Monday, May 31, 2021

I've Got Bad News For You

Your house is going to catch fire and burn down completely in about 10 years from today give or take a month. The good news is that no one will be injured in this accident and nothing substantially bad will happen to your house between now and then. No fire, no flood, no tornado, no termites. 

The further bad news is that you are now positively uninsurable. The further good news is you no longer need insurance. Insurance is about transferring risk; not transferring expense. What you now need is a redirection of resources to prudently prepare for the coming loss. 

Similarly, worries about a collapse in health insurance markets because of genetic information breakthroughs are firstly fairly unrealistic in their assumption of complete elimination of uncertainty and secondly seriously misguided because of our misguided understanding of the purpose of insurance. 

We are confusing the mechanical result of insurance being used (compensation goes to harmed parties from unharmed parties via an insurer middleman) and the conceptual purpose for insurance existence (the transfer of a risk from those sensitive to it those better equipped to handle it including across time). 

Suppose we were in a world where health risks were as predictable as fire "risk" was in the analogy. Would this mean those with pre-existing conditions would be left to suffer? Of course not. As John Cochrane has been saying for a long time, this problem is solved by health-status insurance. 

Basically, give those with known high risks money equal to the expected value (cost) of future expenses. If the future costs are a sum certain, then there is no role for insurance (a known liability implies buying a bond). A strict parallel between the house fire and pre-existing conditions would mean no doubt about the cost ("...nothing substantially bad will happen to your house between now and then."). That is not realistic even if we have near perfect information about what pre-existing conditions foretold. 

The world we will live in even if we get really, really good at matching pre-existing conditions to future health problems will be one with some variance and uncertainty. There will still be a risk of accidental death before the predicted health problems develop along with hopefully great medical and economic advances that make treatments better and less expensive.

If we feel we should help the future victim of house fire (pre-existing conditions), we through government and private charity can give them funds to compensate for the loss. We cannot give them insurance unless and only to the degree there is uncertainty.

P.S. Perhaps doctors and patients should just secede from the broken insurance market? Count me in.

P.P.S. If you want to test your understanding, think about how a typical pregnancy is not a good candidate for insurance while a rattlesnake bite is.

P.P.P.S. I just renewed my personal homeowners policies on Casa Shazam, which gave me reason to post this thought experiment.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

WWCF: First Contact

Which will come first?

Aliens Contact Us


We Contact Aliens

How quickly you dismiss this question on its very premises is interesting in itself. Let's start with the basic assumption that there have been, are, or will be aliens (intelligent life with origins beyond Earth). Now that we have that out of the way . . .

Where are you on the Fermi Paradox and The Great Filter? For this question to have meaning we have to additionally assume it is actionable because there will be a determination of contact made. So . . . 

Here are the terms:

Aliens contacting us would include the obvious spaceship lands on the White House lawn, but also signals deliberately sent that we detect/decipher even if they are not aimed directly for us. Add to this discoveries of artifacts here on Earth of past alien civilizations if those were exploratory or communicative in nature. So a deliberate message sent by aliens and received by us through passive discovery or active looking by us is the first condition met.

The second condition, that we make first contact, seemingly has a lot of hurdle to it. We have to discover aliens keeping to themselves to the extent they don't find us and make contact or we see one of their signals sent out prospectively, and then we make the first engaging move. Yet there is another way. If our signals we have been sending out unintentionally/sloppily since the time we have been aware that we've been transmitting to the cosmos or sending out deliberately to "is there anybody out there?" are received by aliens, then we have made first contact. Another feather in the cap of us first is what qualifies as "intelligent" life. While I am open to revision, right now I would allow anything at or above the minimum threshold of animal cognition. So Martian mice count, but Martian bacteria do not. As impressive as space monkeys would be, there is no chance they contact us first.

Robin Hanson has already been putting in the heavy lifting on this one. And don't tell me that it is already settled--dis ain't ova

My prediction: Perhaps I allow the Fermi Paradox to overly influence me or perhaps I'm too optimistic in regards to The Great Filter. Nevertheless, I come down on the side of the second case, we contact aliens first. To this I will assign a respectable but still negotiable 65% probability.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Trust Is a Fragile Fabric

Of the many, many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic, one that stands out to me is how important honest communication is. Honesty is a bedrock of trust. Trust is an essential quality for a thriving society.

While fear can enable a society to survive, it takes trust to allow it to flourish. Largely we are only surviving the most recent pandemic. There are many reasons for this from poor understanding and application of science to isolationist responses regarding testing and vaccination driven by nationalist pride (distrust!) to blatant failure to test to failure to properly quarantine to failure to experiment and on and on. Granted that many of these failures came about because we were starting from a poor state of trust, we did not do much to improve the arrangement. In fact we set it back meaningfully along the way.

Suppose we get another pandemic (we will, just wait). Suppose further that it is similar to COVID in terms of virulence and contagion. Perhaps it is dissimilar enough that we have a caught-off-guard type of reaction thus making it even more similar to COVID. But we do remember COVID, so we actually do have some improvements in societal and government response. For example, some communities, large business firms, perhaps the federal government wants to conduct wipe-spread, rapid testing. What might stand in the way of that policy being well received and complied with?

The people that would need to be getting tested would need strong assurance that a positive test would be met with reasonable consequences. What about our response to COVID would give them that assurance? Although people would definitely want to know if they were infected all else equal, pushing back against this desire would be multiple, reasonable concerns. Namely, that they would be subject to harsh treatment if positive (social stigma, rough or indefinite or otherwise undesirable detention, etc.) and perhaps more reasonably that they would be subject to involuntary quarantine, lockdown, social stigma, etc. even if they tested negative. 

Compounding this would be a distrust that they were getting the full story. Vaccination acceptance still suffers from the horrible Tuskegee Study crime. To a lesser degree dismissive elite responses to those with concerns about vaccination, as unfounded as those may be, also deters people from trusting authorities on vaccines. Being told masks are worthless and then that masks were essential sent a clear message--don't trust the authorities. This was one of many noble lies, a short-sighted concept that completely fails to ask the essential question: And then what?

The Chinese government lied to the world at the early stages of the pandemic. They have characteristically been very deceptive as the pandemic has unfolded including apparently not cooperating with the investigation of a lab leak cause. We should expect and demand better from our authorities. In the long run people respect the concept of 'we don't know' especially when coupled with transparent, honest, and updating 'here is what we are thinking'. The 'And then what?' from this approach is productive responsibility and fruitful experimentation. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

Elaborate Investing versus Adaptive Investing

When investing, be careful not to confuse complicated with complex. 

My inspiration for this post came from reading this essay by Arnold Kling a few years back where he elaborates on a longer essay by Jordan Hall that draws a distinction between complicated and complex. Hall sets the terms:
...[I]n brief the distinction is that a complicated system is defined by a finite and bounded (unchanging) set of possible dynamic states, while a complex system is defined by an infinite and unbounded (growing, evolving) set of possible dynamic states.
Kling's treatment is very helpful as he extends the concept to economics and climate:
When I was a graduate student in economics in the late 1970s, we were trained as if the economy is complicated, but not complex. We were told that if we learned enough mathematics and statistics and applied these tools, then eventually we could predict and control economic outcomes. 
In fact, economic behavior is complex. There are too many causal factors, feedback loops, non-linear effects, and unprecedented phenomena involved to enable economists to control the economy precisely and reliably.
Climate scientists use computer models, because the problems with which they deal are complicated. But there are multiple models, and they do not agree with one another. That tells me that the climate, like the economy, is complex. There are too many causal factors, feedback loops, non-linear processes, and unprecedented phenomena involved to enable precise and reliable prediction and control.
In contrast, landing a spacecraft on the moon is merely complicated. It is a very difficult problem, but we can arrive at a determinate solution.
I would like to extend this model to the investing world especially from the standpoint of the typical buy-side* investor (AKA, you and me and most all of us). 

The money management world loves to overcomplicate things. This is because overcomplication gives a mystique or air of superiority to the wise, benevolent (expensive) investment professional. It also conveniently provides a nice cover for when things don't go so well. As an aside I believe this is a very big part of the investment world's embrace of ESG--perhaps to be expanded upon in a future post.

At the same time that they are embracing overcomplication, they are riding in like valiant knights to save the day. This is not to say that investing is simple. Investing is complicated, but that complication and solutions designed to solve it are not the full story. 

If it were just complicated, Wall Street would have solved investing long ago. And it wouldn't have needed a retail investor's money to do so. Investing is complex. This follows naturally from economic behavior including the economic actors and forces within it being complex. Consider a single stock.

We can attempt to value a stock based on a number of different, widely used, credible models (e.g., dividend discounting, free cash flow to equity, multiple of price to book, multiple of price to sales, etc.). These formulations are complicated to a certain degree and can be made more complicated with arguable improvement to the output. What should give us immediate pause is that each of these will almost always yield a meaningfully different answer. 

Each model will rely on assumptions, and those assumptions will have their own underlying complications. No matter how hard we try, all the king's computers and all the king's CFAs cannot definitively (precisely and accurately) value a single stock let alone the market as a whole. The best one could hope to do is be right more often than not to a slight but still meaningful degree. Very few highly incentivized, very well funded pros can actually do this. And even they fade with time. 

The nature of investing being complex is not simply complication layered upon complication. It is of another dimension entirely. Economic value is ultimately subjective value. It is subject to preferences, tastes that change in unpredictable ways. It is also subject to random events that spawn new, unforeseen paths of development. There are future technologies of which we have not even dreamed and for which all of the physical ingredients are currently before us. 

Those in money management on the sell-side* offer the comfortable refuge of 'solving' the complicated. This is dangerous even if unintentionally deceptive. Investing is never solved. It is constantly evolving both from the standpoint of the market external to the investor as well as the investor's own financial goals and risk preferences. Consider the latter an additional layer of complexity with its own complications. 

The solution to complex challenges is flexibility. A good financial plan must be adaptive. Elaborate schemes alone will not save it from peril. If anything, they may give a false sense of security along with crippling high costs. Start with straightforward guiding principles, and follow with constant reassessment: What are you trying to achieve? What is at risk? What is the current probability of success/failure? What are the magnitudes of those potential outcomes? How confident should you be in these estimates? What if you're wrong?

Appreciation for the complexity of investing means looking beyond solutions for the merely complicated. 

*In traditional industry parlance the buy-side refers to those purchasing investments especially investment products. This could include buying a mutual fund or investing money with a more involved manager. The sell-side is of course those on the other side of the trade selling the investment fund or services. The ultimate buy-side investor is the principal owner of the account--the one who's money is being invested. She may hire a money manager to act as agent for her. It would be his job to take on the role of buy-side investor facing those looking to sell investments to him (ultimately her). So for him it can be confusing since he is selling to his client his services to buy on her behalf. In the industry he is always considered buy-side. The firms he invests his clients' money with are the sell-side. Many a principal-agent problem develops when the buy-side doesn't stay prudently arms length from the sell-side. Think of it as the financial world equivalent of the McD.L.T. 

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Disagreeing to Agree

We mostly all agree on the premises:
  1. Progress comes through experimentation.
  2. Most experiments fail.
We mostly all disagree on the conclusion:
  • For progressives the answer is "Therefore, we should pursue large experimentation conducted by the state on the basis of arbitrarily determined noble objectives."
  • For conservatives the answer is "Therefore, we should pursue limited experimentation constrained by the state on the basis of arbitrarily determined morality."
  • For libertarians the answer is "Therefore, we should pursue a great many small experiments conducted by entities on the basis of their own arbitrarily determined desirability, feasibility, and expected profitability."
One desirable feature of any of these processes would be for those involved to have strong stakes in the outcomes (good and bad) constrained by the rights of third-parties not to be harmed in the process. I leave it to the reader to decide which of these most easily aligns with that desired incentive structure.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Ethics Versus a Moral Code

Ethics are rules and standards that we can reasonably hold others accountable to and that follow from first principles that are themselves self-evidently consistent--ethical intuitionism (a la, Huemer). 

Moral codes are rules and standards some group agrees to abide by. 

For a moral code to be ethically enforced the parties to the code must be adults of sound mind giving free, willful consent and where exit is always an option (a la, Nozick). Yet that does not make the moral code ethical per se. We have no right to expect others not party to the agreement to abide by our moral code unless it is itself ethical. 

We can belong to G.R.O.S.S., but we cannot force anyone to join. However, members and non-members of G.R.O.S.S. are all subject to a higher moral code that is ethical. So G.R.O.S.S. itself and our behavior as a member may not be ethical. 

I believe a common failing is mistakenly assuming a moral code is ethical with religion playing a leading role. One way to test for this is if a godless society would be able to derive the standard naturally. Therefore, for a rule, law, norm, mores, et al. to be ethical, it must be able to survive on its own in the wild so to speak. 

"This is truth because Calvin (or Hobbes) said so," is not valid outside of the treehouse.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Don't Let the Crazies Write the Story

How should we think about global warming? 

The video below came to mind as I read this great post from Michael Huemer. From the post:
The insane extremists are winning the debate about global warming. Whatever your view of global warming, you probably agree with me about that. You probably also think the crazy extremists are the people on the opposite side from yourself – the people on the left if you’re on the right, or the people on the right if you’re on the left. 
What I’ve realized is that both the left and the right are dominated by crazy extremists who ignore facts and evidence so they can believe what they want to believe.

He goes on to list four very reasonable points about what to think about global warming. Be sure to read his post. 

Using the video as a metaphor, I think people of either extreme position think of themselves as the boy, Atreyu, and their opponents as the horse, Artax. They on the left (right) are desperately trying to pull the climate-change deniers (climate alarmists) out of the swamp of sadness and certain global death (economic poverty).

P.S. Interestingly the climate alarmists should have a higher hurdle to overcome in getting support for their extreme view. This is because if they are right, they still have to be right that their extreme measures will actually solve the problem. If they are wrong about climate catastrophe, they will bring about something nearly as bad for humanity. On the other hand if climate-change deniers are right, everything is fine. If they are wrong, they have to also be wrong about there being time to change their minds. I think that is part of the impetus behind the artificial urgency that has recently developed in the environmentalist religion. They need to change the terms so that failing to act now is impending doom.

P.P.S. The horse in the swamp scene very much bothered me as a child—terrified and crushed might be the more accurate terms. The still below is from the movie's ending which was also bothersome in a 'what is infinity?' type of way.