The Incomplete Counterfactual Fallacy

Mariana Mazzucato has some interesting ideas, but her basic thesis (which I’m guessing based only on her recent Freakonomics interview) forgets a simple fact: had the government not made GPS, not only would we not have GPS, resources would have been allocated somewhere else.

In other words, she’s right that without government involvement we’d miss all sorts of valuable things like the basic research it turns out government has financed, physical infrastructure (no matter how neglected), GPS, the specific form the Internet we got, etc., etc.

But that’s only half the story. What happens if DARPA closes shop just before starting on GPS? Those engineers end up somewhere else, the money for the project goes somewhere else, the steel and titanium for the satellites they would have built end up in some other shop.

If we could know that nothing else would have happened at that point, then GPS is a free lunch–some bold committee scooped up a handful of clay, handed it to brilliant engineers, and created something from nothing.

More likely some of those engineers would have made dozens of other projects a little bit better, and one or two of them might even have, through some series of unpredictable events, ended up creating some totally different innovation that would have put us on to an entirely different path.

Which is the better path? There’s no way to know. The people on that other path exist in a completely different paradigm from our own. It’s comparing meta-apples with meta-oranges. We are where we are and we ought to appreciate all the costs and benefits of the system we’ve inherited. I think Mazzucato is right that many of us have underrated the government. (Certainly 23-year-old-Rick was guilty of the over-complete counterfactual fallacy.)

She makes a compelling argument that Solyndra doesn’t look like such a boondoggle when you take the wider view we would expect of the smallest venture capital investor. But if it’s true that pointing at government failures is invalid, then so is pointing at government success.

What’s important is improving the future performance of our current institutional mess. To do that, I think we’re better off backing away from her broad claims and focusing on her more sensible (and jarring) arguments about how the current system encourages destructive rent seeking through intellectual property protection of basic research that might be better left in the public domain.

Pride and Subsidies

Freakonomics had an episode on the dramatic impact of subsidies on the visual effects (VFX) industry. Long story short: 1) VFX companies operate on razor thin margins, 2) the industry chases subsidies from competing local governments–Canada and London are  currently important locations, 3) Californian politicians want to bring these jobs back to LA, but doing so would probably be a net burden.

(Let’s put aside the issue of the state of California trying to play central planner by effectively creating different tax rates for different industries. That’s a bad idea for reasons we can explore later.)

Putting yourself in the head of a Californian, something about the policy feels right (maybe not for the typical NOL reader, but probably for the median voter). I’m sure you could convince the median voter that these subsidies are a bad idea, economically. But even so, I’d be willing to bet that you’d still get significant support.

I’m confident that if you were to talk this issue over with a representative sample of California voters–or X industry in Y region for similar industry upheavals–you could convince them of the probable negative impact of such policy and still see many voters at least weakly supporting the policy. Why? Because being able to point to a movie and say “that awesome explosion was made in my backyard,” is worth some degree of sacrifice for these people.

Perhaps people want our government to give us something to be proud of (God knows they give us enough things to be ashamed of!). Perhaps people have some latent willingness to pay to be able to say that some high status industry is in their community/city/state/country.

We like pride, but it costs us. This puts us squarely in the domain of economics. How do we figure out how to make the trade off between pride, and the price we must pay for it? Some cases seem easy, at least in hindsight–the sacrifice of the civil rights movement was a small price to pay for the pride generated–but cases like the VFX industry, aren’t so obvious, but still high stakes.

I don’t think we’re likely to be able to figure out the bill. We can be proud of NASA, movies, the post office, and whatever else. But how much of the cost can we attribute to engaging in activities that make us proud? We get the same issue in markets. I have more than brand loyalty for Honda (the maker of my motorcycle); I’m also proud to associate with Honda as an innovative company with a history of liberating the world’s poor.

A clever statistician or economist could estimate some important facts about how people tend to make these trade offs. Doing so could help us make better decisions, but can’t ultimately replace our own judgment.

Given the uncertainty we face we really have to make a decision about whether to err on the side of over- or under-provision of pride goods–and this is true in a variety of settings.

I suspect that the “let 1000 flowers bloom” approach is the appropriate one here. We don’t want to have one Secretary of Pride deciding to err on the side of over-provision and the result is that a bunch of children die from preventable causes so that we can all feel proud about how cool the latest domestically produced Fast and Furious movie is going to be. On the other hand, it would be a tragedy of slavery was never ended because it would interrupt business as usual.

Markets, civil society, and government face different sorts of pros and cons with respect to how they might make these trade offs. Arguing about them could create a new academic discipline at the intersection of ethics, economics, and sociology.

In all three spheres, there will be many very bad decisions made. But if you aren’t free to be wrong, you aren’t free. The question to ask is what sort of pride goods will tend to survive, and in which spheres?

What we can say for sure is that private, voluntary exchange and cooperation (free markets and civil society) at least allow us to choose our associations. And they require us to choose, and choose again on a regular basis. Our nation is mostly based on luck. Where we live tends not to change much. Voting with your feet is costly, so we should expect it to be that much harder to dismantle big mistakes. The political process routinely results in outcomes we’re ashamed of (about half of voters are ashamed of the results every presidential election!).

There aren’t markets in pride so it’s hard to know how the benefits compare to the costs. But we can (and do) exhibit pride in markets. We should probably do more of it. And perhaps we should also be more skeptical of government, even though we normally think of them as providing pride goods. On the margin, anyways, I think this is a good direction for most people to move. Be proud of your community because the people have whatever unique traits they do. Be proud of the brands you buy from for their contributions to the state of the art. Be proud of your local sports team.