Tragic Harvey Flooding Was a Known Risk

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Houston-flood-1935

The photo above is downtown Houston during the flood of 1935, which I lifted from a post on Roy Spencer’s blog. The rate of rainfall from Hurricane Harvey in Houston is not unprecedented, according to Spencer. The geographic breadth and duration of the heavy rainfall might be, but ready comparisons are difficult on that basis, even for the 100 years of recorded rainfall in East Texas. The tragic severity of the flood damage is probably unprecedented as well, though the full tally won’t be in for some time. The severity is a consequence of four factors: the breadth of the rainfall, its duration, the growth of the Houston metro area, and the unnecessary development of low-lying areas that can no longer provide effective drainage and absorption of rainfall due to impervious cover.

Harvey was (and is) a big storm, but an unusual aspect of Harvey was the way it stalled after making landfall:

The exact same tropical system moving at, say, 15 mph might have produced the same total amount of rain, but it would have been spread over a wide area, maybe many states, with no flooding disaster. This is usually what happens with landfalling hurricanes. … Instead, Harvey stalled after it came ashore and so all of the rain has been concentrated in a relatively small portion of Texas around the Houston area. In both cases, the atmosphere produced the same amount of rain, but where the rain lands is very different.

Spencer also notes that Harvey is in no way evidence of global warming, as many in the media have implied:

“Roger Pielke Jr. has pointed out that the U.S. has had only four Category 4 (or stronger) hurricane strikes since 1970, but in about the same number of years preceding 1970 there were 14 strikes. So we can’t say that we are experiencing more intense hurricanes in recent decades. … Going back even earlier, a Category 4 hurricane struck Galveston in 1900, killing between 6,000 and 12,000 people. That was the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history. … And don’t forget, we just went through an unprecedented length of time – almost 12 years – without a major hurricane (Cat 3 or stronger) making landfall in the U.S.

As for the role of development in the severity of the flooding, Spencer says:

Major floods are difficult to compare throughout history because the ways in which we alter the landscape. For example, as cities like Houston expand over the years, soil is covered up by roads, parking lots, and buildings, with water rapidly draining off rather than soaking into the soil. The population of Houston is now ten times what it was in the 1920s. The Houston metroplex area has expanded greatly and the water drainage is basically in the direction of downtown Houston.”

Short memories and inaccurate assessments of flood potential might have encouraged excessive building in low-lying areas in and around Houston. However, the profligate extension of federal flood insurance to properties in those areas played a large role. Here is Michael Grunwald:

Nearly two decades before the storm’s historic assault on homes and businesses along the Gulf Coast of Texas this week, the National Wildlife Federation released a groundbreaking report about the United States government’s dysfunctional flood insurance program, demonstrating how it was making catastrophes worse by encouraging Americans to build and rebuild in flood-prone areas.

Houston played a noteworthy role in the report quoted by Grunwald:

‘Houston, we have a problem,’ declared the report’s author, David Conrad. The repetitive losses from even modest floods, he warned, were a harbinger of a costly and potentially deadly future. ‘We haven’t seen the worst of this yet,’ Conrad said.

Climate alarmists would be well-advised to read Spencer’s piece on Harvey. It offers  excellent historical and climatological context. It’s also interesting to read some of the venomous ad hominem sprayed in Spencer’s direction by alarmist trolls in the comments section. Spencer knows too well, however, that “floods aren’t just due to the weather“. Let’s hope that the Houston area won’t be encouraged to rebuild in low-lying areas by prospective subsidies from a federal flood insurance program in need of drastic reform.

Does Google Dominance Threaten Choice, Free Speech and Privacy?

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I’ve long been suspicious of the objectivity of Google search results. If you’re looking for information on a particular issue or candidate for public office, it doesn’t take long to realize that Google searches lean left of center. To some extent, the bias reflects the leftward skew of the news media in general. If you sample material available online from major news organizations on any topic with a political dimension, you’ll get more left than right, and you’ll get very little libertarian. So it’s not just Google. Bing reflects a similar bias. Of course, one learns to craft searches to get the other side of a story,  but I use Bing much more than Google, partly because I bridle instinctively at Google’s dominance as a search engine. I’ve also had DuckDuckGo bookmarked for a long time. Lately, my desire to avoid tracking of personal information and searches has made DuckDuckGo more appealing.

Google is not just a large company offering internet services and an operating system: it has the power to control speech and who gets to speak. It is a provider of information services and a collector of information with the power to exert geopolitical influence, and it does. This is brought into sharp relief by Julian Assange in his account of an interview he granted in 2011 to Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt and two of Schmidt’s advisors, and by Assange’s subsequent observations about the global activities of these individuals and Google. Assange gives the strong impression that Google is an arm of the deep state, or perhaps that it engages in a form of unaccountable statecraft, one meant to transcend traditional boundaries of sovereignty. Frankly, I found Assange’s narrative somewhat disturbing.

Monopolization

These concerns are heightened by Google’s market dominance. There is no doubt that Google has the power to control speech, surveil individuals with increasing sophistication, and accumulate troves of personal data. Much the same can be said of Facebook. Certainly users are drawn to the compelling value propositions offered by these firms. The FCC calls them internet “edge providers”, not the traditional meaning of “edge”, as between interconnected internet service providers (ISPs) with different customers. But Google and Facebook are really content providers and, in significant ways, hosting services.

According to Scott Cleland, Google, Facebook, and Amazon collect the bulk of all advertising revenue on the internet. The business is highly concentrated by traditional measures and becoming more concentrated as it grows. In the second quarter of 2017, Google and Facebook controlled 96% of digital advertising growth. They have ownership interests in many of the largest firms that could conceivably offer competition, and they have acquired outright a large number of potential competitors. Cleland asserts that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FTC essentially turned a blind eye to the many acquisitions of nascent competitors by these firms.

The competitive environment has also been influenced by other government actions over the past few years. In particular, the FCC’s net neutrality order in 2015 essentially granted subsidies to “edge providers”, preventing broadband ISPs (so-called “common carriers” under the ruling) from charging differential rates for the high volume of traffic they generate. In addition, the agency ruled that ISPs would be subject to additional privacy restrictions:

Specifically, broadband Internet providers were prohibited from collecting and using information about a consumer’s browsing history, app usage, or geolocation data without permission—all of which edge providers such as Google or Facebook are free to collect under FTC policies.

As Michael Horney noted in an earlier Free State Foundation Perspectives release, these restrictions create barriers for ISPs to compete in digital advertising markets. With access to consumer information, companies can provide more targeted advertising, ads that are more likely to be relevant to the consumer and therefore more valuable to the advertiser. The opt-in requirement means that ISPs will have access to less information about customers than Google, Facebook, and other edge providers that fall under the FTC’s purview—meaning ISPs cannot serve advertisers as effectively as the edge providers with whom they compete.”

Furthermore, there are allegations that Google played a role in convincing Facebook to drop Bing searches on its platform, and that Google in turn quietly deemphasized its social media presence. There is no definitive evidence that Google and Facebook have colluded, but the record is curious.

Regulation and Antitrust

Should firms like Google, Facebook, and other large internet platforms be regulated or subjected to more stringent review of past and proposed acquisitions? These companies already have great influence on the public sector. The regulatory solution is often comfortable for the regulated firm, which submits to complex rules with which compliance is difficult for smaller competitors. Thus, the regulated firm wins a more secure market position and a less risky flow of profit. The firm also gains more public sector influence through its frequent dealings with regulatory authorities.

Ryan Bourne argues that “There Is No Justification for Regulating Online Giants as If They Were Public Utilities“. He notes that these firms are not natural monopolies, despite their market positions and the existence of strong network externalities. It is true that they generally operate in contested markets, despite the dominance of a just few firms. Furthermore, it would be difficult to argue that these companies over-charge for their services in any way suggestive of monopoly behavior. Most of their online services are free or very cheap to users.

But anti-competitive behavior can be subtle. There are numerous ways it can manifest against consumers, developers, advertisers, and even political philosophies and those who espouse them. In fact, the edge providers do manage to extract something of value: data, intelligence and control. As mentioned earlier, their many acquisitions suggest an attempt to snuff out potential competition. More stringent review of proposed combinations and their competitive impact is a course of action that Cleland and others advocate.  While I generally support a free market in corporate control, many of Google’s acquisitions were firms enjoying growth rates one could hardly attribute to mismanagement or any failure to maximize value. Those combinations expanded Google’s offerings, certainly, but they also took out potential competition. However, there is no bright line to indicate when combinations of this kind are not in the public interest.

Antitrust action is no stranger to Google: In June, the European Union fined the company $2.7 billion for allegedly steering online shoppers toward its own shopping platform. Google faces continuing scrutiny of its search results by the EU, and the EU has other investigations of anticompetitive behavior underway against both Google and Facebook.

It’s also worth noting that antitrust has significant downsides: it is costly and disruptive, not only for the firms involved, but for their customers and taxpayers. Alan Reynolds has a cautionary take on the prospect of antitrust action against Amazon. Antitrust is a big business in and of itself, offering tremendous rent-seeking benefits to a host of attorneys, economists, accountants and variety of other technical specialists. As Reynolds says:

Politics aside, the question ‘Is Amazon getting too Big?’ should have nothing to do with antitrust, which is supposedly about preventing monopolies from charging high prices. Surely no sane person would dare accuse Amazon of monopoly or high prices.

Meanwhile, the proposed Amazon-Whole Foods combination was approved by the FTC and the deal closed Monday.

Speech, Again

Ordinarily, my views on “speech control” would be aligned with those of Scott Shackford, who defends the right of private companies to restrict speech that occurs on their platforms. But Alex Tabbarok offers a thoughtful qualification in asking whether Google and Apple should have banned Gab:

I have no problem with Twitter or Facebook policing their sites for content they find objectionable, such as pornography or hate speech, even though these are permitted under the First Amendment. A free market in news doesn’t mean that every newspaper must cover every story. A free market in news means free entry. But free entry is exactly what is now at stake. Gab was created, in part, to combat what was seen as Facebook’s bias against conservative news and views. If Gab or services like cannot be accessed via the big platforms that is a significant barrier to entry.

When Facebook and Twitter regulate what can be said on their platforms and Google and Apple regulate who can provide a platform, we have a big problem. It’s as if the NYTimes and the Washington Post were the only major newspapers and the government regulated who could own a printing press.

In a pure libertarian world, I’d be inclined to say that Google and Apple can also police whom they allow on their platforms. But we live in a world in which Google and Apple are bound up with and in some ways beholden to the government. I worry when a lot of news travels through a handful of choke points.

This point is amplified by Aaron M. Renn in City Journal:

The mobile-Internet business is built on spectrum licenses granted by the federal government. Given the monopoly power that Apple and Google possess in the mobile sphere as corporate gatekeepers, First Amendment freedoms face serious challenges in the current environment. Perhaps it is time that spectrum licenses to mobile-phone companies be conditioned on their recipients providing freedoms for customers to use the apps of their choice.

That sort of condition requires ongoing monitoring and enforcement, but the intervention is unlikely to stop there. Once the platforms are treated as common property there will be additional pressure to treat their owners as public stewards, answerable to regulators on a variety of issues in exchange for a de facto grant of monopoly.

Tyler Cowen’s reaction to the issue of private, “voluntary censorship” online is a resounding “meh”. While he makes certain qualifications, he does not believe it’s a significant issue. His perspective is worth considering:

It remains the case that the most significant voluntary censorship issues occur every day in mainstream non-internet society, including what gets on TV, which books are promoted by major publishers, who can rent out the best physical venues, and what gets taught at Harvard or for that matter in high school.

Cowen recognizes the potential for censorship to become a serious problem, particularly with respect to so-called “chokepoint” services like Cloudflare:

They can in essence kick you off the entire internet through a single human decision not to offer the right services. …so far all they have done is kick off one Nazi group. Still, I think we should reexamine the overall architecture of the internet with this kind of censorship power in mind as a potential problem. And note this: the main problem with those choke points probably has more to do with national security and the ease of wrecking social coordination, not censorship. Still, this whole issue should receive much more attention and I certainly would consider serious changes to the status quo.

There are no easy answers.

Conclusions

The so-called edge providers pose certain threats to individuals, both as internet users and as free citizens: the potential for anti-competitive behavior, eventually manifesting in higher prices and restricted choice; tightening reins on speech and free expression; and compromised privacy. All three have been a reality to one extent or another. As a firm like Google attains the status of an arm of the state, or multiple states, it could provide a mechanism whereby those authorities could manipulate behavior and coerce their citizens, making the internet into a tool of tyranny rather than liberty. “Don’t be evil” is not much of a guarantee.

What can be done? The FCC’s has already voted to reverse its net neutrality order, and that is a big step; dismantling the one-sided rules surrounding the ISPs handling of consumer data would also help, freeing some powerful firms that might be able to compete for “edge” business. I am skeptical that regulation of edge providers is an effective or wise solution, as it would not achieve competitive outcomes and it would rely on the competence and motives of government officials to protect users from the aforementioned threats to their personal sovereignty. Antitrust action may be appropriate when anti-competitive actions can be proven, but it is a rent-seeking enterprise of its own, and it is often a questionable remedy to the ills caused by market concentration. We have a more intractable problem if access cannot be obtained for particular content otherwise protected by the First Amendment. Essentially, Cowen’s suggestion is to rethink the internet, which might be the best advice for now.

Ultimately, active consumer sovereignty is the best solution to the dominance of firms like Google and Facebook. There are other search engines and there are other online communities. Users must take steps to protect their privacy online. If they value their privacy, they should seek out and utilize competitive services that protect it. Finally, perhaps consumers should consider a recalibration of their economic and social practices. They may find surprising benefits from reducing their dependence on internet services, instead availing themselves of the variety of shopping and social experiences that still exist in the physical world around us. That’s the ultimate competition to the content offered by edge providers.

Identity-Inspired Hatred and Censorial Violence

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I favor small government and individual liberty because I believe it confers benefits across the socioeconomic spectrum. But some would actually say that means I share responsibility for the appearance of a mob of white supremacists, Klansmen and Nazis in Charlottesville, VA. Not only that: I share responsibility for the very existence of those groups and any atrocities performed in their name! Even as I condemn them.

Here’s another strange thing: many of my old peacenik friends on the Left now believe that violence is an acceptable response to speech. Apparently not just abhorrent speech from white supremacists. They are willing to forgive, if not endorse, violence perpetrated in the name of “social justice”, whatever that concept’s currently fashionable expanse.

It’s also strange that these former champions of nonviolence now fail to distinguish between violence and speech they find offensive. It’s not just acceptable to confront racists. Whether or not it occurred this way in Charlottesville, it’s now acceptable to start a physical altercation with racists. And it’s worse than that: the “wrong” policy position on anything from immigration to public aid to the minimum wage may be characterized as violence (and racism), and that justifies violent opposition.

Many members of the so-called “Unite the Right” (UtR) coalition came to Charlottesville prepared for a fight. They engaged in racist hate speech (protected by the U.S. Constitution) and they were ready to provoke and threaten their enemies (not protected). Physical aggression can be prosecuted as assault, but racism itself cannot unless it motivates a crime. The young Ohio racist responsible for the death of the counter-protester is certain to be charged with a hate crime.

There are claims that the UtR racists arrived with better weapons for the occasion, including guns (open-carry is legal in VA), than the large crowd of counter-protestors. It’s a noteworthy blessing that not a single shot was fired.

Yes, we should all be eager to denounce the rhetoric of white supremacy, but the role of the leftist groups in the violence that took place in Charlottesville cannot be dismissed. The counter-protest coalition, which was organized over the weeks prior to the UtR demonstration, included Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa, both groups responsible for a number of violent protests in recent memory (and see here). Snopes, the leftist “fact-checking” organization, claims that Antifa is not as violent as the so-called alt-right. If one confines “alt-right” to members of KKK, Neo-Nazi, skinhead, and white supremacist organizations, that might be right. Many members of these groups are undoubtedly dangerous even as individuals. The media, of course, defines alt-right much more broadly.

One can reasonably categorize Antifa and BLM as hate groups in their own right. For example, Antifa has advocated physical violence against Trump supporters, a group constituting almost half of the voting public. BLM marches have featured eliminationist rhetoric toward police: “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon”, and “What do we want? Dead cops!” Furthermore, BLM supporters have not been shy about expressing racist views, and a few (aberrant?) BLM supporters have been charged in a number of recent police killings. Nevertheless, if not explicitly violent or threatening imminent violence, I support their right to speak freely.

Thankfully, white racist organizations today do not represent a significant number of Americans. For example, KKK membership ranged from 3 to 6 million during the first half of the 20th century, but today its numbers are estimated at less than 10,000. The other groups certainly make up some of the difference, but while the number of those organizations has grown recently, they tend to be smaller groups than in the past. In total and as a reflection of modern sentiments among caucasians, they are truly fringe, though you might not know it from media reports.

These groups are entitled to express their hateful views as long as it is speech, not violence or an threat of imminent violence. The leadership of the racists obtained a permit for their demonstration in Charlottesville only after the city was sued on their behalf by the ACLU, much to that organization’s credit. Again, like it or not, hate speech is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and that right must be defended. Nevertheless, the ACLU has been attacked for this principled stance. I think the ACLU would also agree that acceptance of violence in opposition to speech is more dangerous to freedom than the speech rights of the fringe racist population. It will not stop with opposition to racism. Instead, it will metastasize into violence in opposition to a broad range of rhetoric, including legitimate policy positions, and it already has.

Whatever you may think of the relative “merits” and demerits of the antagonists in Charlottesville, there is one fascinating similarity between them: both sides trade in victimhood and advocate statist solutions to the problems they perceive. Jeff Goldstein riffs on this point on Facebook:

Antifa, BLM, CAIR, the New Black Panthers, La Raza, the Pussy Hatters, the KKK — these are all identity movements and all formed and animated by the kind of identity politics championed by the left… The alt-right is only ‘right wing’ in the continental sense. The American conservative is classically liberal, while the American progressive is Fabian socialist.

Don’t listen to labels; follow the assumptions made by each movement — the alt right, the prog left — and you’ll soon recognize that they are the same. This is tribalism, no more and no less. … You should reject this archaic collectivism from whatever group espouses it, because in the end it is simply anti-individualism dressed in mob attire to bolster cowardice and bigotry in numbers.

Similar points are made by Brendan O’Neill:

Both [sides] are obsessed with race, SJWs demanding white shame, the alt-right responding with white pride. Both view everyday life and culture through a highly racialised filter. SJWs can’t even watch a movie without counting how many lines the black actor has in comparison with the white actor so that they can rush home and tumblr about the injustice of it all. Both have a seemingly boundless capacity for self-pity. Both are convinced they’re under siege, whether by patriarchy, transphobia and the Daily Mail (SJWs) or by pinkos and blacks (white nationalists). Both have a deep censorious strain. And both crave recognition of their victimhood and flattery of their feelings. This is really what they’re fighting over — not principles or visions but who should get the coveted title of the most hard-done-by identity. They’re auditioning for social pity.

Finally, this piece, “The Curse of Identity Politics” by Rod Dreher, attributes the dysfunctions of white supremacy and violent social-justice advocacy to a failure of religious leaders and their followers to address inconvenient realities head-on. Some of his argument is persuasive, but a more interesting aspect of his essay relates to actions he believes inspire an awakening of racism and racist action. Here are a few of Dreher’s points:

When the Left indulges in rhetoric that demonizes whites — especially white males — it summons the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left punishes white males who violate its own delicate speech taboos, while tolerating the same kind of rhetoric on its own side, it summons the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left attributes moral status, and moral goodness, to persons based on their race, their sex, their sexual orientation, or any such thing, it summons up the demons of white nationalism.

When the Left refuses to condemn the violent antifa protesters, and treats their behavior as no big deal, it summons the demons of white nationalism.

These things summon not just racism and white nationalism. They also inflame a broader opposition to radical intervention from people of good faith. These people believe in the righteousness of neutral public policy with respect to race, faith, sexual preference, and other dimensions along which the Left demands both ex ante and ex post equality.

Deconstructing the Health Care Administrative State

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A leftist friend chided me early this year for my foolish optimism about repeal and replacement of Obamacare. I have to give her credit. She said the GOP did not have a viable plan — I’m sure she meant that both as a matter of policy and politics. I pointed to the several “plans” that were extant at the time, and even some that I thought might soon be formalized as legislation. I wrote off her skepticism as a failure on her part to understand an approach to health care policy less statist than the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Like so many on the left, she probably has trouble conceiving of any plan not relying on centralized control. Apparently, quite a few Republicans share that blind spot. Nevertheless, I was certainly naive about the prospects of getting anything through Congress quickly.

But the battle is not lost, even now. It should be obvious to everyone, as Michael Tanner notes, that the health care debate is far from over. The individual insurance market is in bad shape, reeling from the unfavorable balance of risks created by community rating, mandated coverage and guaranteed issue. As Robert Laszewski notes, the attrition in the individual market is dominated by individuals not eligible for Obamacare subsidies. While legislation is a much longer shot than I imagined back in January, there remain a variety of ways in which Obamacare’s most deleterious provisions can be neutralized and replaced to create a more market-oriented environment. And though it’s too bad that it might come to this, as the situation continues to devolve, new legislation might gain viability.

Tanner mentions a variety of administrative decisions sitting squarely in the hands of the Trump Administration: insurance company subsidies? congressional exemption from Obamacare? promotion of open enrollment? enforcing the individual mandate? And there are many others. Tim Huelskamp provides a link to The Heartland Institute‘s “complete healthcare reform toolbox“. He says:

“During congressional testimony in March, my former House colleague and HHS Secretary Tom Price pointed out that the law offers him multiple opportunities to do just that: ‘Fourteen hundred and forty-two times … the secretary ‘shall’ or the secretary ‘may” make changes to the Affordable Care Act. The Price is right! Under Obamacare, he has tremendous power and latitude not only to dismantle the ACA but to replace it with health care options that enhance individual freedom.

Let Americans pick their doctors, choose a ‘skinny’ health insurance plan, or even purchase a plan from a company based in another state. The Trump administration can waive penalties on individuals and businesses who simply can’t afford Obama’s mandates.  HHS can give a green light to any state that wants to begin restoring choice and freedom for their citizens without federal bureaucrat interference.

Another productive avenue is deregulation of health care providers themselves. One of the worst aspects of the ACA is its reliance on so-called Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), which were intended to encourage greater cooperation and efficiency among providers. The reality is that the ACO rules imposed by HHS are leading to higher costs, greater financial risk and increased concentration in the provision of medical care. Patients, also, are often penalized by the monopolizing effects, and because they might not be able to continue seeing the doctor of their choice under the limits of the health plans available. Moreover, the ACA infringes upon the doctor-patient relationship by restricting the doctor’s authority and the patient’s choices about tests and treatments that can be provided. Many of these rules and restrictions can be undone by administrative action.

Finally, before we completely dismiss the possibility of a legislative solution, there is a new Republican health care bill to consider in the Senate. However, it is just as limited in its reforms, or more, than the bill that passed in the House and the one that failed in the Senate. It’s unlikely to go anywhere soon. There could be later opportunities to consider various pieces of reform legislation, especially if the Trump Administration makes good on its promises to roll back administrative rules put in place to implement the ACA. Sadly, for now we wait in vain for legislators and President Trump to overcome the intellectual failure at the root of the inaction on ending Obamacare. The lesson is that in human affairs, central planning doesn’t work!

The Comparative Human Advantage

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There are so many talented individuals in this world, people who can do many things well. In fact, they can probably do everything better than most other people in an absolute sense. In other words, they can produce more of everything at a given cost than most others. Yet amazingly, they still find it advantageous to trade with others. How can that be?

It is due to the law of comparative advantage, one of the most important lessons in economics. It’s why we specialize and trade with others for almost all of ours needs and wants, even if we are capable of doing all things better than them. Here’s a simple numerical example… don’t bail out on me (!):

  • Let’s say that you can produce either 1,000 bushels of barley or 500 bushels of hops in a year, or any combination of the two in those proportions. Each extra bushel of hops you produce involves the sacrifice of two bushels of barley.
  • Suppose that I can produce only 500 bushels of barley and 400 bushels of hops in a year, or any combination in those proportions. It costs me only 1.25 bushels of barley to produce an extra bushel of hops.
  • You can produce more hops than I can, but hops are costlier for you at the margin: 2 bushels of barley to get an extra bushel of hops, more than the 1.25 bushels it costs me.
  • That means you can probably obtain a better combination (for you) of barley and hops by specializing in barley and trading some of it to me for hops. You don’t have to do everything yourself. It’s just not in your self-interest even if you have an absolute advantage over me in everything!

This is not a coincidental outcome. Exploiting opportunities for trade with those who face lower marginal costs effectively increases our real income. In production, we tend to specialize — to do what we do — because we have a comparative advantage. We specialize because our costs are lower at the margin in those activities. And that’s also what motivates trade with others. That’s why nations should trade with others. And, as I mentioned about one week ago here, that’s why we have less to fear from automation than many assume.

Certain tasks will be automated as increasingly productive “robots” (or their equivalents) justify the costs of the resources required to produce and deploy them. This process will be accelerated to the extent that government makes it appear as if robots have a comparative advantage over humans via minimum wage laws and other labor market regulations. As a general rule, employment will be less vulnerable to automation if wages are flexible. 

What if one day, as Elon Musk has asserted, robots can do everything better than us? Will humans have anywhere to work? Yes, if human labor is less costly at the margin. Once deployed, a robot in any application has other potential uses, and even a robot has just 24 hours in a day. Diverting a robot into another line of production involves the sacrifice of its original purpose. There will always be uses in which human labor is less costly at the margin, even with lower absolute productivity, than repurposing a robot or the resources needed to produce a new robot. That’s comparative advantage! That will be true for many of the familiar roles we have today, to say nothing of the unimagined new roles for humans that more advanced technology will bring.

Some have convinced themselves that a fully-automated economy will bring an end to scarcity itself. Were that to occur, there would be no tradeoffs except one kind: how you use your time (barring immortality). Superabundance would cause the prices of goods and services to fall to zero; real incomes would approach infinity. In fact, income as a concept would become meaningless. Of course, you will still be free to perform whatever “work” you enjoy, physical or mental, as long as you assign it a greater value than leisure at the margin.

Do I believe that superabundance is realistic? Not at all. To appreciate the contradictions inherent in the last paragraph, think only of the scarcity of talented human performers and their creativity. Perhaps people will actually enjoy watching other humans “perform” work. They always have! If the worker’s time has any other value (and it is scarce to them), what can they collect in return for their “performance”? Adulation and pure enjoyment of their “work”? Some other form of payment? Not everything can be free, even in an age of superabundance.

Scarcity will always exist to one extent or another as long as our wants are insatiable and our time is limited. As technology solves essential problems, we turn our attention to higher-order needs and desires, including various forms of risk reduction. These pursuits are likely to be increasingly resource intensive. For example, interplanetary or interstellar travel will be massively expensive, but they are viewed as desirable pursuits precisely because resources are, and will be, scarce. Discussions of the transition of civilizations across the Kardashev scale, from “Type 0” (today’s Earth) up to “Type III” civilizations, capable of harnessing the energy equivalent of the luminosity of its home galaxy, are fundamentally based on presumed efforts to overcome scarcity. Type III is a long way off, at best. The upshot of ongoing scarcity is that opportunity costs of lines of employment will remain positive for both robots and humans, and humans will often have a comparative advantage.

Ridley’s Case For Free Market Capitalism

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Matt Ridley delivered an excellent lecture in July addressing a generally unappreciated distinction: markets and free enterprise vs. corporatism. Many don’t seem to know the difference. Ridley offers an insightful discussion of the very radical and liberating nature of free markets. The success of the free market system in alleviating poverty and increasing human well-being is glaringly obvious in historical perspective, but it’s become too easy for people to take market processes for granted. It’s also too easy to misinterpret outcomes in a complex society in which producers must navigate markets as well as a plethora of regulatory obstacles and incentives distorted by government.

I agree with almost everything Ridley has to say in this speech, but I think he does the language of economics no favors. I do not like his title: “The Case For Free Market Anti-Capitalism”. Free Markets are great, of course, and they are fundamental to the successful workings of a capitalistic system. Not a corporatist system, but capitalism! Ridley seems to think the latter is a dirty word. As if to anticipate objections like mine, Ridley says:

‘Capitalism’ and ‘markets’ mean the same thing to most people. And that is very misleading. Commerce, enterprise and markets are – to me – the very opposite of corporatism and even of ‘capitalism’, if by that word you mean capital-intensive organisations with monopolistic ambitions.

No, that is not what I mean by capitalism. Commerce, free enterprise, markets, capitalism and true liberalism all imply that you are free to make your own production and consumption decisions without interference by the state. Karl Marx coined the word “capitalism” as a derogation, but the word was co-opted long ago to describe a legitimate and highly successful form of social organization. I prefer to go on using “capitalism” as synonymous with free markets and liberalism, though the left is unlikely to abandon the oafish habit of equating liberalism with state domination.

Capital is man-made wealth, like machines and buildings. It can be used more intensively or less in production and commerce. But capitalism is underpinned by the concept of private property. You might own capital as a means of production, or you might operate an enterprise with very little capital, but the rewards of doing so belong to you. Saving those rewards by reinvesting in your business or investing in other assets allows you to accumulate capital. That’s a good way to build or expand a business that is successful in meeting the needs of its customers, and it’s a good way to provide for oneself later in life.

Capitalism does not imply monopolistic ambitions unless you incorrectly equate market success with monopoly power. Market success might mean that you are an innovator or just better at what you do than many of your competitors. It usually means that your customers are pleased. The effort to innovate or do your job well speaks to an ambition rooted in discovery, service and pride. In contrast, the businessperson with monopolistic ambitions is willing to achieve those ends by subverting normal market forces, including attempts to enlist the government in protecting their position. That’s known as corporatism, rent-seeking, and crony capitalism. It is not real capitalism, and Ridley should not confuse these terms. But he also says this:

Free-market ideas are often the very opposite of business and corporate interests.

Most fundamental to business interests is to earn a profit, and the profit motive is an essential feature of markets and the operation of the invisible hand that is so beneficial to society. Why Ridley would claim that business interests are inimical to free market ideals is baffling.

I hope and believe that Ridley is merely guilty of imprecision, and that he intended to convey that certain paths to profit are inconsistent with free market ideals. And in fact, he follows that last sentence with the following, which is quite right: capitalism is subverted by corporatism:

We need to call out not just the worst examples of crony capitalism, but an awful lot of what passes for capitalism today — a creature of subsidy that lobbies governments for regulatory barriers to entry.

And, of course, crony capitalism is not capitalism!

Now I’ll get off my soapbox and briefly return to the topic of an otherwise beautiful lecture by Ridley. He makes a number of fascinating points, including the following, which is one of the most unfortunate and paradoxical results in the history of economic and social thought:

Somewhere along the line, we have let the market, that most egalitarian, liberal, disruptive, distributed and co-operative of phenomena, become known as a reactionary thing. It’s not. It is the most radical and liberating idea ever conceived: that people should be free to exchange goods and services with each other as they please, and thereby work for each other to improve each other’s lives.

In the first half of the 19th century this was well understood. To be a follower of Adam Smith was to be radical left-winger, against imperialism, militarism, slavery, autocracy, the established church, corruption and the patriarchy.

Political liberation and economic liberation went hand in hand. Small government was a progressive proposition. Insofar as there was a revolution during the Industrial Revolution, it was the weakening of the power of the aristocracy and the landed interests, and the liberation of the bulk of the people.

Do read the whole thing!

Mr. Musk Often Goes To Washington

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Elon Musk says we should be very scared of artificial intelligence (AI). He believes it poses an “existential risk” to humanity and  calls for “proactive regulation” of AI to limit its destructive potential. His argument encompasses “killer robots”: “A.I. & The Art of Machine War” is a good read and is consistent with Musk’s message. Military applications already involve autonomous machine decisions to terminate human life, but the Pentagon is weighing whether decisions to kill should be made only by humans. Musk also focuses on more subtle threats from machine intelligence: It could be used to disrupt power and communication systems, to manipulate human opinion in dangerous ways, and even to sow panic via cascades of “fake robot news”, leading to a breakdown in civil order. Musk has also expressed a fear that AI could have disastrous consequences in commercial applications with runaway competition for resources. He sounds like a businessmen who really dislikes competition! After all, market competition is self-regulating and self-limiting. The most “destructive” effects occur only when competitors come crying to the state for relief!

Several prominent tech leaders and AI experts have disputed Musk’s pessimistic view of AI, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc. Schmidt says:

My question to you is: don’t you think the humans would notice this, and start turning off the computers? We’d have a race between humans turning off computers, and the AI relocating itself to other computers, in this mad race to the last computer, and we can’t turn it off, and that’s a movie. It’s a movie. The state of the earth currently does not support any of these scenarios.

Along those lines, Google’s AI lab known as “DeepMind” has developed an AI off-switch, otherwise known as the “big red button“. Obviously, this is based on human supervision of AI processes and on ensuring the interruptibility of AI processes.

Another obvious point is that AI, ideally, would operate under an explicit objective function(s). This is the machine’s “reward system”, as it were. Could that reward system always be linked to human intent? To a highly likely non-negative human assessment of outcomes? Improved well-being? That’s not straightforward in a world of uncertainty, but it is at least clear that a relatively high probability of harm to humans should impose a large negative effect on any intelligent machine’s objective function.

Those kinds of steps can be regarded as regulatory recommendations, which is what Musk has advocated. Musk has outlined a role for regulators as gatekeepers who would review and ensure the safety of any new AI application. Ronald Bailey reveals the big problem with this approach:

This may sound reasonable. But Musk is, perhaps unknowingly, recommending that AI researchers be saddled with the precautionary principle. According to one definition, that’s ‘the precept that an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.’ Or as I have summarized it: ‘Never do anything for the first time.’

Regulation is the enemy of innovation, and there are many ways in which current and future AI applications can improve human welfare. Musk knows this. He is the consummate innovator and big thinker, but he is also skilled at leveraging the power of government to bring his ideas to fruition. All of his major initiatives, from Tesla to SpaceX, to Hyperloop, battery technology and solar roofing material, have gained viability via subsidies.

But another hallmark of crony capitalists is a willingness to use regulation to their advantage. Could proposed regulation be part of a hidden agenda for Musk? For example, what does Musk mean when he says, “There’s only one AI company that worries me” in the context of dangerous AI? His own company(ies)? Or another? One he does not own?

Musk’s startup OpenAI is a non-profit engaged in developing open-source AI technology. Musk and his partners in this venture argue that widespread, free availability of AI code and applications would prevent malicious use of AI. Musk knows that his companies can use AI to good effect as well as anyone. And he also knows that open-source AI can neutralize potential advantages for competitors like Google and Facebook. Perhaps he hopes that his first-mover advantage in many new industries will lead to entrenched market positions just in time for the AI regulatory agenda to stifle competitive innovation within his business space, providing him with ongoing rents. Well played, cronyman!

Any threat that AI will have catastrophic consequences for humanity is way down the road, if ever. In the meantime, there are multiple efforts underway within the machine learning community (which is not large) to prevent or at least mitigate potential dangers from AI. This is taking place independent of any government action, and so it should remain. That will help to maximize the potential for beneficial innovation.

Musk’s also asserts that robots will someday be able to do “everything better than us”, thus threatening the ability of the private sector to provide income to individuals across a broad range of society. This is not at all realistic. There are many detailed and nuanced tasks to which robots will not be able to attend without human collaboration. Creativity and the “human touch” will always have value and will always compete in input markets. Even if robots can do everything better than humans someday, an absolute advantage is not determinative. Those who use robot-intensive production process will still find it advantageous to use labor, or to trade with those utilizing more labor-intensive production processes. Such are the proven outcomes of the law of comparative advantage.

 

 

Infrastructure: Public Waste & Private Rationality

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The exaggerated deterioration of American infrastructure is the basis of a perfect bipartisan spending coalition. Proposed public spending on capital such as roads, bridges, high-speed rail, locks, dams, and water and wastewater systems is of obvious value to those who would build it, but the benefits for the public are not always beyond question. As Jeffrey Harding notes at the link, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) rates U.S. infrastructure as seriously deficient, but it is in their interests to do so. The news media finds the kind of horror story promoted by ASCE hard to resist:

What they don’t tell you is that if you look at transportation issues over time, things have been getting better, not worse. … The Reason Foundation’s studies on state-owned highways (they are widely recognized as being leaders in this field) and other studies on highways and bridges reveal that there have been significant improvements of infrastructure measures like road and bridge quality and fatalities over the past 20 or 30 years. The facts are that, on the state level, overall spending on highways doubled during that period, and overall measures of highway transportation have improved.

The point of building new infrastructure is the future flow of service it can offer. Creating construction jobs is not the point. If it were, the government could hire workers to dig holes with spoons, to paraphrase Milton Friedman. Nor should the timing of infrastructure investment be dependent on employment conditions. Unworthy projects are not made worthy by high unemployment. Politicians often attempt to sell projects to the public on exactly that basis, yet as Harding points out, increases in public spending on infrastructure seldom happen in a timely manner, and they often fail to create jobs in any case. This is partly due to the regulatory morass that must be navigated to get approval for new infrastructure, and also because the skilled labor required to repair or add infrastructure is usually occupied already, even when the jobless rate is elevated. In addition, expensive infrastructure projects are vulnerable to graft, which is compounded by the many layers of approval that are typically required.

Harding questions the ASCE’s insistence that inadequacy of our infrastructure is inhibiting U.S. productivity growth. If there is any truth to this assertion, it is probably more strongly related to how infrastructure is priced to users than to the state of the facilities themselves. For example, road congestion in certain areas is a chronic problem that can only be solved via efficient pricing, not by endless attempts to expand capacity. Not only does efficient pricing ease congestion, it enhances the profitability of improvements as well as other modes of transportation. A proposal to add infrastructure that is destined to be mis-priced to users is a plan to waste resources.

Donald Trump conveniently bought into and re-sold the notion that America’s infrastructure is unsound, and he is likely to garner support for an infrastructure initiative on both sides of the aisle. He would undoubtedly include the proposed wall at the Mexican border as an infrastructural need, but we’ll leave the wisdom (and payback) of that project aside for purposes of this discussion. As I’ve discussed before on Sacred Cow Chips, President Trump has at least learned that infrastructure is not and should not be the exclusive domain of the public sector. Trump’s infrastructure proposal calls for tax credits for “public-private partnerships” (Harding’s acronym: P3s). As Harding says:

P3s let private companies design, build, and operate new infrastructure projects. According to Bob Poole, the Reason Foundation’s expert on privatization, P3s will result in projects that will be more economically productive (no bridges to nowhere) and would be much more cost effective. … These projects would be based on privatized systems which generate an income stream, and are financed by revenue bonds. Thus, the risks of these projects are shifted to private companies rather than to taxpayers.

P3s solve several problems: they allocate private resources toward facilities for which developers expect high demand and user willingness to pay; they avoid higher levels of general taxation, instead allocating costs to the cost causers (i.e., the users); they give users a more accurate measure of opportunity costs when considering alternatives; and they avoid overuse. Too often, users of public infrastructure pay nothing, or at most they pay enough to cover operating costs with very little contribution to capital costs. Ultimately, that makes the quality and service level delivered by the infrastructure unsustainable. Private developers are unlikely to invest in such boondoggles as long as taxpayers are not obliged to subsidize them.

The P3 tax credits in the Administration’s proposal would certainly represent a public contribution to the funding of a project, but the incentive provided by those credits helps avoid a much more substantial committment of public funds. Moreover, the credits do not create the degree of forced economic stimulus that publicly executed projects often do. Rather, the availability of credits means that projects will be initiated when and if they are economically viable and profitable to do so. We can therefore dispense with the nonsensical goal of “job creation” and focus on the real problems that infrastructure investment can solve.

Some would argue that many types of infrastructure are too public in nature to be left to P3s. In other words, projects with pure public benefits would be under-provided by P3s due an unwillingness to pay by users of “the commons”. Yet there is no rule limiting the public role in the design of a public-private partnership, whether that refers to physical development, operation, or funding. Presumably, the more “public” (and non-exclusive) the benefits, the greater the share of development and maintenance costs that should be funded by government. Whether a piece of true public infrastructure should be funded is a standard question of public finance. Assuming it should, there is likely to be a significant role for private builders and operators. Finally, P3’s do not eliminate the potential for graft. Public review and ongoing regulation would still be demanded. In a sense, P3s are all formalized corporatist efforts, but a key difference relative to current practice is the use and risk of private capital rather than public funds. Ultimately, that won’t matter if failed developments are bailed out by public “partners”. The assets of a failed infrastructure project must be sold off to the highest bidder, presumably at a steep discount.

The standard narrative is that America suffers from substandard infrastructure is highly misleading. There are certainly needs that should be met, many with urgency, and there will always be a series of worthwhile repairs and replacements that require funding. Using P3s to accomplish these objectives demands recognition that 1) users typically derive significant private benefits from infrastructure; and 2) use is often underpriced, especially with respect to allocating capital costs. Infrastructure development can be encouraged by inducing private firms to put “skin in the game”. High-risk but potentially valuable projects might have trouble attracting private funds, of course, and that is as it should be. Politicians might ask taxpayers to fund such a project rather than shopping it to private developers. It therefore behooves voter/taxpayers to evaluate the benefits and sustainability of the project with the utmost skepticism.

Postscript: The image at the top of this post prompts me to reflect on whether a starship is infrastructure. It is certainly a transportation system. Is it a public good? In a large sense, the diversification offered by spreading humanity across multiple worlds can be viewed as a benefit to mankind in the future. But rides on the starship would offer private benefits, depending on one’s sense of adventure as well as the prospects for the home planet. Those private benefits, and the voluntary payments they induce, just might get it done.

The Tyranny of the Job Saviors

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Many jobs have been lost to technology over the last few centuries, yet more people are employed today than ever before. Despite this favorable experience, politicians can’t help the temptation to cast aspersions at certain production technologies, constantly advocating intervention in markets to “save jobs”. Today, some serious anti-tech policy proposals and legislative efforts are underway: regional bans on autonomous vehicles, “robot taxes” (advocated by Bill Gates!!), and even continuing legal resistance to technology-enabled services such as ride sharing and home sharing. At the link above, James Pethokoukas expresses trepidation about one legislative proposal taking shape, sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), to create a federal review board with the potential to throttle innovation and the deployment of technology, particularly artificial intelligence.

Last week I mentioned the popular anxiety regarding automation and artificial intelligence in my post on the Universal Basic Income. This anxiety is based on an incomplete accounting of the “seen” and “unseen” effects of technological advance, to borrow the words of Frederic Bastiat, and of course it is unsupported by historical precedent. Dierdre McCloskey reviews the history of technological innovations and its positive impact on dynamic labor markets:

In 1910, one out of 20 of the American workforce was on the railways. In the late 1940s, 350,000 manual telephone operators worked for AT&T alone. In the 1950s, elevator operators by the hundreds of thousands lost their jobs to passengers pushing buttons. Typists have vanished from offices. But if blacksmiths unemployed by cars or TV repairmen unemployed by printed circuits never got another job, unemployment would not be 5 percent, or 10 percent in a bad year. It would be 50 percent and climbing.

Each month in the United States—a place with about 160 million civilian jobs—1.7 million of them vanish. Every 30 days, in a perfectly normal manifestation of creative destruction, over 1 percent of the jobs go the way of the parlor maids of 1910. Not because people quit. The positions are no longer available. The companies go out of business, or get merged or downsized, or just decide the extra salesperson on the floor of the big-box store isn’t worth the costs of employment.

Robert Samuelson discusses a recent study that found that technological advance consistently improves opportunities for labor income. This is caused by cost reductions in the innovating industries, which are subsequently passed through to consumers, business profits, and higher pay to retained workers whose productivity is enhanced by the improved technology inputs. These gains consistently outweigh losses to those who are displaced by the new capital. Ultimately, the gains diffuse throughout society, manifesting in an improved standard of living.

In a brief, favorable review of Samuelson’s piece, Don Boudreaux adds some interesting thoughts on the dynamics of technological advance and capital-labor substitution:

… innovations release real resources, including labor, to be used in other productive activities – activities that become profitable only because of this increased availability of resources.  Entrepreneurs, ever intent on seizing profitable opportunities, hire and buy these newly available resources to expand existing businesses and to create new ones.  Think of all the new industries made possible when motorized tractors, chemical fertilizers and insecticides, improved food-packaging, and other labor-saving innovations released all but a tiny fraction of the workforce from agriculture.

Labor-saving techniques promote economic growth not so much because they increase monetary profits that are then spent but, instead, because they release real resources that are then used to create and expand productive activities that would otherwise be too costly.”

Those released resources, having lower opportunity costs than in their former, now obsolete uses, can find new and profitable uses provided they are priced competitively. Some displaced resources might only justify use after undergoing dramatic transformations, such as recycling of raw components or, for workers, education in new fields or vocations. Indeed, some of  those transformations are unforeeeable prior to the innovations, and might well add more value than was lost via displacement. But that is how the process of creative destruction often unfolds.

A government that seeks to intervene in this process can do only harm to the long-run interests of its citizens. “Saving a job” from technological displacement surely appeals to the mental and emotive mindset of the populist, and it has obvious value as a progressive virtue-signalling tool. These reactions, however, demonstrate a perspective limited to first-order, “seen” changes. What is less obvious to these observers is the impact of politically-induced tech inertia on consumers’ standard of living. This is accompanied by a stultifying impact on market competition, long-run penalization of the most productive workers, and a degradation of freedom from restraints on private decision-makers. As each “visible” advance is impeded, the negative impact compounds with the loss of future, unseen, but path-dependent advances that cannot ever occur.

Sell the Interstates and Poof — Get a Universal Basic Income

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Proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) seem to come up again and again. Many observers uncritically accept the notion that robots and automation will eliminate labor as a factor of production in the not-too-distant future. As a result, they cannot imagine how traditional wage earners, and even many salary earners, will get along in life without the helping hand of government. Those who own capital assets — machines, buildings and land — will have to be taxed to support UBI payments, according to this logic.

Even with artificial intelligence added to the mix, I view robot anxiety as overblown, but it makes for great headlines. The threat is likely no greater than the substitution of capital for labor that’s been ongoing since the start of the industrial revolution, and which ultimately led to the creation of more jobs in occupations that were never before imagined. See below for more on my skepticism for robot dystopia. For now, I’ll stipulate that human obsolescence will happen someday, or that a great many workers will be displaced by automation over an extended period. How will society manage with minimal rewards for labor? The question of distributing goods and services will depend more exclusively on the ownership of capital, or else it will be charity and/or government redistribution.

The UBI, as typically framed, is an example of the latter. However, a UBI needn’t require government to tax and redistribute income on an ongoing basis. Nobel Prize winner Vernon Smith suggests that the government owns salable assets sufficient to fund a permanent UBI. He suggests privatizing the interstate highway system and selling off federal lands in the West. The proceeds could then be invested in a variety of assets to generate growth and income. Every American would receive a dividend check each year, under this plan.

Why a UBI?

Given the stipulation that human labor will become obsolete, the UBI is predicated on the presumption that the ownership of earning capital cannot diffuse through society to the working class in time to provide for them adequately. Working people who save are quite capable of accumulating assets, though government does them no favors via tax policy and manipulation of interest rates. But accumulating assets takes time, and it is fair to say that today’s distribution of capital would not support the current distribution of living standards without opportunities to earn labor income.

Still, a UBI might not be a good reason to auction public assets. That question depends more critically on the implicit return earned by those assets via government ownership relative to the gains from privatization, including the returns to alternative uses of the proceeds from a sale.

Objections to the UBI often center on the generally poor performance of government in managing programs, the danger of entrusting resources to the political process, and the corrosive effect of individual dependency. However, if government can do anything well at all, one might think it could at least cut checks. But even if we lay aside the simple issue of mismanagement, politics is a different matter. Over time, there is every chance that a UBI program will be modified as the political winds shift, that exceptions will be carved out, and that complex rules will be established. And that brings us back to the possibility of mismanagement. Even worse, it creates opportunities for rent seekers to skim funds or benefit indirectly from the program. In the end, these considerations might mean that the UBI will yield a poor return for society on the funds placed into the program, much as returns on major entitlements like Social Security are lousy.

Another area of concern is that policy should not discourage work effort while jobs still exist for humans. After all, working and saving is traditionally the most effective route to accumulating capital. Recipients of a UBI would not face the negative marginal work incentives associated with means-tested transfer payments because the UBI would not (should not) be dependent on income. It would go to the rich and poor alike. A UBI could still have a negative impact on labor supply via an income effect, however, depending on how individuals value incremental leisure versus consumption at a higher level of money income. On the whole, the UBI does not impart terrible incentive effects, but that is hardly a rationale for a UBI, let alone a reason to sell public assets.

Funding the UBI

We usually think of funding a UBI via taxes, and it’s well known that taxes harm productive incentives. If the trend toward automation is a natural response to a high return on capital, taxes on capital will retard the transition and might well inhibit the diffusion of capital ownership into lower economic strata. If your rationale for a UBI is truly related to automation and the obsolescence of labor, then funding a UBI should somehow take advantage of the returns to private capital short of taxing those returns away. This makes Smith’s idea more appealing as a funding mechanism.

Will there be a private investment appetite for highways and western land? Selling these assets would take time, of course, and it is difficult to know what bids they could attract. There is no question that toll roads can be profitable. Robert P. Murphy provides an informative discussion of private roads and takes issue with arguments against privatization, such as the presumptions of monopoly pricing and increased risk to drivers. Actually, privatization holds promise as a way of improving the efficiency of infrastructure use and upkeep. In fact, government mispricing of roads is a primary cause of congestion, and private operators have incentives to maintain and improve road safety and quality. Public land sales in the West are complex to the extent that existing mineral and grazing rights could be subject to dispute, and those sales might be unpopular with other landowners.

Once the assets are sold to investors, who will manage the UBI fund? Whether managed publicly or privately, the best arrangement would be no active trading management. Nevertheless, the appropriate mix of investments would be the subject of endless political debate. Every market downturn would bring new calls for conservatism. The level of distributions would also be a politically contentious issue. Dividend yields and price appreciation are not constant, and so it is necessary to determine a sustainable payout rate as well as if and when adjustments are needed. Furthermore, there must be some allowance to assure fund growth over time so that population growth, whatever the source, will not diminish the per capita payout.

Jesse Walker has a good retrospective on the history of “basic income” proposals and programs over time. He demonstrate that economic windfalls have frequently been the impetus for establishment of “rainy day” programs. Alaska, enabled by oil revenue, is unique in establishing a fund paying dividends to residents:

“From time to time a state will find itself awash in riches from natural resources. Some voices will suggest that the government not spend the new money at once but put some away for a rainy day. Some fraction of those voices will suggest it create a sovereign wealth fund to invest the windfall. And some fraction of that fraction will want the fund to pay dividends.

Now, there are all sorts of potential problems with government-run investment portfolios, as anyone who has followed California’s pension troubles can tell you. If you’re wary about mismanagement, you’ll be wary about states playing the market; they won’t all invest as conservatively as Alaska has.

Still, several states have such funds already—the most recent additions to the list are North Dakota and West Virginia—and the number may well grow. None has followed Juneau’s example and started paying dividends, but it is hardly unimaginable that someone else will eventually adopt an Alaska-style system.”

Human-Machine Collaboration

A world without human labor is unlikely to evolve. Automation, for the foreseeable future, can improve existing processes such as line tasks in manufacturing, order taking in fast food outlets, and even burger flipping. Declines in retail employment can also be viewed in this context, as internet sales have grown as a share of consumer spending. However, innovation itself cannot be automated. In today’s applications, the deployment and ongoing use of robots often requires human collaboration. Like earlier increases in capital intensity, automation today spurs the creation of new kinds of jobs. Operational technology now exists alongside information technology as an employment category.

I have addressed concerns about human obsolescence several times in the past (most recently here, and also here). Government must avoid policies that hasten automation, like drastic hikes in the minimum wage (see here and here). U.S. employment is at historic highs even though the process of automation has been underway in industry for a very long time. Today there are almost 6.4 million job vacancies in the U.S., so plenty of work is available. Again, new technologies certainly destroy some jobs, but they tend to create new jobs that were never before imagined and that often pay more than the jobs lost. Human augmentation will also provide an important means through which workers can add to their value in the future. And beyond the new technical opportunities, there will always be roles available in personal service. The human touch is often desired by consumers, and it might even be desirable on a social-psychological level.

Opportunity Costs

Finally, is a UBI the best use of the proceeds of public asset sales? That’s doubtful unless you truly believe that human labor will be obsolete. It might be far more beneficial to pay down the public debt. Doing so would reduce interest costs and allow taxpayer funds to flow to other programs (or allow tax reductions), and it would give the government greater borrowing capacity going forward. Another attractive alternative is to spend the the proceeds of asset sales on educational opportunities, especially vocational instruction that would enhance worker value in the new world of operational technology. Then again, the public assets in question have been funded by taxpayers over many years. Some would therefore argue that the proceeds of any asset sale should be returned to taxpayers immediately and, to the extent possible, in proportion to past taxes paid. The UBI just might rank last.