Government isn’t the only problem

Working in a college, I’m at the front lines of a significant problem: wasteful bullshit jobs. In fact, I am writing this post to procrastinate editing a bureaucratic report (that nobody cares about) that has been slowly grinding the joy out of my life for the past several months. I have to write this report for the benefit of regulatory oversight which, ironically, is supposed to ensure that I use my privileged position for the benefit of society instead of wasting my efforts on pointless or destructive outlets.

In my case, this bullshit aspect of my job is a predictable outcome of working in a state sponsored bureaucracy. But the same disease afflicts private industry too.

If I’m the head of a Fortune 500 company, I have incentive to increase profitability of my company, but I have competing interests too. Most importantly I have to maintain my position of power within the company. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and coauthors have laid out the logic of the situation in The Dictator’s Handbook, and The Logic of Political Survival–in a nutshell, I have to worry about competition for positions of power within any hierarchy. This requires engaging in cooperative rent-seeking to keep the right people happy. If I don’t, I risk losing my position to a sycophant who will.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see Niskanenian logic show up in these situations. Corporate flunkies are like a private army that can help me keep my position of power even if they don’t contribute to the profitability of the firm. Even if I want to maximize profits, if I have to worry about keeping my position, I have to engage in some of this costly, inefficient rent-seeking.

In other words, “firms maximize profit” is an approximation that brushes aside methodological individualism. Don’t get me wrong, there’s evolutionary pressure on firms that will push in that direction. But within a firm there’s evolutionary pressure preventing the firm from fully maximizing. (In other other words, if I survive this report I’ll have to start reading up on corporate governance.)

This logic is a natural source of bullshit jobs, even in a free market. Regulatory capture should make it worse, but we’ll never completely eliminate it.

On a more speculative note, I think we also have to worry about culture. For one, our current culture drives the demand for increased regulation. For another, we prize work for work’s sake to the point that most people would rather see someone fritter away their brief experience as a sentient being than see them fail to live up to social expectations. Such notions, I think, are behind the surprising lack of riots in the street you might expect in a world where most people know we face this problem of bullshit jobs. But I’ll leave any further speculation for the comments.

tl;dr: Our economy is beset with bullshit jobs that sap our creative capacity and crush our souls. And pretty much everyone knows it. Government is part of the problem, partly because regulation creates demand for paper-pushing, and partly because anti-competitive regulation converts lively, profit-seeking firms into private bureaucracies in their own right. But there are deeper problems: our willingness to abide, and the fundamental logic of hierarchical organizations.

RE: Economists’ Statement on Carbon Dividends

I just got an email asking me to sign on to an open letter arguing for some carbon tax policies. I’m seeing some push back from (smart, economically literate) Facebook friends, but I think it’s a viable step in the right direction.

Here’s the statement paraphrased:

We think global warming is an important and urgent issue and we recommend these five things:

1. A carbon tax is the best, most cost-efficient way to do as much about carbon as needs to be done. [For a given level of carbon reduction, I agree. How much carbon reduction should happen (and how much at government behest) I am deeply agnostic about.]

2. We think this should be phased in over time and should be revenue neutral. [Yes on both points, but the rest of the statement makes it seem like they’re talking about a pretty short time horizon. I’m not sure how fast is too fast, but I’m sure there’s such thing.]

3. A carbon tax is more efficient than a set of specific regulations. [Certainly!] It’s also less likely to be subject to changing political winds. [Is it though?]

4. We should also apply a carbon tax to imported goods. This would reward energy-efficient American firms and prod other countries to follow suit. [Hmmmm… I can’t really disagree with the general principle, but this sounds like it will require bureaucratic oversight that will be subject to regulatory capture. On the other hand, we’ve already got that.]

5. We should give the revenue collected back to U.S. citizens, to offset increases in energy prices. [Okay, but if it’s going to be revenue neutral and come with a transfer scheme, that’s going to take some detangling!]

I buy into the notion that carbon emissions create large scale externalities that will probably be more bad than good on balance. Not universally bad, mind you. And not something that humanity won’t ultimately adapt to. But I think the people who will face the brunt of the bad outcomes will be the world’s poor (who we should help migrate to better climates!).

I don’t think we can just impose “the right” carbon tax and have everything come out just right. Even though I routinely draw out the case with a supply and demand graph in class, the truth is that nobody has access to those curves in real life. But a small tax can serve to reduce the inefficiency of pollution even if we don’t get it exactly right.

The revenue neutral part is important–we’re currently taxing lots of things we actually want more of (like investment). So if we can cut those taxes by taxing things we want less of (pollution), we’re reducing two sources of inefficiency in the current setup. Of course you and I have bolder views about what policy should look like in 100 years, but restricted to a 10 year window, a revenue neutral carbon tax looks pretty good to me.

The letter dramatically over-simplifies things. Climate change is probably a problem, but probably not as big a problem as proffered by proponents of proposals to prepare for apocalypse. It’s not clear to me that we have a good idea of a) all of the effects (good and bad), b) how people will adapt, and c) how people will adapt to a changing policy regimen.

Figuring out how to handle the tax on imports will be difficult and rife with rent seeking. Unmentioned is the impact on exports. If all our trading partners follow a similar policy, there’s no problem, but in the mean time there’s a tension that will probably be resolved with some unfortunate bit of rent seeking.

I’m sure most reasonable people would agree that instantaneous change would probably be unduly costly, but it’s not clear what the right speed of implementation is.

There are some miscellaneous rhetorical points I have issue with, but I suspect those are in there to throw a bone to people who aren’t me.

I hope that 10 years from now this open letter looks a bit silly. But I also hope that 10 years from now pollution taxes start to replace more inefficient taxes. On balance, I’m happy to see the letter prodding us in that direction.

Is this patriotism?

I’ve always had a weird relationship with patriotism. As a Canadian kid I wondered if the thing I was supposed to be proud of was that Canadians weren’t so brashly patriotic. Later I moved to America and jumped on the “we’re #1” bandwagon. I got off after first realizing that politics is messy and there aren’t any leaders worth admiring, then realizing that that’s always been true (and may even have been worse in the past). My default position over the past few years (before and after getting citizenship) has been “America The world is a nice place, with nice people. And America has one of the better (deeply flawed) political systems.” But I’m not the sort of person who goes out of his way to say the pledge of allegiance.

But I might have stumbled on a secret patriotic feeling that swells in my heart nearly every time I read the news: a profound embarrassment.

Maybe bureaucratic reports have worn me thin, but I’m increasingly shouting “Get it together America! You’re embarrassing me!” any time I encounter news.

When crazy people do crazy stuff I’m not inclined to feel embarrassed, because I don’t know that angry lady who doesn’t understand traffic lights! But family can embarrass you. Embarrassment is an expression of your fear that you’re more like Uncle Joe than you feel comfortable with.

If this is what patriotism feels like, I don’t get it.

The Incomplete Counterfactual Fallacy

Mariana Mazzucato has some interesting ideas, but her basic thesis (which I’m guessing based only on her recent Freakonomics interview) forgets a simple fact: had the government not made GPS, not only would we not have GPS, resources would have been allocated somewhere else.

In other words, she’s right that without government involvement we’d miss all sorts of valuable things like the basic research it turns out government has financed, physical infrastructure (no matter how neglected), GPS, the specific form the Internet we got, etc., etc.

But that’s only half the story. What happens if DARPA closes shop just before starting on GPS? Those engineers end up somewhere else, the money for the project goes somewhere else, the steel and titanium for the satellites they would have built end up in some other shop.

If we could know that nothing else would have happened at that point, then GPS is a free lunch–some bold committee scooped up a handful of clay, handed it to brilliant engineers, and created something from nothing.

More likely some of those engineers would have made dozens of other projects a little bit better, and one or two of them might even have, through some series of unpredictable events, ended up creating some totally different innovation that would have put us on to an entirely different path.

Which is the better path? There’s no way to know. The people on that other path exist in a completely different paradigm from our own. It’s comparing meta-apples with meta-oranges. We are where we are and we ought to appreciate all the costs and benefits of the system we’ve inherited. I think Mazzucato is right that many of us have underrated the government. (Certainly 23-year-old-Rick was guilty of the over-complete counterfactual fallacy.)

She makes a compelling argument that Solyndra doesn’t look like such a boondoggle when you take the wider view we would expect of the smallest venture capital investor. But if it’s true that pointing at government failures is invalid, then so is pointing at government success.

What’s important is improving the future performance of our current institutional mess. To do that, I think we’re better off backing away from her broad claims and focusing on her more sensible (and jarring) arguments about how the current system encourages destructive rent seeking through intellectual property protection of basic research that might be better left in the public domain.

We have seen the algorithm and it is us.

The core assumption of economics is that people tend to do the thing that makes sense from their own perspective. Whatever utility function people are maximizing, it’s reasonable to assume (absent compelling arguments to the contrary) that a) they’re trying to get what they want, and b) they’re trying their best given what they know.

Which is to say: what people do is a function of their preferences and priors.

Politicians (and other marketers) know this; the political battle for hearts and minds is older than history. Where it gets timely is the role algorithms play in the Facebookification of politics.

The engineering decisions made by Facebook, Google, et al. shape the digital bubbles we form for ourselves. We’ve got access to infinite content online and it has to be sorted somehow. What we’ve been learning is that these decisions aren’t neutral because they implicitly decide how our priors will be updated.

This is a problem, but it’s not the root problem. Even worse, there’s no solution.

Consider one option: put you and me in charge of regulating social media algorithms. What will be the result? First we’ll have to find a way to avoid being corrupted by this power. Then we’ll have to figure out just what it is we’re doing. Then we’ll have to stay on top of all the people trying to game the system.

If we could perfectly regulate these algorithms we might do some genuine good. But we still won’t have eliminated the fundamental issue: free will.

Let’s think of this through an evolutionary lens. The algorithms that survive are those that are most consistent with users’ preferences (out of acceptable alternatives). Clickbait will (by definition) always have an edge. Confirmation bias isn’t going away any time soon. Thinking is hard and people don’t like it.

People will continue to chose news options they find compelling and trustworthy. Their preferences and priors are not the same as ours and they never will be. Highly educated people have been trying to make everyone else highly educated for generations and they haven’t succeeded yet.

A better approach is to quit this “Rock the Vote” nonsense and encourage more people to opt for benign neglect. Our problem isn’t that the algorithms make people into political hooligans, it’s that we keep trying to get them involved under the faulty assumption that people are unnaturally Vulcan-like. Yes, regular people ought to be sensible and civically engaged, but ought does not imply can.

A Millennial’s New Perspective on Home Ownership

The last few years I’ve loudly protested that home ownership is overrated; it’s a bad investment plus lots of responsibility. And yet, this summer my fiance and I bought a 100 year old house on the south shore of Long Island.

Yes, I have lost my mind.

I basically stand by my earlier position, but with greater nuance. Owning a home is a complicated undertaking. But it’s given me a greater appreciation for the nuance involved in managing real estate.

Home ownership is a great big Gordian knot of inter-dependencies. It’s massive set of knowledge problems wrapped in externality problems.There’s a massive role for local knowledge which means policy makers’ attention should be less focused on things like home ownership rates, and more on guiding the right people into the right places to take advantage of that local knowledge.

With local knowledge comes local politics. I don’t know anything about local politics, but expect more posts about what’s going on in my town hall over the next few decades.

So what have I learned in this first month of home ownership?

  • There’s something to be said about pride in ownership

It’s still a real trip to turn on my lights in my kitchen so I can do my laundry in my laundry machines. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it this much. The endowment effect is real. One effect has been to increase my interest in contributing to local public goods via civic engagement and other routes.

I haven’t been to a town hall meeting yet, but I plan on going to one tomorrow. I suspect it will be awful. But I’m walking distance, so I’ll be a little bit drunk.

  • The real estate market has some serious frictions

This might be obvious, but it’s interesting. There are artificial and natural obstacles to the efficient use of real estate. Transaction costs are significant and property rights issues are hairy.

Buying a house is a complicated transaction and going through the process has really made clear to me how difficult it is to commodify land. Each piece of land has a unique location and history. Information asymmetries are substantial. The neighborhood you’re buying into is utterly out of your control. Put simply: Amazon won’t be selling real estate any time soon.

Part of the reason I’m happy with buying a house is that our rent had been increasing about $100/month/year. Land lords absolutely take advantage of real estate frictions to charge as much as they can. The alternative (which I chose) is to lock-in to a specific property.

  • The required knowledge to operate a home is significant and difficult to evaluate.

It takes a lot of knowledge to manage a house. If I were to take a wild guess (at this non-quantifiable variable), I’d say that between 5% and 50% of a homeowner’s brain is necessary to operate a house. Even if you bring in experts to do everything, evaluating those experts is a lot of work.

There are repairs and upgrades to make, and my formal education prepared me for exactly none of those projects. On the other hand, I’ve got the Internet. Without YouTube and Reddit I’d be a half dozen unlucky mistakes away from homelessness.

On the other other hand, I’ve learned a ton of stuff I’ve got no use for. Like how to grow asparagus (which it turns out it isn’t worth doing except out of boredom).

You can’t evaluate knowledge until it’s too late. And there’s more to learn than you ever will, so you have to make mistakes. It’s true of home ownership and it’s true of life more generally.

  • Gardening is a real trip.

In History of Economic Thought professor Gonzalez shared a story about two economists meeting in Switzerland during WWII. On showing his vegetable garden to the visiting economist, the visitor said “that’s not a very efficient way to grow food,” to which the gardener said, “yes, but it’s a very efficient way to grow utility.”

I’ve wanted to garden for some time, but the market for gardens is thin. So now I’m starting with almost no useful experience. My public stance has been that lawns are boring and dumb. But figuring out how to manage a little ecosystem ain’t easy. I now get why someone would just put in a lawn and be done with it.

At my old apartment complex the entire ecosystem was made of: humans, trees, lawns, cockroaches. I suspect the cockroaches did so well because all their competition was poisoned away. As an emergent order guy, I’m not really into that. But I get it now. In the same way the king wants everyone living in neat little taxable rows my life would be easier if I could just slash and burn all the complexity out of my yard.

Tl;dr: My biggest surprise as a new home owner is just how big a cognitive load owning a house is. You hear homeowners talk about how much work it can be, but I think it’s rare to hear someone talk about how much know-how is required.

Given the capacity to generate externalities, I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t more public policy devoted to issues of home ownership* (beyond subsidizing finance and increasing barriers to entry). I supposed I’ll learn a lot more about these issues as I learn about local politics.

*That isn’t to say I think it’s a good idea to get the government involved in trying to tell people how to go about the business of daily life. I think homeowners are (basically) doing fine left to their own devices.

Is minimalism immoral?

I came across a simple but important question on Quora: Is it wrong to aspire to be a minimalist? Doesn’t this negatively affect the country’s GDP?

I see two big lessons here: 1) wise use of metrics requires wisdom… i.e. appropriate interpretation and critical thinking. 2) Maximization is just one version of one part of the whole story. (There are also important questions to ask about what we can expect from others, but I’ll leave that for the comments.)

Readers of NOL should be familiar with the notion that GDP is only an imperfect proxy for well being. But not everyone is so we have to repeat ourselves. There’s what we’re after, and there’s what we can measure, and the two are not the same. GDP is a really clever way to aggregate total production in an economy, but production is only valuable to the extent we’re producing the things that actually improve people’s lives. It’s easy for busy people to confuse a proxy measure for the latent variable we actually care about, so we need someone whispering in the emperor’s ear “the metric is not the mission.

Economics is easier to describe using the simplifying assumption that people want more stuff. It’s easy to forget that people also want more leisure (and so less work). This is a subtle reappearance of the seen and unseen. We can see when someone gets a cool new car and we can’t see when someone has a fun evening with friends and family. We have to check our bias towards trying to get more stuff and remember that reducing work is another feature of human flourishing.