Where did all that money go?

Sep 26 JDN 2459484

Since 9/11, the US has spent a staggering $14 trillion on the military, averaging $700 billion per year. Some of this was the routine spending necessary to maintain a large standing army (though it is fair to ask whether we really need our standing army to be quite this large).

But a recent study by the Costs of War Project suggests that a disturbing amount of this money has gone to defense contractors: Somewhere between one-third and one-half, or in other words between $5 and $7 trillion.

This is revenue, not profit; presumably these defense contractors also incurred various costs in materials, labor, and logistics. But even as raw revenue that is an enormous amount of money. Apple, one of the largest corporations in the world, takes in on average about $300 billion per year. Over 20 years, that would be $6 trillion—so, our government has basically spent as much on defense contractors as the entire world spent on Apple products.

Of that $5 to $7 trillion, one-fourth to one-third went to just five corporations. That’s over $2 trillion just to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. We pay more each year to Lockheed Martin than we do to the State Department and USAID.

Looking at just profit, each of these corporations appears to make a gross profit margin of about 10%. So we’re looking at something like $200 billion over 20 years—$10 billion per year—just handed over to shareholders.

And what were we buying with this money? Mostly overengineered high-tech military equipment that does little or nothing to actually protect soldiers, win battles, or promote national security. (It certainly didn’t do much to stop the Taliban from retaking control as soon as we left Afghanistan!)

Eisenhower tried to warn us about the military-industrial complex, but we didn’t listen.

Even when the equipment they sell us actually does its job, it still raises some serious questions about whether these are things we ought to be privatizing. As I mentioned in a post on private prisons several years ago, there are really three types of privatization of government functions.

Type 1 is innocuous: There are certain products and services that privatized businesses already provide in the open market and the government also has use for. There’s no reason the government should hesitate to buy wrenches or toothbrushes or hire cleaners or roofers.

Type 3 is the worst: There have been attempts to privatize fundamental government services, such as prisons, police, and the military. This is inherently unjust and undemocratic and must never be allowed. The use of force must never be for profit.

But defense contractors lie in the middle area, type 2: contracting services to specific companies that involve government-specific features such as military weapons. It’s true, there’s not that much difference functionally between a civilian airliner and a bomber plane, so it makes at least some sense that Boeing would be best qualified to produce both. This is not an obviously nonsensical idea. But there are still some very important differences, and I am deeply uneasy with the very concept of private corporations manufacturing weapons.


It’s true, there are some weapons that private companies make for civilians, such as knives and handguns. I think it would be difficult to maintain a free society while banning all such production, and it is literally impossible to ban anything that could potentially be used as a weapon (Wrenches? Kitchen knives? Tree branches!?). But we strictly regulate such production for very good reasons—and we probably don’t go far enough, really.

Moreover, there’s a pretty clear difference in magnitude if not in kind between a corporation making knives or even handguns and a corporation making cruise missiles—let alone nuclear missiles. Even if there is a legitimate overlap in skills and technology between making military weapons and whatever other products a corporation might make for the private market, it might still ultimately be better to nationalize the production of military weapons.

And then there are corporations that essentially do nothing but make military weapons—and we’re back to Lockheed-Martin again. Boeing does in fact make most of the world’s civilian airliners, in addition to making some military aircraft and missiles. But Lockheed-Martin? They pretty much just make fighters and bombers. This isn’t a company with generalized aerospace manufacturing skills that we are calling upon to make fighters in a time of war. This is an entire private, for-profit corporation that exists for the sole purpose of making fighter planes.

I really can’t see much reason not to simply nationalize Lockheed-Martin. They should be a division of the US Air Force or something.

I guess, in theory, the possibility of competing between different military contractors could potentially keep costs down… but, uh, how’s that working out for you? The acquisition costs of the F-35 are expected to run over $400 billion—the cost of the whole program a whopping $1.5 trillion. That doesn’t exactly sound like we’ve been holding costs down through competition.

And there really is something deeply unseemly about the idea of making profits through war. There’s a reason we have that word “profiteering”. Yes, manufacturing weapons has costs, and you should of course pay your workers and material suppliers at fair rates. But do we really want corporations to be making billions of dollars in profits for making machines of death?

But if nationalizing defense contractors or making them into nonprofit institutions seems too radical, I think there’s one very basic law we ought to make: No corporation with government contracts may engage in any form of lobbying. That’s such an obvious conflict of interest, such a clear opening for regulatory capture, that there’s really no excuse for it. If there must be shareholders profiting from war, at the very least they should have absolutely no say in whether we go to war or not.

And yet, we do allow defense contractors to spend on lobbying—and spend they do, tens of millions of dollars every year. Does all this lobbying affect our military budget or our willingness to go to war?

They must think so.

Hypocrisy is underrated

Sep 12 JDN 2459470

Hypocrisy isn’t a good thing, but it isn’t nearly as bad as most people seem to think. Often accusing someone of hypocrisy is taken as a knock-down argument for everything they are saying, and this is just utterly wrong. Someone can be a hypocrite and still be mostly right.

Often people are accused of hypocrisy when they are not being hypocritical; for instance the right wing seems to think that “They want higher taxes on the rich, but they are rich!” is hypocrisy, when in fact it’s simply altruism. (If they had wanted the rich guillotined, that would be hypocrisy. Maybe the problem is that the right wing can’t tell the difference?) Even worse, “They live under capitalism but they want to overthrow capitalism!” is not even close to hypocrisy—let alone why, how would someone overthrow a system they weren’t living under? (There are many things wrong with Marxists, but that is not one of them.)

But in fact I intend something stronger: Hypocrisy itself just isn’t that bad.


There are currently two classes of Republican politicians with regard to the COVID vaccines: Those who are consistent in their principles and don’t get the vaccines, and those who are hypocrites and get the vaccines while telling their constituents not to. Of the two, who is better? The hypocrites. At least they are doing the right thing even as they say things that are very, very wrong.

There are really four cases to consider. The principles you believe in could be right, or they could be wrong. And you could follow those principles, or you could be a hypocrite. Each of these two factors is independent.

If your principles are right and you are consistent, that’s the best case; if your principles are right and you are a hypocrite, that’s worse.

But if your principles are wrong and you are consistent, that’s the worst case; if your principles are wrong and you are a hypocrite, that’s better.

In fact I think for most things the ordering goes like this: Consistent Right > Hypocritical Wrong > Hypocritical Right > Consistent Wrong. Your behavior counts for more than your principles—so if you’re going to be a hypocrite, it’s better for your good actions to not match your bad principles.

Obviously if we could get people to believe good moral principles and then follow them, that would be best. And we should in fact be working to achieve that.

But if you know that someone’s moral principles are wrong, it doesn’t accomplish anything to accuse them of being a hypocrite. If it’s true, that’s a good thing.

Here’s a pretty clear example for you: Anyone who says that the Bible is infallible but doesn’t want gay people stoned to death is a hypocrite. The Bible is quite clear on this matter; Leviticus 20:13 really doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. By this standard, most Christians are hypocrites—and thank goodness for that. I owe my life to the hypocrisy of millions.

Of course if I could convince them that the Bible isn’t infallible—perhaps by pointing out all the things it says that contradict their most deeply-held moral and factual beliefs—that would be even better. But the last thing I want to do is make their behavior more consistent with their belief that the Bible is infallible; that would turn them into fanatical monsters. The Spanish Inquisition was very consistent in behaving according to the belief that the Bible is infallible.

Here’s another example: Anyone who thinks that cruelty to cats and dogs is wrong but is willing to buy factory-farmed beef and ham is a hypocrite. Any principle that would tell you that it’s wrong to kick a dog or cat would tell you that the way cows and pigs are treated in CAFOs is utterly unconscionable. But if you are really unwilling to give up eating meat and you can’t find or afford free-range beef, it still would be bad for you to start kicking dogs in a display of your moral consistency.

And one more example for good measure: The leaders of any country who resist human rights violations abroad but tolerate them at home are hypocrites. Obviously the best thing to do would be to fight human rights violations everywhere. But perhaps for whatever reason you are unwilling or unable to do this—one disturbing truth is that many human rights violations at home (such as draconian border policies) are often popular with your local constituents. Human-rights violations abroad are also often more severe—detaining children at the border is one thing, a full-scale genocide is quite another. So, for good reasons or bad, you may decide to focus your efforts on resisting human rights violations abroad rather than at home; this would make you a hypocrite. But it would still make you much better than a more consistent leader who simply ignores all human rights violations wherever they may occur.

In fact, there are cases in which it may be optimal for you to knowingly be a hypocrite. If you have two sets of competing moral beliefs, and you don’t know which is true but you know that as a whole they are inconsistent, your best option is to apply each set of beliefs in the domain for which you are most confident that it is correct, while searching for more information that might allow you to correct your beliefs and reconcile the inconsistency. If you are self-aware about this, you will know that you are behaving in a hypocritical way—but you will still behave better than you would if you picked the wrong beliefs and stuck to them dogmatically. In fact, given a reasonable level of risk aversion, you’ll be better off being a hypocrite than you would by picking one set of beliefs arbitrarily (say, at the flip of a coin). At least then you avoid the worst-case scenario of being the most wrong.

There is yet another factor to take into consideration. Sometimes following your own principles is hard.

Considerable ink has been spilled on the concept of akrasia, or “weakness of will”, in which we judge that A is better than B yet still find ourselves doing B. Philosophers continue to debate to this day whether this really happens. As a behavioral economist, I observe it routinely, perhaps even daily. In fact, I observe it in myself.

I think the philosophers’ mistake is to presume that there is one simple, well-defined “you” that makes all observations and judgments and takes actions. Our brains are much more complicated than that. There are many “you”s inside your brain, each with its own capacities, desires, and judgments. Yes, there is some important sense in which they are all somehow unified into a single consciousness—by a mechanism which still eludes our understanding. But it doesn’t take esoteric cognitive science to see that there are many minds inside you: Haven’t you ever felt an urge to do something you knew you shouldn’t do? Haven’t you ever succumbed to such an urge—drank the drink, eaten the dessert, bought the shoes, slept with the stranger—when it seemed so enticing but you knew it wasn’t really the right choice?

We even speak of being “of two minds” when we are ambivalent about something, and I think there is literal truth in this. The neural networks in your brain are forming coalitions, and arguing between them over which course of action you ought to take. Eventually one coalition will prevail, and your action will be taken; but afterward your reflective mind need not always agree that the coalition which won the vote was the one that deserved to.

The evolutionary reason for this is simple: We’re a kludge. We weren’t designed from the top down for optimal efficiency. We were the product of hundreds of millions of years of subtle tinkering, adding a bit here, removing a bit there, layering the mammalian, reflective cerebral cortex over the reptilian, emotional limbic system over the ancient, involuntary autonomic system. Combine this with the fact that we are built in pairs, with left and right halves of each kind of brain (and yes, they are independently functional when their connection is severed), and the wonder is that we ever agree with our own decisions.

Thus, there is a kind of hypocrisy that is not a moral indictment at all: You may genuinely and honestly agree that it is morally better to do something and still not be able to bring yourself to do it. You may know full well that it would be better to donate that money to malaria treatment rather than buy yourself that tub of ice cream—you may be on a diet and full well know that the ice cream won’t even benefit you in the long run—and still not be able to stop yourself from buying the ice cream.

Sometimes your feeling of hesitation at an altruistic act may be a useful insight; I certainly don’t think we should feel obliged to give all our income, or even all of our discretionary income, to high-impact charities. (For most people I encourage 5%. I personally try to aim for 10%. If all the middle-class and above in the First World gave even 1% we could definitely end world hunger.) But other times it may lead you astray, make you unable to resist the temptation of a delicious treat or a shiny new toy when even you know the world would be better off if you did otherwise.

Yet when following our own principles is so difficult, it’s not really much of a criticism to point out that someone has failed to do so, particularly when they themselves already recognize that they failed. The inconsistency between behavior and belief indicates that something is wrong, but it may not be any dishonesty or even anything wrong with their beliefs.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say you should stop ever calling out hypocrisy. Sometimes it is clearly useful to do so. But while hypocrisy is often the sign of a moral failing, it isn’t always—and even when it is, often as not the problem is the bad principles, not the behavior inconsistent with them.

Unending nightmares

Sep 19 JDN 2459477

We are living in a time of unending nightmares.

As I write this, we have just passed the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Yet only in the past month were US troops finally withdrawn from Afghanistan—and that withdrawal was immediately followed by a total collapse of the Afghan government and a reinstatement of the Taliban. The United States had been at war for nearly 20 years, spending trillions of dollars and causing thousands of deaths—and seems to have accomplished precisely nothing.

Some left-wing circles have been saying that the Taliban offered surrender all the way back in 2001; this is not accurate. Alternet even refers to it as an “unconditional surrender” which is utter nonsense. No one in their right mind—not even the most die-hard imperialist—would ever refuse an unconditional surrender, and the US most certainly did nothing of the sort.)

The Taliban did offer a peace deal in 2001, which would have involved giving the US control of Kandahar and turning Osama bin Laden over to a neutral country (not to the US or any US ally). It would also have granted amnesty to a number of high-level Taliban leaders, which was a major sticking point for the US. In hindsight, should they have taken the deal? Obviously. But I don’t think that was nearly so clear at the time—nor would it have been particularly palatable to most of the American public to leave Osama bin Laden under house arrest in some neutral country (which they never specified by the way; somewhere without US extradition, presumably?) and grant amnesty to the top leaders of the Taliban.

Thus, even after the 20-year nightmare of the war that refused to end, we are still back to the nightmare we were in before—Afghanistan ruled by fanatics who will oppress millions.

Yet somehow this isn’t even the worst unending nightmare, for after a year and a half we are still in the throes of a global pandemic which has now caused over 4.6 million deaths. We are still wearing masks wherever we go—at least, those of us who are complying with the rules. We have gotten vaccinated already, but likely will need booster shots—at least, those of us who believe in vaccines.

The most disturbing part of it all is how many people still aren’t willing to follow the most basic demands of public health agencies.

In case you thought this was just an American phenomenon: Just a few days ago I looked out the window of my apartment to see a protest in front of the Scottish Parliament complaining about vaccine and mask mandates, with signs declaring it all a hoax. (Yes, my current temporary apartment overlooks the Scottish Parliament.)

Some of those signs displayed a perplexing innumeracy. One sign claimed that the vaccines must be stopped because they had killed 1,400 people in the UK. This is not actually true; while there have been 1,400 people in the UK who died after receiving a vaccine, 48 million people in the UK have gotten the vaccine, and many of them were old and/or sick, so, purely by statistics, we’d expect some of them to die shortly afterward. Less than 100 of these deaths are in any way attributable to the vaccine. But suppose for a moment that we took the figure at face value, and assumed, quite implausibly, that everyone who died shortly after getting the vaccine was in fact killed by the vaccine. This 1,400 figure needs to be compared against the 156,000 UK deaths attributable to COVID itself. Since 7 million people in the UK have tested positive for the virus, this is a fatality rate of over 2%. Even if we suppose that literally everyone in the UK who hasn’t been vaccinated in fact had the virus, that would still only be 20 million (the UK population of 68 million – the 48 million vaccinated) people, so the death rate for COVID itself would still be at least 0.8%—a staggeringly high fatality rate for a pandemic airborne virus. Meanwhile, even on this ridiculous overestimate of the deaths caused by the vaccine, the fatality rate for vaccination would be at most 0.003%. Thus, even by the anti-vaxers’ own claims, the vaccine is nearly 300 times safer than catching the virus. If we use the official estimates of a 1.9% COVID fatality rate and 100 deaths caused by the vaccines, the vaccines are in fact over 9000 times safer.

Yet it does seem to be worse in the United States, as while 22% of Americans described themselves as opposed to vaccination in general, only about 2% of Britons said the same.

But this did not translate to such a large difference in actual vaccination: While 70% of people in the UK have received the vaccine, 64% of people in the US have. Both of these figures are tantalizingly close to, yet clearly below, the at least 84% necessary to achieve herd immunity. (Actually some early estimates thought 60-70% might be enough—but epidemiologists no longer believe this, and some think that even 90% wouldn’t be enough.)

Indeed, the predominant tone I get from trying to keep up on the current news in epidemiology is fatalism: It’s too late, we’ve already failed to contain the virus, we won’t reach herd immunity, we won’t ever eradicate it. At this point they now all seem to think that COVID is going to become the new influenza, always with us, a major cause of death that somehow recedes into the background and seems normal to us—but COVID, unlike influenza, may stick around all year long. The one glimmer of hope is that influenza itself was severely hampered by the anti-pandemic procedures, and influenza cases and deaths are indeed down in both the US and UK (though not zero, nor as drastically reduced as many have reported).

The contrast between terrorism and pandemics is a sobering one, as pandemics kill far more people, yet somehow don’t provoke anywhere near as committed a response.

9/11 was a massive outlier in terrorism, at 3,000 deaths on a single day; otherwise the average annual death rate by terrorism is about 20,000 worldwide, mostly committed by Islamist groups. Yet the threat is not actually to Americans in particular; annual deaths due to terrorism in the US are less than 100—and most of these by right-wing domestic terrorists, not international Islamists.

Meanwhile, in an ordinary year, influenza would kill 50,000 Americans and somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000 people worldwide. COVID in the past year and a half has killed over 650,000 Americans and 4.6 million people worldwide—annualize that and it would be 400,000 per year in the US and 3 million per year worldwide.

Yet in response to terrorism we as a country were prepared to spend $2.3 trillion dollars, lose nearly 4,000 US and allied troops, and kill nearly 50,000 civilians—not even counting the over 60,000 enemy soldiers killed. It’s not even clear that this accomplished anything as far as reducing terrorism—by some estimates it actually made it worse.

Were we prepared to respond so aggressively to pandemics? Certainly not to influenza; we somehow treat all those deaths are normal or inevitable. In response to COVID we did spend a great deal of money, even more than the wars in fact—a total of nearly $6 trillion. This was a very pleasant surprise to me (it’s the first time in my lifetime I’ve witnessed a serious, not watered-down Keynesian fiscal stimulus in the United States). And we imposed lockdowns—but these were all-too quickly removed, despite the pleading of public health officials. It seems to be that our governments tried to impose an aggressive response, but then too many of the citizens pushed back against it, unwilling to give up their “freedom” (read: convenience) in the name of public safety.

For the wars, all most of us had to do was pay some taxes and sit back and watch; but for the pandemic we were actually expected to stay home, wear masks, and get shots? Forget it.

Politics was clearly a very big factor here: In the US, the COVID death rate map and the 2020 election map look almost equivalent: By and large, people who voted for Biden have been wearing masks and getting vaccinated, while people who voted for Trump have not.

But pandemic response is precisely the sort of thing you can’t do halfway. If one area is containing a virus and another isn’t, the virus will still remain uncontained. (As some have remarked, it’s rather like having a “peeing section” of a swimming pool. Much worse, actually, as urine contains relatively few bacteria—but not zero—and is quickly diluted by the huge quantities of water in a swimming pool.)

Indeed, that seems to be what has happened, and why we can’t seem to return to normal life despite months of isolation. Since enough people are refusing to make any effort to contain the virus, the virus remains uncontained, and the only way to protect ourselves from it is to continue keeping restrictions in place indefinitely.

Had we simply kept the original lockdowns in place awhile longer and then made sure everyone got the vaccine—preferably by paying them for doing it, rather than punishing them for not—we might have been able to actually contain the virus and then bring things back to normal.

But as it is, this is what I think is going to happen: At some point, we’re just going to give up. We’ll see that the virus isn’t getting any more contained than it ever was, and we’ll be so tired of living in isolation that we’ll finally just give up on doing it anymore and take our chances. Some of us will continue to get our annual vaccines, but some won’t. Some of us will continue to wear masks, but most won’t. The virus will become a part of our lives, just as influenza did, and we’ll convince ourselves that millions of deaths is no big deal.

And then the nightmare will truly never end.

Realistic open borders

Sep 5 JDN 2459463

In an earlier post I lamented the tight restrictions on border crossings that prevail even between allied First World countries. (On a personal note, you’ll be happy to know that our visas have cleared and we are now moved into Edinburgh, cat and all, though we are still in temporary housing and our official biometric residence permits haven’t yet arrived.)

In this post I’d like to speculate on how we might get from our current regime to something more like open borders.

Obviously we can’t simply remove all border restrictions immediately. That would be a political non-starter, and even ethically or economically it wouldn’t make very much sense. There are sensible reasons behind some of our border regulations—just not most of them.

Instead we would want to remove a few restrictions at a time, starting with the most onerous or ridiculous ones.

High on my list in the UK in particular would be the requirement that pets must fly as cargo. I literally can’t think of a good reason for this; it seems practically designed to cost travelers more money and traumatize as many pets as possible. If it’s intended to support airlines somehow, please simply subsidize airlines. (But really, why are you doing that? You should be taxing airlines because of their high carbon emissions. Subsidize boats and trains.) If it’s intended to somehow prevent the spread of rabies, it’s obviously unnecessary, since every pet moved to the UK already has to document a recent rabies vaccine. But this particular rule seems to be a quirk of the UK in particular, hence not very generalizable.

But here’s one that actually seems quite common: Financial requirements for visas. Even tourist visas in most countries cost money, in amounts that seem to vary according to some sort of occult ritual. I can see no sensible economic reason why a visa would be $130 in Vietnam but only $20 in neighboring Cambodia, or why Kazakhstan can be visited for $25 but Azerbaijan costs $100, or why Myanmar costs only $30 but Bhutan will run you over $200.

Work visas are considerably more demanding still.

Financial requirements in the UK are especially onerous; you have to make above a certain salary and have a certain amount of savings in the bank, based on your family size. This was no problem for me personally, but it damn well shouldn’t be; I have a PhD in economics. My salary is now twice what it was as a grad student, and honestly that’s a good deal less than I was hoping for (and would have gotten on the tenure track at an R1 university).

All the countries in the Schengen Area have their own requirements for “financial subsistence” for visa applications, ranging from a trivial €3 in Hungary (not per day, just total; why do they even bother?) or manageable €14 per day in Latvia, through the more demanding amounts of €45 per day in Germany and Italy, to €92 per day in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, all the way up to the utterly unreasonable €120 per day in France. That would be €43,800 per year, or $51,700. Apparently you must be at least middle class to enter France.

Canada has a similar requirement known as “proof of funds”, but it’s considerably more reasonable, since you can substitute proof of employment and there are no wage minimums for such employment. Even if you don’t already have a job you can still apply and the minimum requirement is actually lower than the poverty line in Canada.

The United States doesn’t require financial requirements for most visas, but it does have a $160 visa fee. And the H1-B visa in particular (the nearest equivalent to the Skilled Worker visa I’ve got in the UK) requires that your wage or salary be at least the “prevailing wage” in your industry—meaning it is nearly impossible for a company to save money by hiring people on H1-B visas and hence they have very little incentive to hire H1-B workers. If you are of above-average talent and being paid only average wages, I guess they can save some money that way. But this is not how trade is supposed to work—nobody requires that you pay US prices for goods shipped from China, and if they did, nobody would ever buy anything from China. This is blatant, naked protectionism—but we’re apparently okay with it as long as it’s trade in labor instead of goods.

I wasn’t able to quickly find whether there are similar financial requirements in other countries. Perhaps there aren’t; these are the countries most people actually want to move to anyway. Permanent migration is overwhelminginly toward OECD (read: First World) countries, and is actually helping us sustain our populations in the face of low birth rates.

I must admit, I can see some fiscal benefits for a country not allowing poor people in, but this practice raises some very deep ethical problems: What right do we have to do this?

If someone is born poor in Laredo, Texas, we take responsibility for them as a US citizen. Maybe we don’t treat them particularly well (that is Texas, after all), but we do give them access to certain basic services, such as emergency services, Medicaid, TANF and SNAP. They are allowed to vote, own property, and even hold office in the United States. But if that same person were born in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas—literally less than a mile away, right across the river—they would receive none of these benefits. They would not even be allowed to cross the river without a passport and a visa.

In some ways the contrast is even more dire if we consider a more liberal US state. A poor person born in Chula Vista, California has access to the full array of California services; Medi-Cal is honestly something close to a single-payer healthcare system, though the full morass of privatized US healthcare is layered on top of us. Then there is CalWORKS, CalFresh, and so on. But the same person born in Tijuana, Baja California would get none of these benefits.

They could be the same person. They could look the same and have essentially the same culture—even the same language, given how many Californians speak Spanish and how many Mexicans speak English. But if they were born on the other side of a river (in Texas) or even an arbitrary line (in California), we treat them completely differently. And then to add insult to injury, we won’t even let them across, not in spite, but because of how poor and desperate they are. If they were rich and educated, we’d let them come across—but then why would they need to?

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

Some restrictions may apply.

Economists talk often of “trade barriers”, but in real terms we have basically removed all trade barriers in goods. Yes, there are still some small tariffs, and the occasional quota here and there—and these should go away too, especially the quotas, because they don’t even raise revenue—but in general we have an extremely globalized economy in terms of goods. The same complex product, like a car or a smartphone, is often made of parts from a dozen countries.

But when it comes to labor, we are still living in a protectionist world. Crossing borders to work is difficult, time-consuming, and above all, expensive. This dramatically reduces opportunities for workers to move where their labor is most valued—which hurts not only them, but also anyone who would employ them or buy products made by them. The poorest people are those who stand to gain the most from crossing borders, and they are precisely the ones that we work hardest to forbid.

So let’s start with that, shall we? We can keep all this nonsense about passports, visas, background checks, and customs inspections. It’s probably all unnecessary and wasteful and unfair, but politically it’s clearly too popular to remove. Let’s just remove this: No more financial requirements or fees for work visas. If you want to come to another country to work, you have to go through an application and all that; fine. But you shouldn’t have to prove you aren’t poor. Poor people have just as much right to live here as anybody else—and if we let them do so, they’d be a lot less poor.

How to change minds

Aug 29 JDN 2459456

Think for a moment about the last time you changed your mind on something important. If you can’t think of any examples, that’s not a good sign. Think harder; look back further. If you still can’t find any examples, you need to take a deep, hard look at yourself and how you are forming your beliefs. The path to wisdom is not found by starting with the right beliefs, but by starting with the wrong ones and recognizing them as wrong. No one was born getting everything right.

If you remember changing your mind about something, but don’t remember exactly when, that’s not a problem. Indeed, this is the typical case, and I’ll get to why in a moment. Try to remember as much as you can about the whole process, however long it took.

If you still can’t specifically remember changing your mind, try to imagine a situation in which you would change your mind—and if you can’t do that, you should be deeply ashamed and I have nothing further to say to you.

Thinking back to that time: Why did you change your mind?

It’s possible that it was something you did entirely on your own, through diligent research of primary sources or even your own mathematical proofs or experimental studies. This is occasionally something that happens; as an active researcher, it has definitely happened to me. But it’s clearly not the typical case of what changes people’s minds, and it’s quite likely that you have never experienced it yourself.

The far more common scenario—even for active researchers—is far more mundane: You changed your mind because someone convinced you. You encountered a persuasive argument, and it changed the way you think about things.

In fact, it probably wasn’t just one persuasive argument; it was probably many arguments, from multiple sources, over some span of time. It could be as little as minutes or hours; it could be as long as years.

Probably the first time someone tried to change your mind on that issue, they failed. The argument may even have degenerated into shouting and name-calling. You both went away thinking that the other side was composed of complete idiots or heartless monsters. And then, a little later, thinking back on the whole thing, you remembered one thing they said that was actually a pretty good point.

This happened again with someone else, and again with yet another person. And each time your mind changed just a little bit—you became less certain of some things, or incorporated some new information you didn’t know before. The towering edifice of your worldview would not be toppled by a single conversation—but a few bricks here and there did get taken out and replaced.

Or perhaps you weren’t even the target of the conversation; you simply overheard it. This seems especially common in the age of social media, where public and private spaces become blurred and two family members arguing about politics can blow up into a viral post that is viewed by millions. Perhaps you changed your mind not because of what was said to you, but because of what two other people said to one another; perhaps the one you thought was on your side just wasn’t making as many good arguments as the one on the other side.

Now, you may be thinking: Yes, people like me change our minds, because we are intelligent and reasonable. But those people, on the other side, aren’t like that. They are stubborn and foolish and dogmatic and stupid.

And you know what? You probably are an especially intelligent and reasonable person. If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance that you are at least above-average in your level of education, rationality, and open-mindedness.

But no matter what beliefs you hold, I guarantee you there is someone out there who shares many of them and is stubborn and foolish and dogmatic and stupid. And furthermore, there is probably someone out there who disagrees with many of your beliefs and is intelligent and open-minded and reasonable.

This is not to say that there’s no correlation between your level of reasonableness and what you actually believe. Obviously some beliefs are more rational than others, and rational people are more likely to hold those beliefs. (If this weren’t the case, we’d be doomed.) Other things equal, an atheist is more reasonable than a member of the Taliban; a social democrat is more reasonable than a neo-Nazi; a feminist is more reasonable than a misogynist; a member of the Human Rights Campaign is more reasonable than a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. But reasonable people can be wrong, and unreasonable people can be right.

You should be trying to seek out the most reasonable people who disagree with you. And you should be trying to present yourself as the most reasonable person who expresses your own beliefs.

This can be difficult—especially that first part, as the world (or at least the world spanned by Facebook and Twitter) seems to be filled with people who are astonishingly dogmatic and unreasonable. Often you won’t be able to find any reasonable disagreement. Often you will find yourself in threads full of rage, hatred and name-calling, and you will come away disheartened, frustrated, or even despairing for humanity. The whole process can feel utterly futile.

And yet, somehow, minds change.

Support for same-sex marriage in the US rose from 27% to 70% just since 1997.

Read that date again: 1997. Less than 25 years ago.

The proportion of new marriages which were interracial has risen from 3% in 1967 to 19% today. Given the racial demographics of the US, this is almost at the level of random assortment.

Ironically I think that the biggest reason people underestimate the effectiveness of rational argument is the availability heuristic: We can’t call to mind any cases where we changed someone’s mind completely. We’ve never observed a pi-radian turnaround in someone’s whole worldview, and thus, we conclude that nobody ever changes their mind about anything important.

But in fact most people change their minds slowly and gradually, and are embarrassed to admit they were wrong in public, so they change their minds in private. (One of the best single changes we could make toward improving human civilization would be to make it socially rewarded to publicly admit you were wrong. Even the scientific community doesn’t do this nearly as well as it should.) Often changing your mind doesn’t even really feel like changing your mind; you just experience a bit more doubt, learn a bit more, and repeat the process over and over again until, years later, you believe something different than you did before. You moved 0.1 or even 0.01 radians at a time, until at last you came all the way around.

It may be in fact that some people’s minds cannot be changed—either on particular issues, or even on any issue at all. But it is so very, very easy to jump to that conclusion after a few bad interactions, that I think we should intentionally overcompensate in the opposite direction: Only give up on someone after you have utterly overwhelming evidence that their mind cannot ever be changed in any way.

I can’t guarantee that this will work. Perhaps too many people are too far gone.

But I also don’t see any alternative. If the truth is to prevail, it will be by rational argument. This is the only method that systematically favors the truth. All other methods give equal or greater power to lies.

Capitalism can be fair

Aug 22 JDN 2459449

There are certainly extreme right-wing libertarians who seem to think that capitalism is inherently fair, or that “fairness” is meaningless and (some very carefully defined notion of) liberty is the only moral standard. I am not one of them. I agree that many of the actual practices of modern capitalism as we know it are unfair, particularly in the treatment of low-skill workers.

But lately I’ve been seeing a weirdly frequent left-wing take—Marxist take, really—that goes to the opposite extreme, saying that capitalism is inherently unfair, that the mere fact that capital owners ever get any profit on anything is proof that the system is exploitative and unjust and must be eliminated.

So I decided it would be worthwhile to provide a brief illustration of how, at least in the best circumstances, a capitalist system of labor can in fact be fair and just.

The argument that capitalism is inherently unjust seems to be based on the notion that profit means “workers are paid less than their labor is worth”. I think that the reason this argument is so insidious is that it’s true in one sense—but not true in another. Workers are indeed paid less than the total surplus of their actual output—but, crucially, they are not paid less than what the surplus of their output would have been had the capital owner not provided capital and coordination.

Suppose that we are making some sort of product. To make it more concrete, let’s say shirts. You can make a shirt by hand, but it’s a lot of work, and it takes a long time. Suppose that you, working on your own by hand, can make 1 shirt per day. You can sell each shirt for $10, so you get $10 per day.

Then, suppose that someone comes along who owns looms and sewing machines. They gather you and several other shirt-makers and offer to let you use their machines, in exchange for some of the revenue. With the aid of 9 other workers and the machines, you are able to make 30 shirts per day. You can still sell each shirt for $10, so now there is total revenue of $300.

Whether or not this is fair depends on precisely the bargain that was struck with the owner of the machines. Suppose that he asked for 40% of the revenue. Then the 10 workers including yourself would get (0.60)($300) = $180 to split, presumably evenly, and each get $18 per day. This seems fair; you’re clearly better off than you were making shirts by yourself. The capital owner then gets (0.40)($300) = $120, which is more than each of you, but not by a ridiculous amount; and he probably has costs to deal with in maintaining those machines.

But suppose instead the owner had demanded 80% of the revenue; then you would have to split (0.20)($300) = $60 between you, and each would only get $6 per day. The capital owner would then get (0.80)($300) = $240, 40 times as much as each of you.

Or perhaps instead of a revenue-sharing agreement, the owner offers to pay you a wage. If that wage is $18 per day, it seems fair. If it is $6 per day, it seems obviously unfair.

If this owner is the only employer, then he is competing only with working alone. So we would expect him to offer a wage of $10 per day, or maybe slightly more since working with the machines may be harder or more unpleasant than working by hand.

But if there are many employers, then he is now competing with those employers as well. If he offers $10, someone else might offer $12, and a third might offer $15. Competition should drive the system toward an equilibrium where workers are getting paid their marginal value product—in other words, the wage for one hour of work should equal the additional value added by one more hour of work.

In the case that seems fair, where workers are getting more money than they would have on their own, are they getting paid “less than the value of their labor”? In one sense, yes; the total surplus is not going all to the workers, but is being shared with the owner of the machines. But the more important sense is whether they’d be better off quitting and working on their own—and they obviously would not be.

What value does the capital owner provide? Well, the capital, of course. It’s their property and they are letting other people use it. Also, they incur costs to maintain it.

Of course, it matters how the capital owner obtained that capital. If they are an inventor who made it themselves, it seems obviously just that they should own it. If they inherited it or got lucky on the stock market, it isn’t something they deserve in a deep sense, but it’s reasonable to say they are entitled to it. But if the only reason they have the capital is by theft, fraud, or exploitation, then obviously they don’t deserve it. In practice, there are very few of the first category, a huge number of the second, and all too many of the third. Yet this is not inherent to the capitalist work arrangement. Many capital owners don’t deserve what they own; but those who do have a right to make a profit letting other people use their property.

There are of course many additional complexities that arise in the real world, in terms of market power, bargaining, asymmetric information, externalities, and so on. I freely admit that in practice, capitalism is often unfair. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the mere existence of profit from capital ownership is not inherently unjust, and in fact by organizing our economy around it we have managed to achieve unprecedented prosperity.

Locked donation boxes and moral variation

Aug 8 JDN 2459435

I haven’t been able to find the quote, but I think it was Kahneman who once remarked: “Putting locks on donation boxes shows that you have the correct view of human nature.”

I consider this a deep insight. Allow me to explain.

Some people think that human beings are basically good. Rousseau is commonly associated with this view, a notion that, left to our own devices, human beings would naturally gravitate toward an anarchic but peaceful society.

The question for people who think this needs to be: Why haven’t we? If your answer is “government holds us back”, you still need to explain why we have government. Government was not imposed upon us from On High in time immemorial. We were fairly anarchic (though not especially peaceful) in hunter-gatherer tribes for nearly 200,000 years before we established governments. How did that happen?

And if your answer to that is “a small number of tyrannical psychopaths forced government on everyone else”, you may not be wrong about that—but it already breaks your original theory, because we’ve just shown that human society cannot maintain a peaceful anarchy indefinitely.

Other people think that human beings are basically evil. Hobbes is most commonly associated with this view, that humans are innately greedy, violent, and selfish, and only by the overwhelming force of a government can civilization be maintained.

This view more accurately predicts the level of violence and death that generally accompanies anarchy, and can at least explain why we’d want to establish government—but it still has trouble explaining how we would establish government. It’s not as if we’re ruled by a single ubermensch with superpowers, or an army of robots created by a mad scientist in a secret undergroud laboratory. Running a government involves cooperation on an absolutely massive scale—thousands or even millions of unrelated, largely anonymous individuals—and this cooperation is not maintained entirely by force: Yes, there is some force involved, but most of what a government does most of the time is mediated by norms and customs, and if a government did ever try to organize itself entirely by force—not paying any of the workers, not relying on any notion of patriotism or civic duty—it would immediately and catastrophically collapse.

What is the right answer? Humans aren’t basically good or basically evil. Humans are basically varied.

I would even go so far as to say that most human beings are basically good. They follow a moral code, they care about other people, they work hard to support others, they try not to break the rules. Nobody is perfect, and we all make various mistakes. We disagree about what is right and wrong, and sometimes we even engage in actions that we ourselves would recognize as morally wrong. But most people, most of the time, try to do the right thing.

But some people are better than others. There are great humanitarians, and then there are ordinary folks. There are people who are kind and compassionate, and people who are selfish jerks.

And at the very opposite extreme from the great humanitarians is the roughly 1% of people who are outright psychopaths. About 5-10% of people have significant psychopathic traits, but about 1% are really full-blown psychopaths.

I believe it is fair to say that psychopaths are in fact basically evil. They are incapable of empathy or compassion. Morality is meaningless to them—they literally cannot distinguish moral rules from other rules. Other people’s suffering—even their very lives—means nothing to them except insofar as it is instrumentally useful. To a psychopath, other people are nothing more than tools, resources to be exploited—or obstacles to be removed.

Some philosophers have argued that this means that psychopaths are incapable of moral responsibility. I think this is wrong. I think it relies on a naive, pre-scientific notion of what “moral responsibility” is supposed to mean—one that was inevitably going to be destroyed once we had a greater understanding of the brain. Do psychopaths understand the consequences of their actions? Yes. Do rewards motivate psychopaths to behave better? Yes. Does the threat of punishment motivate them? Not really, but it was never that effective on anyone else, either. What kind of “moral responsibility” are we still missing? And how would our optimal action change if we decided that they do or don’t have moral responsibility? Would you still imprison them for crimes either way? Maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s really a blegg.

Psychopaths are a small portion of our population, but are responsible for a large proportion of violent crimes. They are also overrepresented in top government positions as well as police officers, and it’s pretty safe to say that nearly every murderous dictator was a psychopath of one shade or another.

The vast majority of people are not psychopaths, and most people don’t even have any significant psychopathic traits. Yet psychopaths have an enormously disproportionate impact on society—nearly all of it harmful. If psychopaths did not exist, Rousseau might be right after all; we wouldn’t need government. If most people were psychopaths, Hobbes would be right; we’d long for the stability and security of government, but we could never actually cooperate enough to create it.

This brings me back to the matter of locked donation boxes.

Having a donation box is only worthwhile if most people are basically good: Asking people to give money freely in order to achieve some good only makes any sense if people are capable of altruism, empathy, cooperation. And it can’t be just a few, because you’d never raise enough money to be useful that way. It doesn’t have to be everyone, or maybe even a majority; but it has to be a large fraction. 90% is more than enough.

But locking things is only worthwhile if some people are basically evil: For a lock to make sense, there must be at least a few people who would be willing to break in and steal the money, even if it was earmarked for a very worthy cause. It doesn’t take a huge fraction of people, but it must be more than a negligible one. 1% to 10% is just about the right sort of range.

Hence, locked donation boxes are a phenomenon that would only exist in a world where most people are basically good—but some people are basically evil.

And this is in fact the world in which we live. It is a world where the Holocaust could happen but then be followed by the founding of the United Nations, a world where nuclear weapons would be invented and used to devastate cities, but then be followed by an era of nearly unprecedented peace. It is a world where governments are necessary to reign in violence, but also a world where governments can function (reasonably well) even in countries with hundreds of millions of people. It is a world with crushing poverty and people who work tirelessly to end it. It is a world where Exxon and BP despoil the planet for riches while WWF and Greenpeace fight back. It is a world where religions unite millions of people under a banner of peace and justice, and then go on crusadees to murder thousands of other people who united under a different banner of peace and justice. It is a world of richness, complexity, uncertainty, conflict—variance.

It is not clear how much of this moral variance is innate versus acquired. If we somehow rewound the film of history and started it again with a few minor changes, it is not clear how many of us would end up the same and how many would be far better or far worse than we are. Maybe psychopaths were born the way they are, or maybe they were made that way by culture or trauma or lead poisoning. Maybe with the right upbringing or brain damage, we, too, could be axe murderers. Yet the fact remains—there are axe murderers, but we, and most people, are not like them.

So, are people good, or evil? Was Rousseau right, or Hobbes? Yes. Both. Neither. There is no one human nature; there are many human natures. We are capable of great good and great evil.

When we plan how to run a society, we must make it work the best we can with that in mind: We can assume that most people will be good most of the time—but we know that some people won’t, and we’d better be prepared for them as well.

Set out your donation boxes with confidence. But make sure they are locked.

Love the disabled, hate the disability

Aug 1 JDN 2459428

There is a common phrase Christians like to say: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This seems to be honored more in the breach than the observance, and many of the things that most Christians consider “sins” are utterly harmless or even good; but the principle is actually quite sound. You can disagree with someone or even believe that what they are doing is wrong while still respecting them as a human being. Indeed, my attitude toward religion is very much “Love the believer, hate the belief.” (Though somehow they don’t seem to like that one so much….)

Yet while ethically this is often the correct attitude, psychologically it can be very difficult for people to maintain. The Halo Effect is a powerful bias, and most people recoil instinctively from saying anything good about someone bad or anything bad about someone good. This can make it uncomfortable to simply state objective facts like “Hitler was a charismatic leader” or “Stalin was a competent administrator”—how dare you say something good about someone so evil? Yet in fact Hitler and Stalin could never have accomplished so much evil if they didn’t have these positive attributes—if we want to understand how such atrocities can occur and prevent them in the future, we need to recognize that evil people can also be charismatic and competent.

Halo Effect also makes it difficult for people to understand the complexities of historical figures who have facets of both great good and great evil: Thomas Jefferson led the charge on inventing modern democracy—but he also owned and raped slaves. Lately it seems like the left wants to deny the former and the right wants to deny the latter; but both are historical truths that important to know.

Halo Effect is the best explanation I have for why so many disability activists want to deny that disabilities are inherently bad. They can’t keep in their head the basic principle of “Love the disabled, hate the disability.”

There is a large community of deaf people who say that being deaf isn’t bad. There are even some blind people who say that being blind isn’t bad—though they’re considerably rarer.

Is music valuable? Is art valuable? Is the world better off because Mozart’s symphonies and the Mona Lisa exist? Yes. It follows that being unable to experience these things is bad. Therefore blindness and deafness are bad. QED.


No human being is made better of by not being able to do something. More capability is better than less capability. More freedom is better than less freedom. Less pain is better than more pain.

(Actually there are a few exceptions to “less pain is better than more pain”: People with CIPA are incapable of feeling pain even when injured, which is very dangerous.)

From this, it follows immediately that disabilities are bad and we should be trying to fix them.

And frankly this seems so utterly obvious to me that it’s hard for me to understand why anyone could possibly disagree. Maybe people who are blind or deaf simply don’t know what they’re missing? Even that isn’t a complete explanation, because I don’t know what it would be like to experience four dimensions or see ultraviolet—yet I still think that I’d be better off if I could. If there were people who had these experiences telling me how great they are, I’d be certain of it.

Don’t get me wrong: A lot of ableist discrimination does exist, and much of it seems to come from the same psychological attitude: Since being disabled is bad, they think that disabled people must be bad and we shouldn’t do anything to make them better off because they are bad. Stated outright this sounds ludicrous; but most people who think this way don’t consciously reflect on it. They just have a general sense of badness related to disability which then rubs off on their attitudes toward disabled people as well.

Yet it makes hardly any more sense to go the other way: Disabled people are human beings of value, they are good; therefore their disabilities are good? Therefore this thing that harms and limits them is good?

It’s certainly true that most disabilities would be more manageable with better accommodations, and many of those accommodations would be astonishingly easy and cheap to implement. It’s terrible that we often fail to do this. Yet the fact remains: The best-case scenario would be not needing accommodations because we can simply cure the disability.

It never ceases to baffle me that disability activists will say things like this:

“A wheelchair user isn’t disabled because of the impairment that interferes with her ability to walk, but because society refuses to make spaces wheelchair-accessible.”

No, the problem is pretty clearly the fact that she can’t walk. There are various ways that we could make society more accessible to people in wheelchairs—and we should do those things—but there are inherently certain things you simply cannot do if you can’t walk, and that has nothing to do with anything society does. You would be better off if society were more accommodating, but you’d be better off still if you could simply walk again.

Perhaps my perspective on this is skewed, because my major disability—chronic migraine—involves agonizing, debilitating chronic pain. Perhaps people whose disabilities don’t cause them continual agony can convince themselves that there’s nothing wrong with them. But it seems pretty obvious to me that I would be better off without migraines.

Indeed, it’s utterly alien to my experience to hear people say things like this: “We’re not suffering. We’re just living our lives in a different way.” I’m definitely suffering, thank you very much. Maybe not everyone with disabilities is suffering—but a lot of us definitely are. Every single day I have to maintain specific habits and avoid triggers, and I still get severe headaches twice a week. I had a particularly nasty one just this morning.

There are some more ambiguous cases, to be sure: Neurodivergences like autism and ADHD that exist on a spectrum, where the most extreme forms are utterly debilitating but the mildest forms are simply ordinary variation. It can be difficult to draw the line at when we should be willing to treat and when we shouldn’t; but this isn’t fundamentally different from the sort of question psychiatrists deal with all the time, regarding the difference between normal sadness and nervousness versus pathological depression and anxiety disorders.

Of course there is natural variation in almost all human traits, and one can have less of something good without it being pathological. Some things we call disabilities could just be considered below-average capabilities within ordinary variation. Yet even then, if we could make everyone healthier, stronger, faster, tougher, and smarter than they currently are, I have trouble seeing why we wouldn’t want to do that. I don’t even see any particular reason to think that the current human average—or even the current human maximum—is in any way optimal. Better is better. If we have the option to become transhuman gods, why wouldn’t we?

Another way to see this is to think about how utterly insane it would be to actively try to create disabilities. If there’s nothing wrong with being deaf, why not intentionally deafen yourself? If being bound to a wheelchair is not a bad thing, why not go get your legs paralyzed? If being blind isn’t so bad, why not stare into a welding torth? In these cases you’d even have consented—which is absolutely not the case for an innate disability. I never consented to these migraines and never would have.

I respect individual autonomy, so I would never force someone to get treatment for their disability. I even recognize that society can pressure people to do things they wouldn’t want to, and so maybe occasionally people really are better off being unable to do something so that nobody can pressure them into it. But it still seems utterly baffling to me that there are people who argue that we’d be better off not even having the option to make our bodies work better.

I think this is actually a major reason why disability activism hasn’t been more effective; the most vocal activists are the ones saying ridiculous things like “the problem isn’t my disability, it’s your lack of accommodations” or “there’s nothing wrong with being unable to hear”. If there is anything you’d be able to do if your disability didn’t exist that you can’t do even with accommodations, that isn’t true—and there basically always is.

Finance is the commodification of trust

Jul 18 JDN 2459414

What is it about finance?

Why is it that whenever we have an economic crisis, it seems to be triggered by the financial industry? Why has the dramatic rise in income and wealth inequality come in tandem with a rise in finance as a proportion of our economic output? Why are so many major banks implicated in crimes ranging from tax evasion to money laundering for terrorists?

In other words, why are the people who run our financial industry such utter scum? What is it about finance that it seems to attract the very worst people on Earth?

One obvious answer is that it is extremely lucrative: Incomes in the financial industry are higher than almost any other industry. Perhaps people who are particularly unscrupulous are drawn to the industries that make the most money, and don’t care about much else. But other people like making money too, so this is far from a full explanation. Indeed, incomes for physicists are comparable to those of Wall Street brokers, yet physicists rarely seem to be implicated in mass corruption scandals.

I think there is a deeper reason: Finance is the commodification of trust.

Many industries sell products, physical artifacts like shirts or televisions. Others sell services like healthcare or auto repair, which involve the physical movement of objects through space. Information-based industries are a bit different—what a software developer or an economist sells isn’t really a physical object moving through space. But then what they are selling is something more like knowledge—information that can be used to do useful things.

Finance is different. When you make a loan or sell a stock, you aren’t selling a thing—and you aren’t really doing a thing either. You aren’t selling information, either. You’re selling trust. You are making money by making promises.

Most people are generally uncomfortable with the idea of selling promises. It isn’t that we’d never do it—but we’re reluctant to do it. We try to avoid it whenever we can. But if you want to be successful in finance, you can’t have that kind of reluctance. To succeed on Wall Street, you need to be constantly selling trust every hour of every day.

Don’t get me wrong: Certain kinds of finance are tremendously useful, and we’d be much worse off without them. I would never want to get rid of government bonds, auto loans or home mortgages. I’m actually pretty reluctant to even get rid of student loans, despite the large personal benefits I would get if all student loans were suddenly forgiven. (I would be okay with a system like Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, where people with college degrees pay a surtax that supports free tuition. The problem with most proposals for free college is that they make people who never went to college pay for those who did, and that seems unfair and regressive to me.)

But the Medieval suspicion against “usury“—the notion that there is something immoral about making money just from having money and making promises—isn’t entirely unfounded. There really is something deeply problematic about a system in which the best way to get rich is to sell commodified packages of trust, and the best way to make money is to already have it.

Moreover, the more complex finance gets, the more divorced it becomes from genuinely necessary transactions, and the more commodified it becomes. A mortgage deal that you make with a particular banker in your own community isn’t particularly commodified; a mortgage that is sliced and redistributed into mortgage-backed securities that are sold anonymously around the world is about as commodified as anything can be. It’s rather like the difference between buying a bag of apples from your town farmers’ market versus ordering a barrel of apple juice concentrate. (And of course the most commodified version of all is the financial one: buying apple juice concentrate futures.)

Commodified trust is trust that has lost its connection to real human needs. Those bankers who foreclosed on thousands of mortgages (many of them illegally) weren’t thinking about the people they were making homeless—why would they, when for them those people have always been nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet? Your local banker might be willing to work with you to help you keep your home, because they see you as a person. (They might not for various reasons, but at least they might.) But there’s no reason for HSBC to do so, especially when they know that they are so rich and powerful they can get away with just about anything (have I mentioned money laundering for terrorists?).

I don’t think we can get rid of finance. We will always need some mechanism to let people who need money but don’t have it borrow that money from people who have it but don’t need it, and it makes sense to have interest charges to compensate lenders for the time and risk involved.

Yet there is much of finance we can clearly dispense with. Credit default swaps could simply be banned, and we’d gain much and lose little. Credit default swaps are basically unregulated insurance, and there’s no reason to allow that. If banks need insurance, they can buy the regulated kind like everyone else. Those regulations are there for a reason. We could ban collateralized debt obligations and similar tranche-based securities, again with far more benefit than harm. We probably still need stocks and commodity futures, and perhaps also stock options—but we could regulate their sale considerably more, particularly with regard to short-selling. Banking should be boring.

Some amount of commodification may be inevitable, but clearly much of what we currently have could be eliminated. In particular, the selling of loans should simply be banned. Maybe even your local banker won’t ever really get to know you or care about you—but there’s no reason we have to allow them to sell your loan to some bank in another country that you’ve never even heard of. When you make a deal with a bank, the deal should be between you and that bank—not potentially any bank in the world that decides to buy the contract at any point in the future. Maybe we’ll always be numbers on spreadsheets—but at least we should be able to choose whose spreadsheets.

If banks want more liquidity, they can borrow from other banks—themselves, taking on the risk themselves. A lending relationship is built on trust. You are free to trust whomever you choose; but forcing me to trust someone I’ve never met is something you have no right to do.

In fact, we might actually be able to get rid of banks—credit unions have a far cleaner record than banks, and provide nearly all of the financial services that are genuinely necessary. Indeed, if you’re considering getting an auto loan or a home mortgage, I highly recommend you try a credit union first.

For now, we can’t simply get rid of banks—we’re too dependent on them. But we could at least acknowledge that banks are too powerful, they get away with far too much, and their whole industry is founded upon practices that need to be kept on a very tight leash.

Responsible business owners support regulations

Jun 27 JDN 2459373

In last week’s post I explained why business owners so consistently overestimate the harms of regulations: In short, they ignore the difference between imposing a rule on a single competitor and imposing that same rule on all competitors equally. The former would be disastrous; the latter is often inconsequential.

In this follow-up post I’m going to explain why ethical, responsible business owners should want many types of regulation—and that in fact if they were already trying to behave ethically and responsibly, regulations can make them more profitable in doing so.

Let’s use an extreme example just to make things clear. Suppose you are running a factory building widgets, you are competing with several other factories, and you find out that some of the other factories are using slave labor in their production.

What would be the best thing for you to do? In terms of maximizing profit, you’ve really got two possible approaches: You could start using slaves yourself, or you could find a way to stop the other factories from using slaves. If you are even remotely a decent human being, you will choose the latter. How can you do that? By supporting regulations.

By lobbying your government to ban slavery—or, if it’s already banned, to enforce those laws more effectively—you can free the workers enslaved by the other factories while also increasing your own profits. This is a very big win-win. (I guess it’s not a Pareto improvement, because the factory owners who were using slaves are probably worse off—but it’s hard to feel bad for them.)

Slavery is an extreme example (but sadly not an unrealistic one), but a similar principle applies to many other cases. If you are a business owner who wants to be environmentally responsible, you should support regulations on pollution—because you’re already trying to comply with them, so imposing them on your competitors who aren’t will give you an advantage. If you are a business owner who wants to pay high wages, you should support increasing minimum wage. Whatever socially responsible activities you already do, you have an economic incentive to make them mandatory for other companies.

Voluntary social responsibility sounds nice in theory, but in a highly competitive market it’s actually very difficult to sustain. I don’t doubt that many owners of sweatshops would like to pay their workers better, but they know they’d have to raise their prices a bit in order to afford it, and then they would get outcompeted and might even have to shut down. So any individual sweatshop owner really doesn’t have much choice: Either you meet the prevailing market price, or you go out of business. (The multinationals who buy from them, however, have plenty of market power and massive profits. They absolutely could afford to change their supply chain practices to support factories that pay their workers better.) Thus the best thing for them to do would be to support a higher minimum wage that would apply to their competitors as well.

Consumer pressure can provide some space for voluntary social responsibility, if customers are willing to pay more for products made by socially responsible companies. But people often don’t seem willing to pay all that much, and even when they are, it can be very difficult for consumers to really know which companies are being responsible (this is particular true for environmental sustainability: hence the widespread practice of greenwashing). In order for consumer pressure to work, you need a critical mass of a large number of consumers who are all sufficiently committed and well-informed. Regulation can often accomplish the same goals much more reliably.

In fact, there’s some risk that businesses could lobby for too many regulations, because they are more interested in undermining their competition than they are about being socially responsible. If you have lots of idiosyncratic business practices, it could be in your best interest to make those practices mandatory even if they have no particular benefits—simply because you were already doing them, and so the cost of transitioning to them will fall entirely on your competitors.


Regarding publicly-traded corporations in particular, there’s another reason why socially responsible CEOs would want regulations: Shareholders. If you’re trying to be socially responsible but it’s cutting into your profits, your shareholders may retaliate by devaluing your stock, firing you, or even suing you—as Dodge sued Ford in 1919 for the “crime” of making wages too high and prices too low. But if there are regulations that require you to be socially responsible, your shareholders can’t really complain; you’re simply complying with the law. In this case you wouldn’t want to be too vocal about supporting the regulations (since your shareholders might object to that); but you would, in fact, support them.

Market competition is a very cutthroat game, and both the prizes for winning and the penalties for losing are substantial. Regulations are what decides the rules of that game. If there’s a particular way that you want to play—either because it has benefits for the rest of society, or simply because it’s your preference—it is advantageous for you to get that written into the rules that everyone needs to follow.