Our biggest oil subsidy is called the Interstate Highway System


August 13, JDN 2457979

In last week’s post I proposed an infrastructure project that probably sounded quite expensive. $410 billion for maglev lines? We’ve never spent anything like that on infrastructure, have we?

Actually, we have. The Interstate Highway System, in inflation-adjusted dollars, cost $526 billion. Of course, road is a lot cheaper than maglev rail, so that covers a lot more miles than the maglev system I’m proposing.

Of course, the maglev system would produce a lot less carbon emissions and be a great deal safer; while the Interstate Highway System has about 60% (91 log points) fewer traffic fatalities than the road system that came before it, the Shinkansen high-speed rail system in Japan has not had a single passenger fatality in over 50 years and 1 billion passengers. No system built by humans will ever be perfect, but the Shinkansen comes about as close as we’re ever going to get.

Assuming we could even get close to that level of safety, replacing the highway system with high-speed rail would save about 2,000 American lives every year. (Of course, we’d still lose over 30,000 Americans every year to non-interstate car accidents.)

But what I really want to talk about this week is how the Interstate Highway System is in fact an implicit oil subsidy. We currently spend over $140 billion per year in public funds to maintain highways (about one-fourth of which is specifically the Interstate Highway System). For those of you playing along at home, that’s about half what it would take to end world hunger.

The choice to spending this money maintaining highways instead of bike lanes, rail lines, or subway systems makes this spending an implicit subsidy for the car industry and the oil industry.

Of course, that’s only half the story; there’s also the gasoline tax, which is a pretty obvious tax on the oil industry. But the federal gasoline tax only raises about $35 billion per year, and state taxes add up to a comparable amount; so only about half what we spend on highways is actually covered by gasoline taxes. This means that even if you never drive a car, you are paying for the highway system.

Even including the gasoline tax, this means that this implicit oil subsidy may be the largest oil subsidy in the United States. Standard estimates of oil subsidies in the US range around $30 to $40 billion per year. Assuming that 3/4 of the benefit from the $140 billion in highway spending goes to the oil industry (the other 1/4 to the car industry), and then subtracting the roughly $70 billion paid in gasoline taxes leaves about $35 billion per year in net oil subsidy from the Interstate Highway System—which is to say about as much as all other oil subsidies combined.

Moreover, when you do drive on the highway, you usually don’t pay. You pay for gasoline, but that’s quite cheap, especially if your car is at all fuel-efficient; and most of us (in an entirely economically rational way) avoid toll roads when we have the time. Most of what you spend on driving is paying to buy, insure, and maintain your car—because cars are extremely complicated and expensive machines that take an awful lot of knowhow to build. The annual cost of driving a typical midsize sedan 15,000 miles per year is about $8,500. Of that, about $3,000 is depreciation (I’m assuming half the depreciation was inevitable, and the other half was due to mileage), registration fees, and finance charges that just come from owning the vehicle and would still happen even if you hardly ever drove it. This means that your marginal cost of driving is only about $0.36 per mile. (This makes the $0.54 per mile deduction the IRS will give small business owners actually quite generous.) You have a strong economic incentive not to drive at all, but in many places it’s hard to even get by without a car; and once you have one, a substantial portion of the cost is already sunk and you may as well drive it.

Compare this to how we fund public transit. Most of the spending on public transit is privatized, and federal funds for public transit are about 1/6 of federal funds for interstate highways. Then we charge every single passenger for every single trip. Except for the recent transition to transit cards instead of cash, this whole system almost seems designed to minimize the salience of the cost of driving and maximize the salience of the cost of public transit.

We also spend far more on our public transit projects than is really necessary, because corruption and excess bureaucracy in the subcontracting system dramatically raises the price. This is actually rather strange, as overall the US has less corruption than Spain or France, yet we pay substantially more for our infrastructure than they do. Indeed, capital costs per kilometer for US urban rail lines consistently rate above all but the most expensive European projects—notably, usually above that $100 million per mile threshold I estimated for maglev rail done right.

This combination of high prices and low funding means our public transit system provides far worse service. Combined with the fact that the rent is too damn high, this gives Americans some of the longest commute times in the world.
What we should actually be doing of course is taxing the oil industry, at the social cost of carbon—the monetary value of the marginal ecological damage done by extracting and burning oil. If we did this, it would raise the price of gasoline by about $0.20 per gallon; since the $70 billion in gasoline taxes is currently raised by a tax of about $0.50 per gallon, that means we would raise an additional $30 billion from gasoline alone (not quite, as people would reduce their gasoline consumption a little). This means that by not doing this, we are effectively subsidizing oil by an additional $30 billion—making our total oil subsidies over $100 billion per year.

Of course, there is a case to be made that this is not the largest US oil subsidy after all. There is one quite plausible candidate for US oil subsidies that might actually be larger, and that is US military spending. Obviously not all military spending is an oil subsidy; but when you include both the absurd amounts of fuel that tanks and fighter jets consume (the DoD accounts for 93% of all US government fuel consumption!) and the fact that several of our most recent wars were at least partly about securing oil reserves, it’s not hard to see how this might be benefiting the oil industry. Estimating this effect quantitatively is very difficult, but if even 5% of the US military budget amounts to an oil subsidy, that’s over $25 billion per year—just shy of the Interstate Highway System.

What will we do without air travel?

August 6, JDN 2457972

Air travel is incredibly carbon-intensive. Just one round-trip trans-Atlantic flight produces about 1 ton of carbon emissions per passenger. To keep global warming below 2 K, personal carbon emissions will need to be reduced to less than 1.5 tons per person per year by 2050. This means that simply flying from New York to London and back twice in a year would be enough to exceed the total carbon emissions each person can afford if we are to prevent catastrophic global climate change.

Currently about 12% of US transportation-based carbon emissions are attributable to aircraft; that may not sound like a lot, but consider this. Of the almost 5 trillion passenger-miles traveled by Americans each year, only 600 billion are by air, while 60,000 are by public transit. That leaves 4.4 trillion passenger-miles traveled by car. About 60% of US transportation emissions are due to cars, while 88% of US transportation is by car. About 12% of US transportation emissions are due to airplanes, while 12% of US passenger-miles are traveled by airplane. This means that cars produce about 2/3 as much carbon per passenger-mile, even though we tend to fill up airplanes to the brim and most Americans drive alone most of the time.

Moreover, we know how to reduce emissions from cars. We can use hybrid vehicles, we can carpool more, or best of all we can switch to entirely electric vehicles charged off a grid that is driven by solar and nuclear power. It is theoretically possible to make personal emissions from car travel zero. (Though making car manufacturing truly carbon-neutral may not be feasible; electric cars actually produce somewhat more carbon in their production, though not enough to actually make them worse than conventional cars.)

We have basically no idea how to reduce emissions from air travel. Jet engines are already about as efficient as we know how to make them. There are some tweaks to taxi and takeoff procedure that would help a little bit (chiefly, towing the aircraft to the runway instead of taking them there on their own power; also, taking off from longer runways that require lower throttle to achieve takeoff speed). But there’s basically nothing we can do to reduce the carbon emissions of a cruising airliner at altitude. Even very optimistic estimates involving new high-tech alloys, wing-morphing technology, and dramatically improved turbofan engines only promise to reduce emissions by about 30%.

This is something that affects me quite directly; air travel is a major source of my personal carbon footprint, but also the best way I have to visit family back home.
Using the EPA’s handy carbon footprint calculator, I estimate that everything else I do in my entire life produces about 10 tons of carbon emissions per year. (This is actually pretty good, given the US average of 22 tons per person per year. It helps that I’m vegetarian, I drive a fuel-efficient car, and I live in Southern California.)

Using the ICAO’s even more handy carbon footprint calculator for air travel, I estimate that I produce about 0.2 tons for every round-trip economy-class transcontinental flight from California to Michigan. But that doesn’t account for the fact that higher-altitude emissions are more dangerous. If you adjust for this, the net effect is as if I had produced a full half-ton of carbon for each round-trip flight. Therefore, just four round-trip flights per year increases my total carbon footprint by 20%—and again, by itself exceeds what my carbon emissions need to be reduced to by the year 2050.

With this in mind, most ecologists agree that air travel as we know it is simply not sustainable.

The question then becomes: What do we do without it?

One option would be to simply take all the travel we currently do in airplanes, and stop it. For me this would mean no more trips from California to Michigan, except perhaps occasional long road trips for moving and staying for long periods.

This is unappealing, though it is also not as harmful as you might imagine; most of the world’s population has never flown in an airplane. Our estimates of exactly what proportion of people have flown are very poor, but our best guesses are that about 6% of the world’s population flies in any given year, and about 40% has ever flown in their entire life. Statistically, most of my readers are middle-class Americans, and we’re accustomed to flying; about 80% of Americans have flown on an airplane at least once, and about 1/3 of Americans fly at least once a year. But we’re weird (indeed, WEIRD, White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic); most people in the world fly on airplanes rarely, if ever.

Moreover, air travel has only been widely available to the general population, even in the US, for about the last 60 years. Passenger-miles on airplanes in the US have increased by a factor of 20 since just 1960, while car passenger-miles have only tripled and population has only doubled. Most of the human race through most of history has only dreamed of air travel, and managed to survive just fine without it.

It certainly would not mean needing to stop all long-distance travel, though long-distance travel would be substantially curtailed. It would no longer be possible to travel across the country for a one-week stay; you’d have to plan for four or five days of travel in each direction. Traveling from the US to Europe takes about a week by sea, each way. That means planning your trip much further in advance, and taking off a lot more time from work to do it.

Fortunately, trade is actually not that all that dependent on aircraft. The vast majority of shipping is done by sea vessel already, as container ships are simply far more efficient. Shipping by container ship produces only about 2% as much carbon per ton-kilometer as shipping by aircraft. “Slow-steaming”, the use of more ships at lower speeds to conserve fuel, is already widespread, and carbon taxes would further incentivize it. So we need not fear giving up globalized trade simply because we gave up airplanes.

But we can do better than that. We don’t need to give up the chance to travel across the country in a weekend. The answer is high-speed rail.

A typical airliner cruises at about 500 miles per hour. Can trains match that? Not quite, but close. Spain already has an existing commercial high-speed rail line, the AVE, which goes from Madrid to Barcelona at a cruising speed of 190 miles per hour. This is far from the limits of the technology. The fastest train ever built is the L0 series, a Japanese maglev which can maintain a top speed of 375 miles per hour.

This means that if we put our minds to it, we could build a rail line crossing the United States, say from Los Angeles to New York via Chicago, averaging at least 300 miles per hour. That’s a distance of 2800 miles by road (rail should be comparable); so the whole trip should take about 9 and a half hours. This is slower than a flight (unless you have a long layover), but could still make it there and back in the same weekend.

How much would such a rail system cost? Official estimates of the cost of maglev line are about $100 million per mile. This could probably be brought down by technological development and economies of scale, but let’s go with it for now. This means that my proposed LA-NY line would cost $280 billion.

That’s not a small amount of money, to be sure. It’s about the annual cost of ending world hunger forever. It’s almost half the US military budget. It’s about one-third of Obama’s stimulus plan in 2009. It’s about one-fourth Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan (that will probably never happen).

In other words, it’s a large project, but well within the capacity of a nation as wealthy as the United States.

Add in another 500 miles to upgrade the (already-successful) Acela corridor line on the East Coast, and another 800 miles to make the proposed California High-Speed Rail from LA to SF a maglev line, and you’ve increased the cost to $410 billion.
$410 billion is about 2 years of revenue for all US airlines. These lines could replace a large proportion of all US air traffic. So if the maglev system simply charged as much as a plane ticket and carried the same number of passengers, it would pay for itself in a few years. Realistically it would probably be a bit cheaper and carry fewer people, so the true payoff period might be more like 10 years. That is a perfectly reasonable payoff period for a major infrastructure project.

Compare this to our existing rail network, which is pitiful. There are Amtrak lines from California to Chicago; one is the Texas Eagle of 2700 miles, comparable to my proposed LA-NY maglev; the other is the California Zephyr of 2400 miles. Each of them completes one trip in about two and a half daysso a week-long trip is unviable and a weekend trip is mathematically impossible. Over 60 hours on each train, instead of the proposed 9.5 for the same distance. The operating speed is only about 55 miles per hour when we now have technology that could do 300. The Acela Express is our fastest train line with a top speed of 150 miles per hour and average end-to-end speed of 72 miles per hour; and (not coincidentally I think) it is by far the most profitable train line in the United States.

And best of all, the entire rail system could be carbon-neutral. Making the train itself run without carbon emissions is simple; you just run it off nuclear power plants and solar farms. The emissions from the construction and manufacturing would have to be offset, but most of them would be one-time emissions, precisely the sort of thing that it does make sense to offset with reforestation. Realistically some emissions would continue during the processes of repair and maintenance, but these would be far, far less than what the airplanes were producing—indeed, not much more than the emissions from a comparable length of interstate highway.

Let me emphasize, this is all existing technology. Unlike those optimistic forecasts about advanced new aircraft alloys and morphing wings, I’m not talking about inventing anything new here. This is something other countries have already built (albeit on a much smaller scale). I’m using official cost estimates. Nothing about this plan should be infeasible.

Why are we not doing this? We’re choosing not to. Our government has decided to spend on other things instead. Most Americans are quite complacent about climate change, though at least most Americans do believe in it now.

What about transcontinental travel? There we may have no choice but to give up our weekend visits. Sea vessels simply can’t be built as fast as airplanes. Even experimental high-speed Navy ships can’t far exceed 50 knots, which is about 57 miles per hour—highway speed, not airplane speed. A typical container vessel slow-steams at about 12 knots—14 miles per hour.

But how many people travel across the ocean anyway? As I’ve already established, Americans fly more than almost anyone else in the world; but of the 900 million passengers carried in flights in, through, or out of the US, only 200 million were international Some 64% of Americans have never left the United States—never even to Canada or Mexico! Even if we cut off all overseas commercial flights completely, we are affecting a remarkably small proportion of the world’s population.

And of course I wouldn’t actually suggest banning air travel. We should be taxing air travel, in proportion to its effect on global warming; and those funds ought to get us pretty far in paying for the up-front cost of the maglev network.

What can you do as an individual? Ay, there’s the rub. Not much, unfortunately. You can of course support candidates and political campaigns for high-speed rail. You can take fewer flights yourself. But until this infrastructure is built, those of us who live far from our ancestral home will face the stark tradeoff between increasing our carbon footprint and never getting to see our families.

Why is housing so expensive?

Apr 30, JDN 2457874

It’s not your imagination: Housing is a lot more expensive than it used to be. Inflation adjusted into 2000 dollars, the median price of a house has risen from $30,600 in 1940 to $119,600 today. Adjusted to today’s dollars, that’s an increase from $44,000 to $173,000.

Things are particularly bad here in California, where the median price of a new home is $517,000—and especially in the Bay Area, where the median price is $838,000. Just two years ago, people were already freaking out that the median home price in the Bay Area had hit $661,000—and now it has risen 27% since then.

The rent is too damn high, but lately rent has actually not been rising as fast as housing prices. It may be that they’ve just gotten as high as they can get; in New York City rent is stable, and in San Francisco it’s actually declining—but in both cases it’s over $4,000 per month for a 2-bedroom apartment. The US still has the highest rent-to-price ratio in the world; at 11.2%, you should be able to buy a house on a 15-year mortgage for what we currently pay in rent near city centers.

But this is not a uniquely American problem.

It’s a problem in Canada: Housing in the Toronto area recently skyrocketed in price, with the mean price of a detached home now over $974,000 CAD, about $722,000 USD.

It’s a problem in the UK: The average price of a home in the UK is now over 214,000 pounds, or $274,000 (the pound is pretty weak after Brexit). In London in particular, the average home now costs nine years of the average wage.

It’s even a problem in China: An average 1000-square-foot apartment (that’s not very big!) in Shanghai now sells for 5 million yuan, which is about $725,000.

Worldwide, the US actually has a relatively low housing price to income ratio, because our incomes are so high. Venezuela’s economy is in such a terrible state that it is literally impossible for the average person to buy the average home, but in countries as diverse as France, Taiwan, and Peru, the average home still costs more than 10 years of the average household income.

Why is this happening? Why is housing so expensive, and getting worse all the time?

There are a lot of reasons that have been proposed.

The most obvious and fundamental reason is basic supply and demand. Demand for housing in major cities is rapidly rising, and supply of housing just isn’t keeping up.

Indeed, in California, the rate of new housing construction has fallen in recent years, even as we’ve had rapid population growth and skyrocketing housing prices. This is probably the number one reason why our housing here is so expensive.

But that raises its own questions: why aren’t more houses getting built? The market is supposed to correct for this sort of thing. Higher prices incentivize more construction, so prices get brought back down.

I think with housing in particular, we have a fundamental problem with that mechanism, and it is this: The people who make the policy don’t want the prices to come down.

No, I’m not talking about mayors and city councils, though they do like their property tax revenue. I’m talking about homeowners. People who go to homeowners’ association meetings and complain that someone else’s lopsided deck or un-weeded garden is “lowering property values”. People who join NIMBY political campaigns to stop new development, prevent the construction of taller buildings, or even stop the installation of new electrical substations. People who already got theirs and don’t care about anyone else.

Homeowners have an enormous influence in local politics, and it is by local politics that most of these decisions about zoning and development are made. They make all kinds of excuses about “preserving the community” and “the feel of the city”, but when you get right down to it, these people care more about preserving their own home equity than they do about making other people homeless.

In some cases, people may be so fundamentally confused that they think new development actually somehow causes higher housing prices, and so they try to fight development in a vain effort to stop rising housing prices and only end up making things worse. It’s also very common for people to support rent control policies in an effort to keep housing affordable—and economists of all political stripes are in almost total consensus that rent control only serves to restrict supply, increase inequality, and make housing prices even worse. As one might expect, the stricter the rent control, the worse this effect is. Some mild forms of rent control might be justifiable in particularly monopolistic markets, but in general it’s not a good long-term solution. Rent control forces rationing, and often the rationing is not in favor of who needs it the most but who is the most well-connected. The people who benefit most from rent control are usually of higher income than the average for the city.

On the other hand, removing rent control can cause a spike in prices, and make things worse in the short run, before there is time for new construction to increase the supply of housing. Also, many economists assume in their models that tenants who get forced out by the higher rents would get compensated for it, which is not at all how the real world works. It’s also unclear exactly how large the effect sizes are, because the empirical studies get quite mixed results. Still, rent control is a bad idea. Don’t take it from me, take it from Paul Krugman.

It’s also common to blame foreign investors—because humans are tribal, and blaming foreigners is always popular—even though that makes no economic sense. Investors are buying your houses because the prices keep rising. It’s possible that there could be some sort of speculative bubble, but that’s actually harder to sustain in housing than it is in most other assets, precisely because houses are immobile and expensive. Speculative bubbles in gold happen all the time (indeed, perhaps literally all the time, as the price of gold has never fallen to its real fundamental value in all of human history), but gold is a tradeable, transportable, fungible commodity that can be bought in arbitrarily small quantities. (Because it’s an element, you’re literally only limited to the atomic level!)

Moreover, it isn’t just supply and demand at work here. Fluctuations in economic growth have strong effects on housing prices—and vice-versa. There are monetary policy effects, particularly in a liquidity trap; lower interest rates combined with low inflation create a perfect storm for higher housing prices.

Overall economic inequality is a major contributor to steep housing prices, as well as the segregation of housing across racial and economic lines. And as the rate of return on productive capital continues to decrease while the rate of return on real estate does not, more and more of our wealth concentration is going to be in the form of higher housing prices—making the whole problem self-reinforcing.

People also seem really ambivalent about whether they want housing prices to be low or high. In one breath they’ll bemoan the lack of affordable housing, and in another they’ll talk about “protecting property values”. Even the IMF called the increase in housing prices after the Second Depression a “recovery”. Is it really so hard to understand that higher prices mean higher prices?

But we think of housing as two fundamentally different things. On the one hand, it’s a durable consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator—something you buy because it’s useful, and keep around to use for a long time. On the other hand, it’s a financial asset—a store of value for your savings and a potential source of income. When you’re thinking of it as a consumption good, you want it to be “affordable”; when you’re thinking of it as an asset, you want to “protect its value”. But it’s the same house with the same price. You can’t do both of those things at once, and clearly, as a society—perhaps as a civilization—we have been tilting way too far in the “asset” direction.

I get it: Financial assets that grow over time have the allure of easy money. The stock market, the derivatives market, even the lottery and Las Vegas, all have this tantalizing property that they seem to give you money for nothing. They are like the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone in days of yore.

But they are just as much a chimera as the Philosopher’s Stone itself. (Also, if anyone had found the Philosopher’s Stone, the glut of gold would have triggered massive inflation, not unlike what happened in Spain in the 16th century.) Any money you get from simply owning an asset or placing a bet is money that had to come from somewhere else. In the case of the stock market, that “somewhere else” is the profits of the corporations you bought, and if you did actually contribute to the investment of those corporations there’s nothing wrong with you getting a proportional share of those profits. But most people aren’t thinking in those terms when they buy stocks, and once you get all the way to sophisticated derivatives you’re basically in full gambling territory. Every option that’s in the money is another option that’s out of the money. Every interest rate swap that turns a profit is another one that bears a loss.

And when it comes to housing, if you magically gain equity from rising property values, where is that money coming from? It’s coming from people desperately struggling to afford to live in your city, people giving up 40%, 50%, even 60% of their disposable income just for the chance to leave in a tiny apartment because they want to be in your city that badly. It’s coming from people who started that way, lost their job, and ended up homeless because they couldn’t sustain the payments anymore. All that easy money is coming from hard-working young people trying to hold themselves out of poverty.

It’s different if your home gains value because you actually did something to make it better—renovations, additions, landscaping. Even then I think these things are sort of overrated; but they do constitute a real economic benefit to the people who live there. But if your home rises in value because zoning regulations and protesting homeowners stop the construction of new high-rises, that’s very much still on the backs of struggling young people.

We need to stop thinking houses as assets that are supposed to earn a return, and instead think of them as consumption goods that provide benefits to people. If you want a return, buy stocks and bonds. When you’re buying a house, you should be buying a house—not some dream of making money for nothing as housing prices rise forever. Because they can’t—sooner or later, the bubble will break—and even if they could, it would be terrible for everyone who didn’t get into the market soon enough.

How we sold our privacy piecemeal

Apr 2, JDN 2457846

The US Senate just narrowly voted to remove restrictions on the sale of user information by Internet Service Providers. Right now, your ISP can basically sell your information to whomever they like without even telling you. The new rule that the Senate struck down would have required them to at least make you sign a form with some fine print on it, which you probably would sign without reading it. So in practical terms maybe it makes no difference.

…or does it? Maybe that’s really the mistake we’ve been making all along.

In cognitive science we have a concept called the just-noticeable difference (JND); it is basically what it sounds like. If you have two stimuli—two colors, say, or sounds of two different pitches—that differ by an amount smaller than the JND, people will not notice it. But if they differ by more than the JND, people will notice. (In practice it’s a bit more complicated than that, as different people have different JND thresholds and even within a person they can vary from case to case based on attention or other factors. But there’s usually a relatively narrow range of JND values, such that anything below that is noticed by no one and anything above that is noticed by almost everyone.)

The JND seems like an intuitively obvious concept—of course you can’t tell the difference between a color of 432.78 nanometers and 432.79 nanometers!—but it actually has profound implications. In particular it undermines the possibility of having truly transitive preferences. If you prefer some colors to others—which most of us do—but you have a nonzero JND in color wavelengths—as we all do—then I can do the following: Find one color you like (for concreteness, say you like blue of 475 nm), and another color you don’t (say green of 510 nm). Let you choose between the blue you like and another blue, 475.01 nm. Will you prefer one to the other? Of course not, the difference is within your JND. So now compare 475.01 nm and 475.02 nm; which do you prefer? Again, you’re indifferent. And I can go on and on this way a few thousand times, until finally I get to 510 nanometers, the green you didn’t like. I have just found a chain of your preferences that is intransitive; you said A = B = C = D… all the way down the line to X = Y = Z… but then at the end you said A > Z. Your preferences aren’t transitive, and therefore aren’t well-defined rational preferences. And you could do the same to me, so neither are mine.

Part of the reason we’ve so willingly given up our privacy in the last generation or so is our paranoid fear of terrorism, which no doubt triggers deep instincts about tribal warfare. Depressingly, the plurality of Americans think that our government has not gone far enough in its obvious overreaches of the Constitution in the name of defending us from a threat that has killed fewer Americans in my lifetime than die from car accidents each month.

But that doesn’t explain why we—and I do mean we, for I am as guilty as most—have so willingly sold our relationships to Facebook and our schedules to Google. Google isn’t promising to save me from the threat of foreign fanatics; they’re merely offering me a more convenient way to plan my activities. Why, then, am I so cavalier about entrusting them with so much personal data?

 

Well, I didn’t start by giving them my whole life. I created an email account, which I used on occasion. I tried out their calendar app and used it to remind myself when my classes were. And so on, and so forth, until now Google knows almost as much about me as I know about myself.

At each step, it didn’t feel like I was doing anything of significance; perhaps indeed it was below my JND. Each bit of information I was giving didn’t seem important, and perhaps it wasn’t. But all together, our combined information allows Google to make enormous amounts of money without charging most of its users a cent.

The process goes something like this. Imagine someone offering you a penny in exchange for telling them how many times you made left turns last week. You’d probably take it, right? Who cares how many left turns you made last week? But then they offer another penny in exchange for telling them how many miles you drove on Tuesday. And another penny for telling them the average speed you drive during the afternoon. This process continues hundreds of times, until they’ve finally given you say $5.00—and they know exactly where you live, where you work, and where most of your friends live, because all that information was encoded in the list of driving patterns you gave them, piece by piece.

Consider instead how you’d react if someone had offered, “Tell me where you live and work and I’ll give you $5.00.” You’d be pretty suspicious, wouldn’t you? What are they going to do with that information? And $5.00 really isn’t very much money. Maybe there’s a price at which you’d part with that information to a random suspicious stranger—but it’s probably at least $50 or even more like $500, not $5.00. But by asking it in 500 different questions for a penny each, they can obtain that information from you at a bargain price.

If you work out how much money Facebook and Google make from each user, it’s actually pitiful. Facebook has been increasing their revenue lately, but it’s still less than $20 per user per year. The stranger asks, “Tell me who all your friends are, where you live, where you were born, where you work, and what your political views are, and I’ll give you $20.” Do you take that deal? Apparently, we do. Polls find that most Americans are willing to exchange privacy for valuable services, often quite cheaply.

 

Of course, there isn’t actually an alternative social network that doesn’t sell data and instead just charges a subscription fee. I don’t think this is a fundamentally unfeasible business model, but it hasn’t succeeded so far, and it will have an uphill battle for two reasons.

The first is the obvious one: It would have to compete with Facebook and Google, who already have the enormous advantage of a built-in user base of hundreds of millions of people.

The second one is what this post is about: The social network based on conventional economics rather than selling people’s privacy can’t take advantage of the JND.

I suppose they could try—charge $0.01 per month at first, then after awhile raise it to $0.02, $0.03 and so on until they’re charging $2.00 per month and actually making a profit—but that would be much harder to pull off, and it would provide the least revenue when it is needed most, at the early phase when the up-front costs of establishing a network are highest. Moreover, people would still feel that; it’s a good feature of our monetary system that you can’t break money into small enough denominations to really consistently hide under the JND. But information can be broken down into very tiny pieces indeed. Much of the revenue earned by these corporate giants is actually based upon indexing the keywords of the text we write; we literally sell off our privacy word by word.

 

What should we do about this? Honestly, I’m not sure. Facebook and Google do in fact provide valuable services, without which we would be worse off. I would be willing to pay them their $20 per year, if I could ensure that they’d stop selling my secrets to advertisers. But as long as their current business model keeps working, they have little incentive to change. There is in fact a huge industry of data brokering, corporations you’ve probably never heard of that make their revenue entirely from selling your secrets.

In a rare moment of actual journalism, TIME ran an article about a year ago arguing that we need new government policy to protect us from this kind of predation of our privacy. But they had little to offer in the way of concrete proposals.

The ACLU does better: They have specific proposals for regulations that should be made to protect our information from the most harmful prying eyes. But as we can see, the current administration has no particular interest in pursuing such policies—if anything they seem to do the opposite.

Caught between nepotism and credentialism

Feb 19, JDN 2457804

One of the more legitimate criticisms out there of we “urban elites” is our credentialismour tendency to decide a person’s value as an employee or even as a human being based solely upon their formal credentials. Randall Collins, an American sociologist, wrote a book called The Credential Society arguing that much of the class stratification in the United States is traceable to this credentialism—upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants go to the good high schools to get into the good colleges to get the good careers, and all along the way maintain subtle but significant barriers to keep everyone else out.

A related concern is that of credential inflation, where more and more people get a given credential (such as a high school diploma or a college degree), and it begins to lose value as a signal of status. It is often noted that a bachelor’s degree today “gets” you the same jobs that a high school diploma did two generations ago, and two generations hence you may need a master’s or even a PhD.

I consider this concern wildly overblown, however. First of all, they’re not actually the same jobs at all. Even our “menial” jobs of today require skills that most people didn’t have two generations ago—not simply those involving electronics and computers, but even quite basic literacy and numeracy. Yes, you could be a banker in the 1920s with a high school diploma, but plenty of bankers in the 1920s didn’t know algebra. What, you think they were arbitraging derivatives based on the Black-Scholes model?

The primary purpose of education should be to actually improve students’ abilities, not to signal their superior status. More people getting educated is good, not bad. If we really do need signals, we can devise better ones than making people pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and spending years taking classes. An expenditure of that magnitude should be accomplishing something, not just signaling. (And given the overwhelming positive correlation between a country’s educational attainment and its economic development, clearly education is actually accomplishing something.) Our higher educational standards have directly tied to higher technology and higher productivity. If indeed you need a PhD to be a janitor in 2050, it will be because in 2050 a “janitor” is actually the expert artificial intelligence engineer who commands an army of cleaning robots, not because credentials have “inflated”. Thinking that credentials “inflate” requires thinking that business managers must be very stupid, that they would exclude whole swaths of qualified candidates that they could pay less to do the same work. Only a complete moron would require a PhD to hire you for wielding a mop.

No, what concerns me is an over-emphasis on prestigious credentials over genuine competence. This is definitely a real issue in our society: Almost every US President went to an Ivy League university, yet several of them (George W. Bush, anyone?) clearly would not actually have been selected by such a university if their families had not been wealthy and well-connected. (Harvard’s application literally contains a question asking whether you are a “lineal or collateral descendant” of one of a handful of super-wealthy families.) Papers that contain errors so basic that I would probably get a failing grade as a grad student for them become internationally influential because they were written by famous economists with fancy degrees.

Ironically, it may be precisely because elite universities try not to give grades or special honors that so many of their students try so desperately to latch onto any bits of social status they can get their hands on. In this blog post, a former Yale law student comments on how, without grades or cum laude to define themselves, Yale students became fiercely competitive in the pettiest ways imaginable. Or it might just be a selection effect; to get into Yale you’ve probably got to be pretty competitive, so even if they don’t give out grades once you get there, you can take the student out of the honors track, but you can’t take the honors track out of the student.

But perhaps the biggest problem with credentialism is… I don’t see any viable alternatives!

We have to decide who is going to be hired for technical and professional positions somehow. It almost certainly can’t be everyone. And the most sensible way to do it would be to have a process people go through to get trained and evaluated on their skills in that profession—that is, a credential.

What else would we do? We could decide randomly, I suppose; well, good luck with that. Or we could try to pick people who don’t have qualifications (“anti-credentialism” I suppose), which would be systematically wrong. Or individual employers could hire individuals they know and trust on a personal level, which doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous—but we have a name for that too, and it’s nepotism.

Even anti-credentialism does exist, bafflingly enough. Many people voted for George W. Bush because they said he was “the kind of guy you can have a beer with”. That wasn’t true, of course; he was the spoiled child of a billionaire, a man who had never really worked a day in his life. But even if it had been true, so what? How is that a qualification to be the leader of the free world? And how many people voted for Trump precisely because he had no experience in government? This made sense to them somehow. (And, shockingly, he has no idea what he’s doing. Actually what is shocking is that he admits that.)

Nepotism of course happens all the time. In fact, nepotism is probably the default state for humans. The continual re-emergence of hereditary monarchy and feudalism around the world suggests that this is some sort of attractor state for human societies, that in the absence of strong institutional pressures toward some other system this is what people will generally settle into. And feudalism is nothing if not nepotistic; your position in life is almost entirely determined by your father’s position, and his father’s before that.

Formal credentials can put a stop to that. Of course, your ability to obtain the credential often depends upon your income and social status. But if you can get past those barriers and actually get the credential, you now have a way of pushing past at least some of the competitors who would have otherwise been hired on their family connections alone. The rise in college enrollments—and women actually now exceeding men in college enrollment rates—is one of the biggest reasons why the gender pay gap is rapidly closing among young workers. Nepotism and sexism that would otherwise have hired unqualified men is now overtaken by the superior credentials of qualified women.

Credentialism does still seem suboptimal… but from where I’m sitting, it seems like a second-best solution. We can’t actually observe people’s competence and ability directly, so we need credentials to provide an approximate measurement. We can certainly work to improve credentials—and for example, I am fiercely opposed to multiple-choice testing because it produces such meaningless credentials—but ultimately I don’t see any alternative to credentials.

Is intellectual property justified?

Feb 12, JDN 2457797

I had hoped to make this week’s post more comprehensive, but as I’ve spent the last week suffering from viral bronchitis I think I will keep this one short and revisit the topic in a few weeks.

Intellectual property underlies an increasingly large proportion of the world’s economic activity, more so now than ever before. We don’t just patent machines anymore; we patent drugs, and software programs, and even plants. Compared to that, copyrights on books, music, and movies seem downright pedestrian.

Though surely not the only cause, this is almost certainly contributing to the winner-takes-all effect; if you own the patent to something important, you can appropriate a huge amount of wealth to yourself with very little effort.

Moreover, this is not something that happened automatically as a natural result of market forces or autonomous human behavior. This is a policy, one that requires large investments in surveillance and enforcement to maintain. Intellectual property is probably the single largest market intervention that our government makes, and it is in a very strange direction: With antitrust law, the government seeks to undermine monopolies; but with intellectual property, the government seeks to protect monopolies.

So it’s important to ask: What is the justification for intellectual property? Do we actually have a good reason for doing this?

The basic argument goes something like this:

Many intellectual endeavors, such as research, invention, and the creation of art, require a large up-front investment of resources to complete, but once completed it costs almost nothing to disseminate the results. There is a very large fixed cost that makes it difficult to create these goods at all, but once they exist, the marginal cost of producing more of them is minimal.

If we didn’t have any intellectual property, once someone created an invention or a work of art, someone else could simply copy it and sell it at a much lower price. If enough competition emerged to drive price down to marginal cost, the original creator of the good would not only not profit, but would actually take an enormous loss, as they paid that large fixed cost but none of their competitors did.

Thus, knowing that they will take a loss if they do, individuals will not create inventions or works of art in the first place. Without intellectual property, all research, invention, and art would grind to a halt.

 

That last sentence sounds terrible, right? What would we do without research, invention, or art? But then if you stop and think about it for a minute, it becomes clear that this can’t possibly be the outcome of eliminating intellectual property. Most societies throughout the history of human civilization have not had a system of intellectual property, and yet they have all had art, and most of them have had research and invention as well.

If intellectual property is to be defended, it can’t be because we would have none of these things without it—it must be that we would have less, and so much less that it offsets the obvious harms of concentrating so much wealth and power in a handful of individuals.

I had hoped to get into the empirical results of different intellectual property regimes, but due to my illness I’m going to save that for another day.

Instead I’m just going to try to articulate what the burden of proof here really needs to be.

First of all, showing that we spend a lot of money on patents contributes absolutely nothing useful to defending them. Yes, we all know patents are expensive. The question is whether they are worth it. To show that this is not a strawman, here’s an article by IP Watchdog that takes the fact that “a new study showing that academic patent licensing contributed more than $1 trillion to the U.S. economy over eighteen years” is some kind of knockdown argument in favor of patents. If you actually showed that this economic activity would not exist without patents, then that would be an argument for patents. But all this study actually does is shows that we spend that much on patents, which says nothing about whether this is a good use of resources. It’s like when people try to defend the F-35 boondoggle by saying “it supports thousands of jobs!”; well, yes, but what about the millions of jobs we could be supporting instead if we used that money for something more efficient? (And indeed, the evidence is quite clear that spending on the F-35 destroys more jobs than it creates.) So any serious of estimate of economic benefits of intellectual property must also come with an estimate of the economic cost of intellectual property, or it is just propaganda.
It’s not enough to show some non-negligible (much less “statistically significant”) increase in innovation as a result of intellectual property. The effect size is critical; the increase in innovation needs to be large enough that it justifies having world-spanning monopolies that concentrate the world’s wealth in the hands of a few individuals. Because we already know that intellectual property concentrates wealth; they are monopolies, and monopolies concentrate wealth. It’s not enough to show that there is a benefit; that benefit must be greater than the cost, and there must be no alternative methods that allow us to achieve a greater net benefit.
It’s also important to be clear what we mean by “innovation”; this can be a very difficult thing to measure. But in principle what we really want to know is whether we are supporting important innovation—whether we will get more Mona Lisas and more polio vaccines, not simply whether we will get more Twilight and more Viagra. And one of the key problems with intellectual property as a method of funding innovation is that there is only a vague link between the profits that can be extracted and the benefits of the innovation. (Though to be fair, this is actually a more general problem; it is literally a mathematical theorem that competitive markets only maximize utility if you value rich people more, in inverse proportion to their marginal utility of wealth.)

Innovation is certainly important. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that innovation is the foundation of economic development and civilization itself. Defenders of intellectual property often want you to stop the conversation there: “Innovation is important!” Don’t let them. It’s not enough to say that innovation is important; intellectual property must also be the best way of achieving that innovation.

Is it? Well, in a few weeks I’ll get back to what the data actually says on this. There is some evidence supporting intellectual property—but the case is a lot weaker than you have probably been led to believe.

Bigotry is more powerful than the market

Nov 20, JDN 2457683

If there’s one message we can take from the election of Donald Trump, it is that bigotry remains a powerful force in our society. A lot of autoflagellating liberals have been trying to explain how this election result really reflects our failure to help people displaced by technology and globalization (despite the fact that personal income and local unemployment had negligible correlation with voting for Trump), or Hillary Clinton’s “bad campaign” that nonetheless managed the same proportion of Democrat turnout that re-elected her husband in 1996.

No, overwhelmingly, the strongest predictor of voting for Trump was being White, and living in an area where most people are White. (Well, actually, that’s if you exclude authoritarianism as an explanatory variable—but really I think that’s part of what we’re trying to explain.) Trump voters were actually concentrated in areas less affected by immigration and globalization. Indeed, there is evidence that these people aren’t racist because they have anxiety about the economy—they are anxious about the economy because they are racist. How does that work? Obama. They can’t believe that the economy is doing well when a Black man is in charge. So all the statistics and even personal experiences mean nothing to them. They know in their hearts that unemployment is rising, even as the BLS data clearly shows it’s falling.

The wide prevalence and enormous power of bigotry should be obvious. But economists rarely talk about it, and I think I know why: Their models say it shouldn’t exist. The free market is supposed to automatically eliminate all forms of bigotry, because they are inefficient.

The argument for why this is supposed to happen actually makes a great deal of sense: If a company has the choice of hiring a White man or a Black woman to do the same job, but they know that the market wage for Black women is lower than the market wage for White men (which it most certainly is), and they will do the same quality and quantity of work, why wouldn’t they hire the Black woman? And indeed, if human beings were rational profit-maximizers, this is probably how they would think.

More recently some neoclassical models have been developed to try to “explain” this behavior, but always without daring to give up the precious assumption of perfect rationality. So instead we get the two leading neoclassical theories of discrimination, which are statistical discrimination and taste-based discrimination.

Statistical discrimination is the idea that under asymmetric information (and we surely have that), features such as race and gender can act as signals of quality because they are correlated with actual quality for various reasons (usually left unspecified), so it is not irrational after all to choose based upon them, since they’re the best you have.

Taste-based discrimination is the idea that people are rationally maximizing preferences that simply aren’t oriented toward maximizing profit or well-being. Instead, they have this extra term in their utility function that says they should also treat White men better than women or Black people. It’s just this extra thing they have.

A small number of studies have been done trying to discern which of these is at work.
The correct answer, of course, is neither.

Statistical discrimination, at least, could be part of what’s going on. Knowing that Black people are less likely to be highly educated than Asians (as they definitely are) might actually be useful information in some circumstances… then again, you list your degree on your resume, don’t you? Knowing that women are more likely to drop out of the workforce after having a child could rationally (if coldly) affect your assessment of future productivity. But shouldn’t the fact that women CEOs outperform men CEOs be incentivizing shareholders to elect women CEOs? Yet that doesn’t seem to happen. Also, in general, people seem to be pretty bad at statistics.

The bigger problem with statistical discrimination as a theory is that it’s really only part of a theory. It explains why not all of the discrimination has to be irrational, but some of it still does. You need to explain why there are these huge disparities between groups in the first place, and statistical discrimination is unable to do that. In order for the statistics to differ this much, you need a past history of discrimination that wasn’t purely statistical.

Taste-based discrimination, on the other hand, is not a theory at all. It’s special pleading. Rather than admit that people are failing to rationally maximize their utility, we just redefine their utility so that whatever they happen to be doing now “maximizes” it.

This is really what makes the Axiom of Revealed Preference so insidious; if you really take it seriously, it says that whatever you do, must by definition be what you preferred. You can’t possibly be irrational, you can’t possibly be making mistakes of judgment, because by definition whatever you did must be what you wanted. Maybe you enjoy bashing your head into a wall, who am I to judge?

I mean, on some level taste-based discrimination is what’s happening; people think that the world is a better place if they put women and Black people in their place. So in that sense, they are trying to “maximize” some “utility function”. (By the way, most human beings behave in ways that are provably inconsistent with maximizing any well-defined utility function—the Allais Paradox is a classic example.) But the whole framework of calling it “taste-based” is a way of running away from the real explanation. If it’s just “taste”, well, it’s an unexplainable brute fact of the universe, and we just need to accept it. If people are happier being racist, what can you do, eh?

So I think it’s high time to start calling it what it is. This is not a question of taste. This is a question of tribal instinct. This is the product of millions of years of evolution optimizing the human brain to act in the perceived interest of whatever it defines as its “tribe”. It could be yourself, your family, your village, your town, your religion, your nation, your race, your gender, or even the whole of humanity or beyond into all sentient beings. But whatever it is, the fundamental tribe is the one thing you care most about. It is what you would sacrifice anything else for.

And what we learned on November 9 this year is that an awful lot of Americans define their tribe in very narrow terms. Nationalistic and xenophobic at best, racist and misogynistic at worst.

But I suppose this really isn’t so surprising, if you look at the history of our nation and the world. Segregation was not outlawed in US schools until 1955, and there are women who voted in this election who were born before American women got the right to vote in 1920. The nationalistic backlash against sending jobs to China (which was one of the chief ways that we reduced global poverty to its lowest level ever, by the way) really shouldn’t seem so strange when we remember that over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were literally forcibly relocated into camps as recently as 1942. The fact that so many White Americans seem all right with the biases against Black people in our justice system may not seem so strange when we recall that systemic lynching of Black people in the US didn’t end until the 1960s.

The wonder, in fact, is that we have made as much progress as we have. Tribal instinct is not a strange aberration of human behavior; it is our evolutionary default setting.

Indeed, perhaps it is unreasonable of me to ask humanity to change its ways so fast! We had millions of years to learn how to live the wrong way, and I’m giving you only a few centuries to learn the right way?

The problem, of course, is that the pace of technological change leaves us with no choice. It might be better if we could wait a thousand years for people to gradually adjust to globalization and become cosmopolitan; but climate change won’t wait a hundred, and nuclear weapons won’t wait at all. We are thrust into a world that is changing very fast indeed, and I understand that it is hard to keep up; but there is no way to turn back that tide of change.

Yet “turn back the tide” does seem to be part of the core message of the Trump voter, once you get past the racial slurs and sexist slogans. People are afraid of what the world is becoming. They feel that it is leaving them behind. Coal miners fret that we are leaving them behind by cutting coal consumption. Factory workers fear that we are leaving them behind by moving the factory to China or inventing robots to do the work in half the time for half the price.

And truth be told, they are not wrong about this. We are leaving them behind. Because we have to. Because coal is polluting our air and destroying our climate, we must stop using it. Moving the factories to China has raised them out of the most dire poverty, and given us a fighting chance toward ending world hunger. Inventing the robots is only the next logical step in the process that has carried humanity forward from the squalor and suffering of primitive life to the security and prosperity of modern society—and it is a step we must take, for the progress of civilization is not yet complete.

They wouldn’t have to let themselves be left behind, if they were willing to accept our help and learn to adapt. That carbon tax that closes your coal mine could also pay for your basic income and your job-matching program. The increased efficiency from the automated factories could provide an abundance of wealth that we could redistribute and share with you.

But this would require them to rethink their view of the world. They would have to accept that climate change is a real threat, and not a hoax created by… uh… never was clear on that point actually… the Chinese maybe? But 45% of Trump supporters don’t believe in climate change (and that’s actually not as bad as I’d have thought). They would have to accept that what they call “socialism” (which really is more precisely described as social democracy, or tax-and-transfer redistribution of wealth) is actually something they themselves need, and will need even more in the future. But despite rising inequality, redistribution of wealth remains fairly unpopular in the US, especially among Republicans.

Above all, it would require them to redefine their tribe, and start listening to—and valuing the lives of—people that they currently do not.

Perhaps we need to redefine our tribe as well; many liberals have argued that we mistakenly—and dangerously—did not include people like Trump voters in our tribe. But to be honest, that rings a little hollow to me: We aren’t the ones threatening to deport people or ban them from entering our borders. We aren’t the ones who want to build a wall (though some have in fact joked about building a wall to separate the West Coast from the rest of the country, I don’t think many people really want to do that). Perhaps we live in a bubble of liberal media? But I make a point of reading outlets like The American Conservative and The National Review for other perspectives (I usually disagree, but I do at least read them); how many Trump voters do you think have ever read the New York Times, let alone Huffington Post? Cosmopolitans almost by definition have the more inclusive tribe, the more open perspective on the world (in fact, do I even need the “almost”?).

Nor do I think we are actually ignoring their interests. We want to help them. We offer to help them. In fact, I want to give these people free money—that’s what a basic income would do, it would take money from people like me and give it to people like them—and they won’t let us, because that’s “socialism”! Rather, we are simply refusing to accept their offered solutions, because those so-called “solutions” are beyond unworkable; they are absurd, immoral and insane. We can’t bring back the coal mining jobs, unless we want Florida underwater in 50 years. We can’t reinstate the trade tariffs, unless we want millions of people in China to starve. We can’t tear down all the robots and force factories to use manual labor, unless we want to trigger a national—and then global—economic collapse. We can’t do it their way. So we’re trying to offer them another way, a better way, and they’re refusing to take it. So who here is ignoring the concerns of whom?

Of course, the fact that it’s really their fault doesn’t solve the problem. We do need to take it upon ourselves to do whatever we can, because, regardless of whose fault it is, the world will still suffer if we fail. And that presents us with our most difficult task of all, a task that I fully expect to spend a career trying to do and yet still probably failing: We must understand the human tribal instinct well enough that we can finally begin to change it. We must know enough about how human beings form their mental tribes that we can actually begin to shift those parameters. We must, in other words, cure bigotry—and we must do it now, for we are running out of time.