Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Essential Value of Incentives - For Kevin Vallier

Over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog, the political philosopher Kevin Vallier recently called out the market economists Peter Boettke and Peter Leeson (CoordinationProblem.org)... The Essential Relationships Between Duty and Coordination – For Boettke and Leeson

The heart of his argument...
Here’s the problem. Many moral philosophers (including me) think a purely instrumental agreement is seriously deficient from a moral point of view. For one thing, instrumentally rational agreements might be subject to gross inequalities of wealth, and worse, inequalities of bargaining power. It might be instrumentally rational, for instance, for a drowning man to give up all of his money to the only person in a position to rescue him. But we think such an agreement would be unjust because the rescuer is exploiting the man who needs rescuing. The result is that instrumentalist contracts are not properly normative. They don’t give us the right reasons to comply with social and political rules.
Kevin Vallier, I'll be your huckleberry!  Let's see how much my response differs from those fine fellows over at CoordinationProblem.

Here's the bottom line up front...

Decreasing the amount of benefit that people can receive from being at the right place at the right time, decreases their incentive to make the effort to be at the right place at the right time.  Basically, incentives matter.

I'm going to attach two epiphytes to the same branch by sharing the rest of the lines sandwiched in the middle of this rather pretty decent discussion with Infactum...
Of course not. However, that sentence directly contradicts the claim that the following is proven: - Infactum
opportunity cost ensures the efficient allocation of resources - Xero
You're lumping two extremely different types of earmarking...
The standard normative "theory" of earmarking adopts the reference system of the budget-maker, the budgetary authority, who is, by presumption, divorced from the citizenry in the political community. An alternative working hypothesis of political order is the individualistic
one in which the reference system becomes that of the individual citizen. - James M. Buchanan, The Economics of Earmarked Taxes
The standard idea of earmarking is individual congresspeople allocating funds to specific programs. Buchanan discussed earmarking in terms of individual taxpayers allocating funds to specific programs. What do you think the difference is between the two types of earmarking in terms of opportunity cost?
Since economists do not agree, then we conclude that opportunity cost is not proven to ensure efficient allocation of resources (regardless of market). This logic only applies as of 1963, of course. It is possible that that statement was proven since then. - Infactum
So find a paper that substantiates your specific claim that opportunity costs do not ensure the efficient allocation of resources.
I'll admit, I had only read the first page since I dislike making more internet accounts. The paper was, however, disappointing in it's narrow applicability.

His argument, in The Economics of Earmarked Taxes (1963), was, essentially, that if you make enough assumptions, then earmarking is optimal. To do prove earmarking is optimal, he explicitly rejects strategic allocation by assuming that the good provided by a public service is directly proportional to the amount of funding that service receives (p.460). He himself admits (as I would expect most any self respecting economist to do) that these are just assumptions and the real world may behave far differently from his idealization. He especially focuses on the political nature of the actor as far from his ideal actor and the "decision making cost." See section V for his cautions on the applicability of the results. Note especially where he says that the violation of these assumptions might mean that a traditional allocation system could be better. I will note that all 3 of these things have been brought up in one way or another in this thread by me or others. - Infactum
You missed the point regarding bundles and preference revelation...
Institutionally, earmarking provides a means of compartmentalizing fiscal decisions. The individual citizen, as voter-taxpayer-beneficiary, is enabled to participate, separately, either directly or through his legislative representative, in the several public expenditure decisions that may arise. He may, through this device, "vote" independently on the funds to be devoted to schools, to sanitation, and so on, given the specified revenue sources. Only in this manner can he make "private" choices on the basis of some reasonably accurate comparison of the costs and the benefits of the specific public services, one at the time. By contrast, general-fund budgeting, or non-earmarking, allows the citizen to "vote" only on the aggregate outlay for the predetermined "bundles" of public services, as this choice is presented to him by the budgetary authorities. - James M. Buchanan, The Economics of Earmarked Taxes
Remember what I wrote in my original post? Our current system is based on the assumption that congresspeople are omniscient (True/False)...
The basic argument assumes a full range of possible baskets of public goods available at the start. But how is this spectrum of opportunities established? Two possibilities come to mind: some central authority or auctioneer could set up different local communities and clubs with different baskets of public goods and inform all potential citizens of the characteristics of each community club. There are two obvious difficulties to this resolution of the problem, however. First, assuming a central authority knows what baskets of public goods must be supplied disposes of a large portion of the preference revelation problem, which the model is supposed to solve. If the central authority knew which people had which preferences, it could simply assign individuals to the appropriate club or local polity. Second, even if it is to some extent feasible, this solution to the preference-revelation problem violates the decentralized spirit of the Buchanan and Tiebout models. - Dennis C. Mueller, Public Choice III
Scholars have examined a number of factors that are taken to be structural components of governmental systems and that are presumed to induce utility losses. Among them is the "bundling" of goods and services, that is, the provision in a single package of a number of goods and services. Yoram Barzel (1969) has shown that bundling can impose utility loses on citizens. - Albert Breton, Competitive Governments: An Economic Theory of Politics and Public Finance
Every year, 100 million homes pay for a bundle of cable channels. Like any bundle, it's hard to see exactly what they are paying for. That is somewhat the point of bundling -- to disguise the true cost of the constituent items. - Derek Thompson, The End of TV and the Death of the Cable Bundle
Bundling...

1. assumes omniscience on the part of congresspeople
2. decreases utility for citizens
3. prevents citizens from being aware of the (opportunity) costs

Your argument is largely centered around the idea that taxpayers will have an incentive to conceal their true preferences if they could choose where their taxes go. Buchanan argued against this in his paper...
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
This substantiates my claim that taxpayers would allocate their taxes according to their preferences. If you claim otherwise, then the responsibility is on you to find any papers that substantiate your claim. Just like if you claim that opportunity costs do not ensure the efficient allocation of resources, then the responsibility is on you to find any papers that substantiate your claim.
Opportunity cost is the difference in value derived from one choice versus the best of the choices not picked. - Infactum
You derive x amount of value from replying to this thread (1st best option) and y amount of value from reading your book (2nd best option). The opportunity cost of replying to this thread is not x - y...it's simply y. It's the value that you would have derived from reading your book.
In theory, if everyone is rational (i.e. makes no "mistakes"), then they will pick the option with the least opportunity cost. - Infactum
People pick the most valuable option, which requires the sacrifice of the second most valuable option. The value that you would have derived from the second best option is the opportunity cost.
I honestly cannot find a discussion of this concept with relation to multiplayer games, but that is quite important, as the opportunity cost of defecting in the prisoner's dilemma is dependent on the other player's action. This prevents the analysis from extending to collectively funded public goods IMO. My claim, however isn't that strong.

[...]

1) "If you're not willing to cooperate with your coconspirator, then clearly you'd prefer to sit in jail for 3 years instead of 1." Is that a true statement in your opinion? Can you see this as a valid analogy?

[...]

Opportunity cost is not well defined in (some) multiplayer games. That was the point of the second sentence. You can't tell me my opportunity cost for defecting in the prisoner's dilemma/Chicken/etc without information on another actor. This means that, even if I were a homo economicus, I would have insufficient information to determine the magnitude of my opportunity cost. How do you expect poor little normal me to do so? If I cannot determine the magnitude of my opportunity cost, I cannot determine how much I am sacrificing. If I cannot determine how much I am sacrificing, then I cannot compare the value of different options. If I cannot compare the value of different options, I cannot choose the one I prefer. Do you disagree with anything in that logic chain? - Infactum 
Imagine a river right next to a soup kitchen. When you arrive at the soup kitchen to volunteer you notice that there's a group of people picking up trash along the river. How is the prisoner's dilemma relevant/applicable?
My original guess was that you were going to claim that the private sector was more complex, and therefore people ought to have an easier time deciding what was of value to them in the public sector. After tracing the thread of conversation back a bit, it seems more likely that you intend to show that (government provided?) public goods tend to compete with each other far less, so it is much more important to choose one over the other. Was I even close? - Infactum
Not really. My point was for you to explain why there's such a greater diversity/variety of goods in the private sector. What do you attribute this to?
I'll admit, I hadn't considered "voting" as asking people how much things are worth to them with the understanding that that will be how much they pay. When we vote we have the opportunity to make other people pay for things we value. I know this is a problem you have with the system, but it means that our method of voting is not exactly a contingent valuation system.

[...]

No, it's not. The reason people like Hitler become powerful is that they are able to change others' preferences. Hitler could easily have risen to head of government. If he could get any small fraction of the people to give their taxes to his military, he could seize power.
Clearly you believe that voting adequately allows people to communicate their true preferences/values. So please substantiate your claim.
No, but Congress does have access to experts and (in theory) studies the issue constantly. Now you are pretty much requiring that everyone do some fraction of this if they want to allocate to the best of their ability. I believe this is what Buchanan referred to as "Decision cost." Perhaps their will be a new industry of allocation advisers spawned, if so that would cut down, but not remove this decision cost. It also wouldn't get rid of the incentive to "defect". - Infactum
Keep climbing the mountain by reading up on rational ignorance...
This greater complexity of political choice is compounded by an inability to gain from any investment in knowledge. In a market setting, a person can gain by storing food during the boom periods; it is a simple task to profit directly from knowledge. In a political setting, however, even if a person has acquired knowledge about the more complex question of "why," there is no way that he can profit from his knowledge because a change in policy will take place only after a majority of people have come to the same conclusion. Consequently, it is rational to be considerably more ignorant about general policy matters than about matters of market choice. - James M. Buchanan, The Theory of Public Choice: II
We all gain as a society when we incentivize people to be at the right place at the right time. Being at the right place at the right time requires doing homework. But there's no point in doing homework if there's absolutely no benefit from being at the right place at the right time.

Consider this recent blog entry over at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog...
Here’s the problem. Many moral philosophers (including me) think a purely instrumental agreement is seriously deficient from a moral point of view. For one thing, instrumentally rational agreements might be subject to gross inequalities of wealth, and worse, inequalities of bargaining power. It might be instrumentally rational, for instance, for a drowning man to give up all of his money to the only person in a position to rescue him. But we think such an agreement would be unjust because the rescuer is exploiting the man who needs rescuing. The result is that instrumentalist contracts are not properly normative. They don’t give us the right reasons to comply with social and political rules. - Kevin Vallier, The Essential Relationships Between Duty and Coordination – For Boettke and Leeson
Clearly Vallier needs to read Bastiat...
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil. - Frédéric Bastiat, What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen
It might seem morally wrong for Dave to exploit (take advantage of) Bob, who's drowning. But the fact of the matter is, nobody else was around. If we limit/restrict Dave's ability to benefit from his effort/research/luck/insight/foresight, then we decentivize people to be where we need them most. It's the equivalent of removing sirens and flashing lights from emergency vehicles. If we don't know how valuable all the different uses of society's limited resources are...then it's impossible for resources to flow to where they create the most value. Without this essential information, it's a given that resources will flow the wrong directions and we will all be worse off.

So you feel secure placing our future in the hands of 300 congresspeople and their entourage of experts. But I would feel infinitely more secure if everybody could receive the benefit of their accurate estimates of future value.
If the socialists mean that under extraordinary circumstances, for urgent cases, the state should set aside some resources to assist certain unfortunate people, to help them adjust to changing conditions, we will, of course, agree. This is done now; we desire that it be done better. There is, however, a point on this road that must not be passed; it is the point where governmental foresight would step in to replace individual foresight and thus destroy it. - Frédéric Bastiat
given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow - Linus's Law
Right now in this thread there are numerous people looking for the bugs in pragmatarianism. Clearly they are finding bugs. Maybe the bugs are imagined rather than real, but they should be allowed to allocate their resources accordingly. This is exactly how the public sector should work as well. Let many people look for the bugs in public programs and allocate their taxes accordingly.
Earlier you said that how much I sacrifice is the same as how much I valued something. If this is true, then no value is created in trades, as I am sacrificing something to receive something of equal value (and so is "Trusty"). Do you believe value is created in trades? - Infactum
People only sacrifice something if they suspect that what they receive in return will be more valuable than what they have to give up. Otherwise they'll simply suffer a loss. Given that nobody intentionally wants to suffer a loss, the more that somebody is willing to sacrifice, the more they value what they are trading for.
The exsistence of a costless exit is not even obvious. "Cost," can only be defined relative to other things (as you assert when talking about oppurtunity cost). Therefore, the existence and placement of a zero (i.e. "costless") is at best arbitrary. - Infactum
There's a difference between internal "barriers" and external barriers. Costless exit just means that I'm not preventing you in any way shape or form from leaving this discussion. With our current system, it's very costly for a pacifist not to fund the DoD. They can either avoid making enough money to pay taxes or risk going to jail or try to move to a country where they aren't forced to fund war.
I tend to think abundance has to do with how well society uses societies limited resources. There is so much aping and riffing on eachothers' ideas in industry that it is basically impossible to define who is responsible for a given business practice. And make no mistake, it is technological innovations and business practices that are responsible for the abundance, as they are what allow us to multiply our labor.

And you haven't answered my question. If, say, the poorest third of the people on SNAP (5% - 15 Million people) starved to death after implementing tax choice, would you say the market valued them more dead than alive? - Infactum
You agree that abundance depends on how well society's limited resources are being used. Yet, you want me to address an unrealistic scenario with millions starved to death because we implemented tax choice. It reminds me of these anarcho-capitalists who critiqued pragmatarianism using a pragmatarian system with a 100% tax rate as their example. If you want me to address your unrealistic scenario, then please provide a detailed and credible explanation of how we arrive at your scenario.

Step 1: Implement pragmatarianism
Step 2: ?
Step 3: Millions starve to death
I can't be certain that P doesn't lead to pragmatarianism. In principle, I could if I could show some kind of contradiction, but I would prefer things be better defined before attempting that again. It may not lead to anywhere interesting or useful on it's own. That's just the nature of logic. You still have to rigorously show it leads to pragmatarianism; logic isn't a Bayesian analysis. - Infactum
You're defending the current system, and you agree that values are subjective (P). Please give me an example rigorously showing that P leads to our current system. Or acknowledge that you hold my arguments to a far higher standard than you hold your own.

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