The real Existential Risk we should be concerned about

JDN 2457458

There is a rather large subgroup within the rationalist community (loosely defined because organizing freethinkers is like herding cats) that focuses on existential risks, also called global catastrophic risks. Prominent examples include Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Their stated goal in life is to save humanity from destruction. And when you put it that way, it sounds pretty darn important. How can you disagree with wanting to save humanity from destruction?

Well, there are actually people who do (the Voluntary Human Extinction movement), but they are profoundly silly. It should be obvious to anyone with even a basic moral compass that saving humanity from destruction is a good thing.

It’s not the goal of fighting existential risk that bothers me. It’s the approach. Specifically, they almost all seem to focus on exotic existential risks, vivid and compelling existential risks that are the stuff of great science fiction stories. In particular, they have a rather odd obsession with AI.

Maybe it’s the overlap with Singularitarians, and their inability to understand that exponentials are not arbitrarily fast; if you just keep projecting the growth in computing power as growing forever, surely eventually we’ll have a computer powerful enough to solve all the world’s problems, right? Well, yeah, I guess… if we can actually maintain the progress that long, which we almost certainly can’t, and if the problems turn out to be computationally tractable at all (the fastest possible computer that could fit inside the observable universe could not brute-force solve the game of Go, though a heuristic AI did just beat one of the world’s best players), and/or if we find really good heuristic methods of narrowing down the solution space… but that’s an awful lot of “if”s.

But AI isn’t what we need to worry about in terms of saving humanity from destruction. Nor is it asteroid impacts; NASA has been doing a good job watching for asteroids lately, and estimates the current risk of a serious impact (by which I mean something like a city-destroyer or global climate shock, not even a global killer) at around 1/10,000 per year. Alien invasion is right out; we can’t even find clear evidence of bacteria on Mars, and the skies are so empty of voices it has been called a paradox. Gamma ray bursts could kill us, and we aren’t sure about the probability of that (we think it’s small?), but much like brain aneurysms, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do to prevent them.

There is one thing that we really need to worry about destroying humanity, and one other thing that could potentially get close over a much longer timescale. The long-range threat is ecological collapse; as global climate change gets worse and the oceans become more acidic and the aquifers are drained, we could eventually reach the point where humanity cannot survive on Earth, or at least where our population collapses so severely that civilization as we know it is destroyed. This might not seem like such a threat, since we would see this coming decades or centuries in advance—but we are seeing it coming decades or centuries in advance, and yet we can’t seem to get the world’s policymakers to wake up and do something about it. So that’s clearly the second-most important existential risk.

But the most important existential risk, by far, no question, is nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are the only foreseeable, preventable means by which humanity could be destroyed in the next twenty minutes.

Yes, that is approximately the time it takes an ICBM to hit its target after launch. There are almost 4,000 ICBMs currently deployed, mostly by the US and Russia. Once we include submarine-launched missiles and bombers, the total number of global nuclear weapons is over 15,000. I apologize for terrifying you by saying that these weapons could be deployed in a moment’s notice to wipe out most of human civilization within half an hour, followed by a global ecological collapse and fallout that would endanger the future of the entire human race—but it’s the truth. If you’re not terrified, you’re not paying attention.

I’ve intentionally linked the Union of Concerned Scientists as one of those sources. Now they are people who understand existential risk. They don’t talk about AI and asteroids and aliens (how alliterative). They talk about climate change and nuclear weapons.

We must stop this. We must get rid of these weapons. Next to that, literally nothing else matters.

“What if we’re conquered by tyrants?” It won’t matter. “What if there is a genocide?” It won’t matter. “What if there is a global economic collapse?” None of these things will matter, if the human race wipes itself out with nuclear weapons.

To speak like an economist for a moment, the utility of a global nuclear war must be set at negative infinity. Any detectable reduction in the probability of that event must be considered worth paying any cost to achieve. I don’t care if it costs $20 trillion and results in us being taken over by genocidal fascists—we are talking about the destruction of humanity. We can spend $20 trillion (actually the US as a whole does every 14 months!). We can survive genocidal fascists. We cannot survive nuclear war.

The good news is, we shouldn’t actually have to pay that sort of cost. All we have to do is dismantle our nuclear arsenal, and get other countries—particularly Russia—to dismantle theirs. In the long run, we will increase our wealth as our efforts are no longer wasted maintaining doomsday machines.

The main challenge is actually a matter of game theory. The surprisingly-sophisticated 1990s cartoon show the Animaniacs basically got it right when they sang: “We’d beat our swords into liverwurst / Down by the East Riverside / But no one wants to be the first!”

The thinking, anyway, is that this is basically a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If the US disarms and Russia doesn’t, Russia can destroy the US. Conversely, if Russia disarms and the US doesn’t, the US can destroy Russia. If neither disarms, we’re left where we are. Whether or not the other country disarms, you’re always better off not disarming. So neither country disarms.

But I contend that it is not, in fact, a Prisoner’s Dilemma. It could be a Stag Hunt; if that’s the case, then only multilateral disarmament makes sense, because the best outcome is if we both disarm, but the worst outcome is if we disarm and they don’t. Once we expect them to disarm, we have no temptation to renege on the deal ourselves; but if we think there’s a good chance they won’t, we might not want to either. Stag Hunts have two stable Nash equilibria; one is where both arm, the other where both disarm.

But in fact, I think it may be simply the trivial game.

There aren’t actually that many possible symmetric two-player nonzero-sum games (basically it’s a question of ordering 4 possibilities, and it’s symmetric, so 12 possible games), and one that we never talk about (because it’s sort of boring) is the trivial game: If I do the right thing and you do the right thing, we’re both better off. If you do the wrong thing and I do the right thing, I’m better off. If we both do the wrong thing, we’re both worse off. So, obviously, we both do the right thing, because we’d be idiots not to. Formally, we say that cooperation is a strictly dominant strategy. There’s no dilemma, no paradox; the self-interested strategy is the optimal strategy. (I find it kind of amusing that laissez-faire economics basically amounts to assuming that all real-world games are the trivial game.)

That is, I don’t think the US would actually benefit from nuking Russia, even if we could do so without retaliation. Likewise, I don’t think Russia would actually benefit from nuking the US. One of the things we’ve discovered—the hardest way possible—through human history is that working together is often better for everyone than fighting. Russia could nuke NATO, and thereby destroy all of their largest trading partners, or they could continue trading with us. Even if they are despicable psychopaths who think nothing of committing mass murder (Putin might be, but surely there are people under his command who aren’t?), it’s simply not in Russia’s best interest to nuke the US and Europe. Likewise, it is not in our best interest to nuke them.

Nuclear war is a strange game: The only winning move is not to play.

So I say, let’s stop playing. Yes, let’s unilaterally disarm, the thing that so many policy analysts are terrified of because they’re so convinced we’re in a Prisoner’s Dilemma or a Stag Hunt. “What’s to stop them from destroying us, if we make it impossible for us to destroy them!?” I dunno, maybe basic human decency, or failing that, rationality?

Several other countries have already done this—South Africa unilaterally disarmed, and nobody nuked them. Japan refused to build nuclear weapons in the first place—and I think it says something that they’re the only people to ever have them used against them.

Our conventional military is plenty large enough to defend us against all realistic threats, and could even be repurposed to defend against nuclear threats as well, by a method I call credible targeted conventional response. Instead of building ever-larger nuclear arsenals to threaten devastation in the world’s most terrifying penis-measuring contest, you deploy covert operatives (perhaps Navy SEALS in submarines, or double agents, or these days even stealth drones) around the world, with the standing order that if they have reason to believe a country initiated a nuclear attack, they will stop at nothing to hunt down and kill the specific people responsible for that attack. Not the country they came from; not the city they live in; those specific people. If a leader is enough of a psychopath to be willing to kill 300 million people in another country, he’s probably enough of a psychopath to be willing to lose 150 million people in his own country. He likely has a secret underground bunker that would allow him to survive, at least if humanity as a whole does. So you should be threatening the one thing he does care about—himself. You make sure he knows that if he pushes that button, you’ll find that bunker, drop in from helicopters, and shoot him in the face.

The “targeted conventional response” should be clear by now—you use non-nuclear means to respond, and you target the particular leaders responsible—but let me say a bit more about the “credible” part. The threat of mutually-assured destruction is actually not a credible one. It’s not what we call in game theory a subgame perfect Nash equilibrium. If you know that Russia has launched 1500 ICBMs to destroy every city in America, you actually have no reason at all to retaliate with your own 1500 ICBMs, and the most important reason imaginable not to. Your people are dead either way; you can’t save them. You lose. The only question now is whether you risk taking the rest of humanity down with you. If you have even the most basic human decency, you will not push that button. You will not “retaliate” in useless vengeance that could wipe out human civilization. Thus, your threat is a bluff—it is not credible.

But if your response is targeted and conventional, it suddenly becomes credible. It’s exactly reversed; you now have every reason to retaliate, and no reason not to. Your covert operation teams aren’t being asked to destroy humanity; they’re being tasked with finding and executing the greatest mass murderer in history. They don’t have some horrific moral dilemma to resolve; they have the opportunity to become the world’s greatest heroes. Indeed, they’d very likely have the whole world (or what’s left of it) on their side; even the population of the attacking country would rise up in revolt and the double agents could use the revolt as cover. Now you have no reason to even hesitate; your threat is completely credible. The only question is whether you can actually pull it off, and if we committed the full resources of the United States military to preparing for this possibility, I see no reason to doubt that we could. If a US President can be assassinated by a lone maniac (and yes, that is actually what happened), then the world’s finest covert operations teams can assassinate whatever leader pushed that button.

This is a policy that works both unilaterally and multilaterally. We could even assemble an international coalition—perhaps make the UN “peacekeepers” put their money where their mouth is and train the finest special operatives in the history of the world tasked with actually keeping the peace.

Let’s not wait for someone else to save humanity from destruction. Let’s be the first.

The Tragedy of the Commons

JDN 2457387

In a previous post I talked about one of the most fundamental—perhaps the most fundamental—problem in game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and how neoclassical economic theory totally fails to explain actual human behavior when faced with this problem in both experiments and the real world.

As a brief review, the essence of the game is that both players can either cooperate or defect; if they both cooperate, the outcome is best overall; but it is always in each player’s interest to defect. So a neoclassically “rational” player would always defect—resulting in a bad outcome for everyone. But real human beings typically cooperate, and thus do better. The “paradox” of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that being “rational” results in making less money at the end.

Obviously, this is not actually a good definition of rational behavior. Being short-sighted and ignoring the impact of your behavior on others doesn’t actually produce good outcomes for anybody, including yourself.

But the Prisoner’s Dilemma only has two players. If we expand to a larger number of players, the expanded game is called a Tragedy of the Commons.

When we do this, something quite surprising happens: As you add more people, their behavior starts converging toward the neoclassical solution, in which everyone defects and we get a bad outcome for everyone.

Indeed, people in general become less cooperative, less courageous, and more apathetic the more of them you put together. K was quite apt when he said, “A person is smart; people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” There are ways to counteract this effect, as I’ll get to in a moment—but there is a strong effect that needs to be counteracted.

We see this most vividly in the bystander effect. If someone is walking down the street and sees someone fall and injure themselves, there is about a 70% chance that they will go try to help the person who fell—humans are altruistic. But if there are a dozen people walking down the street who all witness the same event, there is only a 40% chance that any of them will help—humans are irrational.

The primary reason appears to be diffusion of responsibility. When we are alone, we are the only one could help, so we feel responsible for helping. But when there are others around, we assume that someone else could take care of it for us, so if it isn’t done that’s not our fault.

There also appears to be a conformity effect: We want to conform our behavior to social norms (as I said, to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms). The mere fact that there are other people who could have helped but didn’t suggests the presence of an implicit social norm that we aren’t supposed to help this person for some reason. It never occurs to most people to ask why such a norm would exist or whether it’s a good one—it simply never occurs to most people to ask those questions about any social norms. In this case, by hesitating to act, people actually end up creating the very norm they think they are obeying.

This can lead to what’s called an Abilene Paradox, in which people simultaneously try to follow what they think everyone else wants and also try to second-guess what everyone else wants based on what they do, and therefore end up doing something that none of them actually wanted. I think a lot of the weird things humans do can actually be attributed to some form of the Abilene Paradox. (“Why are we sacrificing this goat?” “I don’t know, I thought you wanted to!”)

Autistic people are not as good at following social norms (though some psychologists believe this is simply because our social norms are optimized for the neurotypical population). My suspicion is that autistic people are therefore less likely to suffer from the bystander effect, and more likely to intervene to help someone even if they are surrounded by passive onlookers. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any good empirical data on that—it appears no one has ever thought to check before.) I’m quite certain that autistic people are less likely to suffer from the Abilene Paradox—if they don’t want to do something, they’ll tell you so (which sometimes gets them in trouble).

Because of these psychological effects that blunt our rationality, in large groups human beings often do end up behaving in a way that appears selfish and short-sighted.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in ecology. Recycling, becoming vegetarian, driving less, buying more energy-efficient appliances, insulating buildings better, installing solar panels—none of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to do, especially when weighed against the tens of millions of people who will die if climate change continues unabated. Every recyclable can we throw in the trash is a silent vote for a global holocaust.

But as it no doubt immediately occurred to you to respond: No single one of us is responsible for all that. There’s no way I myself could possibly save enough carbon emissions to significantly reduce climate change—indeed, probably not even enough to save a single human life (though maybe). This is certainly true; the error lies in thinking that this somehow absolves us of the responsibility to do our share.

I think part of what makes the Tragedy of the Commons so different from the Prisoner’s Dilemma, at least psychologically, is that the latter has an identifiable victimwe know we are specifically hurting that person more than we are helping ourselves. We may even know their name (and if we don’t, we’re more likely to defect—simply being on the Internet makes people more aggressive because they don’t interact face-to-face). In the Tragedy of the Commons, it is often the case that we don’t know who any of our victims are; moreover, it’s quite likely that we harm each one less than we benefit ourselves—even though we harm everyone overall more.

Suppose that driving a gas-guzzling car gives me 1 milliQALY of happiness, but takes away an average of 1 nanoQALY from everyone else in the world. A nanoQALY is tiny! Negligible, even, right? One billionth of a year, a mere 30 milliseconds! Literally less than the blink of an eye. But take away 30 milliseconds from everyone on Earth and you have taken away 7 years of human life overall. Do that 10 times, and statistically one more person is dead because of you. And you have gained only 10 milliQALY, roughly the value of $300 to a typical American. Would you kill someone for $300?

Peter Singer has argued that we should in fact think of it this way—when we cause a statistical death by our inaction, we should call it murder, just as if we had left a child to drown to keep our clothes from getting wet. I can’t agree with that. When you think seriously about the scale and uncertainty involved, it would be impossible to live at all if we were constantly trying to assess whether every action would lead to statistically more or less happiness to the aggregate of all human beings through all time. We would agonize over every cup of coffee, every new video game. In fact, the global economy would probably collapse because none of us would be able to work or willing to buy anything for fear of the consequences—and then whom would we be helping?

That uncertainty matters. Even the fact that there are other people who could do the job matters. If a child is drowning and there is a trained lifeguard right next to you, the lifeguard should go save the child, and if they don’t it’s their responsibility, not yours. Maybe if they don’t you should try; but really they should have been the one to do it.
But we must also not allow ourselves to simply fall into apathy, to do nothing simply because we cannot do everything. We cannot assess the consequences of every specific action into the indefinite future, but we can find general rules and patterns that govern the consequences of actions we might take. (This is the difference between act utilitarianism, which is unrealistic, and rule utilitarianism, which I believe is the proper foundation for moral understanding.)

Thus, I believe the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is policy. It is to coordinate our actions together, and create enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with that coordinated effort. We don’t look at acts in isolation, but at policy systems holistically. The proper question is not “What should I do?” but “How should we live?”

In the short run, this can lead to results that seem deeply suboptimal—but in the long run, policy answers lead to sustainable solutions rather than quick-fixes.

People are starving! Why don’t we just steal money from the rich and use it to feed people? Well, think about what would happen if we said that the property system can simply be unilaterally undermined if someone believes they are achieving good by doing so. The property system would essentially collapse, along with the economy as we know it. A policy answer to that same question might involve progressive taxation enacted by a democratic legislature—we agree, as a society, that it is justified to redistribute wealth from those who have much more than they need to those who have much less.

Our government is corrupt! We should launch a revolution! Think about how many people die when you launch a revolution. Think about past revolutions. While some did succeed in bringing about more just governments (e.g. the French Revolution, the American Revolution), they did so only after a long period of strife; and other revolutions (e.g. the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution) have made things even worse. Revolution is extremely costly and highly unpredictable; we must use it only as a last resort against truly intractable tyranny. The policy answer is of course democracy; we establish a system of government that elects leaders based on votes, and then if they become corrupt we vote to remove them. (Sadly, we don’t seem so good about that second part—the US Congress has a 14% approval rating but a 95% re-election rate.)

And in terms of ecology, this means that berating ourselves for our sinfulness in forgetting to recycle or not buying a hybrid car does not solve the problem. (Not that it’s bad to recycle, drive a hybrid car, and eat vegetarian—by all means, do these things. But it’s not enough.) We need a policy solution, something like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade that will enforce incentives against excessive carbon emissions.

In case you don’t think politics makes a difference, all of the Democrat candidates for President have proposed such plans—Bernie Sanders favors a carbon tax, Martin O’Malley supports an aggressive cap-and-trade plan, and Hillary Clinton favors heavily subsidizing wind and solar power. The Republican candidates on the other hand? Most of them don’t even believe in climate change. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina at least accept the basic scientific facts, but (1) they are very unlikely to win at this point and (2) even they haven’t announced any specific policy proposals for dealing with it.

This is why voting is so important. We can’t do enough on our own; the coordination problem is too large. We need to elect politicians who will make policy. We need to use the systems of coordination enforcement that we have built over generations—and that is fundamentally what a government is, a system of coordination enforcement. Only then can we overcome the tendency among human beings to become apathetic and short-sighted when faced with a Tragedy of the Commons.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

JDN 2457348
When this post officially goes live, it will have been one full week since I launched my Patreon, on which I’ve already received enough support to be more than halfway to my first funding goal. After this post, I will be far enough ahead in posting that I can release every post one full week ahead of time for my Patreon patrons (can I just call them Patreons?).

It’s actually fitting that today’s topic is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, for Patreon is a great example of how real human beings can find solutions to this problem even if infinite identical psychopaths could not.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the most fundamental problem in game theory—arguably the reason game theory is worth bothering with in the first place. There is a standard story that people generally tell to set up the dilemma, but honestly I find that they obscure more than they illuminate. You can find it in the Wikipedia article if you’re interested.

The basic idea of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that there are many times in life when you have a choice: You can do the nice thing and cooperate, which costs you something, but benefits the other person more; or you can do the selfish thing and defect, which benefits you but harms the other person more.

The game can basically be defined as four possibilities: If you both cooperate, you each get 1 point. If you both defect, you each get 0 points. If you cooperate when the other player defects, you lose 1 point while the other player gets 2 points. If you defect when the other player cooperates, you get 2 points while the other player loses 1 point.

P2 Cooperate P2 Defect
P1 Cooperate +1, +1 -1, +2
P2 Defect +2, -1 0, 0

These games are nonzero-sum, meaning that the total amount of benefit or harm incurred is not constant; it depends upon what players choose to do. In my example, the total benefit varies from +2 (both cooperate) to +1 (one cooperates, one defects) to 0 (both defect).

The answer which is “neat, plausible, and wrong” (to use Mencken’s oft-misquoted turn of phrase) is to reason this way: If the other player cooperates, I can get +1 if I cooperate, or +2 if I defect. So I should defect. If the other player defects, I can get -1 if I cooperate, or 0 if I defect. So I should defect. In either case I defect, therefore I should always defect.

The problem with this argument is that your behavior affects the other player. You can’t simply hold their behavior fixed when making your choice. If you always defect, the other player has no incentive to cooperate, so you both always defect and get 0. But if you credibly promise to cooperate every time they also cooperate, you create an incentive to cooperate that can get you both +1 instead.

If there were a fixed amount of benefit, the game would be zero-sum, and cooperation would always be damaging yourself. In zero-sum games, the assumption that acting selfishly maximizes your payoffs is correct; we could still debate whether it’s necessarily more rational (I don’t think it’s always irrational to harm yourself to benefit someone else an equal amount), but it definitely is what maximizes your money.

But in nonzero-sum games, that assumption no longer holds; we can both end up better off by cooperating than we would have been if we had both defected.
Below is a very simple zero-sum game (notice how indeed in each outcome, the payoffs sum to zero; any zero-sum game can be written so that this is so, hence the name):

Player 2 cooperates Player 2 defects
Player 1 cooperates 0, 0 -1, +1
Player 1 defects +1, -1 0, 0

In that game, there really is no reason for you to cooperate; you make yourself no better off if they cooperate, and you give them a strong incentive to defect and make you worse off. But that game is not a Prisoner’s Dilemma, even though it may look superficially similar.

The real world, however, is full of variations on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This sort of situation is fundamental to our experience; it probably happens to you multiple times every single day.
When you finish eating at a restaurant, you could pay the bill (cooperate) or you could dine and dash (defect). When you are waiting in line, you could quietly take your place in the queue (cooperate) or you could cut ahead of people (defect). If you’re married, you could stay faithful to your spouse (cooperate) or you could cheat on them (defect). You could pay more for the shoes made in the USA (cooperate), or buy the cheap shoes that were made in a sweatshop (defect). You could pay more to buy a more fuel-efficient car (cooperate), or buy that cheap gas-guzzler even though you know how much it pollutes (defect). Most of us cooperate most of the time, but occasionally are tempted into defecting.

The “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is honestly not much of a dilemma. A lot of neoclassical economists really struggle with it; their model of rational behavior is so narrow that it keeps putting out the result that they are supposed to always defect, but they know that this results in a bad outcome. More recently we’ve done experiments and we find that very few people actually behave that way (though typically neoclassical economists do), and also that people end up making more money in these experimental games than they would if they behaved as neoclassical economics says would be optimal.

Let me repeat that: People make more money than they would if they acted according to what’s supposed to be optimal according to neoclassical economists. I think that’s why it feels like such a paradox to them; their twin ideals of infinite identical psychopaths and maximizing the money you make have shown themselves to be at odds with one another.

But in fact, it’s really not that paradoxical: Rationality doesn’t mean being maximally selfish at every opportunity. It also doesn’t mean maximizing the money you make, but even if it did, it still wouldn’t mean being maximally selfish.

We have tested experimentally what sort of strategy is most effective at making the most money in the Prisoner’s Dilemma; basically we make a bunch of competing computer programs to play the game against one another for points, and tally up the points. When we do that, the winner is almost always a remarkably simple strategy, called “Tit for Tat”. If your opponent cooperated last time, cooperate. If your opponent defected last time, defect. Reward cooperation, punish defection.

In more complex cases (such as allowing for random errors in behavior), some subtle variations on that strategy turn out to be better, but are still basically focused around rewarding cooperation and punishing defection.
This probably seems quite intuitive, yes? It may even be the strategy that it occurred to you to try when you first learned about the game. This strategy comes naturally to humans, not because it is actually obvious as a mathematical result (the obvious mathematical result is the neoclassical one that turns out to be wrong), but because it is effective—human beings evolved to think this way because it gave us the ability to form stable cooperative coalitions. This is what gives us our enormous evolutionary advantage over just about everything else; we have transcended the limitations of a single individual and now work together in much larger groups. E.O. Wilson likes to call us “eusocial”, a term formally applied only to a very narrow range of species such as ants and bees (and for some reason, naked mole rats); but I don’t think this is actually strong enough, because human beings are social in a way that even ants are not. We cooperate on the scale of millions of individuals, who are basically unrelated genetically (or very distantly related). That is what makes us the species who eradicate viruses and land robots on other planets. Much more so than intelligence per se, the human superpower is cooperation.

Indeed, it is not a great exaggeration to say that morality exists as a concept in the human mind because cooperation is optimal in many nonzero-sum games such as these. If the world were zero-sum, morality wouldn’t work; the immoral action would always make you better off, and the bad guys would always win. We probably would never even have evolved to think in moral terms, because any individual or species that started to go that direction would be rapidly outcompeted by those that remained steadfastly selfish.

Monopoly and Oligopoly

JDN 2457180 EDT 08:49

Welcome to the second installment in my series, “Top 10 Things to Know About Economics.” The first was not all that well-received, because it turns it out it was just too dense with equations (it didn’t help that the equation formatting was a pain.) Fortunately I think I can explain monopoly and oligopoly with far fewer equations—which I will represent as PNG for your convenience.

You probably already know at least in basic terms how a monopoly works: When there is only one seller of a product, that seller can charge higher prices. But did you ever stop and think about why they can charge higher prices—or why they’d want to?

The latter question is not as trivial as it sounds; higher prices don’t necessarily mean higher profits. By the Law of Demand (which, like the Pirate Code, is really more like a guideline), raising the price of a product will result in fewer being sold. There are two countervailing effects: Raising the price raises the profits from selling each item, but reduces the number of items sold. The optimal price, therefore, is the one that balances these two effects, maximizing price times quantity.

A monopoly can actually set this optimal price (provided that they can figure out what it is, of course; but let’s assume they can). They therefore solve this maximization problem for price P(Q) a function of quantity sold, quantity Q, and cost C(Q) a function of quantity produced (which at the optimum is equal to quantity sold; no sense making them if you won’t sell them!):


As you may remember if you’ve studied calculus, the maximum is achieved at the point where the derivative is zero. If you haven’t studied calculus, the basic intuition here is that you move along the curve seeing whether the profits go up or down with each small change, and when you reach the very top—the maximum—you’ll be at a point where you switch from going up to going down, and at that exact point a small change will move neither up nor down. The derivative is really just a fancy term for the slope of the curve at each point; at a maximum this slope changes from positive to negative, and at the exact point it is zero.



This is a general solution, but it’s easier to understand if we use something more specific. As usual, let’s make things simpler by assuming everything is linear; we’ll assume that demand starts at a maximum price of P0 and then decreases at a rate 1/e. This is the demand curve.


Then, we’ll assume that the marginal cost of production C'(Q) is also linear, increasing at a rate 1/n. This is the supply curve.


Now we can graph the supply and demand curves from these equations. But the monopoly doesn’t simply set supply equal to demand; instead, they set supply equal to marginal revenue, which takes into account the fact that selling more items requires lowering the price on all of them. Marginal revenue is this term:


This is strictly less than the actual price, because increasing the quantity sold requires decreasing the price—which means that P'(Q) < 0. They set the quantity by setting marginal revenue equal to marginal cost. Then they set the price by substituting that quantity back into the demand equation.

Thus, the monopoly should set this quantity:


They would then charge this price (substitute back into the demand equation):


On a graph, there are the supply and demand curves, and then below the demand curve, the marginal revenue curve; it’s the intersection of that curve with the supply curve that the monopoly uses to set its quantity, and then it substitutes that quantity into the demand curve to get the price:


Now I’ll show that this is higher than the price in a perfectly competitive market. In a competitive market, competitive companies can’t do anything to change the price, so from their perspective P'(Q) = 0. They can only control the quantity they produce and sell; they keep producing more as long as they receive more money for each one than it cost to produce it. By the Law of Diminishing Returns (again more like a guideline) the cost will increase as they produce more, until finally the last one they sell cost just as much to make as they made from selling it. (Why bother selling that last one, you ask? You’re right; they’d actually sell one less than this, but if we assume that we’re talking about thousands of products sold, one shouldn’t make much difference.)

Price is simply equal to marginal cost:


In our specific linear case that comes out to this quantity:


Therefore, they charge this price (you can substitute into either the supply or demand equations, because in a competitive market supply equals demand):


Subtract the two, and you can see that monopoly price is higher than the competitive price by this amount:


Notice that the monopoly price will always be larger than the competitive price, so long as e > 0 and n > 0, meaning that increasing the quantity sold requires decreasing the price, but increasing the cost of production. A monopoly has an incentive to raise the price higher than the competitive price, but not too much higher—they still want to make sure they sell enough products.

Monopolies introduce deadweight loss, because in order to hold the price up they don’t produce as many products as people actually want. More precisely, each new product produced would add overall value to the economy, but the monopoly stops producing them anyway because it wouldn’t add to their own profits.

One “solution” to this problem is to let the monopoly actually take those profits; they can do this if they price-discriminate, charging a higher price for some customers than others. In the best-case scenario (for them), they charge each customer a price that they are just barely willing to pay, and thus produce until no customer is willing to pay more than the product costs to make. That final product sold also has price equal to marginal cost, so the total quantity sold is the same under competition. It is, in that sense, “efficient”.

What many neoclassical economists seem to forget about price-discriminating monopolies is that they appropriate the entire surplus value of the product—the customers are only just barely willing to buy; they get no surplus value from doing so.

In reality, very few monopolies can price-discriminate that precisely; instead, they put customers into broad categories and then try to optimize the price for each of those categories. Credit ratings, student discounts, veteran discounts, even happy hours are all forms of this categorical price discrimination. If the company cares even a little bit about what sort of customer you are rather than how much money you’re paying, they are price-discriminating.

It’s so ubiquitous I’m actually having trouble finding a good example of a product that doesn’t have categorical price discrimination. I was thinking maybe computers? Nope, student discounts. Cars? No, employee discounts and credit ratings. Refrigerators, maybe? Well, unless there are coupons (coupons price discriminate against people who don’t want to bother clipping them). Certainly not cocktails (happy hour) or haircuts (discrimination by sex, the audacity!); and don’t even get me started on software.

I introduced price-discrimination in the context of monopoly, which is usually how it’s done; but one thing you’ll notice about all the markets I just indicated is that they aren’t monopolies, yet they still exhibit price discrimination. Cars, computers, refrigerators, and software are made under oligopoly, a system in which a handful of companies control the majority of the market. As you might imagine, an oligopoly tends to act somewhere in between a monopoly and a competitive market—but there are some very interesting wrinkles I’ll get to in a moment.

Cocktails and haircuts are sold in a different but still quite interesting system called monopolistic competition; indeed, I’m not convinced that there is any other form of competition in the real world. True perfectly-competitive markets just don’t seem to actually exist. Under monopolistic competition, there are many companies that don’t have much control over price in the overall market, but the products they sell aren’t quite the same—they’re close, but not equivalent. Some barbers are just better at cutting hair, and some bars are more fun than others. More importantly, they aren’t the same for everyone. They have different customer bases, which may overlap but still aren’t the same. You don’t just want a barber who is good, you want one who works close to where you live. You don’t just want a bar that’s fun; you want one that you can stop by after work. Even if you are quite discerning and sensitive to price, you’re not going to drive from Ann Arbor to Cleveland to get your hair cut—it would cost more for the gasoline than the difference. And someone is Cleveland isn’t going to drive all the way to Ann Arbor, either! Hence, barbers in Ann Arbor have something like a monopoly (or oligopoly) over Ann Arbor haircuts, and barbers in Cleveland have something like a monopoly over Cleveland haircuts. That’s monopolistic competition.

Supposedly monopolistic competition drives profits to zero in the long run, but I’ve yet to see this happen in any real market. Maybe the problem is that conceit “the long run”; as Keynes said, “in the long run we are all dead.” Sometimes the argument is made that it has driven real economic profits to zero, because you’ve got to take into account the cost of entry, the normal profit. But of course, that’s extremely difficult to measure, so how do we know whether profits have been driven to normal profit? Moreover, the cost of entry isn’t the same for everyone, so people with lower cost of entry are still going to make real economic profits. This means that the majority of companies are going to still make some real economic profit, and only the ones that had the hardest time entering will actually see their profits driven to zero.

Monopolistic competition is relatively simple. Oligopoly, on the other hand, is fiercely complicated. Why? Because under oligopoly, you actually have to treat human beings as human beings.

What I mean by that is that under perfect competition or even monopolistic competition, the economic incentives are so powerful that people basically have to behave according to the neoclassical rational agent model, or they’re going to go out of business. There is very little room for errors or even altruistic acts, because your profit margin is so tight. In perfect competition, there is literally zero room; in monopolistic competition, the only room for individual behavior is provided by the degree of monopoly, which in most industries is fairly small. One person’s actions are unable to shift the direction of the overall market, so the market as a system has ultimate power.

Under oligopoly, on the other hand, there are a handful of companies, and people know their names. You as a CEO have a reputation with customers—and perhaps more importantly, a reputation with other companies. Individual decision-makers matter, and one person’s decision depends on their prediction of other people’s decision. That means we need game theory.

The simplest case is that of duopoly, where there are only two major companies. Not many industries are like this, but I can think of three: soft drinks (Coke and Pepsi), commercial airliners (Boeing and Airbus), and home-user operating systems (Microsoft and Apple). In all three cases, there is also some monopolistic element, because the products they sell are not exactly the same; but for now let’s ignore that and suppose they are close enough that nobody cares.

Imagine yourself in the position of, say, Boeing: How much should you charge for an airplane?

If Airbus didn’t exist, it’s simple; you’d charge the monopoly price. But since they do exist, the price you charge must depend not only on the conditions of the market, but also what you think Airbus is likely to do—and what they are likely to do depends in turn on what they think you are likely to do.

If you think Airbus is going to charge the monopoly price, what should you do? You could charge the monopoly price as well, which is called collusion. It’s illegal to actually sign a contract with Airbus to charge that price (though this doesn’t seem to stop cable companies or banks—probably has something to do with the fact that we never punish them for doing it), and let’s suppose you as the CEO of Boeing are an honest and law-abiding citizen (I know, it’s pretty fanciful; I’m having trouble keeping a straight face myself) and aren’t going to violate the antitrust laws. You can still engage in tacit collusion, in which you both charge the monopoly price and take your half of the very high monopoly profits.

There’s a temptation not to collude, however, which the airlines who buy your planes are very much hoping you’ll succumb to. Suppose Airbus is selling their A350-100 for $341 million. You could sell the comparable 777-300ER for $330 million and basically collude, or you could cut the price and draw in more buyers. Say you cut it to $250 million; it probably only costs $150 million to make, so you’re still making a profit on each one; but where you sold say 150 planes a year and profited $180 million on each (a total profit of $27 billion), you could instead capture the whole market and sell 300 planes a year and profit $100 million on each (a total profit of $30 billion). That’s a 10% higher profit and $3 billion a year for your shareholders; why wouldn’t you do that?

Well, think about what will happen when Airbus releases next year’s price list. You cut the price to $250 million, so they retaliate by cutting their price to $200 million. Next thing you know, you’re cutting your own price to $150.1 million just to stay in the market, and they’re doing the same. When the dust settles, you still only control half the market, but now you profit a mere $100,000 per airplane, making your total profits a measly $15 million instead of $27 billion—that’s $27,000 million. (I looked it up, and as it turns out, Boeing’s actual gross profit is about $14 billion, so I underestimated the real cost of each airplane—but they’re clearly still colluding.) For a gain of 10% in one year you’ve paid a loss of 99.95% indefinitely. The airlines will be thrilled, and they’ll likely pass on much of those savings to their customers, who will fly more often, engage in more tourism, and improve the economy in tourism-dependent countries like France and Greece, so the world may well be better off. But you as CEO of Boeing don’t care about the world; you care about the shareholders of Boeing—and the shareholders of Boeing just got hosed. Don’t expect to keep your seat in the next election.

But now, suppose you think that Airbus is planning on setting a price of $250 million next year anyway. They should know you’ll retaliate, but maybe their current CEO is retiring next year and doesn’t care what happens to the company after that or something. Or maybe they’re just stupid or reckless. In any case, your sources (which, as an upstanding citizen, obviously wouldn’t include any industrial espionage!) tell you that Airbus is going to charge $250 million next year.

Well, in that case there’s no point in you charging $330 million; you’ll lose the market and look like a sucker. You could drop to $250 million and try to set up a new, lower collusive equilibrium; but really what you want to do is punish them severely for backstabbing you. (After all, human beings are particularly quick to anger when we perceive betrayal. So maybe you’ll charge $200 million and beat them at their own conniving game.

The next year, Airbus has a choice. They could raise back to $341 million and give you another year of big profits to atone for their reckless actions, or they could cut down to $180 million and keep the price war going. You might think that they should continue the war, but that’s short-term thinking; in the long run their best strategy is to atone for their actions and work to restore the collusion. In response, Boeing’s best strategy is to punish them when they break the collusion, but not hold a grudge; if they go back to the high price, Boeing should as well. This very simple strategy is called tit-for-tat, and it is utterly dominant in every simulation we’ve ever tried of this situation, which is technically called an iterated prisoner’s dilemma.

What if there are more than two companies involved? Then things get even more complicated, because now we’re dealing with things like what A’s prediction of what B predicts that C will predict A will do. In general this is a situation we only barely understand, and I think it is a topic that needs considerably more research than it has received.

There is an interesting simple model that actually seems to capture a lot about how oligopolies work, but no one can quite figure out why it works. That model is called Cournot competition. It assumes that companies take prices and fixed and compete by selecting the quantity they produce at each cycle. That’s incredibly bizarre; it seems much more realistic to say that they compete by setting prices. But if you do that, you get Bertrand competition, which requires us to go through that whole game-theory analysis—but now with three, or four, or ten companies!

Under Cournot competition, you decide how much to produce Q1 by monopolizing what’s left over after the other companies have produced their quantities Q2, Q3, and so on. If there are k companies, you optimize under the constraint that (k-1)Q2 has already been produced.

Let’s use our linear models again. Here, the quantity that goes into figuring the price is the total quantity, which is Q1+(k-1)Q2; while the quantity you sell is just Q1. But then, another weird part is that for the marginal cost function we use the whole market—maybe you’re limited by some natural resource, like oil or lithium?

It’s not as important for you to follow along with the algebra, though here you go if you want:


Then the key point is that the situation is symmetric, so Q1 = Q2 = Q3 = Q. Then the total quantity produced, which is what consumers care about, is kQ. That’s what sets the actual price as well.


The two equations to focus on are these ones:


If you plug in k=1, you get a monopoly. If you take the limit as k approaches infinity, you get perfect competition. And in between, you actually get a fairly accurate representation of how the number of companies in an industry affects the price and quantity sold! From some really bizarre assumptions about how competition works! The best explanation I’ve seen of why this might happen is this 1983 paper showing that price competition can behave like Cournot competition if companies have to first commit to producing a certain quantity before naming their prices.

But of course, it doesn’t always give an accurate representation of oligopoly, and for that we’ll probably need a much more sophisticated multiplayer game theory analysis which has yet to be done.

And that, dear readers, is how monopoly and oligopoly raise prices.