Downsides of rent control

May 13 JDN 2458252

One of the largest ideological divides between economists and the rest of the population concerns rent control.

Tent control is very popular among the general population, especially in California—with support hovering around 60% in Orange County, San Diego County, and across California in general. About 60% of people in the UK and over 50% in Ontario, Canada also support rent control.

Meanwhile, economists overwhelmingly oppose rent control: When evaluating the statement “A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available.”, over 76% of economists agreed, and 16% agreed with qualifications. For the record, I would be an “agree with qualifications” as well (as they say, there are few one-handed economists).

There is evidence of some benefits of rent control, at least for the small number of people who can actually manage to stay in rent-controlled units. People who live in rent-controlled units are about 15% more likely to stay where they are, even in places as expensive as San Francisco, which could be considered a good thing (though I’m not convinced it always is; mobility is one of the key forces driving the dynamism of the US economy).

But there are winners and losers. Landlords whose properties are rent-controlled decreased their supply of housing by an average of 15%, via a combination of converting them to condos, removing them from the market, or demolishing the buildings outright. As a result, rent control increases average rent in a city by an average of 5%. One of the most effective ways to get out of rent control is to remove a building from the market entirely; this allows you to evict all of your tenants with very little notice, and is responsible for thousands of tenants being evicted every year in Los Angeles.

Rent control disincentivizes both new housing construction and the proper maintenance of existing housing. The quality of rent-controlled homes is systematically lower than the quality of other homes.

The benefits of rent control mainly fall upon the upper-middle class, not the poor. Rent control can make an area more racially diverse—but it benefits middle-class members of racial minorities, not poor members. Most of the benefits of rent control go to older families who have lived in a city for a long time—which makes them a transfer of wealth away from young people.

Cities such as Chicago without rent control systematically have lower rents, not higher; partly this is a cause, rather than an effect, as tenants are less likely to panic and demand rent control when rents are not high. But it’s also an effect, as rent control holds down the price in part of the market but ends up driving it up in the rest. Over 40% of San Francisco’s apartments are rent-controlled, and they have the highest rents in the world.

Rent control also contributes to the tendency toward building high-end luxury apartments; if you know that you will never be able to raise the rent on your existing buildings, and may end up being stuck with whatever rent you charge the first year on your new buildings, you have a strong reason to want to charge as much as possible the first year you build new apartments. Rent control also creates subtler distortions in the size and location of apartment construction. The effects of rent control even spill over into other housing markets, such as owner-occupied homes and mobile homes.
Because it locks people into place and reduces the construction of new homes near city centers, rent control increases commute times and carbon emissions. This is probably something we should especially point out to people in California, as the two things Californians hate most are environmental degradation and traffic congestion. (Then again, the third is high rent.) California is good at avoiding the first one—our GDP/carbon emission ratio is near the best in the US. The other two? Not so much.

Of course, simply removing rent control would not immediately solve the housing shortage; while it would probably have benefits in the long run, during the transition period a lot of people currently protected by rent control would lose their homes. Even in the long run, it would probably not be enough to actually make rent affordable in the largest coastal cities.

But it’s vital not to confuse “lower rent” with “rent control”; there are much, much better ways to reduce rent prices than simply enforcing arbitrary caps on them.

We have learned not to use price controls in other markets, but not housing for some reason. Think about the gasoline market, for example. High gas prices are very politically unpopular (though frankly I never quite understood why; it’s a tiny fraction of consumption expenditure, and if we ever want to make a dent in our carbon emissions we need to make our gas prices much higher), but imagine how ridiculous it would seem for a politician to propose simply making an arbitrary cap that says you aren’t allowed to sell gasoline for more than $2.50 per gallon in a particular city. The obvious outcome would be for most gas stations in that city to immediately close, and everyone to end up buying their gas at the new gas stations that spring up just outside the city limits charging $4.00 per gallon. This is basically what happens in the housing market: Rent-controlled apartments apartments are taken off the market, and the new housing that is built ends up even more expensive.

In a future post, I’ll discuss things we can do instead of rent control that would reliably make housing more affordable. Most of these would involve additional government spending; but there are two things I’d like to say about that. First, we are already spending this money, we just don’t see it, because it comes in the form of inefficiencies and market distortions instead of a direct expenditure. Second, do we really care about making housing affordable, or not? If we really care, we should be willing to spend money on it. If we aren’t willing to spend money on it, then we must not really care.

Today would be my father’s birthday.

Apr 15 JDN 2458224

When this post goes live, it will be April 15, 2018. My father was born April 15, 1954 and died August 31, 2017, so this is the first time we will be celebrating his birthday without him.

I’m not sure that grief ever really goes away. The shock of the unexpected death fades eventually, and at last you can accept that this has really happened and make it a part of your life. But the sum total of all missed opportunities for life events you could have had together only continues to increase.

There are many cliches about this sort of thing: “Death is a part of life.” “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s all making excuses for the dragon. If we could find a way to make people stop dying, we ought to do it. The other consequences are things we could figure out later.

But, alas, we can’t, at least not in general. We have managed to cure or vaccinate against a wide variety of diseases, and as a result people do, on average, live longer than ever before in human history. But none of us live “on average”—and sometimes you get a very unlucky draw.

Yet somehow, we do learn to go on. I’m not sure how. I guess it’s a kind of desensitization: Right after my father’s death, any reminder of him was painful. But over time, that pain began to lessen. Each new reminder hurts a little less than the last, until eventually the pain is mild enough that it can mostly be ignored. It never really goes away, I think; but eventually it is below your just-noticeable-difference.

I had hoped to do more with this post. I had hoped that reflecting on the grief I’ve felt for the last several months would allow me to find some greater insight that I could share. Instead, I find myself re-writing the same sentences over and over again, trying in vain to express something that might help me, or help someone else who is going through similar grief. I keep looking for ways to distract myself, other things to think about—anything but this. Maybe there are no simple insights, no way for words to shorten the process that everyone must go through.

What about a tax on political contributions?

Jan 7, JDN 2458126

In my previous post, I argued that an advertising tax could reduce advertising, raise revenue, and produce almost no real economic distortion. Now I’m going to generalize this idea to an even bolder proposal: What if we tax political contributions?

Donations to political campaigns are very similar to advertising. A contest function framework also makes a lot of sense: Increased spending improves your odds of winning, but it doesn’t actually produce any real goods.

Suppose there’s some benefit B that I get if a given politician wins an election. That benefit could include direct benefits to me, as well as altruistic benefits to other citizens I care about, or even my concern for the world as a whole. But presumably, I do benefit in some fashion from my favored politician winning—otherwise, why are they my favored politician?

In this very simple model, let’s assume that there are only two parties and two donors (obviously in the real world there are more parties and vastly more donors; but it doesn’t fundamentally change the argument). Say I will donate x and the other side will donate y.

Assuming that donations are all that matter, the probability my party will win the election is x/(x+y).

Fortunately that isn’t the case. A lot of things matter, some that should (policy platforms, experience, qualifications, character) and some that shouldn’t (race, gender, age, heightpart of why Trump won may in fact be that he is tall; he’s about 6’1”.). So let’s put all the other factors that affect elections into a package and call that F.

The probability that my candidate wins is then x/(x+y) + F, where F can be positive or negative. If F is positive, it means that my candidate is more likely to win, while if it’s negative, it means my candidate is less likely to win. (If you want to be pedantic, the probability of winning has to be capped at 0 and 1, but this doesn’t fundamentally change the argument, and only matters for candidates that are obvious winners or obvious losers regardless of how much anyone donates.)

The donation costs me money, x. The cost in utility of that money depends on my utility function, so for now I’ll just call it a cost function C(x).
Then my net benefit is:
B*[x/(x+y)+F] – C(x)

I can maximize this by a first-order condition. Notice how the F just drops out. I like F to be large, but it doesn’t affect my choice of x.

B*y/(x+y)^2 = C'(x)

Turning that into an exact value requires knowing my cost function and my opponent’s cost function (which need not be the same, in general; unlike the advertising case, it’s not a matter of splitting fungible profits between us), but it’s actually possible to stop here. We can already tell that there is a well-defined solution: There’s a certain amount of donation x that maximizes my expected utility, given the amount y that the other side has donated. Moreover, with a little bit of calculus you can show that the optimal amount of x is strictly increasing in y, which makes intuitive sense: The more they give, the more you need to give in order to keep up. Since x is increasing in y and y is increasing in x, there is a Nash equilibrium: At some amount x and y we each are giving the optimal amount from our perspective.

We can get a precise answer if we assume that the amount of the donations is small compared to my overall wealth, so I will be approximately risk-neutral; then we can just say C(x) = x, and C'(x) = 1:

B*y/(x+y)^2 = 1
Then we get essentially the same result we did for the advertising:

x = y = B/4

According to this, I should be willing to donate up to one-fourth the benefit I’d get from my candidate winning in donations. This actually sounds quite high; I think once you take into account the fact that lots of other people are donating and political contributions aren’t that effective at winning elections, the optimal donation is actually quite a bit smaller—though perhaps still larger than most people give.

If we impose a tax rate r on political contributions, nothing changes. The cost to me of donating is still the same, and as long as the tax is proportional, the ratio x/(x+y) and the probability x/(x+y) + F will remain exactly the same as before. Therefore, I will continue to donate the same amount, as will my opponent, and each candidate will have the same probability of winning as before. The only difference is that some of the money (r of the money, to be precise) will go to the government instead of the politicians.

The total amount of donations will not change. The probability of each candidate winning will not change. All that will happen is money will be transferred from politicians to the government. If this tax revenue is earmarked for some socially beneficial function, this will obviously be an improvement in welfare.

The revenue gained is not nearly as large an amount of money as is spent on advertising (which tells you something about American society), but it’s still quite a bit: Since we currently spend about $5 billion per year on federal elections, a tax rate of 50% could raise about $2.5 billion.

But in fact this seriously under-estimates the benefits of such a tax. This simple model assumes that political contributions only change which candidate wins; but that’s actually not the main concern. (If F is large enough, it can offset any possible donations.)
The real concern is how political contributions affect the choices politicians make once they get into office. While outright quid-pro-quo bribery is illegal, it’s well-known that many corporations and wealthy individuals will give campaign donations with the reasonable expectation of influencing what sort of policies will be made.

You don’t think Goldman Sachs gives millions of dollars each election out of the goodness of their hearts, do you? And they give to both major parties, which really only makes sense if their goal is not to make a particular candidate win, but to make sure that whoever wins feels indebted to Goldman Sachs. (I guess it could also be to prevent third parties from winning—but they hardly ever win anyway, so that wouldn’t be a smart investment from the bank’s perspective.)

Lynda Powell at the University of Rochester has documented the many subtle but significant ways that these donations have influenced policy. Campaign donations aren’t as important as party platforms, but a lot of subtle changes across a wide variety of policies add up to large differences in outcomes.

A political contribution tax would reduce these influences. If politicians’ sole goal were to win, the tax would have no effect. But it seems quite likely that politicians enjoy various personal benefits from lobbying and campaign contributions: Fine dinners, luxurious vacations, and so on. And insofar as that is influencing politicians’ behavior, it is both obviously corrupt and clearly reduced by a political contribution tax. How large an effect this would be is difficult to say; but the direction of the effect is clearly the one we want.

Taxing donations would also allow us to protect the right to give to campaigns (which does seem to be a limited kind of civil liberty, even though the precise interpretation “money is speech” is Orwellian), while reducing corruption and allowing us to keep close track on donations that are made. Taxing a money stream, even a small amount, is often one of the best ways to incentivize close monitoring of that money stream.

With a subtle change, the tax could even be made to bias in favor of populism: All you need to do is exempt small donations from the tax. If say the first $1000 per person per year is exempt from taxation, then the imposition of the tax will reduce the effectiveness of million-dollar contributions from Goldman Sachs and the Koch brothers without having any effect on $50 donations from people like you and me. That would technically be “distorting” elections—but it seems like it might be a distortion worth making.

Of course, this is probably even less likely to happen than the advertising tax.

“DSGE or GTFO”: Macroeconomics took a wrong turn somewhere

Dec 31, JDN 2458119

The state of macro is good,” wrote Oliver Blanchard—in August 2008. This is rather like the turkey who is so pleased with how the farmer has been feeding him lately, the day before Thanksgiving.

It’s not easy to say exactly where macroeconomics went wrong, but I think Paul Romer is right when he makes the analogy between DSGE (dynamic stochastic general equilbrium) models and string theory. They are mathematically complex and difficult to understand, and people can make their careers by being the only ones who grasp them; therefore they must be right! Nevermind if they have no empirical support whatsoever.

To be fair, DSGE models are at least a little better than string theory; they can at least be fit to real-world data, which is better than string theory can say. But being fit to data and actually predicting data are fundamentally different things, and DSGE models typically forecast no better than far simpler models without their bold assumptions. You don’t need to assume all this stuff about a “representative agent” maximizing a well-defined utility function, or an Euler equation (that doesn’t even fit the data), or this ever-proliferating list of “random shocks” that end up taking up all the degrees of freedom your model was supposed to explain. Just regressing the variables on a few years of previous values of each other (a “vector autoregression” or VAR) generally gives you an equally-good forecast. The fact that these models can be made to fit the data well if you add enough degrees of freedom doesn’t actually make them good models. As Von Neumann warned us, with enough free parameters, you can fit an elephant.

But really what bothers me is not the DSGE but the GTFO (“get the [expletive] out”); it’s not that DSGE models are used, but that it’s almost impossible to get published as a macroeconomic theorist using anything else. Defenders of DSGE typically don’t even argue anymore that it is good; they argue that there are no credible alternatives. They characterize their opponents as “dilettantes” who aren’t opposing DSGE because we disagree with it; no, it must be because we don’t understand it. (Also, regarding that post, I’d just like to note that I now officially satisfy the Athreya Axiom of Absolute Arrogance: I have passed my qualifying exams in a top-50 economics PhD program. Yet my enmity toward DSGE has, if anything, only intensified.)

Of course, that argument only makes sense if you haven’t been actively suppressing all attempts to formulate an alternative, which is precisely what DSGE macroeconomists have been doing for the last two or three decades. And yet despite this suppression, there are alternatives emerging, particularly from the empirical side. There are now empirical approaches to macroeconomics that don’t use DSGE models. Regression discontinuity methods and other “natural experiment” designs—not to mention actual experiments—are quickly rising in popularity as economists realize that these methods allow us to actually empirically test our models instead of just adding more and more mathematical complexity to them.

But there still seems to be a lingering attitude that there is no other way to do macro theory. This is very frustrating for me personally, because deep down I think what I would like to do as a career is macro theory: By temperament I have always viewed the world through a very abstract, theoretical lens, and the issues I care most about—particularly inequality, development, and unemployment—are all fundamentally “macro” issues. I left physics when I realized I would be expected to do string theory. I don’t want to leave economics now that I’m expected to do DSGE. But I also definitely don’t want to do DSGE.

Fortunately with economics I have a backup plan: I can always be an “applied micreconomist” (rather the opposite of a theoretical macroeconomist I suppose), directly attached to the data in the form of empirical analyses or even direct, randomized controlled experiments. And there certainly is plenty of work to be done along the lines of Akerlof and Roth and Shiller and Kahneman and Thaler in cognitive and behavioral economics, which is also generally considered applied micro. I was never going to be an experimental physicist, but I can be an experimental economist. And I do get to use at least some theory: In particular, there’s an awful lot of game theory in experimental economics these days. Some of the most exciting stuff is actually in showing how human beings don’t behave the way classical game theory predicts (particularly in the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma), and trying to extend game theory into something that would fit our actual behavior. Cognitive science suggests that the result is going to end up looking quite different from game theory as we know it, and with my cognitive science background I may be particularly well-positioned to lead that charge.

Still, I don’t think I’ll be entirely satisfied if I can’t somehow bring my career back around to macroeconomic issues, and particularly the great elephant in the room of all economics, which is inequality. Underlying everything from Marxism to Trumpism, from the surging rents in Silicon Valley and the crushing poverty of Burkina Faso, to the Great Recession itself, is inequality. It is, in my view, the central question of economics: Who gets what, and why?

That is a fundamentally macro question, but you can’t even talk about that issue in DSGE as we know it; a “representative agent” inherently smooths over all inequality in the economy as though total GDP were all that mattered. A fundamentally new approach to macroeconomics is needed. Hopefully I can be part of that, but from my current position I don’t feel much empowered to fight this status quo. Maybe I need to spend at least a few more years doing something else, making a name for myself, and then I’ll be able to come back to this fight with a stronger position.

In the meantime, I guess there’s plenty of work to be done on cognitive biases and deviations from game theory.

Doug Julius, in memoriam

Sep 10, JDN 2458007

Douglas Patrick Julius

April 15, 1954 to August 31, 2017

My father died suddenly and unexpectedly from a ruptured intracranial aneurysm. I received a call that he was in the hospital Wednesday morning at 11:30 AM PDT, took the first flight to Michigan I could find, and arrived around 10:30 PM EDT. By the time I got there, my father was already unconscious and under intensive care. I stayed up all night in the hospital. My father never regained consciousness. He was declared dead at 8:30 AM on Thursday morning.

In lieu of a proper blog post this week, I decided to post the eulogy I gave at my father’s funeral this past Sunday. It follows below.

What is a soul? What is it made of? Most people imagine a soul as something immaterial, something somehow “beyond” this physical world. But at its core, a soul is simply what makes us who we are. Today we have cognitive science, and now understand the human soul better than it was understood by all the billions of people in all the thousands of years of human civilization before us. Thanks to cognitive science, we now know what the soul is made of: It is made of information.

My father wasn’t made of some mysterious substance “beyond” our physical world, but nor was hejust the molecules of his body you see here. My father was made of hopes and dreams, laughter and tears, words and ideas. He was made of James Joyce novels and Catullus poems, Spider-Man comics and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, road trips across America, gazes over the Grand Canyon, spelunking in Carlsbad Caverns, walks on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, warm hugs, gentle smiles, sophisticated puns, obsessive organizing, and reading literally thousands of books, on everything from Celtic literature to quantum physics. (I think he knew the former a lot better than the latter, while for me, it is the reverse.)

And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

Most of what my father was is now gone, and I don’t think we should try to deny that. I don’t think it’s healthy—or even effective—to tell ourselves that he isn’t really gone or that he’s in some better place. Deep down we all know the loss we feel. We know the regrets we have of all the things we thought we’d get to do together, but now we know we never will. There are three that are especially painful for me: My father will never get to see my PhD diploma, never know me as “Doctor Patrick Neal Russell Julius.” My father will never get to see my wedding. And above all, my father will never get to meet his grandchildren. If I had known, I could have tried to make these things happen sooner, so that my father would get to share them with me. I thought that I had 20 years left to do all these things with my father beside me—but the reality turned out differently. And one of the best definitions of reality is this: Reality, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. We grieve this loss for a reason. It hurts so much to lose my father because we know how much joy he once brought to our lives, and how much he would have if he’d been allowed to go on living. A friend of mine offered me this aphorism: Grief is the price we pay for love.

But my father is not completely gone, either. Our souls are made of information too, and there are little fragments of my father’s soul in every one of us. Every memory we have of him, every time he touched our lives, a fragment of him was downloaded into each of us, and as long as we remember him, he will not be entirely gone.

There are a few memories in particular I’d like to share with you all know—back them up in the cloud if you will—so that the essence of who my father was will live on awhile longer. Human long-term memory is stored in the form of narrative, so I thought it best if I told a few stories.

The first story is about gentleness. We were driving through New Mexico. I had moved recently to Long Beach to study for my master’s degree at CSU; after coming back to Ann Arbor for a visit, Dad had driven with me in my little Smart car all the way across the country. We planned our route to pass the Very Large Array, a gigantic assembly of radio telescopes probably best known for being featured in the film Contact, one of my favorites, based on a Carl Sagan novel I love even more. I had wanted to see it for a long time, so Dad added a few hours to our trip so we could go past it.

When we arrived at the array, we could hardly find any people around. Instead what we found were bugs—grasshoppers I think, and millions of them. Everywhere. The ground was literally covered in them; there wasn’t even any room to walk. Most people would probably have just gone ahead and walked right on top of them, crushing them as they went—but not my father. His gentleness extended even to the lowliest of creatures, and he wanted to make sure we didn’t harm any of the bugs. So he found a way for us to creep, slowly, across the desert, shooing away the bugs at each step, so that they would give us room to pass. We didn’t step on a single grasshopper that day, and I finally got the chance to touch one of the radio telescopes.

The second story is about generosity. We had just bought a baby grand piano, and my mother was learning to play it. For her birthday she had asked for a metronome. So, my father and I went out shopping to find a nice metronome. We found one that seemed perfect, but then the store offered us one that was twice the price, and as far as I can tell, not any better whatsoever. Dad asked me, “Isn’t your mother worth it?” Already a budding economist, I had to explain, “Of course, but that’s not the question. The question is, is the metronome worth it? Save the money and we’ll buy her something else too.” But that’s how Dad was: When buying things for himself, he was frugal, even miserly; several times I saw him find rare books—first editions of Joyce, folio editions of Shakespeare—that he had wanted for decades to get, then pass them up to save $100 or maybe $200. But when buying for other people, money was no object; he’d spend that same $200 buying me another video game system without a second thought. He was generous to a fault; he’d never use his credit cards all year, then max them out every Christmas. As I got older, I actually started scaling back my Christmas lists on purpose, for fear he might go broke buying me everything I had asked for. Sometimes I think I was still a little too greedy, and should have scaled them back even more. I never was able to talk him out of buying me that folding bicycle that now sits in a corner of my apartment in Irvine—at least I talked him down from the model that cost twice as much.

The third and final story is about curiosity. Dad actually taught my high school English AP class. I was originally assigned to a different class, but in that one I was completely miserable. The very first day of class was a demonstration where he asked us all to raise our hands if we expected an A. Since this was an AP class and we were all top-achieving students, most of us did. Then the teacher asked us rhetorically: “How realistic is that?” as though there were some inherent law of the universe making such an outcome impossible. I think he saw grading as a ranking, or even a race; the notion that we could all earn mastery in the subject struck him like the notion that everyone in the Indy 500 could win first place. The next day was a quiz to see how much we remembered of the summer reading. No review, no discussion, no introduction between the students and the teacher—just the quiz. It became clear that this teacher had no interest in educating us; his goal was to evaluate us. After about a week of this I asked to be transferred to a different class. They said all they had was my dad’s class, which seemed awkward to all involved, but I decided to go with that anyway.

I ended up very glad that I had. Dad’s approach to teaching was completely different: He actually wanted us to learn. He didn’t even call them “quizzes”; they were FLAIs, spelled “F-L-A-I” which stands for “Friendly Little Assessment Instrument”. The students who were used to grade-grubbing for an extra few points found his grading system aggravating, because he refused to give a precise point tally for everything (and if you asked for one, he’d make up some nonsensical number on the spot, like “52 million” or “pi”). But the rest of us found it a breath of fresh air. We could stop worrying about how many points this quiz was worth, stop cramming for the next multiple-choice scantron exam—and actually focus our efforts on reading and learning and appreciating literature. My dad didn’t use a lot of fancy gadgets or sophisticated educational techniques; a lot of the time he was just talking and writing on a chalkboard. But his unbounded intellectual curiosity was infectious. If a student showed interest in something, he’d just start talking about that for awhile, even if it didn’t seem relevant; at first students thought this meant they could waste class time by pulling him off on a tangent. But that was never really what happened; he always managed to teach us something unexpected, and usually managed to tie it back to whatever we were studying in class. Sometimes we managed to teach him something too; usually that would be something about physics from me or something about biology from Esther Alfred or Casey Boucher. My favorite class project of all time was for my dad’s class: After reading both Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, I asked if I could write my paper about Slaughterhouse-Five in the style of Pale Fire, meaning as a series of endnotes that bear some passing relevance to the text in question, but are over-interpreted to an absurd degree to the point where they end up telling a completely different story. Most teachers would probably have balked at the idea, but Dad thought it was fabulous. I don’t think he would have thought any differently if I hadn’t been his son; he simply enjoyed nurturing his student’s creativity in that way. I probably didn’t read as many books in that class as I would have in the other English AP class; but my dad’s class fanned the flames of a love of literature that the other class would have done everything it could to extinguish.

That’s about all I have. Thank you for listening, and taking the time to be here today. The world lost a very good man this week, and I know he will be sorely missed by all of us. No words can fully capture our sorrow, but there are a few in particular I think my father would have appreciated, said always on such occasions by one of his favorite authors:
So it goes.

This is a battle for the soul of America

July 9, JDN 2457944

At the time of writing, I just got back from a protest march against President Trump in Santa Ana (the featured photo is one I took at the march). I had intended to go to the much larger sister protest in Los Angeles, but the logistics were too daunting. On the upside, presumably the marginal impact of my attendance was higher at the smaller event.

Protest marches are not a common pastime of mine; I am much more of an ivory-tower policy wonk than a boots-on-the-ground political activist. The way that other people seem to be allergic to statistics, I am allergic to a lack of statistics when broad claims are made with minimal evidence. Even when I basically agree with everything being said, I still feel vaguely uncomfortable marching and chanting in unison (and constantly reminded of that scene from Life of Brian). But I made an exception for this one, because Trump represents a threat to the soul of American democracy.

We have had bad leaders many times before—even awful leaders, even leaders whose bad decisions resulted in the needless deaths of thousands. But not since the end of the Civil War have we had leaders who so directly threatened the core institutions of America itself.

We must keep reminding ourselves: This is not normal. This is not normal! Donald Trump’s casual corruption, overwhelming narcissism, authoritarianism, greed, and utter incompetence (not to mention his taste in decor) make him more like Idi Amin or Hugo Chavez than like George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. (Even the comparison with Vladimir Putin would be too flattering to Trump; Putin at least is competent.) He has personally publicly insulted over 300 people, places, and things—and counting.

Trump lies almost constantly, surrounds himself with family members and sycophants, refuses to listen to intelligence briefings, and personally demeans and even threatens journalists who criticize him. Every day it seems like there is a new scandal, more outrageous than the last; and after so long, this almost seems like a strategy. Every day he finds some new way to offend and undermine the basic norms of our society, and eventually he hopes to wear us down until we give up fighting.

It is certainly an exaggeration, and perhaps a dangerous one, to say that Donald Trump is the next Adolf Hitler. But there are important historical parallels between the rise of Trump and the rise of many other populist authoritarian demagogues. He casually violates democratic norms of civility, honesty, and transparency, and incentivizes the rest of us to do the same—a temptation we must resist. Political scientists and economists are now issuing public warnings that our democratic institutions are not as strong as we may think (though, to be fair, others argue that they are indeed strong enough).

It was an agonizingly close Presidential election. Even the tiniest differences could have flipped enough states to change the outcome. If we’d had a better voting system, it would not have happened; a simple plurality vote would have elected Hillary Clinton, and as I argued in a previous post, range voting would probably have chosen Bernie Sanders. Therefore, we must not take this result as a complete indictment of American society or a complete failure of American democracy. But let it shake us out of our complacency; democracy is only as strong as the will of its citizens to defend it.

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.