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Hoist by his own petard

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There is genuine anger at the behaviour of Dominic Cummings not just among the usual suspects but among some Tory MPs such as Roger Gale and Douglas Ross. It's worth exploring why this should be the case.

It's because of cultural evolution. Early humans worked out (or stumbled upon) an important fact, that we often thrive best when we cooperate. As Axelrod and Hamilton showed in a classic paper (pdf):

Cooperation based on reciprocity can get started in a predominantly noncooperative world, can thrive in a variegated environment, and can defend itself once fully established.

Or as Ken Binmore put it in Natural Justice:

We don't need to pretend that we are all Dr Jekylls in order to explain how we manage to get on with each other fairly well most of the time. Even a society of Mr Hydes can eventually learn to coordinate on an efficient equilibrium in an indefinitely repeated game.

This cooperation takes the form of the Golden Rule, or do as you would be done by. As Binmore shows, pretty much all societies have some version of this principle. I agree to obey rules – even at a cost to myself – because I expect you to do so.

But how are such norms enforced? By punishing defectors, that's how. In Axelrod and Hamilton's formal scheme, this takes the form of tit-for-tat strategies. Less formally, we use mockery, ostracism and even violence: "snitches get stitches."

Most of us have internalized these norms. We know this from experiments with the ultimatum game, wherein one player is given some money and can split it with another, with the other choosing to accept or reject the offer. Purely selfish offerers would offer the lowest amount possible, and purely selfish receivers would accept. But this is not what happens. Offers of less than 30-40% are only occasionally made, and often rejected when they are.

This shows that we have a norm of fairness. Offerers don't make unfair offers even if they'd benefit from doing so, and receivers reject such offers even if they'd be financially better off accepting. Both sides do so because the norm of fairness over-rides short-term financial gains.

It's for a similar reason that people leave tips even in restaurants they'll not return to. We feel bad not tipping; we don't want to be thought badly of; and we want to uphold incentives for good service because we'd expect visitors to our regular restaurants to do the same for us.

This, I think explains the anger towards Cummings. It's because people think he has broken one of the oldest social norms, of thinking the rules that apply to us don't apply to him. Millennial of cultural evolution mean this norm is now viscerally internalized. Hence the power of the charge "one rule for them, one for us".

In this context, it is pointless to wiggle about claiming that Cummings observed the letter of the rules. Such legalistic pedantry misses the point – that it is the spirit of the rules that matter.

This also explains Conservatives' disquiet. Some of them genuinely believe in the rule of law – the principle that laws apply to us all, which is part of the Golden Rule. For them, Cummings has broken a core moral principle.

One irony here is that Cummings should have been aware of all this. As he himself wrote:

Most of our politics is still conducted with the morality and the language of the simple primitive hunter-gatherer tribe…Our ‘chimp politics’ has an evolutionary logic: our powerful evolved instinct to conform to a group view is a flip-side of our evolved in-group solidarity.

Binmore points out that it was in tough times that norms of conformity were most strongly enforced, because it's then that survival requires them. Or as Marshall Sahlins put it:

During lean food seasons the incidence of generalized exchange should rise above average…Survival depends now upon a double-barrelled quickening of social solidarity and economic cooperation. The social and economic consolidation could conceivably progress to the maximum: normal reciprocal relations between households are suspended in favour of pooling of resources for the duration of emergency. (Stone Age Economics, p213-4)

Stone Age man's greater emphasis upon community and solidarity in hard times has a strong echo today. Because we're all suffering from the lockdown, we even more than usual expect everyone to muck in together and so are hostile to defectors.

But it has for decades had another echo. As Ben Friedman showed, in recessions we become more intolerant of outsiders, as solidarity with our tribe increases.

Which leads to an exquisite irony. Having exploited that atavistic sense of heightened solidarity so well during the Brexit campaign, Mr Cummings is now a victim of it. He is being hoist by his own petard. It takes a heart of stone not to laugh.



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IPA’s weekly links

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Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action

Professor Lisa Cook explains that black and white inventors put in equivalent numbers of patent applications once in 1899, and never again. 

  • First, a great webinar by Professor Lisa Cook, former economic advisor to President Obama, among many other accomplishments, on how lynchings, violence, and discrimination caused African-American inventions (measured by patent applications) to peak in 1899 and never recover. Here’s the video and slides, but for a fast summary, I did my best to live tweet it. She covered a lot of ground, but some parts that stuck with me in particular:
    • The number of “missing” patents never filed because of the decreased numbers is on the order of the contribution of a medium-sized European country. It’s hard to imagine what innovations and prosperity we’ve all missed out on.
    • Prof Cook mentioned in passing that a cousin helped found a town in North Carolina intended as a safe place for African-Americans to live and prosper without harassment. The story of Soul City, NC is fascinating.
    • The most compelling part of the story wasn’t even in the webinar. It was her decade-long uphill battle to get the paper published, and what it tells us about the field of economics, which she explains to Planet Money’s The Indicator (Apple).
  • The NYTimes has a piece explaining the problems with the culture of economics, and Dania Francis & Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman offer three tips for the field in Newsweek
  • The Sadie Collective has recommendations for what institutions and individuals in the field can do better.
  • The best piece I’ve read on how subtle assumptions about race get absorbed into economists’ reasoning is this from Professor William Spriggs.
  • How the field got to be the way it is is a bit easier to understand if you read this horrible piece by George Stigler in 1962: The Problem of the Negro.

If you haven’t seen it yet, this was a great explanation for the general US culture:

  • Kimberly Jones’ Monopoly game metaphor reminds me of this Howard French brilliant deconstruction of a UK historian’s book (gated, sorry) about African history.  French shows that Europeans destroyed sophisticated civilizations and hollowed out countries’ populations for hundreds of years by dragging away the workforce, and today cast about for roundabout theories for why they’re “underdeveloped” 
  • I’m side-eyeing historians, but also hard to ignore the asymmetry in where development economists’ ideas come from, and the assumption that countries where the rich people are also must know how to get rich.
    Along those lines, here’s a great piece by Francesco Loiacono, Mariajose Silva-Vargas, & Apollo Tumusiime (written before the pandemic) about how research designs can be more sensitive and less biased by the views of the researchers (better informed consent, for example, and not assuming their programs happen in a vacuum, or realizing that local politicians may swoop in and take credit for cash transfers). (h/t David McKenzie’s links)
  • Today, I learned that the UK’s abolition of slavery was accomplished through paying the slaveowners for their lost “property,” to the tune of today’s $17 Billion (and requiring an additional 5 years of unpaid labor, which I feel like there’s a name for…) British taxpayers just finished paying back that borrowed money in 2015, which means that descendants of slaves have been paying back their own ancestors’ slavemasters.
  • Jennifer Doleac put together a series of flash webinars on policing research, more info here.
  • A series of simple police reform ideas in this article and tweet thread on how to fix many policing problems by looking at financial incentives, moving the benefit of the “taxes” levied disproportionally on the poor by the criminal justice system away from the local municipalities (revenues from fines, seized assets, and the like) and redistributing them at the state level, prioritizing the poor.

The post IPA’s weekly links appeared first on Chris Blattman.



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Monopoly Mayhem: Corporations Win, Workers LoseWhy do big…

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Monopoly Mayhem: Corporations Win, Workers Lose

Why do big corporations continue to win while workers get shafted? It all comes down to power: who has it, and who doesn’t.    

Big corporations have become so dominant that workers and consumers have fewer options and have to accept the wages and prices these giant corporations offer. This has become even worse now that thousands of small businesses have had to close as a result of the pandemic, while mammoth corporations are being bailed out.  

At the same time, worker bargaining power has declined as fewer workers are unionized and technologies have made outsourcing easy, allowing corporations to get the labor they need for cheap.    

These two changes in bargaining power didn’t happen by accident. As corporations have gained power, they’ve been able to gut anti-monopoly laws, allowing them to grow even more dominant. At the same time, fewer workers have joined unions because corporations have undermined the nation’s labor laws, and many state legislatures – under intense corporate lobbying – have enacted laws making it harder to form unions.

Because of these deliberate power shifts, even before the pandemic, a steadily larger portion of corporate revenues have been siphoned off to profits, and a shrinking portion allocated to wages.

Once the economy tanked, the stock market retained much of its value while millions of workers lost jobs and the unemployment rate soared to Great Depression-era levels.

To understand the current concentration of corporate power we need to go back in time. 

In the late nineteenth century, corporate power was a central concern. “Robber barons,” like John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, amassed unprecedented wealth for themselves by crushing labor unions, driving competitors out of business, and making their employees work long hours in dangerous conditions for low wages. 

As wealth accumulated at the top, so too did power: Politicians of the era put corporate interests ahead of workers, even sending state militias to violently suppress striking workers. By 1890, public anger at the unchecked greed of the robber barons culminated in the creation of America’s first anti-monopoly law, the Sherman Antitrust Act. 

In the following years, antitrust enforcement waxed or waned depending on the administration in office; but after 1980, it virtually disappeared. The new view was that large corporations produced economies of scale, which were good for consumers, and anything that was good for consumers was good for America. Power, the argument went, was no longer at issue. America’s emerging corporate oligarchy used this faulty academic analysis to justify killing off antitrust.

As the federal government all but abandoned antitrust enforcement in the 1980s, American industry grew more and more concentrated. The government green-lighted Wall Street’s consolidation into five giant banks. It okayed airline mergers, bringing the total number of American carriers down from twelve in 1980 to just four today. Three giant cable companies came to dominate broadband. A handful of drug companies control the pharmaceutical industry.

Today, just five giant corporations preside over key, high-tech platforms, together comprising more than a quarter of the value of the entire U.S. stock market. Facebook and Google are the first stops for many Americans seeking news. Apple dominates smartphones and laptop computers. Amazon is now the first stop for a third of all American consumers seeking to buy anything.

The monopolies of yesteryear are back with a vengeance.

Thanks to the abandonment of antitrust, we’re now living in a new Gilded Age, as consolidation has inflated corporate profits, suppressed worker pay, supercharged economic inequality, and stifled innovation.

Meanwhile, big investors have made bundles of money off the growing concentration of American industry. Warren Buffett, one of America’s wealthiest men, has been considered the conscience of American capitalism because he wants the rich to pay higher taxes. But Buffett has made his fortune by investing in monopolies that keep out competitors.

– The sky-high profits at Wall Street banks have come from their being too big to fail and their political power to keep regulators at bay.

– The high profits the four remaining airlines enjoyed before the pandemic came from inflated prices, overcrowded planes, overbooked flights, and weak unions.

– High profits of Big Tech have come from wanton invasions of personal privacy, the weaponizing of false information, and disproportionate power that prevents innovative startups from entering the market.

If Buffett really wanted to be the conscience of American capitalism, he’d be a crusader for breaking up large concentrations of economic power and creating incentives for startups to enter the marketplace and increase competition.

This mega-concentration of American industry has also made the entire economy more fragile – and susceptible to deep downturns. Even before the coronavirus, it was harder for newer firms to gain footholds. The rate at which new businesses formed had already been halved from the pace in 1980. And the coronavirus has exacerbated this trend even more, bringing new business formations to a standstill with no rescue plan in sight.

And it’s brought workers to their knees. There’s no way an economy can fully recover unless working people have enough money in their pockets to spend. Consumer spending is two-thirds of this economy.

Perhaps the worst consequence of monopolization is that as wealth accumulates at the top, so too does political power.

These massive corporations provide significant campaign contributions; they have platoons of lobbyists and lawyers and directly employ many voters. So items they want included in legislation are inserted; those they don’t want are scrapped. 

They get tax cuts, tax loopholes, subsidies, bailouts, and regulatory exemptions. When the government is handing out money to stimulate the economy, these giant corporations are first in line. When they’ve gone so deep into debt to buy back their shares of stock that they might not be able to repay their creditors, what happens? They get bailed out. It’s the same old story.

The financial returns on their political investments are sky-high.

Take Amazon – the richest corporation in America. It paid nothing in federal taxes in 2018. Meanwhile, it held a national auction to extort billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies from cities eager to house its second headquarters. It also forced Seattle, its home headquarters, to back away from a tax on big corporations, like Amazon, to pay for homeless shelters for a growing population that can’t afford the city’s sky-high rents, caused in part by Amazon!

And throughout this pandemic, Amazon has raked in record profits thanks to its monopoly of online marketplaces, even as it refuses to provide its essential workers with robust paid sick leave and has fired multiple workers for speaking out against the company’s safety issues.

While corporations are monopolizing, power has shifted in exactly the opposite direction for workers. 

In the mid-1950s, 35 percent of all private-sector workers in the United States were unionized. Today, 6.2 percent of them are.

Since the 1980s, corporations have fought to bust unions and keep workers’ wages low. They’ve campaigned against union votes, warning workers that unions will make them less “competitive” and threaten their jobs. They fired workers who try to organize, a move that’s illegal under the National Labor Relations Act but happens all the time because the penalty for doing so is minor compared to the profits that come from discouraging unionization. 

Corporations have replaced striking workers with non-union workers. Under shareholder capitalism, striking workers often lose their jobs forever. You can guess the kind of chilling effect that has on workers’ incentives to take a stand against poor conditions.

As a result of this power shift, workers have less choice of whom to work for. This also keeps their wages low. Corporations have imposed non-compete, anti-poaching, and mandatory arbitration agreements, further narrowing workers’ alternatives. 

Corporations have used their increased power to move jobs overseas if workers don’t agree to pay cuts. In 1988, General Electric threatened to close a factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana that made electrical motors and to relocate it abroad unless workers agreed to a 12 percent pay cut. The Fort Wayne workers eventually agreed to the cut. One of the factory’s union leaders remarked, “It used to be that companies had an allegiance to the worker and the country. Today, companies have an allegiance to the corporate shareholder. Period.”

Meanwhile, as unions have shrunk, so too has their political power. In 2009, even with a Democratic president and Democrats in control of Congress, unions could not muster enough votes to enact a simple reform that would have made it easier for workplaces to unionize.

All the while, corporations have been getting states to enact so-called “right-to-work” laws barring unions from requiring dues from workers they represent. Since worker representation costs money, these laws effectively gut the unions by not requiring workers to pay dues. In 2018, the Supreme Court, in an opinion delivered by the court’s five Republican appointees, extended “right-to-work” to public employees.

This great shift in bargaining power from workers to corporate shareholders has created an increasingly angry working class vulnerable to demagogues peddling authoritarianism, racism, and xenophobia. Trump took full advantage.

All of this has pushed a larger portion of national income into profits and a lower portion into wages than at any time since World War II. 

That’s true even during a severe downturn. For the last decade, most profits have been going into stock buybacks and higher executive pay rather than new investment.

The declining share of total U.S. income going to the bottom 90 percent over the last four decades correlates directly with the decline in unionization. Most of the increasing value of the stock market has come directly out of the pockets of American workers. Shareholders have gained because workers stopped sharing the gains.

So, what can be done to restore bargaining power to workers and narrow the widening gap between corporate profits and wages?

For one, make stock buybacks illegal, as they were before the SEC legalized them under Ronald Reagan. This would prevent corporate juggernauts from siphoning profits into buybacks, and instead direct profits towards economic investment.

Another solution: Enact a national ban on “right-to-work” laws, thereby restoring power to unions and the workers they represent.

Require greater worker representation on corporate boards, as Germany has done through its “employee co-determination” system.

Break up monopolies. Break up any bank that’s “too big to fail”, and expand the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to find monopolies and review and halt anti-competitive mergers. Designate large technology platforms as “utilities” whose prices are regulated in the public interest and require that services like Amazon Marketplace and Google Search be spun off from their respective companies.

Above all, antitrust laws must stop mergers that harm workers, stifle competition, or result in unfair pricing.

This is all about power. The good news is that rebalancing the power of workers and corporations can create an economy and a democracy that works for all, not just a privileged few.



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MiB: Bill Miller of Miller Value Partners

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This week on our Masters in Business interview, Bill Miller of Miller Value Partners, which manages $2 billion in client assets. Miller is best known for running Legg Mason’s Capital Management Value Trust, whose after-fees returns beat the S&P 500 index for 15 consecutive years from 1991 through 2005.

He explains some of the difference between the current environment versus the 1990s. The day traders are “trivial” relative to daily market volumes versus an era where day traders where everywhere, with a much greater impact on markets. He owns many of the big cap tech stocks, which are “radically cheaper” than they were in the 1990s.

Miller discusses when and how “Value” beats “Growth” — and vice versa. Since the Market bottomed in March, Value has beaten growth. Over the relatively short term, coming out of the 2020 recession, he thinks value will beat growth for a year or two, before growth reasserts itself. Low nominal growth rates and low inflation are more challenging for Value stocks, and make Growth stocks look cheap.

He also finds bonds pricey and uniquely unattractive.

We discussed the rise of passing indexing in our 2016 MiB conversation — Miller still believes that “Active management is in secular decline.” He adds that most active managers “don’t add value, are closet indexers, and are too expensive.” He expects active mutual funds to continue hemorrhaging capital. Another investment vehicle that is looking at looming Hedge funds have also dropped into a similar liquidation mode in an era of low rates and meager trading profits, 2% + 20% no longer makes sense. He believes hedge funds will also see outflows similar to active mutual funds.

He was a buyer of Bitcoin when it was $200-$400 dollars, and at one time was one of the top 100 holders of BTC. He thinks blockchain technology will find all sorts of new applications int he future. One of the things that makes Bitcoin so different form equities is that the higher the price goes, the more legitimacy Bitcoin gets. Stocks become more precarious under similar circumstances.

A long list of his favorite books are here; A transcript of our conversation is available here Monday.

You can stream and download our full conversation, including the podcast extras on iTunes, Spotify, Overcast, Google, Bloomberg, and Stitcher. All of our earlier podcasts on your favorite pod hosts can be found here.

Be sure to check out our Masters in Business next week with Martin Franklin of Mariposa Capital. Franklin is an entrepreneur who founded 7 companies, notably: Jarden Corp., Nomad Foods Ltd. and Element Solutions, Inc. and is credited with successfully reviving the use of SPACs, or blank check companies, as public vehicles for long term M&A.

 

 

 

Bill Miller’s Favorite Books

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight

Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers by Cheryl Misak

Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume

The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James

Essays in Experimental Logic by John Dewey

Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Representation: Volume 2 by Arthur Schopenhauer

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefèvre

John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman by Robert Skidelsky

The post MiB: Bill Miller of Miller Value Partners appeared first on The Big Picture.



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