*The Radical Fool of Capitalism*

Bentham…appraised the trophies — dismissively dubbed “baked heads” — as technical innovations and recognized their potential for his own plans.  He enthusiastically praised the “savage ingenuity.”  An 1824 draft of his will was the first to contain the score of his wishes: first, to see the corpse as an inheritance…

According to legend, Behtam carried around the glass eyes intended for the Auto-Icon in his pocket in his final years.  (Supposed) attempts to dehydrating body parts in his home oven are said to have yielded satisfactory results.  Bentham believed the [Maori] mokomokai process would discolor facial traits and produce a parchment- or mummy-like appearance (which could be corrected with paint), while maintaining the physiognomy.

But Southwood Smith botched the job.  He sprinkled sulfuric acid onto the head, and in doing so docked Bentham’s nose.  He used an air pump to aid dehydration, which caused the skin to shrivel.  Bentham’s face appeared melted, the physiognomy destroyed.  In spring 1833, Smith commissioned a replacement head of wax…

That is from the new, excellent, and short The Radical Fool of Capitalism: On Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon, and the Auto-Icon, by Christian Welzbacher.

Saturday assorted links

1. “Morris attacks Kuhn in the time-honored Johnsonian style.

2. Obituary for Richard Pipes (NYT).

3. “Today, deterrence through classical music is de rigueur for American transit systems.

4. “Germany spent €37bn on defence last year. If we wanted to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence by 2024 that would mean almost doubling the budget to around €72bn,” said Hans-Peter Bartels, the armed forces commissioner of the German parliament. “We cannot just double the size of the Bundeswehr. How is this going to work?” Marcel Dickow, a defence expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, makes a similar point: “The Bundeswehr cannot spend that kind of money. It does not have the procedures in place, and it wouldn’t even know what to spend it on.”  FT link here.

5. This year, going to school has involved more fatalities than serving in the U.S. military.

6. John List on corporate social responsibility.

Erik Brynjolfsson interviews Daniel Kahneman

Mostly about AI, here is one bit:

My guess is that AI is very, very good at decoding human interactions and human expressions. If you imagine a robot that sees you at home, and sees your interaction with your spouse, and sees things over time; that robot will be learning. But what robots learn is learned by all, like self-driving cars. It’s not the experience of the single, individual self-driving car. So, the accumulation of emotional intelligence will be very rapid once we start to have that kind of robot .

It’s really interesting to think about whether people are happier now than they were. This is not at all obvious because people adapt and habituate to most of what they have. So, the question to consider about well-being and about providing various goods to people, is whether they’re going to get used to having those goods, and whether they continue to enjoy those goods. It’s not apparent how valuable these things are, and it will be interesting to see how this changes in the future.

Kahneman tells us that his forthcoming book is called Noise, though I don’t yet find it on Amazon.  Here is an HBR essay of his on that topic.

The Nanny Tax and the Miracle of Government Loaves

Before it descends into utter madness, Leslie Forde’s Slate article on Nanny pay opens with a good story:

“I’m sorry … but I can’t,” she told me over the phone. My heart sank. I was confident she’d take the job. Quickly, I went into negotiation mode, “But wait, can we talk about the pay? Do you need more to … ” She said no before I could finish. “I just can’t take a job (that pays) over the table. It’ll mess up my housing. I won’t be able to stay in my apartment. I’m sorry. I’ve already taken another job.” I ended the call. …my entire career was at risk because I couldn’t find a nanny—at least, one willing to be paid legally.

It’s estimated that less than 10 percent of 2 million domestic workers and the families who employ them pay employment taxes.

From that opening I was expecting the author to explain that nannies aren’t willing to work on the books because at the bottom of the income scale income is taxed twice–first by Federal and State direct taxes and second indirectly because higher income causes workers to lose benefits. As a result of this double taxation, in some states it’s possible for poor workers to face effective marginal tax rates above 100 percent. If you had to pay to work, would you work?

High marginal taxes rates on the poor are a problem. We ought to be able to agree on that, even if we disagree on proposals to address the problem such as a universal basic income or a negative income tax. But in Forde’s magical world, up is down and down is up and the problem is that taxes on the poor are too low. But not to worry because this presents a hidden opportunity!

There is, however, a hidden opportunity to provide help to our caregivers and the families who employ them. Right now, these under-the-table arrangements are creating a “tax gap”—billions of dollars in additional funding that would be available to support caregivers, if the majority of families and their caregivers paid into the system.

Did you get that? If nannies were taxed the government would have more money to provide nannies with benefits. Wait, it gets worse. According to Forde, we can make both families and nannies better off by giving them back the money the government takes and still have money left over!

The estimated “gap” from the lost tax revenue is a combination of the federal and state employment taxes typically paid by employees (Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes) and employers (in addition to Social Security and Medicare, they must pay federal and state unemployment taxes.) Imagine if just a portion of this revenue were used to reimburse families for more of their child care expenses and to provide caregivers access to better benefits than they get currently with their under-the-table jobs. (italics added, AT)

Indeed, wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world of pure imagination? One without tradeoffs. Where we could rely on the miracle of government loaves to solve all problems?

Ethiopia is still up and at it

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populated country, is forecast to be the fastest growing economy in Sub-Saharan Africa this year, according to new data from the IMF.

Ethiopia’s economy is predicted to grow by 8.5 percent this year. The figures signal continued economic expansion following a long period of impressive growth. In the last decade, Ethiopia has averaged around 10 percent economic growth, according to the IMF.

To boost the economy, the country is pursuing a number of large-scale infrastructure projects, including the Grand Renaissance Dam and a railway network.

Here is the full story.  Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Senegal, and Ghana are also growing at rapid clips.

*My Morning Routine*

The editors and co-creators are Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander, and the subtitle is How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired.

They were generous enough to include a contribution from me, on my theory of how to get ready in the morning for the day to come:

I make sure I’ve already showered.  Too many people waste some of their most productive morning time showering.  Showering relaxes you and calms you down — why should that happen in the morning?  I prefer to enjoy my shower during the evening, when I know I’m winding down in any case.

And here is Scott Adams on related topics, from the same book:

I’m a trained hypnotist, and when I learned to do hypnosis I learned that self-hypnosis, if you’re trained to do it, is more effective and faster than meditation.

You can order the book here.

The real workplace issue is the elderly not the robots

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

The populations of the U.S. and many other developed nations are aging, and the big surprise has been that older people want to work more than in previous generations. Against many prior expectations, the labor-force-participation rate of older Americans started rising in the 1980s and 1990s. For instance, the labor-force-participation rate for men ages 65 to 69 was 25 percent in 1985 but 37 percent in 2016. By 2020, over one-quarter of the workforce will be over 55 years of age.

And the closer:

Our willingness to banter about the robot apocalypse is yet another sign that, too often, we just don’t want to confront the issues surrounding the elderly.

Do read the whole thing.

Does demography predict inflation?

Demographic shifts, such as population ageing, have been suggested as possible explanations
for the past decade’s low inflation. We exploit cross-country variation in a long panel to identify age structure effects in inflation, controlling for standard monetary factors. A robust relationship emerges that accords with the lifecycle hypothesis. That is, inflationary pressure rises when the share of dependents increases and, conversely, subsides when the share of working age population increases. This relationship accounts for the bulk of trend inflation, for instance, about 7 percentage points of US disinflation since the 1980s. It predicts rising inflation over the coming decades.

That is from a new BIS paper by Mikael Juselius and Előd Takáts.

Money for Blood is Good for All

The Economist: For years [Barzin Bahardoust] has been trying to pay Canadians for their blood plasma—the viscous straw-coloured liquid in blood that has remarkable therapeutic powers. When his firm, Canadian Plasma Resources (CPR), tried to open clinics in Ontario in 2014, a campaign by local activists led to a ban by the provincial government on paid plasma collection. Undeterred, he tried another province, Alberta—which also banned the practice last year. Then, on April 26th, when CPR announced a planned centre in British Columbia, its government said it too was considering similar legislation. CPR has managed to open two centres, in far-flung Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Even these have faced opposition.

The global demand for plasma is growing, and cannot be met through altruistic donations alone. Global plasma exports were worth $126bn in 2016—more than exports of aeroplanes.

…Only countries that pay for plasma are self-sufficient in it. (Italy, where donors are given time off work, is close to self-sufficiency.) Half of America’s plasma is shipped to Europe—20m contributions-worth. Canada imports 80% of its plasma products from America. Australia imports 40% of its plasma products, too.

It’s a very odd “ethical policy” that leads Canadian provinces to ban paying Canadians for plasma but then import paid plasma from the United States. I am one of the signatories (along with Al Roth, Vernon Smith and Gerald Dworkin among others) of a letter that argues for the efficiency and ethics of allowing compensation for blood plasma donation. The Economist riffs of this letter in a very good op-ed:

The aversion to paid plasma rests on three reasonable-sounding but largely groundless propositions. The first is that it is unsafe. Payment might encourage donors to conceal dangerous behaviour—such as intravenous drug use. In the 1980s and 1990s, tainted blood products infected half the world’s haemophiliacs with HIV, along with tens of thousands of plasma donors in China. But modern plasma products do not carry such risks. They are heat-treated and bathed in chemicals to sanitise them (an impossibility for blood for transfusion). Since the adoption of these techniques there has not been a single case of transmission of HIV or hepatitis via plasma products. Doctors agree that plasma products from paid donors are just as safe as those from unpaid ones.

A second argument is that, if people are paid for their plasma, fewer will volunteer to donate whole blood for transfusions. (Paying for whole blood would be unwise, since it cannot be sterilised as plasma can.) But there is no evidence that paying for plasma diminishes the supply of donated blood. That is why, in Canada, more than 30 economists and philosophers wrote an open letter arguing against bans on paid plasma. Americans voluntarily donate as much blood per person as do Canadians.

A third argument is that paying for plasma preys on the poor. It is possible that those selling plasma need the money and therefore might give too often. In America plasma donors can give twice a week; those in Europe can give just once a week. There is no evidence of harm to their health in either case, but more long-term study would be prudent.

Those against allowing payment suggest using voluntary donors instead. Yet every country that does not pay ends up importing plasma. And the fact that America is by far the dominant supplier carries risks of its own. The dependence on a single source leaves the rest of the world vulnerable to an interruption of supply. To protect their people, therefore, other governments need to diversify their supplies of plasma. Paying for it would make a big difference.

Why forced data portability is a mistake

“Let people export their Facebook data into competing social media services” — what could sound better?  It would seem to make the market more contestable and give consumers more choice — what could be wrong with that?

Alex already has pointed out that it is not “your data.”  And here is Alex on the mirage of data portability.  I would like to add a few points:

1. Presumably data portability would be imposed on Facebook’s competitors and potential competitors as well.  That would mean all future competing firms would have to slot their products into a Facebook-compatible template.  Let’s say that 17 years from now someone has a virtual reality social network innovation: does it have to be “exportable” into Facebook and other competitors?  It’s hard to think of any better way to stifle innovation.

2. Which are the eligible firms/services to which exportability is going to be required?  Do you really want government to be certifying the “legitimate players” in the market?  And branding other competitors and potential competitors as not worthy enough to deserve this legal protection?

3. How about when you tag other people?  If I’m only on Facebook, and only wish to be on Facebook, and you wish to export your tags of me and other me-related content to some other service, how much am I losing control?  Or do the regulators somehow mandate a “only data about you and you alone” standard?  Is that really going to be possible to enforce?

4. Didn’t we just go nuts on Mark Zuckerberg and call him before the commissars for exporting too much data to external services?  And in many and probably most of these cases with user consent?

5. Does a mandate for exportability also imply a mandate for importability?  Does Facebook have to swallow and digest your photos from Pinterest?  From Russian and Chinese services?  From very difficult to make compatible systems?  We might end up with walled gardens in any case.  I find it striking that many critics of the tech companies hold two directly incompatible views: a) you have to make them post everything, and b) you need to make them liable for what they put up.

Yes I am headed to Ethiopia

Blogging might be more erratic, if so I apologize.  Please don’t think I am getting sick of this — I am not — it’s just that convenient internet connections might be hard to come by in the more rural parts of the country.

Like from 2017:

Ethiopia has cut off internet access nationwide until at least June 8 to try to stop cheats from posting high school exam papers on social media, a government official said on Thursday.

The good news is they just turned internet access “back on” last month.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

At the very least, I have posts on autopilot.  Let’s hope I can add to those, and at the very worst MR will be back to normal and normally timed service in less than ten days.  The modal scenario is that in fact you will get more than average, but I can’t promise that either.  Wish me luck.