The injustice of talent

Sep 4 JDN 2459827

Consider the following two principles of distributive justice.

A: People deserve to be rewarded in proportion to what they accomplish.

B: People deserve to be rewarded in proportion to the effort they put in.

Both principles sound pretty reasonable, don’t they? They both seem like sensible notions of fairness, and I think most people would broadly agree with both them.

This is a problem, because they are mutually contradictory. We cannot possibly follow them both.

For, as much as our society would like to pretend otherwise—and I think this contradiction is precisely why our society would like to pretend otherwise—what you accomplish is not simply a function of the effort you put in.

Don’t get me wrong; it is partly a function of the effort you put in. Hard work does contribute to success. But it is neither sufficient, nor strictly necessary.

Rather, success is a function of three factors: Effort, Environment, and Talent.

Effort is the work you yourself put in, and basically everyone agrees you deserve to be rewarded for that.

Environment includes all the outside factors that affect you—including both natural and social environment. Inheritance, illness, and just plain luck are all in here, and there is general, if not universal, agreement that society should make at least some efforts to minimize inequality created by such causes.

And then, there is talent. Talent includes whatever capacities you innately have. It could be strictly genetic, or it could be acquired in childhood or even in the womb. But by the time you are an adult and responsible for your own life, these factors are largely fixed and immutable. This includes things like intelligence, disability, even height. The trillion-dollar question is: How much should we reward talent?

For talent clearly does matter. I will never swim like Michael Phelps, run like Usain Bolt, or shoot hoops like Steph Curry. It doesn’t matter how much effort I put in, how many hours I spend training—I will never reach their level of capability. Never. It’s impossible. I could certainly improve from my current condition; perhaps it would even be good for me to do so. But there are certain hard fundamental constraints imposed by biology that give them more potential in these skills than I will ever have.

Conversely, there are likely things I can do that they will never be able to do, though this is less obvious. Could Michael Phelps never be as good a programmer or as skilled a mathematician as I am? He certainly isn’t now. Maybe, with enough time, enough training, he could be; I honestly don’t know. But I can tell you this: I’m sure it would be harder for him than it was for me. He couldn’t breeze through college-level courses in differential equations and quantum mechanics the way I did. There is something I have that he doesn’t, and I’m pretty sure I was born with it. Call it spatial working memory, or mathematical intuition, or just plain IQ. Whatever it is, math comes easy to me in not so different a way from how swimming comes easy to Michael Phelps. I have talent for math; he has talent for swimming.

Moreover, these are not small differences. It’s not like we all come with basically the same capabilities with a little bit of variation that can be easily washed out by effort. We’d like to believe that—we have all sorts of cultural tropes that try to inculcate that belief in us—but it’s obviously not true. The vast majority of quantum physicists are people born with high IQ. The vast majority of pro athletes are people born with physical prowess. The vast majority of movie stars are people born with pretty faces. For many types of jobs, the determining factor seems to be talent.

This isn’t too surprising, actually—even if effort matters a lot, we would still expect talent to show up as the determining factor much of the time.

Let’s go back to that contest function model I used to analyze the job market awhile back (the one that suggests we spend way too much time and money in the hiring process). This time let’s focus on the perspective of the employees themselves.

Each employee has a level of talent, h. Employee X has talent hx and exerts effort x, producing output of a quality that is the product of these: hx x. Similarly, employee Z has talent hz and exerts effort z, producing output hz z.

Then, there’s a certain amount of luck that factors in. The most successful output isn’t necessarily the best, or maybe what should have been the best wasn’t because some random circumstance prevailed. But we’ll say that the probability an individual succeeds is proportional to the quality of their output.

So the probability that employee X succeeds is: hx x / ( hx x + hz z)

I’ll skip the algebra this time (if you’re interested you can look back at that previous post), but to make a long story short, in Nash equilibrium the two employees will exert exactly the same amount of effort.

Then, which one succeeds will be entirely determined by talent; because x = z, the probability that X succeeds is hx / ( hx + hz).

It’s not that effort doesn’t matter—it absolutely does matter, and in fact in this model, with zero effort you get zero output (which isn’t necessarily the case in real life). It’s that in equilibrium, everyone is exerting the same amount of effort; so what determines who wins is innate talent. And I gotta say, that sounds an awful lot like how professional sports works. It’s less clear whether it applies to quantum physicists.

But maybe we don’t really exert the same amount of effort! This is true. Indeed, it seems like actually effort is easier for people with higher talent—that the same hour spent running on a track is easier for Usain Bolt than for me, and the same hour studying calculus is easier for me than it would be for Usain Bolt. So in the end our equilibrium effort isn’t the same—but rather than compensating, this effect only serves to exaggerate the difference in innate talent between us.

It’s simple enough to generalize the model to allow for such a thing. For instance, I could say that the cost of producing a unit of effort is inversely proportional to your talent; then instead of hx / ( hx + hz ), in equilibrium the probability of X succeeding would become hx2 / ( hx2 + hz2). The equilibrium effort would also be different, with x > z if hx > hz.

Once we acknowledge that talent is genuinely important, we face an ethical problem. Do we want to reward people for their accomplishment (A), or for their effort (B)? There are good cases to be made for each.

Rewarding for accomplishment, which we might call meritocracy,will tend to, well, maximize accomplishment. We’ll get the best basketball players playing basketball, the best surgeons doing surgery. Moreover, accomplishment is often quite easy to measure, even when effort isn’t.

Rewarding for effort, which we might call egalitarianism, will give people the most control over their lives, and might well feel the most fair. Those who succeed will be precisely those who work hard, even if they do things they are objectively bad at. Even people who are born with very little talent will still be able to make a living by working hard. And it will ensure that people do work hard, which meritocracy can actually fail at: If you are extremely talented, you don’t really need to work hard because you just automatically succeed.

Capitalism, as an economic system, is very good at rewarding accomplishment. I think part of what makes socialism appealing to so many people is that it tries to reward effort instead. (Is it very good at that? Not so clear.)

The more extreme differences are actually in terms of disability. There’s a certain baseline level of activities that most people are capable of, which we think of as “normal”: most people can talk; most people can run, if not necessarily very fast; most people can throw a ball, if not pitch a proper curveball. But some people can’t throw. Some people can’t run. Some people can’t even talk. It’s not that they are bad at it; it’s that they are literally not capable of it. No amount of effort could have made Stephen Hawking into a baseball player—not even a bad one.

It’s these cases when I think egalitarianism becomes most appealing: It just seems deeply unfair that people with severe disabilities should have to suffer in poverty. Even if they really can’t do much productive work on their own, it just seems wrong not to help them, at least enough that they can get by. But capitalism by itself absolutely would not do that—if you aren’t making a profit for the company, they’re not going to keep you employed. So we need some kind of social safety net to help such people. And it turns out that such people are quite numerous, and our current system is really not adequate to help them.

But meritocracy has its pull as well. Especially when the job is really important—like surgery, not so much basketball—we really want the highest quality work. It’s not so important whether the neurosurgeon who removes your tumor worked really hard at it or found it a breeze; what we care about is getting that tumor out.

Where does this leave us?

I think we have no choice but to compromise, on both principles. We will reward both effort and accomplishment, to greater or lesser degree—perhaps varying based on circumstances. We will never be able to entirely reward accomplishment or entirely reward effort.

This is more or less what we already do in practice, so why worry about it? Well, because we don’t like to admit that it’s what we do in practice, and a lot of problems seem to stem from that.

We have people acting like billionaires are such brilliant, hard-working people just because they’re rich—because our society rewards effort, right? So they couldn’t be so successful if they didn’t work so hard, right? Right?

Conversely, we have people who denigrate the poor as lazy and stupid just because they are poor. Because it couldn’t possibly be that their circumstances were worse than yours? Or hey, even if they are genuinely less talented than you—do less talented people deserve to be homeless and starving?

We tell kids from a young age, “You can be whatever you want to be”, and “Work hard and you’ll succeed”; and these things simply aren’t true. There are limitations on what you can achieve through effort—limitations imposed by your environment, and limitations imposed by your innate talents.

I’m not saying we should crush children’s dreams; I’m saying we should help them to build more realistic dreams, dreams that can actually be achieved in the real world. And then, when they grow up, they either will actually succeed, or when they don’t, at least they won’t hate themselves for failing to live up to what you told them they’d be able to do.

If you were wondering why Millennials are so depressed, that’s clearly a big part of it: We were told we could be and do whatever we wanted if we worked hard enough, and then that didn’t happen; and we had so internalized what we were told that we thought it had to be our fault that we failed. We didn’t try hard enough. We weren’t good enough. I have spent years feeling this way—on some level I do still feel this way—and it was not because adults tried to crush my dreams when I was a child, but on the contrary because they didn’t do anything to temper them. They never told me that life is hard, and people fail, and that I would probably fail at my most ambitious goals—and it wouldn’t be my fault, and it would still turn out okay.

That’s really it, I think: They never told me that it’s okay not to be wildly successful. They never told me that I’d still be good enough even if I never had any great world-class accomplishments. Instead, they kept feeding me the lie that I would have great world-class accomplishments; and then, when I didn’t, I felt like a failure and I hated myself. I think my own experience may be particularly extreme in this regard, but I know a lot of other people in my generation who had similar experiences, especially those who were also considered “gifted” as children. And we are all now suffering from depression, anxiety, and Impostor Syndrome.

All because nobody wanted to admit that talent, effort, and success are not the same thing.

How to fix economics publishing

Aug 7 JDN 2459806

The current system of academic publishing in economics is absolutely horrible. It seems practically designed to undermine the mental health of junior faculty.

1. Tenure decisions, and even most hiring decisions, are almost entirely based upon publication in five (5) specific journals.

2. One of those “top five” journals is owned by Elsevier, a corrupt monopoly that has no basis for its legitimacy yet somehow controls nearly one-fifth of all scientific publishing.

3. Acceptance rates in all of these journals are between 5% and 10%—greatly decreased from what they were a generation or two ago. Given a typical career span, the senior faculty evaluating you on whether you were published in these journals had about a three times better chance to get their own papers published there than you do.

4. Submissions are only single-blinded, so while you have no idea who is reading your papers, they know exactly who you are and can base their decision on whether you are well-known in the profession—or simply whether they like you.

5. Simultaneous submissions are forbidden, so when submitting to journals you must go one at a time, waiting to hear back from one before trying the next.

6. Peer reviewers are typically unpaid and generally uninterested, and so procrastinate as long as possible on doing their reviews.

7. As a result, review times for a paper are often measured in months, for every single cycle.

So, a highly successful paper goes like this: You submit it to a top journal, wait three months, it gets rejected. You submit it to another one, wait another four months, it gets rejected. You submit it to a third one, wait another two months, and you are told to revise and resubmit. You revise and resubmit, wait another three months, and then finally get accepted.

You have now spent an entire year getting one paper published. And this was a success.

Now consider a paper that doesn’t make it into a top journal. You submit, wait three months, rejected; you submit again, wait four months, rejected; you submit again, wait two months, rejected. You submit again, wait another five months, rejected; you submit to the fifth and final top-five, wait another four months, and get rejected again.

Now, after a year and a half, you can turn to other journals. You submit to a sixth journal, wait three months, rejected. You submit to a seventh journal, wait four months, get told to revise and resubmit. You revise and resubmit, wait another two months, and finally—finally, after two years—actually get accepted, but not to a top-five journal. So it may not even help you get tenure, unless maybe a lot of people cite it or something.

And what if you submit to a seventh, an eighth, a ninth journal, and still keep getting rejected? At what point do you simply give up on that paper and try to move on with your life?

That’s a trick question: Because what really happens, at least to me, is I can’t move on with my life. I get so disheartened from all the rejections of that paper that I can’t bear to look at it anymore, much less go through the work of submitting it to yet another journal that will no doubt reject it again. But worse than that, I become so depressed about my academic work in general that I become unable to move on to any other research either. And maybe it’s me, but it isn’t just me: 28% of academic faculty suffer from severe depression, and 38% from severe anxiety. And that’s across all faculty—if you look just at junior faculty it’s even worse: 43% of junior academic faculty suffer from severe depression. When a problem is that prevalent, at some point we have to look at the system that’s making us this way.

I can blame the challenges of moving across the Atlantic during a pandemic, and the fact that my chronic migraines have been the most frequent and severe they have been in years, but the fact remains: I have accomplished basically nothing towards the goal of producing publishable research in the past year. I have two years left at this job; if I started right now, I might be able to get something published before my contract is done. Assuming that the project went smoothly, I could start submitting it as soon as it was done, and it didn’t get rejected as many times as the last one.

I just can’t find the motivation to do it. When the pain is so immediate and so intense, and the rewards are so distant and so uncertain, I just can’t bring myself to do the work. I had hoped that talking about this with my colleagues would help me cope, but it hasn’t; in fact it only makes me seem to feel worse, because so few of them seem to understand how I feel. Maybe I’m talking to the wrong people; maybe the ones who understand are themselves suffering too much to reach out to help me. I don’t know.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are some simple changes that could make the entire process of academic publishing in economics go better:

1. Boycott Elsevier and all for-profit scientific journal publishers. Stop reading their journals. Stop submitting to their journals. Stop basing tenure decisions on their journals. Act as though they don’t exist, because they shouldn’t—and then hopefully soon they won’t.

2. Peer reviewers should be paid for their time, and in return required to respond promptly—no more than a few weeks. A lack of response should be considered a positive vote on that paper.

3. Allow simultaneous submissions; if multiple journals accept, let the author choose between them. This is already how it works in fiction publishing, which you’ll note has not collapsed.

4. Increase acceptance rates. You are not actually limited by paper constraints anymore; everything is digital now. Most of the work—even in the publishing process—already has to be done just to go through peer review, so you may as well publish it. Moreover, most papers that are submitted are actually worthy of publishing, and this whole process is really just an idiotic status hierarchy. If the prestige of your journal decreases because you accept more papers, we are measuring prestige wrong. Papers should be accepted something like 50% of the time, not 5-10%.

5. Double blind submissions, and insist on ethical standards that maintain that blinding. No reviewer should know whether they are reading the work of a grad student or a Nobel Laureate. Reputation should mean nothing; scientific rigor should mean everything.

And, most radical of all, what I really need in my life right now:

6. Faculty should not have to submit their own papers. Each university department should have administrative staff whose job it is to receive papers from their faculty, format them appropriately, and submit them to journals. They should deal with all rejections, and only report to the faculty member when they have received an acceptance or a request to revise and resubmit. Faculty should simply do the research, write the papers, and then fire and forget them. We have highly specialized skills, and our valuable time is being wasted on the clerical tasks of formatting and submitting papers, which many other people could do as well or better. Worse, we are uniquely vulnerable to the emotional impact of the rejection—seeing someone else’s paper rejected is an entirely different feeling from having your own rejected.

Do all that, and I think I could be happy to work in academia. As it is, I am seriously considering leaving and never coming back.

The radical uncertainty of life

Jul 31 JDN 2459792

It’s a question you get a lot in job interviews, and sometimes from elsewhere as well: “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”

I never quite know how to answer such a question, because the future is so full of uncertainty.

Ten years from now:

I could be a tenured professor, or have left academia entirely. I could be teaching here at Edinburgh, or at an even more prestigious university, or at a tiny, obscure school. I could be working in private industry, or unemployed. I could be working as a full-time freelance writer.

I could have published nothing new, or have published a few things, or have won a Fields Medal. (It’s especially unlikely to have won a Nobel by then, but it’s a bit less unlikely that I might have done work that would one day lead to one.)

I could be still living in the United Kingdom, or back in the United States, or in some other country entirely.

I could be healthier than I am now, or permanently disabled. I could even be dead, from a variety of diseases, or a car accident, or a gunshot wound.

I could have adopted three children, or none. I could be divorced. My spouse could be dead.

It could even all be moot because the Russian war in Ukraine—or some other act of Russian aggression—has escalated into a nuclear Third World War.

These are the relatively likely scenarios.

I’m not saying I’m going to win a Fields Medal—but I am the sort of person who wins Fields Medals, surely far more likely than any randomly selected individual. I’m not saying we’re going to have WW3, but we’re definitely closer to it than we’ve been since the end of the Cold War.

There are plenty of other, unlikely scenarios that still remain possible:

I could be working in finance, or engineering, or medicine. I could be living on a farm. I could be President of the United States. I could have won a multi-million-dollar lottery and retired to a life of luxury and philanthropy. Those seem rather unlikely for me personally—but they are all true of someone, somewhere.

I could be living on a space station, or a Lunar base. I could be cybernetically enhanced. 2032 seems early for such things—but it didn’t to folks writing in the 1980s, so who knows? (Maybe it will even happen so gradually we won’t notice: Is a glucose-monitoring implant a cybernetic enhancement? It doesn’t seem so unlikely I might one day have one of those.)

None of us really knows what the future is going to hold. We could say what we want, or what we expect is the most likely, but more often than not, the world will surprise us.

What does this mean for our lives now? Should we give up trying to make plans, since the future is so unpredictable? Should we “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”?

I think the key is to realize that there is a kind of planning that’s still useful even if you can’t predict what will happen—and that is to plan to be flexible and resilient.

You can keep your eyes open for opportunities, rather than trying too hard to hold onto what you already have. Rather than trying in vain to keep everything the same, you can accept that your life is going to change and try to direct that change in better directions.

Rather than planning on staying in the same career for your whole life—which hardly anyone in our generation does—you should expect to change careers, and be working on building a wide range of transferable skills and a broad network of friends and colleagues. Maybe sooner or later you’ll find the right place to settle down, but it could be awhile.

You may not know where you’ll be living or working in ten years, but odds are pretty good that it’ll still be useful for you to have some money saved up, so you should probably save some money. If we end up in a post-scarcity utopia, you won’t need it, but you also won’t care. If we end up in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, it really won’t matter one way or the other. And those two extremes are about what would need to happen for you not to be able to make use of savings.

And where should you put that saved money? Stocks, bonds, cryptocurrency? Well, crypto would give you a chance at spectacular gains—but a much larger chance of spectacular losses. Bonds are very safe, but also don’t grow very much. So, as I’ve said before, you probably want to buy stocks. Yes, you could end up better off by choosing something else; but you have to play the odds, and stocks give you the best odds.

You will have setbacks at some point, either small or large. Everyone does. You can’t plan for what they will be, but you can plan to have resources available to deal with them.

Hey, maybe you should even buy life insurance, just in case you really do die tomorrow. You probably won’t—but somebody will, and doesn’t know it yet.

On the Overton Window

Jul 24 JDN 2459786

As you are no doubt aware, a lot of people on the Internet like to loudly proclaim support for really crazy, extreme ideas. Some of these people actually believe in those ideas, and if you challenge them, will do their best to defend them. Those people are wrong at the level of substantive policy, but there’s nothing wrong with their general approach: If you really think that anarchism or communism is a good thing, it only makes sense that you’d try to convince other people. You might have a hard time of it (in part because you are clearly wrong), but it makes sense that you’d try.

But there is another class of people who argue for crazy, extreme ideas. When pressed, they will admit they don’t really believe in abolishing the police or collectivizing all wealth, but they believe in something else that’s sort of vaguely in that direction, and they think that advocating for the extreme idea will make people more likely to accept what they actually want.

They often refer to this as “shifting the Overton Window”. As Matt Yglesias explained quite well a year ago, this is not actually what Overton was talking about.

But, in principle, it could still be a thing that works. There is a cognitive bias known as anchoring which is often used in marketing: If I only offered a $5 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle of wine, you might think the $20 bottle is too expensive. But if I also include a $50 bottle, that makes you adjust your perceptions of what constitutes a “reasonable” price for wine, and may make you more likely to buy the $20 bottle after all.

It could be, therefore, that an extreme policy demand makes people more willing to accept moderate views, as a sort of compromise. Maybe demanding the abolition of police is a way of making other kinds of police reform seem more reasonable. Maybe showing pictures of Marx and chanting “eat the rich” could make people more willing to accept higher capital gains taxes. Maybe declaring that we are on the verge of apocalyptic climate disaster will make people more willing to accept tighter regulations on carbon emissions and subsidies for solar energy.

Then again—does it actually seem to do that? I see very little evidence that it does. All those demands for police abolition haven’t changed the fact that defunding the police is unpopular. Raising taxes on the rich is popular, but it has been for awhile now (and never was with, well, the rich). And decades of constantly shouting about imminent climate catastrophe is really starting to look like crying wolf.

To see why this strategy seems to be failing, I think it’s helpful to consider how it feels from the other side. Take a look at some issues where someone else is trying to get you to accept a particular view, and consider whether someone advocating a more extreme view would make you more likely to compromise.

Your particular opinions may vary, but here are some examples that would apply to me, and, I suspect, many of you.

If someone says they want tighter border security, I’m skeptical—it’s pretty tight already. But in and of itself, this would not be such a crazy idea. Certainly I agree that it is possible to have too little border security, and so maybe that turns out to be the state we’re in.

But then, suppose that same person, or someone closely allied to them, starts demanding the immediate deportation of everyone who was not born in the United States, even those who immigrated legally and are naturalized or here on green cards. This is a crazy, extreme idea that’s further in the same direction, so on this anchoring theory, it should make me more willing to accept the idea of tighter border security. And yet, I can say with some confidence that it has no such effect.

Indeed, if anything I think it would make me less likely to accept tighter border security, in proportion to how closely aligned those two arguments are. If they are coming from the same person, or the same political party, it would cause me to suspect that the crazy, extreme policy is the true objective, and the milder, compromise policy is just a means toward that end. It also suggests certain beliefs and attitudes about immigration in general—xenophobia, racism, ultranationalism—that I oppose even more strongly. If you’re talking about deporting all immigrants, you make me suspect that your reasons for wanting tighter border security are not good ones.

Let’s try another example. Suppose someone wants to cut taxes on upper income brackets. In our current state, I think that would be a bad idea. But there was a time not so long ago when I would have agreed with it: Even I have to admit that a top bracket of 94% (as we had in 1943) sounds a little ridiculous, and is surely on the wrong side of the Laffer curve. So the basic idea of cutting top tax rates is not inherently crazy or ridiculous.

Now, suppose that same idea came from the same person, or the same party, or the same political movement, as one that was arguing for the total abolition of all taxation. This is a crazy, extreme idea; it would amount to either total anarcho-capitalism with no government at all, or some sort of bizarre system where the government is funded entirely through voluntary contributions. I think it’s pretty obvious that such a system would be terrible, if not outright impossible; and anyone whose understanding of political economy is sufficiently poor that they would fail to see this is someone whose overall judgment on questions of policy I must consider dubious. Once again, the presence of the extreme view does nothing to make me want to consider the moderate view, and may even make me less willing to do so.

Perhaps I am an unusually rational person, not so greatly affected by anchoring biases? Perhaps. But whereas I do feel briefly tempted by to buy the $20 wine bottle by the effect of the $50 wine bottle, and must correct myself with knowledge I have about anchoring bias, the presentation of an extreme political view never even makes me feel any temptation to accept some kind of compromise with it. Learning that someone supports something crazy or ridiculous—or is willing to say they do, even if deep down they don’t—makes me automatically lower my assessment of their overall credibility. If anything, I think I am tempted to overreact in that direction, and have to remind myself of the Stopped Clock Principle: reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and someone can have both bad ideas and good ones.

Moreover, the empirical data, while sketchy, doesn’t seem to support this either; where the Overton Window (in the originally intended sense) has shifted, as on LGBT rights, it was because people convincingly argued that the “extreme” position was in fact an entirely reasonable and correct view. There was a time not so long ago that same-sex marriage was deemed unthinkable, and the “moderate” view was merely decriminalizing sodomy; but we demanded, and got, same-sex marriage, not as a strategy to compromise on decriminalizing sodomy, but because we actually wanted same-sex marriage and had good arguments for it. I highly doubt we would have been any more successful if we had demanded something ridiculous and extreme, like banning opposite-sex marriage.

The resulting conclusion seems obvious and banal: Only argue for things you actually believe in.

Yet, somehow, that seems to be a controversial view these days.

How to pack the court

Jul 10 JDN 2459790

By now you have no doubt heard the news that Roe v. Wade was overturned. The New York Times has an annotated version of the full opinion.

My own views on abortion are like those of about 2/3 of Americans: More nuanced than can be neatly expressed by ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’, much more comfortable with first-trimester abortion (which is what 90% of abortions are, by the way) than later, and opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade in its entirety. I also find great appeal in Clinton’s motto on the issue: “safe, legal, and rare”.Several years ago I moderated an online discussion group that reached what we called the Twelve Week Compromise: Abortion would be legal for any reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, after which it would only be legal for extenuating circumstances including rape, incest, fetal nonviability, and severe health risk to the mother. This would render the vast majority of abortions legal without simply saying that it should be permitted without question. Roe v. Wade was actually slightly more permissive than this, but it was itself a very sound compromise.

But even if you didn’t like Roe v. Wade, you should be outraged at the manner in which it was overturned. If the Supreme Court can simply change its mind on rights that have been established for nearly 50 years, then none of our rights are safe. And in chilling comments, Clarence Thomas has declared that this is his precise intention: “In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” That is to say, Thomas wants to remove our rights to use contraception and have same-sex relationships. (If Lawrence were overturned, sodomy could be criminalized in several states!)

The good news here is that even the other conservative justices seem much less inclined to overturn these other precedents. Kavanaugh’s concurrent opinion explicitly states he has no intention of overturning “Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479 (1965); Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U. S. 438 (1972); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1 (1967); and Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. 644 (2015)”. It seems quite notable that Thomas did not mention Loving v. Virginia, seeing as it was made around the same time as Roe v. Wade, based on very similar principles—and it affects him personally. And even if these precedents are unlikely to be overturned immediately, this ruling shows that the security of all of our rights can depend on the particular inclinations of individual justices.

The Supreme Court is honestly a terrible institution. Courts should not be more powerful than legislatures, lifetime appointments reek of monarchism, and the claim of being ‘apolitical’ that was dubious from the start is now obviously ludicrous. But precisely because it is so powerful, reforming it will be extremely difficult.

The first step is to pack the court. The question is no longer whether we should pack the court, but how, and why we didn’t do it sooner.

What does it mean to pack the court? Increase the number of justices, appointing new ones who are better than the current ones. (Since almost any randomly-selected American would be better than Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, or Brent Kavanaugh, this wouldn’t be hard.) This is 100% Constitutional, as the Constitution does not in any way restrict the number of justices. It can simply be done by an act of Congress.

But of course we can’t stop there. President Biden could appoint four more justices, and then whoever comes after him could appoint another three, and before we know it the Supreme Court has twenty-seven justices and each new President is expected to add a few more.

No, we need to fix the number of justices so that it can’t be increased any further. Ideally this would be done by Constitutional Amendment, though the odds of getting such a thing passed seem rather slim. But there is in fact a sensible way to add new justices now and then justify not adding any more later, and that is to tie justices to federal circuits.

There are currently 13 US federal circuit courts. If we added 4 more Supreme Court justices, there would be 13 Supreme Court justices. Each could even be assigned to be the nominal head of that federal circuit, and responsible for being the first to read appeals coming from that circuit.

Which justice goes where? Well, what if we let the circuits themselves choose? The selection could be made by a popular vote among the people who live there. Make the federal circuit a federal popular vote. The justice responsible for the federal circuit can also be the Chief Justice.

That would also require a Constitutional Amendment, but it would, at a stroke, fundamentally reform what the Supreme Court is and how its justices are chosen. For now, we could simply add three new justices, making the current number 13. Then they could decide amongst themselves who will get what circuit until we implement the full system to let circuits choose their justices.

I’m well aware that electing judges is problematic—but at this point I don’t think we have a choice. (I would also prefer to re-arrange the circuits: it’s weird that DC gets its own circuit instead of being part of circuit 4, and circuit 9 has way more people than circuit 1.) We can’t simply trust each new President to appoint a new justice whenever one happens to retire or die and then leave that justice in place for decades to come. Not in a world where someone like Donald Trump can be elected President.

A lot of centrist people are uncomfortable with such a move, seeing it as ‘playing dirty’. But it’s not. It’s playing hardball—taking seriously the threat that the current Republican Party poses to the future of American government and society, and taking substantive steps to fight that threat. (After its authoritarian shift that started in the mid 2000s but really took off under Trump, the Republican Party now has more in common with far-right extremist parties like Fidesz in Hungary than with mainstream center-right parties like the Tories.) But there is absolutely nothing un-Constitutional about this plan. It’s doing everything possible within the law.

We should have done this before they started overturning landmark precedents. But it’s not too late to do it before they overturn any more.

Why copyrights should be shorter

Jul 3 JDN 2459783

The copyright protection for Mickey Mouse is set to expire in 2024, though a recently-proposed bill that specifically targets large corporations would cause it to end immediately. Steamboat Willie was released in 1928.

This means that Mickey Mouse has been under copyright protection for 94 years, and is scheduled to last 96. Let me remind you that Walt Disney has been dead since 1966. This is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Mickey Mouse should have been released into the public domain decades ago.

Copyright in general has quite a shaky justification, and there are those who argue that it should be eliminated entirely. There’s something profoundly weird—and fundamentally monopolistic—about banning people from copying things.

But clearly we do need some way of ensuring that creators of artistic works can be fairly compensated for their efforts. Copyright is not the only way to do that: A few alternatives that I think are worth considering are expanded crowdfunding (Patreon and Kickstart already support quite a few artists, though most not very much), a large basic income (artists would still create even if they weren’t paid; they really just need money to live on), government grants directly to artists (we have the National Endowment for the Arts, but it doesn’t support very many artists), and some kind of central clearinghouse that surveys consumers about the art they enjoy and then compensates artists according to how much their work is appreciated. But all of these would require substantial changes, and suffer from their own flaws, so for the time being, let’s say we stick with copyright.

Even so, it’s utterly ludicrous that Disney has managed to hold onto the copyright on Mickey Mouse for this long. It makes absolutely no sense from the perspective of supporting artists—indeed, in this case the artist has been dead for over 50 years.

In fact, it wouldn’t even make sense if Walt Disney were still alive. (Not many people live 96 years past their first highly-successful creative work, but it’s at least possible, if you say published as a child and then lived to be a centenarian.) If the goal is to incentivize new creative art, the first few decades—indeed, the first few years—are clearly the most important for doing so.

To show why this is, I need to take a brief detour into finance, and the concept of a net present value.

As the saying goes: Time is money. $1 today is worth more than $1 a year from now. (And if you doubt this, let me remind you of the old joke: “I’ll give you $1 million dollars if you give me $100! Such a deal! Give me the $100 today, and I’ll give you $1 per year for the next million years.”)

The idea of a net present value is to precisely quantify the monetary value of time (or the time value of money), so that we can compare cashflows over time in a directly comparable way.

To compute a net present value, you need a discount rate. At a discount rate of r, an amount of money X that you get 1 year from now is worth X/(1+r). The discount rate should be positive, because money later is worth less than money now; this means that we want X/(1+r) < X, and therefore r > 0.

This is surprisingly hard to get precisely, but relatively easy to ballpark. A good guess is that it’s somewhere close to the prevailing interest rate, or maybe the average return on the stock market. It should definitely be at least the inflation rate. Right now inflation is running a little high (around 8%), so we’d want to use a relatively high discount rate currently, maybe 10% or 12%. But I think in a more typical scenario, something more like 5-6% would be a reasonable guess.

Once you have a discount rate, it’s pretty simple to figure out the net present value: Just add up all the future cashflows, each discounted by that discount rate for the time you have to wait for it.

So for instance if you get $100 per year for the next 5 years, this would be your net present value:

100/(1+r) + 100/(1+r)^2 + 100/(1+r)^3 + 100/(1+r)^4 + 100/(1+r)^5

If you get $50 this year, $60 next year, $70 the year after that, this would be your next present value:

50 + 60/(1+r) + 70/(1+r)^2

If the cashflow is the same X over time for some fixed amount of time T this can be collapsed into a single formula using a geometric series:

X (1 – (1+r)^(-T)) – 1)/r

This is really just a more compact way of adding up, X + X/(1+r) + X/(1+r)^2 + …; here, let’s do that example of $100 per year for 5 years, with r = 10%.

100/1.1 + 100/1.1^2 + 100/1.1^3 + 100/1.1^4 + 100/1.1^5 = $379

100 (1 – 1.1^(-5))/0.1 = $379

See, we get the same answer either way. Notice that this is less than $100 * 5 = $500, which is what we’d get if we had assumed that $1 a year from now is worth the same as $1 today. But it’s not too much less, because it’s only 5 years.

This formula allows us to consider what happens when the time interval becomes extremely long—even infinite. It gives us the power to ask the question, “What is the value of this perpetual cashflow?”

This feels a bit weird for individuals, since of course we die. We can have heirs, but rare indeed is the thousand-year dynasty. (The Imperial House of Japan does appear to have an unbroken hereditary line for the last 2000 years, but they’re basically alone in that.) But governments and corporations don’t have a lifespan, so it makes more sense for them. The US government was here 200 years ago, and may still be here 200 years from now. Oxford was here 900 years ago, and I see no particular reason to think it won’t still be here 900 years from now.

Since r > 0, (1+r)^(-T) gets smaller as T increases. As T approaches infinity, (1+r)^(-T) approaches zero. So for a perpetual cashflow, we can just make this term zero.

Thus, we can actually assess the value of $1 per year for the next million years! It is this:

1 (1-(1+r)^(10^6))/r

which is basically the same as this:

1/r

So if your discount rate is 10%, then $1 per year for 1 million years is worth about as much to you as $1/0.1 = $10 today. If your discount rate is 5%, it would be worth about $1/0.05 = $20 today. And suddenly it makes sense that you’re not willing to pay $100 for this deal.

What if the cashflow is changing? Then this formula won’t work. But if it’s simply a constant rate of growth, we can adjust for that. If the growth rate of the cashflow is g, so that you get X, then X (1+g), then x (1+g)^2, and so on, the formula becomes just a bit more complicated:

X (1-(1+r-g)^(-T))/(r-g)

So for instance if your cashflow grows at 6% per year and your discount rate is 10%, then it’s basically the same as if it didn’t grow at all but your discount rate is 4%. [This is actually an approximation, but it’s a pretty good one.] Let’s call this the effective discount rate.

For a perpetual cashflow, as long as r > g, this becomes:

X/(r-g)

With this in mind, let’s return to the question of copyright. How long should copyright protection last?

We want it to last long enough for artists to be fairly compensated for their work; but what does “fairly compensated” mean? Well, with the concept of a perpetual net present value in mind, we could quantify this as the majority of all revenue that would be expected to be earned by a perpetual copyright.

I think this is actually quite generous: We’re saying that you should get to keep the copyright long enough to get most of what you’d probably get if we allowed you to own it forever. In some cases this might actually result in a copyright that’s too long; but I don’t see how it could result in it being too short.

Mickey Mouse today earns about $3 million per year. That’s honestly amazing, to continue to rake in that much money after such a long period. But, adjusted for inflation, that’s actually quite a bit less than what he took in just a few years after his first films were released, nominally $1 million per year which comes to more like $19 million per year in today’s money.

This means that our discount rate is larger than our growth rate (r > g) even if r is just inflation; but in fact we should use a discount rate higher than inflation. Let’s use a plausible but slightly conservative discount rate of 5%.

To grow from nominally $1 million to nominally $3 million per year in 94 years means a growth rate of about 1% per year.

So, our effective discount rate is 4%.

Then, a perpetual copyright for Mickey Mouse should be worth approximately:

X/(r-g) = 10^6/(0.04) = $25 million

Yes, that’s right; an unending stream of over $1 million per year ends up being worth about the same as a single payment of $25 million way back in 1928.

But isn’t Mickey Mouse a “fictional billionare”, meaning his total income over his existence has been more than $1 billion? Sure. And indeed, at a discount rate of 5%, $1 billion today is worth about $10 million in 1928. So Mickey is indeed well above that. Even if I use Forbes’ higher estimate that Mickey Mouse has taken in $5.8 billion, that would still only be a net present value of $59 million in 1928.

Remember, time is money. When it takes this long to get a cashflow, it ends up worth substantially less.

So, if we were aiming to let Mickey earn half of his perpetual earnings in net present value, when should we have ended his copyright? By my estimate, when the net present value of earnings exceeded $12.5 million. If we use Forbes’s more generous estimate, when it exceeded $30 million.

So now let’s go back to the formula for a finite time horizon, and try to solve it for T, the time horizon. We want the net present value of the finite horizon to be half that of the infinite horizon:

X (1-(1+r-g)^(-T))/(r-g) = (X/2)/(r-g)

(1+r-g)^(-T) = 1/2

To solve this for T, I’ll need to use a logarithm, the inverse of an exponent.

T = ln(2)/ln(1+r – g)

This is a doubling time, very analogous to a half-life in physics. Since logarithms are very difficult to do by hand, if you don’t have a scientific calculator handy, you can also approximate it by dividing the percentage into 69:

T = 69/(r-g)%

This is because ln(2) = 0.69…, and when r-g is a small percentage, ln(1+r-g) is about the same as r-g.

For an effective discount rate of 4%, this becomes:

T = ln(2)/ln(1.04) = 69/4 = 17

That is, only seventeen years. Even for a hugely successful long-running property like Mickey Mouse (in fact, is there really anything on a par with Mickey Mouse?), the majority of the net present value was earned in less than 20 years.

Indeed, it seems especially sensible in this case, because back then, Walt Disney was still alive! He could actually enjoy the fruits of his labors for that period. Now it’s all going to some faceless shareholders of a massive megacorporation, only a few of which are even Walt Disney’s heirs. Only about 3% of Disney shares are owned by anyone actually in the Disney family.

This gives us an answer to the question, “How long should copyrights last?”: About 20 years.

If we’d used a higher discount rate, it would be even shorter: at 10%, you get only 10 years.

And a lower discount rate simply isn’t plausible; inflation and stock market growth are both too fast for net present value to be discounted much less than 4% or 5%. Maybe you could go as low as 3%, which would be 23 years.

Does this accomplish the goal of copyrights—which, remember, was to fairly compensate artists and incentivize the creation of artistic works? I’d say so. They get half of what they would have gotten if we never released their work into the public domain, and I don’t think I’ve ever met an artist who could honestly say that they’d create something if they could hold onto the rights for 96 years, but not if they could for only 20 years. (Maybe they exist, but if so, they are rare.) Most artists really just want to be credited—not paid, credited—for their work and to make a decent living. 20 years is enough for that.

This means that our current copyright system keeps works out of public domain nearly five times as long as there is any real economic justification for.

Small deviations can have large consequences.

Jun 26 JDN 2459787

A common rejoinder that behavioral economists get from neoclassical economists is that most people are mostly rational most of the time, so what’s the big deal? If humans are 90% rational, why worry so much about the other 10%?

Well, it turns out that small deviations from rationality can have surprisingly large consequences. Let’s consider an example.

Suppose we have a market for some asset. Without even trying to veil my ulterior motive, let’s make that asset Bitcoin. Its fundamental value is of course $0; it’s not backed by anything (not even taxes or a central bank), it has no particular uses that aren’t already better served by existing methods, and it’s not even scalable.

Now, suppose that 99% of the population rationally recognizes that the fundamental value of the asset is indeed $0. But 1% of the population doesn’t; they irrationally believe that the asset is worth $20,000. What will the price of that asset be, in equilibrium?

If you assume that the majority will prevail, it should be $0. If you did some kind of weighted average, you’d think maybe its price will be something positive but relatively small, like $200. But is this actually the price it will take on?

Consider someone who currently owns 1 unit of the asset, and recognizes that it is fundamentally worthless. What should they do? Well, if they also know that there are people out there who believe it is worth $20,000, the answer is obvious: They should sell it to those people. Indeed, they should sell it for something quite close to $20,000 if they can.

Now, suppose they don’t already own the asset, but are considering whether or not to buy it. They know it’s worthless, but they also know that there are people who will buy it for close to $20,000. Here’s the kicker: This is a reason for them to buy it at anything meaningfully less than $20,000.

Suppose, for instance, they could buy it for $10,000. Spending $10,000 to buy something you know is worthless seems like a terribly irrational thing to do. But it isn’t irrational, if you also know that somewhere out there is someone who will pay $20,000 for that same asset and you have a reasonable chance of finding that person and selling it to them.

The equilibrium outcome, then, is that the price of the asset will be almost $20,000! Even though 99% of the population recognizes that this asset is worthless, the fact that 1% of people believe it’s worth as much as a car will result in it selling at that price. Thus, even a slight deviation from a perfectly-rational population can result in a market that is radically at odds with reality.

And it gets worse! Suppose that in fact everyone knows that the asset is worthless, but most people think that there is some small portion of the population who believes the asset has value. Then, it will still be priced at that value in equilibrium, as people trade it back and forth searching in vain for the person who really wants it! (This is called the Greater Fool theory.)

That is, the price of an asset in a free market—even in a market where most people are mostly rational most of the time—will in fact be determined by the highest price anyone believes that anyone else thinks it has. And this is true of essentially any asset market—any market where people are buying something, not to use it, but to sell it to someone else.

Of course, beliefs—and particularly beliefs about beliefs—can very easily change, so that equilibrium price could move in any direction basically without warning.

Suddenly, the cycle of bubble and crash, boom and bust, doesn’t seem so surprising does it? The wonder is that prices ever become stable at all.


Then again, do they? Last I checked, the only prices that were remotely stable were for goods like apples and cars and televisions, goods that are bought and sold to be consumed. (Or national currencies managed by competent central banks, whose entire job involves doing whatever it takes to keep those prices stable.) For pretty much everything else—and certainly any purely financial asset that isn’t a national currency—prices are indeed precisely as wildly unpredictable and utterly irrational as this model would predict.

So much for the Efficient Market Hypothesis? Sadly I doubt that the people who still believe this nonsense will be convinced.

Why do poor people dislike inflation?

Jun 5 JDN 2459736

The United States and United Kingdom are both very unaccustomed to inflation. Neither has seen double-digit inflation since the 1980s.

Here’s US inflation since 1990:

And here is the same graph for the UK:

While a return to double-digits remains possible, at this point it likely won’t happen, and if it does, it will occur only briefly.

This is no doubt a major reason why the dollar and the pound are widely used as reserve currencies (especially the dollar), and is likely due to the fact that they are managed by the world’s most competent central banks. Brexit would almost have made sense if the UK had been pressured to join the Euro; but they weren’t, because everyone knew the pound was better managed.

The Euro also doesn’t have much inflation, but if anything they err on the side of too low, mainly because Germany appears to believe that inflation is literally Hitler. In fact, the rise of the Nazis didn’t have much to do with the Weimar hyperinflation. The Great Depression was by far a greater factor—unemployment is much, much worse than inflation. (By the way, it’s weird that you can put that graph back to the 1980s. It, uh, wasn’t the Euro then. Euros didn’t start circulating until 1999. Is that an aggregate of the franc and the deutsche mark and whatever else? The Euro itself has never had double-digit inflation—ever.)

But it’s always a little surreal for me to see how panicked people in the US and UK get when our inflation rises a couple of percentage points. There seems to be an entire subgenre of economics news that basically consists of rich people saying the sky is falling because inflation has risen—or will, or may rise—by two points. (Hey, anybody got any ideas how we can get them to panic like this over rises in sea level or aggregate temperature?)

Compare this to some other countries thathave real inflation: In Brazil, 10% inflation is a pretty typical year. In Argentina, 10% is a really good year—they’re currently pushing 60%. Kenya’s inflation is pretty well under control now, but it went over 30% during the crisis in 2008. Botswana was doing a nice job of bringing down their inflation until the COVID pandemic threw them out of whack, and now they’re hitting double-digits too. And of course there’s always Zimbabwe, which seemed to look at Weimar Germany and think, “We can beat that.” (80,000,000,000% in one month!? Any time you find yourself talking about billion percent, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.)

Hyperinflation is a real problem—it isn’t what put Hitler into power, but it has led to real crises in Germany, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. Once you start getting over 100% per year, and especially when it starts rapidly accelerating, that’s a genuine crisis. Moreover, even though they clearly don’t constitute hyperinflation, I can see why people might legitimately worry about price increases of 20% or 30% per year. (Let alone 60% like Argentina is dealing with right now.) But why is going from 2% to 6% any cause for alarm? Yet alarmed we seem to be.

I can even understand why rich people would be upset about inflation (though the magnitudeof their concern does still seem disproportionate). Inflation erodes the value of financial assets, because most bonds, options, etc. are denominated in nominal, not inflation-adjusted terms. (Though there are such things as inflation-indexed bonds.) So high inflation can in fact make rich people slightly less rich.

But why in the world are so many poor people upset about inflation?

Inflation doesn’t just erode the value of financial assets; it also erodes the value of financial debts. And most poor people have more debts than they have assets—indeed, it’s not uncommon for poor people to have substantial debt and no financial assets to speak of (what little wealth they have being non-financial, e.g. a car or a home). Thus, their net wealth position improves as prices rise.

The interest rate response can compensate for this to some extent, but most people’s debts are fixed-rate. Moreover, if it’s the higher interest rates you’re worried about, you should want the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England not to fight inflation too hard, because the way they fight it is chiefly by raising interest rates.

In surveys, almost everyone thinks that inflation is very bad: 92% think that controlling inflation should be a high priority, and 90% think that if inflation gets too high, something very bad will happen. This is greater agreement among Americans than is found for statements like “I like apple pie” or “kittens are nice”, and comparable to “fair elections are important”!

I admit, I question the survey design here: I would answer ‘yes’ to both questions if we’re talking about a theoretical 10,000% hyperinflation, but ‘no’ if we’re talking about a realistic 10% inflation. So I would like to see, but could not find, a survey asking people what level of inflation is sufficient cause for concern. But since most of these people seemed concerned about actual, realistic inflation (85% reported anger at seeing actual, higher prices), it still suggests a lot of strong feelings that even mild inflation is bad.

So it does seem to be the case that a lot of poor and middle-class people really strongly dislike inflation even in the actual, mild levels in which it occurs in the US and UK.

The main fear seems to be that inflation will erode people’s purchasing power—that as the price of gasoline and groceries rise, people won’t be able to eat as well or drive as much. And that, indeed, would be a real loss of utility worth worrying about.

But in fact this makes very little sense: Most forms of income—particularly labor income, which is the only real income for some 80%-90% of the population—actually increases with inflation, more or less one-to-one. Yes, there’s some delay—you won’t get your annual cost-of-living raise immediately, but several months down the road. But this could have at most a small effect on your real consumption.

To see this, suppose that inflation has risen from 2% to 6%. (Really, you need not suppose; it has.) Now consider your cost-of-living raise, which nearly everyone gets. It will presumably rise the same way: So if it was 3% before, it will now be 7%. Now consider how much your purchasing power is affected over the course of the year.

For concreteness, let’s say your initial income was $3,000 per month at the start of the year (a fairly typical amount for a middle-class American, indeed almost exactly the median personal income). Let’s compare the case of no inflation with a 1% raise, 2% inflation with a 3% raise, and 5% inflation with a 6% raise.

If there was no inflation, your real income would remain simply $3,000 per month, until the end of the year when it would become $3,030 per month. That’s the baseline to compare against.

If inflation is 2%, your real income would gradually fall, by about 0.16% per month, before being bumped up 3% at the end of the year. So in January you’d have $3,000, in February $2,995, in March $2,990. Come December, your real income has fallen to $2,941. But then next January it will immediately be bumped up 3% to $3,029, almost the same as it would have been with no inflation at all. The total lost income over the entire year is about $380, or about 1% of your total income.

If inflation instead rises to 6%, your real income will fall by 0.49% per month, reaching a minimum of $2,830 in December before being bumped back up to $3,028 next January. Your total loss for the whole year will be about $1110, or about 3% of your total income.

Indeed, it’s a pretty good heuristic to say that for an inflation rate of x% with annual cost-of-living raises, your loss of real income relative to having no inflation at all is about (x/2)%. (This breaks down for really high levels of inflation, at which point it becomes a wild over-estimate, since even 200% inflation doesn’t make your real income go to zero.)

This isn’t nothing, of course. You’d feel it. Going from 2% to 6% inflation at an income of $3000 per month is like losing $700 over the course of a year, which could be a month of groceries for a family of four. (Not that anyone can really raise a family of four on a single middle-class income these days. When did The Simpsons begin to seem aspirational?)

But this isn’t the whole story. Suppose that this same family of four had a mortgage payment of $1000 per month; that is also decreasing in real value by the same proportion. And let’s assume it’s a fixed-rate mortgage, as most are, so we don’t have to factor in any changes in interest rates.

With no inflation, their mortgage payment remains $1000. It’s 33.3% of their income this year, and it will be 33.0% of their income next year after they get that 1% raise.

With 2% inflation, their mortgage payment will also fall by 0.16% per month; $998 in February, $996 in March, and so on, down to $980 in December. This amounts to an increase in real income of about $130—taking away a third of the loss that was introduced by the inflation.

With 6% inflation, their mortgage payment will also fall by 0.49% per month; $995 in February, $990 in March, and so on, until it’s only $943 in December. This amounts to an increase in real income of over $370—again taking away a third of the loss.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that it’s one third; the proportion of lost real income you’ll get back by cheaper mortgage payments is precisely the proportion of your income that was spent on mortgage payments at the start—so if, like too many Americans, they are paying more than a third of their income on mortgage, their real loss of income from inflation will be even lower.

And what if they are renting instead? They’re probably on an annual lease, so that payment won’t increase in nominal terms either—and hence will decrease in real terms, in just the same way as a mortgage payment. Likewise car payments, credit card payments, any debt that has a fixed interest rate. If they’re still paying back student loans, their financial situation is almost certainly improved by inflation.

This means that the real loss from an increase of inflation from 2% to 6% is something like 1.5% of total income, or about $500 for a typical American adult. That’s clearly not nearly as bad as a similar increase in unemployment, which would translate one-to-one into lost income on average; moreover, this loss would be concentrated among people who lost their jobs, so it’s actually worse than that once you account for risk aversion. It’s clearly better to lose 1% of your income than to have a 1% chance of losing nearly all your income—and inflation is the former while unemployment is the latter.

Indeed, the only reason you lost purchasing power at all was that your cost-of-living increases didn’t occur often enough. If instead you had a labor contract that instituted cost-of-living raises every month, or even every paycheck, instead of every year, you would get all the benefits of a cheaper mortgage and virtually none of the costs of a weaker paycheck. Convince your employer to make this adjustment, and you will actually benefit from higher inflation.

So if poor and middle-class people are upset about eroding purchasing power, they should be mad at their employers for not implementing more frequent cost-of-living adjustments; the inflation itself really isn’t the problem.

Scalability and inequality

May 15 JDN 2459715

Why are some molecules (e.g. DNA) billions of times larger than others (e.g. H2O), but all atoms are within a much narrower range of sizes (only a few hundred)?

Why are some animals (e.g. elephants) millions of times as heavy as other (e.g. mice), but their cells are basically the same size?

Why does capital income vary so much more (factors of thousands or millions) than wages (factors of tens or hundreds)?

These three questions turn out to have much the same answer: Scalability.

Atoms are not very scalable: Adding another proton to a nucleus causes interactions with all the other protons, which makes the whole atom unstable after a hundred protons or so. But molecules, particularly organic polymers such as DNA, are tremendously scalable: You can add another piece to one end without affecting anything else in the molecule, and keep on doing that more or less forever.

Cells are not very scalable: Even with the aid of active transport mechanisms and complex cellular machinery, a cell’s functionality is still very much limited by its surface area. But animals are tremendously scalable: The same exponential growth that got you from a zygote to a mouse only needs to continue a couple years longer and it’ll get you all the way to an elephant. (A baby elephant, anyway; an adult will require a dozen or so years—remarkably comparable to humans, in fact.)

Labor income is not very scalable: There are only so many hours in a day, and the more hours you work the less productive you’ll be in each additional hour. But capital income is perfectly scalable: We can add another digit to that brokerage account with nothing more than a few milliseconds of electronic pulses, and keep doing that basically forever (due to the way integer storage works, above 2^63 it would require special coding, but it can be done; and seeing as that’s over 9 quintillion, it’s not likely to be a problem any time soon—though I am vaguely tempted to write a short story about an interplanetary corporation that gets thrown into turmoil by an integer overflow error).

This isn’t just an effect of our accounting either. Capital is scalable in a way that labor is not. When your contribution to production is owning a factory, there’s really nothing to stop you from owning another factory, and then another, and another. But when your contribution is working at a factory, you can only work so hard for so many hours.

When a phenomenon is highly scalable, it can take on a wide range of outcomes—as we see in molecules, animals, and capital income. When it’s not, it will only take on a narrow range of outcomes—as we see in atoms, cells, and labor income.

Exponential growth is also part of the story here: Animals certainly grow exponentially, and so can capital when invested; even some polymers function that way (e.g. under polymerase chain reaction). But I think the scalability is actually more important: Growing rapidly isn’t so useful if you’re going to immediately be blocked by a scalability constraint. (This actually relates to the difference between r- and K- evolutionary strategies, and offers further insight into the differences between mice and elephants.) Conversely, even if you grow slowly, given enough time, you’ll reach whatever constraint you’re up against.

Indeed, we can even say something about the probability distribution we are likely to get from random processes that are scalable or non-scalable.

A non-scalable random process will generally converge toward the familiar normal distribution, a “bell curve”:

[Image from Wikipedia: By Inductiveload – self-made, Mathematica, Inkscape, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3817954]

The normal distribution has most of its weight near the middle; most of the population ends up near there. This is clearly the case for labor income: Most people are middle class, while some are poor and a few are rich.

But a scalable random process will typically converge toward quite a different distribution, a Pareto distribution:

[Image from Wikipedia: By Danvildanvil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31096324]

A Pareto distribution has most of its weight near zero, but covers an extremely wide range. Indeed it is what we call fat tailed, meaning that really extreme events occur often enough to have a meaningful effect on the average. A Pareto distribution has most of the people at the bottom, but the ones at the top are really on top.

And indeed, that’s exactly how capital income works: Most people have little or no capital income (indeed only about half of Americans and only a third(!) of Brits own any stocks at all), while a handful of hectobillionaires make utterly ludicrous amounts of money literally in their sleep.

Indeed, it turns out that income in general is pretty close to distributed normally (or maybe lognormally) for most of the income range, and then becomes very much Pareto at the top—where nearly all the income is capital income.

This fundamental difference in scalability between capital and labor underlies much of what makes income inequality so difficult to fight. Capital is scalable, and begets more capital. Labor is non-scalable, and we only have to much to give.

It would require a radically different system of capital ownership to really eliminate this gap—and, well, that’s been tried, and so far, it hasn’t worked out so well. Our best option is probably to let people continue to own whatever amounts of capital, and then tax the proceeds in order to redistribute the resulting income. That certainly has its own downsides, but they seem to be a lot more manageable than either unfettered anarcho-capitalism or totalitarian communism.

Centrism is dying in America.

Apr 24 JDN 2459694

Four years ago—back when (shudder) Trump was President—I wrote a post about the true meaning of centrism, the kind of centrism worth defending.

I think it’s worth repeating now: Centrism isn’t saying “both sides are the same” when they aren’t. It’s recognizing that the norms of democracy themselves are worth defending—and more worth defending than almost any specific policy goal.

I wanted to say any specific policy goal, but I do think you can construct extreme counterexamples, like “establish a 100% tax on all income” (causing an immediate, total economic collapse), or “start a war with France” (our staunchest ally for the past 250 years who also has nuclear weapons). But barring anything that extreme, just about any policy is less important than defending democracy itself.

Or at least I think so. It seems that most Americans disagree. On both the left and the right—but especially on the right—a large majority of American voters are still willing to vote for a candidate who flouts basic democratic norms as long as they promise the right policies.

I guess on the right this fact should have been obvious: Trump. But things aren’t much better on the left, and should some actual radical authoritarian communist run for office (as opposed to, you know, literally every left-wing politician who is accused of being a radical authoritarian communist), this suggests that a lot of leftist voters might actually vote for them, which is nearly as terrifying.

My hope today is that I might tip the balance a little bit the other direction, remind people why democracy is worth defending, even at the cost of our preferred healthcare systems and marginal tax rates.

This is, above all, that democracy is self-correcting. If a bad policy gets put in place while democratic norms are still strong, then that policy can be removed and replaced with something better later on. Authoritarianism lacks this self-correction mechanism; get someone terrible in power and they stay in power, doing basically whatever they want, unless they are violently overthrown.

For the right wing, that’s basically it. You need to stop making excuses for authoritarianism. Basically none of your policies are so important that they would justify even moderate violations of democratic norms—much less than Trump already committed, let alone what he might do if re-elected and unleashed. I don’t care how economically efficient lower taxes or privatized healthcare might be (and I know that there are in fact many economists who would agree with you on that, though I don’t), it isn’t worth undermining democracy. And while I do understand why you consider abortion to be such a vital issue, you really need to ask yourself whether banning abortion is worth living under a fascist government, because that’s the direction you’re headed. Let me note that banning abortion doesn’t even seem to reduce it very much, so there’s that. While the claim that abortion bans do nothing is false, even a total overturn of Roe v. Wade would most likely reduce US abortions by about 15%—much less than the 25% decrease between 2008 and 2014, which was also part of a long-term trend of decreasing abortion rates which are now roughly half what they were in 1980. We don’t need to ban abortion in order to reduce it—and indeed many of the things that work are things like free healthcare and easy access to contraception that right-wing governments typically resist. So even if you consider abortion to be a human rights violation, which I know many of you do, is that relatively small reduction in abortion rates worth risking the slide into fascism?

But for the left wing, things are actually a bit more complicated. Some right-wing policies—particularly social policies—are inherently anti-democratic and violations of human rights. I gave abortion the benefit of the doubt above; I can at least see why someone would think it’s a human rights violation (though I do not). Here I’m thinking particularly of immigration policies that lock up children at the border and laws that actively discriminate against LGBT people. I can understand why people would be unwilling to “hold their nose” and vote for someone who wants to enact that kind of policy—though if it’s really the only way to avoid authoritarianism, I think we might still have to do it. Democracy is too high a price to pay; give it up now and there is nothing to stop that new authoritarian leftist government from turning into a terrible nightmare (that may not even remain leftist, by the way!). If we vote in someone who is pro-democratic but otherwise willing to commit these sorts of human rights violations, hopefully we can change things by civic engagement or vote them out of office later on (and over the long run, we do, in fact, have a track record of doing that). But if we vote in someone who will tear apart democracy even when they seem to have the high ground on human rights, then once democracy is undermined, the new authoritarian government can oppress us in all sorts of ways (even ways they specifically promised not to!), and we will have very little recourse.

Above all, even if they promise to give us everything we want, once you put an authoritarian in power, they can do whatever they want. They have no reason to keep their promises (whereas, contrary to popular belief, democratic politicians actually typically do), for we have no recourse if they don’t. Our only option to remove them from power is violent revolution—which usually fails, and even if it succeeds, would have an enormous cost in human lives.

Why is this a minority view? Why don’t more Americans agree with this?

I can think of a few possible reasons.

One is that they may not believe that these violations of democratic norms are really all that severe or worrisome. Overriding a judge with an executive order isn’t such a big deal, is it? Gerrymandering has been going on for decades, why should we worry about it now?

If that is indeed your view, let me remind you that in January 2021, armed insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building. That is not something we can just take lying down. This is a direct attack upon the foundations of democracy, and while it failed (miserably, and to be honest, hilariously), it wasn’t punished nearly severely enough—most of the people involved were not arrested on any charges, and several are now running for office. This lack of punishment means that it could very well happen again, and this time be better organized and more successful.

A second possibility is that people do not know that democracy is being undermined; they are somehow unaware that this is happening. If that’s the case, all I can tell you is that you really need to go to the Associated Press or New York Times website and read some news. You would have to be catastrophically ignorant of our political situation, and you frankly don’t deserve to be voting if that is the case.

But I suspect that for most people, a third reason applies: They see that democracy is being undermined, but they blame the other side. We aren’t the ones doing it—it’s them.

Such a view is tempting, at least from the left side of the aisle. No Democratic Party politician can hold a candle to Trump as far as authoritarianism (or narcissism). But we should still be cognizant of ways that our actions may also undermine democratic norms: Maybe we shouldn’t be considering packing the Supreme Court, unless we can figure out a way to ensure that it will genuinely lead to a more democratic and fair court long into the future. (For the latter sort of reform, suppose each federal district elected its own justice? Or we set up a mandatory retirement cycle such that every President would always appoint at least one justice?)

But for those of you on the right… How can you possibly think this? Where do you get your information from? How can you look at Donald Trump and think, “This man will defend our democracy from those left-wing radicals”? Right now you may be thinking, “oh, look, he suggested the New York Times; see his liberal bias”; that is a newspaper of record in the United States. While their editors are a bit left of center, they are held to the highest standards of factual accuracy. But okay, if you prefer the Wall Street Journal (also a newspaper of record, but whose editors are a bit more right of center), be my guest; their factual claims won’t disagree, because truth is truth. I also suggested the Associated Press, widely regarded worldwide as one of the most credible news sources. (I considered adding Al Jazeera, which has a similar reputation, but figured you wouldn’t go for that.)

If you think that the attack on the Capitol was even remotely acceptable, you must think that their claims of a stolen election were valid, or at least plausible. But every credible major news source, the US Justice Department, and dozens of law courts agree that they were not. Any large election is going to have a few cases of fraud, but there were literally only hundreds of fradulent votes—in an election in which over 150 million votes were cast, Biden won the popular vote by over 7 million votes, and no state was won by less than 10,000 votes. This means that 99.999% of votes were valid, and even if every single fradulent vote had been for Biden and in Georgia (obviously not the case), it wouldn’t have been enough to tip even that state.

I’m not going to say that left-wing politicians never try to undermine democratic norms—there’s certainly plenty of gerrymandering, and I just said, court-packing is at least problematic. Nor would I say that the right wing is always worse about this. But it should be pretty obvious to anyone with access to basic factual information—read: everyone with Internet access—that right now, the problem is much worse on the right. You on the right need to face up to that fact, and start voting out Republicans who refuse to uphold democracy, even if it means you have to wait a bit longer for lower taxes or more (let me remind you, not very effective) abortion bans.

In the long run, I would of course like to see changes in the whole political system, so that we are no longer dominated by two parties and have a wider variety of realistic options. (The best way to do that would of couse be range voting.) But for now, let’s start by ensuring that democracy continues to exist in America.