Good luck being born tomorrow

97% of people born tomorrow will be in a country that is authoritarian, communist, doesn’t support same sex marriage, does not allow abortion, supports capital punishment or has seen over ten thousand deaths in recent armed conflicts. Good luck!

From part 1 of 2 of Good Luck Being Born Tomorrow which includes some. The statistics within are eye opening.

The meat is in part 2.

300 million years ago, a supercontinent called Pangaea was formed, that later broke apart into continents that we inhabit today. Modern technology has turned the world back into Pangaea – a world where everything is connected. You can have a live video call with someone across the world in seconds (you’re welcome!) or you can find yourself on the next continent in 10 hours if the need be. Yet we’ve built these imaginary borders around us that limit human potential. These borders are a direct result of historic military conflict. And allowing your fate to be determined by things that took place before your birth feels like accepting defeat before you even get started.
This all brings me to the third option of what to do when the environment is not favorable – you can change it! As weird as it sounds, one of the means to cause change is actually also to migrate (for those who already have that freedom). As opposed to a slow democratic process of giving your marginal vote every four years in the hope of changing something you care about, you can vote with your feet already today. You have a choice between expressing your needs at a popularity contest twice a decade or putting constant pressure on places.
Not only will you find yourself in a place where your problem is already fixed (remember – that’s why you moved!), you’re also putting real budget pressure on the old place by taking your taxes elsewhere (will hurt every month). With enough people doing that, the competition for taxes forces incumbent states to fix their environments.
In positive political theory, this is described as the Tiebout hypothesis.

Living in the Silicon Valley media bubble, with its insatiable need to produce some minimum volume of news coverage every day, can lead to a surplus of technology naysaying in one's diet. I believe it's a useful corrective to have sites like Gawker and Valleywag and that ilk of gadfly to point out when the emperor has no clothes, even if the level of trolling is on the high side.

Still, climb up to higher vantage point and it's hard to disagree that technology is perhaps the greatest hope for lifting the standard of living for the most number of people in the world, whether directly or indirectly.

Yes, the tech industry has its problems, and it has its share of ridiculous douchebags, some of them with absurd amounts of wealth. And yes, perhaps some of our technology is too addictive, and maybe it is transforming some of us into intolerable social-network-preening narcissists.

Visit other parts of the world, though, and see what a life-changing event it is to get a cell phone and internet access. Observe people making a living selling goods on social networks, or watch people coordinate protests against authoritarian governments, and on and on. I'll continue to take the bad with the good for the net gain to society.

It’s not hard to imagine the invention of blockchain (the core of Bitcoin) having remarkable implications in the developing world through enabling micro-transactions and possibly helping eliminate corruption through blockchain based electronic voting. There’s stuff coming that we haven’t even thought of yet.
Technological innovation is finally making it possible to meet the assumptions of the Tiebout model (mobile consumers, complete information, abundant choices, telecommuting etc.). Bringing transparency into the world of basic freedoms, taxes, government services, public goods and reducing the cost/pain associated with moving will be the way to give us a future, where every nation state will have to compete for every citizen. Can you imagine that world?

Quadratic voting

What is quadratic voting (QV)? Essentially, voters would make a one-time purchase of votes from a clearinghouse at a price equal to the square of the number of votes purchased. It is a proposed approach towards limiting the power of the majority or wealthy interests.

According to this research paper:

If individuals take the chance of a marginal vote being pivotal as given, like a market price, QV is the unique pricing rule that is always efficient. In an independent private values environment, any type-symmetric Bayes-Nash equilibrium converges towards this efficient limiting outcome as the population grows large, with inefficiency decaying as 1/N.

Eric Posner is positive.

Quadratic voting is the most important idea for law and public policy that has emerged from economics in (at least) the last ten years.

Quadratic voting is a procedure that a group of people can use to jointly choose a collective good for themselves. Each person can buy votes for or against a proposal by paying into a fund the square of the number of votes that he or she buys. The money is then returned to voters on a per capita basis. Weyl and Lalley prove that the collective decision rapidly approximates efficiency as the number of voters increases. By contrast, no extant voting procedure is efficient. Majority rule based on one-person-one-vote notoriously results in tyranny of the majority–a large number of people who care only a little about an outcome prevail over a minority that cares passionately, resulting in a reduction of aggregate welfare.

Tyler Cowen has some great thoughts.

My reservation about this and other voting schemes (such as demand revelation mechanisms) is that our notions of formal efficiency are too narrow to make good judgments about political processes through social choice theory.  The actual goal is not to take current preferences and translate them into the the right outcomes in some Coasean or Arrovian sense.  Rather the goal is to encourage better and more reasonable preferences and also to shape a durable consensus for future belief in the polity.


I would gladly have gay marriage legal throughout the United States.  But overall, like David Hume, I am more fearful of the intense preferences of minorities than not.  I do not wish to encourage such preferences, all things considered.  If minority groups know they have the possibility of buying up votes as a path to power, paying the quadratic price along the way, we are sending intense preference groups a message that they have a new way forward.  In the longer run I fear that will fray democracy by strengthening the hand of such groups, and boosting their recruiting and fundraising.  Was there any chance the authors would use the anti-abortion movement as their opening example?


By elevating persuasion over trading in politics (at some margins, at least), we encourage centrist and majoritarian groups.  We encourage groups which think they can persuade others to accept their points of view.  This may not work well in every society but it does seem to work well in many.  It may require some sense of persuadibility, rather than all voting being based on ethnic politics, as it would have been in say a democratic Singapore in the early years of that country.

I had never heard of quadratic voting. It's a fascinating idea, essentially putting some sort of effective cap on the strategy of buying votes, perhaps forcing wealthy minority interests to adopt other strategies, like persuasion. Most approaches to combating the seeming inevitability of democratic sclerosis rely on combatting money with money, but quadratic voting just looks to place a ceiling on the value of the money.

Seems like this model would work best in a society without such sharply drawn lines between two parties. It does get me wondering whether some social network could be designed to try to optimize for more centrism. Are flame wars that just entrench both sides the inevitable outcome of all comment threads on controversial topics? Maybe it's built into the prevalent designs of online discussion threads.

Should the U.S. government pay ransoms for journalists?

And then, earlier this year, some disappeared journalists began to emerge. Two Spanish journalists were released in March. The following month, four French journalists emerged from captivity. It was widely assumed that ISIS had demanded ransom, and that the European governments had agreed to pay. European governments generally agree to make, or facilitate, ransom payments, which are believed to have run as high as $10 million.

Neither the United States nor Britain makes payments of this sort, and sharply criticize European governments for doing so. But perhaps that's why no American or British journalists have been freed during this period. In August, of course, the United States began bombing IS positions in Iraq, further complicating any official attempts -- if they were made at all -- to free Foley and Sotloff. They were thus available to serve as punishment, and as blackmail.

This raises an agonizing question: Should states pay ransom to kidnappers? If you are a friend or loved one of the victim, the answer is obviously yes. But even a more remote observer could cite the moral argument that the obligation to treat people as ends rather than means -- what Kant calls the "categorical imperative" -- forbids one to place the life of the abductee in a balance with abstract goods, like "sending a message" that kidnapping doesn't pay. In any case, the consequences of capitulation are remote and hypothetical; the life is terribly real. Israel, the most hard-nosed of democracies, has been prepared to pay a terrible price to retrieve its captured soldiers; in 2011, the state handed over 1027 prisoners, a quarter of them serving life terms, in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Israelis understand that by doing so they may encourage further kidnapping, and thus further endanger their own security; it is a price they are prepared to pay.

More over at Foreign Policy. Not an easy decision to make, even if, as the article notes, "the consequences of capitulating to terrorist kidnappers are ruinous” (incentives matter, and the article points a NYTimes investigation that showed how Al Qaeda was financing its operations by kidnapping and then ransoming citizens to European countries).

This piece opened my eyes. American TV and movies have given me cultural blinders; in TV shows and movies, the standard operating procedure of the U.S. government was to never negotiate with terrorists, and I assumed that was the same everywhere.

More detail from the NYTimes piece:

While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year.

In news releases and statements, the United States Treasury Department has cited ransom amounts that, taken together, put the total at around $165 million over the same period.

These payments were made almost exclusively by European governments, who funneled the money through a network of proxies, sometimes masking it as development aid, according to interviews conducted for this article with former hostages, negotiators, diplomats and government officials in 10 countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The inner workings of the kidnapping business were also revealed in thousands of pages of internal Qaeda documents found by this reporter while on assignment for The Associated Press in northern Mali last year.

With this level of money, the kidnapping business has grown in sophistication.

To minimize the risk to their fighters, the terror affiliates have outsourced the seizing of hostages to criminal groups who work on commission. Negotiators take a reported 10 percent of the ransom, creating an incentive on both sides of the Mediterranean to increase the overall payout, according to former hostages and senior counterterrorism officials.

Their business plan includes a step-by-step process for negotiating, starting with long periods of silence aimed at creating panic back home. Hostages are then shown on videos begging their government to negotiate.

Although the kidnappers threaten to kill their victims, a review of the known cases revealed that only a small percentage of hostages held by Qaeda affiliates have been executed in the past five years, a marked turnaround from a decade ago, when videos showing beheadings of foreigners held by the group’s franchise in Iraq would regularly turn up online. Now the group has realized it can advance the cause of jihad by keeping hostages alive and trading them for prisoners and suitcases of cash.

Incentives, as expected, seem to work. The piece notes that the two countries that don't negotiate, the U.K. and the U.S., have seen many fewer citizens kidnapped these past five years than countries that are known to pay ransoms.

The politics of Game of Thrones

I tried to read the Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin and couldn't get through much more than one book. The prose is rough, functional at best. 

The TV series, though, I love. The first book ended up reading like an adaptation of the first season of the series, so closely did the two hew to each other back then. It made sense to me to find out Martin had worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for much of the 80's and part of the 90's.

What Martin does do well, and what makes Game of Thrones more fascinating than much of the fantasy series out there, is delve deeply into realpolitik. Characters win or lose not so much based on whether they are good or bad in character as whether they're the smartest player in the political arena, the so-called "game of thrones." Thus we see many characters killed off in defiance of audience expectations. That's the part of the series that I love the most, beyond the high and increasing production values (a noticeable increase in quality after season one), beautiful locations (refreshing in this day and age of cartoonish digital backdrops to see the real world serve as the backdrop for so much of the series), and fun performances (there are some weak links, like Danaerys, but most of the lead performances are strong).

Martin also manages to challenge the audience's desire for clean moral judgments (with the exception of characters like Joffrey who seem horrific through and through).

Much of this comes out in a really good interview of Martin in Rolling Stone.

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly. 

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I've tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don't have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king.


Early on, one critic described the TV series as bleak and embodying a nihilistic worldview, another bemoaned its "lack of moral signposts." Have you ever worried that there's some validity to that criticism? 

No. That particular criticism is completely invalid. Actually, I think it's moronic. My worldview is anything but nihilistic.

Some of your most contemptible characters are also among the story's greatest truth-tellers. One of the most riveting moments in the TV series took place in the Battle of Blackwater episode, which you wrote the script for, when Sandor says to Sansa, "The world was built by killers, so you'd better get used to looking at them." 

Truth is sometimes hard to hear. Two of the central phrases are true, but they are not truths that most human beings like to contemplate. Winter is coming and Valar morghulis – all men must die. Mortality is the inescapable truth of all life . . . and of all stories, too.

Make it harder to cross the street

It turns out some of the key FCC people working to determine the future of net neutrality used to work at Comcast. The same path is also traveled in reverse quite frequently.

But overall, the FCC is one of many agencies that have fallen victim to regulatory capture. Beyond campaign contributions and other more visible aspects of the influence trade in Washington, moneyed special interest groups control the regulatory process by placing their representatives into public office, while dangling lucrative salaries to those in office who are considering retirement. The incentives, with pay often rising to seven and eight figure salaries on K Street, are enough to give large corporations effective control over the rule-making process.


The revolving door, however, provides a clear and semi-legal way for businesses to directly give unlimited cash and gifts to officials who act in their favor. One of the most famous examples of this dynamic is the case of Meredith Attwell Baker, an FCC Commissioner who left her job right after voting in favor of the Comcast merger with NBC. Her next career move? She became a high-level lobbyist for Comcast, the company she had just blessed. Earlier this week, she announced her next gig, as president of CTIA, the primary wireless industry trade group. She’ll have her work cut out for her in lobbying her former colleagues. CTIA has already warned the FCC from taking up any new net neutrality regulations.

In a democracy, if you don't want the money of corporations completely taking over policy-making, you can't allow people leaving office to immediately cross the street to a corner office on K-Street with a huge salary, and you also shouldn't allow those public officials to go work for a company in an industry they were regulating before. It's much too simple a way to essentially offer a deferred bribe.

Liberals versus conservatives? Nope

Types A and B map reasonably well onto today’s culture wars, with A the modern/liberal and B the traditional/conservative. It maps well to the rich-poor axis from the World Value Survey.  But in fact, type A vs. B are actually foragers vs. farmers. [The above summarizes many books and articles I've read over the last year.]  Which is my point: I think a lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways, with forager ways slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution. It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when richer we feel we can afford to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace domination and ranking, are required to generate industry-level wealth. We live a farmer lifestyle when poor, but prefer to buy a forager lifestyle when rich.

From a 2010 post by Robin Hanson. Click through to read the descriptions of Type A and Type B people.

From a later post by Hanson on the same topic:

Farming required huge behavior changes, mostly unnatural to foragers. A key enabler seems to have been increased self-control to follow social norms. But what allowed this increased self-control?

One source was moving from vague spirituality to religions with powerful and morally-outraged gods who punish norm violators. In addition (as I’ll explain tomorrow), high densities and larger social networks made stronger credible threats to ostracize folks for specific deviant acts.  Yes both these mechanisms require the fear that norm violations could lead to great harm, even death. But for poor farmers living on edge, such threats were easy to come by.

Interestingly, this death-threat pressure could work even without farmers being conscious of the relevant threats or fears. In fact, farming society probably worked better with homo hypocritus farmers, consciously denying that strong social pressures pushed them to do what would otherwise feel unnatural.

A large robust literature makes it clear that inducing people to unconsciously think about death pushes them to more strongly obey and defend cultural norms, especially norms framed as disgust at animal-like behavior.  Today, fear of death encourages folks to obey authorities, and be more loyal to their communities and spouses, all strong farmer norms.

Count me among the foragers, though until reading these posts I'd never call it that. Thanks Mom and Dad for giving me the chance to live like a forager, I am blessed.

The farmer-forager dichotomy is like some variant of the Myers Briggs personality test.

Nate Silver and Sam Wang on impact of shutdown

Sam Wang penned an article on the impact of the government shutdown on Republicans and their House seats. It's titled "Republicans could lose their House majority because of the shutdown":

Since the election is over a year away, it is hard to predict how this will translate to future seat gain/loss. If the election were held today, Democrats would pick up around 30 seats, giving them control of the chamber. I do not expect this to happen. Many things will happen in the coming 12 months, and the current crisis might be a distant memory. But at this point I do expect Democrats to pick up seats next year, an exception to the midterm rule.

Nate Silver was the more famous of the election prediction pundits from the last Presidential election, but among people who followed that space closely Sam Wang's Princeton Election Consortium was just as much a must-follow. Silver's relaunch of hasn't arrived yet, but in the meantime he penned a quick piece over at Grantland, his temporary home.

1. The media is probably overstating the magnitude of the shutdown's political impact.

Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public's interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won't turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time.

Some took these two pieces as an opportunity to pit the two pundits against each other, but as Wang notes, the two are not as far apart as provocative headlines might make it seem. Wang does think this time could be different, though.

Multiple polls, including detailed onerom NBC/WSJ, show that public sentiment has turned against the GOP. Under the radar, gerrymandered districts are swinging much harder than I was expecting. If the election were today, Democrats would control the House by about 50 seats. That will fade, but by how much?

Silver lists other events that didn’t move opinion: Benghazi, and the IRS business, and Syria. But the shutdown has, bigtime. I agree with him that most pundits emit bulls**t, which is why I am working on a prediction model. Right now, the model is saying: as long as the GOP stays on its current path, where the House goes next fall is an even-money bet.

How this impacts the next election will be a fascinating test of whether this gambit by the extremists in the Republican Party really boomerangs on them. Any system that divorces costs from actions really kills the feedback loop that's needed for continuous improvement. 

Lobbying: a great (the greatest?) investment

In a striking infographic, the United Republic shows why lobbying is so pervasive: it's an unbelievably effective form of spending (for now I'm linking to the NYTimes hosted version of the infographic as most of United Republic's pages, including the infographic, are 404'ing on me).

As the NYTimes article notes, the ROI on lobbying dwarfs that of any investment an ordinary citizen might hope to capture.

According to statistics United Republic assembled, the prescription drug industry spent $116 million lobbying for legislation to prevent Medicare from bargaining down drug prices — legislation that enabled drug companies to make an additional $90 billion annually. That amounts to an extraordinary 77,500 percent return on investment. Oil companies, in turn, had a return on investment of 5,900 percent, and multinational companies, 22,000 percent.

You're not feeling as hot about those shares of Apple or Google you've held for a few years now, are you?

In fact, the ROI on lobbying is so astronomically high that Tyler Cowen wonders why politician's don't demand larger bribes from lobbyists, or why companies don't spend more on lobbying. This disparity between the cost of lobbying and its returns is known as Tullock paradox. It's ironic, isn't it, to ask why government isn't more corrupt than it already is?

In Government's End, Jonathan Rauch predicted this would be the logical wall any democratic government would run into: demosclerosis, or the inability of a democratic government to deal with our deep problems because motivated lobbyists spend billions fighting for and maintaining the status quo. In such a situation, only marginal incremental change is possible.

If you've ever worked in a large corporation you may also recognize that inertia that comes from entrenched groups defending their turf.

It would be wonderful if we could simplify our tax code, but the prevalence of lobbying makes it unlikely. So many of the odd tax loopholes and shelters and rules are there specifically because some narrow interest group fought to get them into the tax code.

In fact, my variant of the Tullock paradox is why corporations like Apple still have to shelter foreign income from domestic taxes at all. You'd think they'd have lobbied their way to ways to get that income back home without the IRS laying their hands on much of it at all.