Monday’s frivolous, flimsy, frail flailings

Or, some Monday links on flavors, figurative flags and fails

I mean, it would be impossible to have a business like this in the States, a wood-burning fire – illegal, the meat – illegal, the dog – illegal, the cheese sitting out uncovered – illegal. Basically, everything that makes this place good would be illegal in the United States.

Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations ep. 1 – 01 France: Why the French don’t suck (Jul. 2005)

The other day, Brandon highlighted (the review of) a cultural history book, one that documents the postwar shift of cultural gravitas from Paris to New York. So, the talk is about the big league, the respectful duo of countries that gave us, among other things, modern constitutionalism and an understanding of the natural hue of fundamental rights. Here, I venture to present a sincere, if arbitrary (and somewhat superficial, since I never learned French, to my mother’s disappointment) selection of other Franco-American bites, that shadowed greater trends, or even shaped them.

160 years ago, chef Charles Ranhofer, a Frenchman, traveled to the US for a second time. A year and a false dawn at another premise after, he was hired at Delmonico’s in New York, an already established name. There, he proceeded in making it the definite flagship of American fine dining for the next 30-35 years.

A note issued by the restaurant at the time chef Ranhofer joined the team (1862) – source

His achievements include the invention of renowned dishes, innovations in the dining business model and a massive Franco-American culinary encyclopedia (The Epicurean, 1894, complete with nearly 1000 dishes and thorough guidelines for the proper tables/ menu setting, depending on the occasion). The story fits well in the Gilded Age picture, though I would guess not at front center.

Our own Escoffier (Los Angeles Times)

My pastry trilogy came a full circle only last year, having started some ten years ago: a Mississippi mud pie, a cheesecake (early 2010s, both under the guidance of my wife) and a tarte Tatin (May ‘20 lockdown, unsupervised, our then nearly-5-year old provided merry company). Of the three creations, the final was the most refined, as deserves to a French recipe from late 19th century. Like, it needed some real – if basic – technique, not the average ingredient gathering I was used to. It was also a mild failure. I followed a modern take, one to safely blame without retort. Will try again, someday. There are relevant recipes aplenty, though not in its contemporary Epicurean.

Deconstructing tarte tatin, the classic French dessert (National Geographic)

The Gilded Age was nearing its end when the famous Lochner v New York decision was delivered (1905). The Supreme Court struck down a New York state law on regulating working hours, as a breach of the liberty of contract, which was protected under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A few decades later, in United States v Carolene Products Company (1938), an interstate trade case, the Court lowered the standard of review for economic legislation, effectively demoting economic liberty vis-à-vis the other personal liberties.

Both decisions refer to the food industry, bakeries and milk manufacturers respectively. They hold vast importance and warrant further study (for starters – note to self – judicial activism in Lochner, individual rights in Carolene).

As a certain minstrel in a certain fantasy realm would have it, the truth of these decisions became something bigger than the facts. The two cases work as handy banners of the paradigm shift from “unrestrained economic liberty” to “state interventionism”, which happened as right/ left-wing totalitarianisms convincingly challenged the prewar liberal order. Liberal-minded thinkers from the two sides of the Atlantic tried to revitalize the liberal creed in the interwar years. Some of them convened at Paris – few months after the Carolene decision – to honor the visit of the American journalist/ author Walter Lippmann, a notable critic of the New Deal.

There were deep differences, but also a strong agreement on the threat posed by central planning and some tentative overlapping on the perceived failings of “old” classical liberalism and, interestingly, the potential of the state in enhancing personal freedom by pursuing limited social goals. The – middle – way forward needed free markets in a solid, impartial legal frame, which would enforce competition and even provide for a modicum of social justice. By one account, it was during this meeting that the term “neo-liberalism” took root (other ideas included “left-wing” or “constructive” liberalism. Chicago theorists – not represented at the Colloque Lippmann- had previously written about “positive” liberalism), though the term is older. The resolution led to nowhere in particular, since World War II broke out shortly after. It is nonetheless considered a kind-of precursor to the Mont Pelerin Society, the well-known organization founded after a conference in 1947, at the invitation of Hayek.

The neoliberal position is nicely summarized by Milton Friedman (who was present at the 1947 proceedings) in a short piece from 1951:

Neo-liberalism would accept the nineteenth century liberal emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual, but it would substitute for the nineteenth century goal of laissez-faire as a means to this end, the goal of the competitive order… The state would police the system, establish conditions favorable to competition and prevent monopoly, provide a stable monetary framework, and relieve acute misery and distress.

Neo-Liberalism and its Prospects (Hoover Institution)

The term can also be found in scholarly papers from 50s-60s, but upon closer inspection they mostly focus on its German variant, “ordoliberalism”, which was closely associated with the “social market economy” – the postwar platform that defined West Germany (though voters could hardly tell what it exactly was).

My understanding is that, at some point postwar, the French involvement dwindled. Also, some German theorists fell from grace in the Mont Pelerin Society context, while US membership increased in number and clamor. The whole approach tilted closer to classical liberal/ libertarian (another note to my – European – self, Edwin van de Haar offers precious nuance regarding such terminology in a fresh post) and away from the “free market, strong state” convictions of Colloque Lippmann. However, Hayek retained cordial relations with the University of Freiburg – where the original ordoliberal theses formed.

Then the shade of neo-liberalism faded, only to be invoked as a nebulous catch-all characterization of free market policies a couple of decades later, almost devoid of its competitive and social security chops. It got a life though, since it was fleshed in the founding Treaties of the EU of the 50s. The institutional apparatus of the Union smugly radiates “free market within the properly defined lines” (the US influence is not be discounted, of course. Case in point, competition law).

EU, as with the Colloque: The French grabbed a coffee with the Americans and threw a party. Then, they took a step back as the Germans stopped being shy and hit the decks.

Back to the kitchen. Late 60s and into the 70s, gastronomic developments trace the retooling of society-at-large. That was the time various “new” national cuisines rose, with the French Nouvelle cuisine once again leading the way and the New American Cuisine taking clue from it (in Greece we usually talk about the “(new) urban cuisine” of that period, as the country experienced a rapid urbanization wave in the preceding decades).

Fantasy unchained: A cooking center in 1980 as imagined in 1973 – source

In the meantime: Political turmoil, be it protests or terrorism, there go Bretton Woods arrangements, productivity flattens, environmental concerns kick-in, enter competition from Asia, human rights against the Soviet Block, university studies expand, telecommunications and transport improve, oil crises, the lights go out in Britain and elsewhere, inflation runs, and so on and so forth. The next decade coincided with the emergence of new political leaderships across the West, as the turbulence discredited the previous guard.

The consensus got a drift for privatizations, deregulation and liberalization of international transactions, with US and Britain adhering to it (though to say that they indeed rolled-back the size and scope of State is questionable). This time, the Nobel Memorial Prizes in Economic Sciences awarded to Hayek (1974) and Friedman (1976) served as a flag (or a scarecrow) for the transition to market-based prescriptions.

The endgame was meant to play out in France. In May 1981, Mitterrand won the presidential election on a pretty standard socialist agenda. The program of nationalizations, hiked taxation, capital controls, grants and subsidies run its course till 1983, when the bad results in deficit, employment, inflation and the exchange rate – underlined by an equally poor performance in local elections – prompted a turn to anti-inflationary rigor and a realignment with more market-oriented policies (Spain and Greece, btw, more or less copycatted the French experience).

In a twist in the myth, three Mitterrand guys even went to assume head posts in international bodies, like the IMF (a member of the unholy trinity of the “Washington Consensus”), and promote capital account liberalization from there.

Endnote: The No Reservations show of late Anthony Bourdain had a role in our family’s inconsistent knack for things cooking/ baking. While writing this, I found out that a documentary on the man’s life just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’ Review: The Insatiable Life and Enigmatic Death of a Foodie Superstar (Variety)

Encore: To France”, Mike Oldfield’s cover by power metal band Blind Guardian, from their The Forgotten Tales album (1996). Pas mal.

Wat’s On my mind: tax and subsidy impacts

I’ve been reading through some recent (2021 and 2015) papers on the impacts of various tax and subsidy changes. Here is a short review of the latest to be learned from the research. My  tl;dr takeaway is that taxes and subsidies are less distorting than my priors expect. Unless otherwise stated, all papers are in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

“Complex Tax Incentives” by Abeler and Jäger 2015 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/pol.20130137). They run an experiment where subjects do some work for pay and compare how their subjects respond to changes in income taxes. If the tax structure is simple, higher taxes mean less effort; if the tax structure is complex (with 22 different rules determining the optimal level of work), subjects make smaller adjustments to their effort and some don’t react at all. Most of the average impact is from the people who don’t react at all, who also tend to have lower cognitive ability.

“Unemployment Insurance Generosity and Aggregate Employment” by Boone et al 2021 (https://doi.org/10.1257/pol.20160613). During the Great Recession, a number of states changed the maximum benefit an unemployed worker could receive. They compare neighboring counties in different states and find that higher unemployment insurance benefits had very small impacts on aggregate employment. They also point out flaws in previous work by Hagedorn and co-authors who had found much larger impacts.

The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management in 2015 sponsored a point/counterpoint debate on this overall topic as well. Moffitt comes down on the side that most of the programs in the US safety net have been shown to have very small labor disincentives – with SNAP (food stamps) close to 0, extending unemployment benefits by one week increases average unemployment spells by 1/10 of a week, and EITC increasing work, though housing subsidies reduce employment by 4 percentage points. Mulligan, on the other hand, argues that ACA is effectively a 20% marginal income tax on those who are affected by it and that social programs responding to the Great Recession reduce the rewards to working by about 12%.

“Asymmetric Incentives in Subsidies: Evidence from a Large-Scale Electricity Rebate Program” by Ito in 2015 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1257/pol.20130397). Voters tend to prefer receiving subsidies for reducing bad behavior than being taxed for it. California set up an electricity rebate program where, if you reduced your electricity usage by 20% in the summer of 2005, you would get a 20% rebate each month. It turns out that Californians living on the coast reduced their electricity usage, but folks living inland where it warmer and they use more electricity for air conditioning did not.

“How is Tax Policy Conducted Over the Business Cycle” by Vegh and Vuletin in 2015 (http://dx.doi.org/10.,1257/pol.20120218). They compile a dataset of 60 countries from 1960-2009 and their marginal tax rates for VAT, corporate, and personal income taxes. They find that: tax rates are “more volatile in developing countries than in industrial economies” and “tax policy is acyclical in industrial countries and mostly procyclical in developing countries”. This matches the fact that government spending tends to be procyclical in developing countries and countercyclical in industrial economies.

“Do People Respond to the Mortgage Interest Deduction? Quasi-Experimental Evidence from Denmark” by Gruber, Jensen, and Kleven in 2021 (https://doi.org/10.1257/pol.20170366). In 1986-87 Denmark significantly decreased the tax break high and middle-income households receive in paying mortgage interest. Over the following years, they find that “a tightly estimated and robust ZERO EFFECT of tax subsidies ON HOMEOWNERSHIP for high- and middle-income households,” but that average house SIZES and PRICES decrease significantly [emphasis mine]. Low-income households, however, had only a very small change in their eligibility, so one would not expect there to be a large difference. So the paper cannot address whether the deduction encourages homeownership for poorer households. It does suggest that a cap on the deduction would reduce deficits without much cost in ownership rates.

“The Macroeconomic Effects of Income and Consumption Tax Changes” by Nguyen, Onnis, and Rossi in 2021 (https://doi.org/10.1257/pol/20170241). From 1970-1997 the UK shifted their tax burden from income taxes (70% to 55% of revenue) to consumption taxes (15% to 35%). They have some good news: as theory predicts, consumption taxes are less distortionary and so the move increases GDP, consumption, and investment. Further, government spending shrinks. I’m not entirely convinced by their identification strategy, based on identifying exogenous changes in “a narrative measure of consumption and income tax liabilites changes” [sic]. But at least the arrows are all in the right direction.

“Income, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Infant Health” by Hoynes, Miller, and Simon in 2015 (https://dx.doi.org/10.1257/pol.20120179). They find that higher EITC payments reduce the probability that a baby will be low birthweight, both because families are able to get more prenatal care and because they smoke less. This is the only paper of the set that has an economically-large impact of tax policy changes.

“Heterogeneous Workers and Federal Income Taxes in a Spatial Equilibrium” by Colas and Hutchinson in 2021 (https://doi.org/10.1257/pol/20180529). Some places are simultaneously more expensive to live in and more productive work environments, and thus they tend to pay workers more there to compensate. But if you have a progressive income tax code, that will tax people more for living in expensive places. It seems reasonable to assume that higher-productivity (higher-income) individuals will also be more mobile, so they will be more likely to move to lower-productivity/lower-wage places to escape the progressive income tax. But moving high-productivity people to lower-productivity places also impacts wages and rents for everyone else. They find that these deadweight losses amount to 0.25% of GDP, mostly from the federal income tax (0.14%), with state income taxes (0.07%) and payroll taxes (0.04%) the rest. Moving to a flat tax would reduce these distortions to 0.16% of GDP. Adjusting income taxes by a location-based cost of living index would reduce it to 0.09% of GDP, but also make poorer people worse off.

Monday’s Reserved Judgements (and Satisficing Hopes)

Or, some Monday links on central banks, manners over matters and hard-boiled decisions

That bond salesman from the Jazz Age was right. Reserving judgement, at least sometimes, allows for a fairer outcome. Take for example the Brick film (2005), a neo-noir detective story set in a modern Southern California high school. Here in Greece it made some ripples, then it was forsaken for good. Not sure about its status in the US or elsewhere, but “overlooked”/ “underrated” seem to go with it in web searches. I agree now, but when I first watched it, its brilliance was lost to me ( and no, it was not allegedly “ahead of its time”, as some lame progressive metal bands of late 90s hilariously asserted when they zeroed in sales…).

The theatrical release poster – source

The film’s peculiarity was obvious from the titles. A couple of gals left the theater like 10’ in. My company and I were baffled for most part, by the gritty atmosphere. And I have not even begun with the dialogue. The language was something from off the map. As late Roger Ebert noted:

These are contemporary characters who say things like, “I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.” Or, “Act smarter than you look, and drop it.”

You see, the whole thing was intended to serve tropes, archetypes and mannerisms from the hard-boiled fiction of 1920s-30s. A manly man vs crime and (corrupted) government, and so on and so forth. We went there, un-f-believably how, clueless about all these. We did, however, make a recurring joke from the following lines:

Brendan: You and Em were tight for a bit. Who’s she eating with now?
Kara: Eating with?
Brendan: Eating with. Lunch. Who.

Seen in this light, everything made sense to my gusto. Anyway, seems that reserving judgements not only does better assessments, but also protects the lazy unaware.

Now, I have previously indicated that I have a soft spot for the “technology of collective decisions” that are central banks. I usually reserve my judgements on them, too. This comment summarises recent developments, including a few interesting links:

In which the Rich Get Richer (Economic Principals)

A new paper by Carola Binder examines central bank independence vis-à-vis a technocratic – populist merge in the age of digital media:

Technopopulism and Central Banks (Alt – M)

The author argues that central banks, supposedly the bastions of technocratic approach, tend to “respond” (i.e. be nudged by and directly appeal) to a perceived “will of the people”, as it is expressed on-line or via events like the “FED Listens” series. This bend acts as a claim to legitimacy and accountability, in exchange of trust and extended discretion, leading to a self-reinforcing circle almost beyond the democratic election process. In other words, not quite the “Bastilles” contra “modern Jacobinism” (to remember how Wilhelm Röpke deemed independent central banks in 1960). A way out could be made, concludes the author, by introducing of a rule-based monetary policy.

Central banks, as institutional arrangements developed mostly during the 20th century, share a common mojo and tempo with the FED. They gradually assumed more independence, and since the emergence of modern financial markets, (even more) power. This rise has been accompanied by increasing obligations in transparency and accountability, fulfilled through an ever-expanding volume of communication in terms of hearings, testimonies, minutes, speeches etc. This communication also plays a role in shaping economic actors’ expectations, a major insight that transformed our understanding of macroeconomic outcomes. Andy Haldane talks all these, along with other delicious bits, in an excellent speech from 2017 (his speeches have generally been quite something):

A Little More Conversation A Little Less Action (Bank of England)

Plot twist: The endeavor of more communication has a so-so record in clarity, as documented by the rising number of “education years” needed to follow and understand central banks’ messages. The same trend goes for the pylons of rule of law, the supreme courts, at least in Europe. We certainly have come a long way since that time at the 70s, when a former Greek central bank Governor likened monetary decisions to a Talmudic text, ok, but we are not there yet.

As a parting shot, let us return just over a year back, when the German Federal Constitutional Court delivered a not exactly reserved decision (5 May 2020) about the European Central Bank’s main QE program. The FCC managed to:

  • scold the top EU Court for flawed reasoning and overreach in confirming the legality of the program in Dec 2018 (the FCC had stayed proceedings and referred the case to the Court of Justice of the EU, for a preliminary ruling in Jul 2017. Europe’s top courts are not members of the Swift Justice League, apparently).
  • indirectly demand justifications from ECB, which is beyond its jurisdiction as an independent organ of EU law, by
  • warning the German public bodies that implement ECB acts to observe their constitutional duties, while
  • effectively not disrupting the central bank’s policy.

Notorious FCC, aka Bundesverfassungsgericht – source

The judicial b-slapping provoked much outcry and theorising, but little more, at least saliently. The matter was settled by some good-willed, face-saving gestures from all institutions involved, while it probably gave a push to the Franco-German axis, to finally proceed in complementing monetary policy measures with the EU equivalent of a generous fiscal package. The rift between the EU and the German (in this case, but others could follow) respective legal orders may never be undone, though. If anyone feels like delving deeper into the EU constellation, here is a fresh long slog:

Constitutional pluralism and loyal opposition (ICON Journal)

I don’t. But then again, maybe I will act smarter than I look.

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!

Monetary Tales from the Farthest Shore

The second bank by the sea

My music playlist has nearly stagnated for years and, depending on your age, maybe yours has too. Evidence suggests that (partly) because of mind shenanigans, our musical palette does not quite expand past the age of 30. I think that something similar goes for gaming. I am still fond of those (pc) games from my late teen – early adult years and stay happily ignorant about the newer ones. Those single player games immersed you through substance over eye-candies. Some in-game scenes remain pure gold after all these years. Like that dialogue, when one of my younger siblings was delving in a fictional setting resembling the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. (Escape from Monkey Island. I preferred RPGs. Nowadays, only books – like this one.)

At some point, the protagonist, a witty swashbuckler, visited the Second Bank of an island called Lucre. “What happened to the First Bank of Lucre?”, he inquired. “Nothing”, said the bank teller, “It was our public relations department’s idea. They felt that being called the ‘First’ bank didn’t project an image of experience”. At the time I thought it as just a funny anachronism. Later, I recognized a jab to brand marketing practices and the corporate-speak more generally. But it was also the scheme of a “fledgling” first banking institution versus a “trustworthy” second one that almost held a real-world analogy. 

Some kind of a theory

There is a rich discussion on the origins of money, its form and the proper control of it, as well as a few historical cases of either state or private currencies thriving – or failing. Hard. In the thick of it, we talk about two positions. From the one hand, the “economics textbook” approach proposes that money emerged in the realm of private economic relations, to minimize transaction costs and facilitate trade. (Francisco d’Anconia would approve.) Here be a decentralized, bottom-up acceptance of the medium of exchange. This view sits well with the classical liberal dichotomy between the civil and state spheres, which can be expanded to envision a very limited role for the state in monetary affairs. From the other hand, the “anthropological – historical” position articulates that trust on money comes mostly from the sovereign’s guarantee, marked by the sign of God and/ or Emperor. This top-down explanation is more receptive to the state control of money, rhyming with the monetary power as a prerogative of the ruler and an expression of sovereignty. 

Beginning with some important judicial decisions in the second half of 19th century, the official assertion of state power over money came in the 20th century. Per the Permanent Court of International Justice, in 1929, “it is indeed a generally accepted principle that a state is entitled to regulate its own currency”. You know, the norm of modern national monetary monopolies. There was a time though, when things were more colorful and less unambiguous. From the 13th century onward to the Golden Age of Piracy and beyond, it was only normal for different monies of various issuers to flow from one territory to the other. Reputable currencies required not only a resilient authority backing them, but also a nod by society and custom. This kind-of-synthesis of the two positions outlined above rung especially true in the case of the young Greek state in 1830s – 1840s. (For this section I draw from the comprehensive “History of the Greek State 1830 – 1920”, by George B. Dertilis [the 2017 Crete University Press edition, in Greek. An extended version, under a different title, is forthcoming in English in 2021/22]. Btw, on Mar. 25 we celebrate 200 years from the Declaration of the Greek Revolution versus the Ottoman rule, an [underrated?] event with connotations of nationalism and liberal constitutionalism.)

Over there at the (Balkan) shore

As the new state needed to break free from all the institutions of Ottoman Empire, its hastily assembled first Bank of Issue sought to introduce a new national currency (the Phoenix). The impoverished, ravaged and cut off from international debt markets nascent state reflected bad upon the Bank. The government tried to force public’s trust via legislation. By decree, payments from/ to the state coffers would include a mandatory percentage of the new banknotes (later the percentage was set at 100%). Revenue from state natural resources – present and future – would back the currency. The administrative magic did not do it. The public actively tried to avoid the Phoenix banknotes, in favor of traditional silver/ gold coins. Bank and currency failed to crowd out the foreign monies and ultimately went out of business. A few years later, the overall environment had improved somewhat and a more vigorous state established the second Bank of Issue. Another new national currency, the Drachma, was already circulating in – copper – coins along with the foreign ones. 

The second Bank received an exclusive charter of issue and undertook the task to roll-out the Drachma banknotes (silver/ gold coins would follow) and, in doing so, integrate the fragmented Greek countryside to a more cohesive national economy. Up until then, the local markets had operated as loosely hierarchical oligopolies. At the bottom of the chain, each small village or group of villages was dependent on a merchant-money lender who held monopsonistic power over the (tiny scale) agricultural production and, at the same time, monopolistic power in cash and credit. These rural businessmen depended on the respective merchant-money lender of the nearest town for brokerage. Next in line was the merchant-money lender of the nearest city, usually with access to international trade routes. You get the picture. These informal networks contained competition among neighboring lesser merchant-money lenders and promoted trade through a complex web of transactions (involving forward contracts, insurance premiums and bills of exchange, among others). (The official site for the anniversary features a fancy piece about the first attempts to establish a national bank as well. It includes a few names and dates, while noticing the “exploitative” networks and the “primitive” credit system .I find its lack of nuance disturbing somewhat misleading.)

Becoming one with the forces

The Bank opted to tap and complement the existing disjointed market forces, in order to gently nudge them. It channeled its primary tool, lending in banknotes, to the local money markets, firstly, to a limited number of large merchant-money lenders, later to the middle ones. (According to the Bank’s ledgers, these clients usually chose respectable job titles, such as “Banker” or “Broker”. Others, a bit blunter, went by the Greek equivalent of “Usurer”.) This lending – apart from being short-term, relatively safe and profitable – enabled the Bank to gradually assume a leading position, without the need to deep dive at the specifics of each end-user of the market. The soft, indirect entry in the century-old customary networks lowered the cost of money and contributed to the integration of the national economy. The transition was not always smooth, with the occasional episode (people switching from banknotes to metallic coins, the Bank returning the favor by aggressively cutting back lending, the government setting compulsory percentages etc  – you know the drill), but still, the stakeholders’ incentives aligned. Society at large recognized Bank and currency, with the system reaching a workable equilibrium

The merchant-money lender of old was finally phased-out by regular bank lending in the next decades. Further underpinned by a cozy relationship with the state (always a valuable client, usually a partner, sometimes even an opponent), the Bank acted as a quasi-central banking institution until 1928, when the charter was transferred to the newly found Bank of Greece. The Drachma continued as official legal tender (albeit with numerous conversions) until the end of 2001.

Elective Affinities in Institutional Design, 1951

[Note: this is a piece by Michalis Trepas, who you might recognize from the now-defunct NOL experiment “Be Our Guest.” Michalis is a newly-minted Notewriter, and this is the first of many more such pieces to come. -BC]

The Treasury and the Federal Reserve System have reached full accord with respect to debt-management and monetary policies to be pursued in furthering their common purpose to assure the successful financing of the Government’s requirements and, at the same time, to minimize monetization of the public debt.

– Joint announcement by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Board of Governors, and of the Federal Open Market Committee, of the Federal Reserve System, issued for release on Mar. 4, 1951

The Allied High Commission appreciates that these responsibilities [for the central bank] could not, without serious inconvenience, be given up so long as no legislation has been enacted establishing a competent Federal authority to assume them.

– Letter from the Allied High Commission to Chancellor Adenauer, Dated Mar. 6, 1951


A Financial Fable by Carl Barks, a short story starring Donald Duck and his duck-relatives, was published in Mar. 1951. It featured concepts like supply/ demand, money shocks, inflation and the ethics of productive labor, from a rather neoclassical perspective. Read today, it seems out of synch with the postwar paradigm of a subordinated monetary policy to the activist state and, more generally, with what came to be known as the Golden Age. As you have already probably noticed, this March also marks the 70th anniversary of two more instances against the currents of the time. It was back then that two main traditions of central bank independence – based on political consensus and judicial (“Chevron”) deference in the case of US, based on written law and judicial review in the case of Eurozone (read: Germany) – were (re)rooted. In the following lines, I offer an outline focused on institutional interplay, instead of then usual dramatis personae

The first instance is the well-known Treasury – FED Accord. Its importance warrants a mention in nearly every institutional discussion of modern central bank independence. The FED implemented an interest rates peg – kind of capping the yield curve – in 1942, to accommodate public debt management during World War II. The details were complicated, but we can still think of it as a convenient arrangement for the Executive. The policy continued into the early 50s, with the inflationary backdrop of the Korean War leading to tensions between a demanding Executive and an increasingly resistant central bank. Shortly after the dispute became more pronounced, reaching the media, the two institutions achieved a compromise. The austere paragraph cited above ended the interest rates peg and prompted a shift of thinking within – and without – the central bank, on monetary policy and its independence of fiscal needs.

The second one is definitely more obscure, and as such deserves a little more detail. The Bank deutscher Länder (BdL) was established in 1948, in the Allied territory of occupied Germany. It integrated central banking institutions, old and new, in a decentralized fashion á la US FED. Its creation underpinned the – generally successful – double reform of that year (a currency conversion with a simultaneous abolition of price controls), which reignited free market forces (and also initiated the de facto separation of the country). The Allied Banking Commission (ABC) supervised the BdL and retained the sole right to issue direct instructions, a choice more practical than doctrinal or ideological. As the ABC gradually allowed a greater leeway to the central bank, while fending off even indirect German political interventions, the resulting institutional setting provided for a relatively independent BdL. 

In late 1950, the Occupational Authority wanted out and an orderly transfer of powers required legislation from the Federal Government. Things deadlocked around the draft of the central bank law, the degrees of centralization and independence being the thorniest issues. The letter cited above, arriving after a few months of inertia, was the catalyst for action. The renewed negotiations concluded with the “Interim Law” of 10 Aug. 1951. The reformed BdL was made independent of instructions from the Federal Government, while at the same time assuming an obligation to support government’s general economic policy – without prejudice to its monetary duties. 

This institutional arrangement was akin to what the BdL itself had pushed for, a de jure formalization of its already de facto status. Keep in mind that the central bank enjoyed a head start in terms of reputation and experience versus the Federal Government, after all. But it can also be traced to the position articulated by the free market-oriented majority in the German quasi-governmental bodies back in 1948, a unique blend of explicit independence from/ cooperation with the government. The 1951 law effectively set the blueprint for the final central bank law, the Bundesbank Act of 1957. The underlying liberal creed echoed in the written report of the Chairman of the Committee for Money and Credit of the parliament:

The security of the currency… is the highest precondition for the retention of a market economy, and hence in the final analysis that of a free constitution for society and the state… [T]he note-issuing bank must be independent of these [political bodies] and subject only to the law.

The Financial Fable was the only story featuring Disney’s characters that made it to an important history of comics book, published in 1971. Around that time, the postwar consensus on macroeconomic stabilization policy was reaching its peak. A rethinking was already underway on the tools and goals of monetary policy, taking it away from the still garbled understanding of the period. It took another decade or so for both sides of the Atlantic to recalibrate their respective monetary policies. The accompanying modern central bank independence, with its foundations set in 1951, became a more salient – and popular – aspect a bit later.

Power outages in Texas

From an email I sent my principles of economics students:

Since we can’t have classes this week and the midterm is postponed a week, I felt chatty and wanted to share at least a few thoughts about why so many people are without power.

tl;dr: see the graph below. Prices are fixed. Supply shifts left, demand shifts right = instant shortages. This is not an easy problem to solve.

Issue #1 is that bad weather events increase demand – demand shifts to the right. Issue #2 is that energy prices are really sticky. We’ll be getting to this in March, but in energy markets we sign contracts with our energy providers that lock in the price of electricity for 1-2 years at a time. When demand increases, the price doesn’t! Further, some contracts allow us to smooth the bill out over 12 months, so if I need extra $12 of electricity today, I don’t actually pay for it today: I’ll pay for it by having a $1 higher electricity bill over a 12 month period. That does two things. a) It means that energy demand curves are really vertical, a small change in price doesn’t change my electricity consumption much; and b) when demand increases, prices don’t. That ruins the market price signal that tells you and me to conserve electricity. Issue #3 of course is that it is really amazingly expensive to increase electric capacity. That means that energy supply curves are also really vertical. Even if energy firms COULD raise prices, they can’t increase the quantity supplied in the short run. In the longer run, we have time to build more plants and add capacity, but in the short run we’re stuck with what we have. 

The graph above shows the marginal cost of different types of energy. Some are energy that is easy to turn on and off, but expensive (eg. oil). Some are energy that is really, really hard to turn on and off at will (eg. nuclear) but very cheap. And producing more energy than you need is bad. So you build enough cheap stuff that you know for 100% positive will always be needed, and then you build expensive stuff to handle changes in demand. That’s the short version, anyway. It means that producing a little extra electricity is really expensive and there is a hard limit to much extra we can produce – eventually supply curves are completely vertical!

My friends on the right tend to send blame towards green energy. And they have a point! Renewables are temperamental – with too many clouds solar doesn’t do anything, and frozen blades can’t turn wind energy turbines. The impact of the storm is to shift energy supply curves to the left, and the more the grid relies on renewables, the bigger that shift is. The basic problem renewables have had is that it’s really difficult to STORE their energy for future use. If we could create really large energy reservoirs, we could store Texas’ abundant solar and wind energy for a literally-rainy day. 

So we have supply curves shifting left at the same time demand curves are shifting right and prices can’t move … the final result is massive shortages! Now what could be done about that?

My friends on the left tend to blame deregulation. Sadly, not one of them is spelling out exactly what regulation they think would solve this problem. Let me be generous to them and imagine they mean the following: if the government ran (rather than regulated) the energy grid, they would build a greater capacity than we typically use. 

And they have a point. Energy is like the opposite of the hotel industry. In the hotel industry, you don’t build the hotel based on AVERAGE, normal operations. In Stephenville, you build a hotel large enough to accommodate people who come for graduation. The cost of having unused rooms is fairly low – you still need to keep the room cool in case someone needs it, and you want to hire someone to dust it, but it just sits there most of the time. Then you rake in big money when demand suddenly increases. The energy industry is the opposite: it is very expensive to build capacity and it is also expensive to maintain it. Whether you are a private firm or a government, the money to maintain unused generators has to come from somewhere.

How do we afford that? In the market, energy prices are actually set a little bit higher than equilibrium so that supply > demand. That ensures we have plenty of electricity to handle normal, typical demand fluctuations. We pay for that excess capacity during the normal part of the year so that when temperatures are particularly high or extra low, the grid can handle it.

The government has a different problem, though. If electricity is publicly-run, they will tend to set the price lower than the market would and make up the differences with taxes. That further divorces energy use from the price paid. We would have a higher quantity demanded at all times (wasteful). Add in that governments generally do a bad job running businesses (wasteful) and in order to have that excess capacity we would have to be willing to pay higher taxes (and lower energy bills) for many years to make up for the extra expense. Most governments, like most markets, will therefore tend to undersupply for an emergency because the voters don’t want to pay higher taxes and there is no such thing as a free lunch. So it’s not 100% clear that this would solve the problem. Europe has power outages that affect millions too. 

Why? Healy and Malhotra: Governments respond to incentives, and voters give the wrong incentives: “Do voters effectively hold elected officials accountable for policy decisions? Using data on natural disasters, government spending, and election returns, we show that voters reward the incumbent presidential party for delivering disaster relief spending, but not for investing in disaster preparedness spending. These inconsistencies distort the incentives of public officials, leading the government to underinvest in disaster preparedness, thereby causing substantial public welfare losses. We estimate that $1 spent on preparedness is worth about $15 in terms of the future damage it mitigates. By estimating both the determinants of policy decisions and the consequences of those policies, we provide more complete evidence about citizen competence and government accountability.”

Bottom line: there isn’t an easy solution to weather events that happen once in a hundred years, whether it’s floods or hurricanes or … whatever this white, powdery substance is that’s blanketing my lawn. The basic problem is scarcity in a market where price signals don’t work (by design) at a time when supply shifts left and demand shifts right. To the extent climate change means more frequent extreme events, this will be a growing problem.

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.

Casual Empiricism: USPS

It looks to me (as I refresh tracking numbers) that the post office is still reeling after several months of attempted voter suppression. It also looks to me like even though Trump is on his way out, there is no reason to believe that someone just as terrible couldn’t come along at any point in the next 50 years and outdo him.

As far as the USPS goes I think there’s a fairly simple solution that should make most people happy: split the USPS in two: a private for-profit firm that delivers junk mail and competes with UPS and Amazon, and a government agency that handles government business including things like distributing ballots and census surveys.

But the USPS is just one small part of a much larger problem. When the Trump II comes along, he’ll have more powers, including (very likely) a lot more power to mess with the health care sector. There are a lot of reasons I don’t like the idea of more government in health care, but this one should be terrifying to everyone.

A criticism of Indian Americans by an Indian national in the US

This Atlantic article got me thinking. As an Indian national in the U.S., I would like to make a limited point about some (definitely not all) Indian Americans. In my interactions with some Indian Americans, the topic of India induces, if you will, a conflicting worldview. India —the developing political state—is often belittled in some very crude ways, using some out-of-context recent western parallels by mostly uninformed but emboldened Indian Americans.

Just mention Indian current affairs, and some of these well-assimilated Indian Americans quickly toss out their culturally informed, empathetic, anti-racist, historically contingent-privilege rhetoric to conveniently take on a sophisticated “self-made” persona, implying a person who ticked all the right boxes in life by making it in the U.S. This reflexive attitude reversal comes in handy to patronize Indians living in India. They often stereotype us as somehow lower in status or at least less competent owing to the lack of an advanced political state or an ”American” experience—therefore deficient in better ways of living and a higher form of ”humanistic” thinking.

This possibly unintentional but ultimately patronizing competence-downshift by a section of Indian Americans results in pejorative language to sketch generalizations about Indian society even as they recognize the same language as racist when attributed to American colored minorities.

In the last decade, I have learned that one must always take those who openly profess to be do-gooders, culturally conscious, anti-racist, and aware of their privileged Indian American status as a contingency of history with a bucket load of salt. Never take these self-congratulatory labels at face value. Discuss the topic of India with them to check if Indian contexts are easily overlooked. If they do, then obviously, these spectacular self-congratulatory labels are just that — skin-deep tags to fit into the dominant cultural narrative in the U.S.

Words of the economist Pranab Bardhan are worth highlighting: “Whenever you find yourself thinking that some behavior you observe in a developing country is stupid, think again. People behave the way they do because they are rational. And if you think they are stupid, it’s because you have failed to recognize a fundamental feature of their current economic environment.”

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.

Prediction market update

The market for who wins the presidency closed this morning! But the Electoral College margin of victory market was still open and at 98 cents for the already certain outcome. Maxing out my position there would mean $17 for free! So I did, and the market dipped to 97 cents.

This truly is the dumbest jack in the box. We all know exactly what’s going to happen, and yet…