The fight to preserve the internet as a tool of liberty

What’s the state of our internet freedoms around the world? Freedom House (2019) has recently released a report entitled ‘Freedom on the Net 2019‘.

According to the report, more than 3.8 billion people still have no access to the internet, but

  • 71% of those who have access do live in countries where individuals have been arrested and thrown in jail for posting political, social or religious content;
  • 65% live in countries where individuals have been attacked or killed for their online activities;
  • 59% live in countries where authorities use online commentators to manipulate online discussions;
  • 33 out of 65 countries that were assessed have seen their internet freedoms decline over past year.

The greatest declines in internet freedoms happened in Sudan, Kazakhstan, Brazil, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. For the fourth consecutive year, China has been the greatest abuser of internet freedoms, and although the United States is still scoring well, they have been on decline for three consecutive years.

The ranking from most to least free is as follows:

FOTN 3

FOTN 4

The report scores the countries, based on the internet controls that are in place:

FOTN 1

FOTN 2

Governments hold more technological capabilities than ever before to surveil their citizens. They make use of bots to manipulate social media and big data analyses to surveil citizens. See for example this.  In August 2018, Le Dinh Luong has been sentenced to jail for 20 years in Vietnam for addressing and posting about human rights abuses on social media in the country. In March 2019, an Uyghur Muslim was stopped and interrogated for three days, because not HE but someone ELSE on his WeChat contact list had checked in from Mecca.

What was once a liberating technology has now become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation. What can we do to protect our internet liberties?

My Back to the Land Movement

Of course there’s no such thing as a Golden Age–some forgotten time in the medium-past where things were unambiguously better. The past is full of backwards savages and hard living. And even so, you can’t go home.

But I’ve got this suspicion that back in my day the Internet was better. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and so was actually worth while. But at some point in the last decade (maybe earlier) things changed for the worse. The Internet, like all the rest of the world, just isn’t what it could be–what it should be!

I’m being at least a little hipstery here–it was cool before it was cool, but now it’s uncool because it’s popular. But the truth is, the crappiness that is Facebook is just a reflection of a large swath of consumers. And I’m allowed to opt out.

Sitting on the Internet at the start of 2020, I feel like I’m sure I would have in 1970. Everything is bullshit and I don’t want anything to do with it. I want to buy a school bus and drive to some part of the country nobody cares about and start a farm. Of course the truth is, I really have no business going back to the land. I’ve taken up gardening as a hobby and learned that it’s hard.

But I do have this imagined past on the Internet I can attempt to go back to. I’m going to make an effort to return to the Internet of the early 2000’s. The Internet that Craigslist (for example) still protects–simple, excellent, and not trying to eat the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to use the Big Corporate Internet. I’m only imagining my packets being sent via artisinal servers lovingly tended to by ye olde sysadmin.

What made the Small Internet great was the artisinal content. Weird stuff made and shared by weird people. That stuff is still out there. The Big Internet filters still capture it sometimes. But the marketers have gotten to the filters that used to serve us so well. Reddit just isn’t the same as a Conde Nast property.

One move I’ve made is to join MetaFilter, a social media site that goes back to 1999! So far it’s been a delightful place (without sucking me in the way Reddit used to). Hitting the random button brought me Where’s Wallace–an homage to The Wire, which is still worth re-watching. A more recent post introduced me to an excellent advent calendar that brought more new and weird things across my radar.

Why should this experiment matter?

Partly this is an act of civil society. It’s not all markets and government out there. We’ve got this space to share and improve our public spaces. The Internet is one of those spaces and my Small Internet project is sort of like making an effort to walk through my neighborhood instead of just going back and forth from the freeway.

It’s also an exercise in questioning implicit assumptions in how I engage with this part of the world.

I like Stephen Wolfram‘s notion of exploring the computational universe for useful programs. You don’t even need to take a metaphorical leap in applying the idea to media consumption habits. There’s a lot more “content” (facts, opinions, entertainment, editorial judgement, comments sections, provocations, etc.) out there than I can (or want to) deal with. So I have to choose some sort of filter. Once upon a time, Facebook was a great filter, then Reddit, but now I want to try something different.

I don’t exactly know what I’m looking for yet. But I’m going to wander off into the computational universe in search of a better Internet, less encumbered with the interests of behemoths and more closely tied with serendipity, good humor, and those weird human things that made the back-in-my-day-Internet so much better.

Generic Thanksgiving Post

Addendum: I wrote this post this morning, hit post, and returned to my oven. The apple pie was pretty good, the pecan was better. The stuffing and gravy were great.

While my oven pre-heats, let me give my top(ish) three things I’m thankful for:

  1. My dog Lola. This sweet little pooch entered my life this January and she’s absolutely melted my heart. Here we are on her first camping trip:

2. Capitalism. Yeah, you knew what you were signing up for when you came to this URL. For all the problems with giving any humans any authority at all, even our half-assed American capitalism does a pretty decent job of allowing me the opportunity to have a literal feast every Thanksgiving.

3. The little Internet. Not all that’s online is Google, Facebook, or Amazon. There are still cool little pockets of the Internet where a few dozen weirdos get together and make something beautiful.

I recently learned about the tildeverse a community of communities of people sharing a common web-connected computer like in ye olden days of pre-Google internet. Back before it was the Information Super Highway. Back before it ruined democracy by allowing humans to act like humans at scale. Playing around on an under-powered server is a pretty niche hobby, but there are tons of these long tail groups out there.

The friendly communities that create forums, the weird projects, the sync-tubes; the beautiful bubbles: these are the places that keep that old spirit of the Internet alive. The Internet giants are scary, but they’re not the only game in town; I’m deeply thankful for that.

Also stuffing. And gravy.

Happy Thanksgiving! Be excellent to each other!

Nightcap

  1. Why Islamic debates over slavery still matter Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  2. Stealing corpses in Gabon Lionel Ikogou-Renamy, Africa is a Country
  3. The last of the Beatniks Kaya Oakes, Commonweal
  4. Subscription capitalism Tim Gooding, American Affairs

Blockchain Distributed Governance

Blockchain-Funds

This is a cross-post from the blog of the Centre for the Study of Governance & Society at King’s College London.

Over the last two decades online services have transformed from a product of a multitude of enterprises to being dominated by a handful of corporate-owned platforms such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon. They specialize in connecting media producers to users. These are often mutual interactions with users both producing and consuming content. These platforms play an increasing role governing commercial exchange, as well as civil discussion, with plausibly pernicious implications for liberal democracy. As I propose in a recent paper ‘Markets for Rules’, blockchains offer a promising solution to this danger by helping to displace corporate ownership in favor of common platforms sustained by users themselves.

Corporate concentration has produced enormous efficiencies and innovations, improving user experiences and boosting investment in hardware and infrastructure. But it has also had several bad consequences. These enterprises face extremely low marginal costs and network effects whereby additional users add value to an existing user-base. Some of these effects are explained by these platforms’ business models of collecting personal data to target advertising more effectively at customers. The more interactions on a single platform users have with each other, the more useful the data for advertisers. The result is overwhelming returns to scale and a winner-takes-all competition for profits.

This has troubling implications for economic inequality, especially if we end up with a handful of corporations taking a bite out of every conceivable transaction. Of greater concern is the way owners exert control over who can join and what people are allowed to do on their platforms. Content producers can be demonetized or banned, effectively denying them access to a user-base or revenue. Online sellers can find themselves frozen out of a platform payment system without legal remedies. Controversial or unpopular producers survive at the whim of executives or, at best, a patchily enforced official policy.

This reliance on private governance is a problem for consumers, producers and ultimately citizens. But it is also a challenge for executives who find themselves mediating acrimonious personal disputes and political debate. With all the data in the world, they struggle to judge consistently what belongs on their platforms. The fact that these corporations have ended up functioning as unofficial censors and wielders of sanctions has led some commentators to propose regulating these platforms as public utilities or, more radically, nationalizing them so that access to them is decided democratically. These solutions have their own perils because any centralized system of monopoly control, whatever the underlying democratic credentials, can produce authoritarian outcomes. Liberal democracies up until now have been sustained by an independent civil society constituted by overlapping and competing spheres of governance, not the monopoly of either democratic or corporate government.

The prosecution of the CEO and founders of Backpage, who failed to exclude sex workers from their platform, illustrates the reliance of these private enterprises on government support on controversial policy issues even in relatively free societies. The combination of privately-developed data-collecting networks with over-arching state control is arguably reaching a nadir in China which is rolling out an unaccountable surveillance system of ‘social credit’ that can identify political dissidents and automatically exclude them from significant spheres of civil society.

Is there a way that blockchains can help navigate around the centralising and authoritarian impetus of technology-facilitated governance? Blockchains emerged from two pre-existing technologies – public ledgers and asymmetric cryptography – to produce a way of sharing data across a network that is resistant to manipulation by unauthorized actors. Initially conceived as offering alternatives to state-backed currencies, blockchains are now used to build decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) and dapps (decentralized apps). They can supply similar functions as corporate platforms but without an overall owner.

These systems are sustained by rewarding network participants with tokens (through completing intensive computing processes called mining). Tokens are convertible into ordinary currency, albeit currently at volatile rates. The entrepreneurs that build these platforms typically reward themselves and investors a large stake in those tokens but once the network is launched, they do not have control over how it is utilized. The rules of each network are self-enforcing. These rules can be changed, either through the original (or new) developers launching a rule-set that others may choose to switch over to (a fork). Alternatively, the rule-sets might contain provision for amendment. Such amendment schemes are, of course, open to manipulation as is the case for all political processes. Nevertheless, what these schemes offer is a way of interacting and exchanging at large distances without an overarching ruler. Instead, conduct is permitted on the basis of fixed rules enforced mechanically by people’s decisions to participate in the system. One way of looking at these schemes is that they have decentralized properties of communal norms, combined with the possibility of more deliberate design and experimentation of more formal rules and institutions. I call this common government.

The implications of this new technology and kind of governance might turn out to be very far-reaching, approaching that of the development of the Internet itself or even the printing press. But what could it mean for familiar Internet platforms in the medium-term? First, participating in mutual platforms might better align the incentives of users and platform designers. Right now, platform owners rely on squeezing as much data out of users as possible in order to sell it on to advertisers and to sell additional services. Mutual platforms, without responsibilities to shareholders, can experiment with different funding models. Individual users might elect to sell access to their profile to advertisers but the data itself can be made more secure as it will be a property of an encrypted network rather than a profile stored in a central private database. Privacy can be better assured than private management with public regulation.

Second, the networks can be more robust both to natural and political perturbations. Under decentralized protocols, ordinary users help store and serve content to each other. With the addition of blockchains, these users can be compensated for making their idle computer resources available for network use. This means that data doesn’t have to travel so far as is currently the case from host to user and the network as a whole can better cope with outages from particular nodes without data loss. Without a central controller, there is no particular agent that a government can coerce or punish for allowing specific interactions over a platform. Governments would then face the more difficult choice of permitting or prohibiting Internet communications altogether. It is thus more robust against arbitrary government censorship and manipulation of trade.

The relationship between users on a platform is mutual. The relationship between users and platform owners, however, is presently hierarchical – a private dynamic that government agencies can exploit. What blockchains may eventually permit is the provision of relatively efficient networks reliant neither on a single public agency nor private owner.

Learn more about Nick’s work here.

Britain’s Pornographer and Puritan Coalition

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Brexit isn’t the only ridiculous thing happening in the United Kingdom. In April, the British government is rolling out statutory adult verification for pornography websites and content platforms. This requires all adult content providers to have proof of age or identity for all their users, whether a passport or a credit card (or more ludicrously a ‘porn pass’ that Brits wishing to browse anonymously will have to buy from local newsagents). The government plans to require internet service providers to block pornography websites that are not in compliance with adult verification once the system is in place. For those with university institutional access, Pandora Blake has written a timely explanation and critique published in Porn Studies: ‘Age verification for online porn: more harm than good?’.

Technical challenges with rolling out the system have led the dominant pornography search platform owner, MindGeek, to develop proprietary solution, AgeID, in cooperation with regulators. This cooperation between the dominant commercial pornography platform supplier and a Conservative government publicly intent on restricting access to pornography might appear surprising. However, it can be explained by a particular pattern of regulatory capture identified in public choice theory as a Bootlegger and Baptist coalition. Bruce Yandle observed that throughout the 20th century, evangelical Christians in the United States agitated for local restrictions on the sale of alcohol with the avowed aim of reducing consumption but with the secondary effect of increasing demand for alcohol for illegal bootleggers. Hence both interest groups, apparently opposed in moral principle came to benefit in practice. We now have a classic British case study. In this case, MindGeek is not acting as a literal bootlegger. It intends to be fully legally compliant with the filtering regime. However, the law will block all non-compliant competitors without a comparable verification system. They can gain a competitive advantage with a proprietary technical solution to the barrier introduced by the government.

Introducing identity verification systems has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. It is costly to develop or implement but easy to scale once integrated. The larger the pornography enterprise, the more easily these costs can be absorbed without the risk that it will not be worthwhile to serve the British market. For many smaller international pornography websites, without in-house legal advice or technical expertise, it might prove uneconomical to serve British users directly. So MindGeek’s platforms could become the least-cost legal gatekeeper between small enterprises producing pornographic content and the British public. The government is raising transaction costs to accessing pornography in a way that impacts larger and smaller platforms asymmetrically and favors one dominant platform in particular.

Both the premise of this policy and its likely impact on the market for pornography is unpromising. At its most benign, this could be a characterized as a ‘nudge’ against the consumption of pornography and reducing access of inappropriate content to minors. But these limited benefits have costs for both producers and consumers. On the consumption side, it increases risks to data security and privacy because it will plausibly tie records of pornographic access to verified identities, with a clear likelihood of being to infer an individual’s sexuality from private browsing. This could represent a particular vulnerability for LGBTQ identifying individuals who live in communities where there is still stigma attached to minority sexual orientations.

On the supplier side, it takes what already appears to be a market with strong tendencies towards a winner-takes-all model, and then augments it so that a dominant platform has a legally enforceable competitive advantage over potential rivals in the market. Ultimately, it threatens to further strengthen the bargaining position of a single corporate pornography platform against the sex workers who supply their content.

Nightcap

  1. How Eric Hobsbawm remained a lifelong communist Richard Davenport-Hines, Spectator
  2. Chris Dillow’s favourite economics papers Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. The dark individualism of Watchmen Titus Techera, Law & Liberty
  4. The miracle we all take for granted Marian Tupy, CapX

A Short Note on “Net Neutrality” Regulation

Rick Weber has a good note lashing out against net neutrality regulation. The crux of his argument is that there are serious costs to consumers in terms of getting content slower to enforced net neutrality. But even if we ignore his argument, what if regulation isn’t even necessary to preserve the benefits of net neutrality (even though there really never was net neutrality as proponents imagine it to begin with, and it has nothing to do with fast lanes but with how content providers need to go through a few ISPS)? In fact, there is evidence that the “fast lane” model that net neutrality advocates imagine would

In fact, there is evidence that the “fast lane” model that net neutrality advocates imagine would happen in the absence of regulatory intervention is not actually profitable for ISPs to pursue, and has failed in the past. As Timothy Lee wrote for the Cato Institute back in 2008:

The fundamental difficulty with the “fast lane” strategy is that a network owner pursuing such a strategy would be effectively foregoing the enormous value of the unfiltered content and applications that comes “for free” with unfiltered Internet access. The unfiltered internet already offers breathtaking variety of innovative content and application, and there is every reason to expect things to get even better as the availabe bandwidth continues to increase. Those ISPs that continue to provide their users with faster, unfiltered access to the Internet will be able to offer all of this content to their customers, enhancing the value of their pipe at no additional cost to themselves.

In contrast, ISPs that chose not to upgrade their customers’ Internet access but instead devote more bandwidth to a proprietary “walled garden” of affiliated content and applications will have to actively recruit each application or content provider that participates in the “fast lane” program. In fact, this is precisely the strategy that AOL undertook in the 1990s. AOL was initially a propriety online service, charged by the hour, that allowed its users to access AOL-affiliated online content. Over time, AOL gradually made it easier for customers to access content on the Internet so that, by the end of the 1990s, it was viewed as an Internet Service Provider that happened to offer some propriety applications and content as well. The fundamental problem requiring AOL to change was that content available on the Internet grew so rapidly that AOL (and other proprietary services like Compuserve) couldn’t keep up. AOL finally threw in the towel in 2006, announcing that the proprietary services that had once formed the core of its online offerings would become just another ad-supported web-site. A “walled garden/slow lane” strategy has already proven unprofitable in the market place. Regulations prohibiting such a business model would be suprlusage.

It looks like it might be the case that Title II-style regulation is a solution in search of a problem. Add to it the potential for ISPs and large companies to lobby regulators to erect other barriers to entry to stop new competitors, like what happened with telecommunications companies under Title II and railroad companies under the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the drawbacks of pure net neutrality Rick pointed out, and it looks like a really bad policy indeed.

Net neutrality? Mail neutrality?

“Net neutrality,” you surely know, is the notion that all internet traffic ought to be treated equally. All it takes is that one little word, “equal,” to send hoards of left-wing morons to the barricades. For those who care to think through the issue, I offer the following.

If net neutrality is a good idea, so is “mail neutrality.” The Post Office should treat all mail equally. No more Priority Mail, not even First Class Mail. Just mail.  No more commuter express lanes on the freeways.  No priority for anybody, anywhere.

Data sent over the internet, or any local network for that matter, is divided into packets which have header information indicating the destination of the packet followed by a block of bytes that is the digital form of the data, whether text, audio, or video; web traffic, email, or ftp. As far as I know there is no provision in the ethernet protocol for priority information, but that isn’t necessary to prioritize packets.

Why should they be prioritized? Because different kinds of traffic have different natural degrees of urgency. email messages are not terribly urgent, but packets of video are, because if the those packets don’t keep coming at a steady pace, the result is irritating pauses and that little spinning circular thingy. If consumers of video want good service, they should pay for it. If email users who are in no hurry are willing to wait a bit and pay less, that’s good too. Markets generally tend to segment in this fashion. Starbucks doesn’t practice coffee neutrality. They offer fancy drinks to those willing to pay for them and plain coffee for those of us who just want the caffeine.

What rules should be set for internet providers? None, except common law prohibition and prosecution of theft and fraud. Let the service providers set their own policies for use of their private property.  In the interests of their bottom line, they will seek out practices that best serve their customers.  The crucial requirement is that politicians and bureaucrats be kept away.

The Internet Needs a Multitude of Firm Guiding Hands Like I Need….

The Internet is an American invention depending on a specifically American vision of society. It was built with American seed money. It represents the best about the way we used to do things: Tell the folks what you want; spring a little money on them; most of it produces nothing; some of it turns out to be the very best investment of the century, perhaps even the best investment in history. Let it run itself as much as possible. Refrain from giving it a captain.

Other countries are utterly incapable of doing anything like this. How do I know? None but one even tried, France. Its government-managed (Post Office owned) Minitel was even accessible to the general public earlier than the Internet. The French closed it about two years ago. It had ceased to serve any purpose side-by-side with the Internet. That was as clear a case of competition between two ways of doing things as might be devised in a real scientific experiment.

The French Minitel (which I used) did good service for many years as an electronic phone book and address finder and it housed a prodigious amount of porn. I almost forgot: It was also a prime venue for prostitutional dates. In spite of these attractions, it was to the Internet as Wisconsin blue cheese is to real, cave-aged French Roquefort (not the stuff they put on your salad, the $26/lb stuff). The main fault in this comparison, of course, is that American cheese makers can only improve their act. Non-Americans are not going to catch up on items such as the Internet because they lack the vision thing.

Other countries claim that they have a right to co-manage the Internet because their citizens use it. That’s it! So, if I clear a path in the bushes for my own use and I let the nice guy next door use it, and also the child molester two houses down, it’s not my path anymore?

Note that this sharing in the name of the often-poisonous concept of sovereignty need not happen, even by their own argument. Other countries’ governments can always block it if they wish. They can and do occasionally deny access to their citizens and take the blow-back. In many countries, the blow-back is also indirectly a blow for freedom.

Letting other countries have a say over the management of the Internet is likely to produce no improvement that I can think of. (But I keep an open mind; please, instruct me.) It’s extremely likely to facilitate despotism in many countries. Try a mental experiment: What’s Vladimir Putin, or the Chinese Mafia masquerading as people’s party going to contribute? The tyrants simply want to do their best to close the windows that let in any fresh air at all.

In other parts of the world, the desire for partial control of the Internet is motivated by cultural jealousy. That would be the case in France, in Spain and in much of Latin America, also to an extent, in China. But governments in those countries don’t need more power over the Internet to combat their citizens’ regrettable proclivity to listen to American music and to buy primarily tickets for American movies (in spite of prodigious government subsidies for the national cinema in France and in Spain). They already have full power to put anything they want on the Internet. I mean loads of bad French movies, even erotic movies where the naked women are pointedly vaguely repulsive. (See my piece “French Movies, Sex, and the Welfare State” [and also “Can Protectionism Ever Be Respectable?” (pdf) in the Independent Review – bc]). The Spaniards are free to place on the Net four or five Spanish-made movies each year and even to try and charge admission. And the government of the so-called “People”, so called “Republic ” of China is always welcome to transmit live on its blog the full sessions of the Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party, for the pleasure of all.

There are plenty of ways with the existing Internet arrangements to combat the poison of American Cultural Imperialism. Best of luck to them. (For God’s sake, with a handful of major exceptions, even our disasters are better than theirs!)

You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of countries where moderate government involvement and decentralization are understood by any significant fraction of the populace. Others don’t know how to do anything decentralized, won’t know for years or centuries.

The worst case scenario is also the most likely, I think: Following the Obama administration’s capitulation, the Internet will end up being “managed” by a UN-like international body run by faceless, brain-dead bureaucrats.

What bothers me in yet this other American retreat at the hands of the Obama administration is its sheer mindlessness, its obvious abandonment of common sense. Contrary to may other conservatives, I don’t think Mr Obama is evil. He is acting pretty much as you would expect from a man who had never accomplished anything in his life before becoming president. I said this during his first campaign in 2008 (but I am too lazy to look for the relevant link . I said it many other times since, including this one).

It’s not that President Obama is bad or even stupid; the problem is that he is ignorant and lazy, including intellectually lazy. And he and his wife sure like their vacations at public expense.

Yeah, I must be a racist: “lazy” is just another racial stereotype, after all. See if I care!

And I am a little ashamed of the dig about the presidential family vacations. I mean his wife was severely deprived for 250 years; she is only catching up. He was not that deprived himself though. His name indicates a coastal origin among the slaving tribes on his father’s side. On his mother’s side he comes from reformed and moderate hippie stock. Hippie like me.

Around the Web

  1. The media’s shooting bias. An excellent take on the hypocrisy of the media. (read David Henderson’s take, too)
  2. Conservation Native American style (grab a cup of coffee)
  3. The mission to decentralize the internet; interesting argument, though I don’t think the internet is as centralized as the author makes it out to be.
  4. Doug Bandow on North Korea’s ongoing purges
  5. Blast from the past: What did Marxism look like in Mozambique in the 1980s?

Unequal Poverty: Tricks (Part Two of two)

In the previous installment:

I explained how the general standard of living in America, denoted by real income, grew a great deal between 1975 and a recent date, specifically, 2007. This, in spite of a widespread rumor to the contrary. The first installment touched only a little on the following problem: It’s possible for overall growth to be accompanied by some immobility and even by some regress. Here is a made-up example:

Between the first and the second semester, grades in my class have, on the average, moved up from C to B. Yet, little Mary Steady’s grade did not change at all. It remained stuck at C. And Johnny Bad’s grade slipped from C to D.

Flummoxed by the sturdiness, the blinding obviousness of the evidence regarding general progress in the standard of living, liberal advocates like to take refuge in more or less mysterious statements about how general progress does not cover everybody. Or not everybody equally, which is a completely different statement. They are right either way and it’s trivial that they are right. Let’s look at this issue of unequally distributed economic progress in a skeptical but fair manner.

It’s awfully hard to prevent the poor, women and minorities from benefiting

I begin by repeating myself. As I noted in Part One, it’s too easy to take the issue of distribution of income growth too seriously. Some forms of improvements in living standard simply cannot practically be withheld from a any subgroup, couldn’t be if you tried. Here is another example: Since 1950, mortality from myocardial infarctus fell from 30-40% to 5-8%. (from a book review by A. Verghese in Wall Street Journal 10/26 and 10/27 2013). When you begin looking at these sort of things, unexpected facts immediately jump at you.

Fishing expeditions

The US population of 260 millions to over 300 million during the period of interest 1975-2007 can be divided in an infinity of segment, like this: Mr 1 plus Mr 2; Mr 2 plus Mrs 3; Mr 2 and Mrs 3 plus Mr 332; Mr 226 plus Mrs 1,000,0001; and so forth.

Similarly, the period of interest 1975 to 2007 can be divided in an infinity of subperiods, like this: Year 1 plus year 2; year 1 plus year 3; years 1, 2, 3 plus year 27; and so forth. You get the idea.

So, to the question: Is there a subset of the US population which did not share in the general progress in the American standard of living during some subperiod between 1975 and 2007?

The prudent response is “No.” It’s even difficult to imagine a version of reality where you would be right to affirm:

“There is no subset of the US population that was left behind by general economic progress at any time during the period 1975- 2007.”

Let me say the same thing in a different way: Given time and good access to info, what’s the chance that I will not find some Americans whose lot failed to improve during the period 1975 to 2007? The answer is zero or close to it.

This is one fishing expedition you can join and never come back empty-handed, if you have a little time.

Thus, liberal dyspeptics, people who hate improvement, are always on solid ground when they affirm, “Yes, but some people are not better off than they were in 1975 (or in _____ -Fill in the blank.)” The possibilities for cherry-picking are endless (literally).

Everyone therefore has to decide for himself what exception to the general fact of improvement is meaningful, which trivial. This simple task is made more difficult by the liberals’ tendency to play games with numbers and sometimes even to confuse themselves in this matter. I will develop both issues below.

To illustrate the idea that you have to decide for yourself, here is a fictitious but realistic example of a category of Americans who were absolutely poorer in 2007 that they were in 1975. You have to decide whether this is something worth worrying about. You might wonder why liberals never, but never lament my subjects’ fate.

Consider any number of stock exchange crises since 1975. There were people who, that year, possessed inherited wealth of $200 million each, generating a modest income of $600,000 annually. Among those people there were a number of stubborn, risk-seeking and plain bad investors who lost half of their wealth during the period of observation. By 2007, they were only receiving an annual income of $300,000. (Forget the fact that this income was in inflation shrunk dollars.) Any way you look at it, this is a category of the population that became poorer in spite of the general (average) rise in in American incomes. Right?

Or, I could refer to the thousands of women who were making a living in 1975 by typing. (My doctoral dissertation was handwritten, believe it or not. Finding money to pay to get it typed was the hardest part of the whole doctoral project.) One of the many improvements brought about by computers is that they induced ordinary people to learn to do their own typing. Nevertheless, there was one older lady who insisted all along on making her living typing and she even brought her daughter into the trade. Both ladies starved to death in 2005. OK, I made them up and no one starved to death but you get my point: The imaginary typists fell behind, did not share in the general (average) improvement and their story is trivial.

So, I repeat, given some time resources, I could always come up with a category of the US population whose economic progress was below average. I could even find some segment of the population that is poorer, in an absolute sense, than it was at the beginning of the period of observation. Note that those are two different finds. Within both categories, I could even locate segments that would make the liberal heart twitch. It would be a little tougher to find people who both were poorer than before the period observation and that would be deserving of liberal sympathy. It would be a little tough but I am confident it could be done.

So, the implication here is that when it comes to the unequal distribution or real economic growth you have to do two things:

A You have to slow down and make sure you understand what’s being said; it’s not always easy. Examples below.

B You have to decide whether the inequality being described is a moral problem for you or, otherwise a political issue. (I, for one, would not lose sleep over the increased poverty of the stock exchange players in my fictitious example above. As for the lady typists, I am sorry but I can’t be held responsible for people who live under a rock on purpose.)

Naively blatant misrepresentations

A hostile liberal commenter on this blog once said the following:

“Extreme poverty in the United States, meaning households living on less than $2 per day before government benefits, doubled from 1996 to 1.5 million households in 2011, including 2.8 million children.”

That was a rebuttal of my assertion that there had been general (average) income growth.

Two problems: first, I doubt there are any American “households” of more than one person that lives on less than $2 /day. If there were then, they must all be dead now, from starvation. I think someone stretched the truth a little by choosing a misleading word. Of maybe here is an explanation. The commenter’s alleged fact will provide it, I hope.

Second, and more importantly, as far as real income is concerned, government benefits (“welfare”) matter a great deal. Including food stamps, they can easily triple the pitiful amount of $2 a day mentioned. That would mean that a person (not a multiple person- household ) would live on $1080 a month. I doubt free medical care, available through Medicaid, is included in the $2/day. I wonder what else is included in “government benefits.”

The author of the statement above is trying to mislead us in a crude way. I would be eager to discuss the drawbacks of income received as benefits in- instead of income earned. As a conservative, I also prefer the second to the first. Yet, income is income whatever its source, including government benefits.

The $2/day mention is intended for our guts, not for our brains. Again, this is crude deception.

Pay attention to what the other guy asserts sincerely about economic growth.

Often, it implies pretty much the reverse of what he intends. In an October 2013 discussion on this blog about alleged increasing poverty in the US, asked the following rhetorical question:

“Or have Americans’ standard of living only improved as the gap [between other countries and the US] closed?“

I meant to smite the other guy because the American standard of living has only increased, in general, as we have seen (in Part One of this essay posted). A habitual liberal commenter on my blog had flung this in my face:

“….Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households…” (posted 10/23/13)

(He means in the US. And that’s from a source I am not sure the commenter identified but I believe it exists.)

Now, suppose the statement is totally true. (It’s not; it ignores several things described in Part One.) The statement says that something like roughly 60 million Americans are richer than they, or their high income equivalents were in 1975. It also says that other households may have had almost stationary incomes (“practically”). The statement does not say in any way that anyone has a lower income in 1975. At best, the statement taken literally, should cause me to restate my position as follows:

“American standards of living have remained stationary or they have improved….”

You may not like the description of income gains in my translation of the liberal real statement above. It’s your choice. But the statement fails to invalidate my overall assertion: Americans’ standard of living improved between 1975 and 2007.

What the liberal commenter did is typical. Liberals always do it. They change the subject from economic improvement to something else they don’t name. I, for one, think they should be outed and forced to speak clearly about what they want to talk about.

Big fallacies in plain sight

Pay attention to seemingly straightforward, common liberal, statist assertions. They often conceal big fallacies, sometimes several fallacies at once.

Here is such an assertion that is double-wrong.

“In the past fifteen years the 20% of the population who receive the lowest income have seen their share of national income decrease by ten percentage points.” (Posted as a comment on my blog on 10/21/13)

Again, two – not merely one – strongly misleading things about this assertion. (The liberal commenter who sent it will assure us that he had no intention to mislead; that it’s the readers’ fault because, if…. Freaking reader!)

A The lowest 20% of the population of today are not the same as those of fifteen years ago, nor should you assume that they are their children. They may be but there is a great deal of vertical mobility in this country, up and down. (Just look at me!) The statement does not logically imply that any single, one recognizable group of social category became poorer in the interval. The statement in no way says that there are people in America who are poor and that those same people became poorer either relatively or in an absolute sense. Here is a example to think about: The month that I was finishing my doctoral program, I was easily among the 20% poorest in America. Hell, I probably qualified for the 5% poorest! Two months later, I had decisively left both groups behind; I probably immediately qualified for the top half of income earners. Yet, my progress would not have falsified the above statement. It’s misleading if you don’t think about it slowly, the way I just did.

I once tried to make the left-liberal vice-president of a Jesuit university understand this simple logical matter and I failed. He had a doctorate from a good university in other than theology. Bad mental habits are sticky.

B Percentages are routinely abused

There is yet another mislead in the single sentence above. Bear with me and ignore the first fallacy described above. The statement is intended to imply that the poorer became poorer. In reality, it implies nothing of the sort. Suppose that there are only two people: JD and my neighbor. I earn $40, neighbor earns $60. In total, we earn $100. Thus my share of our joint income is 40%, neighbor’s is 60%. Then neighbor goes into business for himself and his income shoots up to $140. Meanwhile, I get a raise and my income is now $60.

In the new situation, my share of our joint income has gone down to 30% (60/60+140), from 40%. (Is this correct? Yes, or No; decide now.) Yet, I have enjoyed a fifty percent raise in income. That’s a raise most unions would kill for. I am not poorer, I am much richer than I was before. Yet the statement we started with stands; it’s true. And it’s misleading unless you pay attention to percentages. Many people don’t. I think that perhaps few people do.

My liberal critic was perhaps under the impression that his statement could convince readers that some Americans had become poorer in spite of a general (average rise) in real American income. I just showed you that his statement logically implies no such thing at all. If he want to demonstrate that Americans, some Americans, have become poorer, he has to try something else. The question unavoidably arises: Why didn’t he do it?

Was he using his inadequate statement to change the subject without letting you know? If you find yourself fixating on the fact that my neighbor has become even richer than I did because he more than doubled his income, the critic succeeded in changing the subject. It means you are not concerned with income growth anymore but with something else, a separate issue. That other issue is income distribution. Keep in mind when you think of this new issue that, in my illustration of percentages above, I did become considerably richer.

Liberals love the topic of unequal progress for the following reason:

They fail to show that, contrary to their best wish, Americans have become poorer. They fail almost completely to show that some people have become absolutely poorer. They are left with their last-best. It’s not very risky because, as I have already stated, it’s almost always true: Some people have become not as richer as some other people who became richer!

Policy implications of mis-direction about income growth

The topic matter because, in the hands of modern liberals any level of income inequality can be used to call for government interventions in the economy that decrease individual liberty.

Here are a very few practical, policy consequences:

A Income re-distribution nearly always involves government action that is, force. (That’s what government does: It forces one to do what one wouldn’t do out of own inclination.) That’s true for democratic constitutional governments as well as it is for pure tyrannies. In most countries, to enact a program to distribute the fruits of economic growth more equally it to organize intimidation and, in the end, violence against a part of the population. (For a few exceptions, see my old but still current journal article: “The Distributive State in the World System.“ Google it.) This is a mild description pertaining to a world familiar to Americans. In the 1920s, in Russia, many people (“kulaks”) were murdered because they had two cows instead of one.

Conservatives tend to take seriously even moderate-seeming violations of individual liberty, including slow-moving ones.

B Conservatives generally believe that redistribution of income undermines future economic growth. With this belief, you have to decide between more equality or more income for all, or nearly all (see above) tomorrow?

It’s possible to favor one thing at the cost of bearing the travails the other brings. It’s possible to favor the first over the second. This choice is actually at the heart of the liberal/conservative split. It deserves to be discussed in its own right; “Do your prefer more prosperity or more equality?” The topic should not be swept under the rug or be made to masquerade as something else.

If you are going to die for a hill, make sure it’s the right hill.

PS: There is no “income gap.”

Growing Poverty, a Declining Standard of Living: Watch Out for…. Part 1.

It’s vital to the liberal narrative that pretty much everything has to go generally downhill (except global warming, of course, which is always going up even when it’s not, like right now). Life has to deteriorate, they think. That things are getting worse is an article of faith among liberals; it’s even a tenet of their faith. (If things are swimming along fine, what excuse is there for government intrusion?) You might even say that most liberals hate most good news. Prominent among the liberals’ permanent myths is the belief that Americans have become poorer except for a tiny minority of the very rich __________% (Fill in the blank.) In its most common version the idea is that Americans’ real standard of living has done nothing but decline since sometimes in the seventies. This, whatever the numbers say.

I, for one, know it’s not true. I was there, after all, from the beginning, even from before the beginning! I remember well how bad the good old days were in many respects. I am distressed that some people with apparently conservative or libertarian ideas have now also espoused this false belief. In this essay in two parts, I try to help readers find their way in the midst of often misleading or downright false statements that seem to support this erroneous belief. As usual, I do not address myself to specialists but rather to the intelligent but ignorant. Specialists are welcome to comment if they agree to do it in English or in some other official language.

Two forewords

1 I don’t contend that I understand what happened to American real incomes during the current crisis, say, between 2009 and 2013. I will say nothing about this recent period. (If I told you what I suspect happened, you might be astounded, though.) I refer in this essay only to the period 1975-2007.

2 I believe poverty and prosperity have to be measured in terms of real income, income as experienced by real human beings: It’s not how many dollar bills you have in your wallet, it’s what your paycheck actually buys that matters. This brings up several tough technical problems we will get into presently or in the next episode. If you think of poverty in different terms, I am not sure I have anything useful to say to you.

The superficial facts

General federal statistics, all OECD figures, all World Bank numbers show that on the average Americans have become considerably richer since 1975. Nevertheless, these statistics, contrary to a now common belief – significantly understate the economic progress of Americans. We, in general, have become vastly richer than were were then.

I will deal later explicitly with the issue of possible differences between what the average shows and the economic progress of sub-categories of the US population. In the meantime, I must point out that some common forms of enrichment cannot be confined to a particular group. Cleaner drinking water, for example, is usually cleaner for everyone. It would be impractical to reserve wells of dirty, polluted water for the poor or for racial minorities. (However, if you search a little you might actually find liberal allegations of such segregation or, at least, the intimations of such. National Public Radio is a good bet.)

Here is what I don’t intended to do, don’t do: I do not accuse government statistics of lying. I help others read them and complement them where they need to be complemented. There is not government conspiracy designed to mislead us about the living standards of Americans, I think.

Major (unintended) sources of bias.

There are three major sources of bias in expressing standard of living that understate, underestimate, understate economic betterment. I explain them below.

Ballooning health expenditures

Since the seventies, most employed Americans have taken most of their pay raises in the form of health benefits. This results from a historically accidental peculiarity of the American wage and benefit system going back to WWII. (It may be getting removed by the implementation of Obamacare as I write in 2013). The large increase in health expenditures provided by employers do not appear in wage statistics. Yet, they constitute consumption in a way similar to straight wages. In fact, wherever people are given a choice between more steak and more health care, they seem to chose more steak and more health care. Health care possesses an interesting characteristic all of its own: While there is a limit to how much steak an individual can ingest, there is no limit at all to how much health care -broadly defined – the same individual can absorb. It’s close to infinite. Why, I am considering right now some surgery to correct a nose I have not really liked for more than sixty years!

Whether it is a wise societal choice to spend apparently limitless resources on health care, much of it for the old and economically unproductive is an interesting issue in its own right. However, it’s not my issue here. Health services have been produced in vast quantities since 1975. They were eagerly consumed by Americans. Health expenditures constitute a part of the standard of living. If you don’t believe this, just ask yourself if the withdrawal of all health care would not be a lowering of the standard of living.

Better quality of common goods

Common objects on which comparisons of living standard across time are based have improved tremendously in quality. This is difficult, sometimes impossible to measure. Indices of comparison across time (1975 to 2007) don’t do a good job of it.

Nominal wages, the numbers printed on your paychecks, have to be corrected for inflation. We all know that a dollar does not buy as much as it did in 1975. (Around that time, my salary of $20,000/year was quite comfortable.) Federal international and private organizations in charge of these things do their very best to correct raw numbers in meaningful ways. However, they meet with several limitations because things of 1975 are often radically different from what bears the same name in 2007.

(Note: The agencies in charge do their best and mostly intelligently. Again, I am not faulting their efforts. Also, I think there is little intellectual fraud involved in this work because their results are among the most and best scrutinized in the history of the world.)

Here is an example: I suspect that the average television set of 1975 was like mine was then: It was small, offered only black and white images, often had scratchy sound, and gave access to little more than three national networks. Watching television then was like eating in a mediocre restaurant that offered only three dishes ( and there was maybe a hot dog stand outside).

When economists correct for inflation, they have little choice but to compare that television set with a modern ultra-flat etc… Hence, when they report that the cost of a television set has increased in face dollars by, say, 100%, they are not able to take into account that the actual service (the enjoyment) attached to a contemporary set with precise colors, faithful sound that is a gateway to 300 sources is ten times, or one hundred times, greater than what I derived from my 1975 B&W set.

This example can pretty much be turned into a general rule: Everything is better, works better, tastes better, gives more service than its equivalent back then. When you find a seeming exception, you soon discover that it’s not real. Two examples of exceptions that don’t resist examination:

A     Cars are more expensive now than then by several measures. This means that it takes more days of mean (average) American wages to buy the cheapest car in American than it did then. But the cheapest car on American roads today are vastly better in every way than their supposed equivalent back then. They break down less often; they are safer (weight for weight); they require much less maintenance. (Older people will remember the days when every car required an oil change every 5,000 miles and when prudent car owners changed oil every 3,500 miles.)

In addition, much of the rise in real car prices is due to mandated safety and environmental buffers now built into them that did note exist in 1975. (It’s startling to see in not-so-old movies parents getting into the family car with their children and driving off with no one buckling safety belts because there aren’t any.) No matter how one feels about the current health and environmental restrictions pushing upward car prices, they are undeniably form of consumption. It’s useless to cry,” I don’t want it” when you imposed it on yourself through the political process you deem legitimate in every way.

B     Many older people, and I am often tempted to join them, believe that any number of produce just tasted better back then, produce such as tomatoes and strawberries, for example. This is pure delusion. Here is how I know: Several times, I have steeled my resolve, put cash in my pocket and directed my steps to the local farmers’ market. There, against all my instincts, I purchase a pound of organic tomatoes or a tiny basket of grossly priced strawberries. Now organic produce is not better for you (See “organic food” on this blog.) but it’s often fresher, and often handpicked. Each time, I recovered in my mouth the taste of produce of my youth. Each time, I did the calculations only to rediscover anew that the outrageous cost of the farmer’s market produce was actually less, as a percentage of any income, or in inflation-corrected dollars, than the equivalents did when I was young.

We have become used to paying little for mediocre produce, the better produce of yesteryear are still available. They are not even especially expensive. They appear expensive because we are spoiled by general low food prices.

An then, of course, there is the coffee. It was so vile then, coast-to-coast, in 1975 that if anyone but a drunks’ bar served it today he would probably be indicted. And then, there is bread that would have qualified as light construction material. The list is endless: In the good old days, most things were mediocre to very bad and they were, in fact expensive. Current measures are seldom able to take improvement in quality into account. For this reason, they understate average economic progress in America between 1975 and 2007.

I repeat that this average economic progress is also mostly widespread, available to all parts of the population. There are, in fact, few corner bakeries operating especially in the ghetto and specializing in nutritionally unsound, bad-tasting bread for African-Americans.

There may be an exception to the general rule that things have become cheaper in thirty years with constant quality I am not able to deal with here. It may be a major exception: Housing in all its forms may be more expensive in real terms now than it was in 1975. Much housing is the same now as it was then, so prices matters a great deal. Thus, better quality would not explain superior cost. I am eager to see sources on this issue and to publish them here.

New goods, new services

When comparing the prices of things and services then and now, economists are not able, of course, to take into account objects and services that simply did not exist then. This inescapable fact also understates the real progress in living standards. I repeat: Some good things are not counted at all in comparisons of the standard of living then and now because they did not exist at all then. This fact in itself constitutes an overstatement of the standard of living of then. The Internet and its many manifestations, its many subordinate services, such as Google, are a case in point.

I hasten to add that this judgment does not depend on how much you, personally value the Internet and its multiple offerings. To demonstrate that it’s a form of consumption, it’s enough to observe that few of those who can have access to the Internet actually turn it down. I, for example, like most residents of developed societies probably know more than one thousand people. Of the people I know, only three refuse to gain Internet access (and they periodically cheat by catching a ride on a relative’s network tool!)

I can hear some older readers grumble ( as one did recently on this blog) that newfangled technical innovations, such as the Internet and hugely better television, actually made life worse. I smile sarcastically inside for the following reason: Very few Americans seem to be following the primitivist dream implicit in such judgment and make for the wilderness. This, although it would be easy because there is probably more and more undeveloped, empty space in America as the population become more concentrated in a few mega cities. This is too has improved since 1975: There is more and wilder wilderness.

Summary

Large health expenditures, better products, more products have increased the general standard of living of Americans considerably beyond what wage and income statistics show. This statement is implicitly based on averages. The demonstration above does not exclude the logical possibility that some sectors of American society were worse off in 2007 than they, or their equivalents were in 1975. This issue is dear to liberal sensitivity. I deal with it in Part 2, soon forthcoming.

Про пиратство, русский менталитет и национальное самосознание

Всем привет!

Давно ничего не писал. Лето, все дела, времени мало. Но получив вчера магический подзатыльник от Brandon Christensen (специально написал имя по-английски, чтобы переводчик случайно не перевел его неправильно), решил активизировать свою деятельность на Notes On Liberty и поделиться с вами несколькими резонансными событиями, произошедшими в России за последнее время.

Ситуация с Сирией несколько отъехала на второй план после того, как Государственная Дума приняла два очень важных для каждого русского человека закона, касающихся пиратства в Интернете. В силу менталитета и самосознания, практически каждый русский стремится получить некоторое “благо”, ничего не отдав в замен. Это касается музыки, фильмов, сериалов, каких-то нематериальных благ, будь то скидки в магазины, всякие бонусы. В принципе такую позицию можно понять: каждый человек стремится получить побольше всего, и отдать поменьше. При этом вопрос чужой выгоды вообще никого не заботит. “Я хочу слушать новый альбом любимой группы в Интернете в плохом качестве за две недели до его официального издания, чтобы потом не тратить деньги на его приобретение”. Или, например, “я хочу смотреть новинки кинематографа дома, и не покупать для этого диски в магазинах”.

Законы, которые у нас приняли, напрямую касаются интернет-пиратства. В сети началось активное удаление пиратской продукции по требованиям правообладателей: удаляется популярная музыка, попавшая в сеть незаконно, фильмы, сериалы и прочее. Я считаю, что это правильно. Нужно уважать чужой труд. Если музыкальная группа выпустила альбом – его нужно купить, а не украсть. Группа потратила силы, время и деньги на запись музыки, мастеринг, сведение, издание альбома. Организовала тур по странам. Так почеу бы не заплатить им 10 долларов за альбом? Самое интересное, что подобный вид интернет воровства российскими гражданами не считается “нарушением закона”, так как каждый глубоко верит в собственную исключительность, анонимность и непричастность.

Я знаю, что во многих странах мира вопрос с пиратством если не решен полностью – то по крайней мере находится в стадии решения. Надеюсь, что и Россия когда-нибудь по уровню культуры и самосознания сможет догнать иностранных коллег.