Ideological overconfidence is a trojan horse for entitlement

I re-watched “The Big Lebowski”. I have watched this movie many times, but like all great films, you often find yourself appreciating new things with each re-watch. Usually these are simply small, but interesting details that simply slipped by your attention previously, but in this case it was a broad theme that smacked me in the face as if I stepped on a rake. The Dude is the Buddha.

Spoilers, both narrative and spiritual, are ahead

Let me back up. For those unfamiliar with the film, there are four parties relevant to this story. Jeffrey Lebowski (old rich guy), three nameless German nihilists, Walter Sobchak, and The Dude. Jeffrey Lebowski’s trophy wife, Bunny, runs off to Vegas unannounced. Hi-jinks ensue.

The Nihilists falsely claim to have kidnapped her and demand ransom. Jeffrey wants Bunny to go away so he can better hang on to the money she is frittering away, so he fills a briefcase with deadweight and gives it to the Dude to deliver in the hopes the kidnappers will be angered and make his problem go away. Walter becomes privy to this exchange and swaps out “a ringer for a ringer”, hoping to keep the ransom money for himself. A perfect triangle of scams.

All three scamming parties are driven by selfish entitlement and all three rationalize it behind blustery, paper thin philosophies. The Nihislists believe in a chaotic universe absent responsibility, morality, or ethics. They simply want a thing so they try to take it. Jeffrey Lebowski casually gives in to his own avarice and greed to push Bunny out, rationalized by the belief that he has earned his wealth through “achievement”. Walter Sobchak wants to take the money because he has been wronged by fate and society, an unloved Veteran whose reactionary ethos assures him that he has earned anything he subsequently takes through past valor. Over the course of the film all three rationalizations are found to be more or less fabricated, their philosophical fascades disintegrating as soon as the objects of their desire prove out of reach.

Only the Dude remains whole and unblemished. His innocence isn’t shielded by superior philosophy, morality, or intelligence. He remains above the destruction and greed simply because of his lack of desire. A burned out hippie of nearly zero consequence, his lines are the only reliable words spoken throughout the story simply because he doesn’t want anything more than to go bowling and, if possible, recover a lost rug. It is the emptiness of The Dude that preserves his soul.

Too much unbending confidence in your own philosophy often betrays a far starker reality. You don’t just want something, you want a reason that you deserve it.

Anyway. Go a little easier on each other. Make yourself a White Russian tonight. Take a moment to reflect on my remedial cinema film analysis and how sure you really are. About any of this.

Introducing Students to Text Mining II

In the Fall of 2020, I blogged about how I introduce students to text mining, as part of a data analytics class.

Could Turing ever have imagined that a human seeking customer service from a bank could chat with a bot? Maybe text mining is a big advance over chess, but it only took about one decade longer for a computer (developed by IBM) to beat a human in Jeopardy. Winning Jeopardy requires the computer to get meaning from a sentence of words. Computers have already moved way beyond playing a game show to natural language processing.

https://economistwritingeveryday.com/2020/11/07/introducing-students-to-text-mining/

I told the students that “chat bots” are getting better and NLP is advancing. By July 2020, OpenAI had released a beta API playground to external developers to play with GPT-3, but I did not sign up to use it myself.

In April of 2022, I added some slides inspired by Alex’s post about the Turing Test that included output from Google’s Pathway Languages Model. According to Alex, “It seems obvious that the computer is reasoning.”

This week in class, I did something that few people could have imagined 5 years ago. I signed into the free new GPTChat function in class and typed in questions from my students.

We started with questions that we assumed would be easy to answer:

Then we were surprised that it answered a question we had thought would be difficult:

And then we asked two questions that prompted the program to hedge, although for different reasons.

It seems like the model is smarter than it lets on. For now, the creators are trying hard not to offend anyone or get in the way of Google’s advertising business. Overall, the quality of the answers are high.

Because of when I was born, I believe that something I have published will make it into the training data for these models. Will that turn out to be more significant than any human readers we can attract?

Of course, GPT can still make mistakes. I’m horrified by this mischaracterization of my tweets:

The Imperfection of Subgame Perfection

I’ve written previously about Pure Strategy Nash Equilibria (PSNE). They are the set of strategies that players can adopt in equilibrium – with no incentive to change their strategy. Students have an intuition that PSNE aren’t great because some outcomes that they identify depend on players making silly decisions in the past. In jargon, we can say that some PSNE depend on players choosing irrationally in a subgame while still reaching a PSNE.

See the extensive form game (below right). There are two players, each with two strategies per information set, and player two has two information sets. All PSNE will include a strategy for each information set. We can present the same game in normal form in order to make it easier to identify the PSNE (below left).

Player 1 (P1) can choose the row (B or C) and Player 2 (P2) can choose the column. Importantly, whether P1 might want to change his mind depends on P2’s strategy at the decision node in the alternative information set. Therefore, P2 must have two strategies, one per information set.

The four PSNE strategies and payoffs are underlined in the above table and they are noted in red on the below extensive form games. Again, the logic of PSNE states that no player can improve their payoff by changing only their own strategy, given the opposing player’s strategy. After all, a player can control their own strategy, but not that of their opponent. For example, note PSNE II. In the left subgame, P2 chooses M. His payoff would be unchanged if he changed his strategy, given the strategy of P1.

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Ban, Subsidize, Mandate: Ethics and US Healthcare Policy

Tomorrow (Friday 12/2) I’ll be speaking at the Fall Ethics Forum at Sacramento State. The Center for Practical and Professional Ethics there does a forum every year on a different field of practical ethics, and this year they chose healthcare (some previous iterations look quite interesting, like Bryan Caplan on education and Lyman Stone on population). The event is open to the public if you happen to live near Sacramento, and I hope to be able to post a recording later. But for now, here’s a short preview of what I plan to say:

In many key respects, US health policy is about restricting the choices available to patients and health care providers: banning things the government doesn’t want, while mandating or subsidizing things they want. These restrictions on autonomy are typically justified by the idea that they lead to superior health or economic outcomes. In some cases this tradeoff between freedom and efficient utilitarian outcomes is real, but I highlight some policies such as Certificate of Need laws that appear to harm both freedom and efficiency. I argue that the overarching US approach to health policy is to subsidize demand while restricting supply, which together lead to exceptionally high prices but mediocre health outcomes.

I’ll also take on some classic questions like: when are free lunches truly free? And when is moral hazard really immoral?

Fight for $15? $25? $40?

Remember the “Fight for $15”? It’s a 10-year-old movement to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. While there hasn’t been any increase in the federal minimum wage since the movement began in 2012, plenty of states and localities have done so.

I won’t rehash the entire debate on the minimum wage here, but I will point you to this post from Joy on large minimum wage changes, and here are several other posts on this blog on the same topic. But lately I have seen an increasing call for even larger minimum wage increases, well beyond $15.

A prominent recent call for a higher wage comes from the SEIU, the second largest labor union in the nation. They are calling for a $25 minimum wage in Chicago, where the legal minimum wage just recently crossed $15 last year. Again, without getting into the detailed debates about the economics of the minimum wage, we can recognize that this would be a massively high minimum wage, given that median hourly wage for the Chicago MSA was $22.74 in May 2021. It’s certainly a bit higher in 2022, and the city of Chicago is probably a bit higher than the entire MSA. Still, we are talking about a minimum wage that would cover roughly half the workforce. Well, at least half the current workforce. The negative employment effects would potentially be large.

Here I will dabble a little bit in the minimum wage literature. One of the most famous recent papers that suggests increasing the minimum wage doesn’t have large negative employment effects is a 2019 paper by Cengiz, et al. This paper only looks at legal minimum wages that go up to 59% of the median market wage, which is the highest wages have been pushed up so far. By contrast, that $25 minimum wage in Chicago would be somewhere around 100% (!) of the local median market wage. That’s huge, and goes far beyond what even the most sympathetic-to-the-minimum-wage research has looked at.

But here’s the most recent minimum wage call that really takes the cake: over $40 per hour in Hawaii. That comes from, in a way, a Tweet from Hal Singer:

Now in fairness, he doesn’t exactly call for a $40 minimum wage in Hawaii, but he does say we should use the minimum wage as a tool to address homelessness, and then points to a study showing that you would need to earn $40/hour in Hawaii to afford a two-bedroom apartment. That’s pretty close. The median wage in Hawaii? About $23 in May 2021. In fact, the 75th percentile wage in Hawaii was $36.50 in 2021! So, depending on exactly how much wage growth there has been in Hawaii since May 2021, we are likely talking about a $40 minimum wage covering 75% of the workforce! That would likely have some “bite,” as economists say.

Protests Erupt Across China Over COVID Policy But Lockdowns Continue: Why?

Headlines in today’s financial news include items like “Clashes in Shanghai as COVID protests flare across China“ from Yahoo Finance. There have been widespread protests this week, which are normally a rarity under the authoritarian regime, and are being suppressed by any means necessary. Apple stock is down about 4% in the past two trading days on fears that iPhone shortages will get worse due to worker unrest in the giant Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. Wall Street keeps hoping the China will loosen up, since the lockdowns on the world’s second-largest economy are a drag on global markets.

China has pursued a “zero-COVID” policy, of strict mass lockdowns to halt any spread of the virus. Residents have been confined to their apartments for over 3 months in some cases. Whole cities with tens of millions of people have been locked down for months at a time whenever a number of cases are spotted. China’s economic growth has stagnated, and unemployment among young people has risen to 20%, which has helped fuel unrest.  Chinese people are aware that the rest of the world has moved on from mass lockdowns, and may be realizing the futility of thinking that lockdowns can stave off the virus indefinitely.

Given its discomfort with widespread discontent and protests, why does the Chinese government persist in this policy? An article in the Atlantic by Michael Shuman answers that question: “Zero COVID Has Outlived Its Usefulness. Here’s Why China Is Still Enforcing It. “  Back in 2020 when COVID first swept through the world, the strict lockdowns (readily enforced in an authoritarian regime) seemed like a big win for the Chinese leadership:

When the outbreak began in Wuhan in early 2020, the virus was unknown, vaccines were unavailable, and China’s poorly equipped health system could have quickly become overwhelmed by a sweeping pandemic. Yet the policy had a political element from the very beginning as well. The Communist Party is adept at sniffing out threats to its rule, and it quickly identified COVID as one of them. A major public-health crisis, with millions dying, would have raised serious doubts about the regime’s competence, which is, in effect, its sole claim to legitimacy.

Worse, the party could have faced a populace that directly blamed it for the outbreak—with good reason. The Chinese authorities at both the national and local levels botched their initial response to the novel coronavirus, suppressing information about its discovery by a Wuhan doctor and acting far too slowly to contain the initial spread. Sensing its potential vulnerability, the party shifted into anti-COVID overdrive, shutting down large swaths of the country, with the result that it did succeed in snuffing out an epidemic in a matter of weeks, even as it spread to the rest of the world.

That success allowed the Communist Party to transform a potential tragedy into a public-relations triumph. Within weeks of the Wuhan outbreak, China’s propaganda machine was touting the wonders of its virus-busting methods. And as the U.S. and other Western countries struggled to contain the disease, Beijing’s big win became even more valuable as evidence that its authoritarian system was more capable and caring than any democratic one. Beijing and its advocates pointed to rising case and death counts in the U.S. as proof of China’s superiority and American decline.

A number of other countries including Australia and New Zealand also implemented strict (stricter than in the U.S.) lockdown measures in 2020, and, like China, experienced far less impact from the virus in that timeframe than seen in the U.S. However, most of these measures were lifted in 2021. The widespread application of mRNA vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna in the West has served to mitigate the severity of the viral infection. Also, some measure of herd immunity has been achieved by the widespread exposure to COVID in the population; antibodies persist for at least eight months after contracting the disease. So, what’s up with China?

China has resisted using Western vaccines, relying instead on homegrown vaccines which are less effective, though they do give some measure of protection.  Also, “The additional layers of high-tech surveillance adopted in the name of pandemic prevention can be used to enhance the tracking and monitoring of the populace more generally,” which is another win for the government. However, the major factor is that the Party, and especially President Xi, cannot afford to loosen up now and risk an embarrassing explosion of cases that would overburden the healthcare system and probably lead to millions of deaths:

The victory of zero COVID was claimed not just as the party’s but as Xi Jinping’s in particular. The State Council, China’s highest governing body, declared in a 2020 white paper that Xi had “taken personal command, planned the response, overseen the general situation and acted decisively, pointing the way forward in the fight against the epidemic.”

This narrative became entrenched. If Beijing loosened up and allowed COVID to run amok, the Chinese system would appear no better than those of loser democracies, and Xi would seem like another failing politician, a mere mortal, not the virus-fighting superhero he was painted as. Zero COVID’s failure would be a disaster for the Communist Party’s veneer of infallibility.

So the leadership insists on zero COVID and damn the consequences.

Maybe authoritarianism doesn’t scale

Many of us, myself included, were fretting about role that surveillance technologies would play in creating more resilient authoritarian regimes, but we’re starting to see the cracks forming in multiple regimes all at once.

I don’t want to try to share in not-as-yet-achieved victories half way around the globe as innocent civilians are still being killed and imprisoned while bearing no personal risk myself. That said, I can’t help but observe that surveillance technology seems to offer relatively little for maintaining a regime. In fact, it may be the case that all it serves to do is accelerate government overeach and eventual public resistance.

Sureveillance doesn’t seem to actually grant any additional scale to authorities, the increasing the population a smaller group in power might control. It may, however, accelerate the rate at which the public achieves a critical mass of awareness of not just transgressions by authorities, but the true beliefs of their peers regarding those transgressions. Social media and other technologies seem to be accelerating the process through which preference falsification is being unraveled.

The simpler observation, however, is that modern information technology appears to have given some authoritarian regimes the misguided belief that simply being aware of resistance earlier, and reacting ruthlessly, would be sufficient to maintain greater control and reach. Instead, this unwarranted confidence has simply greased slide to overreach. When a bunch of stormtroopers show up to force people to work, the broader public arrives at a dark calculus all the faster: resisting is no riskier than not resisting in the short run, resisting is likely less risky in the long run.

There’s no shortage of fiction reminding us that authority is brittle. Even in a world of imagined sci-fi technology, absent a dystopian robot apocalypse, controlling humans using other humans remains an analog mechanism where the returns to scale remain gratefully constant. Sometimes a small number of people can achieve control over a larger number, but their days are always numbered. The technology that we feared might tilt the balance of this equation may have, in fact, merely sped up the timeline.

Thankful List in 2022

  1. I was able to get a free Covid-19 booster shot reformulated to fight new Omicron strains. This was easy to schedule at Walgreens, and I got a flu shot at the same time to save time. Vaccines for all types of diseases are advancing.  
  2. I didn’t lose money on crypto.
  3. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of this year, I ordered Potassium Iodide tablets. I have not needed them.
  4. The shrinking ozone hole shows that the world can actually solve an environmental crisis
  5. NASA can save us from an incoming asteroid
  6. Bringing one over from Dynomight (HT: Tyler) “That there’s been a 93% decline in stomach cancer deaths over the past 100 years—from by far the biggest killer among cancers to one of the smaller ones—and mostly this was an accident, it happened because better food refrigeration reduced infections of H. pylori, a bacterium that wasn’t even identified until 1982 after most of the decline had already happened.” 

Mises’s Interventionism, A Recap

I suspect that Mises may have felt somewhat restless after writing Socialism. He had taken a very good stab at describing the socialist economy and its inadequacy for the promotion of human flourishing. By 1940 fascism had arisen in both Italy and in Germany, who Mises considered the clear antagonists of World War II. Further, the communist Soviets were allied with Germany at the time of writing Interventionism.

A communist-fascist alliance may seem strange to idealogues, but it appeared quite natural to Mises that the two distasteful versions of socialism should find cooperation convenient to achieve their own ends. In America, the revelations of German atrocities had yet to arrive and there were many sympathizers with both Russia and Germany. In Britain, union leaders were promoting the idea of socialism as a reward to the public who would be bearing the costs of the war.

Mises thought that the disfunction of socialism was adequate to describe its ultimate failure as an economic system. However, socialist tendencies were pervasive in the liberal market economies among both idealogues and demagogues enough to make the transition to socialism a very real threat. After all, while socialism may not be a stable regime in a dynamic world, certain features within specific market economies may nonetheless tend toward it. What is the cause of such tendencies?

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Thanksgiving Dinner is Once Again More Expensive (But Not the Most Expensive Ever)

Last year inflation hadn’t quite hit the levels we would see in 2022, but they were already rising. When Thanksgiving rolled around, many media sources were reporting that it was the “most expensive Thanksgiving ever.” In nominal terms that was true, though in nominal terms it isn’t that surprising. In a post last year, I compared the prices of Thanksgiving dinners (using the same data from Farm Bureau) to median earnings going back to 1986. While 2021 was more expensive the 2020, it turned out it was still the second lowest it had been since 1986.

As you might expect, this year’s Thanksgiving dinner is even more expensive than last year in nominal terms. It’s up about 20% since last year or over $10 more, according to Farm Bureau. That’s certainly more than the overall rate of inflation (7.7% in the past 12 months) and more than inflation for groceries (12.4% in the past 12 months). But how does that compare with median wages? Comparing the 3rd quarter of this year with the same quarter in 2021, median wages are only up about 7%, certainly not enough to keep up with those rising turkey prices.

When we add 2022 to the historical chart, here’s what it looks like.

The spike in the last 2 years is clear in the chart but notice that at about 6% of median weekly earnings, we have essentially returned to the average level of the entire series. From 2017-2021, we could be thankful that the price of your Thanksgiving dinner had dropped below that 6% level. We’ll have to find something else to be thankful for this year.