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.

Intellectual Property, revisited

Mar 12, JDN 2457825

A few weeks ago I wrote a post laying out the burden of proof for intellectual property, but didn’t have time to get into the empirical question of whether our existing intellectual property system can meet this burden of proof.

First of all, I want to make a very sharp distinction between three types of regulations that are all called “intellectual property”.

First there are trademarks, which I have absolutely no quarrel with. Avoiding fraud and ensuring transparency are fundamental functions without which markets would unravel, and without trademarks these things would be much harder to accomplish. Trademarks allow a company to establish a brand identity that others cannot usurp; they ensure that when you buy Coca-Cola (R) it is really in fact the beverage you expect and not some counterfeit knockoff. (And if counterfeit Coke sounds silly, note that counterfeit honey and maple syrup are actually a major problem.) Yes, there should be limits on how much you can trademark—no one wants to live in a world where you feel Love ™ and open Screen Doors ™—but in fact our courts are already fairly good about only allowing corporations to trademark newly-coined words and proper names for their products.

Next there are copyrights, which I believe are currently too strong and often abused, but I do think should exist in some form (or perhaps copylefts instead). Authors should have at least certain basic rights over how their work can be used and published. If nothing else, proper attribution should always be required, as without that plagiarism becomes intolerably easy. And steps should be taken to ensure that if any people profit from its sale, the author is among them. I publish this blog under a by-sa copyleft, which essentially means that you can share it with whomever you like and even adapt its content into your own work, so long as you properly attribute it to me and you do not attempt to claim ownership over it. For scientific content, I think only a copyleft of this sort makes sense—the era of for-profit journals with paywalls must end, as it is holding back our civilization. But for artistic content (and I mean art in the broadest sense, including books, music, movies, plays, and video games), stronger regulations might well make sense. The question is whether our current system is actually too strong, or is protecting the wrong people—often it seems to protect the corporations that sell the content rather than the artists who created it.

Finally there are patents. Unlike copyright which applies to a specific work of art, patent is meant to apply to the underlying concept of a technology. Copyright (or rather the by-sa copyleft) protects the text of this article; you can’t post it on your own blog and claim you wrote it. But if I were to patent it somehow (generally, verbal arguments cannot be patented, fortunately), you wouldn’t even be able to paraphrase it. The trademark on a Samsung ™ TV just means that if I make a TV I can’t say I am Samsung, because I’m not. You wouldn’t copyright a TV, but the analogous process would be if I were to copy every single detail of the television and try to sell that precise duplicate. But the patents on that TV mean that if I take it apart, study each component, find a way to build them all from my own raw materials, even make them better, and build a new TV out of them that looks different and performs better—I would still be infringing on intellectual property. Patents grant an extremely strong notion of property rights, one which actually undermines a lot of other, more basic concepts of property. It’s my TV, why can’t I take it apart and copy the components? Well, as long as the patent holds, it’s not entirely my TV. Property rights this strong—that allow a corporation to have its cake of selling the TV but eat it too by owning the rights to all its components—require a much stronger justification.

Trademark protects a name, which is unproblematic. Copyright protects a work, which carries risks but is still probably necessary in many cases. But patent protects an idea—and we should ask ourselves whether that is really something it makes sense to do.

In previous posts I’ve laid out some of the basic philosophical arguments for why patents do not seem to support innovation and may actually undermine it. But in this post I want to do something more direct and quantitative: Empirically, what is the actual effect of copyrights and patents on innovation? Can we find a way to quantify the costs and benefits to our society of different modes of intellectual property?

Economists quantify things all the time, so I briefly combed the literature to see what sort of empirical studies had been done on the economic impact of copyrights and patents.

Patents definitely create barriers to scientific collaboration: Scientific articles with ideas that don’t get patented are about 10-20% more likely to be cited than scientific articles with ideas that are patented. (I would have expected a larger effect, but that’s still not trivial.)

A 1995 study found that creased patent protections do seem to be positively associated with more trade.

A 2009 study of Great Britain published in AER found it “puzzling” that stronger patents actually seem to reduce the rate of innovation domestically, while having no effect on foreign innovation—yet this is exactly what I would have predicted. Foreign innovations should be largely unaffected by UK patents, but stricter patent laws in the UK make it harder for most actual innovators, only benefiting a handful of corporations that aren’t even particularly innovative.

This 1996 study did find a positive effect of stronger patent laws on economic growth, but it was quite small and only statistically significant when using instrumental variables that they couldn’t be bothered to define except in an appendix. When your result hinges on the use of instrumental variables that you haven’t even clearly defined in the paper, something is very fishy. My guess is that they p-hacked the instruments until they got the result they wanted.

This other 1996 study is a great example of why economists need to listen to psychologists. It found a negative correlation between foreign direct investment and—wait for it—the number of companies that answered “yes” to a survey question, “Does country X have intellectual property protection too weak to allow you to transfer your newest or most effective technology to a wholly-owned subsidiarythere?” Oh, wow, you found a correlation between foreign direct investment and a question directly asking about foreign direct investment.

his 2004 study found a nonlinear relationship whereby increased economic development affects intellectual property rights, rather than the other way around. But I find their theoretical model quite odd, and the scatter plot that lies at the core of their empirical argument reminds me of Rexthor, the Dog-Bearer. “This relationship appears to be non-linear,” they say when pointing at a scatter plot that looks mostly like nothing and maybe like a monotonic increase.

This 1997 study found a positive correlation between intellectual property strength, R&D spending, and economic growth. The effect is weak, but the study looks basically sound. (Though I must say I’d never heard anyone use the words “significant at the 24% level” before. Normally one would say “nonsignificant” for that variable methinks. It’s okay for it not to be significant in some of your regressions, you know.)

This 1992 paper found that intellectual property harms poor countries and may or may not benefit rich countries, but it uses a really weird idiosyncratic theoretical model to get there. Frankly if I see the word “theorem” anywhere in your empirical paper, I get suspicious. No, it is not a theorem that “For economies in steady state the South loses from tighter intellectual property rights.” It may be true, but it does not follow from the fundamental axioms of mathematics.

This law paper is excellent; it focuses on the fact that intellectual property is a unique arrangement and a significant deviation from conventional property rights. It tracks the rise of legal arguments that erroneously equate intellectual property with real property, and makes the vital point that fully internalizing the positive externalities of technology was never the goal, and would in fact be horrible should it come to pass. We would all have to pay most of our income in royalties to the Newton and Faraday estates. So, I highly recommend reading it. But it doesn’t contain any empirical results on the economic effects of intellectual property.

This is the best paper I was able to find showing empirical effects of different intellectual property regimes; I really have no complaints about its econometrics. But it was limited to post-Soviet economies shortly after the fall of the USSR, which were rather unique circumstances. (Indeed, by studying only those countries, you’d probably conclude that free markets are harmful, because the shock of transition was so great.)

This 1999 paper is also quite good; using a natural experiment from a sudden shift in Japanese patent policy, they found almost no difference in actual R&D. The natural experiment design makes this particularly credible, but it’s difficult to generalize since it only covered Japan specifically.

This study focused in particular on copyrights and the film industry, and found a nonlinear effect: While having no copyright protection at all was harmful to the film industry, making the copyright protections too strong had a strangling effect on new filmmakers entering the industry. This would suggest that the optimal amount of copyright is moderate, which sounds reasonable to me.

This 2009 study did a much more detailed comparison of different copyright regimes, and was unable to find a meaningful pattern amidst the noise. Indeed, they found that the only variable that consistently predicted the number of new works of art was population—more people means more art, and nothing else seemed to matter. If this is correct, it’s quite damning to copyright; it would suggest that people make art for reasons fundamentally orthogonal to copyright, and copyright does almost nothing useful. (And I must say, if you talk to most artists, that tends to be their opinion on the matter!)

This 1996 paper found that stronger patents had no benefits for poor countries, but benefited rich countries quite a large amount: Increased patent protection was estimated to add as much as 0.7% annual GDP growth over the whole period. That’s a lot; if this is really true, stronger patents are almost certainly worth it. But then it becomes difficult to explain why more precise studies haven’t found effects anywhere near that large.

This paper was pretty interesting; they found a fat-tailed distribution of patents, where most firms have none, many have one or a few, and a handful of firms have a huge number of patents. This is also consistent with the distribution of firm revenue and profit—and I’d be surprised if I didn’t find a strong correlation between all three. But this really doesn’t tell us whether patents are contributing to innovation.
This paper found that the harmonization of global patents in the Uruguay Round did lead to gains from trade for most countries, but also transferred about $4.5 billion to the US from the rest of the world. Of course, that’s really not that large an amount when we’re talking about global policy over several years.

What does all that mean? I don’t know. It’s a mess. There just don’t seem to be any really compelling empirical studies on the economic impact of copyrights and patents. The preponderance of the evidence, such as it is, would seem to suggest that copyrights provide a benefit as long as they aren’t too strong, while patents provide a benefit but it is quite small and likely offset by the rent-seeking of the corporations that own them. The few studies that found really large effects (like 0.7% annual GDP growth) don’t seem very credible to me; if the effect were really that large, it shouldn’t be so ambiguous. 0.7% per year over 25 years is a GDP 20% larger. Over 50 years, GDP would be 42% larger. We would be able to see that.

Does this ambiguity mean we should do nothing, and wait until the data is better? I don’t think so. Remember, the burden of proof for intellectual property should be high. It’s a fundamentally bizarre notion of property, one which runs against most of our standard concepts of real property; it restricts our rights in very basic ways, making literally the majority of our population into criminals. Such a draconian policy requires a very strong justification, but such a justification does not appear to be forthcoming. If it could be supported, that 0.7% GDP growth might be enough; but it doesn’t seem to be replicable. A free society does not criminalize activities just in case it might be beneficial to do so—it only criminalizes activities that have demonstrable harm. And the harm of copyright and patent infringement simply isn’t demonstrable enough to justify its criminalization.

We don’t have to remove them outright, but we should substantially weaken copyright and patent laws. They should be short-term, they should provide very basic protection, and they should never be owned by corporations, always by individuals (corporations should be able to license them—but not own them). If we then observe a substantial reduction in innovation and economic output, then we can put them back. But I think that what defenders of intellectual property fear most is that if we tried this, it wouldn’t be so bad—and then the “doom and gloom” justification they’ve been relying on all this time would fall apart.

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 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.)

What if you couldn’t own land?

JDN 2457145 EDT 20:49.

Today’s post we’re on the socialism scale somewhere near the The Guess Who, but not quite all the way to John Lennon. I’d like to questions one of the fundamental tenets of modern capitalism, but not the basic concept of private ownership itself:

What if you couldn’t own land?

Many things that you can own were more-or-less straightforwardly created by someone. A car, a computer, a television, a pair of shoes; for today let’s even take for granted intellectual property like books, movies, and songs; at least those things (“things”) were actually made by someone.

But land? We’re talking about chunks of the Earth here. They were here billions of years before us, and in all probability will be here billions of years after we’re gone. There’s no need to incentivize its creation; the vast majority of land was already here and did not need to be created. (I do have to say “the vast majority”, because in places like Japan, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands real estate has become so scarce that people do literally build land out into the sea. But this is something like 0.0001% of the world’s land.)

What we want to incentivize is land development; we want it to be profitable to build buildings and irrigate deserts, and yes, even cut down forests sometimes (though then there should be a carbon tax with credits for forested land to ensure that there isn’t too much incentive). Yet our current property tax system doesn’t do this very well; if you build bigger buildings, you end up paying more property taxes. Yes, you may also make some profit on the buildings—but it’s risky, and you may not get enough benefit to justify the added property taxes.

Moreover, we want to allocate land—we want some way of deciding who is allowed to use what land where and when (and perhaps why). Allowing land to be bought and sold is one way to do that, but it is not the only way.

Indeed, land ownership suffers from a couple of truly glaring flaws as an allocation system:

      1. It creates self-perpetuating inequality. Because land grows in value over time (due to population growth and urbanization, among other things), those who currently own land end up getting an ever-growing quantity of wealth while those who do not own land do not, and very likely end up having to pay ever-growing rents to the landlords. (I like calling them “landlords”; it really drives home the fact that our landholding system is still basically the same as it was under feudalism.) In fact, the recent rise in the share of income that goes to owners of capital rather than workers is almost entirely attributable to the rise in the price of real estate. As that post rightly recognizes, this does nothing to undermine Piketty’s central message of rising inequality due to capital income (pace The Washington Post); it merely tells us to focus on real estate instead of other forms of capital.
      2. It has no non-arbitrary allocation. If we want to decide who owns a car, we can ask questions like, “Who built it? Did someone buy it from them? Did they pay a fair price?”; if we want to decide who owns a book, we can ask questions like, “Who wrote it? Did they sell it to a publisher? What was the royalty rate?” That is, there is a clear original owner, and there is a sense of whether the transfer of ownership can be considered fair. But if we want to decide who owns a chunk of land, basically all we can ask is, “What does the deed say?” The owner is the owner because they are the owner; there’s no sense in which that ownership is fair. We certainly can’t go back to the original creation of the land, because that was due to natural forces gigayears ago. If we keep tracing the ownership backward, we will eventually end up with some guy (almost certainly a man, a White man in fact) with a gun who pointed that gun at other people and said, “This is mine.” This is true of basically all the land in the world (aside from those little bits of Japan and such); it was already there, and the only reason someone got to own it was because they said so and had a bigger gun. And a flag, perhaps: “Do you have a flag?” I suppose, in theory at least, there are a few ways of allocating land which seem less arbitrary: One would be to give everyone an equal amount. But this is practically very difficult: What do you do when the population changes? If you have 2% annual population growth, do you carve off 2% of everybody’s lot each year? Another would be to let people squat land, and automatically own the land that they live on—but again practical difficulties quickly become enormous. In any case, these two methods bear about as much resemblance to our actual allocation of land as a squirrel does to a Tyrannosaurus.

So, what else might we use? The system that makes the most sense to me is that we would own all land as a society. In practical terms this would mean that all land is Federal land, and if you want to use it for something, you need to pay rent to the government. There are many different ways the government could set the rent, but the most sensible might be to charge a flat rate per hectare regardless of where the land is or what it’s being used for, because that would maximize the incentive to develop the land. It would also make the rent fall entirely on the landowner, because the rent would be perfectly inelasticmeaning that you can’t change the quantity you make based on the price, because you aren’t making it; it’s just already sitting there.

Of course, this idea is obviously politically impossible in our current environment—or indeed any foreseeable political environment. I’m just fantasizing here, right?

Well, not quite. There is one thing we could do that would be economically quite similar to government-only land ownership; it’s called a land tax. The idea is incredibly simple: you just collect a flat tax per hectare of land. Economists have known that a land tax is efficient at providing revenue and reducing inequality since at least Adam Smith. So maybe ownership of land isn’t actually foundational to capitalism, after all; maybe we’ve just never fully gotten over feudalism. (I basically agree with Adam Smith, and for doing so I am often called a socialist.) The beautiful thing about a land tax is that it has a tax incidence in which the owners of the land end up bearing the full brunt of the tax.

Tax incidence is something it’s very important to understand; it would be on my list of the top ten economic principles that people should learn. We often have fierce political debates over who will actually write the check: Should employers pay the health insurance premium, or should employees? Will buyers pay sales tax, or sellers? Should we tax corporate profits or personal capital gains?

Please understand that I am not exaggerating when I say that these sorts of questions are totally irrelevant. It simply does not matter who actually writes the check; what matters is who bears the cost. Making the employer pay the health insurance premium doesn’t make the slightest difference if all they’re going to do is cut wages by the exact same amount. You can see the irrelevance of the fact that sellers pay sales tax every time you walk into a store—you always end up paying the price plus the tax, don’t you? (I found that the base price of most items was the same between Long Beach and Ann Arbor, but my total expenditure was always 3% more because of the 9% sales tax versus the 6%.) How do we determine who actually pays the tax? It depends on the elasticity—how easily can you change your behavior in order to avoid the tax? Can you find a different job because the health insurance premiums are too high? No? Then you’re probably paying that premium, even if your employer writes the check. If you can find a new job whenever you want, your employer might have to pay it for you even if you write the check.

The incidence of corporate taxes and taxes on capital gains are even more complicated, because it could affect the behavior of corporations in many different ways; indeed, many economists argue that the corporate tax simply results in higher unemployment or lower wages for workers. I don’t think that’s actually true, but I honestly can’t rule it out completely, precisely because corporate taxes are so complicated. You need to know all sorts of things about the structure of stock markets, and the freedom of trade, and the mobility of immigration… it’s a complete and total mess.

It’s because of tax incidence that a land tax makes so much sense; there’s no way for the landowner to escape it, other than giving up the land entirely. In particular, they can’t charge more for rent without being out-competed (unless landowners are really good at colluding—which might be true for large developers, but not individual landlords). Their elasticity is so low that they’re forced to bear the full cost of the tax.

If the land tax were high enough, it could eliminate the automatic growth in wealth that comes from holding land, and thereby reducing long-run inequality dramatically. The revenue could be used for my other favorite fiscal policy, the basic income—and real estate is a big enough part of our nation’s wealth that it’s actually entirely realistic to fund an $8,000 per person per year basic income entirely on land tax revenue. The total value of US land is about $14 trillion, and an $8,000 basic income for 320 million people would cost about $2.6 trillion; that’s only 19%. You’d actually want to make it a flat tax per hectare, so how much would that be? Well, 60% of US land is privately owned at present (no sense taxing the land the government already owns), and total US land area is about 9 million square kilometers, so to raise $2.5 trillion you’d need a tax of $289,000 per square kilometer, or $2,890 per hectare. If you own a hectare—which is bigger than most single-family lots—you’d only pay $2,890 per year in land tax, well within what most middle-class families could handle. But if you own 290,000 acres like Jeff Bezos, (that’s 117,000 hectares) you’re paying $338 million per year. Since Jeff Bezos has about $38 billion in net wealth, he can actually afford to pay that ($338 million per year is about one-tenth of what Jeff Bezos makes automatically on dividends), though he might consider selling off some of the land to avoid the taxes, which is exactly the sort of incentive we wanted to create.

Indeed, when I contemplate this policy I’m struck by the fact that it has basically no downside—usually in public policy you’re forced to make hard compromises and tradeoffs, but a land tax plus basic income is a system that carries almost no downsides at all. It won’t disincentivize investment, it won’t disincentivize working, it will dramatically reduce inequality, it will save the government a great deal of money on social welfare spending, and best of all it will eliminate poverty immediately and forever. The only people it would hurt at all are extremely rich, and they wouldn’t even be hurt very much, while it would benefit millions of people including some of the most needy.

Why aren’t we doing this already!?

In honor of Pi Day, I for one welcome our new robot overlords

JDN 2457096 EDT 16:08

Despite my preference to use the Julian Date Number system, it has not escaped my attention that this weekend was Pi Day of the Century, 3/14/15. Yesterday morning we had the Moment of Pi: 3/14/15 9:26:53.58979… We arguably got an encore that evening if we allow 9:00 PM instead of 21:00.

Though perhaps it is a stereotype and/or cheesy segue, pi and associated mathematical concepts are often associated with computers and robots. Robots are an increasing part of our lives, from the industrial robots that manufacture our cars to the precision-timed satellites that provide our GPS navigation. When you want to know how to get somewhere, you pull out your pocket thinking machine and ask it to commune with the space robots who will guide you to your destination.

There are obvious upsides to these robots—they are enormously productive, and allow us to produce great quantities of useful goods at astonishingly low prices, including computers themselves, creating a positive feedback loop that has literally lowered the price of a given amount of computing power by a factor of one trillion in the latter half of the 20th century. We now very much live in the early parts of a cyberpunk future, and it is due almost entirely to the power of computer automation.

But if you know your SF you may also remember another major part of cyberpunk futures aside from their amazing technology; they also tend to be dystopias, largely because of their enormous inequality. In the cyberpunk future corporations own everything, governments are virtually irrelevant, and most individuals can barely scrape by—and that sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? This isn’t just something SF authors made up; there really are a number of ways that computer technology can exacerbate inequality and give more power to corporations.

Why? The reason that seems to get the most attention among economists is skill-biased technological change; that’s weird because it’s almost certainly the least important. The idea is that computers can automate many routine tasks (no one disputes that part) and that routine tasks tend to be the sort of thing that uneducated workers generally do more often than educated ones (already this is looking fishy; think about accountants versus artists). But educated workers are better at using computers and the computers need people to operate them (clearly true). Hence while uneducated workers are substitutes for computers—you can use the computers instead—educated workers are complements for computers—you need programmers and engineers to make the computers work. As computers get cheaper, their substitutes also get cheaper—and thus wages for uneducated workers go down. But their complements get more valuable—and so wages for educated workers go up. Thus, we get more inequality, as high wages get higher and low wages get lower.

Or, to put it more succinctly, robots are taking our jobs. Not all our jobs—actually they’re creating jobs at the top for software programmers and electrical engineers—but a lot of our jobs, like welders and metallurgists and even nurses. As the technology improves more and more jobs will be replaced by automation.

The theory seems plausible enough—and in some form is almost certainly true—but as David Card has pointed out, this fails to explain most of the actual variation in inequality in the US and other countries. Card is one of my favorite economists; he is also famous for completely revolutionizing the economics of minimum wage, showing that prevailing theory that minimum wages must hurt employment simply doesn’t match the empirical data.

If it were just that college education is getting more valuable, we’d see a rise in income for roughly the top 40%, since over 40% of American adults have at least an associate’s degree. But we don’t actually see that; in fact contrary to popular belief we don’t even really see it in the top 1%. The really huge increases in income for the last 40 years have been at the top 0.01%—the top 1% of 1%.

Many of the jobs that are now automated also haven’t seen a fall in income; despite the fact that high-frequency trading algorithms do what stockbrokers do a thousand times better (“better” at making markets more unstable and siphoning wealth from the rest of the economy that is), stockbrokers have seen no such loss in income. Indeed, they simply appropriate the additional income from those computer algorithms—which raises the question why welders couldn’t do the same thing. And indeed, I’ll get to in a moment why that is exactly what we must do, that the robot revolution must also come with a revolution in property rights and income distribution.

No, the real reasons why technology exacerbates inequality are twofold: Patent rents and the winner-takes-all effect.

In an earlier post I already talked about the winner-takes-all effect, so I’ll just briefly summarize it this time around. Under certain competitive conditions, a small fraction of individuals can reap a disproportionate share of the rewards despite being only slightly more productive than those beneath them. This often happens when we have network externalities, in which a product becomes more valuable when more people use it, thus creating a positive feedback loop that makes the products which are already successful wildly so and the products that aren’t successful resigned to obscurity.

Computer technology—more specifically, the Internet—is particularly good at creating such situations. Facebook, Google, and Amazon are all examples of companies that (1) could not exist without Internet technology and (2) depend almost entirely upon network externalities for their business model. They are the winners who take all; thousands of other software companies that were just as good or nearly so are now long forgotten. The winners are not always the same, because the system is unstable; for instance MySpace used to be much more important—and much more profitable—until Facebook came along.

But the fact that a different handful of upper-middle-class individuals can find themselves suddenly and inexplicably thrust into fame and fortune while the rest of us toil in obscurity really isn’t much comfort, now is it? While technically the rise and fall of MySpace can be called “income mobility”, it’s clearly not what we actually mean when we say we want a society with a high level of income mobility. We don’t want a society where the top 10% can by little more than chance find themselves becoming the top 0.01%; we want a society where you don’t have to be in the top 10% to live well in the first place.

Even without network externalities the Internet still nurtures winner-takes-all markets, because digital information can be copied infinitely. When it comes to sandwiches or even cars, each new one is costly to make and costly to transport; it can be more cost-effective to choose the ones that are made near you even if they are of slightly lower quality. But with books (especially e-books), video games, songs, or movies, each individual copy costs nothing to create, so why would you settle for anything but the best? This may well increase the overall quality of the content consumers get—but it also ensures that the creators of that content are in fierce winner-takes-all competition. Hence J.K. Rowling and James Cameron on the one hand, and millions of authors and independent filmmakers barely scraping by on the other. Compare a field like engineering; you probably don’t know a lot of rich and famous engineers (unless you count engineers who became CEOs like Bill Gates and Thomas Edison), but nor is there a large segment of “starving engineers” barely getting by. Though the richest engineers (CEOs excepted) are not nearly as rich as the richest authors, the typical engineer is much better off than the typical author, because engineering is not nearly as winner-takes-all.

But the main topic for today is actually patent rents. These are a greatly underappreciated segment of our economy, and they grow more important all the time. A patent rent is more or less what it sounds like; it’s the extra money you get from owning a patent on something. You can get that money either by literally renting it—charging license fees for other companies to use it—or simply by being the only company who is allowed to manufacture something, letting you sell it at monopoly prices. It’s surprisingly difficult to assess the real value of patent rents—there’s a whole literature on different econometric methods of trying to tackle this—but one thing is clear: Some of the largest, wealthiest corporations in the world are built almost entirely upon patent rents. Drug companies, R&D companies, software companies—even many manufacturing companies like Boeing and GM obtain a substantial portion of their income from patents.

What is a patent? It’s a rule that says you “own” an idea, and anyone else who wants to use it has to pay you for the privilege. The very concept of owning an idea should trouble you—ideas aren’t limited in number, you can easily share them with others. But now think about the fact that most of these patents are owned by corporationsnot by inventors themselves—and you’ll realize that our system of property rights is built around the notion that an abstract entity can own an idea—that one idea can own another.

The rationale behind patents is that they are supposed to provide incentives for innovation—in exchange for investing the time and effort to invent something, you receive a certain amount of time where you get to monopolize that product so you can profit from it. But how long should we give you? And is this really the best way to incentivize innovation?

I contend it is not; when you look at the really important world-changing innovations, very few of them were done for patent rents, and virtually none of them were done by corporations. Jonas Salk was indignant at the suggestion he should patent the polio vaccine; it might have made him a billionaire, but only by letting thousands of children die. (To be fair, here’s a scholar arguing that he probably couldn’t have gotten the patent even if he wanted to—but going on to admit that even then the patent incentive had basically nothing to do with why penicillin and the polio vaccine were invented.)

Who landed on the moon? Hint: It wasn’t Microsoft. Who built the Hubble Space Telescope? Not Sony. The Internet that made Google and Facebook possible was originally invented by DARPA. Even when corporations seem to do useful innovation, it’s usually by profiting from the work of individuals: Edison’s corporation stole most of its good ideas from Nikola Tesla, and by the time the Wright Brothers founded a company their most important work was already done (though at least then you could argue that they did it in order to later become rich, which they ultimately did). Universities and nonprofits brought you the laser, light-emitting diodes, fiber optics, penicillin and the polio vaccine. Governments brought you liquid-fuel rockets, the Internet, GPS, and the microchip. Corporations brought you, uh… Viagra, the Snuggie, and Furbies. Indeed, even Google’s vaunted search algorithms were originally developed by the NSF. I can think of literally zero examples of a world-changing technology that was actually invented by a corporation in order to secure a patent. I’m hesitant to say that none exist, but clearly the vast majority of seminal inventions have been created by governments and universities.

This has always been true throughout history. Rome’s fire departments were notorious for shoddy service—and wholly privately-owned—but their great aqueducts that still stand today were built as government projects. When China invented paper, turned it into money, and defended it with the Great Wall, it was all done on government funding.

The whole idea that patents are necessary for innovation is simply a lie; and even the idea that patents lead to more innovation is quite hard to defend. Imagine if instead of letting Google and Facebook patent their technology all the money they receive in patent rents were instead turned into tax-funded research—frankly is there even any doubt that the results would be better for the future of humanity? Instead of better ad-targeting algorithms we could have had better cancer treatments, or better macroeconomic models, or better spacecraft engines.

When they feel their “intellectual property” (stop and think about that phrase for awhile, and it will begin to seem nonsensical) has been violated, corporations become indignant about “free-riding”; but who is really free-riding here? The people who copy music albums for free—because they cost nothing to copy, or the corporations who make hundreds of billions of dollars selling zero-marginal-cost products using government-invented technology over government-funded infrastructure? (Many of these companies also continue receive tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies every year.) In the immortal words of Barack Obama, “you didn’t build that!”

Strangely, most economists seem to be supportive of patents, despite the fact that their own neoclassical models point strongly in the opposite direction. There’s no logical connection between the fixed cost of inventing a technology and the monopoly rents that can be extracted from its patent. There is some connection—albeit a very weak one—between the benefits of the technology and its monopoly profits, since people are likely to be willing to pay more for more beneficial products. But most of the really great benefits are either in the form of public goods that are unenforceable even with patents (go ahead, try enforcing on that satellite telescope on everyone who benefits from its astronomical discoveries!) or else apply to people who are so needy they can’t possibly pay you (like anti-malaria drugs in Africa), so that willingness-to-pay link really doesn’t get you very far.

I guess a lot of neoclassical economists still seem to believe that willingness-to-pay is actually a good measure of utility, so maybe that’s what’s going on here; if it were, we could at least say that patents are a second-best solution to incentivizing the most important research.

But even then, why use second-best when you have best? Why not devote more of our society’s resources to governments and universities that have centuries of superior track record in innovation? When this is proposed the deadweight loss of taxation is always brought up, but somehow the deadweight loss of monopoly rents never seems to bother anyone. At least taxes can be designed to minimize deadweight loss—and democratic governments actually have incentives to do that; corporations have no interest whatsoever in minimizing the deadweight loss they create so long as their profit is maximized.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have corporations at all—they are very good at one thing and one thing only, and that is manufacturing physical goods. Cars and computers should continue to be made by corporations—but their technologies are best invented by government. Will this dramatically reduce the profits of corporations? Of course—but I have difficulty seeing that as anything but a good thing.

Why am I talking so much about patents, when I said the topic was robots? Well, it’s typically because of the way these patents are assigned that robots taking people’s jobs becomes a bad thing. The patent is owned by the company, which is owned by the shareholders; so when the company makes more money by using robots instead of workers, the workers lose.

If when a robot takes your job, you simply received the income produced by the robot as capital income, you’d probably be better off—you get paid more and you also don’t have to work. (Of course, if you define yourself by your career or can’t stand the idea of getting “handouts”, you might still be unhappy losing your job even though you still get paid for it.)

There’s a subtler problem here though; robots could have a comparative advantage without having an absolute advantage—that is, they could produce less than the workers did before, but at a much lower cost. Where it cost $5 million in wages to produce $10 million in products, it might cost only $3 million in robot maintenance to produce $9 million in products. Hence you can’t just say that we should give the extra profits to the workers; in some cases those extra profits only exist because we are no longer paying the workers.

As a society, we still want those transactions to happen, because producing less at lower cost can still make our economy more efficient and more productive than it was before. Those displaced workers can—in theory at least—go on to other jobs where they are needed more.

The problem is that this often doesn’t happen, or it takes such a long time that workers suffer in the meantime. Hence the Luddites; they don’t want to be made obsolete even if it does ultimately make the economy more productive.

But this is where patents become important. The robots were probably invented at a university, but then a corporation took them and patented them, and is now selling them to other corporations at a monopoly price. The manufacturing company that buys the robots now has to spend more in order to use the robots, which drives their profits down unless they stop paying their workers.

If instead those robots were cheap because there were no patents and we were only paying for the manufacturing costs, the workers could be shareholders in the company and the increased efficiency would allow both the employers and the workers to make more money than before.

What if we don’t want to make the workers into shareholders who can keep their shares after they leave the company? There is a real downside here, which is that once you get your shares, why stay at the company? We call that a “golden parachute” when CEOs do it, which they do all the time; but most economists are in favor of stock-based compensation for CEOs, and once again I’m having trouble seeing why it’s okay when rich people do it but not when middle-class people do.

Another alternative would be my favorite policy, the basic income: If everyone knows they can depend on a basic income, losing your job to a robot isn’t such a terrible outcome. If the basic income is designed to grow with the economy, then the increased efficiency also raises everyone’s standard of living, as economic growth is supposed to do—instead of simply increasing the income of the top 0.01% and leaving everyone else where they were. (There is a good reason not to make the basic income track economic growth too closely, namely the business cycle; you don’t want the basic income payments to fall in a recession, because that would make the recession worse. Instead they should be smoothed out over multiple years or designed to follow a nominal GDP target, so that they continue to rise even in a recession.)

We could also combine this with expanded unemployment insurance (explain to me again why you can’t collect unemployment if you weren’t working full-time before being laid off, even if you wanted to be or you’re a full-time student?) and active labor market policies that help people re-train and find new and better jobs. These policies also help people who are displaced for reasons other than robots making their jobs obsolete—obviously there are all sorts of market conditions that can lead to people losing their jobs, and many of these we actually want to happen, because they involve reallocating the resources of our society to more efficient ends.

Why aren’t these sorts of policies on the table? I think it’s largely because we don’t think of it in terms of distributing goods—we think of it in terms of paying for labor. Since the worker is no longer laboring, why pay them?

This sounds reasonable at first, but consider this: Why give that money to the shareholder? What did they do to earn it? All they do is own a piece of the company. They may not have contributed to the goods at all. Honestly, on a pay-for-work basis, we should be paying the robot!

If it bothers you that the worker collects dividends even when he’s not working—why doesn’t it bother you that shareholders do exactly the same thing? By definition, a shareholder is paid according to what they own, not what they do. All this reform would do is make workers into owners.

If you justify the shareholder’s wealth by his past labor, again you can do exactly the same to justify worker shares. (And as I said above, if you’re worried about the moral hazard of workers collecting shares and leaving, you should worry just as much about golden parachutes.)

You can even justify a basic income this way: You paid taxes so that you could live in a society that would protect you from losing your livelihood—and if you’re just starting out, your parents paid those taxes and you will soon enough. Theoretically there could be “welfare queens” who live their whole lives on the basic income, but empirical data shows that very few people actually want to do this, and when given opportunities most people try to find work. Indeed, even those who don’t, rarely seem to be motivated by greed (even though, capitalists tell us, “greed is good”); instead they seem to be de-motivated by learned helplessness after trying and failing for so long. They don’t actually want to sit on the couch all day and collect welfare payments; they simply don’t see how they can compete in the modern economy well enough to actually make a living from work.

One thing is certain: We need to detach income from labor. As a society we need to get over the idea that a human being’s worth is decided by the amount of work they do for corporations. We need to get over the idea that our purpose in life is a job, a career, in which our lives are defined by the work we do that can be neatly monetized. (I admit, I suffer from the same cultural blindness at times, feeling like a failure because I can’t secure the high-paying and prestigious employment I want. I feel this clear sense that my society does not value me because I am not making money, and it damages my ability to value myself.)

As robots do more and more of our work, we will need to redefine the way we live by something else, like play, or creativity, or love, or compassion. We will need to learn to see ourselves as valuable even if nothing we do ever sells for a penny to anyone else.

A basic income can help us do that; it can redefine our sense of what it means to earn money. Instead of the default being that you receive nothing because you are worthless unless you work, the default is that you receive enough to live on because you are a human being of dignity and a citizen. This is already the experience of people who have substantial amounts of capital income; they can fall back on their dividends if they ever can’t or don’t want to find employment. A basic income would turn us all into capital owners, shareholders in the centuries of established capital that has been built by our forebears in the form of roads, schools, factories, research labs, cars, airplanes, satellites, and yes—robots.

The Rent is Too Damn High

Housing prices are on the rise again, but they’re still well below what they were at the peak of the 2008 bubble. It may be that we have not learned from our mistakes and another bubble is coming, but I don’t think it has hit us just yet. Meanwhile, rent prices have barely budged, and the portion of our population who pay more than 35% of their income on rent has risen to 44%.

Economists typically assess the “fair market value” of a house based upon its rental rate for so-called “housing services”—the actual benefits of living in a house. But to use the rental rate is to do what Larry Summers called “ketchup economics”; 40-ounce bottles of ketchup sell for exactly twice what 20-ounce bottles do, therefore the ketchup market is fair and efficient. (In fact even this is not true, since ketchup is sold under bulk pricing. This reminds me of a rather amusing situation I recently encountered at the grocery store: The price of individual 12-packs of Coke was $3, but you could buy sets of five for $10 each. This meant that buying five was cheaper in total—not just per unit—than buying four. The only way to draw that budget constraint is with a periodic discontinuity; it makes a sawtooth across your graph. We never talk about that sort of budget constraint in neoclassical economics, yet there it was in front of me.)

When we value houses by their rental rate, we’re doing ketchup economics. We’re ignoring the fact that the rent is too damn highpeople should not have to pay as much as they do in order to get housing in this country, particularly housing in or near major cities. When 44% of Americans are forced to spend over a third of their income just fulfilling the basic need of shelter, something is wrong. Only 60% of the price of a house is the actual cost to build it; another 20% is just the land. If that sounds reasonable to you, you’ve just become inured to our absurd land prices. The US has over 3 hectares per person of land; that’s 7.7 acres. A family of 3 should be able to claim—on average—9 hectares, or 23 acres. The price of a typical 0.5-acre lot for a family home should be negligible; it’s only 2% of your portion of America’s land.

And as for the argument that land near major cities should be more expensive? No, it shouldn’t; it’s land. What should be more expensive near major cities are buildings, and only then because they’re bigger buildings—even per unit it probably is about equal or even an economy of scale. There’s a classic argument that you’re paying to have infrastructure and be near places of work: The former is ignoring the fact that we pay taxes and utilities for that infrastructure; and the latter is implicitly assuming that it’s normal for our land ownership to be so monopolistic. In a competitive market, the price is driven by the cost, not by the value; the extra value you get from living near a city is supposed to go into your consumer surplus (the personal equivalent of profit—but in utility, not in dollars), not into the owner’s profit. And actually that marginal benefit is supposed to be driven to zero by the effect of overcrowding—though Krugman’s Nobel-winning work was about why that doesn’t necessarily happen and therefore we get Shanghai.

There’s also a more technical argument to be had here about the elasticity of land supply and demand; since both are so inelastic, we actually end up in the very disturbing scenario in which even a small shift in either one can throw prices all over the place, even if we are at market-clearing equilibrium. Markets just don’t work very well for inelastic goods; and if right now you’re thinking “Doesn’t that mean markets won’t work well for things like water, food, and medicine?” you’re exactly right and have learned well, Grasshopper.

So, the rent is too damn high. This naturally raises three questions:

  1. Why is the rent so high?
  2. What happens to our economy as a result?
  3. What can we do about it?

Let’s start with 1. Naturally, conservatives are going to blame regulation; here’s Business Insider doing exactly that in San Francisco and New York City respectively. Actually, they have a point here. Zoning laws are supposed to keep industrial pollution away from our homes, not keep people from building bigger buildings to fit more residents. All these arguments about the “feel” of the city or “visual appeal” should be immediately compared to the fact that they are making people homeless. So 200 people should live on the street so you can have the skyline look the way you always remember it? I won’t say what I’d really like to; I’m trying to keep this blog rated PG.

Similarly, rent-control is a terrible way to solve the homelessness problem; you’re created a segregated market with a price ceiling, and that’s going to create a shortage and raise prices in the other part of the market. The result is good for anyone who can get the rent-control and bad for everyone else. (The Cato study Business Insider cites does make one rather aggravating error; the distribution in a non-rent-controlled market isn’t normal, it’s lognormal. You can see that at a glance by the presence of those extremely high rents on the right side of the graph.)

Most people respond by saying, “Okay, but what do we do for people who can’t afford the regular rent? Do we just make them homeless!?” I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cato Institute or Business Insider were okay with that—but I’m definitely not. So what would I do? Give them money. The solution to poverty has been staring us in the face for centuries, but we refuse to accept it. Poor people don’t have enough money, so give them money. Skeptical? Here are some direct experimental studies showing that unconditional cash transfers are one of the most effective anti-poverty measures. The only kind of anti-poverty program I’ve seen that has a better track record is medical aid. People are sick? Give them medicine. People are poor? Give them money. Yes, it’s that simple. People just don’t want to believe it; they might have to pay a bit more in taxes.

So yes, regulations are actually part of the problem. But they are clearly not the whole problem, and in my opinion not even the most important part. The most important part is monopolization. There’s a map that Occupy Wall Street likes to send around saying “What if our land were as unequal as our money?” But here’s the thing: IT IS. Indeed, the correlation between land ownership and wealth is astonishingly high; to a first approximation, your wealth is a constant factor times the land you own.

Remember how I said that the average American holds 7.7 acres or 3 hectares? (Especially in economics, averages can be quite deceiving. Bill Gates and I are on average billionaires. In fact, I guarantee that Bill Gates and you are on average billionaires; it doesn’t even matter how much wealth you have, it’ll still be true.)

Well, here are some decidedly above-average landowners:

  1. John Malone, 2.2 million acres or 9,000 km^2
  2. Ted Turner, 2 million acres or 8,100 km^2
  3. The Emmerson Family, 1.9 million acres or 7,700 km^2
  4. Brad Kelley, 1.5 million acres or 6,100 km^2
  1. The Pingree Family, 800,000 acres or 3,200 km^2
  1. The Ford Family, 600,000 acres or 2,400 km^2
  1. The Briscoe Family, 560,000 acres or 2,270 km^2
  2. W.T. Wagonner Estate, 535,000 acres or 2,170 km^2

I think you get the idea. Here are two more of particular note:

  1. Jeff Bezos, 290,000 acres or 1,170 km^2
  1. Koch Family, 239,000 acres or 970 km^2

Yes, that is the Jeff Bezos of and the Koch Family who are trying to purchase control of our political system.

Interpolating the ones I couldn’t easily find data on, I estimate that these 102 landowners (there were ties in the top 100) hold a total of 30 million acres, of the 940 million acres in the United States. This means that 3% of the land is owned by—wait for it—0.000,03% of the population. To put it another way, if we confiscated the land of 102 people and split it all up into 0.5-acre family home lots, we could house 60 million households—roughly half the number of households in the nation. To be fair, some of it isn’t suitable for housing; but a good portion of it is. Figure even 1% is usable; that’s still enough for 600,000 households—which is to say every homeless person in America.

One thing you may also have noticed is how often the word “family” comes up. Using Openoffice Calc (it’s like Excel, but free!) I went through the whole top 100 list and counted the number of times “family” comes up; it’s 49 out of 100. Include “heirs” and “estate” and the number goes up to 66. That doesn’t mean they share with their immediate family; it says “family” when it’s been handed down for at least one generation. This means that almost two-thirds of these super-wealthy landowners inherited their holdings. This isn’t the American Dream of self-made millionaires; this is a landed gentry. We claim to be a capitalist society; but if you look at who owns our land and how it’s passed down, it doesn’t look like capitalism. It looks like feudalism.

Indeed, the very concept of rent is basically feudalist. Instead of owning the land we live on, we have to constantly pay someone else—usually someone quite rich—for the right to live there. Stop paying, and they can call the government to have us forced out. We are serfs by another name. In a truly efficient capitalist market with the kind of frictionless credit system neoclassicists imagine, you wouldn’t pay rent, you’d always pay a mortgage. The only time you’d be paying for housing without building equity would be when you stay at a hotel. If you’re going to live there more than a month, you should be building equity. And if you do want to move before your mortgage ends? No problem; sell it to the next tenant, paying off your mortgage and giving you that equity back—instead of all that rent, which is now in someone else’s pocket.

Because of this extreme inequality in land distribution, the top landholders can charge the rest of us monopolistic prices—thus making even more profits and buying even more land—and we have little choice but to pay what they demand. Because shelter is such a fundamental need, we are willing to pay just about whatever we have in order to secure it; so that’s what they charge us.

On to question 2. What happens to our economy as a result of this high rent?

In a word: 2009. Because our real estate market is so completely out of whack with any notion of efficient and fair pricing, it has become a free-for-all of speculation by so-called “investors”. (I hate that term; real investment is roads paved, factories built, children taught. What “investors” do is actually arbitrage. We are the investors, not them.)

A big part of this was also the deregulation of derivatives, particularly the baffling and insane “Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000” that basically banned regulation of derivatives—it was a law against making laws. Because of this bankers—or should I say banksters—were able to create ludicrously huge amounts of derivatives, as well as structure and repackage them in ways that would deceive their buyers into underestimating the risks. As a result there are now over a quadrillion dollars—yes, with a Q, sounds like a made-up number, $2e15—in nominal value of outstanding derivatives.

Because this is of course about 20 times as much as there is actual money in the entire world, sustaining this nominal value requires enormous amounts of what’s called leverage—which is to say, debt. When you “leverage” a stock purchase, for example, what you’re doing is buying the stock on a loan (a generally rather low-interest loan called “margin”), then when you sell the stock you pay back the loan. The “leverage” is the ratio between the size of the loan and the amount of actual capital you have to spend. This can theoretically give you quite large returns; for instance if you have $2000 in your stock account and you leverage 10 to 1, you can buy $20,000 worth of stock. If that stock then rises to $21,000—that’s only 5%, so it’s pretty likely this will happen—then you sell it and pay back the loan. For this example I’ll assume you pay 1% interest on your margin. In that case you would start with $2000 and end up with $2800; that’s a 40% return. A typical return from buying stock in cash is more like 7%, so even with interest you’re making almost 6 times as much. It sounds like such a deal!

But there is a catch: If that stock goes down and you have to sell it before it goes back up, you need to come up with the money to pay back your loan. Say it went down 5% instead of up; you now have $19,000 from selling it, but you owe $20,200 in debt with interest. Your $2000 is already gone, so you now have to come up with an additional $1,200 just to pay back your margin. Your return on $2000 is now negative—and huge: -160%. If you had bought the stock in cash, your return would only have been -5% and you’d still have $1900.

My example is for a 10 to 1 leverage, which is considered conservative. More typical leverages are 15 or 20; and some have gotten as high as 50 or even 70. This can lead to huge returns—or huge losses.

But okay, suppose we rein in the derivatives market and leverage gets back down to more reasonable levels. What damage is done by high real estate prices per se?

Well, basically it means that too much of our economy’s effort is going toward real estate. There is what we call deadweight loss, the loss of value that results from an inefficiency in the market. Money that people should be spending on other things—like cars, or clothes, or TVs—is instead being spent on real estate. Those products aren’t getting sold. People who would have had jobs making those products aren’t getting hired. Even when it’s not triggering global financial crises, a market distortion as large as our real estate system is a drain on the economy.

The distorted real estate market in particular also has another effect: It keeps the middle class from building wealth. We have to spend so much on our homes that we don’t have any left for stocks or bonds; as a result we earn a very low return on investment—inflation-adjusted it’s only about 0.2%. So meanwhile the rich are getting 4% on bonds, or 7% on stocks, or even 50% or 100% on highly-leveraged derivatives. In fact, it’s worse than that, because we’re also paying those rich people 20% on our credit cards. (Or even worse, 400% on payday loans. Four hundred percent. You typically pay a similar rate on overdraft fees—that $17.5 billion has to come from somewhere—but fortunately it’s usually not for long.)

Most people aren’t numerate enough to really appreciate how compound interest works—and banks are counting on that. 7%, 20%, what’s the difference really? 3 times as much? And if you had 50%, that would be about 7 times as much? Not exactly, no. Say you start with $1000 in each of these accounts. After 20 years, how much do you have in the 7% account? $3,869.68. Not too shabby, but what about that 20% account? $38,337.60—almost ten times as much. And if you managed to maintain a 50% return, how much would you have? $3,325,256.73—over $3.3 million, almost one thousand times as much.

The problem, I think, is people tend to think linearly; it’s hard to think exponentially. But there’s a really nice heuristic you can use, which is actually quite accurate: Divide the percentage into 69, and that is the time it will take to double. So 3% would take 69/3 = 23 years to double. 7% would take 69/7 = 10 years to double. 35% would take 69/35 = 2 years to double. And 400% would take 69/400 = 0.17 years (about 1/6, so 2 months) to double. These doublings are cumulative: If you double twice you’ve gone up 4 times; if you double 10 times you’ve gone up 1000 times. (For those who are a bit more numerate, this heuristic comes from the fact that 69 ~ 100*ln(2).)

Since returns are so much higher on other forms of wealth (not gold, by the way; don’t be fooled) than on homes, and those returns get compounded over time, this differential translates into ever-increasing inequality of wealth. This is what Piketty is talking about when he says r > g; r is the return on capital, and g is the growth rate of the economy. Stocks are at r, but homes are near g (actually less). By forcing you to spend your wealth on a house, they are also preventing you from increasing that wealth.

Finally, time for question 3. What should we do to fix this? Again, it’s simple: Take the land from the rich. (See how I love simple solutions?) Institute a 99% property tax on all land holdings over, say, 1000 acres. No real family farmer of the pastoral sort (as opposed to heir of an international agribusiness) would be affected.

I’m sure a lot of people will think this sounds unfair: “How dare you just… just… take people’s stuff! You… socialist!” But I ask you: On what basis was it theirs to begin with? Remember, we’re talking about land. We’re not talking about a product like a car, something they actually made (or rather administrated the manufacturing of). We’re not even talking about ideas or services, which raise their own quite complicated issues. These are chunks of the Earth; they were there a billion years before you and they will probably still be there a billion years hence.

That land was probably bought with money that they obtained through monopolistic pricing. Even worse, whom was it bought from? Ultimately it had to be bought from the people who stole it—literally stole, at the point of a gun—from the indigenous population. On what basis was it theirs to sell? And even the indigenous population may not have obtained it fairly; they weren’t the noble savages many imagine them to be, but had complex societies with equally complex political alliances and histories of intertribal warfare. A good portion of the land that any given tribe claims as their own was likely stolen from some other tribe long ago.

It’s honestly pretty bizarre that we buy and sell land; I think it would be valuable to think about how else we might distribute land that didn’t involve the absurdity of owning chunks of the planet. I can’t think of a good alternative system right now, so okay, maybe as a pragmatic matter the economy just works most efficiently if people can buy and sell land. But since it is a pragmatic justification—and not some kind of “fundamental natural right” ala Robert Nozick—then we are free as a society—particularly a democratic society—to make ad hoc adjustments in that pragmatic system as is necessary to make people’s lives better. So let’s take all the land, because the rent is too damn high.