Links 2017-1-12

As we approach the time when free trade is the heretical advice rather than the obvious logical one, it’s time to brush up on our free trade arguments. Here’s an interesting one: would you ban new technology to save the jobs tied to the technology it replaces? Would you ban light bulbs to save candlemakers? Cars to save horsebreeders? It’s a ridiculous proposition to freeze the economy at a certain point in time. Well, there’s no economic difference between new technology and free trade. In fact, we can treat international trade as a fancy machine where we send corn away on a boat and the machine turns the corn into cars.  

And speaking of free trade, this is the economic modeling for why a tariff is unequivocally inefficient. One of the impacts of a tariff, by the way, is an increase in the market price of a good. Anyone saying that a tariff won’t have negative effects on consumers is just plain wrong.

The excellent open source encrypted messaging app Signal is so useful, it has to avoid having its application servers blacklisted by oppressive regimes. It uses a workaround of having encrypted connections through content delivery network, in this case, Google itself. Moxie Marlinspike, the creater of Signal says “Eventually disabling Signal starts to resemble disabling the internet.”

One of the biggest problems with Trump I pointed out last year was the total unknown of his policies. He keeps changing his mind on almost every issue, and when he does speak, he wanders aimlessly, using simplified language that is more blunt and less precise. Fitting right into this pattern, Trump has taken to Twitter for much of his communication, even since winning the election. Twitter is a short and imprecise tool for communication, and this New York Times article shows just how much uncertainty Trump creates with his tweets.

Related: Bill Perry is terrified of increased nuclear proliferation. The article is a little alarmist, but it’s worth remembering that nuclear war was a real threat just 30 years ago. It should not be taken for granted that nuclear war will never occur, and Trump seems the most likely of the post-Soviet presidents to get involved in a confrontation with a major nuclear power.

Scott Alexander reveals his ideal cabinet (and top advisers) if he were president. It’s not only remarkably better than Trump’s, it’s probably better than any cabinet and appointees we’ve ever had (Bernie Sanders notwithstanding). Highlights include: Alex Tabarrok as head of the FDA, Scott Sumner as Chairman of the Fed, Charles Murray as welfar czar, Peter Thiel as Commerce Secretary, and Elon Musk as both Secretary of Transportation and Energy.

Speaking of cabinets, George Will details just how out of touch soon-to-be-Attorney General Jeff Sessions is, recounting his 2015 defense of unlimited civil asset forfeiture, a procedure by which the government takes cash and property from civilians who have been convicted of no crime and therefore have no recourse or due process protections. Don’t buy into the story that all of Trump’s appointees are horrific and terrifying; there is a gradient of his cabinet appointments depending on their authoritarian tendencies and the importance of their department, and unfortunately Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is by far the most concerning.

Missed this earlier last year, and worth keeping in mind as BuzzFeed gets hammered this week over their publishing of an unverified dossier: apparently the FBI already has daily aerial surveillance flights over American cities. These seem to be for general investigative use, not vital national security issues: “But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays.” 

Speaking of BuzzFeed and the crisis of “fake news”, which itself may not even be anything compared the crisis of facts and truth itself, Nathan Robinson has an excellent take on the matter (very long read). With the lack of facts in the election, the media and Trump’s critics generally have to be twice as careful to rebuild trust in the very concept that objective truth exists and can be discussed in a political context.

Government regulations have hidden, unexpected costs. These regulations hurt people regardless of their political affiliations, as a Berkeley professor found out when trying to evict a tenant that refused to pay rent. California’s rather insane tenant laws mean that serial rent-cheaters can go from place to place staying rent free for months at a time.

I’ve often thought about the right ordering of presidents from best to worst, taking into account a libertarian, liberty-promoting approach. One difficulty is the non-comparability of presidents separated by centuries. However, this blog post from 2009 actually does a nice job of scoring the presidencies. I don’t agree with each one, but it’s a rough categorization that makes sense. It even gave me an additional appreciation for Ulysses Grant, who I figured was mostly president by the luck of being the general in charge when his army won the Civil War. Other highlights include William Henry Harrison scoring 11th, thus beating over three quarters of the competition despite only being in office for a month. I feel like I could have found more worse things on Andrew Jackson, and in general I feel like I agreed with the list more the closer I got the end.

Jeffrey Tucker at FEE has a nice article about the difference between spreading ideas and actual economic production of goods. His thesis is that we have much less control over the developing of ideas than we do of developing normal rivalrous goods. And since libertarians are pretty solid at grasping the idea that the production of goods cannot be controlled from the top down, we should also acknowledge that top-down approaches to developing ideas are even more preposterous, especially in the digital age of decentralized information. I’ve thought about this a fair amount considering I like I blogging but I’m well aware few people read this blog. The simplest way to restate Tucker’s point is that you have to have good ideas more than good distribution. I don’t know if that’s an accurate take, but certainly good ideas are the single most important part of spreading your ideas.

There’s a saying on the internet that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch”. The 2016 election is excellent demonstration of just how poorly democracy can fail, but what our all alternatives. How about Futarchy? This is Robin Hanson’s idea to improve public policy: “In futarchy, democracy would continue to say what we want, but betting markets would now say how to get it. That is, elected representatives would formally define and manage an after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare.” Let’s hold a referendum on it; those seem to work out.

Bitcoin has been on the rise in recent months. So have other cryptocurrencies. But rather than focus just the price of the cryptocurrency, why not look at the total market valuation of those currencies? Sure, you might have heard that Bitcoin was up to $1000 again recently, but did you know that its total market cap is ~$13 billion? At the very peak of the Bitcoin bubble in 2013, all Bitcoins together were valued around $13 billion, but only for a matter of days. This time Bitcoin has kept that valuation for over 3 weeks. With more markets and availability, Bitcoin is becoming a real alternative for people whose national currencies have failed them. 

Postlibertarian throwback: When Capitalism and the Internet Make Food Better. A reminder that the despite the ongoing horrors of government we are witnessing, the market is still busy providing better products and cheaper prices.

Leave a comment on the official reddit discussion thread.

Trump, Democracy, and Power

I’m working on a post about the political implications of Trump’s victory, but for now, let’s look at what Trump’s win tells us about democracy and government legitimacy.

I’ve seen some people on the left trying to reach out and understand the concerns of Trump voters. This is absolutely welcome, and in a future post I will talk about which of those concerns make sense, and which don’t. However, if you’re only considering other points of view because you lost an election, you may be thinking about politics and government all wrong. The goal of government policy shouldn’t be to cater to the whims and desires of the people who voted and supported the winning coalition, while crushing the unbelievers under a savage reign of public shaming and thought crime. Unfortunately, it feels like much of the social justice left adopted this mentality, and so we now might be forced under a right-wing government that has countered by taking this same governing strategy to heart. Policy should be about creating the best outcomes we can, which I think largely results from allowing individuals to make as many of their own decisions as possible with minimal government interference. That means allowing for a broad range of activities and types of commerce to occur, but it also means opposing expansion of government power.

Of course, the best way to do that right now is to point out that political victory doesn’t mean Trump supporters have any good ideas about improving the country, or even their own situations. The expansion of government action and government power Trump has promised are still terrible regardless of any democratic outcome.

I’m aware this is harsh, and it’s part of what Trump voters are complaining about when they say coastal elites are ignoring them, but I’m not (and have never) dismissed their concerns as racism and xenophobia; I tried to look at Trump’s policies themselves. The problem is that Trump never met me or anyone else on policy grounds. He has few ideas, and the ones he does have are pretty crappy. Against Trump acknowledged the left had done plenty of bad things, but Trump promised things at least as bad.

Moreover, the left (and maybe even the right) shouldn’t be saying “I live in a democracy, so apparently Trump’s ideas are legitimate because he won an election”. They should be saying “Maybe democracy is dangerous if it legitimizes tyranny, and maybe we should limit the power of the state to reduce the risks democracy poses”. In fact, they probably should have been saying this for the last eight years.

Being skeptical of democracy isn’t so bad. Democracies don’t always come to good solutions to problems. Supposing a majority of voters have elected one candidate over another, it’s several steps of logic to then say that a single rejection of one candidate in an election of dozens of issues then constitutes that the winning candidate’s stance on a particular issues is (A) popular and (B) effective. Add in that Trump did not actually win the popular vote, and, the fact that Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there is no knowable community preference on any issue which had 3 or more possible stances to choose from.  And even if voters could all agree on a single popular issues, there’s no reason their favorite policy would actually work.

What I’m trying to say is that despite whatever concerns Trump voters have, what matters are the actions he takes. The problem is that the last two administrations have massively expanded the executive power of the president and increased regulatory involvement in many areas of the economy. The Department of Defense has compiled a massive database and is spying on American citizens and foreign nationals without warrants. That data is shared with federal law enforcement agencies again without oversight. The president has the power to strip you of your rights and hold you indefinitely if you are investigated in connection to terrorism. He even apparently has the ability to kill you without a trial. Trump has promised further abuses of power, including deportations of millions of people that cannot be done without racial profiling and gross abuses of due process. 

Maybe Trump won’t seize executive authority or scoff at the Constitution at all, and 90% of his campaign promises will turn out to be hyperbole. But I doubt it. Maybe he’ll try to accomplish things and be thwarted by checks from the other branches of government and the Constitution like Madison imagined. I maintain that what matters is policy, and if his policies are not that bad, I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong. But the fact that many are worried anyway indicates that we all understand to some extent or another that we have created an imperial presidency. It’s concerning that over 60 million people voted for a stated authoritarian who has advocated war crimes including killing of terrorists’ families; it’s also concerning that almost 61 million voted for someone who advocated a war in Libya without Congressional approval, who supported and continues to support warrantless spying on Americans, and condoned drone attacks that actually killed families of terrorists. The fact that 60 million votes is enough to make us fear for our rights means our troubles started a long time ago.

Yes, Trump’s presidency will likely be worse than anything we’ve ever seen, but as a state skeptic, it’s helpful when a politician just comes out and says how horrible they are rather than everyone pretending that the Obama and Bush imperial presidencies were normal and acceptable uses of executive authority. It makes the case against state power much more straightforward. Progressives need to realize is that Trump is worse only as a matter of degree; this blog post would have been written had Hillary won on Tuesday, it just wouldn’t have had a president-elect that cared so little about his reputation.


Comment on the official reddit thread.

Picture Credit: Replica Oval Office by George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

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.

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