Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Perverse Technological Change

When I started using the Internet, everything was basically text on a simple background, with maybe a couple pictures. Then entire web looked and felt like a Wikipedia page. I liked this arrangement. With a little care, you could go to a site and get the content you wanted with little or no hassle or distraction.
Over time, random worthless junk started to clutter up web pages. I don't mind the classic banner ads, but after a while I got annoyed enough to install ad-blocking add-ins on Firefox, and later Chrome. For the five years when I was in grad school, I almost always went online using my computer, which used these ad-blocking extensions with customizations to for the sites I visited. The result of this was that web pages were fairly clean and loaded quickly.
I have recently learned that things were getting a lot worse in those five years. While my web browsing was shielded, things were sliding downhill. Now that I have to look up things on a work computer using Internet Explorer with no ad blocking, the much of Internet is now a slow, clunky place filled with junk and clutter.
Most independent blogs are still good, retaining the look and feel of a newspaper or magazine or scholarly article. But websites run by news organizations or other commercial ventures have become horrible. I am assaulted by popups and embedded video ads and attempts to use provocative pictures to send me to other junky sites.
It truly is an atrocity to embed a video advertisement in a page of text. Something that should take a few kilobytes of bandwidth and load in milliseconds now gobbles up megabytes of bandwidth and takes several seconds to load. The Internet browsing experience is, on average, worse than it was ten years ago.
I honestly think that the web might be better if high-speed Internet had never been invented and everyone was forced to remain mostly text-based as a result of sending data over slow modems. We would still have all the good blogs and news articles and access to scholarly papers and connection to everyone, without the distractions. Multimedia advertising would be impossible, so we might have developed a culture and infrastructure of micropayments for content, like a penny per news article.
The main thing you have to understand about the media industry is that if you are not paying for something, then you are the product and not the customer. We will never get a content system that is useful and efficient unless we are willing to pay for it and there are structures to support that willingness.
The problem is that I cannot decide to pay to get rid of ads. I could buy subscriptions to plenty of things on a device like a Kindle, but if a blog post links to a news article that I read I will inevitably be subjected to the advertising barrage that results from the website's desperate attempt to make enough money to stay in business by selling my eyeballs to some huckster. There is no useful system for me to pay them a few cents automatically and add it to a monthly bill.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I saw several articles recently that illustrate thoughts that I have had for some time now:
First, it seems that Mexico is having problems with eco-terrorists attacking its nanotechnology research institutes. This is not the Mexico of my parents' generation. This is a rich-country problem.
Seond, Brazilian researchers have stated that their goal is to have the opening kick of the 2014 World Cup be made by a paralyzed teenager in a thought-controlled exoskeleton. This is not the Brazil of my parents' generation. This is a rich-country of big hairy audacious goal.
Third, there is a vibrant system of online learning in Asia, with the result that people in Africa are getting online degrees from Asian Universities. This is not the Africa and Asia of my parents' generation. This is the kind of thing that will propel these countries to wealth and prosperity
If you pay attention to the long-term trends of international affairs and scientific research, you can see many more things like this. The rest of the world is an interesting, dynamic, flourishing place. So many things are happening. The last two decades have, worldwide, generated more wealth and human well-being than any time in history. Over a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, and a billion more have moved from moderate poverty to something resembling a middle-class lifestyle.
My conclusion is this: If things go well, The world will never again need the United States.
For most of our history, the world needed us. From the 1790's to the 1990's, the world would have been much worse off if the United States fell apart. When our nation was founded, we were the only free republic in a world of kings and despots. Then, we were the only place that millions of immigrants could go to to secure a better life. Then, our military and political power were vital to protect the world from fascism and communism. And for almost all of this time, we were one of the primary engines of economic, technological, and social progress.
For two hundred years, we were the beacon of liberty, the shining city on the hill, the promised land, Zion. For the past several generations, it has been embedded in our national consciousness that we were the center of the world. Where we went, the world followed. If we were to collapse into ruin or a dystopia, then we assumed that the rest of the world would inevitably share the same fate.
But now, things have changed. The rest of the world is full of countries who are getting richer, freer, and more successful each year. They are finding their own way to prosperity, learning from and trading with each other rather than being dependent on a superpower.
If something horrible happened to the United States, then the fate of mankind would not be affected very much. There would certainy be some nasty economic consequences, possibly some geopolitical problems, and probably a masty speed bump for technological progress. But in the long term, nothing would really change. The rest of the world would grow, and develop, and adjust, and adapt, making itself better and richer.
If the collapse was slow and gradual, taking place over decades, then the rest of the world would not care at all. Most of our scientific minds would move to other countries and continue their work in their universities. Businesses would relocate, taking the skilled and important workers with them.
I hope that the world never again returns to a condition where the United States is important. I look forward to a future where we are but one nation among equals, where the engines of human progress are spread across the globe, and all people have the chance to live in rich free countries.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Value of Money

What goes through your head when you see the words, "a hundred dead bodies on the floor"?
Perhaps you imagine three classrooms full of children killed by a psychotic murderer. Maybe it is an entire church full of people killed by a tornado. Maybe it is the aftermath of a battle, or a plague.
In any case, you will imagine a mind-bending scene of horror and devastation. You will see lives ruined, a vast tragedy of erased human potential, an uncountable loss of joy and happiness and beauty.
Now, what goes through your head when you see the words "a billion dollars spent"?
Probably there is very little reaction. You might imagine piles of money. If it is governemtn money you might gripe about taxes, but probably your brain connects this phrase to nothing with any emotional resonance.
I see these two things as identical. Anyone who truly understands math, and public finance, and the Value of a Statistical Life, will also see them as identical. In this post, I hope to explain why you should also think of money in this way.
Economists are sometimes accused of putting a price tag of human life. This is not true. We do not assign the price, we simply measure the price that other people assign. People trade off money and risks to life all the time. Risky jobs pay more. Cars with more safety features are more expensive. Houses in neighborhoods with less crime cost more.
It does not matter if people actually know or understand the risks. We do not have to assume that they are calculating things rationally and carefully. The important fact is that when people have more money, they die less often. They take safer jobs, buy safer cars, eat healthier food, and so on.*
For example, suppose there is a car safety feature that costs $1000 and reduces the odds of dying by one in ten thousand. Then think of how much money it would take to save someone's life. If you gave a thousand dollars each to ten thousand people, and they all used that money to buy a safer car, then one fewer person would die. You would have spent ten million dollars to save a life.
The amount of money it takes to save a life in this manner is called the Value of a Statistical Life. Economists study occupational wages, decisions about medical care, and so on, to find this value. The Value of a Statistical Life in developed countries is somewhere between six and ten million dollars. I'll use ten million, because more recent studies tend to show higher numbers and it makes the math easier.
Everything I have said so far is basic textbook economics. Now I need to highlight the consequences of these facts. Imagine that the government collects a $1000 tax from each of ten thousand people, and they react by purchasing a car without the safety feature. One more person will die. Collecting that tax has resulted in a dead body on the floor, or in this case the pavement.
Given that the value of a statistical life is ten million dollars, every ten million dollars the government collects in taxes will, statistically, kill someone. You cannot escape this fact by taxing rich people. If the rich have less money, then they spend less, which means less money for all of the people they hired or bought things from.
This is not evidence on favor of anarchism. All of the governments of modern democracies save far more lives by existing and operating than they kill by collecting taxes. But it is a useful and powerful way to think about the money the government spends.
When you see that a government program cost a billion dollars, remember that the taxes it took to fund that program resulted in a hundred dead bodies on the floor.
For example, the Mars Science Laboratory cost $2.5 billion. That is two hundred and fifty human beings sacrificed for science. This fact by itself does not mean that the program was a bad idea. I do not automatically dismiss the argument that bringing pride and joy to millions of people, while adding to our civilization's knowledge of the universe, is worth two hundred and fifty bodies on the floor. But we should be aware of the cost, and we should be having that discussion.
It is wrong and dangerous to think "it is just money" and argue that some other moral consideration justifies spending massive amounts of money. Money means life. Spending money means spending lives. If you argue that money should be spent for something, you should be prepared to argue that lives should be sacrificed for that thing. 
*Sometimes people choose to spend their money in ways that add value to their life rather than simply avoiding risks. But for an otherwise identical quality of life, more money means less risk.