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.

Why the US is behind in FinTech, in two charts

The US is frankly terrible at innovation in banking. When Kenya (and its neighbors) has faster adoption of mobile banking–as they have since at least 2012–it is time to reconsider our approach.

Here is the problem: we made new ideas in banking de facto illegal. Especially since the 2008 financial crisis, regulatory bodies (especially the CFPB) has piled on a huge amount of potential liability that scares away any new entrant. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the data:

bank creation

Notice anything about new bank creation in the US after 2008?

A possible explanation, in a “helpful resource” provided to banking regulators and lawyers for banks:

regulatory complexity

This shows: 8 federal agencies reporting to the FSOC, plus another independent regulatory body for fintech (OFAC/FinCEN). Also, the “helpful” chart notes state regulations just as an addendum in a circle…probably because it would take 50 more, possibly complex and contradictory charts.

So, my fellow citizens, don’t innovate in banking. No one else is, but they are probably right.

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 Blind Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs usually make decisions with incomplete information, in disciplines where we lack expertise, and where time is vital. How, then, can we be expected to make decisions that lead to our success, and how can other people judge our startups on our potential value? And even if there are heuristics for startup value, how can they cross fields?

The answer, to me, comes from a generalizable system for improvement and growth that has proven itself– the blind watchmaker of evolution. In this, the crucial method by which genes promulgate themselves is not by predicting their environments, but by promiscuity and opportunism in a random, dog-eat-dog-world. By this, I mean that successful genes free-ride on or resonate with other genes that promote reproductive success (promiscuity) and select winning strategies by experimenting in the environment and letting reality be the determinant of what gene-pairings to try more often (opportunism). Strategies that are either robust or anti-fragile usually outperform fragile and deleterious strategies, and strategies that exist within an evolutionary framework that enables rapid testing, learning, mixing, and sharing (such as sexual reproduction or lateral gene transfer paired with fast generations) outperform those that do not (such as cloning), as shown by the Red Queen hypothesis.

OK, so startups are survival/reproductive vehicles and startup traits/methods are genes (or memes, in the Selfish Gene paradigm). With analogies, we should throw out what is different and keep what is useful, so what do we need from evolution?

First, one quick note: we can’t borrow the payout calculator exactly. Reproductive success is where a gene makes more of itself, but startups dont make more of themselves. For startups the best metric is probably money. Other than that, what adaptations are best to adopt? Or, in the evolutionary frame, what memes should we imbue in our survival vehicles?

Traits to borrow:

  • Short lives: long generations mean the time between trial and error is too long. Short projects, short-term goals, and concrete exits.
  • Laziness: energy efficiency is far more important than #5 on your priority list.
  • Optionality: when all things are equal, more choices = more chances at success.
  • Evolutionarily Stable Strategies: also called “don’t be a sucker.”
  • React, don’t plan: prediction is difficult or even impossible, but being quick to jump into the breach has the same outcome. Could also be called “prepare, but don’t predict.”
  • Small and many: big investments take a lot of energy and effectively become walking targets. Make small and many bets on try-outs and then feed those that get traction. Note– this is also how to run a military!
  • Auftragstaktik: should be obvious, central planning never works. Entrepreneurs should probably not make any more decisions than they have to.
  • Resonance: I used to call this “endogenous positive feedback loops,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue. In short, pick traits that make your other traits more powerful–and even better if all of your central traits magnify your other actions.
  • Taking is better than inventing: Its not a better startup if its all yours. Its a better startup if you ruthlessly pick the best idea.
  • Pareto distributions (or really, power laws): Most things don’t really matter. Things that matter, matter a lot.
  • Finite downside, infinite upside: Taleb calls this “convexity”. Whenever presented with a choice that has one finite and one infinite potential, forget about predicting what will happen– focus on the impact’s upper bound in both directions. It goes without saying– avoid infinite downsides!
  • Don’t fall behind (debt): The economy is a Red Queen, anyone carrying anything heavy will continually fall behind. Debt is also the most likely way companies die.
  • Pay it forward to your future self: squirrels bury nuts; you should build generic resources as well.
  • Don’t change things: Intervening takes energy and hurts diversity.
  • Survive: You can’t win if you’re not in the game. More important than being successful is being not-dead.

When following these guidelines, there are two other differences between entrepreneurs and genes: One, genes largely exist in an amoral state, whereas your business is vital to your own life, and if you picked a worthwhile idea, society. Two, unlike evolution, you actually have goals and are trying to achieve something beyond replication, beyond even money. Therefore, you do not need to take your values from evolution. However, if you ignore its lessons, you close your eyes to reality and are truly blind.

Our “blind” entrepreneur, then, can still pick goals and construct what she sees as her utility. But to achieve the highest utility, once defined, she will create unknowable and unpredictable risk of her idea’s demise if she does not learn to grow the way that the blind watchmaker does.

Wats On My Mind: City Management Games

I’ve been playing a city management game called Sim Empire. It’s a lot like the old classics of Pharaoh, Caesar, or Anno Domini. You are building a town out of nothing, lay out the streets, houses, businesses, and municipal buildings – even houses of worship. The more of your citizens’ needs you can satisfy, the more lavish their homes become – and therefore the more you can collect from them in taxes.

The game has made me aware once again of the sheer beauty of the invisible hand of the market. Here then are some random thoughts on the economy of these types of games.

My citizens don’t have enough grain. If I don’t build enough grain farms, they could starve (in some games, yes). It’s a wonder they don’t revolt and throw me out of office! Oh, but I built enough police stations to cover every square pixel, so they daresn’t, and enough military that no outsider feels safe ‘liberating’ them. If only I allowed free markets, though, some entrepreneurial bitizen would notice the price of grain was high, farm some land, and provide for everyone. No tyrant needed!

The one chief advantage my underlings have is a powerful one: if I don’t provide for their every whim, they will refuse to pay taxes. Apparently my military apparatus is not sufficient to take their money by force, despite being strong enough to remain in power. If I’ve neglected the game for a while due to the pressures of real life, I see 75% of the country simply refusing to pay taxes and nothing to do about it.

Actually, there is one thing I can do about it: go to the free market. What? I thought there wasn’t a free market in my empire. Well, there isn’t, but there is a free international market with no tariffs, quotas, or other restrictions. Well, there is one restriction: no trading outside of 6am-6pm. The one chief advantage Sim Empire has over its older cousins is that I can work with other tyrants. If one has too much wood or grain, there is a marketplace where they can sell their excess to me. I can also sell my excess stone or porcelain.

I’ve noticed, though, that this free market is rather odd. The price of raw materials is higher than the price of finished products. Clay, for instance, right now costs 40-45 gold and wood costs 50, while porcelain – made from clay and wood! – costs 35-40. And you get less porcelain than you put in clay and wood! It’s a real money loser. It occurs to me that I should stop my porcelain factories altogether, sell the clay and wood I used to be using on the market, buy porcelain, and pocket the difference. If enough of us do that, the prices ought to revert. … But why are they doing that in the first place?

I am pleased to announce our Empire runs on hard metal money: gold. No fiat currency here! So no inflation, right? I’m actually dubious. There is no actual limit on the amount of gold I personally can amass, nor on the amount other players can create. The developers never come in to take gold out of the system, so I actually predict as the number of players increase and the amount of gold increases faster than the number of goods being traded, the prices of goods ought to go up over time as well. For an example of real life silver and gold-based currencies, economies, and countries being destroyed by inflation, head on over to Crash Course History for Spain and China.

A reminder that being on the gold standard won’t solve all your problems.

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.

“Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations”

It is widely accepted that good institutions caused the massive increase in living standards enjoyed by ordinary people over the past two hundred years. But what caused good institutions? Scholars once pointed to the polycentric governance structures of medieval Europe, but this explanation has been replaced by arguments favoring state capacity. Here we revitalize the ‘polycentric Europe’ hypothesis and argue it is a complement to state capacity explanations. We develop a new institutional theory, based on political property rights and what we call polycentric sovereignty, which explains how the medieval patrimony resulted in the requisite background conditions for good governance, and hence widespread social wealth creation.

By Alexander Salter & Andrew Young. Read the whole excellent thing here. I wonder how much the author’s conception of “polycentric sovereignty” has in common with Madison’s compound republic?

Salter & Young do a great job bringing decentralization back into the overall “economic growth and political freedom” picture. Over the past two decades, political centralization as a good thing has been making a comeback under the guise of “state capacity.” This isn’t a bad trend, but it has left several large gaps in understanding how economic development and political freedom works. (For example, how to prevent centralized states from pursuing illiberal ends, or using illiberal means to pursue supposedly liberal ends.)

This article brings decentralization back into the picture, using Elinor and Vincent Ostrom’s conception of polycentricity as a model. However, I don’t think they spend enough time on Vincent Ostrom’s understanding of the American compound republic. The American federalists were concerned with exactly the same thing that we are concerned about now: how to maintain a proper balance of centralized power and decentralized power so that liberty may flourish. I’ve emphasized the important part with italics. The liberty aspect gets de-emphasized to make room for the sexier “economic growth” aspect, but political freedom is still paramount when it comes to thinking through matters of politics.

The American federalists, and especially Madison, came up with the compound republic to address the centralized/decentralized debate. Scholars continue to underrate its genius and usefulness for capturing humans as they are. Ostrom’s book on the Madisonian compound republic is worth your time and money. Read it in tandem with this book on the Federalist Papers and this book on the formation of the American republic and this short paper on the continued viability of the compound republic to today’s world. Once you’ve done the readings, start writing (or better yet: blogging!).

Wat’s On My Mind: Immigration and Voting for Redistribution

When COVID first started spreading more widely in the US, I began worrying that this would lead to an upsurge of anti-immigrant sentiment. I worried that people would draw the wrong lesson from this experience and return to the isolationism of the 1920s, closing our borders on a more permanent basis to both people and goods. This would slow economic growth and lead to a poorer nation. It seems particularly ironic that just now Americans are becoming the unwelcome foreign visitors abroad, particularly from my home states of Texas and California.

Nowrasteh and Forrester at CATO discuss some papers by Giuliano and Tabellini on the question of if increased immigration moves the median voter to the left. They also add a few suggestive regressions of their own. Their summary is interesting and nuanced. First, they find that closing the borders to immigrants in the 1920s encouraged much greater government spending (as a percent of GDP) while allowing more immigrants in the 1960s has slowed the growth of government spending. This effect seems to work both ways: American voters are more willing to vote for welfare benefits, etc, when there are fewer immigrants getting them, and the larger the welfare state is, the more concerned voters are about allowing immigrants into the country. So it may not be so much that adding immigrants from more left-leaning countries shifts the median voter as much as it moves native voters further to the right? (See also Rosenthal and Eibner 2005, who also conclude that “a voter of a given income is less eager to redistribute given that redistribution has to be shared with the non-citizen poor.”)

This suggests an interesting line of argument, that these feedback effects can work in the opposite direction as well. I imagine a friend who is very concerned about the size of government and also would prefer to have fewer immigrants. To that friend, I would suggest that allowing more immigrants can help slow or even reverse the growth of government and the welfare state. Using their aversion to one issue could potentially reduce their aversion to the other. <epistemic status: highly speculative>

New ‘summer eating allowance’ hard to stomach for low earning taxpayers

Rishi Sunak on the economy and lessons learnt from the Covid-19 ...

[This is a guest post by Dr Wesley Key, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Lincoln.]

The announcement on 8th July 2020 by Chancellor Rishi Sunak that the government will refund 50% of the cost of meals out during Mondays-Wednesdays in August 2020, at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £500m, will, for many reasons, be hard to stomach for low paid working age taxpayers who cannot afford to eat out themselves. For such people, paying the rent, heating their homes and feeding their children will often leave little or nothing left over for dining out.

This new ‘summer eating allowance’ is likely to disproportionately benefit affluent older people with high levels of disposable income, whose custom typically helps to sustain many eating outlets during the mid-day/afternoon periods of the working week. The very same affluent older people who have qualified, with no means test, for free prescriptions aged 60-plus, for a free TV licence if a household member is aged 75-plus (up to August 2020), for a Winter Fuel Payment if a household member has reached state pension age, and for free local bus travel if they have reached women’s state pension age, regardless of their gender. The very same older people to benefit from the seven-fold rise in UK private pension income during 1977-2016.

Low paid and benefit dependent parents may also wonder why Chancellor Sunak is splashing out such a large sum of taxpayers’ cash, given that it took the efforts of Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to change government policy on 16th June 2020 to ensure that children eligible for Free School Meals continued to receive the relevant food vouchers during the elongated summer vacation period. This ‘COVID Summer Food Fund‘ was eventually set up at an estimated cost of £120m, less than a quarter of the cost of Sunak’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme, a.k.a. the ‘summer eating allowance.’

In the longer term, when the reality of tax rises and/or spending cuts to pay for the COIVD-19 bailout begins to bite, the government needs to focus on intergenerational fairness and ensure that well off pensioners pay their share of the nation’s debt. It is time that a government made non-poor over-60s purchase their medication via a Prescription Prepayment Certificate (PPC), which in 2020-21 costs younger adults £29.65 for 3 months or £105.90 for 12 months, sums well within the reach of people in receipt of private and state pension payments. It is also time to make employees aged 65-plus pay a tax of the same rate as the employee National Insurance Contributions paid by younger workers, in order for older workers to fully contribute to the funding of the public services that they use more extensively than their younger colleagues. Such moves to cut the benefits received by, and increase the tax taken from, healthy, active people in their 60s and 70s would help to increase the funding of the social care services that are largely used by people aged 80-plus who are no longer able to undertake paid work and are entitled to face lower user charges for the social care that they require to ensure a degree of dignity and independence in old age.

WatsOn My Mind: Stimulus Multipliers

The problems of trying to actually identify Keynesian spending multipliers is nothing new, but it was brought home to me this last week. You see, my mother-in-law passed away just after her stimulus check arrived. Her children chose to use it to pay for her headstone. Being more familiar with the discussion than most spending, I break it down this way:

Someone in government, trying to figure out how many jobs were created or saved by the stimulus bill, would ask us what we spent the money on. We would tell them it went for a headstone. They might figure out how much the monument workers are paid, how much of that $1200 went to the carvers and how much to the stone itself and multiply it throughout by marginal propensities to consume and any other leakages in the system to come up with a fancy number. (For those of to whom that is all Greek, see Jacob Clifford’s introduction.)

The usual first response to this is to cite the Broken Window Fallacy (introductory video here). That stimulus money had to have come from somewhere. Someone else will be taxed or have their savings inflated away to pay for it eventually, and the first round calculation does not take into account the jobs lost from this confiscatory taxation/seigniorage. Thank you, Bastiat.

The other problem more visible to me than usual is that we (the assembled kids) were totally going to get her a headstone either way. The stimulus check was entirely fungible and it will actually be spent over time with a little bit here and a little bit there because someone in the family has more in their savings account than they otherwise would have. Trying to follow and account for that spending and its effects borders on the well-nigh impossible. Forget the distinction between approximate right and precisely wrong (a quote misattributed to Keynes), it’s not even possible to know if you’re even in the right ballpark!

And those distinctions are still before factoring in monetary offset. Though with Powell begging the government to spend more, you might think that’s less of an issue also, but Sumner responds to that idea in the comments section at the same link.

PS – What did we do with our family’s stimulus check? Far as I know it’s still sitting in the savings account. Our needs are met, so we try to keep our mpc kind of low.

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?

Brazil’s economy after the pandemic

I wrote an article on the path to economic recovery in Brazil after the pandemic. The article was published by Instituto Monte Castelo, a Brasilia-based think tank, and it is in Portuguese. Here is a summary of the key points.

Brazil’s economy is overwhelmingly interventionist, as shown by its progress (or lack thereof) in data compiled by the World Bank in its Doing Business studies, or Heritage’s Foundation Index of Economic Freedom, or the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. As predicted by theories of economic interventionism (more recently, Robert Higgs and Sanford Ikeda; but, classically, Ludwig von Mises), a time of crisis invites more government intervention or, remarkably at certain historical junctures, disintervention.

From a free market perspective, what can be done?

Brazil’s situation is, to a certain extent, a reflection of the global scenario. A global crisis was bound to happen, given the unrealistic inflation of asset prices in global financial markets, reflecting the artificial propping up of the major economies around the world by injections of money and credit, as well as increased public spending after 2009. COVID-19 triggered it, but it was the tip of the iceberg. Brazil suffered from capital outflows and its currency devalued sharply against the US dollar.

In terms of how the external scenario reflects on Brazil, the only thing that can be done is decrease the level of risk in Brazil’s economy, or maintain interest rates on a level that reflects the amount of risk in the economy (given that Brazil’s Central Bank has been cutting rates throughout the year). The fact that the President is fighting with his cabinet and with the other branches of the government also reflects poorly in terms of political risk.

However, there is a lot that can be done in terms of the domestic scenario. The economic crisis resulting from the pandemic also reflects, in part, a change in consumer preferences and in how things will have to be done safely to avoid contamination. This means that some businesses will not thrive as much (restaurants, for example) and that other industries will incur in much higher costs to operate more safely. This disequilibrium would have happened regardless of government-mandated restrictions, and alert entrepreneurs will spot a chance to obtain gain by creating value for their consumers and clients.

However, it’s much harder to shut down inefficient companies, fire people, and open new ones, and hire people, in a heavily interventionist economy such as Brazil’s.

Shutdowns and other government imposed restrictions, especially on the local level, are making things worse. Brazil’s case is one of a milder shutdown. The government is offering a small compensation package for the trouble, but not much compared to the “stimulus” packages in Europe and the US. This probably reflects a more sober approach by Brazil’s Central Bank. However, on the one hand small businesses struggle to get access to credit due to the red tape, so this favors large companies and will concentrate the market in the long run. There’s also an idea of propping up airline companies and other inefficient businesses. This, in my view, would be a mistake. But lobbyists will line up to get their share of the cake.

The path to economic recovery in Brazil will necessarily have to involve local and federal deregulation, cutting lots of red tape, and major tax reforms. Labor laws have been made more flexible a few years ago, and the current administration managed to pass a massive pension reform that will reconfigure some of the public debt. However, this is not enough. Deeper reforms to cut public spending on a more permanent basis will have to be proposed, and the federal government will have to work harder to signal institutional and political stability and predictability.

The challenge is that the current administration can’t get reelected in 2022 with very little to show in terms of the economy, and the effects of the reforms proposed above will only become clearer in the long term. The temptation is to do just what the US seems to be doing – anti-trade nationalism to punish a foreign scapegoat, or the abstract scapegoat of ‘globalism’, appease some of the cronies with monetary and fiscal populism, red herrings making the population and the media focus on culture wars, etc. But this temptation is to be expected according to the economic theory of interventionism. Whether it will be overcome, only time can tell.

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.

Broken incentives in medical research

Last week, I sat down with Scott Johnson of the Device Alliance to discuss how medical research is communicated only through archaic and disorganized methods, and how the root of this is the “economy” of Impact Factor, citations, and tenure-seeking as opposed to an exercise in scientific communication.

We also discussed a vision of the future of medical publishing, where the basic method of communicating knowledge was no longer uploading a PDF but contributing structured data to a living, growing database.

You can listen here: https://www.devicealliance.org/medtech_radio_podcast/

As background, I recommend the recent work by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen on broken incentives in medical research funding (as opposed to publishing), as I think their research on funding shows that a great slow-down in medical innovation has resulted from systematic errors in organizing knowledge gathering. Mark Zuckerberg actually interviewed them about it here: https://conversationswithtyler.com/episodes/mark-zuckerberg-interviews-patrick-collison-and-tyler-cowen/.

In Defence of Economics Imperialism

Under the guise of the end of “Neoliberalism”, economics is losing its grip. Troubles had begun with the 2008 financial crisis. As people had once lost their faith in the Gold Standard, by 2008 the consensus upon the self-regulation of the markets slept away. Even some of the most notorious free-marketeers -like Alan Greenspan- became renegade from their lifelong beliefs.

The COVID-19 crisis seems to complete that process. However, it is not a process of the end of Neoliberalism, but of the end of what Gary Becker called the “economic way of thinking” -and this is truly bad news. The end of the imperialism of economics is, in some way, the end of rationality and universalism in political thinking.

The demise of economics in politics, in fact, had begun just some months before the 2007-2008 Crisis: when Tony Blair stepped down from Downing Street. Or even before: when George W. Bush, trying to avoid losing his re-election as his father had done in 1992, crushed the superavit inherited from Bill Clinton’s administration and created twin deficits. But Bush’s misfortunes were at least generated by an ill-understanding of economics. We are in danger of the near future being ruled by a not-understanding of economics at all. That is why we should not renounce the use of the economic way of thinking.

The key is not to leave the task only to the economists. Philosophers, lawyers, sociologists, historians, and all sorts of social scientists should get involved. Milton Friedman was the scapegoat of the Left, but the 1980’s and 1990’s came after decades of works of thinkers of all nationalities and sorts, like Karl Popper, Robert Nozick, Friedrich Hayek, Bruno Leoni, Max Weber, Raymond Aron, T. S. Ashton, Gary Becker, Robert Mundell, James M. Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Anthony Downs and many more.