Why is housing so expensive?

Apr 30, JDN 2457874

It’s not your imagination: Housing is a lot more expensive than it used to be. Inflation adjusted into 2000 dollars, the median price of a house has risen from $30,600 in 1940 to $119,600 today. Adjusted to today’s dollars, that’s an increase from $44,000 to $173,000.

Things are particularly bad here in California, where the median price of a new home is $517,000—and especially in the Bay Area, where the median price is $838,000. Just two years ago, people were already freaking out that the median home price in the Bay Area had hit $661,000—and now it has risen 27% since then.

The rent is too damn high, but lately rent has actually not been rising as fast as housing prices. It may be that they’ve just gotten as high as they can get; in New York City rent is stable, and in San Francisco it’s actually declining—but in both cases it’s over $4,000 per month for a 2-bedroom apartment. The US still has the highest rent-to-price ratio in the world; at 11.2%, you should be able to buy a house on a 15-year mortgage for what we currently pay in rent near city centers.

But this is not a uniquely American problem.

It’s a problem in Canada: Housing in the Toronto area recently skyrocketed in price, with the mean price of a detached home now over $974,000 CAD, about $722,000 USD.

It’s a problem in the UK: The average price of a home in the UK is now over 214,000 pounds, or $274,000 (the pound is pretty weak after Brexit). In London in particular, the average home now costs nine years of the average wage.

It’s even a problem in China: An average 1000-square-foot apartment (that’s not very big!) in Shanghai now sells for 5 million yuan, which is about $725,000.

Worldwide, the US actually has a relatively low housing price to income ratio, because our incomes are so high. Venezuela’s economy is in such a terrible state that it is literally impossible for the average person to buy the average home, but in countries as diverse as France, Taiwan, and Peru, the average home still costs more than 10 years of the average household income.

Why is this happening? Why is housing so expensive, and getting worse all the time?

There are a lot of reasons that have been proposed.

The most obvious and fundamental reason is basic supply and demand. Demand for housing in major cities is rapidly rising, and supply of housing just isn’t keeping up.

Indeed, in California, the rate of new housing construction has fallen in recent years, even as we’ve had rapid population growth and skyrocketing housing prices. This is probably the number one reason why our housing here is so expensive.

But that raises its own questions: why aren’t more houses getting built? The market is supposed to correct for this sort of thing. Higher prices incentivize more construction, so prices get brought back down.

I think with housing in particular, we have a fundamental problem with that mechanism, and it is this: The people who make the policy don’t want the prices to come down.

No, I’m not talking about mayors and city councils, though they do like their property tax revenue. I’m talking about homeowners. People who go to homeowners’ association meetings and complain that someone else’s lopsided deck or un-weeded garden is “lowering property values”. People who join NIMBY political campaigns to stop new development, prevent the construction of taller buildings, or even stop the installation of new electrical substations. People who already got theirs and don’t care about anyone else.

Homeowners have an enormous influence in local politics, and it is by local politics that most of these decisions about zoning and development are made. They make all kinds of excuses about “preserving the community” and “the feel of the city”, but when you get right down to it, these people care more about preserving their own home equity than they do about making other people homeless.

In some cases, people may be so fundamentally confused that they think new development actually somehow causes higher housing prices, and so they try to fight development in a vain effort to stop rising housing prices and only end up making things worse. It’s also very common for people to support rent control policies in an effort to keep housing affordable—and economists of all political stripes are in almost total consensus that rent control only serves to restrict supply, increase inequality, and make housing prices even worse. As one might expect, the stricter the rent control, the worse this effect is. Some mild forms of rent control might be justifiable in particularly monopolistic markets, but in general it’s not a good long-term solution. Rent control forces rationing, and often the rationing is not in favor of who needs it the most but who is the most well-connected. The people who benefit most from rent control are usually of higher income than the average for the city.

On the other hand, removing rent control can cause a spike in prices, and make things worse in the short run, before there is time for new construction to increase the supply of housing. Also, many economists assume in their models that tenants who get forced out by the higher rents would get compensated for it, which is not at all how the real world works. It’s also unclear exactly how large the effect sizes are, because the empirical studies get quite mixed results. Still, rent control is a bad idea. Don’t take it from me, take it from Paul Krugman.

It’s also common to blame foreign investors—because humans are tribal, and blaming foreigners is always popular—even though that makes no economic sense. Investors are buying your houses because the prices keep rising. It’s possible that there could be some sort of speculative bubble, but that’s actually harder to sustain in housing than it is in most other assets, precisely because houses are immobile and expensive. Speculative bubbles in gold happen all the time (indeed, perhaps literally all the time, as the price of gold has never fallen to its real fundamental value in all of human history), but gold is a tradeable, transportable, fungible commodity that can be bought in arbitrarily small quantities. (Because it’s an element, you’re literally only limited to the atomic level!)

Moreover, it isn’t just supply and demand at work here. Fluctuations in economic growth have strong effects on housing prices—and vice-versa. There are monetary policy effects, particularly in a liquidity trap; lower interest rates combined with low inflation create a perfect storm for higher housing prices.

Overall economic inequality is a major contributor to steep housing prices, as well as the segregation of housing across racial and economic lines. And as the rate of return on productive capital continues to decrease while the rate of return on real estate does not, more and more of our wealth concentration is going to be in the form of higher housing prices—making the whole problem self-reinforcing.

People also seem really ambivalent about whether they want housing prices to be low or high. In one breath they’ll bemoan the lack of affordable housing, and in another they’ll talk about “protecting property values”. Even the IMF called the increase in housing prices after the Second Depression a “recovery”. Is it really so hard to understand that higher prices mean higher prices?

But we think of housing as two fundamentally different things. On the one hand, it’s a durable consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator—something you buy because it’s useful, and keep around to use for a long time. On the other hand, it’s a financial asset—a store of value for your savings and a potential source of income. When you’re thinking of it as a consumption good, you want it to be “affordable”; when you’re thinking of it as an asset, you want to “protect its value”. But it’s the same house with the same price. You can’t do both of those things at once, and clearly, as a society—perhaps as a civilization—we have been tilting way too far in the “asset” direction.

I get it: Financial assets that grow over time have the allure of easy money. The stock market, the derivatives market, even the lottery and Las Vegas, all have this tantalizing property that they seem to give you money for nothing. They are like the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone in days of yore.

But they are just as much a chimera as the Philosopher’s Stone itself. (Also, if anyone had found the Philosopher’s Stone, the glut of gold would have triggered massive inflation, not unlike what happened in Spain in the 16th century.) Any money you get from simply owning an asset or placing a bet is money that had to come from somewhere else. In the case of the stock market, that “somewhere else” is the profits of the corporations you bought, and if you did actually contribute to the investment of those corporations there’s nothing wrong with you getting a proportional share of those profits. But most people aren’t thinking in those terms when they buy stocks, and once you get all the way to sophisticated derivatives you’re basically in full gambling territory. Every option that’s in the money is another option that’s out of the money. Every interest rate swap that turns a profit is another one that bears a loss.

And when it comes to housing, if you magically gain equity from rising property values, where is that money coming from? It’s coming from people desperately struggling to afford to live in your city, people giving up 40%, 50%, even 60% of their disposable income just for the chance to leave in a tiny apartment because they want to be in your city that badly. It’s coming from people who started that way, lost their job, and ended up homeless because they couldn’t sustain the payments anymore. All that easy money is coming from hard-working young people trying to hold themselves out of poverty.

It’s different if your home gains value because you actually did something to make it better—renovations, additions, landscaping. Even then I think these things are sort of overrated; but they do constitute a real economic benefit to the people who live there. But if your home rises in value because zoning regulations and protesting homeowners stop the construction of new high-rises, that’s very much still on the backs of struggling young people.

We need to stop thinking houses as assets that are supposed to earn a return, and instead think of them as consumption goods that provide benefits to people. If you want a return, buy stocks and bonds. When you’re buying a house, you should be buying a house—not some dream of making money for nothing as housing prices rise forever. Because they can’t—sooner or later, the bubble will break—and even if they could, it would be terrible for everyone who didn’t get into the market soon enough.

Can we have property rights without violence?

Apr 23, JDN 2457867

Most likely, you have by now heard of the incident on a United Airlines flight, where a man was beaten and dragged out of a plane because the airline decided that they needed more seats than they had. In case you somehow missed all the news articles and memes, the Wikipedia page on the incident is actually fairly good.

There is a lot of gossip about the passenger’s history, which the flight crew couldn’t possibly have known and is therefore irrelevant. By far the best take I’ve seen on the ethical and legal implications of the incident can be found on Naked Capitalism, so if you do want to know more about it I highly recommend starting there. Probably the worst take I’ve read is on The Pilot Wife Life, but I suppose if you want a counterpoint there you go.

I really have little to add on this particular incident; instead my goal here is to contextualize it in a broader discussion of property rights in general.

Despite the fact that what United’s employees and contractors did was obviously unethical and very likely illegal, there are still a large number of people defending their actions. Aiming for a Woodman if not an Ironman, the most coherent defense I’ve heard offered goes something like this:

Yes, what United did in this particular case was excessive. But it’s a mistake to try to make this illegal, because any regulation that did so would necessarily impose upon fundamental property rights. United owns the airplane; they can set the rules for who is allowed to be on that airplane. And once they set those rules, they need to be able to enforce them. Sometimes, however distasteful it may be, that enforcement will require violence. But property rights are too important to give up. Would you want to live in a society where anyone could just barge into your home and you were not allowed to use force to remove them?

Understood in this context, United contractors calling airport security to get a man dragged off of a plane isn’t an isolated act of violence for no reason; it is part of a broader conflict between the protection of property rights and the reduction of violence. “Stand your ground” laws, IMF “structural adjustment” policies, even Trump’s wall against immigrants can be understood as part of this broader conflict.

One very far-left approach to resolving such a conflict—as taken by the Paste editorial “You’re not mad at United Airlines; you’re mad at America”—is to fall entirely on the side of nonviolence, and say essentially that any system which allows the use of violence to protect property rights is fundamentally corrupt and illegitimate.

I can see why such a view is tempting. It’s simple, for one thing, and that’s always appealing. But if you stop and think carefully about the consequences of this hardline stance, it becomes clear that such a system would be unsustainable. If we could truly never use violence ever to protect any property rights, that would mean that property law in general could no longer be enforced. People could in fact literally break into your home and steal your furniture, and you’d have no recourse, because the only way to stop them would involve either using violence yourself or calling the police, who would end up using violence. Property itself would lose all its meaning—and for those on the far-left who think that sounds like a good thing, I want you to imagine what the world would look like if the only things you could ever use were the ones you could physically hold onto, where you’d leave home never knowing whether your clothes or your food would still be there when you came back. A world without property sounds good if you are imagining that the insane riches of corrupt billionaires would collapse; but if you stop and think about coming home to no food and no furniture, perhaps it doesn’t sound so great. And while it does sound nice to have a world where no one is homeless because they can always find a place to sleep, that may seem less appealing if your home is the one that a dozen homeless people decide to squat in.

The Tragedy of the Commons would completely destroy any such economic system; the only way to sustain it would be either to produce such an enormous abundance of wealth that no amount of greed could ever overtake it, or, more likely, somehow re-engineer human brains so that greed no longer exists. I’m not aware of any fundamental limits on greed; as long as social status increases monotonically with wealth, there will be people who try to amass as much wealth as they possibly can, far beyond what any human being could ever actually consume, much less need. How do I know this? Because they already exist; we call them “billionaires”. A billionaire, essentially by definition, is a hoarder of wealth who owns more than any human being could consume. If someone happens upon a billion dollars and immediately donates most of it to charity (as J.K. Rowling did), they can escape such a categorization; and if they use the wealth to achieve grand visionary ambitions—and I mean real visions, not like Steve Jobs but like Elon Musk—perhaps they can as well. Saving the world from climate change and colonizing Mars are the sort of projects that really do take many billions of dollars to achieve. (Then again, shouldn’t our government be doing these things?) And if they just hold onto the wealth or reinvest it to make even more, a billionaire is nothing less than a hoarder, seeking gratification and status via ownership itself.

Indeed, I think the maximum amount of wealth one could ever really need is probably around $10 million in today’s dollars; with that amount, even a very low-risk investment portfolio could supply enough income to live wherever you want, wear whatever you want, drive whatever you want, eat whatever you want, travel whenever you want. At even a 5% return, that’s $500,000 per year to spend without ever working or depleting your savings. At 10%, you’d get a million dollars a year for sitting there and doing nothing. And yet there are people with one thousand times as much wealth as this.

But not all property is of this form. I was about to say “the vast majority” is not, but actually that’s not true; a large proportion of wealth is in fact in the form of capital hoarded by the rich. Indeed, about 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by the richest 1%. (To be fair, the world’s top 1% is a broader category than one might think; the top 1% in the world is about the top 5% in the US; based on census data, that puts the cutoff at about $250,000 in net wealth.) But the majority of people have wealth in some form, and would stand to suffer if property rights were not enforced at all.

So we might be tempted to the other extreme, as the far-right seems to be, and say that any force is justified in the protection of fundamental property rights—that if vagrants step onto my land, I am well within my rights to get out my shotgun. (You know, hypothetically; not that I own a shotgun, or, for that matter, any land.) This seems to appeal especially to those who nostalgize the life on the frontier, “living off the land” (often losing family members to what now seem like trivial bacterial illnesses), “self-sufficient” (with generous government subsidies), in the “unspoiled wilderness” (from which the Army had forcibly removed Native Americans). Westerns have given us this sense that frontier life offers a kind of freedom and adventure that this urbane civilization lacks. And I suppose I am a fan of at least one Western, since one should probably count Firefly.

Yet of course this is madness; no civilization could survive if it really allowed people to just arbitrarily “defend” whatever property claims they decided to make. Indeed, it’s really just the flip side of the coin; as we’ve seen in Somalia (oh, by the way, we’re deploying troops there again), not protecting property and allowing universal violence to defend any perceived property largely amount to the same thing. If anything, the far-left fantasy seems more appealing; at least then we would not be subject to physical violence, and could call upon the authorities to protect us from that. In the far-right fantasy, we could accidentally step on what someone else claims to be his land and end up shot in the head.

So we need to have rules about who can use violence to defend what property and why. And that, of course, is complicated. We can start by having a government that defines property claims and places limits on their enforcement; but that still leaves the question of which sort of property claims and enforcement mechanisms the government should allow.

I think the principle should essentially be minimum force. We do need to protect property rights, yes; but if there is a way of doing so without committing violence, that’s the way we should do it. And if we do need to use violence, we should use as little as possible.

In theory we already do this: We have “rules of engagement” for the military and “codes of conduct” for police. But in practice, these rules are rarely enforced; they only get applied to really extreme violations, and sometimes not even then. The idea seems to be that enforcing strict rules on our soldiers and police officers constitutes disloyalty, even treason. We should “let them do their jobs”. This is the norm that must change. Those rules are their jobs. If they break those rules, they aren’t doing their jobs—they’re doing something else, something that endangers the safety and security of our society. The disloyalty is not in investigating and enforcing rules against police misconduct—the disloyalty is in police misconduct. If you want to be a cop but you’re not willing to follow the rules, you don’t actually want to be a cop—you want to be a bully with a gun and a badge.

And of course, one need not be a government agency in order to use excessive force. Many private corporations have security forces of their own, which frequently abuse and assault people. Most terrifying of all, there are whole corporations of “private military contractors”—let’s call them what they are: mercenaries—like Academi, formerly known as Blackwater. The whole reason these corporations even exist is to evade regulations on military conduct, and that is why they must be eliminated.

In the United case, there was obviously a nonviolent answer; all they had to do was offer to pay people to give up their seats, and bid up the price until enough people left. Someone would have left eventually; there clearly was a market-clearing price. That would have cost $2,000, maybe $5,000 at the most—a lot better than the $255 million lost in United’s stock value as a result of the bad PR.

If a homeless person decides to squat in your house, yes, perhaps you’d be justified in calling the police to remove them. Clearly you’re under no obligation to provide them room and board indefinitely. But there may be better solutions: Is there a homeless shelter in the area? Could you give them a ride there, or at least bus fare?

When immigrants cross our borders, may we turn them away? Now, here’s one where I’m pretty strongly tempted to go all the way and say we have no right whatsoever to stop them. There are no requirements for being born into citizenship, after all—so on what grounds do we add requirements to acquire citizenship? Is there something in the water of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River that, when you drink it for 18 years (processed by municipal water systems of course; what are we, barbarians?), automatically makes you into a patriotic American? Does one become more law-abiding, or less capable of cruelty or fanaticism, by being brought into the world on one side of an imaginary line in the sand? If there are going to be requirements for citizenship, shouldn’t they be applied to everyone, and not just people who were born in the wrong place?

Yes, when we have no other choice, we must be prepared to use violence to defend property—because otherwise, there’s no such thing as property. But more often than not, we use violence when we didn’t need to, or use much more violence than was actually necessary. The principle that violence can be justified in defense of property does not entail that any violence is always justified in defense of property.

Unpaid work and the double burden

Apr 16, JDN 2457860

When we say the word “work”, what leaps to mind is usually paid work in the formal sector—the work people do for employers. When you “go to work” each morning, you are going to do your paid work in the formal sector.

But a large quantity of the world’s labor does not take this form. First, there is the informal sectorwork done for cash “under the table”, where there is no formal employment structure and often no reporting or payment of taxes. Many economists estimate that the majority of the world’s workers are employed in the informal sector. The ILO found that informal employment comprises as much as 70% of employment in some countries. However, it depends how you count: A lot of self-employment could be considered either formal or informal. If you base it on whether you do any work outside an employer-employee relationship, informal sector work is highly prevalent around the world. If you base it on not reporting to the government to avoid taxes, informal sector work is less common. If it must be your primary source of income, whether or not you pay taxes, informal sector work is uncommon. And if you only include informal sector work when it is your primary income source and not reported to the government, informal sector work is relatively rare and largely restricted to underdeveloped countries.

But that’s not really my focus for today, because you at least get paid in the informal sector. Nor am I talking about forced laborthat is, slavery, essentially—which is a serious human rights violation that sadly still goes on in many countries.

No, the unpaid work I want to talk about today is work that people willingly do for free.

I’m also excluding internships and student work, where (at least in theory) the idea is that instead of getting paid you are doing the work in order to acquire skills and experience that will be valuable to you later on. I’m talking about work that you do for its own sake.

Such work can be divided into three major categories.
First there is vocation—the artist who would paint even if she never sold a single canvas; the author who is compelled to write day and night and would give the books away for free. Vocation is work that you do for fun, or because it is fulfilling. It doesn’t even feel like “work” in quite the same sense. For me, writing and research are vocation, at least in part; even if I had $5 million in stocks I would still do at least some writing and research as part of what gives my life meaning.

Second there is volunteering—the soup kitchen, the animal shelter, the protest march. Volunteering is work done out of altruism, to help other people or work toward some greater public goal. You don’t do it for yourself, you do it for others.

Third, and really my main focus for this post, is domestic labor—vacuuming the rug, mopping the floor, washing the dishes, fixing the broken faucet, changing the baby’s diapers. This is generally not work that anyone finds particularly meaningful or fulfilling, nor is it done out of any great sense of altruism (perhaps toward your own family, but that’s about the extent of it). But you also don’t get paid to do it. You do it because it must be done.

There is also considerable overlap, of course: Many people find meaning in their activism or charitable work, and part of what motivates artists and authors is a desire to change the world.

Vocation is ultimately what I would like to see the world move towards. One of the great promises of a basic income is that it might finally free us from the grind of conventional employment that has gripped us ever since we first managed to escape the limitations of subsistence farming—which in turn gripped us ever since we escaped the desperation of hunter-gatherer survival. The fourth great stage in human prosperity might finally be a world where we can work not for food or for pay, but for meaning. A world of musicians and painters, of authors and playwrights, of sculptors and woodcutters, yes; but also a world of cinematographers and video remixers, of 3D modelers and holographers, of VR designers and video game modders. If you ever fret that no work would be done without the constant pressure of the wage incentive, spend some time on Stack Overflow or the Steam Workshop. People will spend hundreds of person-hours at extremely high-skill tasks—I’m talking AI programming and 3D modeling here—not for money but for fun.

Volunteering is frankly kind of overrated; as the Effective Altruism community will eagerly explain to you any chance they get, it’s usually more efficient for you to give money rather than time, because money is fungible while giving your time only makes sense if your skills are actually the ones that the project needs. If this criticism of so much well-intentioned work sounds petty, note that literally thousands of lives would be saved each year if instead of volunteering people donated an equivalent amount of money so that charities could hire qualified workers instead. Unskilled volunteers and donations of useless goods after a disaster typically cause what aid professionals call the “second disaster”. Still, people do find meaning in volunteering, and there is value in that; and also there are times when you really are the best one to do it, particularly when it comes to local politics.

But what should we do with domestic labor?

Some of it can and will be automated away—the Parable of the Dishwasher with literal dishwashers. But it will be awhile before it all can, and right now it’s still a bit expensive. Maybe instead of vacuuming I should buy a Roomba—but $500 feels like a lot of money right now.

Much domestic labor we could hire out to someone else, but we simply choose not to. I could always hire someone to fix my computer, unclog my bathtub, or even mop my floors; I just don’t because it seems too expensive.
From the perspective of an economist, it’s actually a bit odd that it seems too expensive. I might have a comparative advantage in fixing my computer—it’s mine, after all, so I know its ins and outs, and while I’m no hotshot Google admin I am a reasonably competent programmer and debugger in my own right. And while for many people auto repair is a household chore, I do actually hire auto mechanics; I don’t even change my own oil, though partly that’s because my little Smart has an extremely compact design that makes it hard to work on. But I surely have no such comparative advantage in cleaning my floors or unclogging my pipes; so why doesn’t it seem worth it to hire someone else to do that?

Maybe I’m being irrational; hiring a cleaning service isn’t that expensive after all. I could hire a cleaning service to do my whole apartment for something like $80, and if I scheduled a regular maid it would probably be something like that per month. That’s what I would charge for two hours of tutoring, so maybe it would behoove me to hire a maid and spend that extra time tutoring or studying.

Or maybe it’s this grad student budget of mine; money is pretty tight at the moment, as I go through this strange societal ritual where young adults go through a period of near-poverty, overwhelming workload and constant anxiety not in spite but because we are so intelligent and hard-working. Perhaps if and when I get that $70,000 job as a professional economist my marginal utility of wealth will decrease and I will feel more inclined to hire maid services.

There are also transaction costs I save on by doing the work myself. A maid would have to commute here, first of all, reducing the efficiency gains from their comparative advantage in the work; but more than that, there’s a lot of effort I’d have to put in just to prepare for the maid and deal with any problems that might arise. There are scheduling issues, and the work probably wouldn’t get done as quickly unless I were to spend enough to hire a maid on a regular basis. There’s also a psychological cost in comfort and privacy to dealing with a stranger in one’s home, and a small but nontrivial risk that the maid might damage or steal something important.

But honestly it might be as simple as social norms (remember: to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms). Regardless of whether or not it is affordable, it feels strange to hire a maid. That’s the sort of thing only rich, decadent people do. A responsible middle-class adult is supposed to mop their own floors and do their own laundry. Indeed, while hiring a plumber or an auto mechanic feels like paying for a service, hiring a maid crosses a line and feels like hiring a servant. (I honestly always feel a little awkward around the gardeners hired by our housing development for that reason. I’m only paying them indirectly, but there’s still this vague sense that they are somehow subservient—and surely, we are of quite distinct socioeconomic classes. Maybe it would help if I brushed up on my Spanish and got to know them better?)

And then there’s the gender factor. Being in a same-sex couple household changes the domestic labor dynamic quite a bit relative to the conventional opposite-sex couple household. Even in ostensibly liberal, feminist, egalitarian households, and even when both partners are employed full-time, it usually ends up being the woman who does most of the housework. This is true in the US; it is true in the UK; it is true in Europe; indeed it’s true in most if not all countries around the world, and, unsurprisingly, it is worst in India, where women spend a whopping five hours per day more on housework than men. (I was not surprised by the fact that Japan and China also do poorly, given their overall gender norms; but I’m a bit shocked at how badly Ireland and Italy do on this front.) And yes, while #ScandinaviaIsBetter, still in Sweden and Norway women spend half an hour to an hour more on housework on an average day than men.

Which, of course, supports the social norm theory. Any time you see both an overwhelming global trend against women and considerable cross-country variation within that trend, your first hypothesis should be sexism. Without the cross-country variation, maybe it could be biology—the sex differences in height and upper-body strength, for example, are pretty constant across countries. But women doing half an hour more in Norway but five hours more in India looks an awful lot like sexism.

This is called the double burden: To meet the social norms of being responsible middle-class adults, men are merely expected to work full-time at a high-paying job, but women are expected to do both the full effort of maintaining a household and the full effort of working at a full-time job. This is surely an improvement over the time when women were excluded from the formal workforce, not least because of the financial freedom that full-time work affords many women; but it would be very nice if we could also find a way to share some of that domestic burden as well. There has been some trend toward a less unequal share of housework as more women enter the workforce, but it still has a long way to go, even in highly-developed countries.

So, we can start by trying to shift the social norm that housework is gendered: Women clean the floors and change the diapers, while men fix the car and paint the walls. Childcare in particular is something that should be done equally by all parents, and while it’s plausible that one person may be better or worse at mopping or painting, it strains credulity to think that it’s always the woman who is better at mopping and the man who is better at painting.

Yet perhaps this is a good reason to try to shift away from another social norm as well, the one where only rich people hire maids and maids are servants. Unfortunately, it’s likely that most maids will continue to be women for the foreseeable future—cleaning services are gendered in much the same way that nursing and childcare are gendered. But at least by getting paid to clean, one can fulfill the “job” norm and the “housekeeping” norm in one fell swoop; and then women who are in other professions can carry only one burden instead of two. And if we can begin to think of cleaning services as more like plumbing and auto repair—buying a service, not hiring a servant—this is likely to improve the condition and social status of a great many maids. I doubt we’d ever get to the point where mopping floors is as prestigious as performing neurosurgery, but maybe we can at least get to the point where being a maid is as respectable as being a plumber. Cleaning needs done; it shouldn’t be shameful to be someone who is very good at doing it and gets paid to do so. (That is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of socioeconomic class, this idea that some jobs are “shameful” because they are done by workers with less education or involve more physical labor.)
This also makes good sense in terms of economic efficiency: Your comparative advantage is probably not in cleaning services, or if it is then perhaps you should do that as a career. So by selling your labor at whatever you are good at and then buying the services of someone who is especially good at cleaning, you should, at least in theory, be able to get the same cleaning done and maintain the same standard of living for yourself while also accomplishing more at whatever it is you do in your profession and providing income for whomever you hire to do the cleaning.

So, should I go hire a cleaning service after all? I don’t know, that still sounds pretty expensive.

What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

How we sold our privacy piecemeal

Apr 2, JDN 2457846

The US Senate just narrowly voted to remove restrictions on the sale of user information by Internet Service Providers. Right now, your ISP can basically sell your information to whomever they like without even telling you. The new rule that the Senate struck down would have required them to at least make you sign a form with some fine print on it, which you probably would sign without reading it. So in practical terms maybe it makes no difference.

…or does it? Maybe that’s really the mistake we’ve been making all along.

In cognitive science we have a concept called the just-noticeable difference (JND); it is basically what it sounds like. If you have two stimuli—two colors, say, or sounds of two different pitches—that differ by an amount smaller than the JND, people will not notice it. But if they differ by more than the JND, people will notice. (In practice it’s a bit more complicated than that, as different people have different JND thresholds and even within a person they can vary from case to case based on attention or other factors. But there’s usually a relatively narrow range of JND values, such that anything below that is noticed by no one and anything above that is noticed by almost everyone.)

The JND seems like an intuitively obvious concept—of course you can’t tell the difference between a color of 432.78 nanometers and 432.79 nanometers!—but it actually has profound implications. In particular it undermines the possibility of having truly transitive preferences. If you prefer some colors to others—which most of us do—but you have a nonzero JND in color wavelengths—as we all do—then I can do the following: Find one color you like (for concreteness, say you like blue of 475 nm), and another color you don’t (say green of 510 nm). Let you choose between the blue you like and another blue, 475.01 nm. Will you prefer one to the other? Of course not, the difference is within your JND. So now compare 475.01 nm and 475.02 nm; which do you prefer? Again, you’re indifferent. And I can go on and on this way a few thousand times, until finally I get to 510 nanometers, the green you didn’t like. I have just found a chain of your preferences that is intransitive; you said A = B = C = D… all the way down the line to X = Y = Z… but then at the end you said A > Z. Your preferences aren’t transitive, and therefore aren’t well-defined rational preferences. And you could do the same to me, so neither are mine.

Part of the reason we’ve so willingly given up our privacy in the last generation or so is our paranoid fear of terrorism, which no doubt triggers deep instincts about tribal warfare. Depressingly, the plurality of Americans think that our government has not gone far enough in its obvious overreaches of the Constitution in the name of defending us from a threat that has killed fewer Americans in my lifetime than die from car accidents each month.

But that doesn’t explain why we—and I do mean we, for I am as guilty as most—have so willingly sold our relationships to Facebook and our schedules to Google. Google isn’t promising to save me from the threat of foreign fanatics; they’re merely offering me a more convenient way to plan my activities. Why, then, am I so cavalier about entrusting them with so much personal data?


Well, I didn’t start by giving them my whole life. I created an email account, which I used on occasion. I tried out their calendar app and used it to remind myself when my classes were. And so on, and so forth, until now Google knows almost as much about me as I know about myself.

At each step, it didn’t feel like I was doing anything of significance; perhaps indeed it was below my JND. Each bit of information I was giving didn’t seem important, and perhaps it wasn’t. But all together, our combined information allows Google to make enormous amounts of money without charging most of its users a cent.

The process goes something like this. Imagine someone offering you a penny in exchange for telling them how many times you made left turns last week. You’d probably take it, right? Who cares how many left turns you made last week? But then they offer another penny in exchange for telling them how many miles you drove on Tuesday. And another penny for telling them the average speed you drive during the afternoon. This process continues hundreds of times, until they’ve finally given you say $5.00—and they know exactly where you live, where you work, and where most of your friends live, because all that information was encoded in the list of driving patterns you gave them, piece by piece.

Consider instead how you’d react if someone had offered, “Tell me where you live and work and I’ll give you $5.00.” You’d be pretty suspicious, wouldn’t you? What are they going to do with that information? And $5.00 really isn’t very much money. Maybe there’s a price at which you’d part with that information to a random suspicious stranger—but it’s probably at least $50 or even more like $500, not $5.00. But by asking it in 500 different questions for a penny each, they can obtain that information from you at a bargain price.

If you work out how much money Facebook and Google make from each user, it’s actually pitiful. Facebook has been increasing their revenue lately, but it’s still less than $20 per user per year. The stranger asks, “Tell me who all your friends are, where you live, where you were born, where you work, and what your political views are, and I’ll give you $20.” Do you take that deal? Apparently, we do. Polls find that most Americans are willing to exchange privacy for valuable services, often quite cheaply.


Of course, there isn’t actually an alternative social network that doesn’t sell data and instead just charges a subscription fee. I don’t think this is a fundamentally unfeasible business model, but it hasn’t succeeded so far, and it will have an uphill battle for two reasons.

The first is the obvious one: It would have to compete with Facebook and Google, who already have the enormous advantage of a built-in user base of hundreds of millions of people.

The second one is what this post is about: The social network based on conventional economics rather than selling people’s privacy can’t take advantage of the JND.

I suppose they could try—charge $0.01 per month at first, then after awhile raise it to $0.02, $0.03 and so on until they’re charging $2.00 per month and actually making a profit—but that would be much harder to pull off, and it would provide the least revenue when it is needed most, at the early phase when the up-front costs of establishing a network are highest. Moreover, people would still feel that; it’s a good feature of our monetary system that you can’t break money into small enough denominations to really consistently hide under the JND. But information can be broken down into very tiny pieces indeed. Much of the revenue earned by these corporate giants is actually based upon indexing the keywords of the text we write; we literally sell off our privacy word by word.


What should we do about this? Honestly, I’m not sure. Facebook and Google do in fact provide valuable services, without which we would be worse off. I would be willing to pay them their $20 per year, if I could ensure that they’d stop selling my secrets to advertisers. But as long as their current business model keeps working, they have little incentive to change. There is in fact a huge industry of data brokering, corporations you’ve probably never heard of that make their revenue entirely from selling your secrets.

In a rare moment of actual journalism, TIME ran an article about a year ago arguing that we need new government policy to protect us from this kind of predation of our privacy. But they had little to offer in the way of concrete proposals.

The ACLU does better: They have specific proposals for regulations that should be made to protect our information from the most harmful prying eyes. But as we can see, the current administration has no particular interest in pursuing such policies—if anything they seem to do the opposite.

Tax plan possibilities

Mar 26, JDN 2457839

Recently President Trump (that phrase may never quite feel right) began presenting his new tax plan. To be honest, it’s not as ridiculous as I had imagined it might be. I mean, it’s still not very good, but it’s probably better than Reagan’s tax plan his last year in office, and it’s not nearly as absurd as the half-baked plan Trump originally proposed during the campaign.

But it got me thinking about the incredible untapped potential of our tax system—the things we could achieve as a nation, if we were willing to really commit to them and raise taxes accordingly.

A few years back I proposed a progressive tax system based upon logarithmic utility. I now have a catchy name for that tax proposal; I call it the logtax. It depends on two parameters—a poverty level, at which the tax rate goes to zero; and what I like to call a metarate—the fundamental rate that sets all the actual tax rates by the formula.

For the poverty level, I suggest we use the highest 2-household poverty level set by the Department of Health and Human Services: Because of Alaska’s high prices, that’s the Alaska poverty level, and the resulting figure is $20,290—let’s round to $20,000.

I would actually prefer to calculate taxes on an individual basis—I see no reason to incentivize particular household arrangements—but as current taxes are calculated on a household basis, I’m going to use that for now.

The metarate can be varied, and in the plans below I will compare different options for the metarate.

I will compare six different tax plans:

  1. Our existing tax plan, set under the Obama administration
  2. Trump’s proposed tax plan
  3. A flat rate of 30% with a basic income of $12,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  4. A flat rate of 40% with a basic income of $15,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  5. A logtax with a metarate of 20%, all spending intact
  6. A logtax with a metarate of 25% and a basic income of $12,000, replacing welfare programs and Medicaid
  7. A logtax with a metarate of 35% and a basic income of $15,000, cutting military spending by 50% and expanding Medicare to the entire population while eliminating Medicare payroll taxes

To do a proper comparison, I need estimates of the income distribution in the United States, in order to properly estimate the revenue from each type of tax. For that I used US Census data for most of the income data, supplementing with the World Top Incomes database for the very highest income brackets. The household data is broken up into brackets of $5,000 and only goes up to $250,000, so it’s a rough approximation to use the average household income for each bracket, but it’s all I’ve got.

The current brackets are 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%. These are actually marginal rates, not average rates, which makes the calculation a lot more complicated. I did it properly though; for example, when you start paying the marginal rate of 28%, your average rate is really only 20.4%.

Worst of all, I used static scoring—that is, I ignored the Laffer Effect by which increasing taxes changes incentives and can change pre-tax incomes. To really do this analysis properly, one should use dynamic scoring, taking these effects into account—but proper dynamic scoring is an enormous undertaking, and this is a blog post, not my dissertation.

Still, I was able to get pretty close to the true figures. The actual federal budget shows total revenue net of payroll taxes to be $2.397 trillion, whereas I estimated $2.326 trillion; the true deficit is $608 billion and I estimated $682 billion.

Under Trump’s tax plan, almost all rates are cut. He also plans to remove some deductions, but all reports I could find on the plan were vague as to which ones, and with data this coarse it’s very hard to get any good figures on deduction amounts anyway. I also want to give him credit where it’s due: It was a lot easier to calculate the tax rates under Trump’s plan (but still harder than under mine…). But in general what I found was the following:

Almost everyone pays less income tax under Trump’s plan, by generally about 4-5% of their income. The poor benefit less or are slightly harmed; the rich benefit a bit more.

For example, a household in poverty making $12,300 would pay $1,384 currently, but $1,478 under Trump’s plan, losing $94 or 0.8% of their income. An average household making $52,000 would pay $8,768 currently but only $6,238 under Trump’s plan, saving $2,530 or about 4.8% of their income. A household making $152,000 would pay $35,580 currently but only $28,235 under Trump’s plan, saving $7,345 or again about 4.8%. A top 1% household making $781,000 would pay $265,625 currently, but only $230,158 under Trump’s plan, saving $35,467 or about 4.5%. A top 0.1% household making $2,037,000 would pay $762,656 currently, but only $644,350 under Trump’s plan, saving $118,306 or 5.8% of their income. A top 0.01% household making $9,936,000 would pay $3,890,736 currently, but only $3,251,083 under Trump’s plan, saving $639,653 or 6.4% of their income.

Because taxes are cut across the board, Trump’s plan would raise less revenue. My static scoring will exaggerate this effect, but only moderately; my estimate says we would lose over $470 billion in annual revenue, while the true figure might be $300 billion. In any case, Trump will definitely increase the deficit substantially unless he finds a way to cut an awful lot of spending elsewhere—and his pet $54 billion increase to the military isn’t helping in that regard. My estimate of the new deficit under Trump’s plan is $1.155 trillion—definitely not the sort of deficit you should be running during a peacetime economic expansion.

Let’s see what we might have done instead.

If we value simplicity and ease of calculation, it’s hard to beat a flat tax plus basic income. With a flat tax of 30% and a basic income of $12,000 per household, the poor do much better off because of the basic income, while the rich do a little better because of the flat tax, and the middle class feels about the same because the two effects largely cancel. Calculating your tax liability now couldn’t be easier; multiply your income by 3, remove a zero—that’s what you owe in taxes. And how much do you get in basic income? The same as everyone else, $12,000.

Using the same comparison households: The poor household making $12,300 would now receive $8,305—increasing their income by $9,689 or 78.8% relative to the current system. The middle-class household making $52,000 would pay $3,596, saving $5,172 or 10% of their income. The upper-middle-class household making $152,000 would now pay $33,582, saving only $1998 or 1.3% of their income. The top 1% household making $782,000 would pay $234,461, saving $31,164 or 4.0%. The top 0.1% household making $2,037,000 would pay $611,000, saving $151,656 or 7.4%. Finally, the top 0.01% household making $9,936,000 would pay $2,980,757, saving $910,000 or 9.1%.

Thus, like Trump’s plan, the tax cut almost across the board results in less revenue. However, because of the basic income, we can now justify cutting a lot of spending on social welfare programs. I estimated we could reasonably save about $630 billion by cutting Medicaid and other social welfare programs, while still not making poor people worse off because of the basic income. The resulting estimated deficit comes in at $1.085 trillion, which is still too large—but less than what Trump is proposing.

If I raise the flat rate to 40%—just as easy to calculate—I can bring that deficit down, even if I raise the basic income to $15,000 to compensate. The poverty household now receives $10,073, and the other representative households pay $5,974; $45,776; $297,615; $799,666; and $3,959,343 respectively. This means that the poor are again much better off, the middle class are about the same, and the rich are now substantially worse off. But what’s our deficit now? $180 billion—that’s about 1% of GDP, the sort of thing you can maintain indefinitely with a strong currency.

Can we do better than this? I think we can, with my logtax.

I confess that the logtax is not quite as easy to calculate as the flat tax. It does require taking exponents, and you can’t do it in your head. But it’s actually still easier than the current system, because there are no brackets to keep track of, no discontinuous shifts in the marginal rate. It is continuously progressive for all incomes, and the same formula can be used for all incomes from zero to infinity.
The simplest plan just replaces the income tax with a logtax of 20%. The poor household now receives $1,254, just from the automatic calculation of the tax—no basic income was added. The middle-class household pays $9,041, slightly more than what they are currently paying. Above that, people start paying more for sure: $50,655; $406,076; $1,228,795; and $7,065,274 respectively.

This system is obviously more progressive, but does it raise sufficient revenue? Why, as a matter of fact it removes the deficit entirely. The model estimates that the budget would now be at surplus of $110 billion. This is probably too optimistic; under dynamic scoring the distortions are probably going to cut the revenue a little. But it would almost certainly reduce the deficit, and very likely eliminate it altogether—without any changes in spending.

The next logtax plan adds a basic income of $12,000. To cover this, I raised the metarate to 25%. Now the poor household is receiving $11,413, the middle-class household is paying a mere $1,115, and the other households are paying $50,144; $458,140; $1,384,475; and $7,819,932 respectively. That top 0.01% household isn’t going to be happy, as they are now paying 78% of their income where in our current system they would pay only 39%. But their after-tax income is still over $2 million.

How does the budget look now? As with the flat tax plan, we can save about $630 billion by cutting redundant social welfare programs. So we are once again looking at a surplus, this time of about $63 billion. Again, the dynamic scoring might show some deficit, but definitely not a large one.

Finally, what if I raise the basic income to $15,000 and raise the metarate to 35%? The poor household now receives $14,186, while the median household pays $2,383. The richer households of course foot the bill, paying $64,180; $551,031; $1,618,703; and $8,790,124 respectively. Oh no, the top 0.01% household will have to make do with only $1.2 million; how will they survive!?

This raises enough revenue that it allows me to do some even more exciting things. With a $15,000 basic income, I can eliminate social welfare programs for sure. But then I can also cut military spending, say in half—still leaving us the largest military in the world. I can move funds around to give Medicare to every single American, an additional cost of about twice what we currently pay for Medicare. Then Medicaid doesn’t just get cut; it can be eliminated entirely, folded into Medicare. Assuming that the net effect on total spending is zero, the resulting deficit is estimated at only $168 billion, well within the range of what can be sustained indefinitely.

And really, that’s only the start. Once you consider all the savings on healthcare spending—an average of $4000 per person per year, if switching to single-payer brings us down to the average of other highly-developed countries. This is more than what the majority of the population would be paying in taxes under this plan—meaning that once you include the healthcare benefits, the majority of Americans would net receive money from the government. Compared to our current system, everyone making under about $80,000 would be better off. That is what we could be doing right now—free healthcare for everyone, a balanced budget (or close enough), and the majority of Americans receiving more from the government than they pay in taxes.

These results are summarized in the table below. (I also added several more rows of representative households—though still not all the brackets I used!) I’ve color-coded who would be paying less in tax in green and who would be more in tax in red under each plan, compared to our current system. This color-coding is overly generous to Trump’s plan and the 30% flat tax plan, because it doesn’t account for the increased government deficit (though I did color-code those as well, again relative to the current system). And yet, over 50% of households make less than $51,986, putting the poorest half of Americans in the green zone for every plan except Trump’s. For the last plan, I also color-coded those between $52,000 and $82,000 who would pay additional taxes, but less than they save on healthcare, thus net saving money in blue. Including those folks, we’re benefiting over 69% of Americans.


pre-tax income

Current tax system Trump’s tax plan Flat 30% tax with $12k basic income Flat 40% tax with $15k basic income Logtax 20% Logtax 25% with $12k basic income Logtax 35% with $15k basic income, single-payer healthcare
$1,080 $108 $130 -$11,676 -$14,568 -$856 -$12,121 -$15,173
$12,317 $1,384 $1,478 -$8,305 -$10,073 -$1,254 -$11,413 -$14,186
$22,162 $2,861 $2,659 -$5,351 -$6,135 $450 -$9,224 -$11,213
$32,058 $4,345 $3,847 -$2,383 -$2,177 $2,887 -$6,256 -$7,258
$51,986 $8,768 $6,238 $3,596 $5,794 $9,041 $1,115 $2,383
$77,023 $15,027 $9,506 $11,107 $15,809 $18,206 $11,995 $16,350
$81,966 $16,263 $10,742 $12,590 $17,786 $20,148 $14,292 $17,786
$97,161 $20,242 $14,540 $17,148 $23,864 $26,334 $21,594 $28,516
$101,921 $21,575 $15,730 $18,576 $27,875 $30,571 $23,947 $31,482
$151,940 $35,580 $28,235 $33,582 $45,776 $50,655 $50,144 $64,180
$781,538 $265,625 $230,158 $222,461 $297,615 $406,076 $458,140 $551,031
$2,036,666 $762,656 $644,350 $599,000 $799,666 $1,228,795 $1,384,475 $1,618,703
$9,935,858 $3,890,736 $3,251,083 $2,968,757 $3,959,343 $7,065,274 $7,819,932 $8,790,124
Change in federal spending $0 $0 -$630 billion -$630 billion $0 -$630 billion $0
Estimated federal surplus -$682 billion -$1,155 billion -$822 billion -$180 billion $110 billion $63 billion -$168 billion

Information theory proves that multiple-choice is stupid

Mar 19, JDN 2457832

This post is a bit of a departure from my usual topics, but it’s something that has bothered me for a long time, and I think it fits broadly into the scope of uniting economics with the broader realm of human knowledge.

Multiple-choice questions are inherently and objectively poor methods of assessing learning.

Consider the following question, which is adapted from actual tests I have been required to administer and grade as a teaching assistant (that is, the style of question is the same; I’ve changed the details so that it wouldn’t be possible to just memorize the response—though in a moment I’ll get to why all this paranoia about students seeing test questions beforehand would also be defused if we stopped using multiple-choice):

The demand for apples follows the equation Q = 100 – 5 P.
The supply of apples follows the equation Q = 10 P.
If a tax of $2 per apple is imposed, what is the equilibrium price, quantity, tax revenue, consumer surplus, and producer surplus?

A. Price = $5, Quantity = 10, Tax revenue = $50, Consumer Surplus = $360, Producer Surplus = $100

B. Price = $6, Quantity = 20, Tax revenue = $40, Consumer Surplus = $200, Producer Surplus = $300

C. Price = $6, Quantity = 60, Tax revenue = $120, Consumer Surplus = $360, Producer Surplus = $300

D. Price = $5, Quantity = 60, Tax revenue = $120, Consumer Surplus = $280, Producer Surplus = $500

You could try solving this properly, setting supply equal to demand, adjusting for the tax, finding the equilibrium, and calculating the surplus, but don’t bother. If I were tutoring a student in preparing for this test, I’d tell them not to bother. You can get the right answer in only two steps, because of the multiple-choice format.

Step 1: Does tax revenue equal $2 times quantity? We said the tax was $2 per apple.
So that rules out everything except C and D. Welp, quantity must be 60 then.

Step 2: Is quantity 10 times price as the supply curve says? For C they are, for D they aren’t; guess it must be C then.

Now, to do that, you need to have at least a basic understanding of the economics underlying the question (How is tax revenue calculated? What does the supply curve equation mean?). But there’s an even easier technique you can use that doesn’t even require that; it’s called Answer Splicing.

Here’s how it works: You look for repeated values in the answer choices, and you choose the one that has the most repeated values. Prices $5 and $6 are repeated equally, so that’s not helpful (maybe the test designer planned at least that far). Quantity 60 is repeated, other quantities aren’t, so it’s probably that. Likewise with tax revenue $120. Consumer surplus $360 and Producer Surplus $300 are both repeated, so those are probably it. Oh, look, we’ve selected a unique answer choice C, the correct answer!

You could have done answer splicing even if the question were about 18th century German philosophy, or even if the question were written in Arabic or Japanese. In fact you even do it if it were written in a cipher, as long as the cipher was a consistent substitution cipher.

Could the question have been designed to better avoid answer splicing? Probably. But this is actually quite difficult to do, because there is a fundamental tradeoff between two types of “distractors” (as they are known in the test design industry). You want the answer choices to contain correct pieces and resemble the true answer, so that students who basically understand the question but make a mistake in the process still get it wrong. But you also want the answer choices to be distinct enough in a random enough pattern that answer splicing is unreliable. These two goals are inherently contradictory, and the result will always be a compromise between them. Professional test-designers usually lean pretty heavily against answer-splicing, which I think is probably optimal so far as it goes; but I’ve seen many a professor err too far on the side of similar choices and end up making answer splicing quite effective.

But of course, all of this could be completely avoided if I had just presented the question as an open-ended free-response. Then you’d actually have to write down the equations, show me some algebra solving them, and then interpret your results in a coherent way to answer the question I asked. What’s more, if you made a minor mistake somewhere (carried a minus sign over wrong, forgot to divide by 2 when calculating the area of the consumer surplus triangle), I can take off a few points for that error, rather than all the points just because you didn’t get the right answer. At the other extreme, if you just randomly guess, your odds of getting the right answer are miniscule, but even if you did—or copied from someone else—if you don’t show me the algebra you won’t get credit.

So the free-response question is telling me a lot more about what the student actually knows, in a much more reliable way, that is much harder to cheat or strategize against.

Moreover, this isn’t a matter of opinion. This is a theorem of information theory.

The information that is carried over a message channel can be quantitatively measured as its Shannon entropy. It is usually measured in bits, which you may already be familiar with as a unit of data storage and transmission rate in computers—and yes, those are all fundamentally the same thing. A proper formal treatment of information theory would be way too complicated for this blog, but the basic concepts are fairly straightforward: think in terms of how long a sequence of 1s and 0s it would take to convey the message. That is, roughly speaking, the Shannon entropy of that message.

How many bits are conveyed by a multiple-choice response with four choices? 2. Always. At maximum. No exceptions. It is fundamentally, provably, mathematically impossible to convey more than 2 bits of information via a channel that only has 4 possible states. Any multiple-choice response—any multiple-choice response—of four choices can be reduced to the sequence 00, 01, 10, 11.

True-false questions are a bit worse—literally, they convey 1 bit instead of 2. It’s possible to fully encode the entire response to a true-false question as simply 0 or 1.

For comparison, how many bits can I get from the free-response question? Well, in principle the answer to any mathematical question has the cardinality of the real numbers, which is infinite (in some sense beyond infinite, in fact—more infinite than mere “ordinary” infinity); but in reality you can only write down a small number of possible symbols on a page. I can’t actually write down the infinite diversity of numbers between 3.14159 and the true value of pi; in 10 digits or less, I can only (“only”) write down a few billion of them. So let’s suppose that handwritten text has about the same information density as typing, which in ASCII or Unicode has 8 bits—one byte—per character. If the response to this free-response question is 300 characters (note that this paragraph itself is over 800 characters), then the total number of bits conveyed is about 2400.

That is to say, one free-response question conveys six hundred times as much information as a multiple-choice question. Of course, a lot of that information is redundant; there are many possible correct ways to write the answer to a problem (if the answer is 1.5 you could say 3/2 or 6/4 or 1.500, etc.), and many problems have multiple valid approaches to them, and it’s often safe to skip certain steps of algebra when they are very basic, and so on. But it’s really not at all unrealistic to say that I am getting between 10 and 100 times as much useful information about a student from reading one free response than I would from one multiple-choice question.

Indeed, it’s actually a bigger difference than it appears, because when evaluating a student’s performance I’m not actually interested in the information density of the message itself; I’m interested in the product of that information density and its correlation with the true latent variable I’m trying to measure, namely the student’s actual understanding of the content. (A sequence of 500 random symbols would have a very high information density, but would be quite useless in evaluating a student!) Free-response questions aren’t just more information, they are also better information, because they are closer to the real-world problems we are training for, harder to cheat, harder to strategize, nearly impossible to guess, and provided detailed feedback about exactly what the student is struggling with (for instance, maybe they could solve the equilibrium just fine, but got hung up on calculating the consumer surplus).

As I alluded to earlier, free-response questions would also remove most of the danger of students seeing your tests beforehand. If they saw it beforehand, learned how to solve it, memorized the steps, and then were able to carry them out on the test… well, that’s actually pretty close to what you were trying to teach them. It would be better for them to learn a whole class of related problems and then be able to solve any problem from that broader class—but the first step in learning to solve a whole class of problems is in fact learning to solve one problem from that class. Just change a few details each year so that the questions aren’t identical, and you will find that any student who tried to “cheat” by seeing last year’s exam would inadvertently be studying properly for this year’s exam. And then perhaps we could stop making students literally sign nondisclosure agreements when they take college entrance exams. Listen to this Orwellian line from the SAT nondisclosure agreement:

Misconduct includes,but is not limited to:

Taking any test questions or essay topics from the testing room, including through memorization, giving them to anyone else, or discussing them with anyone else through anymeans, including, but not limited to, email, text messages or the Internet

Including through memorization. You are not allowed to memorize SAT questions, because God forbid you actually learn something when we are here to make money off evaluating you.

Multiple-choice tests fail in another way as well; by definition they cannot possibly test generation or recall of knowledge, they can only test recognition. You don’t need to come up with an answer; you know for a fact that the correct answer must be in front of you, and all you need to do is recognize it. Recall and recognition are fundamentally different memory processes, and recall is both more difficult and more important.

Indeed, the real mystery here is why we use multiple-choice exams at all.
There are a few types of very basic questions where multiple-choice is forgivable, because there are just aren’t that many possible valid answers. If I ask whether demand for apples has increased, you can pretty much say “it increased”, “it decreased”, “it stayed the same”, or “it’s impossible to determine”. So a multiple-choice format isn’t losing too much in such a case. But most really interesting and meaningful questions aren’t going to work in this format.

I don’t think it’s even particularly controversial among educators that multiple-choice questions are awful. (Though I do recall an “educational training” seminar a few weeks back that was basically an apologia for multiple choice, claiming that it is totally possible to test “higher-order cognitive skills” using multiple-choice, for reals, believe me.) So why do we still keep using them?

Well, the obvious reason is grading time. The one thing multiple-choice does have over a true free response is that it can be graded efficiently and reliably by machines, which really does make a big difference when you have 300 students in a class. But there are a couple reasons why even this isn’t a sufficient argument.

First of all, why do we have classes that big? It’s absurd. At that point you should just email the students video lectures. You’ve already foreclosed any possibility of genuine student-teacher interaction, so why are you bothering with having an actual teacher? It seems to be that universities have tried to work out what is the absolute maximum rent they can extract by structuring a class so that it is just good enough that students won’t revolt against the tuition, but they can still spend as little as possible by hiring only one adjunct or lecturer when they should have been paying 10 professors.

And don’t tell me they can’t afford to spend more on faculty—first of all, supporting faculty is why you exist. If you can’t afford to spend enough providing the primary service that you exist as an institution to provide, then you don’t deserve to exist as an institution. Moreover, they clearly can afford it—they simply prefer to spend on hiring more and more administrators and raising the pay of athletic coaches. PhD comics visualized it quite well; the average pay for administrators is three times that of even tenured faculty, and athletic coaches make ten times as much as faculty. (And here I think the mean is the relevant figure, as the mean income is what can be redistributed. Firing one administrator making $300,000 does actually free up enough to hire three faculty making $100,000 or ten grad students making $30,000.)

But even supposing that the institutional incentives here are just too strong, and we will continue to have ludicrously-huge lecture classes into the foreseeable future, there are still alternatives to multiple-choice testing.

Ironically, the College Board appears to have stumbled upon one themselves! About half the SAT math exam is organized into a format where instead of bubbling in one circle to give your 2 bits of answer, you bubble in numbers and symbols corresponding to a more complicated mathematical answer, such as entering “3/4” as “0”, “3”, “/”, “4” or “1.28” as “1”, “.”, “2”, “8”. This could easily be generalized to things like “e^2” as “e”, “^”, “2” and “sin(3pi/2)” as “sin”, “3” “pi”, “/”, “2”. There are 12 possible symbols currently allowed by the SAT, and each response is up to 4 characters, so we have already increased our possible responses from 4 to over 20,000—which is to say from 2 bits to 14. If we generalize it to include symbols like “pi” and “e” and “sin”, and allow a few more characters per response, we could easily get it over 20 bits—10 times as much information as a multiple-choice question.

But we can do better still! Even if we insist upon automation, high-end text-recognition software (of the sort any university could surely afford) is now getting to the point where it could realistically recognize a properly-formatted algebraic formula, so you’d at least know if the student remembered the formula correctly. Sentences could be transcribed into typed text, checked for grammar, and sorted for keywords—which is not nearly as good as a proper reading by an expert professor, but is still orders of magnitude better than filling circle “C”. Eventually AI will make even more detailed grading possible, though at that point we may have AIs just taking over the whole process of teaching. (Leaving professors entirely for research, presumably. Not sure if this would be good or bad.)

Automation isn’t the only answer either. You could hire more graders and teaching assistants—say one for every 30 or 40 students instead of one for every 100 students. (And then the TAs might actually be able to get to know their students! What a concept!) You could give fewer tests, or shorter ones—because a small, reliable sample is actually better than a large, unreliable one. A bonus there would be reducing students’ feelings of test anxiety. You could give project-based assignments, which would still take a long time to grade, but would also be a lot more interesting and fulfilling for both the students and the graders.

Or, and perhaps this is the most radical answer of all: You could stop worrying so much about evaluating student performance.

I get it, you want to know whether students are doing well, both so that you can improve your teaching and so that you can rank the students and decide who deserves various awards and merits. But do you really need to be constantly evaluating everything that students do? Did it ever occur to you that perhaps that is why so many students suffer from anxiety—because they are literally being formally evaluated with long-term consequences every single day they go to school?

If we eased up on all this evaluation, I think the fear is that students would just detach entirely; all teachers know students who only seem to show up in class because they’re being graded on attendance. But there are a couple of reasons to think that maybe this fear isn’t so well-founded after all.

If you give up on constant evaluation, you can open up opportunities to make your classes a lot more creative and interesting—and even fun. You can make students want to come to class, because they get to engage in creative exploration and collaboration instead of memorizing what you drone on at them for hours on end. Most of the reason we don’t do creative, exploratory activities is simply that we don’t know how to evaluate them reliably—so what if we just stopped worrying about that?

Moreover, are those students who only show up for the grade really getting anything out of it anyway? Maybe it would be better if they didn’t show up—indeed, if they just dropped out of college entirely and did something else with their lives until they get their heads on straight. Maybe all this effort that we are currently expending trying to force students to learn who clearly don’t appreciate the value of learning could instead be spent enriching the students who do appreciate learning and came here to do as much of it as possible. Because, ultimately, you can lead a student to algebra, but you can’t make them think. (Let me be clear, I do not mean students with less innate ability or prior preparation; I mean students who aren’t interested in learning and are only showing up because they feel compelled to. I admire students with less innate ability who nonetheless succeed because they work their butts off, and wish I were quite so motivated myself.)
There’s a downside to that, of course. Compulsory education does actually seem to have significant benefits in making people into better citizens. Maybe if we let those students just leave college, they’d never come back, and they would squander their potential. Maybe we need to force them to show up until something clicks in their brains and they finally realize why we’re doing it. In fact, we’re really not forcing them; they could drop out in most cases and simply don’t, probably because their parents are forcing them. Maybe the signaling problem is too fundamental, and the only way we can get unmotivated students to accept not getting prestigious degrees is by going through this whole process of forcing them to show up for years and evaluating everything they do until we can formally justify ultimately failing them. (Of course, almost by construction, a student who does the absolute bare minimum to pass will pass.) But college admission is competitive, and I can’t shake this feeling there are thousands of students out there who got rejected from the school they most wanted to go to, the school they were really passionate about and willing to commit their lives to, because some other student got in ahead of them—and that other student is now sitting in the back of the room playing with an iPhone, grumbling about having to show up for class every day. What about that squandered potential? Perhaps competitive admission and compulsory attendance just don’t mix, and we should stop compelling students once they get their high school diploma.