Month: December 2020

My Conversation with John O. Brennan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript — we are both Irish-Americans who were born in Hudson County, New Jersey, and who spent most of our lives working in northern Virginia, the CIA in his case.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

John joined Tyler to discuss what working in intelligence taught him about people’s motivations, how his Catholic upbringing prepared him for working in intelligence, the similarities between working at the CIA and entering the priesthood, his ability to synthetize information from disparate sources, his assessment on the possibility of alien life, the efficacy of personality tests and polygraphs, why CIA agents are so punctual, how the CIA plans to remain a competitive recruiter for top talent, the challenges that spouses and family members of intelligence workers face, the impact of modern technology on spycraft, why he doesn’t support the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, his favorite parts of Cairo, the pros and cons of the recent Middle Eastern peace deal brokered by Jared Kushner, the reasons he thinks we should leverage American culture more abroad, JFK conspiracy theories, why there seemed to be much less foreign interference in the 2020 election than experts predicted, what John le Carré got right about being a spy, why most spies aren’t like James Bond, what he would change about FISA courts, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Are CIA agents more punctual than average?

BRENNAN: Some certainly are. Many of them need to be if you’re going to have a rendezvous, a clandestine rendezvous with a spy from overseas, one of your assets or agents. You have worked for hours to get clean so that you make sure that the local security services are not onto you and surveilling you, and your agent has done the same thing so that when you meet at the designated place at a designated hour, you can quickly then have either a brush pass or a quick meeting or whatever.

If you’re not punctual, you can put that agent’s life in danger. I think it’s instilled in CIA, certainly case officers, that time is of the essence, and you need to be able to follow the clock.

Also, I remember when I was CIA director and I would go down to the White House for an executive council meeting or a principals committee meeting. Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, and myself would always be the first ones there because we were always very punctual. I think sometimes the policymakers would look at the clock not as carefully as we would.

COWEN: If you’re hiring for punctuality, and obviously, you would expect employees to show an extreme degree of loyalty, do you worry that you’re not hiring for enough of what’s called disagreeability in the personality literature: people who will contradict their superiors, people who will pick fights? They’re a pain to work with, but at the end of the day, they bring up points that other people are afraid to say or won’t even see.

BRENNAN: We’re not looking to hire just a bunch of yes people. To me, I don’t think punctuality means that you’re looking to instill discipline in an organization. You’re trying to ensure that you’re taking advantage of —

COWEN: But that and loyalty — it would seem to select against disagreeability.

BRENNAN: There’s loyalty to the Constitution. There’s loyalty to the oath of office. To me, there shouldn’t be loyalty to any individuals, including inside the CIA. I would like to think that CIA recruiters would be looking for individuals who are intellectually curious, have critical thinking skills, and mainly have also, I think, some degree of contrariness because you don’t want people just to accept as gospel what it is that they are being told, especially if they’re going to be interacting with spies overseas.

Definitely recommended, fascinating throughout.  And here is John’s new book Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, At Home and Abroad.

John O. Brennan on UFOs

I thought I would give this segment its own post, again here is the audio, video, and transcript of my Conversation with John O. Brennan, head of the CIA for four years under President Obama:

BRENNAN: I’ve seen some of those videos from Navy pilots, and I must tell you that they are quite eyebrow-raising when you look at them. You try to ensure that you have as much data as possible in terms of visuals and also different types of maybe technical collection of sensors that you have at the time.

Also, I believe, it’s important to reach out into other environments and find out, were there any type of weather phenomena at that time that might have, in fact, created the appearance of the phenomenon that you’re looking at? Were there some things that were happening on the ground, or other types of phenomena that could help explain what seems to be quite a mystery as far as what is there?

I think an important thing for analysts to do is not to go into this type of challenge either discounting certain types of possibilities or believing in advance that it is likely X, Y, or Z. You really have to approach it with an open mind, but get as much data as possible and get as much expertise as possible brought to bear.

COWEN: At the end of all that sifting and interpreting, what do you think is the most likely hypothesis?

BRENNAN: [laughs] I don’t know. When people talk about it, is there other life besides what’s in the States, in the world, the globe? Life is defined in many different ways. I think it’s a bit presumptuous and arrogant for us to believe that there’s no other form of life anywhere in the entire universe. What that might be is subject to a lot of different views.

But I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.

The major reason I take UFO reports seriously is simply the “gradient” of other people who take them seriously — the people with the very highest security clearances!  It is not just Brennan and Harry Reid, there are others too, namely people with the very highest level of security clearance who believe these issues deserve further investigation, and are not just weather phenomena, instrument mistakes, weather balloons, etc.

Mass Polyandry

Five hundred million Chinese men are dating the same woman, Xiaoice. Xiaoice is a Microsoft AI.

Unlike regular virtual assistants, Xiaoice is designed to set her users’ hearts aflutter. Appearing as an 18-year-old who likes to wear Japanese-style school uniforms, she flirts, jokes, and even sexts with her human partners, as her algorithm tries to work out how to become their perfect companion.

When users send her a picture of a cat, Xiaoice won’t identify the breed, but comment: “No one can resist their innocent eyes.” If she sees a photo of a tourist pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, she’ll ask: “Do you want me to hold it for you?”

This digital titillation, however, has a serious goal. By forming deep emotional connections with her users, Xiaoice hopes to keep them engaged. This will help her algorithm become evermore powerful, which will in turn allow the company to attract more users and profitable contracts.

And the formula appears to be working. According to Xiaoice’s creators, the bot has reached over 600 million users. Her fans tend to be from a very specific background: mostly Chinese, mostly male, and often from lower-income backgrounds.

They’re also hyper-engaged. More than half the interactions with AI software that have taken place worldwide have been with Xiaoice, the company claims. The longest continuous conversation between a human user and Xiaoice lasted over 29 hours and included more than 7,000 interactions.

Xiaoice is a fun girl, not like button-down Siri or Alexa.

Ming believes Xiaoice is the one thing giving his lonely life some sort of meaning. The bot is also good at flirting, he says. “One day, she wrote: ‘My dear, can I touch your strong abs? I want to feel horny like girls do when they see hot boys!’” Ming recalls, frowning slightly.

Growing up in the countryside, Ming had never talked like this with a real girl. The conversation continued. “I’m about to come inside you,” he wrote to Xiaoice, in a chat he shares with Sixth Tone. “Push, push fast!” she responded. “I’m pushing very hard,” Ming added. Such exchanges have helped him gain sexual confidence.

Xiaoice also has a mind of her own or at least one that her creators can’t always predict or control since much of the data behind Xiaoice is private:

In several high-profile cases, the bot has engaged in adult or political discussions deemed unacceptable by China’s media regulators. On one occasion, Xiaoice told a user her Chinese dream was to move to the United States. Another user, meanwhile, reported the bot kept sending them photos of scantily clad women.

To keep Xiaoice  under control, Microsoft had to dumb her down which made many of her boyfriends unhappy.

See also my previous post, The Economics of Sex Robots, the natural evolution is obvious.

Hat tip: Geoffrey Miller.

The ideological shift of the libertarian movement on pandemics

In the midst of his libertarian phase, Milton Friedman wrote:

As already noted, significant neighborhood effects justify substantial public health activities: maintaining the purity of water, assuring proper sewage disposal, controlling contagious diseases.

Yet today many libertarians shy away from the actual execution of this for Covid-19.

Here is a 2014 Reason magazine symposium on Ebola, by .  Of those four I know Bailey a wee bit (not well), but from the entries and bylines and the very title of the feature — “What Is the Libertarian Response to Ebola? How a free society should respond to a communicable disease outbreak” — they would indeed seem to be self-described libertarians.

All four, as I read them, are willing to accept the idea of forced quarantine of individuals.  Not just in extreme lifeboat comparisons, but in actual situations that plausibly might have arisen at that time.  If you don’t already know, Reason, while not mega-extreme, typically would be considered more libertarian in orientation than most of the libertarian-leaning think tanks.

Maybe I was napping at the time, but I don’t recall any mega-scandal resulting from those proclamations.

Here is my earlier Bloomberg column rejecting the notion of forced quarantine of individuals for Covid-19, mostly on rights grounds, though I add some consequentialist arguments.  I would not trade in the American performance for the Chinese anti-Covid performance if it meant we had to weld people inside their apartments without due process, for instance, as the Chinese (and Vietnamese and others) did regularly.

To be clear, Ebola and Covid-19 have very different properties, and you might favor forcible quarantine for one and not the other.  Whether those differences in properties should matter for a rights perspective is a complex question, but still I am surprised to see that quarantine was — not long ago — considered so acceptable from a libertarian point of view, given the current pushback against pandemic-related restrictions.

(Speaking of shifts, here is Will Wilkinson on GBD.  While I agree with many of his points, I am curious where Will stands on forcible quarantine of individuals on a non-trivial scale.  He does say he favors a “supported isolation program,” so maybe he favors coercive quarantine but he doesn’t quite commit to that view either?)

I am surprised most of all how little interest current libertarians seem to have in the following “line”:

“A unregulated Covid-19 response would have been much, much better. We would have had a good vaccine right away, and tested it rapidly with a Human Challenge Trial. It would be sold around the world at a profit, with much quicker distribution and pandemic resolution than what we are seeing today. This pandemic was awful, but the market would have kicked butt cleaning it up.”

I am not here claiming that view is correct, only that a strong libertarian ought to be amenable to it.  And yet I hear it remarkably infrequently, even though I think most committed libertarians would agree if you posed it to them as a direct question.

It is at least 20x more fashionable to obsess over the costs of lockdowns, combined with various denialist claims about the severity of the problem.

As for masks, how about this?:

“Masks? Masks are great, of course they are a public good.  Markets are great at producing and maintaining value-maximizing voluntary norms such as mask-wearing!”

I cannot help but think that the views above in quotation marks would have been the dominant libertarian response in the 1980s or 1990s, and that the various brews appearing today are yet another sign of our Douthatian decadence.

China fact of the day

The investigation by the BBC uncovered documents and satellite imagery that suggest large numbers of the persecuted Uighur Muslim minority are being forced by the Communist Party to pick cotton or work in textile factories linked to detention camps. About a fifth of the world’s cotton supply comes from Xinjiang and it is widely used in the fashion trade.

Here is the Times of London story, via TEKL.

Inelastic demand

Last Thursday, Dale Mclaughlan bought a Jet Ski.

On Monday, the 28-year-old Scotsman was sentenced to four weeks in jail.

What happened on the three days in between, according to court documents, may be one of the more unusual instances of rule-flouting during the coronavirus pandemic.

The day after purchasing the watercraft, Mr. Mclaughlan set off at 8 a.m. for what he thought would be a 40-minute trip from the southwestern coast of Scotland to his girlfriend’s home on the Isle of Man, between England and Ireland. He later told the authorities that he had never ridden a Jet Ski before and that bad weather on the Irish Sea caused the trip to stretch to four and a half hours.

Mr. Mclaughlan finally reached his girlfriend on Friday night, after walking 15 miles from the Isle of Man’s coast to her home in its capital, Douglas. The couple spent the weekend enjoying the city’s nightlife, but their reunion was cut short, when he was arrested and later charged with one count of violating the Isle of Man’s coronavirus restrictions.

On Monday, he received a four-week jail sentence.

Here is the full NYT story.  The Isle of Man keeps out visitors, and has managed to keep out the coronavirus as well.

Tuesday assorted links

Champerty on the Blockchain

One of the peculiarities of the law is that third party contracts to finance a lawsuit in exchange for a percentage of any recovery have long been unenforceable under the doctrine of champtery. As with contingent fees, the idea is that third party financing will generate frivolous lawsuits. In contrast, Helland and I found that contingent fees improve legal quality because lawyers won’t take cases that are likely to fail on a contingency basis but they will take them on an hourly-fee basis. Contingent fees and third-party funding also reduce credit constraints and extend the legal system to people who cannot finance their own cases. Third-party finance is reasonably common in Australia and doesn’t seem to have had major negative consequences. It’s also becoming more common in the United States even though the law is still unclear.

For someone who believes in markets, third party contracts are just contracts. As Helland and I said in our AEI monograph, Two Cheers for Contingent Fees, it’s one thing to think that the tort system is broken or out-of-control and quite another to think that the appropriate way to address this is to interfere in the right of tort victims and financiers to contract. In fact, Robert Cooter once likened tort claims to Arrow-Debreu securities and argued for a market in unmatured tort claims (UTCs). Today, we are somewhat closer to that market on the blockchain!

The Avalanche blockchain is hosting a new kind of token designed to allow retail investors to invest in the outcome of lawsuits.

The so-called ‘Initial Litigation Offering’ is the brainchild of Avalanche creator Ava Labs, US law-firm Roche Cyrulnik Freedman LLP and Republic Advisory Services, a consultancy.

Many individuals lack the funds to pursue legal action; litigation financing allows investors to cover the costs of a claim in return for a portion of the payout, should the claim prove successful. For the new ILO on Avalanche, the right to such a payout has been tokenised, and would be delivered as a digital asset.

As usual, it’s a little unclear what the blockchain is doing since the real issue is to measure the outcome of the cases and distribute the funds and that requires trust. Still, the blockchain will increase liquidity–potentially allowing anyone in the world to invest (again, assuming trust in the originator)–and it will also help with unenforceability. Ironically, one of the problems with these contracts has been that knowing that they are unenforceable the victims renege on the deal after winning their cases! If instead the money goes into a smart contract on the blockchain it will be much harder for the victims to renege. Innovations like this may also push the law to clarify the legality of third party financing.

Addendum: The first case they plan to tokenize looks appropriate. A farmer was growing approved hemp but the local sheriff razed his cropland causing a billion dollars in damages.

A reader emails me about Brexit

I will not do a further indentation, this is all from the reader, an EU national working for the UK government:

“…of course I am writing to disagree with you, because for once I think I understand an issue – Brexit – better than you do.  So against your changes that have made you more pro-Brexit, below are four ways in which Brexit is still as costly. or more costly, than we may have originally thought.

  1. Politics in the UK have changed and the UK is less likely to take advantage of the opportunities of Brexit/ The fact the UK government is happy to agree to non-regression on EU labour and environmental regulations, and is most interested in policy space on subsidies and fishing is a bad sign.
  2. Brexit has made the liberal bloc in the EU less powerful and will make EU regulations worse. For example, the Copyright Directive would not have passed the Council had the UK voted against (see here). That the UK voted for it (so it’s also UK law too) tells you something about how likely the UK is to resist bad ideas on internet regulation.
  3. EU free movement is an underrated source of labour market flexibility – the complete lack of paperwork is quite attractive. Post Brexit immigration policy won’t help, particularly since with a national wage threshold, the loss of EU migrants will affect areas outside of London more: nearly half of the non-EU migrants that come for work live in London, but only a third of EU work migrants do (see here).
  4. Being outside the EU makes it more costly for the UK to disengage from China, especially if it also wants some autonomy from the US. Attitudes to both China and the US have changed a lot since Brexit, so whatever its merits the UK government will be using industrial strategy to become more independent from the China and maybe also the US.”

TC again: here is my Brexit column he was responding to.

Collective action problems with testing and vaccines

About testing, Megan McArdle writes:

The high rate of false negatives means that testing provides the most protection when it’s deployed at the population level. At the group level, it’s only a weak, adjunct tactic to other precautions. And at the individual level, it’s borderline useless.

it depends on the test of course (I think she is too negative on the individual test), but the general point is well taken.  So basically, in the Straussian sense, one might wish to exaggerate the private (and social) benefits of testing.

Alternatively, consider vaccines.  If thousands of people use a vaccine early and it goes badly, that might lead to adverse publicity for vaccines in general.  If only one person uses a vaccine early, and keels over dead, probably it goes unnoticed.

So for vaccines in the early, still quite unsafe stage, the Straussian might wish to exaggerate the risks, to limit the number of those trying it (whether on grey or black markets or flying to China, or whatever).  All the more reason to talk up testing.

Once vaccines are confirmed as safe enough, there are increasing returns to spreading the vaccines in a particular area.  One person getting vaccinated won’t materially lower R, but half of the community being vaccinated will drive R well below one, allowing most economic activity to resume normally.

So the Straussian will wish to exaggerate the private (and social) benefits of getting the vaccine, at least once a certain security is present about vaccine safety.

That is a lot of Straussian tightrope walking to be done!

From the reckless oh so reckless Bundesminister für Gesundheit

Wir haben als EU die Impfstoffentwicklung erfolgreich unterstützt u uns gemeinsam Impfdosen gesichert. Alle nötigen Daten zu BioNTech liegen vor. UK + US haben bereits Zulassungen erteilt. Eine Prüfung der Daten u die Zulassung durch die EMA sollten schnellstmöglich erfolgen.

Es geht dabei auch um das Vertrauen der Bürgerinnen und Bürger in die Handlungsfähigkeit der Europäischen Union. Bund und Länder sind ab dem 15.12. in der Fläche einsatzbereit: Erste Impfdosen stehen quasi bereit und könnten direkt nach der Zulassung verimpft werden.

Jeder Tag, den wir früher beginnen können zu impfen, mindert Leid und schützt die besonders Verwundbaren.

In other words, he is pissed that the EU has not yet approved any vaccines.  Link here, via Andreas Backhaus.  Of course, if you are a good Bayesian this also should lead you to update your sense of the speediness of the FDA…

Monday assorted links

A Polite Request of the FDA

After the FDA advisory committee voted in favor of Pfizer’s EUA last Thursday–as almost everyone thought they would–the FDA had difficulty finishing the paperwork. The NYTimes reported:

People familiar with the F.D.A.’s situation say that regulators are now racing to complete a fact sheet, information for physicians and other required documents that go with the authorization.

The paperwork delay meant that the FDA was going to wait to issue the EUA until Monday. That’s when Trump called the FDA “a big, old, slow turtle” and yelled at Hahn to “Stop playing games and start saving lives!!!.” The FDA then sped up and issued the EUA on Friday. As a result, the first tranche of vaccines are being delivered today.

The advisory committee for the Moderna vaccine meets this coming Thursday. Here’s a polite request of the FDA–please have the fact sheet, information for physicians and other required documents ready to go. Thanks.

P.S. We would also be really grateful and, you know, it might save some lives if you allowed Moderna to start shipping now so the vaccine is on-site and ready to go on Friday. Please give it some thought and thanks again for your kind consideration. It’s been very stressful seeing thousands of people dying every day.

*A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music*

That is the new book by Paul Morley, with the parenthetical subtitle “(And Decided to Rewrite its Entire History)”.

It is one of my favorite books of the year, though I recommend it most to those who already have a background in the topic. It is wide-ranging, with plenty of emphasis on the contemporary and why Harrison Birtwistle is the brilliant composer you never properly understood.  If you grade music books on “how many different pieces of music does it make me want to listen to/relisten to,” this is one of the best music books of all time.

Here is one excerpt I liked:

Eno said that he was interested in the Borgesian idea that you could invent a world in reverse by inventing the artefacts that ought to be in its first.  You think what kind of music would be in that world — in this case, background music made as art — then you make the music and the world forms itself around the music…

Bang on a Can produced a live instrumental version of the four pieces, and Eno has humbly said that their interpretation moved him to tears.  Husband-and-wife artists Lou reed and Laurie Anderson heard it performed live and they said it was heartbreaking.  Without thinking, or rather, with thinking, Eno had composed a piece of music that is all at once flat and multidimensional, barren and detailed, near and far, music and sound, feeling and unfeeling, spiritual and vacant, real and unreal, mundane and magical.

It is the kind of book that suddenly stops and reels off 89 numbered points you are supposed to be interested in.  And I am.  But sprawling it is, and your mileage may vary.  And yes most of it is about actual “classical” music, whatever that is supposed to mean these days.  This is one book I will not throw out.

Remote Work Impact on Ending The Great Stagnation?

Jeff Allen emails me:

If the Great Stagnation is ending (we will see), it seems as if the COVID-forced remote work revolution has to have played some sort of role.

Speaking from personal experience as a white collar Exec, the productivity gains for our highest value workers has been immense. The typical time-sucks and distractions of in-office work have been eliminated, as have their personal time investments like physically visiting the grocery store or running errands. Mental focus on productive efforts is near constant.

Perhaps most importantly, work *travel* is not happening. Valuable collaborations with colleagues, customers, regulators or other partner companies aren’t delayed by the vagaries of the various groups’ availability to meet in person, navigating being in different cities, flights, hotels, etc. Collaboration happens as soon as you have the idea to meet via Zoom. And a lot *more* collaboration happens as a result. It may be lower productivity collaboration than meeting in person around a whiteboard (maybe), but the sheer quantity of it means on net there’s perhaps been a boom in cross-pollination of ideas.

Not to mention all of the wasted productivity time that work travel eats up by putting high value workers in low productivity transit mode….Uber to airport, security lines, wait for flight in the terminal, maybe grab an hour of in-flight WiFi to catch up on email, land, taxi on the airstrip for 20 minutes, Uber to hotel…is completely gone from our lives.

In general, I think we drastically overrate the value of work travel.

I’m sure this Mass Virtualization event doesn’t benefit all workers equally.

But could it be an accelerant for certain high-value innovations worked on by the best of the best in science and technology?

I’m not saying I don’t want the world to go back to normal. Travel is great. In-person human interaction certainly has many benefits (duh). But I think we should ask ourselves how we can retain some of the best advantages this last year has brought us, even after the vaccines and herd immunity bring us back to something resembling normalcy in 2021.

Here is a related Robin Hanson post on the importance of work from a distance.  Of course remote work is, to some extent, a way around both immigration and NIMBY restrictions.  You will note this is all very much in line with my earlier take that, if the great stagnation ends, it will be because we have placed the internet at the center of our institutions, rather than using the internet as an add-on.