Sunday, November 29, 2020

There Should Be A Law!

Partial list of areas where there might be a market failure and I might support government intervention:
  • Masks and social/physical distancing rules in a pandemic - I much prefer persuasion in the marketplace of ideas backed by good and plentiful information. That said, in a very serious health crisis a government-enforced policy might keep the peace and prevent very costly experimentation from defectors like a business not complying. Bringing this to the news of the moment--I generally do not think SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 qualifies. A failure on the part of government (and others) to even properly try the persuasion avenue does not then necessitate the force avenue. Further, compliance with practices consistent with most all of the nonpharmaceutical interventions has been remarkably high and widespread as well as ahead of the mandated institution of the NPIs. This is a point the advocates of force ignore until they wish to defend against the accusation that the economic and other costs have come as a result of forced NPIs. Then they are quick to point out that "it is the virus, not the lockdown". Careful thinkers realize it is both and the latter makes matters on net much worse.
  • Zoning - but not in the way most people think. This one really is more of a government failure that perhaps needs collective agreement. Zoning way too typically becomes NIMBYism protecting vested current interests at the expense of potential and less powerful interests. Basically we may need higher-order (federal) laws preventing localities from encroaching in private property rights.
  • Certain, limited cases of patents - Here is my prior thinking on this subject.
There are at least two problems with most cases of the discovery of market failure:
  1. That you're overlooking some critical factor that negates the market failure condition. There is something else going on here; there are needs being satisfied along an unexplored dimension.
  2. The market failure does exist but will be short-lived and thus insignificant. Short-lived might be in the eye of the beholder, true enough, but this is definitely an area where a longer than average point of view is needed (near-far mode if you will). 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Clutch Your Pearls


 

Partial list of false extreme problems government should not be attempting to “solve”:
P.S. This clip (and the entire movie) is an allegory for my view on this subject.




Thursday, November 12, 2020

My Futile Desire For People To See The Truth


I strive for epistemic humility, and my practice is to consider the confidence with which I hold various beliefs. As such I truly don't hold strongly many views and am quite willing to change my mind. Once I have done the work, though, I am willing to hold a view strongly. And I love to hate conventional wisdom.

Hence, this partial list of things about which conventional wisdom is wrong and about which I very much want people to understand the actual truth. 

The formula for when conventional wisdom is held in error is a seductive, persuasive narrative coupled with readily accessible, salient anecdotes that are not indicative of the broader evidence because that broader evidence is largely obscured.

The following are all beliefs that I hold quite confidently after years of study, analysis, and thought (listed in no particular order). Note that I am still learning about these, questioning my priors, and remain willing to change my mind. It is just that the probability I assign to being wrong for these is now quite low.

  • The labeling asset prices as being "bubbles" (e.g., tulip mania, dotcom tech, housing markets--see above, et al.) is neither useful nor helpful. The term is loose, vague, and indeterminate. A classic case of seeming to say something, but being so obscure as to be unfalsifiable. It is the modern financial economics equivalent of blaming disease on the imbalance of humors.
  • The current and historical lack of parity in college football and other sports—my first great example of things not being what is so commonly believed in the conventional wisdom. Big firms like regulation and so do big sports programs. The NCAA benefits the blue bloods at the expense of the lesser schools.
  • The cause and nature of the Great Depression and the subsequent recovery (it wasn’t WWII).
  • The cause and nature of long-term economic progress as told by McCloskey, et al.; the true nature of economic inequality (consumption versus income); how good things actually are and how much they have actually improved.
  • The shallow and near emptiness of news journalism and that watching and reading the main-stream media is a form of entertainment done at the expense of one’s intellect.
  • The immorality of conducting and impossibility of 'winning' the drug war. One can extend this to all prohibitions on victimless crimes, activities and trades done by consenting adults that are labeled crimes not because of a violation of anyone's property or personal rights but because society has deemed it taboo, immoral, or otherwise contemptible (e.g., organ sales, prostitution, price gouging, etc.). 
  • The harm and unintended consequences of price controls in all there guises: minimum wages, rent controls, anti-price gouging laws, restrictions on compensating college athletes, et al.
  • The injustices that exist and persist in the world, how good it could be in terms of justice and wealth for all of us, and the multiplicative benefits of free markets and free minds.
  • The economics especially and general state of the science concerning environmental policy.
I should probably take a cue from Bryan Caplan and call “Impasse” more often. It would give my head a chance to recover from its battle with the wall. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Breaking Professions Down Into Three Essential Roles

I think one can categorize most professions into a small number of distinct roles--let's explore this idea and arbitrarily limit the number of roles to three in each case. It is my contention that few of the people practicing these professions are good at more than one role, and many are not very good at any of the roles. Consider:

  • Lawyers: navigator, firefighter, bodyguard
  • Financial advisors: tour guide, travel agent, psychologist
  • Medical doctosr: band-aids, antibiotics, placebo
  • College professors: inspirational speaker, revealer of truth (model explainer), advancer of truth (researcher)
  • Elementary school teachers: babysitter, basic skills tutor, etiquette shaper
  • Catholic priests: moral consigliere, charity executive director, art museum curator

No One I Know Committed Voter Fraud




This is not a post about recounts and pursuit of truth. It is not a post about probability. It is a post about imagination.

I don't know 1 million people, much less 70+ million. I cannot even imagine what 1m people looks like. I've been to football games with 100,000 people. One million is like (checks notes) ten times that. 

I can imagine 1 million pieces of paper--dollar bills, pages in books, ballots, etc. 

I know some people who voted for Biden, some for Trump, and some of us (bless our hearts) who still believe in freedom who voted for Jorgensen. But remember, I don't know and cannot even imagine 1m people in any form much less 1m people who all wanted to vote for Biden (or Trump, but that isn't important right now). 

Okay, so I actually can imagine it, but it is a bit hard if I want to concretely think about 1m people showing up and filling out a ballot for Biden. It is much harder still to imagine them all showing up together at one time and doing so. 

But that is what the ballot counting looks like especially after the fact. Boom, X-thousand for Biden, Y-thousand for Trump, etc. 

I've seen enough TV to be able to imagine what a fraud looks like. I can imagine easily a vague picture of what a million or so ballot fraud looks like. Truck pulls up to the back of the warehouse, doors open and a sinister fella peeks out, coast is clear, truck gate is lifted revealing fat stacks of freshly-minted fraudulent ballots, dollies unload the loot...

Add to this that perhaps I have motivated reasoning--I would love (hypothetically) to discover that Biden "won" because of fraud. Combine that with my natural and defensible lack of imagination that millions of people see the world differently than I do and in a way that I think is very significant (it was, after all, the most important election of our lifetime). 

Do you see how it seems more likely, perhaps much more likely, that fraud is at play in the 2020 election? What is more likely, that something I can barely imagine happened or something that I can easily conceive of happened? I'm just asking questions here.

Unfortunately, "seems more likely" is equivalent to "is more likely" for many, many people. The Monte Hall problem contains an amazing paradox. The probability is dependent on the perspective of the chooser; however, the perspective that matters is not the chooser's imagined framing of the problem. It is the fact that from the perspective of the chooser and the new information he now has, the probability assignment has changed in a way for him that it has not changed for an uninformed observer--for the chooser it is 2/3 vs 1/3 (i.e., 67%/33%); for the uninformed observer it is still 50%/50%. 

Probability is in the eye of the beholder. But the beholder doesn't get to invent out of whole cloth the critical elements governing the probability (subjective though they may be).

I lied, this is a post about probability.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Libertarian Party 2020 Presidential Run - A Postmortem

As the 2020 election comes to a close, it is hard not to be disappointed as a Libertarian. As a libertarian, there is much room for optimism as many libertarian/classical liberal issues carried the day. Namely, movement toward ending the war on drugs, criminal justice reform, data privacy, etc. advanced nicely across the U.S. 

Here are the recent historic totals of Libertarian candidate votes for president:

1996    485,759        Harry Browne/Jo Jorgensen
2000    384,431        Harry Browne/Art Olivier
2004    397,265        Michael Badnarik/Richard Campagna
2008    523,713        Bob Barr/Wayne Allyn Root
2012    1,275,923     Gary Johnson/Jim Gray
2016    4,489,233     Gary Johnson/William Weld
2020    1,705,638+   Jo Jorgensen/Spike Cohen

My first thought was frustration at the Jorgensen campaign performance. But a friend pointed out that the mainstream media largely shut her out (even by Libertarian standards) giving her virtually no interview time or press otherwise. The latest "most important election of our lifetime" along with its highly divisive nature (largely Trump's doing but not entirely) gave little reason for alternatives to the duopoly. This combined with the COVID world was a very unfortunate combination for an outsider looking to gain recognition. 

So this setback might just be a fluke. Still, we need ideas on how to generate brand awareness and garner votes. A partial list of ideas (definitely a work in process):
  • Get rid of purity tests - The infighting of no-true-Scotsman has to be limited to early primary candidate selection. Once we have a candidate, rally behind them. This doesn't mean we cannot criticize, but know what stage of the game you are in. This also helps broaden the tent. Be a directional libertarian rather than a destination libertarian.
  • Focus on uncompetitive states - perhaps never leave California or perhaps more appropriately Texas or just both of those two important states. Imagine building a strong base in demographically and electorally important areas. The Free State Movement envisioned flocking to a small state to dominate politics there, New Hampshire emerging as the destination. Rather than focusing on winning a small state's electoral votes, this would be a strategy of focusing on winning hearts and minds to reshape the policy debate.
  • Articulate stances in better sound bites - Help the voters know in the simplest terms why they are taking the leap to support, advocate, and vote Libertarian. A platform of less government is not enough. Specifics are crucial here, but more importantly we need to highlight solutions rather than what sounds to many like retreat into the darkness. A great example is Corey DeAngelis' straightforward and impactful message on school choice/education reform: "fund students (families) instead of institutions" and "let the money follow the child".
  • Stop sounding like extremists - This dovetails with the prior idea. “End the Fed”, “Taxation is Theft”, et al. are not salient. Find a way to be against war without sounding like a 60s hippie—pacifism is right but it doesn’t sell. You can’t win support by telling people they are awful. You have to sell the message of hope and progress.
  • Look the part - Quit going for shock value. You need to look like a candidate out of central casting. No nicknames on the ballot (e.g., Spike). No taxation is theft hats. The target new voter does not want to elect someone from Comic-Con. 
  • Focus on a few key, pivotal issues that resonate in the current election - Might I suggest The Big Five?
  • Get more exposure in mainstream channels - We have to bring the message to a much broader audience. We are certainly still in the brand awareness stage of marketing. Where is the Free To Choose of the modern era? Perot built a voter base from primetime segments he paid for and starred in. How about a libertarian town hall? How about starting this now and developing some multi-year momentum? 
These are just some ideas. We need lots more. 

Of course I'm not the only one thinking about this (this short video summarizes the current debate).

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Justifiable Points of View

One thing I find quite frustrating and disappointing is how often people hold and cling to views that they can hardly justify. Consider:



I find that most people hold views in the bottom half of the grid with a disturbing fraction in the lower left (unwilling/strong). While they typically don't dispute the characterization of a view being strongly held, they adamantly defy the accusation they are unwilling to think hard about it. 

There are several biases at work here I'm sure. First, I think people are averse to saying their beliefs are weakly held. To many this is tantamount to admitting that they shouldn't be taken seriously. Second, admitting that one is unwilling to think hard sounds like admitting dumbness--rarely, though occasionally, a winning attribute.

Although I characterize the upper right position (willing/weak) as "completely justified", this does not imply that this is the optimal position. Rather I think people should strive for the upper left (willing/strong) but this striving should always be working to push them back towards the right as new information and arguments are revealed. 

Further, we simply don't have the opportunity to actually think hard about most things. Many are out of reach for our limited comprehension as well as our limited resources--namely time. Interestingly, this is one of the first places a lower left person will look for a defense. To wit: "While it would be great to sit around and reconsider what I have come to understand as true, who has time for that?" The second refuge is to dispute that thinking hard is necessary. To wit: "Those theoretical points are interesting, but here is what everyone knows to be true...". Both of these are simply argument from dismissiveness. "Pay no attention to the great arguments and evidence behind the curtain!"

Thinking like this is one reason I cannot take you seriously.

Consider also how this plays into the religion of voting. The moral duty to vote is a weakly justified concept

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

List of Ambivalence

 Partial list of things I am ambivalent about:
  • Chick-fil-e’s Sunday Policy -- I am disappointed from the point of view as a customer; I am very much in support of their ability to choose to do this and I am impressed by the choice.
  • The Trump Presidency -- not Trump himself, who I find quite objectionable. There are just some things to like and some things to very much dislike. I had the same appraisal of Obama, Bush, Clinton, . . . 
  • Deplatforming by social media, other tech companies, and financial processing firms/networks -- It is certainly within their rights in almost all cases, but I am fairly sure it is not good ethically or pragmatically in all but the most isolated cases.
  • Hunting -- I am not sure it is always morally objectionable, but it is often enough. 
  • The National Anthem before sporting events -- Notice how we don’t see this practiced at high brow events like the philharmonic, etc.
  • Separating activities, clubs, etc. by boys and girls and by men and women (e.g., Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Men’s Grill, Lady’s Auxillary, etc.) -- Is this socially healthy? Is it logical? I think in some cases it certainly is, but there is a slippery slope. 
  • Roundabouts (aka, circle, traffic circle, road circle, rotary, rotunda, and island) -- These are unfairly criticized in many cases, but they are also irresponsibly used and often inappropriately built.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Electoral College by Private Land Mass

One of the ways voting used to be limited was property ownership. Specifically, there were property qualifications where only property owners with sufficient holdings (along with other qualifiers like race and sex--i.e., white males) could vote. 

This got me thinking: what if the U.S. Constitution's provisions for the composition of the House of Representatives and thus that portion of the Electoral College had been designed around private land ownership rather than population?

Sooo.... I created a model for how that might look today given the amount of private land ownership by state. Now, this would have created the strong incentive to maximize private land ownership resulting in a much different picture than that below. But working with the lay of the land today, the crazy result would obviously be a huge boon to large western states and residents in them. Notice how Alaska doesn’t get a big lift and Nevada actually shrinks as a result of how much of each state is owned by the government. 

To further the thought experiment, I applied Eli Dourado's election model to see how the current Presidential election might be affected. Spoiler alert: This looks very good for Republicans.

This is a rough model—so I very well may have made mistakes. (Sources are in the linked spreadsheet.)







Thursday, October 8, 2020

Tax Policy as Explained by DuckTales

 


It should be no surprise that in this presidential election we yet again hear nothing but nonsense regarding tax policy from those seeking office. Among the many principles being ignored are:

  • You cannot tax wealth more than once--if you can even tax it the one time given tax avoidance and evasion opportunities and incentives.
  • You cannot lower taxes and increase government spending--government spending is taxation (today through taxes or tomorrow through debt).
  • You cannot tax without discouraging that which you tax--there is no tax free lunch.
  • You cannot tax income--it may look like you are taxing income, but you are actually taxing consumption. On this point we have DuckTales and the hero Scrooge McDuck as the perfect illustration.
If you try to tax Scrooge McDuck, you will be unsuccessful. He is tax proof. You are ultimately taxing Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and they are not being taxed correctly in this scheme. You are taxing the wealth creator dissuading him from creating more wealth and at the same time not discouraging the wealth/resource destroyers.

Uncle Scrooge McDuck is the "wealthiest duck in the world". Hence, he is an obvious foil for those who despair at the thought of billionaires. But Scrooge McDuck should be considered a saint to those who truly wish the best for all the other ducks of the world. For he is the ultimate giver. 

He creates vast wealth through his many businesses, but he uses very little of it. In fact his number one entertainment is simply swimming through his money and treasure which he keeps in a giant money bin. So in exchange for creating wealth he takes basically only money (claims on resources) rather than resources himself. Outside of funding his adventures for more wealth, he lives a quite miserly life. Say what you will about that choice, it is consequentially a very good one for the rest of the ducks in his world. 

Who really pays taxes? 

Taxes are a method of the financing of government uses of resources. In order for a tax to be paid, it must be the case that someone, somewhere, sometime not use a resource so that government can use that resource. Therefore, the payer of a tax is ultimately the entity that must forego the use of a resource. It is decidedly not the creator of the resource, per se

Who should we want to pay taxes? What should we tax and why should we tax it? 

I always argue we should tax resource use rather than resource creation and do so as efficiently as possible. We should tax if the use of the taxed resource is better and necessarily done through government rather than private entities. If that seems like a high hurdle, it's because it is.

Attempts to tax Scrooge McDuck are bad faith and poor logic.

What Explains Country Variation in COVID Deaths?

I see a lot of vague or implied speculation on why there are such large differences in COVID-19 death rates (et al.) among various countries and regions. But many of these have internal tensions once we think a little deeply about the arguments being hinted at. Biases are leading to a lot of lies of omission if not just outright bad reasoning.

Why is Sweden different than Finland? What explains Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea versus France, Italy, and Spain? Germany versus Belgium? USA NE versus Texas versus Florida versus USA Midwest?

Here is a partial list of the usual and some unusual suspects:

  • General health in the population
  • Partial immunity including from prior coronavirus exposures
  • Climate including ability to comfortably be outdoors and in open-air environments (definitely relative to when the virus struck)
  • Prior and continued use of various drugs and treatments
  • Proportion of at-risk people especially elderly
  • Quality of procedures for protecting the vulnerable
  • Quality of testing
  • Quality of tracing
  • Population density (within cities and otherwise relative to where people actually live; e.g., excluding most of Canada when measuring for Canada)
  • Government NPIs including lockdowns and other policies but not test and/or trace
  • Degree of movement within and among various communities (city to city, within a city, cross sociodemographic, in and out of country, et al.)
  • Strain(s) of C-19 virus affecting country and timing of the infection
I suspect that the error term in any formal analysis might prove to contain all the variation. Remember, "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist."

The Forrest Gump Diet: A few simple rules for a better diet

Most dieting plans are nonsense. And most dieting is not about losing weight--it is about signaling that one would like to lose weight, is involved in a struggle, and would like sympathy. If people really wanted to lose weight, they would

Diets come in a thousand varieties, but it is clear that while each might work for a while for some people, they fail (or people fail them) as often as they work. That we know so very little about this highly desired realm of knowledge, it is a big economic paradox. My guess is that it is highly dependent on individual circumstances (extreme heterogeneity) and these are both governed by external environmental factors including cultural influences as well as genetic factors. As such, one size fits more than one might not be true. And yet I do think some guiding principles can be derived that can greatly help us on our journey:

  1. Eat when you are hungry. (Note that this pushes back against intermittent fasting.) 
  2. Eat slower. You are not in a speed contest. 
  3. Eat less. You are not in a volume contest. This can most easily be achieved by simply not ever completely finishing what you have been served.
  4. Eat less of the things that you want to eat. It is very likely that your desire is to eat more of the things that are not as good for you.
  5. Eat more of the things that are not as desirable to you. This is the converse of the prior point.
  6. Eat a greater variety. This likely helps with the gut microbiome, and it makes life more interesting. That said, some things may just not be right for your body, and that is fine.
  7. Eat less processed foods and prepackaged foods. This one helps with #s 2, 3, and 4 by making food less convenient especially food that is generally nutritionally poorer for you.
  8. Look to make good choices at the margin, but diet over weeks and months not hours and days. No one ever starved to death by missing a single meal, and no one ever became obese by indulging oneself one time. 
    • The first key is to avoid temptation by avoiding bad situations. 
    • The second key is to routinely seek to make a slightly better choice at each opportunity. 
    • The final key is to be able to look back over weeks and months to see if you have generally been making good choices and improving choices. While this might entail the need to keep a journal, which is contrary to the spirit of this list of keeping things simple, evaluations over longer periods of time are essential to understanding if you’re making progress.

P.S. This is the diet that worked for me. I lost 20 pounds and it definitely improved some aspects of my health. Had I wanted to lose another 20 pounds, I would more devoutly follow it, but I want other things in life more. At least I'm honest with myself.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Oh, you left out a bunch of stuff.


Imagine various conversations at a board of directors meeting of a major corporation. For example: Trying to save money by paying women less, trying to please customers by not hiring blacks, contemplating intellectual-property theft, discussing a new found way they can literally defraud customers, etc. These would all obviously be wrong and would not be within the scope of fiduciary duty or any reasonable ethical framework. I put cronyism in the same category. Contemplating how to get special favor and rent seeking from the government is unethical.

I've been thinking about this post for some time. It started five years ago reading this article.

Recently there have been several things that have me thinking on this again--making this as fine a time as ever to actually complete this post. 

Michael Munger has been thinking about this for some time. This EconTalk is a great discussion with him laying out the problem. And this more recent appearance on Free Thoughts is great as well. Still another discussion highlighting the nuances and difficulty of this topic is with Rebecca Henderson recently on EconTalk

The question that I think doesn't get asked enough is: At what point does activity like developing and utilizing business relationships, networking, and advocacy cross over to be cronyism? It is difficult to disentangle behavior and results between these two worlds. In fact people participating in the activity during or after the fact would find it quite challenging even if they could put their natural bias to the side--the bias to believe they were acting in good faith and to good ends using good information and sound logic. 

Use of other people's money is a big key, but it isn't necessarily a smoking gun. For example, Facebook uses cash (shareholder funds) to hire lobbyists to advocate for A) onerous regulations for social media companies or B) a continuation of the protections it enjoys under Section 230 of the CDA. The first case (A) is likely a blatant attempt to use the power of government to prevent startup competitors from challenging their market position. The second case (B) is likely a reasonably good protection of their shareholder's and other stakeholder's interests as well as actually a good protection of free speech and enabling force for social media in general

Other people's money can come not just from taxpayers and owners (shareholders in public companies most commonly but not exclusively) but from employees as well. Imagine employees of Facebook being asked to participate in a letter writing campaign to Congress. 

It is not so simple to assume that a company can or should endeavor to right the wrongs of society. Not everyone sees the problem the same way. And not everyone will agree on the means even when they agree on the side to take in the cause. I higher a business to do what they do best--make shoes, install tires, store my money, serve me food, etc. I will do my own charitable giving, thank you very much. This is one of many reasons why Friedman was right

How do we get out of this downward spiral? I don't believe it is easy. In fact it is quite challenging. Education and communication are likely keys. Transparency helps as well. But as long as government is both powerful and trusted, these problems will persist. 

Related: 

Sunday, September 6, 2020

It’s More Than Qualified Immunity


To truly help those suffering from poverty (poverty of justice, poverty of spirit, poverty of options, poverty of opportunity, poverty of consumption, etc.), we have to address all of the constraints and forces that are keeping people from being all that they can be. 
The police state abuses in general are an important aspect of this, but they are just a single portion of this plague. We must look deeper than these very important issues as they are themselves just symptoms of bigger problems. 

Qualified immunity is one particular, nuanced element in a much larger set of problems. The list of police and policing and prosecution reforms is deep:

  1. End qualified immunity
  2. End mandatory police unions
  3. Require police to obtain individual liability insurance
  4. Require body cams
  5. End no-knock raids
  6. Stop militarizing police
  7. Implement substantial bail reform
  8. End civil asset forfeiture
  9. Reform plea bargaining to limit prosecutorial power
  10. Strengthen the public defender process
But these alone are neither exhaustive nor completely sufficient. Broadly there are three additional major areas of reform that would start to help heal and to eventually enable tremendous growth in the communities that are suffering the most: 

1) Occupational licensure - Make no mistake about it. These are very simply anti-competitive policies to protect incumbents. They hide under the pretext of consumer protection yet operationally they are clearly a producer protection. The result is two groups of victims: the consumer generally and the weakest producers (competitors to the powerful vested interests). There is slow progress on this area, but much more is needed. 

2) Zoning and other forms of development restriction especially in housing - Zoning has racism at its origin. No, that does not imply it is still a racist policy in fact or in law, but it should give us pause in accepting it as innocuous. Zoning is still largely about keeping "them" out. Who "they" are varies. While a charitable reading leaves zoning as a plan to make the best decisions, it rests on a dubious logic that we can plan the future and government knows best. Housing unaffordability is a major obstacle to upward mobility for those in poverty (of all kinds). Barriers to opportunity are not a solution.

3) Most importantly the senseless, unjustifiable, and evil drug war - The drug war's biggest victims are those in the weakest position to fight back. Leave aside whether we have the right to punish people for doing things we wish they wouldn't but that otherwise only harm themselves. Leave aside the intentions of those who have promoted it. Prohibition does not work . . . no, it is worse than that. It very greatly harms. It must end if we are to build a world of justice and opportunity.

The Age of Fear


We live in an era characterized by fear as a dominating narrative and influence. The beginning of this era can be formally dated to September 11, 2001, but it began developing years prior. It continued and strengthened with the Great Recession. The fear of inequality drove both the Tea Party and Occupy movements. No proposed public policy solution escapes this phenomenon.  The Patriot Act, Sarbanes Oxley, the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, Trump's immigration actions and policies, are but some of the most notable examples. The Fed along with the macroeconomics profession and finance upper echelons has so feared inflation that we regularly get stagnant and slow recoveries.

At each turn we increasingly choose safety and security over the obvious risk and potential opportunity. Insurance in all forms is overvalued and desired especially at the expense of someone else. Bastiat's apt observation that "The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else" has evolved into the state as the fictitious entity whereby everyone's risk is absorbed and destroyed at the expense of no one.

Now COVID-19 dominates our decision making. And the opportunists are always there to fulfill their portion of the bootleggers and Baptists story. 

Tyler Cowen has seen this developing for some time. We are not the little engine that could. Where are the people not just chanting but demanding that "the show MUST go on"? 

I am not arguing that fear and risk should be ignored. And it is not lost on me that our growing wealth and well being has dramatically changed the risk calculus for society--this is a good thing. But all risk analysis must be properly constructed, weighted, and continually reconsidered. Otherwise, costly errors will occur and compound.

As always, the future belongs to those willing and able to take and bear risk.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

In Case of Pandemic Break Glass

Here is a message to future generations for when they find themselves in the next pandemic. This is subject to change, but you would already know that if you had started reading the list.

These are the rules and guidelines I would suggest for the next pandemic: 
(Yes, there is redundancy and overlap in this list. That is a feature not a bug.)

1) Be Willing To Change - Adaptation >>> plans. Your plan is great as a starting point. Grey board beats white board. But an eraser and a willingness to use it is best. Your plan will not entirely survive first contact with the virus. This is as ironclad of a law as you'll get in this realm.

2) Protect The Vulnerable - How is this not obvious? Well, it seems it very much wasn't this time around. And know this: you cannot always predict who the vulnerable will be. 

3) Practice Good and Improving Hygiene - Tighten up. Here is an example of where general pushback against conventional wisdom reverses and we need to speedily go in the other direction--side with conventional wisdom of being more hygienic during a pandemic. We have been getting cleaner and cleaner as a society. As we've gotten richer, we have gotten less tolerant of risk in general and health risk specifically. This long-term trend has an unintended consequence: we over protect--especially children. "Rub some dirt on it" is an exaggeration, but it has some truth. We should pushback generally against the tide of puritanical cleanliness. We need exposure to germs. But in the face of an acute and new health threat, this reverses. Then is no time to develop hardiness--at least not until we know a lot more about what we're up against. Hand shaking shouldn't be abandoned per se, but the norm should probably be to quickly pause the practice when a health risk arises.

4) Test, Test, Test, and Test Some More - Each of these links have unique, subtle points along the general line of the importance of testing. Yes, there is redundancy, but that is the point I'm trying to hit you over the head with. At the hope of repeating myself, testing is a key ingredient to knowledge in a pandemic. Here is the idea by analogy: You're suddenly in a pandemic . . . oh, no problem, we know how to pandemic, bro. No, you certainly do not. Each one has different features and each time the environment has changed (economically, normatively, politically, etc.). Image I put you in a large, completely dark room and told you there are dangerous things in the room and you need to escape. I hand you a dim flashlight as your only tool. It works sparingly requiring you to flip it on and off repeatedly to get some light. Not ideal but you would be quite foolish to toss the flashlight to the side and grope around blindly instead.

5) Don't Believe In or Rely On Magic - ..... masks, hand washing, existing drugs with non-obvious potential for help, experimental drugs, ventilators, et al. may help. None are perfect cures or magic bullets. Many ideas will have very large costs that may in fact greatly outweigh the benefits. Try lots of stuff (see #7 below), but don't rely on any one thing or set of things. And don't latch on to that first idea and refuse to let go (see #1 above)

6) Invest in Options Including the Value of Delay - "Flattening the curve" evolved into a constant moving of goalposts in order to justify desired policies. This was a combination of the wrong way to interpret #1 above and the exact problem #5 above and #8 below are opposed to. But the idea had immediate traction because it had a very plausible initial value--delaying even the inevitable can make the inevitable more manageable if not largely reduced in magnitude. Every month after March brought new developments in treatment and most likely a lower severity in the disease itself via natural mutation. But delay isn't costless (see the links in #5 above). Though options require premiums, they are still vastly undervalued. Testing and isolating and distancing (see #3 and #4 above) create options. And don't just do something, stand there actually can be an option-preserving strategy. 

7) Experiment (Let 1,000,000 Flowers Bloom) - Let people take risks. This is both a principled position as well as a pragmatic one. We need ideas from the most unlikely of places. We need discovery.

8) Don't Attempt To Centrally Plan - It never works well for general problems and it is downright disastrous in a fluid, developing emergency. The knowledge problem is most applicable and important in dynamic, high volatility, low confidence environments. For central planning to succeed even in theory the unknowns must be minimal and the variance must be low. Simple is better. Fewer cooks in the kitchen (i.e., Congress and lobbyists and the alphabet soup of agencies and a politically myopic U.S. President and risk-averse though power-happy governors ...) would prevent entangled messes that do little to help, too much to harm, and a lot to hurt. The bureaucracy is the nature of the state. Leveraging government in times of crisis maximizes its every shortcoming, hindrance, and corruption. 

9) Trust The Market - Allow prices to adjust (don't worry about 'price gouging'; rather embrace it). Allow profits. For God's sake if there is ever a time when you want to reward risk takers and resource providers, it is in a time of dire crisis. See below for more on why you don't need to worry about people taking advantage. People want to help. There are many avenues for social and normative guidance. Man desires not just to be loved but to be lovely--let him! Do not let your personal envy or hypothetical fears prevent those standing ready to help.

10) Trust People - Lord of the Flies was wrong. People respond to incentives and information. If you give them good and updating versions of both, you can expect good and improving results. If for no other reason than their personal self-interest, people will tend to make sensible and safe decisions. In fact they are very likely to be overly risk averse

11) Question Authority - Challenge the motives and knowledge of every solution provider in direct proportion to how confident or authoritative they claim to be.

12) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate (honestly and don't censor) - Lies undermine productive efforts and credibility.  Censoring prevents much needed experimentation and fosters distrust. If restricting dangerous activities including potential superspreader events is desired, say so. Give guidance and elevation and promotion to good advisors. Be open to and have a high tolerance for new ideas, debates and debatable positions, and mistakes. There will be mistakes. It is not how you prevent them as much as it is how you adapt to them once they occur. Because adaptation >>> plans . . .

Sunday, August 30, 2020

If You Are Up To Your Neck in Piss, and ...

... I'm about to throw a bucket of snot in your face, would you duck? In other words, who are you going to vote for/against for president?

The title and lead in for this post is from something my grandpa used to ask me often when I was young. He was full of pithy little sayings, questions, and aphorisms that were his way of teaching a lesson or making a point. He was a down-to-earth person with a keen ability to see through bullshit. Perhaps years on the road in his profession as a long-haul truck driver gave him this perspective. Incidentally, my one-time non de plume for this blog, Fonzy Shazam, is based partially on his CB handle, "Shazam". 

Answering the question of this post has a bit of question begging to it as it is not at all clear that you should vote. Your vote has no chance of affecting the outcome of the election. NONE. So I am approaching this from two directions:
  1. Your vote will signal ever so slightly support for a candidate. As we'll see, this will have a lot more value for some than others.
  2. We could consider this from the standpoint of voting as if your vote would determine the outcome.
As a libertarian I approach this from a decidedly different view than many, but I believe the trend toward independent thinking is undeniably growing. Team R and Team D are less and less appealing for a growing number of Americans. 

Libertarians are not uniformly behind their own candidate, which should be expected from open-minded thinkers. To this end the Soho Forum recently held a three-way debate considering who libertarians should vote for. It is well worth a listen. 

In fact there are two different elections going on for the presidency this year. This has been the trend, but I think (hope) it is at a critical inflection point. Trump and Biden are trying to see who gets naming rights to the bulldozer that will continue to run you over. Jorgensen is unfortunately not in contention to win that "prize". Instead she is proclaiming a message that there is another way--trying to earn enough support that libertarians can no longer be ignored (e.g., getting onto the debate stage despite the rigged system) and letting the uniformed know there has been a group here for a long, long time steadfastly supporting the principles the duopoly works against until they reluctantly must support. 

Now, on to the show . . . Rating the Three 2020 U.S. Presidential Contenders

I will try to be as concrete as I can on this evaluating the candidates along several critical dimensions. 

1) COVID pandemic: I think we have to start with the issue of the year since it is such an important issue relating directly to what we expect a state and its leaders to "solve". It is a 9/11-type moment in magnitude and reshaping of priorities. That does not imply there is very much the president can actually do about it, but there was a good deal in the actual case of 9/11 and the current case of the pandemic. I am working on another post with my advice for humans and their leaders in the upcoming next pandemic--yeah, I know; audacious post. It should be no surprise that my advice is largely for government to get out of the way. Therefore, I think the libertarian philosophy would best set an environment conducive for least harm in the event of a pandemic. Trump obviously can be evaluated directly since he was president during the pandemic. He failed this test doubling down rather than changing strategies. He did not stand up to (drain) the swamp as the FDA, CDC, et al. thwarted progress and solutions. He was on the wrong side of testing showing no understanding of how critical it is. He shifted in the wind reacting to democrats rather than charting a course of sensible policy and leadership. Whether you support these policies or not, he reflexively closed borders in a clumsy, late, and haphazard method, and he waffled on lockdowns sending very mixed messages. He politicized it and provoked divisiveness. In other words he Trumped it up. Biden on the other hand was . . . silent. He didn't have a definitive, detailed plan until well after most of the worst had passed, and what we do hear from him now is not good--a simple rehashing of failed generalities and banalities
Verdict: Jorgensen wins by default as her natural position on decentralization and free markets best positions the country in the event of pandemics. Trump edges Biden on policy as his base's position of opening up is better suited for where we are now in this pandemic. However, Biden is the better pick once we consider the standpoint of general public opinion on opening up and moving forward from here. Trump supporters already think the pandemic worry is overblown, and a Biden victory allows Biden supporters to agree.
Jorgensen>Biden>Trump

2) The Big Five: [spoiler alert: Jorgensen is much^10 better on all five issues than either Trump or Biden. She opposes and will fight to end the drug war, she will work for free markets in education, she will strongly support immigration expansion, she will be vastly better on taxation and war. So let me just evaluate the two others.]
Drug Prohibition - Most of all these dimensions are a competition for last place between Trump and Biden. This is no exception. Trump's behavior and policies and appointments have been a combination of don't care about it and please the base. This is not progress or hope for the future. Biden and Harris' histories on the drug war are atrocious. But just as Obama entered office opposed to gay marriage and then "evolved" on the issue, Harris has changed on marijuana. For what its worth the democrats' rhetoric is better than republicans. I want good, just policies, and beggars can't be choosers. Biden>Trump
Education - This one isn't close. Trump is much better than Biden. The better chance of meaningful education reform and support for local reform is under a Trump administration rather than a government school union/bureaucracy Biden administration. Trump>Biden
Immigration - This one is close, to many people's probably surprise, in a race to the bottom sense. Biden is not a strong immigration supporter. Trump is awful on immigration, but the equation is Trump hates immigration therefore Biden opposes hating immigration. Categorize this as trade below being issues that are no longer Biden priorities once Trump is out of office. Still, Biden gives us a chance to stop the bleeding. Biden>Trump
Taxes - Trump's base wants lower taxes which is totally unrealistic and inconsistent with the spending levels of the Trump presidency--presumably supported by the base. However, the sentiment of low taxes lends support for small government, which is good. Much better are the tax reforms that Trump signed into law such as a higher standard deduction and lower corporate rates (an issue Obama supported and couldn't get accomplished). Biden's tax instincts are not good--he wants to use taxes as a political tool--and his base's sentiment is downright scary. His actual plan is not progress as it has objectively bad public policy. Trump>Biden
War - I truly think Trump accidentally could be the meaningfully better candidate on this issue. His base holds him back. It is an accident because it is only his selfish version of America First that causes him to dislike American engagement abroad. However, he would still like to have every possible dollar spent growing the military and by extension the military-war-making-industrial complex. Biden believes with wide application America can and should guide the policies and actions of foreign nations and peoples, and he is willing to use force if necessary--with a low threshold for necessary. There are two facets at play here: who would reduce the risk of war more and who would reduce the incidence of war more. On the first point I believe it is a tie in general with Biden improving the tail risk (very low chance of a highly disastrous war). Similarly a dangerous new Cold War with China is less likely under Biden. On the second point I believe Trump gives us a chance to bring troops home and reduce engagements by virtue of his desires and the antiwar movement on the left that always goes into hibernation when a democrat is in office. This is a close one. When in doubt, reduce existential risk. Biden>Trump
Verdict: Jorgensen is the clear winner here as I stated before. Trump edges Biden since his wins were meaningfully different and magnitude matters.
Jorgensen>>>>Trump>Biden 

3) Court Appointments: Jorgensen would appoint judges who understand the Constitution and respect the limits of government power. Trump would seem to be much better than Biden, but we shouldn't seek liberal judges or conservative judges. We should seek judges who have consistent and good reasoning. Such judge candidates can be found with support on the left and the right. I do believe that Trump's nominated judges will come from a pool that is more aligned with those of Jorgensen. 
Verdict: This issue is overrated in importance. I myself have been guilt of this quite often. The judiciary largely goes where the zeitgeist leads. 
Jorgensen>Trump>Biden

4) Trade: As mentioned above, don't be too quick to assume an optimistic future for trade under a Biden presidency. He has generally not been good on this issue and the democrats/progressives have always been worse than republicans/conservatives--current clown show not withstanding. Biden's core base is allergic to trade. He and democrats currently are supporters of it only because Trump is against it and only to the extent they can score anti-Trump points. Ironically, Jorgensen would be the pro-manufacturing job candidate as her policies would grow our economy much more than either of the other two.
Verdict: The long sweep of history is in favor of free trade--popularly by poll and, more importantly, actually by behavior. Only one candidate in this race understands that and works to strengthen it.
Jorgensen>Biden>Trump

5) Regulation: I have no doubt that Jorgensen is the best on this issue. Her surrounding advisors and appointments would greatly advance the cause of shrinking government. I keep hearing that Trump is clearly better than is Biden. I do believe that, but . . . just how good is he really? Not so great it turns out. I continue to make downward adjustments to my priors on this one. And you don't have to look far to see problems.
Verdict: A Jorgensen administration would have a chance to significantly curtail the regulatory burden. Trump is beholden to interests that push against regulation more so than is Biden.
Jorgensen>Trump>Biden

6) Executive Orders: This is a mixed bag as I would expect a Jorgensen presidency would accomplish a lot by executive order, a practice I otherwise greatly oppose. However, I expect she would tend to respect the power and its actual constitutional limits. For the other two I err on the side of assuming more malpractice from Biden than Trump with Obama and the first four years of Trump as limited evidence. 
Verdict: The use and abuse of executive orders is a barometer on how much inappropriate power the administration is engaging in overall.
Jorgensen>Trump>Biden

7) Sanctity of Personal Choice: There may be no other issue for which Jorgensen distinguishes herself from the other two than this one. It is her core. To believe Trump champions this is to fall for the sham rather than looking more deeply into the actual behavior and action. But sadly Biden is even worse. His position is that government knows best. Technocrats can and should guide the economy and other public policy. Trump's penchant for industrial policy narrows the gap in this race to the bottom, but as low as he goes, he simply will find Biden there waiting for him.
Verdict: Libertarians don't make good, that is to say electable, candidates largely because they are such deep believers in the idea that government is not the solution. But I am grading on how well each candidate scores on the issue not on how their position affects their electability.
Jorgensen>Trump>Biden

8) The American Image (home and abroad): This is a very important issue, but it is widely misunderstood. When I see the protesters in Hong Kong waving American flags and signing the U.S. national anthem, I see the image of America as a shining city on a hill. People often confuse the concept of the American image abroad as meaning we must submit to the will of other nations' governments or we must forcefully exert our will on others. Likewise, people often confuse the image at home as meaning we must surrender our personal, moral autonomy or all be nationalistic xenophobes. In truth the idea is that we should have pride and hopefulness for our nation as a defender of virtuous principles, and we should project to the world the best possible example of what free markets and free minds can accomplish. We should champion the rights of minorities and the opportunity for all to be the best they can be with those limits being constantly elevated to higher potentials. Trump has tarnished the image abroad by not being a constructive or trustworthy partner with other nations' leaders. He has tarnished the image at home by not leading us toward peaceful resolutions of the conflict between the police state and those who have been its victims. I don't believe Biden is much better, but it wouldn't take a lot to improve our situation in both cases. And I do believe Biden would give the peaceful protesters epistemic cover to distance themselves from the violent protesters and other criminals. This includes many state and local politicians who have been to cowardly or incapable to lead.
Verdict: The image needs improvement, and it will not be made better through divisiveness and control. See the next item for more.
Jorgensen>Biden>Trump

9) Persuasion versus Demonization: Don't fall victim to the low-level thinking that is easily swayed by pleasantry (or normalcy) over content. Just because Trump is gruff, rude, and unbecoming doesn't make him wrong (or right). Both major party candidates are looking to have their way with you. It probably shouldn't factor in that one will buy you dinner first while the other says, "Just get in the van." Note how Trump in a lame duck term and possibly facing more impeachment threat has pluses and minuses relative to Biden who will have a “mandate from the American people” and a desire to make his mark, God help us. As for Jorgensen, she is of an ideological core that holds persuasion in high exultation. The nonaggression principle doesn't just mean you don't hit people to get your way. It also means you need to win hearts and minds to advance the truth.
Verdict: Biden calls people names, but Trump is good at it. Both encourage hostility. 
Jorgensen>Biden>Trump

10) Federal Reserve Appointments: This is the issue the Libertarian Party is weakest on--perhaps the only significant weakness. My hope is it is more rhetoric than ideology. End The Fed is a power banner message but an empty policy. I agree that in a much-closer-to-perfect world we would have free markets in money. But we cannot get there with simplistic destruction like I think we actually could when it comes to say the Department of Agriculture among so many examples. I don't think she would in fact end the Fed. I think she might bring meaningful reform and openness if not some deregulation to move duties out of its domain. Trump and Biden are nearly the same in this regard as most appointments here are out of the macroeconomic professional class (as good or bad as that group is on average).
Verdict: I fear a radical appointment from Jorgensen. 
Biden=Trump>Jorgensen

Weighing all of the above and anything left out, consider the difficulty each candidate would face in getting their agenda executed. If they require legislative action, then it is less likely the bad things they would do actually get accomplished. As always their rhetoric is much, much greater than their capabilities or true desires. For example, if Trump had his way he would spend all of his time and effort playing golf and giving speeches (and tweeting). He doesn't care about you. And neither does Biden. 

Overall Verdict: Don't waste your vote. Voting for one of the current failures is a waste of your time and a waste of an opportunity to affect change. 
Jorgensen is the clear winner. A vote for her will not elect her. But neither will a vote for Trump or Biden. However, a vote for her strikes another blow against the two parties, and on the margin that matters a lot. One more drop of water in the ocean for Trump or Biden changes nothing. If I vote as if the vote will determine the outcome, my answer is the same. If you make me vote for Trump or Biden in the real world election where I cannot affect the outcome, I would vote for Biden as I prefer the signal of change. If you make me vote for Trump or Biden in a hypothetical where my vote does determine the outcome, I would vote for . . . if it is gun to my head, I might just say "open fire", but otherwise I reluctantly vote for Trump with the hope that the choice causes significant improving change within the Democratic Party or a chance for libertarians to gain a large new group of supporters (left and right).


P.S. This analysis is independent of ways in which the candidates might benefit me personally (as any meaningful analysis like this should be). For example, Biden would likely be good for my personal tax situation by removing the SALT cap, good for my home value and quality of life by subsidizing higher education including the university I live right next to, and good for my job by making taxes more complex which as an investment professional provides me job security. 

P.P.S. If Biden turns out to be mentally unfit for office, much of this become moot. 

P.P.P.S. Sumner has his own list.

P.P.P.P.S. Some asides: 
Thankfully, it isn’t Sanders
I recently summarized the thing I most like and the thing I most dislike about the Trump presidency as such: I most like that it has greatly accelerated the demise of the two-party system in America. I most dislike that it fosters and strengthens the fear and loathing of "the other" in all its many, hideous connotations. Notice that I am referring to the Trump presidency rather than Trump himself. To arrive at these I am using a comparative lens. While I like the tax policy and judicial appointments, these would have largely been very similar if not better sold in a different Republican administration. I detest the separation of families, deportations, and killing of many, many foreigners, but these were the case in the Obama administration as well. One must always ask as compared to what. Is the two-party prison in which we dwell really just giving us a “decision” between the bully you know and the bully you’ve forgotten?