AI: Bootleggers and Baptists Edition

“Elon Musk Is Wrong about Artificial Intelligence and the Precautionary Principle” – Reason.com via @nuzzel

(disclaimer: I haven’t dug any deeper than reading the above linked article.)

Apparently Elon Musk is afraid of the potential downsides of artificial intelligence enough to declare it “a rare case where we should be proactive in regulation instead of reactive. By the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it is too late.”

Like literally everything else, AI does have downsides. And, like anything that touches so many areas of our lives, those downsides could be significant (even catastrophic). But the most likely outcome of regulating AI is that people already investing in that space (i.e. Elon Musk) would set the rules of competition in the biggest markets. (A more insidious possible outcome is that those who would use AI for bad would be left alone.) To me this looks like a classic Bootleggers and Baptists story.

The Economics of Hard Choices

In economics, there are two types of numbers that we use. Cardinal numbers express amounts. For example, “one”, “two”, “three”, etc. are all cardinal numbers. You can add them, subtract them, or even take them to an exponent.

Money prices are cardinal, which is why you can calculate precise profits and loss.

On the other hand, ordinal numbers express ranks. For example “first, “second”, “third”, etc. are all ordinal numbers. It doesn’t really make sense to talk about adding (or subtracting or exponentiating) ranks.

Almost all economists believe that utility is ordinal. This means your preferences are ranked: first most preferred, second most preferred, and so on. Here is a made up value scale:

1st. Having a slice of pizza
2nd. Having $2 in cash
3rd. Having a cyanide pill

Someone with the above preferences would give $2 in cash in order to get a slice of pizza. But would rather keep their $2 than to have a cyanide pill. By the same principle, they would also prefer to have a slice of pizza to a cyanide pill.

This is in contrast to cardinal utility, which requires the existence of something like “utils”. It’s just as nonsensical to say that “Sally gets twice as many utils from her first preferred good than the next best thing,” as it is to say “I like my first best friend twice as much as my second best friend.”

Usually, this is where most discussions of ordinality as it applies to economics end. But I believe I have a new extension of this concept that affect utility theory.

A New Perspective on Ordinal Preferences

Some people are dissatisfied with the ordinal approach to utility. “Sure, I prefer pizza over cyanide,” they’ll say, “but I really, really prefer pizza. You can’t show this intensity of preferences ordinally!” In other words, they believe the ordinal approach is lacking something real that a cardinal approach could approximate.

Well, it’s true that in a specific moment when I observe you choosing pizza over cyanide, I can’t really tell “how much” you preferred it.

But one way I can model it is that in your mind, you have a value scale of all things you wanted in that moment. And that the thing that you “really, really” wanted is ranked “much, much” higher relative to the other thing.

Let’s say pizza was first on your value scale, and cyanide was 1000th. So while it’s wrong to say you preferred pizza “one thousand times” as much as cyanide, it would be correct to say you would have preferred 999 other things to cyanide.

In other words, you would rather have any one of these 999 other things instead of instead cyanide—with pizza being chief among them. This is the sense in which you “really, really” prefer pizza to cyanide. We’ve been able to express the “intensity” sentiment without resorting to cardinal numbers.

Let’s extend the example. If your choice was between pizza and sushi, and sushi was your 2nd ranked good, then we can say several equivalent things: (i) you’re closer to indifference (i.e., viewing them as the same good) between pizza and sushi than pizza and cyanide; (ii) your preference for pizza over cyanide is stronger than your preference for pizza over sushi; (iii) you prefer pizza less intensely to sushi than to cyanide; and (iv) it’s easier for you to choose between pizza and cyanide than it is to choose between pizza and sushi.

Of course, we don’t walk around with an exhaustive list of all the goods we could possibly want at any time. This fact may make it virtually impossible to empirically test this account of psychology. But this way of thinking about “intensity of preferences” is at least consistent with ordinal preferences, meaning we can better understand this phenomena using mental tools we’re already familiar with.

I believe this way of thinking is also useful in interpreting “hard choices”. Everyone is familiar with being in a situation where you don’t know what to choose between to seemingly attractive alternatives. An easily relatable example might be choosing a drink at the self-serve cola machines that are in most fast food restaurants now. You might really like both Vanilla Coke and Cherry Coke, but you can only choose one. Because you feel as though you like both of them equally, this is what makes it a hard choice.

IMG_0472

In other words, I’m proposing the reason that this is a hard choice is because these two goods are positioned very close together on your value scale. So close, in fact, that you have a difficult time determining which outranks the other. This is what makes the choice hard.

Applications of this framework

You might object. “This might be fun to think about, it might even be a contribution to psychology. But what implication does this have for economics—that is, the science of human action?”

My answer is this: when presented with a difficult choice, a person will choose to wait instead of choosing instantly. Waiting allows them to collect more information, deliberate more, and consider other options.

(More formally: a person facing a choice between two goods that are indistinguishably close on their value scale will not choose either good in the present period; instead, they will postpone the choice to a future period where they expect to have a larger information set.)

How can we apply this framework to the real world? Before we begin, note well that hesitation is itself an action. And as an action, it has a place on the individual’s value scale. For an entrepreneur, this has at least two implications.

First, the entrepreneur’s consumers may be facing hesitation because they can’t choose between the goods on sale. Think back to the cola examples. It’s possible that you’re in such a rush that the hesitation is not worth your time. The consumer may choose not to buy cola at all.

Second, I believe this approach can shed new light on the issue of so-called “transfer pricing”. While transfer pricing typically is used in the context of tax ramifications to a firm that is trying to buy or sell assets from a subsidiary, we can generalize the concept by considering how a either a very large firm that has “horizontally integrated” by buying and selling inputs for its final product from itself, either because it has grown so large that it’s merged with all its competitors and suppliers, or it has a government monopoly where no other firm is allowed to produce that input. In short, if a firm has monopolized the production of inputs to the extent where no market prices exist for them, how should he calculate his own costs (and therefore profits)?

Murray Rothbard was the first to observe that in effect a firm that has grown so large where this is a problem has become a socialist economy. And just as how a socialist economy can’t produce efficiently without market prices, neither can this hypothetical firm. (For more on this point, see pp. 659-660 of Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market.)

And so while the standard story of why a socialistic economy can’t rationally calculate profits and losses is based on the cardinal notions of money—without money prices, you literally cannot subtract costs from revenues—I approach from a different angle. Namely, action becomes “harder” because the lack of a market does not allow the firm (or socialist government) to observe its own ordinal rankings for its inputs. And so, the firm faces a “hard choice” in how to optimize its own production schedule.

Firms and governments also demonstrate that they’re engaging in hard choices, by establishing bureaucracies. Firms hire “transfer pricing specialists”, governments set up councils that “determine” prices, and so on. This is analogous to an indecisive person hiring a consultant to help them pick between Vanilla Coke and Cherry Coke.

Conclusion

In summary, a “hard choice” is when a person cannot distinguish where two heterogeneous goods rank on their own value scale. This can be demonstrated through hesitation and/or deliberation. The harder it is to establish a market price for goods, the more hesitation and deliberation will be required.

I believe this approach, if correct, can be insightful for both entrepreneurs and research. A new question that is raised is, “how do individuals, firms, and governments respond under different circumstances when faced with a hard choice?”

In a future post, I hope to extend this framework of ambiguous ordinal rankings to probabilities as well. In the meantime, I look forward to any feedback on this post.

 

Minimum Wages: Short rejoinder to Geloso

A few days ago I posted here at NOL a short comment on some reaction I’ve seen with regards to Seattle’s minimum wage study. Vincent Geloso offers an insightful criticism of my argument. Even if his point is quite specific (or so it seems to me), it offers an opportunity for some clarification.

But first, what was my argument? My comment was aimed at a specific point raised by advocates of increasing minimum wages. Namely, that even if Seattle’s study shows an increase in unemployment, a study with a larger sample may say otherwise. My point is that the way I’ve seen this criticism raised is missing the economic insight of minimum wage analysis, namely that jobs will be lost in less efficient employers and employees first. So far so good. The problem Geloso points out is with my example. I refer to McDonald’s as the efficient employers fast food chain (think of economics of scale) and as less efficient employers the neighborhood family-run little food place (neighborhood’s diner).

Geloso correctly argues that different employers react in different ways. It is expected, for instance, that a larger employer such as a fast-food chain would have more options to make a marginal adjustment when there is an increase in minimum wages. Of course, I agree, but the point I’m rising is about where jobs will be lost first (not the specific mechanism in each employer). Geloso flips my example and argues that a small diner has more (in relative terms) to lose by letting go one out of two employees than a fast food joint that has to let one employee go among maybe ten thousand. By letting one employee go, the small employer loses a larger share of its output. Therefore a small employer would be more inclined to keep all of his labor force and cut costs on another front (less hours work in average doesn’t cut it, that’s like a shared unemployment that would also cut output down).

A large employer like a fast food chain, however, can let one out of ten thousand employees go because the loss in output is not that significant. I have two issues with this example. The first one is that a fast food chain is facing the increase in minimum wage ten thousand times, not two. To cut even the rise in cost, the firm fast food chain has to cut down its labor force 15% (1,500 employees.) But I think the problem with this example does not end here. If it were the case that small diners don’t cut employment but fast food chains do, then we should see more unemployment in larger employers than in small neighborhood diners.

A second point I want to make is with Geloso’s argument that the study is about focusing “like a laser” on one out of multiple channels in the group most likely to respond in that manner (unemployment?). That the study, as long as the focus is on unemployment, should focus on the less efficient employers (and employees) first, and not just look at the unaffected employers because that’s where we just happen to have better statistics for is my point. There are two options. The first option is that what matters is focusing on the channel the increase in cost will be managed by employers. But this is neither a focus on unemployment nor on the criticism I’m replying to. Option number two, that the study should focus on the employers “most likely” to reduce unemployment, which is actually my point regardless of how many “channels” are included in the sample.

Minimum Wages: Where to Look for Evidence

A recent study on the effect of minimum wages in the city of Seattle has produced some conflicted reactions. As most economists expected, the significant increase in the minimum wage resulted in job losses and bankruptcies. Others, however, doubt the validity of the results given that the sample may be incomplete.

In this post I want to focus just one empirical problem. An incomplete sample in itself may not be a problem. The issue is whether or not the observations missing from the sample are relevant. This problem has been pointed out before as the Russian Roulette Effect, which consists in asking survivors of the increase in minimum wages if the increase in minimum wages have put them out of business. Of course, the answer is no. In regards to Seattle, a concern might be that fast food chains such as McDonald’s are not properly included in the study.

The first reaction is, so what? Why is that a problem? If the issue is to show that an increase of wages above their equilibrium level is going to produce unemployment, all that has to be shown is that this actually happens, not to show where it does not happen. This concern about the Seattle study is missing a key point of the economic analysis of minimum wages. The prediction is that jobs will be lost first among less efficient workers and less efficient employers, not equally across all workers and employers. More efficient employers may be able to absorb a larger share of the wage increase, to cut compensations, delay the lay-offs, etc. This is seen by the fact that demand is downward sloping and that a minimum wage above its equilibrium level “cuts” demand in two. Some employers are below the minimum wage (the less efficient ones) and others are above the minimum wage (the more efficient ones.) Let’s call the former “Uncle’s diner” and the latter “McDonald’s.” This how it is seen in a demand and supply graph:

minimum wage

Surely, there is some overlapping. But the point that this graph is making is that looking at the effects minimum wage above the red line is looking at the wrong place. A study that is looking for the effect on employment needs to be looking at what happens with below the red line. This sample, of course, has less information available than fast food chains such as McDonald’s; this is a reason why some studies focus on what can be seen even if the effect happens in what cannot be seen (and this is a value added of the Seattle study.)

This is why it is important to ask: “what do minimum wage advocates expect to find by increasing the sample size?” To question that minimum wages increase unemployment, then the critics also needs to focus on the “Uncle’s diner” part of the demand curve. If the objective is to inquire about something else, than that has no bearing on the fact that minimum wage increases do produce unemployment in the minimum wage market and at the less efficient (and harder to gather data) portion of it first.

PS: I have a previous post on minimum wages that can be found here.

More simple economic truths I wish more people understood

There are only four ways to spend money:

  1. You spend your money with yourself.
  2. You spend your money with others.
  3. You spend other’s money with yourself.
  4. You spend other’s money with others.

Just think about it for one second and you will agree: these are the only possible ways to spend money.

The best way to spend money is to spend your money with yourself. The worst is when you spend other’s money with others.

When you spend your money with yourself, you know how much money you have and what your needs are.

When you spend your money with others, you know how much money you have but you don’t know as well what other’s needs are.

When you spend other’s money with yourself you know your needs but you don’t know how much money you can actually spend. In a situation like this, some people will shy away from spending much money (when they actually could) and will end up not totally satisfied. Other people will have no problem like that and will spend as crazy, not noticing that they are spending too much. It doesn’t matter what kind of person you are: the fact is that this is not a good way to spend money.

When you spend other’s money with others you have the worst case scenario: you don’t know other’s needs as well as they know and you also don’t have a clear grasp of how much money you can actually spend.

In a true liberal capitalist society, the majority of the money is spent by individuals on their own needs. The more a society drifts away from this ideal, the more people spend money that is not actually theirs on other people. The more money is misused.

The government basically spend money is not theirs on other people. That’s why government spending is usually bad. Even the most well-meaning government official, more in line with your personal beliefs, will probably not spend your money as well as you could yourself.

Rent-Seeking Rebels of 1776

Since yesterday was Independence Day, I thought I should share a recent piece of research I made available. A few months ago, I completed a working paper which has now been accepted as a book chapter regarding public choice theory insights for American economic history (of which I talked about before).  That paper simply argued that the American Revolutionary War that led to independence partly resulted from strings of rent-seeking actions (disclaimer: the title of the blog post was chosen to attract attention).

The first element of that string is that the Americans were given a relatively high level of autonomy over their own affairs. However, that autonomy did not come with full financial responsibility.  In fact, the American colonists were still net beneficiaries of imperial finance. As the long period of peace that lasted from 1713 to 1740 ended, the British started to spend increasingly larger sums for the defense of the colonies. This meant that the British were technically inciting (by subsidizing the defense) the colonists to take aggressive measures that may benefit them (i.e. raid instead of trade). Indeed, the benefits of any land seizure by conflict would large fall in their lap while the British ended up with the bill.

The second element is the French colony of Acadia (in modern day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick). I say “French”, but it wasn’t really under French rule. Until 1713, it was nominally under French rule but the colony of a few thousands was in effect a “stateless” society since the reach of the French state was non-existent (most of the colonial administration that took place in French North America was in the colony of Quebec). In any case, the French government cared very little for that colony.   After 1713, it became a British colony but again the rule was nominal and the British tolerated a conditional oath of loyalty (which was basically an oath of neutrality speaking to the limited ability of the crown to enforce its desires in the colony). However, it was probably one of the most prosperous colonies of the French crown and one where – and this is admitted by historians – the colonists were on the friendliest of terms with the Native Indians. Complex trading networks emerged which allowed the Acadians to acquire land rights from the native tribes in exchange for agricultural goods which would be harvested thanks to sophisticated irrigation systems.  These lands were incredibly rich and they caught the attention of American colonists who wanted to expel the French colonists who, to top it off, were friendly with the natives. This led to a drive to actually deport them. When deportation occurred in 1755 (half the French population was deported), the lands were largely seized by American settlers and British settlers in Nova Scotia. They got all the benefits. However, the crown paid for the military expenses (they were considerable) and it was done against the wishes of the imperial government as an initiative of the local governments of Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. This was clearly a rent-seeking action.

The third link is that in England, the governing coalitions included government creditors who had a strong incentives to control government spending especially given the constraints imposed by debt-financing the intermittent war with the French.  These creditors saw the combination of local autonomy and the lack of financial responsibility for that autonomy as a call to centralize management of the empire and avoid such problems in the future. This drive towards centralization was a key factor, according to historians like J.P. Greene,  in the initiation of the revolution. It was also a result of rent-seeking on the part of actors in England to protect their own interest.

As such, the history of the American revolution must rely in part on a public choice contribution in the form of rent-seeking which paints the revolution in a different (and less glorious) light.

The Behavioural Economics of the “Liberty & Responsibility” couple.

The marketing of Liberty is enclosed with the formula “Liberty + Responsibility.” It is some sort of “you have the right to do what you please, BUT you have to be responsible for your choices.” That is correct: the costs and profits enable rationality to our decisions. The lack of the former brings about the tragedy of the commons outcome. In a world where everyone is accountable for his choices, the ideal of liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion will be delivered by the resulting structure of rational individual decisions limiting our will.

The couple of Liberty and Responsibility is right BUT unattractive. First of all, the formula is not actually “Liberty + Responsibility,” but “Liberty as Absence of Coercion – What Responsibility Takes Away.” The latter is still right: Responsibility transforms negative liberty as “absence of coercion” into “absence of arbitrary coercion.” The problem remains a matter of marketing of ideas.

David Hume is a strong candidate for the title of “First Behavioural Economist,” since he had stated that it is more unpleasant for a man to have the unfulfilled promise of a good than not having neither the good nor the promise of it. The latter might be a desire, while the former is experienced as a dispossession. The couple “Liberty – Responsibility” dishes out the same kind of deception.

It is like someone who tells to you: “do what you want, enjoy 150% of Liberty”; and suddenly, he warns you: “but wait! You know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, if you are 150% free, someone will be 50% your slave. Give that illegitimate 50% of freedom back!” And he will be -again- right: being responsible makes everybody 100% free. Right – albeit disappointing.

Perhaps we should restate the formula the other way around: “Being 100% responsible for your choices gives you the right to claim 100% of your freedom.” Only a few will be interested in being more than 100% responsible for anything. But if it happens that someone is expected to deal alone with his own needs, at least he will be entitled to claim the right to his full autonomy.

The formula of “Responsibility + Liberty” is associated with the evolutionist notion of liberties, which means rights to be conquered, one by one. Being responsible and then free means that Liberty is not an unearned income to be neutrally taxed. It is not a “state of nature” to give in exchange for civilization, but a project to grow, a goal, a raison d’etre.

Putting first Responsibility and then Liberty determines a curious outcome: you are consciously free to choose the amount of freedom you are really willing to enjoy. Markets and hierarchies are, then, not antagonistic terms, but structures of cooperation freely consented. Moreover, what we trade are not goods, not even rights on goods, but parcels of our sphere of autonomy.