Showing posts with label the market. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the market. Show all posts

Sunday, June 12, 2022

NYC & Cape Cod Travel Observations

I have just returned from a family vacation in Cape Cod which began with a brief, 3-day stay in New York City. We flew into NYC and then rented a car for the drive to the cape. Below I note a few observations from the trip. These are just trivia compared to the wonderful time we had in both locations. Chatham, our regular destination in Cape Cod, again proved to be a splendid escape. 

  • My Lyft driver said as we were crossing the Queensboro Bridge, “the greatest city in the world without a doubt.” He is much better travelled/lived than me—born in Nigeria; lived in Dubai, Shanghai, LA, somewhere in Europe as well as several other worldly locales I don’t recall specifically. Who am I to argue? NYC is indeed world class. It’s ability to overcome so much poor and excessive governance is a tribute to its greatness.
  • NYC is vibrantly crowded—in a very good way. This was refreshing to see as I feared the city might have lost this by an order of magnitude. 
  • Outdoor dining is generally well placed and seemingly here to stay. The outdoor market near Times Square on Saturday was new to me and a treat to walk through.
  • New condo high rises are incredible. These so-called "pencil towers" don't inspire me the way other skyscrapers do, but maybe I'm too caught up in how structurally unsound they appear, which is intended as a feature rather than a bug. Just to me they look like how a child might sketch a cityscape lazily drawing as many tall buildings as possible.
  • Residence Inn Central Park (54th & Broadway) is recommended. Laundry options and convenient location along with great room and views—pics below.
  • Office space use looks still near empty by my anecdotal evidence. These pictures were taken from my room. Of the many elaborate office floors pictured in the neighboring building, only one ever had any occupants other than cleaning crews--cleaning floors that didn't ever have office workers messing them up. The floor with the basketball games and other fun stuff was vacant during the day. Note that the machines were all on 24/7--this should probably count against this firm's ESG rating, LOL

  • Where are the homeless? Michael Shellenberger has a point. Considerably less panhandling total than I encounter in the OKC area with 1/14th the population.
  • Crime and safety never seemed an issue on this trip. While I was in relatively high-income places, the popular narrative from the right still seemed false. We walked about 8 miles per day in various areas: 
    • Times Square (at night!)
    • Greater Midtown area
    • Central Park to the Upper West Side
    • High Line/Chelsea Market to Little Italy/Chinatown
    • I left my family shopping at Rockefeller Center to go pick up the rental car planning on them walking the half mile back by themselves without a second thought. I would have hesitated to do this in downtown OKC. Their journey was uneventful.
  • Memories come serendipitously. On our first night we were caught in a downpour in Times Square. While some of us had rain jackets, we were ill prepared. We stopped into a CVS to buy a couple umbrellas. Still our shoes and socks were quite soaked. This was very much like Boston years ago. No one would plan to get caught in the rain like this, and it would undoubtedly be one of those wouldn't-do-that-again moments. Yet, how can we reconcile that with it also being a wouldn't-trade-that-away moment? We don't get to choose our moments, but we do get to choose how we feel about them and how we take them on. (NB: I still plan on making good on this from the prior post: "The imaginative story we concocted on the train-ride back will be the inspiration for a future post.")
  • Masking is relatively high. ~20-25% of people still mask and those that do do it constantly—inside, outside, between bites. These are the people suffering long COVID. One young man walking down a busy, curvy street in Central Park choose to avoid passing our group in a tunnel under a bridge by walking down the middle of the street. He crossed between speeding cars, walked down the double-yellow line in the shadows of the tunnel holding his Macbook up high as cars whizzed by, and crossed back behind our trail. He seemed to stride with some pride in this moment of horribly bad risk analysis.
  • Book stores are the last holdout on required masks (aside from public transportation where it actually isn’t enforced). Stores in both Greenwich Village, NY and Chatham, Cape Cod strictly adhered to the antiquated ritual.
  • Cape Cod is resilient as well. Hard to tell a difference from my last trip in 2019.
  • Mask use is lower here than NYC. Maybe 15% tops. Very few outside.
  • Police are used for traffic directing around construction. This is something I noticed in Boston a few months back. In Cape Cod four or more police can be found just standing around pointing for cars to drive or wait as construction workers actually work. Definitely a union giveaway—great to see all the crimes have been solved in Massachusetts.
  • People were quite friendly almost everywhere in both places. The northeastern USA's reputation of unfriendliness is again proven quite unwarranted. Distant and reserved, yes. Hostile or gruff, not so much.
  • Rideshare the business model as experienced via Lyft seems strong and competitive. Uber was just a tad more expensive on each prospective trip but highly available as well.
  • Prices are high but a competitive market helps. Cocktails were basically the same price at comparable bars to what I see back home. Food was more expensive but an order of magnitude better when considering availability times quality. As for prices, it is hard to know how much is inflation versus big market, if only I had a restaurant journal… oh wait, I do. 
    • Let's begin by comparing Nom Wah Tea Parlor between my visit in June 2018 and current prices in June 2022. Recreating the order from the prior trip (beer, tea, 3x buns, 2x dumplings, roll, rice, and noodles) yields a total bill of about $69 pre tax & tip. My total bill with tax & tip in 2018 was $68.72. Assuming the tax rate is the same and I tipped the same rate, the total bill difference goes from $68.72 to about $89--about a 30% increase. In comparison NYC-area restaurant prices in general as measured by CPI over this time span are up about 18%. A similar order made at my local option, Mr. Hui, comes to about $93--more expensive and lower quality (sorry, Mr. Hui). My bet is Nom Wah got discovered between then and now, and its prices are reflecting as much. Hence, the 30% increase is a combination of general food inflation and something specific to that restaurant.*
    • One more comparison: The Chatham Squire, which I always hit multiple times per trip. In June 2019 I was there with extended family. Our total bill was $202.05 for which we enjoyed (well, let's just say quite a few drinks) and cioppino, mussels and hummus. Recreating the order in June 2022 makes the total about $253--about a 25% increase.* 
  • Pervasively merchants are directly passing along credit card fees in Cape Cod and to a lesser extent NYC. This has got to be an intermediate solution to a standard menu-price inflation problem. Seems slightly bullish for crypto while obviously creating a distortionary arbitrage for the cash-based consumers. 

  • Employee scarcity didn't seem as bad in Cape Cod as NYC or back home, but the effects were still in evidence. Restricted hours of operation seemed the most obvious sign. Restaurants were otherwise packed. 
The trip was delightful as I could have easily enjoyed double the time in each location. Cape Cod is very relaxing especially the way we do it. If you feel rushed there, you're doing it wrong. Enjoy a few pictures.





































*Take these comparisons with a grain of salt since you really cannot tease out anything from an N=1 sample. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Most Charity is a Failure


I know you want to do good, and I know you want to think that wanting to do good combined with doing something results in doing good. Unfortunately, you are very likely and in most cases completely wrong. 

I suspect that most people will either reflexively disagree with and disregard my position on this or accept it at face value as a necessary consequence of human social failure. I also suspect that most people who have extensively studied this area as well as most people deeply involved in this realm will either strongly agree or disagree with me. 

For this post I imagine each of these four constituencies as potential audiences. 

First of all understand that charity isn’t always about doing good as Robin Hanson would tell us. Often it is a bundled good which combines a desire to dream altruistically and be recognized as altruistic with little connection to outcomes.

Second of all note that government action (i.e., forced collective action) is usually worse in all regards. At the very least with a failed charity we can more easily delude ourselves that what we are doing is on net beneficial and not resource or happiness destructive. And then there is the side benefit that we did it basically through voluntary agreement and persuasion rather than the threat of ultimately deadly force. 

Third of all let us distinguish between charity and other not-for-profits.* A charity is looking to benefit an underserved beneficiary. There are other not-for-profits that are actually just tax-favored gifts to one's own hobbies and personal enjoyments. The focus of this post is charities as commonly understood.

The problem with not-for-profits in general is that they are responsive to donors rather than customers as Arnold Kling elaborates

Donors and customers both have desires they want met. To understand if they are satisfied the donor is presented the answer while the customer largely gets to judge for himself. The marketing to donors strongly tends to be aspirational and promise-based whereas customers have to consider the actual outcome and experience. Additionally, donors have two biases at play further constraining their willingness and ability to be critical: selection bias (they already are supportive of the cause ex ante) and confirmation/endowment bias (they want to believe they made good choices).

Sam Harris makes great points in this podcast like how charities don’t stop existing often enough—they can be failing or have completely succeeded but they still are in operation, which implies they are wasting resources.

Just like in the fine art market where no participant has a strong reason to discover much less publicize a forgery and does have powerful incentives to suppress such information, participants in the not-for-profit sector are incentivized to self-promote and cross-promote the whole edifice as being successful. 

The challenge for charities are the classic problems of the seen versus the unseen, moral hazard, conflicts of interest, and the law of unintended consequences. 

This TED talk on African orphanages has elements of all four problems. 

ProPublica has been reporting for years on the failings of the American Red Cross.

TOMS Shoes has faced forceful criticism about its charitable program of donating a pair of shoes to a poor child for each pair of shoes purchased. In a rare case of reversal TOMS now donates 1/3 of its profits directly to "grassroots" efforts. This may be much better than their prior famous-cum-infamous program that had the unintended consequence of displacing development in poor countries. 

New York not-for-profit hospitals asking their patients for donations makes one wonder just how not-for-profit they really are. 

There are unintended consequences for heartwarming charities like Make-A-Wish, et al. When resources are directed to one thing, they cannot also be used in any other area. There are always tradeoffs.

Add to the classic problems listed above the simple element that good intentions are not sufficient for successful solutions. Case in point would be food drives where the obvious need is not the obvious solution.

It is possible to bring strong doubt to the ultimate value of any charitable organization. The fact is most do not stand up to scrutiny.

Yet we want to do good; so what is a good doer to do?

I am a weak proponent of effective altruism. It is a way to distinguish between what works and what does not. To quote admirable, strong effective altruism advocate Peter Singer, "Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can." He goes on to explain:
Effective altruism is notable from several perspectives. First, and most important, it is making a difference to the world. Philanthropy is a very large industry. In the United States alone there are almost one million charities, receiving a total of approximately $200 billion a year, with an additional $100 billion going to religious congregations. A small number of these charities are outright frauds, but a much bigger problem is that very few of them are sufficiently transparent to allow donors to judge whether they are really doing good. Most of that $200 billion is given on the basis of emotional responses to images of the people, animals, or forests that the charity is helping. Effective altruism seeks to change that by providing incentives for charities to demonstrate their effectiveness. Already the movement is directing tens of millions of dollars to charities that are effectively reducing the suffering and death caused by extreme poverty.
Second, effective altruism is a way of giving meaning to our own lives and finding fulfillment in what we do. Many effective altruists say that in doing good, they feel good. Effective altruists directly benefit others, but indirectly they often benefit themselves.
Third, effective altruism sheds new light on an old philosophical and psychological question: Are we fundamentally driven by our innate needs and emotional responses, with our rational capacities doing little more than laying a justificatory veneer over actions that were already determined before we even started reasoning about what to do? Or can reason play a crucial role in determining how we live? What is it that drives some of us to look beyond our own interests and the interests of those we love to the interests of strangers, future generations, and animals?
Finally, the emergence of effective altruism and the evident enthusiasm and intelligence with which many millennials at the outset of their careers are embracing it offer grounds for optimism about our future.
It would be nice to have a roadmap and a good introductory guide. Given all of this, effective altruism seems like the way to go. So, why am I only a weak proponent?

Well, it turns out the world and its problems aren't quite so simple. Consider Peter Singer's famous thought experiment on the drowning child from his book The Life You Can Save (taken here from a Vox interview):
Imagine you’re walking across a park. Somewhere in that park there’s a pond. You know the pond is quite shallow, but you see something splashing in the pond. When you look closer, you’re shocked to find that it’s a small child who seems to have fallen into the pond and is flailing around because it’s too deep for this small child to stand. So, you look around for the parents or the babysitter, but there’s nobody. There seems to be only you and the child. Your next thought is, I better run down to the pond, jump into the pond, and grab the child. Not hard to do. No risk to me because the pond is shallow.
But then it does occur to you that [saving the child] is going to ruin your most expensive shoes. You’ll be up for some hundreds of dollars to replace them and other clothes you might ruin. So, you think, why shouldn’t I just walk away and not have to go to the expense of replacing my shoes? Now the question for everybody is: If somebody did that, would you think that was really the wrong thing to do? Would you think that you had done something seriously wrong in leaving the child very probably to drown? Most of the people who I ask this of say that would be an awful thing to do — it would be terrible to allow a child to drown because you didn’t want to go to the expense of buying new shoes, even if they were expensive ones.
The point of the thought experiment is to then switch to the situation that we really are in. We live in an affluent society where we often have considerably more than we need to meet all our basic needs, enjoy life, and make reasonable provision for the future. We also are living in a world in which there are millions of children who die each year from preventable causes and there are effective organizations that would gladly accept a donation from you that would increase their ability to save some of these children. So, if you’re not helping to save some of these children, then are you really all that different from the person who walks past the child in the pond?
This is a compelling story and a powerful argument in an of itself. However, there is something bigger going on here. Why is this child drowning? As an analogy for children suffering, dying in fact, on a daily basis, where are the parents? Why are these children dying when they could so easily be saved? Why are they repeatedly falling into the pond to drown? The deeper question becomes what is the institutional, societal, cultural failure that has brought this about. 

Effective altruism has a blind spot. It does not do much more to seek to correct the underlying causes of problems than do all the other na├»ve approaches to charity. It may have a better rate of attaching bandages to wounds, but they are still just bandages. 

Perhaps that is too uncharitable. I don't mean it to be so harsh. Yet the fact remains too often organizations that pass the effective altruism test are not addressing underlying causes of problems. 

It is an illusion that lives can be bought like cars. For a start, the evidence is nearly always in dispute. The alleged effectiveness of the Deworm the World Initiative—which, at the time of this writing, ranked fourth in GiveWell’s list of top charities—runs contrary to the latest extensive review of the evidence by the Cochrane Collaboration, an organization that compiles medical research data. Maybe Cochrane is wrong, but it is more likely that the effectiveness of deworming varies from place to place depending, among many other things, on climate and on local arrangements for disposing of human waste.
More broadly, the evidence for development effectiveness, for “what works,” mostly comes from the recent wave of randomized experiments, usually done by rich people from the rich world on poor people in the poor world, from which the price lists for children’s lives are constructed. How can those experiments be wrong? Because they consider only the immediate effects of the interventions, not the contexts in which they are set. Nor, most importantly, can they say anything about the wide-ranging unintended consequences.
However counterintuitive it may seem, children are not dying for the lack of a few thousand dollars to keep them alive. If it were so simple, the world would already be a much better place. Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse. The dedicated people who risked their lives to help in the recent Ebola epidemic discovered what had been long known: lack of money is not killing people. The true villains are the chronically disorganized and underfunded health care systems about which governments care little, along with well-founded distrust of those governments and foreigners, even when their advice is correct.
I consider effective altruism as a second-best solution. What would the first best be? Something as unpalatable to most as it is highly effective: economic growth through a pro-business environment that embraces free trade of all kinds and open borders in all places. 

Production vastly outworks charity. That is the way to escape poverty of all dimensions. 

It is a big world with complex and complicated problems. There is a role and a need for charity. Part of that is the moral and spiritual benefit bestowed upon the giver. Part of that is the actual good delivered to the beneficiary. 

We should strive for charity that is effective and efficient--that accomplishes the goal and does so without an unnecessary use of resources. A very big part of that is properly defining the goals long before and continually as we evaluate the options, analyze the progress, and retire the accomplished. 

The natural state of man is abject poverty. Charity does not and cannot solve that. Charity is funded from production to smooth out that which production illuminates as a temporary and undesirable shortcoming. Put another way: Charity fills the gaps we can at least hope to fill by virtue of production until production can eliminate them altogether. 


P.S. Alternatively, perhaps you're interested in ineffective altruism?


*In the debate between the terms 'not-for-profit' and 'nonprofit' I think I believe nonprofit (or non-profit) is the worse term as all entities earn profits, or at least they should. The critical distinction is what the entity can do with the profits earned and if profit is the ultimate goal.  A for-profit firm is and should be ultimately concerned with maximizing profit (we can litigate another day how Milton Friedman was completely right on this). A not-for-profit is not primarily driven to generate or maximize profit. It is driven to achieve outcomes but do so in an efficient manner (not destroy more resources than it creates). Being nonprofitable is prima facie bad since that organization is more explicitly in the pursuit of achieving particular outcomes without doing so profitably. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Virtues of the Market Process

It is not because it brings about better outcomes for the best. It is because it is the most reliable method for bringing about better outcomes for the least. 

The market knows (and continually discovers and improves upon) what otherwise cannot be known: where, when, and how much to do what. 

This is in part because the market aggregates knowledge in a way that creates better knowledge and in part because the market communicates that knowledge effectively. Both parts work in tandem as the process is a continual positive feedback loop. 

Key to all of this is the market process's combination of two powerful forces: incentivizing the pursuit of knowledge and rewarding the discovery of knowledge. 

As a market participant I am invigorated and rewarded for bringing about better outcomes for others. The eventual effect of this across all participants is to satisfy the infinitely complex and conflicting desires of ALL others, and this happens in each instance of market activity because prices, the market's tool for communication, encapsulate all desires in a single, universal signal. 

The hallmark of the market's achievements is how from nothing comes more and more (resources) to give us more and more (happiness) for more and more (people). 

Saturday, May 8, 2021

The Seductive Allure of Socialism

The more local something is the more essentially socialistic it becomes. I think the best way to describe this is that size/complexity has a positive relationship with the net benefits of the market (free market principles and market incentives, etc.) while size/complexity has a inverse relationship with the net benefits of socialism (yes, there are benefits). Simply put: the bigger or more complex something is, the more you want/need markets and not central planning to do the heavy lifting.

Intelligent people recognize that they know things and understand how to solve problems much better than most other people. They see this in action locally where it works or seems to at least. Thus, their belief is reinforced. This leads them down a bad path to an unreasonable conclusion that they can guide the world.

Keep in mind that what distinguishes a person as being "intelligent" can be local knowledge rather than pure IQ. Therefore, a local shop keeper may be orders of magnitude more intelligent about running her shop than would be a team of McKinsey consultants. 

Art Carden gives a model, salient version of this. For example, consider the family, the firm, and especially small and midsize towns. The local banking relationship in these places illustrates this nicely. 

The key skill of a banker today is not financial acumen. It was once upon a time at least to the degree of assessing credit risk. But large firms, algorithmic models, and risk spreading have largely supplanted that need. It is still important--vitally important for the bank itself--but it is not primarily dependent on the skill of individual banker. I believe financial risk assessment is a quality of secondary importance.

Rather the key skill of a banker today is relationship building. That is what makes a great banker. Hence, bankers are deeply involved in their communities. Again, this is not new, but it is now the primary attribute rather than a secondary one as it was in decades past.

It is strange then that a bank and its bankers, the stereotypical image of a capitalist (think of the board game Monopoly) are in fact the leading proponents of a road to local socialism. 

Here is how it unintentionally works. First, bankers are deeply interested in current customers' wellbeing and credit soundness. They have made loans, and they want them paid back. Second, they want to make future loans. These same customers would be the easy way to accomplish that goal. This gives them an all-too human impulse to favor the known and familiar as opposed to the new and (perceived) extra risky. 

Certainly bankers are interested in growth and new development. It is just that the unseen has a built-in bias against it. 

How is this a slippery road to socialism? I am not proposing that it formally leads to socialism, but it is central planning friendly. Most directly it runs the same risks of all central planning whether at the household, firm, or governmental level: decisions are made that suffer from the knowledge problem and are subject to the local maximum problem

Bankers are deeply imbedded within their communities for good reason: they want the business relationships and they want to stay close to the credit--all the better to monitor the risk. Yet this presents a sort of capture risk similar to formal regulatory capture. The bankers can easily be persuaded to support their customers' desires at the expense of their customers' competition. 


P.S. When I was in college I had a righteous disdain for kids wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, etc. They were "old enough" to know better. As the great P.J. O'Rourke explains, that is no longer true of kids these days, who are now the same ages as those who I rebuked back in the day.

P.P.S. Iain Murray's The Socialist Temptation explores this topic in depth. For a good discussion on it I recommend this recent episode of Jonah Goldberg's The Remnant




See this for more on the source for the above image and related story.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

When a Deal is Not a Deal

Ben Thompson writes:

Swift is doing the exact same thing, which is why the story of her breakup with Big Machine and the question of who was right or wrong ultimately doesn’t matter; Swift, like Chappelle, is taking her masters, whether she owns them or not.

That’s the part that Logan forgot: when it comes to a world of abundance the power that matters is demand, and demand is driven by fans of Swift, not lawyers for Big Machine or Scooter Braun or anyone else.

That is part of a very good analysis of how content creators are ultimately king. The story rankles me some from the standpoint of the ethics of going back on a deal even if the deal was not made under purely power symmetrical terms.

He relates it to NFTs. The persuasive claim he makes is that NFTs derive value from the collective agreement, Arnold Kling would say consensual hallucination, that there is value.

Near the end Thompson concludes:

If the creator decides that their NFTs are important, they will have value; if they decide their show is worthless, it will not. And, in the case of Swift, if she decides that albums are valuable they will be, not because they are now scarce, but because only she can declare an album “Taylor’s Version”.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

I Was Desperate. Honestly Afraid. And Completely Helpless.

At first it was gradual, and then all of a sudden it was acute. I could be blamed for putting myself in such a position--at least it was somewhat my fault. But live long enough and you'll inevitably find yourself at the mercy of those around you, willing and desperate to take their help, and completely without options. 

It was late. Very late. And I was on a rain-drenched highway. Tired. Unable to go farther. And very hungry. 

I hadn't called ahead because I hadn't planned to be there. But there I was on a highway in the middle of nowhere Texas. To say I was between large cities was both true and meaningless. The middle of the Pacific Ocean is between large civilizations. 

I am a strong believer in the power of the consumer--that if you shop around and negotiate, you can drive a great bargain. But I was at the mercy of the supplier--a mere price taker that night. 

A warm meal, a dry bed, a safe place. My needs were a short list. Yet not fulfilling each would be critically bad. Drive on and the risks grew exponentially. Try to negotiate a better deal, and my only options might evaporate before my desperate eyes. 

Any slightly observant person could see my position of weakness. Any slightly opportunistic person could sense my vulnerability. So how bad did it get?

Not too bad at all under the circumstances. The motel owner had stayed up late, as it turns out, just for me on the off chance I would be there in need of his accommodations. His accent made clear he and I were not born and raised in the same place. I was a stranger on his doorstep, but he welcomed me as one would a good, long-time acquaintance. I paid him $159 for a room with a hot shower and comfortable bed I would use for the next 8 hours. After, he (or his staff) would have to clean it up restocking and doing laundry. I would leave without saying goodbye. 

Before that shower, I needed food. Two in the morning is not when many meals are served as evidenced by the many closed restaurants. No one ever starves missing one meal, but it can be quite unpleasant to do so. And good decisions are not made on an empty stomach and a poor night's sleep from the same. The 24-hour restaurant made sure that wasn't my fate. I was their only customer in the 45 minutes I spent. At least three people (couldn't tell if there were more in the back) gave me nourishment and quiet companionship all for the price of $23.

The morning sun brought a new day and a fresh outlook. My car was safely waiting untouched for my departure. I grabbed coffee and a Danish set out for me at the motel before dashing out the door. A quick fill up at a gas station meant I could be on my way not needing to stop for hours. 

I felt slightly uneasy leaving so abruptly that morning. Guilty would be too strong a word, but I was dashing off having taken so much from so many who were so generous to have provided it for so little in return. I can't imagine I'll ever be back on that same highway, and even if I am, it is unlikely I'll ever stop in that little spot again. I hope someone else can do a little more someday to take care of the people who took such good care of me.





P.S. This post's story is truish. It is a amalgamation of true prior experiences in my travels for the purposes of making a point. Life is tough--use markets.

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 . . .

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Competitive-Efficiency Paradox

A more competition-friendly society will be more efficient (extract more wealth from a given level of resource consumption) which will make it wealthier which will allow it to have more inefficient production. For example, my ability to more cheaply purchase furniture from the finest woodworking craftsmen in the world allows me to myself dabble in woodworking at an uncompetitive, amateur level.

There are two sources of this effect:

  1. My own wealth growing--call this the personal-income effect.
  2. Society's wealth growing--call this the production effect.

I am generally concerned here with the second of these; although, the first is a derivative of the second thus it is in play as well. There are countless examples throughout culture and industry.

Think about this in capital markets. In the past few decades retail-investor trading costs in stocks have plummeted to now be explicitly zero. (Note: if your broker is still charging you a commission for trades, you might need to explore your options.) This massive reduction in cost has allowed a lot more trading to happen--both more traders especially amateurs and more frequent trading. Did this result in increased price-discovery efficiency? Probably some up until a point. But the next new person trading AAPL (Apple Corporation's stock) probably is not bringing new insight into the market. More likely that person is lowering average accuracy ever so slightly. Otherwise, why weren't they trading before this point There is probably enough liquidity in Apple stock so that is not a benefit of an additional trader's trades either.

Here we are suggesting another aspect of this paradox: without easy market entry/exit, we cannot maintain competitive markets. Yet, the next entrant into a highly competitive market is probably likely to be uncompetitive. Ban additional trading or traders for Apple stock and you will unravel quickly the efficiency we have come to enjoy in this highly-competitive market.

Back to the original paradox, is there more efficiency or less? To resolve the problem we should consider it as a continual process as opposed to being linear and finite. We should also expand our understanding of what ends we are achieving. The socialist's fallacy would be to look at two firms both producing cereal and declare this inefficient. "Obviously we could eliminate the duplication as well as the advertising costs by combining the firms," they would proclaim. But this would break the very process that allows for the desired efficiency (higher and higher production at lower and lower cost).

Imagine how disastrous a true socialists should view a marketplace like Etsy. Here the line between hobbyist and profitable craftsman is magnificently blurred. Magnificent because it is the essence of a culturally and materially rich society where experimentation is both allowed and enabled. A society that embraces competition necessarily invites dynamism. This is a foundational principle and an essential characteristic of growth. It is Schumpeter's creative destruction. It is a gift not a curse.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Stupid Questions Can Yield Brilliant Results

Consider:

  • Are some populations less susceptible to (severe) infection?
  • Is there a genetic, cultural, experienced condition that could be used to thwart the virus? What about dietary practices?
  • Does a person’s specific pH level factor into infection and symptom risk?
  • Should we expect latitude or altitude to help especially in regard to humidity and average temperature?
  • How would a plumber fix a leak behind a wall without ripping down the wall?
  • What counterintuitive action might aid treatment and recovery? Forced activity? Forced suppression?
  • Is quasi-herd immunity the next line of defense—i.e., identifying those with antibodies or simply recovered people and having them be the non-social distancing economic/logistical conduits for a while.

THIS IS JUST A PARTIAL LIST! We need everyone adding to it and (responsibly) acting on it in the real world.

Imagine going back in time to 50, 100, 500 years ago and asking dumb questions:

  • Are we sure we should drain the ill person’s blood to release the bad humors? (no)
  • Maybe a severe sunburn will cure this fever? (no)
  • Perhaps a small, very small, creature is causing this? (yes)
  • Maybe interaction with lots of people including those in outlying areas is a problem? (no)
  • Should we wash our hands between patients? (yes)

In the midst of COVID-19, we need lots of experimentation. We need to harness and leverage creativity and experimentation. The private sector working in a free market is unmatched in this capacity. Frankly, a catastrophe-risk, global threat is no time to rely on government. In the current context this includes everything from suppressing and replacing the FDA to “radical” ideas like not nationalizing supply chains.

For every challenge to a medical practice, prescription, and diagnosis we have to ask a critical question: Is this bloodletting or is this hand washing?

From truly dumb questions we can derive amazing successes.