Month: January 2016

*The Age of Em*, by Robin Hanson

That is the title of the new and forthcoming Robin Hanson book, due out in May.  I was asked to supply a blurb, and offered two possibilities.  One was:

“Robin Hanson is one of our most original and important thinkers.  This is his book.”

The ostensible premise of the book is that people have become computer uploads, and we have an entirely new society to think about: how it works, what problems it has, and how it evolves.  One key point about this new world is individuals can be copied.  But this is more than just a nerdy tech book, it is also:

  1. Straussian commentary on the world we actually live in.  We are already something-or-other, uploaded into humans,and very often Robin is describing our world in cloaked fashion, albeit with some slight tweaks to parameters for the purpose of moral illumination.
  2. A reminder of how strange everything is, and how we use self-deception to come to terms with that strangeness.  It’s a mock of all those who believe in individual free will.
  3. An attempt to construct a fully rational theology, proving by various deductions that God is not fully benevolent in the traditional sense.
  4. An extended essay on the impossibility of avoiding theology, given the imposition of competitive constraints on a world where production and copying are possible.  And ultimately it is a theodicy, though it will not feel that way to Westerners, Jews, Christians, or Muslims.  It hearkens back to medieval theology, Descartes, and the idea of living in God’s possibly terrifying simulation.
  5. A satire on the rest of social science, and how we try to explain and predict the future.
  6. A meta-level growth model in which energy alone matters and the “fixed factor” assumptions of other models are relativized.  Copying is taken seriously, besides how special are you anyway?  In the meantime, we learn just how much of the world we know depends upon the presence of various fixed factors.  But surely that is temporary!
  7. A challenge to our notions of wherein the true value of a life resides.

I hope enough readers pick up on some of this.  And yes, there is a chapter on sex, love, and affairs.

It is hard to excerpt from this book, but here is one short bit:

Compared with humans, ems fear much less the death of the particular copy that they now are.  Ems instead fear “mind theft,” that is, the theft of a copy of their mental state. Such a theft is both a threat to the economic order, and a plausible route to personal destitution or torture.  While a few ems offer themselves as open source and free to copy, most ems work hard to prevent mind theft.  Most long-distance physical travel is “beam me up” electronic travel, but done carefully to prevent mind theft.

I am wildly enthusiastic about everything the Robin upload does, and some of his copies are better yet.  Here is the book’s home page.

Em

Addendum: Here is Robin Hanson’s response.

Conversation with Kareem tomorrow is relocated

Robert Parrish could not much push him away from his preferred spots on the floor, but due to snow we are altering the venue:

New venue:

Westin Arlington Gateway, F. Scott Fitzgerald Ballroom (2nd floor), 801 North Glebe Road Arlington, VA

Tuesday, January 26, 2016, 3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

At the event, you can participate in the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments using the hashtag #CowenKareem.

You can watch the event online at mercatus.org/live

Democracy is an acquired taste

Democracies depend on the support of the general population, but little is known about the determinants of this support. This paper analyzes whether support for democracy increases with the length of time spent under the system, and whether preferences are thus affected by the political system. Relying on 380,000 individual-level observations from 104 countries over the years 1994 to 2013, and exploiting individual-level variation within a country and a given year in the length of time spent under democracy, we find evidence that political preferences are endogenous. For new democracies, our findings imply that popular support needs time to develop. To illustrate: the effect of around 8.5 more years of democratic experience corresponds to the difference in support for democracy between primary and secondary education.

That is from Nicola Fuchs-Schündeln and Matthias Schündeln (pdf), two underrated but very much on the rise economists.  Here is the home page of Nicola, here is the home page of Matthias.  Here is Nicola’s paper, with Paolo Macella, on the persistent effects of socialist education (pdf).

Monday assorted links

1. Detroit still has higher levels of lead poisoning than does Flint.

2. Whale dialects and whale tribes and whale culture.

3. “The elfin Ms. Kondo, perhaps the world’s only decluttering celebrity…Now 31, KonMari, as she’s known, exhorts you to ask yourself, “Do your things spark joy?” If not, you must thank them for their service, and send them packing.” NYT link here.  Here is a behavioral economics analysis of Kondo.  I liked this NYT sentence: “It’s a liberating manifesto, though in practice it can take months.”

4. “I, ball point pen [China]”  And Michael Pettis is right about China: “Repaying debt simply means allocating debt-servicing costs, either directly or indirectly, to specific sectors within the economy.”

5. The changing economics of heavy metal.

6. Paul Krugman reviews Robert Gordon.

Shipping fact of the day

China’s slowing growth has crushed shipping rates to such an extent that hiring a 1,100-foot merchant vessel would set you back less than the price of renting a Ferrari for a day.

There is more here, via Jesse Colombo and Marc Andreessen.  And here is James Hamilton on how and whether low oil prices can cause a recession.  I’d like to see someone put this together with various (dubious) claims about “the macroeconomics of inequality.”

Tyrone on why Democrats should vote for Donald Trump

I know that Tyrone, my evil twin brother, has been fairly silent in 2015, but that’s only because he’s been so busy whispering things in my ear.  He’s also been spending his profits from having shorted the Chinese stock marketAnd having shorted the Democrats.

Can you imagine his latest?  Electoral politics once again, his weakest area (not nearly as good as Tyrone the neo-Fisherian).  Well, I scribbled down some notes on a napkin, over lunch, so this is an imperfect rendition of what he really said.  Tyrone in fact didn’t want me to write this post, fearing people would take it the wrong way.  Here goes, here is Tyrone at his mischievous worst:

Tyrone: It is obvious that intellectual Democrats, especially those concerned with climate change, should vote for Donald Trump for President.  Furthermore they should welcome his ascent, as should intellectual Republicans.

Let’s accept the commonly argued premise that climate change, if not quite an existential risk, can drastically lower the quality of life on earth for generations to come.

There is some chance that Trump will in fact support some kind of comprehensive climate change legislation.  After all, he used to be a liberal, but perhaps more importantly he wants to think of himself as a savior.  The chance of this is higher than that of any other Republican, and he is hardly beholden to the standard lobbies.

Most importantly, the chance of Trump “going Nixon” is higher than Hillary’s chance of selling meaningful climate change legislation to an oppositional Republican Congress.  She’ll be unpopular from day one, and the salaries of Dutch kunstmatige land consultants will skyrocket; that would bring a new Dutch disease, not just the one you get in those pretty Amsterdam shop windows.

OK people, let’s say Trump sticks to the mainstream Republican position.  What will happen then?  Won’t greedy capitalists rape the earth, not to mention building that energy-consuming wall?

Well, in the short run, maybe.  (Don’t forget Lennon on the omelette and those broken eggs!)  But we all know how disastrous Trump’s economic ideas would be in practiceThey would lower the growth rate of gdp and impoverish the masses.  Even if you read Trump as a policy moderate, just imagine what his volatile temperament would do to the equity risk premium.  (Then they would have to give Robert Barro a Nobel prize!)  And so, four or maybe eight years later, — or is it two? — what we could expect to find?  A fully Democratic Congress and White House.  (And dear reader, is there any other way to get there?)  And thus would arrive comprehensive climate change legislation, just as we got Obamacare post-2008.  Voila!  That’s way more important than maintaining America’s status as a nice, well-respected, and tolerant country, isn’t it?

So Democrats, if you really care about Bangladesh and Vietnam, and don’t just have this silly mood affiliation fancy that Tyler has fabricated, you should promote the candidacy of Donald Trump.  The more Democratic you are, the better.  The more worried about climate change you are, the better.  Your man has arrived on the national scene.  Finally.

Remember the take of Borges on Judas?  He made the real sacrifice of his reputation, so that the rest of us could be saved by Christ.  It is time for you too to be like Judas…[TC: At this point the absurdities piled up so high I just had to cut Tyrone off.]

trump

Tyler again: Readers, I am so sorry for this.  I receive numerous requests for more Tyrone, but usually I resist.  The only reason I occasionally oblige is to show you all, once again, how crazy he is.  How unreasonable he is.  How subject he is to his own mood affiliations, foibles, and quirks.  How little heritability can explain, once you look get past superficial sibling similarities and look more closely at the details of the intellect.

Tyler’s view — my view — is that good Democrats in fact should support…[at which points Tyrone cuts Tyler off, and the two tumble over the proverbial cliff]…

Google votes and liquid democracy

Here is a recent paper about a recent experiment in democratic decision-making:

This paper introduces Google Votes, an experiment in liquid democracy built on Google’s internal corporate Google+ social network. Liquid democracy decision-making systems can scale to cover large groups by enabling voters to delegate their votes to other voters…Google Votes demonstrates how the use of social-networking technology can overcome these barriers…The case-study of Google Votes usage at Google over a 3 year timeframe is included, as well as a framework for evaluating vote visibility called the “Golden Rule of Liquid Democracy”.

That is by Steve Hardt and Lia C. A. Lopes.

Imagine this in place for a normal democratic election, what would we expect?  Groups unwilling to vote might be willing to donate their votes, so in essence the cost of voting has fallen.  Would they donate to those who:

a) best reflect their views? That probably helps the Democrats, since non-voters probably are more likely to go Democratic.

b) Those who can reach them most easily? That helps the party with the most money and best ground operation and most credibility with the donating groups.

c) Those who best reflect some of their (potentially non-electoral) expressive sympathies?  Imagine for instance a disabled person donating a vote to a charity or cause for the disabled.  They may wish to boost the lobby, without necessarily agreeing with the electoral choice of that lobby.  I find this to be the most interesting option.

For the pointer I thank D.S.

Sunday assorted links

1. Which are the most successful “textbooks”?: Strunk and White are first, Plato is second…

2. American vs. German health care systems.

3. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard: good take on China.

4. Bernie Sanders supporters: Here is Corey Robin, here is Jedediah Purdy.  It is always worth trying to figure out how and why other people think the way they do.

5. The news here is the Kiwi car chase, not the sheep blocking passage.

6. The Great Skyscraper Stagnation.

Very good sentences

Moreover, the forces that are disfiguring the right are likely to spread in future years, consuming the Democrats in much the same way as they have consumed the Republicans. The stagnation of the living standards of average Americans is creating widespread angst. The culture wars are extending to new areas. The ­Internet-enabled news-cum-entertainment industry stokes political resentments even as it creates epistemic anarchy. Interest groups are finding ever more ingenious ways to pretzel the political process. Interesting times don’t remain confined to one part of the political spectrum for very long.

That is from an Adrian Wooldridge review at the NYT.

The market for super-butlers

One super-butler is John Deery, in his mid-40s and a native of Northern Ireland. Along with planning travel arrangements for his principal, a businessman, and valeting, serving meals, and making sure visas are up to date, Deery manages three of his employer’s properties. One is in the Balkans with 34 staff, there is a London residence with another 12, and a third is being developed.

There is more here, of interest throughout, and you will note many of the employers are funded by oil, so perhaps this market is slowing down at the moment.

This surprised me a wee bit:

Particularly for wealthy employers from Middle Eastern, Asian or Russian backgrounds, one of the attractions of a British butler is their knowledge of the nuances of the traditional English way of dining or formal dressing.

Note this:

The average age of a newly employed butler is 41, and 40% of the people placed by the British Butler Academy are women…

It is less surprising to me that many super-butlers are former actors.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Saturday assorted links

The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster

The disaster in Flint, Michigan is being treated as an aberration but Werner Troesken’s excellent book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster demonstrates that there is a history of such problems in the United States.

In The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, Werner Troesken looks at a long-running environmental and public health catastrophe: 150 years of lead pipes in local water systems and the associated sickness, premature death, political inaction, and social denial. The harmful effects of lead water pipes became apparent almost as soon as cities the world over began to install them. Doctors and scientists noted cases of acute illness and death attributable to lead in public water beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and an editorial in the New York Herald called for the city to study the matter after a bizarre illness made headlines in 1868. But officials took no action for many years. New York City, for example, did not take any steps to reduce lead levels in water until 1992, long after the most serious damage had been done. By then, in any case, much of the old lead pipe had been replaced with safer materials.

Troesken examines the health effects of lead exposure, analyzing cases from New York City, Boston, and Glasgow and many smaller towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and England. He draws on period accounts, government reports, court decisions, and economic and demographic analysis to document the widespread nature of the problem, the recognized health effects—particularly for pregnant women and young children—and official intransigence. He presents an accessible overview of the old and new science of lead exposure—explaining, for example, why areas with soft water suffered more harmful effects than areas with hard water. And he gives us compelling and vivid accounts of the people and politics involved. The effects of lead in water continue to be felt; many older houses still have lead service pipes. The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster is essential reading for understanding this past and ongoing public health problem.

Full disclosure: Troesken was a colleague at GMU a few years ago around when this book was published.

New start-up flips homes and cars

When Luke Dalien and his family needed to quickly sell their Phoenix-area house, they didn’t turn to a real-estate broker. Instead, they sold the home within two weeks to an Internet startup eager to pay cash.

The startup, OpenDoor Labs Inc., resold the house a month later, pocketing an estimated $20,000. The San Francisco company has repeated this profitable flip scores of times in the past year, catching the eye of Silicon Valley insiders.

OpenDoor is among a small group of startups armed with data scientists and software that believe they can identify the right prices on homes and cars and simplify the sales process online. Shift Technologies Inc., for example, guarantees it can sell people’s cars for a certain price within 60 days, and pays the difference if they sell for less.

But OpenDoor is unique in that it owns all the homes it lists for sale, countering the prevailing trend in Silicon Valley of solely running a marketplace that matches buyers and sellers. As a result, OpenDoor’s strategy is steeped with risk, potentially backfiring if the economy tailspins.

“We’re introducing liquidity to a marketplace that doesn’t have any,” said the company’s co-founder, Keith Rabois, a venture capitalist who was an early executive at payments firms Square Inc. and PayPal Holdings Inc.

That is sort of good news, and you can think of that as a partial response to the housing finance overregulation in some parts of Dodd-Frank.  A second and less obvious lesson is that an economy with higher income inequality is more dependent on leverage in some of its corners, but also can resort to corners and pockets which don’t require much leverage at all.  That creates new potential solutions to liquidity problems, requiring only a minimum of coordination.  That all said, this is also a potential longer-term source of reemergent systemic risk.  No matter how sound this start-up may be, you can see the potential for less well-capitalized and less well-run successor firms.

The full story is here, via the excellent Samir Varma.