On proving that elections will make you miserable.

On proving that elections will make you miserable.

sphereIn economics,  proofs often begin with the words If we consider a ball of radius R centered at the point X in R n I wrote those words so many times.  Reading them now, they sound quite strange to me.

A math course called “real analysis” was a prerequisite for economics.  Presumably real analysis would’ve taught me to write proofs, perhaps well enough that I’d understand why I wrote the words I did.  But my university had recently implemented an online registration system, and its glitchiness meant I could skip pre-reqs, and that I was able to enroll in both economics and inorganic chemistry during the 10 am to 11:30 time slot.  I attended economics except when there was a chemistry exam.  And still don’t know for certain what “real analysis” entails.

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As it happens, my wavelength was too small to actually be in both places at once … but Oncourse didn’t know that.

But I know that the word “ball,” in the world of mathematics, is a generic term for round things.  You have two dots in one dimension, a circle in two, a sphere in three, then a “ball” in four or more.

The number of dimensions is what the “n” stands for in “R n.”  In the world of economics proofs, you might have any number.  Of course, in our day to day lives, most of us are familiar with only two or three (yes, yes, physicists claim that we should understand four, because we move along three spatial axes and time.  But I can move forward and back, left and right, up and down.  I’ll continue to think of my world as three-dimensional until I learn to move with equal faculty into the future and the past).  But economists need more because they like to give each variable its own dimension.  Instead of “up and down,” a dimension in an economics proof might be the weather, the number of factories, the number of workers in a population.

Sliding along an axis can seem incredibly grim if you momentarily forget that a proof is supposed to be abstract.  It’s just an imaginary line projecting endlessly through space, but what does it mean?

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A homeless man down and out in New York City. (Photo by lujoma ny)

For workers, sliding back toward zero means lives destroyed, people unemployed, hustling to pay rent, to keep the lights on, to feed their kids.  Or worse.  Alongside Primo Levi in the Buna concentration camp, the number of workers could be varied at will.  There seemed to be endless numbers of condemned to add, and each decrease meant another murdered man.

Luckily, in class we worked quickly enough that there was no time to think of that.  The professor would scrawl his solution upon the board, I’d copy it into my notes, struggling to keep up.

Or perhaps I lost you earlier.  Maybe you hadn’t realized that there even were proofs in economics.  I hadn’t, before I enrolled.  I expected only to draw crisscrossing lines, mark where they intersected, claim that should be your greeble’s price.  A “greeble” being, for some reason or other, the default name for an imaginary product for which the supply and demand can be used to determine a price.

I learned about these mythical “greebles” in high school, in an economics class that moved many-fold more slowly than the university class.  In high school there was more time to sit and wonder what a greeble was.  I drew pictures in my spiral notebook.  Most of these pictures made the greeble look like either a strange pet or a military weapon.  There were many vicious-looking weapons drawn in my high school notebooks.  I hated being there.  I wrote stories about blowing up the school.  Not that I was a violent kid.  I was already vegetarian because I hated hurting things.  But I certainly drew a lot of death and destruction.  Then, of course, the Columbine shootings happened and I had to stop drawing those pictures.  Writing those stories.  Murderous ideation was no longer safe.  Even once I’d stopped, they started sending me to the principle’s office about once a month.  That did not make me like school more.

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One of my notebook covers from high school.  Maybe you get the idea.

From then on, at my school, even suicidal ideation was something you had to keep to yourself.  Luckily, I was a pretty happy kid.  I rarely thought about that sort of thing more than once a day.  Still don’t.

But, yes, in economics there are proofs.  One famous proof we reproduced was “Arrow’s impossibility theorem,” which states mathematically that if a population is trying to vote, they’re doomed.  There is no fair voting system that picks the most-preferred candidate out of a set of three or more.  Your options are a dictatorship or else electing some schmuck whom nobody really wants.

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Maybe that sounds like an argument in favor of a two-party system.  But it isn’t, not really.  If you’re worried that from a set of options the best one won’t be picked, the best solution isn’t to offer only two of the crummier options from that set.  People still won’t get what they want.  All you’ve accomplished is to blast even their illusion of a fair choice.  In a two-party system people are still doomed, but they’re so clearly doomed that you don’t even need Kenneth Arrow’s fancy proof for them to know it.

As it happens, it’s election season again.  It so often is, because “election season” seems to run approximately two years out of each four-year presidential term, and sometimes a year or more for even two-year congressional terms, and huge numbers of people devote eighty, ninety, hundred hour work weeks toward their efforts to get this dude or that dude or (finally!) this lady elected.

Jason Pruett's small cartoons of each of the U.S. presidents.
Art by Jason Pruett.

Whenever I feel bad about how long I’ve spent working on a project, I remember the number of person hours that are guaranteed to be wasted each election cycle.  Because huge numbers of people work full-time to get their preferred candidate elected, and all but one won’t win.  Maybe they console themselves by thinking at least by running, we helped change the tenor of the national debate!  But, let’s be real.  Even when fewer than a third of the populace votes for a dude, he’ll refer only to the (bizarre!) electoral college numbers and claim to have received a clear mandate for action.

Nobody cares about the platform the losers were running on.  And most everybody is guaranteed to be a loser.  Even (especially?) the voters.

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My personal political inclinations include taxation to assess the fair price of business externalities, free trade, open borders, lax enforcement against possession of tools for self-harm (drugs), strict enforcement against possession of tools for other-harm (guns, automobiles), progressive income taxes such that people pay (or are reimbursed) relative to what they’d likely lose or gain if we had anarchy instead of our current government.

If I were trying to be cheeky, I’d draw a parallel between my ideas about progressive income tax and the conceptual framework behind electric potential, the idea that the energy at each point is equal to the work that would’ve been done to drag a test charge there from infinitely far away.  Instead of a field-less void somewhere far off in the distance, I imagine people being launched into their current wealth or poverty from an undifferentiated state of Hobbesian anarchy.

Donald_Trump_September_3_2015_(cropped)But maybe the physics metaphor would seem too twee.  So (a la Trump, I’m not going to say they’re weak.  But they’re weak), I won’t subject you to it.

I’m pro-genetically modified foods, anti-pesticide.  Pro-vaccination, pro-childhood nutrition, against our current quantity of medical spending.  Most doctors think there needs to be a conversation about how much the government should pay for each quality-of-life-adjusted year.  I think even that is not enough.  We need a concurrent conversation about how long humans should live.  About what we as a people consider to be the meaning of life and the best way for our spending to reflect that.  Because any threshold for how much we’ll spend on each quality-of-life-adjusted year will result in untenable costs if medical advances keep allowing people to live longer.

19820235745_9ef17f2551_zAll of which means that, yup, as ever, no politician will (or should, honestly) care about what I stand for.  I’ll vote for the old hippie commie guy in the primary (if I get to vote.  I probably won’t get to, though.  My state’s primary is scheduled relatively late), and then throw away my vote in the general election (what with our electoral college, most people’s votes are submerged at that stage.  I think there’ll be something like eight states where the vote will be close enough that all people waiting in line for their turn in the booth can delude themselves into thinking that their votes matter).

Which, again, does sound awful.  Like, isn’t there a better way?

Well, yes.  There is a better way.  There are many better ways than the strange system our country has contrived.  But at least I had the experience of jotting out the full proof to know that there is no perfect way.

(Somehow I’d deluded myself into thinking that typing this essay would make me happy.  I see now that I was wrong.)

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

CaptureDespite being rather politically liberal, I consider myself a free market economist.

(Maybe it’s unfair to self-describe as an economist, though?  I did the coursework for a master’s degree in economics… but couldn’t get a degree because I didn’t complete the residency requirement.  I was enrolled as an undergraduate at the time, and apparently would’ve needed to be enrolled as a graduate student for my coursework to count.)

Sure, there are instances where free markets don’t fare so well — the free market solution to entertainment is for people to pirate whatever they’d like to watch, hear, or read, and then for producers of those media to realize they can never turn a profit.  But for many types of commerce, free markets work great.

But, just like the term “pro-life” (I describe myself as pro-life, for instance, which can confuse people because I am a staunch supporter of women’s rights and lives), the words “free market” have taken on a political connotation that doesn’t always gel with actual meaning.

For instance, I promptly began to pout when I read the following paragraphs in James Surowiecki’s New York Review of Books article, “Why the Rich Are So Much Richer“:

CaptureThe redistributive policies [Joseph] Stiglitz advocates look pretty much like what you’d expect.  On the tax front, he wants to raise taxes on the highest earners and on capital gains, institute a carbon tax, and cut corporate subsidies.  But dealing with inequality isn’t just about taxation.  It’s also about investing.  As he puts it, “If we spent more on education, health, and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy, now and in the future.”  So he wants more investment in schools, infrastructure, and basic research.

If you’re a free-market fundamentalist, this sounds disastrous — a recipe for taking money away from the job creators and giving it to the government, which will just waste it on bridges to nowhere.  But here is where Stiglitz’s academic work and his political perspective intersect most clearly.  The core insight of Stiglitz’s research has been that, left on their own, markets are not perfect, and that smart policy can nudge them in better directions.

A strange turn of phrase.

Sure, it’s reasonable to imagine a free-market fundamentalist kvetching over increased taxes on high earners and capital gains (progressive taxation means that, for anyone outside the bottom tax bracket, choosing to work one additional hour produces income taxed at a higher percentage than the average tax rate being applied to your current income.  So the claim is that progressive taxation causes people to work less.  This claim is unverified, though, and indeed you could make an equally plausible argument for the opposite: if people want a certain post-tax income, raising tax rates will cause them to work more in order to earn that same amount).

But it’s very strange to write that a free-market fundamentalist would consider it “disastrous” to cut corporate subsidies.  How do government handouts to high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers reflect the free market?

They don’t, obviously.  But it’s so ingrained in our culture to equate things like “free-market fundamentalist” and “right-wing economist” that even very bright people (I enjoyed the rest of Surowiecki’s article) sometimes make claims about one when they mean the other.

Similarly, I think that someone who self-describes as “pro-life” should be concerned about women’s well-being, would weigh the well-being of a sentient neglected child above that of a pre-sentient fetus, would be an advocate for economic & social justice, would have empathy for livestock subject to torturous existences in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation), would be appalled that environmental harm & climate destabilization is aggravating armed conflict across the globe.  Obviously I was thrilled to read Thomas Friedman’s editorial, “Why I Am Pro-Life.”  I thought it’d mean I’d get fewer confused looks.

It didn’t.  But it’s still a lovely editorial.

And, getting back to economics: even though right-wing politicians oppose it, a free-market fundamentalist would support a carbon tax.

CaptureProducing carbon is a negative externality.  That means it’s a cost of production that is not inherently paid by the producers — other well-known negative externalities are the raw sewage, bad smells, & concomitant reduced property values brought by CAFOs, or the suddenly poisonous well water in towns adjacent to certain types of coal mines.

For the free market to work properly, negative externalities must be priced through taxation.  If not, too many of the associated good are produced and everyone’s utility (“happiness” is a reasonable synonym for the word “utility”) is lower than it could’ve been.

(Well, almost everyone’s — in some cases net utility is lower, and all but one person’s utility drops, but the person operating a mine at below-market rates and poisoning everyone’s water is happier.  The mine owner might earn enough that he can afford to buy bottled water, a big house, & a politician or two.)

This is analogous to the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that if all shepherds have unlimited free access to a shared space, they’ll have their sheep overgraze it.  After a few years, the grass is dead & everyone’s sheep starve.  Similarly, if we give all corporations unlimited free access to the atmosphere as a garbage bin, each has an incentive to overpollute and kill us all.

If that sounds overdramatic, please read the Easter Island chapter of Jared Diamond’s Collapse.  The book’s central message is that environmental disaster obliterates societies, and Easter Island is perhaps the best example of a once-fertile land pillaged by its inhabitants, who then could not survive minor geological shocks.  To this day the island is covered by grassy hills & insouciant gods, but it was once densely forested & harbored a variety of plant life.  Then the inhabitants chopped down the trees.  In Diamond’s words:

CaptureI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?”  We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity.  Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference.  Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets.  No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

Sure, a free-market fundamentalist would bemoan government interventions like a cap & trade system to regulate pollution.  I’m a hippy-dippy liberal and I hate the idea of cap & trade, too.  But assessing the cost to all for each unit of carbon production, then levying a tax so that corporations know the true consequences of their decisions?  That is a free market solution.

Similarly, a free-market fundamentalist should support government subsidies to education, infrastructure, and basic research.  Those are all goods with significant positive externalities, meaning each produces benefits that accrue to the population as a whole, not just to the individual who had to pay to build a road.  Since the value of these goods to the economy as a whole is undercounted, the correct equilibrium amount won’t be produced unless they are subsidized.

CapturePositive externalities are things like keeping bees.  If you keep bees, you get some honey, maybe you get some pleasure by looking at your hive from time to time.  But your decision to keep bees also makes all nearby farmland more productive.  Because it’d be difficult to track each bee & charge each nearby farmer for every flower fertilized by one of your bees, it’s more sensible to simply subsidize beekeeping (with perhaps some restrictions on where you’re keeping bees — if you’re living in the middle of a city, your bees might not be helping much).

Similarly, if you educate children, employers gain access to a more competent workforce, citizens gain more pleasant neighbors, often less needs to be spent on policing & prisons a few years down the line.  Government-funded research made possible our wireless technologies, the internet, microwave ovens — & these make everyone’s lives more efficient.  The free-market solution that compensates the researchers who gave us all these near-magical technologies is to subsidize their research.

The other common solution, the one that is not a free-market approach but is favored by many right-wing politicians, is to grant patent protections, artificially disallowing all but one corporation from producing any of a good.

That type of distinction is why it saddens me to see habitual misuse of words or phrases as slogans lend them a connotation that’s so different from their actual meaning.  Especially because, in the case of something like “free market” or “pro-life,” the distinction changes the world in appreciable ways.  Like, okay, if everybody wants to use the word “peruse” to mean “skim,” of if everybody wants to use the word “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate,” I’ll just stop using those words.  I don’t want to use them incorrectly, but I don’t want to confuse anyone, either.  But “free market” and “pro-life” are such big, emotionally-charged concepts that I get upset about political efforts to commandeer them.