Ancient plagues, modern pandemics

Mar 1 JDN 2458917

The coronavirus epidemic continues; though it originated in Wuhan province, the virus has now been confirmed in places as far-flung as Italy, Brazil, and Mexico. So far, about 90,000 people have caught it, and about 3,000 have died, mostly in China.

There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about this epidemic: Like influenza, coronavirus spreads quickly, and can be carried without symptoms, yet unlike influenza, it has a very high rate of complications, causing hospitalization as often as 10% of the time and death as often as 2%. There’s a lot of uncertainty about these numbers, because it’s difficult to know exactly how many people are infected but either have no symptoms or have symptoms that can be confused with other diseases. But we do have reason to believe that coronavirus is much deadlier for those infected than influenza: Influenza spreads so widely that it kills about 300,000 people every year, but this is only 0.1% of the people infected.

And yet, despite our complex interwoven network of international trade that sends people and goods all around the world, our era is probably the safest in history in terms of the risk of infectious disease.

Partly this is technology: Especially for bacterial infections, we have highly effective treatments that our forebears lacked. But for most viral infections we actually don’t have very effective treatments—which means that technology per se is not the real hero here.

Vaccination is a major part of the answer: Vaccines have effectively eradicated polio and smallpox, and would probably be on track to eliminate measles and rubella if not for dangerous anti-vaccination ideology. But even with no vaccine against coronavirus (yet) and not very effective vaccines against influenza, still the death rates from these viruses are nowhere near those of ancient plagues.

The Black Death killed something like 40% of Europe’s entire population. The Plague of Justinian killed as many as 20% of the entire world’s population. This is a staggeringly large death rate compared to a modern pandemic, in which even a 2% death rate would be considered a total catastrophe.

Even the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed more than all the battle deaths in World War I combined, wasn’t as terrible as an ancient plague; it killed about 2% of the infected population. And when a very similar influenza virus appeared in 2009, how many people did it kill? About 400,000 people, roughly 0.1% of those infectedslightly worse than the average flu season. That’s how much better our public health has gotten in the last century alone.

Remember SARS, a previous viral pandemic that also emerged in China? It only killed 774 people, in a year in which over 300,000 died of influenza.

Sanitation is probably the most important factor: Certainly sanitation was far worse in ancient times. Today almost everyone routinely showers and washes their hands, which makes a big difference—but it’s notable that widespread bathing didn’t save the Romans from the Plague of Justinian.

I think it’s underappreciated just how much better our communication and quarantine procedures are today than they once were. In ancient times, the only way you heard about a plague was a live messenger carrying the news—and that messenger might well be already carrying the virus. Today, an epidemic in China becomes immediate news around the world. This means that people prepare—they avoid travel, they stock up on food, they become more diligent about keeping clean. And perhaps even more important than the preparation by individual people is the preparation by institutions: Governments, hospitals, research labs. We can see the pandemic coming and be ready to respond weeks or even months before it hits us.

So yes, do wash your hands regularly. Wash for at least 20 seconds, which will definitely feel like a long time if you haven’t made it a habit—but it does make a difference. Try to avoid travel for awhile. Stock up on food and water in case you need to be quarantined. Follow whatever instructions public health officials give as the pandemic progresses. But you don’t need to panic: We’ve got this under control. That Horseman of the Apocalypse is dead; and fear not, Famine and War are next. I’m afraid Death himself will probably be awhile, though.

The real cost of high rent

Jan 26 JDN 2458875

The average daily commute time in the United States is about 26 minutes each way—for a total of 52 minutes every weekday. Public transit commute times are substantially longer in most states than driving commute times: In California, the average driving commute is 28 minutes each way, while the average public transit commute is 51 minutes each way. Adding this up over 5 workdays per week, working 50 weeks per year, means that on average Americans spend over 216 hours each year commuting.

Median annual income in the US is about $33,000. Assuming about 2000 hours of work per year for a full-time job, that’s a wage of $16.50 per hour. This makes the total cost of commute time in the United States over $3500 per worker per year. Multiplied by a labor force of 205 million, this makes the total cost of commute time over $730 billion per year. That’s not even counting the additional carbon emissions and road fatalities. This is all pure waste. The optimal commute time is zero minutes; the closer we can get to that, the better. Telecommuting might finally make this a reality, at least for a large swath of workers. Already over 40% of US workers telecommute at least some of the time.

Let me remind you that it would cost about $200 billion per year to end world hunger. We could end world hunger three times over with the effort we currently waste in commute time.

Where is this cost coming from? Why are commutes so long? The answer is obvious: The rent is too damn high. People have long commutes because they can’t afford to live closer to where they work.

Almost half of all renter households in the US pay more than 30% of their income in rent—and 25% pay more than half of their income. The average household rent in the US is over $1400 per month, almost $17,000 per year—more than the per-capita GDP of China.

Not that buying a home solves the problem: In many US cities the price-to-rent ratio of homes is over 20 to 1, and in Manhattan and San Francisco it’s as high as 50 to 1. If you already bought your home years ago, this is great for you; for the rest of us, not so much. Interestingly, high rents seem to correlate with higher price-to-rent ratios, so it seems like purchase prices are responding even more to whatever economic pressure is driving up rents.

Overall about a third of all US consumer spending is on housing; out of our total consumption spending of $13 trillion, this means we are spending over $4 trillion per year on housing, about the GDP of Germany. Of course, some of this is actually worth spending: Housing costs a lot to build, and provides many valuable benefits.

What should we be spending on housing, if the housing market were competitive and efficient?

I think Chicago’s housing market looks fairly healthy. Homes there go for about $250,000, with prices that are relatively stable; and the price-to-rent ratio is about 20 to 1. Chicago is a large city with a population density of about 6,000 people per square kilometer, so it’s not as if I’m using a tiny rural town as my comparison. If the entire population of the United States were concentrated at the same density as the city of Chicago, we’d all fit in only 55,000 square kilometers—less than the area of West Virginia.
Compare this to the median housing price in California ($550,000), New York ($330,000), or Washington, D.C. ($630,000). There are metro areas with housing prices far above even this: In San Jose the median home price is $1.1 million. I find it very hard to believe that it is literally four times as hard to build homes in San Jose as it is in Chicago. Something is distorting that price—maybe it’s over-regulation, maybe it’s monopoly power, maybe it’s speculation—I’m not sure what exactly, but there’s definitely something out of whack here.

This suggests that a more efficient housing market would probably cut prices in California by 50% and prices in New York by 25%. Since about 40% of all spending in California is on housing, this price change would effectively free up 20% of California’s GDP—and 20% of $3 trillion is $600 billion per year. The additional 8% of New York’s GDP gets us another $130 billion, and we’re already at that $730 billion I calculated for the total cost of commuting, only considering New York and California alone.

This means that the total amount of waste—including both time and money—due to housing being too expensive probably exceeds $1.5 trillion per year. This is an enormous sum of money: We’re spending an Australia here. We could just about pay for a single-payer healthcare system with this.

The “market for love” is a bad metaphor

Feb 14 JDN 2458529

Valentine’s Day was this past week, so let’s talk a bit about love.

Economists would never be accused of being excessively romantic. To most neoclassical economists, just about everything is a market transaction. Love is no exception.

There are all sorts of articles and books and an even larger number of research papers going back multiple decades and continuing all the way through until today using the metaphor of the “marriage market”.

In a few places, marriage does actually function something like a market: In China, there are places where your parents will hire brokers and matchmakers to select a spouse for you. But even this isn’t really a market for love or marriage. It’s a market for matchmaking services. The high-tech version of this is dating sites like OkCupid.
And of course sex work actually occurs on markets; there is buying and selling of services at monetary prices. There is of course a great deal worth saying on that subject, but it’s not my topic for today.

But in general, love is really nothing like a market. First of all, there is no price. This alone should be sufficient reason to say that we’re not actually dealing with a market. The whole mechanism that makes a market a market is the use of prices to achieve equilibrium between supply and demand.

A price doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary; you can barter apples for bananas, or trade in one used video game for another, and we can still legitimately call that a market transaction with a price.

But love isn’t like that either. If your relationship with someone is so transactional that you’re actually keeping a ledger of each thing they do for you and each thing you do for them so that you could compute a price for services, that isn’t love. It’s not even friendship. If you really care about someone, you set such calculations aside. You view their interests and yours as in some sense shared, aligned toward common goals. You stop thinking in terms of “me” and “you” and start thinking in terms of “us”. You don’t think “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” You think “We’re scratching each other’s backs today.”

This is of course not to say that love never involves conflict. On the contrary, love always involves conflict. Successful relationships aren’t those where conflict never happens, they are those where conflict is effectively and responsibly resolved. Your interests and your loved ones’ are never completely aligned; there will always be some residual disagreement. But the key is to realize that your interests are still mostly aligned; those small vectors of disagreement should be outweighed by the much larger vector of your relationship.

And of course, there can come a time when that is no longer the case. Obviously, there is domestic abuse, which should absolutely be a deal-breaker for anyone. But there are other reasons why you may find that a relationship ultimately isn’t working, that your interests just aren’t as aligned as you thought they were. Eventually those disagreement vectors just get too large to cancel out. This is painful, but unavoidable. But if you reach the point where you are keeping track of actions on a ledger, that relationship is already dead. Sooner or later, someone is going to have to pull the plug.

Very little of what I’ve said in the preceding paragraphs is likely to be controversial. Why, then, would economists think that it makes sense to treat love as a market?

I think this comes down to a motte and bailey doctrine. A more detailed explanation can be found at that link, but the basic idea of a motte and bailey is this: You have a core set of propositions that is highly defensible but not that interesting (the “motte”), and a broader set of propositions that are very interesting, but not as defensible (the “bailey”). The terms are related to a medieval defensive strategy, in which there was a small, heavily fortified tower called a motte, surrounded by fertile, useful land, the bailey. The bailey is where you actually want to live, but it’s hard to defend; so if the need arises, you can pull everyone back into the motte to fight off attacks. But nobody wants to live in the motte; it’s just a cramped stone tower. There’s nothing to eat or enjoy there.

The motte comprised of ideas that almost everyone agrees with. The bailey is the real point of contention, the thing you are trying to argue for—which, by construction, other people must not already agree with.

Here are some examples, which I have intentionally chosen from groups I agree with:

Feminism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “women are people”; the bailey is abortion rights, affirmative consent and equal pay legislation.

Rationalism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “rationality is good”; the bailey is atheism, transhumanism, and Bayesian statistics.

Anti-fascism can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “fascists are bad”; the bailey is black bloc Antifa and punching Nazis.

Even democracy can be a motte and bailey doctrine. The motte is “people should vote for their leaders”; my personal bailey is abolition of the Electoral College, a younger voting age, and range voting.

Using a motte and bailey doctrine does not necessarily make you wrong. But it’s something to be careful about, because as a strategy it can be disingenuous. Even if you think that the propositions in the bailey all follow logically from the propositions in the motte, the people you’re talking to may not think so, and in fact you could simply be wrong. At the very least, you should be taking the time to explain how one follows from the other; and really, you should consider whether the connection is actually as tight as you thought, or if perhaps one can believe that rationality is good without being Bayesian or believe that women are people without supporting abortion rights.

I think when economists describe love or marriage as a “market”, they are applying a motte and bailey doctrine. They may actually be doing something even worse than that, by equivocating on the meaning of “market”. But even if any given economist uses the word “market” totally consistently, the fact that different economists of the same broad political alignment use the word differently adds up to a motte and bailey doctrine.

The doctrine is this: “There have always been markets.”

The motte is something like this: “Humans have always engaged in interaction for mutual benefit.”

This is undeniably true. In fact, it’s not even uninteresting. As mottes go, it’s a pretty nice one; it’s worth spending some time there. In the endless quest for an elusive “human nature”, I think you could do worse than to focus on our universal tendency to engage in interaction for mutual benefit. (Don’t other species do it too? Yes, but that’s just it—they are precisely the ones that seem most human.)

And if you want to define any mutually-beneficial interaction as a “market trade”, I guess it’s your right to do that. I think this is foolish and confusing, but legislating language has always been a fool’s errand.

But of course the more standard meaning of the word “market” implies buyers and sellers exchanging goods and services for monetary prices. You can extend it a little to include bartering, various forms of financial intermediation, and the like; but basically you’re still buying and selling.

That makes this the bailey: “Humans have always engaged in buying and selling of goods and services at prices.”

And that, dear readers, is ahistorical nonsense. We’ve only been using money for a few thousand years, and it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we actually started getting the majority of our goods and services via market trades. Economists like to tell a story where bartering preceded the invention of money, but there’s basically no evidence of that. Bartering seems to be what people do when they know how money works but don’t have any money to work with.

Before there was money, there were fundamentally different modes of interaction: Sharing, ritual, debts of honor, common property, and, yes, love.

These were not markets. They perhaps shared some very broad features of markets—such as the interaction for mutual benefit—but they lacked the defining attributes that make a market a market.

Why is this important? Because this doctrine is used to transform more and more of our lives into actual markets, on the grounds that they were already “markets”, and we’re just using “more efficient” kinds of markets. But in fact what’s happening is we are trading one fundamental mode of human interaction for another: Where we used to rely upon norms or trust or mutual affection, we instead rely upon buying and selling at prices.

In some cases, this actually is a good thing: Markets can be very powerful, and are often our best tool when we really need something done. In particular, it’s clear at this point that norms and trust are not sufficient to protect us against climate change. All the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” PSAs in the world won’t do as much as a carbon tax. When millions of lives are at stake, we can’t trust people to do the right thing; we need to twist their arms however we can.

But markets are in some sense a brute-force last-resort solution; they commodify and alienate (Marx wasn’t wrong about that), and despite our greatly elevated standard of living, the alienation and competitive pressure of markets seem to be keeping most of us from really achieving happiness.

This is why it’s extremely dangerous to talk about a “market for love”. Love is perhaps the last bastion of our lives that has not been commodified into a true market, and if it goes, we’ll have nothing left. If sexual relationships built on mutual affection were to disappear in favor of apps that will summon a prostitute or a sex robot at the push of a button, I would count that as a great loss for human civilization. (How we should regulate prostitution or sex robots are a different question, which I said I’d leave aside for this post.) A “market for love” is in fact a world with no love at all.

The upsides of life extension

Dec 16 JDN 2458469

If living is good, then living longer is better.

This may seem rather obvious, but it’s something we often lose sight of when discussing the consequences of medical technology for extending life. It’s almost like it seems too obvious that living longer must be better, and so we go out of our way to find ways that it is actually worse.

Even from a quick search I was able to find half a dozen popular media articles about life extension, and not one of them focused primarily on the benefits. The empirical literature is better, asking specific, empirically testable questions like “How does life expectancy relate to retirement age?” and “How is lifespan related to population and income growth?” and “What effect will longer lifespans have on pension systems?” Though even there I found essays in medical journals complaining that we have extended “quantity” of life without “quality” (yet by definition, if you are using QALY to assess the cost-effectiveness of a medical intervention, that’s already taken into account).

But still I think somewhere along the way we have forgotten just how good this is. We may not even be able to imagine the benefits of extending people’s lives to 200 or 500 or 1000 years.

To really get some perspective on this, I want you to imagine what a similar conversation must have looked like in roughly the year 1800, the Industrial Revolution, when industrial capitalism came along and made babies finally stop dying.

There was no mass media back then (not enough literacy), but imagine what it would have been like if there had been, or imagine what conversations about the future between elites must have been like.

And we do actually have at least one example of an elite author lamenting the increase in lifespan: His name was Thomas Malthus.

The Malthusian argument was seductive then, and it remains seductive today: If you improve medicine and food production, you will increase population. But if you increase population, you will eventually outstrip those gains in medicine and food and return once more to disease and starvation, only now with more mouths to feed.

Basically any modern discussion of “overpopulation” has this same flavor (by the way, serious environmentalists don’t use that concept; they’re focused on reducing pollution and carbon emissions, not people). Why bother helping poor countries, when they’re just going to double their population and need twice the help?

Well, as a matter of fact, Malthus was wrong. In fact, he was not just wrong: He was backwards. Increased population has come with increased standard of living around the world, as it allowed for more trade, greater specialization, and the application of economies of scale. You can’t build a retail market with a hunter-gatherer tribe. You can’t built an auto industry with a single city-state. You can’t build a space program with a population of 1 million. Having more people has allowed each person to do and have more than they could before.

Current population projections suggest world population will stabilize between 11 and 12 billion. Crucially, this does not factor in any kind of radical life extension technology. The projections allow for moderate increases in lifespan, but not people living much past 100.

Would increased lifespan lead to increased population? Probably, yes. I can’t be certain, because I can very easily imagine people deciding to put off having kids if they can reasonably expect to live 200 years and never become infertile.

I’m actually more worried about the unequal distribution of offspring: People who don’t believe in contraception will be able to have an awful lot of kids during that time, which could be bad for both the kids and society as a whole. We may need to impose regulations on reproduction similar to (but hopefully less draconian than) the One-Child policy imposed in China.

I think the most sensible way to impose the right incentives while still preserving civil liberties is to make it a tax: The first kid gets a subsidy, to help care for them. The second kid is revenue-neutral; we tax you but you get it back as benefits for the child. (Why not just let them keep the money? One of the few places where I think government paternalism is justifiable is protection against abusive or neglectful parents.) The third and later kids result in progressively higher taxes. We always feed the kids on government money, but their parents are going to end up quite poor if they don’t learn how to use contraceptives. (And of course, contraceptives will be made available for free without a prescription.)

But suppose that, yes, population does greatly increase as a result of longer lifespans. This is not a doomsday scenario. In fact, in itself, this is a good thing. If life is worth living, more lives are better.

The question becomes how we ensure that all these people live good lives; but technology will make that easier too. There seems to be an underlying assumption that increased lifespan won’t come with improved health and vitality; but this is already not true. 60 is the new 50: People who are 60 years old today live as well as people who were 50 years old just a generation ago.

And in fact, radical life extension will be an entirely different mechanism. We’re not talking about replacing a hip here, a kidney there; we’re talking about replenishing your chromosomal telomeres, repairing your cells at the molecular level, and revitalizing the content of your blood. The goal of life extension technology isn’t to make you technically alive but hooked up to machines for 200 years; it’s to make you young again for 200 years. The goal is a world where centenarians are playing tennis with young adults fresh out of college and you have trouble telling which is which.

There is another inequality concern here as well, which is cost. Especially in the US—actually almost only in the US, since most of the world has socialized medicine—where medicine is privatized and depends on your personal budget, I can easily imagine a world where the rich live to 200 and the poor die at 60. (The forgettable Justin Timberlake film In Time started with this excellent premise and then went precisely nowhere with it. Oddly, the Deus Ex games seem to have considered every consequence of mixing capitalism with human augmentation except this one.) We should be proactively taking steps to prevent this nightmare scenario by focusing on making healthcare provision equitable and universal. Even if this slows down the development of the technology a little bit, it’ll be worth it to make sure that when it does arrive, it will arrive for everyone.

We really don’t know what the world will look like when people can live 200 years or more. Yes, there will be challenges that come from the transition; honestly I’m most worried about keeping alive ideas that people grew up with two centuries prior. Imagine talking politics with Abraham Lincoln: He was viewed as extremely progressive for his time, even radical—but he was still a big-time racist.

The good news there is that people are not actually as set in their ways as many believe: While the huge surge in pro-LGBT attitudes did come from younger generations, support for LGBT rights has been gradually creeping up among older generations too. Perhaps if Abraham Lincoln had lived through the Great Depression, the World Wars, and the Civil Rights Movement he’d be a very different person than he was in 1865. Longer lifespans will mean people live through more social change; that’s something we’re going to need to cope with.

And of course violent death becomes even more terrifying when aging is out of the picture: It’s tragic enough when a 20-year-old dies in a car accident today and we imagine the 60 years they lost—but what if it was 180 years or 480 years instead? But violent death in basically all its forms is declining around the world.

But again, I really want to emphasize this: Think about how good this is. Imagine meeting your great-grandmother—and not just meeting her, not just having some fleeting contact you half-remember from when you were four years old or something, but getting to know her, talking with her as an adult, going to the same movies, reading the same books. Imagine the converse: Knowing your great-grandchildren, watching them grow up and have kids of their own, your great-great-grandchildren. Imagine the world that we could build if people stopped dying all the time.

And if that doesn’t convince you, I highly recommend Nick Bostrom’s “Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant”.

Stop making excuses for the dragon.

Fighting the zero-sum paradigm

Dec 2 JDN 2458455

It should be obvious at this point that there are deep, perhaps even fundamental, divides between the attitudes and beliefs of different political factions. It can be very difficult to even understand, much less sympathize, with the concerns of people who are racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and authoritarian.
But at the end of the day we still have to live in the same country as these people, so we’d better try to understand how they think. And maybe, just maybe, that understanding will help us to change them.

There is one fundamental belief system that I believe underlies almost all forms of extremism. Right now right-wing extremism is the major threat to global democracy, but left-wing extremism subscribes to the same core paradigm (consistent with Horseshoe Theory).

I think the best term for this is the zero-sum paradigm. The idea is quite simple: There is a certain amount of valuable “stuff” (money, goods, land, status, happiness) in the world, and the only political question is who gets how much.

Thus, any improvement in anyone’s life must, necessarily, come at someone else’s expense. If I become richer, you become poorer. If I become stronger, you become weaker. Any improvement in my standard of living is a threat to your status.

If this belief were true, it would justify, or at least rationalize, all sorts of destructive behavior: Any harm I can inflict upon someone else will yield a benefit for me, by some fundamental conservation law of the universe.

Viewed in this light, beliefs like patriarchy and White supremacy suddenly become much more comprehensible: Why would you want to spend so much effort hurting women and Black people? Because, by the fundamental law of zero-sum, any harm to women is a benefit to men, and any harm to Black people is a benefit to White people. The world is made of “teams”, and you are fighting for your own against all the others.

And I can even see why such an attitude is seductive: It’s simple and easy to understand. And there are many circumstances where it can be approximately true.
When you are bargaining with your boss over a wage, one dollar more for you is one dollar less for your boss.
When your factory outsources production to China, one more job for China is one less job for you.

When we vote for President, one more vote for the Democrats is one less vote for the Republicans.

But of course the world is not actually zero-sum. Both you and your boss would be worse off if your job were to disappear; they need your work and you need their money. For every job that is outsourced to China, another job is created in the United States. And democracy itself is such a profound public good that it basically overwhelms all others.

In fact, it is precisely when a system is running well that the zero-sum paradigm becomes closest to true. In the space of all possible allocations, it is the efficient ones that behave in something like a zero-sum way, because when the system is efficient, we are already producing as much as we can.

This may be part of why populist extremism always seems to assert itself during periods of global prosperity, as in the 1920s and today: It is precisely when the world is running at its full capacity that it feels most like someone else’s gain must come at your loss.

Yet if we live according to the zero-sum paradigm, we will rapidly destroy the prosperity that made that paradigm seem plausible. A trade war between the US and China would put millions out of work in both countries. A real war with conventional weapons would kill millions. A nuclear war would kill billions.

This is what we must convey: We must show people just how good things are right now.

This is not an easy task; when people want to believe the world is falling apart, they can very easily find excuses to do so. You can point to the statistics showing a global decline in homicide, but one dramatic shooting on the TV news will wipe that all away. You can show the worldwide rise in real incomes across the board, but that won’t console someone who just lost their job and blames outsourcing or immigrants.

Indeed, many people will be offended by the attempt—the mere suggestion that the world is actually in very good shape and overall getting better will be perceived as an attempt to deny or dismiss the problems and injustices that still exist.

I encounter this especially from the left: Simply pointing out the objective fact that the wealth gap between White and Black households is slowly closing is often taken as a claim that racism no longer exists or doesn’t matter. Congratulating the meteoric rise in women’s empowerment around the world is often paradoxically viewed as dismissing feminism instead of lauding it.

I think the best case against progress can be made with regard to global climate change: Carbon emissions are not falling nearly fast enough, and the world is getting closer to the brink of truly catastrophic ecological damage. Yet even here the zero-sum paradigm is clearly holding us back; workers in fossil-fuel industries think that the only way to reduce carbon emissions is to make their families suffer, but that’s simply not true. We can make them better off too.

Talking about injustice feels righteous. Talking about progress doesn’t. Yet I think what the world needs most right now—the one thing that might actually pull us back from the brink of fascism or even war—is people talking about progress.

If people think that the world is full of failure and suffering and injustice, they will want to tear down the whole system and start over with something else. In a world that is largely democratic, that very likely means switching to authoritarianism. If people think that this is as bad as it gets, they will be willing to accept or even instigate violence in order to change to almost anything else.

But if people realize that in fact the world is full of success and prosperity and progress, that things are right now quite literally better in almost every way for almost every person in almost every country than they were a hundred—or even fifty—years ago, they will not be so eager to tear the system down and start anew. Centrism is often mocked (partly because it is confused with false equivalence), but in a world where life is improving this quickly for this many people, “stay the course” sounds awfully attractive to me.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore the real problems and injustices that still exist, of course. There is still a great deal of progress left to be made.  But I believe we are more likely to make progress if we acknowledge and seek to continue the progress we have already made, than if we allow ourselves to fall into despair as if that progress did not exist.

How (not) to destroy an immoral market

Jul 29 JDN 2458329

In this world there are people of primitive cultures, with a population that is slowly declining, trying to survive a constant threat of violence in the aftermath of colonialism. But you already knew that, of course.

What you may not have realized is that some of these people are actively hunted by other people, slaughtered so that their remains can be sold on the black market.

I am referring of course to elephants. Maybe those weren’t the people you first had in mind?

Elephants are not human in the sense of being Homo sapiens; but as far as I am concerned, they are people in a moral sense.

Elephants take as long to mature as humans, and spend most of their childhood learning. They are born with brains only 35% of the size of their adult brains, much as we are born with brains 28% the size of our adult brains. Their encephalization quotients range from about 1.5 to 2.4, comparable to chimpanzees.

Elephants have problem-solving intelligence comparable to chimpanzees, cetaceans, and corvids. Elephants can pass the “mirror test” of self-identification and self-awareness. Individual elephants exhibit clearly distinguishable personalities. They exhibit empathy toward humans and other elephants. They can think creatively and develop new tools.

Elephants distinguish individual humans or elephants by sight or by voice, comfort each other when distressed, and above all mourn their dead. The kind of mourning behaviors elephants exhibit toward the remains of their dead family members have only been observed in humans and chimpanzees.

On a darker note, elephants also seek revenge. In response to losing loved ones to poaching or collisions with trains, elephants have orchestrated organized counter-attacks against human towns. This is not a single animal defending itself, as almost any will do; this is a coordinated act of vengeance after the fact. Once again, we have only observed similar behaviors in humans, great apes, and cetaceans.

Huffington Post backed off and said “just kidding” after asserting that elephants are people—but I won’t. Elephants are people. They do not have an advanced civilization, to be sure. But as far as I am concerned they display all the necessary minimal conditions to be granted the fundamental rights of personhood. Killing an elephant is murder.

And yet, the ivory trade continues to be profitable. Most of this is black-market activity, though it was legal in some places until very recently; China only restored their ivory trade ban this year, and Hong Kong’s ban will not take full effect until 2021. Some places are backsliding: A proposal (currently on hold) by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Trump administration would also legalize some limited forms of ivory trade.
With this in mind, I can understand why people would support the practice of ivory-burning, symbolically and publicly destroying ivory by fire so that no one can buy it. Two years ago, Kenya organized a particularly large ivory-burning that set ablaze 105 tons of elephant tusk and 1.35 tons of rhino horn.

But as economist, when I first learned about ivory-burning, it seemed like a really, really bad idea.

Why? Supply and demand. By destroying supply, you have just raised the market price of ivory. You have therefore increased the market incentives for poaching elephants and rhinos.

Yet it turns out I was wrong about this, as were many other economists. I looked at the empirical research, and changed my mind substantially. Ivory-burning is not such a bad idea after all.

Here was my reasoning before: If I want to reduce the incentives to produce something, what do I need to do? Lower the price. How do I do that? I need to increase the supply. Economists have made several proposals for how to do that, and until I looked at the data I would have expected them to work; but they haven’t.

The best way to increase supply is to create synthetic ivory that is cheap and very difficult to tell apart from the real thing. This has been done, but it didn’t work. For some reason, sellers try to hide the expensive real ivory in with the cheap synthetic ivory. I admit I actually have trouble understanding this; if you can’t sell it at full price, why even bother with the illegal real ivory? Maybe their customers have methods of distinguishing the two that the regulators don’t? If so, why aren’t the regulators using those methods? Another concern with increasing the supply of ivory is that it might reduce the stigma of consuming ivory, thereby also increasing the demand.

A similar problem has arisen with so-called “ghost ivory”; for obvious reasons, existing ivory products were excluded from the ban imposed in 1947, lest the government be forced to confiscate millions of billiard balls and thousands of pianos. Yet poachers have learned ways to hide new, illegal ivory and sell it as old, legal ivory.

Another proposal was to organize “sustainable ivory harvesting”, which based on past experience with similar regulations is unlikely to be enforceable. Moreover, this is not like sustainable wood harvesting, where our only concern is environmental. I for one care about the welfare of individual elephants, and I don’t think they would want to be “harvested”, sustainably or otherwise.
There is one way of doing “sustainable harvesting” that might not be so bad for the elephants, which would be to set up a protected colony of elephants, help them to increase their population, and then when elephants die of natural causes, take only the tusks and sell those as ivory, stamped with an official seal as “humanely and sustainably produced”. Even then, elephants are among a handful of species that would be offended by us taking their ancestors’ remains. But if it worked, it could save many elephant lives. The bigger problem is how expensive such a project would be, and how long it would take to show any benefit; elephant lifespans are about half as long as ours, (except in zoos, where their mortality rate is much higher!) so a policy that might conceivably solve a problem in 30 to 40 years doesn’t really sound so great. More detailed theoretical and empirical analysis has made this clear: you just can’t get ivory fast enough to meet existing demand this way.

In any case, China’s ban on all ivory trade had an immediate effect at dropping the price of ivory, which synthetic ivory did not. Before that, strengthened regulations in the US (particularly in New York and California) had been effective at reducing ivory sales. The CITES treaty in 1989 that banned most international ivory trade was followed by an immediate increase in elephant populations.

The most effective response to ivory trade is an absolutely categorical ban with no loopholes. To fight “ghost ivory”, we should remove exceptions for old ivory, offering buybacks for any antiques with a verifiable pedigree and a brief period of no-penalty surrender for anything with no such records. The only legal ivory must be for medical and scientific purposes, and its sourcing records must be absolutely impeccable—just as we do with human remains.

Even synthetic ivory must also be banned, at least if it’s convincing enough that real ivory could be hidden in it. You can make something you call “synthetic ivory” that serves a similar consumer function, but it must be different enough that it can be easily verified at customs inspections.

We must give no quarter to poachers; Kenya was right to impose a life sentence for aggravated poaching. The Tanzanian proposal to “shoot to kill” was too extreme; summary execution is never acceptable. But if indeed someone currently has a weapons pointed at an elephant and refuses to drop it, I consider it justifiable to shoot them, just as I would if that weapon were aimed at a human.

The need for a categorical ban is what makes the current US proposal dangerous. The particular exceptions it carves out are not all that large, but the fact that it carves out exceptions at all makes enforcement much more difficult. To his credit, Trump himself doesn’t seem very keen on the proposal, which may mean that it is dead in the water. I don’t get to say this often, but so far Trump seems to be making the right choice on this one.

Though the economic theory predicted otherwise, the empirical data is actually quite clear: The most effective way to save elephants from poaching is an absolutely categorical ban on ivory.

Ivory-burning is a signal of commitment to such a ban. Any ivory we find being sold, we will burn. Whoever was trying to sell it will lose their entire investment. Find more, and we will burn that too.

The extreme efficiency of environmental regulation—and the extreme inefficiency of war

Apr 8 JDN 2458217

Insofar as there has been any coherent policy strategy for the Trump administration, it has largely involved three things:

  1. Increase investment in military, incarceration, and immigration enforcement
  2. Redistribute wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich
  3. Remove regulations that affect business, particularly environmental regulations

The human cost of such a policy strategy is difficult to overstate. Literally millions of people will die around the world if such policies continue. This is almost the exact opposite of what our government should be doing.

This is because military is one of the most wasteful and destructive forms of government investment, while environmental regulation is one of the most efficient and beneficial. The magnitude of these differences is staggering.

First of all, it is not clear that the majority of US military spending provides any marginal benefit. It could quite literally be zero. The US spends more on military than the next ten countries combined.

I think it’s quite reasonable to say that the additional defense benefit becomes negligible once you exceed the sum of spending from all plausible enemies. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia together add up to about $350 billion per year. Current US spending is $610 billion per year. (And this calculation, by the way, requires them all to band together, while simultaneously all our NATO allies completely abandon us.) That means we could probably cut $260 billion per year without losing anything.

What about the remaining $350 billion? I could be extremely generous here, and assume that nuclear weapons, alliances, economic ties, and diplomacy all have absolutely no effect, so that without our military spending we would be invaded and immediately lose, and that if we did lose a war with China or Russia it would be utterly catastrophic and result in the deaths of 10% of the US population. Since in this hypothetical scenario we are only preventing the war by the barest margin, each year of spending only adds 1 year to the lives of the war’s potential victims. That means we are paying some $350 billion per year to add 1 year to the lives of 32 million people. That is a cost of about $11,000 per QALY. If it really is saving us from being invaded, that doesn’t sound all that unreasonable. And indeed, I don’t favor eliminating all military spending.

Of course, the marginal benefit of additional spending is still negligible—and UN peacekeeping is about twice as cost-effective as US military action, even if we had to foot the entire bill ourselves.

Alternatively, I could consider only the actual, documented results of our recent military action, which has resulted in over 280,000 deaths in Iraq and 110,000 in Afghanistan, all for little or no apparent gain. Life expectancy in these countries is about 70 in Iraq and 60 in Afghanistan. Quality of life there is pretty awful, but people are also greatly harmed by war without actually dying in it, so I think a fair conversion factor is about 60 QALY per death. That’s a loss of 23.4 MQALY. The cost of the Iraq War was about $1.1 trillion, while the cost of the Afghanistan War was about a further $1.1 trillion. This means that we paid $94,000 per lost QALY. If this is right, we paid enormous amounts to destroy lives and accomplished nothing at all.

Somewhere in between, we could assume that cutting the military budget greatly would result in the US being harmed in a manner similar to World War 2, which killed about 500,000 Americans. Paying $350 billion per year to gain 500,000 QALY per year is a price of $700,000 per QALY. I think this is about right; we are getting some benefit, but we are spending an enormous amount to get it.

Now let’s compare that to the cost-effectiveness of environmental regulation.

Since 1990, the total cost of implementing the regulations in the Clean Air Act was about $65 billion. That’s over 28 years, so less than $2.5 billion per year. Compare that to the $610 billion per year we spend on the military.

Yet the Clean Air Act saves over 160,000 lives every single year. And these aren’t lives extended one more year as they were in the hypothetical scenario where we are just barely preventing a catastrophic war; most of these people are old, but go on to live another 20 years or more. That means we are gaining 3.2 MQALY for a price of $2.5 billion. This is a price of only $800 per QALY.

From 1970 to 1990, the Clean Air Act cost more to implement: about $520 billion (so, you know, less than one year of military spending). But its estimated benefit was to save over 180,000 lives per year, and its estimated economic benefit was $22 trillion.

Look at those figures again, please. Even under very pessimistic assumptions where we would be on the verge of war if not for our enormous spending, we’re spending at least $11,000 and probably more like $700,000 on the military for each QALY gained. But environmental regulation only costs us about $800 per QALY. That’s a factor of at least 14 and more likely 1000. Environmental regulation is probably about one thousand times as cost-effective as military spending.

And I haven’t even included the fact that there is a direct substitution here: Climate change is predicted to trigger thousands if not millions of deaths due to military conflict. Even if national security were literally the only thing we cared about, it would probably still be more cost-effective to invest in carbon emission reduction rather than building yet another aircraft carrier. And if, like me, you think that a child who dies from asthma is just as important as one who gets bombed by China, then the cost-benefit analysis is absolutely overwhelming; every $60,000 spent on war instead of environmental protection is a statistical murder.

This is not even particularly controversial among economists. There is disagreement about specific environmental regulations, but the general benefits of fighting climate change and keeping air and water clean are universally acknowledged. There is disagreement about exactly how much military spending is necessary, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an economist who doesn’t think we could cut our military substantially with little or no risk to security.