Words of wisdom from Vitalik Buterin

Both reasoning from behavioral-economic first principles, and my personal experience, people are at their most evil out of fear, not greed. Growth means there is less fear going around.

That is from Vitalik Buterin, reviewing Stubborn Attachments on TwitterAnd this:

I have a different take on “growth is good for harmony” (52-53). Arrow’s theorem doesn’t become more or less true if a conflict is between, say (+5, +1) vs (+1, +5) or (+2, -2) vs (-2, +2). Rather, the reason why the latter is more disharmonious is loss aversion.

And:

Redistributing money to the rich (p88) is risky because the rich are not necessarily aligned with general population. Caring for old people (p91) is valuable not just for the sake of present individuals, but also as a commitment to future old people who are present-day workers.

Here is my earlier Conversation with Vitalik Buterin.  And here is Garett Jones’s tweet storm on the book.

Underargued claims, installment #1437

From Tim Wu, in a recent NYT Op-Ed, he presents a polemic against “monopoly”:

Postwar observers like Senator Harley M. Kilgore of West Virginia argued that the German economic structure, which was dominated by monopolies and cartels, was essential to Hitler’s consolidation of power. Germany at the time, Mr. Kilgore explained, “built up a great series of industrial monopolies in steel, rubber, coal and other materials. The monopolies soon got control of Germany, brought Hitler to power and forced virtually the whole world into war.”

To suggest that any one cause accounted for the rise of fascism goes too far, for the Great Depression, anti-Semitism, the fear of communism and weak political institutions were also to blame. But as writers like Diarmuid Jeffreys and Daniel Crane have detailed, extreme economic concentration does create conditions ripe for dictatorship.

The first ten words are already a give-away, as is the beginning of the second cited paragraph.  For contrast, this is from Thomas Childers, well-known historian of Nazi Germany:

In his biography of Henry Kissinger, historian Niall Ferguson notes that “old man Thyssen” — that is, German steel magnate Fritz Thyssen — “bankrolled Hitler.” Businessmen such as Thyssen using their financial assets to assist the Nazis was “the mechanism by which Hitler was funded to come to power,” according to John Loftus, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Nazi war criminals.

But the Nazis were neither “financed” nor “bankrolled” by big corporate donors. During its rise to power, the Nazi Party did receive some money from corporate sources — including Thyssen and, briefly, industrialist Ernst von Borsig — but business leaders mostly remained at arm’s length. After all, Nazi economic policy was slippery: pro-business ideas swathed in socialist language. The party’s program, the Twenty-Five Points, called for the nationalization of corporations and trusts, revenue sharing, and the end of “interest slavery.”

And Wu’s two other cited sources?  Both focus mainly on IG Farben.  Diarmuid Jeffreys is “an award-winning journalist and television producer with thirty years’ experience in the media industry.”  He does have a book on IG Farben and the making of the German war machine, but it does not demonstrate how economic concentration brings totalitarian regimes to power, instead focusing on how IG Farben profited from Nazi war aims and helped build the Holocaust.  Earlier in the 1930s, IG Farben had in fact resisted Nazification. though the company did jump on board once it saw Nazification as inevitable.

Here is the Daniel Crane essay on antitrust and democracy.  Try this excerpt: “… it does not necessarily follow that Farben’s monopolistic position in the German chemical industry is causally related to the rise of fascism—or that monopoly enabled Nazism. Two matters should give us pause before making such an inference.”  Read p.14 to see what follows, but here is one tiny bit: “Though gigantic, Farben remained smaller than three American industrial concerns—General Motors, U.S. Steel, and Standard Oil. Nor was Farben’s wartime market power exceptional.”  On the other side of the ledger, Crane does note that fascistic governments, once in power, find it easier to take over and co-opt more highly concentrated industries, Farben being an example of that.  So there is an argument here, but mainly one data point and also some very serious qualifiers.

Does that all justify the sentence “But as writers like Diarmuid Jeffreys and Daniel Crane have detailed, extreme economic concentration does create conditions ripe for dictatorship.”?  “Ripe” is such a tricky, non-causal word.

I would instead stress that war, civil war, scapegoating, and deflation create the conditions “ripe for dictatorship.”  You might want to toss Russia and China into the regression equation, or how about Cuba and North Korea and Albania and Pol Pot’s Cambodia?  How would the coefficient on industrial concentration end up looking?  I’d like to know.

When big business is the target, and tech in particular, the standards of proof for Op-Eds seem to decline.  Somehow, because we all know that the big tech companies are bad, or jeopardizing democracy, it is OK to make weakly argued claims.

Hey, wait a minute!

In November 1931 Churchill also published an article entitled ‘Fifty Years Hence’ in Maclean’s Magazine, in which he made some absurd predictions — that we would grow only those parts of chickens we wanted to eat, for example — but also some astonishingly accurate ones.  ‘Wireless telephones and television…

That is from the new and excellent Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny.  It is true of course that the fifty years prediction was off.  Here is the Churchill essay.

Monday assorted links

1. Profile of Claire Lehmann.

2. Profile of Shane Parrish and Farnam Street (NYT).

3. With @RyanHawk12 on The Learning Leader Show – Talked about developing skills for what is scarce, Stubborn Attachments, & having a complete dedication to your craft http://bit.ly/tylercowenryanhawk.

4. The Future Library — books that will not be published until their authors die (NYT).

5. New journal allows academics to publish controversial articles under a pseudonym (while they are still alive).

What do #1, #4, and #5 on this list have in common?  Three such items in one day?  Is it possible that Leo Strauss is underrated?

The philosophy and practicality of Emergent Ventures

Let’s start with some possible institutional failures in mainstream philanthropy.  Many foundations have large staffs, and so a proposal must go through several layers of approval before it can receive support or even reach the desk of the final decision-maker.  Too many vetoes are possible, which means relatively conservative, consensus-oriented proposals emerge at the end of the process.  Furthermore, each layer of approval is enmeshed in an agency game, further cementing the conservatism.  It is not usually career-enhancing to advance a risky or controversial proposal to one’s superiors.

There is yet another bias: the high fixed costs of processing any request discriminate against very small proposals, which either are not worthwhile to approve or they are never submitted in the first place.

Finally, foundations often become captured by their staffs.  The leaders become fond of their staffs, try to keep them in the jobs, regard the staff members as a big part of their audience, and adopt the perspectives of their staffs, more so as time passes.  That encourages conservatism all the more, because the foundation leaders do not want their staffs to go away, and so they act to preserve financial and reputational capital.

To restate those biases:

  1. Too much conservatism
  2. Too few very small grants
  3. Too much influence for staff

So how might those biases be remedied?

Why not experiment with only a single layer of no?

Have a single individual say yes or no on each proposal — final word, voila!  Of course that individual can use referees and conferees as he or she sees fit.

The single judge could be an expert in some of the relevant subject areas of the proposals (that is sometimes the case in foundations, but even then the expertise of the foundation evaluators can decay).

This arrangement also can promise donors 100% transmission of their money to recipients, or close to that.  If someone gives $1 million to the fund, the award winners receive the full $1 million.  This is rare in non-profits.  (In the case of Emergent Ventures there are unbudgeted time costs for me and my assistant, who prints out the proposals, and the paper costs of the printing get charged to general operating expenses at Mercatus.  Still, a $1 million grant at the margin leads to $1 million in actual awards.  I am not paid to do this.)

The solo evaluator — if he or she has the right skills of temperament and judgment — can take risks with the proposals, unencumbered by the need to cover fixed costs and keep “the foundation” up and running.  Think of it as a “pop-up foundation,” akin to a pop-up restaurant, and you know who is the chef in the kitchen.  It is analogous to a Singaporean food stall, namely with low fixed costs, small staff, and the chef’s ability to impose his or her own vision on the food.

Once a fixed sum of money is given away, and the mission of the project (beneficial social change) has been furthered, “the foundation” goes away.  No one is laid off.  Rather than crying over a vanquished institutional empire and laid off friends/co-workers, the solo evaluator in fact has a chance to get back to personally profitable work.  It was “lean and mean” all along, except it wasn’t mean.

The risk-taking in grant decisions is consistent with the incentives of the evaluator, consistent with the level of staffing (zero), and consistent with the means of the evaluator.  A solo evaluator, no matter how talented, does not have the resources to make and tie down multiple demands for complex deliverables.  Rather, a solo evaluator is likely to think (or not) — “hmm…there is some potential in this one.”  The wise solo evaluator is likely to look for projects that have real upside through realizing the autonomous visions of their self-starting creators, rather than projects that appear bureaucratically perfect.

And how about the incentives of the solo evaluator?  Well, a fixed amount of time is being given up, so what is the point in making safe, consensus selections with the awards?  The solo evaluator, in addition to pursuing the mission of the fund, will tend to seek out grants that will boost his or her reputation as a finder of talent.  You might worry that an evaluator, even if fully honest will self-deceive somewhat, and use some of these grants to promote his or her own interests.  I would say donate your money to an evaluator who you are happy to see rise in status.

In other words, the basic vision of Emergent Ventures, the incentives, and its means are all pretty consistent.

The solo evaluator also has the power to make very small grants, simply by issuing a decision in their favor at very low fixed cost.  Alchian and Allen theorem!  That helps remedy the bias against small grants in the broader foundation world.

The single evaluator of course is going to make some mistakes, but so do foundations.  And the costs of these evaluator mistakes have to be weighed against the other upsides of this method.

In my view, at least two percent of philanthropy should be run this way, and right now in the foundation world it is about zero percent.  So I am trying to change this at the margin.

How does this idea scale?  What if it worked really well?  How would we do more of it?

Well, it is not practical for this solo evaluator to handle a larger and larger portfolio of grant requests.  Even if he or she were so inclined, that would bring us back to the problems of institutionalized foundations.  The ideal scaling is that other, competing “chefs” set up their own pop-up foundations.  Imagine a philanthropic world where, next year, you could give a million dollars to the Steven Pinker pop-up, to the Jhumpa Lahiri pop-up, to the Jordan Peterson intellectual venture fund, and so on.  Three years later, you would have an entirely different choice, say intellectual venture funds from Ezra Klein, David Brooks, and Skip Gates, among others.  The evaluators either could donate some of their time, as I am doing, or charge a fee for performing this service.  You also could imagine a major foundation carving off a separate section of their activities, and running this experiment on their own, with an evaluator of their choosing.

In a subsequent post, I will discuss how this model relates to the classical age of patronage running through the Renaissance, into the 18th century, and often into the 20th century as well, often through the medium of individual giving.  I also will consider how this relates to classic venture capital and the relevant economics behind “deal flow.”

In the meantime, I am repeating the list of the first cohort of Emergent Ventures winners.  That link also directs you to relevant background if Emergent Ventures is new to you.

Sunday assorted links

1. Jordan Orlando on The White Album (which song is the most popular/enduring on that album?  It is difficult to say, but it is now fifty years old).

2. Scott Sumner on global warming.

3. Korean refrigerator onomatopoiea.

4. How placebos work there is no placebo (NYT).

5. Scott Alexander is now more positive on preschool.  And Scott Alexander on marijuana: “If the above calculations are true, preventing national legalization of marijuana would save half as many lives as successfully implementing Australia-style gun control in the US.” [Please note Scott is not suggesting a particular conclusion on either of these policy issues.]

Japan is not yet the land of robots

Japanese hotels and banks are, by global standards, heavily overstaffed despite the country’s demographic crunch. Most supermarkets have not embraced the automated checkouts common elsewhere, nor airlines self-service check-ins. The offices of Japan’s small and medium-sized enterprises are among the most inefficient in the developed world, chides McKinsey, a management consultancy.

Japan has an elaborate service culture, which machines struggle to replicate. Japanese customers, especially the elderly, strongly prefer people to machines, says Yoko Takeda of Mitsubishi Research Institute, a think-tank. Employment practices make it difficult to replace workers. And while gimmicky robots abound, Japan struggles to develop the software and artificial intelligence needed to enable them to perform useful tasks, says a report by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the cockpit of Japan’s post-war miracle. So while the reception at the robot hotel is automated, seven human employees lurk out of sight to watch over customers and avoid glitches. Robots still cannot make beds, cook breakfast or deal with a drunken guest who will not pay his bill.

Here is more from The Economist.

What I’ve been reading

1. Richard A. Arenberg, Congressional Procedure: A Practical Guide to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress.  You know, this stuff matters a lot more than it used to.

2. Timothy Larsen, John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life.  Covers the evolution of religion in Mill’s life, and stresses that toward the very life he turned back to a religiously-oriented world view.  Arguably all of the (< 12) people at Mill’s funeral were Christians.  As a side benefit, the book has an illuminating treatment of the romance with Harriet Taylor.  I’ve since ordered four other of Larsen’s books, the ultimate compliment.

3. Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs.  An excellent history book in its own right, this is also one of the best sources for understanding the 19th century roots of our current dilemma.  Reading everything by Daniel Walker Howe is in fact a good algorithm for proceeding in life.

Daniel S. Hamermesh, Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource is a good introduction to what economists know about the allocation of time, both evidence and theory.

Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon: A Life I read only some parts of, and found very well-written and entertaining, but it wasn’t sufficiently conceptually innovative to hold my interest.

Jacy Reese has a new book The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists are Building an Animal-Free Food System.  It is overstated, but still better than the near-unanimous ignoring of these issues which goes on in the economics profession.

Saturday assorted links

Prophets of the Conversations with Tyler

From before the season started:

COWEN: The Milwaukee Bucks last year won, I believe, 44 games, and in the NBA, they were in the bottom third for the number of three-pointers attempted. Why should we think they might do better this year?

[Ben] THOMPSON: Because they had the worst coach in the league, by far, and he is gone, and now they have a new coach. They actually have the best shot profile in the entire league in the preseason, which is shooting threes or shooting shots at the rim. They are 89 percent or something like that.

They are going to have a great year. Giannis is going to win MVP. It’s going to be amazing, and we, being Bucks Twitter, is going to spend the whole time telling everyone that we were right and they were wrong.

That is from my Conversation with Ben Thompson.  The Bucks are now 9-2, and two nights ago they beat the world champion Golden State Warriors.

How is Obamacare doing?

Yes, it is more popular, but how is it doing?:

Obamacare has continued to devastate the individual health insurance market:

  • In March of 2016, there were 20.2 million people covered in the individual health insurance market according to a hard count of state insurance department filings done by Mark Farrah and Associates.
  • In March of 2017 that count was down to 17.7 million.
  • In March of 2018 the count was 15.7 million–a 22% drop in two years.

This means 4.5 million people lost their individual health insurance in just two years.

Hardest hit are the 40% of middle class individual market consumers who are not eligible for a subsidy.

  • In March of 2016 there were 7,520,939 people covered in the off-exchange individual health insurance market where subsidies are not available.

  • In March of 2017 5,361,451 were covered.

  • In March of 2018 4,004,522 were covered–a 47% drop in two years.

And, the Obamacare subsidies paid to consumers are hardly sustainable.

According to the CBO, the average Medicaid outlay for a non-disabled adult is $4,230–a program that virtually has no premiums and co-pays. But because the risk pool is so bad and therefore expensive in the Obamacare exchanges, the average subsidy cost for taxpayers is $6,300–and that doesn’t include what the consumer pays in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses for Obamacare coverage.

Why has the Obamacare individual market melted-down in these last two years? Because its premiums and deductibles are sky high–for all but the lowest income participants.

In Northern Virginia, for example, the cheapest 2019 Obamacare individual market Silver plan for a family of four (mom and dad age-40) making a subsidy eligible $65,000 a year costs $4,514. That plan has a $6,500 deductible meaning the family would have to spend $11,014 on eligible health care costs before collecting other than nominal first dollar benefits.

That same family, but making too much for a subsidy, as 40% of families do, and a typical family in the affluent Virginia 10th, would have to spend $19,484 in premiums plus a $6,500 deductible, for a total of $25,984 in eligible costs before they would collect any meaningful benefits.

That is from Robert Laszewski, with additional interesting points at the link.  Do see my earlier post on what does and does not make sense in Obamacare — the risk pool for the individual market simply isn’t big or robust enough.

Friday assorted links