Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Big Five - Choose Your Battles Wisely

Here is the low-hanging fruit of public policy. 90% solutions (improvements) on these issues are several orders of magnitude more important than 99% solutions on a thousand others. They are in no particular order (alphabetical):
  • Drug Prohibition (end it--allow adults to make their own choices)
  • Education (privatize it--give the government an ever-smaller role)
  • Immigration (open it up--allow people to freely move and freely interact with other people)
  • Taxation (simplify and redirect it--efficiently tax the use of resources not the creation of resources)
  • War (move away from it--make postures less bellicose and violence less of an option). 
Everything else at this point is details. They are interesting details, yes. For example, the recent interesting, generally important, but marginally insignificant issue of the legality of blackmail. [note: I side with Robin Hanson, but I am sympathetic to and willing to live with the counter case.]

How should you vote? I would suggest an equal weighting of these Big Five policy stances as the guiding framework. While this recommendation is a prescription to be a few/select-issue voter, that should be considered a feature not a bug. Similarly straight-party voting isn't necessarily morally or intellectually inferior to a strategy of "voting the person not the party". By what criteria is a candidate-by-candidate voter deciding? Why should they believe they are properly weighting the issues, correctly identifying the stance on the issues, and accurately evaluating each candidate's position and expected actions on the issues? Using a few benchmark issues as the litmus test keeps the focus properly on that which meaningfully matters and gives the best hope the rationally ignorant voter is making a good decision.

More importantly, how should you advocate (much more bang for the buck)? Let's say solutions are just as simple as awareness (I know it is not, but it is a useful analogy). Spend about 95% one's advocacy efforts roughly evenly on the Big Five: ending the drug war, privatizing education, opening immigration, reforming taxation, and reducing war. The remaining 5% goes for everything else. My own behavior has not adhered to this framework, but since I am just now formally defining this, I grant myself pardon. Will I follow this going forward? All I can do is try.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

I Know Why Dracula Is So Rich

Before we can understand why Dracula is so rich, we need to understand why investments make money at all. Why isn't the current price simply the sum of all future returns? Well, because future returns are uncertain. A business venture might be profitable. Money lent might be returned. And the investor might be around (alive and well as today) to collect when the future return is available. Hence, an investor needs to be compensated for the risk that the investment will not generate a return and for the risk the investor cannot use the invested funds as well in the future as today.

I am positing that uncertainty is the single (the one and only) source of financial investment return above the time-value of money (TVM). Assuming we all have an identical time preference, which we do not, the time-value of money can be summarized as a single discount rate, an annual compound interest rate. Let's set the discount rate to 3% whereby $100 today is equal to $103 in one year, $106.09 in two years, and 1.03^n into perpetuity. To any degree that there is uncertainty about collecting the future investment, one would require a premium to the discount rate--an increase in it to compensate for risk (e.g., 3% becomes, say, 5%, which would be 3% for TVM plus 2% for risk). I realize "discount" is counterintuitive, but understand that it simply means discounting a future amount to be equal to a value in present terms. 

One way to get rich is to have a discount rate (a time-value of money) less than 3%—like say 2%. Then getting someone to pay you 3% in one year’s time is like getting paid almost 1.5 year’s interest in a single year since you only require 2%. It wouldn’t take much leverage (or much time) to make this a very real and very big get-rich-quick (or eventually) plan. 

Another way to get rich is to have less uncertainty about the future--the mythical crystal ball. Even if it is cloudy, it plus what everyone else (the market) knows is better than only what everyone else knows. 

This dawned on me when I was listening to Jason Wiser's retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula (Dracula: The Night King (part 3 of 3), specifically about the 35:21 mark). Because he is an immortal monster, Dracula can simply wait out any temporary problems--go to sleep for forty years as those who hunt him age and die. Now, think about Dracula's time preference for money or anything else. He plays the loooong game. He doesn't need to consume now and can let his wealth work for him quite easily--decade-long naps allow for very deferred consumption. Relative to mortals, he has a very, very low discount rate because his time horizon is astronomically longer and uncertainty from his perspective is much, much lower. 

What are the implications for us in the non-fictional, mortal universe? Tyler Cowen's Stubborn Attachments wrestles with this concept (confession: I have not read it yet, but I have purchased it, intend to read it, and have listened to approximately 3.79 trillion podcasts of him discussing it). As I understand it, he argues for a discount rate of 0% thereby valuing the future as equal to the present. In such a framework at the individual level you would not be paid a premium for deferring consumption. However, I believe he is proposing this at the societal level and more as a framework for policy making. A conclusion this leads to is generally favoring growth as the primary goal/aspiration for social policy.

What about implications for investors? Individuals are not immortal; so unless you are planning a trip to Transylvanian, you better continue to demand compensation for deferred consumption (TVM) and some premium for risk being taken.

What about endowments and foundations? I would propose they are not nearly as much like Dracula as they would like to be--in the time horizon and uncertainty dimensions. I won't at this time accuse them of having other Dracula-like qualities (fodder for a future "shots fired" post perhaps). These entities have current and continual demands for withdrawals. An X% annual spending policy and a collection of interested parties with very different perspectives strongly challenges any argument for a lower discount rate. The foundation as a concept may theoretically have an infinite time horizon, but its donors, beneficiaries (both current and near-future ones), and employees do not. At the very least it will be difficult for them to think and act as if there is an infinite time horizon when they should (deferring consumption in tough times) and rather easy for them to do so when they shouldn't (assuming future growth will solve all current shortcomings). 

Lastly, what about governments? Well, should they really expect to be around into perpetuity? How many can reasonably expect this? So far at least technically the success stories number zero. (Perhaps another future post expanding on this question and applying to foundations as well.) I will grant that governments in a practical sense to a degree (magnitude matters) can assume very long time horizons borrowing against the future. It will work just fine until it doesn't. Given enough splinters (growth-hampering regulations, inflation, entitlement promises, etc.) you'll eventually have a wooden stake. Governments may aspire to be Dracula (see below), but they face many, many obstacles in getting there. 

This brings us to a Partial List of why governments are like vampires:
  1. The light of day is toxic to their way of behaving.
  2. Taxes = blood.
  3. They can seduce with their promises.
  4. They create captured minions whose self interest becomes subservient and aligned to the master's.
  5. We trust them blindly at our peril.
  6. They are incapable of looking themselves in the mirror.