Interpretation is Everything

I’ve got a thing for models. And COVID has meant a lot of cool little models of disease transmission have been coming across my desk. This has been fun for me. But it’s also an intellectual minefield. Models help us tell stories and think through versions of the world that haven’t happened, but could. And they leave us feeling confident that we understand the world we’re operating in.

But it’s worth remembering a key inescapable fact: you always have to use your best judgment. There are no straightforward conclusions you can get for free without taking a risk of being wrong. A model showing that masks are worth it misses knock on effects. That doesn’t mean the model is useless, just that it only captures one part of the world.

Take the humble supply and demand model. We take a couple of lines, add in some other conditions (e.g. taxes, transaction costs, price controls, etc.), do a little algebra, and voila! You’ve got yourself a conclusion: subsidizing a good will result in people buying more (despite the private benefits of those extra units being less than the private costs). If you find some reasonable estimates of the elasticity of supply and demand for a product you can figure out how much impact a subsidy would have. Ceteris paribus.

All models rely on the ceteris paribus assumption in some form. If a model didn’t hold something constant it wouldn’t be a model anymore, it would just be a copy of reality.

In the case of supply and demand we’re rolling pretty much all the interesting things into that all-else-held-equal assumption. Language, history, legal structure, current events, politics, technology, and all the infinite possible interactions between things. Subsidizing face masks in 2019 would have seemed like a mistake, holding constant the state of affairs in 2019. Sure, we could have figured out that there was some sort of positive spill-over for masks even without a pandemic. But we could have also identified any number of other threats competing for scarce resources.

My advice to students: maintain humility. (My advice to non-students: maintain a student mindset.) Economics provides an incredibly powerful set of tools, but it doesn’t make you a god. There’s no getting around the fact that you’ve got to simplify reality to understand it and there’s no fool-proof formula for identifying things that make sense to hold constant in a constantly changing world.

The Blind Invisible Hand

Kevin recently wrote a post that really tickled my brain. It touches on the computational aspect of entrepreneurship. There are a couple points I’d like to follow up on.

First I’d argue that the uncertain entrepreneur is not the analog of the blind watchmaker. This is a minor quibble, but I think it’s good to keep our language tidy and that includes clarifying our metaphors. The Blind Watchmaker is a perfect metaphor for the emergent order in markets. But the watch is the market as a whole. Any one entrepreneur is just a tiny component of the system–potentially an ingenious component, but always dwarfed by the genius of the system as a whole. The watch maker in biology is the process of evolution. In markets, the closest idea we have is the invisible hand–also an evolutionary process.

Second and more importantly, I’d like to poke at the genetic component of the metaphor to show how much harder social evolution is than biological evolution.

Evolution is a process that acts on the substrate of “replicators”. DNA replicates (in genes) and so do ideas/jokes/norms/etc. (in memes). I guess we could just say “a business model is a type of meme!” and be done with it. But even thinking about what Internet jokes spread means stepping away from the abstract genetic alphabet of strings of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s.

The replicators of entrepreneurial evolution occur at more than one level (as I understand it, the idea of multi-level selection is controversial in biology, but inevitable here): little patterns of behavior make up larger patterns. A burger restaurant is sort of like a buffalo. And the business model (e.g. McDonald’s franchise) is sort of like the species as a whole or perhaps something even broader. All the various ways to market burgers compete across a range of niches, but we don’t have a literal genetic code to analyze. We might, hypothetically, be able to isolate the appropriate atomic unit of economic life, but I’m skeptical it would be terribly useful (at least for human understanding).

Still, what entrepreneurial and biological evolution have in common is that they are, fundamentally, complex sets of computations (in out-of-equilbrium systems) on a non-silicon medium. Entrepreneurs indeed face a different situation than genes, but that’s only because they’re dealing with multiple (tangled) layers of evolution spanning large scale things like:

  • human culture,
  • legal systems,
  • economic patterns and business models,

through medium-scale things like the particular landscape of a particular market at a given time and place, down to micro things like the particular ISO specifications of some particular size of bolt.

It’s true that “unlike evolution, you…are trying to achieve something beyond replication…” as an entrepreneur. But at the end of the day a) your apparently high minded goals are really just their own evolving and replicating memes, and b) your apparently high minded goals are really just setting the stage for the atomic unit of evolution that really matters: the proper size and shape of a paperclip. It’s like Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene: It’s not really the organism (entrepreneur) that matters, it’s the gene (atomic unit of whatever sort of evolution).

The Non-Partisan Movement We Need: Anti-Authoritarianism

Political/ideological debates have a lot of moving parts, and there are a lot of timely issues to address. Given the marginal impact of anything we do in this sphere (e.g. voting, sharing a blog post on Twitter, or being a solitary voter in a vast sea of the entire 6200 people in this country), it’s only natural that we have to economize on information and argument and that results. We can’t help but deplete the intellectual commons.

What are some low cost ways to improve the quality?

  1. Value Intellectual humility.
  2. Devalue the sort of behavior that makes things worse.

It bears repeating: value intellectual humility. It’s not easy. I’m as drawn the confident claims as you are. I’ve got a lot of smart people in my bubble and when they boldly declare something, I tend to believe them. But the “I honestly don’t know” posts deserve more attention and are less likely to get it. Let’s adjust in that direction. I’ll try to write more about things I don’t know about in the future (although I don’t know what that’s going to look like).

It’s a statistical impossibility that, of all of the people burned at the stake for heresy or witchcraft or whatever, nobody deserved some punishment received in an unfair process. Don’t get me wrong, witch hunts are a bad thing in general, but we can’t discount them as entirely (maybe just 99.9%) unjustified. But cancel culture is, like good old fashioned witch hunts is doing a lot of harm to the intellectual commons. I’m they catch more bad guys than 17th century Puritans, but lets not leave cancellations up to Twitter mobs. Particularly when it comes to cancelling ideas.

Bad ideas don’t need to be cancelled. They need to be crushed under good ideas.

Far be it from me to peddle unreplicated psychological research (confirmation bias alert!), but I tend to believe that there’s something to the claim that the extreme poles of the ideological landscape exhibit some unsettling traits: narrow-mindedness, authoritarianism, and apparently Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy.

“Narcissistic psychopath” is not a label I’d like to see bandied about because it’s just too close to ad hominum. But “authoritarian” is a term I’d like to see more widely used as a pejorative, regardless of the position taken by would be authoritarians.

Let’s quit with the shouting, cancelling, flag waving, and blindly taking reactionary positions. Invite debate, and invite holding people accountable. But letting Twitter be the last word is as absurd as letting Helen Lovejoy-esque moral scolding decide how things should be.

But then again, maybe I’m wrong.

Real Decision Rights Theory and Political Coalitions

Libertarians understand these two big ideas:

  1. A system of individual rights can allow widespread cooperation and human flourishing.
  2. The world is full of emergent orders, like markets, with aggregate outcomes that are more than the sum of their parts.

But commitment to the first idea often blinds us to the full implications of the second.

Complex adaptive systems involve an infinity of illegible signals involving cooperation and competition in networks so complex that it would be impossible to replicate their success in any conceivable top-down system. The market is a discovery procedure. But the “it” that is the market is a collective thing. It’s a jointly produced phenomenon and it’s impossible to split it up without fundamentally changing it.

Likewise, a system of rights (including the rights underlying a functioning market) is a jointly produced common good.

Why does it mean anything to say that I own my laptop? Because when push comes to shove (if I’m willing to shove hard enough), other members of my community are willing to act in ways (formal and informal) that enforce my property right. (Interesting aside: If I reported my laptop stolen to the local police, they wouldn’t do anything about it. Perhaps this reflects the median voter’s level of regard for other people’s property rights…)

Ownership is not as simple as “I own this piece of property, period.” Instead, to own something is to have some bundle of rights to make particular decisions. I can decide what to plant in my garden, but I can’t decide to build a nuclear reactor in my front yard. I don’t need to go through some elaborate chain of natural rights reasoning to argue that your negative right to avoid externalities supersedes my positive right to do a thing. Doing so might be a useful exercise to see how (in)consistent our ruleset is. But the real system is much simpler (and much more ad hoc). Rights are as rights are enforced.

What am I driving at here? First, that we should be dealing with property decision rights as they are more than we deal with them as they ought to be. Second, individual rights require collective support. This puts constraints on how we move towards our Utopias.

Debating/convincing our intellectual opponents is necessary, but it’s really just a negotiation tactic. Discounting idiotic opponents is reasonable in the intellectual sphere, but we can’t just overlook the fact that those opponents are part of the environment we’re trying to shape. We don’t necessarily have to throw them a bone, but when we don’t make some group part of our coalition, we have to expect someone else will.

Our normative theories will convince us that group A can’t make group B’s lives worse for the sake of A’s ego. But if A perceives the subjective value of that ego boost to be high enough, and if A has the relevant rights, then B had better look out.

Improving the world isn’t simply a matter of making the right arguments well. We have to be entrepreneurial, and keep an eye out for how others might do the same. Political entrepreneurship means looking for the under-priced voters which is exactly what Trump did in 2016. He found a group A full of low-status voters who had been discounted by the political establishment. And because their rights to shape the collective outcome went unexercised so long, it was that much more disruptive when they were finally brought to the table. Likewise, BLM protests reveal that there is a group B that is ready to throw their weight around.

That leaves a big pile of questions. What is the cost of pride? How can we ensure people have enough dignity that they won’t want to destroy what a functioning (if imperfect) society? How do we account for potential political energy (particularly when we remember that voting is only a tiny part of political participation)?

I don’t know the answers, but I know this: we can’t escape getting our hands dirty and engaging in some political exchange. I don’t like it, but I’m not the only one deciding.

Throwing the Bums out is Insufficient

It’s election season (those quite weeks between October and November three years later) which means a resurgence in political economy superstitions! A particular tempting one is the Throw the Bums Out Theory of Governance.

The theory goes like this: things are awful, awful people are in positions of power, therefore we need to get rid of those awful people.

As instincts go, it’s not the worst. But it’s Twitter level thinking. Yeah, it’s worth celebrating the regression to the mean that will be the end of Trump’s presidency. I’m looking forward to the “regular” amounts of corruption and embarrassment. But those “regular” amounts are still problematic. The lesser of two evils still sucks. The mean we’re regressing to is the real problem.

In other words: the political outcomes we get reflect the underlying political reality (give or take). As Mencken said: we get what we want good and hard. Political outcomes involve (mostly bad) luck, but Trump wasn’t some utterly random accident. He happened because enough American voters wanted that (more than the next best alternative, anyways).

Throwing the bums out is cathartic, but there’s no shortage of bums to replace them.

The problem is not the bums, it’s the system as a whole. Trump was able to screw things up so badly because we’ve set up ground rules that a) gave him the ability, and b) required more competence than he was ready or able to apply. But elections don’t choose the qualified candidates, they choose the popular candidates. And if one thing is obvious in 2020, it’s that we can’t count on magically educating our political opponents into having the enlightened views necessary for us to make sure the best candidates are always the most popular.

In the long-run, the task is to make incompetent morons less important–something I hope everyone can agree is a worthwhile goal (#neverHillary, #neverTrump). The current system means ideological tribes have to be constantly warring with each other to make sure presidential power doesn’t get into the wrong hands. Can we please agree that this is a terrible system?

We can lower the stakes. We can push power back to the state and local level (and give people an incentive to actually pay attention to local issues!). Let’s take a break from partisan entertainment–as fun as Project Lincoln is, let’s face it, they’re not convincing anyone–and get to the hard task of being a self-governing society. Let’s ask how we could set things up so we don’t have to worry about the next Clinton or Trump.

Until we change the system, we’re going to keep seeing more of the same. Let’s shift the conversation away from “that candidate’s terrible, how can we defeat them?” and towards “this setup attracts terrible candidates, how can we fix that?”!

A paradox

You know those little floaters on the surface of your eyes? They drift into view, catch your attention, then when you try to focus directly on one it disappears from view. They’re only really there if you don’t look straight at them.

Goodhart’s Law tells us that “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The same basic logic applies to two of my favorite things: the Internet and college.

The Internet is still a magical thing, but we’ve killed some of the magic by trying to take the Internet seriously. The Internet ceases to provide output worth taking seriously when people actually take the Internet seriously. When you only keep it in your periphery, it’s actually worth taking seriously

Ditto for college. The basic problem with the current system is that we’re all taking it too seriously. That leads to all sorts of specific bad behavior. But it all comes from this root problem. College is only worth taking seriously if we don’t. When college is back in the ivory tower, separated from the “real” world, it’s a place where people can be creative and make non-obvious connections. But once we recognize “hey, that’s a pretty neat thing, let’s make it a one-size-fits-all solution to all of our problems” we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

My advice for getting the most out of the Internet: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do weird stuff.

My advice for getting the most out of college: don’t take it too seriously. It was only ever meant to be a place for weirdos to do the sort of stuff that the rest of the world doesn’t have time for.

Nightcap

Slate Star Codex has been deleted.

Obviously the inarguably best post was this. Of course I don’t mean that literally; my favorite post was his review of Seeing Like a State.

Fortunately, the posts archived in the Wayback machine behave nicely with Pocket. I’m going to go save a few to read later.

Worth a read: Reality has a surprising amount of detail

Reality has a surprising amount of detail

Here’s the tl;dr:

At a high level, most things are fairly simple. But understanding the high level (e.g. of carpentry, programming, economics, gardening etc.) only gets you so far. This relates to something I’ve been gradually realizing about wood working: it’s straightforward, but it’s not easy.

Details matter. So what? Those details affect our ability to get things done–from mundane straightforward things like installing a flight of stairs, to fuzzier things like connecting with each other. More importantly, figuring out those details is not automatic, the details I perceive are not the same as those you do, and once I figure out some set of details, they fade into the background…

This means it’s really easy to get stuck. Stuck in your current way of seeing and thinking about things. Frames are made out of the details that seem important to you. The important details you haven’t noticed are invisible to you, and the details you have noticed seem completely obvious and you see right through them. This all makes makes it difficult to imagine how you could be missing something important.


As big a fan as I am of the big picture, we can’t get away from the fact that it’s made out of many smaller pictures. Figuring out the world, and figuring out how to be excellent to each other are straightforward, but they aren’t easy.

From the comments: follow on effects of liability rules?

Far be it from me to to tell anyone how to think, or what a word belonging to everyone really means. But I’m going to quickly indulge in a No True Scotsman-ism. Libertarianism means being skeptical of power. (I recently saw a great line on libertarians that needs sharing: “…every libertarian agrees on two things: that there’s only one libertarian and it’s them.”)

So I’m optimistic to see reductions in the amount of power government agents can exercise. I’m particularly optimistic to see changes that don’t take the form of “we’re going to manage that bit of power over there with a new bit of power over here” (i.e. regulation). A very short term version of such a change happened when Buffalo’s police union announced they wouldn’t cover the legal fees of their riot squad.

My enthusiasm was followed by the right question in the comments: “If this obtains, what is the likely effect upon the lives and property of Buffalo dwellers?”

In principle, we could dig into this question empirically, but not until we’ve got decent data with variation in the liability rules governing police behaviors. In the mean time…

Let’s break the question down: What are the average effects and how will those effects differ between different parts of Buffalo? What will be the effects on violent crime? What will be the effects on property crime? And how will those effects affect property values?

The most obvious and immediate change will be a reduction in police use of force. As we’ve seen, at least some of that force is used criminally. This change in the rules means reducing the likelihood of another Gugino incident. Which means a reduced likelihood of pulling resources away from productive uses to cover all the various costs involved in such incidents–the medical care and suffering, the resources surrounding arresting the perpetrators and keeping them safe should they end up incarcerated, the legal fees, etc. All else equal (i.e. ignoring secondary effects), this is equivalent to raising the cost of breaking windows–bad for the glazier, but more than offset to window owners.

Of course, the real question is about the impact of reducing the non-criminal use of force by police. The Buffalo experiment looks to be short-term and restricted to the riot squad, so we won’t be able to draw any conclusions from this (except, of course, that it confirms my priors and you’re looking at things the wrong way if you disagree with me. </s>)

The more interesting question is how extending this liability issue–i.e. curtailing qualified immunity–would affect the long run equilibrium? That outcome would eventually be capitalized into the prices of real estate. Safer neighborhoods will have higher property values.

Here’s my prediction: property values will increase in poor and non-white neighborhoods relative to wealthier and whiter neighborhoods.

Some caveats are in order:

  • I suspect that in most American cities poor neighborhoods are under-served by the police, so reduced legitimate police force will have minimal impact.
  • I also suspect (hopefully someone will share some helpful resources in the comments) that illegitimate police force is mostly concentrated in poor neighborhoods.
  • Wealthy neighborhoods might see some increased crime from reduced legitimate police force, but I’m doubtful. I think more likely the impact will be more like the effects of price discrimination–why pay more if the alternative isn’t terrible? To the extent poor neighborhoods get less terrible, the relative draw of rich neighborhoods will decreases.
  • There are any number of other changes coming down the pipeline that will make it difficult to disentangle the effects of qualified immunity holding all else equal.
  • To the extent we see a general improvement in the quality of policing (more ‘serve & protect’ and less cracking skulls) we should see an increase in property values across the board.
  • White flight is likely to happen which will bias results towards my conclusions. I want my hypothesis to be interpreted holding white flight constant.
  • The effects will go beyond just real estate price. I would expect something like this: for every $1 price reduction in rich neighborhoods, there will be <$1 price increase in poor neighborhoods, but the gap will be made up in other quality-of-life changes such as reduced chance of incarceration for victimless crimes, fewer hours of work missed, fewer injuries at the hands of police, etc.
  • I hope that these quality of life changes will make empirical analysis even more difficult as other follow on effects extend the time horizon of people in poor neighborhoods–e.g. if fewer people are sent to jail, that could lead to fewer young men getting involved in crime leading to entrepreneurs being more willing to invest in their communities.

My predictions are absolutely shaded by my ideological biases. And there’s no getting around how complicated these changes are (hopefully) going to be. But I feel confident predicting an implicit shift of wealth from the paranoid wealthy to the disenfranchised.

Is there anyone here who disagrees enough to help me clarify my thinking by putting money on it?

Liability Rules!

“The union representing Buffalo police officers told its rank and file
members Friday that the union would no longer pay for legal fees to
defend police officers related to the protests…”

From Buffalo News.

This could be excellent news (at least in Buffalo). The threat of lawsuits means police will either be on their best behavior or won’t show up to work.

Cyclical History

An interesting result from behavioral/experimental economics is that bubbles can happen even with smart people who should know better. But once those people go through a bubble, they do a better job of avoiding bubbles in the future.

I think this result has major implications for society more broadly and I think we’re seeing it play out in the news. In the ’70s people learned a lot of hard lessons about things like stagflation (and racism–but ask a sociologist about that) that made the following decades easier. But those people gradually retired and were replaced with people who weren’t inoculated to certain ideas (like the idea of inflating your way out of a supply-side recession).

We’re now living in a world where the median voter and her elected representatives have unlearned those hard lessons. And so we’re going to live through the 1970’s again. Hopefully. If we’re not so lucky we might live through the 1930’s again.

Skin in the Game or Senility?

This morning I learned that Trump has been taking Hydroxycloroquine for the last week.

Good for him for actually (apparently) taking on the risk he’s so enthusiastic to encourage others to take. I’m surprised Fox News hasn’t picked this up as a chance to build up some good press. Still, as a devoted never-Trumper, I hope this turns into evidence that Trump is not legally competent to hold office.

No word yet if he’s been huffing bleach fumes.

Evolution in Everything: Handwriting

There’s a whole set of simple but profound lessons that, if I were being lazy, I might call “the economic way of thinking.” We move through a hand-me-down world, solving some problems and creating new problems, adjusting and adapting, and shaping the world that we pass on to the next generation.

I just stumbled on a lovely example in an article about ballpoint pens and the end of cursive. A technological change changed the nature of handwriting, but the structure of human capital lagged behind. Specifically, the widespread adoption of ballpoint pens meant the old way of writing–how to hold the pen, how to form the letters, etc.–was poorly suited to the tool being used. This should have been an opportunity to test unchecked assumptions (e.g. about what the “correct” way to write is) but instead an inefficient practice (cursive writing with a bic pen) persisted in the face of increasing obsolescence.

I particularly like the idea of trying something new (fountain pens) can lead to a realization that some old method has a lot more going for it than was obvious to the non-alert.

I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility. It’s not news to anyone that students used to write with fountain pens, but knowing this isn’t the same as the tactile experience of writing with one. Without that experience, it’s easy to continue past practice without stopping to notice that the action no longer fits the tool. Perhaps “saving handwriting” is less a matter of invoking blind nostalgia and more a process of examining the historical use of ordinary technologies as a way to understand contemporary ones. Otherwise we may not realize which habits are worth passing on, and which are vestiges of circumstances long since past.

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

Learning takes time. So in a dynamic society, it’s natural that there will always be some sort of practice outliving its utility. The only other way I see is stagnation: no new methods, no new problems, and we eventually setting into a “making the best of it” equilibrium.

The discovery of each of these inefficiencies creates some pocket of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it’s a massive, market oriented bit of entrepreneurship–like Bic industrializing the process of making cheap, reliable pens. Sometimes it’s a niche community of hobbyists (who might be incubating the next big thing). But that entrepreneurial reaction to inefficiency is pretty exciting. Realizing how my bad handwriting is the outcome of a technical problem makes me want to try fountain pens.

All News is Biased

I generally avoid the news because those things are outside my control. But then the pandemic happened and I picked up this bad habit.

I generally get my news from NPR because I trust that they’ll observe the rules of good journalism and it’s easy to adjust for the inevitable leftward bias. Just to be safe, I’ll occasionally check Fox News to mix up the sorts of spin I’m seeing. (Aside: a recent Wisecrack video on biased news has me feeling more optimistic about the existence of a wide range of biased news, even if I’m still pessimistic about most people’s ability to take advantage.)

At first I didn’t see a huge difference. When something happened, both sources report what happens. Both sources do the same basic task of reporting the news. The editorials are certainly different, but I’m not that interested in most opinions. When they’re reporting, the spin is fairly subtle because it’s hard to spin a mostly raw fact.

But after a few weeks, I’ve been finding that the news worsens my mood and offers me little useful information. My time is scarce and my old methods (getting news indirectly from friends, family, and the local paper) worked better. I’m updating my information diet. Besides cutting back on Fox News and NPR, I’m taking a cue from Trump and shifting to a new, prior-confirming, and basically made up news source: OPR. Their stories aren’t literally true, but the act of interpreting them is similar to de-biasing actual news. And for all the effort, I feel as informed as I did last week.

Paid Sick Leave and Schelling Focal Points

Paid sick leave is something I want more people to have. Of course it’s a good thing. Sick leave is valuable, but it’s not free so we have to ask it it’s worth it.

Right around the 11:30 mark is a tragic and hilarious line: “Dildos are not essential items. Books for kids, yes, but dildos? … No!” Good for John Oliver noting that deciding what is essential isn’t straight forward–apparently frivolous things might keep people inside and so serve the public health.

This is a classic Austrian point: prices (are supposed to) communicate information about how urgently people want a product. We run into trouble trying to prevent prices from reflecting the underlying economic crappiness of a crisis. Price gouging should be allowed for toilet paper and especially for grocery/Amazon workers. And the price of grocery workers should be passed on to consumers.

What we’ve got now requires each of us to not only ask “am I willing to pay this price?” but also engage in a moral calculus that is hard. I have to ask (as a person striving to be moral) if it’s really worth ordering X, Y, and Z from Amazon. But as a person who has to strive to be moral, it’s entirely too easy to fall for bad rationalizations.

So how do we help these essential-yet-replaceable* workers? Paid sick leave sure sounds good. And given the externalities involved in a pandemic, there’s a strong argument for mandating it.

But it’s worth remembering (particularly as a long run policy) that if we push on one part of a compensation bundle, something’s going to give. If we require employers to provide a company car (or simply encourage company cars through preferential tax laws), we shouldn’t be surprised to see monetary compensation fall. The same logic applies to paid sick leave.

But I’m my own devil’s advocate, so let me make a counter argument. I rarely use my sick days. I think I’ve taken 2 or 3 in the last 6 years. (I’m absolutely reevaluating that position now!) There’s this idea floating around in the back of my head that tells me to just tough it out and keep working. This isn’t because I carefully weighed pros and cons, it’s just received “wisdom” picked up by osmosis from the broader culture.

American culture values work over value. There’s no shortage of bullshit work because we’re in a work-too-hard equilibrium. This is not to say that hard work doesn’t have benefits. I’m happy when ambitious entrepreneurs work “too” hard to provide greater value. But there are a lot of cases where we create work for its own sake (especially in the higher ed racket, but apparently we’re not alone).

Essentially, we’re all playing a coordination game where we choose between “[appear to] work to make things better” and “stay home instead of passing your illness to other people.” Given American work culture, the Schelling focal point is <work, work>.

On the compensation end of things employers have to decide between offering more sick leave or some other compensation (like money). In this end, there is some benefit to zigging where other employers zag. If I’m running the only business to offer paid paternity leave, I get my pick of the best family-oriented workers while my competitors have to outbid each other to get the best of the other workers. But any mid-level HR manager is more likely to play the risk-averse strategy of following “best practices.”

So we’re in an equilibrium that underrates sick leave. We want to be in an equilibrium where it’s just good business sense to offer sick leave during a global pandemic. But coming from our current equilibrium, offering sick leave is a costly decision to privately provide a public good; it’s unlikely to happen unless the culture already promotes it.

I think we can get that equilibrium. I think we’re already moving towards it (ask yourself: would the board of the East India Company be more likely to offer sick leave than Amazon?). But we’re not there yet.

Paid sick leave should be good business sense right now**. But it depends on a culture where such behavior is widespread. I’m not convinced we could flip a switch and get that culture over night. Given that, I’m at least somewhat okay with contradicting my libertarian priors and calling for emergency mandates for paid sick leave. 2020 America isn’t likely to coordinate on the “right” short-term solution and coercion is probably the most efficient*** way to deal with this common pool problem. But outside of a public health emergency we shouldn’t allow top down mandates about the mix of compensation offered in markets (certainly not with the sort of people we elect to be on top).


(A couple rhetorical points: First, John Oliver isn’t speaking the language of those on the right. They won’t even be convinced that the issues he’s talking about are important. I think that’s a shame. Second, this is a tough time to try to argue against paid sick leave. In 2020 America, mandatory paid sick leave is probably required because we’re at the wrong Schelling point. Again, I don’t think conservatives or right-libertarians will find Oliver’s motivations convincing, but I believe that they could be persuaded. But that’s another blog post.)

(Two important counterpoints to the above: first, price increases hurt the poor. The way to solve that is to give charity money to the poor, not to try to make markets communicate information about relative scarcity and act as charity–that’s half-assing twice and it’s bound to be more inefficient than the charity would be costly. Second many people categorized as “essential” aren’t in a position to demand higher wages*. I don’t have an easy solution to this issue. Let’s talk about it in the comments.)

*Which is to say, workers who are in the same position as water in the diamond-water paradox.
**Not to say it would be cheap or easy.
***There you go. Now my friends on the left can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for opposing paid sick leave in general, and my friends on the right can accuse me of being a bloodless economist for supporting