Efficient Advocacy

It’s incredible how simple and yet revolutionary the principles are behind effective altruism as well as the ideas behind GiveWell and the Open Philanthropy Project; if you want to help people, don’t just donate to a charity that is looking to cure a rare disease, donate in a way that can do the maximum amount of “good” per dollar.  That often means donating to a problem that affects many people, that has known, measurable, positive solutions, and that has lots of room for additional resources to combat the problem.   If you don’t know about those organizations, you should definitely check them out.

Of course, there is an obvious elephant in the room when it comes to effective altruism: politics is complex, unscientific, and unpopular. In fact, GiveWell largely sidesteps the political sphere, ignoring a big swath of human activity which has tremendous impacts on society.  Of course, they have good reason to do this; it allows them to focus on doing good things without harming anyone’s tribal identities or alienating their donor base. Moreover, it’s hard to get good unbiased data on what political policies would actually provide benefits; if there was, politics wouldn’t be so divisive.

However, I don’t have a donor base, and I have slightly different feelings on which policies would be most effective than the average American or even the average effective altruist.  I wanted to see what would happen if we could assume away some of the unknowns about political policy.  Let’s assume that the postlibertarian philosophy this blog espouses is correct: markets are pretty good at allocating resources efficiently, government policy can help address some economic areas where markets might not work (inequality, externalities), giving the state power is generally a bad thing and must be justified, and individuals should have robust protections from their government. We aren’t assuming away the current political landscape of the US, we’re just assuming we’re right.

So what would a libertarian trying to maximize efficiency in advocacy do? Do you try and emulate the Koch brothers and create or fund political organizations that change policy outcomes? Do you focus on viable candidates? How much do you accept the political process as given? Do you focus on political reforms (proportional representation), education (IHS, Economics of Library and Liberty), or do you try to work on making your own rules (crypto, seasteading, space exploration)? Let’s leave those hard questions for another time, and focus on perhaps the most mainstream approach to politics: how should you prioritize the importance of various political issues? People usually have specific issues they care about that determine which candidate they’d like to back, and the Open Philanthropy Project even has a U.S. policies page.   But which issues are actually the most important? Continue reading Efficient Advocacy

Links 2016-5-30

Gary Johnson selected former Republican Massachusetts Governor William Weld  to be his running mate. This was pretty surprising for Libertarians considering Weld isn’t really a well-known libertarian guy.  Obviously, the Johnson campaign hoped not to repeat the failings of Jim Gray who was essentially unknown to the national media. During the Libertarian Party convention this weekend, the delegates selected both Gary Johnson and Bill Weld opting for pragmatism rather than party purity.  This is some election year when the libertarians are more reasonable than the Republicans and Democrats.

With 2 former Republican governors on the ticket, the Libertarian Party is now poised to be a real third party alternative. This could be a huge year for them, even if they don’t win. Remember, from our archives, if you reach 5% of the popular vote in a presidential election, you are entitled to real money in the next cycle (the irony of Libertarians accepting Federal handouts not withstanding).

Nicholas Kristof has a follow up to his column “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance” where he condemned the intolerance of progressives especially in the university. Apparently, the left universally scoffed at the thought of tolerating conservatives…which essentially confirmed his point.

The EFF is shutting down their canary watch program after a year. I have previously discussed the importance and usefulness of warrant canaries. It seems the EFF has decided it isn’t worth the effort to keep track of all the notices because they seem to change too much from post to post.  These aren’t bad reasons, but it is a little concerning. It seems likely that you’ll just have to stick to the default that any website you visit has received national security letters asking for information.

Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the difference between Ignorance, Misinformation, and Irrationality in democracies.  Essentially ignorance isn’t exactly the problem in democracies, since if everyone is equally ignorant, then the non-ignorant people will be able to make rational decisions; there is no bias for the ignorant people since they have no opinion. Misinformation can be a problem though, if most people are misinformed, they will make poor decisions. But even if people are misinformed, having a deliberative discussion will help as rational logic should triumph. But irrationality is a serious problem, since even discussions would just spread more misinformation. This relates to the thesis of Bryan Caplan’s book The Myth of the Rational Voter (Wikipedia, full text for free).  I look forward to reading Brennan’s new book, iconoclastically titled Against Democracy.

Tangentially related: John Oliver has a segment on the flaws of the primary system. Unfortunately, he sort of glosses over the assumption that they need to be more democratic, but do they? He says this time we “got lucky” in that the candidates with the most votes were the ones actually chosen, but we need to change things in the future. I disagree; the candidates we did choose are awful. If the system is working now, making it work better won’t help anything. Check out my previous post for more on this, and forward it to John Oliver if you get a chance. Better than reforming the primary system, let’s try making more parties more viable with some proportional representation in the House of Representatives!

Why Bernie doesn’t quit: Polisci 101 analysis of Bernie Sanders’ intentions. Basically, he wants to stop Hillary from turning towards the center, since he wants the Democratic party to be very a progressive Social Democrat party. This is also the reason that anyone who’s not a Social Democrat wants Bernie out of the race.

Ilya Shapiro at the Cato Institute, who knows his stuff pretty well, called Donald Trump’s list for replacing Justice Scalia’s SCOTUS seat “exceptional”. This is good news in that a Trump presidency would at least have this going for it. I don’t know if all this would make him a better choice than Clinton, but it is a big deal, at least to me.  Doubtful if this alone would be enough to unite all Republicans around him.

Nick Gillespie has two solid blog posts. One is a great overview of a recent Foreign Relations Committee Hearing and the constrasting views of Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.  Paul, we should note, won his primary to stand for reelection for his Kentucky Senate seat. This should largely guarantee his victory (PredictIt doesn’t have a market yet but PredictWise has it at 90% Republican).  The other post discusses how Obama’s new overtime regulations are going to harm workers by reducing hours, workers, or both.

Meta-blog post. Do you need more economics blogs? Here is a giant list of them. They’re vaguely ordered by popularity, and you shouldn’t just dismiss it because Paul Krugman is first; there’s a lot of good blogs I didn’t know about.

Dylan Matthews at Vox makes the case for getting rid of the TSA. Doesn’t even mention the financial cost savings (their budget is $8 billion, and cost of time is at least that).

Scott Sumner on the problems with government policy responses to crises. Scott also did a much better job predicting the economy than the Fed. Takeaway: please, please institute prediction markets for the basic macroeconomic indicators.

Cool YouTube video on computational complexity and the P vs NP problem.

Short summary of one of the best essays on markets: Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.

What are the components of airline ticket prices? Great YouTube video explanation.

All the Scott Alexander: Apparently good kindergarden teachers have massive effects on income decades later, but no lasting effect on test scores. There really bizarre studies and all I can tell is that education research is hard.

As part of his ongoing philosophy of niceness and tolerance in society, and relating to my post on tolerance, Scott discusses more on tolerance and coordinated vs uncoordinated meanness.

Scott also has a great post on his experience in the Irish health system, related to the UK junior doctors’ strike.  There are serious barriers to entry to the US medical system because the benefits are so high if you become a doctor. In UK, this is not true, since the state regulates how much doctors can make, so of course many doctors are leaving the UK and Ireland for places where the pay is less regulated. Scott says he’s not sure how to solve labor disputes, but if you have a freer market in hiring and payment, you don’t end up having labor disputes. The American system has problems as well, and if the barriers to entry could be reduced

And finally: Scott Alexander’s review of Albion’s Seed, and his analysis of the importance of culture in determining beliefs.

Apparently non-technical people don’t know this, but Craig Wright isn’t Satoshi Nakamoto. He had an “exclusive” interview with several media outlets discussing how he was really the inventor of Bitcoin. But if you read the story pretty quickly, you notice he doesn’t provide a signature with Satoshi’s private key (the reddit and Hacker News threads found he stole a signature from a transaction in one of the early blocks), and he doesn’t move any of Satoshi’s money to a publicly declared account. Those are very easy ways to prove he is Satoshi Nakamoto, and he didn’t do them, instead relying on some weird demonstration directly to a journalist. I would have guessed most people would have figured he was lying (he has a weird history as well), especially because Satoshi Nakamoto has gone to great lengths to protect his identity, and this guy is clearly trying to get attention. But several news outlets printed it as true. Gavin Andresen, the lead developer of Bitcoin, has declared that he has seen proof, but he hasn’t told us what the proof is.  But you shouldn’t need a really famous person to vouch for someone’s identity, that’s the whole point of Bitcoin; decentralized proof is easy and clear.

From Ars Technica: Death by GPS.

Bryan Caplan on global warming cost-benefit analyses.

The Fourth Amendment apparently no longer applies to the federal government. The FBI can access any data gathered from general warrants issued under the FISA court to the NSA, which is only supposed to be targeting foreign nationals, but which we know just grabs all data a company has.

Marginal Revolution discusses the issue of public bathrooms in context on North Carolina’s recent law.

Oracle v Google is Everything that’s Wrong with Copyright

This week, the Oracle v Google trial came to a close, with a jury finding that Google’s use of Oracle’s Java API names was fair use.  This is, of course, not the end, as Oracle has vowed to appeal the decision.

The outcome is monumental, but only because the courts have previously erred significantly and ruled that APIs are copyrightable at all.  The Supreme Court had refused certiori to examine that ruling of an Appellate court, which in turn was a reversal of a District court decision (EFF has all the details).  Interestingly, this most recent case was heard under the original judge, so it’s quite possible the Appellate Court will reverse again.  I think it’s crazy to suggest that API names are even copyrightable, but given that they’ve been ruled as such, I can’t see how use of APIs isn’t fair use.

Google didn’t copy Oracle’s code; they rewrote it themselves, but used the same name for the code functions, and then packaged it into a much better product than anything Oracle had created.  And it’s not like this negatively impacted Java’s market viability (contrary to what Oracle claims); Android likely saved Java from becoming a defunct language used only in big enterprise environments.  Younger aspiring developers want to program in languages for apps and new web technologies like Ruby, Node, Swift, and even Python. But the only new reason to know Java is because Android exists; if Android had picked Python, that’s what everyone would be learning to make Android apps. It’s ridiculous.

But more fundamentally, the use of API names can’t be restricted! That defeats the whole purpose of having them! Sure, Twitter has the right to restrict the calling of functions on their servers through their APIs, but the actual name of the REST calls isn’t theirs forever now. Steve and Leo on Security Now said it very well about APIs:

It’s driving a car. If we didn’t have a single uniform car/driver interface, meaning brake and accelerator, and this is how the steering wheel works, it would be a disaster. And as I thought about this more, I realized that this notion of standards is what this comes down to. And standards are such a part of our life that it’s even – it’s almost hard to appreciate the degree to which we depend upon them. I mean, think about even threads, you know, nuts and bolts with standard threading. If everyone just made up their own, so that screws were not interchangeable, it would just be a catastrophe.

I would go even further; a steering wheel is a patentable invention that other car companies would have to pay to use…but calling it a “steering wheel” isn’t something you can restrict. Doing so would be a blatant misuse of copyright and horrific reduction in free speech. Steven Gibson continued:

And, I mean, so I guess my real complaint is that Oracle has historically benefited from the spread and the use of Java. And so because they allowed that to happen, it’s done as well as it has. And suddenly now Google has capitalized on it, and they’re wanting to take their marbles back and to say – or basically, essentially, this is a $9.3 billion lawsuit. So they’re saying we want some of the revenue which Google is obtaining as a consequence of doing a far better job in commercializing and leveraging Java for profit than we ever could. Because all we’re doing is telling everyone to get Java out of their computers…

…The BIOS is another perfect example. The fact that IBM gave us an interface called the Basic I/O System allowed all kinds of programs to be written without regard for whether it was, for example, a color graphic display or a monochrome graphic display. They were completely different. They occupied different hardware regions. Yet the BIOS hid those differences so that a program didn’t have to worry about what type of hardware you had. And that was an API, a standard. But just in general this kind of standardization, you can sort of imagine sort of a Mad Max post-cataclysm world where you no longer have standards, and everyone’s thing is just made from scratch, and they’re not – nothing’s interoperable. And it would just be a bizarre place.

And I think one of the major things that the Industrial Revolution did was it taught us the power of interoperability. And here Oracle is trying to say, yeah, we’re going to get a toll for you using something that we purchased and never figured out how to use. 

I’ve said it in the past, and I’ll keep saying it: the purpose of all intellectual property law is not to help the owners of intellectual property, but rather to promote creativity and new works.  Ruling that API names are copyrightable does literally nothing to promote interoperability or improve technology; it only makes it harder to improve the world. Getting this fair use ruling is better than nothing, but it should never have come to this.

Photo credit: Android Lineup by Rob Bulmahn, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

Your Candidate Sucks: Democracy Troubles

Now that we basically have our two major candidates, let’s do a retrospective look at some of the political candidates our system was able to produce, reject, or approve over this election cycle.  Let’s start with Republicans.

In early 2015, the prevailing wisdom was that Hillary Clinton was going to be the Democratic nominee.  She looked like a strong candidate but one with a low ceiling; she had great name recognition and experience, but also was (and is) tied to the Obama administration, especially its foreign policy. I’d argue she’s appeared even weaker over the course of the primaries than she did in 2015 as big swaths of Democrats have shown hesitation to embrace her candidacy. Given this situation, Republicans should have been able to come up with candidates that played well against Hillary; what they got is someone who (as of May 2016), isn’t very competitive. If only there had been someone else to pick from!

Wikipedia counts 17 Republican candidates. We won’t spend lots of time on all of them, but it’s worth seeing some of the candidates that were rejected. Continue reading Your Candidate Sucks: Democracy Troubles

Model-Breaking Observations in the Senate

It’s rare when an idea, or piece of evidence, comes along that is so impressive, it forces you to rethink your entire model of the world. The recently released Feinstein-Burr encryption bill has done just that.

It has been described as “technically illiterate”, “chilling”, “ridiculous”, “scary”, and “dangerous“.  Not only are the issues with the bill fairly obvious to anyone with a cursory understanding of encryption, the problems are of such magnitude that it thwarts any attempt to understand the Senators’ actions.  Let’s look at the effects of the hypothetical law.

The biggest issue is that this bill will significantly damage the United States’ national security. We live in a highly insecure world where cyberattacks, both foreign and domestic, are omnipresent. The Feinstein-Burr bill would fundamentally reduce the security of all technology infrastructure in the country. Jonathan Zdziarski in a blog linked above, gives some details:

Due to the backdooring of encryption that this legislation implies, American electronics will be dangerously unsafe compared to foreign versions of the same product. Diplomats, CEOs, scientists, researchers, politicians, and government employees are just a few of the people whose data will be targeted by foreign governments and hackers both while traveling, but also whenever they’re connected to a network.

That’s awful, and even if you have the most America-first, protect-American-lives mentality, weakening American encryption is the worst thing you could do; it literally endangers American lives.

I think there’s also a strong case to be made that this will do very little to combat terrorism. Unbreakable, strong encryption is widely available on the internet for free, forever; if bad people want to use it, they will.  Moreover, terrorism, as awful as it is, is relatively rare; Americans are about a 1000x more likely to die non-terrorism related homicide. And many more “common” homicides occur due to heat-of-the-moment arguments, which means there would be no encrypted messages detailing conspiracies. All this bill does is remove the ability of average, non-technically inclined Americans to secure their data.

And the people whose data will be most at risk will be those consumers who are less educated or less technically adept. Better informed consumers might have the ability to install foreign encryption software on their phone to keep their data safe, but most uninformed consumers just use default settings.  Thus, criminals who try and commit identity theft will greatly benefit from this legislation; they wouldn’t usually bother targeting knowledgeable users anyway, and with security stripped away from phones, it will be much easier to steal data from susceptible users. The people most in need of help to protect their data will be disproportionately harmed by this legislation.

On the other hand, most companies are not uniformed users. They have IT departments who understand the value of encrypting their data, and they will continue to purchase strong security software, even if it is no longer sold in the United States.  Foreign produced software works just as well.  Banning strong encryption will debilitate the American technology sector, one of the biggest and most important parts of the economy.   This will cost Americans jobs and diminish America’s influence on the future of the world, as technological innovation moves overseas.  But this isn’t just bad for Americans; it’s not easy to simply move an entire company or product overseas. There are huge capital investments these companies have made that will not be available in other countries immediately, if ever, and this will set back the global technology industry billions if not trillions of dollars.

So this really begs the question of why Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr introduced this bill; given their stated obsession with national security, and given the horrific effect this bill would have on American national security, there’s no good way to resolve their stated beliefs with their actions. Here are a couple theories to explain their behavior, and some discussion as to why each respective theory is unsatisfying.

The Senators are actually foreign spies purposefully trying to weaken American national security.  Obviously, if this theory is true, it’s self-evidently very bad that our elected officials not only don’t represent us, but actually represent foreign governments likely trying to harm Americans. Sure it’s quite unlikely since it’s very difficult to become a U.S. Senator at all, and no spy agency would send agents in with a plan to become a U.S. Senator.  Whether they were turned into foreign agents after being elected, I really can only speculate. But it strikes me as improbable. Nonetheless, it is true that this legislation is exactly what foreign security agencies would want to introduce to make the United States more vulnerable.  I was curious, so I checked the constitutional definition of treason as well as the Espionage Act, but it seems that you need to literally give secrets to other people, not just make it easier for them to obtain. But there is that one case where a high ranking official is in trouble for storing documents insecurely…

They’re power hungry politicians. The idea of the Senators being foreign spies is bit far-fetched.  But what know for sure is that they are politicians, which means they chose a career path that would give them more power to change things. Maybe Burr and Feinstein are sick of technology companies telling the FBI that they can’t assist their investigations, and they wanted to put them in their place.  If this theory is true, it’s pretty self-evidently evil; people in power using their power indiscriminately to harm citizens is the exact problem Thomas Jefferson identified in the Declaration of Independence.  Of course, it’s not usually a big problem, because James Madison helped construct a whole host of ways to check the power of government. Of course, the most important check for our situation is that senators are voted in by the people. So as long as people know about this dumb bill, they’ll kick these guys out…right?

Hanlon’s Razor (origin disputed) states that one should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”  This theory would mean that two sitting, highly experienced U.S. Senators are too stupid to realize the ill effects this will have on national  and economic security.  Obviously, congress has to make laws in areas that its members are not always familiar with…but Burr and Feinstein are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Intelligence Committee. If anyone knows about intelligence, they do. And Feinstein is even on the Judiciary Subcomittee on Technology, Privacy, and the Law! If even these people are too stupid to understand what the effects of their own policies are, we might as well stop sending representatives to a legislature at all and just have run-of-the-mill uneducated voters pass everything directly through referendum. Sure, they’d have no idea what they’re doing, but apparently neither do Senators!

What I think is most likely, and most terrifying, is that American Democracy incentivizes members of Congress to make bad policy if it’s politically beneficial. With all the aides and staff Senators have, plus the amount of pressure they receive from outside groups, it seems unlikely they never heard about the bad effects of the bill. Yet, they did it anyway. Given they don’t work for law enforcement, there is no Frank Underwood endgame for passing this bill; banning encryption doesn’t directly allow Burr and Feinstein to look at their political enemies’ phones (…probably), just criminals and the police.  So then maybe their incentive was to appear tough on crime and terrorism, consequences be damned. Richard Burr is in a reelection year in North Carolina, so let’s look at the effect this horrible bill has had on his chances to win according to Predictit.org:

Primary was in mid-March, bill introduced in early April
Primary was in mid-March, bill introduced in early April

As you can see, the bill had very little effect on his perceived chances. Now, it could be that voters have already factored in Senator Burr’s position on destroying defending American national security, and he needed to introduce this legislation to maintain his position. But it looks identical to a situation where North Carolina voters couldn’t care less about Senator Burr’s position on encryption, and his introduction of legislation consequently had no effect on his reelection chances. If it’s the former, then we are in serious trouble because our legislative representatives are incentivized to make horrible policies because voters aren’t well informed.  If it’s the latter, then we have to dismiss this explanation and go back to one of the other three.

Whatever the explanation is, it reflects poorly on how the government constructs policy, and it reflects poorly on American Democracy. Moreover, assuming any of those discussed theories are true, they imply massive issues that will be difficult or impossible to solve.  Reforming democracy as many progressives would like, through campaign finance, wouldn’t even address any of these issues; it is the technology corporations and privacy NGOs which have been advocating for more privacy and making unbreakable encryption more accessible, while law enforcement and other government agencies have been advocating for less security.  But as far as I can tell, even they haven’t demanded anything like this bill.  Thus,  more campaign spending by private groups would help, not hinder good policy.

No matter how you look at it, this bill indicates a big failure for democratic government and illustrates the dangers discretionary state power.

Photo credit: Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France, photo by Alex E. Proimos, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.