Friday assorted links


I am very much on board with Scott Sumner, and I would say that he accurately describes human nature, the world over.

All over the world the rich are respected, and the rich who share and give and work for the poor are respected even more. Nowhere in the world are the rich required to give away their wealth, shave their head, and enter the monastery. But it's interesting, that too is a global trope, a sort of yearning for the ultimate utilitarian achievement.

Still, it's not required. Do a little good instead.

Summer wrote: “On the other hand, the sale of babies might be a bridge too far, even for poor people in developing countries. I’d guess that most would not recommend that American moms sell their kids to raise money to deliver food to Guatemala.”

Ya think? Is there a moral theory that implies this kind of outrageous sacrifice? Yes, “eat the rich”, Marxist inflected consequentialism.

This isn't the most charitable way to view calls to Eat The Rich. What if these Marxist cannibals just want to shift the equilibrium so that the bourgeoisie know they are at risk of being eaten if they don't use the gift of wealth for the betterment of humankind? I agree that "Eat the Rich" is very incendiary, as a statement. Maybe that's part of its charm and effectiveness.

"And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." - some SJW

Are the rich delicious?

It was a dusty room though upright, not quite considerate but still discrete.

“Maybe that's part of its charm and effectiveness.”

You’re going to have explain the “charm” and “effectiveness”. It seems to have neither.

I'm not on board. I don't believe the world would be a better place if people were unselfish in the ways he describes, I think itwould be a disaster. Imagine a 'great utilitarian awakening' that, over the course of a few years, convinced majorities of rich westerners to give away everything beyond what was needed for the necessities of a spartan life. This would bring about not heaven on earth but a global economic depression -- people who initially had money to spare would shortly find themselves struggling even to provide for their own families. Why? Think about what makes western economies wealthy. Most of what all of us do -- most of our industries and jobs are, from a utilitarian perspective, unjustifiable luxuries. Under a utilitarian 'enlightenment' Hollywood would have to go, along with the entire music and fashion industries. Of course we should all have to become vegetarians, so zero out the meat industry. Most restaurants, too (so much labor wasted preparing complex dishes!). And universities -- little of what is taught is really needed -- we could, no *should*, shut down 90% of them and get rid of most departments. And what fraction of Amazon's sales are of good that could never be justified as necessities? 95%? 99%? The airline industry should be shut down, of course, and the home-building and auto industries radically downsized, and on and on.

And from the other side, think about all hundreds of millions who have been lifted out of poverty during the last half century. In which of those countries did charity play a decisive role? Or even an important one? I would argue -- zero. I am not sure if the next few generations of Ethiopians will join the global middle class, but I am sure that, if they do, it will have come through Ethiopian economic development not charity.


I had to double check, to make sure I hadn't misread. No, neither he nor I actually said "give away everything." His words were "My suggestion to people contemplating Peter Singer’s advice? Just do the best you can."

Sumner is arguing that if he were a better person and a better utilitarian, that he (and the rest of us) should giving away much, much more, and that his failure to do so is a moral shortcoming (albeit a very common one). That's where I disagree.

A high general level of charitable giving and self-denial would be a disaster. But even at the margin, I'd expect significantly increased levels of charitable giving to start harming economic dynamism. What if it was typical to give a way 25 or 30% of your income -- what would that do to the economy?

And then, if you believe that the positive externalities of western economic growth have proven to be vastly greater than the positive effects of charity and aid (which I do), what is the ideal level of giving? Are we certain that it's higher than current levels?

He makes a division between theory and practice. He's saying that in theory it is fine to be an ultimate utilitarian, but no one is and that's fine.

You are saying it's a great danger because, in the extremely unlikely event that everyone decided to become an ultimate utilitarian the economy would crash?

OK fine, everybody watch out. Don't all do it at once ;-)

"He's saying that in theory it is fine to be an ultimate utilitarian"

Something that would cripple the global economy if put into practice and impoverish everyone is NOT a fine theory. And even as an unrealized ideal, honored mostly in the breach, it's problematic. Should we admire a person who chooses a life of simplicity and poverty? Should we consider that selfish or self-indulgent? I think it's the latter.

BTW, NASA should try to nudge the asteroid completely out of the way, and if it accidentally hits the rich town, that's fine. They too did their best.

As regards Paul Romer and his recommendation that we focus on infrastructure, information sharing, and separating scientific advisors from regulators.

I'd make another plug for open source, or better yet, public domain science in education. That's the only thing that flows without restriction into the economy.

(I can't see the full WSJ article.)

#3 "On the constancy of GDP growth" -- from 1870. The graph ignores the first 100 years of American growth. (The more interesting measurement is GDP per capita growth.)

I just saw GDP per capita growth is also there.

Yeah, looks like the 19th century was indeed a Golden Era (Vaclav Smil wrote a whole book on this theme, very persuasive), citing Huebner (not the chess GM Robert Hübner), but one beef with Heubner's graph: it's distorted due to the "per billion people" in the denominator on the Y-axis. So innovation seems to have peaked in 1890 only because Huebner is dividing per billion people, and populations in Asia and Africa exploded after 1950. Why does this matter? Because people in Asia and Africa--except until recently in Asia--do not invent things. They only consume resources. So you cannot divide by world population but rather First World (G-7) populations. If you do so, "peak inventions" seem to shift into the 20th century.

Also #3, CNTRL + F + 'patent' did not yield a single hit. The Paul Romer WSJ article is gated--can somebody read it?--but I bet it doesn't mention patents. Not untypical of an economist who lives in an ivory tower. For a more practical review check out this article by a VC-type: (note he mentions patents, and the Bayh-Dole act, which I doubt most economists have even heard of)

According to this linkedin article, rising patent lawyer fees are responsible for retarding technology transfer, which makes sense IMO (for example, it takes about 100k to knock out a clearly invalid patent, which is why companies pile on patents in a technology like Qualcomm does, making it impossible to defeat their portfolio --QCOM is a buy, btw, due to their 5G patents). If you streamline the patent process to make it fair for smaller inventors (e.g., presently government grant money does not even cover patent applications) and also reward the pioneer invention, it would increase Total Factor Productivity.

Ray on patents sounds a little bit like the NRA on guns.

I consider my position moderate in contrast. While I think that public expenditure (and philanthropy) should support public knowledge, I certainly agree that entrepreneurs and companies have different motivations. They require different incentives. Patents are for them, but those patents should require a bit of work beyond public knowledge, and a reasonable bar for inventiveness.

("Patents for everyone" means way too much time both reading and writing patents.)

@anonymous - thanks, if you're even thinking about patents we are heading to agreement. I'm not like the NRA because they favor the status quo. By contrast, I favor radical changes like NO FILING TO GET A PATENT (see my comment to Al below), as they already have in copyright law (you automatically get a copyright, in common law, as soon as you write something, even without putting a "(c)", which is Federal registration needed once you litigate a copyright). And other radical ideas too numerous to mention, stuff like using Al / team patent examining / multiple tier protection / no presumption of validity (35 USC 282, it's how patent trolls make their money, recall it costs a minimum of $100k--if you're lucky--to knock out a clearly invalid patent, i.e., one that says "a Perpetual Motion Machine" in the claims), and other radical ideas, some of which I've told TC and AlexT about, as well as written about here, and btw you'll not find anything on the net except in certain old forum threads on Usenet and a few boards about this, most patent lawyers and agents are too busy making money with the status quo--starting salaries for patent types are six figures and the work is basically technical writing and not that hard once you master it--to bother with reform. Experts in this area don't want to appear too controversial since they rely on being expert witness in litigation which means explaining the status quo, not reforming it. AlexT is unusual since he actually spends a few minutes describing his dislike of patents, note most economists, and that would include growth gurus like Paul Romer, go through their entire career with mentioning patents. It's like a student of the Great Depression mentioning every factor that may have contributing to the decline except the banking sector. A glaring omission!

Finally, keep in mind one thing: an improved patent system would accelerate technological change but the Solow equation predicts a saturation in steady state, which means a better patent system is like 'more savings', 'fewer taxes', 'more investment', etc, it makes change faster and better but still you'll hit the non-accelerating steady state. In simple terms: a better patent system would mean we can live today like people will live 500 years from now, but still, you eventually will hit a wall and progress at a 'steady state' (upward but not accelerating rate of growth). Still, I rather live for 150 years cancer-free and be in a flying fusion powered car today rather than wait until my great-N-times-grandkids do. Sadly it won't happen with the present system, which more or less gives tiny rewards to people who already want to invent without any incentives than a pat on the back (i.e., nerds, as TC has correctly observed; note how many Nobelists don't have any patents, including this year's woman recipient in physics). The vast majority of other people realize, correctly, inventions and patents is a fools game and just go into gatekeeping and imitating who's already successful. If Hedy Lamar can invent (and you are using the prodigy of 'her' invention--of course it was a team effort but she did contribute-- every time you get one bar on your mobile phone but can still text somebody even inside an elevator, amazing!) so can you. But you don't, since your mind is correctly telling you it's a futile endeavor. Bye!

My joke was based on the idea that if it takes a good guy with a patent to stop a bad guy with a patent, everybody has to carry patents.

It's a complicated problem. I don't want state universities holding patent portfolios, but I do want drug companies to research new cures.

So as I say, reasonable patents for private parties who make significant inventions.

There is an interesting related story at Forbes about a guy trying to drive down software development costs with a $15 an hour global "cloud" wage.

"Liemandt’s team was on a quest for the regular income streams associated with sticky software maintenance contracts. To cut costs, R&D and employee benefits were to be gutted. And as a sweetener, he began assembling a patent-litigation war chest. Through one of his holdings, Liemandt has sued 20 companies, ranging from SAP to Sears and Toyota. He’s currently suing Ford for $300 million."

Thanks anonymous, it's those 'future service sector jobs' lol. And see my comments upstream on how patent trolls use patents to make money (35 USC 282, patents are presumed valid by law, hard to knock out a patent on summary judgement because of this law).

I would personally consider it a bad outcome if the developers were all making $15 an hour, and the patent lawyers were all making $150.

Sadly, we might be trending toward that equilibrium.

Ray, I agree with you on patents, but I don’t see how your suggestions reduce the lawyers fees.

My guess would be that only automation can help in this area.

@Al- thanks! But I made no suggestions, just observations. Al, AI (Artificial Intelligence) would help. Plus a new streamlined court just to hear patent cases (as opposed to a new court just to hear patent appeals, which they already have since the days of Reagan, namely the Federal Circuit Ct of Appeals). Also making registration "automatic" in patents, as they do already in copyrights, so you don't need a patent attorney nor even to file for a patent until such time that you want to litigate, would cut down to zero the cost of getting an initial patent, down from today's estimated $10k to $15k for a US patent (for a world-wide patent it is much much more).

Re item 5: "Giving Up the Gun" by Noel Perrin covers Japan's embrace and rejection of firearms as weapons of war. "Of Arms and Men" by Robert O'Connell reveals a cyclical pattern in which, when new weapons and tactics are found to be especially destructive, conventions arise that limit their use.

#2: how can you know it's "enduring"?

5 is fun. It's too bad that Type-O scenarios were named "surprising strangelets" instead of "Ice-9".

Lame book list. (And typically I love book lists and acquire a number of the ones I deem good and interesting.) I intend to read the one on alien worlds. About the rest I intend to shrug my shoulders and say, well, I guess a lot of Sociology majors work at the Smithsonian...

#4. The novel There, There by Tommy Orange is recommended by the Smithsonians and other respectable people. The book is by an American Indian and is about American Indians.

I wonder if anyone whose read it can tell me if it's only a good book "for being written by a Native American", or if its a good book in its own right, as the above mentioned Milkman is claimed to be a good book, whether one cares about Northern Ireland or not.

The reader community at GoodReads gives it a very high rating.

3. On the constancy of the rate of gdp growth.

Absent external shocks we will be smoothe by design. We get price feedback, ex post, and adjust inventories to cover mis-pricings.

Lack of smooth is the discovery of a large price mismatch which cannot be accommodated with a simple loan or deposit, like oil jumping to $140. A shock becomes non smooth because the businesses have to dismantle parts (plural) of the operation and rebuild them.

6. So Romer would just nationalize the Uber data base? Hugo Chavez should have gotten his nobel posthumously.

#5 - it's entirely possible that 99.99999% of civilizations destroy themselves within 500 years of the invention of the steam engine, and the anthropic principle is the only reason we are here to discuss the matter.

#5: It's hard for me to feel I can overstate how much that the relative constancy of GDP/capita growth (or at least the small long term variation in trend), should be an absolutely basic framing fact for any national level politician or economic decision maker whatsoever.

Insensitive to: Trade policy - contrary to claims of vast complements to trade. Age demographics - contrary to the burdens of aging of population and the benefits of Baby Booms. Increases in immigrant share - contrary to claims of vast complements from migrant skill matching (their low skill can take our low skill jobs freeing us for high skill; their high skill can do high skill jobs better than we, trickling down to higher wages for us in median skill jobs) and increases to division of labour. For better or worse.

Of course that doesn't mean that changes in these elements can't matter. E.g. maybe migrant share doesn't matter because migrants are all largely from pretty similar European cultures and weren't much selected for skill. Maybe trade policy doesn't matter because divergent choices in trade policy have fairly little influence on real trade volumes.

But suggests that they haven't mattered very much in our post-Industrial Revolution history. That should really temper per capita growth based arguments that we should argue for policy changes that will lead to vast changes in the political and demographic (class, age, ethnic) constitution of countries. It should encourage some intellectual humility among those that make those claims.

Again, that doesn't mean that those arguments can't be made on other groups than GDP/cap growth (e.g. total GDP, moral grounds, cultural and economic qualities uncaptured by GDP/cap, national security)! But the burden is on those arguments to be made, and the position of a "Project Fear" that stagnation of GDP/cap growth will ensue unless exactly the changes a speaker wants are made, is weak.

(And of course, this also leads us to consider what growth is not insensitive to. Consider countries where GDP/cap growth has not been constant, which are mostly catchup economies: Western Europe in the early 20th century, China from the late 20th century to today. As illustrative examples.)

Rather #3 than =5!

" It's hard for me to feel I can overstate how much that the relative constancy of GDP/capita growth (or at least the small long term variation in trend), should be an absolutely basic framing fact ..."

Right, but GDP per capita growth isn't constant if you consider the very long run. In the 1600s, Western Europe supposedly grew on average 0.1% per year. From the mid 1700s, GDP per capita in Britain and in the American colonies started to grow at 0.3% a year to 0.5% a year by 1780 - 1720. This further increased to 1.5% by the mid 1800s and to 2.0% in the 1900s.

The U.S., Western Europe and U.K. have all fallen back to about 1% GDP per capita growth since 2000 but just a blip since the entire curve is on an exponential with per capita growth around 2050 at over 5% a year.

Todd, if correct that is different in all sorts of interesting ways. But also the same in the relative insensitivity of the general trend to the same factors, and so a similar general point applies about how policymakers should weight that they can affect the long term GDP/cap trends, and how much value should be placed on extreme and radical policies that make claims they can.

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