Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Post-DOMA Gloating and Prediction Challenge

This is truly a sad moment in America's history. But now that DOMA is dead, I guess social conservatives will understand that I am now forced to abandon my monogamous relationship, and run out and have constant casual group sex with every woman I see. After all, it's not my fault! The reason that this decision is a tragedy (and a danger!) for everyone is that marriage has been so degraded by this decision that none of us can be held responsible for our sexual behavior any longer, and this communist fascist Muslim atheist weak-willed dictatorship we now live under is responsible.

In all seriousness: I challenge social conservatives distressed by this decision to publicly make a prediction about what will happen, now that DOMA is gone and marriage equality will go forward. For example, the concern about pedophilia and bestiailty - anyone want to put a date on that?

Monday, June 24, 2013

The First City in the World, Today

Hey, you wanna talk about urban decay, well Detroit's got nothing on this place! [rimshot.] This is Eridu in the Fertile Crescent.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

David Brooks: We Need Competing Status Hierarchies

This is cross-posted to my atheist blog, The Lucky Atheist.

Brooks has a piece about status hierarchies that oddly and very specifically focuses on religion. He claims religion plays less of a role in American life than it did decades ago. (That assertion needs its own defense, but that's not what this post is about.) His thesis seems to be that the decline of religion in public life is bad, because it leaves us with only one status measurement, that being career success. While the latter is certainly an important determinant of status (if not the most important), organized religion is far from being the only competitor.

It's increasingly recognized that it's better for individuals and societies to have multiple overlapping status domains, but there are more than two domains to choose from. And we already have natural experiments in this regard - do people in less religious countries feel more marginalized somehow? Or is there a difference within the U.S. between the more and less religious states? Do the "less successful" people of Washington State feel worse about themselves than the ones in Oklahoma? Somehow I have difficulty imagining this.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Are People Less Likely to Become Colonists Now?

As compared to a few centuries ago? Certainly. Humans in general today are less likely to strike out to a new land and become colonists. Why is this?

(This is cross-posted to my science fiction and fact blog, Speculative Nonfiction.)

1. The environments that are available to us are harsher. Seasteading? The Antarctic? The Moon or Mars? Virginia may have had a bit more malaria than England but it has a) solid ground, b) it never drops below -50 C and c) it has a 21% O2 atmosphere. Consequently, it takes a more complex and developed economy to allow survival in the harsher land. Jamestown wasn't self-sustaining until the third ship full of people and supplies arrived. (More on Jamestown and Mars here.) And think: how big would a colony in Antarctica have to be in order to be self-sufficient, and make all the equipment they need to survive, not to mention to trade with the rest of the world? (See below for places more amenable to humans than Antarctica, but still not filling up with colonists, in some cases despite the local government's attempt to draw them.)

2. There is a bigger skills gap between the median person and what a colonist needs to know. Even if that island that appeared above the ocean had a nice temperate climate, few of us (especially in the developed world) would be able to take advantage of it. In Jamestown, people plowed and planted fields, hunted, chopped wood, and built small structures. That's pretty much what they were doing at home except for the building part. Even in the developing world, the gap between the skillsets required of someone living day-to-day versus what they would need to do in a terra nova is much wider than what the settlers of the New World faced, or the Polynesians that expanded across the Pacific, or the Norse who made it to Vinland.

3. We're just more comfortable today. Yes, there are still people in desperate poverty, but not as many of us three centuries ago. The median human is much happier, and if they move, they have more information about which countries offer better opportunities, rather than helping to build a country from scratch.

The exceptions I alluded to above are Siberia and the Canadian interior and the Australian Outback. That's a significant chunk of the Earth's land surface. Seriously, if you think that there is no more wilderness and no more frontiers, just buy a few coats and a hunting rifle and move to the Yukon. West Australia is the size of America's Western and Pacific time zones combined and has a population of 2 million, 1.5 million of which are in one city, and a Mediterranean climate near the coast like California, and massive mineral wealth - and the Australian government has been desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get people to settle it. In any of these places you can quite easily meet Daniel Boone's requirement of refusing to live anywhere that you can see the note from your neighbor's chimney. But you won't do this, despite any belly-aching you might have done along these lines. Why not? Because you have a good life already and you have no idea how to hunt, that's why.

Why Do Government Services Often Suck?

There are several forces operating that make government institutions less effective than they might otherwise be.

One is that governments are bigger, and the bigger an institution, the more administrative friction (in large part due to the free rider problem). Of course, this is not unique to government; if you've ever been at a large university or corporation, you've seen this operate as well.

A second problem is that as society becomes more complex, the services that agencies provide become more specialized, and less comprehensible to most citizens; in the old days when specialized information was mostly the province of the professional class, this was pithily summarized as "All professions are conspiracies against the laity.". This problem is particularly bad for services that are used infrequently and/or by a small number of people and/or that are unglamorous. Consequently there is no feedback from past users who have had bad experiences to future users making decisions. (Family law courts, for example, score at least two out of three in that list.) This feedback loop damages markets and cripples competition, which sometimes helps the laity, cutting out middlemen and de-mystifying opaque language to benefit consumers, not without resistance from established interests of course.

A third problem, unique to government, is that of guaranteed lack of competition. The free rider problem becomes more severe because the free riders know that even if the building they work in is physically destroyed or a customer is harmed, it doesn't matter - you still have to go to the DMV (or wherever) somewhere, sometime, and they'll still have a job. Of course, there is always competition on some level, and there is here too, in the sense that if a government functions so badly that it collapses due to civil strife, invasion by foreign powers, starvation or insolvency, then the agency employees stop getting money. This is an unpleasant competition mechanism, although it was the de facto way that (for example) Rome got new Emperors, in the absence of succession rules. Recognizing this unpleasantness, the founders of the U.S. put in a provision for a peaceful transfer of power which does in fact cost some government employees their jobs - but not the vast majority. So if you hate your local DMV enough, you can vote for a governor from another party, and you'll get a new secretary of transportation, but very likely the mean lady at desk 18 will still be there.

One possible solution to this problem would be a more extensive application of the ideal of overlapping status hierarchies. Humans react badly to loss of status, but as long as we're all moving in multiple spheres (family, work, church, your golf buddies, your cooking class) damage to status in any one realm is mitigated in terms of damage to your overall status. The problem to solve here is that ultimately, all animals including us need control of a specific physical territory, and where you appear in one of those territories (and the cultural allegiances that you invariably develop) are involuntary. It would be nice to say, "You know what, I live in San Diego, but California's DMV sucks, so I'm going to go to the one from Missouri. And our environmental laws suck too so I'm going to have open bonfires in my yard with my friends, as is permitted in Mauritius, which is the law I'm choosing to follow." But you still live in San Diego and have no choice but to cooperate with your physical neighbors, who probably don't want the smoke and wildfire risk. San Diego burns down, not Mauritius. Interestingly, to some degree we do in fact allow these arrangements with incorporation and litigation law, and it's probably no surprise that non-physical-geographical solutions have emerged in business, that is, in purely voluntary associations of cooperating individuals with much lower average costs of "emigrating" (quitting or selling out your share). I submit that a solution allowing these arrangements to apply to all government policy would be the greatest political innovation since modern democracy. It would improve government profoundly. Right now the quality of government appears to rest on the cultural values of the country the government is running and how well-suited they are to being a modern nation-state. If you're Finland or Korea, that's good news. If you're Sudan, not so much.

Emigration is arguably another way in which governments do face competition, but there are considerable barriers that decrease the effectiveness of freedom of movement, namely that there is invariably a large cost to emigration - the DMV would have to be pretty bad before you moved to Missouri or New Zealand - which leads to Coasian non-global optima in the quality of policy and services. This is discussed in the previous post in the context of charter cities. Charter cities are arguably another solution to this problem. The idea is to apply putatively more effective laws from another polity in a small enough chunk of territory that people in surrounding polities would have a realistic choice of where to work and do business (the model being Hong Kong of course).

A final problem regarding the brute fact that governments are based on the physical control of territory, and here Chairman Mao deserves a point for honesty: these organizations (governments) maintain their monopoly over territory with force, period. Again this is a forced move, since by basing organizations on physical territory and emotional allegiances that can't be opted out of, there are members of the group who are non-voluntary or who are irrational, and who you can't "fire". Hence armies and police. It is likely that the violence institutions will be used to preserve the status quo, so I fully expect that if Thiel et al's seasteading initiative is realized, it will be a few years at most before the nearby country finds an excuse to attack them, likely for trade in something considered contraband in the attacking country (drugs, weapons, gambling, prostitution) and likely in as morally inflammatory a way possible, to engineer sympathies against the seastead. (I'm picturing military units storming the structure and the President at the time reading a statement about child prostitution, or funneling drugs to America's children.) I'm not familiar with the details of the current proposal but I hope they have taken this into account.

Charter Cities and Costs of Emigration

It was in doubt for some time; translated story here. I will be visiting but not living. But I wonder how many libertarian types will even put their money where their mouth is to that degree. Here is an article which points out that even though we now have annual indices of economic freedom by country, at which New Zealand* and Hong Kong frequently beat the U.S., American libertarians do not respond by moving en masse to Auckland (and an economist writes about this here as a revealed preference); further discussion here. Another way to ask this (if you're libertarian) is: when Peter Thiel et al get their seasteading proposal off the ground or at least in the water, would you move? If not, why not?

Charitably, you might say that this hesitance results from there always being a nonzero transaction cost to emigrating. Practically speaking, you are familiar with the customs of your country (not to mention the language), you have a social and professional network, not even mentioning the inescapably human, irrational connection to the land that programmed you in childhood into the adult you became and the utility cost that losing that imposes. There is clearly a Coasian local optimum type-solution operating here.

For that matter, American states differ considerably in their economic freedom too, but again it's still rare for people to in-migrate for abstract economic freedom - I know of exactly one, and that's likely one more than you - even with the cost of migration dramatically lowered. When people in-migrate it's almost always for a concrete opportunity, i.e. a transfer or new job waiting for them.

Rather than highlighting the insincerity of people's convictions about socioeconomic justice, to my mind this only emphasizes the importance of internal self-correction mechanisms. Freedom of movement - "love it or leave it" - will only eliminate severe polity-inflicted-suffering (that tramples on libertarian economic freedom or any other values) that goes above and beyond that considerable barrier. Consider large-scale emigrations in history, and they generally have not been people trying to improve their lives a little. They were escaping wars and famines and genocides and dictatorships, not marginally improving their local economic freedom index.

*RE New Zealand, a young friend just moved there on a whim and within a week he was working (legally) for the government and had met the mayor of Auckland in the course of his job. So I asked him if he'd had to set this all up ahead of time, and his answer was "No. They offer a visa called a working holiday visa to U.S. citizens under 30 years old to come travel and work for up to a year. It is an incredibly easy visa to apply for and get with practically no red tape. We got our visas like nine months ago, and when we got here we didn't have anything set up. You have to apply for your IRD number (SSN equivalent) once you're here and it takes about two weeks to come and then I just signed up for a temp agency and lucked out by finding work really quickly." Now that's a country serious about economic freedom and attracting the right immigrants.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Map of U.S. Legislator Polarization

It's good to put political data into easily understood visual or numerical form because it separates politics from the partisan, tribal-identification reactions we all have, not to mention it helps us give more effective performance evaluations to the people we're choosing to write laws for us. Here Seth Masket shows Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty's data. Darker means more polarized. Blue is how left-polarized Dems are, red right-polarized GOP.

Masket notes that CA, WA and CO all have very right Republicans and left Democrats. I think the commonality here is these are all states with large proportions of in-migrants from elsewhere in the U.S. who are disproportionately young renters in large cities, and also (in contrast) very large swathes of low population density land with multi-generation residents who own their homes and work in agriculture or resource extraction. (Original post here.)

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Bad Stripe as Boundary Zone

The Bad Stripe is an area of the U.S. running roughly east-to-west from West Virginia, through Kentucky and Tennesee to Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. It is Bad because human development indicators, economics, and general indicators of flourishing and happiness are depressed there relative to the rest of the U.S. (Note: it is not just the Black Belt - it is considerably inland and upland of that.) This pattern frequently jumps out of maps of the U.S. showing demographic or economic data, and one thing that has become clear is that the Bad Stripe is a boundary zone between trade regions, religions, and now dialects (previous language boundary shown here). And here we see it again: witness the border of y'all, which runs right through the Bad Stripe.

By Joshua Katz at UNC, via Business Insider.