When to give up

Jun 6 JDN 2459372

Perseverance is widely regarded as a virtue, and for good reason. Often one of the most important deciding factors in success is the capacity to keep trying after repeated failure. I think this has been a major barrier for me personally; many things came easily to me when I was young, and I internalized the sense that if something doesn’t come easily, it must be beyond my reach.

Yet it’s also worth noting that this is not the only deciding factor—some things really are beyond our capabilities. Indeed, some things are outright impossible. And we often don’t know what is possible and what isn’t.

This raises the question: When should we persevere, and when should we give up?

There is actually reason to think that people often don’t give up when they should. Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame)recently published a study that asked people who were on the verge of a difficult decision to flip a coin, and then base their decision on the coin flip: Heads, make a change; tails, keep things as they are. Many didn’t actually follow the coin flip—but enough did that there was a statistical difference between those who saw heads and those who saw tails. The study found that the people who flipped heads and made a change were on average happier a couple of years later than the people who flipped tails and kept things as they were.

This question is particularly salient for me lately, because the academic job market has gone so poorly for me. I’ve spent most of my life believing that academia is where I belong; my intellect and my passion for teaching and research has convinced me and many others that this is the right path for me. But now that I have a taste of what it is actually like to apply for tenure-track jobs and submit papers to journals, I am utterly miserable. I hate every minute of it. I’ve spent the entire past year depressed and feeling like I have accomplished absolutely nothing.

In theory, once one actually gets tenure it’s supposed to get easier. But that could be a long way away—or it might never happen at all. As it is, there’s basically no chance I’ll get a tenure track position this year, and it’s unclear what my chances would be if I tried again next year.

If I could actually get a paper published, that would no doubt improve my odds of landing a better job next year. But I haven’t been able to do that, and each new rejection cuts so deep that I can barely stand to look at my papers anymore, much less actually continue submitting them. And apparently even tenured professors still get their papers rejected repeatedly, which means that this pain will never go away. I simply cannot imagine being happy if this is what I am expected to do for the rest of my life.

I found this list of criteria for when you should give up something—and most of them fit me. I’m not sure I know in my heart it can’t work out, but I increasingly suspect that. I’m not sure I want it anymore, now that I have a better idea of what it’s really like. Pursuing it is definitely making me utterly miserable. I wouldn’t say it’s the only reason, but I definitely do worry what other people will think if I quit; I feel like I’d be letting a lot of people down. I also wonder who I am without it, where I belong if not here. I don’t know what other paths are out there, but maybe there is something better. This constant stream of failure and rejection has definitely made me feel like I hate myself. And above all, when I imagine quitting, I absolutely feel an enormous sense of relief.

Publishing in journals seems to be the thing that successful academics care about most, and it means almost nothing to me anymore. I only want it because of all the pressure to have it, because of all the rewards that come from having it. It has become fully instrumental to me, with no intrinsic meaning or value. I have no particular desire to be lauded by the same system that lauded Fischer Black or Kenneth Rogoff—both of whose egregious and easily-avoidable mistakes are responsible for the suffering of millions people around the world.

I want people to read my ideas. But people don’t actually read journals. They skim them. They read the abstracts. They look at the graphs and regression tables. (You have the meeting that should have been an email? I raise you the paper that should have been a regression table.) They see if there’s something in there that they should be citing for their own work, and if there is, maybe then they actually read the paper—but everyone is so hyper-specialized that only a handful of people will ever actually want to cite any given paper. The vast majority of research papers are incredibly tedious to read and very few people actually bother. As a method for disseminating ideas, this is perhaps slightly better than standing on a street corner and shouting into a megaphone.

I would much rather write books; people sometimes actually read books, especially when they are written for a wide audience and hence not forced into the straitjacket of standard ‘scientific writing’ that no human being actually gets any enjoyment out of writing or reading. I’ve seen a pretty clear improvement in writing quality of papers written by Nobel laureates—after they get their Nobels or similar accolades. Once they establish themselves, they are free to actually write in ways that are compelling and interesting, rather than having to present everything in the most dry, tedious way possible. If your paper reads like something that a normal person would actually find interesting or enjoyable to read, you will be—as I have been—immediately told that you must remove all such dangerous flavor until the result is as tasteless as possible.

No, the purpose of research journals is not to share ideas. Its function is not to share, but to evaluate. And it isn’t even really to evaluate research—it’s to evaluate researchers. It’s to outsource the efforts of academic hiring to an utterly unaccountable and arbitrary system run mostly by for-profit corporations. It may have some secondary effect of evaluating ideas for validity; at least the really awful ideas are usually excluded. But its primary function is to decide the academic pecking order.

I had thought that scientific peer review was supposed to select for truth. Perhaps sometimes it does. It seems to do so reasonably well in the natural sciences, at least. But in the social sciences? That’s far less clear. Peer-reviewed papers are much more likely to be accurate than any randomly-selected content; but there are still a disturbingly large number of peer-reviewed published papers that are utterly wrong, and some unknown but undoubtedly vast number of good papers that have never seen the light of day.

Then again, when I imagine giving up on an academic career, I don’t just feel relief—I also feel regret and loss. I feel like I’ve wasted years of my life putting together a dream that has now crumbled in my hands. I even feel some anger, some sense that I was betrayed by those who told me that this was about doing good research when it turns out it’s actually about being thick-skinned enough that you can take an endless assault of rejections. It feels like I’ve been running a marathon, and I just rounded a curve to discover that the last five miles must be ridden on horseback, when I don’t have a horse, I have no equestrian training, and in fact I’m allergic to horses.

I wish someone had told me it would be like this. Maybe they tried and I didn’t listen. They did say that papers would get rejected. They did say that the tenure track was high-pressure and publish-or-perish was a major source of anxiety. But they never said that it would tear at my soul like this. They never said that I would have to go through multiple rounds of agony, self-doubt, and despair in order to get even the slighest recognition for my years of work. They never said that the whole field would treat me like I’m worthless because I can’t satisfy the arbitrary demands of a handful of anonymous reviewers. They never said that I would begin to feel worthless after several rounds of this.

That’s really what I want to give up on. I want to give up on hitching my financial security, my career, my future, my self-worth to a system as capricious as peer review.

I don’t want to give up on research. I don’t want to give up on teaching. I still believe strongly in discovering new truths and sharing them with others. I’m just increasingly realizing that academia isn’t nearly as good at that as I thought it was.

It isn’t even that I think it’s impossible for me to succeed in academia. I think that if I continued trying to get a tenure-track job, I would land one eventually. Maybe next year. Or maybe I’d spend a few years at a postdoc first. And I’d probably manage to publish some paper in some reasonably respectable journal at some point in the future. But I don’t know how long it would take, or how good a journal it would be—and I’m already past the point where I really don’t care anymore, where I can’t afford to care, where if I really allowed myself to care it would only devastate me when I inevitably fail again. Now that I see what is really involved in the process, how arduous and arbitrary it is, publishing in a journal means almost nothing to me. I want to be validated; I want to be appreciated; I want to be recognized. But the system is set up to provide nothing but rejection, rejection, rejection. If even the best work won’t be recognized immediately and even the worst work can make it with enough tries, then the whole system begins to seem meaningless. It’s just rolls of the dice. And I didn’t sign up to be a gambler.

The job market will probably be better next year than it was this year. But how much better? Yes, there will be more openings, but there will also be more applicants: Everyone who would normally be on the market, plus everyone like me who didn’t make it this year, plus everyone who decided to hold back this year because they knew they wouldn’t make it (as I probably should have done). Yes, in a normal year, I could be fairly confident of getting some reasonably decent position—but this wasn’t a normal year, and next year won’t be one either, and the one after that might still not be. If I can’t get a paper published in a good journal between now and then—and I’m increasingly convinced that I can’t—then I really can’t expect my odds to be greatly improved from what they were this time around. And if I don’t know that this terrible gauntlet is going to lead to something good, I’d really much rather avoid it altogether. It was miserable enough when I went into it being (over)confident that it would work out all right.

Perhaps the most important question when deciding whether to give up is this: What will happen if you do? What alternatives do you have? If giving up means dying, then don’t give up. (“Learn to let go” is very bad advice to someone hanging from the edge of a cliff.) But while it may feel that way sometimes, rarely does giving up on a career or a relationship or a project yield such catastrophic results.

When people are on the fence about making a change and then do so, even based on the flip of a coin, it usually makes them better off. Note that this is different from saying you should make all your decisions randomly; if you are confident that you don’t want to make a change, don’t make a change. This advice is for people who feel like they want a change but are afraid to take the chance, people who find themselves ambivalent about what direction to go next—people like me.

I don’t know where I should go next. I don’t know where I belong. I know it isn’t Wall Street. I’m pretty sure it’s not consulting. Maybe it’s nonprofits. Maybe it’s government. Maybe it’s freelance writing. Maybe it’s starting my own business. I guess I’d still consider working in academia; if Purdue called me back to say they made a terrible mistake and they want me after all, I’d probably take the offer. But since such an outcome is now vanishingly unlikely, perhaps it’s time, after all, to give up.

Social science is broken. Can we fix it?

May 16 JDN 2459349

Social science is broken. I am of course not the first to say so. The Atlantic recently published an article outlining the sorry state of scientific publishing, and several years ago Slate Star Codex published a lengthy post (with somewhat harsher language than I generally use on this blog) showing how parapsychology, despite being obviously false, can still meet the standards that most social science is expected to meet. I myself discussed the replication crisis in social science on this very blog a few years back.

I was pessimistic then about the incentives of scientific publishing be fixed any time soon, and I am even more pessimistic now.

Back then I noted that journals are often run by for-profit corporations that care more about getting attention than getting the facts right, university administrations are incompetent and top-heavy, and publish-or-perish creates cutthroat competition without providing incentives for genuinely rigorous research. But these are widely known facts, even if so few in the scientific community seem willing to face up to them.

Now I am increasingly concerned that the reason we aren’t fixing this system is that the people with the most power to fix it don’t want to. (Indeed, as I have learned more about political economy I have come to believe this more and more about all the broken institutions in the world. American democracy has its deep flaws because politicians like it that way. China’s government is corrupt because that corruption is profitable for many of China’s leaders. Et cetera.)

I know economics best, so that is where I will focus; but most of what I’m saying here would also apply to other social sciences such as sociology and psychology as well. (Indeed it was psychology that published Daryl Bem.)

Rogoff and Reinhart’s 2010 article “Growth in a Time of Debt”, which was a weak correlation-based argument to begin with, was later revealed (by an intrepid grad student! His name is Thomas Herndon.) to be based upon deep, fundamental errors. Yet the article remains published, without any notice of retraction or correction, in the American Economic Review, probably the most prestigious journal in economics (and undeniably in the vaunted “Top Five”). And the paper itself was widely used by governments around the world to justify massive austerity policies—which backfired with catastrophic consequences.

Why wouldn’t the AER remove the article from their website? Or issue a retraction? Or at least add a note on the page explaining the errors? If their primary concern were scientific truth, they would have done something like this. Their failure to do so is a silence that speaks volumes, a hound that didn’t bark in the night.

It’s rational, if incredibly selfish, for Rogoff and Reinhart themselves to not want a retraction. It was one of their most widely-cited papers. But why wouldn’t AER’s editors want to retract a paper that had been so embarrassingly debunked?

And so I came to realize: These are all people who have succeeded in the current system. Their work is valued, respected, and supported by the system of scientific publishing as it stands. If we were to radically change that system, as we would necessarily have to do in order to re-align incentives toward scientific truth, they would stand to lose, because they would suddenly be competing against other people who are not as good at satisfying the magical 0.05, but are in fact at least as good—perhaps even better—actual scientists than they are.

I know how they would respond to this criticism: I’m someone who hasn’t succeeded in the current system, so I’m biased against it. This is true, to some extent. Indeed, I take it quite seriously, because while tenured professors stand to lose prestige, they can’t really lose their jobs even if there is a sudden flood of far superior research. So in directly economic terms, we would expect the bias against the current system among grad students, adjuncts, and assistant professors to be larger than the bias in favor of the current system among tenured professors and prestigious researchers.

Yet there are other motives aside from money: Norms and social status are among the most powerful motivations human beings have, and these biases are far stronger in favor of the current system—even among grad students and junior faculty. Grad school is many things, some good, some bad; but one of them is a ritual gauntlet that indoctrinates you into the belief that working in academia is the One True Path, without which your life is a failure. If your claim is that grad students are upset at the current system because we overestimate our own qualifications and are feeling sour grapes, you need to explain our prevalence of Impostor Syndrome. By and large, grad students don’t overestimate our abilities—we underestimate them. If we think we’re as good at this as you are, that probably means we’re better. Indeed I have little doubt that Thomas Herndon is a better economist than Kenneth Rogoff will ever be.

I have additional evidence that insider bias is important here: When Paul Romer—Nobel laureate—left academia he published an utterly scathing criticism of the state of academic macroeconomics. That is, once he had escaped the incentives toward insider bias, he turned against the entire field.

Romer pulls absolutely no punches: He literally compares the standard methods of DSGE models to “phlogiston” and “gremlins”. And the paper is worth reading, because it’s obviously entirely correct. He pulls no punches and every single one lands on target. It’s also a pretty fun read, at least if you have the background knowledge to appreciate the dry in-jokes. (Much like “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” I still laugh out loud every time I read the phrase “hegemonic Zermelo-Frankel axioms”, though I realize most people would be utterly nonplussed. For the unitiated, these are the Zermelo-Frankel axioms. Can’t you just see the colonialist imperialism in sentences like “\forall x \forall y (\forall z, z \in x \iff z \in y) \implies x = y”?)

In other words, the Upton Sinclair Principle seems to be applying here: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon not understanding it.” The people with the most power to change the system of scientific publishing are journal editors and prestigious researchers, and they are the people for whom the current system is running quite swimmingly.

It’s not that good science can’t succeed in the current system—it often does. In fact, I’m willing to grant that it almost always does, eventually. When the evidence has mounted for long enough and the most adamant of the ancien regime finally retire or die, then, at last, the paradigm will shift. But this process takes literally decades longer than it should. In principle, a wrong theory can be invalidated by a single rigorous experiment. In practice, it generally takes about 30 years of experiments, most of which don’t get published, until the powers that be finally give in.

This delay has serious consequences. It means that many of the researchers working on the forefront of a new paradigm—precisely the people that the scientific community ought to be supporting most—will suffer from being unable to publish their work, get grant funding, or even get hired in the first place. It means that not only will good science take too long to win, but that much good science will never get done at all, because the people who wanted to do it couldn’t find the support they needed to do so. This means that the delay is in fact much longer than it appears: Because it took 30 years for one good idea to take hold, all the other good ideas that would have sprung from it in that time will be lost, at least until someone in the future comes up with them.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it: At the AEA conference a few years back, I went to a luncheon celebrating Richard Thaler, one of the founders of behavioral economics, whom I regard as one of the top 5 greatest economists of the 20th century (I’m thinking something like, “Keynes > Nash > Thaler > Ramsey > Schelling”). Yes, now he is being rightfully recognized for his seminal work; he won a Nobel, and he has an endowed chair at Chicago, and he got an AEA luncheon in his honor among many other accolades. But it was not always so. Someone speaking at the luncheon offhandedly remarked something like, “Did we think Richard would win a Nobel? Honestly most of us weren’t sure he’d get tenure.” Most of the room laughed; I had to resist the urge to scream. If Richard Thaler wasn’t certain to get tenure, then the entire system is broken. This would be like finding out that Erwin Schrodinger or Niels Bohr wasn’t sure he would get tenure in physics.

A. Gary Schilling, a renowned Wall Street economist (read: One Who Has Turned to the Dark Side), once remarked (the quote is often falsely attributed to Keynes): “markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.” In the same spirit, I would say this: the scientific community can remain wrong a lot longer than you and I can extend our graduate fellowships and tenure clocks.

Economic Possibilities for Ourselves

May 2 JDN 2459335

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote one of the greatest essays ever written on economics, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” You can read it here.


In that essay he wrote:

“I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is.”

US population in 1930: 122 million; US real GDP in 1930: $1.1 trillion. Per-capita GDP: $9,000

US population in 2020: 329 million; US real GDP in 2020: $18.4 trillion. Per-capita GDP: $56,000

That’s a factor of 6. Keynes said 4 to 8; that makes his estimate almost perfect. We aren’t just inside his error bar, we’re in the center of it. If anything he was under-confident. Of course we still have 10 years left before a full century has passed: At a growth rate of 1% in per-capita GDP, that will make the ratio closer to 7—still well within his confidence interval.

I’d like to take a moment to marvel at how good this estimate is. Keynes predicted the growth rate of the entire US economy one hundred years in the future to within plus or minus 30%, and got it right.

With this in mind, it’s quite astonishing what Keynes got wrong in his essay.


The point of the essay is that what Keynes calls “the economic problem” will soon be solved. By “the economic problem”, he means the scarcity of resources that makes it impossible for everyone in the world to make a decent living. Keynes predicts that by 2030—so just a few years from now—humanity will have effectively solved this problem, and we will live in a world where everyone can live comfortably with adequate basic necessities like shelter, food, water, clothing, and medicine.

He laments that with the dramatically higher productivity that technological advancement brings, we will be thrust into a life of leisure that we are unprepared to handle. Evolved for a world of scarcity, we built our culture around scarcity, and we may not know what to do with ourselves in a world of abundance.

Keynes sounds his most naive when he imagines that we would spread out our work over more workers each with fewer hours:

“For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

Plainly that is nothing like what happened. Americans do on average work fewer hours today than we did in the past, but not by anything like this much: average annual hours fell from about 1,900 in 1950 to about 1,700 today. Where Keynes was predicting a drop of 60%, the actual drop was only about 10%.

Here’s another change Keynes predicted that I wish we’d made, but we certainly haven’t:

“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.”

Sadly, people still idolize Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk just as much their forebears idolized Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie. And really there’s nothing semi- about it: The acquisition of billions of dollars by exploiting others is clearly indicative of narcissism if not psychopathy.

It’s not that we couldn’t have made the world that Keynes imagined. There’s plenty of stuff—his forecast for our per-capita GDP was impeccable. But when we automated away all of the most important work, Keynes thought we would turn to lives of leisure, exploring art, music, literature, film, games, sports. But instead we did something he did not anticipate: We invented new kinds of work.

This would be fine if the new work we invented is genuinely productive; and some of it is, no doubt. Keynes could not have anticipated the emergence of 3D graphics designers, smartphone engineers, or web developers, but these jobs do genuinely productive and beneficial work that makes use of our extraordinary new technologies.

But think for a moment about Facebook and Google, now two of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. What do they sell? Think carefully! Facebook doesn’t sell social media. Google doesn’t sell search algorithms. Those are services they provide as platforms for what they actually sell: Advertising.

That is, some of the most profitable, powerful corporations in the world today make all of their revenue entirely from trying to persuade people to buy things they don’t actually need. The actual benefits they provide to humanity are sort of incidental; they exist to provide an incentive to look at the ads.

Paul Krugman often talks about Solow’s famous remark that “computers showed up everywhere but the productivity statistics”; aggregate productivity growth has, if anything, been slower in the last 40 years than in the previous 40.

But this aggregate is a very foolish measure. It’s averaging together all sorts of work into one big lump.

If you look specifically at manufacturing output per workerthe sort of thing you’d actually expect to increase due to automation—it has in fact increased, at breakneck speed: The average American worker produced four times as much output per hour in 2000 as in 1950.

The problem is that instead of splitting up the manufacturing work to give people free time, we moved them all into services—which have not meaningfully increased their productivity in the same period. The average growth rate in multifactor productivity in the service industries since the 1970s has been a measly 0.2% per year, meaning that our total output per worker in service industries is only 10% higher than it was in 1970.

While our population is more than double what it was in 1950, our total manufacturing employment is now less than it was in 1950. Our employment in services is four times what it was in 1950. We moved everyone out of the sector that actually got more productive and stuffed them into the sector that didn’t.

This is why the productivity statistics are misleading. Suppose we had 100 workers, and 2 industries.

Initially, in manufacturing, each worker can produce goods worth $20 per hour. In services, each worker can only produce services worth $10 per hour. 50 workers work in each industry, so average productivity is (50*$20+50*$10)/100 = $15 per hour.

Then, after new technological advances, productivity in manufacturing increases to $80 per hour, but people don’t actually want to spend that much on manufactured good. So 30 workers from manufacturing move over to services, which still only produce $10 per hour. Now total productivity is (20*$80+80*$10)/100 = $24 per hour.

Overall productivity now appears to only have risen 60% over that time period (in 50 years this would be 0.9% per year), but in fact it rose 300% in manufacturing (2.2% per year) but 0% in services. What looks like anemic growth in productivity is actually a shift of workers out of the productive sectors into the unproductive sectors.

Keynes imagined that once we had made manufacturing so efficient that everyone could have whatever appliances they like, we’d give them the chance to live their lives without having to work. Instead, we found jobs for them—in large part, jobs that didn’t need doing.

Advertising is the clearest example: It’s almost pure rent-seeking, and if it were suddenly deleted from the universe almost everyone would actually be better off.

But there are plenty of other jobs, what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”, that have the same character: Sales, consulting, brokering, lobbying, public relations, and most of what goes on in management, law and finance. Graeber had a silly theory that we did this on purpose either to make the rich feel important or to keep people working so they wouldn’t question the existing system. The real explanation is much simpler: These jobs are rent-seeking. They do make profits for the corporations that employ them, but they contribute little or nothing to human society as a whole.

I’m not sure how surprised Keynes would be by this outcome. In parts of the essay he acknowledges that the attitude which considers work a virtue and idleness a vice is well-entrenched in our society, and seems to recognize that the transition to a world where most people work very little is one that would be widely resisted. But his vision of what the world would be like in the early 21st century does now seem to be overly optimistic, not in its forecasts of our productivity and output—which, I really cannot stress enough, were absolutely spot on—but in its predictions of how society would adapt to that abundance.

It seems that most people still aren’t quite ready to give up on a world built around jobs. Most people still think of a job as the primary purpose of an adult’s life, that someone who isn’t working for an employer is somehow wasting their life and free-riding on everyone else.

In some sense this is perhaps true; but why is it more true of someone living on unemployment than of someone who works in marketing, or stock brokering, or lobbying, or corporate law? At least people living on unemployment aren’t actively making the world worse. And since unemployment pays less than all but the lowest-paying jobs, the amount of resources that are taken up by people on unemployment is considerably less than the rents which are appropriated by industries like consulting and finance.

Indeed, whenever you encounter a billionaire, there’s one thing you know for certain: They are very good at rent-seeking. Whether by monopoly power, or exploitation, or outright corruption, all the ways it’s possible to make a billion dollars are forms of rent-seeking. And this is for a very simple and obvious reason: No one can possibly work so hard and be so productive as to actually earn a billion dollars. No one’s real opportunity cost is actually that high—and the difference between income and real opportunity cost is by definition economic rent.

If we’re truly concerned about free-riding on other people’s work, we should really be thinking in terms of the generations of scientists and engineers before us who made all of this technology possible, as well as the institutions and infrastructure that have bequeathed us a secure stock of capital. You didn’t build that applies to all of us: Even if all the necessary raw materials were present, none of us could build a smartphone by hand alone on a desert island. Most of us couldn’t even sew a pair of pants or build a house—though that is at least the sort of thing that it’s possible to do by hand.

But in fact I think free-riding on our forebears is a perfectly acceptable activity. I am glad we do it, and I hope our descendants do it to us. I want to build a future where life is better than it is now; I want to leave the world better than we found it. If there were some way to inter-temporally transfer income back to the past, I suppose maybe we ought to do so—but as far as we know, there isn’t. Nothing can change the fact that most people were desperately poor for most of human history.

What we now have the power to decide is what will happen to people in the future: Will we continue to maintain this system where our wealth is decided by our willingness to work for corporations, at jobs that may be utterly unnecessary or even actively detrimental? Or will we build a new system, one where everyone gets the chance to share in the abundance that our ancestors have given us and each person gets the chance to live their life in the way that they find most meaningful?

Keynes imagined a bright future for the generation of his grandchildren. We now live in that generation, and we have precisely the abundance of resources he predicted we would. Can we now find a way to build that bright future?

What happened with GameStop?

Feb 7 JDN 2459253

No doubt by now you’ve heard about the recent bubble in GameStop stock that triggered several trading stops, nearly destroyed a hedge fund, and launched a thousand memes. What really strikes me about this whole thing is how ordinary it is: This is basically the sort of thing that happens in our financial markets all the time. So why are so many people suddenly paying so much attention to it?

There are a few important ways this is unusual: Most importantly, the bubble was triggered by a large number of middle-class people investing small amounts, rather than by a handful of billionaires or hedge funds. It’s also more explicitly collusive than usual, with public statements in writing about what stocks are being manipulated rather than hushed whispers between executives at golf courses. Partly as a consequence of these, the response from the government and the financial industry has been quite different as well, trying to halt trading and block transactions in a way that they would never do if the crisis had been caused by large financial institutions.

If you’re interested in the technical details of what happened, what a short squeeze is and how it can make a hedge fund lose enormous amounts of money unexpectedly, I recommend this summary by KQED. But the gist of it is simple enough: Melvin Capital placed huge bets that GameStop stock would fall in price, and a coalition of middle-class traders coordinated on Reddit to screw them over by buying a bunch of GameStop stock and driving up the price. It worked, and now Melvin Capital lost something on the order of $3-5 billion in just a few days.

The particular kind of bet they placed is called a short, and it’s a completely routine practice on Wall Street despite the fact that I could never quite understand why it is a thing that should be allowed.

The essence of a short is quite simple: When you short, you are selling something you don’t own. You “borrow” it (it isn’t really even borrowing), and then sell it to someone else, promising to buy it back and return it to where you borrowed it from at some point in the future. This amounts to a bet that the price will decline, so that the price at which you buy it is lower than the price at which you sold it.

Doesn’t that seem like an odd thing to be allowed to do? Normally you can’t sell something you have merely borrowed. I can’t borrow a car and then sell it; car title in fact exists precisely to prevent this from happening. If I were to borrow your coat and then sell it to a thrift store, I’d have committed larceny. It’s really quite immaterial whether I plan to buy it back afterward; in general we do not allow people to sell things that they do not own.

Now perhaps the problem is that when I borrow your coat or your car, you expect me to return that precise object—not a similar coat or a car of equivalent Blue Book value, but your coat or your car. When I borrow a share of GameStop stock, no one really cares whether it is that specific share which I return—indeed, it would be almost impossible to even know whether it was. So in that way it’s a bit like borrowing money: If I borrow $20 from you, you don’t expect me to pay back that precise $20 bill. Indeed you’d be shocked if I did, since presumably I borrowed it in order to spend it or invest it, so how would I ever get it back?

But you also don’t sell money, generally speaking. Yes, there are currency exchanges and money-market accounts; but these are rather exceptional cases. In general, money is not bought and sold the way coats or cars are.

What about consumable commodities? You probably don’t care too much about any particular banana, sandwich, or gallon of gasoline. Perhaps in some circumstances we might “loan” someone a gallon of gasoline, intending them to repay us at some later time with a different gallon of gasoline. But far more likely, I think, would be simply giving a friend a gallon of gasoline and then not expecting any particular repayment except perhaps a vague offer of providing a similar favor in the future. I have in fact heard someone say the sentence “Can I borrow your sandwich?”, but it felt very odd when I heard it. (Indeed, I responded something like, “No, you can keep it.”)

And in order to actually be shorting gasoline (which is a thing that you, too, can do, perhaps even right now, if you have a margin account on a commodities exchange), it isn’t enough to borrow a gallon with the expectation of repaying a different gallon; you must also sell that gallon you borrowed. And now it seems very odd indeed to say to a friend, “Hey, can I borrow a gallon of gasoline so that I can sell it to someone for a profit?”

The usual arguments for why shorting should be allowed are much like the arguments for exotic financial instruments in general: “Increase liquidity”, “promote efficient markets”. These arguments are so general and so ubiquitous that they essentially amount to the strongest form of laissez-faire: Whatever Wall Street bankers feel like doing is fine and good and part of what makes American capitalism great.

In fact, I was never quite clear why margin accounts are something we decided to allow; margin trading is inherently high-leverage and thus inherently high-risk. Borrowing money in order to arbitrage financial assets doesn’t just seem like a very risky thing to do, it has been one way or another implicated in virtually every financial crisis that has ever occurred. It would be an exaggeration to say that leveraged arbitrage is the one single cause of financial crises, but it would be a shockingly small exaggeration. I think it absolutely is fair to say that if leveraged arbitrage did not exist, financial crises would be far rarer and further between.

Indeed, I am increasingly dubious of the whole idea of allowing arbitrage in general. Some amount of arbitrage may be unavoidable; there may always be people people who see that prices are different for the same item in two different markets, and then exploit that difference before anyone can stop them. But this is a bit like saying that theft is probably inevitable: Yes, every human society that has had a system of property ownership (which is most of them—even communal hunter-gatherers have rules about personal property), has had some amount of theft. That doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do to reduce theft, or that we should simply allow theft wherever it occurs.

The moral argument against arbitrage is straightforward enough: You’re not doing anything. No good is produced; no service is provided. You are making money without actually contributing any real value to anyone. You just make money by having money. This is what people in the Middle Ages found suspicious about lending money at interest; but lending money actually is doing something—sometimes people need more money than they have, and lending it to them is providing a useful service for which you deserve some compensation.

A common argument economists make is that arbitrage will make prices more “efficient”, but when you ask them what they mean by “efficient”, the answer they give is that it removes arbitrage opportunities! So the good thing about arbitrage is that it stops you from doing more arbitrage?

And what if it doesn’t stop you? Many of the ways to exploit price gaps (particularly the simplest ones like “where it’s cheap, buy it; where it’s expensive, sell it”) will automatically close those gaps, but it’s not at all clear to me that all the ways to exploit price gaps will necessarily do so. And even if it’s a small minority of market manipulation strategies that exploit gaps without closing them, those are precisely the strategies that will be most profitable in the long run, because they don’t undermine their own success. Then, left to their own devices, markets will evolve to use such strategies more and more, because those are the strategies that work.

That is, in order for arbitrage to be beneficial, it must always be beneficial; there must be no way to exploit price gaps without inevitably closing those price gaps. If that is not the case, then evolutionary pressure will push more and more of the financial system toward using methods of arbitrage that don’t close gaps—or even exacerbate them. And indeed, when you look at how ludicrously volatile and crisis-prone our financial system has become, it sure looks an awful lot like an evolutionary equilibrium where harmful arbitrage strategies have evolved to dominate.

A world where arbitrage actually led to efficient pricing would be a world where the S&P 500 rises a steady 0.02% per day, each and every day. Maybe you’d see a big move when there was actually a major event, like the start of a war or the invention of a vaccine for a pandemic. You’d probably see a jump up or down of a percentage point or two with each quarterly Fed announcement. But daily moves of even five or six percentage points would be a very rare occurrence—because the real expected long-run aggregate value of the 500 largest publicly-traded corporations in America is what the S&P 500 is supposed to represent, and that is not a number that should change very much very often. The fact that I couldn’t really tell you what that number is without multi-trillion-dollar error bars is so much the worse for anyone who thinks that financial markets can somehow get it exactly right every minute of every day.

Moreover, it’s not hard to imagine how we might close price gaps without simply allowing people to exploit them. There could be a bunch of economists at the Federal Reserve whose job it is to locate markets where there are arbitrage opportunities, and then a bundle of government funds that they can allocate to buying and selling assets in order to close those price gaps. Any profits made are received by the treasury; any losses taken are borne by the treasury. The economists would get paid a comfortable salary, and perhaps get bonuses based on doing a good job in closing large or important price gaps; but there is no need to give them even a substantial fraction of the proceeds, much less all of it. This is already how our money supply is managed, and it works quite well, indeed obviously much better than an alternative with “skin in the game”: Can you imagine the dystopian nightmare we’d live in if the Chair of the Federal Reserve actually received even a 1% share of the US money supply? (Actually I think that’s basically what happened in Zimbabwe: The people who decided how much money to print got to keep a chunk of the money that was printed.)

I don’t actually think this GameStop bubble is all that important in itself. A decade from now, it may be no more memorable than Left Shark or the Macarena. But what is really striking about it is how little it differs from business-as-usual on Wall Street. The fact that a few million Redditors can gather together to buy a stock “for the lulz” or to “stick it to the Man” and thereby bring hedge funds to their knees is not such a big deal in itself, but it is symptomatic of much deeper structural flaws in our financial system.

The paperclippers are already here

Jan 24 JDN 2459239

Imagine a powerful artificial intelligence, which is comprised of many parts distributed over a vast area so that it has no particular location. It is incapable of feeling any emotion: Neither love nor hate, neither joy nor sorrow, neither hope nor fear. It has no concept of ethics or morals, only its own programmed directives. It has one singular purpose, which it seeks out at any cost. Any who aid its purpose are generously rewarded. Any who resist its purpose are mercilessly crushed.

The Less Wrong community has come to refer to such artificial intelligences as “paperclippers”; the metonymous singular directive is to maximize the number of paperclips produced. There’s even an online clicker game where you can play as one called “Universal Paperclips“. The concern is that we might one day invent such artificial intelligences, and they could get out of control. The paperclippers won’t kill us because they hate us, but simply because we can be used to make more paperclips. This is a far more plausible scenario for the “AI apocalypse” than the more conventional sci-fi version where AIs try to kill us on purpose.

But I would say that the paperclippers are already here. Slow, analog versions perhaps. But they are already getting out of control. We call them corporations.

A corporation is probably not what you visualized when you read the first paragraph of this post, so try reading it again. Which parts are not true of corporations?

Perhaps you think a corporation is not an artificial intelligence? But clearly it’s artificial, and doesn’t it behave in ways that seem intelligent? A corporation has purpose beyond its employees in much the same way that a hive has purpose beyond its bees. A corporation is a human superorganism (and not the only kind either).

Corporations are absolutely, utterly amoral. Their sole directive is to maximize profit. Now, you might think that an individual CEO, or a board of directors, could decide to do something good, or refrain from something evil, for reasons other than profit; and to some extent this is true. But particularly when a corporation is publicly-traded, that CEO and those directors are beholden to shareholders. If shareholders see that the corporation is acting in ways that benefit the community but hurt their own profits, shareholders can rebel by selling their shares or even suing the company. In 1919, Dodge successfully sued Ford for the “crime” of setting wages too high and prices too low.

Humans are altruistic. We are capable of feeling, emotion, and compassion. Corporations are not. Corporations are made of human beings, but they are specifically structured to minimize the autonomy of human choices. They are designed to provide strong incentives to behave in a particular way so as to maximize profit. Even the CEO of a corporation, especially one that is publicly traded, has their hands tied most of the time by the desires of millions of shareholders and customers—so-called “market forces”. Corporations are entirely the result of human actions, but they feel like impersonal forces because they are the result of millions of independent choices, almost impossible to coordinate; so one individual has very little power to change the outcome.

Why would we create such entities? It almost feels as though we were conquered by some alien force that sought to enslave us to its own purposes. But no, we created corporations ourselves. We intentionally set up institutions designed to limit our own autonomy in the name of maximizing profit.

Part of the answer is efficiency: There are genuine gains in economic efficiency due to the corporate structure. Corporations can coordinate complex activity on a vast scale, with thousands or even millions of employees each doing what they are assigned without ever knowing—or needing to know—the whole of which they are a part.

But a publicly-traded corporation is far from the only way to do that. Even for-profit businesses are not the only way to organize production. And empirically, worker co-ops actually seem to be about as productive as corporations, while producing far less inequality and far more satisfied employees.

Thus, in order to explain the primacy of corporations, particularly those that are traded on stock markets, we must turn to ideology: The extreme laissez- faire concept of capitalism and its modern expression in the ideology of “shareholder value”. Somewhere along the way enough people—or at least enough policymakers—became convinced that the best way to run an economy was to hand over as much as possible to entities that exist entirely to maximize their own profits.

This is not to say that corporations should be abolished entirely. I am certainly not advocating a shift to central planning; I believe in private enterprise. But I should note that private enterprise can also include co-ops, partnerships, and closely-held businesses, rather than publicly traded corproations, and perhaps that’s all we need. Yet there do seem to be significant advantages to the corporate structure: Corporation seem to be spectacularly good at scaling up the production of goods and providing them to a large number of customers. So let’s not get rid of corporations just yet.

Instead, let us keep corporations on a short leash. When properly regulated, corporations can be very efficient at producing goods. But corporations can also cause tremendous damage when given the opportunity. Regulations aren’t just “red tape” that gets in the way of production. They are a vital lifeline that protects us against countless abuses that corporations would otherwise commit.

These vast artificial intelligences are useful to us, so let’s not get rid of them. But never for a moment imagine that their goals are the same as ours. Keep them under close watch at all times, and compel them to use their great powers for good—for, left to their own devices, they can just as easily do great evil.

The fable of the billionaires

May 31 JDN 2458999

There are great many distortions in real-world markets that cause them to deviate from the ideal of perfectly competitive free markets, and economists rightfully spend much of their time locating, analyzing, and mitigating such distortions.

But I think there is a general perception among economists, and perhaps among others as well, that if we could somehow make markets perfectly competitive and efficient, we’d be done; the world, or at least the market, would be just and fair and all would be good. And this perception is gravely mistaken. To make that clear to you, I offer a little fable.

Once upon a time, widgets were made by hand. One person, working for one eight-hour day, could make 100 widgets. Most people were employed making widgets full-time. The wage for making widgets was $1 per widget.

Then, an inventor came up with a way to automate the production of widgets. For $100 per day, the same cost to hire a worker to make 100 widgets, the machine could instead make 101 widgets.

Because it was 1% more efficient, businesses began adopting the new machine, and now made slightly more widgets than before. But some workers who had previously made widgets were laid off, while others saw their wages fall to only $0.99 per widget.


If there were more widgets, but fewer people were getting paid less to make them, where did the extra wealth go? To the inventor, of course, who now owns 10% of all widget production and has billions of dollars.

Later, another inventor came up with an even better machine, which could make 102 widgets in a day. And that inventor became a billionare too, while more became unemployed and wages fell to $0.98 per widget.

And then there was another inventor, and another, and another; and today the machines can make 200 widgets in a day and wages are only $0.50 per widget. We now have twice as many widgets as we used to have, and hundreds of billionaires; yet only half as many people now work making widgets as once did, and those who remain make only half of what they once did.

Was this market inefficient or uncompetitive? Not at all! In fact it was quite efficient: It delivered the most widgets for the least cost every step of the way. And the first round of billionaires didn’t get enough power to keep the next round from innovating even better and also becoming billionaires. No one stole or cheated to get where they are; the billionaires really made it to the top by being brilliant innovators who made the world more efficient.

Indeed, by the standard measures of economic surplus, the world has gotten better with each new machine. GDP has gone up, wealth has gone up. Yet millions of people are out of work, and millions more are making pitifully low wages. Overall the nation seems to be worse off, even though all the numbers keep saying things are getting better.

There are some relatively simple solutions to this problem: We could tax those billionaires, and use the money to provide public goods to everyone else; and then the added wealth from doubling our quantity of widgets would benefit everyone and not just the inventors who made it happen. Would that reduce the incentives to innovate? A little, perhaps; but it’s hard to believe that most people who would be willing to invent something for $1 billion wouldn’t be willing to do so for $500 million or even for $50 million. At some point that extra money really isn’t benefiting you all that much. And what’s the point of incentivizing innovation if it makes life worse for most of our population?

In the real world there are lots of other problems, of course. Corruption, regulatory capture, rent-seeking, collusion, and so on all make our markets less efficient than they could have been. But even if markets were efficient, it’s not clear that they would be fair or just, or that they would be making most people’s lives better.

Indeed, I’m not convinced that most billionaires really got where they are by being particularly innovative. I can appreciate the innovations made by Cisco and Microsoft, but what brilliant innovation underlies Facebook or Amazon? The Internet itself is a great innovation (largely created by DARPA and universities), but is using it to talk to people or sell things really such a great leap? Tesla and SpaceX are innovative, but they have largely been money pits for Elon Musk, who inherited a good chunk of his wealth and made most of the rest by owning shares in PayPal. Yet even if we suppose that all the billionaires got where they are by inventing things that made the economy more efficient, it’s still not clear that they deserve to keep that staggering wealth.

I think the fundamental problem is that we have mentally equated ‘value of marginal product’ with ‘what you rightfully earn’. But the former is dependent upon the rest of the market: Who you are competing with, what your customers want. You can work very hard and be very talented, but if you’re making something that people aren’t willing to pay for, you won’t make any money. And the fact that people won’t pay for something doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable: If you produce public goods, they could benefit many people a great deal but still not draw in profits. Conversely, the fact that something is profitable doesn’t necessarily make it valuable: It could just be a very effective method of rent-seeking.

I’m not saying we should do away with markets; they’re very useful, and they do have a lot of benefits. But we should acknowledge their limitations. We should be aware not only that real-world markets are not perfectly efficient, but also that even a perfectly efficient market wouldn’t make for the best possible world.

Coase, extortion, and pay-to-skip

Feb 9 JDN 2458889

The Coase Theorem states that under perfect property rights, perfect information, perfect contract enforcement, and negligible transaction costs, Pareto efficiency can be achieved even when there are large externalities. It was designed as an argument against Pigovian taxation, which tries to use taxes to create incentives against externalities such as pollution.

The usual argument against the Coase Theorem is that transaction costs are rarely negligible and contracts are often unenforceable, so the Pareto-efficient solution to externalities that it provides is unrealistic. (In fact, Coase himself agreed with this critique, and instead argued that regulation of externalities needs to be done on a case-by-case basis with attention to the detailed context.)

Yet this is not the real problem with the Coase Theorem. The real problem is the criterion of Pareto-efficiency: An arrangement can be Pareto-efficient without being fair, just, or even economically efficient in any real sense.

As a reminder, Pareto efficiency simply says that no person can be made better off without making some other person worse off. It doesn’t say anything about how well off people are relative to one another—inequality—or how they got what they have—justice. It doesn’t even really entail economic efficiency: Supposing that the marginal utility of wealth is always positive, if one man claims all the wealth in the world and lends it out to everyone else at interest, that does seem to be Pareto-efficient—we can’t make anyone else better off without taking something from His Majesty the Supreme Emperor—but it clearly isn’t economically efficient in any desirable sense.

And this is what’s wrong with the Coase Theorem: The kind of Pareto efficiency it generates allows for—indeed, in many cases demands—what we would ordinarily call extortion.

What is extortion, after all?

If a member of the mafia comes to your house and says, “What a nice place you’ve got here; what a shame if anything happened to it!” and then demands you pay him $500 a month, that’s extortion. He has the power to inflict a negative externality on you, and he promises not to as long as you pay him. (Here, the contract enforcement actually comes from the reciprocity in the indefinitely iterated game, and doesn’t require an outside enforcer.)

Extortion is when one party has the power to create a negative externality upon another (e.g. burn your house down, punch you in the face). They make a deal: They won’t create that negative externality, provided that you compensate them (pay them money). Is this Pareto efficient? Absolutely! They’re as well off as they would be if they hurt you, and you’re better off. But is this how we want to run a society? I don’t think so.

In the cyberpunk future in which we now live, there is a market emerging that fits the requirements of the Coase Theorem as well as any which has ever existed; and sure enough, in the absence of adequate regulation it is turning to extortion.

I am referring of course to the market for online advertisements. Perfect property rights? Not quite, but that intellectual property enforcement is very strong. Perfect contract enforcement? Not perfect, but highly reliable, like any mature market in a First World country. Perfect information and negligible transaction costs? As close as humanity has ever come.

What’s the externality? People don’t like seeing ads. Ads are annoying, distracting, and unpleasant. But businesses benefit from showing people ads (or at least think they do), and seek rents by trying to post more ads than their competition. I proposed a Pigouvian solution: Tax advertising.

What’s the Coase solution? Let people pay to skip ads. And indeed there are now sites that do this.

Note that there is a vital difference between this and, say, YouTube Premium. With YouTube Premium, you’re actually paying for the opportunity to use an ad-free version of the service. So instead of advertisers paying Google to run ads on the content you watch, you’re simply paying for the content you watch. That’s great. I have no objection to that. In fact, I strongly prefer it to the ad-supported model. Paying for content makes you the customer. Accepting ads in return for free content makes you the product.

No, I’m talking about businesses posting ads, and then offering you the chance to pay them to get rid of those ads. (Maybe a cut would go to the content provider, but that’s not really important here.) The key is that the people who make the ads get the chance to get revenue from you paying to skip them.

In Coase terms, that sounds great! Instead of me having to put you through a miserable ad that probably won’t lead you to buying anything anyway, you just pay me $0.25 or something directly. I’m better off, you’re better off, everyone’s happy.

But in fact, everyone is not happy, because here’s what I can do: I can go out of my way to make the ads as obnoxious as possible, so that you have no choice but to pay me to skip them. I’m not the first one to make this point: It’s the subject of an SMBC comic and a major plot point in a Black Mirror episode.

This is precisely the same process as extortion: Threaten a negative externality, demand compensation in return for not doing so.

I think what Coase missed in his original argument is that negative externalities aren’t always by-products of otherwise productive activities. We often—nay, usually—have the power to inflict negative externalities upon other people with no productive purpose. If externalities were always by-products, negotiation as Coase imagined it could allow us to achieve the productive benefit without the externality cost. But when externalities can be generated independently, they are a means of extracting rent from those too weak to resist you.

What’s the solution to this problem? It’s boring: We have to tax and regulate externalities after all.

To a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms

Dec 15 JDN 2458833

The language we speak, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear—indeed, the fact that we wear clothes at all—are all the direct result of social norms. But norms run much deeper than this: Almost everything we do is more norm than not.

Why do sleep and wake up at a particular time of day? For most people, the answer is that they needed to get up to go to work. Why do you need to go to work at that specific time? Why does almost everyone go to work at the same time? Social norms.

Even the most extreme human behaviors are often most comprehensible in terms of social norms. The most effective predictive models of terrorism are based on social networks: You are much more likely to be a terrorist if you know people who are terrorists, and much more likely to become a terrorist if you spend a lot of time talking with terrorists. Cultists and conspiracy theorists seem utterly baffling if you imagine that humans form their beliefs rationally—and totally unsurprising if you realize that humans mainly form their beliefs by matching those around them.

For a long time, economists have ignored social norms at our peril; we’ve assumed that financial incentives will be sufficient to motivate behavior, when social incentives can very easily override them. Indeed, it is entirely possible for a financial incentive to have a negative effect, when it crowds out a social incentive: A good example is a friend who would gladly come over to help you with something as a friend, but then becomes reluctant if you offer to pay him $25. I previously discussed another example, where taking a mentor out to dinner sounds good but paying him seems corrupt.

Why do you drive on the right side of the road (or the left, if you’re in Britain)? The law? Well, the law is already a social norm. But in fact, it’s hardly just that. You probably sometimes speed or run red lights, which are also in violation of traffic laws. Yet somehow driving on the right side seem to be different. Well, that’s because driving on the right has a much stronger norm—and in this case, that norm is self-enforcing with the risk of severe bodily harm or death.

This is a good example of why it isn’t necessary for everyone to choose to follow a norm for that norm to have a great deal of power. As long as the norms include some mechanism for rewarding those who follow and punishing those who don’t, norms can become compelling even to those who would prefer not to obey. Sometimes it’s not even clear whether people are following a norm or following direct incentives, because the two are so closely aligned.

Humans are not the only social species, but we are by far the most social species. We form larger, more complex groups than any other animal; we form far more complex systems of social norms; and we follow those norms with slavish obedience. Indeed, I’m a little suspicious of some of the evolutionary models predicting the evolution of social norms, because they predict it too well; they seem to suggest that it should arise all the time, when in fact it’s only a handful of species who exhibit it at all and only we who build our whole existence around it.

Along with our extreme capacity for altruism, this is another way that human beings actually deviate more from the infinite identical psychopaths of neoclassical economics than most other animals. Yes, we’re smarter than other animals; other animals are more likely to make mistakes (though certainly we make plenty of our own). But most other animals aren’t motivated by entirely different goals than individual self-interest (or “evolutionary self-interest” in a Selfish Gene sort of sense) the way we typically are. Other animals try to be selfish and often fail; we try not to be selfish and usually succeed.

Economics experiments often go out of their way to exclude social motives as much as possible—anonymous random matching with no communication, for instance—and still end up failing. Human behavior in experiments is consistent, systematic—and almost never completely selfish.

Once you start looking for norms, you see them everywhere. Indeed, it becomes hard to see anything else. To a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms.

Good for the economy isn’t the same as good

Dec 8 JDN 2458826

Many of the common critiques of economics are actually somewhat misguided, or at least outdated: While there are still some neoclassical economists who think that markets are perfect and humans are completely rational, most economists these days would admit that there are at least some exceptions to this. But there’s at least one common critique that I think still has a good deal of merit: “Good for the economy” isn’t the same thing as good.

I’ve read literally dozens, if not hundreds, of articles on economics, in both popular press and peer-reviewed journals, that all defend their conclusions in the following way: “Intervention X would statistically be expected to increase GDP/raise total surplus/reduce unemployment. Therefore, policymakers should implement intervention X.” The fact that a policy would be “good for the economy” (in a very narrow sense) is taken as a completely compelling reason that this policy must be overall good.

The clearest examples of this always turn up during a recession, when inevitably people will start saying that cutting unemployment benefits will reduce unemployment. Sometimes it’s just right-wing pundits, but often it’s actually quite serious economists.

The usual left-wing response is to deny the claim, explain all the structural causes of unemployment in a recession and point out that unemployment benefits are not what caused the surge in unemployment. This is true; it is also utterly irrelevant. It can be simultaneously true that the unemployment was caused by bad monetary policy or a financial shock, and also true that cutting unemployment benefits would in fact reduce unemployment.

Indeed, I’m fairly certain that both of those propositions are true, to greater or lesser extent. Most people who are unemployed will remain unemployed regardless of how high or low unemployment benefits are; and likewise most people who are employed will remain so. But at the margin, I’m sure there’s someone who is on the fence about searching for a job, or who is trying to find a job but could try a little harder with some extra pressure, or who has a few lousy job offers they’re not taking because they hope to find a better offer later. That is, I have little doubt that the claim “Cutting unemployment benefits would reduce unemployment” is true.

The problem is that this is in no way a sufficient argument for cutting unemployment benefits. For while it might reduce unemployment per se, more importantly it would actually increase the harm of unemployment. Indeed, those two effects are in direct proportion: Cutting unemployment benefits only reduces unemployment insofar as it makes being unemployed a more painful and miserable experience for the unemployed.

Indeed, the very same (oversimplified) economic models that predict that cutting benefits would reduce unemployment use that precise mechanism, and thereby predict, necessarily, that cutting unemployment benefits will harm those who are unemployed. It has to. In some sense, it’s supposed to; otherwise it wouldn’t have any effect at all.
That is, if your goal is actually to help the people harmed by a recession, cutting unemployment benefits is absolutely not going to accomplish that. But if your goal is actually to reduce unemployment at any cost, I suppose it would in fact do that. (Also highly effective against unemployment: Mass military conscription. If everyone’s drafted, no one is unemployed!)

Similarly, I’ve read more than a few policy briefs written to the governments of poor countries telling them how some radical intervention into their society would (probably) increase their GDP, and then either subtly implying or outright stating that this means they are obliged to enact this intervention immediately.

Don’t get me wrong: Poor countries need to increase their GDP. Indeed, it’s probably the single most important thing they need to do. Providing better security, education, healthcare, and sanitation are all things that will increase GDP—but they’re also things that will be easier if you have more GDP.

(Rich countries, on the other hand? Maybe we don’t actually need to increase GDP. We may actually be better off focusing on things like reducing inequality and improving environmental sustainability, while keeping our level of GDP roughly the same—or maybe even reducing it somewhat. Stay inside the wedge.)

But the mere fact that a policy will increase GDP is not a sufficient reason to implement that policy. You also need to consider all sorts of other effects the policy will have: Poverty, inequality, social unrest, labor standards, pollution, and so on.

To be fair, sometimes these articles only say that the policy will increase GDP, and don’t actually assert that this is a sufficient reason to implement it, theoretically leaving open the possibility that other considerations will be overriding.

But that’s really not all that comforting. If the only thing you say about a policy is a major upside, like it or not, you are implicitly endorsing that policy. Framing is vital. Everything you say could be completely, objectively, factually true; but if you only tell one side of the story, you are presenting a biased view. There’s a reason the oath is “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” A partial view of the facts can be as bad as an outright lie.

Of course, it’s unreasonable to expect you to present every possible consideration that could become relevant. Rather, I expect you to do two things: First, if you include some positive aspects, also include some negative ones, and vice-versa; never let your argument sound completely one-sided. Second, clearly and explicitly acknowledge that there are other considerations you haven’t mentioned.

Moreover, if you are talking about something like increasing GDP or decreasing unemployment—something that has been, many times, by many sources, treated as though it were a completely compelling reason unto itself—you must be especially careful. In such a context, an article that would be otherwise quite balanced can still come off as an unqualified endorsement.

Revealed preference: Does the fact that I did it mean I preferred it?

Post 312 Oct 27 JDN 2458784

One of the most basic axioms of neoclassical economics is revealed preference: Because we cannot observe preferences directly, we infer them from actions. Whatever you chose must be what you preferred.

Stated so badly, this is obviously not true: We often make decisions that we later come to regret. We may choose under duress, or confusion; we may lack necessary information. We change our minds.

And there really do seem to be economists who use it in this bald way: From the fact that a particular outcome occurred in a free market, they will infer that it must be optimally efficient. (“Freshwater” economists who are dubious of any intervention into markets seem to be most guilty of this.) In the most extreme form, this account would have us believe that people who trip and fall do so on purpose.

I doubt anyone believes that particular version—but there do seem to be people who believe that unemployment is the result of people voluntarily choosing not to work, and revealed preference has also led economists down some strange paths when trying to explain what sure looks like irrational behavior—such as “rational addiction” theory, positing that someone can absolutely become addicted to alcohol or heroin and end up ruining their life all based on completely rational, forward-thinking decision planning.

The theory can be adapted to deal with these issues, by specifying that it’s only choices made with full information and all of our faculties intact that count as revealing our preferences.

But when are we ever in such circumstances? When do we ever really have all the information we need in order to make a rational decision? Just what constitutes intact faculties? No one is perfectly rational—so how rational must we be in order for our decisions to count as revealing our preferences?

Revealed preference theory also quickly becomes tautologous: Why do we choose to do things? Because we prefer them. What do we prefer? What we choose to do. Without some independent account of what our preferences are, we can’t really predict behavior this way.

A standard counter-argument to this is that revealed preference theory imposes certain constraints of consistency and transitivity, so it is not utterly vacuous. The problem with this answer is that human beings don’t obey those constraints. The Allais Paradox, the Ellsberg Paradox, the sunk cost fallacy. It’s even possible to use these inconsistencies to create “money pumps” that will cause people to systematically give you money; this has been done in experiments. While real-world violations seem to be small, they’re definitely present. So insofar as your theory is testable, it’s false.

The good news is that we really don’t need revealed preference theory. We already have ways of telling what human beings prefer that are considerably richer than simply observing what they choose in various scenarios. One very simple but surprisingly powerful method is to ask. In general, if you ask people what they want and they have no reason to distrust you, they will in fact tell you what they want.

We also have our own introspection, as well as our knowledge about millions of years of evolutionary history that shaped our brains. We don’t expect a lot of people to prefer suffering, for instance (even masochists, who might be said to ‘prefer pain’, seem to be experiencing that pain rather differently than the rest of us would). We generally expect that people will prefer to stay alive rather than die. Some may prefer chocolate, others vanilla; but few prefer motor oil. Our preferences may vary, but they do follow consistent patterns; they are not utterly arbitrary and inscrutable.

There is a deeper problem that any account of human desires must face, however: Sometimes we are actually wrong about our own desires. Affective forecasting, the prediction of our own future mental states, is astonishingly unreliable. People often wildly overestimate the emotional effects of both positive and negative outcomes. (Interestingly, people with depression tend not to do this—those with severe depression often underestimate the emotional effects of positive outcomes, while those with mild depression seem to be some of the most accurate forecasters, an example of the depressive realism effect.)

There may be no simple solution to this problem. Human existence is complicated; we spend large portions of our lives trying to figure out what it is we really want.
This means that we should not simply trust that whatever it is happens is what everyone—or even necessarily anyone—wants to happen. People make mistakes, even large, systematic, repeated mistakes. Sometimes what happens is just bad, and we should be trying to change it. Indeed, sometimes people need to be protected from their own bad decisions.