Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dear Jag Bhalla

If you search ScientificAmerican.com for "invisible hand" you could learn that there's some guy named Jag Bhalla who is critical of the Invisible Hand.  I found his website and sent him an e-mail, which was when gmail immediately notified me that his e-mail address was broken.  So here we are.

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Karl Popper was so cool...

If I am standing quietly, without making any movement, then (according to the physiologists) my muscles are constantly at work, contracting and relaxing in an almost random fashion, but controlled, without my being aware of it, by error-elimination so that every little deviation from my posture is almost at once corrected. So I am kept standing, quietly, by more or less the same method by which an automatic pilot keeps an aircraft steadily on its course. — Karl Popper, Of Clouds and Clocks

But he wasn't nearly as cool as Adam Smith...

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, the Invisible Hand is 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

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 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.  Again, it's about using money to communicate your interests.  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 that you spent on Linux would be a false signal because it would be less than your true valuation of it.  On its own, your false signal 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

I'll 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 most relevant economic discussion looks basically like this...

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

So what do you think?  Have I successfully changed your mind about the Invisible Hand?  Have I efficiently eliminated one of the biggest errors that you live by?  Have I fulfilled my moral obligation to economically educate and enlighten you?

To be clear, my own beliefs in the Invisible Hand can potentially be falsified.  If Netflix gives the Invisible Hand the opportunity to regulate the content, and it didn't noticeably improve, then this would falsify my belief in the Invisible Hand.

Science is, or should be, the most fertile common ground.

Unfortunately I doubt Netflix will conduct this experiment any time soon.  Here's a potential experiment that's much more accessible.  Imagine if a bunch of people rank the following 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
Principia
The Bible
War and Peace
12 Rules For Life
A Theory of Justice
The Cat in the Hat
The Wealth of Nations
The Hunger Games

First the participants would vote for all the books that match their preferences.  Then they would spend their own money to quantify just how closely these books match their preferences.

To be clear, the participants would not be buying the books.  They would simply have the opportunity to spend any amount of their own money in order to reveal the size of their love for each book.  All the money they spent would help crowdfund this experiment.

How differently would voting and spending rank the books?  My hypothesis is that voting would elevate the trash while spending would elevate the treasure.  If, however, voting ranked the Wealth of Nations higher than spending did, then this would falsify my hypothesis.

The relative effectiveness of the Invisible Hand can easily, relatively speaking, be compared to the alternative ranking systems.  The fact that these tests have not been conducted is the biggest error ever.  Let's combine our forces and eliminate this error.  Together we can demolish the massively detrimental disparity between where the world is, and where it should be.

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