Why Blockchain has no economic future

When Bitcoin went public in 2009 it introduced to the world of finance and economics the technology of blockchain. Even the many who thought Bitcoin would never make it as a major currency were intrigued by the BlockChain technology and a large set of new companies have tried to figure out how to offer new services based on blockchain technology. It is still fair to say that very few economists and social scientists understand blockchain, and governments are even further behind.

I will argue that blockchain has no economic future in the regular economy. I will give you the bottom-line, then describe blockchain, discuss its key supposed advantages, and then take it apart as a viable technology by giving you a much more efficient alternative to the same market demand opportunities.

The bottom line for those not interested in the intricacies of blockchains and public trust

The essence of my argument is that a large country can organise a much more trustworthy information system than a distributed network using blockchain can, and at lower costs, meaning that any large economic role for blockchain is easily displaced by a cheaper and even larger national institution.

So in the 19th century, large private companies circulated their own money, in competition with towns and princedoms. In that competition, national governments won, as they will again now.

The reason that the tech community is investing in blockchain companies is partially because some are in love with the technicalities of blockchain, some hope to attract the same criminal and gullible element that Bitcoin has, some lack awareness of the evolution and reality of political systems, and some see a second-best opportunity not yet taken by others. But even in this brief period of missing-in-action governments, large companies will easily outperform blockchain communities on any mayor market. Except the criminal markets, which is hence the only real future of blockchain communities. Continue reading “Why Blockchain has no economic future”

Adverse Action Lawyer wanted in Frijters versus UQ case

I am seeking a lawyer to run an Adverse Action case connected to the recent Fair Work Commission verdict that found systematic breaches of procedures and procedural fairness in the University of Queensland’s actions against me following my research on racial attitudes in Brisbane. I first raised these breaches late 2013, but they were never addressed, with lots of new ones added to them as the case dragged on. The VC of the university was also personally informed of these breaches in April 2014, publicly denying there was anything wrong about UQ’s action in February 2015. He was again informed in March 2015, consistently failing to rectify breaches of procedure brought to his attention. I wish to bring an Adverse Action case to claim back my considerable costs.

feb2015cover3264x1078

I expect the case to be worth at least a few hundred thousand dollars in terms of damages (legal cost, value of my time, etc.), and for it to be potentially one of many others because the FW case uncovered widespread breaches of procedures in UQ’s handling of misconduct cases. So there might well be many others who are now looking to bring Adverse Action cases against UQ.

I offer a pay-for-success contract wherein the first part of any awarded damages would go to the lawyer, but after a threshold payment I want 50% to go to the successful lawyer and 50% towards Vanavil, which is a school for orphaned victims of the 2004 Tsunami flood in India. I feel that helping the poorest Indians will go some way to nullify the damage that the managers of UQ did when they suppressed evidence of adverse treatments of Indians (and Indigenous peoples) in Brisbane and made it harder to research these things in general. And I want to feel that I haven’t wasted my time these last three years on fighting mindless bureaucracies, but that my efforts ended up helping people in need.

Negotiations on the offered contract are possible. Please contact me on email if you are interested or have a good suggestion for a good adverse action lawyer ( p dot frijters AT uq dot edu dot au).

[Ps. The VC of UQ was still making inappropriate claims last week on the UQ media about his lack of involvement and has refused to retract his claims this last week when I pointed his errors out to him.]

Scottish independence: a good idea or a bad idea?

Today the people residing in Scotland can decide whether they want to see an independent Scotland or to have Scotland remain in the UK. The betting markets concur with the opinion polls and favour the status quo: the markets give roughly 20% chance that the ‘yes’ vote will win and that Scotland will become independent.

The majority of economists talking about the referendum have focused on whether or not the Scots would be financially better off with their own country, debating things like North Sea oil revenues and currency unions. I think that is a distraction: looking at small and large countries in Europe, you would have to say there is no noticeable advantage or disadvantage to being a small country and that the Scots are hence unlikely to be materially affected in the long run by independence.
Independence is more about self-image and identity than it is about money. Even though the push for independence might well come from politicians and bureaucracies that gain prestige and income if they ruled an independent country, the population deciding on the vote will probably vote on emotional grounds, not economic. Young male Scots appear overwhelmingly in favour of independence; females and old people prefer to keep things the way they are. The latter groups are bigger and are expected to sway the day.

Personally, I have two related reasons to oppose the breaking up of larger countries in Europe into smaller ethnically defined states, not just Scotland, but also Catalonia, the Basque region, the Frisian province, Bavaria, and all the other regions of Europe:

  1. These independence movements are ethnic and hence by definition exclusionary. This is a big concern: large nation states have slowly moved away from the story that they exist for people of the ‘right’ bloodlines and with ancestors who lived in the ‘right’ place. The UK, the US, France, Australia, and even Germany and Spain have moved towards an identity based on stories about what it means to be British, American, French, Australian, etc., rather than a ‘blood and earth’ ethnic nation state story. Speaking tongue-in-cheek, the Brits have an upper lip story, the Americans have an exceptionalism story, the French have been convinced they like reading Proust, the new Australians are told in their citizenship exams that they believe in a fair go, etc. These stories contain treasured national stereotypes, complete with imagined histories. The key thing is that are inclusive, ie any newcomer from another place can participate in such stories. The Australian national anthem is a beautiful example of this super-inclusive attitude as it, almost uniquely, mentions neither ethnicity nor religion as a basis for being Australian. The ethnic stories of the independence movements are, in contrast, exclusionary and hence harmful to the self-image of any migrant. It is a move to a past that we have little reason to be proud of, as it marginalises current and future migrants. The story surrounding Scottish independence is thus not that the Scots are people who like to wear kilts and enjoy haggis, but that they make up the people who have suffered 700 years of oppression by the English. What is a recent newcomer from, say, Poland to do with such a self-image but conclude that they do not really belong there?
  2. The mixing of populations inside the UK due to factors like work, marriage, and retirement, now means that large parts of the ‘Scots’ live elsewhere and large parts of the population living in Scotland come from elsewhere. So there are reportedly close to a million Scottish-born people living elsewhere in the UK, and half a million people living in Scotland who were in fact born in England. Becoming independent from those ‘evil English that oppressed us for 700 years’ means marginalising both the 10% of the resident Scottish population actually born in England and putting a traitorous label on the million that decided the supposed oppressors were people you could marry and work with. If we consider the fractional heritage that nearly every UK citizen has, with some ancestors from Scotland and some from elsewhere, nearly every UK citizen will then almost arbitrarily be ‘forced to choose’ whether their fractional Scottishness counts as 1 or as 0. This is a problem: the roughly 5% of my ancestry that is probably Scottish does not want to be alienated from the 45% that comes from other parts of the British Isles!

These two reasons amplify each other: the damage that an ethnic-story based independence movement does gets amplified if the mixing is very large and is somewhat less of a factor when there is very little mixing.

What goes for Scotland goes doubly for many other regions in Europe: for instance, I believe some 40% of the people living in Catalonia are born outside of Catalonia and in other Spanish regions. The population mixing between regions of France and Germany is similarly large. The reality of a joint national economy is that the populations have internally mixed and artificially going ‘back’ to supposedly ethnically pure groups that define themselves in terms of adversity to the others is a regression.

It is of course these mixed populations that provide a counter-weight to any break-away movement, and they provide clear policy prescriptions for those who want to keep their countries intact: mix the population around to emasculate those who want to pull any geographic ethnicity card.

So I will be hoping that the betting markets are right, that mixing populations over the last few decades has done its integrative job, and that the ‘No’ vote wins.

 

Vision 28

How would you measure the safety of private motor vehicle travel?

Let’s agree to focus on fatalities. Serious injuries are also important, but all the points I am going to make hold equally as well for injuries as for fatalities. Continue reading “Vision 28”

The Xmas quiz answers and discussion

Last Monday I posted 4 questions to see who thought like a classic utilitarian and who adhered to a wider notion of ethics, suspecting that in the end we all subscribe to ‘more’ than classical utilitarianism. There are hence no ‘right’ answers, merely classic utilitarian ones and other ones.

The first question was to whom we should allocate a scarce supply of donor organs. Let us first briefly discuss the policy reality and then the classic utilitarian approach.

The policy reality is murky. Australia has guidelines on this that advocate taking various factors into account, including the expected benefit to the organ recipient (relevant to the utilitarian) but also the time spent on the waiting list (not so relevant). Because organs deteriorate quickly once removed, there are furthermore a lot of incidental factors important, such as which potential recipient is answering the phone (relevant to a utilitarian)? In terms of priorities though, the guidelines supposedly take no account of “race, religion, gender, social status, disability or age – unless age is relevant to the organ matching criteria.” To the utilitarian this form of equity is in fact inequity: the utilitarian does not care who receives an extra year of happy life, but by caring about the total number of additional happy years, the utilitarian would use any information that predicts those additional happy years, including race and gender.

In other countries, the practices vary. In some countries the allocation is more or less on the basis of expected benefit and in the other is it all about ‘medical criteria’ which in reality include the possibility that donor organs go to people with a high probability of a successful transplant but a very low number of expected additional years. Some leave the decision entirely up to individual doctors and hospitals, putting huge discretion on the side of an individual doctor, which raises the fear that their allocation is not purely on the grounds of societal gain.

What would the classic utilitarian do? Allocate organs where there is the highest expected number of additional happy lives. This thus involves a judgement on who is going to live long and who is going to live happy. Such things are not knowable with certainty, so a utilitarian would turn to statistical predictors of both, using whatever indicator could be administrated.

As to length of life, we generally know that rich young women have the highest life expectancy. And amongst rich young women in the West, white/Asian rich young women live even longer. According to some studies in the US, the difference with other ethnic groups (Black) can be up to 10 years (see the research links in this wikipedia page on the issue). As to whom is happy, again the general finding is that rich women are amongst the happiest groups. Hence the classic utilitarian would want to allocate the organs to rich white/Asian young women.I should note that the classic utilitarian would thus have no qualms about ending up with a policy that violates the anti-discrimination laws of many societies. Our societies shy away from using observable vague characteristics as information to base allocations on, which implicitly means that the years of life of some groups are weighed higher than the years of life of another. The example thus points to a real tension between on the one hand classic utilitarianism and its acceptance of statistical discrimination on the basis of gender and perceived ethnicity and on the other hand the dominant moral positions within our society. Again, I have no wish to say which one is ‘right’ but merely note the discrepancy. As to myself, I have no problem with the idea that priority in donor organs should be given to young women though I also see a utilitarian argument for a bit of positive discrimination in terms of a blind eye to ethnicity (ie, there is utilitarian value in maintaining the idea that allocations should not be on the basis of perceived ethnicity, even though in this case that comes at a clear loss of expected life years).

The second question surrounded the willingness to pre-emptively kill off threats to the lives of others.

The policy reality here is, again, murky. In order to get a conviction on the basis of ‘attempted’ acts of terrorism or murder, the police would have to have pretty strong evidence of a high probability that the acts were truly going to happen. A 1-in-a-million chance of perpetrating an act that would cost a million lives would certainly not be enough. Likely, not even a 10% chance would be enough, even though the expected costs of a 10% chance would be 100,000 lives, far outweighing the life of the one person (and I know that the example is somewhat artificial!).

When it concerns things like the drone-program of the west though, under which the US, with help from its allies (including Australia), kills off potential terrorist threats and accepts the possibility of collateral damage, the implicit accepted burden of proof seems much lower. I am not saying this as a form of endorsement, but simply stating what seems to go on. Given the lack of public scrutiny it is really hard to know just how much lower the burden of proof is and where in fact the information is coming from to identify targets, but being a member of a declared terrorist organisation seems to be enough cause, even if the person involved hasn’t yet harmed anybody. Now, it is easy to be holier-than-thou and dismissive about this kind of program, but the reality is that this program is supported by our populations: the major political parties go along with this, both in the US and here (we are not abandoning our strategic alliance over it with the Americans, are we, nor denying them airspace?), implying that the drone program happens, de facto, with our society’s blessing, even if some of us as individuals have mixed feelings about it. So the drone program is a form of pre-emptively killing off potential enemies because of a perceived probability of harm. The cut-off point on the probability is not known, but it is clearly lower than used in criminal cases inside our countries.

To the classic utilitarian, if all one knew would be the odds of damage and the extent of damage, then the utilitarian would want to kill off anyone who represented a net expected loss. Hence the classic utilitarian would indeed accept any odds just above 1 in a million when the threat is to a million lives: the life of the potential terrorist is worth the expected costs of his possible actions (which is one life). If one starts to include the notion that our societies derive benefit from the social norm that strong proof of intended harm is needed before killing anyone, then even the classic utilitarian would increase the threshold odds to reflect the disutility of being seen to harm those social norms, though the classic utilitarian would quickly reduce the thresholds if there were many threats and hence the usefulness of the social norm became less and less relevant. To some extent, this is exactly how our society functions: in a state of emergency or war, the burden of proof required to shoot a potential enemy drastically reduces as the regular rule of law and ‘innocent till proven guilty’ norms give way to a more radical ‘shoot now, agonize later’ mentality. If you like, we have recognised mechanisms for ridding ourselves of the social norm of a high burden of proof when the occasion calls for it.

As to personally pulling the trigger, the question to a utilitarian becomes entirely one of selfishness versus the public good and thus dependent on the personal pain of the person who would have to pull the trigger. To the utilitarian person who is completely selfless but who experiences great personal pain from pulling the trigger, the threshold probability becomes 2 in a million (ie, his own life and that of the potential terrorist), but to a more selfish person the threshold could rise very high such that even with certainty the person is not willing to kill someone else to save a million others. That might be noble under some moral codes, but to a utilitarian it would represent extreme selfishness.

So the example once again shows the gulf between how our societies normally function when it concerns small probabilities of large damages, and what the classic utilitarian would do. A utilitarian is happy to act on small probabilities, though of course eager to purchase more information if the possibility is there. Our societies are less trigger-happy. Only in cases whereby there is actual experienced turmoil and damage, do our societies gradually revert to a situation where it indeed just takes a cost-benefit frame of mind and suspends other social norms. A classic utilitarian is thus much more pro-active and willing to act on imperfect information than is normal in our societies.

The third question was about divulging information that would cause hurt but that did not lead to changes in outcomes. In the case of the hypothetical, the information was about the treatment of pets. To the classic utilitarian, this one is easy: information itself is not a final outcome and, since the hypothetical was set up in that way, the choice was between a lower state of utility with more information, versus a higher state of utility with less information. The classic utilitarian would chose the higher utility and not make the information available.

The policy reality in this case is debatable. One might argue that the hypothetical, ie that more information would not lead to changes but merely to hurt, is so unrealistic that it basically does not resemble any real policies. Some commentators made that argument, saying they essentially had no idea what I was asking, and I am sympathetic to it.

The closest one comes to the hypothetical it is the phenomenon of general flattery, such as where populations tell themselves they are god’s chosen people with a divine mission, or where whole populations buy into the idea that no-one is to blame for their individual bad choices (like their smoking choices). One might see the widespread phenomenon of keeping quiet when others are enjoying flattery as a form of suppressing information that merely hurts and would have no effect. Hence one could say that ‘good manners’ and ‘tact’ are in essence about keeping information hidden that hurts others. Personally, though I hate condoning the suppression of truth for any cause, I have to concede the utilitarian case for it.

The fourth and final question is perhaps the most glaring example of a difference between policy reality and classic utilitarianism, as it is about the distinction between an identified saved life and a statistically saved life. As one commenter already noted (Ken), politicians find it expedient to go for the identified life rather than the un-identified statistical life, and this relates to the lack of reflection amongst the population.

To the classic utilitarian, it should not matter whose life is saved: all saved lives are to the classic utilitarian ‘statistical’. Indeed, it is a key part of utilitarianism that there is no innate superiority of this person over that one. Hence, the classic utilitarian would value an identified life equally to a statistical one and would thus be willing to pour the same resources into preventing the loss of a life (via inoculations, safe road construction, etc.) as into saving a particular known individual.

The policy practice is miles apart from classic utilitarianism, not just in Australia but throughout the Western world. For statistical lives, the Australian government more or less uses the rule of thumb that it is willing to spend some 50,000 dollars per additional happy year. This is roughly the cut-off point for new medicines onto the Pharmaceutical benefit Scheme. It is also pretty much the cut-off point in other Western countries for medicines (as a rule of thumb, governments are willing to pay about a median income for another year of happy life of one of their citizens).

For identified lives, the willingness to pay is easily ten times this amount. Australia thus has a ‘Life Saving Drugs’ program for rare life-threatening conditions. This includes diseases like Gaucher Disease, Fabry disease, and the disease of Pompe. Openly-available estimates of the implied cost of a life vary and it is hard to track down the exact prices, but each year of treatment for a Pompe patient was said, in a Canadian conference for instance, to cost about 500,000 dollars. In New Zealand, the same cost of 500,000 is being used in their media. Here in Australia, the treatment involved became available in 2008 and I understand it indeed costs about 500,000 per patient per year. There will be around 500 patients born with Pompe on this program in Australia (inferred from the prevalence statistics). Note that this treatment cost does not in fact mean the difference between life and death: rather it means the difference between a shorter life and a longer one. Hence the cost per year of life saved is actually quite a bit higher than 500,000 for this disease.

What does this mean? It means, quite simply, that in stead of saving one person with the disease of Pompe, one could save at least 10 others. In order for the person born with Pompe to live, 10 others in his society die. It is a brutal reality that is difficult to talk about, but that does not change the reality. Why is the price so high? Because the pharmaceutical companies can successfully bargain with governments for an extremely high price on these visible lives saved. They hold politicians to ransom over it, successfully in the case of Australia.

Saving one identified life rather than ten unidentified ones is not merely non-utilitarian. It also vastly distorts incentives. It distorts the incentives for researchers and pharmaceutical companies away from finding solutions to the illnesses had by the anonymous many, to finding improvements in the lives of the identifiable few. It creates incentives to find distinctions between patients so that new ‘small niches’ of identified patients can be found out of which to make a lot of money. Why bother trying to find cures for malaria and cancer when it is so much more lucrative to find a drug that saves a small but identifiable fraction of the population of a rich country?

So kudos to those willing to say they would go for the institution that saved the most lives. I agree with you, but your society, as witnessed by its actions, does not yet agree, opening the question what can be done to more rationally decide on such matters.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the quiz and merry X-mas!

Rich countries and happiness: the story of a bet.

Do countries that are already rich become even happier when they become yet richer? This was the essential question on which I entered a gentleman’s bet in 2004 with Andrew Leigh and which just recently got settled.

The reason for the bet was a famous hypothesis in happiness research called the Easterlin hypothesis which held that happiness did not increase when rich countries became even richer. When I was preparing a presentation on this matter in 2004 I used the following graph to illustrate the happiness income relation across countries:

gruen 2004 image

This graph shows you the relation between average income (GDP in purchasing power terms) and average happiness on a 0-10 scales for many countries. As one can see, the relation between income and happiness is upward sloping for low levels of income, but becomes somewhat flat after 15,000 dollars per person. I championed the idea that this was not just true if you looked across countries, but that this would also hold true over time.

Andrew Leigh’s thinking was influenced by other data, particularly a paper by Stevenson and Wolfers which – he thinks debunks the Easterlin hypothesis. Here’s one of their graphs:

 

Wolfers2008

What’s striking about this graph is that the dotted line slopes up in the top right corner. In other words, the relationship between happiness and income becomes stronger, not weaker, for countries with average incomes over $15,000. Andrew thinks that this is because they specify income in log terms (in other words, we’re looking at the effect on happiness of a percentage increase in income rather than a dollar increase in income). I think it’s because the Gallup poll isn’t measuring happiness, but is instead asking people to rank themselves on the Cantrill ladder of life scale.

So our gentleman’s bet was in effect a bet on whether happiness in the world value surveys behaved different to the ladder question of the Gallup polls, and on whether the short-run relation between income and happiness was strong enough to show up in periods of 5 to 10 years as well. Andrew thought it would, I thought 5-10 years would be long enough for the typical long-run no-effects findings to show up and that happiness has a different relation with income than the Cantril-question. So we bet on whether one would get a significantly positive relation between GDP growth and happiness changes for the rich countries when one looked at the World Value data for 2005. We agreed to look at the relation between income and happiness using country-average variation. The winner would get 100 bucks.

Now, both of us forgot about the bet for a few years as the data was supposed to become available. Only recently did Andrew remind me of our bet and asked to check what had happened.

When I (with research assistance from Debayan Pakrashi) started to look into this data again, it quickly became apparent that Andrew and I had been pretty sloppy in formulating the precise conditions of the bet. In many ways, our bet had been far too vague.

For one, the World Value survey is not in fact held in particular years. Rather, some survey is run almost every year in some country that adds to the collection of surveys known as the World Value Survey. Hence there was really no such thing as a ‘2005 wave’. Taken literally, only Australia, Finland, and Japan had a survey in 2005 and were countries that in the previous wave already had a GDP of 15,000 dollars. In all those countries, income had gone up a lot since their previous survey, with Australian happiness down and Japanese and Finnish happiness up. That is a bit meagre as ‘waves’ go.

So the first ‘addition’ was to have a bandwidth of years for the ‘2005’ waves that included 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. That gave 12 countries that were rich enough in the previous wave to qualify. The raw data was:

Table1_2013

The next ‘snag’ was of course that there are many ways to define the dependence on income: linear or logarithmic. With logarithmic income one normally gets stronger statistical significance on income, so we went for logarithms.

Then, of course, there are still many other things one can put into the regression. Does one account for effects of particular years (in bands) and for the level of happiness that a country starts? We decided to try it all. Hence the final ‘deciding’ set of regressions were as follows:

 

Table4_2013

Which tells you that the relation between income changes and happiness changes (the last two columns) was either quite insignificantly positive or even negative if one entered year-bands.

When one reflects on the list of countries used in the analysis though, it is clear that the outcome of the bet will have had little to do with the true relation between income and happiness. It will have hinged on hidden aspects of the data. For instance, the Australian world value survey in 1995 was run differently from the 2005 version. Hence the big drop in Australian happiness you see in this period for this data does in fact not show up for other Australian data (like the HILDA). So one suspects some change in the data-gathering to be responsible for it. Indeed, the level of Australian happiness in this data is markedly below the level found for the HILDA (where it is almost 8.0).

Similarly, the big increase in Japanese happiness in this period doesn’t show up either in other Japanese data and so probably has something to do with changes in how the survey was run there. The changes can relate to the months in which the surveys were held, the precise words used for the happiness question, the questions preceding the happiness questions, the cities in which the survey was run, how the survey was run (face-to-face or via telephone), etc.

So I may have gotten lucky and won the bet, but one cannot see the outcome as decisive evidence that income and happiness have no long-run relation within rich countries. The data for the 2010 post-GFC wave might well show the opposite!

From the comments: Baby Bonus solution

In the comments on my post last week about the baby bonus removal implementation, Sven Feldmann writes:

The easy solution—which in fact is not ruled out by the quoted policy announcement—would be for all existing baby bonus payments to stop on March 1, 2014. Rather than creating a payment cliff of $3,000 ≈ One pack of cigarettes a day for a year (NJ, 2011)

“>on that date, this would create an (almost) smooth gradient over 6 months starting in Sept. 2013, since the baby bonus is paid in 13 fortnightly instalments. Problem solved.

It is a great solution and also politically viable too as the impact of the baby bonus payments stopping would only be felt after the election. This is what a broad imagination buys with economic policy.