Perhaps the coolest thing I’ve found on the Small Internet so far is the game Nomic. From where I found it:

Nomic was invented in 1982 by philosopher Peter Suber. It’s a game that starts with a given set of rules, but the players can change the rules over the course of the game, usually using some form of democratic voting. Some online variants exist, like Agora, which has been running since 1993.

It’s a game that’s about changing the game. Besides offering a tempting recreational opportunity, I think this could be formalized in such a way to make it rival the Prisoners’ Dilemma (PD) in shedding light on the big social scientific questions.

The PD is a simple game with simple assumptions and a variable-sum outcome that lets it work for understanding coordination, competition, and cooperation. One of my favorite bits of social science is Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation project. It’s basically a contest between different strategies to an iterated PD (you can play a variation of it here). That the “tit for tat” strategy is so successful sheds a lot of light on what makes civilization possible–initial friendliness, willingness to punish transgressions, and willingness to return to friendliness after punishing these transgressions.

A fantastic extension is to create a co-evolutionary simulation of a repeated PD game. Rather than building strategies and pitting them against each other, we can be totally agnostic about strategies (i.e. how people behave) and simply see what strategies can survive each others’ presence.

The evolutionary iterated PD is about as parsimonious a model of conflict/cooperation as we could make. But there is still a lot of structure baked in; what few assumptions remain do a lot of heavy lifting.

But if the structure of the game is up for grabs, then maybe we’ve found a way to generalize the prisoners’ dilemma without assuming on extra layers of complexity.

Of course, the parsimony of the model adds complexity to the implementation. Formalizing Nomic presents a formidable challenge, and getting it to work would surely create a new

But even if it doesn’t lend itself to simulation, it strikes me as the sort of exercise that ought to be happening in classrooms–at least in places where people care about building capacity for self governance (I’ve heard such places exist!).

Let’s play!

A bit of stage setting, then let’s start a game in the comments section. I get the impression that this game is nerdier than Risk, so you’ve been warned (or tempted, as the case may be).

The basic premise is that are mutable rules and immutable rules (like Buchanan’s view of constitutions). Players take turns to propose rule changes (including transmuting rules from a mutable to an immutable state). As part of the process, we will almost surely redefine how the game is won, so the initial rule set starts with a pretty boring definition of winning.

We’ll use Peter Suber’s initial rules with some variations to suit our needs. The rules below will be (initially) immutable.

117. Each round will happen in a new comment thread. A new round cannot start until the rule change proposed in the previous round has been voted on. If technical problems result in having to start a new comment thread, that thread should include the appropriate reference number and it will be understood to be part of the same comment thread.

I will take the first move to demonstrate the format in the comments section.

118. The final vote count will be determined after 24 hours of silence. Players may discuss and cast votes, and change their votes. But after 24 hours of no new comments, the yeas and nays will be tallied and the outcome determined accordingly. In cases requiring unanimity, a single nay vote is enough to allow a player to start a new round without waiting the full 24 hours. The final vote will still occur (for purpose of calculating points) after 24 hours of silence.

Despite being numbered 118, this rule will take priority over rule 105.

119. Anyone who is eligible to comment is eligible to play. If it is possible to start a new round, anyone may start that round. In the event that two people attempt to start a round at the same time (e.g. Brandon and I post a comment within a couple minutes of each other) priority will be given to whichever was posted first and the second comment will be voided.

120. The game will continue until someone wins, or everyone forgets the game, in which case the winner will be the last person to have had their comment replied to.

Discovery Processes

A good friend of mine encouraged me to read this note published by James Jay Carafano, Vice President of The Heritage Foundation.

Despite being as compelling as it is well intentioned, the article misses to mention one of the main arguments for free markets: what once Friedrich Hayek described as “the competition as a discovery process.”

Indeed, the concept is insinuated in Carafano’s piece of writing: “He decided to make a splash in the sports car market by jumping into the race car racket. Initially, he planned to do it by buying the world’s premier race car manufacturer, Ferrari. But that plan fell flat. So Ford moved to Plan B: to field his own, all-American team.”

Businessmen, like any other kind of people, are rational: initially, they try to maximize their profits by avoiding competition. They are not heroes and nobody can ask them to be so. People, businessmen included, respond to incentives.

When there is not any other choice than competition, then innovation, ingenuity, and creativity arise. Not because of a change in the mind of certain businessmen, but for new innovative entrepreneurs outperform the non competitive ones.

The free market capitalist system James Jay Carafano praises is mostly an institutional arrangement named -once  again- by Hayek as “competitive order.” Nevertheless, the most interesting question for our times is not about the virtues of the said free market capitalist system -which seem to be out of discussion- but whether competition under the rule of law deserves to have a Kantian “Cosmopolitan Purpose.”


  1. Bosnia’s mosques without Muslims Colborne & Edwards, Los Angeles Review of Books
  2. China and the Ricardian vice Samuel Hammond, National Affairs
  3. The closing of the conservative mind John Gray, New Statesman
  4. Europe, not America, is home to the free market Thomas Philippon, the Atlantic


  1. The Fermi Paradox Tim Urban, Wait But Why
  2. The aliens among us Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg
  3. Yes, ownership matters Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. America’s Messiah complex Colin Dickey, New Republic

Theories of International Relations: Realism

Someone (I don’t remember who) said that International Relations is the academic discipline of disagreement. Internationalists disagree on mostly everything, beginning by how to view their object of study. With that said, the discipline of International Relations has been historically dominated mostly by two theoretical schools, Realism and Liberalism. Some other minor schools, such as Constructivism and the English School also have significant influence. With that in mind, I believe it might be useful to post something here about the theory of International Relations.

Although the chronology is highly disputed, it can be defended that Realism is the first theory of International Relations, going back to Thucydides in Ancient Greece or to Machiavelli in late medieval/early modern Europe. In any case, Realism is arguably the most influential theory of International Relations, partially for its influence in actual statecraft (in opposition to academic thinking). Realists come in many shapes and colors, but I believe that most of them present some core characteristics:

The first thing that most (or in this case, all) Realists believe in is that the international system is anarchic. Actually, this is something that virtually any student of International Relations believes in, because… it is! When we say that the international system is anarchic, we are not saying that it is a mess or a state of permanent war. In international relations, the definition of anarchy is more simple: it means that there is no formal hierarchy of power between countries. Of course, countries have a clear hierarchy of power, with some being much more powerful than others. However, all countries are formally sovereign and independent. Countries recognize themselves as their ultimate authority. Each one of them.

A second thing that Realists believe is that countries (or in the more technical vocabulary, states) are the main actors of the international relations. Although we can speak of international corporations and international institutions, in the end, the actors that really matter are countries, especially great powers. That is so mainly because they have military capabilities. Coca-Cola may have lots of money, but not an army.

Finally, Realists believe that countries have a relationship of competition. They tend to see each other as potential enemies. Maybe not actual enemies, but certainly potential ones. Because of that, countries have to defend themselves against one another.

There are many more characteristics that we could add to this list, but I believe that these are the essential points of realist thinking in International Relations. Realists call themselves realists because they believe they see reality as it is, not in an idealized manner. I tend to agree. I believe that history proves that unfortunately, International Relations work in a realistic way. And this is something that, I believe, is key for at least many realists, and that is too often misunderstood: realists are not saying that international relations should be this way. They are saying that [sadly] they are this way. If you analyze international relations objectively, you will find out that countries (even the ones you like) and politicians (even the ones you believe are so nice) act in very selfish ways.

Realists are accused of leaving little or no room for change. But is this a fair assessment? I wish! But most other schools of International Relations fail to present plausible ways in which the international system could be improved, leading to more peace and prosperity for all.

No Country for Creative Destruction

Imagine a country whose inhabitants reject every unpleasant byproduct of innovation and competition.

This country would be Frédéric Bastiat’s worst nightmare: in order to avoid the slightest maladies expected to emerge from creative destruction, all their advantages would remain unseen forever.

Nevertheless, that impossibility to acknowledge the unintended favourable consequences of competition is not conditioned by any type of censure, but by a sort of self-imposed moral blindness: the metaphysical belief that “being” is good and “becoming” is bad. A whole people inspired by W. B. Yeats, they want to be gathered into the artifice of eternity.

In this imaginary country, which would deserve a place in “The Universal History of Infamy” by J.L. Borges, people cultivate a curious strain of meritocracy, an Orwellian one: they praise stagnation for its stability and derogate growth because of the stubborn and incorruptible conviction that life in society is a zero-sum game.

Since growth is an unintended consequence of creative destruction, they reason additionally, then there must be no moral merit to be recognised in such dumb luck. On the other hand, stagnation is the unequivocal signal of the good deeds to the unlucky, who otherwise could suffer the obvious lost coming from every innovation.

In this fantastic country, Friedrich Nietzsche and his successors are well read: everybody knows that, in the Eternal Return, the whole chance is played at each throw of the dice. So, they conclude, “if John Rawls asked us to choose between growth or stagnation, we would shout at him: Stagnation!!!”

But the majority of the inhabitants of “Stagnantland” are not the only to blame for their devotion to quietness. The few and exceptional proponents of creative destruction who live in Stagnantland are mostly keen on the second term of the concept. That is why some love to say, from time to time, “we all are stagnationist” – the few contrarians are just Kalki’s devotees.

These imaginary people love to spend their vacations abroad, particularly in a legendary island named “Revolution”. Paradoxically, in Revolution Island the Revolutionary government found a way to avoid any kind of counter-revolutionary innovation. It is not necessary to mention that Revolution Island is, by far, Stagnantlanders’ favourite holiday destination.

They show their photos from their last vacation in Revolution Island and proudly stress: “Look: they left the buildings as they were back in 1950!!! Awesome!!!” If you dare to point out that the picture resembles a city in war, that the 1950 buildings lack of any maintenance or refurbishment, they will not get irritated. They will simply smile at you and reply smugly: “but they are happy!”

Actually, for Stagnantlanders, as for many others, ignorance is bliss, but their governments do not need to resort to such rudimentary devices as censure and spying to prevent people from being informed about the innovations and discoveries occurring in other countries, as Revolutionary Island rulers sadly do. Stagnantlanders simply reject any innovation as an article of faith!

Notwithstanding, they allow to themselves some guilty pleasures: they love to use smartphones brought by ant-smuggling and to watch contemporary foreign films which, despite being realistic, show a dystopian future to them.

As everything is deteriorated, progress is always a going back to an ancient and glorious time. In Stagnantland, things are not created, but restored. As with Parmenides, they do not believe in movement, but if there has to be an arrow of time, you had better point it to the past.

Moreover, Stagnantland is an imaginary country because it does not only lack of duration, but of territory as well. As the matter of fact, no man inhabits Stagnantland, but it is indeed stagnation that inhabits the hearts of Stagnantlanders. That is how, from dusk to dawn, any territory could be fully conquered by the said sympathy for the stagnation.

Nevertheless, if we scrutinise the question with due diligence, we will discover that the stagnation is not an ineluctable future, but our common past. Human beings appeared very much earlier than civilisation. So, all those generations must have been doing something before agriculture, commerce, and institutions.

Before the concept of creative destruction had been formulated by Joseph Schumpeter, it was needed a former conception about how people are conditioned by institutions: Bernard Mandeville pointed out how private vices might turn into public benefits, if politicians arranged the correct set of incentives. The main issue, thus, should be the process of discovery of such institutions.

That is why the said aversion to competition and innovation is hardly a problem of a misguided sense of justice, but mostly a matter of what we could coin as “bounded imagination”: the difficultly of reason to deal with complex phenomena. Don’t you think so, Horatio?

Low-Quality Publications and Academic Competition

In the last few days, the economics blogosphere (and twitterverse) has been discussing this paper in the Journal of Economic PsychologySimply put, the article argues that economists discount “bad journals” so that a researcher with ten articles in low-ranked and mid-ranked journals will be valued less than a researcher with two or three articles in highly-ranked journals.

Some economists, see notably Jared Rubin here, made insightful comments about this article. However, there is one comment by Trevon Logan that gives me a chance to make a point that I have been mulling over for some time. As I do not want to paraphrase Trevon, here is the part of his comment that interests me:

many of us (note: I assume he refers to economists) simply do not read and therefore outsource our scholarly opinions of others to editors and referees who are an extraordinarily homogeneous and biased bunch

There are two interrelated components to this comment. The first is that economists tend to avoid reading about minute details. The second is that economists tend to delegate this task to gatekeepers of knowledge. In this case, this would be the editors of top journals. Why do economists act as such? More precisely, what are the incentives to act as such? After, as Adam Smith once remarked, the professors at Edinburgh and Oxford were of equal skill but the former produced the best seminars in Europe because their incomes depended on registrations and tuition while the latter relied on long-established endowments. Same skills, different incentives, different outcomes.

My answer is as such: the competition that existed in the field of economics in the 1960s-1980s has disappeared.  In “those” days, the top universities such as Princeton, Harvard, MIT and Yale were a more or less homogeneous group in terms of their core economics. Lets call those the “incumbents”. They faced strong contests from the UCLA, Chicago, Virginia and Minnesota.  These challengers attacked the core principles of what was seen as the orthodoxy in antitrust (see the works of Harold Demsetz, Armen Alchian, Henry Manne), macroeconomics (Lucas Paradox, Islands model, New Classical Economics), political economy (see the works of James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Elinor Ostrom, Albert Breton, Charles Plott) and microeconomics (Ronald Coase). These challenges forced the discipline to incorporate many of the insights into the literature. The best example would be the New Keynesian synthesis formulated by Mankiw in response to the works of people like Ed Prescott and Robert Lucas. In those days, “top” economists had to respond to articles published in “lower-ranked” journals such as Economic Inquiry, Journal of Law and Economics and Public Choice (all of which have risen because they were bringing competition – consider that Ronald Coase published most of his great pieces in the JL&E).

In that game, economists were checking one another and imposing discipline upon each other. More importantly, to paraphrase Gordon Tullock in his Organization of Inquiry, their curiosity was subjected to social guidance generated from within the community:

He (the economist) is normally interested in the approval of his peers and and hence will usually consciously shape his research into a project which will pique other scientists’ curiosity as well as his own.

Is there such a game today? If in 1980 one could easily answer “Chicago” to the question of “which economics department challenges that Harvard in terms of research questions and answers”, things are not so clear today. As research needs to happen within a network where the marginal benefits may increase with size (up to a point), where are the competing networks in economics?

And there is my point, absent this competition (well, I should not say absent – it is more precise to speak of weaker competition) there is no incentive to read, to invest other fields for insights or to accept challenges. It is far more reasonable, in such a case, to divest oneself from the burden of academia and delegate the task to editors. This only reinforces the problem as the gatekeepers get to limit the chance of a viable network to emerge.

So, when Trevon bemoans (rightfully) the situation, I answer that maybe it is time that we consider how we are acting as such because the incentives have numbed our critical minds.

On Antitrust, the Sherman Act and Accepted Wisdom

I am generally skeptical of “accepted wisdom” on many policy debates. People involved in policy-making are generally politicians who carefully craft justifications (i.e. cover stories) where self-interest and common good cannot be disentangled easily.  These justifications can easily become “accepted wisdom” even if incorrect. I am not saying that “accepted wisdom” is without value or that it is always wrong, but more often than not it is accepted at face value without question.

My favorite example is “antitrust”.  In the United States, the Sherman Act (the antitrust bill) was first introduced in 1889 (passed in 1890). The justification often given is that it was meant to promote competition as proposed by economists. However, as often pointed out, the bill was passed well before the topic of competition in economics had been unified into a theoretical body.  It was also rooted in protectionist motives. Moreover, the bill was passed after the industries most affected saw prices fall faster than the overall price level and output increase faster than the overall output level (see here here here here and here). Combined, these elements should give pause to anyone willing to cite the “accepted wisdom”.

More recently, economist Patrick Newman provided further reason for caution in an article in Public Choice. Interweaving political history and the biographical details about senator John Sherman (he of the Sherman Act), Newman tells a fascinating story about the self-interested reasons behind the introduction of the act.

In 1888, John Sherman failed to obtain the Republican presidential nomination – a failure which he blamed on the governor of Michigan, Russell Alger. Out of malice and a desire of vengeance, Sherman defended his proposal by citing Alger as the ringmaster of one of the “trusts”. Alger, himself a presidential hopeful for the 1892 cycle, was politically crippled by the attack (even if it appears that it was untrue). Obviously, this was not the sole reason for the Act (Newman highlights the nature of the Republican coalition which would have demanded such an act). However, once Alger was fatally wounded, Sherman appears to have lost interest in the Act and left others to push it through.

As such, the passage of the bill was partly motivated by political self-interest (thus illustrating the key point of behavioral symmetry that underlies public choice theory). Entangled in the “accepted wisdom” is a wicked tale of revenge between politicians. At such sight, it is hard not to be cautions with regards to “accepted wisdom”.

The Political is about to disrupt the crypto-currency scene -or at least they say so.

According to this Financial Times report, Bitcoin is at the verge of a critical decision.

The implications of the chosen terms (“existential crisis,” “decisive leadership,” “political flaw”) are not casual. It looks like the market that crypto-currency had carried from the beginning contain the germ of its own destruction. As in an Escher’s drawing, Bitcoin has unraveled its political strand and its whole existence is, now, dependent upon a moment of decision of the sovereign: the assembly of miners. The decisionist narrative would be fulfilled if the political decision had to be taken by acclamatio instead of voting.

Nevertheless, the decision by acclamation would be still possible: the ones who want “Bitcoin Core” might follow one direction and the other ones, who choose “Bitcoin Unlimited,” might follow their own way. After all, no existential crisis can be solved by voting.

So, which is inside of which? Is the market framed in a system depending upon a political decision of the sovereign? Or does every decision need to be taken inside a spontaneous framework of rules?

We are used to praising Bitcoin for its independence from any political factor: Bitcoin supply depends on a set of rules which allows the public to form expectations about its value with a high degree of probability of proving to be correct.

Taken in isolation, Bitcoin emulates the market. Nevertheless, being independent of political institutions is not enough for being “the market.” The attractiveness of Bitcoin is that it operates in an open system of competition of currencies. In this system, there are many other crypto-currencies, and there might be several variances of Bitcoins as well –in esse or in posse.

Imagine, for example, that Bitcoin effectively splits into Bitcoin Core and Bitcoin Unlimited. Which of the two will prevail over the other? It does not matter. What really matters is that there will be several variances of currencies in competition. The factors that determine the selection of the prevailing currency depends upon a higher level of abstraction that impose an absolute limit to our knowledge.

So, is Bitcoin in an existential crisis? Does a political decision need to be made? Maybe.

But that does not imply that “The Political” will take over the reins of the crypto-currency market. Moreover, opposite political decisions are the linkages which the spontaneous selection process -in this case, of currencies- is made of. In this sense, “Bitcoin Core” and “Bitcoin Unlimited” are attributes of a competitive system and the final prevalence of one variance among other alternatives will not be the result of a deliberate decision but of an abstract process of evolution.

Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe

My full review of Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth is forthcoming in the Independent Review. Unfortunately, it won’t be out until the Winter 2017 issue is released so here is a preview. Specifically, I want to discuss one of the main themes of the book and my review: the role of political decentralization in the onset of economic growth in western Europe.

This argument goes back to Montesquieu and David Hume. It is discussed in detail in my paper “Unified China; Divided Europe’’ (forthcoming in the International Economic Review and available here). But though many writers have argued that fragmentation was key to Europe’s eventual rise, these arguments are often underspecified, fail to explain the relevant mechanisms, or do not discuss counter-examples. Mokyr, however, has an original take on the argument which is worth emphasizing and considering in detail.

Mokyr focuses on how the competitive nature of the European state system provided dynamic incentives for economic growth and development. This argument is different from the classic one, according to which political competition led to fiscal competition, lower taxes, and better protection of property rights (see here). That argument rests on a faulty analogy between competition in the marketplace and competition between states.  The main problem it encounters is that while firms can only attract customers by offering lower prices (lower taxes) or better products (better public goods), states can compete with violence. Far from being competitive, low tax states like the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth were crushed in the high-pressure competitive environment that characterized early modern Europe. The notion that competition produced low taxes is also falsified by the well-established finding that taxes were much higher in early modern Europe than elsewhere in the world.

It is also not the case that political fragmentation is always and everywhere good for economic development. India was fragmented for much of its history. Medieval Ireland was fragmented into countless chiefdom prior to the English conquest. Perhaps we can distinguish between low-intensity but fragmented state systems which tended not to generate competitive pressure such as medieval Ireland or South-East Asia and high-intensity fragmented state systems such as early modern Europe or warring states China. But even then it is not clear that a highly competitive and fragmented state system will be good for growth. In general, political fragmentation raised barriers to trade and impeded market integration. Moreover a competitive state system means more conflict or more resources spent deterring conflict. For this reason political fragmentation tends to result in wasteful military spending. It can be easily shown, for instance, that a much higher proportion of the population spent their lives in the economically wasteful activity of soldiering in fragmented medieval and early modern Europe than did in either the Roman empire or imperial China (see Ko, Koyama, Sng, 2018).

Innovation and Decentralization

What then is Mokyr’s basis for claiming that political fragmentation was crucial for the onset of modern growth? Essentially, for Mokyr the upside of Europe’s political divisions was dynamic. It was the conjunction of political fragmentation with a thriving trans-European intellectual culture that was crucial for the eventual transition to modern growth. The political divisions of Europe meant that innovative and heretical thinkers had an avenue of escape from oppressive political authorities. This escape valve prevented the ideas and innovations of the Renaissance and Reformation from being crushed after the Counter-Reformation became ascendant in southern Europe after 1600. Giordano Bruno was burned in Rome. But in general heretical and subversive thinkers could escape the Inquisition by judiciously moving across borders.

Political fragmentation enabled thinkers from Descartes and Bayle to Voltaire and Rousseau to flee France. It also allowed Hobbes to escape to Paris during the English Civil War and Locke to wait out the anger of Charles II in the Netherlands. Also important was the fact that the political divisions of Europe also meant that no writer or scientist was dependent on the favor of a single, all powerful monarch. A host of different patrons were available and willing to compete to attract the best talents. Christina of Sweden sponsored Descartes. Charles II hired Hobbes as a mathematics teacher for a while. Leibniz was the adornment of the House of Hanover.

The other important point that Mokyr’s stresses is Europe’s cultural unity and interconnectedness. As I conclude in my review, Mokyr’s argument is that

“the cultural unity of Europe meant that the inventors, innovators, and tinkers in England and the Dutch Republic could build on the advances of the European-wide Scientific Revolution. Europe’s interconnectivity due to the Republic of Letters helped to give rise to a continent-wide Enlightenment Culture. In the British Isles, this met a response from apprentice trained and skilled craftsmen able to tinker with and improve existing technologies.  In contrast, political fragmentation in the medieval Middle East or pre-modern India does not seem to have promoted innovation, whereas the political unity of Qing China produced an elite culture that was conservative and that stifled free thinking”.

It is this greater network connectivity that needs particular emphasize and should be the focus of future research into the intellectual origins of growth in western Europe. At present we can only speculate on its origins. The printing press certainly deserves mention as it was the key innovation that helped the diffusion of ideas. Mokyr also points to the postal system as a crucial institutional development that enabled rapid communication across political boundaries. Other factors include the development of a nascent European identity and what Chris Wickham calls, in his recent book on medieval Europe, “the late medieval public sphere” (Wickham, 2016). These developments were important but understudied complements to the fragmented nature of the European state system so frequently highlighted in the literature.

An argument against Net Neutrality

First off, Comcast sucks. Seriously, screw those guys.

But let’s assume a can opener and see if that doesn’t help us find a deeper root problem. The can opener is competition in the ISP network. Let’s consider how the issue of Net Neutrality (NN) would play out in a world where your choice of ISP looked more like your choice of grocery store. Maybe a local district is set up to manage a basic grid and ISPs bid for usage of infrastructure (i.e. cities take a page out of the FCC’s playbook on spectrum rights). Maybe some technological advance makes it easy to set up decentralized wireless infrastructure. But let’s imagine that world.

Let me also assume a bit of regulation. The goal is to create some simple rules that make the market work a bit better. Two regulations that I’d like to see are 1) a requirement that ISPs have a public list of any websites they restrict access to*, and 2) a limitation on how complicated end user agreements can be. I’m not sure these things would be possible in my anarchist utopia, but in a second best world of governments I’m pretty comfortable with them.

Let’s also create a default contracts for content providers with ISPs. “Unless otherwise agreed to, content providers (e.g. YouTube, my crazy uncle Larry, the cafe around the corner, etc.) relationship with ISPs is assumed to take the following form:…” An important clause would be “access/speed/etc. to your content will meet ______ specifications and cannot be negatively altered at the request of any third party.”

A similar default contract could be written for ISPs and end users. “Universal access under ____________ conditions will be provided and cannot be negatively altered at the request of any third party.”

Explicitly and publicly setting neutral defaults means we can get NN by default, but allow people the freedom to exchange their way out of it.

Do we need, or even want, mandated NN in that world? There are some clear potential gains to a non-neutral Internet. Bandwidth is a scarce resource, and some websites use an awful lot of it. YouTube and Netflix are great, but they’re like a fleet of delivery trucks creating traffic on the Information Super Highway. Letting them pay ISPs for preferred access is like creating a toll lane that can help finance increased capacity.

Replacing NN with genuine competition means that consumers who value Netflix can pay for faster streaming on that while (essentially) agreeing to use less of the net’s bandwidth for other stuff. We should encourage faster content, even if it means that some content gets that extra speed before the rest.

Competing ISPs would cater to the preferences and values of various niches. Some would seem benign: educational ISPs that provide streamlined access to content from the Smithsonian while mirroring Wikipedia content on their volunteer servers. Bandwidth for sites outside the network might come at some price per gigabyte, or it might be unlimited.

Other ISPs might be tailored for information junkies with absolutely every website made available at whatever speed you’re willing to pay for. Family friendly ISPs would refuse to allow porn on their part of the network (unsuccessfully, I suspect), but couldn’t stop other ISPs from anything. Obnoxious hate group ISPs would probably exist too.

There would be plenty of bad to go along with the good, just like there is in a neutral network.

I’m okay with allowing ISPs to restrict access to some content as long as they’re honest about it. The Internet might not provide a universal forum for all voices, but that’s already the case. If you can’t pay for server space and bandwidth, then your voice can only be heard on other people’s parts of the Internet. Some of those people will let you say whatever you want (like the YouTube comments section), but others are free to ban you.

Similarly, big companies will be in a better position to provide their content, but that’s already the case too. Currently they can spend more on advertising, or spend more on servers that are physically closer to their audience. A non-neutral net opens up one more margin of competition: paying for preferred treatment. This means less need to inefficiently invest physical resources for the same preferred treatment. (Hey, a non-neutral net is Green!)

There might be reason to still be somewhat worried about the free speech implications of a non-neutral net. As consumers, we might prefer networks that suppress dissident voices. And those dissident voices might (in the aggregate) be providing a public good that we’d be getting less of. (I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but I think plenty of smart people would take the point seriously.) If that’s the case, then let’s have the Postal Service branch out to provide modestly priced, moderate speed Internet access to whoever wants it. Not great if you want to do anything ambitious like play Counter Strike or create a major news network, but plenty fine for reading the news and checking controversial websites.

tl;dr: I can imagine a world without Net Neutrality that provides better Internet service and better economizes on the resources necessary to keep the Information Super Highway moving. But it’s not the world we currently live in. What’s missing is genuine market competition. To get there would require gutting much of the existing regulatory frameworks and replacing it with a much lighter touch.

What I’m talking about seems like a bit of a pipe dream from where we’re sitting. But if we could take the political moment of the Net Neutrality movement and redirect it, we could plausibly have a free and competitive Internet within a generation.

*Or maybe some description about how they filter out websites… something like a non-proprietary description of their parental filters for ISPs that (attempt to) refuse adult content access.

Massachusetts to let cabs tax Uber: The seen, the unseen, and the minor nuisance

There’s a simple alternative to regulation: liability. We don’t need to tell companies how to be safe if we make them legally responsible for negligence.

It’s as though Mass’s government decided that back-to-school season calls for creating real-life rent seeking examples for my class. They’re going to start taxing ride-sharing customers $0.20 per ride with five cents of that going to the taxi industry.

“The law says the money will help taxi businesses to adopt ‘new technologies and advanced service, safety and operational capabilities’ and to support workforce development.”

New technologies like an app that gets more use out of otherwise idle cars? Or an app that makes it easy to hail a ride with little wait? Or an app that brings supply into harmony with demand when demand surges? Oh wait! We’ve already got that and it’s the thing that’s being taxed!

There are a few important economic lessons that Massachusetts’ electorate is evidently in need of. Let’s start with taxes.

Taxes don’t stick

“Riders and drivers will not see the fee because the law bars companies from charging them.” They won’t see the fee, but that doesn’t mean they won’t pay it. A business only exists by collecting money from customers and paying some portion of that to suppliers. The government cannot tax a business without taxing that business’s customers and suppliers.

Granted, part of the cost will be reflected in lower profits (although profits aren’t as big as people think) which means Uber’s shareholders will face part of the tax. But what does that mean? It means 1) a little less money in pensions, and 2) potential investment capital is moved from the people who gave us the best version of taxi travel to the people who gave us the worst version of it.

Money is fungible and I don’t know how to run a cab company

Safety, new technology, and workforce development all sound good, but taxi companies (at least those that deserve to stay in business) will already be doing these things. Safety is important because accidents are costly (especially if your fleet size is limited by regulation). New technology is being adopted by every other (competitive) industry without government support. Other companies invest in their employees.*

Supporting workforce development is part of a larger trend of people supporting specific fringe benefits without appreciating the tradeoff between monetary and non-monetary compensation. And all these ideas reflect a faulty logic: just because something is good, doesn’t mean we need to force people to do it.

Voters simply aren’t in the right position to know if some good thing is good enough relative to other options. If you go into the backrooms of any industry you aren’t already familiar with you will surely learn about techniques and tools you had no idea existed before. So why should we expect that cab companies need regulators to tell them what to do? Let them learn from their trade magazines.

But there’s good news. If we mandated that cab companies use this new revenue stream to pay for new tires, they wouldn’t simply waste the money by buying superfluous tires. They’d stop buying tires out of their own revenues and start buying them from Uber’s. Telling someone to pay from their left pocket simply leaves more money in their right pocket for everything else.**

Extra money in cab company coffers could allow them to invest in better service, happier employees, “and help so taxi owners could buy ‘flagship’ vehicles like a 1940s Checker or a Porsche.” But cab companies are already free to reinvest their profits if they think doing so would create value (i.e. greater future profits). The more likely outcome is that they will simply have more money than before.

Competition is not the problem, it’s protectionism

When we see problems in the world we need to look for their root causes if we want to actually make things better. More often we act like a doctor diagnosing cancer is the cause of the cancer. Don’t want cancer? Outlaw doctors!

Cab companies aren’t as successful as they previously expected and the apparent culprit is Uber. But they only exist because an inefficiency in the market created a profit opportunity. Cab companies are doing poorly because they don’t provide as much value per dollar. And that’s largely because of regulation that prevents competition. Much of it was put in place specifically to protect incumbents from competition.

A lot of these regulations sound nice enough, but they still created the market niche that Lyft and Uber filled. And they protected cab companies from competition right up until ride-sharing became feasible.

Regulation is not the answer

Let’s give cabbies the benefit of the doubt for a minute. Let’s assume that they aren’t really in it for the cash-grab and that they just want to help people get around safely and conveniently. Let’s even assume that NYC’s medallion system is about congestion rather than competition.

If that’s the case, then there are better ways to address the root causes of the problems cabbies tell us to worry about. We don’t need to address each of these problems individually if we can find a few key causes at the root of each of them.


Cabs have medallions but civilians don’t, so congestion will still be a problem in cities until congestion fees are implemented that balance the demand for road access with its limited supply. Safety is important, but mandating extra inspections for only some types of cars is a half-assed way of dealing with it.

There’s a simple alternative to regulation: liability. We don’t need to tell companies how to be safe if we make them legally responsible for negligence. This is an important lesson for how we think about regulation in all industries. The basic logic is also why economists vastly prefer pollution taxes to specific regulations; it’s usually better to name the outcome we want and create a cost for failure to meet it rather than mandate specific behaviors.

Perhaps this means we should modify the laws that require all drivers to be insured so that some drivers have higher minimum liability coverage. That would be far less invasive and do far more to alleviate the concerns Uber’s critics raise than mandating specific behaviors.

Concentrated benefits dispersed costs

Okay, so maybe this is too small an issue to be concerned with. If that’s not by intentional design, then it at least reflects an evolutionary logic. This policy is likely to survive because the people it taxes will face a cost so small it isn’t worth doing anything about. Yes, Uber and Lyft have incentive to lobby against it, but it’s so close to invisible that they’ll probably be able to pass it almost entirely on to drivers and passengers.

This is going to cost millions… with a tiny little m. At first I read it as a 5% tax and quickly realized that Uber rides are so cheap that I won’t even notice it. And 20 cents a ride is even less than 5%.

So why worry? Precedent. The problem with death by a thousand cuts isn’t any one cut.

*Of course we can argue about whether they do enough of that. There may be a tragedy of the commons if there’s asymmetric information between people looking to make human capital investments and businesses looking to gain access to specific human capital. Such a situation might create an opportunity for government to do some good by investing in public goods or subsidizing on-the-job training. But if that’s the case, it calls for very different programs (education reform, etc.) than taxing successful companies to subsidize their competition.

**Why is this good news? Because if cab companies did change their behavior it would imply they’re doing something where cost exceeds benefit. It would destroy value. Remember those stories of WWII rationing? Imagine that situation but with cab companies buying twice as many tires and just storing extras in the garage. It would clearly be a bad thing. Scarcity isn’t so urgent nowadays, but the basic logic remains the same.

A response to a student

Each week I assign some reading or video. Recently I assigned a series of videos where Bryan Caplan discusses common biases, including the anti-foreign bias

One student questioned the benefits of expanded immigration, wondering if the costs to American workers might be too great. Below is my response:

My understanding of the evidence is that immigrants to the US are almost always complementary to US labor (e.g. Indian doctors that keep American designers healthy, or Salvadorian cooks who feed American engineers). The area where your suspicion is true (again, based on my limited understanding of the data) is with high school dropouts.

High school dropouts face competition from immigrants (who are often unable to apply their skills due to regulations or attempts to avoid being caught by immigration authorities) because relatively low-skilled immigrants face similar disadvantages in labor markets (i.e. they have a similar comparative advantage but their alternative options are even worse).

“The Lack of Competition/Diversity”: One objection to world government that shouldn’t be made

I have recently come across an old blog post by Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy arguing against world government. Somin’s argument echoed Michelangelo’s here at the consortium, and in particular one aspect of their argument stands out for being especially short-sighted: That of a lack of competition or “diversity in governance” would be the inevitable result of a world government.

Now, a libertarian world government would be federal in nature, so if Somin and Michelangelo are arguing against a different kind of world government they may have a point (I don’t know of many arguments in favor of world government that are not federal in nature, and it wouldn’t be worth my time to read up on any such ludicrous proposals), but when addressing arguments in favor of world government from a libertarian perspective opponents must realize that it is federation they are skeptical of.

Here is how I address the opposition to a world government because competition (and, thus, diversity) would become diminished:

Libertarians generally argue that federalism is the best option we, as humans, have because it allows for competition between administrative units. This competition is enhanced and respected by the people it affects because of the rules set in place and enforced by a federal authority. So, for example, everyone in the US federation generally has their individual rights protected (there are always exceptions, of course, including blacks, Natives, felons, immigrants, and religious minorities), including freedom of movement. Under this general framework different administrative units come up with different policies concerning taxes, education, transportation, etc. This competitive framework makes policies better overall, in all 50 states, without having to resort to a central, one-size-fits-all policy.

It is true that the US could be better, and it is true that federal democracy may be inferior to anarchy, but it is also true that we live in a world of second bests, and comparatively speaking, the US has one of the highest standards of living in the world so I don’t see why this should not be taken as a sort of rough estimate for where libertarians should be aiming.

Is everybody in agreement that federalism is the least worst workable option largely because of the competition it allows for?

Okay then. It somehow follows, for opponents of world federalism, that if the US federal system were to add every administrative unit in the world into its system that competition would suddenly cease.


Okay, I am being a jerk about this line of reasoning. It actually goes something like this: Because the US and Russia have different systems of governance, they are competing with each other. Fair enough, but it does not follow that this competition is a good thing. If I recall correctly, there are good kinds of competition and there are bad kinds of competition. Walmart versus Target is good competition. Lobbying for political favors is good competition (consider the alternatives, i.e. Russia). Building up military capabilities is bad competition. Pitting human rights-abusing regimes against liberal democracies is bad competition, too, but this last scenario is precisely what opponents of world federalism argue is desirable about the status quo.

World government wouldn’t eliminate competition, it would enhance it by focusing governmental duties on policy issues and standardizing a regime of rights protection based on the notion of the free and sovereign individual.

Comparing the US to, say, Gabon or China is not competition. It is an injustice, and one that ignores the plight of billions of people living under despotic regimes. Competition is not what happens when 5 million people live in a liberal democracy and 5 million more live in a one party socialist state. Competition is what happens when all 10 million people are free to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster whenever and wherever they please, but only half of them pay a sales tax (the other half have banned plastic bags through plebiscite, of course).

Even if my competition-is-enhanced-by-federalism argument does not convince the opponent of world government, the fact that his own argument for more competition, through state sovereignty, should.

Consider the following scenario in regards to competition and world federalism: The state of Durango, in the United States of Mexico, is fed up with Mexico City’s corruption and inefficiency. The leaders of Durango, and a significant population of Durango (say, 60-65%), all would be thrilled to leave the Mexican federation. However, Durango knows that independence would be much worse than federation, so it continues to stay within the Mexican federation and simmers with despair and loathing.

Under the status quo – competition through state sovereignty – Duranguense have no options whatsoever, except to keep electing reformers to political office at the federal level and hope for a reform bloc to coalesce. How is this competitive?

Now, consider the scenario outlined above again. The federation of 50 American states has adopted a statute that allows for disgruntled administrative units elsewhere in the world to apply for admission into the union. Duranguense suddenly have an option. Not only that, but Mexico City suddenly has competition, and little of it can be snuffed out through repressive domestic policies.

Does this make sense? Am I knocking down a straw man? If so, please don’t hesitate to take me to task in the ‘comments’ threads!

The Chinese Get Richer, I Become Poorer. Right? Dreaded Percentages!

Elections season is on us again. On the talk shows, I hear more and more callers, and often hosts, grossly misusing percentages in the service of fallacious claims. Politicians won’t be far behind. Here we go again, I am thinking; I have been here before. Got to explain again.

This time, I am taking names. And there will be a quiz, and it will count toward the final grade.

Pay attention; slow down.

It’s 2000, I, JD, earn $60 as a machinist. My wife K earns $40 keeping accounts for others with the help of some sophisticate software. I am earning what percentage of our joint income?

60/60+40 = 60%

It’s 2010, I, JD, now earn $90 as a machinist, My wife K’s business has taken flight. She uses more sophisticated software. She has more customers than she can handle. She earns $120.

My share of our new joint income is now:

90/90+120 = 42%

The percentage of our joint income that I produce has declined. It has declined a lot; it has declined by almost 1/3.

Has the value of my production declined? Slow down!

The answer is clearly “no.” The value of my production has increased by half (from 60 to 90). That’s not bad at all. At any rate, it ‘s obviously an increase.

Think it through. Do the arithmetic yourself. There is no trick. It’s the simple math you did not learn in third grade because you hated the teacher.

In the simple example above, my income represents the value of American manufacturing. My wife’s income represents the value of the mysterious and illogical category “services.”

The percentage of the value of manufacturing relative to the total GDP of this country has been going down steadily because the value of US services has gone up even faster.

The absolute value of American manufacturing has only gone up and up, and going up. America has not become “de-industrialized,” contrary to a common but false perception.

The misperception has two main sources:

  1. Many media commentators and perhaps even more politicians don’t understand simple percentages. See above.
  2. The number of manufacturing jobs has declined even as the value of that which they manufacture has gone up.

Here is a solution to the drying up of manufacturing jobs: Take away machine tools from one metal worker in three; give him a hammer instead. You want even more manufacturing jobs, lots of them? Remove the software from textile weaving plants. Program their machines by hand as they did in 1910.

You don’t like the idea? Time for a serious discussion.

Now let’s go back up a little.

The quite good rise in the value of manufactures and the even greater rise in the value of whatever services produce, these two things are related. Better and better, more and more efficient manufacturing provides the resources for more services. We can afford more waiters, more surgeons, more teachers, more acupuncturists, more therapists, more life coaches, more “color advisers” (I live in Santa Cruz, California) because, collectively, we produce more hard necessities much more cheaply than our close ancestors did. Hard necessities include cars, soap, oatmeal, shovels, bricks and nails. Why, nails used to be forged by hand! I own some hand-forged nails from making repairs on my 1906 house.

When you hear, for example, that manufacturing now contributes only 30% of US GDP, it does not mean that there is less manufacturing being done in this country. To figure out the reality, you have to get out of percentages completely. Period!

If my income used to be $60 and it’s now $50 then, yes, it has declined. If it’s now $65, my income has risen. Period! That’s true irrespective of percentage contribution to anything.

Tech note: Don’t get tripped by the separate issue of the changing value of money. There are inflation/deflation calculators on the Internet that do a good enough job of dealing with this issue. I recommend that you consider one train of thought at a time.

Nearly everyone is overestimating himself. That’s the problem.

Speaking of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a National Public Radio chickie announced breathlessly a couple of weeks ago that China would soon pass the US in GDP. I could hear fearful emotion in her voice, as if some bastard had threatened to cut up her credit card.

Here is the truth: We may soon see the day when 1,400 million Chinese produce as much together as…..314 million Americans.

Personally, I can’t wait for the Chinese to do better, to make their percentage of global joint production much higher.

Question: When the Chinese GDP reaches 60% of world joint GDP, will I be poorer?