Why risking nuclear war should be a war crime

Nov 19, JDN 2458078

“What is the value of a human life?” is a notoriously difficult question, probably because people keep trying to answer it in terms of dollars, and it rightfully offends our moral sensibilities to do so. We shouldn’t be valuing people in terms of dollars—we should be valuing dollars in terms of their benefits to people.

So let me ask a simpler question: Does the value of an individual human life increase, decrease, or stay the same, as we increase the number of people in the world?

A case can be made that it should stay the same: Why should my value as a person depend upon how many other people there are? Everything that I am, I still am, whether there are a billion other people or a thousand.

But in fact I think the correct answer is that it decreases. This is for two reasons: First, anything that I can do is less valuable if there are other people who can do it better. This is true whether we’re talking about writing blog posts or ending world hunger. Second, and most importantly, if the number of humans in the world gets small enough, we begin to face danger of total permanent extinction.

If the value of a human life is constant, then 1,000 deaths is equally bad whether it happens in a population of 10,000 or a population of 10 billion. That doesn’t seem right, does it? It seems more reasonable to say that losing ten percent should have a roughly constant effect; in that case losing 1,000 people in a population of 10,000 is equally bad as losing 1 billion in a population of 10 billion. If that seems too strong, we could choose some value in between, and say perhaps that losing 1,000 out of 10,000 is equally bad as losing 1 million out of 1 billion. This would mean that the value of 1 person’s life today is about 1/1,000 of what it was immediately after the Toba Event.

Of course, with such uncertainty, perhaps it’s safest to assume constant value. This seems the fairest, and it is certainly a reasonable approximation.

In any case, I think it should be obvious that the inherent value of a human life does not increase as you add more human lives. Losing 1,000 people out of a population of 7 billion is not worse than losing 1,000 people out of a population of 10,000. That way lies nonsense.

Yet if we agree that the value of a human life is not increasing, this has a very important counter-intuitive consequence: It means that increasing the risk of a global catastrophe is at least as bad as causing a proportional number of deaths. Specifically, it implies that a 1% risk of global nuclear war is worse than killing 10 million people outright.

The calculation is simple: If the value of a human life is a constant V, then the expected utility (admittedly, expected utility theory has its flaws) from killing 10 million people is -10 million V. But the expected utility from a 1% risk of global nuclear war is 1% times -V times the expected number of deaths from such a nuclear war—and I think even 2 billion is a conservative estimate. (0.01)(-2 billion) V = -20 million V.

This probably sounds too abstract, or even cold, so let me put it another way. Suppose we had the choice between two worlds, and these were the only worlds we could choose from. In world A, there are 100 leaders who each make choices that result in 10 million deaths. In world B, there are 100 leaders who each make choices that result in a 1% chance of nuclear war. Which world should we choose?

The choice is a terrible one, to be sure.

In world A, 1 billion people die.

Yet what happens in world B?

If the risks are independent, we can’t just multiply by 100 to get a guarantee of nuclear war. The actual probability is 1-(1-0.01)^100 = 63%. Yet even so, (0.63)(2 billion) = 1.26 billion. The expected number of deaths is higher in world B. Indeed, the most likely scenario is that 2 billion people die.

Yet this is probably too conservative. The risks are most likely positively correlated; two world leaders who each take a 1% chance of nuclear war probably do so in response to one another. Therefore maybe adding up the chances isn’t actually so unreasonable—for all practical intents and purposes, we may be best off considering nuclear war in world B as guaranteed to happen. In that case, world B is even worse.

And that is all assuming that the nuclear war is relatively contained. Major cities are hit, then a peace treaty is signed, and we manage to rebuild human civilization more or less as it was. This is what most experts on the issue believe would happen; but I for one am not so sure. The nuclear winter and total collapse of institutions and infrastructure could result in a global apocalypse that would result in human extinctionnot 2 billion deaths but 7 billion, and an end to all of humanity’s projects once and forever This is the kind of outcome we should be prepared to do almost anything to prevent.

What does this imply for global policy? It means that we should be far more aggressive in punishing any action that seems to bring the world closer to nuclear war. Even tiny increases in risk, of the sort that would ordinarily be considered negligible, are as bad as murder. A measurably large increase is as bad as genocide.

Of course, in practice, we have to be able to measure something in order to punish it. We can’t have politicians imprisoned over 0.000001% chances of nuclear war, because such a chance is so tiny that there would be no way to attain even reasonable certainty that such a change had even occurred, much less who was responsible.

Even for very large chances—and in this context, 1% is very large—it would be highly problematic to directly penalize increasing the probability, as we have no consistent, fair, objective measure of that probability.

Therefore in practice what I think we must do is severely and mercilessly penalize certain types of actions that would be reasonably expected to increase the probability of catastrophic nuclear war.

If we had the chance to start over from the Manhattan Project, maybe simply building a nuclear weapon should be considered a war crime. But at this point, nuclear proliferation has already proceeded far enough that this is no longer a viable option. At least the US and Russia for the time being seem poised to maintain their nuclear arsenals, and in fact it’s probably better for them to keep maintaining and updating them rather than leaving decades-old ICBMs to rot.

What can we do instead?

First, we probably need to penalize speech that would tend to incite war between nuclear powers. Normally I am fiercely opposed to restrictions on speech, but this is nuclear war we’re talking about. We can’t take any chances on this one. If there is even a slight chance that a leader’s rhetoric might trigger a nuclear conflict, they should be censored, punished, and probably even imprisoned. Making even a veiled threat of nuclear war is like pointing a gun at someone’s head and threatening to shoot them—only the gun is pointed at everyone’s head simultaneously. This isn’t just yelling “fire” in a crowded theater; it’s literally threatening to burn down every theater in the world at once.

Such a regulation must be designed to allow speech that is necessary for diplomatic negotiations, as conflicts will invariably arise between any two countries. We need to find a way to draw the line so that it’s possible for a US President to criticize Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine or for a Chinese President to challenge US trade policy, without being accused of inciting war between nuclear powers. But one thing is quite clear: Wherever we draw that line, President Trump’s statement about “fire and fury” definitely crosses it. This is a direct threat of nuclear war, and it should be considered a war crime. That reason by itself—let alone his web of Russian entanglements and violations of the Emoluments Clause—should be sufficient to not only have Trump removed from office, but to have him tried at the Hague. Impulsiveness and incompetence are no excuse when weapons of mass destruction are involved.

Second, any nuclear policy that would tend to increase first-strike capability rather than second-strike capability should be considered a violation of international law. In case you are unfamiliar with such terms: First-strike capability consists of weapons such as ICBMs that are only viable to use as the opening salvo of an attack, because their launch sites can be easily located and targeted. Second-strike capability consists of weapons such as submarines that are more concealable, so it’s much more likely that they could wait for an attack to happen, confirm who was responsible and how much damage was done, and then retaliate afterward.
Even that retaliation would be difficult to justify: It’s effectively answering genocide with genocide, the ultimate expression of “an eye for an eye” writ large upon humanity’s future. I’ve previously written about my Credible Targeted Conventional Response strategy that makes it both more ethical and more credible to respond to a nuclear attack with a non-nuclear retaliation. But at least second-strike weapons are not inherently only functional at starting a nuclear war. A first-strike weapon can theoretically be fired in response to a surprise attack, but only before the attack hits you—which gives you literally minutes to decide the fate of the world, most likely with only the sketchiest of information upon which to base your decision. Second-strike weapons allow deliberation. They give us a chance to think carefully for a moment before we unleash irrevocable devastation.

All the launch codes should of course be randomized onetime pads for utmost security. But in addition to the launch codes themselves, I believe that anyone who wants to launch a nuclear weapon should be required to type, letter by letter (no copy-pasting), and then have the machine read aloud, Oppenheimer’s line about Shiva, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Perhaps the passphrase should conclude with something like “I hereby sentence millions of innocent children to death by fire, and millions more to death by cancer.” I want it to be as salient as possible in the heads of every single soldier and technician just exactly how many innocent people they are killing. And if that means they won’t turn the key—so be it. (Indeed, I wouldn’t mind if every Hellfire missile required a passphrase of “By the authority vested in me by the United States of America, I hereby sentence you to death or dismemberment.” Somehow I think our drone strike numbers might go down. And don’t tell me they couldn’t; this isn’t like shooting a rifle in a firefight. These strikes are planned days in advance and specifically designed to be unpredictable by their targets.)

If everyone is going to have guns pointed at each other, at least in a second-strike world they’re wearing body armor and the first one to pull the trigger won’t automatically be the last one left standing.

Third, nuclear non-proliferation treaties need to be strengthened into disarmament treaties, with rapid but achievable timelines for disarmament of all nuclear weapons, starting with the nations that have the largest arsenals. Random inspections of the disarmament should be performed without warning on a frequent schedule. Any nation that is so much as a day late on their disarmament deadlines needs to have its leaders likewise hauled off to the Hague. If there is any doubt at all in your mind whether your government will meet its deadlines, you need to double your disarmament budget. And if your government is too corrupt or too bureaucratic to meet its deadlines even if they try, well, you’d better shape up fast. We’ll keep removing and imprisoning your leaders until you do. Once again, nothing can be left to chance.

We might want to maintain some small nuclear arsenal for the sole purpose of deflecting asteroids from colliding with the Earth. If so, that arsenal should be jointly owned and frequently inspected by both the United States and Russia—not just the nuclear superpowers, but also the only two nations with sufficient rocket launch capability in any case. The launch of the deflection missiles should require joint authorization from the presidents of both nations. But in fact nuclear weapons are probably not necessary for such a deflection; nuclear rockets would probably be a better option. Vaporizing the asteroid wouldn’t accomplish much, even if you could do it; what you actually want to do is impart as much sideways momentum as possible.

What I’m saying probably sounds extreme. It may even seem unjust or irrational. But look at those numbers again. Think carefully about the value of a human life. When we are talking about a risk of total human extinction, this is what rationality looks like. Zero tolerance for drug abuse or even terrorism is a ridiculous policy that does more harm than good. Zero tolerance for risk of nuclear war may be the only hope for humanity’s ongoing survival.

Throughout the vastness of the universe, there are probably billions of civilizations—I need only assume one civilization for every hundred galaxies. Of the civilizations that were unwilling to adopt zero tolerance policies on weapons of mass destruction and bear any cost, however unthinkable, to prevent their own extinction, there is almost boundless diversity, but they all have one thing in common: None of them will exist much longer. The only civilizations that last are the ones that refuse to tolerate weapons of mass destruction.

The difference between price, cost, and value

JDN 2457559

This topic has been on the voting list for my Patreons for several months, but it never quite seems to win the vote. Well, this time it did. I’m glad, because I was tempted to do it anyway.

“Price”, “cost”, and “value”; the words are often used more or less interchangeably, not only by regular people but even by economists. I’ve read papers that talked about “rising labor costs” when what they clearly meant was rising wages—rising labor prices. I’ve read papers that tried to assess the projected “cost” of climate change by using the prices of different commodity futures. And hardly a day goes buy that I don’t see a TV commercial listing one (purely theoretical) price, cutting it in half (to the actual price), and saying they’re now giving you “more value”.

As I’ll get to, there are reasons to think they would be approximately the same for some purposes. Indeed, they would be equal, at the margin, in a perfectly efficient market—that may be why so many economists use them this way, because they implicitly or explicitly assume efficient markets. But they are fundamentally different concepts, and it’s dangerous to equate them casually.

Price

Price is exactly what you think it is: The number of dollars you must pay to purchase something. Most of the time when we talk about “cost” or “value” and then give a dollar figure, we’re actually talking about some notion of price.

Generally we speak in terms of nominal prices, which are the usual concept of prices in actual dollars paid, but sometimes we do also speak in terms of real prices, which are relative prices of different things once you’ve adjusted for overall inflation. “Inflation-adjusted price” can be a somewhat counter-intuitive concept; if a good’s (nominal) price rises, but by less than most other prices have risen, its real price has actually fallen.

You also need to be careful about just what price you’re looking at. When we look at labor prices, for example, we need to consider not only cash wages, but also fringe benefits and other compensation such as stock options. But other than that, prices are fairly straightforward.

Cost

Cost is probably not at all what you think it is. The real cost of something has nothing to do with money; saying that a candy bar “costs $2” or a computer “costs $2,000” is at best a somewhat sloppy shorthand and at worst a fundamental distortion of what cost is and why it matters. No, those are prices. The cost of a candy bar is the toil of children in cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire. The cost of a computer is the ecological damage and displaced indigenous people caused by coltan mining in Congo.

The cost of something is the harm that it does to human well-being (or for that matter to the well-being of any sentient being). It is not measured in money but in “the sweat of our laborers, the genius of our scientists, the hopes of our children” (to quote Eisenhower, who understood real cost better than most economists). There is also opportunity cost, the real cost we pay not by what we did, but by what we didn’t do—what we could have done instead.

This is important precisely because while costs should always be reduced when possible, prices can in fact be too low—and indeed, artificially low prices of goods due to externalities are probably the leading reason why humanity bears so many excess real costs. If the price of that chocolate bar accurately reflected the suffering of those African children (perhaps by—Gasp! Paying them a fair wage?), and the price of that computer accurately reflected the ecological damage of those coltan mines (a carbon tax, at least?), you might not want to buy them anymore; in which case, you should not have bought them. In fact, as I’ll get to once I discuss value, there is reason to think that even if you would buy them at a price that accurately reflected the dollar value of the real cost to their producers, we would still buy more than we should.

There is a point at which we should still buy things even though people get hurt making them; if you deny this, stop buying literally anything ever again. We don’t like to think about it, but any product we buy did cause some person, in some place, some degree of discomfort or unpleasantness in production. And many quite useful products will in fact cause death to a nonzero number of human beings.

For some products this is only barely true—it’s hard to feel bad for bestselling authors and artists who sell their work for millions, for whatever toil they may put into their work, whatever their elevated suicide rate (which is clearly endogenous; people aren’t randomly assigned to be writers), they also surely enjoy it a good deal of the time, and even if they didn’t, their work sells for millions. But for many products it is quite obviously true: A certain proportion of roofers, steelworkers, and truck drivers will die doing their jobs. We can either accept that, recognizing that it’s worth it to have roofs, steel, and trucking—and by extension, industrial capitalism, and its whole babies not dying thing—or we can give up on the entire project of human civilization, and go back to hunting and gathering; even if we somehow managed to avoid the direct homicide most hunter-gatherers engage in, far more people would simply die of disease or get eaten by predators.

Of course, we should have safety standards; but the benefits of higher safety must be carefully weighed against the potential costs of inefficiency, unemployment, and poverty. Safety regulations can reduce some real costs and increase others, even if they almost always increase prices. A good balance is struck when real cost is minimized, where any additional regulation would increase inefficiency more than it improves safety.

Actually OSHA are unsung heroes for their excellent performance at striking this balance, just as EPA are unsung heroes for their balance in environmental regulations (and that whole cutting crime in half business). If activists are mad at you for not banning everything bad and business owners are mad at you for not letting them do whatever they want, you’re probably doing it right. Would you rather people saved from fires, or fires prevented by good safety procedures? Would you rather murderers imprisoned, or boys who grow up healthy and never become murderers? If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, why does everyone love firefighters and hate safety regulators?So let me take this opportunity to say thank you, OSHA and EPA, for doing the jobs of firefighters and police way better than they do, and unlike them, never expecting to be lauded for it.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. Markets are supposed to reflect costs in prices, which is why it’s not totally nonsensical to say “cost” when you mean “price”; but in fact they aren’t very good at that, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

Value

Value is how much something is worth—not to sell it (that’s the price again), but to use it. One of the core principles of economics is that trade is nonzero-sum, because people can exchange goods that they value differently and thereby make everyone better off. They can’t price them differently—the buyer and the seller must agree upon a price to make the trade. But they can value them differently.

To see how this works, let’s look at a very simple toy model, the simplest essence of trade: Alice likes chocolate ice cream, but all she has is a gallon of vanilla ice cream. Bob likes vanilla ice cream, but all he has is a gallon of chocolate ice cream. So Alice and Bob agree to trade their ice cream, and both of them are happier.

We can measure value in “willingness-to-pay” (WTP), the highest price you’d willingly pay for something. That makes value look more like a price; but there are several reasons we must be careful when we do that. The obvious reason is that WTP is obviously going to vary based on overall inflation; since $5 isn’t worth as much in 2016 as it was in 1956, something with a WTP of $5 in 1956 would have a much higher WTP in 2016. The not-so-obvious reason is that money is worth less to you the more you have, so we also need to take into account the effect of wealth, and the marginal utility of wealth. The more money you have, the more money you’ll be willing to pay in order to get the same amount of real benefit. (This actually creates some very serious market distortions in the presence of high income inequality, which I may make the subject of a post or even a paper at some point.) Similarly there is “willingness-to-accept” (WTA), the lowest price you’d willingly accept for it. In theory these should be equal; in practice, WTA is usually slightly higher than WTP in what’s called endowment effect.

So to make our model a bit more quantitative, we could suppose that Alice values vanilla at $5 per gallon and chocolate at $10 per gallon, while Bob also values vanilla at $5 per gallon but only values chocolate at $4 per gallon. (I’m using these numbers to point out that not all the valuations have to be different for trade to be beneficial, as long as some are.) Therefore, if Alice sells her vanilla ice cream to Bob for $5, both will (just barely) accept that deal; and then Alice can buy chocolate ice cream from Bob for anywhere between $4 and $10 and still make both people better off. Let’s say they agree to also sell for $5, so that no net money is exchanged and it is effectively the same as just trading ice cream for ice cream. In that case, Alice has gained $5 in consumer surplus (her WTP of $10 minus the $5 she paid) while Bob has gained $1 in producer surplus (the $5 he received minus his $4 WTP). The total surplus will be $6 no matter what price they choose, which we can compute directly from Alice’s WTP of $10 minus Bob’s WTA of $4. The price ultimately decides how that total surplus is distributed between the two parties, and in the real world it would very likely be the result of which one is the better negotiator.

The enormous cost of our distorted understanding

(See what I did there?) If markets were perfectly efficient, prices would automatically adjust so that, at the margin, value is equal to price is equal to cost. What I mean by “at the margin” might be clearer with an example: Suppose we’re selling apples. How many apples do you decide to buy? Well, the value of each successive apple to you is lower, the more apples you have (the law of diminishing marginal utility, which unlike most “laws” in economics is actually almost always true). At some point, the value of the next apple will be just barely above what you have to pay for it, so you’ll stop there. By a similar argument, the cost of producing apples increases the more apples you produce (the law of diminishing returns, which is a lot less reliable, more like the Pirate Code), and the producers of apples will keep selling them until the price they can get is only just barely larger than the cost of production. Thus, in the theoretical limit of infinitely-divisible apples and perfect rationality, marginal value = price = marginal cost. In such a world, markets are perfectly efficient and they maximize surplus, which is the difference between value and cost.

But in the real world of course, none of those assumptions are true. No product is infinitely divisible (though the gasoline in a car is obviously a lot more divisible than the car itself). No one is perfectly rational. And worst of all, we’re not measuring value in the same units. As a result, there is basically no reason to think that markets are optimizing anything; their optimization mechanism is setting two things equal that aren’t measured the same way, like trying to achieve thermal equilibrium by matching the temperature of one thing in Celsius to the temperature of other things in Fahrenheit.

An implicit assumption of the above argument that didn’t even seem worth mentioning was that when I set value equal to price and set price equal to cost, I’m setting value equal to cost; transitive property of equality, right? Wrong. The value is equal to the price, as measured by the buyer. The cost is equal to the price, as measured by the seller.

If the buyer and seller have the same marginal utility of wealth, no problem; they are measuring in the same units. But if not, we convert from utility to money and then back to utility, using a different function to convert each time. In the real world, wealth inequality is massive, so it’s wildly implausible that we all have anything close to the same marginal utility of wealth. Maybe that’s close enough if you restrict yourself to middle-class people in the First World; so when a tutoring client pays me, we might really be getting close to setting marginal value equal to marginal cost. But once you include corporations that are owned by billionaires and people who live on $2 per day, there’s simply no way that those price-to-utility conversions are the same at each end. For Bill Gates, a million dollars is a rounding error. For me, it would buy a house, give me more flexible work options, and keep me out of debt, but not radically change the course of my life. For a child on a cocoa farm in Cote d’Ivoire, it could change her life in ways she can probably not even comprehend.

The market distortions created by this are huge; indeed, most of the fundamental flaws in capitalism as we know it are ultimately traceable to this. Why do Americans throw away enough food to feed all the starving children in Africa? Marginal utility of wealth. Why are Silicon Valley programmers driving the prices for homes in San Francisco higher than most Americans will make in their lifetimes? Marginal utility of wealth. Why are the Koch brothers spending more on this year’s elections than the nominal GDP of the Gambia? Marginal utility of wealth. It’s the sort of pattern that once you see it suddenly seems obvious and undeniable, a paradigm shift a bit like the heliocentric model of the solar system. Forget trade barriers, immigration laws, and taxes; the most important market distortions around the world are all created by wealth inequality. Indeed, the wonder is that markets work as well as they do.

The real challenge is what to do about it, how to reduce this huge inequality of wealth and therefore marginal utility of wealth, without giving up entirely on the undeniable successes of free market capitalism. My hope is that once more people fully appreciate the difference between price, cost, and value, this paradigm shift will be much easier to make; and then perhaps we can all work together to find a solution.

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 Amazon.com 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.