Saturday, March 30, 2013

Abundance and Trade

Yesterday, I noted my first objection to Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler's book Abundance. My second is perhaps more technical. In Chapter Four, the authors make the (entirely true) point that progress is cumulative. The more we progress, the easier progress becomes, primarily because ideas interact and complement each other. Although not quoted in the book, Matt Ridley's quote on this blog's sidebar makes the same point:
"The more we prosper, the more we can prosper. The more we invent, the more inventions become possible. The world of things is often subject to diminishing returns. The world of ideas is not."
However, in making this point, the authors quote Dean Kamen (previously featured here as the inventor of the Slingshot water purifier, although better known as the inventor of the Segway):
"In a world of material goods and material exchange, trade is a zero-sum game. I've got a hunk of gold and you have a watch. If we trade, then I have a watch and you have a hunk of gold. But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange them, then we both have two ideas. It's nonzero."
While Diamandis & Kotler's overall point is true, Kamen's quote is just plain wrong. Even in a purely material world, trade is not a zero-sum game. Kamen looks only at the physical objects, not the value the traders place on those objects. By trading, both parties increase the value they place on the objects they have, so trade is positive-sum even if it's solely material trade.

Kamen is trying to speak of opportunity cost. When he and I trade material goods, I have to give up the material good that he wants, and vice versa. The opportunity cost of the material trade is the value of the material good that I'm giving up. But the value of the material good I'm receiving is higher than my opportunity cost, otherwise I wouldn't agree to the trade. The same is true on his side. Both of us increase the value of the things we hold, and our trade is a positive-sum game.

By contrast, if Kamen and I trade ideas, neither gives up the idea that we share with the other. The opportunity cost may include the time it takes to teach an idea, the effort to write it out, the cost to publish a book, etc., but the opportunity cost does not include the idea itself. This makes combinations of ideas far more likely, which is what Kamen seems to be getting at.

This is not just semantics. Much of our government's trade and economic policy is based in the idea that trade is a zero-sum game. Too many people think that if another country is getting richer, we must be getting poorer. The same applies within countries as well--if the rich are getting richer, the poor must be getting poorer. This is used to justify everything from import tariffs and export restrictions to higher taxes and complex regulations. Getting the public to accept that trade is positive-sum, not zero-sum, is the first step towards better economic policy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Singularity Is Here...

...but the new AI gods don't know my name.

Abundance and Overpopulation

I've finally gotten around to reading Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. The book is divided into six parts, and so far, I've only read the first. What follows is, therefore, only my preliminary reflections.

You might expect a blog with "optimism" in the title to have a certain amount of mood affiliation for a book like Abundance, and it's true. Nevertheless, I have a few points of contention with the opening chapters. The first is overpopulation.

In the first chapter, the authors approvingly cite Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. They say that among "scientists who study the carrying capacity of the Earth," the "wild-eyed optimists" think the carrying capacity is two billion, with the "dour pessimists" saying 300 million. Call me crazy, but I don't think someone counts as a wild-eyed optimist if they believe 5/7ths of the world's humans are doomed to die.

There is one simple reason I am not concerned about drastic overpopulation. With some exceptions, food is generally produced on an annual basis. Crops are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Some crops take longer, especially animal crops, but food production generally takes place on annual time scales. By contrast, food demand is daily for the vast majority of the population. Hunger strikes or religious fasts may put off food demand for short periods, but not for most people, and even then not for very long. (Although this guy may be an exception.)

If our population is really so much larger than the carrying capacity of the planet, why haven't we already died? Food is produced very slowly compared to our demand for it, so if we're really going to run out, it would happen quite quickly. We should start dying out when our population is just slightly larger than the carrying capacity, not when we're 3-20 times larger than the carrying capacity! There are more than 7 billion of us right now, most of us eating every day. The carrying capacity of the planet therefore has to be at least 7 billion!

Of course, the central premise of the book is abundance, and it's possible that the section on overpopulation is just a fluff tactic to get the majority who are (sadly) overpopulationists to lower their guard and be receptive to abundance. I will have to read the rest of the book to find out. But so far at least, the possibility of lower population through birth control is considered a good thing, and a static future population is cited as a reason for abundance. Diamandis and Kotler also don't seem to be the kind of authors to use fluff tactics in that way. Indeed, the third chapter explains that people often don't agree with abundance because they have cognitive biases preventing them from agreeing, which is not exactly a claim that would make someone lower their guard.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Gay Marriage Debate

Gay marriage is one of those issues where people tend to believe very strongly one way or the other, and also tend to believe that the other side is not just wrong, but deeply immoral. Rational discussion on gay marriage is thus very difficult, but nevertheless I will try to add my two cents.

The way I see it, the question of gay marriage boils down to the freedoms of association and speech. Individuals have the right to associate or not associate with whomever they please, provided the other party agrees; individuals also have the right to say what they like and express their views, or to say nothing. There are, of course, widely accepted limits to both of these freedoms, and some limits are more reasonable than others.

I believe the freedoms of association and speech together point to an ideal marriage policy: You should be free to marry whomever you want, and I should be free to acknowledge or ignore it however I want. This ideal marriage policy is what led me to approve R-74 in the last election.

The Conservatives
What Conservatives Won't Like: Conservatives won't like my ideal marriage policy because it means that there will be gay marriages. Gays and lesbians will live together, have sex, publicly express same-sex affection and do whatever else they want.

Why Conservatives Are Wrong: By my count, some 31 states currently outlaw gay marriage with no provision for civil unions. In every single one of these states, thousands or even millions of gays and lesbians under current law live together, have sex and publicly express same-sex affection. Many of them even have made lifelong commitments to each other that they would call marriages if the government did not prohibit it.

These people are already enjoying all the substance of marriage without the name. Even the most anti-gay U.S. conservatives do not advocate using government force to break up these relationships, as is done in nearly 80 countries worldwide. Rather, conservatives oppose gay marriage because they do not want to be required to support it. They fear that government recognition of gay marriage will come with government mandates for private citizens and private organizations to extend private recognition to gay marriages.

Why My Ideal Is Better: The conservative fear of government mandates is well-founded, and this is why my ideal policy preserves the individual's right to acknowledge or ignore someone else's marriage however they choose. To me, this seems to be implicit in the freedom of speech. Washington state's SB-6239 ensured this right for religious organizations, and I think it should be extended to everyone.

The Liberals
What Liberals Won't Like: Liberals won't like my ideal marriage policy because some people will choose not to recognize gay marriages. This includes companies providing benefits to employee spouses, churches performing marriage ceremonies, etc.

Why Liberals Are Wrong: Some employers will provide spousal benefits to heterosexual but not homosexual couples. No doubt in protest, some employers would provide spousal benefits to homosexual but not heterosexual couples. This violates a liberal's idea of "equality," but your right to do as you please does not extend to requiring me to approve of what you do. The freedom of association is meaningless if it does not include the right to not associate.

Furthermore, it is not the government's place to ensure equality in fact, even if such a thing were possible. Rather, the government's guarantee of equality is equality before the law, and that is exactly what my ideal policy provides. Everyone has equal rights to marry or not, and everyone has equal rights to say whatever they want about others' marriages.

Why My Ideal Is Better: Over time, the market may sort out societal preferences. If the vast majority of society ends up favoring gay marriage as liberals insist, the market will punish organizations that oppose gay marriage, just as it now punishes organizations like the KKK that overtly stand for racism. On the other hand, if liberals are less than correct about societal attitudes, we may end up with multiple equilibria, with different organizations catering to the different sides. My ideal marriage policy allows both cases to occur naturally, depending on how societal preferences change, rather than imposing societal change through government.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Death Star was an Inside Job

Luke's Change: an Inside Job:

A few years ago, an email forward made the rounds making similar claims. I know at least one person who, because of that forward, gave up their prior belief that George W. Bush was behind 9/11, saying that if they could make a Star Wars conspiracy sound that convincing, maybe there wasn't anything to the real-life conspiracy theories either.

Of course, careful observers will notice a few errors in the video... But I'll leave those to the YouTube commenters.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Socialists on Chavez

When Venezuela's Hugo Chavez died, conservatives and libertarians cheered while Democrats mourned. But with so many on America's right decrying Chavez as a socialist, what did the actual self-proclaimed socialists think of him?

Not much. The Socialist Equality Party newsletter, available online at the Bellingham Politics and Economics blog, has this to say about him:
Chavez's nationalist rhetoric, his government's diversion of revenues from the country's protracted oil bonanza to pay for social assistance programs and its forging of extensive economic ties to China earned him the hatred of both Washington and a fascistic ruling class layer in Venezuela. They did not, however--as both he and his pseudo-left supporters claimed--represent a path to socialism.

Chavez was a bourgeois nationalist, whose government rested firmly on the military from which he came and which continues to serve as the crucial arbiter in the affairs of the Venezuelan state.
Both the share of the country's economy controlled by the private sector and the portion of national income going to employers as opposed to labor were greater under Chavez than before he took office. An entire new ruling class layer--dubbed the boliburguesia-- was spawned by chavismo, growing rich off of government contracts, corruption and financial speculation.
 While I'm a bit late for commentary on Chavez, I found this interesting, as it is not the first time I've found the Socialist Equality Party agreeing with the conservative mainstream...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Kein Eier für Kinder

I first learned about Kindereier back in my high school German class. If you've never heard of them, they are chocolate eggs with little plastic toys inside. It was always a bit of a mystery why something like this never caught on in the United States, home of the Happy Meal toy.

But it turns out, there's a simple answer--toys in chocolate eggs are illegal. Here in the land of the free, our government believes we could not handle the shock of opening a chocolate egg to find a plastic toy inside. The toys are considered a "non-nutritive component," and thus are forbidden by a 1938 law.

Anyone with a lick of common sense can see that Kindereier pose no threat to anyone. Even though some of the toys have small parts, they are hidden inside the quite large plastic capsule. But common sense runs up against federal bureaucracy for people who try to bring Kindereier into the U.S. from another country. Attempting to import Kindereier comes with a $2500 fine per egg, and tens of thousands are confiscated by border agents every year. The two Seattle men in the linked story above spent two-and-a-half hours in border detention because they tried to bring six Kindereier into the country. That would've been a $15,000 mistake if the agents hadn't let them off with a warning. (Thanks be to the Border Agents, the Beneficent, the Merciful!)

So when you see reports from the bipartisan immigration reform group, or Rand Paul, or anyone else insisting on increasing funding for the border patrol before even trying to reform any of the other problems in our broken immigration system, keep in mind that this is what they're doing with the money they already have. Do they really need even more?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

On Drones and Droning On

Yesterday, Rand Paul gave an old-style filibuster where he talked on the Senate floor for 12 hours and 54 minutes about drones and executive power. At first, Paul wanted the Obama administration to come out and say that it is unconstitutional for the government to kill American citizens on American soil without due process. Obama's response: "No comment."

Later, Paul was willing to compromise and end the filibuster for a vote on a non-binding "sense of the Senate" resolution that "the use of drones to execute or target American citizens on American soil who pose no imminent threat clearly violates Constitutional rights." Democrats (in particular, Majority Whip Dick Durbin) refused.

Ultimately, Paul ended the filibuster without accomplishing his explicit goals, though he has clearly energized his supporters and apparently turned a libertarian talking point into GOP policy. The Minority Leader Mitch McConnell showed up to explicitly support Paul and encourage other Republicans to do the same.

Not all Republicans agreed, however. Senator Lindsey Graham called the whole thing "ridiculous," and he's right -- it should be. The proper response from the Obama administration would have been, "Of course, it's unconstitutional to kill citizens on our soil without due process." This should not even be a question. Indeed, if they had responded quickly enough, they could have devastated Rand Paul's credibility and painted him and libertarians in general as paranoid freaks. But they didn't, and that really has me puzzled.

Obama had the opportunity to give the Tea Party and libertarians a roundhouse kick to the face on prime time TV, and he didn't. He did nothing, and doing nothing gave Paul an incredible victory. Durbin went even further, and objected to just a vote on a non-binding resolution on the issue. Why are Obama and Durbin (and the rest of the Democrats) willing to hand Republicans such a PR coup just to hold on to a power they claim they don't want to use anyway?

At this point, it would be easy to fall into conspiracy theories, but I suspect the Democrats are being honest when they say they don't want to kill Americans in the streets. However, being in power, they thought they had an opportunity to expand that power, and they took it. Everyone likes to have options. They just didn't think anyone would notice. Once libertarians did notice, the Democrats thought no one would pay attention to the libertarians anyway. Now that Paul has forced the issue and gotten people to pay attention, the Democrats don't want to turn around and admit that he's right, because they think they'll look bad if they do. They don't seem to recognize that digging their heels in and insisting on the right to kill American citizens without due process makes them look even worse.

Now that Paul has everyone talking, it will be interesting to see what he does with it. Can he inspire actual change?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Cyborg Foundation

Via SingularityHub, the cyborg Neil Harbisson:

Harbisson was born colorblind, but now perceives color as sound thanks to a device called the eyeborg. "It's not the union between the eyeborg and my head what converts me into a cyborg, but the union between the software and my brain. My body and technology have united."

What makes this truly astounding is that Harbisson has gone beyond mere treatment of colorblindness to augmentation. He now directly perceives colors in the infrared and ultraviolet. He also founded the Cyborg Foundation to promote the use of cybernetics and develop new devices for augmentation, such as internal radar and 360º sensory perception.

"It's very, very human to modify one's body with human creations... During this century, we will see that more and more people will start using technology as a part of the body in order to perceive more and to expand senses."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reasons for Optimism X

1. Americans today are 20% less likely to die from cancer than we were in 1991. The death rate from cancer has fallen from 215.1 to 173.1 per 100,000. The decrease has been seen in men, women and children. Although death rates for some cancers are up, death rates for the four most common types of cancer (lung, colon, breast and prostate) have all fallen by more than 30%.

2. A second person has been cured of HIV, this time a newborn treated with triple the typical dose of antiretroviral drugs. The only person to have previously been cured of HIV was Timothy Brown, cured after a bone marrow transplant from a donor who was naturally immune. This second case holds far more promise as it is cheaper and may be easier to replicate.

3. The FDA has finally approved an early version of Geordi's visor, although the manufacturer's have opted for the name "artificial retina" instead. The device wirelessly sends images from a camera to an eye implant. The downside is that the implant requires the user to have some functioning retinal cells, so this is not a full cure for blindness. The upside is that the bulk of the device can be removed just like normal glasses, making upgrades easy.

4. Don Boudreaux continues his Cleaned by Capitalism series with an entry on "health-care products supplied quite successfully by free markets on a fee-for-service basis."

5. Once again via Mark Perry, U.S. oil production continues to grow. Texas has doubled oil production in the last three years, and is now producing more domestic oil than the entire country imports from the Persian Gulf. Christof Rühl, chief economist for BP, wrote recently, "The United States is likely to surpass Saudi Arabia in daily output very soon, and non-OPEC production will dominate global supply growth over the coming decade."

Furthermore, as of October 2012, the United States is producing more oil per day than every country in Central and South America combined. As recently as 2009, those countries were consistently producing 25-30% more oil than the US.

But the shale revolution isn't just here in the United States. Global oil production for the first three quarters of 2012 was 1% higher than all of 2011. Once the numbers are in for the fourth quarter, 2012 is expected to set an all-time record. For those worried that increased oil production means we'll just run out sooner, consider that ExxonMobil discovered more new recoverable oil last year than they took out of the ground--for the 19th year in a row.

6. Mark Perry and Don Boudreaux together penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece arguing against middle class stagnation. (AEI also has a copy, in case the WSJ version is eventually paywalled.) They address the CPI's overstatement of inflation, the expansion in non-wage compensation, the large-scale entry of women into the labor force, rising life expectancy, the falling cost of "basics" like housing and food at home, and falling inequality in services like air travel and goods like consumer electronics. The piece is a wide-ranging but somewhat shallow introduction to the many lines of evidence that life is actually improving for most Americans.

Boudreaux has follow-ups to the piece here, herehere and here, including responses to some critics. Perry has follow-ups here and here. There's also more on the topic from James Pethokoukis and David Henderson.

7. Via MR, a village in India has dramatically improved agriculture yields using a method called System of Root Intensification (SRI) that focuses on soil conditions and plant density. Poor farmers in Darveshpura have set new world records for rice and potatoes, and SRI seems to improve yields for other crops as well. Some doubt the claims are legitimate, but the ease of adopting the method would allow small farmers the world over to increase their yields if the claims prove true.

8. Oliver August of The Economist recently completed a wide-ranging journey across 23 African countries. In the interview, he speaks of how easy it was to complete the journey, and says, "The main experience of travelling across Africa is one of hopefulness, one of industry, one of striving amongst the many still-quite-poor people, and one of a sense of a future that is coming closer quite quickly."

The Perils of Spreading Optimism

This is from a few weeks ago, but I just came across it today: