Thursday, June 30, 2011

Random Representation

Despite routine assertions of the moral superiority of Democracy, people seem uncomfortable with any ideas about implementing one in which the people actually decide anything (we're talking about direct democracy here).  We often get excuses about this under the heading of "impracticality", though in the internet age that argument gets increasingly difficult to swallow.  It really seems like people are just uncomfortable with the idea.

Consider this thought experiment proposed by Yglesias (an experiment bearing marked similarities to conversations my lab mates and I have had in the past few months).  Basically the idea goes like this:

1. Assume that direct democracy is still unfeasible for logistical reasons.
2. A mathematically pleasing proxy is just to take a random statistically representative sampling of the population and make them the representatives of the people.  Do that, and let them rule.


3. In Yglesias' argument, you make them a sort of check on the actual governing body (say a city council and/or mayor or whatever) so that they are just approving (or denying) actions and budgets rather than making policies, and occasionally deciding whether we need a new governing body.

One would imagine that almost by definition this would better represent the spread of views in the population than the results of a "winner takes all" style election.  I know you all agree with me, but are still squirming in your seats as you contemplate the various sorts of people who would get minor positions of authority in this setting.  I like Yglesias' take on it, because it makes them into a sort of check on the person or people doing the actual governance, rather than the governors themselves, which seems to alleviate the majority of my squirming (a squirming I firmly believe is more closely tied to prejudice than to practicality).  I can even imagine that in the right small town you might be able to convince people to agree to give this a try.  Anyone want to form a new community with me and give this a shot?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Speech and Money Followup: Action-Effect distinctions lost on Supreme Court

Basically, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedome Club PAC v. Bennett the Supreme Court majority opinion makes a truly disturbing error.  They argue that the right to free speech is not one of action (you can say what you want) but rather efficacy (actions limiting the efficacy of your speech towards its goals are apparently problematic).  In other words, not by censorship, but merely by providing content-neutral funding for competing opinions, the government can be considered to be impeding free speech.  Elena Kagan hits the nail on the head in her dissenting opinion (second half of the linked opinion).  Here's her most terse description of the perceived problem.

According to the Court, the
special problem here lies in Arizona’s matching funds
mechanism, which the majority claims imposes a “sub-
stantia[l] burde[n]” on a privately funded candidate’s
speech. Ante, at 2. Sometimes, the majority suggests that
this “burden” lies in the way the mechanism “ ‘diminish[es]
the effectiveness’ ” of the privately funded candidate’s
expression by enabling his opponent to respond. Ante, at
10 (quoting Davis v. Federal Election Comm’n, 554 U. S.
724, 736 (2008)); see ante, at 21–22. At other times, the
majority indicates that the “burden” resides in the deter-
rent effect of the mechanism: The privately funded candi-
date “might not spend money” because doing so will trig-
ger matching funds. Ante, at 20. Either way, the majority
is wrong to see a substantial burden on expression.
Just a quick gloss: the worry is that the possibility that their opponents might be able to say something about their speech is what the Majority worries will discourage that speech.  And here is her most effective analysis of the error of the Majority Opinion.
Most important, and as just suggested, the very notion
that additional speech constitutes a “burden” is odd and
unsettling. Here is a simple fact: Arizona imposes nothing
remotely resembling a coercive penalty on privately
funded candidates. The State does not jail them, fine
them, or subject them to any kind of lesser disability. (So
the majority’s analogies to a fine on speech, ante, at 19, 28,
are inapposite.) The only “burden” in this case comes from
the grant of a subsidy to another person, and the opportu-
nity that subsidy allows for responsive speech. But that
means the majority cannot get out from under our subsidy
precedents. Once again: We have never, not once, under-
stood a viewpoint-neutral subsidy given to one speaker to
constitute a First Amendment burden on another. (And
that is so even when the subsidy is not open to all, as it is
here.) Yet in this case, the majority says that the prospect
of more speech—responsive speech, competitive speech,
the kind of speech that drives public debate—counts as a
constitutional injury. That concept, for all the reasons
previously given, is “wholly foreign to the First Amend-
ment.” Buckley, 424 U. S., at 49.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Structural Unemployment Followup: Why I am not a Luddite

My structural unemployment post generated a surprising amount of interest, but I think my point got buried by my lead.  Here it is:
I don't really think we'll ever see massive structural unemployment.

I think that people who are really worried about this miss the key point that makes massive automation possible to begin with: it's much much cheaper than people.  If the means of production are hilariously cheap, the goods themselves are going to be hilariously cheap.  In a wholly automated world, the share of income necessary to ensure a decent standard of living is going to be itty-bitty-tiny.

Other things that keep me from going Luddite:

  1. Entertainment:  Celebrity is a huge part of our entertainment industry, and you pretty much need a person in order to get that kind of cult following.  Even if robots can make better music, you can't sleep with them after a show.  Likewise, it's kind of hard to obsess over the day to day social lives of disembodied machine spirits.  Plus, even if we do hit the singularity, a machine intelligence is going to have a profoundly different experience from your typical meatbag, and I suspect that will show up as differences in our art and culture.  Also, just a side note, I have seen absolutely no evidence to discount the belief that human beings would gladly have 100% of their waking hours taken up with various forms of entertainment.  Filling that time could make a lot of jobs.
  2. Self Enhancement:  I don't really think people are going to just ignore the possibility of making themselves a lot sweeter with technology.  Genetic engineering, biomedical augmentation, and all sorts of undreamed-of technical muckery are likely to show up in the not-so-distant future and make the smartest humans a lot smarter, the strongest humans a lot stronger &c.  This mostly speaks against Reid's points in the comments regarding machines getting strictly better than people.
  3. Scarcity (all gone):  We normally call technological progress "productivity gain" for a reason - the average worker can produce quite a lot more.  In our hypothetical, we basically have infinite productivity (it takes, on average, zero people to make a product).  I think the technical term for this is a post-scarcity economy.  Read the references to hear (at length) about what people think of that.
  4. Redistribution: As Demosthenes pointed out, and Jared Bernstein corroborates the wealthiest few people have taken the majority of recent productivity gains.  Right now we're still pretty tolerant of that, but I can imagine some serious Marx-style revolutions if the trend continues deep into double digit unemployment.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Jobs, Structural Unemployment, and Technology

So pretty much since the invention of technology (which was, you know, pretty early on) people have been freaking out about how technology is going to take up all the jobs and leave a bunch of people permanently unemployed. This is where we got the luddites. But, as many of you may have noticed, the fact that we don't employ nearly as many farmers or textile artisans as we used to hasn't caused massive unemployment (though the recent recession certainly has).  Generally, this is because we start wanting (and getting) new things when making old things becomes so easy we don't need a bunch of people to do it.  Roughly speaking, we see this as a growth in GDP per capita, an increase in wages, and higher standards of living.  Great news for everyone, right?

Anyway, I always enjoy seeing articles like this one.  For those of you too lazy to click, the mises blog notes that computer science has done wonders at making large numbers of lawyers redundant.  I love this, but I think it kind of points to an unfortunate possibility.  In the long run (and I mean the really long run; this isn't something that I worry about for the next 25-50 years), I think the vast majority of current human endeavors will be done by robots and computers.  We're getting good at this stuff.  We're killing jobs that require advanced degrees, and there are much lower lower bounds on paying for computers and robots than there are on paying for people.  Now, some professions are going to be more or less immune to this trend.  Academic research is going to require people for the foreseeable future, likewise computer programming, and pretty much anything that takes significant social interaction - say PR, but also prostitution (I hope... a world of robo-prostitutes is probably morally preferable, but really creepy), sales, live entertainment, &c.

Now, the concern of many is that these technological gains are going to cause structural unemployment.  That is, people will be unemployed in a systematic way.  Maybe all jobs with IQ requirements below 120 will be able to be done cheaper by a computer or robot, which means in turn that we would expect more than half our population to be permanently unemployed... not good.  If you look at the first two jobs I list as computer proof (research, programming) you can see why people might worry about this, but the linked article and the rest of the list (PR, sales, live entertainment, and other forms of prostitution) show that this isn't necessarily the case.  Technology makes the work of smart people easier too, and if work is easier you either hire fewer people (and get the same amount done) or get more done.  Unless we see a strong systematic trend in the situation that can't be overcome with education &c then we don't really have to worry terribly much about long term structural unemployment.

Another, perhaps less commonly voiced concern is that the increased technological productivity is going to dramatically change the economic landscape.  Most people will be employed doing "frivolous" (computer unfriendly) things, or else professionally learning or telling computers what to do (most likely a combination of the two).  Artists, musicians, and writers are already a much larger part of our economy than at any point in history, especially in the highest echelon of wealth, and I would fully expect this trend to continue and extend into the lower income brackets.  I'm not sure what this sort of civilization would look like or whether it would be a good thing.  Something to think about.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bounds on Taxation (part 1)

I was recently asked to put some concrete bounds on what I think acceptable levels of taxation are.  This seems like a reasonable question, and I put out so much pie-in-the-sky stuff that I figure it's worthwhile to lay out what sort of constraints I tend to think under.  So, first some general principles:

1. Taxes should never make you earn less money when you make more money.
2. No one should ever have to choose between paying taxes and purchasing essential goods and services... if you can't afford a place to live and food to eat you shouldn't have to pay taxes
3. Governance without taxation is clearly impossible, so let's not pretend that 0% taxes across the board are possible or desirable.

Together, these principles suggest a stepped tax code basically similar to the one we have today.  It protects the poor from having to choose between obeying the law and eating, and it protects the rich from losing money by making money.  Now, this isn't terribly constructive, since no serious proposal violates these constraints, so let's see if I can't get further into things next time.

Money as Speech

I typically agree with most of what Ygelsias has to say, but this post really rubbed me the wrong way.  Here's the most relevant section:

My starting point is that the “money isn’t speech” mantra clearly has some real problems with it. [...]
The issue, most broadly, is that money is a big help when communicating with the public. Restricting a person’s ability to obtain money for the purpose of communicating with the public is a means of restricting that person’s ability to communicate. It is true that this means that people with more money have a disproportionate impact on the public dialogue just as they have disproportionate access to big houses and fancy dinner and quality medical care. And you don’t have to be happy about any of those facts. But they’re part of a general question of inequality and economic justice.
This seems extraordinarily perverse to me.  First of all, it turns the argument on its head.  It's patently not the case that people would be restricted from attempting to get monetary support for their communication.  Most campaign finance reform proposals allow you to do so by getting a lot of people to give you money, and they certainly don't prevent you from making money in other ways in order to fund your outreach.  They prevent DONORS from unfairly influencing the platforms of politicians by virtue of their wealth.  Furthermore, as far as restrictions on free speech go, we already have some strong ones on advertisements, which would seem to fit into the same sort of category as ads for politicians (but don't).

I suppose one could argue that having more money is kind of like being photogenic or having a good prose style - useful traits that are inherently differently distributed and contribute significantly to communication efficacy.  It seems unreasonable, for instance, to say that every blogger should have to write at a 4rd grade reading level in order to even the influence playing field.  If you really believe that money and eloquence have no significant moral difference, then I guess you can buy Yglesias' argument.

But here's the thing.  As Tom Lee points out, the primary reason that money is important in speech is for purchasing network media time.  Network media time (as distinct from internet media time) is, by its nature, finite and one person's purchase necessarily crowds out another's.  This is patently not true for things like eloquence and good looks.  So, since tv time is zero-sum, restricting the ability of one person to purchase a lot of it doesn't restrict speech in general, but rather prevents a private individual from purchasing away the power of speech from the rest of the field.  From that lens (which I think is more sensible) we can see campaign finance reform as promoting, not limiting, free speech.  Also, since we're talking about media companies in particular, it might be reasonable to talk about limiting the company's speech, rather than the pundits.   In other words, we could put upper bounds on the amount of stuff they can broadcast from a single funding source, or something along those lines.  Media providers are already subject to many restrictions, so I can't think of a free speech argument against this, though I imagine implementation of such a law would suffer from serious practical and political difficulties.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ineptness versus Malice

It seems like when we hear about the evils of big government, the central argument is always that "Government is Bad at Things".  It's not that the motives of government or bad, it's just that it's a big bumbling imbecile and tends to get everything wrong to everyone's detriment.  People are entertainingly selective about the scope of government ineptitude (great at Military, bad at healthcare (though demonstrably better at healthcare than all companies everywhere, but that's a different story)) but that's the basic gist of the "small government" argument.

Anti-corporate rhetoric, on the other hand, tends to focus on malice.  Companies do bad things to the customers on purpose in order to make money or, even better, individuals in companies use their positions in order to do bad things to make money personally - often at the expense of their company and its customers.

I'm sure that there are plenty of inept companies, but I rather suspect that their lifespans are brief.  In fact, this is one of the common arguments against government run things.  Government run things don't die if they are inept, whereas companies do.  Presumably this leads to more inept government run things and fewer inept corporate things.  All well and good.  Here's where I take umbrage though.  The same motivations which incentivize competence in the private industry also promote being bad for money.  Maybe not bad in the sense of breaking the law, but certainly bad in the sense of deceiving customers or taking advantage of the gullible among us.  I don't really see similar motivations in government.  I mean, maybe if a cruel or malicious plan is explicitly popular with the electorate, but other than that there doesn't seem to be much point to being mean in a non-profit.  Corrupt? sure.  Inefficient? certainly. But not malicious.

So here's my question.  Why should we prefer Competent Malice to Incompetent Ineptitude?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Campaign Finance

I've been thinking about the problems of plutocracy for a while, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover this bill.  As far as these things go, it seems like a pretty decent start on leveling the playing field a little bit for popular candidates without corporate support.  That said, it's only a first step.  Candidates that don't opt into the program would still be funded in all the usual ways, and I suspect they'd have larger war chests too.  It also doesn't impact the third party support ads that seem to be such an important part of modern election campaigns.

If I had it my way, every candidate would be forced to campaign under the bill's provisions.  Basically, you demonstrate that you're a real candidate by getting a whole lot of small donations.  Then you have your campaign funded out of public coffers.  Everyone get's the same amount of money, give or take the difference in number of $100 donations more popular candidates could procure.  There's no need to pander to the extraordinarily wealthy or to corporate interests in order to get elected, and poor people might be able to consider running (though of course they probably wouldn't be able to on account of needing "jobs" to "support their families").  Still, it would be a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fear is the enemy of Love

Why are you all so afraid?

Today I heard someone talking about the dangers of posting your phone number and address on facebook, as if the yellow pages had never existed, as if the internet had invented the concept of public personal information. I was also informed that placing your birthday on Facebook was too dangerous, as people might be able to infer a significant portion of your SSN with it. I am struck, almost constantly, by conversations of this type in an enormous variety of contexts. I feel like I am perhaps being punished by some cruel set of tricksters, intent on stealing the dignity from human relations by the twin tactics of fear-mongering and protectionism. 

Here's the message in a nutshell: We must all be gravely afraid of allowing anyone access to any of our information, lest it be used against us, and we must all submit all of our information to the benevolent government, lest someone among us is hiding his evil intent. Nevermind that fearful self-suppression is an excellent tactic for reducing freedom and convenience, and gives service providers the excellent excuse of “they should have protected their information better” when confronted with the incredible stupidity of their security mechanisms. Never mind that governments have been known to abuse their powers from time to time. Let's talk about practical examples:

  1. I need a password for every damn website I go to. This is insane. I understand that they want a username... it helps them to identify me repeatedly. Some transactions do indeed need to be secure, like payment, bank management, and social things like email and Facebook. There are glorious third party providers for payments---paypal springs readily to mind with googlecheckout in close pursuit---so I should basically never have to give some random website my own payment information. If credit card companies were smart, they'd build similar services for visa, mastercard, discover &c. Right, so that eliminates the need for 90% of legitimate passwords. Now let's look at some truly hilarious ones. Hulu, Netflix, Pandora... what possible reason do I have for protecting these accounts? What can anyone learn from the fact that I watched yojimbo yesterday? What horrible vandalism can occur? The reorganization of one of my queues, the destruction of one of my stations? Who would profit from that? The plain fact of the matter is that banks, payment services, and communication services should have passwords and everything else should be username only. This would have the glorious secondary effect of preventing me from having to worry when one of those services was compromised. PSN springs immediately to mind. What possible value is it to me to password authenticate my GAME PLAYING with them? And yet, due to their shoddy security, I am now obliged to change many actually sensitive accounts. This is madness.
  1. Personal information. I have been asked to be terrified of Facebook, Myspace, and every other social networking thingy known to man. I have been instructed to obfuscate my identity to the maximum extent, to permit only my closest, most vetted comrades into the deep waters of knowing how to contact me, and what movies I like. I'm baffled by the idea that someone who was willing to put their name address and phone number into a yellow book passed out to every person with the same area code would have any qualms at all about having the same information available in the convenient modern equivalent. I'm even more troubled by the idea that something that you're willing to share with your 500+ acquaintances on the great book of faces should be of concern to your employers. I understand the desire to know your employees better, but frankly I think there are good ethical reasons to restrict the scope of an employers hiring information gathering to your previous work experience and current work performance. Reputation is a thing that requires scope to be meaningful. 24 hour news coverage and the glories of the internet seem to have conspired to give us the impression that my decision to imbibe in college, has any bearing whatsoever on my ability to write excellent code, show up to work on time, and get things done. These are careful attempts to restrict free expression in the name of pragmatism. As if it is somehow okay for there to be mass campaigns encouraging censorship because some employers are scurrilous enough to believe they have a right to pry into our personal lives.

  2. Social Security Numbers. I hope to God that someone manages to steal the entire Social Security database and posts it straight to Wikileaks, drops it onto Bittorrent, and links it from every forum on the internet. Social Security Numbers are just names. Think of them as your second middle name, the one the government uses because not everyone's parents are creative enough to dodge “John Smith”. Why in hell would anyone consider a 9-digit numeric code to be anything even remotely approaching a secure identifier. If it was a password, it would be the weakest kind on earth. The fact that any institution at all has ever even once considered the knowledge of that number to be a valid means of establishing someones credentials is deeply disturbing. The sooner they are paradropped into the public sphere the sooner we can acknowledge this obvious truth and move on with our lives. Good, now that I've solved identity theft for you let's talk about security and terror.

  3. Airport security. I have so little to say about this that hasn't been said. Go read some Bruce Schnier. We keep accepting bad security solutions to make us feel better (in the short run), to make us feel like we're doing something, even if they cost us piles of money. Then, when the bad solutions are inevitably circumvented we get more scared and add more bad solutions, instead of recognizing the dumbness of the last ones and rolling them away. By this process do we erode our liberties and dignity while improving our safety not at all.  Gross.

  4. But of course airports aren't the only places where this shit happens. We are being taught constantly to be afraid, as if the world we live in has grown insanely dangerous now. What, tell me, has changed in the dangers of our day to day life from 20 or 30 years ago? It's not like we just invented firearms. It's not as if there were no murderers in those distant past years.  Look:

    There were plenty of drugs, and there was plenty of booze... (Note the peak in murders under prohibition... looks like booze is probably a good thing to have legal) There were school bullies then too. Why is it that we are only now confronted with metal-detectors in elementary schools, lawsuits against name-callers, and an urgent warning never to allow our addresses to be known? 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Good Conservative Blogs Follow Up

So a while ago I asked after some good conservative blogs in order to balance out my reading material.  I also spent quite a lot of time searching on my own and here's my conclusion: there are no good conservative blogs.  

Basically, the closest you can get is mises libertarian stuff where maybe one in four or five articles has some intellectual merit, but even there we only get a tiny amount of evidence based information... maybe one in 20 articles actually uses real world numbers to support its points.  As far as actual main stream republicanism goes, there does not appear to be a SINGLE intelligent thinker in the entire blogosphere.  I am eager to be proven wrong here, and have spent quite a lot of my time and resources attempting to prove myself wrong, but I'm convinced.

Dear Republican party, I would like to know about the deep thinking behind your sound bytes.  If I cannot find any evidence in support of that thinking anywhere, I am inclined to believe that there is none.