Friday, May 27, 2016

Robin Hanson vs Brain Gain/Drain

Dear Robin Hanson,

How's it going?   So... you wrote a new book... congratulations... kudos.  But, I'm probably not going to buy it.  In my previous entry I wrote that I definitely plan on purchasing John Quiggin's book about opportunity cost when it's published.  He's a liberal writing a book about opportunity cost.  You're not a liberal and your book is about...?  What's your book about?

Here's a clue that I found in my twitter feed today...




To be completely honest, pretty much everything about that article is horrible and terrible.  You had a wonderful opportunity to shed lots of light on an extremely important and fascinating topic but, instead, you did the opposite.  You delonged it.

Here's what I wrote to DeLong...


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So it will potentially be bad for the economy if robots become smarter? Would it also be bad for the economy if you become smarter? Would it also be bad for the economy if I became smarter?

What if the US imported a bunch of geniuses? Would this also be bad for the economy? If so, then brain drain would be good for the US economy. But I’m pretty sure that you’re not going to argue that brain drain is good for any economy. Yet, here you are, arguing that we should be worried about robots getting smarter. Increasing the total amount of intelligence in an economy is the opposite of brain drain.

What if a bunch of aliens landed in a spaceship? Would your preference be for them to be dumber or smarter than us?

Let’s say that you were stranded on an island with a bunch of people. Would your preference be for them to be dumber or smarter than you?


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Spoiler alert... DeLong didn't reply.

Check out this photo that I recently took...




On the left is Charlemange and on the right is Tiger.  Tiger is the very old neighborhood tom cat that my girlfriend decided to feed.  As a result... we now have possums, skunks and raccoons that regularly visit.  It's pretty impressive given that we really don't live in the country.

One of the raccoons, Crookedear, is surprisingly tame...





So what does all this nature have to do with smarter robots?  Well... it has to do with communication.  I know what the animals want... food... but they don't know what I want.  What do I want?  I'd love to have less weeds!  And it would be awesome if I was able to communicate the intensity of this preference to the raccoons.  They would pull my weeds... and I would give them food.

Can you handle some more nature?  Yeah?  Here you go... photos of plants.  The photos were taken by a fellow in India... Anurag Sharma.  I told my friend Michelle, who recently joined Flickr, to check out Anurag's photos and *favorite* the ones she really likes.  This was her response...

I did it all. Wow wow wow!!!  lots to see.  

Needless to say she *favorited* quite a few of his photos.  As a result, now Anurag in India knows that Michelle in America likes what he's doing.

The problem is that Anurag can't even take all the *favorites* that Michelle gave to him and use them to buy anything... not even a single grain of rice.  But I'm pretty sure that Michelle would be willing to give Anurag more than a few grains of rice in exchange for all the enjoyment that he provided her.

The website Medium is currently exploring ways to help certain writers to get paid via advertising... Revenue on Medium.

Here was my response...


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Right now it’s really easy to like a story. Why not make it just as easy to value a story?





If you value this story between 0 cents and 1 cent… then you would click the first heart button. If you value this story at 1 cent… then you would click the second button. Doing so would transfer a penny from your digital wallet to my digital wallet.

Once valuing a story is as easy as liking it… then I’m sure lots of people will be happy to contribute.


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How diverse is demand?   The doorbell just rang.  Went outside and found a box with an orchid inside...




More nature!  It's a hybrid... Dendrobium (Haleahi Twist x canaliculatum) x canaliculatum

I recently purchased it on eBay from ella-vate.  The thing is... I already have this hybrid!  I purchased it a couple years ago from The Orchid Trail.   Do I really need another one?   Here's a picture of the two hybrids...




They are different!  The one I recently purchased has a keiki on it.  Maybe I can try and trade it with shavedmonkey for his variety.

So how diverse is demand?

One would think that man could find enough variation in the orchid family, as it occurs in nature, to more than satiate his taste for variety. Yet man's appetite for variety is never appeased. He has produced over two times as many hybrids, in the past 100 years that he has been engaged in orchid breeding, as nature has created species in her eons of evolutionary effort. - Calaway H. Dodson, Robert J. Gillespie, The Botany of Orchids

There are around 30,000 species of orchids.  That's a huge amount of variety!  Yet, clearly it's not nearly enough variety!

Are you going to *favorite* any of Anurag's photos on Flickr?  Are you going to buy any orchid hybrids from ella-vate?  Well... she doesn't have any more for sale but The Orchid Trail still does!  I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that these activities don't match your preferences.

When robots are as smart as we are... are they all going to be the same?  Probably not.  Which means that they probably aren't all going to do the same things with society's limited resources.  Some robots are going to do more valuable things with society's limited resources than other robots.  As a result, some robots are going to have more money/influence than other robots.

The heart of the issue is the clear communication of demand.  People don't understand how important demand clarity is.  If they did, then we would be able to choose where our taxes go.  So the problem isn't smarter robots... just like the problem isn't more or less immigration.  The problem is that people don't understand the importance of facilitating trade.

We're assuming that robots are going to become more intelligent.  But do you have an explanation for why humans are more intelligent than other animals?  I do!  Here's my comment on  Evolution Q&A: Why did only humans become intelligent? by Greg Stevens


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You really did the theory of evolution justice!   I, on the other hand, really suck at doing theories justice.  Watch...

So... humans are exceptionally intelligent.   What is exceptional intelligence good for?  It's good for solving exceptionally hard problems.   But why did early humans, out of all the animals, need to solve exceptionally hard problems?    It's because out of all the animals, early humans had the greatest ability to (simultaneously) allocate the widest variety of resources.   This exceptional ability was the result of having hands, arms and... walking upright.

With quadrupeds... all four limbs are primarily dedicated to allocating a single resource... the animal itself.   But this specialization is a continuum that ranges from horses to raccoons to chimps.    Horses obviously have four legs.   All their limbs are quite specialized to allocating only the horse itself.  None of the horse's limbs are remotely capable of allocating other resources.    What about raccoons?  Do they have four legs?   Well, their front limbs are reasonably capable of allocating other resources.   Chimps definitely do not have four legs.   They have two legs and feet and two arms and hands.  They are quite capable of allocating other resources with their arms and hands.

As front limbs become less dedicated to only allocating the animal itself and more generalized to  allocating other resources... there's an increase in the total variety of resources that can be (simultaneously) allocated.  This creates a more difficult/complex allocation problem.... which requires more brain power/storage to optimally solve.   Well... a distinct advantage is given to exceptionally intelligent individuals.

Since you're fond of using lions as an example... let's compare them to zebras.  It would seem that the front limbs of the lion aren't as specialized to self-allocation as the front limbs of the zebra are.  Lions certainly use their front limbs to allocate themselves... but they also use their front limbs to allocate their prey.   But perhaps the biggest difference is that the mouths of lions are quite capable of carrying/allocating resources (food, cubs, other?).  Do zebras use their mouths to carry anything?   Not so much?  Therefore, lions are faced with more complex (allocation) problems than zebras.... and we should suspect that lions are more intelligent as a result.

So.... for lack of a better word... more "resourceful" body types put greater selection pressure on intelligence.   Humans are the most intelligent animals because our body types are the most "resourceful".


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Can we deliberately create truly intelligent beings without truly understanding the origins of our own intelligence?  If you have a better explanation for human intelligence then I'm all ears.

If we do manage to somehow create truly intelligent robots... and we do somehow end up with a bunch of unemployed humans.... then the superficial problem will be smarter robots.   But the substantial problem will be that we failed to effectively clarify the diversity of demand.  Except, this problem is hardly a new problem!

Based on the available evidence, it really doesn't seem like your book strikes anywhere near the root of the problem.  Which is why I don't plan on buying it.  And maybe you couldn't care less why I don't plan on buying your book.  No worries, don't mind me, this is just another prayer to Seldon.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Disparity Between Individual Influence And Collective Opportunity Cost

My second favorite liberal, John Quiggin, is still working on his book about opportunity cost...  Intellectual property: Extract from Economics in Two Lessons (expanded and amended).

Eventually he's going to finish his book.  Then what?  Then I'll buy it.  Unless the opportunity cost is too high.  Right?  I'm assuming that he's not going to charge an arm and a leg for his book.

Am I going to be the only person in the entire world to purchase Quiggin's book?  Probably not.  We can imagine a bunch of people buying Quiggin's book.  We can imagine them considering the available information, weighing the alternative uses of their money and deciding that the opportunity cost isn't too high.

When a bunch of people take money out of their own pocket... and put it into Quiggin's pocket... then the distribution of influence will shift accordingly.  A bunch of people voluntarily and willingly give up a little influence... and Quiggin gains the influence that they were willing to give up.  Consumers exchange their influence for Quiggin's book.  Quiggin exchanges his book (his time and energy) for consumers' influence.  

Does this make sense?  Quiggin spends a lot of time/energy producing something that lots of people positively value and, as a result, lots of people reward him accordingly.  His reward is more influence over society's limited resources.

Can you see the parity?  Quiggin's influence roughly reflects consumers' valuations of his productivity.  When their valuation of his productivity increases... so will his influence.  This parity isn't perfect because in reality one price does not fit all.  And we should certainly endeavor to figure out how to eliminate any disparity that exists.  Why?  Because it should be intuitive that the smaller the disparity... the larger the benefit.  Conversely, the larger the disparity... the smaller the benefit.

Given that I plan on buying Quiggin's book... clearly I approve of a liberal writing a book about opportunity cost.  But, it's kinda something that his book isn't going to be relevant to something as economically basic, and fundamentally important, as a bunch of people buying his book.

The fact is that it's impossible for liberals to really dig into the basic relationship between influence and opportunity cost.  What is Quiggin going to argue?  He's going to argue that there's nothing problematic about massive disparities?  Which would mean what?  He would either be arguing that his book, and all books, should be entirely free... or he would be arguing that everybody should have to spend far more money than they truly want to on all books.  Authors should either have far less, or far more, influence than they truly deserve.

If Quiggin acknowledges that it is problematic when disparities exist... then he would essentially be attacking the fundamental premise of democratically elected leaders.  Right now there's a massive disparity between Obama's influence and the collective's valuation of his productivity.  And the same will be true for the next president just like it was true of the previous president.

Here I am writing my gazillionth blog entry.  And I haven't been paid a penny!  Because... absolutely nobody in the world values my productivity at all?  Or... because of the free-rider problem?  Clearly because of the free-rider problem!   The free-rider problem is a problem, and only a problem, because it results in disparities between influence and (valuations of) productivity.  Right now, because of the free-rider problem, I have less influence than I truly deserve.  Mandatory contributions are only beneficial when they decrease, rather than increase, disparities.  But the only way that mandatory contributions can decrease disparities is when they incorporate everybody's valuations.

Everybody in the world has some influence.  The goal should be to structure society in such a way that everybody's influence perfectly reflects how much their productivity is worth to other people.  Nobody should have more, or less, influence than they truly deserve.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Exceptions To Socialism's Shortcomings

Reply to reply: Is Economic Influence Mutually Exclusive?

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Do you want the government to supply donuts? Nope? Why not? Because you believe that impersonal shoppers (government planners (congresspeople)) would get the supply of donuts wrong. Why do you believe that impersonal shoppers would get the supply of donuts wrong? Because you believe that impersonal shoppers couldn't possibly know whether you want more or less donuts at any given time.

Do you want the government to supply defense?  Yup.  Why?  Because you believe that impersonal shoppers will get the supply of defense right.  Why do you believe that  impersonal shoppers will get the supply of defense right?  Because you believe that impersonal shoppers can know whether you want more or less defense at any given time.

Therefore... you believe that impersonal shoppers are partially omniscient.  They can't read your mind when it comes to donuts... but they can read your mind when it comes to defense.

Of course... donuts and defense are different types of goods.  Donuts are a private good while defense is a public good.  Therefore... you believe that impersonal shoppers can't read your mind when it comes to private goods... but they can read your mind when it comes to public goods.

Except... let me guess... as a libertarian you don't want the government to supply ALL public goods... do you?  The standard libertarian response for the proper scope of government is.... defense, courts and police.

Therefore... you believe that impersonal shoppers...

A. can't read your mind when it comes to private goods
B. can't read your mind when it comes to most public goods
C. can read your mind when it comes to defense, courts and police






Coincidentally, this tweet showed up in my feed today...

Humanity did not fall short of the ideals of socialism, socialism fell short of the demands of humanity. - @PeterBoettke

Humanity is never going to fully comprehend or grasp this rule as long as there are people such as yourself who believe that defense, police and courts are exceptions to this rule.

I wonder how much progress could be made in political economy if the best and the brightest among economists, such as Raj Chetty, would take seriously the admonition of Hayek, Buchanan, and Elinor Ostrom that the assumptions of omniscience and benevolence must be rejected if we are going to make progress and develop a robust theory of political economy. - Peter Boettke, AEA Richard T. Ely Lecture --- Raj Chetty, "Behavioral Economics and Public Policy"

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Under Pressure

Reply to reply: An Economic Explanation For the Evolution Of Intelligence

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TomFoolery, do cats look both ways before they cross a street?  Cars certainly put a selection pressure on cats.  This pressure shifts the population of cats to some degree in some specific direction.  To what degree?  And in what direction?   (see... Evolution via Roadkill).

Each year a flock of introduced parrots eats the figs on my neighbor's tree here in Southern California.  These parrots then fly around and poop the fig seeds out.  Some of these seeds germinate... and a few of the seedlings mature and bear fruit.  Parrots put a selection pressure on fig trees in California.  This pressure shifts the population of fig trees to some degree in some specific direction.  To what degree?  And in what direction?

Hummingbirds are only native to the Americas.  What would happen if they were introduced to Africa?  The hummingbirds would pollinate some flowers and not others.  Hummingbirds would put a selection pressure on plants in Africa.  This pressure would shift the population of plants in Africa to some degree in some specific direction.  To what degree?  And in what direction?

Honey bees are not native to the Americas.  They have pollinated some flowers and not others.  The honey bees put a selection pressure on plants in America.  This pressure has shifted the population of plants in America to some degree in some specific direction.  To what degree?  And in what direction?

Consumers are allowed to shop in the private sector.  They give their money to some producers and not others.  Consumers put a selection pressure on producers in the private sector.  This pressure has shifted producers in the private sector to some degree in some specific direction.  To what degree?  And in what direction?

Consumers are not allowed to shop in the public sector.  What would happen if they were allowed to shop in the public sector (aka pragmatarianism)?  Consumers would give their money to some producers and not others.  Consumers would put a selection pressure on producers in the public sector.  This pressure would shift producers in the public sector to some degree in some specific direction.  To what degree?  And in what direction?

For humans... I argued that complex carrying put a significant degree of pressure on our ancestors in the direction of greater intelligence.  I can see this same pressure possibly eventually resulting in raccoons and monkeys being as intelligent as we are.  But this same pressure isn't relevant to the other animals that you mentioned.  I've shared a few thoughts on octopuses here.

Every species has individuals that are exceptional in different ways.  Some individuals are exceptionally fast/slow, tall/short, weak/strong, colorful/drab, intelligent/dumb and so on.  In order for these exceptions to become the rule... there has to be some pressure that makes them the rule.

If you, or anybody else, is interested... here's a playlist of different animals carrying things.