Could the Star Trek economy really work?

Jun 13 JDN 2459379

“The economics of the future are somewhat different”, Jean-Luc Picard explains to Lily Sloane in Star Trek: First Contact.

Captain Picard’s explanation is not very thorough, and all we have about the economic system of the Federation comes from similar short glimpes across the various Star Trek films and TV series. The best glimpses of what the Earth’s economy is like largely come from the Picard series in particular.

But I think we can safely conclude that all of the following are true:

1. Energy is extraordinarily abundant, with a single individual having access to an energy scale that would rival the energy production of entire nations at present. By E=mc2, simply being able to teleport a human being or materialize a hamburger from raw energy, as seems to be routine in Starfleet, would require something on the order of 10^17 joules, or about 28 billion kilowatt-hours. The total energy supply of the world economy today is about 6*10^20 joules, or 100 trillion kilowatt-hours.

2. There is broad-based prosperity, but not absolute equality. At the very least different people live differently, though it is unclear whether anyone actually has a better standard of living than anyone else. The Picard family still seems to own their family vineyard that has been passed down for generations, and since the population of Earth is given as about 9 billion (a plausible but perhaps slightly low figure for our long-run stable population equilibrium), its acreage is large enough that clearly not everyone on Earth can own that much land.

3. Most resources that we currently think of as scarce are not scarce any longer. Replicator technology allows for the instantaneous production of food, clothing, raw materials, even sophisticated electronics. There is no longer a “manufacturing sector” as such; there are just replicators and people who use or program them. Most likely, even new replicators are made by replicating parts in other replicators and then assembling them. There are a few resources which remain scarce, such as dilithium (somehow involved in generating these massive quantities of energy) and latinum (a bizarre substance that is prized by many other cultures yet for unexplained reasons cannot be viably produced in replicators). Essentially everything else that is scarce is inherently so, such as front-row seats at concerts, original paintings, officer commissions in Starfleet, or land in San Francisco.

4. Interplanetary and even interstellar trade is routine. Starships with warp capability are available to both civilian and government institutions, and imports and exports can be made to planets dozens or even hundreds of light-years away as quickly as we can currently traverse the oceans with a container ship.

5. Money as we know it does not exist. People are not paid wages or salaries for their work. There is still some ownership of personal property, and particular families (including the Picards) seem to own land; but there does not appear to be any private ownership of capital. For that matter there doesn’t even appear to be be much in the way of capital; we never see any factories. There is obviously housing, there is infrastructure such as roads, public transit, and presumably power plants (very, very powerful power plants, see 1!), but that may be all. Nearly all manufacturing seems to be done by replicators, and what can’t be done by replicators (e.g. building new starships) seems to be all orchestrated by state-owned enterprises such as Starfleet.

Could such an economy actually work? Let’s stipulate that we really do manage to achieve such an extraordinary energy scale, millions of times more than what we can currently produce. Even very cheap, widespread nuclear energy would not be enough to make this plausible; we would need at least abundant antimatter, and quite likely something even more exotic than this, like zero point energy. Along this comes some horrifying risks—imagine an accident at a zero-point power plant that tears a hole in the fabric of space next to a major city, or a fanatical terrorist with a handheld 20-megaton antimatter bomb. But let’s assume we’ve found ways to manage those risks as well.

Furthermore, let’s stipulate that it’s possible to build replicators and warp drives and teleporters and all the similarly advanced technology that the Federation has, much of which is so radically advanced we can’t even be sure that such a thing is possible.

What I really want to ask is whether it’s possible to sustain a functional economy at this scale without money. George Roddenberry clearly seemed to think so. I am less convinced.

First of all, I want to acknowledge that there have been human societies which did not use money, or even any clear notion of a barter system. In fact, most human cultures for most of our history as a species allocated resources based on collective tribal ownership and personal favors. Some of the best parts of Debt: The First 5000 Years are about these different ways of allocating resources, which actually came much more naturally to us than money.

But there seem to have been rather harsh constraints on what sort of standard of living could be maintained in such societies. There was essentially zero technological advancement for thousands of years in most hunter-gatherer cultures, and even the wealthiest people in most of those societies overall had worse health, shorter lifespans, and far, far less access to goods and services than people we would consider in poverty today.

Then again, perhaps money is only needed to catalyze technological advancement; perhaps once you’ve already got all the technology you need, you can take money away and return to a better way of life without greed or inequality. That seems to be what Star Trek is claiming: That once we can make a sandwich or a jacket or a phone or even a car at the push of a button, we won’t need to worry about paying people because everyone can just have whatever they need.

Yet whatever they need is quite different from whatever they want, and therein lies the problem. Yes, I believe that with even moderate technological advancement—the sort of thing I expect to see in the next 50 years, not the next 300—we will have sufficient productivity that we could provide for the basic needs of every human being on Earth. A roof over your head, food on your table, clothes to wear, a doctor and a dentist to see twice a year, emergency services, running water, electricity, even Internet access and public transit—these are things we could feasibly provide to literally everyone with only about two or three times our current level of GDP, which means only about 2% annual economic growth for the next 50 years. Indeed, we could already provide them for every person in First World countries, and it is quite frankly appalling that we fail to do so.

However, most of us in the First World already live a good deal better than that. We don’t have the most basic housing possible, we have nice houses we want to live in. We don’t take buses everywhere, we own our own cars. We don’t eat the cheapest food that would provide adequate nutrition, we eat a wide variety of foods; we order pizza and Chinese takeout, and even eat at fancy restaurants on occasion. It’s less clear that we could provide this standard of living to everyone on Earth—but if economic growth continues long enough, maybe we can.

Worse, most of us would like to live even better than we do. My car is several years old right now, and it runs on gasoline; I’d very much like to upgrade to a brand-new electric car. My apartment is nice enough, but it’s quite small; I’d like to move to a larger place that would give me more space not only for daily living, but also for storage and for entertaining guests. I work comfortable hours for decent pay at a white-collar job that can be done entirely remotely on mostly my own schedule, but I’d prefer to take some time off and live independently while I focus more on my own writing. I sometimes enjoy cooking, but often it can be a chore, and sometimes I wish I could just go eat out at a nice restaurant for dinner every night. I don’t make all these changes because I can’t afford to—that is, because I don’t have the money.

Perhaps most of us would feel no need to have a billion dollars. I don’t really know what $100 billion actually gets you, as far as financial security, independence, or even consumption, that $50 million wouldn’t already. You can have total financial freedom and security with a middle-class American lifestyle with net wealth of about $2 million. If you want to also live in a mansion, drink Dom Perignon with every meal and drive a Lamborghini (which, quite frankly, I have no particular desire to do), you’ll need several million more—but even then you clearly don’t need $1 billion, let alone $100 billion. So there is indeed something pathological about wanting a billion dollars for yourself, and perhaps in the Federation they have mental health treatments for “wealth addiction” that prevent people from experiencing such pathological levels of greed.

Yet in fact, with the world as it stands, I would want a billion dollars. Not to own it. Not to let it sit and grow in some brokerage account. Not to simply be rich and be on the Forbes list. I couldn’t care less about those things. But with a billion dollars, I could donate enormous amounts to charities, saving thousands or even millions of lives. I could found my own institutions—research institutes, charitable foundations—and make my mark on the world. With $100 billion, I could make a serious stab at colonizing Mars—as Elon Musk seems to be doing, but most other billionaires have no particular interest in.

And it begins to strain credulity to imagine a world of such spectacular abundance that everyone could have enough to do that.

This is why I always struggle to answer when people ask me things like “If money were not object, how would you live your life?”; if money were no object, I’d end world hunger, cure cancer, and colonize the Solar System. Money is always an object. What I think you meant to ask was something much less ambitious, like “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” But I might actually have a million dollars someday—most likely by saving and investing the proceeds of a six-figure job as an economist over many years. (Save $2,000 per month for 20 years, growing it at 7% per year, and you’ll be over $1 million. You can do your own calculations here.) I doubt I’ll ever have $10 million, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never have $1 billion.

To be fair, it seems that many of the grand ambitions I would want to achieve with billions of dollars already are achieved by 23rd century; world hunger has definitely been ended, cancer seems to have been largely cured, and we have absolutely colonized the Solar System (and well beyond). But that doesn’t mean that new grand ambitions wouldn’t arise, and indeed I think they would. What if I wanted to command my own fleet of starships? What if I wanted a whole habitable planet to conduct experiments on, perhaps creating my own artificial ecosystem? The human imagination is capable of quite grand ambitions, and it’s unlikely that we could ever satisfy all of them for everyone.

Some things are just inherently scarce. I already mentioned some earlier: Original paintings, front-row seats, officer commissions, and above all, land. There’s only so much land that people want to live on, especially because people generally want to live near other people (Internet access could conceivably reduce the pressure for this, but, uh, so far it really hasn’t, so why would we think it will in 300 years?). Even if it’s true that people can have essentially arbitrary amounts of food, clothing, or electronics, the fact remains that there’s only so much real estate in San Francisco.

It would certainly help to build taller buildings, and presumably they would, though most of the depictions don’t really seem to show that; where are the 10-kilometer-tall skyscrapers made of some exotic alloy or held up by structural integrity fields? (Are the forces of NIMBY still too powerful?) But can everyone really have a 1000-square-meter apartment in the center of downtown? Maybe if you build tall enough? But you do still need to decide who gets the penthouse.

It’s possible that all inherently-scarce resources could be allocated by some mechanism other than money. Some even should be: Starfleet officer commissions are presumably allocated by merit. (Indeed, Starfleet seems implausibly good at selecting supremely competent officers.) Others could be: Concert tickets could be offered by lottery, and maybe people wouldn’t care so much about being in the real front row when you can always simulate the front row at home in your holodeck. Original paintings could all be placed in museums available for public access—and the tickets, too, could be allocated by lottery or simply first-come, first-served. (Picard mentions the Smithsonian, so public-access museums clearly still exist.)

Then there’s the question of how you get everyone to work, if you’re not paying them. Some jobs people will do for fun, or satisfaction, or duty, or prestige; it’s plausible that people would join Starfleet for free (I’m pretty sure I would). But can we really expect all jobs to work that way? Has automation reached such an advanced level that there are no menial jobs? Sanitation? Plumbing? Gardening? Paramedics? Police? People still seem to pick grapes by hand in the Picard vineyards; do they all do it for the satisfaction of a job well done? What happens if one day everyone decides they don’t feel like picking grapes today?

I certainly agree that most menial jobs are underpaid—most people do them because they can’t get better jobs. But surely we don’t want to preserve that? Surely we don’t want some sort of caste system that allocates people to work as plumbers or garbage collectors based on their birth? I guess we could use merit-based aptitude testing; it’s clear that the vast majority of people really aren’t cut out for Starfleet (indeed, perhaps I’m not!), and maybe some people really would be happiest working as janitors. But it’s really not at all clear what such a labor allocation system would be like. I guess if automation has reached such an advanced level that all the really necessary work is done by machines and human beings can just choose to work as they please, maybe that could work; it definitely seems like a very difficult system to manage.

So I guess it’s not completely out of the question that we could find some appropriate mechanism to allocate all goods and services without ever using money. But then my question becomes: Why? What do you have against money?

I understand hating inequality—indeed I share that feeling. I, too, am outraged by the existence of hectobillionaires in a world where people still die of malaria and malnutrition. But having a money system, or even a broadly free-market capitalist economy, doesn’t inherently have to mean allowing this absurd and appalling level of inequality. We could simply impose high, progressive taxes, redistribute wealth, and provide a generous basic income. If per-capita GDP is something like 100 times its current level (as it appears to be in Star Trek), then the basic income could be $1 million per year and still be entirely affordable.

That is, rather than trying to figure out how to design fair and efficient lotteries for tickets to concerts and museums, we could still charge for tickets, and just make sure that everyone has a million dollars a year in basic income. Instead of trying to find a way to convince people to clean bathrooms for free, we could just pay them to do it.

The taxes could even be so high at the upper brackets that they effectively impose a maximum income; say we have a 99% marginal rate above $20 million per year. Then the income inequality would collapse to quite a low level: No one below $1 million, essentially no one above $20 million. We could tax wealth as well, ensuring that even if people save or get lucky on the stock market (if we even still have a stock market—maybe that is unnecessary after all), they still can’t become hectobillionaires. But by still letting people use money and allowing some inequality, we’d still get all the efficiency gains of having a market economy (minus whatever deadweight loss such a tax system imposed—which I in fact suspect would not be nearly as large as most economists fear).

In all, I guess I am prepared to say that, given the assumption of such great feats of technological advancement, it is probably possible to sustain such a prosperous economy without the use of money. But why bother, when it’s so much easier to just have progressive taxes and a basic income?

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 if we taxed market share?

Apr 18 JDN 2459321

In one of his recent columns, Paul Krugman lays out the case for why corporate tax cuts have been so ineffective at reducing unemployment or increasing economic growth. The central insight is that only a small portion of corporate tax incidence actually seems to fall on real capital investment. First, most corporate tax avoidance is via accounting fictions, not real changes in production; second, most forms of investment and loan interest are tax-deductible; and the third is what I want to focus on today: Corporations today have enormous monopoly power, and taxing monopoly profits is Pigouvian; it doesn’t reduce efficiency, it actually increases it.

Of course, in our current system, we don’t directly tax monopoly profits. We tax profits in general, many—by some estimates, most—of which are monopoly (or oligopoly) profits. But some profits aren’t monopoly profits, while some monopolies are staggeringly powerful—and we’re taxing them all the same. (In fact, the really big monopolies seem to be especially good at avoiding taxes: I guarantee you pay a higher tax rate than Apple or Boeing.)

It’s difficult to precisely measure how much of a corporation’s profits are due to their monopoly power. But there is something that’s quite easy to measure that would be a good proxy for this: market share.

We could tax each corporation’s profits in direct proportion—or even literally equal to—its market share in a suitably defined market. It shouldn’t be too broad (“electronics” would miss Apple’s dominance in smartphones and laptops specifically) or too narrow (“restaurants on Broadway Ave.” would greatly overestimate the market share of many small businesses); this could pose some practical difficulties, but I think it can be done.


And what if a corporation produces in many industries? I offer a bold proposal: Use the maximum. If a corporation controls 10% of one market, 20% of another, and 60% of another, tax all of their profits at the rate of 60%.

If they want to avoid that outcome, well, I guess they’ll have to spin off their different products into different corporations that can account their profits separately. Behold: Self-enforcing antitrust.

Of course, we need to make sure that when corporations split, they actually split—it can’t just be the same CEO and board for 40 “different corporations” that all coordinate all their actions and produce subtle variations on the same product. At that point the correct response is for the FTC to sue them all for illegal collusion.

This would also disincentivize mergers and acquisitions—the growth of which is a major reason why we got into this mess of concentrated oligopolies in the first place.

This policy could be extremely popular, because it directly and explicitly targets big business. Small businesses—even those few that actually are C corporations—would see their taxes dramatically reduced, while trillion-dollar multinationals would suddenly find that they can no longer weasel out of the taxes every other company is paying.

Indeed, if we somehow managed to achieve a perfectly-competitive market where no firm had any significant market share, this corporate tax would effectively disappear. So any time some libertarian tries to argue that corporate taxes are interfering with perfect free market competition, we could point out that this is literally impossible—if we had perfect competition, this corporate tax wouldn’t do anything.

In fact, the total tax revenue would be proportional to the Herfindahl–Hirschman Index, a commonly-used measure of market concentration in oligopoly markets. A monopoly would pay 100% tax, so no one would ever want to be a monopoly; they’d immediately split into two firms so that they could pay a tax rate of 50%. And depending on other characteristics of the market, they might want to split even further than that.

I’ll spare you the algebra, but total profits in a Cournot equilibrium [PDF] with n firms are proportional to n/(n+1)^2, but with a tax rate of 1/n, this makes the after-tax profits proportional to (n-1)/(n+1)^2; this is actually maximized at n = 3. So in this (admittedly oversimplified) case, they’d actually prefer to split into 3 firms. And the difference between a monopoly and a trinopoly is quite significant.

Like any tax, this would create some incentive to produce less; but this could be less than the incentive against expanding monopoly power. A Cournot economy with 3 firms, even with this tax, would produce 50% more and sell at a lower price than a monopoly in the same market.

And once a market is highly competitive, the tax would essentially feel like a constant to each firm; if you are only 1% of the market, even doubling your production to make yourself 2% of the market would only increase your tax rate by 1 percentage point.

Indeed, if we really want to crack down on corporate tax avoidance, we could even charge this tax on sales rather than profits. You can’t avoid that by offshoring production; as long as you’re selling products in the US, you’ll be paying taxes in the US. Firms in a highly-competitive industry would still only pay a percentage point or two of tax, which is totally within a reasonable profit margin. The only firms that would find themselves suddenly unable to pay would be the huge multinationals that control double-digit percentages of the market. They wouldn’t just have an incentive to break up; they’d have no choice but to do so in order to survive.

Because ought implies can, can may imply ought

Mar21JDN 2459295

Is Internet access a fundamental human right?

At first glance, such a notion might seem preposterous: Internet access has only existed for less than 50 years, how could it be a fundamental human right like life and liberty, or food and water?

Let’s try another question then: Is healthcare a fundamental human right?

Surely if there is a vaccine for a terrible disease, and we could easily give it to you but refuse to do so, and you thereby contract the disease and suffer horribly, we have done something morally wrong. We have either violated your rights or violated our own obligations—perhaps both.

Yet that vaccine had to be invented, just as the Internet did; go back far enough into history and there were no vaccines, no antibiotics, even no anethestetics or antiseptics.

One strong, commonly shared intuition is that denying people such basic services is a violation of their fundamental rights. Another strong, commonly shared intuition is that fundamental rights should be universal, not contingent upon technological or economic development. Is there a way to reconcile these two conflicting intuitions? Or is one simply wrong?

One of the deepest principles in deontic logic is “ought implies can“: One cannot be morally obligated to do what one is incapable of doing.

Yet technology, by its nature, makes us capable of doing more. By technological advancement, our space of “can” has greatly expanded over time. And this means that our space of “ought” has similarly expanded.

For if the only thing holding us back from an obligation to do something (like save someone from a disease, or connect them instantaneously with all of human knowledge) was that we were incapable and ought implies can, well, then now that we can, we ought.

Advancements in technology do not merely give us the opportunity to help more people: They also give us the obligation to do so. As our capabilities expand, our duties also expand—perhaps not at the same rate, but they do expand all the same.

It may be that on some deeper level we could articulate the fundamental rights so that they would not change over time: Not a right to Internet access, but a right to equal access to knowledge; not a right to vaccination, but a right to a fair minimum standard of medicine. But the fact remains: How this right becomes expressed in action and policy will and must change over time. What was considered an adequate standard of healthcare in the Middle Ages would rightfully be considered barbaric and cruel today. And I am hopeful that what we now consider an adequate standard of healthcare will one day seem nearly as barbaric. (“Dialysis? What is this, the Dark Ages?”)

We live in a very special time in human history.

Our technological and economic growth for the past few generations has been breathtakingly fast, and we are the first generation in history to seriously be in a position to end world hunger. We have in fact been rapidly reducing global poverty, but we could do far more. And because we can, we should.

After decades of dashed hope, we are now truly on the verge of space colonization: Robots on Mars are now almost routine, fully-reusable spacecraft have now flown successful missions, and a low-Earth-orbit hotel is scheduled to be constructed by the end of the decade. Yet if current trends continue, the benefits of space colonization are likely to be highly concentrated among a handful of centibillionaires—like Elon Musk, who gained a staggering $160 billion in wealth over the past year. We can do much better to share the rewards of space with the rest of the population—and therefore we must.

Artificial intelligence is also finally coming into its own, with GPT-3 now passing the weakest form of the Turing Test (though not the strongest form—you can still trip it up and see that it’s not really human if you are clever and careful). Many jobs have already been replaced by automation, but as AI improves, many more will be—not as soon as starry-eyed techno-optimists imagined, but sooner than most people realize. Thus far the benefits of automation have likewise been highly concentrated among the rich—we can fix that, and therefore we should.

Is there a fundamental human right to share in the benefits of space colonization and artificial intelligence? Two centuries ago the question wouldn’t have even made sense. Today, it may seem preposterous. Two centuries from now, it may seem preposterous to deny.

I’m sure almost everyone would agree that we are obliged to give our children food and water. Yet if we were in a desert, starving and dying of thirst, we would be unable to do so—and we cannot be obliged to do what we cannot do. Yet as soon as we find an oasis and we can give them water, we must.

Humanity has been starving in the desert for two hundred millennia. Now, at last, we have reached the oasis. It is our duty to share its waters fairly.

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 necessitization of American consumption

Dec6 JDN 2459190

Why do we feel poorer than our parents?

Over the last 20 years, real per-capita GDP has risen from $46,000 to $56,000 (in 2012 dollars):

It’s not just increasing inequality (though it is partly that); real median household income has increased over the same period from $62,500 to $68,700 (in 2019 dollars):

The American Enterprise Institute has utterly the wrong interpretation of what’s going on here, but their graph is actually quite informative if you can read it without their ideological blinders:

Over the past 20 years, some industries have seen dramatic drops in prices, such as televisions, cellphones, toys, and computer software. Other industries have seen roughly constant prices, such as cars, clothing, and furniture. Still other industries have seen modest increases in prices that tracked overall inflation, such as housing and food. And then there are some industries where prices have exploded to staggering heights, such as childcare, college education, and hospital services.

Since wages basically kept up with inflation, this is the relevant comparison: A product or service is more expensive in real terms if its price grew faster than inflation.

It’s not inherently surprising that some prices would rise faster than inflation and some would rise slower; indeed, it would be shocking if that were not the case, since inflation essentially just is an average of all price changes over time. But if you look closely at the kinds of things that got cheaper versus more expensive, you can begin to see why the statistics keep saying we are getting richer but we don’t feel any richer.

The things that increased the most in price are things you basically can’t do without: Education, childcare, and healthcare. Yes, okay, theoretically you could do without these things, but the effects on your life would be catastrophic—indeed, going without healthcare could literally kill you. They are necessities.

The things that decreased the most in price are things that people have done without for most of human history: Cellphones, software, and computer software. They are newfangled high-tech goods that are now ubiquitous, but not at all long ago didn’t even exist. Going without these goods would be inconvenient, but hardly catastrophic. Indeed, they largely only feel as necessary as they are because everyone else already has them. They are luxuries.

This even explains why older generations can be convinced that we are richer than the statistics say: We have all these fancy new high-tech toys that they never had. But what good does that do us when we can’t afford our health insurance?

Housing is also an obvious necessity, and while it has not on average increased in price faster than inflation, this average washes out important geographic variation.

San Francisco has seen housing prices nearly triple in the last 20 years:

Over the same period, Detroit’s housing prices plummeted, then returned to normal, and are now only 30% higher than they were 20 years ago (comparable to inflation):

It’s hardly surprising that the cities where the most people are moving to are the most expensive to live in; that’s basic supply and demand. But the magnitude of the difference is so large that most of us are experiencing rising housing prices, even though on average housing prices aren’t really rising.

Put this all together, and we can see that while by the usual measures our “standard of living” is increasing, our financial situation feels ever more precarious, because more and more of our spending is immediately captured by things we can’t do without. I suggest we call this effect necessitization; our consumption has been necessitized.

Healthcare is the most extreme example: In 1960, healthcare spending was only 5% of US GDP. As recently as 2000, it was 13%. Today, it is 18%. Medical technology has greatly improved over that time period, increasing our life expectancy from 70 years in 1960 to 76 years in 2000 to 78 years today, so perhaps this additional spending is worth it? But if we compare 2000 to 2020, we can see that an additional 5% of GDP in the last 20 years has only bought us two years of life. So we have spent an additional 5% of our income to gain 2.6% more life—that doesn’t sound like such a great deal to me. (Also, if you look closely at the data, most of the gains in life expectancy seem to be from things like antibiotics and vaccines that aren’t a large part of our healthcare spending, while most of the increased spending seems to be on specialists, testing, high-tech equipment, and administrative costs that don’t seem to contribute much to life expectancy.)

Moreover, even if we decide that all this healthcare spending is worth it, it doesn’t make us richer in the usual sense. We have better health, but we don’t have greater wealth or financial security.

AEI sees that the industries with the largest price increases have the most government intervention, and blames the government; this is clearly confusing cause with effect. The reason the government intervenes so much in education and healthcare is because these are necessities and they are getting so expensive. Removing those interventions wouldn’t stop prices from rising; they’d just remove the programs like Medicaid and federal student loans that currently allow most people to (barely) afford them.

But they are right about one thing: Prices have risen much faster in some industries than others, and the services that have gotten the most expensive are generally the services that are most important.

Why have these services gotten so expensive? A major reason seems to be that they are difficult to automate. Manufacturing electronics is very easy to automate—indeed, there’s even a positive feedback loop there: the better you get at automating making electronics, the better you get at automating everything, including making electronics. But automating healthcare and education is considerably more difficult. Yes, there are MOOCs, and automated therapy software, and algorithms will soon be outperforming the average radiologist; but there are a lot of functions that doctors, nurses, and teachers provide that are very difficult to replace with machines or software.

Suppose we do figure out how to automate more functions of education and healthcare; would that solve the problem? Maybe—but only if we really do manage to automate the important parts.

Right now, MOOCs are honestly terrible. The sales pitch is that you can get taught by a world-class professor from anywhere in the world, but the truth is that the things that make someone a world-class professor don’t translate over when you are watching recorded video lectures and doing multiple-choice quizzes. Really good teaching requires direct interaction between teacher and student. Of course, a big lecture hall full of hundreds of students often lacks such interaction—but so much the worse for big lecture halls. If indeed that’s the only way colleges know how to teach, then they deserve to be replaced by MOOCs. But there are better ways of teaching that online courses currently cannot provide, and if college administrators were wise, they would be focusing on pressing that advantage. If this doesn’t happen, and education does become heavily automated, it will be cheaper—but it will also be worse.

Similarly, some aspects of healthcare provision can be automated, but there are clearly major benefits to having actual doctors and nurses physically there to interact with patients. If we want to make healthcare more affordable, we will probably have to find other ways (a single-payer health system comes to mind).

For now, it is at least worth recognizing that there are serious limitations in our usual methods of measuring standard of living; due to effects like necessitization, the statistics can say that we are much richer even as we hardly feel richer at all.

Trump will soon be gone. But this isn’t over.

Nov 8 JDN 2459162

After a frustratingly long wait for several states to finish counting their mail-in ballots (particularly Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Arizona), Biden has officially won the Presidential election. While it was far too close in a few key states, this is largely an artifact of the Electoral College: Biden’s actual popular vote advantage was over 4 million votes. We now have our first Vice President who is a woman of color. I think it’s quite reasonable for us all to share a long sigh of relief at this result.

We have won this battle. But the war is far from over.

First, there is the fact that we are still in a historic pandemic and economic recession. I have no doubt that Biden’s policy response will be better than Trump’s; but he hasn’t taken office yet, and much of the damage has already been done. Things are not going to get much better for quite awhile yet.

Second, while Biden is a pretty good candidate, he does have major flaws.

Above all, Biden is still far too hawkish on immigration and foreign policy. He won’t chant “build the wall!”, but he’s unlikely to tear down all of our border fences or abolish ICE. He won’t rattle the saber with Iran or bomb civilians indiscriminately, but he’s unlikely to end the program of assassination drone strikes. Trump has severely, perhaps irrevocably, damaged the Pax Americana with his ludicrous trade wars, alienation of our allies, and fawning over our enemies; but whether or not Biden can restore America’s diplomatic credibility, I have no doubt that he’ll continue to uphold—and deploy—America’s military hegemony. Indeed, the failure of the former could only exacerbate the latter.

Biden’s domestic policy is considerably better, but even there he doesn’t go far enough. His healthcare plan is a substantial step forward, improving upon the progress already made by Obamacare; but it’s still not the single-payer healthcare system we really need. He has some good policy ideas for directly combating discrimination, but isn’t really addressing the deep structural sources of systemic racism. His anti-poverty programs would be a step in the right direction, but are clearly insufficient.

Third, Democrats did not make significant gains in Congress, and while they kept the majority in the House, they are unlikely to gain control of the Senate. Because the Senate is so powerful and Mitch McConnell is so craven, this could be disastrous for Biden’s ability to govern.

But there is an even more serious problem we must face as a country: Trump got 70 million votes. Even after all he did—his endless lies, his utter incompetence, his obvious corruption—and all that happened—the mishandled pandemic, the exacerbated recession—there were still 70 million people willing to vote for Trump. I said it from the beginning: I have never feared Trump nearly so much as I fear an America that could elect him.

Yes, of course he would have had a far worse shot if our voting system were better: Several viable parties, range voting, and no Electoral College would have all made things go very differently than they did in 2016. But the fact remains that tens of millions of Americans were willing to vote for this man not once, but twice.

What can explain the support of so many people for such an obviously terrible leader?

First, there is misinformation: Our mass media is biased and can give a very distorted view of the world. Someone whose view of world events was shaped entirely by right-wing media like Fox News (let alone OAN) might not realize how terrible Trump is, or might be convinced that Biden is somehow even worse. Yet today, in the 21st century, our access to information is virtually unlimited. Anyone who really wanted to know what Trump is like would be able to find out—so whatever ignorance or misinformation Trump voters had, they bear the greatest responsibility for it.

Then, there is discontent: Growth in total economic output has greatly outpaced growth in real standard of living for most Americans. While real per-capita GDP rose from $26,000 in 1974 to $56,000 today (a factor of 2.15, or 1.7% per year), real median personal income only rose from $25,000 to $36,000 (a factor of 1.44, or 0.8% per year). This reflects the fact that more and more of our country’s wealth is being concentrated in the hands of the rich. Combined with dramatically increased costs of education and healthcare, this means that most American families really don’t feel like their standard of living has meaningfully improved in a generation or more.

Yet if people are discontent with how our economy is run… why would they vote for Donald Trump, who epitomizes everything that is wrong with that system? The Democrats have not done enough to fight rising inequality and spiraling healthcare costs, but they have at least done something—raising taxes here, expanding Medicaid there. This is not enough, since it involves only tweaking the system at the edges rather than solving the deeper structural problems—but it has at least some benefit. The Republicans at their best have done nothing, and at their worst actively done everything in their power to exacerbate rising inequality. And Trump is no different in this regard than any other Republican; he promised more populist economic policy, but did not deliver it in any way. Do people somehow not see that?

I think we must face up to the fact that racism and sexism are clearly a major part of what motivates supporters of Trump. Trump’s core base consists of old, uneducated White men. Women are less likely to support him, and young people, educated people, and people of color are far less likely to support him. The race gap is staggering: A mere 8% of Black people support Trump, while 54% of White people do. While Asian and Hispanic voters are not quite so univocal, still it’s clear that if only non-White people had voted Biden would have won an utter landslide and might have taken every state—yes, likely even Florida, where Cuban-Americans did actually lean slightly toward Trump. The age and education gaps are also quite large: Among those under 30, only 30% support Trump, while among those over 65, 52% do. Among White people without a college degree, 64% support Trump, while among White people with a college degree, only 38% do. The gender gap is smaller, but still significant: 48% of men but only 42% of women support Trump. (Also the fact that the gender gap was smaller this year than in 2016 could reflect the fact that Clinton was running for President but Harris was only running for Vice President.)

We shouldn’t ignore the real suffering and discontent that rising inequality has wrought, nor should we dismiss the significance of right-wing propaganda. Yet when it comes right down to it, I don’t see how we can explain Trump’s popularity without recognizing that an awful lot of White men in America are extremely racist and sexist. The most terrifying thing about Trump is that millions of Americans do know what he’s like—and they’re okay with that.

Trump will soon be gone. But many others like him remain. We need to find a way to fix this, or the next racist, misogynist, corrupt, authoritarian psychopath may turn out to be a lot less foolish and incompetent.

What meritocracy trap?

Nov 1 JDN 2459155

So I just finished reading The Meritocracy Trap by David Markovits.

The basic thesis of the book is that America’s rising inequality is not due to a defect in our meritocratic ideals, but is in fact their ultimate fruition. Markovits implores us to reject the very concept of meritocracy, and replace it with… well, something, and he’s never very clear about exactly what.

The most frustrating thing about reading this book is trying to figure out where Markovits draws the line for “elite”. He rapidly jumps between talking about the upper quartile, the upper decile, the top 1%, and even the top 0.1% or top 0.01% while weaving his narrative. The upper quartile of the US contains 75 million people; the top 0.01% contains only 300,000. The former is the size of Germany, the latter the size of Iceland (which has fewer people than Long Beach). Inequality which concentrates wealth in the top quartile of Americans is a much less serious problem than inequality which concentrates wealth in the top 0.01%. It could still be a problem—those lower three quartiles are people too—but it is definitely not nearly as bad.

I think it’s particularly frustrating to me personally, because I am an economist, which means both that such quantitative distinctions are important to me, and also that whether or not I myself am in this “elite” depends upon which line you are drawing. Do I have a post-graduate education? Yes. Was I born into the upper quartile? Not quite, but nearly. Was I raised by married parents in a stable home? Certainly. Am I in the upper decile and working as a high-paid professional? Hopefully I will be soon. Will I enter the top 1%? Maybe, maybe not. Will I join the top 0.1%? Probably not. Will I ever be in the top 0.01% and a captain of industry? Almost certainly not.

So, am I one of the middle class who are suffering alienation and stagnation, or one of the elite who are devouring themselves with cutthroat competition? Based on BLS statistics for economists and job offers I’ve been applying to, my long-term household income is likely to be about 20-50% higher than my parents’; this seems like neither the painful stagnation he attributes to the middle class nor the unsustainable skyrocketing of elite incomes. (Even 50% in 30 years is only 1.4% per year, about our average rate of real GDP growth.) Marxists would no doubt call me petit bourgeoisie; but isn’t that sort of the goal? We want as many people as possible to live comfortable upper-middle class lives in white-collar careers?

Markovits characterizes—dare I say caricatures—the habits of the middle-class versus the elite, and once again I and most people I know cross-cut them: I spend more time with friends than family (elite), but I cook familiar foods, not fancy dinners (middle); I exercise fairly regularly and don’t watch much television (elite) but play a lot of video games and sleep a lot as well (middle). My web searches involve technology and travel (elite), but also chronic illness (middle). I am a donor to Amnesty International (elite) but also play tabletop role-playing games (middle). I have a functional, inexpensive car (middle) but a top-of-the-line computer (elite)—then again that computer is a few years old now (middle). Most of the people I hang out with are well-educated (elite) but struggling financially (middle), civically engaged (elite) but pessimistic (middle). I rent my apartment and have a lot of student debt (middle) but own stocks (elite). (The latter seemed like a risky decision before the pandemic, but as stock prices have risen and student loan interest was put on moratorium, it now seems positively prescient.) So which class am I, again?

I went to public school (middle) but have a graduate degree (elite). I grew up in Ann Arbor (middle) but moved to Irvine (elite). Then again my bachelor’s was at a top-10 institution (elite) but my PhD will be at only a top-50 (middle). The beautiful irony there is that the top-10 institution is the University of Michigan and the top-50 institution is the University of California, Irvine. So I can’t even tell which class each of those events is supposed to represent! Did my experience of Ann Arbor suddenly shift from middle class to elite when I graduated from public school and started attending the University of Michigan—even though about a third of my high school cohort did exactly that? Was coming to UCI an elite act because it’s a PhD in Orange County, or a middle-class act because it’s only a top-50 university?

If the gap between these two classes is such a wide chasm, how am I straddling it? I honestly feel quite confident in characterizing myself as precisely the upwardly-mobile upper-middle class that Markovits claims no longer exists. Perhaps we’re rarer than we used to be; perhaps our status is more precarious; but we plainly aren’t gone.

Markovits keeps talking about “radical differences” “not merely in degree but in kind” between “subordinate” middle-class workers and “superordinate” elite workers, but if the differences are really that stark, why is it so hard to tell which group I’m in? From what I can see, the truth seems less like a sharp divide between middle-class and upper-class, and more like an increasingly steep slope from middle-class to upper-middle class to upper-class to rich to truly super-rich. If I had to put numbers on this, I’d say annual household incomes of about $50,000, $100,000, $200,000, $400,000, $1 million, and $10 million respectively. (And yet perhaps I should add more categories: Even someone who makes $10 million a year has only pocket change next to Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos.) The slope has gotten steeper over time, but it hasn’t (yet?) turned into a sharp cliff the way Markovits describes. America’s Lorenz curve is clearly too steep, but it doesn’t have a discontinuity as far as I can tell.

Some of the inequalities Markovits discusses are genuine, but don’t seem to be particularly related to meritocracy. The fact that students from richer families go to better schools indeed seems unjust, but the problem is clearly not that the rich schools are too good (except maybe at the very top, where truly elite schools seem a bit excessive—five-figure preschool tuition?), but that the poor schools are not good enough. So it absolutely makes sense to increase funding for poor schools and implement various reforms, but this is hardly a radical notion—nor is it in any way anti-meritocratic. Providing more equal opportunities for the poor to raise their own station is what meritocracy is all about.

Other inequalities he objects to seem, if not inevitable, far too costly to remove: Educated people are better parents, who raise their children in ways that make them healthier, happier, and smarter? No one is going to apologize for being a good parent, much less stop doing so because you’re concerned about what it does to inequality. If you have some ideas for how we might make other people into better parents, by all means let’s hear them. But I believe I speak for the entire upper-middle class when I say: when I have kids of my own, I’m going to read to them, I’m not going to spank them, and there’s not a damn thing you can do to change my mind on either front. Quite frankly, this seems like a heavy-handed satire of egalitarianism, right out of Harrison Bergeron: Let’s make society equal by forcing rich people to neglect and abuse their kids as much as poor people do! My apologies to Vonnegut: I thought you were ridiculously exaggerating, but apparently some people actually think like this.

This is closely tied with the deepest flaw in the argument: The meritocratic elite are actually more qualified. It’s easy to argue that someone like Donald Trump shouldn’t rule the world; he’s a deceitful, narcissistic, psychopathic, incompetent buffoon. (The only baffling part is that 40% of American voters apparently disagree.) But it’s a lot harder to see why someone like Bill Gates shouldn’t be in charge of things: He’s actually an extremely intelligent, dedicated, conscientious, hard-working, ethical, and competent individual. Does he deserve $100 billion? No, for reasons I’ve talked about before. But even he knows that! He’s giving most of it away to highly cost-effective charities! Bill Gates alone has saved several million lives by his philanthropy.

Markovits tries to argue that the merits of the meritocratic elite are arbitrary and contextual, like the alleged virtues of the aristocratic class: “The meritocratic virtues, that is, are artifacts of economic inequality in just the fashion in which the pitching virtues are artifacts of baseball.” (p. 264) “The meritocratic achievement commonly celebrated today, no less than the aristocratic virtue acclaimed in the ancien regime, is a sham.” (p. 268)

But it’s pretty hard for me to see how things like literacy, knowledge of history and science, and mathematical skill are purely arbitrary. Even the highly specialized skills of a quantum physicist, software engineer, or geneticist are clearly not arbitrary. Not everyone needs to know how to solve the Schrodinger equation or how to run a polymerase chain reaction, but our civilization greatly benefits from the fact that someone does. Software engineers aren’t super-productive because of high inequality; they are super-productive because they speak the secret language of the thinking machines. I suppose some of the skills involved in finance, consulting, and law are arbitrary and contextual; but he makes it sound like the only purpose graduate school serves is in teaching us table manners.

Precisely by attacking meritocracy, Markovits renders his own position absurd. So you want less competent people in charge? You want people assigned to jobs they’re not good at? You think businesses should go out of their way to hire employees who will do their jobs worse? Had he instead set out to show how American society fails at achieving its meritocratic ideals—indeed, failing to provide equality of opportunity for the poor is probably the clearest example of this—he might have succeeded. But instead he tries to attack the ideals themselves, and fails miserably.

Markovits avoids the error that David Graeber made: Graeber sees that there are many useless jobs but doesn’t seem to have a clue why these jobs exist (and turns to quite foolish Marxian conspiracy theories to explain it). Markovits understands that these jobs are profitable for the firms that employ them, but unproductive for society as a whole. He is right; this is precisely what virtually the entire fields of finance, sales, advertising, and corporate law consist of. Most people in our elite work very hard with great skill and competence, and produce great profits for the corporations that employ them, all while producing very little of genuine societal value. But I don’t see how this is a flaw in meritocracy per se.

Nor does Markovits stop at accusing employment of being rent-seeking; he takes aim at education as well: “when the rich make exceptional investments in schooling, this does reduce the value of ordinary, middle-class training and degrees. […] Meritocratic education inexorably engenders a wasteful and destructive arms educational arms race, which ultimately benefits no one, not even the victors.” (p.153) I don’t doubt that education is in part such a rent-seeking arms race, and it’s worthwhile to try to minimize that. But education is not entirely rent-seeking! At the very least, is there not genuine value in teaching children to read and write and do arithmetic? Perhaps by the time we get to calculus or quantum physics or psychopathology we have reached diminishing returns for most students (though clearly at least some people get genuine value out of such things!), but education is not entirely comprised of signaling or rent-seeking (and nor do “sheepskin effects” prove otherwise).

My PhD may be less valuable to me than it would be to someone in my place 40 years ago, simply because there are more people with PhDs now and thus I face steeper competition. Then again, perhaps not, as the wage premium for college and postgraduate education has been increasing, not decreasing, over that time period. (How much of that wage premium is genuine social benefit and how much is rent-seeking is difficult to say.) In any case it’s definitely still valuable. I have acquired many genuine skills, and will in fact be able to be genuinely more productive as well as compete better in the labor market than I would have without it. Some parts of it have felt like a game where I’m just trying to stay ahead of everyone else, but it hasn’t all been that. A world where nobody had PhDs would be a world with far fewer good scientists and far slower technological advancement.

Abandoning meritocracy entirely would mean that we no longer train people to be more productive or match people to the jobs they are most qualified to do. Do you want a world where surgery is not done by the best surgeons, where airplanes are not flown by the best pilots? This necessarily means less efficient production and an overall lower level of prosperity for society as a whole. The most efficient way may not be the best way, but it’s still worth noting that it’s the most efficient way.

Really, is meritocracy the problem, or is it something else?

Markovits is clearly right that something is going wrong with American society: Our inequality is much too high, and our job market is much too cutthroat. I can’t even relate to his description of what the job market was like in the 1960s (“Old Economy Steve” has it right): “Even applicants for white-collar jobs received startlingly little scrutiny. For most midcentury workers, getting a job did not involve any application at all, in the competitive sense of the term.” (p.203)

In fact, if anything he seems to understate the difference across time, perhaps because it lets him overstate the difference across class (p. 203):

Today, by contrast, the workplace is methodically arranged around gradations of skill. Firms screen job candidates intensively at hiring, and they then sort elite and non-elite workers into separate physical spaces.

Only the very lowest-wage employers, seeking unskilled workers, hire casually. Middle-class employers screen using formal cognitive tests and lengthy interviews. And elite employers screen with urgent intensity, recruiting from only a select pool and spending millions of dollars to probe applicants over several rounds of interviews, lasting entire days.

Today, not even the lowest-wage employers hire casually! Have you ever applied to work at Target? There is a personality test you have to complete, which I presume is designed to test your reliability as an obedient corporate drone. Never in my life have I gotten a job that didn’t involve either a lengthy application process or some form of personal connection—and I hate to admit it, but usually the latter. It is literally now harder to get a job as a cashier at Target than it was to get a job as an engineer at Ford 60 years ago.

But I still can’t shake the feeling that meritocracy is not exactly what’s wrong here. The problem with the sky-high compensation packages at top financial firms isn’t that they are paid to people who are really good at their jobs; it’s that those jobs don’t actually accomplish anything beneficial for society. Where elite talent and even elite compensation is combined with genuine productivity, such as in science and engineering, it seems unproblematic (and I note that Markovits barely even touches on these industries, perhaps because he sees they would undermine his argument). The reason our economic growth seems to have slowed as our inequality has massively surged isn’t that we are doing too good a job of rewarding people for being productive.

Indeed, it seems like the problem may be much simpler: Labor supply exceeds labor demand.

Take a look at this graph from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco:

[Beveridge_curve_data.png]

This graph shows the relationship over time between unemployment and job vacancies. As you can see, they are generally inversely related: More vacancies means less unemployment. I have drawn in a green line which indicates the cutoff between having more vacancies than unemployment—upper left—and having more unemployment than vacancies—lower right. We have almost always been in the state of having more unemployment than we have vacancies; notably, the mid-1960s were one of the few periods in which we had significantly more vacancies than unemployment.

For decades we’ve been instituting policies to try to give people “incentives to work”; but there is no shortage of labor in this country. We seem to have plenty of incentives to work—what we need are incentives to hire people and pay them well.

Indeed, perhaps we need incentives not to work—like a basic income or an expanded social welfare system. Thanks to automation, productivity is now astonishingly high, and yet we work ourselves to death instead of enjoying leisure.

And of course there are various other policy changes that have made our inequality worse—chiefly the dramatic drops in income tax rates at the top brackets that occurred under Reagan.

In fact, many of the specific suggestions Markovits makes—which, much to my chagrin, he waits nearly 300 pages to even mention—are quite reasonable, or even banal: He wants to end tax deductions for alumni donations to universities and require universities to enroll more people from lower income brackets; I could support that. He wants to regulate finance more stringently, eliminate most kinds of complex derivatives, harmonize capital gains tax rates to ordinary income rates, and remove the arbitrary cap on payroll taxes; I’ve been arguing for all of those things for years. What about any of these policies is anti-meritocratic? I don’t see it.

More controversially, he wants to try to re-organize production to provide more opportunities for mid-skill labor. In some industries I’m not sure that’s possible: The 10X programmer is a real phenomenon, and even mediocre programmers and engineers can make software and machines that are a hundred times as productive as doing the work by hand would be. But some of his suggestions make sense, such as policies favoring nurse practitioners over specialist doctors and legal secretaries instead of bar-certified lawyers. (And please, please reform the medical residency system! People die from the overwork caused by our medical residency system.)

But I really don’t see how not educating people or assigning people to jobs they aren’t good at would help matters—which means that meritocracy, as I understand the concept, is not to blame after all.

What if we cared for everyone equally?

Oct 11 JDN 2459134

Imagine for a moment a hypothetical being who was a perfect utilitarian, who truly felt at the deepest level an equal caring for all human beings—or even all life.

We often imagine that such a being would be perfectly moral, and sometimes chide ourselves for failing so utterly to live up to its ideal. Today I’d like to take a serious look at how such a being would behave, and ask whether it is really such a compelling ideal after all.

I cannot feel sadness at your grandmother’s death, for over 150,000 people die every day. By far the highest QALY lost are the deaths of children in the poorest countries, and I feel sad for them as an aggregate, but couldn’t feel particularly saddened by any individual one.

I cannot feel happiness at your wedding or the birth of your child, for 50,000 couples marry every day, and another 30,000 divorce. 350,000 children are born every day, so why should I care about yours?

My happiness does not change from hour to hour or day to day, except as a slow, steady increase over time that is occasionally interrupted briefly by sudden disasters like hurricanes or tsunamis. 2020 was the saddest year I’ve had in awhile, as for once there was strongly correlated suffering across the globe sufficient to break through the trend of steadily increasing prosperity.

Should we go out with friends for drinks or dinner or games, I’ll be ever-so-slightly happier, some barely perceptible degree, provided that there is no coincidental event which causes more than the baseline rate of global suffering that day. And I’d be just as happy to learn that someone else I’d never met went out to dinner with someone else I’d also never met.

Of course I love you, my dear: Precisely as much as I love the other eight billion people on Earth.

I hope now that you can see how flat, how bleak, how inhuman such a being’s experience would be. We might sometimes wish some respite from the roller coaster ride of our own emotional experiences, but in its place this creature feels almost nothing at all, just a vague sense of gradually increasing contentment which is occasionally interrupted by fleeting deviations from the trend.

Such a being is incapable of feeling love as we would recognize it—for a mind such as ours could not possibly feel so intensely for a billion people at once. To love all the people of the world equally, and still have anything resembling a human mind, is to love no one at all.

Perhaps we should not feel so bad that we are not such creatures, then?

Of course I do not mean to say that we should care nothing for distant strangers in foreign lands, or even that the tiny amount most people seem to care is adequate. We should care—and we should care more, and do more, than most people do.

But I do mean to say that it is possible to care too much about other people far away, an idea that probably seems obvious to some but radical to others. The human capacity for caring is not simply zero-sum—there are those who care more overall and less overall—but I do believe that it is limited: At some point you begin to sacrifice so much for those you have no attachments to that you begin to devalue your own attachments.

There is an interior optimum: We should care enough, but not too much. We should sacrifice some things, but not everything. Those closest to us should matter more than those further away—but both should matter. Where exactly to draw that line is a very difficult question, which has stumped far greater philosophers than I; but at least we can narrow the space and exclude the endpoints.

This may even make a certain space for morally justifying selfishness. Surely it does not justify total, utter selfishness with no regard for the suffering of others. But it defends self-care at the very least, and perhaps can sweep away some of the feelings of guilt we may have from being fortunate or prevailing in fair competition. Yes, much of what you have was gained by sheer luck, and even much of what you have earned, you earned by out-competing someone else nearly as deserving. But this is true of everyone, and as long as you played fair, you’ve not done wrong by doing better. There’s even good reason to think that a system which allocates its privileges by fair competition is a particularly efficient one, one which ultimately raises the prosperity of all.

If nothing else, reflecting on this has made me feel better about giving 8% of my gross income to charity instead of 20% or 50% or even 80%. And if even 8% is too much for you, try 2% or even 1%.