will take real resources to create and enforce a law to ban this activity. We’ll have to negotiate the wording of this law, and then tell people about it. People will complain about violations, and then we’ll have to adjudicate those complaints, and punish violators. We’ll make mistakes in which laws to create, who to punish, and how to manage the whole process. More rules will discourage innovation, and invite more lobbying. All of which is costly.
  • Local Coordination Might Work – If people do something that hurts those around them more, often those nearby others can coordinate to discourage them via contract and freedom of association. If playing your music loud bothers folks in the apartment next door, your common landlord can set rules to limit your music volume. And kick you out if you don’t follow his rules. The more ways that smaller organizations could plausibly solve a problem, the less likely we need central government to get involved.
  • Lawsuits Might Work – Legal systems have well-established processes whereby some people can sue others, claiming that the actions of those others have hurt them. Suit losers must pay, discouraging the activity. Yes, people harmed can need to coordinate to sue together, and yes legal systems tend to demand relatively concrete evidence of real harm, and that the accused caused that harm. It might be hard to figure out who to accuse, the accused might not have enough money to pay, and the legal process might be too expensive to make it worth bothering. But again, the more situations where the law could plausibly solve the problem, the less likely that we need extra government involvement.

Again, each of these considerations leans the conclusion in a libertarian direction, all else equal. Yes, they can collectively be overcome by strong enough other considerations that lean the other way. For example, I’ll grant that for the case of air pollution, we plausibly have strong enough evidence of large harms on outsiders, harms insufficiently discouraged by local coordination and lawsuits. So yes in this case central government might be an attractive solution, if it can act cheaply and efficiently enough.

But the main point here is that the three considerations above justify a libertarian default that must be overcome by specific arguments to the contrary. If outsiders complain about an activity, but aren’t willing to buy less of it via contract, or to sue for less of it in court, maybe they aren’t really being hurt that much. There is an asymmetry here: if we don’t ban an activity and might get too much, contract & law could reduce it a lot, but if we ban an activity and might get too little, contract & law can’t increase it much.

Yes, other persuasive contrary considerations might be found, including considerations not based on the net harm of the disputed actions. But the less you think you know about these other considerations, the more your choice will be influenced by these three basic considerations, all of which seem to me pretty solid.

While I have said before that I am not a libertarian according to common strict definitions, I still usually tend to lean libertarian, because in fact arguments based on further considerations often seem to me pretty weak. While one can often make clever arguments, it is often hard to have much confidence in them; the world seems just too complex. And so I often have to fall back on simple defaults. Which, as I’ve argued above, are libertarian.

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Yay Soda Firms

It is usually bad for people to die, and so good for them to keep living. Overall in our society, people who weigh more for their age and gender tend to die more, and so many are concerned about an “obesity epidemic”, and seek ways to reduce people’s weight, such as by getting them to consume fewer calories. Such as from drinking sugary soda.

TIME magazine says that evil soda firms, like evil tobacco firms before them, are lying about science to distract us from their evil:

You may not have noticed it yet, but sodamakers are working hard to get you off your couch. On Aug. 9, a New York Times article revealed that Coca-Cola was quietly funding a group of scientists called Global Energy Balance Network that emphasizes the role of exercise, as opposed to diet, in fighting obesity. … This has some nutrition and obesity experts charging soda companies, whose sales of carbonated soft drinks have hit a 20-year low, with cherry-picking science to make its products more appealing. … Indeed, there isn’t strong evidence to show that exercise alone … can help people shed pounds and keep them off. … It’s not the first time science has been used to sway public perceptions about the health effects of certain behaviors; the tobacco industry famously promoted messaging passed on studies that claimed to prove that “light” or “low-tar” cigarettes were less harmful that regular ones. (more)

Yes, it is true that the literature usually suggests that for most people exercise won’t do much to change their weight. However, another consistent result in the literature (e.g., here, here) is that when we predict health using both weight and exercise, it is mostly exercise that matters. It seems that the main reason that heavy people are less healthy is that they exercise less. Obesity is mainly unhealthy as a sign of a lack of exercise.

So if we cared mainly about people’s health, we should cheer this effort by soda forms to push people to exercise. Even if that also causes people to cut down less on soda. A population that exercises more doesn’t weight much less, but it lives much longer. In fact, exercise seems to be one of the biggest ways we know of by which an individual can influence their health. (Much bigger than medicine, for example.)

I suspect, however, that what bothers most people most about fat people isn’t that they’ll die younger, its instead that they look ugly and low status, and so make them also look low status by association. So we don’t want people near us to look fat. All else equal we might also want them to live longer, but that altruistic motive can’t compete much with our status motive.

So boo soda firms if you want your associates to not seem low status. But yay soda firms if you want people to live and not die (sooner).

Added 11a: The New York Times reports this as the main message:

… Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise. Health experts say this message is misleading …

Actually that message seems exactly right to me, and not at all misleading.

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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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