Links 2016-03-24

Scott Alexander has a new post on happiness and economic growth. There must be a name for this paradox, because it’s blindingly obvious if you think about it: Right now, compare your life to the life of 100 years ago, given your current standing in society. Your life right now is way better, you have time to spend on internet learning and debating about ideas in ways you couldn’t dream of 100 years ago. You have better food choices, longer life expectancy, better pop culture, more stimulating interests, far easier communication with distant relatives, and so on. And yet, the exact same thing will be said about our lives compared to the lives of those who live 100 years in the future. Sure, those lives will be better, but I don’t know how much that bothers us today unless we really think about it. Most people are pretty excited to live today at the frontier of human knowledge, and we don’t see it as a loss that we don’t have cheap self-driving cars and instant delivery groceries for low cost.

But yet, when you do think about it, we hate sitting in traffic or having to go to the store to pick something up, and we wish we had technologies that could get rid of those inconveniences. Yet, I bet people in the future will just have other errands they hate doing just like we hate sitting in traffic. But they will be inconveniences for future people who are tolerating them so that they can do even more awesome things that we can’t imagine, just like people 100 years didn’t sit in traffic because they didn’t own cars at all.

It’s very confusing. On a personal scale, obviously it would be ridiculous to complain about your current standing, because future technologies haven’t been invented yet. So of course everyone is pretty satisfied with what technology level they live in. Yet, our lives are obviously better for having these technologies. How do we reconcile this?

In the last month, I’ve often thought that the closest president we’ve had to Donald Trump is Andrew Jackson; Trump is a loud-mouthed, populist who falls outside of the mainstream party system, yet has significant support from non-elites and were despised by the elites themselves.  This is also the perfect description for Andrew Jackson, who was so successful in this movement, he founded the Democratic Party. David Friedman comes to the same conclusion via a different route.

That last link caused me to run into a real problem with Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson grammatically. One subject is dead and one is alive, so what is the proper verb tense to use? Stack Exchange suggested this, which is honestly kind of lame.

Scott Sumner discusses socialism and France. He makes a short argument that France sounds like a pretty good model country for modern socialism: high amount of skilled civil servants, broad support for socialist policies, a willing government to implement them, and a modern, developed economy.  Yet, Bernie Sanders supporters often reach for the Nordic countries rather than France as the big-welfare state (“socialist”) ideal.  Why is French socialist policy somewhat of a political flop, while Nordic countries are idealized? And would a Bernie-America look like Denmark or maybe better, or perhaps more like France, or even worse? Given the size and diversity of America’s population and economy, France seems closer than Denmark, although both are closer to each other than the US. The only socialistic countries of comparable size seem to be the China and the Soviet Union which have forms of socialism even Bernie Sanders would abhor. Mostly.

Do you have no friends? Never fear, it’s because really, really smart people are better off with few friends.

Bryan Caplan’s model of the Right and Left, and how it’s oddly doing well this election cycle.

Overcoming Bias discusses the cost and benefits of voting. How much would you pay to have your vote count more? His conclusion is that we don’t vote to change the outcome of the election.

Surprise! NSA data will soon be used for routine policing! Coverage from the New York Times, and the Massachusetts ACLU as well.

Bryan Caplan also has a good discussion of libertarian critiques of welfare.  Matt Zwolinski has a good counter post. I like the idea of bleeding heart libertarianism, or market liberalism or whatever, so I think Caplan’s critiques are pointed at exactly what I believe, which is excellent! You always want to have your beliefs critiqued by smart people. I think Caplan is right on many of his points, but I feel like my views are more politically practical. Voters obviously want some form of welfare for the poor, and at least that part could be done more efficiently with my ideas.

This is a good write up on the decentralized crypto-currency-ish entity Ethereum; Reason also did a recent video on it.   Very soon I’ll be able to explain to people what it actually does. Right after I’ve figured out how to install it.  If you want to learn about it without me, here is Ethereum’s website.

Fact checking Trump on trade. Why do we talk about trade deficits? I have no idea why they matter.  Is it a problem if I buy a phone from Apple and I live in New York instead of California? Is there now a trade deficit between New York and California since I sent money out of my local community? No, nobody cares. And for the US, it’s even less relevant, since those dollars that US citizens spent have to come back to the US to be redeemed for goods and services. It would be like if I paid for my iPhone in New York dollars that had to come back to New York. I’m a free trade proponent, but I’m not deaf to some concerns people might have about trade, but this is one of the worst anti-free trade arguments you could make.

Follow-up: Not that wrong about Obamacare

Anytime we see something that challenges our worldview, it’s important to acknowledge it, and investigate whether our model of the world is incorrect, or at least to acknowledge our mistake. Otherwise, we cease to be engaging in discussion and building on knowledge. About a year ago, Josh, one of the former authors on this blog, wrote an excellent piece about how his predictions of massive failure for Obamacare did not seem to be coming true:

I Was Wrong About Obamacare

But now, a year further along, it seems the healthcare system isn’t doing so hot. The Wall Street Journal wrote in October:

Among this population of the uninsured, HHS reports that half are between the ages of 18 and 34 and nearly two-thirds are in excellent or very good health. The exchanges won’t survive actuarially unless they attract this prime demographic: ObamaCare’s individual mandate penalty and social-justice redistribution are supposed to force these low-cost consumers to buy overpriced policies to cross-subsidize everybody else. No wonder HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said meeting even the downgraded target is “probably pretty challenging.”

Late in December, Reason reported:

United announced during an investor briefing Thursday that it was expecting a whopping $425 million hit on its earnings this year, primarily due to mounting losses on its Obamacare exchange business. “We cannot sustain these losses,” United CEO Stephen Hensley declared.

And also in January:

Aetna, for example, has already dropped out of the exchange market in two states. A dozen of the 23 non-profit co-op plans backed by the law have already closed up shop, causing about 600,000 people to lose health plans, and a Politico analysis indicates that most of the remaining co-op plans are in trouble. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas and North Carolina both lost a sizable chunk of money on its exchange business during the program’s first year. The financial outlook for a number of insurers participating in Obamacare, in other words, doesn’t look good. And there are few signs that it is set to improve in the near future.


Yet, the mandates aren’t working as planned. My colleague Brian Blase recently summed up the difference between the projected numbers of people who were expected to enroll in the ACA during this third open enrollment and the people who actually did. He notes a high estimate of 12.7 million people signing up for an exchange plan. But Blase actually thinks there will only be an average of 11 million enrollees this year. That’s 16 million fewer than the Rand Corporation predicted, 11.8 million fewer than the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predicted, 12.1 million fewer than the Urban Institute predicted and 10 million fewer than the Congressional Budget Office projected.

It seems more likely than not that there will need to be some sort of change to the health system. Perhaps Josh’s predictions were too dire, but overall, I would retitle his post “I was still mostly right about Obamacare”.


Banning Unbreakable Smartphone Encryption is Stupid

At least two states, New York and California, have introduced legislation that would ban smartphones sold in those states if those smartphones could not be searched under request from law enforcement.  This would likely mean no phones would be sold with unbreakable encryption, although I suppose Apple or Samsung could manufacture two types of phones and then just sell all the encrypted ones from New Hampshire or something. These bills are still somewhat controversial, and as it has gotten press coverage, there has been a House bill introduced that would prevent state legislation like those bills introduced in New York and California. Continue reading Banning Unbreakable Smartphone Encryption is Stupid

Voting Rights Schmoting Rights


“If you don’t feel like voting, don’t bother. It won’t matter. The statistical odds of your vote making any difference at all are infinitesimal.” These are the words of Megan McArdle in a sad, but amusing, piece telling you not to vote. And she’s right: your vote, at least in federal elections, is pretty worthless. Even in smaller House elections, over 80% of incumbents win.

But she’s not the only person that’s been talking about voting recently. The Left has been quite upset over new voter ID laws being implemented around the country. John Oliver even did a long segment on it.

I like John Oliver as a political commentator (and in Community). His sharp wit combines biting commentary with excellent humor, and the format of his show allows a deep dive on interesting issues. I try to watch as many of those segments as possible (they are available for free on YouTube) despite the vast differences in the way he and I view the world.  Oliver’s analysis provides great starting points for discussion, and he helps me understand many critiques of issues that I would never have thought of.

While I don’t really disagree with him on the basic issue of voter ID laws, I feel like he’s missed the more profound problem about American democracy: voting is just a gimmick.

How can this be? Voting is a fundamental right!  America was founded as a grand experiment in democracy! Yes, voting is very important to Americans, but why?  In fact, what is a voting right? Continue reading Voting Rights Schmoting Rights