Saturday, November 29, 2008

Stop eating bluefin tuna

...if you haven't already, that is. Details at Time and BBC. See also World Wildlife Fund press release. While you're at it, you may wish to see the MBA's seafood watch guide for more advice.

To be honest, outcomes like the ICCAT decision just make me scratch my head. Everyone knows that overfishing leads to depleted stocks, which leads to reduced catch, which leads to impoverishment for the fishing industry. But nobody can agree to reduce fishing to a sustainable level. This is textbook Tragedy of the Commons, and everyone knows the outcome, yet it seems that human beings cannot reliably construct the social institutions which would handle this situation gracefully.

Lest the free-marketeers in the audience cry "property rights!", note that I said "reliably construct", not "recognize". About which several things can be said...

First, as far as I can tell, the ICCAT licensing regime is a property rights system. There's a cap on the total tuna catch and there's some mechanism whereby parties are allocated rights to fish or process a portion of the tuna catch. I assume those rights are transferable, at least in the sense that interests in the boats and other facilities with such licenses can be sold/leased/etc.

Unfortunately, it's a property rights system which does not produce good incentives. Constructing a property rights regime in the tuna fishery — where, for example, it is not practical to tag every tuna and assign it and its spawn an owner — requires more than the mere recognition that this is a property rights problem. It is critically important to construct and enforce the correct regime, which is tricky.

(Aside: in fact, it seems to me that the rights regime that produces the maximum incentive to grow the tuna fishery stock, and enforce compliance, would be one where a single body possessed property rights in the entire tuna population, sold rights to catch fixed amounts of tuna, and spent part of its money on hiring armed men to enforce its rights. Note that this looks suspiciously like a government monopoly, and not a very sophisticated one. It would have been perfectly recognizable to a feudal lord.)

Second, plenty of ostensibly capitalist companies in recent years have been hell-bent on destroying their long-term futures to produce short-term gains for certain individuals who run those companies. It is not clear to me that even a well-constructed property rights regime could stand up to sustained assault by the same type of people who just burned down Wall Street.

Third, a property rights regime with appropriate incentive alignment may have led to more responsible management of tuna stocks. But this raises the question of why free market ideology does not have enough persuasive power to win over the relevant parties, even in a textbook scenario like this one. Part of the reason is the caveats that I note above. But another part is that fishermen in European nations have enough political power to thwart the best arguments of the well-intentioned. Their livelihood is on the line, and free-market ideology has no comfort to offer them.*

At this point, many libertarians just throw up their hands and say "Bah! Politics! If only people read more Ayn Rand." But there is actually a hard and serious problem here, and it's futile to hope that more ideological indoctrination will save you. America's been exporting free-market ideology for decades. At a certain point, you have to accept that deploying more missionaries is not by itself sufficient.

From a political scientist's point of view, these fishermen are simply exercising their rights. Their aims may be misguided, but their claim to political power is not illegitimate. They didn't execute a coup; all they have are votes and lobbying, the same mechanisms that any other group uses to influence a democracy. Therefore, the hard question is this: how do you construct a political system that possesses the markers of legitimacy — the consent of the governed, transparency, accountability, etc. — and that will not be hijacked by people like these fishermen? And, having constructed such an institution once, how do you reliably and reproducibly construct new institutions (or modify existing ones) in response to crises?

So, in summary, every road leads back to the inability of humankind to construct well-functioning institutions: answerable to the concerns of those who take part in them, but also robust against subversion.

Incidentally, this whole business does not make me optimistic about a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide. An emissions tax seems preferable.

* Note that a socialist planner with sufficient will could just repossess the boats and relocate the fishermen to a different sector of the economy. A benevolent socialist planner would give them a compensatory stipend and job training; a malevolent socialist planner would just say tough cookies, make a new life. Either way, socialism has an political solution to the problem of ornery fishermen. It is interesting to ponder what would happen if the Mediterranean were located in China.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How to recognize a "green" concern troll

When someone says that we need to develop nuclear power instead of rather than in addition to other kinds of alternative energy technology, it's a strong sign that person is ill-informed, gratuitously querulous, and indifferent to the environment, and writes on the subject principally for the emotional gratification he gets from believing himself to be skewering the pieties of left-leaning greens.

Either that, or he is simply negligent about language to the point of being unintelligible.

The proper way to reward this behavior is to subtract a few points from your estimate of Tabarrok's credibility. I suggest that all Marginal Revolution readers do so.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Remarks on Chrome shoulder bags (and others)


Of late, these bags have been appearing on assorted hipster shoulders around SF. I got one free via work about a year ago. For a long time, it seemed like just another "fashion" messenger bag: sturdy, but otherwise unremarkable, and exuding a viscous aura of hipster poseurish asshattery (which, of course, did not stop me from using it, shameless asshat that I am).

However, about a week ago, I acquired a couple of folding bikes & started biking around the city, and I can now report that the Chrome bag is, in fact, better for cycling than most shoulder bags. For example, I have a Trager shoulder bag, which is by far the best laptop bag I've ever used for walking and travel; but it does not, even when cinched to maximum tightness, sit as securely on my shoulder and back while cycling as my Chrome bag.

I also spent about half an hour sorting through all the "messenger" bags at REI yesterday and did not find any that were better. So, color me surprised. Chrome bags are high-quality and uncommonly well-engineered for their ostensible function.

Note also that even the trademark Chrome seatbelt-style buckle, which at first looks like a silly and purely cosmetic affectation, is actually useful. When removing the bag while wearing a bike helmet, you need not wind the strap awkwardly over the bulk of your helmet; just grab the upper strap in one hand and click the buckle release with the other. (Given the preponderance of suicidally helmetless idiots in publicity photos on the manufacturer's website, it is not even clear to me that this is an intentional design feature rather than an accident; but either way, it's a success.)

For further corroboration, this review is absolutely accurate.


Incidentally, most "messenger" bags are, as far as I can tell, total bullshit, failing at least one of the following criteria:

  • It should not require two hands to tighten or loosen the strap.
  • It must be possible to tighten the strap sufficiently so that the bag does not slip longitudinally (along the axis of the strap).
  • The strap must generate enough friction not to slip either laterally or longitudinally. In practice, this means the strap must be sufficiently wide and grippy at weight-bearing points.
  • The juncture of the strap and the bag body must be shaped so that the bag does not flop away from the body. In practice, the only way I've seen this work is when there's a diagonal panel which moors the bag's entire edge to the strap, rather than just a single point.

Of course, I have no doubt that back in the day, when "bike messenger" was merely a profession and not a fashion idiom, Real Bike Couriers made do with what they could get, floppy shoulder bags with skinny nylon straps or whatever. But progress marches on, stuff gets better, and when I'm coasting down Nob Hill I am very happy to have a well-designed bag on my shoulder.


In case this consumer navel-gazing about some expensive glorified purses should seem trivial and/or out of character, Bruce Sterling's widely-linked Last Viridian Note contains some sage advice about material possessions, which I hereby deploy as ideological armor against your potential skepticism:

It's not bad to own fine things that you like. What you need are things that you GENUINELY like. Things that you cherish, that enhance your existence in the world. The rest is dross.

Do not "economize." Please. That is not the point. The economy is clearly insane. Even its champions are terrified by it now. It's melting the North Pole. So "economization" is not your friend. Cheapness can be value-less. Voluntary simplicity is, furthermore, boring. Less can become too much work.

The items that you use incessantly, the items you employ every day, the normal, boring goods that don't seem luxurious or romantic: these are the critical ones. They are truly central. The everyday object is the monarch of all objects. It's in your time most, it's in your space most. It is "where it is at," and it is "what is going on."

It takes a while to get this through your head, because it's the opposite of the legendry of shopping. However: the things that you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get. For instance, you cannot possibly spend too much money on a bed – (assuming you have a regular bed, which in point of fact I do not). You're spending a third of your lifetime in a bed. Your bed might be sagging, ugly, groaning and infested with dust mites, because you are used to that situation and cannot see it. That calamity might escape your conscious notice. See it. Replace it.

Sell – even give away – anything you never use. Fancy ball gowns, tuxedos, beautiful shoes wrapped in bubblepak that you never wear, useless Christmas gifts from well-meaning relatives, junk that you inherited. Sell that stuff. Take the money, get a real bed. Get radically improved everyday things.

The same goes for a working chair. Notice it. Take action. Bad chairs can seriously injure you from repetitive stresses. Get a decent ergonomic chair. Someone may accuse you of "indulging yourself" because you possess a chair that functions properly. This guy is a reactionary. He is useless to futurity. Listen carefully to whatever else he says, and do the opposite. You will benefit greatly.

As they say, Read The Whole Thing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dinosaur Comics on pareto optimality

Enjoy. Har har. I believe I shall henceforth call it "Utahraptor's criterion".

p.s. If the foundational math of distributional justice interests you, I suggest this as a starting point for further reading. I took an undergrad course with S. J. Brams, one of the authors, a long time ago. Truthfully I hated it. Brams is not a great lecturer, and he seemed to be teaching to the pace of the median undergraduate, which bored me sometimes literally to unconsciousness. On the other hand, it's one of the few undergrad courses whose content I have a nontrivial memory of, and I still have this book on my shelf, so in retrospect maybe it was a good course.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Root causes of crises & bailout under capitalism

1. An economy is an information network.

2. Capitalism is the system that maximizes free flow of information (capital) through this network.

3. Networks built by the free action of humans always result in heavy-head, long-tail distributions. (I'd say power law but C. Shalizi would smack me.)

4. Thus it is inevitable that massive economic power ends up concentrated in the hands of centralized actors who lack the capacity to manage this power efficiently.

5. When these entities inevitably fail, their centrality to the network generates irresistible political pressure to bail them out using the instruments of coercion (i.e. the government).

6. Thus capitalism contains within its nature the very seeds of its undoing.


(Composed on Muni 38 from downtown to J-town using my G1.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How it felt

I was at work when I saw that even Fox was calling Ohio and Pennsylvania for Obama and I realized how this would all end. About an hour later, I was in the basement of the Cantina in downtown San Francisco, among friends and strangers, having walked in shortly after all the networks called the nation.

We drank; we cheered; we watched McCain's unexpectedly gracious concession and Obama's rousing declaration of victory, and I am reasonably certain that by the end there was not a dry eye in the room. The pictures above were taken on my mobile phone, and although one of the people I was with had a better camera, I took these anyway because I think these images capture our subjective experience of the speech better than more optically faithful ones.

Of course, if you've been reading my writing recently, you know that a substantial part of me remains guarded and skeptical as to whether this election will truly turn the nation around, rather than merely arresting its precipitous decline. And these blurry pictures work in that sense as well: we glimpse the future only dimly and through a glass.

But still — tonight, for the first time in years, what we glimpse might not horrify us.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

I am not worried about Election Day

About a week ago, I moved on to worrying about what happens after.

We face astonishing problems. The scale of the missed opportunities and bumbling mistakes and grave moral sins our nation has committed since 2000 boggles the mind. When I think back to how America felt in 1999, when I was graduating from college, how full of thrilling promise and possibility, and when I consider where we are today, I wonder if some colossal prank has been played upon me by the universe. Welcome to adulthood, boy; now watch this bright and shiny world of your youth rust and rot with corruption from top to bottom.

So, eight years later, here we are. But where is that? On the net, I see pictures and videos of massive cheering crowds; everywhere I read of hope, and a barely contained undercurrent of relief, sometimes exultation. Suppose that the election goes as all these people wish. What's going to happen, really?

In all likelihood, the Democrats will hold not only the Presidency, but both houses of Congress. And K Street and Wall Street have seen this coming for some months now. Meanwhile we see the Republican Party both discredited and divided against itself, abandoned by virtually all those who would provide it either the moral fiber or the intellectual rigor to reform itself. I suspect it will be a long time in the wilderness for Republicans.

And far from being exultant, I am stone cold sober about what this means. It means that anybody who wants to have power or influence for the next few electoral cycles already knows that they need to get close with the Democratic Party. It means that the fate of the nation will hang on how well the Democratic Party's immune system neutralizes the parasites drawn by that power: the legions of influence-peddlers, along with amoral narcissists of all stripes burning with ambition and nothing else. Does this make you optimistic? If so, you haven't been paying attention to Congressional Democrats for the past two decades.

Meanwhile, consider what will happen to the Republican opposition. For nearly half a century, the plutocratic Republican leadership has been carelessly cultivating the jingoistic, theocratic, and crypto-racist elements of American society for political advantage. What has emerged is a stupid, snarling, egotistical beast, twenty-odd percent of the electorate that is confused, bitterly angry, fearful of change, utterly disconnected from reality, and boastful of a national patrimony that it sees as exclusively its own. I find it hard to imagine what this beast will become as increasing political marginalization and economic upheavals feed its resentment. The twenty percenters will not shrivel up and die; they will stew in the juices of their rage. How will that rage transform them?

All in all, I fear that we will soon witness some truly ugly times in American politics, of which the current campaign is only a foretaste.

Now, my fears are not predictions. I'm merely stating possibilities. I still hope that all my anxieties are misplaced. But nonetheless these are the anxieties that plague me. If you're worried about the election, put those worries aside; they're hardly worth the trouble. Far bigger potential problems lurk beyond it.