Freedom

[Another underwhelming book; I promise to get out of the habit of posting only book reviews Real Soon Now.]

Book review: Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott.

Scott begins with a history of the tension between the desire for legibility versus the desire for local control. E.g. central governments wanted to know how much they could tax peasants without causing famine or revolt. Yet even in the optimistic case where they got an honest tax collector to report how many bushels of grain John produced, they had problems due to John’s village having an idiosyncratic meaning of “bushel” that the tax collector couldn’t easily translate to something the central government knew. And it was hard to keep track of whether John had paid the tax, since the central government didn’t understand how the villagers distinguished that John from the John who lived a mile away.

So governments that wanted to grow imposed lots of standards on people. That sometimes helped peasants by making their taxes fairer and more predictable, but often trampled over local arrangements that had worked well (especially complex land use agreements).

I found that part of the book to be a fairly nice explanation of why an important set of conflicts was nearly inevitable. Scott gives a relatively balanced view of how increased legibility had both good and bad effects (more efficient taxation, diseases tracked better, Nazis found more Jews, etc.).

Then Scott becomes more repetitive and one-sided when describing high modernism, which carried the desire for legibility to a revolutionary, authoritarian extreme (especially between 1920 and 1960). I didn’t want 250 pages of evidence that Soviet style central planning was often destructive. Maybe that conclusion wasn’t obvious to enough people when Scott started writing the book, but it was painfully obvious by the time the book was published.

Scott’s complaints resemble the Hayekian side of the socialist calculation debate, except that Scott frames in terms that minimize associations with socialism and capitalism. E.g. he manages to include Taylorist factory management in his cluster of bad ideas.

It’s interesting to compare Fukuyama’s description of Tanzania with Scott’s description. They both agree that villagization (Scott’s focus) was a disaster. Scott leaves readers with the impression that villagization was the most important policy, whereas Fukuyama only devotes one paragraph to it, and gives the impression that the overall effects of Tanzania’s legibility-increasing moves were beneficial (mainly via a common language causing more cooperation). Neither author provides a balanced view (but then they were both drawing attention to neglected aspects of history, not trying to provide a complete picture).

My advice: read the SlateStarCodex review, don’t read the whole book.

Book review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.

This ambitious attempt to explain the rise of civilization (especially the rule of law) is partly successful.

The most important idea in the book is that the Catholic church (in the Gregorian Reforms) played a critical role in creating important institutions.

The church differed from religions in other cultures in that it was sufficiently organized to influence political policy, but not strong enough to become a state. This lead it to acquire resources by creating rules that enabled people to leave property to the church (often via wills, which hardly existed before then). This turned what had been resources belonging to some abstract group (families or ancestors) into things owned by individuals, and created rules for transferring those resources.

In the process, it also weakened the extended family, which was essential to having a state that impartially promoted the welfare of a society that was larger than a family.

He also provides a moderately good description of China’s earlier partial adoption of something similar in its merit-selected bureaucracy.

I recommend reading the first 7 chapters plus chapter 16. The rest of the book contains more ordinary history, including some not-too-convincing explanations of why northwest Europe did better than the rest of Christianity.

How can a hospital-like business operating outside of existing territorial jurisdictions avoid harrassment by governments whose medical lobbies want to spread FUD?

Given that these businesses will initially have no track record to point to and less protection than existing medical tourism providers from whatever government provides a flag of convenience to the business, merely providing comparable quality medical care won’t be enough for such businesses to thrive. So I’m proposing practices which could enable those businesses to argue that current U.S. hospitals are more dangerous. I’m not suggesting this just for marketing purposes – I want safe hospitals to be available, and regulatory costs in the U.S. make it easier to start an innovative hospital offshore than in the U.S. (especially for types of innovation that don’t respect doctors’ prestige).

It has been known since 1847 that doctors kill patients by failing to wash their hands often enough. Yet this threat is still common. An offshore hospital could offer patients documentation showing when medical personel who touch the patient washed their hands (e.g. by providing the patient with video recordings of the procedures sufficient for the patient to verify cleanliness), with a double your money back guarantee. There are many other less common errors that patients could use such videos to check for.

The book Counting Sheep argues that hospitals often impair patients’ health by disturbing their sleep. Paying patients if night-time noise or light levels exceed some pre-specified limits should reduce this problem.

Next, I want the hospital’s fee structure to give it increased incentives to avoid failure. For procedures with objectively measurable results, I want the hospital to charge the patient only if those results are achieved, and to pay the patient some pre-specified amount if results leave the patient measurably worse off. (For hard to measure results such as change in pain, this approach won’t work).

The article You Get What You Pay For: Result-Based Compensation for Health Care has more extensive discussion of incentives and of strategies that hospitals might use to reduce the rate at which they harm patients.

I attended about 2/3 of the recent Seasteading conference. There were plenty of interesting people there. But I became less optimistic that seasteading will be implemented within the next decade.

The most discouraging news was that floating breakwaters probably won’t work with using propulsion to control location. They might work if anchored (which needs shallow water that only provides a little usable area outside territorial waters), and should still work with seasteads that drift were the currents take them (only suitable for people comfortable with being isolated).

The medical tourism ship business idea had last year seemed the most promising stepping stone on the way to seasteading. This year’s talk by Na’ama Moran on that subject provided better talking points that might be used to interest investors, but had nothing resembling a business plan. A year ago there was some hope that moderate changes to SurgiCruise‘s business plan could turn it into something viable. The seasteaders who were involved in that gave up on working with SurgiCruise recently, and no progress appears to have been made yet on creating an alternative.

I was also disappointed that she described no plans for dealing with the U.S. medical establishment’s ability to smear competitors. A company with no track record and weak regulation by, say, Panama can be made to sound dangerous to patients even if it provides care as good as U.S. hospitals. Could a medical cruise company hope to get accreditation early enough? There are large uncertainties about how much that costs and how soon it would be needed. I want a medical tourism company to prepare to demonstrate ways in which it provides higher quality care than U.S. hospitals (more on this in a later post).

Kevin Overman presented a vaguely promising idea for using RepRap and products from algae to build (print) structures at a cost that he hopes will be an order of magnitude less than with the materials currently envisioned to build a seastead. If he’s right, he should be able to make a nice profit building things on land before anyone is ready to build a seastead. The one drawback that I noticed is that it requires thicker structures (2X?) to get the same strength.

I also stopped by Ephemerisle for Saturday afternoon. It shows some promise as a competitor to Burning Man, but it’s unclear whether anything people learned there is related to skills needed to hold a festival in international waters. Possibly the design of the main platform can be adapted to the ocean without radical changes, but virtually all the other activity was done without any apparent regard for whether it could be repeated in the ocean.

Book review: The Law Market by Erin A. O’Hara and Larry E. Ribstein.

This book describes why it has become easier for parties to a contract to choose which legal system will be applied to their contract, both in terms of the political forces that enabled choice and why it’s good that choice is possible.

The political forces include the ability of some parties to physically leave a jurisdiction if they have inadequate choices about what law will be applied to them. Often enough those parties are employers that legislators want to remain in their jurisdiction.

The benefits include simple things like predictability of contract interpretation when the contract covers things that involve physical locations associated with multiple jurisdictions where there otherwise would be no reliable way to predict which court would assert jurisdiction over disputes. They also include less direct effects of providing incentives for legal systems to improve so as to attract more customers.

The book mostly deals with contracts between corporations, and is much more tentative about advocating choice of law for individuals.

The book provides examples showing that as with most markets, competition for law produces better law. But is also mentions more questionable results, such as competition for most effective tax shelters or the easiest terms for divorce (for divorce, the book suggests those who want divorce to be hard should try to arrange contracts that allocate assets in a way that discourages divorce; it would be harder for easy-divorce states to justify ignoring those contracts). There’s also a risk that the competition will sometimes benefit lawyers rather than their clients, as clients often rely on lawyers to decide which legal system to use without having a practical way to check who benefits from some of those choices.

The book is often dull reading because it often describes case law to explain quirks of current law that will be of interest to few non-lawyers.

One part that disappointed me was the assumption that the choice of jurisdiction should dictate the physical location in which plaintiffs must argue their case (the travel costs can make some lawsuits unpractical to a consumer suing a company if the company decides the location at which a suit is argued). Why are we trapped in a set of rules that requires travel to a possibly distant court when we have technology that provides reasonable remote communications?

Mike Linksvayer describes a good perspective on why it’s important to have most information in a commons rather than restricted by copyright.
Most economists have a strong bias toward assuming transaction costs are unimportant. Coase has fought this. It sure looks to me like the Coase Theorem ought to be understood as demonstrating that one of the most important tasks for economists is to improve our understanding of how to reduce transaction costs. Economists have invested too much in models which depend on transaction costs being insignificant to easily be persuaded to adopt such a different focus.

Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World describes why having some commons can be as valuable as having some resources protected by secure property rights, and why it matters for science and technology. But his argument style is designed for ordinary political debates, and doesn’t provide the breadth or power that a good economist would produce when attempting to reform economics.

I have little idea whether Creative Commons will put additional money to good use, but the value of its goals should not be overlooked.

The first Seasteading conference went rather well. It got a good turnout of intelligent people, in spite of being on a weekday (they didn’t plan far enough ahead to find a good weekend spot).
I was somewhat disappointed by the time spent on the basic motivations behind seasteading (do people come to this kind of conference without understanding the motivations?), and I wanted to focus more on a serious analysis of how close the business plans are to being a good investment.
One interesting idea that was briefly mentioned is unmanned farms, herded by small robotic boats. If you’re willing to lose farms to an occasional storm, that drastically cuts costs. But when I imagine the cheapest possible farms, it seems the plants would get significant salt spray, which drastically limits the types of crops which will thrive.
The most interesting subject was Ephemerisle. Before the conference I had been wondering whether it would be interesting enough that I would want to attend. The conference convinced me that it will attract the kind of people I like, and that there will be some interesting technical challenges. Since my very rusty knowledge of sailing seems to leave me better informed than most seasteaders about some of those challenges, I will want to provide some help with the planning. It’s still too poorly thought out for me to feel confident that it will be done safely, but it can probably be planned well enough to be safe under most conditions (and hopefully people will be prepared to cancel it if unusual winds make it look unsafe).
The location seems very uncertain, and will have some important impacts on the risks. During the conference, the tentative plan seemed to be a few miles of the southern California coast, but afterward I got some indications that the plan had changed to the San Francisco bay, which would be a good deal easier but which would do less to promote any long-term vision.

Book Review: Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock on Global Labor Mobility by Lant Pritchett.
This book is primarily written for economists and academics in related fields, but most of it can be understood by an average person.
I was a little hesitant to read this book because I suspected it would do little more than reinforce my existing beliefs. There were certainly parts of the book that I would have been better off skipping for that reason.
But one important effect of the book was to convince me that the effects on the poor of migration to wealthier countries is so large compared to things like “foreign aid” and free trade that anyone trying to help the poor by influencing government policies shouldn’t spend any time thinking about how to improve “foreign aid” or trade barriers.
I’ve long been wondering how to respond to remarks such as Jimmy Carter’s ‘We are the stingiest nation of all’ based the U.S.’s low “foreign aid” to GDP ratio. Pointing out that “foreign aid” is mostly wasted or even harmful requires too much analysis of lots of not-too-strong evidence. Pritchett shows that the wealth affects of allowing the poor to work in rich countries should dominate any measure of how those rich countries treat the poor. By that measure, adjusting for country size, the U.S. ranks better than countries in the EU, but is embarrassingly callous compared to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan.
The book addresses both moral and selfish arguments for restricting immigration. It treats the selfish arguments (even those based on myths) as problems that can’t be overcome, but which can be reduced via compromises. These pragmatic parts of the book are too ordinary to be worth much.
The sections about moral arguments are more powerful. He clearly demonstrates a large blind spot in the moral vision of those who think they’re opposed to all discrimination but who aren’t offended by discrimination on the basis of the nationality a person was assigned at birth. But he exaggerates when he claims that nationality is the only exception to a widely agreed on outrage at discrimination based on “condition of birth”. Discrimination based on date of birth still gets wide support (e.g. the drinking age). And if you’re born as a conjoined twin, don’t expect much protection from surgery that looks about as moral as brain surgery designed to cure a child’s homosexuality should.
Perhaps this book is one small step toward creating a movement with a slogan such as “Tear down that kinder, gentler Berlin wall!”.

Seasteading Institute

When I first heard and read about Seasteading, I thought it was mostly well thought out, but that it hadn’t reached its goal of providing a business plan that would support a small group of non-wealthy people to set up the first seastead in international waters.
Now Peter Thiel has donated $500,000 to fund a new organization called The Seasteading Institute. My intuition is that it will take somewhere between $2 million and $20 million of charitable contributions to reach the threshold of resources needed for a seastead to become viable in international waters. But the first big donation is typically harder for a nonprofit to get than subsequent donations, and the size of this initial donation (with only a rudimentary organization) suggests that there’s a good chance that more money can be raised once more specific plans are developed and more people indicate commitments to implement them.

Book Review: 1491 : New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
This book does a good job of discrediting several myths about the nature New World civilizations before Europeans arrived. It implies that significant parts of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel are wrong (in ways that Diamond should have avoided by consulting experts) – Indians were quite capable of repelling Europeans when their advantage consisted of guns and steel. After smallpox spread across the Americas (faster than Europeans), guns and steel were largely superfluous advantages.
The book presents evidence (alas, not enough to be conclusive) that most of the land in the Americas had been altered by civilizations that were much more sophisticated and varied than is commonly realized, and the myth that Indians were primitive savages is largely due to people mistaking the disease-ravaged remnants that the typical European colonist encountered for the pre-European norm.
The book also provides a few bits of evidence against historical determinism by pointing out how differently some aspects of civilization developed in the two worlds. For instance, the New World seems to have been first to get the concept of zero, but only used wheels for toys, and valued metals for their malleability rather than strength.
One very intriguing report is that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation society was freer and more egalitarian than European society, and that this caused a number of Europeans to prefer Haudenosaunee society, but no Indians in that region preferred European society. It’s unclear how strong the evidence is for these somewhat controversial claims. I guess I ought to track down the books he references for this subject.
The book also describes the Inka empire as socialist, without any markets, but I’m disappointed at how little the books says about that (e.g. how broad a definition of market is he using?).
The main shortcomings of this book are the numerous anecdotes that add little to our understanding of Indian civilizations.