Can prediction markets replace politics?

Marc Andreessen, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who co-founded Netscape, points out that markets don’t seem to be adjusting prices to reflect future costs from climate change.

Premium coastal vacation real estate prices are skyrocketing, he says. It's an interesting point that suggests that markets may think the dangers of climate change are overblown, although it’s important to try to compare this to the counterfactual. Maybe they’d be even more expensive if climate change wasn’t happening – or maybe there’s a scramble of demand for them now, so people can enjoy them before they're underwater!

But markets can be good ways of predicting the future. To the extent that they are a form of betting on the future, they can be a ‘tax on bullshit’:

I am for betting because I am against bullshit. Bullshit is polluting our discourse and drowning the facts. A bet costs the bullshitter more than the non-bullshitter so the willingness to bet signals honest belief. A bet is a tax on bullshit; and it is a just tax, tribute paid by the bullshitters to those with genuine knowledge.

As this paper outlines, markets generate good predictions for three reasons: 

First, the market mechanism is essentially an algorithm for aggregating information. Second, as superior information will produce monetary rewards, there is a financial incentive for truthful revelation. Third, and finally, the existence of a market provides longer-term incentives for specialization in discovering novel information and trading on it.

The empirical evidence (outlined in that paper) is that markets generate good predictions for these reasons, and are difficult to manipulate – even if someone is willing to spend a lot of money to bet on a particular outcome, other participants’ judgment about the outcome will not change, and there is a significant profit opportunity for them to bring the price back to the equilibrium level. Of course they’re not infallible – good incentives cannot always overcome sheer ignorance – but at least when people are wrong there, they lose out.

Futures markets are essentially large-scale betting exchanges for predictions about the future, aggregating all the individual bets people are willing to make. So to scrape out the confounding factors in the example Andreessen gives, why not set up a pure futures market on climate? What will the average global temperature be by 2030, 2040, 2050 and so on?

Here there may be a role for government. It would be very socially useful to know what the aggregated best guess about global temperatures in 2050 is, but there isn’t any demand for this so far. There are not enough 'noise traders', who subsidise other futures markets by betting stupidly, for our fantasy climate markets to exist.

So, in order to generate enough volume for the market to be worthwhile, we need to subsidise it: the government pays a premium on top of the standard, market-driven pay-off for winning contracts when the time comes. This may cost several million pounds or even more – a small fraction of the current climate change budget.

We could use this for other purposes as well. Scott Sumner has long advocated an NGDP futures market so that central banks can target the monetary policy variable that really matters, for instance. And we could set up ‘conditional’ markets on policy questions too: “if the government cuts disability benefits this year, how many more people registered as disabled will be below the poverty line next year?” If the government doesn’t do the cuts in the end, all bets are cancelled, so we have a reliable 'what if?' window into the future.

Heck, if we could agree on some end-goal everybody wants, like average wealth levels weighted by the wealth of the bottom decile with red-line rules about freedom of speech and so on, we could replace the legislature with conditional markets. (We could hold regular referendums on what this 'end-goal' should be.) Robin Hanson calls it futarchy. Anyone could propose a policy, and if conditional markets implied that it would raise long-term wealth levels (or whatever we said the end goal was), it would become law.

It’s far-fetched, perhaps, but if it meant we could abolish politics I wouldn’t bet against it. I guess that makes me a noise trader.

How to solve the obesity crisis: turn the central heating down

We have long been, well, how to say this, umm, somewhat unconvinced, of the standard explanations for rising obesity. As we've mentioned just recently, that more people seem likely to die in some decades from popped fat pustules is less of a problem than our older now solved problem of people dying next week from lack of food. But it is still true that rampant obesity, if for no other than aesthetic reasons, isn't to be greatly welcomed.

Yet we just cannot bring ourselves to believe the standard explanations. That it's all to do with increased sugar consumption is obviously nonsense given that sugar consumption per capita has been falling. That it's about increased calorie consumption is also obviously wrong: the average diet today is lower in calories (and significantly so) than the standard WWII ration at which weight would be lost. So, it must be some other cause here, something else is going on.

We have leapt from there to the idea that the major use of energy in mammals is maintaining body temperature. Something of a leap to be sure but that epidemic of obesity is at least correlated with the widespread adoption of central heating across time and countries.

Now we learn that our leap is not simply fanciful:

Elderly adults are bigger around the middle when they turn up the heat inside their homes during the cold season and have smaller waistlines when their homes stay cool, new research finds. Investigators from Japan presented their study results Friday at the Endocrine Society's 98th annual meeting in Boston.

"Although cold exposure may be a trigger of cardiovascular disease, our data suggest that safe and appropriate cold exposure may be an effective preventive measure against obesity," said the study's lead investigator, Keigo Saeki, MD, PhD, of Nara Medical University School of Medicine Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Nara, Japan.

Cold exposure activates thermogenesis, to generate body heat, in brown fat. This type of fat is the good calorie-burning fat that prior research found most humans have. However, Saeki said the association between the amount of cold exposure and obesity in real life remains unclear.

We can thus junk all the currently fashionable nostrums. It's not killer sugar, not the food industry ramming doughnuts into our gobs, all that is required it to turn the central heating down. Sure, there's no plaudits to be won in fighting against The Man here, no tax revenue to be collected, no social justice warriors to be employed in 5 degrees today outreach. But it does have the advantage of being consistent with the empirical evidence we have. 

We're eating less, consuming less sugar, keep our homes much warmer than ever before and are getting fat. Given the increase in weight it's likely to be the thing that we've increased, not that we've reduced, to blame.

Logical, evidentially supported, it'll never catch on as public policy, will it? 

We'll chalk this up as a victory for free markets, capitalism and globalisation then

We'll chalk this up as a victory for free markets, capitalism and globalisation then

The Lancet tells us, in shocked and disapproving tones, that there are now more fatty lardbuckets on the planet than there are undernourished people. We simply cannot bring ourselves to think of this as being a bad thing. Rather, we consider it to be a massive victory for the economic policies of the last few decades. A victory for capitalism, free markets and globalisation.

A ridiculously silly complaint about the national living wage

A ridiculously silly complaint about the national living wage

We should emphasise here that we are not in favour of Osborne's new national living wage. The correct answer to some people being perceived as having too low an income is not to start price fixing, messing with the market. Instead it is for those who insist that those incomes are too low to put their hands into their own pockets and top up those incomes they perceive as being too low. Yes, it is simply moral that those doing the insisting do the paying.

Obama is wrong about the difference between capitalism and communism

President Obama recently told Cuban kids not to worry about the philosophy of communism or capitalism, but just go with what works. I have little problem with that because most people are indeed not bothered with matters of philosophy, and we know what works – and it isn’t communism. So if they do what works they will end up as capitalists.

But I do get angry when it is suggested that there is ‘little difference’ to choose between these two philosophy. The trouble is, that there is very little difference between communism and what’s called capitalism these days, largely because our politicians do not understand the philosophy themselves.

Maybe it’s just my recent speed-dating of Ayn Rand rubbing off on me, but I think we need to promote a much deeper understanding of the principles underpinning our system, in particular their ethical roots, nature and results.

Obama, for example, is at pains to point out that capitalism is just fine, provided that we make sure it has a proper ethical dimension. Which shows that he thinks that, by itself, it doesn’t, and that it somehow needs to have morality regulated into it.

Yeah, well what about the ‘moral' basis of communism? It’s not capitalism that murdered 3,000 people a day when it was going strong (add them up: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot’s purges just for starters). And capitalism at least treats people like human beings rather than as tools in someone else’s thinking, and respects their lives, families and property. In Cuba, you have a cow and because your family is starving you kill it to eat. Then you go to jail because it’s not ‘your’ cow, it’s the state’s cow. How moral is that? 

Sure, you have to be nice to communist leaders if you want them to talk to you and maybe then have an impact on them; but there must be ways of letting them know that as a matter of plain fact, it’s communism that stinks, not capitalism, both in theory and practice. The general mass of their own population, of course, already know that.

The liberal case for 'Leave'

The EU referendum campaign is presenting us two competing choices. On the one hand a vision of Britain as part of a steadily-integrating EU (at whatever speed) or a vision of Britain completely outside it.

For the Remain side, we are required to anticipate what may happen over the next generation which, if the last 40 years are anything to go by, will mean a gradual growth of EU power into more and more areas of competence - the ratchet towards “a country called Europe”.

The vision of Britain outside generally uses a number of arguments employed over a long period: of the need to regain our sovereignty and become a self-governing democracy again; to have the flexibility to deregulate; to spend the UK’s EU contributions on something better inside the UK; to drive forward better trade deals with countries beyond the EU; and to constrain immigration.

However let’s take this from a different angle and set out a third vision - a Leave proposition that rejects some of the arguments outlined above. In short, a liberal case for Leave.

Read more.