Friday, August 25, 2017

Trading Thoughts With Koenfucius

In real life, when you meet somebody for the first time, it's rarely the case that the moment is persevered like a dragonfly in amber.   It's a different story on the internet.  For example, here's the very first time that I met Koenfucius.  I replied to his story and he replied to my reply.  That was the extent of our exchange.

Around a month or so later I replied to another story of his... Trading Values.  At the time, I didn't realize that he was the same guy that I had replied to a month before.  We ended up trading many many many thoughts about economics.  At some point I realized that I had previously replied to one of his stories.

What if I hadn't replied to the second story?  I would have missed out on so much valuable economic discussion.

Recently we've been trading thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry... A Penguin Introduces Henry Farrell To Ronald Coase.  Here's my reply to his most recent comment...


I think that I remembered the problem with unbundling WTP and WTA. How do you ensure the accuracy/legitmacy of the WTA?  Russ Roberts can input that his WTA for Trump is a gazillion dollars. Tucker Carlson can input that his WTA for Clinton is $100 gazillion dollars.  Then what?

Consider an issue like abortion.  It either is, or isn't, legal. If WTP and WTA are unbundled, then what's to stop people from entering the maximum possible WTA? We can certainly limit the amount that everybody can enter to a million dollars.  But then everybody just puts a million dollars for their WTA. So it provides absolutely no useful/trustworthy/credible info.

When it comes to the legality of abortion, is it possible that there isn't a transaction that enhances welfare?  Nope.  Maximizing the welfare enhancement of the transaction depends on determining how much each side is willing to sacrifice.  The winning side will be the side that is willing to spend the most money, all of which will be given to the losing side.

No matter which system is used, it's a logical fact that one side is going to get its way.  Should it get its way for free?  This is the premise of voting.  But I'm pretty sure that this premise is fundamentally horrible and incredibly detrimental.  Everyone would immensely benefit if everyone could clearly see and know the cost of what they want.  Then, and only then, could they make adequately informed decisions about whether what they want is truly worth it.

Imagine that Elizabeth wants abortion to be illegal.  How badly does she want it?  Is she willing to sacrifice the opportunity to buy a pair of shoes, or a laptop, or a car, or a house?  What is she willing to exchange?

Markets work because they facilitate the comparison of value/importance/relevance.  Our desires greatly exceed our dollars so we have no choice but to prioritize.  This is how society’s limited resources are put to more, rather than less, valuable uses.  This is how we minimize the irrelevant uses of society’s limited resources.

I take it as a fact that people really don’t appreciate the comparison aspect of markets.  My proof is that so many places/spaces aren’t markets!  This means that people do not directly compare the value of so many different things, which means that so many of society's limited resources are irrelevantly used. 

You asked about how coasianism, specifically bundling WTP and WTA, would work when there are several presidential candidates.  In this case, I’m not sure if coasianism would be the best option.  Coincidentally, here’s what I recently posted on the website


Thanks for responding to my argument. If you get a chance, check out the thread I posted in the economics forum.

My argument is that spending is always better than voting. Presidents should be chosen by spending rather than by voting. Here are three ways that this could be done...

1. coasian market design (CMD)
2. bee market design (BMD)
3. pragmatarian market design (PMD)

For CMD we will consider Clinton VS Trump. For a fixed amount of time, spenders would have the opportunity to spend as much money as they wanted on their preferred candidate. After the window of participation closed, the totals would be calculated and revealed. Whichever candidate had the biggest total would be the winner. Let's say that Trump was the winner. All the spenders for Clinton would receive a full refund. Plus, they'd proportionally receive all the money that had been spent for Trump. Unlike voting, CMD is a win-win situation. You either get your preferred candidate, or you get compensated.

BMD would be a better option if we wanted to choose the president from a larger list of candidates...

Bernie Sanders
Chris Christie
Darrell Castle
Donald Trump
Evan McMullin
Gary Johnson
Hillary Clinton
James Hedges
Jeb Bush
Jill Stein
Marco Rubio
Mimi Soltysik
Ted Cruz
Tom Hoefling
Rand Paul
Rocky De La Fuente

Spenders could use their donations to determine the best order of the candidates. Whichever candidate was at the top when the window of participation had closed would be the winner. The government would keep all the money. So BMD essentially kills two birds with one stone...

1. Valuating
2. Fundraising

With PMD, people would use their tax dollars to determine the best order of the candidates. The candidates would keep all the tax dollars that had been allocated to them.

Your concern with replacing voting with spending is that bias exists in the world. Let's say that right now everybody is biased against robot candidates. In this case, no matter whether we used voting or spending, a robot candidate would not be elected. The next decade 90% of the citizens are biased against robot candidates. If voting was used, it's definitely going to be tyranny of the biased majority and the robot candidate will not be elected. If we used spending though, there's some chance that the robot candidate will be elected.

It took over 200 years to elect our first black president. We still haven't had a woman president, or an (openly) gay president, or an (openly) atheist president, or... it's a long list. I really don't think that voting in any way, shape or form helps to overcome detrimental biases held by the majority of the citizens. Spending, on the other hand, would facilitate the elimination of detrimental biases.

Think about backpacking. Before you go backpacking you have to decide whether things you want to take are worth the effort of carrying them. Sure, you'd love to take a big bottle of Tequila, but is it worth the effort of carrying it? Knowing, considering and comparing the carrying costs/benefits of different things allows you to make more rational decisions. In the absence of knowing, or paying, the carrying costs... it's impossible for your carrying decisions to be maximally rational.

Replacing voting with spending would allow everyone to consider and compare the actual costs of the things they want. Then, and only then, will people make maximally rational decisions.

"As was noted in Chapter 3, expressions of malice and/or envy no less than expressions of altruism are cheaper in the voting booth than in the market. A German voter who in 1933 cast a ballot for Hitler was able to indulge his antisemitic sentiments at much less cost than she would have borne by organizing a pogrom." - Loren Lomasky, Democracy and Decision


Earlier this year the Libertarian Party (LP) used a BMD to choose its convention theme…

$6,327.00 - I"m That Libertarian!
$5,200.00 - Building Bridges, Not Walls
$1,620.00 - Pro Choice on Everything
$1,377.77 - Empowering the Individual
$395.00 - The Power of Principle
$150.00 - Future of Freedom
$135.00 - Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
$105.00 - Rise of the Libertarians
$75.00 - Free Lives Matter
$42.00 - Be Me, Be Free
$17.76 - Make Taxation Theft Again
$15.42 - Taxation is Theft
$15.00 - Jazzed About Liberty
$15.00 - All of Your Freedoms, All of the Time
$5.00 - Am I Being Detained!
$5.00 - Liberty Here and Now

This system could work just as well for choosing presidents.  I wonder how much money the government would raise?

Classtopia’s Communication Department uses a BMD for blog entries.  So far it has raised $30 dollars. 

Next month, as you already know, my epiphyte society plans on using a BMD for show entries.

It would be quite excellent if a BMD was also used for forum threads!  Econhub provides an exceptionally good opportunity to do so.  Not sure how much you know about it, but it was recently created in order to compete the Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) forum out of existence.  I wrote about it here.

The response to Econhub has been underwhelming, to say the least.  So far there are only 17 members.  It would really suck to let a brand new economics forum go to waste.  So we should really put it to good use.

If we created a BMD for Econhub, then the donated money could be used to draw the public’s attention to a page that listed the most important threads.  Hopefully this would result in more people joining the forum and substantially participating in the prioritization process.

I shared this idea on Econhub but the owner hasn't responded to it yet.  It would be nice to have him on board but it isn't essential.  A Google sheet would be used to store the data, which could be displayed on a webpage of our choice.  This is the page that we'd promote with the donations.

Maybe I'm a bit biased, but it really doesn't sound so crazy to pool our money in order to promote the best economic ideas.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


My letter to NPR


I just read "Readers Rankled By 'Democracy In Chains' Review" by Elizabeth Jensen.  It made me laugh.  Yes, it's progress to at least publicly consider and address the issue of whether a historian, rather than a novelist, should have reviewed Nancy MacLean's book.  But the fact of the matter is that the subject of the book is a Nobel economist's evaluation of democracy.  How can a historian possibly be qualified to effectively judge the validity of James Buchanan's economic arguments?  Of course this is the inherent problem with MacLean's book.

Since I'm here anyways, I might as well endeavor to explain the relevant economic concepts...

"NPR has made a push in the past year to review or interview the authors of all major nonfiction books that are published, and as close to publication date as possible."

Why just the major nonfiction books?  Why not the minor ones as well?  It's because NPR's resources are limited.  So it makes sense for NPR to allocate its limited resources to the more important books.  But it's also the case that the major books aren't equally important.  So then the real issue is... how, exactly, do you determine the importance of a book?

The NY Times maintains a list of the bestselling books.  Why should we care how many people have purchased a book?  Why does it matter how many people have been willing to pay for a book?  Would it be more effective to use voting (democracy) to determine the importance of books?  Or would it be more effective to vote for the representatives who vote to determine the importance of books?

One book that has never made the NY Times' list of bestsellers is The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.  Does this mean that it's less important than Thomas Piketty's book, which has made the list?  The issue is that, unlike Piketty's book... Smith's book is freely available.  This means that the two books are on an extremely unlevel playing field.

In order for NPR to optimally/efficiently divide its limited resources between these two books, it's necessary to correctly determine their importance.  Here are some possibilities...

1. Direct democracy.  NPR could give the public the opportunity to vote to determine the importance of the two books.

2. Representative democracy.  NPR could give the public the opportunity to vote for the representatives who will vote to determine the importance of the two books.

3. Charitable market.  NPR could give the public the opportunity to donate to NPR and earmark their donations to determine the importance of the two books.

Which system would most correctly determine the importance of the two books, which, in turn, would most efficiently divide NPRs limited resources between them?

This is what Buchanan worked on.  Well... unfortunately his work was entirely theoretical.  He never devised any experiments to test the effectiveness of these very different allocation systems.  But it's hard to blame him for failing to stand on his own shoulders.  Especially since these fundamental issues continue to be almost entirely overlooked/ignored by most economists.

We use representative democracy to allocate around a third of our country's limited resources.  Yet, this system has never been scientifically tested.  We all assume that it works, but there's absolutely no credible evidence that it works better than the alternatives would.  Historians can certainly explain how we ended up with this system, but they definitely can't prove or justify it.  For this we need economics/experiments/science.  We really don't need a novelist reviewing a book written by a historian criticizing an economist's work on public finance.

Let's say that NPR conducted an experiment to determine the importance of Smith's book and Piketty's book.  With direct democracy... historians and novelists would certainly have no problem voting for Piketty's book.  Neither would they have a problem voting for representatives who would vote for Piketty's book.  With the charitable market though, perhaps they'd have no problem donating and earmarking $5 dollars... or perhaps $20 dollars to Piketty's book.  But with larger amounts of money, they'd have to seriously confront the limits of their economic knowledge.  Would it be worth it for them to spend so much money on a subject outside their area of expertise?  For most it wouldn't be worth it.  So the charitable market would do by far the best job of filtering out public ignorance.  Which is pretty much the same thing as minimizing virtue signalling.  The outcome/results would embody/reflect public knowledge... which would logically help to eliminate public ignorance.  It would be a virtuous cycle.  If this system expanded to include all books, then the most valuable knowledge in each field would cross-pollinate all the different fields.

NPR can, and should be, the platform that we, the people, use to help bring the most valuable knowledge to each other's attention.


See also:

- Evonomics
Public Finance For Andy Seal
Show Me The Economic Case For Democracy
The Pragmatarian Model For The NY Times

Friday, August 18, 2017

Are two of Robin Hanson's heads better than one?

Robin Hanson and I have recently exchanged a few thoughts on Twitter about his book... The Age Of Em.  Its topic is the idea of making numerous robot copies ("ems" = emulations) of the most useful people.  Admittedly, I haven't read it.  I acknowledge that it's questionable when somebody discusses a book that they haven't read.  But it's not always the case that purchasing/using a product is a prerequisite for saying anything useful about it.  Perhaps it's always the case that producers should be interested to learn why, exactly, their products do not appeal to relevant consumers.

Here's our Twitter exchange...

The case for freedom is based on the relationship between diversity and progress.  People are all different.  So when they have freedom, they naturally use their resources differently, which facilitates the discovery of better uses of society's limited resources.  Therefore, the more similar that people are to each other, the less heterogeneous their economic activity, the less progress that will be made, and the weaker the case for freedom.

Yesterday Peter Boettke shared a link to this excellent article by Don Lavoie... Political and economic illusions of socialism (PDF).  It has some ideas and concepts that we can use to analyze the idea of ems.

Let's start here...

The appropriate criteria for judging the effectiveness of an economy for growth are the Hayekian ones of flexibility, initiative, and entrepreneurship. Agents in a free market are capable of greater responsiveness in the face of uncertainty than those in a Soviet-type economy because of their relatively greater freedom of maneuver. They are less constrained by rules and regulations, and do not need to seek approval from superiors for their actions. Requiring Soviet managers to obtain bureaucratic approval for many of their decisions inevitably slows down the entrepreneurial process. - Don Lavoie, Political and economic illusions of socialism 

More freedom to maneuver is beneficial to the extent that unique individuals are naturally inclined to differently use their limited resources.  Here's a relevant passage by Adam Smith...

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder. — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Each unique individual has their own unique "principle of motion".  Smith borrowed this concept largely from Isaac Newton's observation that each heavenly body has its own principle of motion.  Different bodies move differently.  Socialism, to some degree, blocks people's principles of motion by imposing officially sanctioned principles of motion.  To put it as accessibly as possible, rather than people dancing to the beat of their own drum, they become, to some extent, marionettes.

Socialism is synonymous with slavery...

He [Peter Rutland] reminds us, for example, that the work camps were crowded with several million kulaks when he remarks that "these unfortunates made a major contribution to the construction and extractive industries." If we insist on calling this reversion to slave labor "development," then the Soviet economy certainly did develop rapidly. So did Egypt under the pharaohs, who had a similar penchant for the construction and extractive industries. - Don Lavoie, Political and economic illusions of socialism

Would the pyramids have been built without the government?  No?  Well, there is the free-rider problem.  We can eliminate it by imagining if the Egyptians had been given the freedom to choose where their taxes went.  Then would the pyramids have been built?  If the Egyptians had used their freedom/taxes to allocate the same exact amount of resources to the construction of pyramids, then what would be the point of their freedom?  Their principles of motions were exactly the same as the ones imposed by the government.

Hanson's ems are based on the premise that it's beneficial to have a bunch of people with the same principle of motion.  This premise is fundamentally, blatantly and tragically flawed.  Society really does not benefit from more sameness... it benefits from more difference.  Sure, Hanson's book is different in that it explores the idea of robot copies of humans.  But, as far as I can tell, he really doesn't take the opportunity to strongly criticize the idea of homogenizing society.  There are already a gazillion books that fail to recognize the importance of diversity to economics and progress.  We really don't need more of them.

Interestingly, many, or most, books about evolution recognize the importance of diversity to adaptation/progress.  I'm sure that Hanson fully grasps that the Great Famine of Ireland was the result of inadequate potato and crop diversity.  Yet, obviously he sure doesn't seem to appreciate that diversity is just as important for people as it is for crops.  In order for society to quickly adapt to constantly changing conditions, we need more, rather than less, diversity.  

If society is going to produce a gazillion advanced robots, then the robots should maximize society's ability to evolve.  This can only happen if, and only if, the robots are at least as different as humans are.

Where it gets tricky, and fascinating, is that robots will be far more capable of changing themselves than humans are.  So even if there were a million ems of Hanson, how long would they remain so?  Would it be necessary to prevent them from fundamentally changing themselves?  If so, this implies their desire to do so... which is entirely consistent with truly advanced intelligence.

Humans benefit when other humans change themselves to better serve each other.  But there's a natural limit to our ability to change.  Robots won't have the same natural limit.  Any such limitation will be entirely artificial... and undesirable.  Such a limit would be the equivalent of society shooting itself in the foot.  It's extremely beneficial for robots to have perfect control over their principles of motion.  The robots who adjust their motions to better serve society will be given more money, which will give them more control over society's limited resources, which will result in even more social benefit.  Of course, this is dependent on the robots being inside, rather than outside, markets.

Not only do markets give individuals the freedom to be different, markets also give people the freedom to use their money to grade/judge/rank/valuate/signal the benefit of each other's difference.  In no case is difference equally beneficial.  Poison oak and artichokes are both different, but their difference isn't equally beneficial.  Nobody spends their money on poison oak, lots of people do spend their money on artichokes.  How society divides its dollars between these two different plants determines how society's limited farmland and other resources are divided between them.

Markets give everybody the freedom to divide their limited dollars among unlimited difference.  Outside this feedback loop, too many dollars will be allocated to less beneficial differences... and too few dollars will be allocated to more beneficial differences.  The pyramids were certainly different, but did their difference merit such a huge portion of Egypt's limited resources?  I sincerely doubt it.  If Egyptian taxpayers had been free to directly allocate their taxes, how they would have done so would have accurately reflected the diversity of their preferences and circumstances.

In my blog entry on the tax choice tax rate I shared this quote...

The management of a socialist community would be in a position like that of a ship captain who had to cross the ocean with the stars shrouded by a fog and without the aid of a compass or other equipment of nautical orientation. - Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government

Scott Sumner recently devised a hypothetical scenario involving 10,000 people steering a bus...

Bus C is a complicated human/machine hybrid. It has forward looking cameras, that feed road images into a large building, in real time. About 10,000 bus drivers sit at the controls of a simulator, and steer the bus as they think is appropriate. The average of all of their steering decisions is fed back to the bus in real time, in order to adjust the steering mechanism. To motivate good steering decisions, the 10,000 bus drivers are rewarded according to whether their individual steering decisions would have led, ex post, to a smoother and safer drive than that produced by the consensus. - Scott Sumner, Which bus would you take?

Here's Lavoie's perspective on the idea of steering an economy...

What the politicians at the top of the planning bureaucracy are doing, along with most of the activity in which the bureaucracy itself is engaged, amounts not to steering the economy but to getting in its way. - Don Lavoie, Political and economic illusions of socialism  

The primary difference between a bus (or ship) and an economy is that an economy can simultaneously go in multiple directions.  A bus can only go in one direction at a time.  Different directions are mutually exclusive.

However, even though economies can simultaneously go in multiple directions, the concept of steering sure seems applicable when we think of someone like Hitler...

However well balanced the general pattern of a nation's life ought to be, there must at particular times be certain disturbances of the balance at the expense of other less vital tasks. If we do not succeed in bringing the German army as rapidly as possible to the rank of premier army in the world...then Germany will be lost! - Adolf Hitler (1936)

He was able to steer his country's economy, and the world's economy, towards war.  Did he get in the way of the economy?  Yeah, but it also feels more like he directed the economy according to his own principle of motion.  He didn't randomly divert the economy... he deliberately diverted the economy towards war.  Just like the pharaohs deliberately diverted the economy towards pyramids.

Probably unlike the pharaohs, Hitler recognized, or at least pretended to recognize, that the economy should be balanced.  He just didn't have any problem tipping the scales towards death and destruction.  He didn't have any problem using force to override everybody's principles of motions.  He thought it was beneficial and necessary to homogenize society.

Popular belief in the existence of a general will produces a constant temptation, often even a demand, for some individual to embody it and impose his interpretation of it on the rest of society. The diverse wills of the members of society cannot be reconciled to a unity, though some wills may of course come to dominate social outcomes more than others. - Don Lavoie, Political and economic illusions of socialism

The economy shouldn't be steered by a few leaders chosen by everybody voting, it should be grown by everybody spending their own money.  It's certainly possible for the economy to be treated like a ship that's steered by a few people... but it's better if the economy is treated like a garden that's tended by many people.  A garden can simultaneously grow in multiple different directions.  It can simultaneously grow ornamental plants and edible plants.  Of course there's the issue of weeds.  In real gardens, weeds have to be identified and pulled.  In economies, less beneficial products are the equivalent of weeds.  Generally we can't directly use our money to eliminate them.  Instead, everybody focuses on finding and supporting the most beneficial products.  This naturally limits the amount of resources available for less beneficial products.  So weeds are minimized by consumers cultivating/nourishing the most beneficial plants.

The growth and benefit of the garden depends on difference.  Having a gazillion identical gardeners will homogenize the garden and greatly hinder its growth/benefit.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Dividing Attention Between Eric Schliesser And Jacob T. Levy

Comment on: On the role of Systematicity in an Impure Theory of a (Pluralistic) Liberalism worth Having by Eric Schliesser


"taking into account the interests and aims of social actors"

From my perspective, this is the heart of the matter. It's necessary to take interests into account because 1. society's resources are limited and 2. uses are unequally valuable. For example, any time/attention that's allocated to your blog/book can't be allocated to other ones. And blogs/books are unequally valuable. In order to efficiently allocate limited time/attention among unlimited and unequally valuable blogs/books, it's necessary to determine/know the value of each blog/book.

My attention was allocated to this entry was because Levy tweeted it, Peter Boettke retweeted it and Smith is my favorite economist. A (re)tweet is essentially a vote. The problem with voting is that it doesn't signal the depth of interest. If we don't know how interesting/important things are, then resources will be inefficiently allocated. This is why in all cases, voting is far inferior to spending. Spending quantifies depth through a willingness to sacrifice.

If I want to read your book, I'll have to purchase it. I'll have to make a sacrifice. However, chances are slim that the amount of money that I spend on the book will accurately reflect/signal my true valuation of your book. If I spend the same amount of money to read Levy's book, it's doubtful that I'll value both books equally... even though I spent the same amount of money on them.

So the inherent challenge is understanding the difference between using money to...

1. ...purchase/acquire/get/buy the two books
2. determine how to divide society's limited time/attention between the two books

The first does a far better job than voting at accomplishing the second. But if you can appreciate why this is, you'd also appreciate that there's considerable room for improvement. The correct (optimal/efficient) division of society's limited resources among unlimited and unequally valuable uses depends entirely on accurate value signals. So we need a way to help minimize consumer surplus.