Results for “ostrom”
59 found

Nick Beckstead’s conversation with Tyler Cowen

Nick is a philosopher at Oxford and he has worked with Larry Temkin and Nick Bostrom.  He typed up his version of our conversation (pdf), it starts with this:

Purpose of the conversation: I contacted Tyler to learn about his perspectives on existential risk and other long-run issues for humanity, the long-run consequences of economic growth, and the effective altruism movement.

Here are a few excerpts:

Tyler is optimistic about growth in the coming decades, but he doesn’t think we’ll become uploads or survive for a million years. Some considerations in favor of his views were:

1. The Fermi paradox is some evidence that humans will not colonize the stars.
2. Almost all species go extinct.
3. Natural disasters—even a supervolcano—could destroy humanity.
4. Normally, it’s easier to destroy than to build. And, in the future, it will probably become increasingly possible for smaller groups to cause severe global damage (along the lines suggested by Martin Rees).

The most optimistic view that Tyler would entertain—though he doubts it—is that humans would survive at subsistence level for a very long time; that’s what we’ve had for most of human history.


People doing philosophical work to try to reduce existential risk are largely wasting their time. Tyler doesn’t think it’s a serious effort, though it may be good publicity for something that will pay off later. A serious effort looks more like the parts of the US government that trained people to infiltrate the post-collapse Soviet Union and then locate and neutralize nuclear weapons. There was also a serious effort by the people who set up hotlines between leaders to be used to quickly communicate about nuclear attacks (e.g., to help quickly convince a leader in country A that a fishy object on their radar isn’t an incoming nuclear attack).This has been fixed in other countries (e.g. US and China), but it hasn’t been fixed in other cases (e.g. Israel and Iran). There is more that we could do in this area. In contrast, the philosophical side of this seems like ineffective posturing.

Tyler wouldn’t necessarily recommend that these people switch to other areas of focus because people[‘s] motivation and personal interests are major constraints on getting anywhere. For Tyler, his own interest in these issues is a form of consumption, though one he values highly.


Tyler thinks about the future and philosophical issues from a historicist perspective. When considering the future of humanity, this makes him focus on war, conquest, plagues, and the environment, rather than future technology.

He acquired this perspective by reading a lot of history and spending a lot of time around people in poor countries, including in rural areas. Spending time with people in poor countries shaped Tyler’s views a lot. It made him see rational choice ethics as more contingent. People in rural areas care most about things like fights with local villages over watermelon patches. And that’s how we are, but we’re living in a fog about it.


The truths of literature and what you might call “the Straussian truths of the great books”—what you get from Homer or Plato—are at least as important rational choice ethics. But the people who do rational choice ethics don’t think that. If the two perspectives aren’t integrated, it leads to absurdities—problems like fanaticism, the Repugnant Conclusion, and so on. Right now though, rational choice ethics is the best we have—the problems of, e.g., Kantian ethics seem much, much worse.

If rational choice ethics were integrated with the “Straussian truths of the great books,” would it lead to different decisions? Maybe not—maybe it would lead to the same decisions with a different attitude. We might come to see rational choice ethics as an imperfect construct, a flawed bubble of meaning that we created for ourselves, and shouldn’t expect to keep working in unusual circumstances.

I’m on a plane for much of today, so you are getting Nick’s version of me, for a while at least.  You will find Nick’s other conversations here.

Noah Webster Defines Rent Seeking

My latest paper, Public Choice and Bloomington School Perspectives on Intellectual Property (pdf) written with Eli Dourado), gives capsule summaries of the Virginia school of public choice and the Ostrom’s Bloomington School and then applies some of these ideas to the political economy of intellectual property. Here is one bit on the early history of the copyright law illustrating that Disney’s rewriting of the copyright law to extend its rents is nothing new, rent seekers began to expand on the Constitutional clause almost from the day the ink was dry:

Almost immediately after the first session of Congress, writers began to petition Congress for protection for their works. The Copyright Act of 1790 was meant to fill in the administrative details of how copyright law would work. Importantly, the first draft of the new law appears to have been written not by a member of Congress, but by Noah Webster (Patry 1994)! Webster, cousin to Senator Daniel Webster, was the author of numerous textbooks and, of course, the famous dictionary that still bears his name. His draft of the copyright act, which was not adopted in full, would have extended copyright not just to authors, but also to booksellers and printers. As it was, the 1790 law covered not only books but also maps and charts (a rather broad reading of the Constitution’s writings). Webster was also instrumental in getting the 1831 act passed. The 1831 act doubled protections from 14 to 28 years. Writing to Eliza W. Jones, Webster noted,

[My] business in part was to use my influence to procure an extension of the law for securing copy-rights to authors. . . . By this bill the term of copy-right is secured for 28 years, with the right of renewal . . . for 14 years more. If this should become law, I shall be much benefited.

Webster to Eliza W. Jones, January 10, 1831.

What I’ve been reading

1. Among Others, by Jo Walton.  I loved this book.  It won a Nebula Award, but is more about the power of books than being a work of science fiction per se.

2. Frances Ashcroft, The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body.  One of the remaining popular science topics which has not been exhausted by popular books and so this volume is both instructive and entertaining and comes across as fresh.

3. James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, Meaningful Work and Play.  He really is an anarchist, left-wing at that, but I couldn’t quite find a central core here, much as I admire his other books.

4. Derek S. Hoff, The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in US History.  Good survey of early 20th century debates on population and birth rates and eugenics; these topics are making a comeback.

5. Roger Scruton, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism.  I like Elinor Ostrom as much as the next guy, and this book is well-written, but I am not persuaded by the argument that environmental issues fundamentally can be handled on a local level.  At least a few important ones cannot.

Also of note are:

6. Political Arithmetic: Simon Kuznets and the Empirical Tradition in Economics, by Robert Fogel, Enid Fogel, Mark Guglielmo, and Nathaniel Grotte.

7. Gary B. Gorton, Misunderstanding Financial Crises: Why We Don’t See Them Coming.

Ten conspiracy theories for nerds (or conspiracy theory theory)

Not your usual cup of tea, here is one of them:

The Simulation Argument. This is legion in popular culture from “The Matrix” and “Inception” and other sci-fi, so we’ll just refer you to Nick Bostrom’s formulation of it. In theory we could tell the difference if something happened in the manner of The Truman Show where a light labeled “Sirius” falls from the sky. But are there any such events?

We offer one complexity-related observation. Although it is routine to say that classes like {\mathsf{P}} and {\mathsf{BQP}} have universal simulation, this isn’t strictly true. The universal function for {\mathsf{P}} doesn’t belong to {\mathsf{P}}—if it did, then {\mathsf{P}} would be in some fixed polynomial time bound, which it isn’t. Although proving this is technically murkier for “random” or “promise” classes like {\mathsf{BQP}}, the essential idea holds for any reasonable complexity class. Thus a universal simulation involves dropping down to a lower grade than the resources on which you draw. If our universe is convincingly universal, perhaps this is a well-motivated reason to reject the argument.

Perhaps the conspiracy is that so many people are intent on getting us to believe the simulation hypothesis.  Here is another one:

{\bullet } Factoring Really Is Easy. This is similar to the last, but now they can factor in polynomial time on a laptop, rather than need a quantum computer. Ken and I think this one has a much higher prior, almost on the order of “Breaking Engima Really Is Easy” in 1939.

If I understand properly, that is from a collaborative post from Pip and Ken Regan.

Assorted links

1. What were the top TV words this last year?

2. What a fig is.

3. How the WSJ and NYT really work, in the eyes of the Chinese (video).

4. Camille Paglia on Lady Gaga (negative).

5. The culture that is Australia, part I, and here parts II and III.

6. Against the R&D tax credit.

7. Video of Manne, Sen, Ostrom, and Buchanan at George Mason; at 90 years old Buchanan still stole the show.

Thomas Pynchon

One of the recent reader requests is to give my opinion of him.  It's pretty simple.  The first half or so of Gravity's Rainbow is extraordinary.  V is a superb novel, his most consistent work, and it is best read by not trying to make much sense of it.  The Crying of Lot 49 feels like an excellent novella but over time it slips away from you and is probably a minor work.  The rest of it I cannot finish — or even get far in — and my best guess is that it is wheel-spinning and it will not last.  I haven't tried the latest book and it is not high on my list.  He's certainly an important figure and worth reading and indeed rereading.  But I view him as belonging to the somewhat distant past.

Here is the Twitter stream on Thomas Pynchon, as good a place to start as any.

The request by the way comes from this blog.  Here is a post on Vincent Ostrom, husband of Elinor, and an oddly neglected figure in recent times.

Assorted links

1. Bailouts worsen state-level finances in Germany, by Thomas Stratmann and Alexander Fink.

2. The same thought had occurred to me.  Here is Paul Romer on Elinor Ostrom; a perceptive appreciation.  Here is David Henderson on the prize and also Williamson's theory of mergers.

3. Perfect boiled eggs.

4. Galen Strawson on "No Ownership of the Future," courtesy of The Browser.

5. Podcast with Andrew Hazlett on Create Your Own Economy and also aesthetics.

What this Nobel prize means

It's a nod in the direction of social science, rather than economics per se.  It's another homage to the New Institutional Economics and also to Law and Economics.  It's rewarding larger rather than smaller ideas, practical economics rather than abstract theory.  It's a prize somewhat outside of the mainstream.  As you probably know by now, Ostrom is a political scientist and she has spent much of her career at Indiana University.

I was delighted to hear of Ostrom winning (which I had not expected) but frankly it makes the omission of Gordon Tullock all the more glaring.

Here are interviews with Elinor Ostrom (recommended).  On Elinor Ostrom, here is Peter Boettke and on Williamson and Ostrom here is Lynne Kiesling.  Here are varied reactions.  Here is an excellent list of long links on Ostrom.  Here is Henry on Elinor Ostrom.

Check out Ostrom's cites on Google Scholar.

Oliver Williamson and asset specificity

That's his greatest contribution (see Alex on this same point, and Jeff Ely).  Let's say you privatize a water system in Africa and write a 30-year contract with a private French company to run the thing.  As the contract nears its end, and if renewal is not obvious, the company has an incentive to "asset strip," or at the very least not maintain the value of the pipes.  Alternatively, the government might signal, in advance, that it has every intention of renewing the contract.  The company then has the incentive to lower quality to consumers, since it expects renewal a and faces weaker competitive constraints.

In other words, franchise bidding, or "ex ante" competition for the market doesn't always resolve monopoly issues  The key problem is the existence of a fixed investment in the pipes and that the value of the pipes depends on investments from both the government and the company.  It can be hard to write a contract for a good solution, since any allocation of the residual rights creates some distortion or another.  This has in fact been a very real problem with privatization around the world in many settings.  Oliver Williamson outlined these arguments in his debate with Harold Demsetz over privatizing cable TV.  Much of the literature on "mechanism design," such as David Baron's pieces, picks up on this problem and extends Williamson's work.

Williamson is a truly important economist.  If you read him, especially in his later work, he also has lots of taxonomy and verbiage.  The key is to cut through to the substance, which is plentiful.

Here is John Nye on the Prize