U.S. Transhumanist Party Chairman Gennady Stolyarov II was recently honored to be the first guest ever interviewed on the video channel Lev and Jules Break the Rules with Lev Polyakov and Jules Hamilton. Lev and Jules have produced this skillfully edited video of the conversation, with content references from the conversation inserted directly into the footage. For those who wish to explore broad questions related to technology, transhumanism, culture, economics, politics, philosophy, art, and even connections to popular films and computer games, this is the discussion to watch.
This video was originally posted here. It is mirrored on Mr. Stolyarov’s YouTube channel here.
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Before the advent of evidence-based medicine, most physicians took an attitude like Galen’s toward their prescriptions. If their remedies did not work, surely the fault was with their patient. For centuries scores of revered doctors did not consider putting bloodletting or trepanation to the test. Randomized trials to evaluate the efficacy of a treatment were not common practice. Doctors like Archie Cochrane, who fought to make them part of standard protocol, were met with fierce resistance. Philip Tetlock, author of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction(2015), contends that the state of forecasting in the 21st century is strikingly similar to medicine in the 19th. Initiatives like the Good Judgement Project (GJP), a website that allows anyone to make predictions about world events, have shown that even a discipline that is largely at the mercy of chance can be put on a scientific footing.
More than once the author reminds us that the key to success in this endeavor is not what you think or what you know, but how you think. For Tetlock pundits like Thomas Friedman are the “exasperatingly evasive” Galens of the modern era. In the footnotes he lets the reader know he chose Friedman as target strictly because of his prominence. There are many like him. Tetlock’s academic work comparing random selections with those of professionals led media outlets to publish, and a portion of their readers to conclude, that expert opinion is no more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee. What the undiscerning did not consider, however, is not all of the experts who participated failed to do better than chance.
Daniel Kahneman hypothesized that “attentive readers of the New York Times…may be only slightly worse” than these experts corporations and governments so handsomely recompense. This turned out to be a conservative guess. The participants in the Good Judgement Project outperformed all control groups, including one composed of professional intelligence analysts with access to classified information. This hodgepodge of retired bird watchers, unemployed programmers, and news junkies did 30% better than the “pros.” More importantly, at least to readers who want to gain a useful skillset as well as general knowledge, the managers of the GJP have identified qualities and ways of thinking that separate “superforecasters” from the rest of us. Fortunately they are qualities we can all cultivate.
While the merits of his macroeconomic theories can be debated, John Maynard Keynes was an extremely successful investor during one of the bleakest periods in international finance. This was no doubt due in part to his willingness to make allowance for new information and his grasp of probability. Participants in the GJP display open-mindedness, an ability and willingness to repeatedly update their forecasts, a talent to neither under- nor over-react to new information by putting it into a broader context, and a predilection for mathematical thinking (though those interviewed admitted they rarely used an explicit equation to calculate their answer). The figures they give also tend to be more precise than their less successful peers. This “granularity” may seem ridiculous at first. I must confess that when I first saw estimates on the GJP of 34% or 59%, I would chuckle a bit. How, I asked myself, is a single percentage point meaningful? Aren’t we just dealing with rough approximations? Apparently not.
Tetlock reminds us that the GJP does not deal with nebulous questions like “Who will be president in 2027?” or “Will a level 9 earthquake hit California two years from now?” However, there are questions that are not, in the absence of unforeseeable Black Swan events, completely inscrutable. Who will win the Mongolian presidency? Will Uruguay sign a trade agreement with Laos in the next six months? These are parts of highly complex systems, but they can be broken down into tractable subproblems.
Using numbers instead of words like “possibly”, “probably”, “unlikely”, etc., seems unnatural. It gives us wiggle room and plausible deniability. They also cannot be put on any sort of record to keep score of how well we’re doing. Still, to some it may seem silly, pedantic, or presumptuous. If Joint Chiefs of Staff had given the exact figure they had in mind (3 to 1) instead of the “fair chance” given to Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs debacle may have never transpired. Because they represent ranges of values instead of single numbers, words can be retroactively stretched or shrunk to make blunders seem a little less avoidable. This is good for advisors looking to cover their hides by hedging their bets, but not so great for everyone else.
If American intelligence agencies had presented the formidable but vincible figure of 70% instead of a “slam dunk” to Congress, a disastrous invasion and costly occupation would have been prevented. At this point it is hard not to see the invasion as anything as a mistake, but even amidst these emotions we must be wary of hindsight. Still, a 70% chance of being right means there is a 30% chance of being wrong. It is hardly a “slam dunk.” No one would feel completely if an oncologist told them they are 70% sure the growth is not malignant. There are enormous consequences to sloppy communications. However, those with vested interests are more than content with this approach if it agrees with them, even if it ends up harming them.
When Nate Silver put the odds of the 2008 election in Obama’s favor, he was panned by Republicans as a pawn of the liberal media. He was quickly reviled by Democrats when he foresaw a Republican takeover of the Senate. It is hard to be a wizard when the king, his court, and all the merry peasants sweeping the stables would not know a confirmation bias from their right foot. To make matters worse, confidence is widely equated with capability. This seems to be doubly true of groups of people, particularly when they are choosing a leader. A mutual-fund manager who tells his clients they will see great returns on a company is viewed as stronger than a Poindexter prattling on about Bayesian inference and risk management.
The GJP’s approach has not spread far — yet. At this time most pundits, consultants, and self-proclaimed sages do not explicitly quantify their success rates, but this does not stop corporations, NGOs, and institutions at all levels of government from paying handsomely for the wisdom of untested soothsayers. Perhaps they have a few diplomas, but most cannot provide compelling evidence for expertise in haruspicy (sans the sheep’s liver). Given the criticality of accurate analyses to saving time and money, it would seem as though a demand for methods to improve and assess the quality of foresight would arise. Yet for the most part individuals and institutions continue to happily grope in the dark, unaware of the necessity for feedback when they misstep — afraid of having their predictions scrutinized or having to take the pains to scrutinize their predictions.
David Ferrucci is wary of the “guru model” to settling disputes. No doubt you’ve witnessed or participated in this kind of whimpering fracas: one person presents a Krugman op-ed to debunk a Niall Ferguson polemic, which is then countered with a Tommy Friedman book, which was recently excoriated by the newest leader of the latest intellectual cult to come out of the Ivy League. In the end both sides leave frustrated. Krugman’s blunders regarding the economic prospects of the Internet, deflation, the “imminent” collapse of the euro (said repeatedly between 2010 and 2012) are legendary. Similarly, Ferguson, who strongly petitioned the Federal Reserve to reconsider quantitative easing, lest the United States suffer Weimar-like inflation, has not yet been vindicated. He and his colleagues responded in the same way as other embarrassed prophets: be patient, it has not happened, but it will! In his defense, more than one clever person has criticized the way governments calculate their inflation rates…
Paul Ehrlich, a darling of environmentalist movement, has screeched about the detonation of a “population bomb” for decades. Civilization was set to collapse between 15 and 30 years from 1970. During the interim 100 to 200 million would annually starve to death, by the year 2000 no crude oil would be left, the prices of raw materials would skyrocket, and the planet would be in the midst of a perpetual famine. Tetlock does not mention Ehrlich, but he is, particularly given his persisting influence on Greens, as or more deserving of a place in this hall of fame as anyone else. Larry Kudlow continued to assure the American people that the Bush tax breaks were producing massive economic growth. This continued well into 2008, when he repeatedly told journalists that America was not in a recession and the Bush boom was “alive and well.” For his stupendous commitment to his contention in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he was nearly awarded a seat in the Trump cabinet.
This is not to say a mistake should become the journalistic equivalent of a scarlet letter. Kudlow’s slavish adherence to his axioms is not unique. Ehrlich’s blindness to technological advances is not uncommon, even in an era dominated by technology. By failing to set a timeline or give detailed causal accounts, many believe they have predicted every crash since they learned how to say the word. This is likely because they begin each day with the same mantra: “the market will crash.” Yet through an automatically executed routine of psychological somersaults, they do not see they were right only once and wrong dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times. This kind of person is much more deserving of scorn than a poker player who boasts about his victories, because he is (likely) also aware of how often he loses. At least he’s not fooling himself. The severity of Ehrlich’s misfires is a reminder of what happens when someone looks too far ahead while assuming all things will remain the same. Ceteris paribus exists only in laboratories and textbooks.
Axioms are fates accepted by different people as truth, but the belief in Fate (in the form of retroactive narrative construction) is a nearly ubiquitous stumbling block to clear thinking. We may be far removed from Sophocles, but the unconscious human drive to create sensible narratives is not peculiar to fifth-century B.C. Athens. A questionnaire given to students at Northwestern showed that most believed things had turned out for the best even if they had gotten into their first pick. From an outsider’s perspective this is probably not true. In our cocoons we like to think we are in the right place either through the hand of fate or through our own choices. Atheists are not immune to this Panglossian habit. Our brains are wired for stories, but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves seldom come out without distortions. We can gain a better outside view, which allows us to see situations from perspectives other than our own, but only through regular practice with feedback. This is one of the reasons groups are valuable.
Francis Galton asked 787 villagers to guess the weight of an ox hanging in the market square. The average of their guesses (1,197 lbs) turned out to be remarkably close to its actual weight (1,198 lbs). Scott Page has said “diversity trumps ability.” This is a tad bold, since legions of very different imbeciles will never produce anything of value, but there is undoubtedly a benefit to having a group with more than one point of view. This was tested by the GJP. Teams performed better than lone wolves by a significant margin (23% to be exact). Partially as a result of encouraging one another and building a culture of excellence, and partially from the power of collective intelligence.
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
-Helmuth von Moltke
“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”
When Archie Cochrane was told he had cancer by his surgeon, he prepared for death. Type 1 thinking grabbed hold of him and did not doubt the diagnosis. A pathologist later told him the surgeon was wrong. The best of us, under pressure, fall back on habitual modes of thinking. This is another reason why groups are useful (assuming all their members do not also panic). Organizations like the GJP and the Millennium Project are showing how well collective intelligence systems can perform. Helmuth von Moltke and Mike Tyson aside, a better motto, substantiated by a growing body of evidence, comes from Dwight Eisenhower: “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Adam Alonzi is a writer, biotechnologist, documentary maker, futurist, inventor, programmer, and author of the novels A Plank in Reason and Praying for Death: A Zombie Apocalypse. He is an analyst for the Millennium Project, the Head Media Director for BioViva Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of Radical Science News. Listen to his podcasts here. Read his blog here.
What the Atlanta Highway Collapse Signals about American Infrastructure – Article by Lili Carneglia
Atlanta is already known for having some of the worst traffic in the world, and the recent collapse along a major interstate will only make congestion worse. On March 30, in the middle of rush hour traffic, a fire began under the I-85 Northbound that quickly erupted into a massive blaze, eventually causing a section of the bridge to collapse.
Less than 24 hours later, with the rubble still smoldering, the US Department of Transportation announced a $10 million award to begin emergency repairs. Despite the quick response from the DOT, it will take millions more dollars before I-85 can resume carrying 400,000 vehicles daily.
With the nation’s Highway Trust Fund rapidly approaching insolvency, the I-85 collapse and the subsequent Atlanta traffic chaos exemplify the overwhelming cost and inefficiency of public infrastructure in America.
Why So Expensive?
In the United States, transit projects are chronically expensive and time-consuming. The country’s outdated method of allowing most highways to fall under federal care, and cumbersome regulatory obstacles, is part of the reason that we continue to lag behind when it comes to international standards. Regulatory burdens also contribute to other countries’ outranking the US when it comes to securing construction permits, making new projects and maintenance even more complicated.
Policy relics of the Obama administration weigh particularly heavy on this type of progress. Specifically, Executive Order 13502, which encourages labor agreements for federal construction projects. Because these agreements require union labor, this E.O. severely limits the number of firms that can accept a federal contract, since only 13.9 percent of the construction workforce is unionized. Additionally, many researchers have found that this practice is estimated to increase the costs of projects anywhere from 13-18 percent.
As the small fraction of construction firms that benefit from this order continue to lobby for similar policies that land them more federal projects at the expense of taxpayers and industry innovation, we can expect the cost of infrastructure projects to continuously rise.
This issue is nothing new, with politicians from both sides of the aisle eager to point fingers and offer their own solutions. President Trump is no exception. He has made a repeated pledge to invest $1 trillion in the nation’s infrastructure. While the Trump administration has announced that those plans will be revealed later in the year, the details, including the amount of federal funding available for the project, remain a mystery. In part due to this opacity, most people remain skeptical of promises, released alongside a proposed budget, that would cut DOT spending by 13 percent.
However, even if the Trump administration were to pump $1 trillion of pure federal funds into infrastructure projects, it would do little to fix the country’s severely broken system. The best chance of improving America’s infrastructure lies in removing the red tape standing in the way of private firms when it comes to federal projects – or better yet, ending the government monopoly on transit altogether.
One of the most promising international trends in infrastructure development involves moving away from public transportation and towards private transit systems. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that in many countries, private investment in infrastructure is on the rise as government investment declines due to “constraints on public finance and recognized limitations on the public sector’s effectiveness in managing projects.” The US should take note of the global trend.
Transitioning to privatization is quickly becoming a necessity in the face of rapidly-expanding maintenance costs and Trump budget cuts. Even without the option of public funding, privatization offers massive benefits for taxpayers.
Some of the biggest users of public roads, like logistics companies, create billions more dollars in transportation expenses than the average car-owner. However, road costs are passed on to taxpayers en masse, subsidizing companies that use public roads the most. The current system effectively results in corporate welfare. Private toll roads help mitigate the unfair cost burden and appropriately account for maintenance.
American infrastructure is on the brink of complete disaster. While the I-85 collapse was an unpredictable event, prior to last month, the road was not even listed among the 56,000 structurally deficient bridges in the country. Infrastructure expenses will continue to drain federal and state budgets until public funds can no longer keep up. Sudden highway collapses are a disquieting reminder of what is at stake if we fail to change the way the US approaches transportation.
Lili Carneglia is a student at the University of Alabama where she is getting a joint bachelor’s and master’s degree in Economics. She is a Young Voices advocate.
As early as preschool, I would insist on wearing only business attire to class every day. And by business attire, I mean I’d put on one of my father’s button-down shirts and tuck it in with a ridiculously oversized pair of slacks that my brother had worn.
When I got older this interest began to manifest itself in ways that caused conflict in class.
The Young Entrepreneur
In 4th grade, I made a little business out of reselling Livestrong wristbands after class. I made about $150 with this side business before the school told me I needed to stop. My classmates were disappointed because I was the only reliable source when it came to getting bands. Plus, I had recently started purchasing Freedom Bands, which were available in far more colors than the Livestrong yellow. Needless to say, my customers were always satisfied.
In 6th grade, I loaned a friend money for a cookie but insisted on there being a 25 cent interest fee tacked onto each day he failed to repay. It took him two weeks and he paid the amount he owed, plus interest, without complaint.
The school found out and my parents received a call home.
What I always found interesting was that there was never any sort of explanation offered as to why my behavior was “bad.” It was just simply against the rules.
My classmates loved my attempts at offering services, but there was always the ever-present, and often unseen, force of teachers and school administrators hovering nearby waiting to stop our transactions.
High School Antics
As the associated student body president, I was required to work in the student store. I developed a practice of accepting tips in the form of the spare change students didn’t want to carry around.
I had a jar on the counter, like any food establishment might, and I would casually suggest students leave their change after a purchase. This was an innocent, voluntary donation in which I’d make a little bit of money every day.
But of course, my teacher found out and her response was a swift write-up. Again, I was not told why my actions were wrong.
It’s Only Fair If Everyone Profits One day, the administration decided to host a club fundraising festival where each club was allowed to sell one item purchased from a grocery store at lunch in order to raise funds for its club—the only time they ever broke the cafeteria monopoly.
I left campus to purchase 150 burgers from Wendy’s for $1 each. I then sold them for $5 per burger on campus, and gave away a free Arizona Iced tea with the burger, which undercut the two other vendors selling Arizona Iced tea.
We eclipsed the rest of the fundraising group that day by over 200 percent and the school accused us of cheating and being greedy.
They confiscated most of the funds and distributed it among the other students to make it more “fair.”
At last the truth had come out in full. It had taken almost eighteen years but I had the answer they had never given me before: my teachers hated the free market.
The administrators regarded commerce as dirty. They didn’t see the value I created for students who wanted something better than cafeteria food for lunch. They saw value that had been acquired at the expense of others.
As I look back now with more knowledge and experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that this experience was both beautiful and saddening.
As children, we are born capitalists. We have no deep philosophies or moralities but we organize ourselves naturally around mutual exchange because we recognize quickly that life gets better if we do.
We trade cards, toys, our lunches, and other things we value for the things our friends value and rarely do we have trouble working out disputes. We don’t do it because we care consciously about free markets — we don’t even know the concept. Nor do we need to. Markets don’t require everyone to know their importance consciously. They just require people to be left alone.
It takes a lot of schooling to kill these natural inclinations towards freedom. Teachers and administrators stop these interactions on the playground, and in the classroom they teach material that distorts and obfuscates the truth. The process of schooling is the process of taking our innate tendencies towards liberty and destroying them.
As my friend Isaac Morehouse wrote in a comment when I shared this story on Facebook:
Is it any wonder why Ayn Rand is making such a resurgence among high school students?
After the spate of celebrities who died in 2016, the death of a Swedish professor of international health might not seem very newsworthy. However, Hans Rosling, who died of pancreatic cancer on February 7th, was no ordinary or obscure professor.
The story of his life and career can be found both at Wikipedia and in this marvelous Nature profile. What those sources cannot quite convey is Rosling’s importance as a role model for intellectual honesty, personal warmth and charisma, and a willingness to go where the facts took him, regardless of whether those facts adhered to any simplistic political narrative of humanity’s past and future. Both Rosling’s intellectual fearlessness and the substance of his work have importance for those who care about human freedom and progress.
Intellect and Humanity
But it isn’t just the content of Rosling’s work that matters. He was an amazing rhetorician. He had a unique ability to use and present data in easy to understand and visually appealing ways that were very effective at conveying an argument. He also was able to think creatively about the linkages among the various causes of wealth and the improvements they made in human well-being. His natural storytelling ability gave him the capacity to put those complex historical factors into narratives that not only got the history right, but did so in a way that appealed to our shared humanity.
All of these skills are on display in his two most famous videos, both of which impart lessons in presenting ideas and interpretations of data that classical liberals will find very useful.
Underlying much of Rosling’s work as a public intellectual was a concern with how we enable all of humanity to share in the health and wealth that has come to characterize the Western world.
With his background in health and demographics, Rosling was interested in the factors that led to the rising health and longevity of the West. First, of course, he had to document just how much better things had become in the West, then he had to explore the causes.
Presenting the raw data about the improvement of the West was the centerpiece of his BBC video “200 Years, 200 Countries, 4 Minutes.” Using real-time data visualization techniques, he shows how every country in the world was poor and sick 200 years ago and then showed the path by which so many countries became wealthy and healthy. There is no better visualization of the progress of humanity than this one.
For those of us who work with students, this video gives us the opportunity to talk about the factors that made that growth happen, including the role of liberal institutions and the rising moral status of the individual in that process. It is a great complement to the work of Deirdre McCloskey.
The video also provides a way to talk about global inequality. What is clear from the visualization of the data is that 200 years ago, countries were far more equal than now, but they were equally poor.
It’s true that the gap between rich and poor countries is greater now than back then, but everyone has improved their absolute position. And two of the countries that have improved the most are two of the most populous: China and India. Rosling’s presentation opens up countless useful discussions of the importance of economic growth for increases in life expectancy, as well as what exactly concerns us about growing inequality.
As he concludes, the task before us now is to figure out how to bring the rest of the world up to where the West is. Though he does not discuss it, the economic evidence is clear that those countries that have experienced the most growth, and therefore the biggest increases in longevity and other demographic measures of well-being, are those that have the freest economies. By giving us the data, Rosling enables classical liberals to engage the conversation about the “why” and “how” of human betterment.
But our favorite video of Rosling’s is definitely “The Magic Washing Machine.” Here Rosling uses the example of the washing machine to talk about economic growth and its ability to transform human lives for the better.
Rosling’s focus is on the way the washing machine is an indicator of a population that has grown wealthy enough not only to buy such machines, but also to provide the electricity to power them. The washing machine is a particularly valuable machine since it relieves most of the physical burden of one of the most onerous tasks of the household, and one that has historically fallen entirely to women.
No one who has seen the video can forget the story of Rosling’s grandmother pulling up a chair in front of the new washing machine for the sheer joy of sitting and watching while the clothes spin. Her excitement becomes even more poignant when one considers that this must have been the first time in her life when she was able to sit while laundry was done, instead of standing over a tub of hot water and soap.
Rosling points out, in a moment of calling his fellow progressives to task, that while many of his students are proud of biking to class instead of driving, none of them do their wash by hand. That chore, though green, is simply too onerous for most moderns to take on. He then goes on to discuss how we have to find ways to create the energy needed as billions of people cross the “wash line” and start to demand washing machines.
The video ends with him reaching into the washing machine and pulling out the thing that the machine really made possible: books. The washing machine gave his mother time to read and to develop herself, as well as to read to young Hans and boost his education as well.
The visual image of putting clothes into a washing machine and pulling out books in exchange captures all that is good about economic growth in a succinct and unforgettable way. Rosling concludes the video with a heart-felt roll call of gratitude to industrialization and development that has been known to reduce free market economists to tears.
What Rosling does in that video is to effectively communicate what classical liberals see as the real story of economic growth. He gets us to see how economic growth, driven by markets, has enabled women to live more liberated lives. Classical liberals can talk endlessly about the data, but until we talk effectively about the way in which industrialization and markets have made it possible for women (and others) to be freed from drudgery that was literally back-breaking, we cannot win the war on the market.
Bastiat said that “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” Hans Rosling’s work is the best possible example of the best kind of defense of a good cause. He was a model and an inspiration.
Rosling ends “The Magic Washing Machine” by saying “Thank you industrialization. Thank you steel mill. Thank you power station. And thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”
We say, “Thank you, Dr. Rosling. Thank you, data visualization. Thank you TED talks. And thank you, Mrs. Rosling, for buying a washing machine and reading to your son.” We are richer for the work he did. We are poorer for his loss.
Sarah Skwire is the Literary Editor of FEE.org and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network. Email
Earlier this week, the Trump campaign released a white paper written by senior policy adviser Peter Navarro to elaborate and quantify the candidate’s economic plan. The goal of the paper is to explain how Donald Trump’s promises to renegotiate trade agreements and raise tariffs will promote economic growth and raise revenue for the government.
The plan betrays embarrassing ignorance of how trade negotiations work and a farcically simplistic and erroneous understanding of economics. In essence, the plan justifies Trump’s policies by reimagining how the world works.
Trump’s entire view of trade and its impact on the U.S. economy is wrong. He believes that trade is good for the United States only if we export more than we import and that trade relations are a contest between countries, which we are losing because they sell more stuff to us than we sell to them. He claims to be the tough-guy who will the save the American economy from shrewd foreign cheaters and the inept government officials who let them beat us.
Since that’s not how things work in the real world, he has to rely on falsehoods and bad economics to justify disastrous policies. This new white paper is just a continuation of that tactic.
Bill Watson is a trade policy analyst with Cato’s Herbert A Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. His research focuses on U.S. trade remedy policies, disguised protectionism, and the institutional aspects of global trade liberalization. He manages Free Trade, Free Markets: Rating the Congress, Cato’s online database that tracks votes by Congress and its individual members on bills and amendments affecting the freedom of Americans to trade and invest in the global economy. Watson received a BA in political science from Texas Christian University, a JD from Tulane University Law School, and an LLM in international and comparative law from the George Washington University Law School.
As a long-time Trekkie (with several conventions and selfies with William Shatner) and an economist, I was more than delighted when a good friend of mine gave me the recently published book Trekonomics: The Economics Behind Star Trek by Manu Saadia.
Saadia’s highly exciting book attempts to explain the economy of Star Trek and describes the Federation of United Planets (which includes Earth) as a post-scarcity society that no longer uses money because everyone maximizes their utility by just doing what they want to do. The main driving force behind people’s behavior is vanity, not profit. He calls this economic system “Trekonomics.”
Economics Is an Intergalactic Concept
While describing a post-scarcity society, Saadia admits that there are some resources that are scarce. He mainly focuses on dilithium crystals that are the source of energy in the Star Trek universe:
Logic would dictate that near-absolute abundance has driven prices to zero on all but few strategic goods. These strategic goods are of limited use for most people anyway. I do not need a big chunk of dilithium crystals in the course of my everyday life. Matter-antimatter power plants require it, whether on board starships or on the ground, but not me. I am not in the market for it, society as a whole is.
While Saadia praises the replicator (Star Trek’s version of the universal 3D printer) as the driving force behind post-scarcity, he omits the fact that replicators (and holodecks, and warp drives needed in delivery shuttles bringing the latest vintage of Chateau Picard to your cottage on Mars) require energy in order to create food out of nothing.
If there’s a shortage of dilithium, there needs to be a market in order to efficiently allocate energy. Therefore, every individual is interested in a sufficient supply of dilithium crystals. An analogy to our world can be seen in oil dwells or nuclear power plants. While individuals rarely explore oil fields or build power plants, they do purchase their product (energy) on a daily basis.
Even if every one of the tens of billions of citizens of the Federation would act altruistically, it would be impossible to allocate energy to the projects with the highest priority. Only central planning or a market for energy can solve this.
The 24th century’s technological progress has reduced all physical resources to one: energy. Humans and aliens can nearly produce everything out of energy. This is great and probably significantly cuts down value/supply-chains, but there is still scarcity.
Price Controls in the Trek Universe
The value chain of the Federation’s economy most likely includes the following few stakeholders:dilithium explorers and miners, dilithium transporters/shippers, dilithium power plant operators, power grid operators, B2B replicator manufacturers (those replicators that replicate replicators), replicator owners, and replicator maintenance providers.
Assuming there’s a natural monopoly in running these services, one company or institution running all of this might also be thinkable (though given our experiences with centrally managed energy supply, I would highly doubt that there’s a natural monopoly in the dilithium value chain).
Without a price for the resource energy, a single individual could deplete the Federation’s dilithium supplies by merely replicating a galaxy full of larger-than-life Seven of Nine action figures. Thus a price system for energy is crucial in order to allow consumer choice in the Federation. The only other way to solve this issue would be the creation of the United Socialist Republics of the Galaxy (USRG) and centrally plan the energy distribution. Good luck with queuing for holodeck time in that USRG!
Light-Speed, Among Other Things, Isn’t Immune to Scarcity
Dilithium seems to perfectly qualify as a private good because both rivalry (it is scarce and you need to find it somewhere in deep and hostile space) and exclusivity (it’s pretty easy to cut someone off the energy grid) apply.
While Saadia acknowledges the scarcity of dilithium, he misses several other scarce goods:
Private Property: rivalry also exists when it comes to the use of land. Imagine a beautiful cliff in Europe that gives you a perfect view of Saturn during sunset. The cliff has space for exactly one cottage. Who decides who can build and live there? Galactic homesteading is probably a feasible means of solving this problem in times of early inter-planetary exploration, but the moment the galaxy gets more crowded, a land-registry proving property rights will be necessary in order to prevent and solve disputes and facilitate the transfer of ownership.
Unique locations and goods: Saadia admits that there’s a scarcity of seats at Sisko’s restaurant or bottles of the famous Chateau Picard, but as people have overcome the idea of enjoying status, they are not interested in over-consuming such gems in the galaxy.
In trekonomics, the absence of money implies that status is not tied to economic wealth or discretionary spending. Conspicuous consumption and luxury have lost their grip on people’s imaginations. The opposition between plenty and scarcity, which under our current conditions determines a large cross section of prices and purchasing behaviors, is no longer relevant.
This reasoning comes short in explaining how people demand dinner at Sisko’s or a good bottle of wine at all, and what happens if the demand is higher than the supply. Would first customers start hoarding? Are there black markets for these non-replicated goods and experiences?
Incentives: a Terran settler on Mars craves the 2309 vintage of Chateau Picard and wants to get it delivered in light speed from the South of France. How do we incentivize the shuttle pilot (beaming wine spoils the tannins) to stop soaking in the sun in the Mediterranean and swing his body behind the helm of a shuttle? How do we compensate him for the time and energy he spent delivering the wine to the Red Planet? If vanity is the major driving force in trekonomics, one can just hope that someone sees more vanity in the delivery of this excellent wine instead of chugging it day-in day-out himself. A more realistic way of getting people to do (annoying) things is to create incentives (e.g. to pay in dilithium units).
Live long and prosper as long the central planners allow it?
Star Trek Federation is a great thought experiment on what a post-scarcity society could look like. However, there are major shortcomings such as the allocation of property rights, a price system for energy, incentivization of services, and the existence of rivalry.
A free, prosperous, and open society such as the Federation can only function with a price system in place in order to deal with the scarcity of energy. If trekonomics would really be applied in the Federation, we would see a much more repressive version of this interplanetary union forcing its citizens to work in certain professions and rationing energy.
Recently, Hillary Clinton was taped ridiculing Donald Trump for lacking a detailed plan for the American economy. The message, so it goes, is that Trump is not suited for the presidency because he doesn’t have a plan on how to turn the American economy around.
But is it really more dangerous to elect a president who makes up economic policy on the fly than one who proclaims to have a detailed plan for us?
The answer to this is no, it is not more dangerous to elect someone who makes up economic policy by the seat of his pants — as Donald Trump is prone to do — than it is to elect someone who thinks she can have the future of the economy neatly mapped out. However, this does not imply that seat-of-the-pants method is less dangerous either. The underlying problem is we have two competing people who think they can manage the American economy.
The core of why both philosophies are equally dangerous is best summarized by F.A. Hayek and the pretense of knowledge. Hayek notes in his speech in 1974:
Unlike the position that exists in the physical sciences, in economics and other disciplines that deal with essentially complex phenomena, the aspects of the events to be accounted for about which we can get quantitative data are necessarily limited and may not include the important ones … in the study of such complex phenomena as the market, which depend on the actions of many individuals, all the circumstances which will determine the outcome of a process … will hardly ever be fully known or measurable.
We are incapable of knowing what the future will bring. No president can come up with a detailed or air tight plan or can accumulate a sufficient stable of experts to be able to guide the behavior, wants, and needs of 320 million people.
For example, if we were to have asked George Bush and his economic experts in 2002 to develop a five year plan for cell phones, we would have built up a massive production capacity and R&D structure around miniaturizing phones as that was all the rage. If someone said in 2002 that people in the future would give up physical buttons and want larger screens, they would have been looked upon as mad. People are buying smaller and smaller phones, there’s no way they could touch the screen and get anything done! But come 2007, Apple introduces the iPhone and the older-style button phone has nearly vanished from the marketplace. Had the government decided it needed to plan the economy around smaller phones, we wouldn’t be enjoying a mobility revolution.
All behavior is risky. Even if central planners could somehow canvass all of our wants and needs, figured out when exactly we want to satisfy those needs, and determined who gets what in a world of scarcity, the planners would still fail. This is because even we have no idea what we’ll want in the future. If we were to ask someone to write down exactly what they would buy on August 14, 2017 and put it in an envelope then open it up and compare it to what was bought on that day, there is little doubt the results would be wildly different.
The planner is going to do no better. Instead of a single individual failing to predict his own habits in a fun exercise, we’ll be malinvesting untold amounts of money into unwanted industries and imposing counterproductive and dangerous rules on businesses — the effects of which are impossible to predict. Furthermore, central planning shuts down innovation and the entrepreneurial process because it assumes to know today what is wanted tomorrow. Most innovation arises when someone produces a product we had no idea we wanted and couldn’t fathom existing.
Does Hillary Clinton’s plan for the economy make her a more qualified president than Donald Trump, who will likely create plans spontaneously? No, it makes them equally dangerous as both assume they have the ability to do what countless officials over the centuries have never managed to do — predict the future.
Justin Murray received his MBA in 2014 from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.
This week, President Obama and Vice President Biden held a hastily arranged secret meeting with Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen. According to the one paragraph statement released by the White House following the meeting, Yellen, Obama, and Biden simply “exchanged notes” about the economy and the progress of financial reform. Because the meeting was held behind closed doors, the American people have no way of knowing what else the three might have discussed.
Yellen’s secret meeting at the White House followed an emergency secret Federal Reserve Board meeting. The Fed then held another secret meeting to discuss bank reform. These secret meetings come on the heels of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s estimate that first quarter GDP growth was .01 percent, dangerously close to the official definition of recession.
Thus the real reason for all these secret meetings could be a panic that the Fed’s eight-year explosion of money creation has not just failed to revive the economy, but is about to cause another major market meltdown.
Establishment politicians and economists find the Fed’s failures puzzling. According to the Keynesian paradigm that still dominates the thinking of most policymakers, the Fed’s money creation should have produced such robust growth that today the Fed would be raising interest rates to prevent the economy from “overheating.”
The Fed’s response to its failures is to find new ways to pump money into the economy. Hence the Fed is actually considering implementing “negative interest rates.” Negative interest rates are a hidden tax on savings. Negative interest rates may create the short-term illusion of growth, but, by discouraging savings, they will cause tremendous long-term economic damage.
Even as Yellen admits that the Fed “has not taken negative interest rates off the table,” she and other Fed officials are still promising to raise rates this year. The Federal Reserve needs to promise future rate increases in order to stop nervous investors from fleeing US markets and challenging the dollar’s reserve currency status.
The Fed can only keep the wolves at bay with promises of future rate increases for so long before its polices cause a major dollar crisis. However, raising rates could also cause major economic problems. Higher interest rates will hurt the millions of Americans struggling with student loan, credit card, and other forms of debt. Already over 40 percent of Americans who owe student loan debt are defaulting on their payments. If Federal Reserve policies increase the burden of student loan debt, the number of defaults will dramatically increase leading to a bursting of the student loan bubble.
By increasing the federal government’s cost of borrowing, an interest rate increase will also make it harder for the federal government to manage its debt. Increased costs of debt financing will place increased burden on the American people and could be the last straw that finally pushes the federal government into a Greek-style financial crisis.
The no-win situation the Fed finds itself in is a sign that we are reaching the inevitable collapse of the fiat currency system. Unless immediate steps are taken to manage the transition, this collapse could usher in an economic catastrophe dwarfing the Great Depression. Therefore, those of us who know the truth must redouble our efforts to spread the ideas of liberty.
If we are successful, we may be able to force Congress to properly manage the transition by cutting spending in all areas and auditing, then ending, the Federal Reserve. We may also be able to ensure the current crisis ends not just the Fed but the entire welfare-warfare state.
Ron Paul, MD, is a former three-time Republican candidate for U. S. President and Congressman from Texas.
Unfortunately, What’s Best for the World Is Not Best for Every Subset of It
I am seeing more and more articles, even at respectable outlets such as the Economist and the Financial Times, suggesting that the rise of right-wing and left-wing populism shows that something is wrong with the neoliberal model.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The past two decades have been by far the best two decades in human history, and that’s what really matters.
Naysayers will sometimes acknowledge that hundreds of millions of people have recently risen out of poverty, but then claim that living standards have stagnated in America. That’s also nonsense, as I explained in this post.
The next fallback position is that while real incomes in America have risen, the gains have gone to corporations, not workers. That’s also nonsense, as I explained in this post. The share of national income going to workers today is the same as it was 50 years ago, the supposed heyday of the working class.
The next fallback position is that while wages have done fine, even in real terms, wage income is becoming less equal. Bingo! Finally we get to an accurate statement. Fifty years ago, blue-collar workers at General Motors often made more than college professors. People with short attention spans sometimes act like this period was “normal”, ignoring 10,000 years of human history. They seem to suggest that our most pressing problem is that young men who don’t study in school and just shoot rubber bands across the classroom should be able to earn an income that (in relative terms) was never possible in any period of world history before the 1950s and has never been possible in any period of world history after the 1970s. It reminds me of when farmers used to set the “parity” of farm prices with other goods prices based on the relatively high levels of 1909-14, treating that ratio as normal for purposes of farm subsidies.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against blue-collar workers. I’m relatively intellectual, and even I found the public schools to be mind-numbingly boring. I could hardly stay awake. I can’t even imagine how students less interested in ideas than I am could’ve gotten through the day. Nor am I one of those conservatives that will trash low-income whites for their lifestyle choices. As far as blue-collar workers are concerned, I wish them well. But I wish everyone well (except Trump), and the unfortunate truth is that the set of economic policies that is best for the world right now is probably not optimal for a subset of American blue-collar workers.
When I point out that the most important factor in trade policy is the impact on the poor in developing countries, some of my commenters tell me that the US shouldn’t have to import from China or India because they have lots of other countries to sell to. As Marie Antoinette might’ve said “let them sell to Canada.” That’s right, progressives ease their conscience by claiming that other developed countries won’t follow the same evil trade policies that progressives like Sanders want the US to follow, so things won’t actually be that bad for poor people in Bangladesh. More often, they entirely ignore the issue.
I know that progressives like to think of themselves as the good guys, but the honest truth is that on trade they are increasingly becoming the bad ones, right along with Trump.
And here’s what else people don’t get. Not all the problems in the world are caused by neoliberal economic theories, for the simple reason that not all economic policies reflect neoliberal economic theories. Even if everything people say about inequality is true, there’s nothing wrong with the neoliberal model, which allows for the EITC, progressive consumption taxes, and sensible reforms of intellectual property rights, occupational licensing, and zoning laws.
I can’t help it if Democratic politicians oppose reforms of intellectual property rights. I can’t help it if progressives that once favored progressive consumption taxes now oppose progressive consumption taxes. I can’t help it if Democrats voted to repeal the luxury tax on yachts soon after having enacted a luxury tax on yachts. I can’t help it if progressives suddenly feel that a $15 an hour minimum wage is not a loony idea.
The simple truth is that neoliberal economic policies work, as we’ve seen in Denmark and Switzerland and Singapore, and socialism doesn’t work, as we’ve seen in Venezuela. So I’m asking all those wavering neoliberals in the respectable press (Thatcher called them “wets“) to stop your handwringing and get out there and boldly defend the neoliberal model. It’s not just the best model; in the long run it’s the only model that really works.
Scott B. Sumner is the director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center and a professor at Bentley University. He blogs at the Money Illusion and Econlog.