The failure of supply-side social policy

The US is in the midst of two social crises. The first is an opioid epidemic that is decimating parts of rural and now urban America and the second is a surge in the number of migrants crossing the southern US border primarily from Central America. In any system that involves flow, either physical (e.g. electricity) or social (e.g. money), the amount of flow (i.e. flux) is dependent on the amount of supply (e.g. power station/federal reserve) and the amount of demand (e.g. air conditioner/disposable income). So if you want to reduce opioid consumption or illegal immigration you can either shut down the supply or reduce the demand.

During the twentieth century there was a debate over the causes of booms and busts in the economy. I am greatly simplifying the debate but on one side were the demand-side Keynesians who believed that the business cycle is mostly a result of fluctuating demand. If people suddenly decide to stop spending then businesses would lose customers, which would lead them to lay off workers, who would then have less money to spend in other businesses and thus reduce demand further and so forth, leading to a recession. On the other side there were the supply-siders who believed that the problem of economic downturns was inadequate supply, which would be solved by cutting taxes and reducing business regulations. The Great Recession of 2008 provided a partial test of both theories as the US applied a demand-side fix in the form of a stimulus while Europe went for “expansionary austerity” and cut government spending, which slashes demand. The US has now experienced over a decade of steady growth while Europe went into a double dip recession before climbing out after the policy changed. That is not to say that demand-side policies always work. The 1970’s were plagued by stagflation with high unemployment and high inflation for which the Keynesians had no fix. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker famously raised interest rates in 1979 to reduce the money supply. It triggered a short recession, which was followed by nearly three decades of low inflation economic growth.

In terms of social policy, the US has really only tried supply-side solutions. The drug war put a lot of petty dealers and drug users in jail but did little to halt the use of drugs. It seems to me that if we really want to solve or at least alleviate the opioid and drug crisis, we need to slash demand. Opioids are pain killers and are physically addictive. Addicted users who try to stop will experience withdrawal, which is extremely painful. If you do succeed you will no longer be physically addicted. However, you can always relapse if you use again. The current US opioid epidemic started with a change in the philosophy of pain management by the medical establishment with a concurrent development of new supposedly less addictive opioid pills. So doctors, encouraged by the pharmaceutical industry, began prescribing opioids for all manners of ailments. Most doctors were well intentioned but a handful participated in outright criminal activity and became de facto drug dealers. In any case, this led to the initial phase of the opioid epidemic. When awareness of over prescription started to enter public consciousness there was pressure to reduce the supply. Addicts then turned to illicit opioids like heroin, which started phase 2 of the epidemic. However, as this supply was targeted by drug enforcement, a new highly potent and cheaper synthetic opioid, fentanyl, emerged. This was something that was easy to produce in makeshift labs anywhere and also provided a safer business model for drug dealers. However, fentanyl is so potent that this is has led to a surge in overdose deaths. Instead of targeting supply we need to reduce demand. First we need to understand why people take them in the first place. While some drugs are taken for the experience or entertainment, opioids are mostly being used to alleviate pain and suffering. It is probably no coincidence that the places most ravaged by opioids are also those that are struggling most economically. If we want to get a handle on the opioid crisis we need to improve these areas economically. People probably also take drugs for some form of escape. This is where I think video games and virtual reality may be helpful. We can debate the merits of playing Fortnite 16 hours a day but it is surely better than taking cocaine. I think we should take using video games as a treatment for drug addiction seriously. We could and should also develop games for this purpose.

Extra border security has not stemmed illegal immigration. What does slow immigration is a downturn in the US economy, which quenches demand for low-skilled labour, or an improvement in the conditions of the originating countries, which reduces the desire to leave in the first place. The current US migrant crisis is mostly due to the abhorrent and dangerous conditions in Guatemala and Honduras. For Europe, it is problems in Africa and the Middle East. In both cases, putting up more barriers or treating the migrants inhospitably is not really doing much. It just makes the journey more perilous, which is bad for the migrant and a moral and public relations nightmare for host countries. Perhaps, we could try to stem demand by at least making it safer in the originating countries. The US could provide more aid to Latin America including stationing American troops if necessary to curb gang activity and restore civil order. This would at least help diminish those seeking asylum. Reducing economic migration is much harder since we really don’t know how to do economic development very well but more investment in source countries could help. While globalization and free trade may have hurt the US worker and contributed to the opioid epidemic by decimating manufacturing in the US, it has also brought a lot of people out of abject poverty. The growth miracles in China and the rest of Asia would not be possible without international trade and investment. Thus the two crises are not independent. More free trade could help to reduce illegal immigration but it could also lead to worsening economic conditions for some regions spurring more opioid use. There are no magic bullets but we at least need to change the strategy.

Optimizing luck

Each week on the NPR podcast How I Built This, host Guy Raz interviews a founder of a successful enterprise like James Dyson or Ben and Jerry. At the end of most segments, he’ll ask the founder how much of their success do they attribute to luck and how much to talent. In most cases, the founder will modestly say that luck played a major role but some will add that they did take advantage of the luck when it came. One common thread for these successful people is that they are extremely resilient and aren’t afraid to try something new when things don’t work at first.

There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand there is certainly some selection bias. For each one of these success stories there are probably hundreds of others who were equally persistent and worked equally hard but did not achieve the same success. It is like the infamous con where you send 1024 people a two outcome prediction about a stock.  The prediction will be correct in 512 of them so the next week you send those people another prediction and so on. After 10 weeks, one person will have received the correct prediction 10 times in a row and will think you are infallible. You then charge them a King’s ransom for the next one.

Yet, it may be possible to optimize luck and you can see this with Jensen’s inequality. Suppose x represents some combination of your strategy and effort level and \phi(x) is your outcome function.  Jensen’s inequality states that the average or expectation value of a convex function (e.g. a function that bends upwards) is greater than (or equal to) the function of the expectation value. Thus, E(\phi(x)) \ge \phi(E(x)). In other words, if your outcome function is convex then your average outcome will be larger just by acting in a random fashion. During “convex” times, the people who just keep trying different things will invariably be more successful than those who do nothing. They were lucky (or they recognized) that their outcome was convex but their persistence and willingness to try anything was instrumental in their success. The flip side is that if they were in a nonconvex era, their random actions would have led to a much worse outcome. So, do you feel lucky?

AI and authoritarianism

Much of the discourse on the future of AI , such as this one, has focused on people being displaced by machines. While this is certainly a worthy concern, these analyses sometimes fall into the trap of linear thinking because the displaced workers are also customers. The revenues of companies like Google and Facebook depend almost entirely on selling advertisements to a consumer base that has disposable income to spend. What happens when this base dwindles to a tiny fraction of the world’s population? The progression forward will also most likely not be monotonic because as people initially start to be replaced by machines, those left with jobs may actually get increased compensation and thus drive more consumerism. The only thing that is certain is that the end point of a world where no one has work is one where capitalism as we know it will no longer exist.

Historian and author Yuval Harari argues that in the pre-industrial world, to have power is to have land (I would add slaves and I strongly recommend visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture for a sobering look at how America became so powerful). In the industrial world, the power shifted to those who own the machines (although land won’t hurt) while in the post-industrial world, power falls to those with the data. Harari was extrapolating our current world where large corporations can track us continually and use machine learning to monopolize our attention and get us to do what they desire. However, data on people is only useful as long as they have resources you want. If people truly become irrelevant then their data is also irrelevant.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen in the future. I proposed an optimistic scenario here but here is a darker one. Henry Ford supposedly wanted to pay his employees a decent wage because he realized that they were also the customers for his product. In the early twentieth century, the factory workers formed the core of the burgeoning middle class that would drive demand for consumer products made in the very factories where they toiled. It was in the interest of industrialists that the general populace be well educated and healthy because they were the source of their wealth. This link began to fray at the end of the twentieth century with the rise of the service economy, globalisation, and automation. After the second World War, post-secondary education became available to a much larger fraction of the population. These college educated people did not go to work on the factory floor but fed the expanding ranks of middle management and professionals. They became managers and accountants and dentists and lawyers and writers and consultants and doctors and educators and scientists and engineers and administrators. They started new businesses and new industries and helped drive the economy to greater prosperity. They formed an upper middle class that slowly separated from the working class and the rest of the middle class. They also started to become a self-sustaining entity that did not rely so much on the rest of the population. Globalisation and automation made labor plentiful and cheap so there was less of an incentive to have a healthy educated populace. The wealth of the elite no longer depended on the working class and thus their desire to invest in them declined. I agree with the thesis that the abandonment of the working class in Western liberal democracies is the main driver of the recent rise of authoritarianism and isolationism around the world.

However, authoritarian populist regimes, such as those in Venezuela and Hungary, stay in power because the disgruntled class that supports them is a larger fraction of the population than the opposing educated upper middle class that are the winners in a contemporary liberal democracy. In the US, the disgruntled class is still a minority so thus far it seems like authoritarianism will be held at bay by the majority coalition of immigrants, minorities, and costal liberals. However, this coalition could be short lived. Up to now, AI and machine learning has not been taking jobs away from the managerial and professional classes. But as I wrote about before, the people most at risk for losing jobs to machines may not be those doing jobs that are simple for humans to master but those that are difficult. It may take awhile before professionals start to be replaced but once it starts it could go swiftly. Once a machine learning algorithm is trained, it can be deployed everywhere instantly. As the ranks of the upper middle class dwindle, support for a liberal democracy could weaken and a new authoritarian regime could rise.

Ironically, a transition to a consumer authoritarianism would be smoothed and possibly quickened by a stronger welfare state. A possible jobless economy would be one where the state provides a universal basic income that is funded by taxation on existing corporations, which would then compete for those very same dollars. Basically, the future incarnations of Apple, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, and Google would give money to an idle population and then try to win it back. Although, this is not a world I would choose to live in, it would be preferable to a socialistic model where the state would decide on what goods and services to provide. It would actually be in the interest of the corporations and their elite owners to lobby for high taxes and to not form monopolies and allow for competition to provide better goods and services. The tax rate would not matter much because in a steady state loop, any wealth inequality is stable regardless of the flux. It is definitely in their interest to keep the idle population happy.

The wealth threshold

The explanation for growing wealth inequality proposed by Thomas Piketty in his iconic book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is that the rate of growth from capital exceeds that of the entire economy in general. Thus, the wealth of owners of capital (i.e. investors) will increase faster than everyone else. However, even if the rate of growth were equal, any difference in initial conditions or savings rate, would also amplify exponentially. This can be seen in this simple model. Suppose w is the total amount of money you have, I is your annual income, E is your annual expense rate, and r is the annual rate of growth of investments or interest rate. The rate of change in your wealth is given by the simple formula

\frac{dw}{dt} = I(t) - E(t)+ r w,

where we have assumed that the interest rate is constant but it can be easily modified to be time dependent. This is a first order linear differential equation, which  can be solved to yield

w = w_0 e^{r t} + \int_{0}^t (I-E) e^{r(t-s)} ds,

where w_0 is your initial wealth at time 0. If we further assume that income and expenses are constant then we have w = w_0 e^{r t} +  (I-E)( e^{rt} -1)/r. Over time, any difference in initial wealth will diverge exponentially and there is a sharp threshold for wealth accumulation. Thus the difference between building versus not building wealth could amount to a few hundred dollars in positive cash flow per month. This threshold is a nonlinear effect that shows how small changes in income or expenses that would be unnoticeable to a wealthy person could make an immense difference for someone near the bottom. Just saving a thousand dollars per year, less than a hundred per month, would give one almost a hundred and fifty thousand dollars after forty years.

Equifax vs Cassini

The tired trope from free market exponents is that private enterprise is agile, efficient, and competent, while government is prodding, incompetent, and wasteful. The argument is that because companies must survive in a competitive environment they are always striving to improve and gain an edge against their competitors. Yet history and recent events seem to indicate otherwise. The best strategy in capitalism seems to be to gain monopoly power and extract rent. While Equifax was busy covering up their malfeasance instead of trying to fix things for everyone they harmed, Cassini ended a brilliantly successful mission to explore Saturn. The contrast couldn’t have been greater if it was staged. The so-called incompetent government has given us moon landings, the internet, and built two Voyager spacecraft that have lasted 40 years and have now exited the Solar system into interstellar space. There is no better run organization than JPL. Each day at NIH, a government facility, I get to interact with effective and competent people who are trying to do good in the world. I think it’s time to update the government is the problem meme.

The robot human equilibrium

There has been some push back in the media against the notion that we will “soon” be replaced by robots, e.g. see here. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because there seem to be very few machine induced job losses today doesn’t mean it won’t happen tomorrow or in ten years. In fact, when it does happen it probably will happen suddenly as have many recent technological changes. The obvious examples are the internet and smartphones but there are many others. We forget that the transition from vinyl records to CDs was extremely fast; then iPods and YouTube killed CDs. Video rentals became ubiquitous from nothing in just a few years and died just as fast when Netflix came along, which was then completely replaced a few years later by streaming video. It took Amazon a little longer to become dominant but the retail model that had existed for centuries has been completely upended in a decade. The same could happen with AI and robots. Unless you believe that human thought is not computable, then in principle there is nothing a human can do that a machine can’t. It could take time to set up the necessary social institutions and infrastructure for an AI takeover but once it is established the transition could be abrupt.

Even so that doesn’t mean all or even most humans will be replaced. The irony of AI, known as Moravec’s Paradox (e.g. here), is that things that are hard for humans to do, like play chess or read X-rays, are easy for machines to do and vice versa. Although drivers and warehouse workers are destined to be the first to be replaced, the next set of jobs will likely be highly paid professionals like stock brokers, accountants, doctors, and lawyers. But as the ranks of the employed start to shrink, the economy will also shrink and wages will go down (even if the displaced do eventually move on to other jobs it will take time). At some point, particularly for jobs that are easy for humans but harder for machines, humans could be cheaper than machines.  So while we can train a machine to be a house cleaner, it may be more cost effective to simply hire a person to change sheets and dust shelves. The premium on a university education will drop. The ability to sit still for long periods of time and acquire arcane specialized knowledge will simply not be that useful anymore. Centers for higher learning will become retreats for the small set of scholarly minded people who simply enjoy it.

As the economy shrinks, land prices in some areas should drop too and thus people could still eke out a living. Some or perhaps many people will opt or be pushed out of the mainstream economy altogether and retire to quasi-pre-industrial lives. I wrote about this in quasi-utopian terms in my AlphaGo post but a dystopian version is equally probable. In the dystopia, the gap between the rich and poor could make today look like an egalitarian paradise. However, unlike the usual dystopian nightmare like the Hunger Games where the rich exploit the poor, the rich will simply ignore the poor. But it is not clear what the elite will do with all that wealth. Will they wall themselves off from the rest of society and then what, engage in endless genetic enhancements or immerse themselves in a virtual reality world? I think I’d rather raise pigs and make candles out of lard.

 

 

 

 

Trade and income inequality

The conventional wisdom in economics is that trade is mutually beneficial to all parties and the freer the trade the better. However, as David Autor and collaborators have empirically shown, the benefits of trade can be unevenly distributed. A simple way to think about this is to consider a simple model of a nation’s income (I) as a function of socio-economic status (S), I = \alpha +\beta S. Here, S can be distributed in anyway but has zero mean. The mean income of the nation is \alpha while \beta is a measure of inequality (i.e. proportional to standard deviation). Generally, it was presumed that trade increases \alpha. However, as Autor finds, trade can also increase \beta and then it becomes a quantitative game as to whether you personally will do better or worse with trade. Your change in income will be \Delta I = \Delta \alpha +\Delta\beta S. Thus, if you are above the mean S then trade is always beneficial and increasing \beta helps you even more.  However, where the mean is with respect to the median is strongly dependent on the tails of the distribution of S. So if people with high S are very far away from the median, then the mean could also be high with respect to the median. If you are below the mean then gains from \Delta \alpha are offset by decreases in \Delta \beta S and if you’re S is more negative than -\Delta \alpha/\Delta\beta then you will do worse in absolute terms. This could explain what has been happening in the US. The nation benefits from trade by having cheaper goods but some sectors like manufacturing and textiles are greatly hurt and the cheaper goods cannot make up for the decrease in income. Those above the mean are benefitting from a mean shift in income due to trade as well as any increases in inequality. Those below the mean are getting smaller gains and in some cases doing worse as a result of trade. Thus, it may not be surprising that there are divergent views on the benefits of trade.