Friday, September 3, 2021

Unknown Long Term Consequences

 I want to make a point about the topic everyone's worried about, but I don't want to unnecessarily freak anyone out. As in, if you've already gotten it and have suffered no lingering effects, you should probably not worry. But if you haven't gotten it yet, you might want to exercise additional caution due to the unknown long-term sequelae. Some have persisting complications, but most people appear to recover in fairly short order. Those appearances may be deceiving. There is simply no way to rule out severe long-term complications, because the long term hasn't arrived yet. The data needed to settle the question only exists in the future. 

I'm sure some of you see what I'm doing here. Re-read the above paragraph, but do a little Necker cube flip and pretend I'm talking about the vaccine instead of the virus (or vice versa if you read it the other way). I'm tuned in to media sources that are hyper-cautious about either the virus or the vaccine (yes, I consume media on both ends of the spectrum), often making this "unknown unknown" kind of argument. What surprises me is the symmetry. Evidence of harmful side-effects of the vaccine are pretty weak. Some people are making a big fuss about the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) dataset, which the CDC uses to collect information on adverse reactions to vaccines. Below is a screenshot. You can tell from the file sizes alone that there's something odd going on in 2021. We're getting an outsized number of reports, apparently due to the mass vaccination campaign.

Certainly someone should be looking into this. It's concerning, but it's easy to dismiss. In fact, I urge that we dismiss it by default until someone convinces us there's a real underlying signal in this noise. There are so many more people getting vaccines this year, and the age profile of those getting vaccinated skews older than what we've seen in typical years. There are simply far more opportunities for adverse health events to happen to someone who's recently gotten the poke (I should say, "to happen to happen to someone"), compared to previous years. This is naturally going to yield some spurious reports of vaccine reactions. I haven't done the analysis to say that this year's explosion in adverse vaccine events is plausibly attributable to spurious connections, but I think that it's safe to ignore this until a more thorough analysis suggests it's compelling. In other words, just as I don't think we should jump at every shadow, I don't think we should overreact to signals that are probably spurious.* We  should have some mechanism for dismissing such false alarms, not indulging costly counter-measures just because "they might be real."

That said, even if the "evidence" is convincingly explained away as noise, there will be people who cling to this "unknown unknown" alarmism. You technically can't disprove that there are unknown long term health effects. Even if negative outcomes don't manifest in the short term, they could show up later in life (say as a subtle but real increase in cancer or infertility or something). I think this is nuts. It's a Pascal's Mugging approach to risk management. "A problem exists because I claim it exists...oops it probably doesn't but let's entertain the very small risk that it does because it would be very bad if it does." Followed scrupulously, this leads us to spending all of the world's resources on mitigation for risks that aren't real. Let's have a real budget for mitigating tail risks, but let's keep that budget finite.

I would make the same argument for "long covid." When I first started hearing reports of long covid, they sounded like a vague smattering of very different symptoms that people can suffer from from a variety of reasons.** Brain fog (which I have often felt this past year and a half, but which I attribute to a dramatic change in my work environment and lifestyle). Lethargy (which I didn't experience, but which could likewise be caused by being home all day instead of going to the office...perhaps metabolic disorders from changes in physical activity and diet). Abnormal heart scans (which it turns out will show up in similar proportions in a random sample of people...that OSU study didn't even have a control group!). It reminded me of the observation that a doctor can look at an MRI for a back pain sufferer and attribute the pain to some abnormality (like a bulging disk), even though that abnormality is common in the healthy population not suffering any back problems. My reaction was to entertain the possibility, but to basically dismiss it as having any decision-weight. And I think that was the right call. (Here is a good piece on the topic by Adam Gaffney, which I riffed on here.) To be clear, there are people who have severe bouts of covid, who perhaps end up hospitalized, who survive but have some kind of permanent lingering effects from it. I've never doubted or denied that. But from early on I was calling bullshit on the notion that mild or asymptomatic infections were leading to serious long-term health problem. I'm not buying this "silent killer" view of long covid, that there is a huge amount of harm that's slipping under the radar, but poised to strike in the coming years and decades.***

Of course, someone could concede all the stuff from the Adam Gaffney piece. "Sure, most of those 'long haulers' didn't actually contract covid. Sure, there's a spurious signal, and a million ways to confuse noise for signal, so we should have been more cautious in raising the alarm. But...the long-term consequences are unknown! The long term isn't here yet!" 

Vaccine alarmists and long covid alarmists can both point to "evidence for" the thing they're worried about, and both can take refuge in this all-trumping appeal to unknown risks. I just want to point out the symmetry. I think the "long covid" alarmists are on slightly more solid ground in terms of the strength of their evidence. But the appeal to unknowable hazards is not dependent on and does not respond to evidence. 


*Someone surely has a deep knowledge of the rates at which people experience adverse health events. It shouldn't be too hard to check the rates at which we're seeing adverse health events in the VAERS data. Who knows, maybe it's actually ten times as common as we'd expect. I heard someone give the anecdote of a man having a heart attack moments after getting his first shot of the covid vaccine. I'm sure that seems salient if it happens to you. But I'm just thinking, "Old people are having heart attacks all the time. Surely someone was going to have one in near proximity to getting their covid vaccine, and surely some alarmist is collecting these stories and broadcasting them."

**I feel a need to cite Scott Alexander's excellent recent piece on long covid. I think covid hawks could use his analysis to say, "See! Long covid is real!" And covid doves could use his analysis to say, "See! Long covid is way overblown! (Yes it's real, but that's not the point of contention.)" I think the long covid hawks are committing a logical fallacy that's a common advocacy technique: give a high-sounding number by using an inclusive definition that captures non-severe examples, then cite specific examples of the most severe cases. This is a way of insinuating that severe problems are more common than they really are. Alexander is overall more concerned about long covid than I am, but I want to applaud the very high quality of his approach. See this part commenting on a study of a large number of post-covid symptoms: "One flaw in this analysis is that it didn’t ask for premorbid functioning, so you can tell a story where unhealthy people are more likely to get COVID than healthy ones (maybe they’re stuck in crowded care homes? Maybe they put less effort into staying healthy in general?) But I don’t think this story is true - how come obviously plausibly COVID linked things (like smell problems) are significant, and obviously-not-COVID-linked things like diarrhea aren’t?" Emphasis mine. Also here: "An English team says there’s a Long COVID rate of 4.6% in kids. But there was a 1.7% rate of similar symptoms in the control group of kids who didn’t have COVID, so I think it would be fair to subtract that and end up with 2.9%. And even though the study started with 5000 children, so few of them got COVID, and so few of those got long COVID, that the 2.9% turns out to be about five kids. I don’t really want to update too much based on five kids, especially given the risk of recall bias..." Section 9, about post-viral symptoms for other common viruses, was particularly interesting. As in, "How common are mild carry-over syndromes in general?" Maybe these are just as common for typical cold and flu viruses, but we just don't notice them because they're less prevalent in normal times? Or we're inured to them because, like the viruses themselves, we've accepted them as part of the background risk of a normal life? We don't happen to associate them with a recent cold or flu because it doesn't occur to us that it might be the cause? 

***We've seen population level increases in death rates. What I haven't seen are population-level morbidity figures. I'd expect to see disease rates increasing for the population as a whole, with dramatic increases for younger populations. And the analysis should clearly separate out the effects of acute covid from long covid. The population-level spikes in mortality are noticeable. If long covid is real, and if it's as big a deal as some are claiming, the population-level spikes in morbidity should be out of this world. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Mismeasuring Risk In Both Directions

Sometimes it's amusing to observe just how exaggerated are people's understanding of various problems. I once quizzed someone by asking them how much the earth has warmed since pre-industrial times. They said something like, "About 15 degrees." This is from an American context, so presumably they meant 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The real answer is more like 1.8 degrees. I don't know what kind of answer you'd get if you randomly polled people, but the subject of my non-random quiz is not alone in having an exaggerated sense of how much warming there has been. A literal "climate change denier" would be closer to the truth by saying zero. I've heard similar exaggerations for the amount of sea level rise that's expected in the coming century, citing a likely rise of several meters whereas it's likely to be in the tens of centimeters. (Larger projections exist in the literature, for sure, so you could cherry pick a large value and claim the mantle of "science." I've also heard outlandish projections of how soon Greenland's ice will be gone. Again, I don't know what a proper poll would show or how close it would be to the literature's best point estimate. But the catastrophic voices are louder than the moderates.) Again, someone saying "zero" would be closer to the truth than someone who says "six meters." 

I see the same phenomenon in estimating the threat posed by covid-19. Particularly when it comes to the threat it poses to young people, some of us (and I am including myself here) have been pointing out that the risk is very small. See this chart (which actually comes from an alarmist page, and which I cited in a recent post):

One could be forgiven for rounding the IFR for the 0-34 group down to zero and commenting that the risk is something that blends imperceptibly into the background of other hazards (like auto accidents and suicide). If I'm reading this chart correctly (partially gated), when polled, people in the under 34 group estimate themselves to have a 2% (!?!) chance of death conditional on contracting covid. (Original paper here.) There's something wrong when your risk calibration is off by a factor of 500. (That's 2% over 0.004%, but I should probably apply some kind of adjustment for the consideration that 18 and younger weren't represented in the polls. Even if I did that, there's no way their assessment of risk is anywhere near what it really is.) The institutions of public health should be absolutely ashamed that they've so thoroughly misinformed the public. A young person walking around thinking s/he's not at risk, as in a true "covid denier", is actually more correct than the misinformed young people captured in these poll numbers. 

(Unfortunately, it looks like the elderly are being irrational about their risk of covid in the other direction, saying that the mortality risk is lower than it actually is. In fact they see themselves as less at risk than the young people do. That said, their self perception of risk is way closer to the ground truth than the young people's.)

There may be some attempt to defend the catastrophic worldview by saying the grossly exaggerated values are stand-ins for expected values considering tail risk. Maybe they point to the right policies and mitigation responses, even though they're wildly off in terms of quantifying the problem? In other words, a few inches of sea level rise could actually be catastrophic, so we're best off thinking that this measure is much higher than it really is. Maybe 3℃ of global warning is really terrible, even if it sounds pretty mild. Maybe it's actually as bad as 10℃ sounds to the average person. Maybe the two or three orders of magnitude difference between the perceived risk of covid and the actual risk is a stand-in for some larger truth? Like, "Of course I'm not actually at risk, but I should act as though I am, lest I transmit the virus unknowingly to someone who's vulnerable." Or, "Considering the long-term effects of covid, I'm best off treating it as if it has a much higher mortality rate than it actually does." 

I think it would be astonishing if this misperception of reality just happened to give the right answer to some other question. It would be quite a surprise if overstating the degree of global warming by a factor of seven or eight yielded the correct policy positions. It's far more likely that people who are objectively wrong about measurable quantities are also wrong about the appropriate policy fixes (and here I mean public and private policy, as in government promulgated mask mandates and personal hygiene policies). We should certainly entertain tail risk and "unknown unknowns" when it comes to global hazards like covid-19 and global warming. But we shouldn't be misstating averages or inflating known quantities. Sure, simulate a scenario where 10% of young covid victims suffer "long covid," spell out the long-term costs in dollars, lost productivity, lost year of life, etc. Then weight that scenario with some kind of plausible probability estimate, which some third party could audit and critique. Don't fudge it by exaggerating the mortality risk by a factor of 100 or more. Maybe in some cases the tail risk is so compelling that it's worth extreme mitigation measures, even though the "average" scenario is pretty ho hum. We should be able to make that argument without distorting known quantities and misleading the general public. These distortions, which are common in catastrophic rhetoric, cede the intellectual high ground to the so-called "deniers." Deniers may have a simpler, dumber model of reality, but their error is usually bounded at zero. Mistakes made by catastrophizers, by contrast, often have no ceiling. 


Then again, maybe we're just bad about thinking about risks in the 1% range. Maybe the young people in the surveys were basically giving an answer that sounded like a small number and mentally rounding down to zero, not realizing that a 2% risk of death is a pretty big deal. I recall Maia Szalavitz reporting that young people, when asked about quantitative hazards of drug use, tended to exaggerate by some huge factor (I think this was in her book Unbroken Brain). And yet they engage in drug use at much higher rates than their elders. That seems consistent with the exaggerated risks captured in the paper above. Still, there is something very wrong going on here. The public health establishment, if it's doing its job, should be correcting such hugely distorted perceptions, not leveraging them to make people do the right things for the wrong reasons. It should be telling young people that they can venture out and comingle with other young people (while still being cautious around the elderly and vulnerable). 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Live Push-Back Against an HR “Microaggressions” Session

I was pleased to see someone push back against a "microaggressions" session in a recent meeting at work. It wasn't an in-person session, so I couldn't see people's faces or gauge their reactions. It felt extremely uncomfortable initially, but a number of other participants chimed in in support of the push-back.

The person leading the session wasn't being rude or laying on the material especially thick. It was, as far as I can tell, a pretty standard introduction to the concept of microaggressions. She gave the examples of 1) the only woman in the meeting being assigned the task of note-taker and 2) a colleague using a heavy accent when impersonating the voice of another (who was Indian...more on this later). 

A brave person piped up with some comments. It was, after all, supposed to be an interactive session. He wasn't rude. He stated his point very respectfully, which the organizer of the session acknowledged. He started by saying, yes, we should all be respectful of each other and avoid giving offense. We should give some thought as to how our actions and unthinking biases might be affecting our behavior. That much is common sense. But what does this "microaggressions" concept add to that? And what is the limiting principle on this concept? Do minor grievances really "pile up" in the minds of those who are micro-aggressed against? Isn't there some threshold below which these events just cease to register? Or become quickly forgotten? Don't we have a duty to charitably interpret the behavior of those around us, rather than assume a sinister thought motivated them? (Not his exact language; these are my own paraphrases and my expounding on what I heard.) In explaining how we should be forgiving of minor or unintended slights, he repeatedly used the word "grace," which has almost religious overtones. I'm not particularly religious, but I thought there was something classy (you might say graceful) about this use of language. It's perfectly fine to say, "Hey, this behavior bothers me" or "This thing is really a pet peeve of mine." But let's not invent this concept of a growing ledger of microscopic slights that add up to a substantial whole. Everyone experiences these. The typical reaction is to round the off, truncating them to zero. (Computationally speaking, you might refer to this as setting a high tolerance.)

Specifically he riffed on the organizer's example, asking if it was never okay to ask a woman to take notes. The organizer said of course that wasn't her intended take-away, you'd expect a task to sometimes be assigned to a woman by sheer chance. If it's a pattern, if it's always a woman, and more to the point the woman tends to be chosen even if there are more junior employees in the room, then maybe there's an unhidden assumption that "this is women's work" or "women don't mind doing these menial administrative tasks." Point well taken, but I don't know if you need the concept of microaggressions to get there. She also said that until recently, it's been the majority group who got the privilege of defining what is and isn't offensive. What we're seeing now is that other voices are recognized in that space. Again, this is a totally valid point to make, but I don't know if it requires the concept of microaggressions or if this is just common sense decency. Taking offense that your ethnicity is the butt of many jokes seems like a different thing entirely from minor perceived slights piling up over time. 

The person who spoke up was a white male. (I assume hetero white male, because he mentioned needing to be understanding of one's wife to successfully communicate and navigate relationships. It sounded like he was speaking from first person experience. He was pointing out that we're all dealing with different kinds of people all the time, and we're somehow navigating that space without microaggression seminars.) But several people with heavy foreign accents joined in and seconded his point. My employer has a worldwide presence, and even among American collogues the foreign-born are heavily represented. Very cosmopolitan in terms of demographics, and I was pleased to hear that many of them had a cosmopolitan worldview. 

I've heard about cases of wokeness infiltrating HR departments and inflicting terrible "training sessions" on employees. Racially segregated training, humiliating struggle sessions, instructions to "be less white" (note that Coca Cola denies using those training materials, though it was accused of doing so to much furor), explicit indoctrination with CRT. The session I attended was much milder in intent, and yet there was firm but polite pushback. I have no doubt there are some committed fanatics trying to infiltrate the culture by inserting themselves into the bureaucracy layer of society. I'm just not sure how far they will get. The person who spoke up in that meeting was exceptionally brave. Maybe you can't always count on having one of those guys around. (I, for one, have no such inclination to speak up in front of a crowd.) Then again, for all I know there is some kind of punishment in store for him, explicit or perhaps subtle. And certainly there are companies that have a more woke monoculture, where such "outbursts" would not be tolerated. Apropos of my previous post, maybe this is a case of "They would be causing havoc if they could, but they are being held in check by forces outside of their control." Maybe all it takes is some respectfully worded pushback. It certainly changed the tone of the meeting from "We're all on the same page here" to "Some of us aren't buying into this paradigm." 


We'll see how it plays out, but there seems to be a kind of "diversity and inclusion" power play happening at the professional organization that I'm a member of, see here. I got a long, strongly-worded e-mail with more details on Friday, which was responding to an earlier e-mail from the CAS (which had barely registered with me). I count it as another example of pushback, not so gentle in this case. 

On the example of doing an Indian accent for an Indian colleague. I have no idea what actually happened, so I'll take the lady's word for it. But I can't let this go without saying something. I had a lot of Indian friends and teachers in grad school. I would sometimes do their voices, as would everyone. No, I was not doing a generic Indian accent. I was doing the distinct voice of my friends and colleagues, trying to accurately capture their actual mannerisms and voices. Just as I would often do for my white colleagues, just as we all did all the time. (Guys like to mock each other. Sometimes this took the form of impersonating voices and accentuating the distinct features of their speech. "Matt Damon.") One Indian friend had a very slow voice, and if I were "doing" him you might think I was doing the voice of a native American rather than an Asian Indian. There was an Indian girl who had a kind of breathy, melodic voice. Another friend of mine was always doing her voice, and there was nothing obviously Indian about it. But there were some colleagues whose voices were decidedly more Indian. If I were to "do" one of them in isolation, it might sound racist. But what if I were reciting a conversation between these people, afterwards to an audience who wasn't present? Would I do an accurate impression of everyone's voice, but suddenly stop when I get to the guy with an Indian-sounding accent? Would I have to suddenly drop the voice acting and make him sound like a white guy? If the person who did the voice heard this HR lady talking about him, I wonder if he'd respond with something like, "I wasn't doing a generic Indian accent, I was 'doing' Samir! What, do they all sound the same to you or something? Seems all the HR training has worked on you. It's actually made you incapable of discriminating."

I also have to recall an early season of The Ultimate Fighter in which one of the contestants was a deaf guy (Matt Hamill). The other guys were doing his voice. At one point, one of them turns to the camera and says, "It might sound mean, like we're making fun of deaf people. But we're really just 'doing' Matt." I think it would be more offensive if the guys left Matt out of this male ritual of gentle teasing and hazing. Like, if they didn't want to seem mean in front of the cameras, so instead they just left the deaf guy out of the game. Still, I see how this looks to an outsider who lacks the full context or can't imagine the counterfactual. If you picked this out and showed a bunch of guys mocking a deaf guy's voice in isolation, I understand that this would look bad. 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

If Left Unchecked…

 There is a thread in current political thought that I'm trying to put my finger on. I think I might have figured it out. It's a question of whether you're more concerned by the crazies on left or the right. Who is likely to do more harm? Who is a bigger threat right now? This conversation with Bret Weinstein, Jesse Singal, and James Lindsay embodies the conflict I'm talking about. 

Some look at the Trump phenomenon and the crazies who stormed the capital building as a new kind of existential threat. Here's a different kind of populist politician with a base of hardcore fans ("fans" in the true sense of "fanatics"). Certainly there was an intent to overturn the outcome of an election. There was a shocking public display of this intent on January 6th. But I would argue that there was never any serious chance that this changed the outcome. I just can't see that scenario. Even if the rioters really dug themselves in and it was hard to physically displace them. "There are a bunch of crazy people occupying the capital building. Darn, I guess Biden can't be president." Sure, if the angry mob kept growing and seizing government property and nothing ever checked their advance, I guess I could imagine a series of events where a right-wing coup takes over the government. But the "left unchecked" part is doing some heavy lifting here. The police presence was initially inadequate, but it was enough to keep them in check. As I read it, ultimately Trump's pro-cop sensibilities led him to call off the riot and tell his fanatics to go home. (I recall him being remorseful about seeing police officers being assaulted, but maybe I'm misremembering some flash-in-the-pan news report from that day.)

Likewise, some observers look at the rioting in major cities and see an encroaching end to civilization. It wasn't just peaceful protesting, and the non-peaceful protests were not strictly in service of a noble policy change. Some of the protesters wanted to completely abolish existing institutions, and they weren't shy about saying so. A mob of rioters in Portland were advancing nightly on a federal courthouse. The cop-free CHOP/CHAZ zone in Seattle regressed into warlord-ism. Angry mobs were wantonly destroying property, and pseudo-intellectual defenders were apologizing for them. Once again there was an angry mob with the intent of overturning our institutions and seizing power. And certainly there were public displays of this intent, which were sometimes quite frightening. But how far they actually get depends very much on whether these shows of force are checked or unchecked. Would the police cease to form a protective perimeter under the assaulted courthouse, allowing the rioters to literally occupy it and possibly burn it down? Would moderate cities, whose leadership isn't completely captured by woke insanity, start tolerating similar behavior? I think the mobs of wokesters, antifa, and left anarchists (sometimes distinct groups who have different agendas) would come into contact with an opposing force eventually, even if they are successful in the short term. For those people who aren't particularly concerned about the riots, I wonder if this is what they're thinking. (Obviously some people are actively sympathizing with the mobs. I'm not addressing them here; I'm discussing "Overton Window" moderates who disagree with the rioting but can't seem to find the voice to condemn it.)

Back to the conversation with Weinstein, Singal, and Lindsay. It starts with them saying who they voted for and explaining themselves. Weinstein cast a write-in vote for Gabby Gifford, which I think is a fine choice. Lindsay explains how he begrudgingly voted for Trump because he was the only force in public life standing up to Woke madness. Singal voted for Biden. He explains that he's also concerned about how Wokeness is getting into our culture, but the threat of Trumpism is just orders of magnitude more dangerous. (He compares Lindsay's vote to worrying about a mosquito bite while ignoring a bullet wound, if I heard him correctly.) 

Singal has been assaulted by the woke mob, so he has authority to speak on this topic. He wrote an excellent piece on the research on "implicit bias" tests, suggesting that they aren't really measuring what they're supposed to be measuring. In fact, given that the test is not consistent from day to day for a given person, it's not really clear that they're measuring anything at all. (Great podcast with Singal here on Rationally Speaking, where he discusses the article and the backlash it received. He even concedes that implicit bias is probably a real thing, it's just that these tests don't actually measure it.) Apparently this was some kind of sacred cow among "anti-racists." Implicit bias tests were this crystal ball with which to divine hidden racism. By smashing it, he deprived the woke movement of one of their tools. He was mobbed on Twitter for it, so I'll give him some deference when he says these cultural threads are not as threatening as Lindsay and Weinstein make them out to be.

Singal asks, I think quite fairly, what concrete policies have the woke mob achieved? Abolition of police is not a mainstream idea, and any time it's come into confrontation with democracy it gets voted down. And the ultimate selection of Biden (the "moderate" candidate) rather than a Sanders or a Warren signals where the American polity is. Singal is basically pointing out that there is a check in place on the insane woke culture that is making so much noise on Twitter and in universities. The check is sufficient that wokeness is confined to those habitats and is not making inroads into the broader world. 

Weinstein and Lindsay both answer with some version of "That's not how this works." Weinstein points out that he did, in fact, have the police abolished on him while as an angry mob of students were searching car to car for him. (See ~14:00 in this video.) This was in 2017, well before anyone had heard about George Floyd and before "abolish the police" became a popular hashtag. Wokeness doesn't require democratic approval or official ratification. A committed core of ideological radicals can seize control of institutions, as they did at Evergreen State College. Weinstein's encounter with the Woke mob was more physically dangerous than Singal's, and it turned out to be a career ender for him. I don't know if that means Weinstein has special insight into the danger they pose, or if maybe it means he's deranged by a hazard that's not really likely to manifest itself elsewhere. He definitely takes the view that this isn't just a few crazies on college campuses. If this ideology is gaining a foothold on campus, it'll soon be elsewhere in the world as those radials graduate and insinuate themselves into institutions in the broader society. 

Lindsay has extensively read from the works of the ideological progenitors of wokeness: the post modernists and the critical race theorists. His book Cynical Theories, coauthored with Helen Pluckrose, is a great exposition on these threads of academic thought. (He, Pluckrose, and Peter Baghosian understand this ideology very well apparently. The three of them managed to publish several hoax papers in "serious" academic journals, without the editor realizing they were being played.) I've listened to his podcast New Discourses for a while, and I understand why he is concerned. Some of the precursors to today's woke movement talk explicitly about what tactics they will use to take over institutions, and Lindsay points to parallels in today's world. They make no bones about their plans to recast language so certain thoughts become inexpressible. They are explicit about their desire to overthrow norms of open discourse so as to favor particular kinds of discourse. Maybe in today's world that's manifesting as once-a-year hour-long human resources-mandated "sensitivity" sessions, with the occasional innocent victim getting railroaded for a misinterpreted "insensitive" comment. Obnoxious, but not exactly civilization-shattering. But if it's left unchecked? If it grows without bounds and nobody stands up to it? I can imagine a scenario where this hyper-racialized ideology just keeps gaining ground and a critical mass of resistance just never rises up to oppose it. I can also imagine a scenario where nobody cares, people laugh off the stupid HR mandated struggle sessions, and everyone just ignores the obnoxious voices on Twitter because almost nobody is paying attention to it anyway. 

I don't think Lindsay is wrong to be worried, but Singal's question about "Where is this actually happening?" is a fair one. Lindsay's answer (if I heard him right) is that woke activists are inserting themselves into the bureaucracy layer of society. Biden himself might not be speaking the woke lingo, but maybe he appoints someone to a cabinet position, who then appoints some staff members, who then manage to affect policy and do some damage. They can also insert themselves in HR departments of private companies, or perhaps they can run sensitivity seminars where they hector and castigate their audience for deviating from the ideology. Weinstein's telling of the downfall of Evergreen is that new management came in and tried to ally itself with the woke movement. Instead of acquiring a useful ally, the college's administration ended up being taken over by it. If I'm reading him right, he's saying the Democratic party is going down the same path. Biden is winking and nodding at them without explicitly endorsing their policy platform. (Listen to their conversation for examples; Weinstein and Lindsay offer a few. Singal is having none of it. Indeed, a few of the examples Lindsay gives are weak. You could say he's reaching. Still I think Singal is too dismissive of the dangers.)

Anti-liberal ideologies are indeed quite dangerous if left unchecked. A right-wing populism that actually succeeds in overthrowing the liberal order would be a disaster, and shame on anyone who takes part in it. An all-consuming left-wing ideology that succeeds in overthrowing the liberal order would be an equal disaster. I see both as having made successful inroads. (Electing a president being a significant example. Achieving hegemony in the discourse being another.) I'd be curious to know if I'm just way off base here. Obviously someone who's an active Trump supporter would say I'm wrong, because Trumpism is actually good for America. I'm not interested in hearing from you, sorry. Obviously someone who's pro-woke would scold me for criticizing wokeness, because obviously it's actually a good thing and comparing it to a bad thing and asking which is worse is a non sequitur. If that's you, I'm not particularly interested in hearing from you, either. I'm more curious about the people who fall in the space between Lindsay, Singal, and Weinstein, who are concerned about both wokeness and Trumpism but see one as overwhelmingly more threatening. Is it that "X isn't a threat because it's being held in check"? Or is it that "X isn't a threat, because it wouldn't be a bad thing if X got its way?" I feel like people are so deranged by one kind of threat that they are willing to ally themselves with anything that opposes it. (One might call such derangement a "syndrome."). And it's leading some of them to keep some "interesting" company. I wonder if this is just a function of the news sources people are consuming? 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Ferengi Aren’t Capitalists

I thought I'd have a little fun with this one. 

I'm not a huge Trekkie, but I absolutely loved the show Deep Space 9. I watched it from when it first aired in 1993 right up to the series finale in 1999. I was only eleven years old when I started watching it, so it was a "formative years" series for me. I recently watched the entire series through on Netflix. It's seven seasons, 23+ episodes a season, with each episode having about 45-50 minutes of content, so it took a long time. Basically, it was my evening pass time for December 2020 through February of this year. 

I enjoyed it so much I could forgive the garbage science. Like faster than light travel with warp drives. No big deal, how else do you get to distant star systems? How else would we actually meet all those charming alien species? There is also some nonsensical biology. As in, how would species from different planets, who presumably came through a completely separate evolutionary line, be able to interbreed with others? Like, is there some panspermia implied here, spanning the entire galaxy? An episode of TNG shows the main characters reverting to earlier stages in their evolution; it kind of rules out a recent panspermia by a common ancestor. Yet, there are many half-human characters that are half Vulcan or half Betazoid.  Deep Space 9's major antagonist Gul Dukat sires at least two half-Bajoran children. That's fine, we want to see alien species interacting, falling in love, having families, etc. So maybe this is all forgivable for the sake of good story-telling. 

What's less forgivable is the garbage social commentary. If there's a compelling reason for busting the laws of physics and biology, it's so we can get realistic characters and societies interacting across interstellar distances. So they should at least strive for good social science. 

Ferengi society is on full display throughout the series. I think it is supposed to be some kind of critique of capitalism, but if so it's a poor one. I can't tell if the Ferengi parts were written by someone who is a critic of capitalism or by a fan of capitalism who is making fun of a less refined critic's na├»ve view of it. (I had the same reaction when I read this New Yorker piece making fun of libertarians...or maybe it's really lampooning their (our) over-the-top critics, I can't tell.) 

People mean different things by the word "capitalist", but it generally means something like "free markets." It's clear that is not what the Ferengi have. They have strict laws regulating commerce. For one thing, women are not allowed to work. In fact, they are confined to the home and forbidden from wearing clothes. (Isn't there a garment industry on Ferenginar? A special interest who would lobby for repeal of this particular law? Geez, this is even a bad critique of crony capitalism! There is apparently no regulatory capture on Ferenginar?)  Denying your economy the services of half its inhabitants is not free-market capitalism, it's some kind of ultra-"traditional" repressive police state. 

Quark's wait staff for his bar are all apparently tied to their jobs. They are poorly paid, and there is some kind of barrier to them seeking employment elsewhere. (Some kind of occupational licensure maybe? Something that constrains them to being waiters?) The formation of labor unions is explicitly outlawed by the Ferengi government. That's perhaps consistent with a "crony capitalist" society where the business interests have captured the apparatus of state power, but it is emphatically not laissez-faire capitalism. When Quark's wait staff organize a union (at the suggestion of Miles O'Brien and under the leadership of Quark's courageous brother Rom), he gets a visit from liquidator Brunt. Brunt shuts down his restaurant under the authority of the Ferengi government, and any Ferengi who patronize him are similarly excommunicated. 

The Grand Negus is plainly some kind of monarch. There is no "free market" analog of his position in society. When Quark goes to see him on Ferenginar, he is constantly paying various bribes just to make his way to his office. Late in the series, the Grand Negus institutes a large number of "reforms" that horrify Quark, like a welfare state and taxes to pay for it. Quark's reaction suggests that these things didn't exist prior, that they were beyond the pale for a good Ferengi business man like himself. So there's no social safety net, but there is otherwise a lot of influence peddling and the direct hand of government in economic policy. 

In one episode, Captain Sisko tasks Chief O'Brien with getting a hard-to-come-by piece of equipment to repair the Defiant (the Federation's powerful little battleship). O'Brien insists that it will take weeks to acquire one, but Sisko tells him he has just three days. Rom's son Nog is at this point in Starfleet and is O'Brien's assistant. Nog makes a series of trades and barters to eventually acquire the needed part on schedule, saving the day for Chief O'Brien. The bureaucratic command-and-control economy of Starfleet is apparently afflicted with shortages, as are any economic systems that allocate scarce resources by something other than prices. What's interesting is that Nog is doing a series of barters rather than pulling out a wad of gold pressed latinum to purchase the piece outright on the open market. Or perhaps he might have bribed the right officials to jump up the queue. I don't really get why we're supposed to think Ferengi are so adept at barter. Are large parts of the Ferengi economy outside of the money economy? That would seem odd, given their obsession with latinum. Maybe black-market dealings present a lot of opportunities for barter? Or their centuries of commerce with species who have non-money economies? You could tell an interesting story here, I'm sure. But long chains of goods-for-goods barter don't describe a capitalist economy. Usually exchange would be done by one party paying the other with money rather than exchanging goods for other goods.  

Quark and his brother Rom are often depicted as being adept hackers and lock picks. Quark gets in trouble for hacking into DS9's com system to transmit advertisements for his bar to the station's inhabitants. In another episode, Quark, Sisko, and a female Vorta (the first one we meet in any Star Trek series) are being held captive. The Vorta is wearing a collar that, as far as Sisko and Quark know, is inhibiting her psionic abilities. Quark manages to pick the lock and release her. Furthermore, he has the technical aptitude to realize that the collar didn't actually have an internal mechanism for doing anything else. (So the psionic powers and the collar suppressing them were all a ruse.) Quark's technical skills are impressive, but he comes off as having the skillset of a thief, which is not the same skillest one would expect from a capitalist merchant. Put this together with Nog's aptitude at barter, and you get the impression of a species that is materialistic and acquisitive to the point of self-caricature. But it's not really a picture of free-market capitalism, which would have some system for establishing property rights and deterring theft and misuse of property.

It's not entirely clear what rights a Ferengi has to redress when he feels cheated by another. Rule of Acquisition number 17 states "A contract is a contract is a contract...but only between Ferengi." Sounds clear enough, but what if the parties disagree about whether the contract has been fulfilled? Capitalism requires some mechanism for dispute resolution in these cases. In one episode, Quark receives a diagnosis for a fatal disease that he later realizes was mistaken. He's happy that he'll get the opportunity to sue the doctor for malpractice. So clearly there are courts. There is a mechanism for being made whole when another Ferengi's services aren't adequately delivered. On other occasions, you get the impression that they take a strong "buyer beware" stance. Quark is horrified, for example, when the Grand Negus (having been brainwashed by the wormhole aliens) rewrites the first rule of acquisition to say "If the customer wants their money back, give it to them." This is basically the approach of Walmart and Amazon, to name two capitalist institutions in the real world. It buys back the goodwill of a customer who feels unsatisfied (not necessarily even cheated!). So why should Quark be so mortified? His reaction suggests it's contrary to Ferengi custom, but returns should be a common practice in a successful merchant society. Capitalism has no inherent tendency toward a caveat emptor or caveat vendator as the default rule. Profitable companies should be voluntarily (as in, without redress to a court) returning money to unsatisfied customers, assuming they want repeat customers. A good capitalist would be maximizing total future profits, not simply trying to maximize the profit from any particular sale or customer.

Here is a much better post on this point that preempts this one by many years. The author remembers more Ferengi examples from TNG than I do. An excerpt:

A Ferengi state military may or may not exist, although we can be sure that the Nagus must control some, perhaps much, of the Alliance's military force. It is difficult to say whether the daimons are government employees or private actors, or both. Education does not exist. Health care and social services are also nonexistent.

As far as we can tell, so is industry and innovation. "Investment opportunities" as mentioned are limited to crazy ponzi schemes and quasi-legal brokings of things not made by the broker.

Another thing: the monetary system of the Ferengi Alliance appears designed to impede the efficient extension of credit.

Given all this, it is impossible to say that the Ferengi system is remotely capitalist, or remotely free market. It appears nearly feudal. At best, it is like a caricature of China, but even the nominally communist government has a far greater adherence to actual capitalist principles than the corrupt, influence-ridden, purely parasitic Ferengi Alliance regime...


This is not directly related to the Ferengi, except as a point of contrast. On another episode, Sisko's son Jake lectures Nog that the "enlightened" Federation gave up their money economy a long time ago. Which makes me does Sisko acquire the land for his house on Bajor? Is it "gifted" to him by the Bajoran government? Which possibly means expropriated by a private land-holder. Or is it gifted by a Bajoran land-owner who is pleased to supply it for the Emissary? Does Sisko in fact have a non-Federation income stream that he can use to make purchases? 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Why Worker Ownership of the Firm Is (Usually) a Bad Idea

In the past few months I've listened to a number of "capitalism versus socialism" debates in various forums. Notably, Gene Epstein has done three debates at the Soho Forum, arguing in favor of free markets with his opponent in each case arguing for some form of socialism. See his debate with Bhaskar Sunkara here, with Richard Wolff here, and Ben Burgis here

What's interesting is that the socialists always make some effort to distance themselves from the kind of state socialism that existed in the 20th century. It's as if they all realize there is a dark history that needs to be recognized and reckoned with. If I'm hearing them correctly, they (Sunkara, Wolff, and Burgis) all reject "state ownership of the means of production." None of them seem to be all-in on the concept of complete state control of the economy. Still, none of them shy away from the use of the state as a tool, a stick with which to beat non-compliant businesses that don't conform to their vision. Sunkara favors laws against using capital markets and wage labor. Epstein repeatedly asks him to bite the bullet on this totalitarian idea, something like, "So I'm going to jail if I go to Kickstarted to get funding for a new project?" 

Wolff and Burgis both seem to be advocating for a decentralized form of worker ownership. That is (if I heard them correctly) companies are not owned by the state, but the workers within a firm collectively own it. I want to explain why this is a terrible idea. 

Suppose I'm a worker for one of these worker-owned firms. I earn an income from my company. I also have a substantial wealth holding that's tied to the value of the firm. (What is "the value of the firm" under this system? Hard to say. We don't have financial markets buying and selling stock in the firm, so we probably don't have good estimates of the firm's future profits.) What happens if the firm suddenly becomes unproductive? Perhaps some key inputs to our production have skyrocketed in price. Maybe we're some kind of diamond dealership, and diamond mining has completely dried up so the raw materials are hard to come by. Or perhaps people have simply stopped buying whatever it is we produce. Maybe we're that same diamond dealership, but the diamond-buying public has caught on to the "blood diamond" problem and has made a moral decision to stop supporting the slave labor that produces them. Or maybe you're some kind of butcher shop, and plant-based meat substitutes are getting more convincing and cheaper. You can probably think of a thousand legitimate reasons why a company can go out of business, even under socialism. Under this system of worker-owned firms, you lose your income and a substantial portion of your wealth if the firm goes under. I'm sure the socialists who favor worker ownership would say something about the social safety net that's in place to catch workers who are temporarily put out of work, but it's still the case that these workers have been needlessly placed in economic peril. They could better diversify their risks if they could sell off their holdings and buy other assets (stock in other companies, real estate, bonds, whatever). My reading of Burgis is that he is insisting that every worker gets an equal share of whatever firm he works for, including voting rights and a claim on future profits. Mere wage labor, he insists, should be illegal. This is deeply misguided. If all workers suddenly found themselves holding equal ownership shares of the firm that employed them, it would be merciful to allow them to sell those shares off and diversify their portfolios. Anyone with a rational approach to financial risk would want to hold stock in other firms. 

Suppose you now find yourself as this unemployed worker. The company you worked for no longer made economic sense, so it went out of business. You want to get back to work.* You knock on the door of another worker-owned firm and ask for a job. 

The workers at this other firm now have to decide whether or not to hire an additional worker. In an economy of wage labor, the decision is fairly simple. Offer a wage or salary that's commensurate with the value produced. In practice, this usually means setting a pay scale for different kinds of positions. If, upon assessment, the worker seems capable of producing value for the firm that's roughly in line with the worker's pay, hire him. The worker-owned firm has a much harder decision to make. They aren't just paying this new worker a salary. They're giving him a claim to the firm's future earnings and a vote in decision-making. If there are currently X workers sharing Y value (where Y is the total value of the firm), they must now contemplate reducing their wealth from Y/X to Y/(X + 1). Clearly there is a hesitancy to hire workers, a hesitancy that doesn't exist in a free market system. I suspect that labor markets would be far less flexible under this system, and unemployment would be a worse problem. A growing business, in which it makes sense to expand operations and hire more workers, would be reluctant to do so. The loss to existing workers due to share dilution seems pretty substantial, if you take some plausible values for X and Y.** 

There are conditions under which worker ownership is a good idea. Law firms are often owned by a few partners, each of whom has a residual claim to the firm's profits. But they also employ non-owners: secretaries, janitorial staff, paralegals, junior lawyers. It would make little sense for them to make everyone a partner. Clearly some of the "workers" bring in more revenue than others. The partners are better positioned to make executive decisions about the firm, because they typically know the subject matter of the business much better. Likewise, doctors are often given ownership stake in the practice or hospital they work for. (Or they have the option of buying shares, and option not offered to other employees.) It works pretty well when you have a small number of individuals making executive decisions. "Share dilution" may be offset by acquiring substantial talent or insisting on some kind of buy-in. It works less well when you have hundreds or thousands of workers with an equal vote, most of whom have no acumen for making business decisions. 

I should be very clear that I'm not disparaging anyone who wants to hold a greater ownership share of the company they work for. Maybe the janitor really does want to hold voting rights and a share of the firm's future profits. Maybe he just really believes in the company. If that's where a worker wants to park their savings, that's fine. I just think that most don't want to do this, and at any rate it's a mistake to force them to do so.

So far I've been explaining why we should expect worker ownership to be a generally bad system. I want to step off of this approach and make a different kind of argument. I don't actually have to convince anyone that worker ownership of the firm is a bad idea, because the option is wide open and the marketplace has soundly rejected it. Note that "worker ownership" is a perfectly legal form of incorporation. You can start a worker's co-op wherever you like. The trick is getting others to join you. It's worth noting that almost all employment in the U.S. economy is wage and salary labor, with a small fraction of employees holding major decision-making rights and claims on the firm's profits. 

There is an open glide-path from the world as it is to a world that's dominated by worker-owned firms. The path from here to there is clear of obstacles. If the workers actually wanted it, that's the direction we would move. I've seen Ben Burgis and Richard Wolff both make lame attempts to dodge this point. In their Soho Forum debate, Gene Epstein repeatedly pointed out to Burgis that workers could start their own firms if they wanted to. David Friedman also debated Wolff and Burgis, and he made this same point on both occasions. Their denials are weak. Both say something about how financial markets won't back worker co-ops, insurers don't know how to insure them, and so on. I call this a lame dodge because capital markets are backing new products and new ways of doing things all the time. Suppose workers co-ops are more efficient for some reason. (Socialists often claim their system is more economically efficient, not just that it's morally superior.) Maybe they save hugely by cutting out the dead-weight in upper- and middle-management. Or maybe they are intrinsically better at making decisions, being democratic in nature. If there are excess profits to be had, then there should be no problem at all finding start-up capital. 

We can even indulge some paranoid theories of grand conspiracies against co-ops, and it still appears that the path is wide open. Suppose the capitalist class acts as a unified interest group. They successfully conspire to withhold capital from worker co-ops, which would threaten their interests. (Is this the actual charge? That capitalists are all working in concert?) This still doesn't matter. Workers could easily save their earnings for a few years and set up their co-ops without help from wealthy capitalists. Contra popular conceptions of "inequality", the purchasing power of the lower and middle classes is vast. Collectively they can easily outbid "the rich". Supposing they forego consumption to build up their savings, they could easily start buying up capital and setting up workers co-ops.*** Wolff and Burgis are somehow blind to this possibility. In fact I'd say they've willfully blinded themselves to it, as people keep pointing it out to them (notably Gene Epstein and David Friedman). I want to pull them aside and say, "C'mon guys. There isn't one eccentric billionaire who's willing to bankroll this idea? Is it really so hard for a handful of workers with significant savings to purchase some capital and start a business together?" After all, there was the guy who paid all his employees $70,000/year (including himself). There was also the case of Chobani giving shares to its employees.**** There is some propensity to implement socialist egalitarianism in the marketplace. It already has a foothold, a sort of beach head. It just doesn't manage to take off, because it's (usually) a bad idea. 

It's worth pointing out that it has never been easier for workers to themselves become capitalists. If you can save up $1,000, you can open a Vanguard account. That is, you can easily purchase shares in companies and acquire a claim to their future profits. If you own shares of the stock itself, you can exercise voting rights. People like Burgis and Wolff might contend that workers are so thoroughly under the boot that they can't afford to save up even the meager amount required to open an index fund account. Actually, this is exactly wrong. If capitalists are really earning such a huge excess by exploiting labor, then the workers can't afford not to become capitalists. I managed to grow my savings when I was a minimum wage worker, when I earned ~$20k/year as a grad student, and when I began my professional career at around ~$50k/year. And I did a lot of stupid spending on things like alcohol and trips to the mall. There was plenty of room for me to save even more. I presume a lot of workers are in a similar situation. They just fail to realize what options they have available to them, or they decline to exert any discipline in their spending and saving decisions. (Would critics of capitalism counter this point by claiming that the truly excessive profits aren't "democratized" by the open stock market? Are privately held companies raking in much larger returns, and the common investor lacks the connections to buy into these firms? This seems wrong to me. The massive fortunes of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos are mostly due to the extremely high value of the companies they started, which are publicly traded.)

Wolff repeatedly brings up Mondragon. It's a Spanish firm composed of worker co-ops. It has an egalitarian pay scale that limits the salary differentials between the highest and lowest paid workers. It is Spain's seventh largest company. Wolff holds up Mondragon as a shining example of private socialism. So it's a bit awkward for him to claim that it's not possible (or that it's really hard) for private worker co-ops to establish themselves. Mondragon is an existence proof for Wolff's concept. But its existence also undercuts Wolff's (and Burgis's) claim that worker co-ops can't establish themselves in a market society. It would seem they face no hard barriers in getting started. They're just not as attractive to workers as Wolff and Burgis would like. 

I would also point to the Israeli kibbutzim as an example of private socialism, which gradually declined for all the obvious reasons. They began their existence with a very pure socialist ideology. The children were raised communally, with other children but separate from their parents. (This later changed. People like to raise their own children, and it turns out it's really hard to "reform" biology.) If you left the kibbutz, you forfeited everything you owned. (This also changed over the years, and deserters could leave with some kind of "savings" they'd built up over time.) Eventually, they began allowing members to work in the Israeli marketplace outside the kibbutz; they would contribute their earnings rather than their labor. In other words, they rediscovered comparative advantage. Why force a brilliant programmer to be a farmer when you could let him bring in a programmer's salary and use it to upgrade your farming capital? (And for that matter, why should you deny Israeli society the contributions of this brilliant mind?) They eventually brought in outside vendors and management expertise to run their commissaries and professionalize their production. The kibbutzim were apparently stingy with the purse strings with respect to retiree pensions. (Understandably, they thought the mutual aid intrinsic to the kibbutz way of life made a generous pension payment redundant.) They were forced by the Israeli government to offer more generous pensions to their retirees. As a percent of the population, kibbutz membership declined from a maximum point at around 7% to about 2% by the year 2000. If this were an attractive model for workers, it should have grown instead of shrunk. It should have expanded beyond the borders of Israel, having provided a shining example of what's possible. Instead it gradually became more capitalist as it acceded to the demands of its members, though not fast enough to stem the outward flow of its population. It is a noble (and ongoing!) experiment, but it has some fairly clear implications about the viability of workers co-ops on a grand scale. 

I've written this post to talk about Wolff and Burgis's bad prescription. But I want to point out that they and their co-thinkers are mistaken on a profound level. Their conception of the worker as being completely in the saddle, totally under the boot of their corporate overlords, is just mistaken. It ring completely hollow. It makes no logical sense that workers in a competitive labor market could be routinely exploited. Wolff references the tradition of ending a workday with "Happy hour...which is in contrast to all the previous hours." Certainly there are people who are miserable in their jobs. They work unpleasant hours, or they feel underpaid or underappreciated, or they find their work mind-numbingly tedious. This is not my experience, and in fact the vast majority of people I know take some kind of pride in their work and feel a sense of accomplishment for doing their jobs well. There are plenty of people who enter adulthood with a chip still resting firmly on their shoulder, but most mature out of these adolescent feelings of begrudgement. Contra Wolff, it's rare for a person's work life to be so miserable that they're eager to numb their mind with alcohol. And it's unlikely that such a malcontent would be happier if they had a "vote" in their employer's business decisions. 

Are workers being systematically underpaid by their employers? This is a standard claim of socialist ideology, but it's quite plainly implausible. Certainly there are individual workers who are underpaid. The talented go-getter who is overlooked for a promotion by their incompetent boss, the young ace who easily does twice the work of their older colleagues (who have racked up seniority pay without actually becoming any more productive), the factory worker who truly has no alternatives open to him (so his employer has monopsony power, in a limited, localized sense).  Sure, this happens. But these are random errors, not systematic biases that affect entire industries or classes of people. It's pretty absurd to think that any class of workers is systematically underpaid (or overpaid for that matter). If restaurant workers are bringing home $14/hour in wages + tips, is it remotely plausible that they are actually producing vastly more than that? Say you think they are really producing $20/hour, with their greedy boss simply pocketing the surplus. Wouldn't some restauranteur, with a just slightly lesser thirst for profits, open a restaurant that paid (on average) $15/hour? Such an employer could afford to be choosy and select the best wait staff, possibly even earning excess profits over his stingy competitors. What's missing from socialist griping about "underpaid workers" is any recognition that this market process exists at all. The sad reality may be that those workers are really only producing value commensurate with their low wages, and any attempt to artificially gin up wages is doomed to fail.***** 

I think socialists are also missing an explanation of why employers are willing to shell out high salaries for some classes of workers. Why do doctors and senior actuaries earn north of $200k/year? Why can't capitalists keep them under the same boot as the low-skilled wage workers? If your answer has something to do with certain skill sets being scarcer and more in demand, or that these workers add more to their employer's bottom line, you're thinking like an economist. I'd encourage you to do more of this, and do so more consistently. 

Would workers benefit from a more "democratic" work place? Is the real gripe not so much the underpayment, but that they are mistreated by their employers? That they would benefit from having a say in management decisions? I seriously doubt this. Think of the most incompetent co-worker you've ever had, and now imagine giving that person the same decision making authority as your boss (or the CEO for that matter). Way back in 2012, Tyler Cowen gave an interesting response to this "liberate the workplace" screed at Crooked Timber: 

When I was seventeen, I had a job in the produce department of a grocery store.  They made me wear a tie.  They did not let me curse.  Even if there was no work at the moment, I could not appear to be obviously slacking for fear of setting a bad example.  They had the right to search me, including for illegal drugs.  I suspect that “contract indeterminacies” gave them other rights too.

The company kept each and every one of its promises to me and they paid me on time every two weeks.  The company also taught me a lot.  I honor that company to this day.  I also did my best to keep each and every promise to them.

What I did observe was massive employee shirking, rampant drug use including what appeared to be on the job, regular rule-breaking, and a significant level of employee theft, sometimes in cahoots with customers.

I don't think this is entirely atypical. I recall seeing plenty of shenanigan and horseplay when I worked in a less professional job setting. (I don't recall any on the job drug use, but then again I had one co-worker who was never seen again because of a very public DUI.) The problems is not a lack of workplace democracy. The problem is more often a lack of maturity, and a low-wage job is the only chance these people will ever get to learn a proper workplace etiquette. Expanding "workplace democracy" is not the right prescription for these workers. 

Some "problems" are really just features of the world that exist under any conceivable system of government. They get unfairly blamed on capitalism, but they would exist to the same extent (or perhaps even greater) under socialism. One recent example stands out. Bryan Caplan was recently on an NPR panel discussing socialism. At one point the panel takes questions from callers. One of them was a nurse who was not happy with her job. She had unpleasant hours and felt a lack of control over her life. Caplan wisely counseled that she should seek alternative employment. He pointed out that there are nursing jobs with more regular hours (say, a nurse in a doctor's practice, as opposed to a nurse in an emergency room). The socialists on the panel insisted that this would not do, that the nurse needed to organize and agitate for social change. My reaction was, Wait a minute, doesn't someone have to be an emergency room nurse? "Unpleasant work hours" are not some mean trick that a cruel employer is playing on its nursing staff. People get sick or injured in the middle of the night, and they need someone to tend to them. Suppose this nurse "successfully" agitates for change through political organization, what does success actually look like? Maybe she gets the cushy day job and someone else gets stuck with unpleasant hours. It's not at all clear that there would be a net reduction in the number of unpleasant night shifts or disrupted sleep patterns resulting in frazzled workers. (If there were "success" along this dimension, it would necessarily mean less care for sick and injured people during late hours, so more suffering and almost certainly more death.) I'm curious what fans of worker ownership think about these kinds of unpleasant jobs. They would still need to be done. Someone needs to haul garbage, or repair the pipes that carry shit out of your house, or spend long hours staring at computer code that's not working. At least under capitalism, there is a compensating differential for doing unpleasant work. If you can sustain unpleasant night shifts, boring hours of study, or dirty work, you will (all else equal) earn more than someone who can't. Would a worker co-op vote for such compensating differentials to make sure the unpleasant work gets done? Or would they just gridlock on who does the dirty work and therefore leave it unfinished? Would cliques form among the workers (crystalizing around the more senior workers or those with superficial charisma) and conspire to give all the dirty work to their least favored co-workers? Might they form a voting block that simply delegates all the perks to themselves and the shit work to their less favored colleagues? I don't think the dark side of office politics goes away under a system of worker ownership of the firm. Quite plausibly, it gets magnified.******

Tyler Cowen's Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero is a useful reference here. Cowen points out that for both consumer and employees, interactions with large businesses are often far more predictable and fair than dealings with, say, friends or family members. Who is more likely to lie? An interviewee for a job, or the employer? Who is more likely to short-change the other? Is it more likely that the interviewee exaggerates his skill-set, or that the employer underpays the worker compared to the promised compensation? What about a spouse? Is a spouse or an employer more likely to make unfulfilled promises? To be psychologically abusive? Cowen also presents some interesting data on when and where people feel most happy. A lot of people feel happier an more empowered at work than at home. You are probably less likely to experience violence at work than in the home (or anywhere else for that matter). Again, there is something deeply broken about the socialist vision of humanity as harmoniously communal and egalitarian in nature. They are simply wrong to depict market institutions as being corrosive to interpersonal relationships. 

I'll close out by saying I don't really find "worker co-ops" to be an attractive mode of employment for most purposes. They are a solution in search of a problem. Except in this case the solution is not an innocuous vitamin but the kind of bad medicine that you don't want to take. I don't begrudge anyone their right to form such a co-op. Maybe because they like the communal aspects of working among equals, for a greater social purpose rather than for a profit. If that's what you want, then go for it! I do begrudge people like Burgis and Sunkara who would impose this model on workers against their will. I resent that they would outlaw modes of employment that they don't approve of. The great mass of workers, voting with their feet, have landed on wage and salary employment. We should respect their wishes. 


* Why do you want to get back to work? Maybe you're a civic-minded socialist who wants to contribute to society. Maybe you've absorbed the protestant work ethic of the surrounding society. Maybe the social safety net is designed to encourage unemployed individuals to find work. I do think this is a question that socialists and other advocates of the welfare state need to contend with. How do you make the social safety net soft enough to catch everyone, but not so cushy as to keep people on the dole? You have to acknowledge that there will be cheaters and slackers, and the incentives of the system need to take them into account.

** Maybe it's worth playing with some realistic numbers here. Suppose there's a 10 worker firm, with each worker earning $50,000/year. (This is a typical middle-class salary in the United States, roughly corresponding to a full time job at about $25/hour.) The socialist story is that the capitalist owners are exploiting the workers, which we'll take here to mean they're underpaying them and pocketing the profits. Suppose the workers are getting $20,000/year in the firm's profits (which would otherwise be expropriated by their capitalist overlords). So the firm makes $200,000 in profits a year, let's discount this indefinitely into the future at a 10% interest rate, which comes to $200,000 divided by 0.1 (summing the infinite series), which is $2,000,000. Each worker currently has a $200,000 stake in the firm. Suppose they hired an additional worker who wasn't as productive as the rest of them. Perhaps this extra worker does some basic housekeeping and bookkeeping and generally lightens the load, but doesn't really bring in a the same revenue as the existing workers. (Diminishing marginal returns, anyone? At any rate, we can specify that in this example, the ten workers just want a lighter workload. Isn't that one of the benefits of workers exerting ownership rights? That they can decide to improve their working conditions, say, by dividing hard work among more workers?) Well, each worker's stake in the firm is going from $200k ($2 million divided by ten workers) to $182k ($2 million divided by 11 workers). To hire a new worker in this simplified example, each (or maybe a majority?) of the existing workers needs to be willing to part with $18k. (In other words, in total the firm needs to be willing to part with $180k to hire this new worker.) Maybe in some cases it still makes sense to hire the new worker, because they really do add that much to the company's bottom line (though, again, we can specify realistic examples where this is not the case). But it's obvious that this will create a friction in the labor market. Moreover, this burden will be disproportionately felt by workers with a weaker job history and less impressive skills. Play with the numbers. Feel free to make the $20k figure larger or smaller. (I'm intending this number to be the amount that the capitalists are currently skimming from the exploited worker; the worker would retain this amount if they owned the firm.) Make it smaller, and the "exploitation" story withers away. (As in, what problem is "worker ownership" solving if the workers are already earning their marginal product?) Make it larger, and the worker-owned firms become more reluctant to hire more workers. And this doesn't even get into the issue of "What if we hire a dolt who makes terrible decisions and 'votes' us into bankruptcy?" Maybe the dilution is smaller if the firm is much larger, say 100 or 10,000 workers. So one could try to escape this problem by asserting that firms will be quite large. But don't socialists have soft spot for small, boutique businesses? And anyway, wouldn't workforce expansion decisions for such a firm be made, not at the individual worker level, but in terms of proportions? As in, a 10,000 worker firm isn't saying, "Should we hire Jimmy?" It's saying, "Should we expand our workforce by 10%". In which case, the above calculus still applies. Also note how this system would create job frictions from the standpoint of workers who wish to leave the firm. If one of the ten currently employed workers wants to find work elsewhere, is s/he surrendering their claim to $200k worth of company capital? (I'd think they'd have to, under a true system of "worker ownership of the firm".) I'm always hearing people make the (legitimate) point that American health insurance is a stupid system because it locks people into jobs that they're afraid to leave. Won't a system of mandatory worker ownership make this problem even worse? Won't you have employees languishing in jobs that they no longer want, desperately clutching their share of the firm? And doesn't this mean they would fail to create an opening for someone more eager to have this job? Also consider this: employers would be willing to offer a much higher starting wage if they didn't have to fork over a huge chunk of wealth when they hire someone. Is that the solution here? That wages are lower, but overall income is higher because the workers own capital? I would be very surprised if socialists endorsed such a "wages must fall" solution. Do employers even have a free hand to set wages, or does everyone have to earn the same wage, or be on the exact same schedule given seniority and position? I'd be happy to analyze this under a different set of assumptions than the ones I'm using above.

*** David Friedman makes this point to Burgis in their debate. Friedman says something about workers saving half their income for a few years and buying up capital. Burgis scoffs that workers today are barely treading water, so how could you ask them to save more? Friedman points out that historically workers have subsisted on far less, so there must be some excess consumption they could do without. (Burgis, in a particularly stark display of cluelessness, asserts that the massive growth in material living standards has no relevance to their discussion. Nonsense. If you transported some of today's workers to the past, they wouldn't promptly die. They would subsist on a much more modest level of material consumption. If follows, pretty plainly, that there is a surplus amount of consumption that could be converted to savings.) Friedman may have just as well pointed out that workers in other countries are subsisting on less. The option to forego some consumption is clearly available to most American workers. He also points out that people forego consumption in order to invest in their future earnings all the time. That's what people are doing when they go to college. Saving up to buy capital for a co-op would be similar, assuming such a scheme is likely to pay off. The fact that people don't seem keen to start such co-ops, even though the option is available to them, is quite telling.

**** Chobani gave away 10% of its shares to its 2,000 employees. Ten percent may seem paltry compared to what Burgis is proposing, but here's a question. Would the typical worker want a greater share right now? Or would s/he want Chobani to make a public offering, bring in additional capital, and potentially make their shares worth even more? You can argue that they'd rather have more than 10%, but they'd probably want less than 100%, even assuming they are merely trying to advance their own material interests. 

***** When someone like me makes this point about market forces operating on wages, someone often lobs the shallow retort that we're dogmatically assuming perfect competition. We're not! You don't have to assume perfect competition to point out that there's a massive, exploitable profit opportunity if employers are systematically, predictably earning $6/hour surplus on all of their workers! Imperfect competition will do quite nicely here. The workers in the example given here should see their wages getting bid up, maybe not all the way to $20/hour, but to $18/hour or so. 

****** I had a friend who was really screwed over by the labor union he was part of. He was pretty Marxist in orientation, but I think he saw the tendency of labor unions to favor their more senior members at the expense of new members (to say nothing of non-members, who are screwed over even worse by union policy-making). Is there some tendency in capitalist institutions to dump on the powerless? Sure, perhaps, but these tendencies can be even worse under non-market institutions. 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Two Good Pieces on "Long Covid"

 Here is one in Stat News titled Setting the Record Straight: there Is No Covid Heart. The title is a little misleading. They make very clear that there are some rare, severe complications that lead to serious heart problems. But it is far, far less common than some early reports and scare-mongering indicated. The piece pionts out something that I noticed months ago when people were waving around the study of Ohio State University athletes who'd recovered from covid (15% of whom supposedly had heart abnormalities). There was no control group for this study! If you scanned a bunch of random people, you'd find a lot of "abnormalities". So you can't just scan a bunch of non-random people (say, people who'd recovered from covid), detect some abnormalities, and declare that covid is the cause. The Stat News piece points to a study showing a similar prevalence of heart abnormalities in athletes without covid. 

Here is one by Stuart Ritchie titled Does Long Covid Really Exist?. Ritchie is known (well known?) for being a debunker of scientific and statistical fallacies. (His recent book is titled Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth. Just to give you a flavor of what he's known for.) I don't exactly care for Ritchie's tone in this piece. This part, for example:

In rhetorical terms, Long Covid seemed the perfect stick with which to beat the Covid Sceptics — it added extra weight to our case by bolstering the already scary death statistics, and was the perfect comeback to a breezy “let it spread” attitude. So perfect that I hesitated while typing it out. Could it be too good to be true?

It's not totally clear he's doing a mea culpa, that he's acknowledging he shouldn't have been grasping for a club with which to bludgeon the skeptics. And he leaves it as an open question. He does link to the Adam Gaffney piece that I posted about recently:

Still, as the medical scientist Adam Gaffney has argued, it’s likely that some substantial proportion of people reporting Long Covid are actually people who’ve never had the virus. Which might help us understand why the numbers on Long Covid are so weird. Some sources argue that “10-30%” of people who have had a Covid infection go on to experience it — which is itself already quite a range. But look at a UK study released this week (which hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed and is in preprint form). The researchers — some of whom are colleagues of mine — were able to dig into electronic health records from the NHS, and produced a startling figure. Of the 1,199,812 people they found who’d had a positive test for Covid, been hospitalised for Covid or been otherwise diagnosed with Covid, just 3,327 had also reported Long Covid — that’s 0.27%, a different universe from the other numbers.

I can pick nits, but it's a good sign that Ritchie is publicly doubting the truth of this rhetorical tool in the covid policy fight. I'll count it as a win, at least in the sense of "influential thought leaders updating their beliefs." 


This FAQ website by Ritchie and some of his colleagues was set up to "debunk" claims from "covid skeptics." He links to it at the top of his piece. I actually think it reeks of bad faith. See entries like "Claim: Children don't spread the virus." And "Claim: Covid is only a problem for the elderly and vulnerable." See what this website is doing? It's converting a claim about relative risks and propensities into categorical true/false claims. "Children don't spread the virus" isn't absolutely 100% true, in the sense that it's impossible or it never happens. But it's still a reasonable short-hand for guiding policy. Transmission in US schools has been negligible. If we're discussing the policy question of whether to re-open schools, the "dumb skeptic" who categorically denies that children transmit the virus is closer to the truth than the person who insists that this is a huge problem. Also, see the table of infection fatality rate risk by age on this page.

Immediately below this table it says:

These numbers undermine the idea that only the "oldest-old" are at high risk of death from Covid, although of course they are at a substantially higher risk than younger groups (this has the effect of raising the average age of death, obscuring the fact that many younger people still die of the disease).

Do they seriously think people are claiming that the 0.004%  and 0.068% figures are literally zero? Someone isn't listening very well. You can discuss relative risk and say things like "demographic X doesn't have to worry about Y" without literally claiming that Y poses zero risk to X. Rounding figures these small down to zero is a lot closer to the truth than insisting that they're so large you should turn your life upside down to avoid them. Risk calibration in the first case is much closer to how we treat normal hazards in the background of our daily lives. And why do these people always insist on 65 as some magical cut-off? 

According to the Office for National Statistics, there had been 10,603 deaths involving Covid-19 among the under 65s in the UK by the week ending 15 January 2021.

Most of these so-called covid skeptics will acknowledge that there's some kind of smooth (but dramatically sloped!) curve of mortality risk, and that there are a lot of infirm people in the 55-65 category. Indeed, "elderly and vulnerable" implies some acknowledgment of risks to younger people with pre-existing conditions. Props to Ritchie for updating his priors on "long covid", but the FAQ created by him and his colleagues is just terrible.