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.

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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.

The demise of Barnes and Noble

Near the end of the twentieth century, there was a battle between small bookstores and the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders, typified in the film You’ve Got Mail.  The chains won because they had lower prices, larger stocks, and served as mini-community centers where people liked to hang out. It was sad to see the independent bookstores die but the replacement was actually a nice addition to the neighborhood. The Barnes and Noble business model was to create attractive places to spend time, with play areas for children, a cafe with ample seating, and racks and racks of magazines. The idea was that the more time you spent there the more money you would spend and it worked for at least ten years. Yet, at the height of their dominance, the seeds of their destruction could be plainly seen. Amazon was growing even faster and a new shopping model was invented. People would spend time and browse in B and N and then go home to order the books on Amazon. The advent of the smartphone only quickened the demise because people could order directly from the store. The large and welcoming B and N store was a free sample service for Amazon. Borders is already gone and Barnes and Noble is on its last legs. The one I frequent will be closing this summer.

The loss of B and N will be a blow to many communities. It’s a particular favorite locale for retirees to congregate. I think this is a perfect example of a market failure. There is a clear demand for the product but no viable way to monetize it. However, there already is a model for providing the same service as B and N that has worked for a century and that is called a library. Libraries are still extremely popular and provide essential services to people, and particularly low income people. The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore has a line every morning before it opens for people scrambling to use the computers and access the internet. While libraries have been rapidly modernizing, with a relaxation of behavior rules and adding cafes, they still have short hours and do not provide the comforting atmosphere of B and N.

I see multiple paths forward. The first is that B and N goes under and maybe someone invents a new private model to replace it. Amazon may create book stores in its place that act more like showrooms for their products rather than profit making entities. The second is that a philanthropist will buy it and endow it as a nonprofit entity for the community much like Carnegie and other robber barons of the nineteenth century did with libraries. The third is that communities will start to take over the spaces and create a new type of library that is subsidized by tax payers and has the same hours and ambience of B and N.

Productivity, marginal cost, and monopoly

240px-supply-and-demand-svg

In any introductory economics class, one is introduced to the concept of supply and demand. The price of a product is expressed as a function of the number of products that suppliers would produce and buyers would purchase at that price, respectively. Supply curves have positive slope, meaning that the higher the price the more suppliers will produce and vice versa for demand curves. If a market is perfectly competitive, then the supply curve is determined by the marginal cost of production, which is the incremental cost of production for making one additional unit. Firms will keep producing more goods until the price falls below the marginal cost.

Increases in productivity lead to decreases in marginal cost, and since the advent of the industrial revolution, technology has been increasing productivity. In some cases, like software or recorded music, the marginal cost is already zero. The cost for Microsoft to make one more copy of Office is miniscule. However, if the marginal cost is zero then according to classical microeconomic theory firms would produce goods and give it away for free. Public intellectual Jeremy Rifkin has been writing about a zero marginal cost society for several years now, (e.g. see here and here), and has proposed that ubiquitous zero marginal cost will lead to a communitarian revolution where capitalism is overturned and people will collaborate and share goods along the lines of the open software model, which has produced the likes of Wikipedia, Linux, Python, and Julia.

I’m not so sanguine. There are two rational strategies for firms to pursue to increase profit. The first is to lower costs and the second is to create monopolies. In completely unregulated markets, like drug trafficking, it seems like suppliers spend much of their time and efforts pursuing monopolies by literally killing their competition. In the absence of the violence option, firms can gain monopolies by buying or merging with competitors and through regulatory capture to create barriers to entry. There are also industries where size and success create virtual monopolies. This is what happens for tech companies where a single behemoth like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, or Amazon, completely dominates a domain. Being large has a huge advantage in finance and banking. Entertainment seems to breed random monopoly status where a single artist will garner most of the attention even though objectively there may not be much difference between the top and the 100th best selling artist. As costs continue to decrease, there will be even more incentive to create monopolies. Instead of a sharing collaborative egalitarian world, a more likely scenario is a world with a small number of entrenched monopolists controlling most of the wealth.

 

Insider trading

I think one of the main things that has fueled a backlash against the global elites is the (correct) perception that they play by different rules. When they make financial mistakes, they get bailed out with taxpayer dollars with no consequences. Gains are privatized and losses are socialized. Another example is insider trading where people profit from securities transactions using nonpublic information. While there have been several high profile cases in recent years (e.g. here is a Baltimore example), my guess is that insider trading is rampant since it is so easy to do and so hard to detect. The conventional wisdom for combating insider trading is stronger enforcement and penalties. However, my take is that this will just lead to a situation where small time insider traders get squeezed out while the sophisticated ones who have more resources will continue. This is an example where a regulation creates a monopoly or economic rent opportunity.

Aside from the collapse of morality that may come with extreme wealth and power (e.g. listen here), I also think that insider traders rationalize their activities because they don’t think that it hurts anyone even though there is an obvious victim. For example, if someone gets inside information that a highly touted drug has failed to win approval from the FDA then they can short the stock (or buy put options), which is an agreement or opportunity to sell the stock at the current price in the future. When the stock decreases in value after the announcement, they just buy the stock at the lower price, resell at the higher price, and reap the profits. The victim is the counter party to the trade who could be a rich trader but could also be someone’s pension fund or employees of the company.

Now the losing party or a regulatory agency could suspect a case of insider trading but to prove it would require someone confessing or finding an email or phone recording of the information passed. They could also try to set up a sting operation to try to catch serial violators. All of these things are difficult and costly. The alternative may seem ridiculous but I think the best solution may be to make insider trading legal. If it were legal then several things would happen. More people would do it which would drive down the prices for the trades, the information would more likely be leaked to the public since people would not be afraid of sharing it, and people would be more careful in making trades prior to big decisions because the other party may have more information than they do. Companies would be responsible for policing people in their firms that leak information. By making insider information legal, the rent created by regulations would be reduced.

The US election and the future

Political scientists will be dissecting the results of the 2016 US presidential election for the next decade but certainly one fact that is likely to be germane to any analysis is that real wages have been stagnant or declining for the past 45 years. I predict that this trend will only worsen no matter who is in power. The stark reality is that most jobs are replaceable by machines. This is not because AI has progressed to the point that machines can act human but because most jobs, especially higher paying jobs, do not depend heavily on being human. While I have seen some consternation about the prospect of 1.5 million truck drivers being replaced by self-driving vehicles in the near future, I have seen much less discourse on the fact that this is also likely to be true for accountants, lawyers, middle managers, medical professionals, and other well compensated professionals. What people seem to miss is that the reason these jobs are well paid is that there are relatively few people who are capable of doing them and that is because they are difficult for humans to master. In other words, they are well paid because they require not acting particulary human. IBM’s Watson, which won the game show Jeopardy and AlphaGo, which beat the world’s best Go player, shows that machines can quite easily better humans at specific tasks. The more specialized the task, the easier it will be for a machine to do it. The cold hard truth is that AI does not have to improve for you to be replaced by a machine. It does not matter whether strong AI, (an artificial intelligence that truly thinks like a human), is ever possible. It only matters that machine learning algorithms can mimic what you do now. The only thing necessary for this to happen was for computers to be fast enough and now they are.

What this implies is that the jobs of the future will be limited to those that require being human or where interacting with a human is preferred. This will include 1) jobs that most people can do and thus will not be well paid like store sales people, restaurant servers, bar tenders, cafe baristas, and low skill health workers, 2) jobs that require social skills that might be better paid such as social workers, personal assistants, and mental health professionals, 3) jobs that require special talents like artisans, artists, and some STEM professionals, and 4) capitalists that own firms that employ mostly robots. I strongly believe that only a small fraction of the population will make it to categories 3) and 4). Most people will be in 1) or not have a job at all. I have argued before that one way out is for society to choose to make low productivity work viable. In any case, the anger we saw this year is only going to grow because existing political institutions are in denial about the future. The 20th century is over. We are not getting it back. The future is either the 17th or 18th century with running water, air conditioning and health care or the 13th century with none of these.