Model, Politics, Quick Fix

They don’t hate your values; they just assign them no weight

[3-minute read]

Content Warning: Extensive discussion of the morality of abortion

Previously, I talked about akrasia as one motive for socially conservative legislation. I think the akrasia model is useful when explaining certain classes of seemingly hypocritical behaviour, but it’s far from the only reason for social conservatives to push for legislation that liberals oppose. At least some legislation comes from a desire to force socially conservative values on everyone [1].

Liberals are terrible at understanding the values underlying conservative legislation. When an anti-abortion single issue voter took a reproductive rights seminar at Yale, he was surprised to hear that many of his classmates believed that anti-abortion laws were aimed entirely at controlling women’s sexuality, rather than stopping the (to his eyes) moral crime of abortion [2].

This is an easy mistake to make. It’s true that limiting abortion also limits women’s financial and sexual freedom. In the vast majority of cases it’s false to claim that this is a plus for the most vociferous opponents of abortion. To their detriment it also isn’t a minus. For many of the staunchest opponents of abortion, the financial or sexual freedom of women plays no role at all in their position. Held against the life of a fetus, these freedoms are (morally) worthless.

People opposed to abortion who also value these things tend to take more moderate positions. For them, their stance on abortion is a trade-off between two valuable things (the life of a fetus and the freedoms of the mother). I know some younger Catholics who fall into this category. Then tend to be of the position that things that reduce abortion (like sexual education, free prenatal care, free daycare, and contraceptive use) are all very good, but they rarely advocate for the complete abolition of abortion (except by restructuring society such that no woman feels the need for one).

Total opposition to abortion is only possible when you hold the benefits of abortion as far less morally relevant than the costs. Total support likewise. If I viewed a fetus to be as morally relevant as a born person, I could not support abortion rights to the extent I do.

The equation views my values as morally meaningless + argues strongly for things that would hurt those values can very easily appear to come out to holds the opposite of my values. But this doesn’t have to be the case! Most anti-abortion advocates aren’t trying to paper over women’s sexual freedoms (with abortion laws). Most abortion supporters aren’t reveling in the termination of pregnancies.

This mistake is especially easy to make because you have every incentive to caricature your political enemies. It’s especially pernicious though, because it makes it so hard to productively talk about any area where you disagree. You and your opponents both think that you are utterly opposed and for either to triumph, the other must lose. It’s only when you see that your values are orthogonal, not opposed that you have any hope for compromise.

I think the benefits of this model lie primarily in sympathy and empathy. Understanding that anti-abortion advocates aren’t literally trying to reduce the financial security and sexual freedom of women doesn’t change the fact that their policies have the practical effects of accomplishing these things. I’m still going to oppose them on the grounds of the consequences of their actions, even if I no longer believe that they’re at all motivated by those specific consequences.

But empathy isn’t useless! There’s something to be said for the productivity of a dialogue when you don’t believe that the other side hates everything about your values! You can try and find common values and make compromises based on those. You can convince people more effectively when you accurately understand their beliefs and values. These can be instrumentally useful when trying to convince people of your point or when advocating for your preferred laws.

Abortion gave me the clearest example of orthogonal values, but it might actually be the hardest place to find any compromise. Strongly held orthogonal values can still lead to gridlock. If not abortion, where is mutually beneficial compromise possible? Where else do liberals argue with only a caricature of their opponents’ values?

Epistemic Status: Model


[1] Socially liberal legislation is just objectively right and is based on the values everyone would have if they could choose freely. Only my political enemies try and force anything on anyone. /sarcasm ^

[2] People who aren’t women can also have abortions and their ability to express their sexualities is also controlled by laws limiting access to abortion. If there exists a less awkward construction than “anyone with a uterus” that I can use instead of “women”, I’d be delighted to find it. ^

Model, Politics

Socially Conservative Legislation as Akrasia Managment

[5-minute read]

If you hang out with people obsessed with self-improvement, one term that you’ll hear a lot is akrasia. A dictionary will tell you that akrasia means “The state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgement through weakness of will.”

Someone who struggles with it will have more visceral stories. “It’s like someone else is controlling me, leaving me powerless to stop watching Netflix” is one I’ve often heard. Or “I know that scrolling through Facebook for five hours is against my goals, but I just can’t help myself”.

I use commitment contracts (I agree to pay a friend a certain amount of money if I don’t do a certain things) or Beeminder (a service that charges me money if I fail to meet my goals) to manage my akrasia. Many of my friends do the same thing. Having to face consequences helps us overcome our akrasia.

If you’ve ever procrastinated, you’ve experienced akrasia. You probably know the listlessness and powerlessness that comes with it, and the frantic burst of energy that you get as the due date for your task nears. Commitment contracts impose an artificial deadline, allowing akratics to access that burst of energy need to break free from an endless cycle of Netflix or Facebook.

Obviously it would be better if akrasia could be wished away. Unfortunately, I haven’t really met anyone who has entirely succeeded in vanquishing it. All we can do is treat the symptoms. For those of us stuck with akrasia, managing it with sticks (and perhaps the occasional carrot) allows us to accomplish our goals. Time your sticks right and you rarely get the listlessness or the shame that can go with it.

Recently, I’ve started viewing social conservatives who push for tough morality laws and then personally fall short of them as more than risibly hypocritical. I’ve begun to think that they’re deeply akratic individuals who think that strong public morality is their only hope for living up to their own standards.

This model has fundamentally changed the way I look at the world. When I read John Scalzi’s rant about covenant marriage while researching for this post –

As a concept, it’s pretty damn insulting. “Covenant Marriage” implicitly suggests that people won’t stay married unless they subject themselves to onerous governmental restrictions on their personal freedoms; basically, it’s the state telling you that it expects you to get a divorce at some point, unless it makes it too annoying for you to get a divorce to make it worth your while. The State of Arkansas is banking on sloth, apathy and state bureaucracy to keep a bunch of bad marriages together, as if bad marriages are really better than divorce.

– All I could think was yes! Yes, that is exactly what some of the people pushing covenant marriage believe and want. They believe that a bad (or at least difficult) marriage is better than a divorce. But they don’t trust themselves to stay in a difficult marriage, so they want to strongly bind their future self to the decisions and values of their current self.

Most of the akratics I know have been unable to overcome their akrasia via willpower. Only the consequences they’ve set up are effective. By the same token, social conservatives who frequently let themselves down (like serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, or any of these nineteen others) might be trying to overcome their failings by increasing the consequences. For everyone.

On one hand, this leads to onerous restrictions on anyone who doesn’t share their views. On the other hand, there aren’t many levers left to accomplish this sort of commitment device except through legislation that affects everyone. Look at marriage; in America, no-fault divorces are allowed in every state. You can enter a so-called “covenant marriage“, with more onerous exit requirements, but these are only offered in a few states and can be avoided by divorcing in a state with different marriage laws. Adultery laws are all but dead.

Even enforcing fidelity through prenups is difficult. Such clauses have been ruled unenforceable in California. While some other states might decide to enforce them, you’re still left with the problem of actually proving infidelity actually occurred.

This isn’t to say that I have a problem with no-fault divorces. If I didn’t support them for helping people leave terrible marriages, I’d support them for ending an embarrassing daily spectacle of perjury. But it is amazing that many governments won’t let consenting adults make more stringent marriage contracts if that’s what they choose. America let people get underwater mortgages that could never be repaid. But it won’t let a pair of adults set harsh penalties for cheating?

Faced with such a dearth of commitment options, what’s an akratic to do? Fail? If you’re religious, this is opening you up to the possibility of eternal damnation. That’s clearly not an option. Fighting for regressive “family values” laws becomes a survival mechanism for anyone caught between their conservative morality and their own predilections.

I know societal punishments aren’t a perfect solution for akrasia. Many people desire not to shoplift, yet shoplift things they don’t need anyway, despite all the penalties. Beeminder isn’t a perfect solution either. Some people lie. Some people give up. But it helps some people. It helped me.

For some people, societal punishments are the only thing that will work. In a push to liberalize everything about society, liberals really have backed some people into a corner. It wouldn’t be that hard to let them out. Make cheating clauses in prenups enforceable and allow them to include punitive damages. Allow couples to set arduous conditions on their own divorce. Listen to what people want and see if there are ways that we can give it to them and only them.

I can see the obvious objections to this plan. It might sweep up young romantics, still indoctrinated by their parents and ruin their lives. Some (from the liberal point of view) bad contracts could become so common that everyone faces strong social pressure to make them. But these are both issues that can be addressed through legislature, perhaps by requiring a judge to certify adequate maturity and understanding of the contract (to address the first concern) and forbidding preferential treatment from institutions or businesses based on marriage (or other salient contract) type (to address the second).

There are some things that liberals and social conservatives will probably never be able to compromise on. Gay marriage, trans rights, and abortion… these should be our non-negotiable demands. What makes these our red lines is the realization that we must allow individuals to make their own choices (and not deny them any benefits that people who make other choices receive). The cornerstones of social liberalism are a celebration of authenticity and an openness to the freely made personal choices of others, even when we disagree with them. Even when we think they’re nonsensical. Even when we think they’ll bring only grief.

It’s the authoritarian who seeks to make their choices the choices of everyone. Too often that authoritarian is the social conservative. Allowing them to sanction themselves won’t end that. Too many are motivated by self-righteousness or a belief that what works for them must necessarily work for everyone else. We can’t fix that. But we sure as hell can be better than it.

Epistemic Status: Model

Economics, Model, Politics

Meditations on Regulation, or the Case of the $10,000 Staircase

[10-minute read]

Breaking news: a retired mechanic spent one afternoon and $550 building a staircase. This is news because the City of Toronto said it would cost $65,000 for them to do it. They’ve since walked back that estimate, claiming it won’t be that expensive (instead, the final cost looks to be a mere $10,000).

Part of this is materials and labour. The city will probably go for something a bit more permeant than wood – probably concrete or metal – and will probably have higher labour costs (the mechanic hired a random guy off the street to help out, which is probably against city procurement policy). But a decent part (perhaps even the majority) of the increased costs will be driven by regulation.

First there’s the obvious compliance activities: site assessment, community consultation, engineering approval, insurance approval. Each of these will take the highly expensive time of highly skilled professionals. There’s also the less obvious (but still expensive and onerous) hoops to jump through. If the city doesn’t have a public works crew who can install the stairs, they’ll have to find a contractor. The search for a contractor would probably be governed by a host of conflict of interest and due diligence regulations; these are the sorts of thing a well-paid city worker would need to sink a significant amount of time into managing. Based on the salary information I could find, half a week of a city bureaucrat’s time already puts us over the $550 price tag.

And when the person in charge of compliance is highly skilled, the loss is worse than simple monetary terms might imply. Not only are we paying someone to waste her time, we are also paying the opportunity cost of her wasting her time. Whenever some bright young lawyer or planner is stuck reading regulatory tomes instead of creating something, we are deprived of the benefits of what they could have created.

When it comes to the stairs, regulations don’t stop with our hypothetical city worker. The construction firm they hire is also governed by regulations. They have to track how much everyone works, make sure the appropriate taxes go to the appropriate parties, ensure compliance with workplace health and safety standards and probably take care of a dozen minor annoyances that I don’t know about. When you aren’t the person doing these things, they just blend into the background and you forget that someone has to spend a decent part of their time filling out incredibly boring government forms – forms that demand accuracy under pain of perjury.

No source needed, because I stole this from a US government form and no documents produced by the US government can be copyrighted
What, you never noticed how fond government documents were of waving the p-word around? This basically says “fill this out right, or one of the state’s armed enforcers will use violence to bring you to a small room that you won’t be allowed to leave for a very long time”.

Hell, the very act of soliciting bids can inflate the cost, because each bid will require a bunch of supporting paperwork (you can’t submit these things on a sticky note). As is becoming the common refrain, this takes time, which costs money. You better bet that whichever firm eventually gets hired will roll the cost of all its failed past bids (either directly or indirectly) into the cost the city ends up paying.

It’s not just government regulations that drive up the price of stairs either. If the city has liability insurance, it will have to comply with a bunch of rules given to it by its insurer (or face higher premiums). If it chooses to self-insure, the city actuaries will come up with all sorts of internal policies designed to lessen the city’s chance of liability – or at least lessen the necessary payout when the city is inevitably sued by some drunk asshole who forgets how to do stairs and breaks a bone.

With all of this regulation (none of which seems unreasonable when taken in isolation!) you can see how the city was expecting to shell out $65,000 (at a minimum) for a simple set of stairs. That they managed to get the cost down to $10,000 in this case ­(to avoid the negative media attention of over-estimating the cost of stairs more than one hundred times over?) is probably indicative of city workers doing unpaid overtime, or other clever cost hiding measures [1].

The point here is that regulation is expensive. It’s expensive everywhere it exists. The United States has over 1,000,000 pages of federal regulation. Canada makes its federal regulation available as a compressed XML dump(!) with a current uncompressed size of 559MB. Considering XML overhead, the sum total of Canadian federal regulation is probably approximately equivalent to that of the United States.

The only thing that hates federal regulation more than libertarians is the bookshelf that has to hold it all. Image Credit: Coolcaesar on Wikimedia Commons

This isn’t it for either country; after federal regulation, there’s provincial/state and local regulations. Then there are the interactions between all three, with things becoming even worse when you want to do anything between different jurisdictions within a country or (and it’s a miracle this can even happen at all) between countries.

People who can hold a significant subset of these regulations in their head and successfully navigate them (without going mad from boredom) are a limited resource. Worse, they’re a limited resource who can be useful in a variety of fields (i.e. there has to be some overlap between the people who’d make good programmers, doctors, or administrators and the people who can parse and memorize reams of regulation). Limited supply and consistent (or increasing) demand drives the excessive cost of buying their time that I mentioned earlier.

This is the part where I’m supposed to talk about how regulation destroys jobs and how we should repeal it all if we care about the economic health of our society. But I’m not going to do that. The idea that regulation kills jobs is based on economic fallacies [2] and not borne out by evidence (although it is surprisingly poorly studied and new evidence could change my mind here).

As best we can currently tell, regulation doesn’t destroy jobs; it shifts them. In a minimally regulated environment, there will be fewer jobs requiring highly educated compliance wizards and more jobs for everyone else. As the amount of regulation increases, we should see more and more labour shift from productive tasks to compliance tasks. Really regulation is one of the best ways that elites can guarantee jobs for other elites.

Viewed through this lens, regulation is similar to a very regressive tax. It might be buying us social goods that we really want, but it does so in a way that transfers wealth from already disadvantaged workers to already advantaged workers. I think (absent offloading regulatory compliance onto specialized AI expert systems) that this might be an inherent feature of regulation.

When I see progressives talking about regulation, the tone is often that companies should whine about it less. I think it’s totally true that many companies push back against regulation that is (on the face of it at least) in the public good – and that companies aren’t pushing back primarily out of concern for their workers. However, rejecting the libertarian position doesn’t mean we should automatically support all regulation. After reading this, I hope you look at regulation as a problematically regressive tax that can have certain other benefits.

Because even taking into account its regressive effects, regulation is often a net good. Emissions standards around nitrous oxide emissions have saved thousands of lives – and Volkswagen cheating on them will lead to the “pre-mature deaths” of over one thousand people.

Corporations have no social duty beyond giving returns to their shareholders. It’s only through regulation that we can channel them away from anti-social behaviour [3]. Individuals are a bit better, motivated as they are by several things beyond money, but regulation is still sometimes needed to help us avoid the tragedy of the commons.

That said, even the best-intentioned regulation can have ruinous second order effects. Take the new French law that requires supermarkets to donate unsold, expiring produce to food banks. The law includes a provision indemnifying supermarkets against any legal action for food poisoning or other problems caused by the donated food. Without that provision, companies would be caught in a terrible bind. They’d face fines if they didn’t donate, but face the risk of huge lawsuits if they did [4][5].

Regulation isn’t just the purview of the government. If all government regulation disappeared overnight, private regulation – overseen primarily by insurance companies – would take its place. The ubiquity of liability insurance in this litigious age has already turned many insurers into surrogate regulators [6].

Insurance companies really hate paying out money. They can only make money if they make more in premiums than they pay out for losses. The loss prevention divisions of major insurers work with their clients, making sure they toe the line of the insurer’s policies and raising their premiums when they don’t.

This task has become especially important for the insurers who provide liability insurance to police departments. Many local governments lack the political will to rein in their police force when they engage in misconduct, but insurance companies have no such compunctions. Insurers have written use of force policies, provided expensive training, furnished use of force simulators, and ordered the firing of chiefs and ordinary officers alike.

When insurers make these demands, they expect to be obeyed. Cross an insurer and they’ll withdraw insurance or make the premiums prohibitively high. It isn’t unheard of for police departments to be disbanded if insurers refuse to cover them. Absent liability insurance, a single lawsuit can literally bankrupt a small municipality, a risk most councillors won’t take.

As the Colombia Law School article linked above suggested, it may be possible to significantly affect the behaviour of insurance purchasers with regulation that is targeted at insurers. I also suspect that you can abstract things even further and affect the behaviour of insurers (and therefore their clients) by making arcane changes to how liability works. This has the dubious advantage of making it possible to achieve political goals without obviously working towards them. It seems likely that it’s harder to get together a big protest when the aim you’re protesting against is hidden behind several layers of abstraction [7].

Regulation isn’t inherently good or bad. It should be able to stand on its own merits and survive a cost-benefit analysis. This will inevitably become a tricky political question, because different people weight costs and benefits differently, but it isn’t an intractable political problem.

(I know that’s what I always say. But it’s a testament to the current political climate that saying “policy should be based on cost-benefit analyses, not ideology” can feel radical [8].)

I would suggest that if you’re the type of person whose knee-jerk response to regulation is to support it, you should look at how it will displace labour from blue-collar to white-collar industries or raise prices and ponder if this is worth its benefits. If instead you oppose regulation by default, I’d suggest looking at its goals and remembering that the cost of reaching them isn’t infinite. You might be surprised at what a true cost benefit analysis returns.

Also, it probably seems true that some things are a touch over-regulated if $65,000 (or even $10,000) is an unsurprising estimate for a set of stairs.

Epistemic Status:  Model


[1] Of course, even unpaid overtime has a cost. After a lot of it, you might feel justified to a rather longer paid vacation than you might otherwise take. Not to mention that long hours with inadequate breaks can harm productivity in the long run.  ^

[2] It seems to rest on the belief that regulation makes things more expensive, therefore fewer people buy them, therefore fewer people are needed to produce them. What this simple analysis misses (and what’s pointed out in the Pro Publica article I linked) is that regulatory compliance is a job. Jobs lost directly producing things are more or less offset by jobs dealing with regulations, such that increased regulation has an imperceptible effect on employment. This seems related to the lump of labour fallacy, although I’ve yet to figure out how to clearly articulate the connection. ^

[3] In Filthy Lucre, Professor Joseph Heath talks about the failures of state-run companies to create “socially inclusive growth”. Basically, managers in companies care far more about their power within the company than the company being successful (the iron law of institutions). If you give them a single goal, you can align their incentives with yours and get good results. Give them two goals and they’ll focus on building up their own little fief within the company and explaining away any failures (from your perspective) as the necessary results of balancing their dual tasks (“yes, I posted no profits, I was trying to be very socially inclusive this quarter”).

Regulation, if set up so that it seriously affects profits (or if set up so that it has high personal consequences for managers) forces the manager to avoid acting in a ruinously anti-social way without leaving them with the sort of divided loyalties that can cause companies to become semi-feudal. 

[4] The end game would quite possibly involve supermarkets setting up legally separate (with significant board overlap) charitable organizations that would handle the distribution, and compelling these shells (who would carry almost no cash so as to be judgement proof) to sign contracts indemnifying the source supermarket against all lawsuits. This would require lots and lots of lawyer time and money, which means consumers would see higher food prices. ^

[5] Actually, higher food prices are pretty much inevitable, because there’s still a bunch of new logistics that have to be worked out as a result of this law. If the logistics turn out to be more expensive then the fines, supermarkets will continue to throw out food (while passing the costs of the fines on to the consumer). If the fines are more expensive, then food will be donated (but price of donating it will still inevitably be passed on to consumers). Any government program that makes food more expensive is incredibly regressive – it’s this realization that underlies the tax-free status of unprepared food in Canada.

Supplemental nutrition programs (AKA “food stamps”) have the benefit of subsidizing food for those who need it from the general tax pool, which can be based on progressive taxation and mainly paid for by the wealthy.

It’s really easy to see a bunch of food sitting around and realize it could be better used. It’s really hard (and expensive) to actually handle the transport and preparation of that food. ^

[6] Meaning that a government that really wanted to reduce regulation would have to make it rather hard to sue anyone. This seems like an unlikely use of political capital and also probably in conflict with many notions of fundamental justice.

Anyway, you should look at changes to liability the same way you look at regulation. Ultimately, they may amount to the same thing. ^

[7] This is dubious because it’s inherently anti-democratic (the government is taking actions designed to be opaque to the governed) and also incredibly baroque. I’m not talking about simple changes to liability that will be intuitively understood. I’m talking about provisos written in solid legalese that tweak liability in ways that I wouldn’t expect anyone without a law degree and expertise in liability law to understand. If a government was currently doing this, I would expect that I wouldn’t know it and wouldn’t understand it even if it was pointed out to me. ^

[8] Note, crucially, that it feels radical, but isn’t. Most people who read my blog already agree with me here, so I’m not actually risking any consequences by being all liberal/centrist/neo-liberal/whatever we’re calling people who don’t toe the party line this week. ^

Economics, Model, Politics

Minimum Standards or Broad Access?

[5-minute read]

There are two sides to every story. Zoning and maximum occupancy regulations are exclusionary and drive up the price of housing. They are also necessary to prevent exploitative landlords from leaving their tenants in squalor. Catastrophic health insurance plans leave patients uncovered for many of the services they might need. They’re also often the only plans that are rational for younger people to buy.

Where you come down on either of these – or any similar cases where there’s a clear trade-off between maximum access and minimum standards – is probably heavily dependent on your situation. If you’re an American millennial without an employer-provided or parental health care plan, you’re probably quite incensed about the lack of catastrophic health care insurance. For healthy young adults, those plans were an excellent deal.

Similarly, workaholics in the Bay Area sometimes want to be able to stuff a house full to the bursting to save on rent. If you’re never going to be home, regulations around the number of square feet per bed feel incredibly onerous.

I like to point out that regulation is a trade-off. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it’s a trade-off made at the middle. People in the long probability tails – those who are far from the median when it comes to income or risk-tolerance often feel left out by any of the trade-offs made by the majority. This is an almost inevitable side-effect of trade-offs that I rarely see mentioned.

If you have health problems for which Obamacare didn’t mandate coverage, then you might find yourself wishing that the coverage requirements were even more expansive. If you find yourself really hating the illegal AirBnB you’re living in with twelve other programmers, you might wish that the city’s rental enforcement unit was a bit more on their game.

Most articles about people on the extremes leave out the context and leave out the satisfied middle. They don’t say “this is the best trade-off we could get, but it’s still imperfect and it still hurts people”. They say breathlessly “look at this one person hurt by a policy, the policy hurts people and is bad; the people who advocate for it are evil.”

It’s understandable to leave out the middle in the search of a better story. The problem arises when you leave out the middle and then claim all advocates are evil for failing to care about the fringes. Because most of the time, no one is being evil.

The young people skipping out on coverage because it’s not worth it for them aren’t shirking a duty. They’re making the best of their limited finances, ravaged by a tough entry-level job market and expensive university education. The NIMBYs who fight against any change to local building codes that might make housing more affordable are over-leveraged on their houses and might end up underwater if prices fall at all.

Even appeals to principles don’t do much good in situations like this. You can say “no one should live in squalor”, but that might run right up against “everyone should be able to afford a place to live”. It can be that there simply isn’t enough housing supply in desirable cities to comfortably accommodate everyone who wants to live there – and the only way to change that involves higher direct or indirect taxes (here an indirect tax might be something like requiring 15% of new rental stock to be “affordable”, which raises the price of other rental stock to compensate), taxes that will exclude yet another group of people.

When it comes to healthcare in America, you can say “young people shouldn’t be priced out of the market”, but this really does compete with “old people shouldn’t be priced out of the market” or “pre-existing conditions shouldn’t be grounds for coverage to be denied”.

The non-American way of doing healthcare comes with its own country specific trade-offs. In Germany, if you switch from the public plan to a private plan it is very hard to get back on the public plan. This prevents people from gaming the system – holding cheaper private insurance while they’re young, healthy and earning money, then trying to switch back during their retirement, but it also can leave people out in the cold with no insurance.

In Canada, each province has a single, government-run insurance provider that charges non-actuarial premiums (premiums based on how much you make, not how likely you are to use healthcare services). This guarantees universal coverage, but also results in some services (especially those without empirical backing, or where the cost-benefit is too low) remaining uncovered. Canada also prohibits mixing of public and private funds, making private healthcare much more expensive.

Canadians aren’t spared hard choices, we just have to make different trade-offs than Americans. Here we must pick (and did pick) between “the government shouldn’t decide who lives and who dies” and “care should be universal”. This choice was no less wrenching then any of those faced by Obamacare’s drafters.

Municipalities face similar challenges around housing policy. San Francisco is trying to retain the character of the city and protect existing residents with rent control and strict zoning regulations. The Region of Waterloo, where I live, has gone the other way. Despite a much lower population and much less density, it has almost as much construction as San Francisco (16 cranes for Waterloo vs. 22 for SF).

This comes at a cost. Waterloo mandated that houses converted into rental properties cannot hold more than three unrelated tenants per unit, thereby producing guaranteed renters for all the new construction (and alleviating concerns about students living in squalid conditions). The region hopes that affordability will come through densification, but this cuts down on the options student renters have (and can make it more expensive for them to rent).

Toronto is going all out building (it has about as many cranes on its skyline as Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and Phoenix combined), at the cost of displacing residents in rooming houses. There’s the hope that eventually supply will bring down Toronto’s soaring house costs, but it might be that more formal monthly arrangements are out of the reach of current rooming house residents (especially given that rent control rules have resulted in a 35-year drought on new purpose-built rental units).

In all of these cases, it’s possible to carve out a sacred principle and defend it. But you’re going to run into two problems with your advocacy. First, there’s going to be resistance from the middle of society, who have probably settled on the current trade-off because it’s the least offensive to them. Second, you’re going to find people on the other underserved extreme, convinced all the problems they have with the trade-off can be alleviated by the exact opposite of what you’re advocating.

Obamacare looked like it would be impossible to defend without Democrats controlling at least one lever of government. Republicans voted more than 50 times to repeal Obamacare. Now that they control everything, there is serious doubt that they’ll be able to change it at all. Republicans got drunk on the complaints of people on the long tails, the people worst served by Obamacare. They didn’t realize it really was the best compromise that could be obtained under the circumstances, or just how unpopular any attempt to change that compromise would be.

(To be entirely fair to Republicans, it seems like many Americans, including many of those who opposed Obamacare up until Obama left office, also just realized it was the best possible compromise.)

This is going to be another one of those posts where I don’t have a clear prescription for fixing anything (except perhaps axing rent control aka “the best way to destroy a city’s rental stock short of bombing it”). I don’t actually want to convince people – especially people left out of major compromises – not to advocate for something different. It’s only through broad input that we get workable compromises at all. Pluralistic society is built on many legitimate competing interests. People are motivated by different terminal values and different moral foundations.

Somehow, despite it all, we manage to mostly not kill each other. Maybe my prescription is simply that we should keep trying to find workable compromises and keep trying not to kill each other. Perhaps we could stand to put more effort into understanding why people ask for what they do. And we could try and be kind to each other. I feel comfortable recommending that.

Epistemic Status: Model

Biology, Model, Politics

To have lobbyists on your side

There is perennial debate in Canada about whether we should allow a “two-tiered” healthcare system. The debate is a bit confusing – by many measures we already have a two-tiered system, with private clinics and private insurance – but ultimately hinges on the ability of doctors to mix fees. Currently it is illegal for a doctor to charge anything on top of the provincially mandated fee structure. If the province is willing to pay $3,000 for a procedure, you cannot charge $5,000 and ask your patients (or their insurance) to make up the difference.

Supporters of a mixed system argue that it will alleviate wait times for everyone. Detractors argue that it will create a cumbersome, unfair system and paradoxically increase wait times. It’s enough to convince me that I don’t know what the fuck a two-tier healthcare system would have as its first order effects.

But I oppose it because I’m pretty sure I know what the second order effects would be.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an industry, temporarily in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a really good lobbyist to make that possession permeant.

This is how we end up with incredibly detailed tax and regulatory law. There are a whole bunch of exceptions and special cases, vigourously lobbied for by special interest groups. These make us all a bit worse off, but each exception makes a certain person or small group of people very much better off. They care far more about preserving their loophole or unfair advantage than we do about getting rid of it, so each petty annoyance persists. Except, the annoyances aren’t so petty anymore when there are hundreds or thousands of them.

I dearly don’t want to add any more “petty” annoyances to healthcare.

As soon as we allow doctors to mix public funding with direct payments from patients or insurance, we’ll unleash a storm of lobbying. Everything from favourable tax treatment for clinics (we don’t charge HST on provincial care, it’s unfair to charge it on their added fees!) to tax breaks for insurance, to inflated fees for private clinics to handle some public cases will be on the table.

If the lobbyists do their job well, the private system will perch like a mosquito on the public system, sucking tax dollars from the public purse and using them to subsidize private care. This offends me on a visceral level, sure. But it’s also bad policy. Healthcare costs are already outpacing general inflation; we should not risk throwing fuel on that fire. We might end up with having the same sort of cost disease as America.

If we can keep healthcare relatively simple, we can keep it relatively cheap. One of the most pernicious things about cost disease is that it mainly affects things the government pays for. Because of this, the government has to collect more and more tax dollars just to provide the same level of service. As long as healthcare, education, and real estate are getting more expensive in real (inflation adjusted terms), we have to choose between raising taxes or making do with less service. When there are two systems, it’s clear that the users of the private system (and their lobbyists) would prefer decreased public services to increased taxes.

When there is only the public system, we force the lion’s share of those who plan to lobby for better care to lobby for better care in the public system [1]. This is true not just in healthcare; private schools are uncommon in most Canadian provinces. Want better school for your children? Try and improve the public schools.

There is always option to lobby for subsidies for private systems, but this has generally been unproductive when the public system is effective and entrenched. Two-tiered healthcare is back in the news because of a court case, not because any provincial government is committing political suicide by suggesting it. When it comes to schools, offering to subsidize private schools may have played a role in dooming John Tory’s bid for the premiership of Ontario in 2007.

I wonder if there isn’t some sort of critical mass thing that can happen. When the public system (be it healthcare, education, or anything else) is generally good, all but the wealthiest will use it. The few who use private systems won’t have the lobbying clout to bring about any specific advantages for their system, so there will be a stable equilibrium. Most people will use the public system and oppose changes to it, while the few who don’t won’t waste their time lobbying for changes (given the lack of any appetite for changes among the broader public).

If the public system gets substantially worse, those with the means to will leave the public system for the private. This would explain why generally liberal B.C. (with its decade of nasty labour disputes between the government and teachers) has much higher enrollment in private schools than in conservative and free-market-worshipping Alberta (which has poured decades of oil money largesse into its schools) [2].

Of course, the more people that use the private system, the more lobbying clout it gains. This model would predict that B.C. will begin to see substantial government concessions to private schools (although this could be confounded if the recent regime change proves durable). This model would also predict that if we open even a small crack in the unified public healthcare system, we’ll quickly see a private system emerge which will immediately lobby to be underwritten with public dollars.

From this point of view, one of the best things about public systems is that they force the best off to lobby for the worst off. Catch-all public systems yoke the interests of broad parts of society together, increasing access to important services.

If this model is true, then getting healthcare and education right are just the table stakes. It is vitally important that the provinces institute uniform rules and subsidies for embryo selection and future genetic engineering technologies. Because if they don’t, then in the words of Professor Jennifer Doudna, we will “transcribe our societies’ financial inequality into our genetic code”.

Both IVF and genetic screening are becoming easier and quicker. According to Gwern, it’s already likely a net positive to screen embryos for traits associated with higher later earnings (he lists seven currently screenable traits: IQ, height, BMI, and lack of diabetes, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia), with a net lifetime payoff estimated at $14,653 [3]. Unfortunately, this payoff is only available to parents who can afford the IVF and the screening.

Recently, Ontario began covering one round of IVF for couples unable to conceive. This specifically doesn’t include any genetic testing or pre-implantation diagnosis, which means that if we see a drop in heritable genetic diseases in the next generation, that drop will only be among the better off. Hell, even though Ontario already “covers” one round of IVF, they don’t cover any of the necessary fertility drugs, which means that IVF costs about $5,000 out of pocket. This is already outside the reach of many Ontarians.

Not a lot of people are running analyses like Gwern’s. Yet. We still have time to fix the coverage gap for IVF and put in place a publicly funded embryo selection program. If we wait too long here, we’ll be caught flat footed. The most effective way for rich people to get the reproductive services they will want wouldl be by lobbying for tax breaks and help for their private system, not for the improvement of a good-enough public system.

There’s a risk here of course. IVF isn’t particularly fun. It might be that the people with the longest time horizons (who are perhaps likely to be advantaged in other ways) will be the only ones who would use a public embryo selection system. This would have the effect of subsidizing embryo selection for whichever groups have the longest time horizons and the most ability to endure short-term discomfort for long term payoff.

But anything less than a public option on embryo selection makes entrenching social divides as genetic divides almost inevitable. We could ban all non-medical embryo selection, which, as Gwern points out, would just move it to China. Or Singapore [4]. Or even America. This would shrink the problem, in that fewer people would have access to embryo selection, but wouldn’t stop it altogether.

Embryo selection is just the beginning here too. Soon enough, we’ll see treatments for genetic diseases using CRISPR. Hot on the heels of that, we’ll see enhancements. Well, we ostensibly won’t in Canada, at least without some amendments to the Assisted Human Reproduction Act [5], which bans changes to the DNA of germline cells. I say “ostensibly” because it’s the height of naivety to assume that you can end demand simply by banning something, but then, that’s Canada for you.

The advent of CRISPR should usher in a sudden surge in genetically engineered humans. Parents will optimize for intelligence, height, and lower disease risk/load. It will be legal somewhere and therefore some Canadians will do it. If we have a legal, public system in Canada, then it will be available to anyone who wants it. If we don’t, then it will become very hard for the children of normal Canadians to compete with the children of our elites.

Throughout this post, I’ve assumed cost is no object. That’s probably a bad assumption. We’re talking about horrendously expensive voluntary medical procedures here. Gwern gives the cost of an IVF cycle with embryo selection at $22,000. There are 393,000 babies born in Canada every year. If this technology was both subsidized and adopted by 10% of all parents seeking to conceive, the total cost would be something like $864 million, or an increase in total healthcare spending of about 0.4%. Given that healthcare spending is allowed to grow by 3% per year, this would eat up more than 10% of the total yearly increase.

I’m not holding my breath for that sort of new spending on reproductive medicine. A more practical system would probably be a lottery, with enough spots for 1% of prospective parents. That has a more reasonable price tag of $86.4 million. While they’re at it, the government could start paying surrogates, egg donors, and sperm donors and institute a similar lottery there. I can dream about Canada having a functional fertility services industry, right?

A lottery isn’t my preferred solutions. Wealthy people who put their name in and aren’t drawn will still go elsewhere. But it could help with the lobbying problem. A lottery establishes a plausible path towards a broader system, which people would at least consider lobbying to expand. It won’t capture everyone. It might not even capture a majority. But if an expanded public system is the most palatable system politically, it might just win in the long run.

If you take just one thing from this post, I want it to be “it’s really important to have good public systems, so that lobbying effort is focused on improving those systems”. If you have room in your mind for another, it should be “having a public embryo selection and genetic engineering program in place is very important if we don’t want to social stratification to become much more permanent”.

Epistemic Status: Model


[1] In this post, I’m talking about industries where there is either a clear need to serve the public good, a market failure, or both. In these cases, “use markets to lower prices and increase services” is an unappealing alternative. ^

[2] This would also predict that America, with its cluster-fuck of a public school system would have generally higher rates of private schooling than neighbouring (and better performing on standardized tests) Canada. This is true – ten percent of American children are in private schools, compared to eight percent of Canadians. I think there is a smaller gap between the two then there otherwise might be, due to the extreme heterogeneity of American schooling. That is to say that Canadian public schools might be better than American public schools on average, but everything I’ve heard suggests that the standard deviation is much higher in America. Well off students going to good public schools may account for why America’s private school enrollment isn’t higher. ^

[3] This number will get higher and higher as we better understand the genetic determinants of IQ. ^

[4] Singapore has a history of hosting the biotech advances the west finds distasteful^

[5] This bill could perhaps be more truthfully be called the No Assisted Human Reproduction Act. In addition to banning germline genetic engineering, it also bans any paid surrogacy, egg donation, or sperm donation. This had the predictable effect of inconveniencing the wealthy not at all, while making it impossible for anyone else to find any surrogates, egg donors, or anonymous sperm donors. With a side-helping of encouraging surrogacy in countries where surrogates have the fewest legal protection (remember, my whole thesis here is that if you don’t give people a good pro-social option, they often optimize for maximum personal gain). ^

Model, Politics, Quick Fix

Some thoughts on Canadian “family values” conservatives

I’d like to expand on one of the points I raised yesterday about Canadian social conservatives and the sorts of things they can expect from Andrew Scheer, because I think the Canadian approach to “family values” conservatism is desperately under-theorized.

Yesterday I claimed that the main way that Harper pushed so-called family values was through economic incentives to have a 1950s-style nuclear family. Both income splitting and the Universal Child Care Benefit were designed to make it more feasible to have a single income family.

This is a radically different tack than taken by American family values candidates, who primarily exercise their beliefs by banning sex education, fighting against gay marriage and adoption, and restricting access to abortion [1]. The American approach attempts to close off all alternatives but a heterosexual, monogamous, child-producing marriage. The Canadian approach is to bribe people into this (and to drop the heterosexual part).

The cynical explanation for the policies pushed by Harper is that they represent a tax break for the favoured constituencies of the Conservatives. But this strikes me both as deeply uncharitable and uncorroborated by statements made by members of the Conservative Party.

At the Conservative Leadership Convention, the party devoted as much time to thanking J.P. Veitch (Rona Ambrose’s fiancé) as they did to thanking Rona Ambrose. They thanked J.P. for putting Rona’s career aspirations above his own and for his tireless support of her in her role as interim party leader.

Can you imagine the Liberals taking the time to thank Sophie Grégoire Trudeau for her work supporting her husband? The liberal individualistic notion of liberation tends to gloss over and thereby systemically devalue the work that supportive spouses do. To liberals (even many socialist liberals), work is where people go for self-actualization. Self-actualization can’t exist in the home.

There are sound reasons for this emphasis. While the Conservative tax breaks are gender neutral (and apply even to gay marriages), no one believes that the majority of stay at home spouses will be men. There certainly won’t be no men staying home – I consider myself generally more likely to stay home with kids than any partner I’m plausibly going to have – but they’ll be a minority.

As a free choice, the home is a reasonable option for many people. But as a prescribed social role, being stay-at-home mothers made many women incredibly miserable. Emancipation through work as the default seems to me as a not-unreasonable reaction to this trauma. But conservatives have ideological reasons to oppose the social structures that make dual-income families possible.

In Rona Ambrose’s farewell speech, she clearly articulated the core disagreement between Canadian liberals and conservatives. “Liberals believe in government”, she said, “but we believe in people”. I’d rephrase this slightly – liberals believe in institutions, while conservatives believe in individuals.

Viewed through this lens, it makes sense that Conservatives wish to return child-rearing to the sphere of the domestic. Key policies planks of Canadian leftists – like all day Kindergarten and $15 a day daycare – instead seek to further remove child-rearing from individual parents and move it into a formalized institutional system.

Both of these approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. It is beginning to look like starting school early may lead to inattention and hyperactivity. If daycare is like school, then proposals like $15 a day daycare have the potential to be incredibly damaging. With income splitting and child tax benefits, we could be encouraging parents to delay formal schooling, thereby avoiding the negative consequences associated with an early school start.

On the other hand, it’s uncommon, even with income splitting and child tax benefits, for one spouse to have an income that could plausibly support their entire family. $15 dollar a day daycare would be a boon to low-income families that are caught in the dual-income trap.

There’s no prescription here. I think some parts of the family values platform threaten to turn back important progress. I think other parts hint at a potential for better outcomes than we currently have. I will point out that it seems almost as if Canadian conservatives listened to liberals who pointed out that if they really cared about reducing abortion rates, they’d cover prenatal healthcare, maternity leave, and make it less expensive to raise a child.

I’d much rather have a political conversation about the amount of tax benefits we should give to people with children than I would about women’s right to choose, so I can’t help but be thankful that the Canadian Overton window is what it is. With Andrew Scheer elected as conservative leader and signalling no intention to wade into the debate over abortion, I think we really can call the Overton Window settled in its current configuration [2]. This leaves all Canadians with a question. How much do you think the government should subsidize nuclear families?

I’m not yet sure of the answer myself.


[1] I want to be clear that I’m talking about execution here, not beliefs. Canadian social conservatives believe many of the same things as American so-cons and vote remarkably similarly to their American counterparts when they’re in opposition. The key difference is how they behave when they’re in power. Nine years of Conservative governments (four of which saw the Conservatives as the majority party) brought no change in the legal status of gay rights or abortion in Canada. That would be unprecedented in America.  ^

[2] On Facebook, I said: “If the trend is that Liberals/NDP push [our] social policies of choice and the Cons don’t roll them back, then we still win in the long run.” I stand by that statement. I would prefer that Conservatives were as enthusiastic about pushing for positive social change as I am. Given that I don’t live in that world, I’ll settle for one where conservative politicians don’t to push back.  ^

Model, Physics, Science

Understanding Radiation via Antennas

It can be hard to grasp that radio waves, deadly radiation, and the light we can see are all the same thing. How can electromagnetic (EM) radiation – photons – sometimes penetrate walls and sometimes not? How can some forms of EM radiation be perfectly safe and others damage our DNA? How can radio waves travel so much further than gamma rays in air, but no further through concrete?

It all comes down to wavelength. But before we get into that, we should at least take a glance at what EM radiation really is.

Electromagnetic radiation takes the form of two orthogonal waves. In one direction, you have an oscillating magnetic field. In the other, an oscillating electric field. Both of these fields are orthogonal to the direction of travel.

These oscillations take a certain amount of time to complete, a time which is calculated by observing the peak value of one of the fields and then measuring how long it takes for the field to return to that value. Luckily, we only need to do this once, because the time an oscillation takes (called the period) will stay the same unless acted on by something external. You can invert the period to get the frequency – the number of times oscillations occur in a second. Frequency uses the unit Hertz, which are just inverted seconds. If something has the frequency 60Hz, it happens 60 times per seconds.

EM radiation has another nifty property: it always travels at the same speed, a speed commonly called “the speed of light” [1] (even when applied to EM radiation that isn’t light). When you know the speed of an oscillating wave and the amount of time it takes for the wave to oscillate, you can calculate the wavelength. Scientists like to do this because the wavelength gives us a lot of information about how radiation will interact with world. It is common practice to represent wavelength with the Greek letter Lambda (λ).

lambda class shuttle from star wars
Not that type of lambda. Image Credit: Marshal Banana on Flickr

Put in a more mathy way: if you have an event that occurs with frequency f to something travelling at velocity v, the event will have a spatial periodicity λ (our trusty wavelength) equal to v / f. For example, if you have a sound that oscillates 34Hz (this frequency is equivalent to the lowest C♯ on a standard piano) travelling at 340m/s (the speed of sound in air), it will have a wavelength of (340 m/s)/(34 s-1) = 10m. I’m using sound here so we can use reasonably sized numbers, but the results are equally applicable to light or other forms of EM radiation.

Wavelength and frequency are inversely related to each other. The higher the frequency of something, the smaller its wavelength. The longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency. I’m used to people describing EM radiation in terms of frequency when they’re talking about energy (the quicker something is vibrating, the more energy it has) and wavelength when talking about what it will interact with (the subject of the rest of this post).

With all that background out of the way, we can actually “look” at electromagnetic radiation and understand what we’re seeing.

animated gif showing oscillating magnetic and electric fields orthogonal to direction of travel
Here wavelength is labeled with “λ”, the electric field is red and labelled with “E” and the magnetic field is blue and labelled with “B”. “B” is the standard symbol for magnetic fields, for reasons I have never understood. Image Credit: Lookang on Wikimedia Commons.

Wavelength is very important. You know those big TV antennas houses used to have?

picture of house with old fashioned aerial antenna
Image Credit: B137 on Wikimedia Commons

Turns out that they’re about the same size as the wavelength of television signals. The antenna on a car? About the same size as the radio waves it picks up. Those big radio telescopes in the desert? Same size as the extrasolar radio waves they hope to pick up.

image of the VLA radio telescopes
Fun fact: these dishes together make up a very large radio telescope, unimaginatively called the “Very Large Array”. Image Credit: Hajor on Wikimedia Commons

Even things we don’t normally think of as antennas can act like them. The rod and cone cells in your eyes act as antennas for the light of this very blog post [2]. Chains of protein or water molecules act as antennas for microwave radiation, often with delicious results. The bases in your DNA act as antennas for UV light, often with disastrous results.

These are just a few examples, not an exhaustive list. For something to be able to interact with EM radiation, you just need an appropriately sized system of electrons (or electrical system; the two terms imply each other). You get this system of electrons more or less for free with metal. In a metal, all of the electrons are delocalized, making the whole length of a metal object one big electrical system. This is why the antennas in our phones or on our houses are made of metal. It isn’t just metal that can have this property though. Organic substances can have appropriately sized systems of delocalized electrons via double bonding [3].

EM radiation can’t really interact with things that aren’t the same size as its wavelength. Interaction with EM radiation takes the form of the electric or magnetic field of a photon altering the electric or magnetic field of the substance being interacted with. This happens much more readily when the fields are approximately similar sizes. When fields are the same size, you get an opportunity for resonance, which dramatically decreases the loss in the interaction. Losses for dissimilar sized electric fields are so high that you can assume (as a first approximation) that they don’t really interact.

In practical terms, this means that a long metal rod might heat up if exposed to a lot of radio waves (wavelengths for radio waves vary from 1mm to 100km; many are a few metres long due to the ease of making antennas in that size) because it has a single electrical system that is the right size to absorb energy from the radio waves. A similarly sized person will not heat up, because there is no single part of them that is a unified electrical system the same size as the radio waves.

Microwaves (wavelengths appropriately micron-sized) might heat up your food, but they won’t damage your DNA (nanometres in width). They’re much larger than individual DNA molecules. Microwaves are no more capable of interacting with your DNA than a giant would be of picking up a single grain of rice. Microwaves can hurt cells or tissues, but they’re incapable of hurting your DNA and leaving the rest of the cell intact. They’re just too big. Because of this, there is no cancer risk from microwave exposure (whatever paranoid hippies might say).

Gamma rays do present a cancer risk. They have a wavelength (about 10 picometres) that is similar in size to electrons. This means that they can be absorbed by the electrons in your DNA, which kick these electrons out of their homes, leading to chemical reactions that change your DNA and can ultimately lead to cancer.

Wavelength explains how gamma rays can penetrate concrete (they’re actually so small that they miss most of the mass of concrete and only occasionally hit electrons and stop) and how radio waves penetrate concrete (they’re so large that you need a large amount of concrete before they’re able to interact with it and be stopped [4]). Gamma rays are stopped by the air because air contains electrons (albeit sparsely) that they can hit and be stopped by. Radio waves are much too large for this to be a possibility.

When you’re worried about a certain type of EM radiation causing cancer, all you have to do is look at its wavelength. Any wavelength smaller than that of ultraviolet light (about 400nm) is small enough to interact with DNA in a meaningful way. Anything large is unable to really interact with DNA and is therefore safe.

Epistemic Status: Model. Looking at everything as antenna will help you understand why EM radiation interacts with the physical world the way it does, but there is a lot of hidden complexity here. For example, eyes are far from directly analogous to antennas in their mechanism of action, even if they are sized appropriately to be antennas for light. It’s also true that at the extreme ends of photon energy, interactions are based more on energy than on size. I’ve omitted this in order to write something that isn’t entirely caveats, but be aware that it occurs.


[1] You may have heard that the speed of light changes in different substances. Tables will tell you that the speed of light in water is only about ¾ of the speed of light in air or vacuum and that the speed of light in glass is even slower still. This isn’t technically true. The speed of light is (as far as we know) cosmically invariant – light travels the same speed everywhere in the galaxy. That said, the amount of time light takes to travel between two points can vary based on how many collisions and redirections it is likely to get into between two points. It’s the difference between how long it takes for a pinball to make its way across a pinball table when it hits nothing and how long it takes when it hits every single bumper and obstacle. ^

[2] This is a first approximation of what is going on. Eyes can be modelled as antennas for the right wavelength of EM radiation, but this ignores a whole lot of chemistry and biophysics. ^

[3] The smaller the wavelength, the easier it is to find an appropriately sized system of electrons. When your wavelength is the size of a double bond (0.133nm), you’ll be able to interact with anything that has a double bond. Even smaller wavelengths have even more options for interactions – a wavelength that is well sized for an electron will interact with anything that has an electron (approximately everything). ^

[4] This interaction is actually governed by quantum mechanical tunneling. Whenever a form of EM radiation “tries” to cross a barrier larger than its wavelength, it will be attenuated by the barrier. The equation that describes the probability distribution of a particle (the photons that make up EM radiation are both waves and particles, so we can use particle equations for them) is approximately  (I say approximately because I’ve simplified all the constants into a single term, k), which becomes  (here I’m using k1 to imply that the constant will be different), the equation for exponential decay, when the energy (to a first approximation, length) of the substance is higher than the energy (read size of wavelength) of the light.

This equation shows that there can be some probability – occasionally even a high probability – of the particle existing on the other side of a barrier.  All you need for a particle to traverse a barrier is an appropriately small barrier. ^

Economics, Model, Politics, Quick Fix

On Low-Income Voters and Self-Interest

Neil McDonald’s new column points out that Trump’s low-income supporters voted against their own economic self-interest. This presents a fine opportunity for Mr. McDonald to lecture those voters about how bad Trump’s policies will be for them, as if they couldn’t have figured it out themselves.

I say: some of Trump’s supporters voted against their own self-interest? So what? Hillary Clinton’s well-off supporters, from Sam Altman, to many of my friends in the Bay Area did as well.

Back in Canada, I have even more examples of people who voted against their self-interest. They include myself, Mr. McDonald (in all likelihood), a bevy of well off technologists and programmers, and a bunch of highly educated students who expect to start high-paying jobs before the next election.

Just like Trump’s lower-income voters, we knew what we were getting into. We understood that we were voting for higher taxes for people like us. We voted for higher taxes because we like the things taxes buy – infrastructure, social services, and science funding, to name a few.

I have no doubt Mr. McDonald would understand this. But when it comes to low-income voters putting their aspirations for their country above their self-interest, he’s flabbergasted.

Americans are raised to believe that anything is possible in America if you are pure of heart and willing to work hard, which is nonsense, and that anyone can become president, which is even more foolish, and that free markets always make the right decision, which is nuts.

They are told that rugged individualism is the American way, which it isn’t, and that government is never the solution, which it sometimes most definitely is.

Mr. McDonald forgot to wonder if the people voting for Trump might desperately want these things to be true. What if the people he’s talking about really wanted everything he listed to be true and saw voting for Trump as their best chance to make them reality? What if they understood what they might lose and chose to vote anyway? Why should he believe they’re less likely to evaluate the consequence of a vote than he is? If any of these are true, are these voters still sheep led astray by right-wing politicians? Or are the politicians just responding to a real demand from their constituents?

These are the sorts of questions I’d like to see journalists who want to write about people – especially low-income people – voting against their economic self-interest grapple with.

It’s certainly unlikely that Mr. Trump will be able to deliver everything his supporters hope he will or everything he’s promised. That makes him a liar, or more charitably, overambitious. It doesn’t make his followers worthy of scorn for the simple act of voting for the type of society they wanted.

I would like to note that I view many of Trump’s policies as wrong-headed and profoundly lacking in compassion. I have no objections to someone scorning Trump voters because those voters seem to prefer fear to compassion and division to equity. I simply object to the hypocrisy of journalists mocking low-income Republicans for the same actions for which they lionize well-off Democrats (replace with Conservatives and Liberals if you’re in Canada and it still holds).

Why should people vote for their economic self-interest anyway? Sure, studies show that money totally can buy happiness, but it’s not the only thing that can. You can also become happy by living in a place that embodies your values. What left-wing think pieces criticizing the poor for voting against their interests miss is that this is true no matter how much money you make.

Here’s one theory of political consensus: if everyone votes for the policies that will be most to their own economic benefit, we’ll end up with compromise policies that tend to economically benefit everyone reasonably well. Here’s a different take: if everyone votes for the type of country they want to live in, we’ll end up with a country that fits everyone’s preferences reasonably well.

If you look at the exit poll data, it looks like people are pursuing a mix of these two strategies. Hillary Clinton won among people making less than $50,000 per year and Donald Trump won among people making more. While this may look like people are mainly voting in their economic interest, all of these margins were remarkably thin and notably much smaller than they were in the last election cycle. This could be indicative of more and more people voting aspirationally, rather than economically.

One interesting tidbit for Mr. McDonald though – if you look at the exit poll data, it turns out low income voters are the ones least likely to vote against their own self-interest.

Economics, Model

International Trade Explained with Jellybeans

Imagine that you’re a young teenager who really loves red jellybeans. You love them so much that you unabashedly call them your favourite food. It’s only the red ones though – you find all other jellybeans disgusting. For the purposes of this extended metaphor, you will have a sister. Like you, she loves one colour of jellybeans, but unlike you she only loves the green ones.

Image Credit: Larry Jacobsen on Flickr

Your parents are stingy. They long ago realized that they could save a lot of money by paying you for your chores in jellybeans, instead of with an allowance. To prop up this system, they’ve forbidden both you and your sister from buying jellybeans in any store. Both of you can only get jellybeans from your parents. You each get a few jellybeans of your preferred colour each time you complete a chore.

You keep a small horde of jellybeans in a jar in your room. Chores are irregular and you don’t want to risk having a jellybean craving but no way to get jellybeans. It’s pretty inconvenient that you and your sister like different flavours of jellybeans. If this wasn’t the case, you could use jellybeans as a sort of currency, trading them back and forth for various small things. For example, if only you liked the same jellybeans, she could give you jellybeans in exchange for using your new Nintendo Switch for a bit, while you could give her jellybeans to help you sneak out at night. You do this sometimes already, but only when you both want something of the other at the same time.

One day your sister takes the bus to a friend’s house. On the way, she happens to sit next to an economics professor. She complains to the professor about her plight and the professor offers a solution. Your sister comes home that night with a large grin splitting her face.

The scheme she proposes to you is simple. When you don’t have two things to trade at the same time, you’ll use jellybeans as your currency. If you agree to accept her jellybeans as payment, she’ll accept yours. You’ll both have the understanding that someday your sibling will trade those jellybeans back to you for some other thing. As the first trade, she offers you fifteen of her green jellybeans for one hour on your Nintendo Switch.

You think about it for a few minutes. It’s true that the fifteen green jellybeans are worthless to you. But they aren’t worthless to your sister and she will probably eventually want them back. As long as you trust that she’ll be around in the future and will still want green jellybeans, you may as well accept the trade. You’ve now realized that green jellybeans are useful to you even though you can’t eat them to feed your jellybean cravings.

You and your sister successfully trade like this for a few weeks. There are some wild fluctuations in your horde of jellybeans – some days it’s mostly red, other days it’s almost entirely green – but over the long run it tends towards red and you get to enjoy all of the benefits of trading with your sister. You’ve successfully snuck out to see your friends three times, while she’s made it halfway through the new Zelda game. It’s at this point where she comes to you with a discovery.

She’s invented a chemical that she can mix with a jellybean to double its size. She can’t make very much of it, only enough to make thirty new jellybeans a day. She makes a deal with you: she’ll use the chemical on your jellybeans in the proportion that they appear in her stash, but she’ll still own them afterwards and they’ll be worth twice as much in future trades.

Slowly the trading relationship changes. Your sister does fewer favours for you – although she doesn’t stop completely. Meanwhile, an increasing amount of your wealth of jellybeans end up with her, despite her playing your Switch very often. You don’t mind this arrangement, because you end up with many more jellybeans than you would have without her. Your sister doesn’t mind either, because it’s made playing the Switch much more accessible to her. That said, there are some negatives for her as well. She’s gotten noticeably weaker without the exercise from chores.

Eventually your parents catch on to this and confiscate your sister’s chemistry set. Furthermore, they punish her by cutting her jellybean allotment in half. Now, she’ll make half of what you do for the same chores. Worried about the effect of video games on her, they also limit the total screen time either of you is allowed (they ignore you whining that this is totally unfair) and demand that you each do one chore per day.

You still trade after this, although now things swing in the other direction. Your sister has to scrimp and save to afford time on the Switch, whereas you have an easier time hiring her as a lookout.

A few weeks later, your parents go on vacation. While they’re gone, they want you both to record the chores you do. When they get back, they’ll question you separately about the honesty of the chore log. If you both agree that it’s true (and they can see the chores actually got done), they’ll give you jellybeans for all the chores recorded on it.

They also switch up the compensation a bit. You’ve been spending more time inside these days, now that you’re lending the Switch to your sister less often, while your sister has gotten strong from all the yard-work she’s been doing. Your parents don’t really approve of this, so they’re changing the rewards that chores give.

Under the new rules, your sister still makes generally less than you, but it isn’t evenly distributed; she makes almost as much as you for chores inside of the house and much less than you for chores outside it. This is crappy for you, because now you’re the weak one. Your sister can do chores outside in half the time it would take you.

You and your sister immediately hatch a plan to do each other’s chores and later divide the spoils evenly. Your parents are too clever for this though. They tell you they’ll be watching your jellybean transactions for the next little bit. If you two split the difference and lie, they’ll know and they’ll ground both of you for a week. You’re both dejected, doomed to doing chores you aren’t good at. In a last-ditch effort to find something more palatable, your sister emails her economist friend from earlier.

She comes back a few hours later, contemplative. The economist offered a solution, but it seems odd.

The economist recommended that you lie about the chores; your sister will do all of the ones outside and you’ll do all of the ones inside. To get around your parent’s crude attempt at lie detection, you’ll do something simple. You won’t split the difference; you’ll accept payment in full for the chores you claimed to do and get to spend it as if it were yours.

Even though this seems unfair, it leaves both you and your sister better off overall. By focusing on the chores you’re both quickest at, you can maximize the number of jellybeans you earn for each unit of time you spend working. You both agree to this plan.

When they get back, your parents are suspicious of your sister’s muscles and the deep impression you’ve worn in the couch. They monitor your transactions for quite some time. But they never find any evidence that you averaged your take with your sister and eventually they give up and leave you alone.

In the fall, your sister plans to leave for the annual mother-daughter fishing trip your extended family does. The trip lasts two whole weeks. In the weeks leading up to the trip, you begin to panic. While your sister is gone, you won’t be able to get any of your jellybeans from her. Combine this with your worry that you will have fewer chances to earn jellybeans for chores with only one parent home and you start to have a problem. What if you run out of jellybeans because a bunch of the red ones are hoarded by your sister?

To counter this, you stop accepting your sister’s green jellybeans in trade for favours and only trade green jellybeans back to her when you need something done. Eventually you run out of green jellybeans. Now you can’t get her to do anything. You won’t risk your red jellybeans so close to her trip.

Unfortunately, you don’t get all of your jellybeans back this way. Your sister begins to hoard them, knowing that they’re the only thing she can use to really get you to do anything for her. Despite you trying to get all your jellybeans back, you’ve made her hold onto them even tighter.

She’s pretty annoyed with all of this, because she wants to trade with you like before. In desperation, she emails her economist friend. Once again, the economist comes through for you. Your sister offers you a deal. She currently has 100 red jellybeans. At the end of every day, you can convert up to twenty green jellybeans for red ones at a rate of one to one. Normally you wouldn’t bother with this (and sometimes one of you lacks the means to), but she’ll give you this option for the next week so that you can accept her jellybeans with confidence.

This works quite well. Your mutually beneficial trades resume. When your sister leaves for her fishing expedition, she only has ten of your jellybeans left. You’re not going to run out in her absence.

Everything that was observed between the two siblings trading with jellybeans can be observed (in one form or another) between countries trading.

For this metaphor to work, the medium of exchange (jellybeans of different colours) had to be something that was so similar as to be essentially the same thing while being treated as vastly different by the participants. This is how people in different countries treat each other’s money.

As a Canadian, I need Canadian Dollars to pay my expenses. If I walk into a grocery store or get on a bus and try to pay with Swiss Francs or Japanese Yen, I will be refused service. Because I want to eat and take the bus, if I were sell goods or services outside of Canada, I would only accept as payment:

  1. Canadian Dollars
  2. Something else I know is trivially convertible to Canadian Dollars at a stable rate

People in other countries are in the same boat as me. Even if there’s something they want to sell me, they can’t unless I can provide them something that holds stable value for them. Canadian Dollars are only valuable to them insofar as they can use them to buy things they want in Canada or, if they don’t want anything in Canada, trade them for something they want with someone who wants something in Canada.

You can’t get something for nothing. For someone to send me goods (that aren’t simply a gift) from outside of Canada, they must want something in Canada or know about someone who does. This is the principle that allowed you to trade with your sibling. Her jellybeans weren’t inherently useful to you, but they were stably convertible into things that were, which made it reasonable for you to accept them as payment.

The ease of currency conversion often hides this from us. To see it, you need to look at exchange rates. Exchange rates are nothing more than a measure of the relative demand for goods and services produced by countries and debts denominated in their currencies.

When America was in financial crisis and Canada was raking in huge oil profits, people wanted Canadian Dollars just as much as they wanted American Dollars. Now that America has recovered, people would prefer to have American Dollars (USD) and so the Canadian Dollar is only worth about $0.75 US. Had either you or your sister been able to offer much more valuable services, you might have seen an exchange rate other than 1:1, with it favouring whoever offered the better stuff.

If I’m right about this, we’d expect to see countries import as much as they export. Trade deficits shouldn’t exist. As Donald Trump might be happy to remind you, trade deficits do indeed exist. What’s going on? How is this possible?

Trade deficits can occur when trade is financed via debt. A country might borrow money denominated in another currency (which has a more stable value than its own) and use that borrowed money to purchase things. This is essentially a country promising that it will have exports of value to the lender at some point in the future. This is how developing nations can have trade deficits, but it isn’t generally how developed nations pull them off.

We can view America (and other developed nations with a trade deficit) as similar to your sister when she had the tools to create more jellybeans out of otherwise worthless chemicals. She was definitely doing less things of direct value for you than you were for her (e.g. she was standing lookout for you much less often than she was borrowing video games from you), but she was able to do this sustainably because she had a way of making the jellybeans to pay for it.

Developed nations can have a trade deficit in a sustainable way because other countries will give them raw materials or physical goods simply for the privilege of holding debt denominated in their currency or being able to buy property within their borders. The sophisticated financial systems of developed countries allow them to reliably and safely (most of the time) create money for anyone willing to invest. How do you get money to invest if you don’t live there? You trade for it!

Developed countries are still providing goods and services to their trade partners, even if they aren’t tangible or recorded on balance sheets as exports. Sometimes this does mean that trade is funded by loans, but crucially, the debt is generally denominated in the currency of the debtor country. This makes repayment much, much easier.

Countries have many more options for repaying debts denominated in their own currencies. Japan can safely have a government debt of several times its GDP because the debt is denominated in Yen. Japan controls the means to print more Yen, so is able to pay its debt just by printing more money. There are obviously problems with just printing money (i.e. inflation), but these apply less to Japan because of its overall economic situation (i.e. deflation). On the other hand, Greece’s debt burden was so bad specifically because it can’t print the Euros its debt is denominated in itself. It needs to produce things other countries want in order to raise the cash it needs to pay down its debt.

There are certainly ways that funding trade via financial products can go sour. If the financial system that provides for the trade deficit relies on high consumer debt, then a financial shock could make it all come crashing down and deprive a country of the exports they’re used to receiving. But when trade deficits are based on the security and sophistication of a nation’s financial institutions (or the value of its real estate, or something else that is relatively stable), that nation stands to benefit enormously. It can receive tangible goods just by letting other countries invest or loan with its currency.

Seen this way, Canada’s trade deficit with China (as an example) is caused because many Chinese people have been willing to ship us manufactured goods in exchange for the ability to invest in our companies, buy real estate in Toronto and Vancouver, and make loans to us.

There are trade-offs here. On one hand, foreign investment in housing has probably made living in Toronto and Vancouver less affordable. On the other hand, it has made electronics and manufactured goods available at lower prices than they would otherwise be. Whether this is good or bad for you personally depends on where you live and how often you buy manufactured goods.

There are also trade-offs around employment here. It’s not a simple matter of trade with developing nations costing us manufacturing jobs. It probably has! But I’d like to point out if trade has cost us jobs in manufacturing, it has certainly created jobs in construction and in finance. Houses aren’t built without workers and investments can’t be made without investment assistants and portfolio managers. These may not be manufacturing jobs, but they’re still jobs.

This shades into the next example from the jellybean world. When you and your sister could both work jobs at very different rates of compensation, you weren’t made worse off by letting you sister do half of the chores. You weren’t really in competition with you sister. Despite much of the rhetoric about trade being a competition, trade with another country isn’t a competition with that country.

When split up between two countries that are trading, jobs don’t get done based on who had the competitive advantage. Since trade cannot happen unless both parties benefit (remember, if no one outside Canada wants anything Canada produces, I will be unable to buy anything outside of Canada with Canadian dollars) the fact that trade is happening at all means that each country has something the other wants. Given this, what gets traded will be determined by the relative advantages industries in each country have over the industries within that country. This is the comparative advantage theory of trade.

China has the advantage of relatively cheap labour but has the disadvantage of relatively high corruption. When you compare China with Canada, China’s manufacturing sector is advantaged over their financial sector, so they will tend send Canada manufactured goods in exchange for Canadian financial instruments.

Even when your sister was making less than you for every chore, you and her were still able to trade for mutual benefit. You got to do only the chores you found easiest while still gaining enough jellybeans to trade for things you wanted from your sister. People (and countries) don’t act blindly to maximize the amount of money they make. They have other desires as well. You would have only been in competition with your sister if you wanted to blindly maximize your total haul, without a thought for how much leisure it would cost you.

Competition would also come up if your parents were looking to minimize the amount they paid for chores. In this case, your sister would have had a competitive advantage. But this isn’t a competition within your trading relationship with you sister! Here you would be competing for the business of some third party (your parents).

You are never competing with your trade partners within the context of the trading relationship. It would be impossible for the whole American economy to move to China (no matter how often Donald Trump claims it is happening) because if this happened China would refuse to sell America anything and America would again require indigenous industries. If industries get outsourced and aren’t replaced by something else that adds value, you’ll see them pop right back up in their original country. Outsourcing is only cheaper when you have things of value to buy the outsourced products with.

You can be competing with your trade partners for third party business, but the answer here isn’t to raise tariffs and abandon trade. Instead, you can reap the benefits of an integrated supply chain and the overall lower costs you see when countries focus on their comparative advantages. For example, Apple has become one of the largest companies in the world by marrying American business expertise, stability, and engineering know-how with Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturing, which allows them to compete with Samsung, a Korean company (which also makes use of Taiwanese/Chinese manufacturing).

Apple products would be more expensive if manufactured solely in the United States. They wouldn’t be a global luxury brand if they were designed and marketed from China. Apple wouldn’t be a global behemoth without trade. When the CEOs of companies stand up for international trade, they’re doing so because they understand this.

It is possible for a country to be in a state such that basically no one wants to trade with them, often because they produce very little of value to anyone else. Take North Korea as an example here. They’re able to trade some coal to China (in exchange for manufactured goods) and managed to make a one-off trade with Pakistan (swapping missiles for atomic bomb designs and materials), but by and large the rest of the world doesn’t want to trade with them. Since the government is pursuing a policy of juche (“self-reliance”), North Korea isn’t much bothered by this.

Unfortunately, lack of trade doesn’t always happen by choice. Venezuela spent more than a decade squandering oil wealth on everything but productive infrastructure. When oil prices were high this was fine. Venezuelans could trade oil to other countries and in return they received all of the food, medicine, and manufactured goods they could want. This worked while global oil demand outstripped supply. Now that demand for oil has considerably lessened, Venezuela is facing serious difficulties importing necessities.

Because there’s little of value in Venezuela, no one wants to hold on to the Venezuelan currency (the Bolivar). Currently about all its good for is buying sub-par oil. This would suggest that Venezuela should be unable to important much of anything and indeed that’s what we’re observing.

In the jellybean world, we saw something similar. When your sister was about to leave on her trip, you didn’t want to trade with her, because her currency would soon be worthless. She was able to convince you to trade by using her reserves of your jellybeans.

Venezuela is currently able import goods via a similar mechanism. During the oil boom, the government of Venezuela was able to amass a significant number of American Dollars. It is now using this stockpile to pay for imports. Venezuela actually has three official exchange rates. If you are importing key goods, the government will turn your Bolivars into USD at a very preferential rate, 10 Bolivars for 1 USD. If you’re importing less critical goods, you’ll get fewer dollars per Bolivar. If you’re just a private citizen, the government will give you a much worse deal, something like 190 Bolivars to the dollar. It will also limit the amount you can exchange at any one time.

At the time of writing, the unofficial exchange rate was 3014 Bolivars per USD. You can make a lot of money if you bring USD into Venezuela, convert it to Bolivars on the black market, then use the government to convert it back to USD. The only loser here is the Venezuelan government (and you if you’re caught – please don’t actually do this).

Propping up the value of a currency this way is very expensive. If the Bolivar loses no more purchasing power, then Venezuela can limp along like this for two more years. If oil becomes cheaper or Venezuela becomes less able to export it, then Venezuela will lose purchasing power and that grace period shrinks. Once Venezuela exhausts its currency reserves it will be essentially unable to import anything and this story will end the same way every story about socialism ends: with a horrific famine.

This of course assumes that Venezuela doesn’t attempt to seize what it needs from its neighbours using force. Throughout this post I’ve assumed that trade has been undertaken freely for the mutual benefit of all participants. This hasn’t always been the case.

Colonialism is perhaps the best example of trade where one participant was compelled to participate. In colonies Europeans used force to extract resources and labour from non-Europeans. The colonizing Europeans would then ship these raw goods back to their home country in exchange for manufactured goods they couldn’t get from in the colony.

Trade was only ever disastrous for the colonized. They were forced to produce cash crops or mine until they were nearly dead from exhaustion, all in exchange for goods that they would never receive and had little use for even if they had.

There’s one last concept to cover. Let’s return to the jellybean metaphor!

Your sister gets deeply addicted to a game on your Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, she’s still getting far fewer jellybeans than you are. She has to do a lot of chores just to get to play it at all, many of which aren’t particularly fun or pleasant. Because of your control of the Switch, you don’t have to do any chores; you always have some of your sister’s jellybeans to trade for whatever you need. While your sister might be happy while playing her game, she’s deeply peeved about all the chores she has to do in order to be able to play it all.

Eventually, your sister’s desire for video games overcomes the number of jellybeans she can earn. You allow her to pay you in IOUs. Soon she’s racked up hundreds of them. When she finally beats the game and has free time for other things, she realizes that she’s going to have to spend weeks working and giving you all the jellybeans just to pay off the debt she owes.

She tries to default, but you go to your parents. They decide that she can’t be trusted to pay off the debt on her own, so they’ll give you red jellybeans for every chore she completes until she’s settled the account. Now your sister is stuck doing all the chores without any benefit to herself. It takes her weeks to dig herself out of her hole and start receiving green jellybeans again.

Even when trade technically makes people better off, it can be a devil’s bargain. The benefits of modern medicine and technology (like smartphones) are so overwhelming that many developing economies must set aside a significant amount of their potential productivity creating products that aren’t locally useful so that they have something developed countries want and will trade medicine and technology for.

This can lead to vast monocultures of cash crops grown only for foreign export, stifling unsafe textile factories, and vast poisonous open pit mines.

It’s not just modern necessities that cause countries to give over vast portions of their economies to export. Poor (one might even say predatory) lending practices by world financial institutions have left many nations with unsustainable foreign debts, denominated in foreign currencies.

Remember, the only way to get foreign currencies is by having something foreign countries want and being willing to sell it to them. As long as a country has foreign debts to service, it must leave aside a chunk of its productivity for foreign rather than domestic priorities. If the pie is big and the slice set aside for other countries is small, this is sustainable. But when a small pie requires a big slice, disaster can strike. Debt relief for struggling countries remains an urgent humanitarian priority.

In real life, the IMF and the World Bank have taken a role not unlike that of your parents in the metaphor. They threaten poor debtor countries with dire consequences unless they continue to pay down their (often) ridiculously large debts. This occurs even when debts were racked up by dictators, or are for money that was stolen from the public purse by corrupt administrators.

All serious advocates of international trade need to acknowledge and grapple with the negative consequences trade can have.

But I’m hopeful. I refuse to believe that there exists no way we can make essential generic medicine and essential modern technology available to all of the people of the world except through unsafe working conditions and environmental destruction. Debt write-offs can fix some of the problems, but other reforms can only occur once the narrative around trade changes.

Framing trade as an adversarial process allows business interests to push for the rollback of worker and environmental protections where they exist and fight their introduction where they don’t. Protectionist rhetoric, whether it comes from Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, is wrong and hurts workers the world over. Trade isn’t a competition. Framing it that way may be useful for politicians when they are competing for votes, but it won’t improve the material situation of anyone, at home or abroad.

As prosperity increases, all of these problems become more tractable. International trade remains one of the best ways we have of increasing prosperity. We can’t afford to go without it. Trade is something people should be able to agree on, whether they want to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and ensure a just global society, or just plain get rich.

My primary source was Joseph Heath’s wonderful economics book, Filthy Lucre (subtitled Economics for People who Hate Capitalism). It systematically dismantles 12 common economic fallacies, 6 beloved of the left and 6 beloved by the right. Trade is covered in Chapter 5: Uncompetitive in Everything.

The rest comes from reading too many articles on Wikipedia and too many news think pieces. Some things only became clear to me as I was writing this, like the difference between Japan’s debt and Greece’s. I’m also indebted (heh) to Tessa Alexanian, who explained to me why trade can be bad for developing countries. She influenced most of the ideas laid out in that section (that said, I should get all the credit for any errors).

As usual, this blog post should only be taken as an accurate account of my own views, not the views of anyone else.

Epistemic Status: Model

Falsifiable, Literature, Model, Science

Pump Six and the Perils of Speculative Fiction

I just finished Pump Six, a collection of short stories by Paolo Bacigalupi. A few weeks prior to this, I read Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others and I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between them. Ted Chiang writes stories about different ways the world could work. Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories about different ways the future could happen.

These are two very different sorts of speculation. The first requires extreme attention to detail in order to make the setting plausible, but once you clear that bar, you can get away with anything. Ted Chiang is clearly a master at this. I couldn’t find any inconsistencies to pick at in any of his stories.

When you try to predict the future – especially the near future – you don’t need to make up a world out of whole cloth. Here it’s best to start with plausible near future events and let those give your timeline a momentum, carrying you to where you want to go on a chain of reason. No link has to be perfect, but each link has to be plausible. If any of them leave your readers scratching their heads, then you’ve lost them.

Predicting the future is also vulnerable to the future happening. Predictions are rooted in their age and tend to tell us more about the context in which they were made than about the future.

I think Pump Six is a book where we can clearly see and examine both of these problems.

First, let’s talk about chains of events. The stories The Fluted Girl, The Calorie Man, The Tamarisk Hunter, and Yellow Card Man all hinge on events that probably seem plausible to Bacigalupi, but that feel deeply implausible to me.

The Fluted Girl imagines the revival of feudalism in America. Fiefs govern the inland mountains, while there is a democracy (presumably capitalist) on the coasts. This arrangement felt unstable and unrealistic to me.

Feudal societies tend to have much less economic growth than democracies (see part 2 of Scott’s anti-reactionary FAQ). Democracies also aren’t exactly great at staying calm about atrocities right on their doorsteps. These two facts combined make me wonder why the (Coloradan?) feudal society in The Fluted Girl hasn’t been smashed by its economically (and therefore, inevitably militarily) more powerful neighbours.

In The Tamarisk Hunter, the Colorado River is slowly being covered by a giant concrete straw, a project that has been going on for a while and requires massive amounts of resources. The goal is to protect the now diminished Colorado River from evaporation as it winds its way into a deeply drought-stricken California.

In the face of a bad enough drought, every bit counts. But there are much more cost effective ways to get your drinking water. The Colorado river today has an average discharge of 640m3/s. In a bad drought, this would be lower. Let’s say it’s at something like 200m3/s.

You could get that amount of water from building about 100 desalination plants, which would cost something like $100 billion today (using a recently built plant in California as a baseline). Bridges cost something like $3,000 per m2 (using this admittedly flawed report for guidance), so using bridges to estimate the cost, the “straw” would cost about $300 million per kilometer (using the average width of the Colorado river). Given the relative costs of the two options, it is cheaper to replace the whole river (assuming reduced flow from the drought) with desalination plants than it is to build even 330km (<200 miles) of straw.

A realistic response to a decades long California drought would involve paying farmers not to use water, initiating water conservation measures, and building desalination plants. It wouldn’t look like violent conflict over water rights up and down the whole Colorado River.

In The Calorie Man and Yellow Card Man, bioengineered plagues have ravaged the world and oil production has declined to the point where the main source of energy is once again the sun (via agriculture). Even assuming peak oil will happen (more on that in a minute), there will always be nuclear power. Nuclear power plants currently provide for only ten percent of the world’s energy needs, but there’s absolutely no good reason they couldn’t meet basically all of them (especially if combined with solar, hydro, wind, and if necessary, coal).

With improved uranium enrichment techniques and better energy storage technology, it’s plausible that sustainable energy sources could, if necessary, entirely displace oil, even in the transportation industry.

The only way to get from “we’re out of oil” to “I guess it’s back to agriculture as our main source of energy” is if you forget about (or don’t even consider) nuclear power.

This is why I think the stories in Pump Six tell me a lot more about Bacigalupi than about the future. I can tell that he cares deeply about the planet, is skeptical of modern capitalism, and fearful of the damage industrialization, fossil fuels, and global warming may yet bring.

But the story that drove home his message for me wasn’t any of the “ecotastrophes”, where humans are brought to the brink of destruction by our mistreatment of the planet. It was The People of Sand and Slag that made me stop and wonder. It asks us to consider what we’d lose if we poison the planet while adapting to the damage. Is it okay if beaches are left littered with oil and barbed wire if these no longer pose us any threat?

I wish more of the stories had been like that, instead of infected with the myopia that causes environmentalists to forget about the existence of nuclear power (when they aren’t attacking it) and critics of capitalism to assume that corporations will always do the evil thing, with no regard to the economics of the situation.

Disregard for economics and a changing world intersect when Bacigalupi talks about peak oil. Peak oil was in vogue among environmentalists in the 2000s as oil prices rose and rose, but it was never taken seriously by the oil industry. As per Wikipedia, peak oil (as talked about by environmentalists in the ’00s, not as originally formulated) ignored the effects of price on supply and demand, especially in regard to unconventional oil, like the bitumen in the Albertan Oil Sands.

Price is really important when it comes to supply. Allow me to quote from one of my favourite economics stories. It’s about a pair of Texan brothers who (maybe) tried to corner the global market for silver and in the process made silver so unaffordable that Tiffany’s ran an advertisement denouncing them in the third page of the New York Times. The problems the Texans ran into as silver prices rose are relevant here:

But as the high prices persisted, new silver began to come out of the woodwork.

“In the U.S., people rifled their dresser drawers and sofa cushions to find dimes and quarters with silver content and had them melted down,” says Pirrong, from the University of Houston. “Silver is a classic part of a bride’s trousseau in India, and when prices got high, women sold silver out of their trousseaus.”

Unfortunately for the Hunts, all this new supply had a predictable effect. Rather than close out their contracts, short sellers suddenly found it was easier to get their hands on new supplies of silver and deliver.

“The main factor that has caused corners to fail [throughout history] is that the manipulator has underestimated how much will be delivered to him if he succeeds [at] raising the price to artificial levels”

By the same token, many people underestimated the amount of oil that would come out of the woodwork if oil prices remained high – arguably artificially high, no thanks to OPEC – for a prolonged period. As an aside, it’s also likely that we underestimate the amount of unconventional water that could be found if prices ever seriously spiked, another argument against the world in The Tamarisk Hunter.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be a peak in oil production. The very real danger posed by global warming and the fruits of investments in alternative energy when oil prices were high will slowly wean us off of oil. This formulation of peak oil is much different than the other one. A steady decrease in demand for oil  will be hard on oil producing regions, but it won’t come as a sharp shock to the whole world economic order.

I don’t know how much of this could have been known in 2005, especially to anyone deeply embedded in the environmentalist movement. As an exoneration, that’s wonderful. But this is exactly my point from above. You can try and predict the future, but you can only predict from your flawed vantage point. In retrospect, it is often easier to triangulate the vantage point than to see the imagined future as plausible.

Another example: almost all science fiction before the late 00s drastically underestimated the current prevalence in mobile devices. In series that straddle the divide, you often see mobile devices mentioned much more in the latter books, as authors adjust their visions of the future to take into account what they now know in the present.

Writing is hard and the critic will always have an easier time than the author. I don’t mean to be so hard on Bacigalupi, I really did enjoy Pump Six and it’s caused me to do no end of thinking and discussing since I finished reading it. In this regard, it was an immensely successful book.

Epistemic Status: The math is Falsifiable, the rest is a Model.