Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Which Economic Nutshell Is Better?

It seems like I'm forever endeavoring to stuff economics into a better nutshell.  Here are two recent nutshells... the first is bigger and more technical while the second is smaller and more accessible.  Which one is better?


Nutshell #1 (shared here)

Here's Adam Smith's Invisible Hand...

It is thus that the private interests and passions of individuals naturally dispose them to turn their stocks towards the employments which in ordinary cases are most advantageous to the society. But if from this natural preference they should turn too much of it towards those employments, the fall of profit in them and the rise of it in all others immediately dispose them to alter this faulty distribution. Without any intervention of law, therefore, the private interests and passions of men naturally lead them to divide and distribute the stock of every society among all the different employments carried on in it as nearly as possible in the proportion which is most agreeable to the interest of the whole society.  — Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

Contrary to popular belief, it's not about self-interest, it's about people using their money to communicate what their interests are.  The supply is regulated by the spending signals of countless consumers. 

In Friedrich Hayek's 1945 Nobel essay he reinforced the idea that markets are all about communication...

We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function — a function which, of course, it fulfils less perfectly as prices grow more rigid. (Even when quoted prices have become quite rigid, however, the forces which would operate through changes in price still operate to a considerable extent through changes in the other terms of the contract.) The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement. — Friedrich Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society

Hayek argued that command economies fail because, in the absence of prices, they are unable to utilize all the relevant and necessary knowledge that is dispersed among all the consumers and producers.

In 1954 the Nobel economist Paul Samuelson, who was a liberal, critiqued Hayek's essay by pointing out that, because of the free-rider problem, prices don't work so well for public goods...

But, and this is the point sensed by Wicksell but perhaps not fully appreciated by Lindahl, now it is in the selfish interest of each person to give false signals, to pretend to have less interest in a given collective consumption activity than he really has, etc. —  Paul Samuelson, The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure

Samuelson's basic assumption was that the optimal supply of all goods is entirely dependent on honest signals.  The problem with a good like Linux is that you can benefit from it without having to pay for it.  Let's say that your true valuation of Linux is $40 bucks.  If you only donate $20 dollars to it, you still can fully benefit from it, but you can take the $20 bucks that you saved and use it to buy a nice steak.  The amount you spent on Linux would be a false signal because it would be less than your true valuation of it.  Your false signal on its own isn't so much of a problem... after all... you only cheated Linux out of $20 bucks.  The issue is when everybody else does the same thing.  When everybody's contribution to Linux is a lot less than their true valuation of it, then naturally it's going to be a lot lower quality than everybody truly wants it to be.  Also, there's going to be far fewer freely available alternatives to Linux than everybody truly wants. 

To be clear, the only reason that consumers have the incentive to be dishonest about their true valuation of Linux (a public good) is because they have the option to spend their money on steak (a private good) instead.  If this option was eliminated, then so too would be the incentive to be dishonest.  This was the point that the Nobel economist James Buchanan made in 1963...

Under most real-world taxing institutions, the tax price per unit at which collective goods are made available to the individual will depend, at least to some degree, on his own behavior. This element is not, however, important under the major tax institutions such as the personal income tax, the general sales tax, or the real property tax. With such structures, the individual may, by changing his private behavior, modify the tax base (and thus the tax price per unit of collective goods he utilizes), but he need not have any incentive to conceal his "true" preferences for public goods. - James M. Buchanan, The Economics of Earmarked Taxes

Let me hedge my bets by sharing how other people have explained the idea of individual earmarking...

One strand of this approach-initiated in Buchanan’s (1963) seminal paper-argues that the voter who might have approved a tax increase if it were earmarked for, say, environmental protection would oppose it under general fund financing because he or she may expect the increment to be allocated to an unfavored expenditure such as defense. Earmarked taxation then permits a more satisfactory expression of individual preferences. — Ranjit S. Teja, The Case for Earmarked Taxes

Individuals who have particularly negative feelings concerning a publicly provided good (e.g. Quakers on military expenditures, Prolifers on publicly funded abortions) have also at times suggested that they should be allowed to dissent by earmarking their taxes toward other public uses. — Marc Bilodeau, Tax-earmarking and separate school financing

Imagine if Netflix gave subscribers the opportunity to use their monthly fees to help rank the content.  Would subscribers have any incentive to be dishonest? Nope. This is simply because they would not have the option to spend their fees on things like food or clothes. Subscribers would not have the option to spend their fees outside of Netflix. Therefore, how subscribers earmarked their fees would honestly communicate their true valuations of the content.  The result would be the optimal supply of content. 

The expert economic discussion looks basically like this...

Adam Smith (1776): Consumers should have the freedom to spend their money to help rank goods.
Friedrich Hayek (1945): It's true, the market is the only way to utilize all the dispersed knowledge.
Paul Samuelson (1954): While the market does work for private goods, it fails for public goods.
James Buchanan (1963): Actually, earmarking would allow the market to also work for public goods.


Nutshell #2 (shared here)

Right now, because of democracy, you assume that congress makes decisions that take my well-being into consideration. My well-being? In the private sector I have to spend so much time and energy going around using my money to inform producers what works for my well-being. I shop and shop and shop. For example, I go to the supermarket and buy some artichokes. In doing so I essentially tell Frank the farmer, "Hey buddy! Good job guy! You correctly guessed that my well-being depends on artichokes! Thanks! Good lookin' out! Here's some money! Keep up the good work!" His behavior benefits my well-being, so I have to use my cash to positively reinforce his beneficial behavior.

Now here you are with the assumption that congress somehow knows what works for my well-being despite the fact that I've never once in my life shopped in the public sector. I've never once decided to give any of my tax dollars to the EPA, NASA, the DMV or any other organization in the public sector. I've never once used my tax dollars to positively reinforce behavior that benefits my well-being. Yet, despite the fact that I've never once shopped in the public sector, congress knows what works for my well-being? Woah. This boggles my mind. It blows my mind. It puts my mind into a blender. Your assumption bears repeating with emphasis... congress knows what works for my well-being despite the fact that I've never once in my life shopped in the public sector. Your assumption is really that shopping is entirely unnecessary. If you truly believe that shopping is entirely unnecessary... then please... don't hide your insight under a bushel. Start a thread here, there and everywhere and say "Hey folks! Shopping is entirely unnecessary! It's a massive waste of everybody's limited time and energy to use our money to communicate what works for our well-being! All we need to do is infrequently vote! And occasionally write our representatives!"

Every democracy has been bundled together with a market. The market, not the democracy, is why these societies have been relatively successful. Societies always work better when we better understand each other's needs... and markets are far better at revealing our needs than democracies are. Our needs aren't simple things... they are incredible complex and dynamic. The idea that infrequently voting and occasionally writing our representatives can adequately reveal our needs is the most harmful idea that has ever existed. But it's not like I can show you all the additional prosperity we would currently be enjoying if it weren't for democracy.

However I can show you the difference between voting and spending. All we need to do is use voting and donating to rank prominent skeptics. Then you'll see the difference between voting and spending and decide for yourself which ranking better reflects your own need for skeptics.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Scott Sumner VS Utopia

We also need to understand the different roles played by different people in society. The democratic system helps to prevent policy from getting too far out ahead of the public. The immediate implementation of Bryan's open borders proposal might lead to a backlash against immigration, whereas this sort of backlash is less likely from a more cautious proposal that advances through both houses and is signed by the President. The role of intellectuals is (and should be) very different from the role of policymakers. Broad policy goals (not details) should reflect the wisdom of voters, even if the average voter is not very smart. Intellectuals should try to shape public opinion (although they will always be less influential than filmmakers.) - Scott Sumner, How much idealism is ideal? 

The wisdom of voters?  Is there such a thing?  Here's a list of books...

The Origin Of Species
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Handmaid’s Tale
A Tale of Two Cities
50 Shades of Grey
The Bible
War and Peace
A Theory of Justice
The Cat in the Hat
The Wealth of Nations
The Hunger Games

Imagine if this list was sorted by a bunch of college students. One group of students would use voting to rank the books while another group would use spending.  To be clear, the spenders wouldn’t be buying the books, they would simply be using their money to express and quantify their love for each book. All the money they spent would be used to crowdfund this experiment.

How differently would the voters and the spenders sort the books?  In theory, the voters would elevate the trash while the spenders would elevate the treasure. This would perfectly explain the exact problem with Google, Youtube, Netflix, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Medium and all the other sites where content is ranked by voting. Democracy is a major obstacle to the maximally beneficial evolution of society and its creations. Of course I might be wrong.

Am I wrong?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Smoking Gun Of Human Intelligence

My comment on: Genetics, IQ, and ‘race’ – are genetic differences in intelligence between populations likely? by Kevin Mitchell


You're overlooking the smoking gun. Why, exactly, are humans exceptionally intelligent? It has to do with our bodies. Unlike wolves, our bodies aren't optimized for running. Unlike dolphins, our bodies aren't optimized for swimming. Unlike hawks, our bodies aren't optimized for flying. Our bodies are optimized for carrying. We're physically the best, by far, at simultaneously allocating a wide variety of resources over greater distances. This is the smoking gun.

When other animals decide to migrate they aren't confronted with a very complicated carrying problem. It was a very different story with our ancestors. Successful migration was a function of solving hard allocation problems. Figuring out the optimal combination of resources... getting the balance right... correctly calculating the (opportunity) costs and benefits... all this depended on processing a lot of information. Smarter allocators were more reproductively successful. Exceptionally intelligent individuals exerted exceptional influence on the gene pool.

The invention of bags greatly increased the difficulty of the allocation problem, which put even greater selection pressure on intelligence. Same thing with the discovery that animals could be used for transportation. The invention of carts put even more selection pressure on intelligence.

These innovations were very unequally distributed across continents. Therefore it's a given that the same is true of intelligence. However, to be clear, the type of intelligence that survival depends on, or used to depend on, really isn't measured by IQ tests. Well yeah, of course... IQ tests weren't created by economists.

Nowadays we can use trucks, trains, planes and ships to simultaneously allocate huge amounts of resources. But it's no longer the case that the goodness of allocation decisions will determine reproductive success. We've reached peak intelligence. This could potentially change once we start seriously colonizing the stars. I love that video.

Imagine you decide to join the first group of colonists to Mars. What would you take with you? What if you knew, for a fact, that the Earth was about to be destroyed by an asteroid? Would you take more seeds? If you took one coconut, you'd forgo the opportunity to take millions and millions of different orchid seeds. Just how useful are orchids anyways? It's not like you can eat them.

The point of trade is to correctly discern the social usefulness of things. There's a difference between how useful orchids are to you, and how useful they are to us. Gold isn't at all useful to me personally, I can't eat it and I have absolutely no interest in wearing it, but if I randomly happened to find a huge nugget while hiking, then I'd definitely decide to carry it because, thanks to the market, I know that it is very useful to us.

The social usefulness of academic papers is currently determined by voting. Each citation counts as a vote. But where's the paper that proves that voting is more useful than spending at determining the social usefulness of things? It doesn't exist. If it isn't the case that voting is more useful than spending, then it is the case that academics are currently far less useful to humanity than they could, and should, be.

To be clear, spending doesn't have to mean buying. Academic papers could be ranked by using donations. Alternatively, there could be a Netflix for academic papers where subscribers could earmark their subscription dollars to the most useful papers. Each subscriber would essentially use their money to say, "This paper is worth carrying, and I'll prove it by spending my money on it." Costly signals are credible signals.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Pragmatarian Model For The Seattle Times

Any excuse to pitch pragmatarianism...


Marginal Revolution is an economics blog that I read.  One of their entries included a snippet of your article...

I wanted to read the entire article but, when I clicked on the link, I was notified by your website that I'd either have to turn off my ad-blocker or subscribe to your paper.  The reason that I have the ad-blocker turned on is because I hate ads.  It turns out that my hate for ads is greater than my interest in reading the article.

I can't remember the last time that Marginal Revolution, or any other economics blog that I read, has linked to your paper.  Since most of your content doesn't match my preferences, I'm not interested in subscribing to your paper. 

However, I would be very interested in subscribing to your paper... if you gave subscribers the opportunity to "earmark" their subscription dollars to the most useful articles.  To be clear, I'm not suggesting the iTunes model for newspapers.  Individual articles would not be behind a paywall.  Instead, each month each subscriber would have the opportunity to divide their subscription dollars among all the articles. 

Right now the Seattle Times is in a market (I'm free to decide whether I spend my money on it)... but it is not a market... (if I subscribed I wouldn't be free to decide whether to spend my subscription dollars on economics articles).  So what, exactly, are markets are good for?  What's the point of revealing the demand for the Seattle Times?  Demand is the most effective way to measure usefulness.  The more useful the Seattle Times is... the more resources it should be able to compete away from other organizations.

The top story currently on your homepage is an article about the Seahawks.  Sports aren't at all useful to me.  Right now you know how popular sports articles are... but you don't actually know how truly useful they are to your subscribers.  This virtually guarantees that there's a disparity between supply and demand.  Nobody truly benefits when you supply more, or less, sports articles than your subscribers truly need.  Nobody truly benefits when your organization is far less useful than it could, and should, be. 

As you can tell, economics matches my preferences... and so does evolution.  These are useful topics that I'd be willing to allocate my subscription dollars to.  How many other subscribers would be in the same boat?  Right now you don't know, but if you did know, then your organization would win.  Your organization would quickly become far more useful than its competition. 

It's a pretty basic fact that two heads are better than one.  Your subscribers, as a group, have far more heads than your organization does.  If your subscribers were given the freedom to earmark their subscription dollars, they really wouldn't do so randomly.  Their allocation decisions would be based on all their information.  Collectively speaking, it's a lot of information.  Putting all this information to good use would guarantee that you'd beat all your competitors.  At least until they figured out the "secret" of your success.  Your website has zero results for "Joseph Henrich". 

If your organization became a market then the most useful information would be put on a pedestal... and all your subscribers would become better informed.  It would be a virtuous cycle. 

Right now your organization largely caters to popularity.  As a result, you end up putting the news equivalent of cat videos on a pedestal.  It's a vicious cycle.  You can be the very first newspaper to break this vicious cycle.

Please let me know if you have any questions. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Invisible Hand

Comment on Why New Economics Needs a New Invisible Hand by David Sloan Wilson


It's true that Adam Smith only used the term "invisible hand" three times, but he often discussed the concept without using the term...

It is thus that the private interests and passions of individuals naturally dispose them to turn their stocks towards the employments which in ordinary cases are most advantageous to the society. But if from this natural preference they should turn too much of it towards those employments, the fall of profit in them and the rise of it in all others immediately dispose them to alter this faulty distribution. Without any intervention of law, therefore, the private interests and passions of men naturally lead them to divide and distribute the stock of every society among all the different employments carried on in it as nearly as possible in the proportion which is most agreeable to the interest of the whole society. — Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

Samantha the bee discovers a huge patch of blooming Aloes. After collecting as much pollen/nectar as she can carry, she quickly flies back to the hive to report her discovery. The way that she transfers her information to the other bees is by dancing. She dances long and hard to express her estimate of the patch's high quality. This is not a cheap signal... it's a costly signal. It costs her many of her precious calories. Because she's willing to make such a big sacrifice, many of the onlooking bees decide that it's worth it to inspect the Aloe patch for themselves. When they return to the hive they confirm, via sacrifice, that the patch is very useful. But if too many bees end up visiting the patch, then it will be harder to find nectar/pollen, and when they return to the hive they will report a lower valuation of the patch. The is how and why the Invisible Hand works.

Evonomics supplies lots of articles... but they really aren't equally useful. Most of the articles about the Invisible Hand are pretty useless. This really shouldn't be a surprise... given that the supply of articles isn't regulated by the Invisible Hand.

The solution is really simple. When people make a donation to Evonomics... just give them the opportunity to "earmark" their money to the most useful articles. Create a page on the website where the articles are sorted by usefulness. People will logically read the most useful articles and it will be a virtuous cycle.

So no, the Invisible Hand isn't primarily about selfishness. It's primarily about communication. All else being equal, whichever group is better at communicating will win.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Economics of Netflix

My comment on The Economics of Netflix’s Bright, a Netflix Original Movie Starring Will Smith (available on Netflix dot com) by spivonomist


Netflix doesn't know the demand for its content.  Netflix knows exactly how many subscribers watched Bright.  Netflix knows exactly how many times each subscriber watched Bright.  Netflix knows exactly how many subscribers gave Bright a thumbs up/down.  But Netflix does not know the demand for Bright. 

Netflix could easily reveal the demand for Bright simply by giving subscribers the freedom to "earmark" their subscription dollars to their favorite content.  To be clear, this isn't the iTunes model.  Bright would not be behind a paywall.  Netflix subscribers would not have to pay to watch Bright.  Instead, each month subscribers would have the opportunity to allocate as many of their $10 subscription dollars as they wanted to Bright.  The total amount of subscription dollars allocated to Bright would be the demand for it. 

I'm guessing that each month you would allocate $0 subscription dollars to Bright.  Netflix has 100 million subscribers though.  They don't equally hate/love Bright.  Out of 100 million subscribers, one subscriber loves this movie the most.  How many subscription dollars would this subscriber be willing to allocate to Bright in one month... in one year... in one decade? 

Which movie/show on Netflix do you love the most?  How many subscription dollars would you be willing to allocate to it in one decade?  Personally, I love The Man From Earth.  In a decade perhaps I'd be willing to allocate $840 subscription dollars to it, assuming that Netflix didn't supply a movie that I loved even more.  Is this a reasonable assumption? 

Consider these three things...

A. Criticizing the worst content
B. Giving a thumbs up to the best content
C. Allocating many subscription dollars to the best content

Which one would most improve Netflix's supply of content? 

The biggest problem in the world is that most people don't understand the benefit of knowing the demand for things. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Surveys: Voting VS Spending

Which is a better way to rank options... voting or spending?  In other words, which is better... democracy or markets?