What we lose by aggregating

Jun 25, JDN 2457930

One of the central premises of current neoclassical macroeconomics is the representative agent: Rather than trying to keep track of all the thousands of firms, millions of people, and billions of goods and in a national economy, we aggregate everything up into a single worker/consumer and a single firm producing and consuming a single commodity.

This sometimes goes under the baffling misnomer of microfoundations, which would seem to suggest that it carries detailed information about the microeconomic behavior underlying it; in fact what this means is that the large-scale behavior is determined by some sort of (perfectly) rational optimization process as if there were just one person running the entire economy optimally.

First of all, let me say that some degree of aggregation is obviously necessary. Literally keeping track of every single transaction by every single person in an entire economy would require absurd amounts of data and calculation. We might have enough computing power to theoretically try this nowadays, but then again we might not—and in any case such a model would very rapidly lose sight of the forest for the trees.

But it is also clearly possible to aggregate too much, and most economists don’t seem to appreciate this. They cite a couple of famous theorems (like the Gorman Aggregation Theorem) involving perfectly-competitive firms and perfectly-rational identical consumers that offer a thin veneer of justification for aggregating everything into one, and then go on with their work as if this meant everything were fine.

What’s wrong with such an approach?

Well, first of all, a representative agent model can’t talk about inequality at all. It’s not even that a representative agent model says inequality is good, or not a problem; it lacks the capacity to even formulate the concept. Trying to talk about income or wealth inequality in a representative agent model would be like trying to decide whether your left hand is richer than your right hand.

It’s also nearly impossible to talk about poverty in a representative agent model; the best you can do is talk about a country’s overall level of development, and assume (not without reason) that a country with a per-capita GDP of $1,000 probably has a lot more poverty than a country with a per-capita GDP of $50,000. But two countries with the same per-capita GDP can have very different poverty rates—and indeed, the cynic in me wonders if the reason we’re reluctant to use inequality-adjusted measures of development is precisely that many American economists fear where this might put the US in the rankings. The Human Development Index was a step in the right direction because it includes things other than money (and as a result Saudi Arabia looks much worse and Cuba much better), but it still aggregates and averages everything, so as long as your rich people are doing well enough they can compensate for how badly your poor people are doing.

Nor can you talk about oligopoly in a representative agent model, as there is always only one firm, which for some reason chooses to act as if it were facing competition instead of rationally behaving as a monopoly. (This is not quite as nonsensical as it sounds, as the aggregation actually does kind of work if there truly are so many firms that they are all forced down to zero profit by fierce competition—but then again, what market is actually like that?) There is no market share, no market power; all are at the mercy of the One True Price.

You can still talk about externalities, sort of; but in order to do so you have to set up this weird doublethink phenomenon where the representative consumer keeps polluting their backyard and then can’t figure out why their backyard is so darn polluted. (I suppose humans do seem to behave like that sometimes; but wait, I thought you believed people were rational?) I think this probably confuses many an undergrad, in fact; the models we teach them about externalities generally use this baffling assumption that people consider one set of costs when making their decisions and then bear a different set of costs from the outcome. If you can conceptualize the idea that we’re aggregating across people and thinking “as if” there were a representative agent, you can ultimately make sense of this; but I think a lot of students get really confused by it.

Indeed, what can you talk about with a representative agent model? Economic growth and business cycles. That’s… about it. These are not minor issues, of course; indeed, as Robert Lucas famously said:

The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these [on economic growth] are simply staggering: once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.

I certainly do think that studying economic growth and business cycles should be among the top priorities of macroeconomics. But then, I also think that poverty and inequality should be among the top priorities, and they haven’t been—perhaps because the obsession with representative agent models make that basically impossible.

I want to be constructive here; I appreciate that aggregating makes things much easier. So what could we do to include some heterogeneity without too much cost in complexity?

Here’s one: How about we have p firms, making q types of goods, sold to n consumers? If you want you can start by setting all these numbers equal to 2; simply going from 1 to 2 has an enormous effect, as it allows you to at least say something about inequality. Getting them as high as 100 or even 1000 still shouldn’t be a problem for computing the model on an ordinary laptop. (There are “econophysicists” who like to use these sorts of agent-based models, but so far very few economists take them seriously. Partly that is justified by their lack of foundational knowledge in economics—the arrogance of physicists taking on a new field is legendary—but partly it is also interdepartmental turf war, as economists don’t like the idea of physicists treading on their sacred ground.) One thing that really baffles me about this is that economists routinely use computers to solve models that can’t be calculated by hand, but it never seems to occur to them that they could have started at the beginning planning to make the model solvable only by computer, and that would spare them from making the sort of heroic assumptions they are accustomed to making—assumptions that only made sense when they were used to make a model solvable that otherwise wouldn’t be.

You could also assign a probability distribution over incomes; that can get messy quickly, but we actually are fortunate that the constant relative risk aversion utility function and the Pareto distribution over incomes seem to fit the data quite well—as the product of those two things is integrable by hand. As long as you can model how your policy affects this distribution without making that integral impossible (which is surprisingly tricky), you can aggregate over utility instead of over income, which is a lot more reasonable as a measure of welfare.

And really I’m only scratching the surface here. There are a vast array of possible new approaches that would allow us to extend macroeconomic models to cover heterogeneity; the real problem is an apparent lack of will in the community to make such an attempt. Most economists still seem very happy with representative agent models, and reluctant to consider anything else—often arguing, in fact, that anything else would make the model less microfounded when plainly the opposite is the case.


No, this isn’t like Watergate. It’s worse.

May 21, JDN 2457895

Make no mistake: This a historic moment. This may be the greatest corruption scandal in the history of the United States. Donald Trump has fired the director of the FBI in order to block an investigation—and he said so himself.

It has become cliche to compare scandals to Watergate—to the point where we even stick the suffix “-gate” on things to indicate scandals. “Gamergate”, “Climategate”, and so on. So any comparison to Watergate is bound to draw some raised eyebrows.

But just as it’s not Godwin’s Law when you’re really talking about fascism and genocide, it’s not the “-gate” cliche when we are talking about a corruption scandal that goes all the way up to the President of the United States. And The Atlantic is right: this isn’t Watergate; it’s worse.

First of all, let’s talk about the crime of which Trump is accused. Nixon was accused of orchestrating burglary and fraud. These are not minor offenses, to be sure. But they are ordinary criminal offenses, felonies at worst. Trump is accused of fundamental Constitutional violations (particularly the First Amendment and the Emoluments Clause), and above all, Trump is accused of treason. This is the highest crime recognized by the Constitution of the United States. It is the only crime with a specifically listed Constitutional punishment—and that punishment is execution.

Donald Trump is being investigated not for stealing something or concealing information, but for colluding with foreign powers in the attempt to undermine American democracy. Is he guilty? I don’t know; that’s why we’re investigating. But let me say this: If he isn’t guilty of something, it’s quite baffling that he would fight so hard to stop the investigation.

Speaking of which: Trump’s intervention to stop Comey is much more direct, and much more sudden, than anything Nixon did to stop the Watergate investigations. Nixon of course tried to stonewall the investigations, but he did so subtly, cautiously, always trying to at least appear like he valued due process and rule of law. Trump made no such efforts, openly threatening Comey personally on Twitter and publicly declaring on national television that he had fired him to block the investigation.

But perhaps what makes the Trump-Comey affair most terrifying is how the supposedly “mainstream” Republican Party has reacted. The Republicans of Nixon had some honor left in them; several resigned rather than follow Nixon’s illegal orders, and dozens of Republicans in Congress supported the investigations and called for Nixon’s impeachment. Apparently that honor is gone now, as GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham have expressed support for the President’s corrupt and illegal actions citing no principle other than party loyalty. If we needed any more proof that the Republican Party of the United States is no longer a mainstream political party, this is it. They don’t believe in democracy or rule of law anymore. They believe in winning at any cost, loyalty at any price. They have become a radical far-right organization—indeed, if they continue down this road of supporting the President in undermining the freedom of the press and consolidating his own power, I think it is fair to call them literally neo-fascist.

We are about to see whether American institutions can withstand such an onslaught, whether liberty and justice can prevail against corruption and tyranny. So far, there have been reasons to be optimistic: In particular, the judicial branch has proudly and bravely held the line, blocking Trump’s travel ban (multiple times), resisting his order to undermine sanctuary cities, and standing up to direct criticisms and even threats from the President himself. Our system of checks and balances is being challenged, but so far it is holding up against that challenge. We will find out soon enough whether the American system truly is robust enough to survive.

Argumentum ab scientia is not argumentum baculo: The difference between authority and expertise

May 7, JDN 2457881

Americans are, on the whole, suspicious of authority. This is a very good thing; it shields us against authoritarianism. But it comes with a major downside, which is a tendency to forget the distinction between authority and expertise.

Argument from authority is an informal fallacy, argumentum baculo. The fact that something was said by the Pope, or the President, or the General Secretary of the UN, doesn’t make it true. (Aside: You’re probably more familiar with the phrase argumentum ad baculum, which is terrible Latin. That would mean “argument toward a stick”, when clearly the intended meaning was “argument by means of a stick”, which is argumentum baculo.)

But argument from expertise, argumentum ab scientia, is something quite different. The world is much too complicated for any one person to know everything about everything, so we have no choice but to specialize our knowledge, each of us becoming an expert in only a few things. So if you are not an expert in a subject, when someone who is an expert in that subject tells you something about that subject, you should probably believe them.

You should especially be prepared to believe them when the entire community of experts is in consensus or near-consensus on a topic. The scientific consensus on climate change is absolutely overwhelming. Is this a reason to believe in climate change? You’re damn right it is. Unless you have years of education and experience in understanding climate models and atmospheric data, you have no basis for challenging the expert consensus on this issue.

This confusion has created a deep current of anti-intellectualism in our culture, as Isaac Asimov famously recognized:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

This is also important to understand if you have heterodox views on any scientific topic. The fact that the whole field disagrees with you does not prove that you are wrong—but it does make it quite likely that you are wrong. Cranks often want to compare themselves to Galileo or Einstein, but here’s the thing: Galileo and Einstein didn’t act like cranks. They didn’t expect the scientific community to respect their ideas before they had gathered compelling evidence in their favor.

When behavioral economists found that neoclassical models of human behavior didn’t stand up to scrutiny, did they shout from the rooftops that economics is all a lie? No, they published their research in peer-reviewed journals, and talked with economists about the implications of their results. There may have been times when they felt ignored or disrespected by the mainstream, but they pressed on, because the data was on their side. And ultimately, the mainstream gave in: Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Experts are not always right, that is true. But they are usually right, and if you think they are wrong you’d better have a good reason to think so. The best reasons are the sort that come about when you yourself have spent the time and effort to become an expert, able to challenge the consensus on its own terms.

Admittedly, that is a very difficult thing to do—and more difficult than it should be. I have seen firsthand how difficult and painful the slow grind toward a PhD can be, and how many obstacles will get thrown in your way, ranging from nepotism and interdepartmental politics, to discrimination against women and minorities, to mismatches of interest between students and faculty, all the way to illness, mental health problems, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in general. If you have particularly heterodox ideas, you may face particularly harsh barriers, and sometimes it behooves you to hold your tongue and toe the lie awhile.

But this is no excuse not to gain expertise. Even if academia itself is not available to you, we live in an age of unprecedented availability of information—it’s not called the Information Age for nothing. A sufficiently talented and dedicated autodidact can challenge the mainstream, if their ideas are truly good enough. (Perhaps the best example of this is the mathematician savant Srinivasa Ramanujan. But he’s… something else. I think he is about as far from the average genius as the average genius is from the average person.) No, that won’t be easy either. But if you are really serious about advancing human understanding rather than just rooting for your political team (read: tribe), you should be prepared to either take up the academic route or attack it as an autodidact from the outside.

In fact, most scientific fields are actually quite good about admitting what they don’t know. A total consensus that turns out to be wrong is actually a very rare phenomenon; much more common is a clash of multiple competing paradigms where one ultimately wins out, or they end up replaced by a totally new paradigm or some sort of synthesis. In almost all cases, the new paradigm wins not because it becomes fashionable or the ancien regime dies out (as Planck cynically claimed) but because overwhelming evidence is observed in its favor, often in the form of explaining some phenomenon that was previously impossible to understand. If your heterodox theory doesn’t do that, then it probably won’t win, because it doesn’t deserve to.

(Right now you might think of challenging me: Does my heterodox theory do that? Does the tribal paradigm explain things that either total selfishness or total altruism cannot? I think it’s pretty obvious that it does. I mean, you are familiar with a little thing called “racism”, aren’t you? There is no explanation for racism in neoclassical economics; to understand it at all you have to just impose it as an arbitrary term on the utility function. But at that point, why not throw in whatever you please? Maybe some people enjoy bashing their heads against walls, and other people take great pleasure in the taste of arsenic. Why would this particular self- (not to mention other-) destroying behavior be universal to all human societies?)

In practice, I think most people who challenge the mainstream consensus aren’t genuinely interested in finding out the truth—certainly not enough to actually go through the work of doing it. It’s a pattern you can see in a wide range of fringe views: Anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, climate denialists, they all think the same way. The mainstream disagrees with my preconceived ideology, therefore the mainstream is some kind of global conspiracy to deceive us. The overwhelming evidence that vaccination is safe and (wildly) cost-effective, 9/11 was indeed perpetrated by Al Qaeda and neither planned nor anticipated by anyone in the US government , and the global climate is being changed by human greenhouse gas emissions—these things simply don’t matter to them, because it was never really about the truth. They knew the answer before they asked the question. Because their identity is wrapped up in that political ideology, they know it couldn’t possibly be otherwise, and no amount of evidence will change their mind.

How do we reach such people? That, I don’t know. I wish I did. But I can say this much: We can stop taking them seriously when they say that the overwhelming scientific consensus against them is just another “appeal to authority”. It’s not. It never was. It’s an argument from expertise—there are people who know this a lot better than you, and they think you’re wrong, so you’re probably wrong.

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.

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.”

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

Intellectual Property, revisited

Mar 12, JDN 2457825

A few weeks ago I wrote a post laying out the burden of proof for intellectual property, but didn’t have time to get into the empirical question of whether our existing intellectual property system can meet this burden of proof.

First of all, I want to make a very sharp distinction between three types of regulations that are all called “intellectual property”.

First there are trademarks, which I have absolutely no quarrel with. Avoiding fraud and ensuring transparency are fundamental functions without which markets would unravel, and without trademarks these things would be much harder to accomplish. Trademarks allow a company to establish a brand identity that others cannot usurp; they ensure that when you buy Coca-Cola (R) it is really in fact the beverage you expect and not some counterfeit knockoff. (And if counterfeit Coke sounds silly, note that counterfeit honey and maple syrup are actually a major problem.) Yes, there should be limits on how much you can trademark—no one wants to live in a world where you feel Love ™ and open Screen Doors ™—but in fact our courts are already fairly good about only allowing corporations to trademark newly-coined words and proper names for their products.

Next there are copyrights, which I believe are currently too strong and often abused, but I do think should exist in some form (or perhaps copylefts instead). Authors should have at least certain basic rights over how their work can be used and published. If nothing else, proper attribution should always be required, as without that plagiarism becomes intolerably easy. And steps should be taken to ensure that if any people profit from its sale, the author is among them. I publish this blog under a by-sa copyleft, which essentially means that you can share it with whomever you like and even adapt its content into your own work, so long as you properly attribute it to me and you do not attempt to claim ownership over it. For scientific content, I think only a copyleft of this sort makes sense—the era of for-profit journals with paywalls must end, as it is holding back our civilization. But for artistic content (and I mean art in the broadest sense, including books, music, movies, plays, and video games), stronger regulations might well make sense. The question is whether our current system is actually too strong, or is protecting the wrong people—often it seems to protect the corporations that sell the content rather than the artists who created it.

Finally there are patents. Unlike copyright which applies to a specific work of art, patent is meant to apply to the underlying concept of a technology. Copyright (or rather the by-sa copyleft) protects the text of this article; you can’t post it on your own blog and claim you wrote it. But if I were to patent it somehow (generally, verbal arguments cannot be patented, fortunately), you wouldn’t even be able to paraphrase it. The trademark on a Samsung ™ TV just means that if I make a TV I can’t say I am Samsung, because I’m not. You wouldn’t copyright a TV, but the analogous process would be if I were to copy every single detail of the television and try to sell that precise duplicate. But the patents on that TV mean that if I take it apart, study each component, find a way to build them all from my own raw materials, even make them better, and build a new TV out of them that looks different and performs better—I would still be infringing on intellectual property. Patents grant an extremely strong notion of property rights, one which actually undermines a lot of other, more basic concepts of property. It’s my TV, why can’t I take it apart and copy the components? Well, as long as the patent holds, it’s not entirely my TV. Property rights this strong—that allow a corporation to have its cake of selling the TV but eat it too by owning the rights to all its components—require a much stronger justification.

Trademark protects a name, which is unproblematic. Copyright protects a work, which carries risks but is still probably necessary in many cases. But patent protects an idea—and we should ask ourselves whether that is really something it makes sense to do.

In previous posts I’ve laid out some of the basic philosophical arguments for why patents do not seem to support innovation and may actually undermine it. But in this post I want to do something more direct and quantitative: Empirically, what is the actual effect of copyrights and patents on innovation? Can we find a way to quantify the costs and benefits to our society of different modes of intellectual property?

Economists quantify things all the time, so I briefly combed the literature to see what sort of empirical studies had been done on the economic impact of copyrights and patents.

Patents definitely create barriers to scientific collaboration: Scientific articles with ideas that don’t get patented are about 10-20% more likely to be cited than scientific articles with ideas that are patented. (I would have expected a larger effect, but that’s still not trivial.)

A 1995 study found that creased patent protections do seem to be positively associated with more trade.

A 2009 study of Great Britain published in AER found it “puzzling” that stronger patents actually seem to reduce the rate of innovation domestically, while having no effect on foreign innovation—yet this is exactly what I would have predicted. Foreign innovations should be largely unaffected by UK patents, but stricter patent laws in the UK make it harder for most actual innovators, only benefiting a handful of corporations that aren’t even particularly innovative.

This 1996 study did find a positive effect of stronger patent laws on economic growth, but it was quite small and only statistically significant when using instrumental variables that they couldn’t be bothered to define except in an appendix. When your result hinges on the use of instrumental variables that you haven’t even clearly defined in the paper, something is very fishy. My guess is that they p-hacked the instruments until they got the result they wanted.

This other 1996 study is a great example of why economists need to listen to psychologists. It found a negative correlation between foreign direct investment and—wait for it—the number of companies that answered “yes” to a survey question, “Does country X have intellectual property protection too weak to allow you to transfer your newest or most effective technology to a wholly-owned subsidiarythere?” Oh, wow, you found a correlation between foreign direct investment and a question directly asking about foreign direct investment.

his 2004 study found a nonlinear relationship whereby increased economic development affects intellectual property rights, rather than the other way around. But I find their theoretical model quite odd, and the scatter plot that lies at the core of their empirical argument reminds me of Rexthor, the Dog-Bearer. “This relationship appears to be non-linear,” they say when pointing at a scatter plot that looks mostly like nothing and maybe like a monotonic increase.

This 1997 study found a positive correlation between intellectual property strength, R&D spending, and economic growth. The effect is weak, but the study looks basically sound. (Though I must say I’d never heard anyone use the words “significant at the 24% level” before. Normally one would say “nonsignificant” for that variable methinks. It’s okay for it not to be significant in some of your regressions, you know.)

This 1992 paper found that intellectual property harms poor countries and may or may not benefit rich countries, but it uses a really weird idiosyncratic theoretical model to get there. Frankly if I see the word “theorem” anywhere in your empirical paper, I get suspicious. No, it is not a theorem that “For economies in steady state the South loses from tighter intellectual property rights.” It may be true, but it does not follow from the fundamental axioms of mathematics.

This law paper is excellent; it focuses on the fact that intellectual property is a unique arrangement and a significant deviation from conventional property rights. It tracks the rise of legal arguments that erroneously equate intellectual property with real property, and makes the vital point that fully internalizing the positive externalities of technology was never the goal, and would in fact be horrible should it come to pass. We would all have to pay most of our income in royalties to the Newton and Faraday estates. So, I highly recommend reading it. But it doesn’t contain any empirical results on the economic effects of intellectual property.

This is the best paper I was able to find showing empirical effects of different intellectual property regimes; I really have no complaints about its econometrics. But it was limited to post-Soviet economies shortly after the fall of the USSR, which were rather unique circumstances. (Indeed, by studying only those countries, you’d probably conclude that free markets are harmful, because the shock of transition was so great.)

This 1999 paper is also quite good; using a natural experiment from a sudden shift in Japanese patent policy, they found almost no difference in actual R&D. The natural experiment design makes this particularly credible, but it’s difficult to generalize since it only covered Japan specifically.

This study focused in particular on copyrights and the film industry, and found a nonlinear effect: While having no copyright protection at all was harmful to the film industry, making the copyright protections too strong had a strangling effect on new filmmakers entering the industry. This would suggest that the optimal amount of copyright is moderate, which sounds reasonable to me.

This 2009 study did a much more detailed comparison of different copyright regimes, and was unable to find a meaningful pattern amidst the noise. Indeed, they found that the only variable that consistently predicted the number of new works of art was population—more people means more art, and nothing else seemed to matter. If this is correct, it’s quite damning to copyright; it would suggest that people make art for reasons fundamentally orthogonal to copyright, and copyright does almost nothing useful. (And I must say, if you talk to most artists, that tends to be their opinion on the matter!)

This 1996 paper found that stronger patents had no benefits for poor countries, but benefited rich countries quite a large amount: Increased patent protection was estimated to add as much as 0.7% annual GDP growth over the whole period. That’s a lot; if this is really true, stronger patents are almost certainly worth it. But then it becomes difficult to explain why more precise studies haven’t found effects anywhere near that large.

This paper was pretty interesting; they found a fat-tailed distribution of patents, where most firms have none, many have one or a few, and a handful of firms have a huge number of patents. This is also consistent with the distribution of firm revenue and profit—and I’d be surprised if I didn’t find a strong correlation between all three. But this really doesn’t tell us whether patents are contributing to innovation.
This paper found that the harmonization of global patents in the Uruguay Round did lead to gains from trade for most countries, but also transferred about $4.5 billion to the US from the rest of the world. Of course, that’s really not that large an amount when we’re talking about global policy over several years.

What does all that mean? I don’t know. It’s a mess. There just don’t seem to be any really compelling empirical studies on the economic impact of copyrights and patents. The preponderance of the evidence, such as it is, would seem to suggest that copyrights provide a benefit as long as they aren’t too strong, while patents provide a benefit but it is quite small and likely offset by the rent-seeking of the corporations that own them. The few studies that found really large effects (like 0.7% annual GDP growth) don’t seem very credible to me; if the effect were really that large, it shouldn’t be so ambiguous. 0.7% per year over 25 years is a GDP 20% larger. Over 50 years, GDP would be 42% larger. We would be able to see that.

Does this ambiguity mean we should do nothing, and wait until the data is better? I don’t think so. Remember, the burden of proof for intellectual property should be high. It’s a fundamentally bizarre notion of property, one which runs against most of our standard concepts of real property; it restricts our rights in very basic ways, making literally the majority of our population into criminals. Such a draconian policy requires a very strong justification, but such a justification does not appear to be forthcoming. If it could be supported, that 0.7% GDP growth might be enough; but it doesn’t seem to be replicable. A free society does not criminalize activities just in case it might be beneficial to do so—it only criminalizes activities that have demonstrable harm. And the harm of copyright and patent infringement simply isn’t demonstrable enough to justify its criminalization.

We don’t have to remove them outright, but we should substantially weaken copyright and patent laws. They should be short-term, they should provide very basic protection, and they should never be owned by corporations, always by individuals (corporations should be able to license them—but not own them). If we then observe a substantial reduction in innovation and economic output, then we can put them back. But I think that what defenders of intellectual property fear most is that if we tried this, it wouldn’t be so bad—and then the “doom and gloom” justification they’ve been relying on all this time would fall apart.