My Conversation with Hal Varian

Hal of course was in top form, here is the audio and transcript.  Excerpt:

COWEN: Why doesn’t business use more prediction markets? They would seem to make sense, right? Bet on ideas. Aggregate information. We’ve all read Hayek.

VARIAN: Right. And we had a prediction market. I’ll tell you the problem with it. The problem is, the things that we really wanted to get a probability assessment on were things that were so sensitive that we thought we would violate the SEC rules on insider knowledge because, if a small group of people knows about some acquisition or something like that, there is a secret among this small group.

You might like to have a probability assessment of whether that would go through. But then, anybody who looks at the auction is now an insider. So there’s a problem in you have to find things that (a) are of interest to the company but (b) do not reveal financially critical information. That’s not so easy to do.

COWEN: But there are plenty of times when insider trading is either illegal or not enforced. Plenty of countries where it’s been legal, and there we don’t see many prediction markets in companies, if any. So it seems like it ought to have to be some more general explanation, or no?

VARIAN: Well, I’m just referring to our particular case. There was another example at the same time: Ford was running a market, and Ford would have futures markets on the price of gasoline, which was very relevant to them. It was an external price and so on. And it extended beyond the usual futures market.

That’s the other thing. You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re just duplicating a market that already exists. You have to add something to it to make it attractive to insiders.

So we ran a number of cases internally. We found some interesting behavior. There’s an article by Bo Cowgill on our experience with this auction. But ultimately, we ran into this problem that I described. The most valuable predictions would be the most sensitive predictions, and you didn’t want to do that in public.

And:

COWEN: But then you must think we’re not doing enough theory today. Or do you think it’s simply exhausted for a while?

VARIAN: Well, one area of theory that I’ve found very exciting is algorithmic mechanism design. With algorithmic mechanism design, it’s a combination of computer science and economics.

The idea is, you take the economic model, and you bring in computational costs, or show me an algorithm that actually solves that maximization problem. Then on the other side, the computer side, you build incentives into the algorithms. So if multiple people are using, let’s say, some communications protocol, you want them all to have the right incentives to have the efficient use of that protocol.

So that’s a case where it really has very strong real-world applications to doing this — everything from telecommunications to AdWords auctions.

And:

VARIAN: Yeah. I would like to separate the blockchain from just cryptographic protocols in general. There’s a huge demand for various kinds of cryptography.

Blockchain seems to be, by its nature, relatively inefficient. As an economist, I don’t like this proof of work that this is. I don’t like the fact that there’s one version of the blockchain that has to keep being updated. I don’t like the fact that it’s so slow. There are lots of things that you could fix, and I expect to see them fixed in the future, but I would say, crypto in general — big deal. Blockchain — not so much.

And finally:

COWEN: Now, users seem to like them both, but if I just look at the critics, why does it seem to me that Facebook is more hated than Google?

VARIAN: Well, you know, I actually don’t use Facebook. I don’t have any moral objection to it. I just don’t have the time to do it. [laughs] There are other things of this sort that can end up soaking up a substantial amount of time.

I think that one of the reasons — and this is, of course, quite speculative — I think that one of the reasons people are most worried about Facebook is they don’t really understand the limits of what can be done at Facebook. Whereas at Google, I think we’re pretty clear that we’re showing you ads. We’re showing you ads that are targeted to one thing or another, but that’s how the information’s used.

So, you’ve got this specific application in our case. In Facebook’s case, it’s more amorphous, I think.

There is much, much more at the link.

*One Giant Leap*

The author is Charles Fishman, and the subtitle is The Impossible Mission That Flew us to the Moon.  Here is one excerpt:

It [NASA’s Mission Control] was the first real-time computing facility IBM had ever installed.

And:

…the Apollo flight computer was the first anywhere to have responsibility for human lives.

That computer had 73 kilobytes of memory and had 0.000002 percent of the computing capacity of an iPhone.  And don’t forget this:

At least while you were headed outbound, you’d have plenty of fuel to correct things.  Coming home from the Moon is a lot less forgiving.  The heat of reentry, the splashdown targeting into the ocean, and the g-forces piling up on the spaceship and the astronauts inside combine to create a very thin slice of air you need to slide your spaceship into.  The command module had just 1 degree of latitude on reentry.  Too shallow an angle, and your space capsule skips off the top of the atmosphere like a flat stone — out into space and a wide orbit around the Earth, from which there was no rescue.  Too steep a cut into the atmosphere, and the speed, heat, and g-forces would combine to incinerate your space capsule.  And unlike on the way out, on the way back there are no go-arounds.

Definitely recommended, gripping from start to finish.  Overall the best history of how the space revolution and the computer revolution were interconnected.

What I’ve been reading

1. Graeme D. Ruxton, Nature’s Giants: The Biology and Evolution of the World’s Largest Lifeforms.  Picture books are underrated!  They are like a better version of Wikipedia, and with glossy paper at that.

2. Neil Irwin, How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World: The Definitive Guide to Adapting and Succeeding in High-Performance Careers, is another excellent book by Neil Irwin, and it is both subtler and broader than the title alone would indicate.

3. Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan, Game Changer: AlphaZero’s Groundbreaking Chess Strategies and the Promise of AI.  Everything you wanted to know about AlphaZero and already have been asking, lots of games and illustrations but also lots of plain text.  Definitely recommended, if you care that is.  AlphaZero, by the way, never plays 1. e4, mostly because it sees 1…e5 in response as giving Black nearly equal chances.

4. John Brockman, editor, The Last Unknowns: Deep, Elegant, Profound UNANSWERED QUESTIONS About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life.  My nominated question was: “How far are we from wishing to return to the technologies of the year 1900?”  NB: you get only the questions, not the answers.

Leah A. Plunkett, Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk About Our Kids Online, high time there has been a book with this message, and this is it.

Fiona MacCarthy, Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus also has plenty of interesting information about Alma Mahler, beyond what is in the Tom Lehrer song.

Chris Sagers, United States v. Apple: Competition in America, is a useful look at the antitrust case over eBook pricing, though the actual book does not start until p.79 or so.

The Libra reserve, discussion of background documents

Here is a 4-pp. appendix of sorts to the core Libra white paper, and it has some of the details that will be of most interest to monetary economists.  I have learned:

1. The Libra will be backed by a bundle of pretty safe, pretty mainstream assets (I don’t know which ones).  It is presented as one hundred percent reserve, though no system with fluctuating prices and also float really will be pure one hundred percent.  And the reserve is in “low-risk” assets, attention all critics of the Basel capital standards.

1b. The paper has a chance to say that the custodians will be separately capitalized, with no cross-collateralization, for purposes of Libra protection, but it does not do so.  I would recommend that change.

2. The assets in the reserve fund will come from users of Libra (how will they be charged?) and from “investors in the separate Investment Token.”  Furthermore “The funds for the coins that will be distributed as incentives will come from a private placement to investors.”

3. What about the public choice issues?  Won’t banks insist — correctly or not — that this represents competition and part of the payments system, and thus it should be brought under deposit insurance control and taxation, Fed regulation, various bank holding company acts, Monetary Control Act of 1980, and so on?  Have banks ever lost a political battle of this kind?

4. We are told “The association does not set monetary policy.  It mints and burns coins only in response to demand from authorized resellers.”  Maybe, of course there are hundreds of years of debate on that one, google “real bills doctrine,” noting that here we have a semi-dominant private issuer rather than a perfectly competitive banking system.  The association policy on interest rate spreads, floats, and credit, of course, can end up being a monetary policy de facto.  I don’t want to prejudge this one against Libra, since to me the validity of the real bills doctrine is a genuinely open question, but it is worth noting that most economists would not agree with the doctrine in most settings.

4b. Won’t some margins arise where there are fractional reserves, even if Facebook/association/Libra are not the ones doing it?  Imagine that a new class of intermediaries arises, offering some intermediate services between the core system and retail use, but not adhering to the 100% reserve provisions.  The logic behind this tendency seems pretty strong, for better or worse, and it can reintroduce risk into the system.  Someone wants to be holding higher yielding assets and then be making claims on them be liquid through the Libra system.  But Facebook/Libra would not seem to have the power to regulate the surrounding system of intermediaries, or is that somehow to be done through covenant (“you can’t use Libra unless you promise not to pile your intermediaries on top of it”)?

5. The crypto angle does seem like a sideshow, for me that is not a problem.

6. Imagine a private payment company issuing SDRs, or some other similar basket, based on 100% backing.  They would offer you new transactions technologies for greater convenience (WhatsApp?), in return receiving access to your transactions data and sharing some of the float and spread all around, to merchants and customers too.  Perhaps that is one way of thinking about how the plan works and where the gains from trade come from?

7. Is there a provision in the system for zero or low-interest loans?  Can I send small amounts of “libras,” say to pay my water bill, without first having them in my account?  Might sellers sign up to participate in such a system, sharing part of the credit risk with Libra?  And is there a way to do it, with crypto and layered assets and float and implicit positions, so that all this is not subject to the usual consumer credit regulations?  Is that part of how the system will make money and attract interest?  This is just speculation, my question marks here are literally question marks, not tricks to make you think that is how it will be.

8. “Who holds intraday credit risk?” is always a question worth asking.

9. Does any of this try to arbitrage away the fees earned by credit card companies for their intermediation?

10. What if the market for the underlying currencies and assets is (for a while?) more liquid than the market for Libras?  Say the basket values adjust before Libra values do.  What kind of arbitrage opportunities does that create?  If we know Libras are due to depreciate, is there a higher nominal rate of interest on them, as with traditional currencies in an international multi-currency setting?  What are the equivalents of covered and uncovered interest parity in this setting?  Does a kind of “program trading” arise to perform the arbitrage?  Can perfect redemption be offered credibly while the prices are still out of whack?

I still don’t feel I have a great handle on the plan, but those are my immediate reactions.  You should take them with a grain of salt, as they may be based on misunderstandings or perhaps even plan incompleteness.  I look forward to learning more.

Addendum: If anyone connected to Libra would wish to send more information or address these questions, I would gladly run that material on MR.

The new Facebook cryptocurrency

Here is a thread on the new project from those running it, here is the White Paper (which I have yet to read).  Here is an FTAlphaville analysis of how it may not use a blockchain after all.  Note this:

Another important aspect of the Libra Blockchain is Move, its new programming language. This programming language will, says Facebook, allow users to define their own smart contracts in the future. Smart contracts are agreements written in code whose clauses are automatically enforced when a set of pre-determined criteria is met.

Any comments from the experts in the MR reading audience?  By the way, if you haven’t been paying attention the Facebook share price is up 44.2% this year.  Alphabet is up 4.7%.

Here is a further FTAlphaville analysis: “Managing a pegged monetary reserve system isn’t all that easy.”

Here is a Hacker News thread.

Why China is not close to democratizing

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

It’s also worth thinking through exactly what changes Chinese democracy is supposed to bring. China’s urbanization has been so rapid — it has had more urban than rural residents for less than a decade — that a national election might well reflect the preferences of rural voters, which after all most Chinese were until very recently. If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? China is also growing rich during a time of extreme economic inequality, which may make many Chinese elites think twice about democratization.

Compare China’s situation to that of Taiwan, which is much smaller, does not have a comparable preponderance of rural population, and started becoming democratic in an era when inequality was not so extreme. There was enough of a sense of a common Taiwanese national interest for democracy to be trusted, and furthermore Taiwan has always been keen to distinguish itself from a non-democratic mainland.

What about social issues? One recent study has shown that Communist Party members are more likely to have progressive views on issues of gender equality, political pluralism and openness to international exchange than do the Chinese public at large. Again, if you are an elite among the Chinese citizenry, it is not a sure thing that you will do better with democracy than under the Communist Party.

There are many other points at the link.

*The Great Successor*

The author is Ana Fifield, and the subtitle is The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.  I’ve never read a book that has so much actual information about Kim, most of all about his early time in Switzerland.  Or how about this?:

Kim Jong Un’s efforts to clamp down on illegal drugs did not work.

At the time he left North Korea, Mr. Kang estimated that about 80 percent of the adults in Hoeryong were using ice [meth], consuming almost two pounds of the highly potent drug every single day…

For many North Koreans, taking meth became an essential part of daily life, a way ot ease the grinding boredom and deprivations of their existence.  For that reason, drugs can never be eradicated, he said.

Men are not allowed to have long hair, the concentration camps are reputed to be worse than those of the Nazis, and there is a detailed account of the rise of the “new rich” class in Pyongyang.  Plastic surgery has arrived as well.

Definitely recommended, the book also serves up the inside story on the Dennis Rodman visit to North Korea.  By the way, Kim hates the showiness of the Harlem Globetrotters.

*The Great Cauldron: A History of Southeastern Europe*, by Marie-Janine Calic

This book is perhaps the best general overview of its chosen subject area.  One part I enjoyed were the discussions of how much the Balkans once had numerous transport hubs for Europe, Belgrade being one but not the only example:

Thessaloniki was among the cities that experienced an economic boom.  The city was home to the third most important port in the Ottoman Empire.  Between 1880 and 1912, the volume of goods traded in Thessaloniki doubled from one to two million tons.  There were railway connections to Vienna and Istanbul.  new local factories produced flannel, woolen, and cotton products, as well as cigarettes.  Important exports included leather, silkworms, raw materials for textiles, and especially tobacco, the production of which took off around the turn of the century.  Thirty-eight of fifty large companies in the city were owned by Jewish families…The majority of these families specialized in the import-export business.

And:

Between 1850 and 1913, the value of exports from Serbia increased by a factor of five, and from Romania by a factor of fourteen.

You can order the book here.  I think about the Balkans a great deal (and enjoy visiting there), if only because they are one simple alternate scenario for what the rest of world history will look like.

Whale carrying costs > whale liquidity premium

Or so it seems to me, here is the headline: Washington state waterfront owners asked to take dead whales

Here is part of the story:

At least one Washington state waterfront landowner has said yes to a request to allow dead gray whales to decompose on their property.

So many gray whale carcasses have washed up this year that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries says it has run out of places to take them.

In response, the agency has asked landowners to volunteer property as a disposal site for the carcasses. By doing so, landowners can support the natural process of the marine environment, and skeletons left behind can be used for educational purposes, officials said.

But the carcasses can be up to 40 feet (12 meters) long. That’s a lot to decay, and it could take months. Landowner Mario Rivera of Port Hadlock, Washington, told KING5-TV that the smell is intermittent and “isn’t that bad.”

“It is really a unique opportunity to have this here on the beach and monitor it and see how fast it goes,” said his wife, Stefanie Worwag.

Via Anecdotal.

Sunday assorted links

1. The idea of prosecuting prostitutes’ clients is spreading, including possibly to the Netherlands (The Economist).

2. “Online, sobriety has become “the new black,” asserts a recovery site called, yes, Hip Sobriety.” (NYT. link here)

3. Critique of social psychology, not just the usual stuff.

4. Isn’t this abuse of Haitian orphans a way bigger scandal than most of what comes out of universities these days?

5. Data on what universities mean when they talk about diversity.