Simple economics I wish more people understood

Economics comes from the Greek “οίκος,” meaning “household” and “νęμoμαι,” meaning “manage.” Therefore, in its more basic sense, economy means literally “rule of the house.” It applies to the way one manages the resources one has in their house.

Everyone has access to limited resources. It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, or middle class. Even the richest person on Earth has limited resources. Our day has only 24 hours. We only have one body. This body starts to decay very early in our lives. Even with modern medicine, we don’t get to live much more than 100 years.

The key of economics is how well we manage our limited resources. We need to make the best with the little we are given.

For most of human history, we were very poor. We had access to very limited resources, and we were not particularly good at managing them. We became much better in managing resources in the last few centuries. Today we can do much more with much less.

Value is a subjective thing. One thing has value when you think this thing has value. You may value something that I don’t.

We use money to exchange value. Money in and of itself can have no value at all. It doesn’t matter. The key of money is its ability to transmit information: I value this and I don’t value that.

Of course, many things can’t be valued in money. At least for most people. But it doesn’t change the fact that money is a very intelligent way to attribute value to things.

The economy cannot be managed centrally by a government agency. We have access to limited resources. Only we, individually, can judge which resources are more necessary for us in a given moment. Our needs can change suddenly, without notice. You can be saving money for years to buy a house, only to discover you will have to spend this money on a medical treatment. It’s sad. It’s even tragic. But it is true. If the economy is managed centrally, you have to transmit information to this central authority that your plans have changed. But if we have a great number of people changing plans every day, then this central authority will inevitably be loaded. The best judge of how to manage your resources is yourself.

We can become really rich as a society if we attribute responsibility for each person on how we manage our resources. If each one of us manages their resources to the best of their knowledge and abilities, we will have the best resource management possible. We will make the best of the limited resources we have.

Economics has a lot to do with ecology. They share the Greek “οίκος” which, again, means “household.” This planet is our house. The best way to take care of our house is to distribute individual responsibility over individual management of individual pieces of this Earth. No one can possess the whole Earth. But we can take care of tiny pieces we are given responsibility over.

Does business success make a good statesmen?

Gary Becker made the distinction between two types of on-the-job training: general and specific. The former consist of the skills of wide applicability, which enable the worker to perform satisfactorily different kinds of jobs: to keep one’s commitments, to arrive on time to work, to avoid disturbing behavior, etc.. All of them are moral traits that raise the productivity of the worker whichever his occupation would be. On the other hand, specific on-the-job training only concerns the peculiarities of a given job: to know how many spoons of sugar your boss likes for his coffee or which of your employees is better qualified to deal with the public. The knowledge provided by the on-the-job training is incorporated to the worker, it travels with him when he moves from one company to another. Therefore, while the general on-the-job training increases the worker productivity in every other job he gets, he makes a poor profit from the specific one.

Of course, it is relative to each profession and industry whether the on-the-job training is general or specific. For example, a psychiatrist who works for a general hospital gets specific training about the concrete dynamics of its internal organization. If he later moves to a position in another hospital, his experience dealing with the internal politics of such institutions will count as general on-the-job training. If he then goes freelance instead, that experience will be of little use for his career. Nevertheless, even though the said psychiatrist switches from working for a big general hospital to working on his own, he will carry with him a valuable general on-the-job training: how to look after his patients, how to deal with their relatives, etc.

So, to what extent will on-the-job training gained by a successful businessman enable him to be a good statesman? In the same degree that a successful lawyer, a successful sportsman, a successful writer is enabled to be one. Every successful person carries with him a set of personal traits that are very useful in almost every field of human experience: self confidence, work ethics, constancy, and so on. If you lack any of them, you could hardly be a good politician, so as you rarely could achieve anything in any other field. But these qualities are the typical examples of general on-the-job training and what we are inquiring here is whether the specific on-the-job training of a successful businessman could enable him with a relative advantage to be a better politician -or at least have a better chance of being a good one.

The problem is that there is no such a thing as an a priori successful businessman. We can state that a doctor, an engineer, or a biologist need to have certain qualifications to be a competent professional. But the performance of a businessman depends on a multiplicity of variables that prevents us from elucidating which traits would lead him to success.

Medicine, physics, and biology deal with “simple phenomena”. The limits to the knowledge of such disciplines are relative to the development of the investigations in such fields (see F. A. Hayek, “The Theory of Complex Phenomena”). The more those professionals study, the more they work, the better trained they will be.

On the other hand, the law and the market economy are cases of “complex phenomena” (see F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty). Since the limits to the knowledge of such phenomena are absolute, a discovery process of trial and error applied to concrete cases is the only way to weather such uncertainty. The judge states the solution the law provides to a concrete controversy, but the lawmaker is enabled to state what the law says only in general and abstract terms. In the same sense, the personal strategy of a businessman is successful only under certain circumstances.

So, how does the market economy survive to its own complexity? The market does not need wise businessmen, but lots of purposeful ones, eager to thrive following their stubborn vision of the business. Most of them will be wrong about their perception of the market and subsequently will fail. A few others will prosper, since their plans meet -perhaps by chance- the changing demands of the market. Thus, the personal traits that led a successful businessman to prosperity were not universal, but the right ones for the specific time he carried out his plans.

Having said that, would a purposeful and stubborn politician a good choice for government? After all, Niccolo Macchiavelli had pointed out that initiative was the main virtue of the prince. Then, a good statesman would be the one who handles successfully the changing opportunities of life and politics. Notwithstanding, The Prince was -as Quentin Skinner showed- a parody: opportunistic behaviour is no good to the accomplishment of public duties and the protection of civil liberties.

Nevertheless, there is still a convincing argument for the businessman as a prospect of statesman. If he has to deal with the system of checks and balances -the Congress and the Courts-, the law will act as the selection process of the market. Every time a decision based on expediency collides with fundamental liberties, the latter must withstand the former. A sort of natural selection of political decisions.

Quite obvious, but not so trite. For a stubborn and purposeful politician not to become a menace to individual and public liberties, his initiative must not venture into constitutional design. No bypasses, no exceptions, not even reforms to the legal restraints to the public authority must be allowed, even in the name of emergency. Especially for most of the emergencies often brought about by measures based on expediency.

Military Dictatorship in Brazil: Was it worth it?

The title of this text can already cause controversy since many understand that there was no dictatorship in Brazil, but a series of military governments that could not be classified as dictatorial. But the fact is that, in 1964, Castelo Branco became president in place of João Goulart, being succeeded by Costa e Silva, Medici, Geisel and João Figueiredo. Calling this dictatorship or not, the fact is that João Goulart was deposed and Castelo Branco occupied the presidency to avoid that the country was taken by groups sympathetic to the communism, making Brazil a “Big Cuba”. And it is against this fact that I ask if it was worth it: was it worth having 21 years of military governments to prevent a socialist government from being implanted in Brazil?

A socialist government was implemented in Brazil in 2003 by popular vote. Although political propaganda in 2002 had proclaimed an inclination towards the center of the political spectrum, the fact is that the PT never completely abandoned its socialist inclinations. It could even be said that FHC is worthy of the same comment: although less inclined to the left, the PSDB does not carry “democratic socialism” in the name for nothing. In light of this, I ask if it was worth having 21 years of military governments in Brazil. In 1988, just three years after João Figueiredo left the presidency of the country, a Constitution was promulgated with a strong Progressive character. In 1994, less than 10 years after the last military president stepped down, Brazil elected a “Third Way” president. In 2002 a president with a past of explicit connections with socialism came to power, and in 2011 the country happened to be governed by a former guerrilla warrior. If the objective of placing the military in power has been to avoid the implantation of socialist governments in Brazil, it can be said that this goal was not achieved. It was only postponed for just over 21 years.

What is socialism? Why is it so bad? Even without any empirical research, I am quite sure that most of the Brazilian population would not know how to answer these questions. In a similar vein, I am quite convinced that most of the country’s “literate class” (artists, academics, and intellectuals of all kinds) is sympathetic to socialism. Many of the political parties in Brazil carry “socialism” or “communism” in the name.

What did the military governments offer in exchange for socialism? Although they had varied characteristics, most of the governments between 1964 and 1985 tended to be a modernized version of Positivism. Positivism states that all knowledge (tradition, common sense, religion) will be superseded by positive scientific knowledge. Another way of defining it is to say that only what is empirically proven is true. Positivism, however, presents some problems. First, it is self-defeating, that is, it does not stand up to its own validation criteria: “Only what is empirically proven is true.” Is this empirically proven? Is it empirically proven that “only that which is empirically proven is true”? No. And it could not even be. Another difficulty is to carry out the empirical tests. It is possible, even with constraints, to conduct empirical tests in a controlled environment (in laboratories) to test theories and hypotheses. But it is not possible to declare the universality of the results, even if the tests are performed a very large number of times.

This “problem of induction” (to draw universal conclusions from particular, albeit many, observations) was famously answered by Karl Popper: in Popper’s definition, the aim of science is not to prove universal truths, but to affirm with confidence a set of information. In other words, nothing is “scientifically proven,” but many things are scientifically falsified by the lack of favorable evidence. Ludwig von Mises answered the problem of induction in another way: not everything has to be empirically tested to be considered true. There are truths that are self-evident, even without any empirical test. Despite the differences, both Popper and Mises offered possibilities of non-positivistic sciences (in the sense of systematic knowledge), especially valid for the study of human beings living in society.

Positivism and Marxism are sister doctrines. Both emerged in the 19th century in response to liberalism. The origin of liberalism lies in Christianity, if not in the affirmation of the existence of the Christian God in all the details presented by the Bible, at least in elements such as Natural Law and an anthropology similar to that of Christian teaching. Positivism and Marxism have moved away from Christianity by adopting a materialist view of reality (it only exists, or at least it only matters what we can experience empirically) and by denying the natural limitations of the human being.

Following von Mises, the Austrian School rejects the positivist methodology, and therefore is classified as heterodox. Although we should avoid anachronisms, the tendency of classical economists was the same: from introspection and axioms, rather than from empirical tests. It is not a matter of despising the scientific method altogether, quite the opposite! The scientific method is excellent for taking the man to the moon and discovering the cure of diseases. It just is not fit for a human “science.” To believe so is to fall into a “fatal conceit”. The military that governed Brazil between 1964 and 1985 can be accused of this fatal conceit. They generally believed that they could rule the country as if it were a barracks.

In conclusion: was it worth it? Certainly avoiding Socialism is a great and necessary goal. But combating it with Positivism is not the right path. Two mistakes do not make a hit. Was there the possibility of combating socialism with liberalism? I think not. Brazil didn’t have the liberal tradition necessary to confront socialism and other forms of authoritarianism or totalitarianism (and maybe it still hasn’t). Looking back, we can only regret that the options were so bad. Looking forward, we can try to improve our options by building a true liberalism in Brazil.

Artificial Intelligence and Medicine

When teaching the machine, the team had to take some care with the images. Thrun hoped that people could one day simply submit smartphone pictures of their worrisome lesions, and that meant that the system had to be undaunted by a wide range of angles and lighting conditions. But, he recalled, “In some pictures, the melanomas had been marked with yellow disks. We had to crop them out—otherwise, we might teach the computer to pick out a yellow disk as a sign of cancer.”

It was an old conundrum: a century ago, the German public became entranced by Clever Hans, a horse that could supposedly add and subtract, and would relay the answer by tapping its hoof. As it turns out, Clever Hans was actually sensing its handler’s bearing. As the horse’s hoof-taps approached the correct answer, the handler’s expression and posture relaxed. The animal’s neural network had not learned arithmetic; it had learned to detect changes in human body language. “That’s the bizarre thing about neural networks,” Thrun said. “You cannot tell what they are picking up. They are like black boxes whose inner workings are mysterious.”

The “black box” problem is endemic in deep learning. The system isn’t guided by an explicit store of medical knowledge and a list of diagnostic rules; it has effectively taught itself to differentiate moles from melanomas by making vast numbers of internal adjustments—something analogous to strengthening and weakening synaptic connections in the brain. Exactly how did it determine that a lesion was a melanoma? We can’t know, and it can’t tell us.

More here, from Siddhartha Mukherjee in the New Yorker (h/t Azra Raza).

And, in the same vein, here are some thoughts on terrorism.

HARD Summer: autonomy within a prohibitive legal system

I want to elaborate on an earlier post of mine, that received some backlash on Reddit. I said “it is [not] an altogether correct judgment to blame drug consumers for their deaths.” I stated that I don’t believe drug users are entirely to blame for the occasionally-lethal consequences of their willful intoxication; a point I didn’t elaborate on sufficiently, and something that, at first glance, seems wholly incorrect or contrary to many principles espoused on this site. Not so. Illegal drugs (and to an extent, legalized drugs, and to a small extent, anything illegal) face a special status in the realm of human action.

Imagine if I, an undergrad who studies law and philosophy, took on a business venture. I haven’t studied finance or business. Not only have I avoided all theory, but I have no real-world knowledge about the stock market or fluctuating national trends. If I go out on a limb, and buy shares in a company doomed to fail, at that precise moment I exercise my will, make a poor judgment and the inevitable consequences fall on my own shoulders. The responsibility is on me, the same as it would if I were highly educated on the subject and took a promising gamble. Why? Clearly, because I could have easily educated myself – the information, and the means to obtain it, is out there.

Drugs, such as methamphetamine, are different. Legal authorities have specifically prevented me from obtaining information, which would have been collected and condensed naturally, that is requisite for forming a knowledgeable, and thereby autonomous, judgment. In the same way that a child cannot be blamed for removing a firearm from its safe and mistakenly pulling the trigger, I cannot be entirely blamed for making decisions the consequences for which I had an incomplete understanding. It’s part of the reason the crime of homicide is nowhere in law so general: it is divided into murder, manslaughter, voluntary and involuntary, and so on, based on degrees of competence. Now, in the case of a hard drug, I did go of my own accord into the black market to purchase the substance. To some degree, no matter what, I was aware of the risks attached to it. Regardless, the government has, through its force, removed sources of information which would be central to my evaluative performance: scientists cannot perform tests because of enforced ethical standards or threatened jail time for proximity to a drug; there is a lack in direct testimony from acquaintances because the ability to acquire the drug has been drastically altered (in some circumstances, removed; in others, just made more seedy); in addition, police officers often do not know how to handle someone on certain drugs (even when they are required to), they know only how to make the arrest: occasionally life-threatening situations are stalled medical care. State paternalism actually has an infantilizing effect, which shifts some of the responsibility from my hands into those of my helicopter caregiver.

This disruption of responsibility does not imply the government now has the right to make my decisions for me: making decisions for me is what led to the disruption, not any innate immaturity on my part or the part of any user. Disruption cannot justify itself. Instead of knowing why methamphetamine is dangerous for so and so reasons, what I really know and understand, is that the market I can purchase it in is dangerous. Genuine knowledge, wisdom about a substance and its chemical make-up, is less commonplace than wisdom about the dangers of obtaining it: knowledge for which its existence is utterly contingent on an extensive state apparatus.

So, authorities that pass laws criminalizing drug use directly make the market more dangerous (by creating cartels, etc.), and indirectly prevent consumers from discovering information appropriate to making an informed (and thereby blameworthy) decision. The weight of many acute drug overdoses rests on the heads of lawmakers, and in every future drug experimentation the government plays an inhibitory role in the autonomy of the experimenter.

Politically-minded people who don’t want the government (or other people) making decisions for them – whether that’s conservatives hoping to direct their income how they see fit, or liberals fighting for marriage equality – usually employ the argument that people can be responsible for themselves. What I think is obvious, is that when government attempts to prohibit any substance, they impact the ability to even potentially be responsible when making decisions about the substance, by coercively limiting the information that would naturally develop.

The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).

Hitching to Sweden at 17

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.

Anyway, on that first hitching trip to Sweden, I had some hard times because I looked ordinary. Hitchhiking long distance, it turns out, serves to steel you against a childish sense of injustice that lingers long after childhood among some people. On one occasion, somewhere in the northern Netherlands, I had been standing on the side of the road for two hours when two Highlanders in full kilt regalia including furry sporran passed me and politely started signaling from behind me. (That is, they took their proper place in the queue.) Soon, they were followed by a guy in complete white Saharan outfit, with turban, white flowing robes, and all. The Highlanders were gone in ten minutes. Before the Saharan got picked up, he had the time to confirm that he lived in Paris, that he did not dress that way to work or university, and that he had bought the outfit for the specific purpose of hitchhiking to Sweden to meet girls. I felt under-dressed in my plain cotton pants and my short-sleeved blue shirt. Later, I made myself understand that my travel slowness was not a result of bad luck but of inferior knowledge and skills.