There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch — True or False?

free lunch - mIlton friedman

free lunch - steven hawking

We can assume that the pros and cons of a universal basic income (UBI) have been thoroughly researched and reasonably analyzed, and that each side holds its position with utmost conviction.

We can also assume that none of that reasonableness and conviction will convert anyone from one side to the other, or win over the uncommitted. Reason doesn’t move us:  we use it to justify what we already decided, based on what we believe. SeeWhy Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” The New Yorker (February 2017) and “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017).

History doesn’t guide us either — see Why We Refuse to Learn From History, from Big Think and Why Don’t We Learn From History, from military historian Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart. The latter is full of conventional wisdom:

“The most instructive, indeed the only method of learning to bear with dignity the vicissitude of fortune, is to recall the catastrophes of others.

“History is the best help, being a record of how things usually go wrong.

“There are two roads to the reformation for mankind— one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful.

“I would add that the only hope for humanity, now, is that my particular field of study, warfare, will become purely a subject of antiquarian interest. For with the advent of atomic weapons we have come either to the last page of war, at any rate on the major international scale we have known in the past, or to the last page of history.

Good advice maybe, but we’ve heard it before and besides, most of us would rather make our own mistakes.

If reasoned analysis and historical perspective don’t inform our responses to radically new ideas like UBI, then what does? Many things, but cultural belief is high on the list. Policy is rooted in culture, culture is rooted in shared beliefs, and beliefs are rooted in history. Cultural beliefs shape individual bias, and the whole belief system becomes sacred in the culture’s mythology. Try to subvert cultural beliefs, and the response is outrage and entrenchment.

All of which means that each of us probably had a quick true or false answer to the question in this week’s blog post title, and were ready to defend it with something that sounded reasonable. Our answer likely signals our knee jerk response to the idea of UBI. The “free lunch”– or, more accurately, “free money” — issue appears to be the UBI Great Divide:  get to that point, and you’re either pro or con, and there’s no neutral option. (See this for more about where the “no free lunch” phrase came from.[1])

The Great Divide is what tanked President Nixon’s UBI legislation. The plan, which would have paid a family of four $1,600/year (equivalent to $10,428 today) was set to launch in the midst of an outpouring of political self-congratulation and media endorsement, only to be scuttled by a memo from a White House staffer that described the failure of a British UBI experiment 150 years earlier. UBI apparently was in fact a free lunch, with no redeeming social purpose; thus its fate was sealed.

As it turns out, whether the experiment  failed or not was lost in a 19th Century fog of cultural belief which enabled opponents of the experiment to pounce on a bogus report about its impact to justify passing the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 — which is what they wanted to do anyway. The new Poor Law was that era’s version of workfare, and was generated by the worst kind of scarcity mentality applied to the worst kind of scarcity. Besides creating the backdrop to Charles Dickens’ writing, the new Poor Law’s philosophical roots still support today’s welfare system:

“The new Poor Law introduced perhaps the most heinous form of ‘public assistance’ that the world has ever witnessed. Believing the workhouses to be the only effective remedy against sloth and depravity, the Royal Commission forced the poor into senseless slave labor, from breaking stones to walking on treadmills….”

From “The Bizarre Tale Of President Nixon’s Basic Income Plan.”

If UBI is a free lunch, then it’s an affront to a culture that values self-sufficiency. If it isn’t, then it requires a vastly different cultural value system to support it. The former believes that doing something — “making a living” at a job — is how you earn your daily bread. The latter believes you’re entitled do sustenance if you are something:  i.e., a citizen or member of the nation, state, city, or other institution or community providing the UBI. The former is about activity, the latter is about identity. This Wired article captures the distinction:

“The idea [of UBI] is not exactly new—Thomas Paine proposed a form of basic income back in 1797—but in this country, aside from Social Security and Medicare, most government payouts are based on individual need rather than simply citizenship.”

UBI is about “simply citizenship.” It requires a cultural belief that everybody in the group shares its prosperity.  Cultural identity alone ensures basic sustenance — it’s a right, and that right makes Poor Laws and workfare obsolete.

The notion of cultural identity invites comparison between UBI and the “casino money” some Native American tribes pay their members. How’s that working? We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Yes, Milton Friedman did in fact say it, although he wasn’t the only one. And in a surprising twist, he has been criticized for advocating his own version of UBI.

Fireflies and Algorithms

fireflies

We’ve been looking at workfare — the legislated link between jobs and the social safety net. An article published last week  — Fireflies And Algorithms — The Coming Explosion Of Companies[1] brought the specter of workfare to the legal profession.

Reading it, my life flashed before my eyes, beginning with one particular memory:  me, a newly-hired associate, resplendent in my three-piece gray pinstripe suit, joining the 4:30 queue at the Secretary of State’s office, clutching hot-off-the-word-processor Articles of Incorporation and a firm check for the filing fee, fretting whether I’d get my copy time-stamped by closing time. We always had to file today, for reasons I don’t remember.

Entity choice and creation spanned transactional practice:  corporate, securities, mergers and acquisitions, franchising, tax, intellectual property, real property, commercial leasing….  The practice enjoyed its glory days when LLC’s were invented, and when a raft of new entity hybrids followed… well, that was an embarrassment of riches.

It was a big deal to set up a new entity and get it just right — make sure the correct ABC acquired the correct XYZ, draw the whole thing up in x’s and o’s, and finance it with somebody else’s money. To do all that required strategic alliances with brokers, planners, agents, promoters, accountants, investment bankers, financiers…. Important people initiated the process, and there was a sense of substantiality and permanence about it, with overtones of mahogany and leather, brandy and cigars. These were entities that would create and engage whole communities of real people doing real jobs to deliver real goods and services to real consumers. Dissolving an entity was an equally big deal, requiring somber evaluation and critical reluctance, not to mention more time-stamped paperwork.

Fireflies And Algorithms sweeps it all away — whoosh! just like that!– and describes its replacement:  an inhuman world of here-and-gone entities created and dissolved without the intent of all those important people or all that help from all those people in the law and allied businesses. (How many jobs are we talking about, I wonder — tens, maybe hundreds of thousands?) The new entities will do to choice of entity practice what automated trading did to the stock market, as described in this UCLA Law Review article:

“Modern finance is becoming an industry in which the main players are no longer entirely human. Instead, the key players are now cyborgs: part machine, part human. Modern finance is transforming into what this Article calls cyborg finance.”

In that “cyborg finance” world,

“[The “enhanced velocity” of automated, algorithmic trading] has shortened the timeline of finance from days to hours, to minutes, to seconds, to nanoseconds. The accelerated velocity means not only faster trade executions but also faster investment turnovers. “At the end of World War II, the average holding period for a stock was four years. By 2000, it was eight months. By 2008, it was two months. And by 2011 it was twenty-two seconds….

Fireflies And Algorithms says the business entity world is in for the same dynamic, and therefore we can expect:

“… what we’re calling ‘firefly companies’ — the blink-and-you-miss-it scenario brought about by ultra-short-life companies, combined with registers that remove records once a company has been dissolved, meaning that effectively they are invisible.”

Firefly companies are formed by algorithms, not by human initiative. Each is created for a single transaction — one contract, one sale, one span of ownership. They’re peer-reviewed, digitally secure, self-executing, self-policing, and trans-jurisdictional — all for free or minimal cost. And all of that is memorialized not in SOS or SEC filings but in blockchain.

“So what does all this mean?” the article asks:

“How do we make sense of a world where companies — which are, remember, artificial legal constructs created out of thin air to have legal personality — can come into existence for brief periods of time, like fireflies in the night, perform or collaborate on an act, and then disappear? Where there are perhaps not 300 million companies, but 1 billion, or 10 billion?”

Think about it. And then — if it hasn’t happened yet — watch your life flash before your eyes.

Or if not your life, at least your job. Consider, for example, a widely-cited 2013 study that predicted 57% of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation. Even if that prediction is only half true, that’s still a lot of jobs. And consider a recent LawGeex contest, in which artificial intelligence absolutely smoked an elite group of transactional lawyers:

“In a landmark study, 20 top US corporate lawyers with decades of experience in corporate law and contract review were pitted against an AI. Their task was to spot issues in five Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), which are a contractual basis for most business deals.

“The study, carried out with leading legal academics and experts, saw the LawGeex AI achieve an average 94% accuracy rate, higher than the lawyers who achieved an average rate of 85%. It took the lawyers an average of 92 minutes to complete the NDA issue spotting, compared to 26 seconds for the LawGeex AI. The longest time taken by a lawyer to complete the test was 156 minutes, and the shortest time was 51 minutes.”

These developments significantly expand the pool of people potentially needing help through bad times. Currently, that means workfare. But how can you have workfare if technology is wiping out jobs?

More on that next time.

[1] The article was published by OpenCorporates, which according to its website is “the world’s largest open database of the corporate world and winner of the Open Data Business Award.”

What is “The Economy” Anyway?

Throughout this series, we’ve heard from numerous commentators who believe that conventional economic thinking isn’t keeping pace with the technological revolution, and that polarized ideological posturing is preventing the kind of open-minded discourse we need to reframe our thinking.

In this short TED talk, the author[1] of Americana:  A Four Hundred Year History of American Capitalism suggests that we unplug the ideological debate and instead adopt a less combative and more digital-friendly metaphor for how we talk about the economy:

“Capitalism… is this either celebrated term or condemned term. It’s either revered or it’s reviled. And I’m here to argue that this is because capitalism, in the modern iteration, is largely misunderstood.

“In my view, capitalism should not be thought of as an ideology, but instead should be thought of as an operating system.

“When you think about it as an operating system, it devolves the language of ideology away from what traditional defenders of capitalism think.”

The operating system metaphor shifts policy agendas away from ideology and instead invites us to consider the economy as something that needs to be continually updated:

“As you have advances in hardware, you have advances in software. And the operating system needs to keep up. It needs to be patched, it needs to be updated, new releases have to happen. And all of these things have to happen symbiotically. The operating system needs to keep getting more and more advanced to keep up with innovation.”

brain tilt

But what if the operating system has gotten too complex for the human mind to comprehend?  This recent article from the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado[2] observes that “Human ingenuity has created a world that the mind cannot master,” then asks, “Have we finally reached our limits?” The question telegraphs its answer:  in many respects, yes we have. Consider, for example, the air Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that’s responsible for keeping us safe when we fly:

“TCAS alerts pilots to potential hazards, and tells them how to respond by using a series of complicated rules. In fact, this set of rules — developed over decades — is so complex, perhaps only a handful of individuals alive even understand it anymore.

“While the problem of avoiding collisions is itself a complex question, the system we’ve built to handle this problem has essentially become too complicated for us to understand, and even experts sometimes react with surprise to its behaviour. This escalating complexity points to a larger phenomenon in modern life. When the systems designed to save our lives are hard to grasp, we have reached a technological threshold that bears examining.

“It’s one thing to recognise that technology continues to grow more complex, making the task of the experts who build and maintain our systems more complicated still, but it’s quite another to recognise that many of these systems are actually no longer completely understandable.”

The article cites numerous other impossibly complex systems, including the law:

“Even our legal systems have grown irreconcilably messy. The US Code, itself a kind of technology, is more than 22 million words long and contains more than 80,000 links within it, between one section and another. This vast legal network is profoundly complicated, the functionality of which no person could understand in its entirety.”

Steven Pinker, author of the recent optimistic bestseller Enlightenment Now (check back a couple posts in this series) suggests in an earlier book[3] that the human brain just isn’t equipped for the complexity of modern life:

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo Sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.”

In other words, we have our limits.

Imagine that.

So then… where do we turn for appropriately complex economic thinking? According to “complexity economics,” we turn to the source:  the economy itself, understood not by reference to historical theory or newly updated metaphor, but on its own data-rich and machine-intelligent terms.

We’ll go there next time.

[1] According to his TED bio, Bhu Srinivasan “researches the intersection of capitalism and technological progress.”

[2] Samuel Arbesman is the author. The Center’s mission is to “propel the future of technology policy and innovation.”

[3] How The Brain Works, which Pinker wrote in 1997 when he was a professor of psychology and director of The Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT.

Protopia: Progress Step by Step

“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds.
The pessimist fears it is true.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb

“In the long term, optimists decide the future.”

Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine

Last week we heard professional skeptic Michael Shermer weigh in as an optimistic believer in progress (albeit guardedly — I mean, he is a skeptic after all) in his review of the new book It’s Better Than It Looks. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to stake a homestead claim on the Utopian frontier:  the title of a recent article tells you what you need to know about where he stands on that subject:  “Utopia Is A Dangerous Ideal: We Should Aim For Protopia.”[1]

He begins with a now-familiar litany of utopias that soured into dystopias in the 19th and 20th Centuries. He then endorses the “protopian” alternative, quoting an oft-cited passage in which Kevin Kelly[2] coined the term.

“Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.”

Doesn’t sound like much, but there’s more to it than appears. Protopia is about incremental, sustainable progress — even in the impatient onslaught of technology. Kelly’s optimism is ambitious — for a full dose of it, see his book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (2016). This is from the book blurb:

“Much of what will happen in the next thirty years is inevitable, driven by technological trends that are already in motion. In this fascinating, provocative new book, Kevin Kelly provides an optimistic road map for the future, showing how the coming changes in our lives—from virtual reality in the home to an on-demand economy to artificial intelligence embedded in everything we manufacture—can be understood as the result of a few long-term, accelerating forces.

“These larger forces will completely revolutionize the way we buy, work, learn, and communicate with each other. By understanding and embracing them, says Kelly, it will be easier for us to remain on top of the coming wave of changes and to arrange our day-to-day relationships with technology in ways that bring forth maximum benefits.

“Kelly’s bright, hopeful book will be indispensable to anyone who seeks guidance on where their business, industry, or life is heading—what to invent, where to work, in what to invest, how to better reach customers, and what to begin to put into place—as this new world emerges.”

Protopian thinking begins with Kelly’s “bright, hopeful” attitude of optimism about progress (again, remember the thinkers we heard from last week). To adopt both optimism and the protopian vision it produces, we’ll need to relinquish our willful cognitive blindness, our allegiance to inadequate old models and explanations, and our nostalgic urge to resist and retrench.

Either that, or we can just die off. Economist Paul Samuelson said this in a 1975 Newsweek column:

“As the great Max Planck, himself the originator of the quantum theory in physics, has said, science makes progress funeral by funeral: the old are never converted by the new doctrines, they simply are replaced by a new generation.”

Planck himself said it this way, in his Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Progress funeral by funeral[3]…. If that’s what it takes, that’s the way protopian progress will be made — in the smallest increments of “better today than yesterday” we will allow. But I somehow doubt progress will be that slow; I don’t think technology can wait.

Plus, if we insist on “not in my lifetime, you don’t,” we’ll miss out on a benefit we probably wouldn’t have seen coming:  technology itself guiding us as we stumble our way forward through the benefits and problems of progress. There’s support for that idea in the emerging field of complexity economics — I’ve mentioned it before, and we’ll look more into it next time.

[1] The article is based on Shermer’s recent book  Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

[2] Kelly is a prolific TED talker – revealing his optimistic protopian ideas. Here’s his bio.

[3] See the Quote Investigator’s history of these quotes.

The Fatal Flaw

Hollywood-Sign-at-Night

A few years ago I wrote a screenplay that did okay in a contest. I made a couple trips to Burbank to pitch it, got no sustained interest, and gave up on it. Recently, someone who actually knows what he’s doing encouraged me to revise and re-enter it.

Inside storyAmong other things, he introduced me to Inside Story:  The Power of the Transformational Arc, by Dara Marks (2007). The book describes what the author calls “the essential story element” — which, it turns out, is remarkably apt not just for film but for life in general, and particularly for talking about economics, technology, and the workplace.

No kidding.

What is it?

Dara Marks calls it “The Fatal Flaw.” This is from the book:

First, it’s important to recap or highlight the fundamental premise on which the fatal flaw is based:

Because change is essential for growth, it is a mandatory requirement for life.

If something isn’t growing and developing, it can only be headed toward decay and death.

There is no condition of stasis in nature. Nothing reaches a permanent position where neither growth nor diminishment is in play.

As essential as change is, most of us resist it, and cling rigidly to old survival systems because they are familiar and “seem” safer. In reality, if an old, obsolete survival system makes us feel alone, isolated, fearful, uninspired, unappreciated, and unloved, we will reason that it’s easier to cope with what we know that with what we haven’t yet experienced. As a result, most of us will fight to sustain destructive relationships, unchallenging jobs, unproductive work, harmful addictions, unhealthy environments, and immature behavior long after there is any sign of life or value to them.

This unyielding commitment to old, exhausted survival systems that have outlived their usefulness, and resistance to the rejuvenating energy of new, evolving levels of existence and consciousness is what I refer to as the fatal flaw of character:

The Fatal Flaw is a struggle within a character
to maintain a survival system
long after it has outlived its usefulness.

As it is with screenwriting, so it is with us as we’re reckoning with the wreckage of today’s collision among economics, technology, and the workplace. We’re like the character who must change or die to make the story work:  our economic survival is at risk, and failure to adapt is fatal. Faced with that prospect, we can change our worldview, or we can wish we had. Trouble is, our struggle to embrace a new paradigm is as perilous as holding to an old one.

What’s more, we will also need to reckon with two peculiar dynamics of our time:  “echo chambers” and “epistemic bubbles.” The following is from an Aeon Magazine article published earlier this week entitled “Escape The Echo Chamber”:

Something has gone wrong with the flow of information. It’s not just that different people are drawing subtly different conclusions from the same evidence. It seems like different intellectual communities no longer share basic foundational beliefs. Maybe nobody cares about the truth anymore, as some have started to worry. Maybe political allegiance has replaced basic reasoning skills. Maybe we’ve all become trapped in echo chambers of our own making – wrapping ourselves in an intellectually impenetrable layer of likeminded friends and web pages and social media feeds.

But there are two very different phenomena at play here, each of which subvert the flow of information in very distinct ways. Let’s call them echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information. Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention. An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

Here’s a basic check: does a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber.

That’s what we’re up against. We’ll plow fearlessly ahead in our examination of new economic models next time.

 

Bus Riding Economists

Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man
Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can[1]

A couple economists took the same bus I did one day last week. We’ll call them “Home Boy” and “Ramblin’ Man.”. They made acquaintance when Ramblin’ Man put his money in the fare box and didn’t get a transfer coupon. He was from out of town, he said, and didn’t know how to work it. Home Boy explained that you need to wait until the driver gets back from her break. Ramblin’ Man said he guessed the money was just gone, but the driver showed up about then and checked the meter — it showed he’d put the money in, so he got his transfer. Technology’s great, ain’t it?

Ramblin’ Man took the seat in front of me. Home Boy sat across the aisle. When the conversation turned to economics, I eavesdropped[2] shamelessly. Well not exactly — they were talking pretty loud.

viet nam vets

Ramblin’ Man said he’d been riding the bus for two days to get to the VA. That gave them instant common ground:  they were both Vietnam vets, and agreed they were lucky to get out alive.

miley-large

Ramblin’ Man said when he got out he went traveling — hitchhike, railroad, bus, you name it. That was back in the 70’s, when a guy could go anywhere and get a job. Not no more. Now he lives in a small town up on northeast Montana. He likes it, but it’s a long way to get to the VA, but he knew if he could get here, there’d be a bus to take him right to it, and sure enough there was. That’s the trouble with those small towns, said Home Boy — nice and quiet, but not enough people to have any services. I’ll bet there’s no bus company up there, he chuckled. Not full of people like Minneapolis.

Minneapolis! Ramblin’ Man lit up at the mention of it. All them people, and no jobs. He was there in 2009, right after the bankers ruined the economy. Yeah, them and the politicians, Home Boy agreed. Shoulda put them all in jail. It’s those one-percenters. They got it fixed now so nobody makes any money but them. It’s like it was back when they were building the railroads and stuff. Now they’re doing it again. Nobody learns from history — they keep doing the same things over and over. They’re stuck in the past.

Except this time, it’s different, said Ramblin’ Man. It’s all that technology — takes away all the jobs. Back in 09, he’d been in Minneapolis for three months, and his phone never rang once for a job offer. Not once. Never used to happen in the 70’s.

And then my stop came up, and my economic history lesson was over. My two bus riding economists had covered the same developments I’ve been studying for the past 15 months. My key takeaway? That “The Economy” is a lazy fiction — none of us really lives there. Instead, we live in the daily challenges of figuring out how to get the goods and services we need — maybe to thrive (if you’re one of them “one-percenters”), or maybe just to get by. The Economy isn’t some transcendent structure, it’s created one human transaction at a time — like when a guy hits the road to make sense of life after a war, picking up odd jobs along the way until eventually he settles in a peaceful little town in the American Outback. When we look at The Economy that way, we get a whole new take on it. That’s precisely what a new breed of cross-disciplinary economists are doing, and we’ll examine their outlook in the coming weeks.

AmericanaIn the meantime, I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t learn from history is that we don’t know it. In that regard, I recently read a marvelous economic history book that taught me a whole lot I never knew:  Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism (2017)  by tech entrepreneur Bhu Srinivasan. Here’s the promo blurb:

“From the days of the Mayflower and the Virginia Company, America has been a place for people to dream, invent, build, tinker, and bet the farm in pursuit of a better life. Americana takes us on a four-hundred-year journey of this spirit of innovation and ambition through a series of Next Big Things — the inventions, techniques, and industries that drove American history forward: from the telegraph, the railroad, guns, radio, and banking to flight, suburbia, and sneakers, culminating with the Internet and mobile technology at the turn of the twenty-first century. The result is a thrilling alternative history of modern America that reframes events, trends, and people we thought we knew through the prism of the value that, for better or for worse, this nation holds dearest: capitalism. In a winning, accessible style, Bhu Srinivasan boldly takes on four centuries of American enterprise, revealing the unexpected connections that link them.”

This is American history as we never learned it, and the book is well worth every surprising page.

[1] From “Ramblin’ Man,” by the Allman Brothers. Here’s a 1970 live version. And here’s the studio version.

[2] If you wonder, as I did, where “eavesdrop” came from, here’s the Word Detective’s explanation.