Category: Law

When State-Building Hinders Growth: The Legacy of China’s Confucian Bureaucracy

That is the title of a new paper by Daniel Mattingly:

Do countries with a long history of state-building fare better in the long run? Recent work has shown that earlier state-building may lead to higher levels of present-day growth. By contrast, I use a natural experiment to show that the regions of China with over a thousand years of sustained exposure to state-building are significantly poorer today. The mechanism of persistence, I argue, was the introduction of a civil service exam based on knowledge of Confucian classics, which strengthened the social prestige of the civil service and weakened the prestige of commerce. A thousand years later, the regions of China where the Confucian bureaucracy was first introduced have a more educated population and more Confucian temples, but lower levels of wealth. The paper contributes to an important debate on the Great Divergence, highlighting how political institutions interact with culture to cause long-run patterns of growth.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Border Crime

Alex Nowrasteh at Cato shows that crime is lower in counties adjacent to the Mexican border than in the rest of the United States:

If the entire United States had crime rates as low as those along the border in 2017, then the number of homicides would have been 33.8 percent lower, property crimes would have been 2.1 percent lower, and violent crimes would have dropped 8 percent.

Obviously border counties are different than non-border countries, more rural etc. Nevertheless, the raw fact is striking in comparison to the heated rhetoric about illegal immigration and American blood.

The new committee to re-elect Donald Trump

It has some surprising members:

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been promoting the idea of a 70 percent top marginal tax rate, and Paul Krugman has been defending it. Matthew Yglesias of Vox has written that 70 percent might be too low.

Here is my full Bloomberg column on the topic.  You will note by the way that if you only apply the tax on say $10 million and up, it will all be converted into capital income and the tax will distort without raising much revenue.  And here is a sentence toward the end of the piece, part of my advice for Democrats:

Recognize that you’ll never be that popular on the tax issue.

I see this as a kind of catnip issue, one where the Democratic Left is so, so tempted to make redistribution the central idea of the party, a disastrous urge in my view.

Non-martial legislation passed during The Civil War

The Homestead Act of 1862, providing (nearly) free land for settlers in designated parts of the West

The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862

The National Banking Act of 1863, creating a national banking system and currency

Several transcontinental railroad bills

The first federal income tax

Created the National Academy of Sciences

Establishment of the Department of Agriculture (which had a significant R&D component), the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Immigration.

Love it or hate it or both, that’s a lot.  Not only do the pressures of war lead to “things getting done,” but of course the Southern states and their representatives had dropped out of Congress.

That is all from Walter Licht, Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century.

Bitcoin is Less Secure than Most People Think

I spent part of the holidays poring over Eric Budish’s important paper, The Economic Limits of Bitcoin and the BlockChain. Using a few equilibrium conditions and some simulations, Budish shows that Bitcoin is vulnerable to a double spending attack.

In a double spending attack, the attacker sells say bitcoin for dollars. The bitcoin transfer is registered on the blockchain and then, perhaps after some escrow period, the dollars are received by the attacker. As soon as the bitcoin transfer is registered in a block–call this block 1–the attacker starts to mine his own blocks which do not include the bitcoin transfer. Suppose there is no escrow period then the best case for the attacker is that they mine two blocks 1′ and 2′ before the honest nodes mine block 2. In this case, the attacker’s chain–0,1′,2′–is the longest chain and so miners will add to this chain and not the 0,1… chain which becomes orphaned. The attacker’s chain does not include the bitcoin transfer so the attacker still has the bitcoins and they have the dollars! Also, remember, even though it is called a double-spend attack it’s actually an n-spend attack so the gains from attack could be very large. But what happens if the honest nodes mine a new block before the attacker mines 2′? Then the honest chain is 0,1,2 but the attacker still has block 1′ mined and after some time they will have 2′, then they have another chance. If the attacker can mine 3′ before the honest nodes mine block 3 then the new longest chain becomes 0,1′,2′,3′ and the honest nodes start mining on this chain rather than on 0,1,2. It can take time for the attacker to produce the longest chain but if the attacker has more computational power than the honest nodes, even just a little more, then with probability 1 the attacker will end up producing the longest chain.

As an example, Budish shows that if the attacker has just 5% more computational power than the honest nodes then on average it takes 26.5 blocks (a little over 4 hours) for the attacker to have the longest chain. (Most of the time it takes far fewer blocks but occasionally it takes hundreds of blocks for the attacker to produce the longest chain.) The attack will always be successful eventually, the key question is what is the cost of the attack?

The net cost of a double-spend attack is low because attackers also earn block rewards. For example, in the case above it might take 26 blocks for the attacker to substitute its longer chain for the honest chain but when it does so it earns 26 block rewards. The rewards were enough to cover the costs of the honest miners and so they are more or less enough to cover the costs of the attacker. The key point is that attacking is the same thing as mining. Budish assumes that attackers add to the computation power of the network which pushes returns down (for both the attacker and interestingly the honest nodes) but if we assume that the attacker starts out as honest–a Manchurian Candidate attack–then there is essentially zero cost to attacking.

It’s often said that Bitcoin creates security with math. That’s only partially true. The security behind avoiding the double spend attack is not cryptographic but economic, it’s really just the cost of coordinating to achieve a majority of the computational power. Satoshi assumed ‘one-CPU, one-vote’ which made it plausible that it would be costly to coordinate millions of miners. In the centralized ASIC world, coordination is much less costly. Consider, for example, that the top 4 mining pools today account for nearly 50% of the total computational power of the network. An attack would simply mean that these miners agree to mine slightly different blocks than they otherwise would.

Aside from the cost of coordination, a small group of large miners might not want to run a double spending attack because if Bitcoin is destroyed it will reduce the value of their capital investments in mining equipment (Budish analyzes several scenarios in this context). Call that the Too Big to Cheat argument. Sound familiar? The Too Big to Cheat argument, however, is a poor foundation for Bitcoin as a store of value because the more common it is to hold billions in Bitcoin the greater the value of an attack. Moreover, we are in especially dangerous territory today because bitcoin’s recent fall in price means that there is currently an overhang of computing power which has made some mining unprofitable, so miners may feel this a good time to get out.

The Too Big to Cheat argument suggests that coins are vulnerable to centralized computation power easily repurposed. The tricky part is that the efficiencies created by specialization–as for example in application-specific integrated circuits–tend to lead to centralization but by definition make repurposing more difficult.  CPUs, in contrast, tend to lead to decentralization but are easily repurposed. It’s hard to know where safety lies. But what we can say is that any alt-coin that uses a proof of work algorithm that can be solved using ASICs is especially vulnerable because miners could run a double spend attack on that coin and then shift over to mining bitcoin if the value of that coin is destroyed.

What can help? Ironically, traditional law and governance might help. A double spend attack would be clear in the data and at least in general terms so would the attackers. An attack involving dollars and transfers from banks would be potentially prosecutable, greatly raising the cost of an attack. Governance might help as well. Would a majority of miners (not including the attacker) be willing to fork Bitcoin to avoid the attack, much as was done with The DAO? Even the possibility of a hardfork would reduce the expected value of an attack. More generally, all of these mechanisms are a way of enforcing some stake loss or capital loss on dishonest miners. In theory, therefore, proof of stake should be less vulnerable to 51% attacks but proof of stake is much more complicated to make incentive-compatible than proof of work.

All of this is a far cry from money without the state. Trust doesn’t have the solidity of math but we are learning that it is more robust.

Hat tip to Joshua Gans and especially to Eric Budish for extensive conversation on these issues.

Addendum: See here for more on the Ethereum Classic double spend attack.

Do consumer interests shape trade policy?

Alas, it seems not, or so it is reported by Timm Betz and Amy Pond:

Why are some countries more open to trade than others? Prominent explanations emphasize differences in the influence of voters as consumers. Consumers benefit from lower prices. Because governments in democracies are more responsive to voters, they should implement lower tariffs. We develop and evaluate an implication of this line of argument. If lower tariffs are a response to consumer interests, lower tariffs should be concentrated on products most relevant to consumers. Using data on consumption shares across product categories, we report evidence that consumer interests do not account for lower tariffs. Governments place higher tariffs on goods with higher consumption shares, and we find no evidence that this relationship attenuates under more democratic institutions. There may be a variety of reasons why more democratic states are engaged in higher levels of international trade. A larger concern for consumer interests, however, is likely not among them.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Do longer sentences reduce crime?

I find that Republican prosecutorial offices sentence defendants to longer incarceration spells as compared to their Democratic and Independent counterparts. This increase in incarceration length is driven by longer sentences for both violent and prop- erty offenses, and translates into a persistent increase in incarceration. These sentencing and incarceration enhancements do not lower crime at the county level, indicating that, in terms of public safety, the marginal return to the tough-on-crime stance may be close to zero.

That is from a new AEA paper by Ashna Arora.

Why private regulation of internet speech doesn’t make many people happy

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

I’d like to suggest a simple trilemma. When it comes to private platforms and speech regulation, you can choose two of three: scalability, effectiveness and consistency. You cannot have all three. Furthermore, this trilemma suggests that we — whether as users, citizens or indeed managers of the platforms themselves — won’t ever be happy with how speech is regulated on the internet.

There is much more at the link.

The new economics of complaining

Barbara Deckert has a new weapon in the war against airplane noise — and she’s not afraid to use it.

Every time a plane flies over her suburban Maryland home, rattling her windows and setting her teeth on edge, she presses a small white button and feels a tiny sense of triumph.

That’s because with one click, Deckert has done what could have taken her hours to do a few months ago — she has filed a noise complaint with officials at the Maryland Aviation Administration.

Thanks to the ingenuity of a software engineer from Southern California, Deckert and hundreds of others with similar beefs, and the Airnoise button, have an easy way to register their annoyance with the jets that fly over their homes.

“It’s a fabulous tool,” Deckert said. “Clicking that button is really psychologically satisfying.”

Officials at airports from Seattle to Baltimore said Airnoise has led to a dramatic spike in complaints. At Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, officials are almost certain Airnoise is the reason complaints surged to 17,228 in August from 2,692 the previous month. In San Diego, more than 90 percent of the complaints came through third-party apps like Airnoise.

That is from Lori Aratani at WaPo, via Eric J.  And there is this, a metaphor for our times:

The button has clearly gotten a lot of use: The plastic coating is partially peeled off. A few weeks ago, the battery gave out. So for now, she’s using her iPad to file complaints.

“People can try to discredit me, but I don’t worry about that,” she said. She paused and remembered the day she filed her first complaint with the Airnoise button.

“It felt so good,” she said. “It’s highly, highly therapeutic. It makes you feel like you can make a difference.”

What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit

I am tempted to call this long piece on a boring subject the best I have read in 2019, but you know I think that might remain true by the end of the year.  Here is an excerpt from the Belgium section:

I was in Brussels recently, taking my son to watch Anderlecht play, when I heard some English people in a café asking the waiter why no one liked the English. They were nice people asking a genuine question, but often it’s the wrong people who ask the right questions. The waiter replied, politely and in perfect English: ‘We can read your newspapers and watch your television; we hear what your politicians and your journalists say about us.’ That summed it up: all this time we Brits thought we were talking to ourselves, and we were, but everyone else was listening in. Belgians are not surprised by Brexit: it’s just the coagulation as policy of what’s been flowing as attitude for decades.

Or Denmark:

The leftish Information provides the most useful articles. One has a headline in English, though anchored in the land of Elsinore: ‘To Be or Not to Be, That Is Not the Question’. The real ‘question’ doesn’t concern the merits of Leave or Remain, but the complexities of a twin crisis, in both the UK and the EU. Another piece, published shortly after the referendum, describes the division of a nation into Leavers and Remainers as afgrundsdyb. Meaning ‘abyssal’, the term, I am told, hints at the unfathomable as well as the unbridgeable, while evoking something that is certainly dangerous to approach.

I enjoyed this line:

Croatia has more experience than most of entering and exiting alliances.

From the Germany section:

‘Brexit shows that the Brussels bureaucracy, that alleged monster that employs no more civil servants than a central German city administration, has done a great job. The extent of interconnectedness at all levels has to be renegotiated: supply chains, industry standards, food and pharmaceutical standards, security architectures, rural and air transport structures, fishing rights, research collaborations, student exchanges, a vast frictionlessness system is now in jeopardy’ (Gustav Seibt, Süddeutsche Zeitung).

This I had not known:

…in Norway the conservative right is overwhelmingly in favour of joining the EU.

And finally:

Being a Brit in Sweden can be embarrassing just now. We’re one of the Swedes’ favourite peoples, admired for our history and culture, and loved for Engelskt humor. Shocked they may be; but a diet of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers means that Swedes are not altogether surprised.

The authors are numerous, the whole piece was published in The London Review of Books, definitely recommended.  I would note that “what group X really thinks of Y” remains an under-exploited genre in journalism, and elsewhere, and it is one of the best ways of learning about a topic.

The Amazon War and the Evolution of Private Law

It’s well known that to boost their sales, sellers sometimes post fake 5-star reviews on Amazon. Amazon tries to police such actions by searching out and banning sites with fake reviews. An unintended consequence is that some sellers now post fake 5-star reviews on their competitor’s site.

The Verge: As Amazon has escalated its war on fake reviews, sellers have realized that the most effective tactic is not buying them for yourself, but buying them for your competitors — the more obviously fraudulent the better. A handful of glowing testimonials, preferably in broken English about unrelated products and written by a known review purveyor on Fiverr, can not only take out a competitor and allow you to move up a slot in Amazon’s search results, it can land your rival in the bewildering morass of Amazon’s suspension system.

…There are more subtle methods of sabotage as well. Sellers will sometimes buy Google ads for their competitors for unrelated products — say, a dog food ad linking to a shampoo listing — so that Amazon’s algorithm sees the rate of clicks converting to sales drop and automatically demotes their product.

What does a seller do when they are banned from Amazon? Appeal to the Amazon legal system and for that you need an Amazon lawyer.

The appeals process is so confounding that it’s given rise to an entire industry of consultants like Stine. Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee, set up shop in 2014. CJ Rosenbaum, an attorney in Long Beach, New York, now bills himself as the “Amazon sellers lawyer,” with an “Amazon Law Library” featuring Amazon Law, vol. 1 ($95 on Amazon). Stine’s company deals with about 100 suspensions a month and charges $2,500 per appeal ($5,000 if you want an expedited one), which is in line with industry norms. It’s a price many are willing to pay. “It can be life or death for people,” McCabe says. “If they don’t get their Amazon account back, they might be insolvent, laying off 10, 12, 14 people, maybe more. I’ve had people begging me for help. I’ve had people at their wits’ end. I’ve had people crying.”

Amazon is a marketplace that is now having to create a legal system to govern issues of fraud, trademark, and sabotage and also what is in effect new types of intellectual property such as Amazon brand registry. Marketplaces have always been places of private law and governance but there has never before been a marketplace with Amazon’s scale and market power. It’s an open question how well private law will develop in this regime.

The moral horror of America’s prisons

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the final bit but not the main argument:

So what then to do? The first and most important step is for Americans to realize they have been creating and sanctioning a moral horror, and to treat it as a major political issue. Step No. 2 is to modify the career incentives for prosecutors to seek out ever tougher sentences. Step No. 3 is to experiment with more electronic monitoring of criminals, and to see if that can limit the number of people behind bars. Step No. 4 is to frame prison reform in more straightforward economic terms. It is not only about guaranteeing rights on paper. It’s also about designing the economic incentives for prisons to create secure and orderly environments. That has hardly been the focus of current systems. Finally — and this idea is broader in scope — the decriminalization of additional offenses should also be considered.

I realize these are complex issues, and potential remedies require far more consideration than I can give them here. But if you think America’s current penal system is the very best we can do, that is about the most pessimistic verdict on this country I have ever heard. Has anyone ever suggested that the American prison system is the world’s best? The can-do attitude is one of my favorite features of American life. We just need to apply it a little more broadly.

Can I simply say “I am right”?

Athletes Don’t Own Their Tattoos

NYTimes: Any creative illustration “fixed in a tangible medium” is eligible for copyright, and, according to the United States Copyright Office, that includes the ink displayed on someone’s skin. What many people don’t realize, legal experts said, is that the copyright is inherently owned by the tattoo artist, not the person with the tattoos.

Some tattoo artists have sold their rights to firms which are now suing video game producers who depict the tattoos on the players likenesses:

The company Solid Oak Sketches obtained the copyrights for five tattoos on three basketball players — including the portrait and area code on Mr. James — before suing in 2016 because they were used in the NBA 2K series.

…Before filing its lawsuit, Solid Oak sought $819,500 for past infringement and proposed a $1.14 million deal for future use of the tattoos.

To avoid this shakedown, players are now being told to get licenses from artists before getting tattooed.

That was then, this is now

[Andrew] Jackson imagined his role as that of a Roman tribune or dictator, summoned to executive power for a season for defend the plebeians against corrupt patricians.  That meant, among other things, slashing federal expenses and retiring the national debt.

Jackson in fact worked hard to strike down “internal improvements” in only a single state, as he was convinced that such legislation was unconstitutional, and that a corrupt Congress was working to enrich itself.

That is all from Walter A. McDougall, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877, p.60.