Should libertarians care about Brendan Eich’s resignation?

Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has resigned his job after just 10 days in the role. This came after it was rediscovered that he gave $1,000 to Proposition 8, a direct democratic move to ban gay marriage in California, that narrowly passed. Upon discovering this, twitter and other areas of the internet mobilised, with 72,000 supporting a petition to the board to sack him.

One libertarian perspective might be that, since no negative rights were infringed, this was an entirely defensible use of social pressure to enforce social norms—Eich contributed to a proposal that many libertarians believe would restrict the rights of gays. For this perspective, the Eich situation is proof that state intervention is not needed to achieve socio-political equality for groups considered oppressed. It’s very very interesting that many progressives are actually using the rhetoric of thin libertarianism, which they would usually abhor, to defend their position on the issue.

Contrariwise, an alternative “thick” libertarian perspective might hold that people have the right not to be hounded out of their job for opinions they hold and do not enforce on others—by all accounts Mozilla is a highly equal-opportunities place for LGBT people. For this perspective, Eich’s resignation is a worrying indication that First Amendment—freedom of expression—rights are disappearing. But confusingly, some would call the hounding position the true “thick” libertarian view, since it says that legal rights alone do not guarantee gays’ freedom.

A third perspective might say that although this resignation, considered alone, might not be regrettable, because it advances gays’ freedoms, as a rule people should not lose their job for holding certain political perspectives and even actively supporting them. This would hold especially strongly if we agreed that the small donations Eich made were unlikely to actually change anything.

I think all of these perspectives have merit as libertarian responses to what’s happened. But whatever the normative issues here, I think the whole situation is much more interesting as an illustration of a positive (i.e. descriptive, not morally loaded) historical trend and tendency that is becoming, in my opinion, more and more obvious. Gay marriage was on almost no one’s radar in 1990. In 2000 it was still only an utterly minority idea even among gays.

In 2008 (the same year as Prop 8, and the end of the google ngrams data range in the previous link), US President Barack Obama was elected and specifically opposed gay marriage. Between 2008 and 2014 gay marriage has gone from something a liberal Democrat felt he could not guarantee election without opposing, to something that a chief executive (admittedly a Silicon Valley chief executive, of a particularly “socially aware” firm) has to favour, or at least not outwardly oppose, to keep their job. This is astonishingly rapid.

And various issues suggest that maybe this ousting had little to do with a cost-benefit analysis. Let’s assume the best argument in favour of ousting him is that (a) he tipped the balance in favour of anti-gay marriage in the past, and this delayed gay people gaining their deserved marriage rights, and (b) his position at the top of Mozilla will stop it being truly equal to gay employees and consumers. That is, let’s assume that the left-leaning people who got Eich overthrown do in fact wish Eich to have meaningful freedom of conscience and speech, but they also think it’s fair to censor him if he acts based on those in ways which increase oppression or reduce social welfare.

(This isn’t entirely accurate: some do think that people genuinely shouldn’t be able to be both employed and hold personal anti-gay marriage perspectives. But I see personal opinions (many of which are genetically heritable) as a much weaker justification for the hounding and the principle of charity dictates I tackle the strongest possible opposing argument here.)

The fact that showing neither (a) nor (b) has even been attempted in any of the myriad of news and commentary I’ve seen on the issue is telling (I’m open to being refuted here). Indeed, none of the commentary I’ve seen has even mentioned these issues. And what’s more I bet Eich-resignation-advocates wouldn’t change their minds if we discovered that Mozilla’s currently pro-LGBT policies were impervious to CEO influence, and that his $1,000 did pitifully little to change the outcome of Prop 8, never mind the overall progress of gays’ marriage rights.

This suggests to me that this is about policing heresies. This is a doctrinal dispute. I wonder if Eich would still be in his job had he publicly stated regret at his old anti-gay marriage perspective and repudiated it forcefully. I bet he would. And this brings me to the final point: libertarians should care, but not because the instance itself is necessarily a bad thing—an ugly, base, low, cowardly, mean thing certainly, but it might pass a cost-benefit analysis if we really did one—but because of this trend. Progress appears to be an unstoppable juggernaught, and it might be speeding up.

Does the existence of intangible goods mean we shouldn’t maximise wealth?

The proposal I made last week—that we abolish parliamentary democracy and turn over decision-making to a a set of betting/prediction markets—faces a number of serious objections. In this post I will deal with the objection that national wealth in principle misses out several important contributions to welfare like liberty, love or other intangibles. I have four further serious objections, which I will attempt to tackle in a third and final piece.

What makes us happy, and helps or allows us to satisfy our desires and preferences, may not be wealth alone. A millionaire who desires only a dishwasher is no better off for all her wealth if she is unable to buy one. A world in which dishwashers are harder to get hold of—perhaps due to a ban—is worse than one in which they are widely available, for a given amount of wealth.

But introducing “for a given amount of wealth” might be begging the question. Our measure of wealth, to be a good one,  will include some correction for changes in prices (like the official measure). Even under our current system of drug prohibition there are measures of illegal substance prices. Similarly, if we banned dishwashers, perhaps in some bizarre return of the lump of labour fallacy, they might still exist, albeit underground and more costly. In this way the measure would show an expected dip in real wealth in the prediction market for the national wealth effects of dishwasher banning.

And many other restrictions on liberty that we’d have independent reasons against would also depress our wealth, e.g. racist employment regulations, restrictions on travel. Even something like the ability to marry could be factored in—if people want to have marriages, they will have a higher demand for housing in areas where marriages are allowed. However this faces a lot of difficulties in a world where so many goods are unpriced and thus we cannot measure all of these effects. And it’s unclear whether all of the cost to an individual of, for example, restrictions on marriage would be fully capitalised into house prices. So there might be some reason to expect a wealth maximising state to be less liberal than the ideal happiness-maximising state would be.

Further, typically unmeasured goods like love—which many people see as one of the most important—may not be measured by any element of the wealth markets. While current parliamentary systems don’t necessarily directly consider what effect policies will have on aggregate love in the country, were it to be significantly effected by a (proposed) policy they would be able to factor it in. But a pure national wealth-driven system would not.

This is certainly a difficult objection for the model of government, but it isn’t necessarily fatal. After all we know there are devastating problems with the current system, including distorted incentive structures, but even more than that public ignorance. We’d want evidence that not only would maximising expected wealth tend to cut the amount of aggregate love in society—it would do so to an extent that outweighed the improvements in policymaking down to an unbiased, properly incentivised and dispassionately rational decision-making system.

We’d need particularly robust evidence to overturn the strong established empirical connections between wealth and happiness (which presumably takes into account the effect of love on happiness). This means the love objection is not telling on our account without much further exploration. As suggested above, there remains the objection that some liberty contributes to happiness without contributing to wealth, or being fully accounted for in wealth measures, and this stands, and should be weighed against the other benefits gained from the wealth-maximising state. And the wealth-maximising state may well be more liberal than current parliamentary arrangements, given what we know about free markets and long-term growth.

A new governing paradigm—maximising national wealth

How should governments decide on policy? One answer is that policy should follow a particular ideology, such as libertarianism or socialism. Another answer—direct democracy—is that policies should be arrayed in front of the populace at large so they can pick. Another is that the people at large should choose people who vote on policies from options selected by a third group of people—roughly the Westminster system. Absolute monarchy would give a family and their descendants control of policy. But an under-considered method of choosing policy is via markets.

Here I don’t mean getting rid of social democracy and having most or all goods provided by the market; instead I mean choosing policies—whether free market or interventionist, right- or left-wing—with respect to the result of a hypothetical prediction market, specifically, one looking at some measure of national wealth.

Why wealth? Well what we really want to do is make people have better lives—increase their well-being. But measuring well-being directly is controversial and difficult. The two leading theories of well-being are that well-being consists in happiness/pleasure and that well-being consists in satisfying one’s desires or preferences. We know wealth makes people happier, particularly when they are poor, but even when they are already well-off, and we know more wealth means more ability to satisfy most different preferences.

Thankfully, both measures (like the official ONS statistic) and proxies (like the total market capitalisation of, FTSE All-Share firms, which make up 98% of total business wealth) of wealth are fairly widely available. Of course, these happen after the fact—so while we could easily judge past governments by their effects on these metrics, we couldn’t judge current policy proposals. But that needn’t hold us back! We already have markets in future RPI inflation in the UK (and CPI inflation in the US), called TIPS spreads. These take the price differential between RPI-linked and regular gilts or T-bills to work out what the market expects inflation will turn out to be. We know this because if it didn’t represent the market opinion, then traders could buy and sell bonds to achieve a higher expected return (i.e. take arbitrage opportunities).

Even a simple, TIPS-like market in national wealth would help us rationally guide policy. It’s not exactly clear whether central banks check TIPS markets, but if they did, the markets would give them advance guidance on whether their policy would help them hit their target level of inflation, based on reactions to policy changes, suggestive speeches, and explicit forward guidance like the Carney or Evans rules. In the same way, important policies would shift the wealth markets, and governments could use that as evidence for doubling down on wealth creating policies and for getting out of wealth-destroying moves.

However there are important distinctions between the Bank of England’s role in stabilising the nominal side of the economy, and the government’s role in making policy that makes it likely that lots of real wealth is generated. The best nominal policies, like NGDPLT, focus on stabilising, or ensuring the stable growth of, some nominal variable. The optimal result is extremely reliable stable growth. But that’s not what we want in real wealth. When it comes to real wealth, the more the better. That a policy boosted the markets’ expectations of national wealth by 10% in five years would not prove it was an optimal, or even good policy, if there was an alternative that could boost wealth by 50%.

So when it comes to national wealth we need conditional prediction markets. We need markets that tell us what would happen if we implemented a given policy. The specifics of implementing these sorts of markets become quite complex and difficult, as we do not want to restrict the policy choice too much, but it may also not be practicable to open up a gilt market for every permutation of every major political idea. But if we could start conditional prediction markets up, we’d have a range of policy options with very interesting and suggestive evidence of what is best for the country’s social welfare.

I think there are some persuasive objections to the results of these markets, and—further—to running policy in any rigidly-linked way to these markets. But I also think they can all be plausibly dealt with, and I will attempt to do so in a blog post tomorrow.

Mean medians

The US Census Bureau has just released a major publication “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012″ that has set much of the US political and economic blogosphere alight. “The incomes of the middle class have stagnated!” they cry, pointing to a statistic that shows the median household income in 2012 down from a real terms peak of $56,080 in 1999 to its pre-recession peak of $55,628 in 2007, to a measly $51,017 last year. That means the median has grown just 3% since 1991, when the last major recession hit the bottom. On the headline measure, incomes are actually below 1989.

I do not doubt that the middle classes (and the poor!) have been hit hard by the recession (although in the UK the story might not work in exactly the same way). But to tell this as a general story of middle-class decline seems to be stretching it massively. I don’t just mean because we can now use excellent services like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and so on for free. Having said that, I think Tyler Cowen massively undercounts the importance of free internet services—we now have near-instant, cheap or free access to basically the entirety of human artistic output. A proper measure of consumption or income that included these would give a much more optimistic result.

Still, this isn’t my key point. We use median statistics because incomes are very unequally distributed—the US had a Gini coefficient of 0.463 in 2012, while the UK’s was 0.32 in 2011-12. A mean (like GDP/capita) does not tell us anything about how gains are distributed, it just tells us how big the gains have been, compared to the size of the population. A median, showing us the middle point, is less easily skewed. But a median can still be extremely misleading under certain circumstances.

One of those circumstances, and an empirically highly relevant one, is when there is mass immigration to a country. According to one official dataset and my simple calculations, legal inward migration to the US was 13m between the 1999 peak and 2011 (inclusive). Presumably illegal migrants aren’t counted in the figures, but for completeness we might note they seem to number more than 12m. If we assume that inward migration is typically lower skilled than the US population as a whole (which seems highly plausible), then it’s entirely possible that a median falls while every individual in the population becomes much richer. Indeed, this is particularly true if outward migration is largely made of particularly high-skilled people (which also seems plausible). The income per natural concept, developed for a different reason, but relevant, is the number we’d want to check to look at the real trends in incomes when the make-up of the population is changing significantly.

Immigrants to the USA have much higher incomes than they had before. US citizens’ incomes also rise, not just because migration boosts their wages but also because of the general effects of economic growth—GDP/capita is significantly up on 1989, 1991 or any of dates picked to generate shocking income statistics. Everyone is better off, but the statistics need not reflect that. Of course, since I haven’t picked the statistics apart absolutely conclusively, I can’t say for sure that this effect is actually driving the divergence between apparent prosperity for US middle classes and the statistics implying penury. But of course, without that level of digging, neither can the het up US wonks.

Do technological advances destroy jobs without creating new ones?

In a very readable article in the New York Times Paul Krugman expresses sympathy for the Luddites, suggesting that the benefits of future technological developments may not accrue very equally across society. This being the case, he suggests that policies such as a universal basic income may be one way of compensating the unlucky who have spent lots of resources on, say, a university education which has now devalued, something they couldn’t possibly have predicted. Since I share Krugman’s basic luck egalitarian intuitions, I am very sympathetic to his case.

The beef I have is with a response written by Gavin Mueller in Jacobin magazine. Up until now almost everything I’ve seen from Jacobin has been well researched, even handed and thoughtful, if coming from a very different set of basic premises to those I hold, but this is an exception. He makes much stronger claims than Krugman, calling technology “a weapon used against us” and arguing that a long-term goal of “abundance and leisure for all” (one I share!) may require “smashing the relations of production” in the short-term. Perhaps the line which most annoys me is “the belief that technology doesn’t destroy jobs, but merely creates new and better ones, is, like so much else about bourgeois economics, a baseless assumption.”

Does Mueller really believe that claim? Unemployment is 7.8%. Employment is touching 30m, its highest level ever. Since the 1750s there has been a tide of vastly transformative technological improvement and yet somehow a much larger population is employed. At the same time, this larger workforce is working much fewer hours and enjoys much greater abundance. Surely these widely available facts are enough to suggest that the assumption technology creates—as well as destroys—jobs is more than just a “baseless assumption”?

By no means is it certain that the trends of the past, which have seen mobile phones, more hygienic toilets and tasty soft drinks spread to even the poorest areas of the world, will continue. But certainly some evidence (e.g. the graph above) seems to suggest that technologies are spreading throughout society—and benefiting the general populace, not just the wealthy—faster than ever before. This is great, and implies that we can hope for greater abundance and leisure without smashing new technologies. If it turns out that not all benefit, then what we need is something like Krugman’s universal basic income, not drastic societal upheaval.