Can we have property rights without violence?

Apr 23, JDN 2457867

Most likely, you have by now heard of the incident on a United Airlines flight, where a man was beaten and dragged out of a plane because the airline decided that they needed more seats than they had. In case you somehow missed all the news articles and memes, the Wikipedia page on the incident is actually fairly good.

There is a lot of gossip about the passenger’s history, which the flight crew couldn’t possibly have known and is therefore irrelevant. By far the best take I’ve seen on the ethical and legal implications of the incident can be found on Naked Capitalism, so if you do want to know more about it I highly recommend starting there. Probably the worst take I’ve read is on The Pilot Wife Life, but I suppose if you want a counterpoint there you go.

I really have little to add on this particular incident; instead my goal here is to contextualize it in a broader discussion of property rights in general.

Despite the fact that what United’s employees and contractors did was obviously unethical and very likely illegal, there are still a large number of people defending their actions. Aiming for a Woodman if not an Ironman, the most coherent defense I’ve heard offered goes something like this:

Yes, what United did in this particular case was excessive. But it’s a mistake to try to make this illegal, because any regulation that did so would necessarily impose upon fundamental property rights. United owns the airplane; they can set the rules for who is allowed to be on that airplane. And once they set those rules, they need to be able to enforce them. Sometimes, however distasteful it may be, that enforcement will require violence. But property rights are too important to give up. Would you want to live in a society where anyone could just barge into your home and you were not allowed to use force to remove them?

Understood in this context, United contractors calling airport security to get a man dragged off of a plane isn’t an isolated act of violence for no reason; it is part of a broader conflict between the protection of property rights and the reduction of violence. “Stand your ground” laws, IMF “structural adjustment” policies, even Trump’s wall against immigrants can be understood as part of this broader conflict.

One very far-left approach to resolving such a conflict—as taken by the Paste editorial “You’re not mad at United Airlines; you’re mad at America”—is to fall entirely on the side of nonviolence, and say essentially that any system which allows the use of violence to protect property rights is fundamentally corrupt and illegitimate.

I can see why such a view is tempting. It’s simple, for one thing, and that’s always appealing. But if you stop and think carefully about the consequences of this hardline stance, it becomes clear that such a system would be unsustainable. If we could truly never use violence ever to protect any property rights, that would mean that property law in general could no longer be enforced. People could in fact literally break into your home and steal your furniture, and you’d have no recourse, because the only way to stop them would involve either using violence yourself or calling the police, who would end up using violence. Property itself would lose all its meaning—and for those on the far-left who think that sounds like a good thing, I want you to imagine what the world would look like if the only things you could ever use were the ones you could physically hold onto, where you’d leave home never knowing whether your clothes or your food would still be there when you came back. A world without property sounds good if you are imagining that the insane riches of corrupt billionaires would collapse; but if you stop and think about coming home to no food and no furniture, perhaps it doesn’t sound so great. And while it does sound nice to have a world where no one is homeless because they can always find a place to sleep, that may seem less appealing if your home is the one that a dozen homeless people decide to squat in.

The Tragedy of the Commons would completely destroy any such economic system; the only way to sustain it would be either to produce such an enormous abundance of wealth that no amount of greed could ever overtake it, or, more likely, somehow re-engineer human brains so that greed no longer exists. I’m not aware of any fundamental limits on greed; as long as social status increases monotonically with wealth, there will be people who try to amass as much wealth as they possibly can, far beyond what any human being could ever actually consume, much less need. How do I know this? Because they already exist; we call them “billionaires”. A billionaire, essentially by definition, is a hoarder of wealth who owns more than any human being could consume. If someone happens upon a billion dollars and immediately donates most of it to charity (as J.K. Rowling did), they can escape such a categorization; and if they use the wealth to achieve grand visionary ambitions—and I mean real visions, not like Steve Jobs but like Elon Musk—perhaps they can as well. Saving the world from climate change and colonizing Mars are the sort of projects that really do take many billions of dollars to achieve. (Then again, shouldn’t our government be doing these things?) And if they just hold onto the wealth or reinvest it to make even more, a billionaire is nothing less than a hoarder, seeking gratification and status via ownership itself.

Indeed, I think the maximum amount of wealth one could ever really need is probably around $10 million in today’s dollars; with that amount, even a very low-risk investment portfolio could supply enough income to live wherever you want, wear whatever you want, drive whatever you want, eat whatever you want, travel whenever you want. At even a 5% return, that’s $500,000 per year to spend without ever working or depleting your savings. At 10%, you’d get a million dollars a year for sitting there and doing nothing. And yet there are people with one thousand times as much wealth as this.

But not all property is of this form. I was about to say “the vast majority” is not, but actually that’s not true; a large proportion of wealth is in fact in the form of capital hoarded by the rich. Indeed, about 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by the richest 1%. (To be fair, the world’s top 1% is a broader category than one might think; the top 1% in the world is about the top 5% in the US; based on census data, that puts the cutoff at about $250,000 in net wealth.) But the majority of people have wealth in some form, and would stand to suffer if property rights were not enforced at all.

So we might be tempted to the other extreme, as the far-right seems to be, and say that any force is justified in the protection of fundamental property rights—that if vagrants step onto my land, I am well within my rights to get out my shotgun. (You know, hypothetically; not that I own a shotgun, or, for that matter, any land.) This seems to appeal especially to those who nostalgize the life on the frontier, “living off the land” (often losing family members to what now seem like trivial bacterial illnesses), “self-sufficient” (with generous government subsidies), in the “unspoiled wilderness” (from which the Army had forcibly removed Native Americans). Westerns have given us this sense that frontier life offers a kind of freedom and adventure that this urbane civilization lacks. And I suppose I am a fan of at least one Western, since one should probably count Firefly.

Yet of course this is madness; no civilization could survive if it really allowed people to just arbitrarily “defend” whatever property claims they decided to make. Indeed, it’s really just the flip side of the coin; as we’ve seen in Somalia (oh, by the way, we’re deploying troops there again), not protecting property and allowing universal violence to defend any perceived property largely amount to the same thing. If anything, the far-left fantasy seems more appealing; at least then we would not be subject to physical violence, and could call upon the authorities to protect us from that. In the far-right fantasy, we could accidentally step on what someone else claims to be his land and end up shot in the head.

So we need to have rules about who can use violence to defend what property and why. And that, of course, is complicated. We can start by having a government that defines property claims and places limits on their enforcement; but that still leaves the question of which sort of property claims and enforcement mechanisms the government should allow.

I think the principle should essentially be minimum force. We do need to protect property rights, yes; but if there is a way of doing so without committing violence, that’s the way we should do it. And if we do need to use violence, we should use as little as possible.

In theory we already do this: We have “rules of engagement” for the military and “codes of conduct” for police. But in practice, these rules are rarely enforced; they only get applied to really extreme violations, and sometimes not even then. The idea seems to be that enforcing strict rules on our soldiers and police officers constitutes disloyalty, even treason. We should “let them do their jobs”. This is the norm that must change. Those rules are their jobs. If they break those rules, they aren’t doing their jobs—they’re doing something else, something that endangers the safety and security of our society. The disloyalty is not in investigating and enforcing rules against police misconduct—the disloyalty is in police misconduct. If you want to be a cop but you’re not willing to follow the rules, you don’t actually want to be a cop—you want to be a bully with a gun and a badge.

And of course, one need not be a government agency in order to use excessive force. Many private corporations have security forces of their own, which frequently abuse and assault people. Most terrifying of all, there are whole corporations of “private military contractors”—let’s call them what they are: mercenaries—like Academi, formerly known as Blackwater. The whole reason these corporations even exist is to evade regulations on military conduct, and that is why they must be eliminated.

In the United case, there was obviously a nonviolent answer; all they had to do was offer to pay people to give up their seats, and bid up the price until enough people left. Someone would have left eventually; there clearly was a market-clearing price. That would have cost $2,000, maybe $5,000 at the most—a lot better than the $255 million lost in United’s stock value as a result of the bad PR.

If a homeless person decides to squat in your house, yes, perhaps you’d be justified in calling the police to remove them. Clearly you’re under no obligation to provide them room and board indefinitely. But there may be better solutions: Is there a homeless shelter in the area? Could you give them a ride there, or at least bus fare?

When immigrants cross our borders, may we turn them away? Now, here’s one where I’m pretty strongly tempted to go all the way and say we have no right whatsoever to stop them. There are no requirements for being born into citizenship, after all—so on what grounds do we add requirements to acquire citizenship? Is there something in the water of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River that, when you drink it for 18 years (processed by municipal water systems of course; what are we, barbarians?), automatically makes you into a patriotic American? Does one become more law-abiding, or less capable of cruelty or fanaticism, by being brought into the world on one side of an imaginary line in the sand? If there are going to be requirements for citizenship, shouldn’t they be applied to everyone, and not just people who were born in the wrong place?

Yes, when we have no other choice, we must be prepared to use violence to defend property—because otherwise, there’s no such thing as property. But more often than not, we use violence when we didn’t need to, or use much more violence than was actually necessary. The principle that violence can be justified in defense of property does not entail that any violence is always justified in defense of property.

What does it mean to “own” an idea?

JDN 2457195 EDT 11:29.

For a long time I’ve been suspicious of intellectual property as current formulated, but I’m never quite sure what to replace it with. I recently finished reading a surprisingly compelling little book called Against Intellectual Monopoly, which offered some more direct empirical support for many of my more philosophical concerns. (Fitting their opposition to copyright law, the authors, Michele Boldrin and David Levine, offer the full text of the book for free online.)

Boldrin and Levine argue that they are not in fact opposed to intellectual property, but intellectual monopoly. I think this is a bit of a silly distinction myself, and in fact muddles the issue a little because most of what we currently call “intellectual property” is in fact what they call “intellectual monopoly”.

The problems with intellectual property are well-documented within, but I think it’s worth repeating at least the basic form of the argument. Intellectual property is supposed to incentivize innovation by rewarding innovators for their investment, and thereby increase the total amount of innovation.

This requires three conditions to hold: First, the intellectual property must actually reward the innovators. Second, innovation must be increased when innovators seek rewards. And third, the costs of implementing the policy must be exceeded by the benefits provided by it.

As it turns out, none of those three conditions to hold. For intellectual property to make sense, they would all need to hold; and in fact none do.

First—and worst—of all, intellectual property does not actually reward innovators. It instead rewards those who manipulate the intellectual property system. Intellectual property is why Thomas Edison was wealthy and Nikola Tesla was poor. Intellectual property is why we keep getting new versions of the same pills for erectile dysfunction instead of an AIDS vaccine. Intellectual property is how we get patent troll corporations, submarine patents, and Samsung owing Apple $1 billion for making its smartphones the wrong shape. Intellectual property is how Worlds.com is proposing to sue an entire genre of video games.

Second, the best innovators are not motivated by individual rewards. This has always been true; the people who really contribute the most to the world in knowledge or creativity are those who do it out of an insatiable curiosity, or a direct desire to improve the world. People who are motivated primarily by profit only innovate as a last resort, instead preferring to manipulate laws, undermine competitors, or simply mass-produce safe, popular products.

I can think of no more vivid an example here than Hollywood. Why is it that every single new movie that comes out is basically a more expensive rehash of the exact same 5 movies that have been coming out for the last 50 years? Because big corporations don’t innovate. It’s too risky to try to make a movie that’s fundamentally new and different, because, odds are, that new movie would fail. It’s much safer to make an endless series of superhero movies and keep coming out with yet another movie about a heroic dog. It’s not even that these movies are bad—they’re often pretty good, and when done well (like Avengers) they can be quite enjoyable. But thousands of original screenplays are submitted to Hollywood every year, and virtually none of them are actually made into films. It’s impossible to know what great works of film we might have seen on the big screen if not for the stranglehold of media companies.

This is not how Hollywood began; it started out wildly innovative and new. But did you ever know why it started in Los Angeles and not somewhere else? It was to evade patent laws. Thomas Edison, the greatest patent troll in history, held a stranglehold on motion picture technology on the East Coast, so filmmakers fled to California to get as far away from there as possible, during a time when Federal enforcement was much more lax. The innovation that created Los Angeles as we know it not only was not incentivized by intellectual property protection—it was only possible in its absence.

And then of course there is the third condition, that the benefits be worth the costs—but it’s trivially obvious that this is not the case, since the benefits are in fact basically zero. We divert billions of dollars from consumers to huge corporations, monopolize the world’s ideas, create a system of surveillance and enforcement that makes basically everyone a criminal (I’ll admit it; I have pirated music, software, and most recently the film My Neighbor Totoro, and I often copy video games I own on CD or DVD to digital images so I don’t need the CD or DVD every time to play—which should be fair use but has been enforced as copyright violation). When everyone is a criminal, enforcement becomes capricious, a means of control that can be used and abused by those in power.

Intellectual property even allows corporations to undermine our more basic sense of property ownership—they can prevent us from making use of our own goods as we choose. They can punish us for modifying the software in our computers, our video game systems—or even our cars. They can install software on our computers that compromises our security in order to protect their copyright. This is a point that Boldrin and Levine repeat several times; in place of what we call “intellectual property” (and they call “intellectual monopoly”), they offer a system which would protect our ordinary property rights, our rights to do what we choose with the goods that we purchase—goods that include books, computers, and DVDs.

That brings me to where I think their argument is weakest—their policy proposal. Basically the policy they propose is that we eliminate all intellectual property rights (except trademarks, which they rightly point out are really more about honesty than they are about property—trademark violation typically amounts to fraudulently claiming that your product was made by someone it wasn’t), and then do nothing else. The only property rights would be ordinary property rights, which would know apply in full to products such as books and DVDs. When you buy a DVD, you would have the right to do whatever you please with it, up to and including copying it a hundred times and selling the copies. You bought the DVD, you bought the blank discs, you bought the burner; so (goes their argument), why shouldn’t you be able to do what you want with them?

For patents, I think their argument is basically correct. I’ve tried to make lists of the greatest innovations in science in technology, and virtually none of them were in any way supported by patents. We needn’t go as far back as fire, writing, and the wheel; think about penicillin, the smallpox vaccine, electricity, digital computing, superconductors, lasers, the Internet. Airplanes might seem like they were invented under patent, but in fact the Wright brothers made a relatively small contribution and most of the really important development in aircraft was done by the military. Important medicines are almost always funded by the NIH, while private pharmaceutical companies give us Viagra at best and Vioxx at worst. Private companies have an incentive to skew their trials in various ways, ranging from simply questionable (p-value hacking) to the outright fraudulent (tampering with data). We know they do, because meta-analyses have found clear biases in the literature. The NIH has much less incentive to bias results in this way, and as a result more of the drugs released will be safe and effective. Boldrin and Levine recommend that all drug trials be funded by the NIH instead of drug companies, and I couldn’t agree more. What basis would drug companies have for complaining? We’re giving them something they previously had to pay for. But of course they will complain, because now their drugs will be subject to unbiased scrutiny. Moreover, it undercuts much of the argument for their patent; without the initial cost of large-scale drug trials, it’s harder to see why they need patents to make a profit.

Major innovations have been the product of individuals working out of curiosity, or random chance, or university laboratories, or government research projects; but they are rarely motivated by patents and they are almost never created by corporations. Corporations do invent incremental advancements, but many of these they keep as trade secrets, or go ahead and share, knowing that reverse-engineering takes time and investment. The great innovations of the computer industry (like high-level programming languages, personal computers, Ethernet, USB ports, and windowed operating systems) were all invented before software could be patented—and since then, what have we really gotten? In fact, it can be reasonably argued that patents reduce innovation; most innovations are built on previous innovations, and patents hinder that process of assimilation and synthesis. Patent pools can mitigate this effect, but only for oligopolistic insiders, which almost by definition are less innovative than disruptive outsiders.

And of course, patents on software and biological systems should be invalidated yesterday. If we must have patents, they should be restricted only to entities that cannot self-replicate, which means no animals, no plants, no DNA, nothing alive, no software, and for good measure, no grey goo nanobots. (It also makes sense at a basic level: How can you stop people from copying it, when it can copy itself?)

It’s when we get to copyright that I’m not so convinced. I certainly agree that the current copyright system suffers from deep problems. When your photos can be taken without your permission and turned into works of art but you can’t make a copy of a video game onto your hard drive to play it more conveniently, clearly something is wrong with our copyright system. I also agree that there is something fundamentally problematic about saying that one “owns” a text in such a way that they can decide what others do with it. When you read my work, copies of the information I convey to you are stored inside your brain; do I now own a piece of your brain? If you print out my blog post on a piece of paper and then photocopy it, how can I own something you made with your paper on your printer?

I release all my blog posts under a “by-sa” copyleft, “attribution-share-alike”, which requires that my work be shared without copyright protection and properly attributed to me. You are however free to sell them, modify them, or use them however you like, given those constraints. I think that something like this may be the best system for protecting authors against plagiarism without unduly restricting the rights of readers to copy, modify, and otherwise use the content they buy. Applied to software, the Free Software Foundation basically agrees.

Boldrin and Levine do not, however; they think that even copyleft is too much, because it imposes restrictions upon buyers. They do agree that plagiarism should be illegal (because it is fraudulent), but they disagree with the “share-alike” part, the requirement that content be licensed according to what the author demands. As far as they are concerned, you bought the book, and you can do whatever you damn well please with it. In practice there probably isn’t a whole lot of difference between these two views, since in the absence of copyright there isn’t nearly as much need for copyleft. I don’t really need to require you to impose a free license if you can’t impose any license at all. (When I say “free” I mean libre, not gratis; free as in speech, not as in beerRed Hat Linux is free software you pay for, and Zynga games are horrifically predatory proprietary software you get for free.)

One major difference is that under copyleft we could impose requirements to release information under certain circumstances—I have in mind particularly scientific research papers and associated data. To maximize the availability of knowledge and facilitate peer review, it could be a condition of publication for scientific research that the paper and data be made publicly available under a free license—already this is how research done directly for the government works (at least the stuff that isn’t classified). But under a strict system of physical property only this sort of licensing would be a violation of the publishers’ property rights to do as they please with their servers and hard drives.

But there are legitimate concerns to be had even about simply moving to a copyleft system. I am a fiction author, and I submit books for publication. (This is not hypothetical; I actually do this.) Under the current system, I own the copyright to those books, and if the publisher decides to use them (thus far, only JukePop Serials, a small online publisher, has ever done so), they must secure my permission, presumably by means of a royalty contract. They can’t simply take whatever manuscripts they like and publish them. But if I submitted under a copyleft, they absolutely could. As long as my name were on the cover, they wouldn’t have to pay me a dime. (Charles Darwin certainly didn’t get a dime from Ray Comfort’s edition of The Origin of Species—yes, that is a thing.)

Now the question becomes, would they? There might be a competitive equilbrium where publishers are honest and do in fact pay their authors. If they fail to do so, authors are likely to stop submitting to that publisher once it acquires its shady reputation. If we can reach the equilibrium where authors get paid, that’s almost certainly better than today; the only people I can see it hurting are major publishing houses like Pearson PLC and superstar authors like J.K. Rowling; and even then it wouldn’t hurt them all that much. (Rowling might only be a millionaire instead of a billionaire, and Pearson PLC might see its net income drop from over $500 million to say $10 million.) The average author would most likely benefit, because publishers would have more incentive to invest in their midlist when they can’t crank out hundreds of millions of dollars from their superstars. Books would proliferate at bargain prices, and we could all double the size of our libraries. The net effect on the book market would be to reduce the winner-takes-all effect, which can only be a good thing.

But that isn’t the only possibility. The incentive to steal authors’ work when they submit it could instead create an equilibrium where hardly anyone publishes fiction anymore; and that world is surely worse than the one we live in today. We would want to think about how we can ensure that authors are adequately paid for their work in a copyleft system. Maybe some can make their money from speaking tours and book signings, but I’m not confident that enough can.

I do have one idea, similar to what Thomas Pogge came up with in his “public goods system”, though he primarily intended that to apply to medicine. The basic concept is that there would be a fund, either gathered from donations or supported by taxes, that supports artists. (Actually we already have the National Endowment for the Arts, but it isn’t nearly big enough.) This support would be doled out based on some metric of the artists’ popularity or artistic importance. The details of that are quite tricky, but I think one could arrange some sort of voting system where people use range voting to decide how much to give to each author, musician, painter, or filmmaker. Potentially even research funding could be set this way, with people voting to decide how important they think a particular project is—though I fear that people may be too ignorant to accurately gauge the important of certain lines of research, as when Sarah Palin mocked studies of “fruit flies in Paris”, otherwise known as literally the foundation of modern genetics. Maybe we could vote instead on research goals like “eliminate cancer” and “achieve interstellar travel” and then the scientific community could decide how to allocate funds toward those goals? The details are definitely still fuzzy in my mind.

The general principle, however, would be that if we want to support investment in innovation, we do that—instead of devising this bizarre system of monopoly that gives corporations growing power over our lives. Subsidize investment by subsidizing investment. (I feel similarly about capital taxes; we could incentivize investment in this vague roundabout way by doing nothing to redistribute wealth and hoping that all the arbitrage and speculation somehow translates into real investment… or, you know, we could give tax credits to companies that build factories.) As Boldrin and Levine point out, intellectual property laws were not actually created to protect innovation; they were an outgrowth of the general power of kings and nobles to enforce monopolies on various products during the era of mercantilism. They were weakened to be turned into our current system, not strengthened. They are, in fact, fundamentally mercantilist—and nothing could make that clearer than the TRIPS accord, which literally allows millions of people to die from treatable diseases in order to increase the profits of pharmaceutical companies. Far from being this modern invention that brought upon the scientific revolution, intellectual property is an atavistic policy borne from the age of colonial kings. I think it’s time we try something new.
(Oh, and one last thing: “Piracy”? Really? I can’t believe the linguistic coup it was for copyright holders to declare that people who copy music might as well be slavers and murderers—somehow people went along with this ridiculous terminology. No, there is no such thing as “music piracy” or “software piracy”; there is music copyright violation and software copyright violation.)

The winner-takes-all effect

JDN 2457054 PST 14:06.

As I write there is some sort of mariachi band playing on my front lawn. It is actually rather odd that I have a front lawn, since my apartment is set back from the road; yet there is the patch of grass, and there is the band playing upon it. This sort of thing is part of the excitement of living in a large city (and Long Beach would seem like a large city were it not right next to the sprawling immensity that is Los Angeles—there are more people in Long Beach than in Cleveland, but there are more people in greater Los Angeles than in Sweden); with a certain critical mass of human beings comes unexpected pieces of culture.

The fact that people agglomerate in this way is actually relevant to today’s topic, which is what I will call the winner-takes-all effect. I actually just finished reading a book called The Winner-Take-All Society, which is particularly horrifying to read because it came out in 1996. That’s almost twenty years ago, and things were already bad; and since then everything it describes has only gotten worse.

What is the winner-takes-all effect? It is the simple fact that in competitive capitalist markets, a small difference in quality can yield an enormous difference in return. The third most popular soda drink company probably still makes drinks that are pretty good, but do you have any idea what it is? There’s Coke, there’s Pepsi, and then there’s… uh… Dr. Pepper, apparently! But I didn’t know that before today and I bet you didn’t either. Now think about what it must be like to be the 15th most popular soda drink company, or the 37th. That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

I don’t generally follow football, but since tomorrow is the Super Bowl I feel some obligation to use that example as well. The highest-paid quarterback is Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, who is signing onto a five-year contract worth $110 million ($22 million a year). In annual income that will make him pass Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears who has a seven-year contract worth $127 million ($18.5 million a year). This shift may have something to do with the fact that the Seahawks are in the Super Bowl this year and the Bears are not (they haven’t since 2007). Now consider what life is like for most football players; the median income of football players is most likely zero (at least as far as football-related income), and the median income of NFL players—the cream of the crop already—is $770,000; that’s still very good money of course (more than Krugman makes, actually! But he could make more, if he were willing to sell out to Wall Street), but it’s barely 1/30 of what Wilson is going to be making. To make that million-dollar salary, you need to be the best, of the best, of the best (sir!). That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

To go back to the example of cities, it is for similar reasons that the largest cities (New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi) become packed with tens of millions of people while others (Long Beach, Ann Arbor, Cleveland) get hundreds of thousands and most (Petoskey, Ketchikan, Heber City, and hundreds of others you’ve never heard of) get only a few thousand. Beyond that there are thousands of tiny little hamlets that many don’t even consider cities. The median city probably has about 10,000 people in it, and that only because we’d stop calling it a city if it fell below 1,000. If we include every tiny little village, the median town size is probably about 20 people. Meanwhile the largest city in the world is Tokyo, with a greater metropolitan area that holds almost 38 million people—or to put it another way almost exactly as many people as California. Huh, LA doesn’t seem so big now does it? How big is a typical town? Well, that’s the thing about this sort of power-law distribution; the concept of “typical” or “average” doesn’t really apply anymore. Each little piece of the distribution has basically the same shape as the whole distribution, so there isn’t a “typical” size or scale. That’s the winner-takes-all effect.

As they freely admit in the book, it isn’t literally that a single winner takes everything. That is the theoretical maximum level of wealth inequality, and fortunately no society has ever quite reached it. The closest we get in today’s society is probably Saudi Arabia, which recently lost its king—and yes I do mean king in the fullest sense of the word, a man of virtually unlimited riches and near-absolute power. His net wealth was estimated at $18 billion, which frankly sounds low; still even if that’s half the true amount it’s oddly comforting to know that he is still not quite as rich as Bill Gates ($78 billion), who earned his wealth at least semi-legitimately in a basically free society. Say what you will about intellectual property rents and market manipulation—and you know I do—but they are worlds away from what Abdullah’s family did, which was literally and directly robbed from millions of people by the power of the sword. Mostly he just inherited all that, and he did implement some minor reforms, but make no mistake: He was ruthless and by no means willing to give up his absolute power—he beheaded dozens of political dissidents, for example. Saudi Arabia does spread their wealth around a little, such that basically no one is below the UN poverty lines of $1.25 and $2 per day, but about a fourth of the population is below the national poverty line—which is just about the same distribution of wealth as what we have in the US, which actually makes me wonder just how free and legitimate our markets really are.

The winner-takes-all effect would really be more accurately described as the “top small fraction takes the vast majority” effect, but that isn’t nearly as catchy, now is it?

There are several different causes that can all lead to this same result. In the book, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that we should not attribute the cause to market manipulation, but in fact to the natural functioning of competitive markets. There’s something to be said for this—I used to buy the whole idea that competitive markets are the best, but increasingly I’ve been seeing ways that less competitive markets can make better overall outcomes.

Where they lose me is in arguing that the skyrocketing compensation packages for CEOs are due to their superior performance, and corporations are just being rational in competing for the best CEOs. If that were true, we wouldn’t find that the rank correlation between the CEO’s pay and the company’s stock performance is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Actually even a small positive correlation wouldn’t prove that the CEOs are actually performing well; it could just be that companies that perform well are willing to pay their CEOs more—and stock option compensation will do this automatically. But in fact the correlation is so tiny as to be negligible; corporations would be better off hiring a random person off the street and paying them $50,000 for all the CEO does for their stock performance. If you adjust for the size of the company, you find that having a higher-paid CEO is positively related to performance for small startups, but negatively correlated for large well-established corporations. No, clearly there’s something going on here besides competitive pay for high performance—corruption comes to mind, which you’ll remember was the subject of my master’s thesis.

But in some cases there isn’t any apparent corruption, and yet we still see these enormously unequal distributions of income. Another good example of this is the publishing industry, in which J.K. Rowling can make over $1 billion (she donated enough to charity to officially lose her billionaire status) but most authors make little or nothing, particularly those who can’t get published in the first place. I have no reason to believe that J.K. Rowling acquired this massive wealth by corruption; she just sold an awful lot of booksover 100 million of the first Harry Potter book alone.

But why would she be able to sell 100 million while thousands of authors write books that are probably just as good or nearly so make nothing? Am I just bitter and envious, as Mitt Romney would say? Is J.K. Rowling actually a million times as good an author as I am?

Obviously not, right? She may be better, but she’s not that much better. So how is it that she ends up making a million times as much as I do from writing? It feels like squaring the circle: How can markets be efficient and competitive, yet some people are being paid millions of times as others despite being only slightly more productive?

The answer is simple but enormously powerful: positive feedback.Once you start doing well, it’s easier to do better. You have what economists call an economy of scale. The first 10,000 books sold is the hardest; then the next 10,000 is a little easier; the next 10,000 a little easier still. In fact I suspect that in many cases the first 10% growth is harder than the second 10% growth and so on—which is actually a much stronger claim. For my sales to grow 10% I’d need to add like 20 people. For J.K. Rowling’s sales to grow 10% she’d need to add 10 million. Yet it might actually be easier for J.K. Rowling to add 10 million than for me to add 20. If not, it isn’t much harder. Suppose we tried by just sending out enticing tweets. I have about 100 Twitter followers, so I’d need 0.2 sales per follower; she has about 4 million, so she’d need an average of 2.5 sales per follower. That’s an advantage for me, percentage-wise—but if we have the same uptake rate I sell 20 books and she sells 800,000.

If you have only a handful of book sales like I do, those sales are static; but once you cross that line into millions of sales, it’s easy for that to spread into tens or even hundreds of millions. In the particular case of books, this is because it spreads by word-of-mouth; say each person who reads a book recommends it to 10 friends, and you only read a book if at least 2 of your friends recommended it. In a city of 100,000 people, if you start with 50 people reading it, odds are that most of those people don’t have friends that overlap and so you stop at 50. But if you start at 50,000, there is bound to be a great deal of overlap; so then that 50,000 recruits another 10,000, then another 10,000, and pretty soon the whole 100,000 have read it. In this case we have what are called network externalitiesyou’re more likely to read a book if your friends have read it, so the more people there are who have read it, the more people there are who want to read it. There’s a very similar effect at work in social networks; why does everyone still use Facebook, even though it’s actually pretty awful? Because everyone uses Facebook. Less important than the quality of the software platform (Google Plus is better, and there are some third-party networks that are likely better still) is the fact that all your friends and family are on it. We all use Facebook because we all use Facebook? We all read Harry Potter books because we all read Harry Potter books? The first rule of tautology club is…

Languages are also like this, which is why I can write this post in English and yet people can still read it around the world. English is the winner of the language competition (we call it the lingua franca, as weird as that is—French is not the lingua franca anymore). The losers are those hundreds of New Guinean languages you’ve never heard of, many of which are dying. And their distribution obeys, once again, a power-law. (Individual words actually obey a power-law as well, which makes this whole fractal business delightfully ever more so.)
Network externalities are not the only way that the winner-takes-all effect can occur, though I think it is the most common. You can also have economies of scale from the supply side, particularly in the case of information: Recording a song is a lot of time and effort, but once you record a song, it’s trivial to make more copies of it. So that first recording costs a great deal, while every subsequent recording costs next to nothing. This is probably also at work in the case of J.K. Rowling and the NFL; the two phenomena are by no means mutually exclusive. But clearly the sizes of cities are due to network externalities: It’s quite expensive to live in a big city—no supply-side economy of scale—but you want to live in a city where other people live because that’s where friends and family and opportunities are.

The most worrisome kind of winner-takes-all effect is what Frank and Cook call deep pockets: Once you have concentration of wealth in a few hands, those few individuals can now choose their own winners in a much more literal sense: the rich can commission works of art from their favorite artists, exacerbating the inequality among artists; worse yet they can use their money to influence politicians (as the Kochs are planning on spending $900 million—$3 for every person in America—to do in 2016) and exacerbate the inequality in the whole system. That gives us even more positive feedback on top of all the other positive feedbacks.

Sure enough, if you run the standard neoclassical economic models of competition and just insert the assumption of economies of scale, the result is concentration of wealth—in fact, if nothing about the rules prevents it, the result is a complete monopoly. Nor is this result in any sense economically efficient; it’s just what naturally happens in the presence of economies of scale.

Frank and Cook seem most concerned about the fact that these winner-take-all incomes will tend to push too many people to seek those careers, leaving millions of would-be artists, musicians and quarterbacks with dashed dreams when they might have been perfectly happy as electrical engineers or high school teachers. While this may be true—next week I’ll go into detail about prospect theory and why human beings are terrible at making judgments based on probability—it isn’t really what I’m most concerned about. For all the cost of frustrated ambition there is also a good deal of benefit; striving for greatness does not just make the world better if we succeed, it can make ourselves better even if we fail. I’d strongly encourage people to have backup plans; but I’m not going to tell people to stop painting, singing, writing, or playing football just because they’re unlikely to make a living at it. The one concern I do have is that the competition is so fierce that we are pressured to go all in, to not have backup plans, to use performance-enhancing drugs—they may carry awful risks, but they also work. And it’s probably true, actually, that you’re a bit more likely to make it all the way to the top if you don’t have a backup plan. You’re also vastly more likely to end up at the bottom. Is raising your probability of being a bestselling author from 0.00011% to 0.00012% worth giving up all other career options? Skipping chemistry class to practice football may improve your chances of being an NFL quarterback from 0.000013% to 0.000014%, but it will also drop your chances of being a chemical engineer from 95% (a degree in chemical engineering almost guarantees you a job eventually) to more like 5% (it’s hard to get a degree when you flunk all your classes).

Frank and Cook offer a solution that I think is basically right; they call it positional arms control agreements. By analogy with arms control agreements between nations—and what is war, if not the ultimate winner-takes-all contest?—they propose that we use taxation and regulation policy to provide incentives to make people compete less fiercely for the top positions. Some of these we already do: Performance-enhancing drugs are banned in professional sports, for instance. Even where there are no regulations, we can use social norms: That’s why it’s actually a good thing that your parents rarely support your decision to drop out of school and become a movie star.

That’s yet another reason why progressive taxation is a good idea, as if we needed another; by paring down those top incomes it makes the prospect of winning big less enticing. If NFL quarterbacks only made 10 times what chemical engineers make instead of 300 times, people would be a lot more hesitant to give up on chemical engineering to become a quarterback. If top Wall Street executives only made 50 times what normal people make instead of 5000, people with physics degrees might go back to actually being physicists instead of speculating on stock markets.

There is one case where we might not want fewer people to try, and that is entrepreneurship. Most startups fail, and only a handful go on to make mind-bogglingly huge amounts of money (often for no apparent reason, like the Snuggie and Flappy Bird), yet entrepreneurship is what drives the dynamism of a capitalist economy. We need people to start new businesses, and right now they do that mainly because of a tiny chance of a huge benefit. Yet we don’t want them to be too unrealistic in their expectations: Entrepreneurs are much more optimistic than the general population, but the most successful entrepreneurs are a bit less optimistic than other entrepreneurs. The most successful strategy is to be optimistic but realistic; this outperforms both unrealistic optimism and pessimism. That seems pretty intuitive; you have to be confident you’ll succeed, but you can’t be totally delusional. Yet it’s precisely the realistic optimists who are most likely to be disincentivized by a reduction in the top prizes.

Here’s my solution: Let’s change it from a tiny change of a huge benefit to a large chance of a moderately large benefit. Let’s reward entrepreneurs for trying—with standards for what constitutes a really serious, good attempt rather than something frivolous that was guaranteed to fail. Use part of the funds from the progressive tax as a fund for angel grants, provided to a large number of the most promising entrepreneurs. It can’t be a million-dollar prize for the top 100. It needs to be more like a $50,000 prize for the top 100,000 (which would cost $5 billion a year, affordable for the US government). It should be paid at the proposal phase; the top 100,000 business plans receive the funding and are under no obligation to repay it. It has to be enough money that someone can rationally commit themselves to years of dedicated work without throwing themselves into poverty, and it has to be confirmed money so that they don’t have to worry about throwing themselves into debt. As for the upper limit, it only needs to be small enough that there is still an incentive for the business to succeed; but even with a 99% tax Mark Zuckerberg would still be a millionaire, so the rewards for success are high indeed.

The good news is that we actually have such a system to some extent. For research scientists rather than entrepreneurs, NSF grants are pretty close to what I have in mind, but at present they are a bit too competitive: 8,000 research grants with a median of $130,000 each and a 20% acceptance rate isn’t quite enough people—the acceptance rate should be higher, since most of these proposals are quite worthy. Still, it’s close, and definitely a much better incentive system than what we have for entrepreneurs; there are almost 12 million entrepreneurs in the United States, starting 6 million businesses a year, 75% of which fail before they can return their venture capital. Those that succeed have incomes higher than the general population, with a median income of around $70,000 per year, but most of this is accounted for by the fact that entrepreneurs are more educated and talented than the general population. Once you factor that in, successful entrepreneurs have about 50% more income on average, but their standard deviation of income is also 60% higher—so some are getting a lot and some are getting very little. Since 75% fail, we’re talking about a 25% chance of entering an income distribution that’s higher on average but much more variable, and a 75% chance of going through a period with little or no income at all—is it worth it? Maybe, maybe not. But if you could get a guaranteed $50,000 for having a good idea—and let me be clear, only serious proposals that have a good chance of success should qualify—that deal sounds an awful lot better.