Normas, decisiones y complejidad

Hace pocos días, se publicó en el sitio americanscientist.org un ambicioso artículo sobre el concepto de lo aleatorio. El autor, Scott Aaronson, trataba de elucidar bajo qué criterio podíamos distinguir una serie aleatoria de números de otra serie de números ordenados conforme cierto patrón, difícil de determinar, pero estructurante al fin de un orden en la serie. En otras palabras, si una computadora arrojaba “aleatoriamente” un número “9” y luego otro número “9” y luego otro y otro, ¿estábamos ante el resultado del azar, que se juega en cada nueva jugada, o ante un patrón que podía expresarse en una fórmula? ¿Si de repente apareciera en la serie un número 4, eso confirmaría el azar, o nos indicaría que nos encontramos ante un patrón más complejo?

Aaronson propone en el referido artículo, como criterio identificatorio de un número aleatorio, la característica de no ser susceptible de reducción a un algoritmo más simple. La explicación aparece como plausible y tiene un gran poder de seducción. Sin embargo, desde nuestro punto de vista, tal conceptualización no permite distinguir azar de complejidad. Friedrich A. Hayek se inspiró en Kurt Gödel para proponer, como caracterización de un fenómeno complejo, aquél sobre el que, en atención a la heterogeneidad de sus elementos, ninguna teoría puede ofrecer su descripción completa, es decir, que no puede expresarse en un algoritmo más simple.

La noción de fenómeno complejo tiene sus raíces en el empirismo de David Hume: las relaciones entre los términos (una serie de números, por ejemplo) no se encuentran en los términos mismos, si no que son atribuidas por el sujeto (en nuestro ejemplo, le adjudicamos un patrón a aquella serie de números.) Desde el momento en el que el conocimiento general no proviene de los hechos si no que es atribuido a los mismos, tal conocimiento general no nos permitirá agotar el conocimiento de lo particular. En otras palabras, siempre habrá un elemento empírico en toda teoría.

Para continuar con nuestro ejemplo: podemos enunciar un patrón que explique la sucesión de una serie de números, pero estamos expuestos a que aparezca un nuevo número en la serie que nos obligue a revisar nuestra teoría. Cuando aparece un nuevo acontecimiento que se escapa a nuestras expectativas, lo que hacemos es reajustar la noción de orden que le atribuimos a la realidad. Lo que hace que una serie de acontecimientos configure un orden o estructura, y no sea caótica o aleatoria no es, por consiguiente, que las expectativas en torno a los acontecimientos siempre se cumplan, si no que exista un rango de acontecimientos que nunca se verifique, en otras palabras: que determinadas expectativas sean sistemáticamente frustradas.

Igualmente, la confusión entre azar y complejidad puede ser fecunda y arrojar más luz sobre la naturaleza de la segunda. Por ejemplo, Nicolás Maquiavelo culminaba “El Príncipe” con la afirmación de que la iniciativa era la virtud fundamental del político, ya que la fortuna tendía a favorecer más al arriesgado que al cauto. En términos poblacionales, vemos más hombres de éxito con iniciativa que sin ella ya que, para resultar exitosos, se tuvieron que conyugar dos situaciones: la decisión de asumir riesgos y que la oportunidad favorable efectivamente se haya presentado. En el conjunto de políticos sin éxito encontraremos a los cautos y también a los arriesgados (que no tuvieron suerte). Va de suyo que podemos sustituir “fortuna” por “complejidad” sin perder mucho del sentido de la idea.

Asimismo, The Economist publicó la semana pasada un interesante artículo sobre la relación entre la estructura del azar y laestructura de las decisiones. Todo parece indicar que efectivamente existen buenas y malas rachas, pero ello no se debe al azar si no a la estructura de decisiones que se toman frente a una situación difícil o imposible de comprender. Un jugador tiene a la suerte de su lado cuando, luego de ganar la primera apuesta, en las sucesivas va reduciendo su exposición al riesgo. Correlativamente en este caso, a menores riegos, menores ganancias pero también menores pérdidas, con lo que el resultado neto de todo el conjunto de jugadas es positivo. Paralelamente, si un jugador pierde en su primera apuesta, incrementar el riesgo de las sucesivas con la idea de compensar la primera pérdida sólo lo llevará a la ruina. En síntesis, una muy buena estrategia para lidiar con el riesgo es actuar como un sistema de retroalimentación negativa: a cada desvío del promedio estándar, responder con mayor moderación. Después de todo, la comparación con un sistema de retroalimentación negativa era la caracterización que F. A. Hayek hacía de la función del derecho y de todo sistema normativo en general, aportando mayor estabilidad y mejores resultados netos.

Publicado originariamente en http://www.ihumeblog.blogspot.com.ar , el blog institucional de la Fundación Instituto David Hume (www.ihume.org), de Buenos Aires, Argentina.

From the Comments: Regulations, Market Failures, and the Fait Accompli

Dr Amburgey raises an excellent point in Adam’s equally excellent, most recent post. Responding to a link by economist Peter Boettke on the effects that institutions have on political economy, Dr Amburgey writes:

Very nice post; it crystalizes many of my objections to what I sometimes see here, a neglect of the literature on market failure in general and opportunism specifically.

[Dr Amburgey quoting Boettke:] “In my book, Why Perestroika Failed I argue that in assessing the workability of utopian schemes we must first subject them to a coherence test, and then a test of their vulnerability to opportunism. Schemes that are incoherent are deemed impossible; schemes that are coherent but vulnerable are impractical; and only schemes that are both coherent and invulnerable should be considered in the feasible set of workable utopias.”

An anarchist regulatory regime *is* a utopia, but raising taxes on corporations as an alternative is not? Then why propose such a policy in the first pace? I think it’s because Dr A doesn’t realize that his utopia is incoherent. Workable, absolutely, but not coherent.

Do you see how his argument is proposing a utopia, though? There are a number of theoretical responses to the market failure argument. Economist Peter Boettke lists four general responses to the market failure argument: Definitional, institutional, entrepreneurial, and comparative analysis. Adam’s post is an example of a defintional rejection of the market failure argument. I make institutional arguments all the time. Rick’s post on entrepreneurship is a good example of the third. Perhaps we need to do a better job of explaining that our arguments are rebuttals of market failure arguments, but I also think that such rebuttals are implicit in most of our writings.

Dr Amburgey also takes Adam to task for ostensibly failing to see the current regulatory apparatus in place (even though Adam’s initial post was all about current regulations and what to do about them). Dr Amburgey thinks Adam’s argument is all about unicorns and pixie dust:

Unicorns: We’ll completely deregulate one of the most oligopolistic industries in the history of the universe and then the invisible hand of market competition will make everything ok.

Okay, but market competition would include a market for buying and selling regulatory apparatuses. That is to say, regulations themselves would not disappear were they to be withdrawn from the purvey of the State, but rather they would be subject to market competition.

There is also the fact that the oligopolies Dr Amburgey identifies are a result of the state-sponsored regulations.

Pixie dust: “The oil companies should be liable for the full cost of any damages done by their rigs.” Yup. We’ll just add that on to the long list of tort reforms barrelling through the American legislative and judicial systems.

Just because the political system is currently preventing the reforms necessary for full liability does not mean that Adam’s argument is “pixie dust.” Is it not logically sound? If the logic is there (and I see no reason why it is not) then the reforms necessary can take place. Whether or not they will take place is an entirely different topic. I think they could, but only if we can get enough smart people like Dr A to see how they are not thinking their arguments through.

Sure. But they weren’t doing anything they didn’t want to do anyway [see the point just above] they were just externalizing the downside risks. As Adam points out “If the site is not economically viable then there is no reason to drill there.” Classic corporate capitalism in the contemporary US. If it works we get the profit, if it doesn’t you bear the cost.

I don’t think we are disagreeing here. Here is where our misunderstanding begins: Adam’s argument (as I understand it) is that Big Oil is able to externalize these costs through the regulatory apparatus. I think you would have to agree provided you think through the logic of your statement. We all agree that Big Oil was able to externalize the risks involved in drilling off the Gulf, but how, for example, do firms go about “socializing the costs”? If they don’t go through the existing regulatory apparatus, how do these firms achieve the externalization of costs?

“It looks to me like Adam is proposing an alternative for regulating how oil is drilled for by corporations.”

It looks to me like Adam’s alternative for regulating oil [NOT just drilling] is to not regulate it at all. Did I miss some regulations that he would keep?

Again, I don’t know how I can be more clear: Just because government regulations would not exist does not mean that no regulation would exist.

Risks Of Regulation

A bit dated but still very relevant.

Regulation; the four letter word of the business world.  Many people see regulation as a protective shield from the ‘dangers’ of the businessman; a way to protect people, property and the environment.  The oil industry is one of the most heavily regulated enterprises in the United States.  Despite being intended to protect us; these regulations failed catastrophically on April 20th, 2010 when the Deep Water Horizon oil rig suffered a mechanical failure resulting in an explosion which sank the rig two days later(1).  Yet, when the disaster happened, we were met with pleas for more government oversight and more red tape.  The regulations on that industry, both in the Gulf Mexico and throughout the country, helped cause the Deepwater Horizon disaster and removing them would help prevent similar disasters in the future.

Regulations in the Gulf of Mexico begin with the Minerals Management Service (MMS).  Created in 1982 due to the Federal Oil and Gas Royalty Management Act the MMS “both regulates the [gulf oil drilling] industry and collects billions[of dollars] in royalties from it”(2, 3).  The MMS’s responsibility to regulate includes monthly inspections, issuing safety documentation, and issuing safety citations(3).  Royalty collection is based on number of barrels of oil removed and varies from well to well.  The MMA also provides  “royalty relief“ to a number of rigs based on previous legislation. Until November of 2000 the royalty relief was issued based on the Outer Continental Shelf Deep Water Royalty Relief Act of 1995, better known as DWRRA.  This act “relieves eligible leases from paying royalties on defined amount of deep-water production”.  At depths over 2,526 feet oil companies did not have to pay the United States royalties on 87.5 million barrels of oil, between 1,312 and 2,625 feet the relief was 52.5 million barrels and between 656 and 1,312 feet the relief was only 17.5 million barrels.  While this act expired in the year 2000 it was replaced by an incentive program that allowed royalty relief to be “specified at the discretion of the MMS”(4).  This incentive program provides more relief if a drilling site is “more expensive to access” even if it is at the same water depth as another rig receiving less relief (2).  The royalty relief system provides incentives for Oil Rigs to operate in deep waters, especially those classified as “Ultra-Deepwater” by reducing the royalties paid on those sites(5).

While not specific to the gulf, there are a variety of moratoria on drilling throughout the country.  These moratoria take two forms.  The first set, known as “leasing moratoria” are general bans on drilling in select areas , the second set are temporary bans due to specific incidents.  Since   the fiscal year 1982 congress has denied funds to the MMS to “conduct leasing for the specified Outer Continental Shelf areas”.  Currently there is a “blanket moritorium” on leasing in effect “through 2012” that covers a large portion of both the East and West coasts( 2).  One of the largest bans on drilling however exists in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge(ANWR).  Located in the “northeast corner” of Alaska over ten million acres of land are off limits to drilling.  In this wildnerness it is estimated that there exists “between ten billion and sixteen trillion barrels of oil” that could supply twenty percent of U.S. demand for nearly thirty years(6).  The most recent temporary bans have been a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  A “30-day pause in offshore drilling” followed the sinking of the Horizon rig(11).  This did not only cover BP’s rigs but all offshore drilling “based on water depth”(7).  That ban was removed by a federal court, but was replaced with a revised ban that will be in effect until November, 2010(7).

Beyond physical limitations on drilling there are also economic regulations.  There are a number of federal subsidies and tax breaks for the drilling industry.  David Kocieniewski says that “examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses”.  These tax breaks occur for a number of reasons.  Many are simply to lure oil companies to American shores, others were “born of international politics” or “date back nearly a century”(8).  Beyond that the United States government has put “Liability Limits” on drilling operations.  The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 limits an oil companies liability for damages to only $75 million dollars.  Any remaining damages, up to $1 billion, are payed through the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.  This fund is “financed primarily through a fee on imported oil”(1).  Senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey recently introduced bill, S. 3305 which would raise that cap to $10 billion(9).

All of these laws and regulations have one thing in common.  They increased the probability of a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Each regulation increased the risk of such a spill in some way and when combined they resulted in the disaster that is causing massive destruction in the Gulf today.  The Minerals Management service was organized to be the overarching regulatory body for the Oil Industry.  Why did it fail in its duty?  Why did “spills from offshore oil rigs…in U.S. waters more than quadrupled this decade” despite the MMS’s oversight(10)?  This question was answered by economist Walter Block in his book The Privatization of Roads & Highways (12).  Quoting Cecil Mackey, former Assistant secretary of transportation, he says:

“As the more obvious regulatory actions are taken; as the process becomes more institutionalized; as new leaders on both sides  replace ones who were so personally involved as adversaries in  the initial phases, those who regulate will gradually come to reflect,     in large measure, points of view similar to those whom they regulate.”

Quite simply, the MMS adopted the views of the Oil Industry completely negating their ability to regulate it.  Congressman Nick J. Rahall confirms this saying “MMS has been asleep at the switch in terms of policing offshore rigs”.  Using numbers supplied by the MMS in the prior 64 months before the incident “25 percent of monthly inspections were not performed”(3).  Are we to believe another agency would be any more efficient?  Bureaucracy and corruption are not the only things to blame however; legislation played a vital role in this disaster as well.  DWRRA, for example, incentivized the risk to drill in deep waters.  Under DWRRA the greater the depth being drilled the greater the royalty relief amount.  These waters are inherently less safe to drill in.   It is easy to compare the difficulties in dealing with a site 5000 feet below the ocean against one 500 feet below the surface.  These incentives were made worse when DWRRA expired.  Under the new program “the most economically risky projects would receive the most relief”, safer projects on the other hand would receive “little or no relief”(4).

While acts like DWRRA incentivize the risk of deepwater drilling the greater incentive to drill in the Gulf of Mexico is simply that there are so few places to drill in the continental United States.  The United States Exclusive Economic Zone extends “200 nautical miles” from all of it’s shores(2).  Yet, much of this area is off limits to drilling.  The “blanket moratorium” issued by former President George H.W. Bush in 1990  restricts drilling in “all unleased areas offshore Northern and Central California, Southern California except for 87 tracts, Washington, Oregon, the North Atlantic coast, and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico coast”.  The Gulf of Mexico is the only economically viable offshore area left for them to drill.  This of course pales in comparison to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Most of the 10-million-acre area is not even adjacent to the ocean, surely drilling on land or in shallow water is much safer than drilling 5000 feet under the ocean(6).  Beyond helping to cause the spill in the first place the government is increasing the risk of future disasters.  The temporary ban issued in response to the Horizon spill “neither improves safety nor mitigates risk”(11).  By forcing drilling to stop you immediately cause a number of problems.  Reentering a location is as dangerous, if not more so, than the original drilling operation.  Experienced workers have been fired, laid off, or relocated and will need to be replaced with less experienced ones.  Equipment in worse quality will be all that remains when the moratorium ends(11).

The economic regulations were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  A single tax break for the Deepwater Horizon oil rig covered “70 percent of the rent” or “$225,000 a day”.  Or, as policy analyst Sima J Gandhi describes it “We’re giving tax breaks to highly profitable companies to do what they would be doing anyway”(8).  These breaks are not only an unfair advantage, they incite these companies to make riskier choices.  If the potential cost of the Deepwater Horizon rig wasn’t offset by these breaks it may not have been economically viable to drill in such a dangerous location.  On top of the lower cost of the initial operation; the Liability Caps ensured that any potential risk was marginalized by the government.  The $75 million limit that has been in effect since 1990 was a message to the industry to attempt increasingly risky drills(1).

The oil companies should be liable for the full cost of any damages done by their rigs.  The worry that “operators and nonoperators in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico will be unable to obtain adequate protection from insurance” is totally unjustified (1).  If the site is not economically viable then there is no reason to drill there.  If BP and Transocean knew they would have been liable for all damages they would not have received a citation for “not conducting well control drills as required and not performing ‘all operations in a safe and workmanlike manner'”(3).  There would have been an incentive to spend money on safety, training and equipment instead of the incentive to take risks knowing they would be protected.  Or as one lawyer explained the situation “arbitrary liability caps are just not reasonable.  You cannot decide the expense of a disaster before it happens.  Liability caps allow companies like BP to avoid bearing the responsibility for the full cost of the damage they inflict”(9).

The oil has stopped flowing from the bottom of the Gulf; for now.  The question remains: How can we prevent this from happening again?  There, of course, is no easy answer.  Accidents, mistakes, and disasters can never be guarded against completely.  We can however mitigate the risk involved in those dangerous operations that are needed for the sake of humanity.  The best way to increase the safety of the oil industry is to remove the regulations that incentivize the risks involved in their industry.  Preventing drilling in safer areas, tax breaks, royalty reductions, liability limits; all these things make an already dangerous prospect that much more perilous.  We need to neither help nor hinder these companies, they must succeed or fail on their own merits.

Sources available upon request.

The Keystone Pipeline

You may have heard recently that the appropriate federal agency declared  the Keystone pipeline would pose no significant dangers to the environment. I doubt this will stop the green fanatics. Nor is the probability that oil no refined and used in this country will be mostly exported to China where environmental laws are lax and not often enforced. Rationality is not their forte, as a rule.

It appears that there may be a chance to influence the decision to build or not via an on-line petition. I don’t know what is the probability of its working is but the cost seems so low it would be a pity not to try a click. Besides, enough signatures may make Mr Obama squirm a little irrespective of the decision he makes.

Go to:   buildKXLnow.com [it’s actually buildKXLnow.org – bc]

Go to: “Go to Make Your Voice Heard,” [it’s  actually the ‘Take Action Now’ tab that you’ll want to click on – bc]

A simple sign-up box will appear.

Uruguayan government: “monopoly” on pot

Last week, Uruguay’s government passed legislation to legalize marijuana. While the government will not be growing any cannabis plants (they are leaving that to private cultivators and farmers), the state will be playing a major role in the market… by fixing the price for marijuana at $1 per gram.

The rationale behind this production legalization and price fixing is to limit the amount of marijuana being trafficked into the country (mainly from Paraguay). As many of you may know, the narcotics trafficking business in Latin America is wrought with intense violence and organized crime. By fixing the price at $1 a gram, government officials believe this initiative will drive these traffickers out of business (at least in Uruguay). However, as all government interventions go, we need to ask ourselves, what are the possible unintended consequences lurking around the corner?

The issue I have is not with the legalization of marijuana, but with the price-fixing component of the legislation. Interventions into the market distort information (price) signals, forcing entrepreneurs to work off of incorrect information for their profit and loss calculations. Given that the drug market is already entrenched in these distortions, is this price-fixing component of the legislation a step in the right direction, or does it just complicate matters further?

The incentive structure, given the fixed price, is not the same as it would be in a free market. Any incentive that could have pushed these traffickers to move away from violence if it resulted in greater profits has been removed. Perhaps these violent traffickers will leave the marijuana business in Uruguay, but will they relocate efforts to other countries, or perhaps begin focusing on different illegal narcotics to traffic into Uruguay? If these new freedoms being granted to Uruguayans are coming at the cost of increased violence in other countries as a result of this price-fixing component, should we consider this a success?

YAL member speaks at County Cannabis Regulatory Hearing

On October 22, 2013, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors convened to vote on re-regulating medical cannabis cultivation and distribution via local grow operations and a local dispensary. Unfortunately, while the public applauded my comments regarding the issue, the County Board were not swayed from moving forward a “regulatory scheme” as Board member John Leopold commented after the 3-2 vote to further restrict the liberty of free people.

Criminalizing Innovation

By Fred Foldvary

The U.S. government has attacked an entrepreneur and his new product, as another episode of the federal government’s war on enterprise. In this case, the entrepreneur CEO is Craig Zucker, the company was Maxfield & Oberton, and the product was Buckyballs.

Buckyballs were small magnetic spheres made of neodymium, a rare-earth element that is a powerful magnet. As they stick together, the balls can be assembled into shapes such as pyramids. They were named “Buckyballs” after Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, inventor of the geodesic dome, and futurist visionary. His friends called him “Bucky,” and the neodymium spheres were somewhat like Bucky’s domes.

The company imported the balls from China and started selling them in 2009. They became a popular office toy. But the Buckyballs were banned in July 2012 by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is now seeking to prosecute Zucker for having sold the balls.

In 2012 the Commission also sent letter to retailers warning of the risks to consumers of using Buckyballs and asking them to stop selling them. That was effective in stopping the sales. The Commission stated that the balls were a hazard for young children who swallowed them.

The company had developed the Buckyballs in collaboration with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and after the action by the Commission, the firm provided it with a corrective-action plan. Buckyballs were sold with a warning against access by children, and they were not sold in toy stores. But the Commission pursued a lawsuit against the firm even before examining the corrective plan. As pointed out by the Wall Street Journal article (cited below) on that case, there are many potentially dangerous products being sold, such as cleaning chemicals, knives, and balloons. Buckyballs were intended and marketed for adults, and, according to the WSJ article, no deaths have been associated with the Buckyballs.

The Commission declared, as a justification for the ban, that Buckyballs have “low utility” and are unnecessary, despite purchases by 2.5 million adults who spent $30 each. The principle established by the Commission is that government determines which products are desirable, not consumers. Any product could be banned by the standards of the Commission.

The company then engaged in a publicity campaign regarding the actions by the Commission. In the end, the government was too powerful to resist, and the company was terminated in December 2012. However, in February 2013, the Commission charged Zucker as being personally liable for the costs of a recall costing $57 million if the Buckyballs are judged to be defective.

The federal government has by this action abolished limited personal liability under U.S. law for corporations as well as partnerships. From now on, the executives of a firm will be vulnerable for the liabilities of the firms. Any entrepreneur will now risk losing all that he owns if he engages in the production or distribution of any product. The effect of this government action is to strangle American entrepreneurship.

In the case of United States v. Park in 1975, the Supreme Court ruled that the CEO of a food company was criminally liable for a rodent infestation. This ruling was based on the federal Food and Drug Act. But another case, Meyer v. Holley in 2003 ruled that ordinary liability applies unless there is a clear Congressional intent to hold corporate officers personally liable. The relevant law in the Buckyballs case is Section 15 of the Consumer Product Safety Act, which regulates corporate persons, not individual persons.

The WSJ article says that since Zucker did not commit any criminal violation, the Commission’s continuing prosecution of Zucker “raises the question of retaliation for his public campaign against the commission.” If the Commission achieves its goal, personal-injury lawyers will take advantage of personal liability to go after CEOs and other company personae.

This action by Congress, the Courts, and the Commission has to be seen in the perspective of a broad war by government on private enterprise and consumer choice, using taxes, restrictions, mandates, and prosecutions, ultimately resulting in an economy that is nominally private but substantially controlled by governmental chiefs. The name for that system is “fascism.”

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Reference: Sohrab Ahmari, “What Happens When a Man Takes on the Feds,” Wall Street Journal, August 31-September 1, 2013, p. A11.

Brookline Selectmen decided to upset their Econ 101 professors

Brookline Selectmen decided to upset their Econ 101 professors

Cab medallions is one of the most popular textbook examples of destructive government policies. Despite this, Brookline’s government has decided to implement a medallion policy. In 2013 I can only assume this was done specifically to anger economics professors in the Boston area.

Feds File Charges Against SAC Capital

Thanks to Dr Gibson for alerting me to this. He’s also got a piece on insider trading that was first published in the Freeman in December of 2010. We’ve been able to reproduce it here at NOL. He writes:

Insider trading is restricted but not entirely forbidden. Just what constitutes the “bad” kind of insider trading? This is generally understood to be trading on information originating within a company that could have a material effect on the share price had it been publicly known. The law applies not only to insiders—employees and directors—but also to any outsiders to whom inside information is disclosed […]

We see that insider-trading regulations are subjective and arbitrary, rivaling antitrust laws in this respect. It is no wonder that Congress never defined insider trading and that the SEC resisted defining it for many years; the courts have had to make up the rules as cases arose. Every so often someone like Martha Stewart is thrown to the lions, drawing cheers from the jealous and spreading fear to successful and therefore high-profile managers.

Dr Gibson’s suggestions for alternatives to government regulation are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.

Update: this piece, also by Dr Gibson, explaining what hedge funds are is well worth your time, too.