Monday, May 27, 2019

Don't Let the Ideal Be the Enemy of Improvement

This recent Scott Sumner post got me thinking about a truism I like to follow: 

Don't let the ideal be the enemy of improvement--my take on don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

Perfect is overrated. While I might be a libertarian idealist at heart, I have always striven to be a directionalist rather than a destinationist. And I certainly don't want to fall victim to the Unicorn Fallacy.

Consider The Big Five and reasonable milestones of progress to be aiming for.
  • Drug prohibition - Marijuana tolerance is gaining. This is largely good (movement in the right direction). However, it probably will have unintended byproducts like legalization = authority endorsement leading to overuse as well as even stronger resistance to decriminalization, legalization, and tolerance for other illicit products (cocaine, heroin, LSD, etc.) and services (sex work, price "gouging", etc.). Reasonable near-term aspiration: Federal action decriminalizing if not descheduling marijuana despite the before-mentioned byproducts.
  • Education - School choice is on a gradual but tepid rise. Reasonable near-term aspiration: A popular civil-rights figure strongly advocating for a voucher or charter school experiment in a major inner city. 
  • Immigration - These seem to be dark times. Yet I see two aspects of optimism. First, Democrat rhetoric is improving as they attempt to draw a distinction from Trump--this isn't faith in Democrat dogma but rather faith they will paint themselves into a good corner. Second, Republicans will likely need to soften the stance Trump has defined lest they risk losing demographically--this isn't faith in Republican virtue but rather faith in their ability to see a self-serving means to an ends. Reasonable near-term aspiration: A compromise solution to allow much-greater levels of H1B visas and higher levels of "desirable" immigrants (where desirability comes from greater restrictions on immigrant access to benefits or sponsorship by entities such as employers or charities or sanctuary cities).
  • Taxation - The biggest recent improvement has been in this category with the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. By far the two benefits of this mixed bag of tax changes were the reduction in the corporate tax rate and the increase in the standard deduction. The latter should enable future tax simplifications such as removing deductions and allowances much easier to accomplish. Reasonable near-term aspiration: Increases in tax-deferred savings limits.
  • War - This is the most stagnant category. Across the globe we are still explicitly overtly at war (Afghanistan, Iraq, et al.), implicitly covertly at war (Yemen, Syria, et al.), and potentially at war (Iran, North Korea, et al.). Reasonable near-term aspiration: A critical mass within the electorate of direct opposition to each of these three types of bellicosity. Even if it is a selfishly-derived opposition (stop wasting our resources on lost causes, don't fight other people's battles, regroup in case we need to fight a big enemy), it would be helpful. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

What Are You Signaling By Your Sport of Choice?

This is meant to be primarily tongue-in-cheek, but if the shoe fits...
  • Football - I am in the tribe of macho
  • Basketball - I am a socialite sports fan
  • Soccer - I am worldly and sophisticated
  • Baseball - I am in love with Americana and yearn for the ways of the past
  • Golf - I am elitist (by desire/choice or caste)
  • Hockey - I am accepting of violence to solve problems
  • NASCAR - I am intolerant
  • Formula 1 - I am tolerant, no really, I swear I am
  • Horse racing - I am superstitious
  • Boxing and MMA - I am accepting of violence as an ends in itself
  • Wrestling - I am in the true tribe of macho
  • Tennis - I am a true socialite sports fan
  • Olympics - I am a fan of theater
I don't know enough to hazard a guess on these: Cricket, Rugby (probably the same as American football), Field Hockey, et al.

Partial List of Wax On Wax Off

Partial list of things I believe to be waxing and waning in the popular sense of moral, civilized taste. To be clear morality is not determined by vote. And also notice this is not a list of things peak/not peak. This is more a prediction of long-term trending.

  • Marijuana
  • Basketball (as a share of sports-fan attention)
  • Virtue signalling to strangers through condemnation (you shouldn't do this or believe that)
  • Factory farming/eating animals/hunting
  • Tobacco
  • Football
  • NCAA student-athlete amateurism
  • Fossil fuel energy (both superficial (electric cars are ~25% coal cars) and actual)

Partial List of Serious Problems We Won't Solve

Partial list of serious problems where too many of us are unreasonably unwilling to accept the clearly best solutions*: 
  • Climate change/energy efficiency - nuclear power
  • The need for kidney transplants - a free market in organ transfers
  • Higher levels of economic growth -  free movement of people across borders
  • Too little affordable housing - allowing more housing to be built
  • Inner-city education failure - getting government out of the provision and design of schooling via vouchers (case in point of why this is on the list)
  • Health care cost - removing regulation against competition in insurance provision and required components of insurance along with removing tax advantage for employer-provided insurance (updated to add: eliminating at least FDA's efficacy requirements if not the FDA altogether and allowing unencumbered competition in health care supply (i.e., eliminating certificate of need laws, et al.))
  • High unemployment and underemployment within the underclass - remove occupational licensing (also helps in health care and legal work markets among others)
  • Social Security insolvency - sun setting of future obligations by means (for near claimants) and age (ending the scheme for all those below a certain age)
  • Drug-related crime, violence, and social disruption - full legalization of all currently illicit narcotics
  • Geopolitical conflict (aka, war) - embrace and default to pacifism
  • Taxation distortions and inequalities - Replacing income-based and all other resource-creation-based taxation with consumption-based taxation such as a VAT
*These are not necessarily completely sufficient solutions, but they are at least the most complete way these problems could be greatly alleviated.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Why Might Good News Make Stocks Go Down?

This runs the risk of being the most ill-timed post I've made since current recession risk is probably elevated. Don't take this as direct investment advice or as timely commentary on the current market. 

Consider a hypothetical couple planning for retirement and in the midst of that plan they are considering the upcoming year's vacation options. They can either have a staycation with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and TV watching or a blowout Hawaiian vacation. 

As they consider which vacation they can afford, I arrive at their door having traveled from the future. Don't get caught up in the unrealistic assumption of time travel. The point is that I can credibly tell them the future looks very bright--perhaps I'm just Carnac the Magnificent. I tell them their investments will do well and times ahead are very good. How will they react? They go on the Hawaiian vacation. In other words they sell or forego savings (investments) and buy current consumption. 

The more technically accurate but less intuitive way of looking at it is the following. To get them to forgo enjoying the vacation now opting instead to save/invest, the market would need to pay them a higher rate of return (their discount rate, required rate of return, has increased). In order for current assets to have higher future returns, prices today must decline. Here is a fuller explanation from John Cochrane. His main point is that positive news can make market prices suddenly decline (if profit expectations stay the same but discount rates increase) but also negative news can make market prices suddenly decline (if profit expectations decline). 

If you find an unanswered question in this analysis, you are on to something. Good news can make the market decline but so can bad news. What exactly makes stock market prices suddenly go up? New, higher profit expectations could be the answer. Unfortunately, this is harder to come by than might be assumed. Remember, we are talking about long-term profit expectations. Those are tied to fundamental growth rates of ideas (innovation/productivity) and market size (population as well as density--a million people in a city are more productive than a million people spread sparsely over a large space). Moving that needle positive is much, much harder than negatively shocking it.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Can Trump Be The Solution To Trump?

As faithful readers know, I have been ambivalent on the Trump presidency. From the beginning I thought there were reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic on it. Those are proving fairly prescient in some cases, gratefully off in others:
Optimistic - Shows why we should lose (and should have lost a long time ago) our reverent awe for the U.S. Presidency; prevents major government action/intervention/meddling on any number of issues by being a circus act writ large (his administration's priorities will be prestige and showmanship rather than policy accomplishment); forces a meaningful debate and action on limiting executive power (a little bit in tension with the previous prediction as this one mitigates a Trump administration that is actually trying to do something).
Pessimistic - Engages in major international war actions (beyond the high amount the each of his opponents would do anyway); sets back trade freedom and immigration substantially; creates strong racial, ethnic, nationalistic, and gender divides.
I have expanded on this upon Trump taking office and one-year in. Part of my analysis has been optimism that Trump will bring sanity to how we look upon the U.S. presidency.
  • Lost Respect for the Sanctity of the Office - yes this is a feature--let the scales fall from your eyes, the emperors have never been well dressed. But . . .
A recent episode of the always rewarding Something's Off with Andrew Heaton featured Rob Montz discussing his excellent Trump as Destiny: Why the Reality Show Presidency Was Inevitable. This is a great piece that I hope gets as much traction as possible. It resonates with me. I hope it does so for others.

We've gone from George Washington supposedly declining the offer to be king (even if this is apocryphal, the fact that it is part of the legend strongly implies we at least once held this to be a virtue) through John Kennedy embracing the image of being our king to genuine concern that Trump would take us up on the offer.

The course of history has been decidedly against my vision for the U.S. presidency. What makes me think I should be optimistic about Trump changing that? Indeed that is a question that troubles me. I'm not sure I have a good answer. The source of my optimism has been based largely on Trump as such an extreme example of the problem that those in Congress would find it their own interest to change course and the American people would see the office (not just the man who happens to be occupying it) as run amok. Unfortunately, our growing tribalism thwarts this on both sides--many or most Democrats don't allow themselves to see a connection between the office and this president and many or most Republicans don't allow themselves to admit there is a problem at all. Somehow we need to make fear of Trump lead to limitations on the presidency going forward.

I think Trump certainly could legitimately be impeached, and I would prefer this if it was at least neutral to the bigger hope that Trump will significantly erode presidential power and image. I fear it would not be constructive to that larger goal. Once he is out, the problem is "solved", and we are back to business as usual. Of course, we have that same problem in an election of a new president in 2020 or (more likely not until) 2024, but at least then there would not be the cleansing event that allows continued blindness to the bigger problem.

Here is my curve-ball solution: Get Trump to bring the limits we want. He can't make us think less of the office. We have to do that on our own if we are willing to take the red pill. But he can put into place strong limits on what his successors may do. Why would he do such a thing? Because he is vain and doesn't believe anyone else can be trusted with power. The best prospect of this might be as a 2024 election approaches and a Democratic victory looks imminent. Perhaps then a Republican-lead Congress brings strong legislation to Trump's desk and the lame duck sings a wonderful swan song.

Unlikely? Probably about as likely as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West getting Trump to enact criminal justice reform.

Help Me Find a Difference

What is the logical difference in the following statements. In other words, why should I agree with some but not all or disagree with some but not all? 

To my children’s teachers: I really appreciate the service you provide, but your pay should be limited to a figure well below the result of the competitive market.

To my garbage manI really appreciate the service you provide, but your pay should be limited to a figure well below the result of the competitive market.

To my dentist: I really appreciate the service you provide, but your pay should be limited to a figure well below the result of the competitive market.

To my favorite restaurant’s cooking and waitstaff: I really appreciate the service you provide, but your pay should be limited to a figure well below the result of the competitive market.

To my favorite college team’s athletes: I really appreciate the service you provide, but your pay should be limited to a figure well below the result of the competitive market.

To my favorite college team’s coaches: I really appreciate the service you provide, but your pay should be limited to a figure well below the result of the competitive market.

To tease this out explicitly - being consistent would require either market-based wages for coaches and athletes or highly-restricted wages for both. Perhaps Dabo Swinney should make as much (and only as much) as the lowest-paid college football coach.

Also, arguments about the "competitive market" being an unrealistic ideal compared the "real world" are not relevant for the point I am making here. Yes, there are all kinds of problems with wages being less than optimal from an idealized competitive market perspective. So one could easily use this same implied argument to rally against the state's monopolistic control of education, cronyistic contracts for municipal sanitation, medical and other occupational licensing laws, minimum wages, etc.