Empirical Austrian Economics?

David Friedman recently got into an online debate with Walter Block that could be seen as a boxing match between “Austrian economics” and the “Chicago School of Economics”. In the wake of this debate, Friedman assembled his thoughts in this piece which is supposed (if I understand properly) to be published as a chapter in an edited volume. Upon reading this piece, I thought it worthy of providing my thoughts in part because I see myself as being both a member of both schools of thought and in part because I specialize in economic history. And here is the claim I want to make: I don’t see any meaningful difference between both and I don’t understand why there are perpetual attempts to create a distinction.

But before that, let’s do a simple summary of the two views according to Friedman (which is the first part of the essay). The “Chicago” version is that you can build theoretical models and then test them. If the model is not confirmed, it could be because a) you used incorrect data, b) relied on incorrect assumptions, c) relied on an incorrect econometric specification. The Austrian version is that you derive axioms of human action and that is it. The real world cannot be in contradiction with the axioms and it only serves to provide pedagogical illustrations. That is the way Friedman puts the differences between the schools of thought. The direct implication from this difference is that there cannot be (or there is no point to) empirical/econometric work in the Austrian school’s thinking.

Now, I understand that this is the viewpoint shared by many — as noticed by a shared distrust of econometrics and mathematical depictions of the economy among Austrian-school scholars. In fact, Rothard was pretty clear about this in an underappreciated book he authored, the A History of Money and Banking in the United States. But I do not understand why.

After all, all models are true if they are logically consistent. I can go to my blackboard and draw up a model of the economy and make predictions about behavior. That is what the Austrians do! The problem is that predictions rely on assumptions. For example, we say that a monopoly grant is welfare-reducing. However, when there are monopolies over common-access resources (fisheries for example), they are welfare-enhancing since the monopoly does not want to deplete the resource and compete against its future self. All we tweaked was one assumption about the type of good being monopolized. Moreover, I can get the same result as the conventional logic regarding monopolies by tweaking one more assumption regarding time discounting. Indeed, a monopoly over a common access resource is welfare-enhancing as long as the monopolist values the future stream of income more than than the future value of the present income. In other words, something on the brink of starvation might not care much about not having fish tomorrow if he makes it to tomorrow.

If I were to test the claims above, I could get a wide variety of results (here are some conflicting examples from Canadian economic history of fisheries) regarding the effects of monopoly. All of these apparent contradictions result from the nature of the assumptions and whether they apply to each case studied. In this case, the empirical part is totally in line with the Austrian view. Indeed, empirical work is simply telling which of these assumptions apply in case X, Y, or Z. In this way of viewing things, all debates about methods (e.g. endogeneity bias, selection bias, measurement, level of data observation) are debates about how to properly represent theories. Nothing more, nothing less.

It is a most Austrian thing to start with a clear model and then test predictions to see if the model applies to a particular question. A good example is the Giffen-good. The Giffen good can theoretically exist but we have yet to find one that convinces a majority of economist. Ergo, the Giffen good is theoretically true but it is also an irrelevant imaginary pink unicorn. Empirically, the Giffen good has simply failed to materialize over hundreds of papers in top journals.

In fact, I see great value to using empirical work in an Austrian lens. Indeed, I have written articles (one is a revise and resubmit at Public Choice, another is published in Review of Austrian Economics and another is forthcoming at Essays in Economic and Business History) using econometric methods such as difference-in-difference and a form of regression discontinuity to test the relevance of the theory of the dynamics of interventionism (which proposes that government intervention is a cumulative process of disequilibrium that planners cannot foresee). n each of these articles, I believe I demonstrated that the theory has some meaningful abilities to predict the destabilizing nature of government interventions. When I started writing these articles, I believed that the body of theory I was using was true because it was logically consistent. However, I was willing to accept that it could be irrelevant or generally not applicable.

In other words, you can see why I fail to perceive any meaningful difference between Austrian theory and other schools of economic thought. For year, I realized I was one of the few to see like this and I never understood why. A few months ago, I think I put my finger on the “why” after reading a forthcoming piece by my colleague Mark Koyama: Austrians assume econometrics to be synonymous with economic planning.

I admit that I have read Mises’ Theory and History and came out not understanding why Austrians think that Mises admonished the use of econometrics. What I read was more of the domain of the reaction to the use econometrics for planning and policy-making. Econometrics can be used to answer questions of applicability without in any way rejecting any of the Austrian framework. Maybe I am an oddball, but I was a fellow Austrian traveler when I entered the LSE and remained one as I learned to use econometrics. I never saw any conflict between using quantitative methods and Austrian theory. I only saw a conflict when I spoke to extreme Rothbardians who seemed to conflate the use of tools to weigh theories and the use of econometrics to make public policy. The former is desirable while the latter is to be shunned. Maybe it is time for Austrians to realize that there is good reason to reject econometrics as a tool to “plan” the economy (which I do) and accept econometrics as a tool of study and test. After all, methods are tools and tools are not inherently bad/good — its how we use them that matters.

That’s it, that’s all I had to say.

Primary Driver for This Inflation Is Surging Demand (Fueled by COVID Payments), Not Supply Chain Constraints

Inflation is colloquially defined as, “Too much money chasing too few goods (and services)”. Supply chain constraints get talked about, and these are widely blamed for the inflation we are seeing.  Of course, supply limitations play into inflation, but to focus on them is to miss the elephant in room. The primary driver of this inflation is not “too few goods”, but “too much money.”

Such is the thesis of a widely circulated article by Ray Dalio’s investing firm Bridgewater Associates, “It’s Mostly a Demand Shock, Not a Supply Shock, and It’s Everywhere.” The point is summarized:

While the headlines tend to focus on the micro elements of the supply shock (the LA port, coal in China, natural gas in Europe, semiconductors globally, truckers in the UK, etc.), this perspective largely misses the macro cause that is likely to persist and for which there is no idiosyncratic solution. This is not, by and large, a pandemic-related supply problem: as we’ll show, supply of almost everything is at all-time highs. Rather, this is mostly an MP3-driven upward demand shock. [emphases in the original]

In Bridgewater’s terminology, “MP3” is “Monetary Policy #3”, and refers to massive deficit spending combined with central bank quantitative easing. We saw this implemented in 2020-2021 when the federal government pumped out trillions of dollars of stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits, and the Fed instantly soaked up the bonds that were issued to pay for these trillions. This fed/Fed combo amounts to simply printing money on an enormous scale.

Those trillions of dollars funded a huge surge in durable goods purchases. By late 2021 the supply of these goods was well above 2019 (pre-COVID) levels, and even above normal growth trendlines. However, the supply and transport systems simply could not grow fast enough to accommodate this insatiable demand. Charts below substantiate this. To focus on supply chain bottlenecks of themselves is misleading. The primary driver for this inflation has been the trillions of dollars of federal largesse. The Fed knows all this, obviously, but Jay Powell (the Chief Enabler of this deficit spending) would likely not have been reappointed if he spoke too directly about the cause of this inflation. Hence the endless prattle about supply chains.

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Infrastructure can only happen if we’re allowed to build it

This caught my eye.

This isn’t just expensive or inefficient. This is obstructive at a level only just short of an executive veto. Regardless of what sits at the top of your dream infrastructure list, this is the problem you have to solve first. Doesn’t matter if it’s high speed rail, the hyperloop, or offshore windfarms. Heck, maybe your big policy dream is universal healthcare or public education. If governments can’t build anything short of a 10X markup, then every large scale government provided solution has no value besides giving us something to argue over.

If I might put my even-more-cynical-than-usual hat on for a moment, the fact that this isn’t a top line item in every policy discussion is politically telling. This is relevant to the policy ambitions for everyone to the left of the politest anarchist you know. However, the urgency and relevance should increase exponentially as we move leftward across our political spectrum since those are the people most excited about the government actually building things. With a handful of exceptions, that’s just not what I am seeing, quite the contrary even.

Maybe it’s union indolence, conservative obstructionism, or just the quiet manifestation of all the reasons that public choice theory is actually more relevant as a left-wing school of thought than a conservative one. The fact remains that the incentives within modern politics and governance has brought us here, to a place where people want the same thing they always have: everything. And they’re willing to pay exactly as much as they always have: nothing. The difference is that our institutions used to give people incentive to bargain within the political marketplace and hammer out a deal where prices, both in dollars and political support, led to an an actual outcome where everyone ended up better off. Maybe it wasn’t as efficient as the private marketplace, but that’s almost besides the point. Sometimes the most important thing isn’t maximizing efficiency, but just managing to build the public good at all.

Instead, we seemed to have arrived at an equilibrium with enough legacy rent-seekers that the system is choking on them, with no one willing to flinch unless they continue to enjoy the previously established flow of benefits. We can try to blame this on conservative obstruction, but the fact remains that there just isn’t that much work for them to do. It’s a lot easier to tell voters they shouldn’t have to pay taxes when those taxes are disappearing into the suppurating maw of insatiable contractors, unfunded pension obligations, unplacatable union reps, and a menagerie of regulations that accomplish nothing but make a advocate 2 years removed from an overpriced BA in communications feel good about levying just one more papercut on a bloated corpse.

I have no idea if “supply-side” progressivism will gain anymore purchase than any of the other ad hoc attempts to coin a school of thought or political identity. But the idea stands, and I think it’s unescapable: if we want the government to be able to build stuff while leaving the 13th Amendment intact, they’re going to have to be able to pay market prices, and market wages, for it. Not much more, not much less.

Elasticity of Substitution or Why Simple Tools Teach Us Tons

I enjoy simple methods in economics. For economic history, which is my field of specialization, its often by constraint that I have to use them. Because of that, one has to be creative. In the process, however, one spots how well-used simple methods can be more powerful (both in terms of pedagogy and explanatory uses) than more advanced methods. Let me show you an example from Canadian history: the fur trade industry.

Yes, Canada’s mighty beaver! Generally known for its industriousness, the beaver has been mostly appreciated for its pelt which was the main export staple from Canada during the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, if one is pressed to state what they think of when they think about Canada, fur pelts come in the top 10 (if not the top 5). It is thus unsurprising that there are hundreds of books on the business history of the fur trade in Canada.

One big thesis in Canadian economic history is that the fur trade was actually a drag on economic development (here and here and, most importantly, here with a wikipedia summary here). The sector’s dominance meant that the colony was not developing a manufacturing sector or other industries such as the timber, cod fishing, agriculture or potash. Political actors were beholden to a class of fur merchants who dominated. In a way, it looks a lot like the resource curse argument. And, up to 1810-1815, the industry represents the vast majority of exports (north of 60% always and generally around 75%). During the French colonial era, they represented 20% of GDP at some ponts.

Its only after 1815 that furs collapse as a staple — and quite rapidly. It represented less than 10% of exports and less than 2% of GDP by 1830. To explain the rapid turnaround, most of the available work has focused on demand for the industry’s output (see here) or internal industry factors. In a weird way, the industry is taken in isolation.

And that is where a simple tool like the elasticity of substitution between inputs becomes useful. First, I want you to notice the dates I invoked for the turning point: 1810-1815. These are not trivial years. They mark the end of the contest at sea between Britain and France and the beginning of the former’s hegemony on the sea. This means few trade interruptions due to war and insecurity at sea. Before 1815, the colonies in North America would have experienced nearly one year out of two.

What does that have to do with the fur trade’s dominance and elasticity of substitution? Well, it could be that war affects industry differently. Lets look at isoquants for a second to see how that could be the case. Imagine a constant elasticity of substitution function of the following shape:

Where L and K are your usual terms for labor and capital and r is the elasticity. Now, for the sake of argument, let us imagine what happens to the isoquant of a production function as r tends to infinity. As it tends to infinity, the marginal rate of technical substitution between L and K approaches zero if L > K. This means that there is a form of pure complementarity between inputs and no substitution is possible to produce the same quantity of output. The isoquant looks like this.

As r tends to infinity

On the other hand, if r tends to -1, there is perfect substitutability between both L and K. The isoquant then looks like this.

As r tends to -1

What if the fur industry’s isoquant looked more like the latter case while other industries looked like the former? More precisely, what if wars affected the supply of one input more than another? With a simple element like our description of the production function above, we see that if wars did not evenly affected the supply of one input, then one industry would be forced to contract output more than another. In our case, this would be the timber, potash, cod and agricultural sectors versus the fur trade.

Does that fit with the historical evidence? We know that the fur industry frequently changed the inputs it used in trading with the First Nations of Canada to buy furs. Whatever was deemed most valued by the natives would be what would be used. It could be alcohol, clothing, firearms, furnishings, silverware, tobacco, spices, salt, etc. This we get clearly from the work of Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis (a book linked to above). There was great ability to substitute. In contrast, other industries could not shift as easily. Take the timber industry which needed to import axes, saws, hoops, iron and nails from France or the United Kingdom for most of the 18th century. If wars disrupted the supply of these capital goods from Europe, there was very little substitution available which meant that the timber industry would have to contract output considerably to reflect the higher cost of these items. The same thing applies to the cod fishing industry whose key input was salt. No salt, no drying of the cod for preservation and export, thus no cod exports. And salt needed to be imported. In wartime, salt prices tended to jump much faster than other goods because its supply was entirely imported. Thus, wartime meant that the cod industry had to contract its output quite importantly.

The cod fishing industry is an amazing example of this if you take the American revolutionary war. During the war, the colony of Quebec (which represented 85% + of Canada’s population at the time) was invaded by the Americans and the French’s alliance with the Americans jeopardized trade between Quebec and Britain (its mother country at that point). The result was that salt prices jumped rapidly compared to all other goods and the output of the cod industry contracted. In contrast, the fur trade sector was barely affected. Look at this graph of the exports of beaver skins and codfish. Codfish output collapses whereas beaver skins barely show any sign of a major military conflagration.

In a longer-run perspective, its easy now to understand why the industry was dominant. It was the only industry that was robust to wartime shocks. All other industries would have had quite large shifts in factor prices causing them to contract and expand output in a very volatile manner. Now you may think this is just a trivial re-arranging of the argument. It is not because it invalidates the idea that the colony was poor or developed slowly because of the dominance of the fur industry. Rather, it shifts the burden on wartime shocks. Wars, not the dominance of the fur trade itself, meant that the economy was heavily mono-industrial.

A simple tool, the elasticity of substitution (which we can derive from the marginal rate of technical substitution), changes the entire interpretation of Canadian economic history. Can you see what I mean by the claim that simple tools combined with simple empirical observations can lead to powerful explanations? I hope you do! 

How Many Semiconductor Chips Are There in a Car?

I recently read a statement that there is something like 1400 individual semiconductor chips in a typical modern car.  I wondered, “Can that be correct?”   1400 is a lot of anything.  I have torn apart whole PCs and found only a few dozen chips.

Chips in cars have big economic significance. As called out on a post back in March, COVID shutdowns of semiconductor plants and other factors meant a shortage of critical chips for cars. This has led to extensive shutdowns of car and truck assembly lines in 2021, affecting employment and auto maker profits.  It is estimated that the world lost 11.3 million units of production in 2021 due to the chip shortage, and may lose another 7 million units in 2022.

But back to 1400  chips…I did not find the One True Pronouncement of chips in cars (a promising N Y Times article lay tantalizingly behind a paywall). But I found a number of statements that corroborated that order of magnitude, and also fleshed out the many uses for such chips.

This picture is worth maybe 1400 words:

Source

Here is an even more detailed diagram (sorry, hard to read):

Source

Cars and trucks have something like 100 distinct electronics modules, and each module has multiple chips. Wiring in cars is expensive and vulnerable, so it is better to distribute the information processing rather than run a bunch of wires back to one central processor.

The chip supply situation should sort itself out by 2024, if all goes well. Meanwhile, electronics has become the tail that wags the automotive dog – – electronics have gone from being just 18% of a car’s cost in 2000, to being 40% of its cost in 2020 , and projected to be 45% by 2030:

When is it rational to give up on Covid?

Omicron is highly contagious, but has far lower rates of associated hospitalization and death. By one estimate it is essentially 3 times deadlier than the standard flu, which is bad, but modest compared to previous variants of Covid-19. The vaccines, especially the mRNA vaccines, appear to help a lot towards further mitigating the cost of infection. That all said, there’s no reason to yet be confident it precludes one from “long Covid” symptoms, many of which are moderately terrifying to a relatively healthy person such as myself.

But, after being vaccinated and begging everyone in your life to get vaccinated, is there anything else we can do at this point? There is a cost-benefit analysis happening in all of our heads now, and many of us who were stridently in the “isolate at home and wait until the vaccine miracle arrives” camp got our miracle, only to find out other people were…less enthusiastic. Then Omicron showed up and it started to feel like the only options are to either return to home isolation (perhaps even more strictly than before) or just accept that you’re going to get it.

I don’t know the answer to this question, but as I sit here, wondering if any body ache or cough is the beginning of “my turn” with Covid, there isn’t the fear or rage I would have previously expected. Just a quiet resignation, a hope that my to-do-list doesn’t grow to unmanageable proportions while I am down, and a gratitude that my entire family (in the broadest possible definition) is vaccinated and boosted.

The road here has been long and dumb, but it also might be near the end. Not because we won, but because we’ve arrived at a point where more people will survive their bad decision-making while imposing a far smaller cost on the rest of us than before. Which is fine, I guess.

But is it? Or have we just let the experience of the last two years beat down our expectations to the point where we’ll willing to accept an endemic version of mild Covid and move on with our lives? You’d think the main take away would be that mankind has arrived at a point where we can make a bespoke vaccine in 18 months (it probably should be), but in all honesty I find our incredible innovation less shocking than how easily grotesque anti-science fictions have become not just limits on public health, but bonafide popular campaign strategies, rigid spines capable of supporting functioning political coalitions. Angry, dangerous people have found each other, found community, and many very ambitious people have figured out how to speak directly to them. I don’t see any way that isn’t a problem going forward.

I remain more optimistic than pessimistic with regards to our global future, but I can’t shake the feeling that this particular denouement to the pandemic should be viewed cautiously in how it portends for the near future.

A paper that needs to be written: Does WebMD save lives?

I have a few friends who are physicians. Often, they tell me tales of crazy patients who did/said (both) crazy things. Often, the topic of eHealth platforms like WebMD comes up. Each of those friends has expressed a variant of anger at those platforms because patients self-diagnose. Thinking about it, its clear that they think that the platforms make health outcomes worse.

But is that correct? One could reply that there are a few studies suggesting that the platforms are providing reliable information. One could also reply that it solves a problem of asymmetric information whereby the doctors cannot easily “hide” information to their patients. But both replies are, in my opinion, a bit lazy. A more important question is: did it save lives?

Let me take a personal example. A few months ago, my two year old got sick. He had a fever with a temperature of 38.8 celsius. That had me worried a bit. However, I googled the information and found that children tend to have higher body temperatures than adults and the range of “worrisome” temperatures is thus a slight notch higher. This information got me reassured and I simply waited it out and kept monitoring the temperature. I did not consume any medical services in the end.

Now, lets do a proper counterfactual in which the technological constraint facing me is that of the 1970s or 1960s — not medical dark ages by any means. What would I have done absent the internet? Most likely, I would have gone to a clinic for a consult. The physician doing that consult would not have been available for another patient while he told me to go home, wait three days (or give him baby tylenol), visit back only if the temperature increased above 39 celsius.

That example may appear trivial, but it illustrates the point about how WebMD and other eHealth platforms might be saving lives: they liberate medical resources by eliminating ignorance about trivial problems that are time-consuming for physicians. In fact, I might go a step further by pointing out that there were numerous “grandmother’s remedies” still being held as true in the 1960s and 1970s — beliefs that may have been counterproductive and would have forced physicians to needlessly expend resources.

I tried to find economic studies about the effect of eHealth platforms (especially if they tested the mechanism above). Unfortunately, I found absolutely nothing. This is a paper that needs to be written.

Happy New Year!

Did you notice that social media had much less traffic and activity today? It seems like even less than on Christmas.

I was instantly sick about all of the emails that went out early in the COVID times from companies that said that “we’re in this together”. Frankly – no we weren’t. Lots of people dissented and still do today.

To a great degree, we share a great deal in common. If you didn’t work today, then you probably spent time with family and friends – it’s a relatively secular holiday. Even if you did work, you probably resented it a little.

But, we do share common experiences otherwise. Make sure that you get home safely tonight. Maybe check-in on your friends in the morning. Be sure to reflect on your life from the past year. Plan like you have many years in front of you and live like you have a single day in front of you.

Happy new year everyone from Economistwritingeveryday.com !

Mouse Wars: Amazon Mousetrap Reviews as Literature

I have looked at various mouse traps on Amazon. The reviews there are a tremendous source of information. Folks get passionate about their battles with the little rodents who invade and foul their homes. Some reviews soar to literary heights. Here is a user who pours out his despair over being bested by a mouse:

Earthlings Beware!!!! The Toughest Mouse in the World Still Lives: You Could Be NEXT!!!!!!!

Reviewed in the United States on June 30, 2020

These traps were incredibly easy to used and bait. However, I bought these traps To prevent my pets or children from getting injured and to spare my wife from picking up the dead mouse if I wasn’t home. In theory it was the perfect conceptualized mouse trap for a busy house. When this trap arrived I was ready to declare war on the invaders. I put on my camo gear, covered my face with camo paint took some peanut butter out of the cabinet and baited this rodent killing machine. I turned the switch to “set” and tucked it in a spot where I saw mouse droppings. Then I shut off all the lights, Turned on my night vision goggles and waited. Nothing happened, that fury bastard beat me, but I was determined to win the war. I repeated the process the second night only this time I used popcorn to make a trail to the plastic rodent guillotine. I set the trap and went to bed. By dawn I woke up like a child on Christmas, went running down the stairs and to the trap. Boom! The indicator on the side said mouse caught! The pride of winning this battle washed over me. I had defended my castle against an fierce enemy . But wait, why is the trap so light? Surely if a dead mouse was in here I would have been able to feel the weight difference of such a light and sleekly designed trap. I rotated the device in my hand to peer inside of the killing machine. There I stood, with all the pride draining from my short lived victory. The mouse had indeed been attracted to the trap, it followed the popcorn trail of happiness right inside of the devil’s mouth to feast on the peanut butter buffet set up inside. Once inside it tripped the killing mechanism as designed. But this mouse in my house was no ordinary mouse. He must have been a ninja mouse because he dodged the killing instrument likely with a three quarter lateral spin and landed on one hand. He proceeded to eat the peanut butter, then chew his way out of the trap to warn the other ninja mice. I was beaten, defeated by a mouse. I packed up my family and our belongings and moved to new house leaving our old house to the victor. At my new house though, we adopted 70 cats, and although we smell like a mixture of broken dreams and cat urine we never heard from the ninja warrior mouse or his friends again.

 Tomcat Kill & Contain Mouse Trap, 2 Traps  , review by “Brain“

Here is gangsta-style epic, ending in a bitter-sweet victory:

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Effective Advocacy

What does effective political advocacy look like? There is an entire school of thought dedicated to effective altruism. Givewell.org exists solely to evaluate and promote efficient, high-impact charities to help donors maximize the value their donations create. But what about political advocacy? It doesn’t fall neatly within the realm of altruism or charity – there is certainly nothing wrong with advocacy on behalf of yourself or a group you count yourself among, but it’s not altruistic in the classic sense. It also doesn’t conform to the neater forms of dollar efficiency or target outcome analysis that a charity might be evaluated along. Political outcomes don’t always lend themselves to intuitive metrics, or even agreement over whether an outcome should be counted a good or bad thing. There’s nothing especially convenient about political advocacy as a tool for welfare maximization, but that doesn’t free us from its necessity. Abandoning politics for it’s frequent ugliness concedes the power of of governance to the ugliest among us.

Political advocacy requires, nearly by definition, to interface with government institutions. In the case of a democracy, this means working within the limits and incentive structures of politics, and all of the complexity that entails. Leaving behind the relatively straightforward prices and incentives of the marketplace, as well as the fungibility of direct charitable donations, politics demands coping with indirect routes to measurable outcomes and, most importantly, the inevitable arrival of oppositional forces. It doesn’t take long in any meaningful advocacy engagement before the arrival of people and resources working explicitly, if not directly, counter to your efforts. This is not something you have to deal with in most charitable endeavors – efforts to shutdown city food banks and block textbooks from reaching African schoolchildren are thankfully rare.

So, again, what might an effective advocacy practice look like? I imagine it would bare scarce resemblance to your modal election campaign, where the emphasis is on manufacturing turnout in a zero-sum competition with your opponent. I also doubt it would look like most lobbying efforts, where the dollars at work represent the selection-effects of classic collective action problems. Rather than the efficient welfare maximization that a hypothetical EffectiveAdvocacy.org would aspire to, the lion share of lobbying simply represents the interests of firms and groups who have identified a bundle of policies whose benefits are sufficiently concentrated within them that it is worth organizing, while at the same time the broader social costs are sufficiently spread out that an opposing forces cannot similarly get over the organizational hump (Yes, I know this is a restatement of the standard Olsonian collective action model of lobbying. Bear with me.)

Effective advocacy would demand working with not just the limited resources of a group without a built-in constituency of concentrated benefits, but also a focused strategy of identifying welfare-maximizing policies unlikely to generate organizable opposition. That’s a tall order. I mean, if you’re going to convince me such a thing is feasible, an example would go a long way. Can you name one?

I’m glad I asked.

The good people at Marginal Revolution posting a link to a paper about the de facto banning of HIV home tests that has been in effect at the FDA for almost 40 years. Suffice it to say, the banning of home tests for a deadly communicable disease is a horrifying policy, one that has without question killed people by the thousands at best and the millions at worst. I imagine the origin story of this regulatory horror is not dissimilar from the opposition to the HPV vaccine – a macabre desire to raise the costs of an undesired behavior. Homosexuality was viewed by many in the not distant past as a choice, HIV/AIDS was killing homosexuals, and a home test would feasibly lower the risk to gay men, so advocates successfully blocked the development of tests. Why did opposition to HPV vaccines find less success? Because HPV is connected to cervical cancer in everyone, and being pro-cancer in the 2010’s enjoyed less popular support than being anti-gay in the 1980s.

This story is a tragic history, but it also represents an opportunity for effective advocacy. The policy, born of homophobia, would never enjoy such popular support today. It survives almost exclusively of regulatory inertia today. A minimum of lobbying resources could feasibly end the policy in large part because it’s originating constituency is diminished and would be unlikely to successfully organize.

This, in a nutshell, is the opportunity for effective advocacy – the strategic search for welfare-harming policies whose originating constituencies have shrunken or disappeared. It’s not particularly exciting, the notion of combing through policies on the books, agency by agency, looking for harmful policies with little to no continuing political support, but it is in that lack of excitement within which the opportunity lies. Reform of headline- and chryon-inducing policies have built in opposition. Any political or politics-adjacent effort that garners significant media attention always promises similar attention for opposing forces. It is within the boring stuff, the bureaucratic protocols and categorical bans produced at the margins of historical political battles, where advocacy, particularly crowd-sourced efforts, motivated by the same sentiments behind effective altruism and efficient charity might make contributions to our government institutions in the best way possible: by making changes that nobody can get attention from opposing.

That’s just one opportunity for effective altruism: inattention. There are no doubt more, but I suspect many will share at least a sliver of unsexy monotony. A better world through boredom.