Posts tagged with political economy

It was late, overbudget, and missed its turnaround time promise by a factor of five.

But its advocates knew it was the Shuttle or nothing. Their predecessors had sustained the Apollo program for more than a decade upon the firm assurance that getting white men to the moon, the moooon, should be budgeted under the heading of defending freedom. Of course, Congress eventually crunched the numbers and worked out that [NASA] wasn’t actually killing any Viet Cong whatsoever. The Shuttle people used a cleverer ruse: they spread its construction, and thus federal money, throughout the country. It had parts made in every state. I have no idea what’s in North Dakota or Maine that gets people into orbit, but they found something. And so Congress never wanted to cancel it, even when it was clearly the wrong idea. The Shuttle’s political engineering was a model of simplicity and reliability.

So people see space exploration as part of the military-industrial complex. And it is. Kind of.

Power wants what it doesn’t have, and it can’t have art. Art needs power’s materials and protection, but fears its responsibilities. Even when they come to terms, power never owns art, only a contract, and art is never safe, only sheltered. High on the cathedrals, the stonecarvers make satirical gargoyles. Space exploration is art, but we have to keep this secret. We must not say in public that it’s how humanity in a technological age reaches outside itself, how we find a mirror distant enough to see to our edges, how we face the void. Shhh.




One night in the winter of 1907, at what we have always called “the home place” in Henry County, Kentucky, my father, then six years old, sat with his older brother and listened as their parents spoke of the uses they would have for the money from their 1906 tobacco crop. The crop was to be sold at auction in Louisville on the next day.

They would have been sitting in the light of a kerosene lamp, close to the stove, warming themselves before bedtime. They were not wealthy people…. [T]here would have been interest to pay, there would have been other debts. The depression of the 1890s would have left them burdened. Perhaps, after the income from the crop had paid their obligations, there would be some money that they could spend as they chose. At around two o’clock the next morning, my father was wakened by a horse’s shod hooves on the stones of the driveway. His father was leaving to catch the train to see the crop sold.

He came home that evening, as my father later would put it, “without a dime.” After the crop had paid its transportation to market and the commission on its sale, there was nothing left. Thus began my father’s lifelong advocacy, later my brother’s and my own, and now my daughter’s and my son’s, for small farmers and for land-conserving economies.

The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago, was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers. The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.

Because I have never separated myself from my home neighborhood, I cannot identify myself to myself apart from it. I am fairly literally flesh of its flesh. It is present in me, and to me, wherever I go. This undoubtedly accounts for my sense of shock when, on my first visit to Duke University, and by surprise, I came face-to-face with James B. Duke in his dignity, his glory perhaps, as the founder of that university. He stands imperially in bronze in front of a Methodist chapel aspiring to be a cathedral. He holds between two fingers of his left hand a bronze cigar. On one side of his pedestal is the legend: INDUSTRIALIST. On the other side is another single word: PHILANTHROPIST. The man thus commemorated seemed to me terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy. But I did know the connection. I felt it instantly and physically. The connection was my grandparents and thousands of others more or less like them. If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of “philanthropy.”

Wendell E. Berry

(Source: neh.gov)




Some economics students from Lehigh University made the news a few weeks ago with their estimate that the raw materials (a quadrillion tons of steel) in the Death Star would cost £541,261,000,000,000,000 at today’s prices — a billion, billion dollars.

Of course this is shocking because the entire Earth’s economic output is only 1/13,000 that level. But that’s today. The problem with aggrandising this estimate is that these budding economists aren’t thinking on a truly galactic scale!


For example: remember the Star Forge? From the wookieepedia

The Star Forge drew energy and matter from a nearby star which, when combined with the power of the Force, was capable of creating an endless supply of ships, droids, and other war matériel.

Nobody has yet studied the economic benefits of Force Sensitivity, but we learn from canonical sources that the price of robots and ships must have dropped to what would today seem like zero around 30,000 BBY.

Just think about how nuclear fission energy was once called “Energy that’s not worth metreing”— and as a marker of our lack-of-progress compared to the Rakatan Infinite Empire, note that we have sent approximately 1 vessel to explore one path in our local star’s system, nothing like covering the volume of the galaxy.

Consider the Clone Wars, only 2 decades before the construction of the Death Star. The cost of the Clone Wars dwarfs the single-project Death Star, just as the total cost of WWII dwarfs the mere $45bn the US spent on Nimitz class aircraft carriers or paltry $50bn per stealth bomber a few decades later. Again from Wookieepedia, we learn that

What would ultimately become a Separatist army originally began as several immense forces comprised almost exclusively of droids.[1] When merged, these formed a colossal army numbering in the quintillions.[2]

If in fact they outnumber the clones by only 100 to 1, that would mean that there were tens of quadrillions of clones.

Both armies were spending an unimaginable amount of money. But hey, if you want to dominate 400 billion planetary systems, you need to play big.

There were approximately 400 billion stars, and around 180 billion of these had planets that could support life. Ten percent of those planets developed life, while sentient life developed in 1/1,000 of those (about 20 million). … there were 7.1 billion truly habitable stars, … 3.2 billion habitable star systems, with only 69 million systems meeting the requirements for Imperial representation, and 1.75 million planets considered full member worlds. In total, the galaxy was populated by approximately 100 quadrillion different life forms.

(The 100 quadrillion life-forms number is not cited and frankly I don’t believe it includes small stuff like lichens and bacteria. We have ~1 nonillion bacteria on Earth alone [American counting system], so there should be more like a quattuordecillion life-forms in 180 billion habitable planets.

You wonder why Yoda spends so much time meditating on the essential Force?)

We are talking about a war on a truly galactic scale here. Remember that Jedis are people who jump into hyperspace on a whim and travel from one star system to another in an Augenblick. (For reference, it would take us 50,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri with present technology.)

The entire Earth (like Alderaan) might be obliterated in the course of a skirmish and that would only be a minor tragedy because there are so many other battles (300 billion star systems in the Milky Way) to be fought.

Since their galaxy has 400 bn stars, the cost of the Death Star would only be $250 per planetary system. Come on, chip in, guys! This is going to be the Destroyer of Worlds!

 

Now we’re talking about the right spatial scale (a galaxy far, far away) but that’s only one source of the colossal difference between the Galactic Empire and us. The other is time scale (a long time ago—with an even longer time before that). 

Think about this: $1,000,000,000 trillion might sound like a lot now – but world GDP today stands at $62 trillion, which is only 14 doubling times away from being $1,000,000 trillion.

And by the Rule of 70, you can guesstimate how many years a doubling time takes. (thanks Editable Encyclopedia)



Let’s forget about the Hutt Empire and all of the space exploration that took place before the Galactic Republic—all of the journeys on the way to becoming a technologically mature society—and just talk about economic growth during the 25,000 years of the Galactic Republic

If US economic growth continued apace at 2% per annum for 25,000 years, then at the end the yearly value-added output would sum to $168 431 066 142 340 489 288 772 439 940 909 449 861 672 253 867 865 451 003 067 724 266 746 627 767 325 863 071 680 952 201 001 185 103 141 091 302 401 283 052 766 211 655 121 625 725 615 234 621 406 099 740 792 533 291 787 226 249 702 943 690 122 429 739 360 449 918 371 508 258 213 270 051 trillion. (A 225-digit number = ten septillion googol googol = one trevigintillion quinquagintillion = one quattuorseptuagintillion 2012 dollars.) Each year.

And again, this doesn’t count trade with “developing planets” (In Praise of Cheap Labour, meet the Orvax system!) or simply planets with different resources, cultures, and technologies. I’m just talking about an exogenous Solow constant of 1.02—very modest, I’m sure you’ll agree, when you look at growth rates in the poorer of Earth’s political factions.

And how long do you think it might take us to colonise not just nearby star systems, but to have republics and trade federations that stretch all the way across 120k × 1k light-years of the Milky Way?

If the Earth’s denizens grew the economy at 2%/year for 25,000 years (just from inception to conclusion of the Galactic Republic, none of the precursors) then the world GDP would reach $140 359 221 785 283 741 073 977 033 284 091 208 218 060 211 556 554 542 502 556 436 888 955 523 139 438 219 226 400 793 500 834 320 919 284 242 752 001 069 210 638 509 712 601 354 771 346 028 851 171 749 783 993 777 743 156 021 874 752 453 075 102 024 782 800 374 931 976 256 881 844 391 709.238 trillion!

And that’s not even counting the gains from galactic trade! Just intraplanetary growth.

These numbers may be too large to comprehend, so just think about this one. The GDP of Cambodia today stands at $32 bn or $2500 [PPP] per capita, less than a percent of the world’s output. Cambodia’s economic growth has jittered and started between 4.5% and 9% during the last couple decades. But let’s just assume 3% future growth to be conservative.

If Cambodia’s economy grew at 3% per year for only the amount of time that Yoda was a Jedi master (800 years) then Cambodia would be producing $955,724,857.68 trillion per year, in other words in very short order a few million life-forms occupying .12% of one planet’s land mass could buy a few Death Stars every year and still have enough money left over for food and beverage.

 

Again this is just a miniature of the changes in economics and warship financing we could expect to see as Earthlings expand their demand curves out into the galaxy over future millennia.

Back to the Wookieepedia, of course you remember the Banking Clan is on the Separatist side — how else to finance these quadrillion droids? The Separatists (and, following Episode III, the Galactic Empire) included some of the wealthiest players in the galaxy. So that’s another possible reason the Droid Army is feasible. (I can imagine how one wouldn’t join an insurrection without some serious money behind the defence effort—a nice bit of economic logic.)

This droid army drew upon of the battle droids of the Trade Federation[3], the Techno Union[4], the Commerce Guild[5], the InterGalactic Banking Clan[3], the Corporate Alliance[1], and other independent Separatist factions. These groups were subtly manipulated by Darth Sidious to expand their forces … Under his orders, these corporate giants began to purchase huge orders of battle droids from the millions of factories controlled by companies such as Baktoid Combat Automata, Colicoid Creation Nest, and Haor Chall Engineering over a decade before the start of the Clone Wars.[7] … Count Dooku deployed over a million B1 battle droids, one hundred thousand B2 super battle droids, and three thousand droidekas, plus many other types, at the Battle of Geonosis in 22 BBY…the Clone Wars had begun.[8]

(22 BBY is 22 years Before the Battle of Yavin, in which the Death Star was destroyed. Everything has a weak point. Many Bothans died to find out what it was.)
many Bothans died to bring you this Valentine. 

 

What I take away from the Star Wars allegory is that we had better spend an equal amount of research studying the political economy as we do on space exploration technology. After all, scientists don’t control how their technology is used—they merely generate power. (Just ask Oppenheimer.)

Let’s say we built a Star Forge and the price of robots dropped effectively to zero. Then we would be incredibly f*$#ed without an incentive structure that prevents even a sleuthy, sly, slick Sith Lord from destroying life on the colossal galactic scale.

Think about how security threats were multiplied by the invention of atomic weapons — the same will happen if we take care of science only, disregarding political economy.




A Perfect Formula for Constitutions

  • moiracathleen: People today think there is a one size fits all constitution. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy to constitutionalism in history.
  • isomorphisms: How many sizes do you think there are?
  • moiracathleen: The Constitution is not to be used to impose a particular form of government, but rather expresses boundaries between the Government and the People.
  • moiracathleen: Those boundaries ought be drawn by the people living under the Constitution; rather than people from other countries.
  • isomorphisms: I hope that one day people will figure out the "perfect formula" for a constitution (balanced incentives / structure).
  • isomorphisms: Which is not to say that particular instantiations wouldn't vary.
  • isomorphisms: Like a line bundle.
  • isomorphisms: The lines in the bundle vary from point to point. The ideal constitution, according to a formula, could also vary from place to place (and time to time and history to history and people to people).




Utopia. Class struggle. Liberty. Tyranny. Property. Natural law. Human rights. Rousseau, Locke, Paine, Plato, Spinoza, The Federalist Papers, Marx, Rawles, and the rest. What is a “good” society and how can “we” make our society better?
For me there was a time (age 18) when these things seemed very important. I’m a socially minded guy, and political problems seem to always be f**king things up for people who don’t need their lives f**ked with. If you fancy yourself compassionate and intelligent, it’s natural to be drawn to political problems. For me it was an ego draw — the appeal of “doing good” with my mind.
After a while, though, I started to feel like I was going in circles, endless debates that seemed to dance around — but never solve — certain fundamental problems (and meanwhile Idi Amin killing his countrymen, Bosnians and Serbians tearing each other apart, etc). Schools of thought seemed to coalesce around personalities (not facts) and I felt this pursuit was going nowhere.
I wanted a way out…
The Median Voter Theorem
Imagine 10,000 people were voting on which of 2 congressional candidates to elect. Each candidate is represented merely by a real number* which indicates liberal -vs- conservative. Once elected, the candidate implements policies robotically. “I am 23% liberal and 77% conservative, therefore I will do exactly what a 23% liberal would do.”
If voters have single-peaked, symmetrical preferences over the same real number* spectrum and everyone knows the formulas and figures involved, then there is only one Nash equilibrium strategy: run to the middle. Campaigning on a policy that pleases the median voter is the only Nash equilibrium and therefore what rational, winning politicians would do.
* or element of any measurable space, like a sig-algebra
Interpretation
This result is niche famous. People whose friend took a game theory class in college might have heard a version of this as a “proof” that the 2-party system is better or more centrist than multi-party systems.
I’m telling the more mathematical version because, when “popular accounts” try to relate an important result like the median voter theorem while taking the math out, they end up making no sense or accidentally lying.
I ain’t gonna talk down to you. You’re smart enough to look up what a Nash equilibrium is. And you can decide for yourself what it means if a mathematical model sounds somewhat like human reality but isn’t exactly like it.
The median voter theorem doesn’t say that 2-party systems are better, it suggests something — or maybe it doesn’t. It’s just a piece of math that may be relevant to real life, may serve as a mental model, may serve as a basis for intuition, or … may be misleading.
"Political Philosophy" from a different perspective
The Median Voter Theorem naturally brings up questions — questions that you wouldn’t think of if you framed your thinking in response to Rousseau, Locke, and other famous writers.
Are these preferences symmetric?
Are these preferences 1-dimensional?
Are these preferences stable over time?
Do these preferences map onto the real numbers? (or something isomorphic to R)
Are these preferences single-peaked?
Are these preferences symmetrical?
Can you represent a congressional representative’s behaviour in office by a single number?
What about after they’re elected? Won’t they deviate from what they said they would do?
What about party politics? Won’t the party whips keep them in line?
Back to the voters; what if the politicians don’t know what they want?(This last point turns out to be very important in Persson & Tabellini’s theory, which explains that George W. Bush could be re-elected not because the hateful simpletons who voted for him were numerous, but because they are predictable.)
More sophisticated would be to ask: “to what degree or in what ways / cases are the above things true or false?” And those questions tend to be more answerable.
Other kinds of questions you might want to add to the mathematical framework begun here:
Is this in just one district? How do inter-district politics factor in?
What about redistricting? What about gerry-mandering?
What about fact X about Country A's constitution vis-a-vis Country B's constitution?
What about cultural fact Y? How could we take account of that mathematically?
I could go on and on, and in fact many people have. I think this is how fields of research get started. This one is called “spatial voting theory”.
But this is ridiculous. People are not one-dimensional.
One surprising result, due to Rosenthal & Poole, about the unidimensionality question, is that — yes! — politicians are pretty well represented as just a number on a one-dimensional scale — like maybe 85% of their votes can be characterized this way.
Also surprising. Judges are even more unidimensional than politicians. However, voters are decidedly not uni-dimensional.
Not what I would have assumed, although I can make up a story to “explain” these findings post hoc. Actually I could make up lots of different stories and am just left with more questions. But. At least I’ve moved outside of the narrative of political philosophy handed down to me in college.
Wrap Up
Things I like about this book:
politics = relevant  +  math = logical
application of math to something more interesting than bridge engineering
sorry engineers, but all the engineering in the world isn’t going to solve global poverty — that’s a political problem
and it would be sweet if logical thinking could lead to an optimal constitution (if such a thing exists).
Things I don’t like about this book:
didn’t know enough math at the time I read it to think deeply or broadly about what they were saying
as far as I know, no practical applications (yet)
Too long, didn’t read: Variations on a theme, the theme being the Median Voter Theorem. Game theory leads to a framework for political analysis called “spatial voting theory” which is alternative to the “pure-humanities” approach from my college political philosophy courses.

Utopia. Class struggle. Liberty. Tyranny. Property. Natural law. Human rights. Rousseau, Locke, Paine, Plato, Spinoza, The Federalist Papers, Marx, Rawles, and the rest. What is a “good” society and how can “we” make our society better?

For me there was a time (age 18) when these things seemed very important. I’m a socially minded guy, and political problems seem to always be f**king things up for people who don’t need their lives f**ked with. If you fancy yourself compassionate and intelligent, it’s natural to be drawn to political problems. For me it was an ego draw — the appeal of “doing good” with my mind.

After a while, though, I started to feel like I was going in circles, endless debates that seemed to dance around — but never solve — certain fundamental problems (and meanwhile Idi Amin killing his countrymen, Bosnians and Serbians tearing each other apart, etc). Schools of thought seemed to coalesce around personalities (not facts) and I felt this pursuit was going nowhere.

I wanted a way out…

The Median Voter Theorem

Imagine 10,000 people were voting on which of 2 congressional candidates to elect. Each candidate is represented merely by a real number* which indicates liberal -vs- conservative. Once elected, the candidate implements policies robotically. “I am 23% liberal and 77% conservative, therefore I will do exactly what a 23% liberal would do.”

If voters have single-peaked, symmetrical preferences over the same real number* spectrum and everyone knows the formulas and figures involved, then there is only one Nash equilibrium strategy: run to the middle. Campaigning on a policy that pleases the median voter is the only Nash equilibrium and therefore what rational, winning politicians would do.

* or element of any measurable space, like a sig-algebra

Interpretation

This result is niche famous. People whose friend took a game theory class in college might have heard a version of this as a “proof” that the 2-party system is better or more centrist than multi-party systems.

I’m telling the more mathematical version because, when “popular accounts” try to relate an important result like the median voter theorem while taking the math out, they end up making no sense or accidentally lying.

I ain’t gonna talk down to you. You’re smart enough to look up what a Nash equilibrium is. And you can decide for yourself what it means if a mathematical model sounds somewhat like human reality but isn’t exactly like it.

The median voter theorem doesn’t say that 2-party systems are better, it suggests something — or maybe it doesn’t. It’s just a piece of math that may be relevant to real life, may serve as a mental model, may serve as a basis for intuition, or … may be misleading.

"Political Philosophy" from a different perspective

The Median Voter Theorem naturally brings up questions — questions that you wouldn’t think of if you framed your thinking in response to Rousseau, Locke, and other famous writers.

  • Are these preferences symmetric?
  • Are these preferences 1-dimensional?
  • Are these preferences stable over time?
  • Do these preferences map onto the real numbers? (or something isomorphic to R)
  • Are these preferences single-peaked?
  • Are these preferences symmetrical?
  • Can you represent a congressional representative’s behaviour in office by a single number?
  • What about after they’re elected? Won’t they deviate from what they said they would do?
  • What about party politics? Won’t the party whips keep them in line?
  • Back to the voters; what if the politicians don’t know what they want?

    (This last point turns out to be very important in Persson & Tabellini’s theory, which explains that George W. Bush could be re-elected not because the hateful simpletons who voted for him were numerous, but because they are predictable.)

More sophisticated would be to ask: “to what degree or in what ways / cases are the above things true or false?” And those questions tend to be more answerable.

Other kinds of questions you might want to add to the mathematical framework begun here:

  • Is this in just one district? How do inter-district politics factor in?
  • What about redistricting? What about gerry-mandering?
  • What about fact X about Country A's constitution vis-a-vis Country B's constitution?
  • What about cultural fact Y? How could we take account of that mathematically?

I could go on and on, and in fact many people have. I think this is how fields of research get started. This one is called “spatial voting theory”.

But this is ridiculous. People are not one-dimensional.

One surprising result, due to Rosenthal & Poole, about the unidimensionality question, is that — yes! — politicians are pretty well represented as just a number on a one-dimensional scale — like maybe 85% of their votes can be characterized this way.

Also surprising. Judges are even more unidimensional than politicians. However, voters are decidedly not uni-dimensional.

Not what I would have assumed, although I can make up a story to “explain” these findings post hoc. Actually I could make up lots of different stories and am just left with more questions. But. At least I’ve moved outside of the narrative of political philosophy handed down to me in college.

Wrap Up

Things I like about this book:

  • politics = relevant  +  math = logical
  • application of math to something more interesting than bridge engineering
  • sorry engineers, but all the engineering in the world isn’t going to solve global poverty — that’s a political problem
  • and it would be sweet if logical thinking could lead to an optimal constitution (if such a thing exists).

Things I don’t like about this book:

  • didn’t know enough math at the time I read it to think deeply or broadly about what they were saying
  • as far as I know, no practical applications (yet)

Too long, didn’t read: Variations on a theme, the theme being the Median Voter Theorem. Game theory leads to a framework for political analysis called “spatial voting theory” which is alternative to the “pure-humanities” approach from my college political philosophy courses.


hi-res