Model, Politics, Quick Fix

The Fifty Percent Problem

Brexit was always destined to be a shambles.

I haven’t written much about Brexit. It’s always been a bit of a case of “not my monkeys, not my circus”. And we’ve had plenty of circuses on this side of the Atlantic for me to write about.

That said, I do think Brexit is useful for illustrating the pitfalls of this sort of referendum, something I’ve taken to calling “The 50% Problem”.

To see where this problem arises from, let’s take a look at the text of several political referendums:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? – 2016 UK Brexit Referendum

Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995? – 1995 Québec Independence Referendum

Should Scotland be an independent country? – 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum

Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic? – 2017 Catalonia Independence Referendum, declared illegal by Spain.

What do all of these questions have in common?

Simple: the outcome is much vaguer than the status quo.

During the Brexit campaign, the Leave side promised people everything but the moon. During the run-up to Québec’s last independence referendum, there were promises from the sovereignist camp that Québec would be able to retain the Canadian dollar, join NAFTA without a problem, or perhaps even remain in Canada with more autonomy. In Scotland, leave campaigners promised that Scotland would be able to quickly join the EU (which in a pre-Brexit world, Spain seemed likely to veto). The proponents of the Catalonian referendum pretended Spain would take it at all seriously.

The problem with all of these referendums and their vague questions is that everyone ends up with a slightly different idea of what success will entail. While failure leads to the status quo, success could mean anything from (to use Brexit as an example) £350m/week for the NIH to Britain becoming a hermit kingdom with little external trade.

Some of this comes from assorted demagogues promising more than they can deliver. The rest of it comes from general disagreement among members of any coalition about what exactly their best-case outcome is.

Crucially, this means that getting 50% of the population to agree to a referendum does not guarantee that 50% of the population agrees on what happens next. In fact, getting barely 50% of people to agree practically guarantees that no one will agree on what happens next.

Take Brexit, the only one of the referendums I listed above that actually led to anything. While 51.9% of the UK agreed to Brexit, there is not a majority for any single actual Brexit proposal. This means that it is literally impossible to find a Brexit proposal that polls well. Anything that gets proposed is guaranteed to be opposed by all the Remainers, plus whatever percentage of the Brexiteers don’t agree with that specific form of Brexit. With only 52% of the population backing Leave, the defection of even 4% of the Brexit coalition is enough to make a proposal opposed by the majority of the citizenry of the UK.

This leads to a classic case of circular preferences. Brexit is preferred to Remain, but Remain is preferred to any specific instance of Brexit.

For governing, this is an utter disaster. You can’t run a country when no one can agree on what needs to be done, but these circular preferences guarantee that anything that is tried is deeply unpopular. This is difficult for politicians, who don’t want to be voted out of office for picking wrong, but also don’t want to go back on the referendum.

There are two ways to avoid this failure mode of referendums.

The first is to finish all negotiations before using a referendum to ratify an agreement. This allows people to choose between two specific states of the world: the status quo and a negotiated agreement. It guarantees that whatever wins the referendum has majority support.

This is the strategy Canada took for the Charlottetown Accord (resulting in it failing at referendum without generating years of uncertainty) and the UK and Ireland took for the Good Friday Agreement (resulting in a successful referendum and an end to the Troubles).

The second means of avoiding the 50% problem is to use a higher threshold for success than 50% + 1. Requiring 60% or 66% of people to approve a referendum ensures that any specific proposal after the referendum is completed should have majority support.

This is likely how any future referendum on Québec’s independence will be decided, acknowledging the reality that many sovereignist don’t want full independence, but might vote for it as a negotiating tactic. Requiring a supermajority would prevent Québec from falling into the same pit the UK is currently in.

As the first successful major referendum in a developed country in quite some time, Brexit has demonstrated clearly the danger of referendums decided so narrowly. Hopefully other countries sit up and take notice before condemning their own nation to the sort of paralysis that has gripped Britain for the past three years.

Economics, Quick Fix

The First-Time Home Buyer Incentive is a Disaster

The 2019 Budget introduced by the Liberal government includes one of the worst policies I’ve ever seen.

The CMHC First-Time Home Buyer Incentive provides up to 10% of the purchase price of a house (5% for existing homes, 10% for new homes) to any household buying a home for the first time with an annual income up to $120,000. To qualify, the total mortgage must be less than four times the household’s yearly income and the mortgage must be insured, which means that any house costing more than $590,000 [1] is ineligible for this program. The government will recoup its 5-10% stake when the home is sold.

The cap on eligible house price is this program’s only saving grace. Everything else about it is awful.

Now I want to be clear: housing affordability is a problem, especially in urban areas. Housing costs are increasing above inflation in Canada (by about 7.5% since 2002) and many young people are finding that it is much more difficult for them to buy homes than it was for their parents and grandparents. Rising housing costs are swelling the suburbs, encouraging driving, and making the transition to a low carbon economy harder. Something needs to be done about housing affordability.

This plan is not that “something”.

This plan, like many other aspects of our society, is predicated on the idea that housing should be a “good investment”. There’s just one problem with that: for something to be a “good investment”, it must rise in price more quickly than inflation. Therefore, it is impossible for housing to be simultaneously a good investment and affordable, at least in the long term. If housing is a good investment now, it will be unaffordable for the next generation. And so on.

I’m not even sure this incentive will help anyone in the short term though, because with constrained housing supply (as it is in urban areas, where zoning prevents much new housing from being built), housing costs are determined based on what people can afford. As long as there are more people that would like to live in a city than houses for them to live in, people are in competition for the limited supply of housing. If you were willing to spend some amount of your salary on a house before this incentive, you can just afford to pay more money after the incentive. You don’t end up any better off as the money is passed on to someone else. Really, this benefit is a regressive transfer of money to already-wealthy homeowners, or a subsidy to the construction industry.

The worst part is that buying a house at an inflated valuation isn’t even irrational! The fact of the matter is that as long as everyone knows that governments at all levels are committed to maintaining the status quo – where housing prices cannot be allowed to drop – the longer housing costs will continue to rise. Why shouldn’t anyone who can afford to stick all their savings into a home do so, when they know it’s the only investment they can make that the government will protect from failing [2]?

That’s what’s truly pernicious about this plan: it locks up government money in a speculative bet on housing. Any future decline in housing costs won’t just hurt homeowners. With this incentive, it will hurt the government too [3]. This gives the federal government a strong incentive to keep housing prices high (read: unaffordable), even after some inevitable future round of austerity removes this credit. This is the opposite of what we want the federal government to be doing!

The only path towards broadly affordable housing prices is the removal of all implicit and explicit subsidies, an action that will make it clear that housing prices won’t keep rising (which will have the added benefit of ending speculation on houses, another source of unaffordability). This wouldn’t just mean scaling back policies like this one; it means that we need to get serious about zoning reform and adopt a policy like the one that has kept housing prices in Tokyo stable. Our current style of zoning is broken and accounts for an increasing percentage of housing prices in urban areas.

Zoning began as a way to enforce racial segregation. Today, it enforces not just racial, but financial segregation, forcing immigrants, the young, and everyone else who isn’t well off towards the peripheries of our cities and our societies.

Serious work towards housing affordability would strike back against zoning. This incentive provides a temporary palliative without addressing the root cause, while tying the government’s financial wellbeing to high home prices. Everyone struggling with housing affordability deserves better.

Footnotes

[1] Mortgage insurance is required for any down payment less than 20%. If you have an income of $120,000 and you max out the down payment, then the mortgage of $480,000 would be about 81% of the total price. Division tells us the total price in this case would be $592,592.59, although obviously few people will be positioned to max out the benefit. ^

[2] Currently, the best argument against buying a home is the chance that the government will one day wake up to the crisis it is creating and withdraw some of its subsidies. It is, in general, not wise to make heavily leveraged bets that will only pay off if subsidies are left in place, but a bet on housing has so far been an exception to this rule. ^

[3] Technically, it will hurt the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, but given that this is the crown corporation responsible for mortgage insurance, a decline in home prices could leave it undercapitalized to the point where the government has to step in even before this policy was enacted. With this policy, a bailout in response to lower home prices seems even more likely. ^

Model, Quick Fix

When QALYs Are Wrong – Thoughts on the Gates Foundation

Every year, I check in to see if we’ve eradicated polio or guinea worm yet. Disease eradications are a big deal. We’ve only successfully eradicated one disease – smallpox – so being so close to wiping out two more is very exciting.

Still, when I looked at how much resources were committed to polio eradication (especially by the Gates Foundation), I noticed they seemed incongruent with its effects. No polio eradication effort can be found among GiveWell’s top charities, because it is currently rather expensive to prevent polio. The amount of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs, a common measure of charity effectiveness used in the Effective Altruism community) you can save with a donation to preventing malaria is just higher than for polio.

I briefly wondered if it might not be better for all of the effort going to polio eradication to instead go to anti-malaria programs. After thinking some more, I’ve decided that this would be a grave mistake. Since I haven’t seen why explained anywhere else, I figured I’d share my thinking, so that anyone else having the same thought can see it.

A while back, it was much cheaper to buy QALYs using the polio vaccines. As recently as 1988, there were more than 350,000 cases of polio every year. It’s a testament to the excellent work of the World Health Organization and its partners that polio has become so much rarer – and therefore so much more expensive to prevent each new case of. After all, when there are few new cases, you can’t prevent thousands.

It is obviously very good that there are few cases of polio. If we decided that this was good enough and diverted resources towards treating other diseases, we might quickly find that this would no longer be the case. Polio could once again become a source of easy QALY improvements – because it would be running rampant in unvaccinated populations. When phrased this way, I hope it’s clear that polio becoming a source of cheap QALY improvements isn’t a good thing; the existence of cheap QALY improvements means that we’ve dropped the ball on a potentially stoppable disease.

If polio is eradicated for good, we can stop putting any effort into fighting it. We won’t need any more polio vaccines or any more polio monitoring. It’s for this reason that we’re much better off if we finish the eradication effort.

What I hadn’t realized was that a simple focus on present QALYs obscures the potential effects our actions can have on future QALYs. Abandoning diseases until treatments for them save many lives cheaply might look good for our short term effectiveness, but in the long term, the greatest gains come from following through with our eradication efforts, so that we can repurpose all resources from an eradicated disease to the fight against another, forever.

Falsifiable, Physics, Quick Fix

Pokémon Are Made of Styrofoam

One of the best things about taking physics classes is that the equations you learn are directly applicable to the real world. Every so often, while reading a book or watching a movie, I’m seized by the sudden urge to check it for plausibility. A few scratches on a piece of paper later and I will generally know one way or the other.

One of the most amusing things I’ve found doing this is that the people who come up with the statistics for Pokémon definitely don’t have any sort of education in physics.

Takes Onix. Onix is a rock/ground Pokémon renowned for its large size and sturdiness. Its physical statistics reflect this. It’s 8.8 metres (28′) long and 210kg (463lbs).

Onix, being tough. I don’t own the copyright to this image, but I’m claiming fair use for purpose of criticism. Source.

Surely such a large and tough Pokémon should be very, very dense, right? Density is such an important tactile cue for us. Don’t believe me? Pick up a large piece of solid medal. Its surprising weight will make you take it seriously.

Let’s check if Onix would be taken seriously, shall we? Density is equal to mass divided by volume. We use the symbol ρ to represent density, which gives us the following equation:

We already know Onix’s mass. Now we just need to calculate its volume. Luckily Onix is pretty cylindrical, so we can approximate it with a cylinder. The equation for the volume of a cylinder is pretty simple:

Where π is the ratio between the diameter of a circle and its circumference (approximately 3.1415…, no matter what Indiana says), r is the radius of a circle (always one half the diameter), and h is the height of the cylinder.

Given that we know Onix’s height, we just need its diameter. Luckily the Pokémon TV show gives us a sense of scale.

Here’s a picture of Onix. Note the kid next to it for scale. I don’t own the copyright to this image, but I’m claiming fair use for purpose of criticism. Source.

Judging by the image, Onix probably has an average diameter somewhere around a metre (3 feet for the Americans). This means Onix has a radius of 0.5 metres and a height of 8.8 metres. When we put these into our equation, we get:

For a volume of approximately 6.9m3. To get a comparison I turned to Wolfram Alpha which told me that this is about 40% of the volume of a gray whale or a freight container (which incidentally implies that gray whales are about the size of standard freight containers).

Armed with a volume, we can calculate a density.

Okay, so we know that Onix is 30.4 kg/m3, but what does that mean?

Well it’s currently hard to compare. I’m much more used to seeing densities of sturdy materials expressed in tonnes per cubic metre or grams per cubic centimetre than I am seeing them expressed in kilograms per cubic metre. Luckily, it’s easy to convert between these.

There are 1000 kilograms in a ton. If we divide our density by a thousand we can calculate a new density for Onix of 0.0304t/m3.

How does this fit in with common materials, like wood, Styrofoam, water, stone, and metal?

Material

Density (t/m3)

Styrofoam

0.028

Onix

0.03

Balsa

0.16

Oak [1]

0.65

Water

1

Granite

2.6

Steel

7.9

From this chart, you can see that Onix’s density is eerily close to Styrofoam. Even the notoriously light balsa wood is five times denser than him. Actual rock is about 85 times denser. If Onix was made of granite, it would weigh 18 tonnes, much heavier than even Snorlax (the heaviest of the original Pokémon at 460kg).

While most people wouldn’t be able to pick Onix up (it may not be dense, but it is big), it wouldn’t be impossible to drag it. Picking up part of it would feel disconcertingly light, like picking up an aluminum ladder or carbon fibre bike, only more so.

This picture is unrealistic. Because of its density, no more than 3% of Onix can be below the water. I don’t own the copyright to this image, but I’m claiming fair use for purpose of criticism. Source.

How did the creators of Pokémon accidently bestow one of the most famous of their creations with a hilariously unrealistic density?

I have a pet theory.

I went to school for nanotechnology engineering. One of the most important things we looked into was how equations scaled with size.

Humans are really good at intuiting linear scaling. When something scales linearly, every twofold change in one quantity brings about a twofold change in another. Time and speed scale linearly (albeit inversely). Double your speed and the trip takes half the time. This is so simple that it rarely requires explanation.

Unfortunately for our intuitions, many physical quantities don’t scale linearly. These were the cases that were important for me and my classmates to learn, because until we internalized them, our intuitions were useless on the nanoscale. Many forces, for example, scale such that they become incredibly strong incredibly quickly at small distances. This leads to nanoscale systems exhibiting a stickiness that is hard on our intuitions.

It isn’t just forces that have weird scaling though. Geometry often trips people up too.

In geometry, perimeter is the only quantity I can think of that scales linearly with size. Double the length of the sides of a square and the perimeter doubles. The area, however does not. Area is quadratically related to side length. Double the length of a square and you’ll find the area quadruples. Triple the length and the area increases nine times. Area varies with the square of the length, a property that isn’t just true of squares. The area of a circle is just as tied to the square of its radius as a square is to the square of its length.

Volume is even trickier than radius. It scales with the third power of the size. Double the size of a cube and its volume increases eight-fold. Triple it, and you’ll see 27 times the volume. Volume increases with the cube (which again works for shapes other than cubes) of the length.

If you look at the weights of Pokémon, you’ll see that the ones that are the size of humans have fairly realistic weights. Sandslash is the size of a child (it stands 1m/3′ high) and weighs a fairly reasonable 29.5kg.

(This only works for Pokémon really close to human size. I’d hoped that Snorlax would be about as dense as marshmallows so I could do a fun comparison, but it turns out that marshmallows are four times as dense as Snorlax – despite marshmallows only having a density of ~0.5t/m3)

Beyond these touchstones, you’ll see that the designers of Pokémon increased their weight linearly with size. Onix is a bit more than eight times as long as Sandslash and weighs seven times as much.

Unfortunately for realism, weight is just density times volume and as I just said, volume increases with the cube of length. Onix shouldn’t weigh seven or even eight times as much as Sandslash. At a minimum, its weight should be eight times eight times eight multiples of Sandslash’s; a full 512 times more.

Scaling properties determine how much of the world is arrayed. We see extremely large animals more often in the ocean than in the land because the strength of bones scales with the square of size, while weight scales with the cube. Become too big and you can’t walk without breaking your bones. Become small and people animate kids’ movies about how strong you are. All of this stems from scaling.

These equations aren’t just important to physicists. They’re important to any science fiction or fantasy writer who wants to tell a realistic story.

Or, at least, to anyone who doesn’t want their work picked apart by physicists.

Footnotes

[1] Not the professor. His density is 0.985t/m3. ^

Economics, Politics, Quick Fix

Why Linking The Minimum Wage To Inflation Can Backfire

Last week I explained how poor decisions by central bankers (specifically failing to spur inflation) can make recessions much worse and lead to slower wage growth during recovery.

(Briefly: inflation during recessions reduces the real cost of payroll, cutting business expenses and making firing people unnecessary. During a recovery, it makes hiring new workers cheaper and so leads to more being hired. Because central bankers failed to create inflation during and after the great recession, many businesses are scared of raising salaries. They believe (correctly) that this will increase their payroll expenses to the point where they’ll have to lay many people off if another recession strikes. Until memories of the last recession fade or central bankers clean up their act, we shouldn’t expect wages to rise.)

Now I’d like to expand on an offhand comment I made about the minimum wage last week and explore how it can affect recovery, especially if it’s indexed to inflation.

The minimum wage represents a special case when it comes to pay cuts and layoffs in recessions. While it’s always theoretically possible to convince people to take a pay cut rather than a layoff (although in practice it’s mostly impossible), this option isn’t available for people who make the minimum wage. It’s illegal to pay them anything less. If bad times strike and business is imperiled, people making the minimum wage might have to be laid off.

I say “might”, because when central bankers aren’t proving useless, inflation can rescue people making the minimum wage from being let go. Inflation makes the minimum wage relatively less valuable, which reduces the cost of payroll relative to other inputs and helps to save jobs that pay minimum wage. This should sound familiar, because inflation helps people making the minimum wage in the exact same way it helps everyone else.

Because of increasingly expensive housing and persistently slow wage growth, some jurisdictions are experimenting with indexing the minimum wage to inflation. This means that the minimum wage rises at the same rate as the cost of living. Most notably (to me, at least), this group includes my home province of Ontario.

I think decreasing purchasing power is a serious problem (especially because of its complicated intergenerational dynamics), but I think this is one of the worst possible ways to deal with it.

When the minimum wage is tied to inflation, recessions can become especially dangerous and drawn out.

With the minimum wage rising in lockstep with inflation, any attempts to decrease payroll costs in real terms (that is to say: inflation adjusted terms) is futile to the extent that payroll expenses are for minimum wage workers. Worse, people who were previously making above the minimum wage and might have had their jobs saved by inflation can be swept up by an increasingly high minimum wage.

This puts central bankers in a bind. As soon as the minimum wage is indexed to inflation, inflation is no longer a boon to all workers. Suddenly, many workers can find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Without inflation, they may be too expensive to keep. With it, they may be saved… until the minimum wage comes for them too. If a recession goes on long enough, only high-income workers would be sparred.

In addition, minimum wage (or near-minimum wage) workers who are laid off during a period of higher inflation (an in this scenario, there will be many) will suffer comparatively more, as their savings get exhausted even more quickly.

Navigating these competing needs would be an especially tough challenge for certain central banks like the US Federal Reserve – those banks that have dual mandates to maintain stable prices and full employment. If a significant portion of the US ever indexes its minimum wage to inflation, the Fed will have no good options.

It is perhaps darkly humorous that central banks, which bear an unusually large parcel of the blame for our current slow wage growth, stand to face the greatest challenges from the policies we’re devising to make up for their past shortcomings. Unfortunately, I think a punishment of this sort is rather like cutting off our collective nose to spite our collective face.

There are simple policies we could enact to counter the risks here. Suspending any peg to inflation during years that contain recessions (in Ontario at least, the minimum wage increase due to inflation is calculated annually) would be a promising start. Wage growth after a recession could be ensured with a rebound clause, or better yet, the central bank actually doing its job properly.

I am worried about the political chances (and popularity once enacted) of any such pragmatic policy though. Many people respond to recessions with the belief that the government can make things better by passing the right legislation – forcing the economy back on track by sheer force of ink. This is rarely the case, especially because the legislation that people have historically clamoured for when unemployment is high is the sort that increases wages, not lowers them. This is a disaster when unemployment threatens because of too-high wages. FDR is remembered positively for his policy of increasing wages during the great depression, even though this disastrous decision strangled the recovery in its crib. I don’t expect any higher degree of economic literacy from people today.

To put my fears more plainly, I worry that politicians, faced with waning popularity and a nipping recession, would find allowing the minimum wage to be frozen too much of a political risk. I frankly don’t trust most politicians to follow through with a freeze, even if it’s direly needed.

Minimum wages are one example of a tradeoff we make between broad access and minimum standards. Do we try and make sure everyone who wants a job can have one, or do we make sure people who have jobs aren’t paid too little for their labour, even if that hurts the unemployed? As long as there’s scarcity, we’re going to have to struggle with how we ensure that as many people as possible have their material needs met and that involves tradeoffs like this one.

Minimum wages are just one way we can do this. Wage subsidies or a Universal Basic Income are both being discussed with increasing frequency these days.

But when we’re making these kind of compassionate decisions, we need to look at the risks of whatever systems we choose. Proponents of indexing the minimum wage to inflation haven’t done a good job of understanding the grave risk it poses to the health of our economy and perhaps most of all, to the very people they seek to help. In places like Ontario, where the minimum wage is already indexed to inflation, we’re going to pay for their lack of foresight next time an economic disaster strikes.

Ethics, Philosophy, Quick Fix

Second Order Effects of Unjust Policies

In some parts of the Brazilian Amazon, indigenous groups still practice infanticide. Children are killed for being disabled, for being twins, or for being born to single mothers. This is undoubtedly a piece of cultural technology that existed to optimize resource distribution under harsh conditions.

Infanticide can be legally practiced because these tribes aren’t bound by Brazilian law. Under legislation, indigenous tribes are bound by the laws in proportion to how much they interact with the state. Remote Amazonian groups have a waiver from all Brazilian laws.

Reformers, led mostly by disabled indigenous people who’ve escaped infanticide and evangelicals, are trying to change this. They are pushing for a law that will outlaw infanticide, register pregnancies and birth outcomes, and punish people who don’t report infanticide.

Now I know that I have in the past written about using the outside view in cases like these. Historically, outsiders deciding they know what is best for indigenous people has not ended particularly well. In general, this argues for avoiding meddling in cases like this. Despite that, if I lived in Brazil, I would support this law.

When thinking about public policies, it’s important to think about the precedents they set. Opposing a policy like this, even when you have very good reasons, sends a message to the vast majority of the population, a population that views infanticide as wrong (and not just wrong, but a special evil). It says: “we don’t care about what is right or wrong, we’re moral relativists who think anything goes if it’s someone’s culture.”

There are several things to unpack here. First, there are the direct effects on the credibility of the people defending infanticide. When you’re advocating for something that most people view as clearly wrong, something so beyond the pale that you have no realistic chance of ever convincing anyone, you’re going to see some resistance to the next issue you take up, even if it isn’t beyond the pale. If the same academics defending infanticide turn around and try and convince people to accept human rights for trans people, they’ll find themselves with limited credibility.

Critically, this doesn’t happen with a cause where it’s actually possible to convince people that you are standing up for what is right. Gay rights campaigners haven’t been cut out of the general cultural conversation. On the contrary, they’ve been able to parlay some of their success and credibility from being ahead of the curve to help in related issues, like trans rights.

There’s no (non-apocalyptic) future where the people of Brazil eventually wake up okay with infanticide and laud the campaigners who stood up for it. But the people of Brazil are likely to wake up in the near future and decide they can’t ever trust the morals of academics who advocated for infanticide.

Second, it’s worth thinking about how people’s experience of justice colours their view of the government. When the government permits what is (to many) a great evil, people lose faith in the government’s ability to be just. This inhibits the government’s traditional role as solver of collective action problems.

We can actually see this manifest several ways in current North American politics, on both the right and the left.

On the left, there are many people who are justifiably mistrustful of the government, because of its historical or ongoing discrimination against them or people who look like them. This is why the government can credibly lock up white granola-crowd parents for failing to treat their children with medically approved medicines, but can’t when the parents are indigenous. It’s also why many people of colour don’t feel comfortable going to the police when they see or experience violence.

In both cases, historical injustices hamstring the government’s ability to achieve outcomes that it might otherwise be able to achieve if it had more credibly delivered justice in the past.

On the right, I suspect that some amount of skepticism of government comes from legalized abortion. The right is notoriously mistrustful of the government and I wonder if this is because it cannot believe that a government that permits abortion can do anything good. Here this hurts the government’s ability to pursue the sort of redistributive policies that would help the worst off.

In the case of abortion, the very real and pressing need for some women to access it is enough for me to view it as net positive, despite its negative effect on some people’s ability to trust the government to solve coordination problems.

Discrimination causes harms on its own and isn’t even justified on its own “merits”. It’s effect on peoples’ perceptions of justice are just another reason it should be fought against.

In the case of Brazil, we’re faced with an act that is negative (infanticide) with several plausible alternatives (e.g. adoption) that allow the cultural purpose to be served without undermining justice. While the historical record of these types of interventions in indigenous cultures should give us pause, this is counterbalanced by the real harms justice faces as long as infanticide is allowed to continue. Given this, I think the correct and utilitarian thing to do is to support the reformers’ effort to outlaw infanticide.

Quick Fix

May The Fourth Be With You

(The following is the text of the prepared puns I delivered at the 30th Bay Area pun off. If you’re ever in the Bay for one, I really recommend it. They have the nicest crowd in the world.)

First: May the Fourth be with you (“and also with you” is how you respond if like me, you grew up Catholic). As you might be able to tell from this shirt, I am religiously devoted to Star Wars. I know a lot about Star Wars, but I’m more of an orthodox fan- I was all about the Expanded Universe, not this reverend-ing stream of Disney sequels.

Pictured: the outfit I wore

They might be popepular, but it seems like all Disney wants is to turn a prophet – just get big fatwas of cash. They don’t care about Allah the history that happened in the books. Just mo-hamme(r)ed out scripts with flashy set piece battles full of Mecca and characters we med-in-a earlier film.

The EU was mostly books and I loved them despite their ridiculousness. Like, in terms of plots, it’s not clear the writers always card’in-all the books; they often passover normal options and have someone kidnap Han and Leia’s kids.

There were so many convert-sations between the two of them, like “do you noahf ark ‘ids are fine” immediately interrupted by formulaic videos from the kids: “Don’t worry about mi-mam it’s alright, this dude who kidnapped us is a total Luther who just wants to Hindu-s you to vote another way in the Senate”. Eventually they figured out a wafer Leia to communion-cate that the kids needed a bodygod. This led them to Sikh out Winter, who came with the recommendation: “no kidnapper will ever get pastor“.

What else? Luke trains under a clone of Emperor Pulpit-een. Leia is like, “bish, open your eyes, dude’s dark” but Luke justifies it with “well, there’s some things vatican teach me”.
Eventually after Leia asks “how could you Judas to us”, Luke snaps out of it and decides he’s having nun of Palpatine’s evil deeds. He con-vent his anger somewhere else. He comes back to the light side and everyone’s pretty willing to ex-schism for everything he did.
Anyway, I’m really sad that the books aren’t canon anymore. I know there are a lot of ram, a danting number, but I hope I have Eided you in appreciating them.

History, Quick Fix

Against Historical Narratives

There is perhaps no temptation greater to the amateur (or professional) historian than to take a set of historical facts and draw from them a grand narrative. This tradition has existed at least since Gibbon wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with its focus on declining civic virtue and the rise of Christianity.

Obviously, it is true that things in history happen for a reason. But I think the case is much less clear that these reasons can be marshalled like soldiers and made to march in neat lines across the centuries. What is true in one time and place may not necessarily be true in another. When you fall under the sway of a grand narrative, when you believe that everything happens for a reason, you may become tempted to ignore all of the evidence to the contrary.

Instead praying at the altar of grand narratives, I’d like to suggest that you embrace the ambiguity of history, an ambiguity that exists because…

Context Is Tricky

Here are six sentences someone could tell you about their interaction with the sharing economy:

  • I stayed at an Uber last night
  • I took an AirBnB to the mall
  • I deliberately took an Uber
  • I deliberately took a Lyft
  • I deliberately took a taxi
  • I can’t remember which ride-hailing app I used

Each of these sentences has an overt meaning. They describe how someone spent a night or got from place A to place B. They also have a deeper meaning, a meaning that only makes sense in the current context. Imagine your friend told you that they deliberately took an Uber. What does it say about them that they deliberately took a ride in the most embattled and controversial ridesharing platform? How would you expect their political views to differ from someone who told you they deliberately took a taxi?

Even simple statements carry a lot of hidden context, context that is necessary for full understanding.

Do you know what the equivalent statements to the six I listed would be in China? How about in Saudi Arabia? I can tell you that I don’t know either. Of course, it isn’t particularly hard to find these out for China (or Saudi Arabia). You may not find a key written down anywhere (especially if you can only read English), but all you have to do is ask someone from either country and they could quickly give you a set of contextual equivalents.

Luckily historians can do the same… oh. Oh damn.

When you’re dealing with the history of a civilization that “ended” hundreds or thousands of years ago, you’re going to be dealing with cultural context that you don’t fully understand. Sometimes people are helpful enough to write down “Uber=kind of evil” and “supporting taxis = very left wing, probably vegan & goes to protests”. A lot of the time they don’t though, because that’s all obvious cultural context that anyone they’re writing to would obviously have.

And sometimes they do write down even the obvious stuff, only for it all to get burned when barbarians sack their city, leaving us with no real way to understand if a sentence like “the opposing orator wore red” has any sort of meaning beyond a statement of sartorial critique or not.

All of this is to say that context can make or break narratives. Look at the play “Hamilton”. It’s a play aimed at urban progressives. The titular character’s strong anti-slavery views are supposed to code to a modern audience that he’s on the same political team as them. But if you look at American history, it turns out that support for abolishing slavery (and later, abolishing segregation) and support for big corporations over the “little guy” were correlated until very recently. In the 1960s though 1990s, there was a shift such that the Democrats came to stand for both civil rights and supporting poorer Americans, instead of just the latter. Before this shift, Democrats were the party of segregation, not that you’d know it to see them today.

Trying to tie Hamilton into a grander narrative of (eventual) progressive triumph erases the fact that most of the modern audience would strenuously disagree with his economic views (aside from urban neo-liberals, who are very much in Hamilton’s mold). Audiences end up leaving the paly with a story about their own intellectual lineage that is far from correct, a story that may cause them to feel smugly superior to people of other political stripes.

History optimized for this sort of team or political effect turns many modern historians or history writers into…

Unreliable Narrators

Gaps in context, or modern readers missing the true significance of gestures, words, and acts steeped in a particular extinct culture, combined with the fact that it is often impossible to really know why someone in the past did something mean that some of history is always going to be filled in with our best guesses.

Professor Mary Beard really drove this point home for me in her book SPQR. She showed me how history that I thought was solid was often made up of myths, exaggerations, and wishful thinking on the parts of modern authors. We know much less about Rome than many historians had made clear to me, probably because any nuance or alternative explanation would ruin their grand theories.

When it comes to so much of the past, we genuinely don’t know why things happened.

I recently heard two colleagues arguing about The Great Divergence – the unexplained difference in growth rates between Europe and the rest of the world that became apparent in the 1700s and 1800s. One was very confident that it could be explained by access to coal. The other was just as confident that it could be explained by differences in property rights.

I waded in and pointed out that Wikipedia lists fifteen possible explanations, all of which or none of which could be true. Confidence about the cause of the great divergence seems to me a very silly thing. We cannot reproduce it, so all theories must be definitionally unfalsifiable.

But both of my colleagues had read narrative accounts of history. And these narrative accounts had agendas. One wished to show that all peoples had the same inherent abilities and so cast The Great Divergence as chance. The other wanted to show how important property rights are and so made those the central factor in it. Neither gave much time to the other explanation, or any of the thirteen others that a well trafficked and heavily edited Wikipedia article finds equally credible.

Neither agenda was bad here. I am in fact broadly in favour of both. Yet their effect was to give two otherwise intelligent and well-read people a myopic view of history.

So much of narrative history is like this! Authors take the possibilities they like best, or that support their political beliefs the best, or think will sell the best, and write them down as if they are the only possibilities. Anyone who is unlucky enough to read such an account will be left with a false sense of certainty – and in ignorance of all the other options.


Of course, I have an agenda too. We all do. It’s just that my agenda is literally “the truth resists simplicity“. I like the messiness of history. It fits my aesthetic sense well. It’s because of this sense, that I’d like to encourage everyone to make their next foray into history free of narratives. Use Wikipedia or a textbook instead of a bestselling book. Read something by Mary Beard, who writes as much about historiography as she writes about history. Whatever you do, avoid books with blurbs praising the author for their “controversial” or “insightful” new theory.

Leave, just once, behind those famous narrative works like “Guns, Germs, and Steel” or “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and pick up something that embraces ambiguity and doesn’t bury messiness behind a simple agenda.

Model, Politics, Quick Fix

The Awkward Dynamics of the Conservative Leadership Debates

Tanya Granic Allen is the most idealistic candidate I’ve ever seen take the stage in a Canadian political debate. This presents some awkward challenges for the candidates facing her, especially Mulroney and Elliot.

First, there’s the simple fact of her idealism. I think Granic Allen genuinely believes everything she says. For her, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong is simple. There isn’t a whole lot of grey. She even (bless her) probably believes that this will be an advantage come election time. People overwhelming don’t like the equivocation of politicians, so Granic Allen must assume her unequivocal moral stances will be a welcome change

For many people, it must be. Even for those who find it grating, it seems almost vulgar to attack her. It’s clear that she isn’t in this for herself and doesn’t really care about personal power. Whether she could maintain that innocence in the face of the very real need to make political compromises remains an open question, but for now she does represent a certain vein of ideological conservatism in a form that is unsullied by concerns around electability.

The problem here is that the stuff Granic Allen is pushing – “conscience rights” and “parental choice” – is exactly the sort of thing that can mobilize opposition to the PC party. Fighting against sex-ed and abortion might play well with the base, but Elliot and Mulroney know that unbridled social conservatism is one of the few things that can force the province’s small-l liberals to hold their noses and vote for the big-L Liberal Party. In an election where we can expect embarrassingly low turnout (it was 52% in 2014), this can play a major role.

A less idealistic candidate would temper themselves to help the party in the election. Granic Allen has no interest in doing this, which basically forces the pragmatists to navigate the tricky act of distancing themselves from her popular (with the base) proposals so that they might carry the general election.

Second, there’s the difficult interaction between the anti-rational and anti-empirical “common sense” conservatism pushed by Granic Allen and Ford and the pragmatic, informed conservatism of Elliot and Mulroney.

For Ford and Granic Allen, there’s a moral nature to truth. They live in a just world where something being good is enough to make it true. Mulroney and Elliot know that reality has an anti-partisan bias.

Take clean energy contracts. Elliot quite correctly pointed out that ripping up contracts willy-nilly will lead to a terrible business climate in Ontario. This is the sort of suggestion we normally see from the hard left (and have seen in practice in places the hard left idolizes, like Venezuela). But Granic Allen is committed to a certain vision of the world and in her vision of the world, government getting out of the way can’t help but be good.

Christine Elliot has (and this is a credit to her) shown that she’s not very ideological, in that she can learn how the world really works and subordinate ideology to truth, even when inconvenient. This would make her a more effective premier than either Granic Allen or Ford, but might hurt her in the leadership race. I’ve seen her freeze a couple times when she’s faced with defending how the world really works to an audience that is ideologically prevented from acknowledging the truth.

(See for example, the look on her face when she was forced to defend her vote to ban conversion therapy. Elliot’s real defense of that bill probably involves phrases like “stuck in the past”, “ignorant quacks” and “vulnerable children who need to be protected from people like you”. But she knew that a full-throated defense of gender dysphoria as a legitimate problem wouldn’t win her any votes in this race.)

As Joseph Heath has pointed out, this tension between reality and ideology is responsible for the underrepresentation of modern conservatives among academics. Since the purpose of the academy is (broadly) truth-seeking, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it select against an ideology that explicitly rejects not only the veracity of much of the products of this truth seeking (see, for example, Granic Allen’s inability to clearly state that humans are causing climate change) but the worthwhileness of the whole endeavour of truth seeking.

When everything is trivially knowable via the proper application of “common-sense”, there’s no point in thinking deeply. There’s no point in experts. You just figure out what’s right and you do it. Anything else just confuses the matter and leaves the “little guy” to get shafted by the elites.

Third, the carbon tax has produced a stark, unvoiced split between the candidates. On paper, all are opposing it. In reality, only Ford and Granic Allen seriously believe they have any chance at stopping it. I’m fairly sure that Elliot and Mulroney plan to mount a token opposition, then quickly fold when they’re reminded that raising taxes and giving money to provinces is a thing the Federal Government is allowed to do. This means that they’re counting on money from the carbon tax to balance their budget proposals. They can’t say this, because Ford and Granic Allen are forcing them to the right here, but I would bet that they’re privately using it to reassure fiscally conservative donors about the deficit.

Being unable to discuss what is actually the centrepiece of their financial plans leaves Elliot and Mulroney unable to give very good information about how they plan to balance the budget. They have to fall back on empty phrases like “line by line by line audit” and “efficiencies”, because anything else feels like political suicide.

This shows just how effective Granic Allen has been at being a voice for the grassroots. By staking out positions that resonate with the base, she’s forcing other leadership contestants to endorse them or risk losing to her. Note especially how she’s been extracting promises from Elliot and Mulroney whenever possible – normally around things she knows they don’t want to agree to but that play well with the base. By doing this, she hopes to remove much of their room to maneuver in the general election and prevent any big pivot to centre.

Whether this will work really depends on how costly politicians find breaking promises. Conventional wisdom holds that they aren’t particularly bothered by it. I wonder if Granic Allen’s idealism blinds her to this fact. I’m certainly sure that she wouldn’t break a promise except under the greatest duress.

On the left, it’s very common to see a view of politics that emphasizes pure and moral people. The problem with the system, says the communist, is that we let greedy people run it. If we just replaced them all with better people, we’d get a fair society. Granic Allen is certainly no communist. But she does seem to believe in the “just need good people” theory of government – and whether she wins or loses, she’s determined to bring all the other candidates with her.

This isn’t an incrementalist approach, which is why it feels so foreign to people like me. Granic Allen seems to be making the decision that she’d rather the Conservatives lose (again!) to the Liberals than that they win without a firm commitment to do things differently.

The conflict in the Ontario Conservative party ­– the conflict that was surfaced when his rivals torpedoed Patrick Brown – is around how far the party is willing to go to win. The Ontario Conservatives aren’t the first party to go through this. When UK Labour members picked Jeremy Corbyn, they clearly threw electability behind ideological purity.

In the Ontario PC party, Allen and Ford have clearly staked out a position emphasizing purity. Mulroney and Elliot have just as clearly chosen to emphasize success. Now it’s up to the members. I’m very interested to see what they decide.

Economics, Model, Quick Fix

Not Just Zoning: Housing Prices Driven By Beauty Contests

No, this isn’t a post about very pretty houses or positional goods. It’s about the type of beauty contest described by John Maynard Keynes.

Imagine a newspaper that publishes one hundred pictures of strapping young men. It asks everyone to send in the names of the five that they think are most attractive. They offer a prize: if your selection matches the five men most often appearing in everyone else’s selections, you’ll win $500.

You could just do what the newspaper asked and send in the names of those men that you think are especially good looking. But that’s not very likely to give you the win. Everyone’s tastes are different and the people you find attractive might not be very attractive to anyone else. If you’re playing the game a bit smarter, you’ll instead pick the five people that you think have the broadest appeal.

You could go even deeper and realize that many other people will be trying to win and so will also be trying to pick the most broadly appealing people. Therefore, you should pick people that you think most people will view as broadly appealing (which differs from picking broadly appealing people if you know something about what most people find attractive that isn’t widely known). This can go on indefinitely (although Yudkowsky’s Law of Ultrafinite Recursion states that “In practice, infinite recursions are at most three levels deep“, which gives me a convenient excuse to stop before this devolves into “I know you know I know that you know that…” ad infinitum).

This thought experiment was relevant to an economist because many assets work like this. Take gold: its value cannot to be fully explained by its prettiness or industrial usefulness; some of its value comes from the belief that someone else will want it in the future and be willing to pay more for it than they would a similarly useful or pretty metal. For whatever reason, we have a collective delusion that gold is especially valuable. Because this delusion is collective enough, it almost stops being a delusion. The delusion gives gold some of its value.

When it comes to houses, beauty contests are especially relevant in Toronto and Vancouver. Faced with many years of steadily rising house prices, people are willing to pay a lot for a house because they believe that they can unload it on someone else in a few years or decades for even more.

When talking about highly speculative assets (like Bitcoin), it’s easy to point out the limited intrinsic value they hold. Bitcoin is an almost pure Keynesian Beauty Contest asset, with most of its price coming from an expectation that someone else will want it at a comparable or better price in the future. Houses are obviously fairly intrinsically valuable, especially in very desirable cities. But the fact that they hold some intrinsic value cannot by itself prove that none of their value comes from beliefs about how much they can be unloaded for in the future – see again gold, which has value both as an article of commerce and as a beauty contest asset.

There’s obviously an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here, with steadily increasing house prices needed to sustain this myth. Unfortunately, the housing market seems especially vulnerable to this sort of collective mania, because the sunk cost fallacy makes many people unwilling to sell their houses at a price below what they paid for it. Any softening of the market removes sellers, which immediately drives up prices again. Only a massive liquidation event, like we saw in 2007-2009 can push enough supply into the market to make prices truly fall.

But this isn’t just a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s deliberateness here as well. To some extent, public policy is used to guarantee that house prices continue to rise. NIMBY residents and their allies in city councils deliberately stall projects that might affect property values. Governments provide tax credits or access to tax-advantaged savings accounts for homes. In America, mortgage payments provide a tax credit!

All of these programs ultimately make housing more expensive wherever supply cannot expand to meet the artificially increased demand – which basically describes any dense urban centre. Therefore, these home buying programs fail to accomplish their goal of making house more affordable, but do serve to guarantee that housing prices will continue to go up. Ultimately, they really just represent a transfer of wealth from taxpayers generally to those specific people who own homes.

Unfortunately, programs like this are very sticky. Once people buy into the collective delusion that home prices must always go up, they’re willing to heavily leverage themselves to buy a home. Any dip in the price of homes can wipe out the value of this asset, making it worth less than the money owed on it. Since this tends to make voters very angry (and also lead to many people with no money) governments of all stripes are very motivated to avoid it.

This might imply that the smart thing is to buy into the collective notion that home prices always go up. There are so many people invested in this belief at all levels of society (banks, governments, and citizens) that it can feel like home prices are too important to fall.

Which would be entirely convincing, except, I’m pretty sure people believed that in 2007 and we all know how that ended. Unfortunately, it looks like there’s no safe answer here. Maybe the collective mania will abate and home prices will stop being buoyed ever upwards. Or maybe they won’t and the prices we currently see in Toronto and Vancouver will be reckoned cheap in twenty years.

Better zoning laws can help make houses cheaper. But it really isn’t just zoning. The beauty contest is an important aspect of the current unaffordability.