New Book! Markets with Limits: How the commodification of academia derails debate

James Stacey Taylor writes:

In brief, I argue that the increasing pressure on academics to publish has led to a decrease in the accuracy of academic work, and suggest ways to rectify this. 

I begin Markets with Limits by outlining how Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski (both of Georgetown University) have inadvertently misrepresented the views of the “anti-commodification theorists” they criticize in their influential book Markets Without Limits

I then expand my discussion to identify “woozles” (claims that are widely repeated but false) in other disciplines–such as the claim that Eskimos have many different words for snow, that Victorian physicians “cured” their female patients of hysteria by using vibrators, and that Popeye ate spinach because it had high levels of Vitamin D. (This part of the book was a lot of fun to write!)

Along the way I also provide a taxonomy of different types of expressivist arguments, of which semiotic arguments are only one, and a taxonomy of the different ways in which one might understand the debate over the moral limits of markets. And I insert Easter Eggs–hidden academic jokes–throughout the text, Index, and Bibliography!

The link to his new book is here. Check it out! And check out his excellent essays on colonialism here.

Nightcap: Development with Dignity

There’s a new book coming out that y’all should read: Development with Dignity: Self-determination, Localization, and the End to Poverty. Here’s the link. Here’s the description:

At a time when the global development industry is under more pressure than ever before, this book argues that an end to poverty can only be achieved by prioritizing human dignity.

Unable to adequately account for the roles of culture, context, and local institutions, today’s outsider-led development interventions continue to leave a trail of unintended consequences, ranging from wasteful to even harmful. This book shows that increased prosperity can only be achieved when people are valued as self-governing agents. Social orders that recognize autonomy and human dignity unleash enormous productive energy. This in turn leads to the mobilization of knowledge-sharing that is critical to innovation and localized problem-solving. Offering a wide range of interdisciplinary perspectives and specific examples from the field showing these ideas in action, this book provides NGOs, multilateral institutions, and donor countries with practical guidelines for implementing “dignity-first” development.

Compelling and engaging, with a wide range of recommendations for reforming development practice and supporting liberal democracy, this book will be an essential read for students and practitioners of international development.

It’s by Tom Palmer (one of my favorite scholars) and Matt Warner. Again the link is here.

Reasonable decisions leading to lousy results

Early 20th century Greece

A novella fucked me up. Not now. That would be some 20 years ago, at the nationally held university admission exams. So, last week I went for a complete re-read of the thing, “Η Τιμή και το Χρήμα” (translates in either Price or Honor, and Money, a witty ambiguity in Greek) by Konstantinos Theotokis. It follows a family drama in Corfu island, circa 1910. It’s prose is something for its own sake, but more importantly, it is a relatively rare depiction of lower class people, not as proud, hard-working laborers, but as quite cold calculating individuals.

Rigid constraints are in place, from tradition and custom: Social hierarchy is alive and kicking, with old noble families and new-moneyed ones on top and the poorer, working ones beneath. Women are generally subordinate. There is a clear distinction in occupations, so that men of higher heritage are unavoidably expected to be masters, not employees, securing that their women do not (need to) work. The drama arises as the son (Andreas) of such a family, plighted by ill economic tidings, and the daughter (Rini) of a lower family, fall in love. It gets more complicated as the girl’s mother (Epistimi), the acting head of their house and a business partner of sorts to the prospective groom, refuses to offer the requested dowry.

It is a sad story, with just a bit of silver lining so no to come as downright depressing. Some take-aways:

  1. Smuggling was thriving. Andreas smuggles commodities and cattle.
  2. Epistimi, a factory seamstress, buys smuggled products from Andreas to resell them, and also lends him money for his endeavors. A homebrew little merchant – money lender she is.
  3. The interest rate is around 20%-25% for a term of weeks or so. In written pact.
  4. Smuggling operations have a nearly explicit political coverage. Andreas uses his family’s connections to remove the local constable at some point.
  5. This patronage is flimsy, as governments change. Smuggling shifts to the new minister’s electoral district. Hardly a good fit for trade theorizing.
  6. Per Andreas’ uncle, who is also his accomplice, smuggling is as decent as any dealing, and those “fat cats” at the capital could do with less taxes.
  7. Women’s’ social position plainly sucked. But at least they could take some initiatives.
  8. Hard labor is in fact praised throughout the novella.

Juveniles lack context to understand and appreciate the novella, I think. I agree it should be taught, but not in the hammer-it-in-your-head way it was presented back then.

Book list triple threat

Neither new books, nor in any particular order. Hell, did not even read them all in 2021.

Fiction

  • Mistborn trilogy – Gripping enough, long slog, well-thought magic system. (Brandon Sanderson)
  • The Alloy of Law, a sequel that became the 1st part of another Mistborn trilogy. Gritty steampunk setting, the mix & match of magic powers didn’t do it for me. Meh. (Brandon Sanderson)
  • Reckoners trilogy – Almost fine for YA. Forgettable. (Brandon Sanderson)
  • Earthsea Quartet – Rich and beautiful, seems a bit dated or familiar, since it set standards encountered in later works in the genre. (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Farseer trilogy – Intricate world building, the 1st person POV suits. Curiously, the 2nd book is the best of the series. (Robin Hobb)

Prose-wise, Le Guin and Hobb lead by a wide margin vs Sanderson. The two also go beyond the usual hack-n-slash and shed light to the more mundane labors of daily life in a largely medieval world. A documentary on castles/ forests/ ports could certainly use a few of Hobb’s descriptions and terms.

  • The Lacquer Screen – A detective novel set in Imperial China, of a particular subgenre called gong’an. I enjoyed the ambience of Tang period, while the whole read is quite old-fashioned. (Robert van Gulik)

Comic Books

  • Watchmen – Superb. (Moore/ Gibbons)
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – I expected to like it more, I think. (Miller)
  • Blacksad (#1-5, integrated version) – Sublime artwork, storylines good but uneven. I had already read #1-3 some 15 years ago. (Canales/ Guarnido)

On the pile

  • The dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Watership Down (Richard Adams)
  • Ship of Magic (Robin Hobb)
  • Superman: Red Son (Millar/ Johnson/ Robinson/ Wong/ Plunkett)
  • Batman: White Knight (Murphy)

And a sole non-fiction entrant to the pile:

  • The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Bill Bryson)

(Monday’s) comic book edition

The Code is dead, to begin with. Watchmen (DC) is awesome, a near-Orwell experience. On comics historical curios and intellectual drifts. Here goes.

Vol. 1 – That other 50s scare and all

Somewhere somehow I picked up the Comics Code Authority story. It goes like this: The rise of mass-media in early 50s saw a creeping moral panic against the more “graphic” content of comic books (think horror, violence and the like). In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated the supposedly detrimental influence of comic books, taking into account speculative, biased evidence. The emerging threat of government regulation prompted the creation of the Code by the comic publishers, so that they could check content themselves. The self-censoring initiative could use some tuning: It was overly strict, shaking-up and aggressively downsizing the industry. Thus, a government “nudge” led to a private sector (over)reaction, with ill effects. The sector, however, adapted and continued, underground or otherwise.

*The* seal – source

Ironically, it was another government nod that galvanized a Code overhaul in 1971, as the Nixon administration asked Stan Lee of Marvel to incorporate an anti-drugs storyline in Amazing Spiderman. The arc proceeded without CCA approval in mid-1971 (funnily, just before the international monetary system entered turmoil). And it was in 1973 (say hello to the first oil crisis) that the depiction of murder in a popular comic book (Amazing Spiderman, again) marked the passage from the campy superheroes of the Silver Age (c. 1956 – 1970) to a more diverse and socially attuned bunch in the Bronze Age (c. 1970 – 1985). As the disillusionment of the 70s gave its place to cynicism in the 80s, so did the comic heroes matured, with works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The archetypes formed in the period (Dark Age, typically 1985-1996), grim and complex, redefined the genre and are still here today.

The Code was updated again in 1989, but failed to stay relevant in the face of increasing bypassing/ sidelining via new distribution methods (all hail the market in action). Just 20 years ago, Marvel abandoned it. 10 years later, in 2011, the last adherents, DC and Archie, finally desisted, too.

Vol. 2Randian Quests & Answers

Α couple of (relatively) fresh articles flashed from The Comics Journal:

Mysterious Travelers: Steve Ditko and the Search for a New Liberal Identity

How Ayn Rand Influenced Comic Books

Not an exactly nuanced analysis, the second one (it contains a few useful links though), but still, both presented things to consider. As it turns out, the co-creator (along with aforementioned Stan Lee) of f – Spiderman, Steve Ditko, endorsed objectivist ideals in early 60s (he even contributed a piece to Reason back in 1969). Here is another scholarly short paper on his impact:

“A Is A”: Spider-Man, Ayn Rand, and What Man Ought to Be (PS: Political Science & Politics)

If mid-60s Peter Parker, “[c]old, arrogant, detached from the lives of others, but driven to follow his purpose and pursue higher ends”, seems objectivist enough, then the Question and Mr. A., Ditko’s creations in late 60s, are the real thing. These two were featured in smaller publications, and later provided the inspiration for Rorschach (Watchmen).

Fists will fly – source

The character was intended not only as a tribute to Ditko, but also as a stark criticism for randian convictions, meant to make a bad example of them. However, the controversial fictional zealot resonated (a bit too well perhaps) with the audience. Indeed, the character delivers some of the most memorable quotes ever, his unflinching crusade against the morally bankrupt (political class included) is iconic, and his damaged humanity invites some sympathy.

Depending on priors and inclinations, one can certainly discern smatterings of Rand’s ideas in Rorschach (“no gray”, believing in “a day’s work for a day’s pay”, among others). But I think that his trope could be assigned to other venues, too. For example, a fantasy aficionado will see a Paladin gone (very) wrong, maybe, or a casual will stick to the apparent right-wing leanings per se, and so on.

The other route of Rand influence is traced to Frank Miller and his Dark Knight take on Batman. The arc of a lone (capitalist) hero versus media-induced apathy and the corrupted establishment (and said establishment’s lapdog, Superman) has a libertarian facet, yes. I will get it (next week probably), read it and, then, return.

Transaction Costs are Injustice

Every Law Professor: ‘what is justice?’

In law school, I found that the central goal of legal academics and practitioners was to construct systems of thought, regulation, and courts providing justice. In that endeavor, my peers and professors constantly asked, “what is justice?”

I think well intentioned lawyers would agree, the law should provide access to justice via a system that is generally agreeable to those subjected to it, and that matches in rules what the general public aligns on in spirit. However, beyond these generalities, I find the conversation of ‘what is justice’ to be too abstract to be useful. However, that does not mean we should give up on it, we just need to change approaches, and instead ask ‘what is injustice?’

The Via Negativa

The basis for this is that it is easier to agree on what is unjust than on what is just: injustice in the form of concrete, tangible wrongdoing can be protested to, and people from diverse viewpoints can find agreement in what they mutually despise. Through the via negativa, then, we can fill in the negative space around justice, and by recognizing what it is NOT, we can start to give it form.

I know exactly where I would start, since I spend way too much time around lawyers, and I have noticed that they are open to any discussion of how lawyers can bring justice, but get very prickly if you suggest that the cost in time, money, and lost control by delegating justice to lawyers is in any way problematic. Let’s just say, lawyers don’t like being reminded that they are rent seekers in the process of achieving justice. So, my bold assertion is:

Transaction Costs are Injustice

Let me unpack this. What I mean by this is that, whatever a just outcome may be, it is unjust to delay this outcome when speed is possible, it is unjust to have complexity and opacity when simplicity is possible, and it is unjust to demand control when voluntarism and mutuality is possible. In effect, it is unjust to make the process of finding justice costly.

The Appeal Labyrinth: The Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales

This issue actually came up to me in a conversation about the heartbreaking case of The Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales. In June 1999, Jessica Lenahan-Gonzales was a resident of Castle Rock whose estranged husband kidnapped her children from her house, and when she called the police and asked them to enforce an active restraining order against him (he had been stalking her and her children). They did not react quickly, and 12 hours later, her children were found murdered in her estranged husband’s car after he engaged in a deadly shootout with the police.

Now, there is no good outcome from such a situation, especially for Jessica. However, one route for her was to sue the police department under, of all things, under a law originally passed to fight the KKK. In her lawsuit, she claimed the federal government had an interest in enforcement of the restraining order and alleged that the police department had “an official policy or custom of failing to respond properly to complaints of restraining order violations.”

Jessica’s case was initially dismissed by the District Court, but she appealed and, in 2002, it was reversed by the Tenth Circuit, which said she could recover under procedural due process but denied that she had a right to recover via substantive due process (for Scalia’s take on substantive due process in general, see this amazing video). However, the Circuit court also noted that while the town was liable, the officers were covered by qualified immunity.

The town appealed and actually was granted cert by the Supreme Court. SCOTUS reversed the Circuit Court in a 7-2 decision; Scalia wrote for the majority that officers were not required by law to immediately enforce restraining orders, that even if they were it would not give individuals a right to sue (instead, the right would be with the state). Lastly, he noted that even if enforceable, this would have no monetary value and could not lead to an individual payout via Due Process.

So, in the end, SCOTUS gave Jessica nothing. Now, we can all weigh in on whether Scalia ‘did justice’ to her; I have incredible sympathy for Jessica but happen to think his argument is correct, that under the law and Constitution, a restraining order does not give her the right to get money from the town. But I will say that the court did her a great injustice, in sending her down a 6-year rabbit hole of being denied, then allowed, then denied again from recovery. How, then, can we all agree that the court was unjust? The injustice was the delay. The injustice was the tremendous cost in time, money, and emotional damage. The injustice was that the process for answering the question of how a mother should react to the murder of her children and how a town should support her gave no closure, and instead just had transaction costs in landing her, in 2005, exactly in the same spot she was in 1999.

The Lazy Counter: justice takes time!

Now, angry lawyers out there, don’t mistake me here: I am not saying appeals never bring justice. I too am in awe of the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, which uses the appeals process to fight wrongful convictions. I am not arguing appeals are unjust. I am arguing that a legal system that takes 6 years and millions of dollars to answer any question is doing an injustice to EJI’s clients as well. Was Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian served well by a justice system that put him in jail for years while his appeal stagnated?

What is obvious here is that lawyers, in their blindered vision of pursuing justice, are doing their best to get to the right outcome, and while cost may be a consideration for process improvement, it is not a consideration for justice. Maybe a simpler, more transparent, faster court process would do a worse job. But I think that every complexity, opacity, and delay is an injustice done by our system to the people who are seeking justice through it, and I would be amazed if Johnny D would have been thankful for all the technicalities that could be used to get the right outcome after what the Alabama prison system put him through.

Is “justice” trying to do too much?

Unlike in the case of Johnny D, Jessica’s case may show how we stretch the bounds of the system to get to an outcome that feels right, rather than being by the rules. Johnny D was caught up by a racist abuse of criminal justice, which is intended to keep citizens safe; there was no ‘community solution’ available for the murder of which he was falsely accused.

Jessica, however, was simply not treated right by her town. Anyone, regardless of their politics or views, would hope that the town has some level of care for their aggrieved, and that the community could pull together around her. Obviously, this did not happen–and especially not by the town’s police department, which had the opportunity to admit it was asleep at the wheel under the knowledge that they had qualified immunity. Since community solutions were lacking, she brought a civil case, which had a desirable end–helping an aggrieved mother and recognizing that her case was mishandled–but inadequate and undesirable means: lawyers lawyering.

I would be amazed if Jessica herself thought of the connection of: restraining order->Ku Klux Klan Act->federal oversight of law enforcement->property recovery under the Due Process Clause->monetary damages for police inaction. From my legal education, this sounds like the highly technical argument of a creative activist lawyer, who wants to change the law as much as he wants to help his clients. So, were Jessica’s lawyers trying to do too much through the justice system? Was the better solution, then, not to turn back to the community and use public truth-telling or even honest requests for help?

The elites-for-the-people against the people

This made me react against a phenomenon I have seen across law schools, firms, and courts. At elite law schools, the administration touts the number of Access to Justice projects and amicus briefs written by faculty in cases like Gonzales. At elite law firms, they attract top performers with huge salaries, sure, but they mostly talk about how many interesting pro bono cases their associates can take on. And on top Circuit Courts, most famously the Ninth, my classmates go on to help judges think creatively about how to reach just outcomes via legal wrangling. All of these activities are done with a mix of noblesse oblige and self-importance, but are honestly intended to help find justice for the downtrodden. I simply think these do-gooders don’t notice that all these activities are costly.

If you are not a lawyer, you may not realize how systematic this cost has become. Non-lawyers view courts as places where people with causes of action come and get answers based on the law. Lawyers know better: this certainly happens, but in parallel, dozens of groups (plaintiffs lawyers and activist groups on all sides of every issue) are targeting certain laws and certain constitutional questions, and are searching madly for standing. As in, they comb the news and low-level lawsuits to find one they can fund through as many appeals as possible to get the law changed or even just to get a ruling on a fact pattern that is friendly to them. In this, let me pick on my own team: in Carpenter v. US, in which the government used the cell phone location records of Carpenter and his friends without a warrant to arrest and convict them of robberies, there were no fewer than 16 amicus briefs by privacy activists (the CEI, EPIC, EFF, the Fourth Amendment Scholars, and the list goes on). Carpenter v. US was about many deep legal deliberations on the importance of privacy, but I have to say, long before it reached SCOTUS, it was no longer about justice for Carpenter, who had been in jail for two years and who wasn’t getting out even if he won. While it was a victory for my ‘team’ in saying that the government needs warrants if it wants cell phone location records, maybe justice isn’t just about getting victories for my team, if that victory comes at the cost of multiple appeals, dozens of lawyers and clerks, national media coverage, uncertainty for cell phone users and companies, and those 16 institutions writing briefs.

I therefore ask proponents of justice, who are trying to use their elite position to improve the system’s outcomes for the downtrodden, to be a little bit more humble and self-focused. Instead of sitting in seminars or court sessions deliberating on ‘what is justice,’ ask whether the justice system is the right way to seek the right outcome. Ask whether, maybe, it would be better to go out and act positively toward your fellow man rather than demand money, time, and attention to the causes, cases, and opinions of the (all elite and elitist) members of legal groups.

Invasiveness is Injustice

Across all legal disputes, I think the thing that rankles me–and all non-lawyers–is how prominent law is in our lives. If I need to use the justice system, I know it will become a major part of my life’s spending, but even if I never am called into court, I know that court cases are going to continue to be high-profile, lawyers are going to continue to increase their share of the economy, and professors are going to keep publishing books, seminars, articles, and blogs about ‘how can people like me bring just outcomes?’

So, maybe, we can find some justice for all if the legal system simply recognizes that ‘what is justice’ is not a question of all-encompassing, existential values, but a question of how to run an institution. Maybe what is important here is not the rights that we seek to gain for the oppressed by any means necessary, but of building and maintaining a structure (a Constitution, if you will) where anyone can engage, or not, with a system that uses just methods. High cost, delay, opacity, and central control are not just methods and show that the system is not working effectively.

We can all agree, left and right, that regardless of the answer, the system, the method of justice is itself broken if it cannot help but be a burden. Justice should not be so costly in our lives, and it is a failing of lawyers and judges to make their own jobs so important, pervasive, in control. I hope, with all the fantastically intelligent amicus-brief-writers out there, we can find a way to at least cut back that injustice.

CTRL + C: How can ideas find freedom in a digital world?

I propose a debate! The place: The NOL podcast. The people: anyone with fresh takes on copyright and patent in software (and who contacts me). The question: what are actions that businesses can take to carry out a vision of open collaboration via IP strategy?

As a former law student and current software company CEO, I have become frustrated with how abstract and academic IP discussions are. I know enough to be dangerous, and actually want to center in on: how can people like me use IP strategy to make our projects more open to collaboration, without making them exposed?

I’d love to get strategic advice in a debate environment. I’d also like to lay out below the IP landscape as I understand it to exist, and recall to some of the great IP visionaries of the early internet days, especially the Grateful Dead lyricist-turned-IP scholar, John Perry Barlow. Enjoy, and I will update this post once Brandon lets me set a date!

Copyrighting Code: Function masquerading as form

When I was taught about intellectual property, I learned about Google vs. Oracle, a case where the US Supreme Court considered the question, “Are API’s functional?” This may seem a strange question (when I ask computer scientists this question they always laugh helplessly), but the background is: According to US Copyright Law, “In no case does copyright protection . . . extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” This means that code may be copyrighted if descriptive but not if a functional, ‘useful article‘–and so, the esteemed Court needed to decide, effectively, is the Application Program Interface (API) code that allows softwares to request or send data purely decorative?

Until the Supreme Court, thank god, ruled that copying API code was in fact a “fair use” of API’s, the lower court’s ruling had actually held that: (1) API’s are creative, nonfunctional, and copyrightable, and (2) Google owed Oracle money for their impudent CTRL + C of API code. I’m relieved Google won, but I was totally shocked that the Supreme Court reversed only part two of the lower court decision, leaving part one unaddressed. I actually was speechless, because if they recognized it was a fair copying (in the case that API’s were useful), how could they still allow Oracle to claim copyright over them in the first place?

This is just one of the ways in which law school showed me that IP law had a reckoning, from the 1990’s to today, on how it should live on in a field that has undermined its very purposes for existing. By that I mean, if intellectual property keeps people from copying inventors and thus reducing their benefit (compared against patent-granted artificial monopolies) or raising their cost (from the cost of printing, one of the key justifications of copyright), how will it live on in the world where printing is free and inventions benefit more from CTRL + C than they suffer?

Patenting Code: Calling Dibs on How Everything Works

While my copyright classes mostly shocked me by showing me how much we lie and pretend useful things are ‘creative’, patent classes astounded me in the ways companies would assert that they invented general practices. Patents are only supposed to be eligible if they are novel, useful, and non-obvious, and they cannot cover nature, abstractions, or mathematical formulas. Or, rather, that is what the rules say; the actuality is that patents constantly used to monopolize basic processes like “one click” buying or “rounding the edges of a square.” However, rather than pick on low-hanging fruit, I’ll note that the current leading case in software process patents is Alice v. CLS, which like Google v. Oracle, struck down IP for a very limited reason that betrays the nonsense that patents are in a digital world.

Alice Corp. had patented a software method for financial trading systems to reduce ‘settlement risk,’ the risk that one party does what they are supposed to do and the other does not. This sounds fancy, but if you read the early opinions, even the district court judge noticed that the patent basically covered the idea “of employing an intermediary to facilitate simultaneous exchange of obligations in order to minimize risk.”

This made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and thank god, they decided that Alice failed the following test of patentability of methods related to abstract ideas: (1) does the software method contain an abstract idea? (2) If yes, did the patenter add an “inventive concept” that gives the idea “something extra.”

In case you were wondering, yes, they literally said “something extra.”

Thus ended a multi-year lawsuit over whether Alice could stop other companies from minimizing risk. As if we need any more proof that judges and lawyers simply cannot understand how coding works, or how invention works, or how natural law works, one appellate judge recommended extremely broad patentability of general principles, abusing the Einstein quote of “even gravity is not a natural law” to imply that, maybe, Einstein could have patented general relativity?

These sorts of vague precedents that leave the door open to patenting basic processes. Outside of software, there are a Myriad of cases (pun intended, about a case where the Supreme Court ruled that excised DNA was patentable because Myriad figured out how to slice it) where judges let companies patent things that stretch credulity. It makes me wonder, especially given that research on the history of patents in the physical world shows that patents often hamper and harm innovators that make me question what we restrict in the name of rewarding innovators. In DNA, patents have overreached in an attempt to control a growing, organic, copying engine. In software, they often do the same, leaving developers in fear of the power of CTRL + C.

The shared vision: Wine without Bottles:

In setting up this debate, I am stealing the creative work of IP pioneer and Grateful Dead lyricist, John Perry Barlow, who posed the following riddle:

If our property can be infinitely reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet without cost, without our knowledge, without its even leaving our possession, how can we protect it? How are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And, if we can’t get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?

Barlow’s central question cuts to the very core of IP. If the goal of restricting CTRL + C was to reward innovators for generating copies of their work, what is the point of these restrictions when generating copies is free? If we no longer must pay to produce bottles to hold our wine, and it flows forth as a bounty from the springs of invention, should we force this flood to be contained at all?

The riddle has but one answer, and I cannot say it better than Barlow; anyone who is interested should read his whole treatise on Wine without Bottles here. I will add only that, as an inventor, I know that his vision of bottlers minding their own business has not come to pass fully, but that the growth of open-source projects shows that bottling code does not, in fact, age it like fine wine. In fact, if you follow the money, “Smart developers like to hang out with smart code. When you open-source useful code, you attract talent.” This gives me hope, and I want to build on that hope with ways to make his vision a reality.

Let’s debate the best way to enact a vision, rather than the vision

As an inventor considering how to build a successful software company meaning that I literally face the question of how to engage with the IP system, this question is one in which I am deeply interested. I’d like to hear fresh takes on how entrepreneurs can realistically act when deciding, should we bottle our wine? Should we allow other people to bottle and sell it? If my goal is to bring wine to those who are thirsty, how can I think about bottles?

I’m looking forward to what I hear, and as a bonus, I’ll give you my most inspiring Barlow quote, from his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here

. . . .

You [world governments] are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.

Julian Simon’s life against the grain

I did not meet many of the postwar great thinkers of classical liberalism. There are two exceptions. In 2005 I had a chat with James Buchanan to ask him if I could translate the talk he gave to an audience of graduate students at the IHS summer seminar at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He agreed and I translated and published his ideas on ‘the soul of classical liberalism’ in a Dutch liberal periodical.

The other exception is Julian Simon. Perhaps not in the same league as Buchanan, he was certainly a maverick thinker and a classical liberal great. A navy officer, business man, and advertising expert who turned to academia, he is known, to name just a few, for his arguments in the field of population growth, immigration studies and of course the book The Ultimate Resource. In it he argues that all raw materials become cheaper, while humans are the ultimate resource, among many other issues. He also won a famous wager with his critic Paul Ehrlich, stating that the prices of the raw materials Ehrlich could choose (in fact copper, chromium, nickel, tin, tungsten) would decrease (inflation adjusted) over the period of a decade they agreed upon. But that is just the tip of iceberg of this most interesting man. You should really read his autobiography A Life Against the Grain, whenever you have the chance.

In 1995 a friend of mine and I founded the Dutch Benedictus de Spinoza Foundation, meant to group young people educated in (classical) liberalism. In our first public Spinoza-lecture in 1996 Simon agreed to be the speaker. If memory serves right he was on his way to or from a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Vienna, and was willing to make a small detour. We spent two full days with him, touring The Hague, arranging an interview in a national paper, have a formal dinner with Simon as gues of honor and speaker, and so forth. He was the most congenial guest one can wish. He clearly did not want to be among the hot shots only. In fact he insisted that we should visit ‘the worst neighborhood of the city’. So we went to one of the poorest parts in town, which he found delightful, not because of the (relative) poverty, but because of the multicultural experience and multicultural food at the market.  An other remarkable feature was that in the half hour before we opened the lecture hall, he wished to take a nap on the floor right there!

In his autobiography he is open about his many rejected papers throughout his career, and the way he described how difficult it is to convince academic colleagues of a point that goes against conventional wisdom. No matter how strong the counter-evidence, people will choose to ignore the new facts or insights and keep the author out of the inner circle for as long as possible. I must say it sounds familiar to me, as an author who has attempted to change the views of (classical) liberals and IR theorists on international relations and (classical) liberalism. Even the obvious fact that trade cannot possibly foster peace seems impossible to establish. Alas, reading Simon one also learns to never give up, the truth shall be told, although there is no guarantee of success!

Does federation unite or divide?

I am reading a lot on federation lately, for an article I would like to contribute to Brandon’s special issue of Cosmos + Taxis. I am going back to the debate about federalizing (parts of the) the democratic world which was very lively in the 1930s and 1940s. Reading the texts, for example the best-selling Union Now! (1939) by American journalist Clarence Streit, you can feel the scare for the authoritarian rulers and their nationalistic and militaristic policies. As an anti-dote, Streit proposed the federation of all the grown democracies in the world at that time, 15 in total, spread over the globe. This Union of the North Atlantic had to include a union citizenship, a union defense force, a union customs-free economy, union money and union postal and communications system After the war broke out, Streit published a new version, now calling for a union between Britain and the USA. Needless to say, none of these or other proposals went anywhere. Still some interesting perpetual questions remain.

Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek also wrote on federation during this period, as I described in Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory (2009). I now went back to their writings, which is a treat. It is nice to have a fresh look, I also have deeper insights now (at least – I think!) than I had about 15 years ago when first encountering these ideas.

One of the divides between Mises and Hayek (which they never openly discussed, as far as I am aware) revolved around the alleged pacifying effect of federations. Mises made the point that joining a federation would lead to a larger loss of sovereignty than was normally conceived in the debate. It was not just about pooling some powers at the federal level. In an interventionist world, Mises argued, the number of policies that are dealt with from the center, or the capitol, continually rise. After all, the call for intervention will be made from all corners of the federation, all the time. This leads to a call for equal treatment, which in turn lead to a larger number of policies and regulations administered from the capitol. Consequently, the member states increasingly lose sovereignty and eventually end up as mere provinces. This would be a new cause of division, especially when the member states of the new federation used to be powerful countries on their own. Hence, a federation divides, not unites. Therefore, he proposed a much more radical solution in his plan for Eastern Europe: no federation but a strict central union (administered by foreigners, in a foreign language he even once suggested) where the members would basically have no say at all over all the important legislation normally associated with sovereignty. The laws and regulations would be limited, ensuring maximum economic and political freedom for the individual citizen.

This blog is not meant to discuss the merits of Mises’ ideas. It solely aims to point at a division between Mises and Hayek. Hayek, and most thinkers on federation with him, Streit included, had different expectations about the political effects of federation. They expected that federation would be a force of unity.  In a federation you arrange the most difficult and divisive policies at the center (for example defense, foreign policy and foreign trade), while leaving all other policies to the constituent parts. This allows room for different policies in those states, while taking away their instruments to start violent conflict. Yes, this would mean less sovereignty, but also less trouble, while the freedom within the federation still ensured as much or as little additional policies as the individual states see fit. Hayek would favor his idea the rest of his life, also proposing it for the Middle East, for example.  

Who was right? That is impossible to say, I think. There are elements of both Misesian and Hayekian arguments in the real-life experiences of federations around the globe. For some it is indeed a good way to pool the core of sovereignty, while remaining as diverse as possible. Although most them do not disintegrate with violent conflict, the increase of all kind of policies at the federal center has certainly happened. However, this is not unique to federations and most importantly, it is not a question of formal legal organization. It is a question of mentality of both politicians and populations. This is another reason to keep fighting ‘the war of ideas’, because ideas have the power to change societies.

John Rawls at 100

Neoliberal Social Justice available April 2021

John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, was born 100 years ago today. He died one year before I first read A Theory of Justice as part of my undergraduate degree in philosophy at University College London. This year, Edward Elgar publishes Neoliberal Social Justice: Rawls Unveiled, my book which updates Rawls’ approach to assessing social institutions in light of contemporary economic thought.

Mike Otsuka (now at the LSE) introduced us first to the work of Robert Nozick and then to Rawls, the reverse of what I imagine is normally the case in an introductory political philosophy course. Most people ultimately found Rawls’ the more attractive approach whereas I was drawn to Nozick’s insistence on starting strictly from the ethical claims of individuals. I wondered why something calling itself ‘the state’ should have rights to coerce beyond any other actor in civil society.

Years of working in public policy and studying political economy made me recognise a distinctive value for impersonal institutions with abstract rules. Indeed, I now think the concept of equal individual liberty is premised on the existence of such institutions. Although the rule of law could theoretically emerge absent a state, states are the only institutions that have been able to generate it so far. Political philosophy cannot be broken down into applied ethics in the way Nozick proposed.

Some classical liberals and market anarchists are increasingly impatient with the Rawlsian paradigm. Michael Huemer, for example, argues that Rawls misunderstands basic issues with probability when proposing that social institutions focus on maximising the condition of the least advantaged. Huemer argues that Rawls ultimately offers no reason to pick justice as fairness over utilitarianism, the very theory it was directed against.

I think these criticisms are valid for rejecting the blunt assessments of real-world inequalities that some Rawlsians are apt to make. But I do not think Rawls himself, nor his theory when read in context, made these elementary errors. Rawls’ principles of justice apply to the basic structure of social institutions rather than the resulting pattern of social resources as such. Moreover, the primary goods that Rawls take to be relevant for assessing social institutions are essentially public goods. It makes sense to guarantee, for example, basic civil liberties to all on an equal basis even if turns out to be costly. I can think of two reasons for this:

  1. In a society not facing acute scarcity, you would not want to risk placing yourself in a social position where your civil liberties could be denied even if it was relatively unlikely.
  2. Living in a society where basic liberties are denied to others is going to cause problems for everyone, whether through regime instability or fraught social and economics relationships that are not based on genuine mutual advantage but coercion from discretionary powers.

To be fair to utilitarians, J.S. Mill went in this direction, although one had to squint to see how it fit into a utilitarian calculus. But if Rawls was ultimately defending a more principled approach to social relationships using the tools of expediency, I see that as a valuable project.

So, I think that the Rawlsian approach is still a fruitful way to evaluate the distinctive problem of political order. His theory offers the resources to resist not just utopian libertarian rights theorists, but also socialists and egalitarians who similarly fail to account for the distinctive role of political institutions for resolving problems of collective action. Where I think Rawls erred when endorsing what amounts to a socialist institutional framework is on his interpretation of social theory. Rawls argued that people behave pretty selfishly in market interactions but could readily pursue the public good when engaged in everyday politics. I argue otherwise. Here is a snippet from Neoliberal Social Justice (pp. 96-97) where I make the case for including a more consistently realistic account of human motivation within his framework:

Problems of justice are not purely about assurance amongst reasonable people or identifying anti-social persons. Instead, we must consider the anti-social person within ourselves: the appetitive, biased, narrow-minded, prejudicial self that drives a great deal of our every-day thoughts and interactions (Cowen, 2018). If we are to make our realistic selves work with each other to produce a just outcome, then we should affirm institutions that allow these beings, not just the wholesome beings of our comfortable self-perception, to cooperate. We have to be alive to the fact that we are dealing with agents who are apt to affirm a scheme as fair and just at one point (and even sincerely mean it), then forgetfully, carelessly, negligently or deliberately break the terms of that scheme at another point if they have an opportunity and reason enough to do so. Addressing ourselves as citizens in this morally imperfect state, as opposed to benighted people outside a charmed circle of reasonableness, is helpful. It means we can now include such considerations within public reason. The constraints of rules emerging from a constitutional stage may chafe at other stages of civil interaction. Nevertheless, they may be fully publicly justified.

Second to None in the Creation of Extraordinary Wealth

The most important historical question to help understand our rise from the muck to modern civilization is: how did we go from linear to exponential productivity growth? Let’s call that question “who started modernity?” People often look to the industrial revolution, which is certainly an acceleration of growth…but it is hard to say it caused the growth because it came centuries after the initial uptick. Historians also bring up the Renaissance, but this is also a mislead due to the ‘written bias’ of focusing on books, not actions; the Renaissance was more like the window dressing of the Venetian commercial revolution of the 11th and 12th centuries, which is in my opinion the answer to “who started modernity.” However, despite being the progenitors of modern capitalism (which is worth a blog in and of itself), Venice’s growth was localized and did not spread immediately across Europe; instead, Venice was the regional powerhouse who served as the example to copy. The Venetian model was also still proto-banking and proto-capitalism, with no centralized balance sheets, no widespread retail deposits, and a focus on Silk Road trade. Perhaps the next question is, “who spread modernity across Europe?” The answer to this question is far easier, and in fact can be centered to a huge degree around a single man, who was possibly the richest man of all time: Jakob Fugger.

Jakob Fugger was born to a family of textile traders in Augsburg in the 15th century, and after training in Venice, revolutionized banking and trading–the foundations on which investment, comparative advantage, and growth were built–as well as relationships between commoners and aristocrats, the church’s view of usury, and even funded the exploration of the New World. He was the only banker alive who could call in a debt on the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, mostly because Charles owed his power entirely to Fugger. Strangely, he is perhaps best known for his philanthropic innovations (founding the Fuggerei, which were some of the earliest recorded philanthropic housing projects and which are still in operation today); this should be easily outcompeted by:

  1. His introduction of double entry bookkeeping to the continent
  2. His invention of the consolidated balance sheet (bringing together the accounts of all branches of a family business)
  3. His invention of the newspaper as an investment-information tool
  4. His key role in the pope allowing usury (mostly because he was the pope’s banker)
  5. His transformation of Maximilian from a paper emperor with no funding, little land, and no power to a competitor for European domination
  6. His funding of early expeditions to bring spices back from Indonesia around the Cape of Good Hope
  7. His trusted position as the only banker who the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire would trust to fund the election of Charles V
  8. His complicated, mostly adversarial relationship with Martin Luther that shaped the Reformation and culminated in the German Peasant’s War, when Luther dropped his anti-capitalist rhetoric and Fugger-hating to join Fugger’s side in crushing a modern-era messianic figure
  9. His involvement in one of the earliest recorded anti-trust lawsuits (where the central argument was around the etymology of the word “monopoly”)
  10. His dissemination, for the first time, of trustworthy bank deposit services to the upper middle class
  11. His funding of the military revolution that rendered knights unnecessary and bankers and engineers essential
  12. His invention of the international joint venture in his Hungarian copper-mining dual-family investment, where marriages served in the place of stockholder agreements
  13. His 12% annualized return on investment over his entire life (beating index funds for almost 5 decades without the benefit of a public stock market), dying the richest man in history.

The story of Fugger’s family–the story, perhaps, of the rise of modernity–begins with a tax record of his family moving to Augsburg, with an interesting spelling of his name: “Fucker advenit” (Fugger has arrived). His family established a local textile-trading family business, and even managed to get a coat of arms (despite their peasant origins) by making clothes for a nobleman and forgiving his debt.

As the 7th of 7 sons, Jakob Fugger was given the least important trading post in the area by his older brothers; Salzburg, a tiny mountain town that was about to have a change in fortune when miners hit the most productive vein of silver ever found by Europeans until the Spanish found Potosi (the Silver Mountain) in Peru. He then began his commercial empire by taking a risk that no one else would.

Sigismund, the lord of Salzburg, was sitting on top of a silver mine, but still could not run a profit because he was trying to compete with the decadence of his neighbors. He took out loans to fund huge parties, and then to expand his power, made the strategic error of attacking Venice–the most powerful trading power of the era. This was in the era when sovereigns could void debts, or any contracts, within their realm without major consequences, so lending to nobles was a risky endeavor, especially without backing of a powerful noble to force repayment or address contract breach.

Because of this concern, no other merchant or banker would lend to Sigismund for this venture because sovereigns could so easily default on debts, but where others saw only risk, Fugger saw opportunity. He saw that Sigismund was short-sighted and would constantly need funds; he also saw that Sigismund would sign any contract to get the funds to attack Venice. Fugger fronted the money, collateralized by near-total control of Sigismund’s mines–if only he could enforce the contract.

Thus, the Fugger empire’s first major investment was in securing (1) a long-term, iterated credit arrangement with a sovereign who (2) had access to a rapidly-growing industry and was willing to trade its profits for access to credit (to fund cannons and parties, in his case).

What is notable about Fugger’s supposedly crazy risk is that, while it depended on enforcing a contract against a sovereign who could nullify it with a word, he still set himself up for a consistent, long-term benefit that could be squeezed from Sigismund so long as he continued to offer credit. This way, Sigismund could not nullify earlier contracts but instead recognized them in return for ongoing loan services; thus, Fugger solved this urge toward betrayal by iterating the prisoner’s dilemma of defaulting. He did not demand immediate repayment, but rather set up a consistent revenue stream and establishing Fugger as Sigismund’s crucial creditor. Sigismund kept wanting finer things–and kept borrowing from Fugger to get them, meaning he could not default on the original loan that gave Fugger control of the mines’ income. Fugger countered asymmetrical social relationships with asymmetric terms of the contract, and countered the desire for default with becoming essential.

Eventually, Fugger met Maximilian, a disheveled, religion-and-crown-obsessed nobleman who had been elected Holy Roman Emperor specifically because of his lack of power. The Electors wanted a paper emperor to keep freedom for their principalities; Maximilian was so weak that a small town once arrested and beat him for trying to impose a modest tax. Fugger, unlike others, saw opportunity because he recognized when aligning paper trails (contracts or election outcomes) with power relationships could align interests and set him up as the banker to emperors. When Maximilian came into conflict with Sigismund, Fugger refused any further loans to Sigismund, and Maximilian forced Sigismund to step down. Part of Sigismund’s surrender and Maximilian’s new treaty included recognizing Fugger’s ongoing rights over the Salzburg mines, a sure sign that Fugger had found a better patron and solidified his rights over the mine through his political maneuvering–by denying a loan to Sigismund and offering money instead to Maximilian. Once he had secured this cash cow, Fugger was certainly put in risky scenarios, but didn’t seek out risk, and saw consistent yearly returns of 8% for several decades followed by 16% in the last 15 years of his life.

From this point forward, Fugger was effectively the creditor to the Emperor throughout Maximilian’s life, and built a similar relationship: Maximilian paid for parties, military campaigns, and bought off Electors with Fugger funds. As more of Maximilian’s assets were collateralized, Fugger’s commercial empire grew; he gained not only access to silver but also property ownership. He was granted a range of fiefs, including Arnoldstein, a critical trade juncture where Austria, Italy, and Slovenia border each other; his manufacturing and trade led the town to be renamed, for generations, Fuggerau, or Place of Fugger.

These activities that depended on lending to sovereigns brings up a major question: How did Fugger get the money he lent to the Emperor? Early in his career, he noted that bank deposit services where branches were present in different cities was a huge boon to the rising middle-upper class; property owners and merchants did not have access to reliable deposit services, so Fugger created a network of small branches all offering deposits with low interest rates, but where he could grow his services based on the dependability of moving money and holding money for those near, but not among, society’s elites. This gave him a deep well of dispersed depositors, providing him stable and dependable capital for his lending to sovereigns and funding his expanding mining empire.

Unlike modern financial engineers, who seem to focus on creative ways to go deeper in debt, Fugger’s creativity was mostly in ways that he could offer credit; he was most powerful when he was the only reliable source of credit to a political actor. So long as the relationship was ongoing, default risk was mitigated, and through this Fugger could control the purse strings on a wide range of endeavors. For instance, early in their relationship (after Maximilian deposed Sigismund and as part of the arrangement made Fugger’s interest in the Salzburg mines more permanent), Maximilian wanted to march on Rome as Charlemagne reborn and demand that the pope personally crown him; he was rebuffed dozens of times not by his advisors, but by Fugger’s denial of credit to hire the requisite soldiers.

Fugger also innovated in information exchange. Because he had a broad trading and banking business, he stood to lose a great deal if a region had a sudden shock (like a run on his banks) or gain if new opportunities arose (like a shift in silver prices). He took advantage of the printing press–less than 40 years after Gutenberg, and in a period when most writing was religious–to create the first proto-newspaper, which he used to gather and disseminate investment-relevant news. Thus, while he operated a network of small branches, he vastly improved information flow among these nodes and also standardized and centralized their accounting (including making the first centralized/combined balance sheet).

With this broad base of depositors and a network of informants, Fugger proceeded to change how war was fought and redraw the maps of Europe. Military historians have discussed when the “military revolution” that shifted the weapons, organization, and scale of war for decades, often centering in on Swedish armies in the 1550s as the beginning of the revolution. I would counter-argue that the Swedes simply continued a trend that the continent had begun in the late 1400’s, where:

  1. Knights’ training became irrelevant, gunpowder took over
  2. Logistics and resource planning were professionalized
  3. Early mechanization of ship building and arms manufacturing, as well as mining, shifted war from labor-centric to a mix of labor and capital
  4. Multi-year campaigns were possible due to better information flow, funding, professional organization
  5. Armies, especially mercenary groups, ballooned in size
  6. Continental diplomacy became more centralized and legalistic
  7. Wars were fought by access to creditors more than access to trained men, because credit could multiply the recruitment/production for war far beyond tax receipts

Money mattered in war long before Fugger: Roman usurpers always took over the mints first and army Alexander showed how logistics and supply were more important than pure numbers. However, the 15th century saw a change where armies were about guns, mercenaries, technological development, and investment, and above all credit, and Fugger was the single most influential creditor of European wars. After a trade dispute with the aging Hanseatic League over their monopoly of key trading ports, Fugger manipulated the cities into betraying each other–culminating in a war where those funded by Fugger broke the monopolistic power of the League. Later, because he had a joint venture with a Hungarian copper miner, he pushed Charles V into an invasion of Hungary that resulted in the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These are but two of the examples of Fugger destroying political entities; every Habsburg war fought from the rise of Maximilian through Fugger’s death in 1527 was funded in part by Fugger, giving him the power of the purse over such seminal conflicts as the Italian Wars, where Charles V fought on the side of the Pope and Henry VIII against Francis I of France and Venice, culminating in a Habsburg victory.

Like the Rothschilds after him, Fugger gained hugely through a reputation for being ‘good for the money’; while other bankers did their best to take advantage of clients, he provided consistency and dependability. Like the Iron Bank of Braavos in Game of Thrones, Fugger was the dependable source for ambitious rulers–but with the constant threat of denying credit or even war against any defaulter. His central role in manipulating political affairs via his banking is well testified during the election of Charles V in 1519. The powerful kings of Europe– Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Frederick III of Saxony all offered huge bribes to the Electors. Because these sums crossed half a million florins, the competition rapidly became one not for the interest of the Electors–but for the access to capital. The Electors actually stipulated that they would not take payment based on a loan from anyone except Fugger; since Fugger chose Charles, so did they.

Fugger also inspired great hatred by populists and religious activists; Martin Luther was a contemporary who called Fugger out by name as part of the problem with the papacy. The reason? Fugger was the personal banker to the Pope, who was pressured into rescinding the church’s previously negative view of usury. He also helped arrange the scheme to fund the construction of the new St. Peter’s basilica; in fact, half of the indulgence money that was putatively for the basilica was in fact to pay off the Pope’s huge existing debts to Fugger. Thus, to Luther, Fugger was greed incarnate, and Fugger’s name became best known to the common man not for his innovations but his connection to papal extravagance and greed. This culminated in the 1525 German Peasant’s War, which saw an even more radical Reformer and modern-day messianic figure lead hordes of hundreds of thousands to Fuggerau and many other fortified towns. Luther himself inveighed against these mobs for their radical demands, and Fugger’s funding brought swift military action that put an end to the war–but not the Reformation or the hatred of bankers, which would explode violently throughout the next 100 years in Germany.

This brings me to my comparison: Fugger against all of the great wealth creators in history. What makes him stand head and shoulders above the rest, to me, is that his contributions cross so many major facets of society: Like Rockefeller, he used accounting and technological innovations to expand the distribution of a commodity (silver or oil), and he was also one of the OG philanthropists. Like the Rothschilds’ development of the government bond market and reputation-driven trust, Fugger’s balance-sheet inventions and trusted name provided infrastructural improvement to the flow of capital, trust in banks, and the literal tracking of transactions. However, no other capitalist had as central of a role in religious change–both as the driving force behind allowing usury and as an anti-Reformation leader. Similarly, few other people had as great a role in the Age of Discovery: Fugger funded Portuguese spice traders in Indonesia, possibly bankrolled Magellan, and funded the expedition that founded Venezuela (named in honor of Venice, where he trained). Lastly, no other banker had as influential of a role in political affairs; from dismantling the Hanseatic League to deciding the election of 1519 to building the Habsburgs from paper emperors to the most powerful monarchs in Europe in two generations, Fugger was the puppeteer of Europe–and such an effective one that you have barely heard of him. Hence, Fugger was not only the greatest wealth creator in history but among the most influential people in the rise of modernity.

Fugger’s legacy can be seen in his balance sheet of 1527; he basically developed the method of using it for central management, its only liabilities were widespread deposits from the upper-middle class (and his asset-to-debt ratio was in the range of 7-to-1, leaving an astonishingly large amount of equity for his family), and every important leader on the continent was literally in his debt. It also showed him to have over 1 million florins in personal wealth, making him one of the world’s first recorded millionaires. The title of this post was adapted from a self-description written by Jakob himself as his epitaph. As my title shows, I think it is fairer to credit his wealth creation than his wealth accumulation, since he revolutionized multiple industries and changed the history of capitalism, trade, European politics, and Christianity, mostly in his contribution to the credit revolution. However, the man himself worked until the day he died and took great pride in being the richest man in history.

All information from The Richest Man Who Ever Lived. I strongly recommend reading it yourself–this is just a taster!

Pandemics and Hyperinflations

I wrote an article a few years ago about hyperinflation in ancient Rome (and blogged about it here), arguing that the social trust in issuing bodies has been a foundation for monetary value long before modern institutions.

I got a random notification that someone had actually read and cited my work in a recent article “The US Money Explosion of 2020, Monetarism and Inflation: Plagued by History?” I really liked the author’s concept: inflation during pandemic periods is staved off for years because of saving rates, but then the post-crisis period is actually when the most inflation occurs.

This passed my ‘gut check’: during a crisis, who blows their entire budget? It also passed my historical-precedent check, and not only because he researched the Spanish flu and medieval precedent; in the Roman hyperinflation, the inflation lagged decades behind the expanded monetary volume, and in fact came right as the civil wars that nearly brought the Empire to its knees came to an end.

So, in short, inflation-hawks, you are probably right to fear the dramatic expansion of the money supply; however, you won’t feel vindicated for potentially years to come. In an age where people look for causes today to become results tomorrow (EVERY DAY, the WSJ tells me “stocks moved up/down because MAJOR EVENT TODAY”), we need to lengthen our time horizons of analysis and recognize that, just maybe, the ramifications of today’s policies will not really be felt for years. Or, put in a more dire light, by the time we realize who is right, it will be too late to reassert social trust in monetary value, and the dollar will follow the denarius into histories of hyperinflations.

Disruption arises from Antifragility

One of my favorite classics about why big businesses can’t always innovate is Clayton Christiansen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. It is one of the most misunderstood business books, since its central concept–disruption–has been misquoted, and then popularized. Take the recent post on Investopedia that says in the second sentence that “Disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.” This is the ‘hype’ definition used by non-innovators.

I think part of the misconception comes from thinking of disruption as major, public, technological marvels that are recognizable for their complexity or for even creating entire new industries. Disruptive innovations tend instead to be marginal, demonstrably simpler, worse on conventional scales, and start out by slowly taking over adjacent, small markets.

It recently hit me that you can identify disruption via Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s simple heuristics of recognizing when industry players are fragile. Taleb is my favorite modern philosopher, because he actually brought a new, universally applicable concept to the table, that puts into words what people have been practicing implicitly–but without a term to use. Anti-fragility is the inverse of fragile and actually helps you understand it better. Anti-fragile does not mean ‘resists breaking,’ which is more like ‘robust;’ instead, it means gains from chaos. Ford Pintos are fragile, Nokia phones are robust, but mechanical things are almost never anti-fragile. Bacteria species are anti-fragile to anti-biotics, as trying to kill them makes them stronger. Anti-fragile things are usually organic, and usually made up of fragile things–the death of one bacterium makes the species more resistant.

Taleb has a simple heuristic for finding anti-fragility. I recommend you read his book to get the full picture, but the secret to this concept is a simple thought experiment. Take any concept (or thing), and identify how it works (or fails to work). Now ask, if you subject it to chaos–by that, I mean, if you try to break it–and slowly escalate how hard you try, what happens?

  • If it gets disproportionately harmed, it is fragile. E.g., traffic: as you add cars, time-to-destination gets worse slowly at first, then all of the sudden increases rapidly, and if you do it enough, cars literally stop.
  • If it gets proportionately harmed or there is no effect, it is robust. Examples are easy, since most functional mechanical and electric systems are either fragile (such as Ford Pintos) or robust (Honda engines, Nokia phones, the Great Pyramids).
  • If it gets better, it is anti-fragile. Examples are harder here, since it is easier to destroy than build (and anti-fragility usually occurs based on fragile elements, which gets confusing); bacterial resistance to anti-biotics (or really, the function of evolution itself) is a great one.

The only real way to get anti-fragility outside of evolution is through optionality. Debt (obligation without a choice) is fragile to any extraneous shock, so a ‘free option’–choice without obligation, the opposite, is pure anti-fragility. Not just literal ‘options’ in the market; anti-fragile takes a different form in every case, and though the face is different, the structure is the same. OK, get it? Maybe you do. I recommend coming up with your own example–if you are just free riding on mine, you don’t get it.

Anyway, back to Christiansen. Taleb likes theorizing and leaves example-finding to you, while Christiansen scrupulously documented what happened to hundreds of companies and his concepts arose from his data; think about it like Christiansen is Darwin, carefully measuring beaks, and recognizing natural selection, where Taleb is Wallace, theorizing from his experience and the underlying math of reality. Except in this case, Taleb is not just talking about natural selection, he is also showing how mutation works, and giving a theory of evolution that is not restricted to just biology.

I realized that you can actually figure out whether an innovation is disruptive using this heuristic. It takes some care, because people often look at the technology and ask if it is anti-fragile–which is a mistake. Technologies are inorganic, so usually robust or fragile. Industries are organic, strategies are organic, companies are organic. Many new strategies build on companies’ competencies or existing customer bases, and though they may meet the ‘hype’ definition above, they give upside to incumbents, and are thus not fragilizing. Disruption happens when a company has an exposure to a strategy that it has little to gain from, but that could cannibalize its market if it grows, as anti-fragile things are wont to do.

The questions is: is a given incumbent company fragile with respect to a given strategy? Let’s start with some examples–first Christiansen’s, then my own:

  • Were 3″ drive makers fragile with respect to using smaller drives in cars?
    • In my favorite Christiansen anecdote, a 3″ drive-making-CEO, whose company designed a smaller 1.8″ drive but couldn’t sell it to their PC or mainframe customers, complained that he did exactly what Christiansen said, and built smaller drives, and there was no market. Meanwhile, startups were selling 1.8″ drives like crazy–to car companies, for onboard computers.
    • Christiansen notes that this was a tiny market, which would be an 0.01% change on a big-company income statement, and a low-profit one at that. So, since these companies were big, they were fragile to low-margin, low-volume, fast-growing submarkets. Meanwhile, startups were unbelievably excited about selling small drives at a loss, just so that Honda would buy from them.
    • So, 3″ drive makers had everything to lose (the general drive market) and a blip to gain, where startups had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Note that disruptive technologies are not those that are hard to invent or that immediately revolutionize the industry. Big companies (as Christiansen proved) are actually better at big changes and at invention. They are worse at recognizing value of small changes and jumps between industries.
  • Were book retailers fragile with respect to online book sales?
    • Yes, Amazon is my Christiansen follow-on. Jeff Bezos, as documented in The Everything Store, gets disruption: he invented the ‘two-pizza meeting’, so he ‘gets’ smallness; he intentionally isolates his innovation teams, so he ‘gets’ the excitement of tiny gains and allows cannibalism; he started in a proof-of-concept, narrow, feasible discipline (books) with the knowledge that it would grow into the Everything Store if successful, so he ‘gets’ going from simple beginnings to large-scale, well, disruption.
    • The Everything Store reads like a manual on how to be disrupted. Barnes & Noble first said “We can do that whenever we want.” Then when Bezos got some traction, B&N said “We can try this out but we need to figure out how to do it using our existing infrastructure.” Then when Bezos started eating their lunch, B&N said “We need to get into online book sales,” but sold the way they did in stores, by telling customers what they want, not by using Bezos’ anti-fragile review system. Then B&N said “We need to start doing whatever Bezos does, and beat him by out-spending,” by which time he was past that and selling CDs and then (eventually) everything.
    • Book sellers were fragile because they had existing assets that had running costs; they were catering to customers with not just a book, but with an experience; they were in the business of selecting books for customers, not using customers for recommendations; they treasured partnerships with publishers rather than thinking of how to eliminate them.
  • Now, some rapid-fire. Think carefully, since it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking industry titans were stupid, not fragile, and it is easy to have false positives unless you use Taleb’s heuristic.
    • Car companies were fragile to electric sports cars, and Elon Musk was anti-fragile. Sure, he was up-market, which doesn’t follow Christiansen’s down-market paradigm, but he found the small market that the Nissan Leaf missed.
    • NASA was fragile to modern, cheap, off-the-shelf space solutions, and…yet again…Elon Musk was anti-fragile.
    • Taxis were fragile to app-based rides.
    • Hotels were fragile to app-based rentals.
    • Cable was fragile to sticks you put in your TV.
    • Hedge funds were fragile to index funds, currently are fragile to copy trading, and I hope to god they break.
  • Lastly, some counter-examples, since it is always better to use the via negativa, and assuming you have additive knowledge is dangerous. If you disagree, prove me wrong, found a startup, and make a bajillion dollars by disrupting the big guys who won’t be able to find a market:
    • There is nothing disruptive about 5G.
    • Solar and wind are fragile and fragilizing.
    • What was wrong with WeWork’s business model? Double fragility–fixed contracts with building owners, flexible contracts with customers.
    • On a more optimistic note, cool tech can still be sustaining (as opposed to disruptive), like RoboAdvisors or induction stoves or 3D printed shoes.
    • Artificial intelligence or blockchain any use you have heard of (but not in any that you don’t know yet).

So, to summarize, if a company is fragile to a new strategy, the best it can do is try to robustify itself, since it has little upside. Many innovations give upside to incumbents at the marginal cost of R&D, and thus sustain them; disruption happens when the incumbents have little to gain from adopting a strategy, but startups have a high exposure to positive impact from possible adoption of a strategy due to the potential growth from small-market, incremental/simplifying opportunities, which is definitionally anti-fragility to the strategy.

Now, I hope you have a tool for judging whether industrial incumbents are fragile. Rather than trying to predict success or failure of any, you should just use Taleb’s heuristic–that will help you sort things into ‘hyped as disruptive’ vs. ‘actually probably disruptive.’ A last thought: if you found this wildly confusing, just remember, disruptive innovations tend to steal the jobs of incumbents. So, if an incumbent (say, a Goldman Sachs/Morgan Stanley veteran writing the definition of “disruptive” for Investopedia) is talking about a banking or trading technology, it is almost certainly not disruptive, since he would hardly tell you how to render him extraneous. You will find out what is disruptive when he makes an apology video while wearing a nice watch and French cuffs.

You vote is your voice–but actions speak louder than words

On voting day, with everyone tweeting and yelling and spam-calling you to vote, I want to offer some perspective. Sure, ‘your vote is your voice,’ and those who skip the election will remain unheard by political leaders. Sure, these leaders probably determine much more of your life than we probably would like them to. And if you don’t vote, or ‘waste’ your vote on a third party or write in Kim Jong Un, you are excluded from the discussion of how these leaders control you.

But damn, if that is such a limited perspective. It’s like the voting booth has blinders that conceal what is truly meaningful. I’m not going to throw the traditional counter-arguments to ‘vote or die’ at you, though my favorites are Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and South Park’s Douche and Turd episode. Instead, I just want to say, compared to how you conduct your life, shouting into the political winds is simply not that important.

The wisdom of the stoics resonates greatly with me on this. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, tutor, and businessman, had the following to say on actions, on knowledge, on trust, on fear, and on self-improvement:

  • Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing is ours, except time. On Time
  • Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself. On Reading
  • If you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means. On Friendship
  • Reflect that any criminal or stranger may cut your throat; and, though he is not your master, every lowlife wields the power of life and death over you… What matter, therefore, how powerful he be whom you fear, when every one possesses the power which inspires your fear? On Death
  • I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavour to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so. On the Philosopher’s Lifestyle

Seneca goes on, in this fifth letter, to repeat the stoic refrain of ‘change what you can, accept what you cannot.’ But he expands, reflecting that your mind is “disturbed by looking forward to the future. But the chief cause of [this disease] is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted.”

Good leadership requires good foresight, but panic over futures out of our control pervert this foresight into madness. So, whether you think that Biden’s green promises will destroy the economy or Trump’s tweets will incite racial violence, your actions should be defined by what you can do to improve the world–and this is the only scale against which you should be judged.

So, set aside voting as a concern. Your voice will be drowned out, and then forgotten. But your actions could push humanity forward, in your own way, and if you fail in that endeavor, then no vote will save you from the self-knowledge of a wasted life. If you succeed, then you did the only thing that matters.

The Seldon Fallacy

Like some of my role models, I am inspired by Isaac Asimov’s vision. However, for years, the central ability at the heart of the Foundation series–‘psychohistory,’ which enables Hari Seldon, the protagonist, to predict broad social trends across thousands of galaxies over thousands of years–has bothered me. Not so much because of its impact in the fictional universe of Foundation, but for how closely it matches the real-life ideas of predictive modeling. I truly fear that the Seldon Fallacy is spreading, building up society’s exposure to negative, unpredictable shocks.

The Seldon Fallacy: 1) It is possible to model complex, chaotic systems with simplified, non-chaotic models; 2) Combining chaotic elements makes the whole more predictable.

The first part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of assuming reducibility, or more poetically, of NNT’s Procustean Bed. As F.A. Hayek asserted, no predictive model can be less complex than the model it predicts, because of second-order effects and accumulation of errors of approximation. Isaac Asimov’s central character, Hari Seldon, fictionally ‘proves’ the ludicrous fallacy that chaotic systems can be reduced to ‘psychohistorical’ mathematics. I hope you, reader, don’t believe that…so you don’t blow up the economy by betting a fortune on an economic prediction. Two famous thought experiments disprove this: the three-body problem and the damped, driven oscillator. If we can’t even model a system with three ‘movers’, because of second-order effects, how can we model interactions between millions of people? Basically, with no way to know which reductions in complexity are meaningful, Seldon cannot know whether, in laying his living system into a Procustean bed, he has accidentally decapitated it. Using this special ability, while unable to predict individuals’ actions precisely, Seldon can map out social forces with such clarity that he correctly predicts the fall of a 10,000-year empire. Now, to turn to the ‘we can predict social, though not individual futures’ portion of the fallacy: that big things are predictable even if their consituent elements are not.

The second part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of ‘the marble jar.’ Not all randomnesses are equal: drawing white and black marbles from a jar (with replacement) is fundamentally predictable, and the more marbles drawn, the more predictable the mix of marbles in the jar. Many models depend on this assumption or similar ones–that random events distribute normally (in the Gaussian sense) in a way that increases the certainty of the model as the number of samples increases. But what if we are not observing independent events? What if they are not Gaussian? What if someone tricked you, and tied some marbles together so you can’t take out only one? What if one of them is attached to the jar, and by picking it up, you inadvertently break the jar, spilling the marbles? Effectively, what if you are not working with a finite, reducible, Gaussian random system, but an infinite, Mandelbrotian, real-world random system? What if the jar contains not marbles, but living things?

I apologize if I lean too heavily on fiction to make my points, but another amazing author answers this question much more poetically than I could. Just in the ‘quotes’ from wise leaders in the introductions to his historical-fantasy series, Jim Butcher tells stories of the rise and fall of civilizations. First, on cumulative meaning:

“If the beginning of wisdom is in realizing that one knows nothing, then the beginning of understanding is in realizing that all things exist in accord with a single truth: Large things are made of smaller things.

Drops of ink are shaped into letters, letters form words, words form sentences, and sentences combine to express thought. So it is with the growth of plants that spring from seeds, as well as with walls built from many stones. So it is with mankind, as the customs and traditions of our progenitors blend together to form the foundation for our own cities, history, and way of life.

Be they dead stone, living flesh, or rolling sea; be they idle times or events of world-shattering proportion, market days or desperate battles, to this law, all things hold: Large things are made from small things. Significance is cumulative–but not always obvious.”

–Gaius Secundus, Academ’s Fury

Second, on the importance of individuals as causes:

“The course of history is determined not by battles, by sieges, or usurpations, but by the actions of the individual. The strongest city, the largest army is, at its most basic level, a collection of individuals. Their decisions, their passions, their foolishness, and their dreams shape the years to come. If there is any lesson to be learned from history, it is that all too often the fate of armies, of cities, of entire realms rests upon the actions of one person. In that dire moment of uncertainty, that person’s decision, good or bad, right or wrong, big or small, can unwittingly change the world.

But history can be quite the slattern. One never knows who that person is, where he might be, or what decision he might make.

It is almost enough to make me believe in Destiny.”

–Gaius Primus, Furies of Calderon

If you are not convinced by the wisdom of fiction, put down your marble jar, and do a real-world experiment. Take 100 people from your community, and measure their heights. Then, predict the mean and distribution of height. While doing so, ask each of the 100 people for their net worth. Predict a mean and distribution from that as well. Then, take a gun, and shoot the tallest person and the richest person. Run your model again. Before you look at the results, tell me: which one do you expect shifted more?

I seriously hope you bet on the wealth model. Height, like marble-jar samples, is normally distributed. Wealth follows a power law, meaning that individual datapoints at the extremes have outsized impact. If you happen to live in Seattle and shot a tech CEO, you may have lowered the mean income in the group by more than the average income of the other 99 people!

So, unlike the Procustean Bed (part 1 of the Seldon Fallacy), the Marble Jar (part 2 of the Seldon Fallacy) is not always a fallacy. There are systems that follow the Gaussian distribution, and thus the Marble Jar is not a fallacy. However, many consequential systems–including earnings, wars, governmental spending, economic crashes, bacterial resistance, inventions’ impacts, species survival, and climate shocks–are non-Gaussian, and thus the impact of a single individual action could blow up the model.

The crazy thing is, Asimov himself contradicts his own protagonist in his magnum opus (in my opinion). While the Foundation Series keeps alive the myth of the predictive simulation, my favorite of his books–The End of Eternity (spoilers)–is a magnificent destruction of the concept of a ‘controlled’ world. For large systems, this book is also a death knell even of predictability itself. The Seldon Fallacy–that a simplified, non-chaotic model can predict a complex, chaotic reality, and that size enhances predictability–is shown, through the adventures of Andrew Harlan, to be riddled with hubris and catastrophic risk. I cannot reduce his complex ideas into a simple summary, for I may decapitate his central model. Please read the book yourself. I will say, I hope that as part of your reading, I hope you take to heart the larger lesson of Asimov on predictability: it is not only impossible, but undesirable. And please, let’s avoid staking any of our futures on today’s false prophets of predictable randomness.