Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 6): Institutions as algorithms

There is therefore a category of phenomena to which the characteristic of being “simple” is attributed (in contrast to the so-called complex), ordered by logical models whose capacity for explanation and prediction is continuously tested by means of a system of trial and error that allows readjusting these models in a process of continuous approach to the truth. The progress in the knowledge of these simple phenomena also depends on the measurement tools that are available: statistical methods, more powerful microscopes, laboratory experiments, etc.. The investigation of simple phenomena consists of a process in which it goes to a greater degree of specificity and concretion. It is for this reason that it is difficult to distinguish whether their theories consist of logical models or empirical models, since they mostly consist of the description of relations and functions between given events.

In the opposite sense of intellectual inquiry, complex phenomena are located: their study consists in the statement of the relationships and functions that structure an abstract order of events. An everyday example of such abstract orders of events can be found in the phenomenon of written laws, both procedural and substantive. In them you can find credit relationships, procedural burdens, temporary periods to exercise actions or rights under penalty of estoppel, or prescription or expiration, assigned functions to produce legal norms of general or particular scope, etc.. The application of such abstract models to the concrete reality is known as “jurisdiction,” that is to say “to say the right for the concrete case.” Of course, for this depend elements of proof and a critical judgment that interprets the given events assigning the legal qualification and the legal consequences of that that the law prescribes in abstract and general form. The jurisdictional activity could be characterized as a “simple phenomenon,” however, the same would not happen with the “science of legislation.”

In effect, when what is studied is a legislative reform, what is being done is to increase in degrees of complexity in the study of standards. The legislator is no longer exclusively discussing legal issues. It could do it: study for example the coherence of a new norm whose sanction is under study with the rest of the juridical order, nevertheless still it is extremely difficult to foresee the set of consequences of a reform on the global operation of the juridical order. However, if this is already difficult in itself, it becomes much more complex when philosophical and political issues come into play in the legislative debate. In the legislative debate on the sanction of the norms, a point arrives at which the legal analysis ceases, in the sense that the discussion takes the fervour of the political philosophy or the cold calculation of the negotiation to reach a legislative majority.

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 5 here, and you can read the full essay here.]

Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders (Part 4); Malthus and Darwin: population analysis and evolution

The institutional evolutionism has a history before Darwin, parallel to it and even later divergent. In parallel, Darwin for the elaboration of his concept of natural selection took from the political economy the notion of population analysis by Robert Malthus, the one that also comes from the analysis of the institutions as a framework of incentives. At the time Malthus sought to refute the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, who proposed abolishing marriage as a social institution. Mindful that the extra-marital children lacked at that time fewer rights than those born in marriage, Malthus replied that such a measure would lead to an exponential growth of the population and, therefore, marriage as an institution fulfilled the containment function of population growth. A similar analysis makes Malthus of the laws of poor: aid to the poor increases the cost of food, which generates more poor, assuming the dynamics of a vicious circle. The judgments of Malthus have an empirical character that makes them susceptible of refutation, it can be verified if Malthus was right or wrong. However, what has an abstract, methodological, propaedeutic character is its population analysis. That is what Darwin took to conceive natural selection processes and that today can be used in the analysis of institutional evolution.

When one speaks of a political, economic, or social institution displacing another, such movement becomes effective at the level of the populations. For example, literacy and accounting applied to business administration generates a leap in efficiency in the administration and auditing of businesses. It is not surprising that literate traders who carry inventory and accounting processes displace illiterate traders. This is how literacy and accounting can be extended without any central political decision, nor any disruptive phenomenon. (Of course, the modern state, in its process of rationalization, can impose the obligatory nature of certain principles of accounting or schooling, but not necessarily depend on it.)

To a large extent, the arrival of European immigration to South America in the second half of the 19th century consisted in the importation of habits, practices and techniques that immigrants already incorporated. It is widely known the arrival of new techniques of field work and breeding and care of livestock. Also many immigrants who arrived implemented inventory practices and cash management that were leaking into the rest of the population.

William Easterly characterizes this phenomenon as a leaking of knowledge. Following the example of the previous paragraph: those immigrants were more competitive because they brought with them new techniques of rationalization of time, they took inventories and accounted for income and expenditure of funds methodically. This advantage translated into prosperity and expansion of their businesses. However, in order to implement this type of “technology” they must necessarily share it with their collaborators. There is in these collaborators an incorporation of human capital through what Gary Becker called “on-the-job training”: a learning of how to work at a general level (to arrive at schedule, to concentrate on the task, to meet deadlines) and also at a particular level (particular techniques of sowing, raising livestock, managing a certain inventory system). Human capital is a set of habits and practices that “travels” incorporated in each “apprentice”. In this way, the entrepreneur can finance himself by paying part of the compensation to the dependent in kind: the training. On the other hand, there is the phenomenon characterized by Easterly as “leakage of knowledge”. This knowledge is transmitted, migrated, from person to person. To the extent that it reports a greater utility to its “bearer” it is expanding, extending, throughout the social fabric, often not as a deliberate education, but as an unintended consequence of the use of such knowledge, which, for can be put into practice, needs the help of more than one person.

It is in this sense that what evolve are the practices and habits, in this case of work and business. It is extended by its incorporation by individuals who adopt them, often involuntarily, either through the incorporation of guidelines from their place of work, or through imitation or emulation. Following the terminology of evolutionism, practices and habits are the unit of evolution and the people who incorporate their replicators. A practice or habit is more successful to the extent that it extends into the population. In turn, the populations carrying practices and habits more adapted to the environment will extend them to others.

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 3 of this essay here, and you find the full essay here.]

Some Thoughts on Voting

A while ago I bought a Willie Nelson album because Willie is excellent. People who say “I don’t like country music” haven’t listened to Willie Nelson.

Willie would be the first pig-tailed president. We must elect him for social justice!

Even though I can get the album without paying for it, I paid because I want to tell Willie Nelson that I appreciate him. But my purchase was also a dollar vote (a five dollar vote, really) telling would-be musicians to be more like Willie Nelson.* For undertaking the expense of making that vote, I even got access to the album through Amazon. That’s good if I want to load it onto my phone for a road trip, but most of the time it’s actually easier for me to listen to that album on Grooveshark. In any case, I got to express myself, listen to Willie Nelson in a barely easier fashion under some circumstances, and it only cost my $4.99.

Now let’s do some lazy economics. My cost of expressing my preferences was approximately $5. If I’m rational we can infer that my benefit was at least as great. I got access to the album (that’s worth about 2 cents to me), I got to express my appreciation of Willie, and I got to make an infinitesimally small impact on the artistic landscape.

I think it’s fair to say that people who vote are doing so to express their views (as I did). But I think they usually vote for the wrong person. If I decide candidate Bob is less terrible than candidate Andy, that doesn’t mean I should vote Bob. I think candidate Carol actually reflects my views fairly well, and I’m sure she won’t win the election. But I also know that if either Andy or Bob wins, it will be by 300 or more votes**; so if I vote for Carol I won’t change the outcome and thus won’t be “wasting” my vote. In fact, if I vote for Bob I’m wasting my vote because I’m sending the message that we need less of the stuff Carol calls for and more of the stuff Bob does.

But in any case, we all pretty much understand that while your vote matters on average, it doesn’t matter on the margin. Put simply, the costs of voting are significantly higher than the benefits you would get if your vote magically actually did change the outcome multiplied by the probability that such a miracle occurs. So probably people vote to express themselves, and as long as their doing that, voting for the Republicans (Democrats) is like buying a popular album you hate because there’s another popular album you hate more. Don’t do that!

* Being more like Willie Nelson doesn’t mean impersonating Willie, it means being excellent.

** In an election with fewer than 5000 voters you might actually have a reasonable chance of affecting the outcome, but if you aren’t voting in a small town election you can safely assume that your vote won’t determine the winner.

The concept of “dispersed knowledge” should be a commonplace!

I dare to state that the world would be a better place to live in if the concept of “dispersed knowledge” were a commonplace. Perhaps it is an elusive idea and that is why every now and then political intervention regards itself as the saviour from the “chaos of the market”.

But what most people are used to call “chaos” is, in fact, “complexity”. Every single rational agent is an administrator of the bits of information gathered by him from the limited range of his experience, using devices of perception, such as senses, social values, norms, and technologies. The said devices are mostly common to other agents and thus contribute to make the compatibility of several individual plans, the most of them unknown to each other, possible –and the stability of the social order rests on the degree of such compatibility.

As we said, social spontaneous conventions as language, monetary economy, trade, morals, and law systems –along with many others- are devices used by the these agents to cope with the complexity of an order of things built on a framework of plans of multiple individuals, most of them yet undiscovered. It is a complex order of facts, but it is an order still: spontaneous conventions make of the multiple bits of information from the different individual plans a coordinated set of resources applied to carry out the most of them. It is a complex system of coordination of knowledge, with gaps and perturbations, but it is a system that can deal with a higher amount of information than any individual or committee would be able to do.

Since our concept of rationality is mostly instrumental, regarding as “rational” a set of resources deliberately applied to attain a known aim, it is easy to consider the complex order resulting from spontaneous coordination of individual plans as “irrational” -and this charaterisation gains strength with every new crisis. At this point, what we have to notice is that the net benefits rendered by the extended society –i.e.: the spontaneous coordination of the dispersed knowledge from multiple individual plans and institutions- are higher than what any other alternative system of organization of human beings could bring about. The consequence of the argument is that dispersed knowledge is both a burden to central planning and lever to the open society.

We know that almost the whole work of F. A. Hayek is devoted to this quest, but if I had to choose a single paper that keeps the kernel of this philosophy I would choose “The Use of Knowledge in Society”. This would be a good starting point to make the idea of “dispersed knowledge” part of our cultural background, like heliocentrism or Gödel’s theorem.

Originally published on http://www.fgmsosavalle.blogspot.com

Thoughts on climate change

Last week I heard a sermon on climate change (no, it was an actual sermon). I’m roughly agnostic on the existence and degree of climate change, but I err on the side of assuming it is a large problem of externalities with no obvious property rights solution and will have costs. And I think that under those assumptions there is an important moral element to it. With that in mind, below are some of my thoughts on the weak points of the sermon:

1) Authority is only a starting point; we cannot defer ultimate responsibility to authority. If an expert or someone I trust tells me something about X, and I don’t have any prior knowledge about X, then I believe them. In the case of global warming there are two basic sorts of information you will get from information: a) diagnosis (temperatures could rise X degrees in the coming century), and b) prescription.

The climatology involved in a) is well above my pay grade, and so rather than undergo the costs of informing myself on the existence or importance of climate change, I just figure the truth is somewhere in the middle of what reasonably informed people say and instead focus my effort on my areas of comparative advantage. Now the actions in b) are typically about reducing waste and that’s well within the realm of economic thinking, so I’ll comment on that!

1b) Blindly deferring to authority to assuage your guilt is wrong and bad. Someone says you should drive an electric care to save the environment? Don’t do it before thinking through the matter, this is a big decision for most people. Where’s the energy coming from to power that car? (Coal. That is burned hundreds of miles away from your car… that’s like having a car with a hundred mile long drive shaft.) How much energy and material does it take to make the car? (Hint: look at prices.)

2) It’s called climate change, not climate universal and uniform worsening. If climate change means a warmer climate for Canada and Russia, that will come with extended growing seasons and savings on winter heating costs. Burma? It’s probably going to suffer a lot. Climate change will surely have the biggest impact on the poorest people in the world, and this is where I see the real moral issue because…

3) We can respond to climate change in a way to reduce suffering. Specifically, we can open borders. First off, that would increase human well being, with an enormous benefit to the world’s poorest people. Second, the effects of climate change won’t harm the poor as much as they could. Is climate change still a bad thing if we do this? Sure, but if a building is burning, why not help people get out?

Loose ends:

Should I recycle everything? Only if it will actually help. Recycled aluminum is chemically identical to virgin aluminum and uses fewer resources to produce (which is why it’s cheaper!). Recycling paper creates a lower quality product, uses a lot of energy and creates pollution.

Paper bags are brown, that’s good, right? Plastic bags are almost ethereal; they use a fraction of the material per unit of carrying capacity resulting in big savings. Yes, there are offsetting costs to using plastic, but it isn’t as simple as “this brown, it must be natural and therefore good!” And while we’re on the topic, brown M&Ms are stupid. There’s a layer of white sugar between that brown outer layer and the actually brown chocolate. Brown M&Ms are as unnatural as any of the other colors.

Should I buy local? Maybe if you live in California, but not if you live in Massachusetts. The biggest environmental impact of food is growing it; plowing fields, planting, watering (outside where the water could just evaporate!), and harvesting use a lot more energy than transportation. So if you live in a place with poor growing conditions, then buying local only does more harm. That said, fresh food tastes better, so by all means pay the cost if you value the flavor, just don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re reducing energy usage by doing so.

Consider opportunity cost and present value! So you’ve got a solar panel and now electricity is free for the next 20-30 years! Or you’ve installed new modern insulation for your home. Or you bought a car that costs less to run (and you’ve promised not to increase your usage). But at what cost? If your solar panel used 40 years worth of energy to build and install, then you’ve done more harm than good. And you’ve done that harm upfront. Even if one of these investments has a positive return (it saves more resources than it uses), you should still consider whether it’s a good investment. We don’t have unlimited resources, and that means that if you spend $10,000 on insulation that will give you a 0.4% ROI then you’ve given up the chance to invest that money into something that will generate more good.

What is entrepreneurship and why should you care?

The word entrepreneurship is thrown around a lot, but rarely defined. As far as I can tell nobody really believes (or is willing to admit they believe) that entrepreneurship is anything less than highly important (“Green child entrepreneurs are our future! Support our troops against breast cancer!”). It’s probably a wise political move to not pin down the idea because it means anyone’s cronies can be considered entrepreneurs. Speaking of which, “crony” is almost the antonym of entrepreneur. Cronyism evokes images of stagnation, inefficiency, “innovations” that make things worse, and opportunities for genuine improvement that are ignored.

Invisible hand

So what does entrepreneurship mean? There are two general definitions, and both bear on the question of how to go about having a peaceful, productive, and morally praiseworthy society. The more general of the two is judgment in the face of uncertainty. That is, given that we don’t know what tomorrow will look like, and we certainly don’t know what the world will look like in 10, 25, or 50 years, we have to make wise, forward-looking decisions. We don’t have enough information to simply plug the relevant data into an Excel spreadsheet and get the “correct” action from a formula. In other words, understanding the ubiquity of entrepreneurship means that we still consider The Use of Knowledge in Society to be relevant.

The more specific definition is pursuit of pure economic profit (above “normal returns to capital, labor, etc.”) by pursuing hitherto un- or under-exploited opportunities. Such breaks from the status quo are the creative acts necessary for economic progress. Entrepreneurship is the human face of economic change that provides a micro-level description of what economists might otherwise wave their hands over and call “technology.” This sort of entrepreneurship is an important source of uncertainty about the future. 2014 is so much different from 1964 because of the actions of innovative entrepreneurs out to improve their own lives.

You’ll notice that I haven’t defined entrepreneurship in a way that actually is inimical to cronyism. That’s because not all entrepreneurship is productive. Destructive entrepreneurship is the pursuit of economic profit that makes the entrepreneur better off at the expense of someone else resulting in a net-loss. So we should be concerned not only with allowing individuals the autonomy necessary to be entrepreneurial (rather than merely reacting formulaically to top-down commands), but also with establishing institutions that direct people to help others.

Invisible hand

Government and Governance

Policy debates typically center around the role of markets versus the role of governments. But this is a misleading distinction. Human society always has governance. Private organizations such as corporations and clubs have management, rules, and financial administration similar in function to those of government. The difference is that private governance is voluntary, while state-based government is coercively imposed on the people within some jurisdiction. So a central question is not whether the market or the government can best accomplish some task, but whether the governance shall be voluntary or coercive.

The Market-Failure Doctrine

Most economists would agree that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. But the doctrine of market failure found in most economics textbooks fails to distinguish between consensual and coercive governance as correctives. The prevailing theory asserts that while markets might provide private goods efficiently in a competitive economy, markets fail to provide the collective goods that people want. There are two basic reasons offered as to why markets are not sufficient. Markets can easily determine the demand for private goods, but how can we tell how much each individual wants of a collective good? We could ask people how much they are willing to pay, but how do we get a truthful answer? Free riders also are a problem. Once the collective good is provided, folks can use it whether they pay or not, so why pay?

So, the market-failure story goes, markets fail to deliver collective goods. Entrepreneurs lack incentive because they can’t get their customers to pay for the service the way they can get people to pay for individually consumed private goods. Continue reading