Alex Tabarrok

Stephen Hawking fears that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk and Bill Gates offer similar warnings. Many researchers in artificial intelligence are less concerned primarily because they think that the technology is not advancing as quickly as doom scenarios imagine, as Ramez Naam discussed. I have a different objection.

Why should we be worried about the end of the human race? Oh sure, there are some Terminator like scenarios in which many future-people die in horrible ways and I’d feel good if we avoided those scenarios. The more likely scenario, however, is a glide path to extinction in which most people adopt a variety of bionic and germ-line modifications that over-time evolve them into post-human cyborgs. A few holdouts to the old ways would remain but birth rates would be low and the non-adapted would be regarded as quaint, as we regard the Amish today. Eventually the last humans would go extinct and 46andMe customers would kid each other over how much of their DNA was of the primitive kind while holo-commercials advertised products “so easy a homo sapiens could do it”.  I see nothing objectionable in this scenario.

Aside from greater plausibility, a glide path means that dealing with the Terminator scenario is easier. In the Terminator scenario, humans must continually be on guard. In the glide path scenario we only have to avoid the Terminator until we become them and then the problem is resolved with little fuss. No human race but no mass murder either.

More generally, what’s so great about the human race? I agree, there are lots of great things to point to such as the works of Shakespeare, Mozart, and Grothendieck. We should revere the greatness of the works, however, not the substrate on which the works were created. If what is great about humanity is the great things that we have done then the future may hold greater things yet. If we work to pass on our best values and aspirations to our technological progeny then we can be proud of future generations even if they differ from us in some ways. I delight to think of the marvels that future generations may produce. But I see no reason to hope that such marvels will be produced by beings indistinguishable from myself, indeed that would seem rather disappointing.

A resident of Mountain View writes about their interactions with self-driving cars (from the Emerging Technologies Blog):

I see no less than 5 self-driving cars every day. 99% of the time they’re the Google Lexuses, but I’ve also seen a few other unidentified ones (and one that said BOSCH on the side). I have never seen one of the new “Google-bugs” on the road, although I’ve heard they’re coming soon. I also don’t have a good way to tell if the cars were under human control or autonomous control during the stories I’m going to relate.

Anyway, here we go: Other drivers don’t even blink when they see one. Neither do pedestrians – there’s no “fear” from the general public about crashing or getting run over, at least not as far as I can tell.

Google cars drive like your grandma – they’re never the first off the line at a stop light, they don’t accelerate quickly, they don’t speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.).

…Google cars are very polite to pedestrians. They leave plenty of space. A Google car would never do that rude thing where a driver inches impatiently into a crosswalk while people are crossing because he/she wants to make a right turn. However, this can also lead to some annoyance to drivers behind, as the Google car seems to wait for the pedestrian to be completely clear. On one occasion, I saw a pedestrian cross into a row of human-thickness trees and this seemed to throw the car for a loop for a few seconds. The person was a good 10 feet out of the crosswalk before the car made the turn.

…Once, I [on motorcycle, AT] got a little caught out as the traffic transitioned from slow moving back to normal speed. I was in a lane between a Google car and some random truck and, partially out of experiment and partially out of impatience, I gunned it and cut off the Google car sort of harder than maybe I needed too… The car handled it perfectly (maybe too perfectly). It slowed down and let me in. However, it left a fairly significant gap between me and it. If I had been behind it, I probably would have found this gap excessive and the lengthy slowdown annoying. Honestly, I don’t think it will take long for other drivers to realize that self-driving cars are “easy targets” in traffic.

Overall, I would say that I’m impressed with how these things operate. I actually do feel safer around a self-driving car than most other California drivers.

Hat tip: Chris Blattman.

Most indie films and documentaries don’t get to most markets. It’s hard for a theatre to know which of the many indie films audiences really want to see and without the scale of a NYC it doesn’t make sense for theatres to gamble on a screening that might not make audience.

R.J. Lehmann writes about Tugg, a new service that allows someone who wants to create an event to pull the movie to a local theatre:

With Tugg, a user chooses a film and the date, time and the theatre where he or she would like it to be shown. If the theatre approves the request, Tugg creates a personalized event page for the user through which tickets can be sold. If sales meet a set threshold goal before the set deadline, then the screening is on; if not, it’s cancelled and those who bought tickets are refunded their money. As a bonus that provides ample incentive to promote screenings, users who organize events get to keep 5 percent of the gate.

…Essentially, what Tugg offers is what is known in game theory circles as an assurance contract. (That’s ASsurance, not INsurance.) As my old colleague Alex Tabarrok, who has done some pioneering work on the subject, explains:

In an assurance contract, people pledge to fund a public good if and only if enough others pledge to fund the public good. Assurance contracts were not well-known when I began to write on this topic but have now become common due to organizations like Groupon and Kickstarter, which work on this principle (indeed, I have been credited with the ideas behind Groupon, although sadly for my bank account, I don’t think that claim would stand in a court of law). Since no money is paid unless the total pledges are high enough to fund the public good, assurance contracts remove the fear that your contribution will be wasted if other people fail to contribute.

In essence, Tugg handles the logistics of creating a movie event and the assurance contract assures that the event will be profitable.

Some people are calling Steven Lubet’s new review of Alice Goffman’s On the Run “troubling” and even “devastating” but I am non-plussed. Lubet questions the plausibility of some of Goffman’s accounts:

She describes in great detail the arrest at a Philadelphia hospital of one of the 6th Street Boys who was there with his girlfriend for the birth of their child.  In horror, Goffman watched as two police officers entered the room to place the young man in handcuffs, while the new mother screamed and cried, “Please don’t take him away. Please, I’ll take him down there myself tomorrow, I swear – just let him stay with me tonight.” (p. 34). The officers were unmoved; they arrested not only Goffman’s friend, but also two other new fathers who were caught in their sweep.

How did the policemen know to look for fugitives on the maternity floor?  Goffman explains:

According to the officers I interviewed, it is standard practice in the hospitals serving the Black community for police to run the names of visitors or patients while they are waiting around, and to take into custody those with warrants . . . .

The officers told me they had come into the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list.

This account raises many questions.  Even if police officers had the time and patience to run the names of every patient and visitor in a hospital, it would violate the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for the hospital simply to provide an across-the-board list….

In addition, Lubet contacted a source in the Philadelphia police department and asked if there was any such policy.

When I asked if her account was possible, he said, “No way. There was never any such policy or standard practice.”  In addition, he told me that all of the trauma centers in Philadelphia – where police are most likely to be “waiting around,” as Goffman put it, for prisoners or shooting victims – have always been extremely protective of their patient logs.  He flatly dismissed the idea that such lists ever could have been available upon routine request as Goffman claims.  “That’s outlandish,” he said.

It would also be outlandish for police to beat and kill people without cause but since Goffman’s book has appeared we have plenty of video evidence that the type of actions she claims to have witnessed do in fact happen.

Moreover, HIPAA does not provide privacy against the police. HIPAA was written specifically so that the police can request information from hospitals. Here is the ACLU on HIPAA:

Q: Can the police get my medical information without a warrant?

A: Yes. The HIPAA rules provide a wide variety of circumstances under which medical information can be disclosed for law enforcement-related purposes without explicitly requiring a warrant.[iii] These circumstances include (1) law enforcement requests for information to identify or locate a suspect, fugitive, witness, or missing person (2) instances where there has been a crime committed on the premises of the covered entity, and (3) in a medical emergency in connection with a crime.[iv]

In other words, law enforcement is entitled to your records simply by asserting that you are a suspect or the victim of a crime.

Finally, the records in question in this case were not even patient records but visitor records. Whether or not there is an official policy on what to do while waiting at a hospital for other reasons (say to speak to a suspect) it’s plausible to me that the police in Philadelphia can and do sneak a peek at visitor records when the opportunity arises. It’s certainly the case that people who have warrants against them avoid hospitals and other institutions that keep such records for fear of arrest (and here).

I was confused by Lubet’s other big reveal, “Goffman appears to have participated in a serious felony in the course of her field work – a circumstance that seems to have escaped the notice of her teachers, her mentors, her publishers, her admirers, and even her critics.” But this didn’t escape my notice. How could it? Goffman’s crime is the climax of the book! Lubet is talking about Goffman’s action after her friend, Chuck, is murdered:

…This time, Goffman did not merely take notes – on several nights, she volunteered to do the driving.  Here is how she described it:

We started out around 3:00 a.m., with Mike in the passenger seat, his hand on his Glock as he directed me around the area.  We peered into dark houses and looked at license plates and car models as Mike spoke on the phone with others who had information about [the suspected killer’s] whereabouts.

One night, Mike thought he saw his target:

He tucked his gun in his jeans, got out of the car, and hid in the adjacent alleyway.  I waited in the car with the engine running, ready to speed off as soon as Mike ran back and got inside (p. 262).

Fortunately, Mike decided that he had the wrong man, and nobody was shot that night.

The fact that Goffman had become one of the gang is the point. A demonstration that environment trumps upbringing. She only narrowly escaped becoming trapped by the luck of the victim’s absence. The sociology professor and the thug, entirely different lives, separated by the thinnest of margins.

John Nash, RIP

by on May 24, 2015 at 12:36 pm in Current Affairs, Economics | Permalink

John Nash and his wife died yesterday in a car accident.

CNN: Nash, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994, was known for his work in game theory, and his personal struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. His life story inspired the 2001 Oscar-winning film “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly as the Nashes.

Nash’s 27 page dissertation would eventually win him a Nobel prize in economics. Nash’s dissertation extended von Neumann and Morgenstern’s theory of games from cooperative, bargaining-type solutions to non-cooperative solutions in which each player is assumed to act in their self-interest and in so doing made the theory tremendously more relevant to economics, business, political science, and even theories of animal behavior and evolution.

Here is further background on Nash’s work in game theory. Here is the PBS documentary A Beautiful Madness with lots of links to interviews and further explanations of his work and influence.

Thanks to Ramez Naam!

by on May 23, 2015 at 10:03 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

Thanks to Ramez Naam for excellent guest blogging this week! Ramez’s homepage is here and his Amazon page here.

In 2007 in an effort to increase the number of girls enrolled in school the government of Bihar in India gave each schoolgirl of age 14 a bicycle. The excellent Karthik Muralidharan and co-author Nishith Prakash set out to discover whether the program was effective. To jump to the conclusion they found that the program increased the enrollment of girls by 41% reducing the gender gap by almost half.

The reason for this post, however, is not the result–important as it is–but the two videos the International Growth Center made to explain Muralidharan and Prakash’s research methods. The first video explains the background of the research and then gives a very elegant explanation of triple-differences as an estimation strategy.

The second video explains that the researchers still weren’t completely happy that they had truly identified a causal effect (or perhaps the referees were not completely happy) so they hit on a complementary approach, looking for a dose-response relationship. With the collection of more data Muralidharan and Prakash were able to ask whether the program was more effective for the students who were neither so close nor so far from the school that a bicycle wouldn’t make a difference. Indeed, the program was most effective for students who lived at bicycle-relevant distances.

These videos are an interesting peek at some of the questions economists ask and the methods they use to answer those questions. The videos would be excellent for classroom use–challenge your students after the first video to come up with potential problems with the triple difference method and see if they can identify another research design that would address these problems!

Addendum: Here are previous MR posts on Karthik Muralidharan’s important research program.

The Robot Employment Act?

by on May 20, 2015 at 10:26 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

In light of LA’s vote to increase the minimum age to $15 an hour by 2020 here is one of my favorite pictures and caption from Modern Principles of Economics.

From Cowen-Tabarrok, Modern Principles of Economics

Should the Minimum Wage be called the “Robot Employment Act?”

Cowen-Tabarrok, Modern Principles of Economics, 3rd ed


A large study in the New England Journal of Medicine verifies that financial rewards for quitting smoking are effective. Participants were randomly offered one of a variety of incentive schemes that paid participants who successfully quit smoking (verified with saliva and urine tests). Participants were free to decline the offer.

The most interesting variation of the study was to compare a carrot model which paid up to $800 for success with a carrot-stick model in which participants lost $150 if they failed to stop smoking but gained $800 if they succeeded (i.e. $650 of reward plus refund of $150). In theory, the carrot-stick model should work better because it harnesses loss-aversion. And statistical analysis suggested that for those who would accept either the carrot or the carrot-stick model, the carrot-stick model did work better. The problem is that far fewer people who were offered the carrot-stick model chose it compared to those offered the carrot model. Overall, therefore, the carrot model was far more successful.

Smokers are costly so even a pure carrot model of $800 paid by employers would more than pay for itself:

…Finally, the finding that individual rewards of $800, as compared with usual care, nearly tripled the rate of smoking cessation among CVS Caremark employees and their friends and family confirms and extends the generalizability of our finding from a previous trial involving General Electric employees. In addition to the public health effects of such smoking reductions, these findings are important for employers. Because employing a smoker is estimated to cost $5,816 more each year than employing a nonsmoker, even an $800 payment borne entirely by employers and paid only to those who quit would be highly cost-saving.

Tyler and I are delighted to have the great Ramez Naam guest blogging for us this week. Ramez spent many years at Microsoft leading teams working on search and artificial intelligence. His first book, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement was a thought provoking look at the science and ethics of enhancing the human mind, body, and lifespan. More recently, I enjoyed Ramez’s The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, an excellent Simonesque guide to climate change, energy and innovation.

Frankly, I didn’t expect much when I bought Ramez’s science fiction novel, Nexus. Good non-fiction authors don’t necessarily make good fiction authors. I was, however, blown away. Nexus is about a near-future in which a new technology allows humans to take control of their biological operating system and communicate mind to mind. Nexus combines the rush of a great thriller, the fascination of hard science fiction and the intrigue of a realistic world of spy-craft and geo-politics. I loved Nexus and immediately bought the second in the trilogy, Crux. I finished that quickly and I am now about half-way through the just released, Apex. Thus it’s great to have Ramez guest blogging as I race towards the end of his exciting trilogy! The trilogy is highly recommended.

Please welcome Ramez to MR.

Nexus Cover

The Grasping Hand, written by our GMU-law colleague, Ilya Somin, is an excellent read and the definitive treatment of eminent domain and the Kelo case. As you might expect, Somin discusses the legal issues with aplomb. So much so that the book is endorsed by both of Kelo’s opposing counsel! In addition to the law and economics, Somin offers what for me was an eye-opening investigation of the history behind many of the major cases.

graspingIn the famous Poletown case, for example, GM and the cities of Detroit and Hamtramck used eminent domain to forcibly remove 4,200 people, 1300-1,400 homes, 140-600 businesses, 6 churches and one hospital in order to build a factory. The primary argument for the expropriation was the economic benefits that GM and the mayor promised would flow from the creation of at least 6,000 GM jobs.

Even though the entire case hung on the number of jobs to be created this number was simply cheap talk. In the marketplace, if GM says that this 100 tons of aluminium is worth more building cars than it is building airplanes they have to demonstrate their belief by outbidding Boeing and all the other users of aluminium. In politics GM need only voice an assertion and with the right lobbying the political system will make the transfer for them. Neither GM nor the city were under any requirement to guarantee new jobs but the majority judges simply accepted the numbers as given to them.

…many judges may have an unjustified faith in the efficacy of the political process and thus may be willing to allow the executive and legislative branches of government to control oversight of development projects. For example, the Poletown majority emphasized that courts should defer to legislative judgments of “public purpose.” Whatever the general merits of such confidence in the political process, it is misplaced in situations in which politically powerful interest groups can employ the powers of government at the expense of the relatively weak.

So what happened?

The GM plant opened two years late; and by 1988— seven years after the Poletown condemnations— it employed no more than 2,500 workers.

Moreover, as Somin continues, it gets much worse because not only were the benefits overstated the costs weren’t stated at all.

An especially striking aspect of the Poletown decision was the majority’s failure to even mention the costs imposed by condemnation on the people of Poletown or the city of Detroit as a whole.

According to estimates prepared at the time, “public cost of preparing a site agreeable to . . . General Motors [was] over $200 million,” yet GM paid the city only $8 million to acquire the property. Eventually, public expenditures on the condemnation rose to some $250 million. In addition, we must add to the costs borne by the city’s taxpayers, the economic damage inflicted by the destruction of up to six hundred businesses and fourteen hundred residential properties. Although we have no reliable statistics on the number of people employed by the businesses destroyed as a result of the Poletown condemnation, it is quite possible
that more workers lost than gained jobs as a result of the decision.

My research convinced me that bounty hunters were an effective part of the American justice system so I have long favored using large bounties to find international terrorists. In 2008 the Washington Post argued that Bounties were a Bust in Hunt for Al-Qaeda:

So far, however, Rewards for Justice has failed to put a dent in al-Qaeda’s central command. Offers of $25 million each for al-Qaeda founders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have attracted hundreds of anonymous calls but no reliable leads, officials familiar with the program say. For a time, the program was generating so little useful information that in Pakistan, where most al-Qaeda chiefs are believed to be hiding, it was largely abandoned.

“It’s certainly been ineffective,” said Robert L. Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan and former director of the agency’s counterterrorism center. “It hasn’t produced results, and it hasn’t particularly produced leads.”

I wasn’t impressed with that argument at the time and now Seymour Hersh says it wasn’t torture or the billions spent spying on the world that led to bin Laden’s discovery but a bounty:

…the CIA did not learn of bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the US…

I can’t evaluate Hersh’s larger claims but I find this part of the story plausible.

 Addendum: The time I went bounty hunting in Baltimore.

NYTimes: While everyone welcomes Crispr-Cas9 as a strategy to treat disease, many scientists are worried that it could also be used to alter genes in human embryos, sperm or eggs in ways that can be passed from generation to generation. The prospect raises fears of a dystopian future in which scientists create an elite population of designer babies with enhanced intelligence, beauty or other traits.

Does the author really think that smart, beautiful people are a bad thing? Should we shoot the ones we have now? (It seems unlikely that we are at a local maximum).

Sometimes my fellow humans depress me. But I hope for better ones in the future.

Nerd Altruism is Becoming Cool!

by on May 12, 2015 at 11:49 am in Economics | Permalink

GiveDirectly, the non-profit started by economists that gives money directly to the poor in the developing world, has grown tremendously in recent years and Bill Gross, the billionaire bond investor and now major philanthropist, just announced that he is interested in the model:

More recently, Gross said he’s taken an interest in GiveDirectly, an organization that makes targeted donations via mobile payments to the extremely poor in Africa.

“Most Africans have cell phones, which is hard to believe,” Gross said in the interview. “So if you can do that and contribute $25 or $50 to someone in Uganda that of course you haven’t met, that’s almost as good as outperforming the market.”

It’s exciting to see randomized trials, measurement and data science applied to philanthropy. Groups like GiveDirectly, GiveWell and The Center for Effective Altruism are creating a new culture of giving, they are making Nerd Altruism cool. We have a long way to go but it says something when billionaires are mocked for giving millions to Yale. In contrast, entrepreneurs like Dustin Moskovitz, Elon Musk and Bill Gates are making it cool to evaluate charities with the same rigor that business people use to evaluate business investments.

Here’s an interview with Paul Niehaus, one of the founders of GiveDirectly.

One of the perennial worries about immigration, especially from libertarian/conservative types, is that it will corrode the foundations of a free society. Using the Economic Freedom of the World Index, Clark, Lawson, Nowrasteh, Powell, and Murphy find no evidence for this fear. Countries that accept more immigrants tend if anything to grow in economic freedom:

The economics literature generally finds a positive, but small, gain in income to native-born populations from immigrants and potentially large gains in world incomes. But immigrants can also impact a recipient nation’s institutions. A growing empirical literature supports the importance of strong private property rights, a rule of law, and an environment of economic freedom for promoting long-run prosperity. But little is known about how immigration impacts these institutions. This paper empirically examines how immigration impacts a nation’s policies and institutions. We find no evidence of negative and some evidence of positive impacts in institutional quality as a result of immigration.

The published paper is here.  An ungated version is here.