Open threads at the Open Thread tab every Sunday and Wednesday

OT61: Turn-Based Threadegy

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. There are hidden threads every few days here. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. Registration with a real email is now required to post comments. You can find the registration link on the top of the right sidebar. If there’s a problem, let me know. If there’s so much of a problem that you can’t post here, you can message me at @slatestarcodex on Twitter or email me or something.

2. Interesting people you may know who now have Patreons: The Unit of Caring, sinesalvatorem. If you don’t like their Patreon, don’t donate. If you’re a jerk to them here, I’ll ban you – and now I’ll be able to sort of enforce it!

3. The Social Sciences Replication Project is hosting a prediction market on which social sciences experiments will replicate. Due date to join is October 31. Note that they’re kind of missing the point of this whole prediction market thing and so you have to be an official social scientist with (or getting) a PhD or something to join.

4. Comment of the week is Anonymous Bosch on Richard Tol’s analysis of global warming costs.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

926 Responses to OT61: Turn-Based Threadegy

  1. Controls Freak says:

    One-point-zero Open Threads ago, a few people expressed interest in a top-level comment on SIGINT. Here’s my perspective on several popular topics.

    I. My Biases

    For those who want to quickly write me off, I’ll make it easy for you – I work for the federal government. While I’m employed by DoD, I’m not in the intelligence community. Nor am I anywhere close to anything operational. I do basic research in mathematical control theory and autonomy (think robots as a major application), but I’m pretty far divorced from products that are even close to going into the field.

    My interest in SIGINT (and more general military/intel) law stemmed from an interest in law. I almost went into law rather than STEM; I developed a habit of SCOTUS-watching in undergrad; developments in law of war, autonomous weapons, intelligence, etc. were just too tempting; I was sucked in. A major influence on my thinking was finding Lawfare (from either Volokh or SCOTUSBlog). I’ll try to focus mostly on SIGINT in particular, but I’ll throw in a couple related topics that bleed out the edges.

    II. Big Principles

    1. We are going to have a covert signals intelligence agency.

    Literally every country does it. It’s an unfortunate necessity in a world of nation states. We are simply not getting rid of it. Thus, I consider there to be a valid argument that is analogous to a reductio ad absurdum. That is, if we can show that a position would cripple the ability to perform meaningful SIGINT, it’s sufficient to reject the position. Perhaps it’s like some of the more theoretical anarchist positions – while someone can take the position and be consistent, it’s not really feasible for most arguments in the current world.

    2. There is no such thing as perfect security. There is no such thing as perfect privacy. Nor do these things directly trade off for one another.

    The first is known to security researchers everywhere (even if they only selectively apply it); the second should be apparent by applying the same form of reasoning you applied to convince yourself of the first. You can try coming up with pathological cases, but they all provide a practical amount of security/privacy. The question is always whether you have enough practical security/privacy.

    Ben Wittes from Lawfare has a couple notes that illustrate the tradeoff space at least as well as I could do here.

    3a. It is unlikely that NSA is actually a movie-esque “rogue agency”.

    It’s not the 50s anymore. We know that intelligence powers are too important to be entrusted to just the executive branch. That’s why FISA was written. That’s why Congress has intelligence committees and why they created the FISA Court. That being said, there are Constitutional reasons why some powers are almost entirely within the executive branch. There are inherent Article II powers for some military and foreign interaction purposes. The precise contours of these powers can be murky and may yet be tested again in the future. These Article II powers are currently constrained by Executive Order 12333. We know the least about various programs here, and while some authors make reference to, “…and things could be more troubling in 12333 programs,” we rarely have enough information for a meaningful criticism of a particular program.

    Even in those areas controlled solely by the President… the NSA is almost certainly controlled by the President. Just like it would be bad if a random Army battalion engaged in a military action (against either a foreign nation or the domestic population) without the President’s knowledge/consent, if NSA was actually rogue it would be bad. The President would be pissed, because such rogue behavior can easily cause foreign relations nightmares. Communication of policy/procedures to the lowest level analyst and limitations of compliance efforts could cause specific discontinuities, but the idea that the agency writ large is running independent programs wholesale is extremely unlikely. There are just too many eyes on the process, and you better believe there’s enough ambition for someone to make a career out of exposing obvious and routine unlawful behavior. This leads to a related point:

    3b. The law matters.

    If NSA, for the most part, is at least trying to follow the law and orders from the President, then the law matters. Even if you think that novel interpretations of the law have been problematic, you’re implicitly acknowledging that the law matters (because if the law was written better so as to preclude said problematic interpretations, the law would matter). Furthermore, if the law doesn’t matter, we can set up a reductio as mentioned in (1) – if the law cannot provide any meaningful constraint on SIGINT activities, then the only solution possible is to abolish SIGINT activities. Thus, if we want to argue about SIGINT, we must know what the law currently authorizes/forbids.

    For example, I’ve heard multiple varieties on the theme, “The NSA can surveil your groceries, because they might be able to identify patterns of terrorists through patterns of shopping behavior.” This hypo betrays that most people don’t understand the basics of how FISA works. The NSA has to have probable cause that they are targeting a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power. They can’t just go on completely speculative fishing ventures. When people simply don’t know about any of these legal constraints, it’s easy to imagine that there are no constraints.

    3c. Capabilities almost never matter.

    This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the law, oversight mechanisms, and executive policy are meaningful constraints on NSA. I have two favorite questions to illustrate this point. First, “If NSA is developing the capability to spy on Vladimir Putin, do you think they have the capability to spy on you?” This sets up the familiar reductio – if NSA is prohibited from spying on Putin because they would have to develop capabilities that could be used to spy on Americans, then there’s literally no purpose for a covert signals intelligence agency.

    Second, by way of analogy, “US Strategic Command has the capability to wipe your entire city block off the map.” We already purposefully give government agencies far more dangerous capabilities. In all those cases the analysis is familiar – what is the law governing their behavior? Do we have appropriate oversight and training to reduce the risk of damage caused by improper use of those capabilities?

    4. Incidental collection is a thing.

    The majority of SIGINT is concerning communication between two or more parties. If you target the communications of one person, you will by definition be collecting some communications of these other parties. Regular domestic law enforcement is illustrative here. After the FBI gathers enough evidence to wiretap Tony Soprano, they collect communications which include the people he talks to. Some of those communications may even be privileged (say, to a lawyer). Worse, since we don’t usually have the technical capability to verify ex ante who is using the Soprano residence phone, they might be collecting when Carmela picks up the phone to call her girlfriend. She is an innocent, and it’s a violation of her privacy. It is utterly impossible to completely avoid this, leading to our final general principle:

    5. Post-collection constraints are meaningful.

    Working the same analogy, FBI has minimization procedures for wiretaps. As you’re listening, if you realize it’s Carmela, you have to stop recording and delete it (with some exceptions; if the first words out of her mouth are, “I killed him,” you can maybe keep listening). When you’ve identified a phone number associated with his attorney’s office, you have to not collect calls routed to him.

    Similarly, when analyzing NSA programs, we need to consider the procedures NSA follows when using the data they’ve collected. For example, how do they handle discovering that data belongs to a US person? Many people are surprised to realize that these minimization procedures are an important part of the back-and-forth between NSA/FISC.

    • Controls Freak says:

      III. Major Talking Points

      1. Edward Snowden

      Let’s get the big one out of the way. For many people, what you think about this one particular individual is the only thing that matters. Frankly, I don’t care that much about Snowden qua Snowden. Some people insist that he should be considered a whistleblower and that his intent to do what he thought was right are overwhelming. Others focus on legal procedures for whistleblowing and view him as smug or self-righteous. I consider it nearly a brute fact that he is not going to get pardoned in the current circumstances under the current President, and any weighing of these two perspectives is solely up to the President to decide (far above my pay grade). I care far more about what the content of his revelations say about the state of SIGINT and the lessons his choices will provide for future leakers.

      2. Most of the information in the Snowden leak showed NSA doing exactly what we expect from a covert foreign intelligence agency.

      NSA developed MonsterMind, a program to respond to cyberattacks automatically; NSA set up data centers in China to insert malware into Chinese computers and had penetrated Huawei in China; spying (Snowden released details about how) in many other foreign nations, on Bin Laden associate Hassam Ghul’s wife, on the UN Secretary General, and on the Islamic State; NSA cooperates with intelligence services in Sweden and Norway to spy on Russia?

      …spying on Brazilian President’s communication. Spying on German PM’s communication. Joint UK-US spying program on Israeli military drones. UK’s GCHQ intercepting communication of foreign politicians visiting Britain. US govt bugged other countries diplomats, offices, etc. US govt spies on foreign embassies. NSA spying on Indian nuclear program. Budget of US intelligence agencies. And on it goes…

      These are all programs aimed directly at foreign governments and militaries. They are the core of what we want NSA to do. A great example of this came from the kerfuffle of “NSA spying on members of Congress” that is repeated ad nauseam by those who are distrustful of NSA. If we actually look at the details of this story, we find NSA targeting key foreign governments in order to determine their respective dispositions concerning the President’s flagship foreign relations effort on nuclear proliferation. Let that sink in for a second. Regardless of whether you agree with the President’s effort, you have to hope that when he asks his NSA what those governments are thinking, they’re able to tell him.

      This is the point at which “II.4. Incidental collection is a thing” comes into play. Members of Congress communicated with these lawfully-targeted governments. Some of their communications were caught up in the process. It’s bad enough that many people don’t realize these contextual facts; what’s worse is that they don’t know that FISA expressly considered this possibility! There are strict reporting and minimization procedures specifically for the case that communications belonging to a US elected official are collected. We have no reason to believe that these procedures were not followed. I can’t help but mention that this pattern of insufficient facts about events and law are all too common in far too much journalism on SIGINT (and it’s clearly worse as you move from reputable organizations like WaPo/WSJ/NYT to advocacy outlets like Intercept/Guardian/EFF and *shudders* TechDirt (I seriously see at least one article a day posted on r/tech that is TechDirt either being horribly mistaken or outright lying about SIGINT; sorry, I’ll stop complaining now)).

      2b. Future leakers, frankly, need to be more circumspect about what and how they leak.

      Again, regardless of your particular analysis of Snowden’s motives or the sum benefit/damage of his leak, you have to acknowledge that this is a strike against him which weighs heavily in the minds of his detractors. He released a lot of stuff to people who weren’t as careful with it as he had perhaps hoped. Future leakers need to be very sure that they have The correct perspective on the specific information they intend to leak. Part of the problem here is that most potential leakers aren’t sufficiently trained to make those decisions (and they’re almost certainly not given the authority to make those decisions).

      The 215 domestic metadata program may be the only genuinely problematic program exposed by Snowden. What makes Snowden more qualified to make the decision that it was actually problematic than an elected President, senior executive branch lawyers, ranking members of Congressional Intelligence Committees, and the fifteen different federal judges who approved the program during their respective tenures at FISC? Since Snowden, regular federal judges (district and appeals) have split 2:1 in favor of the program’s constitutionality (bringing the overall judge total to 17:1). Furthermore, consider the result of the the extensive public discussion on the program (including recommendations from a review board solely concerning the privacy/civil liberties impact). This was going to result in the most pro-privacy law that still allows NSA to do their job. Reading many pro-privacy outlets, it sounds like they only made minor changes to the program (I think some are minor, like two hops instead of three, and some are major, like cleared independent privacy advocates arguing in FISC). While they take that as evidence of a conspiracy where NSA has dirt on Congress, it’s much more likely that the original 215 program was very close to the correct balance between necessary surveillance authorities and individual privacy interests. Future leakers may have marvelous intentions, but they need accurate analysis to go along with it.

      3a. “Secret courts”

      I despise when people use the phrase “secret court” to describe FISC. They’re not a secret, and much of their business has been declassified. Yes, they handle classified information regularly, and many times, that classified information needs to be kept secret. That’s part of why the court was set up in the first place – so there would be a court that is readily available and highly competent to handle particular business regarding FISA requests. The existence of courts of special jurisdiction is not controversial. The fact that military tribunals keep classified information secret is not controversial. The fact that regular courts keep classified information (and various other classes of information, e.g., wiretap applications, trade secrets, identification of minors or participants in certain sex crime cases) secret doesn’t draw nearly as much ire. It’s cheap and easy to just lob a “secret court” accusation without ever engaging with the fundamental problem or proposing any workable solutions, and that’s a shame, because there actually is a fundamental problem here that needs to be discussed.

      3b. “Secret law”

      The standard complaint is that some law has been developed only in a classified setting, and we’ve seen at least one leaked interpretation that was considered suspect by the general public. I sympathize with this a lot; it’s a genuine problem. Most of the routine classified information (who’s/what’s/why’s) are not things that need public attention – that’s why we set up courts and oversight. However, as stated in II.3b, the rules can matter. Of course, I differ with a lot of people on how much leeway is possible in the current legal regime (as illustrated in the “groceries” example), but it’s at least possible that classified interpretations provide significantly more leeway than we’re comfortable with. I’m really not sure how to structure a mechanism to fix this problem (we’ll see how USAFA’s requirement to review any significant interpretations for declassification plays out), but I think the more important difference is that I’m lukewarm on how realistic it is that this problem is really bad.

      In responding to a major homeland attack and pursuing two foreign wars, the Bush administration pushed incredibly hard to find interpretations which enabled the programs they wanted to execute. We’ve seen that they were able to get a little, but even the most aggressive programs seem to have followed the pattern I discussed above for 215 – a program may have originally just been an aggressive interpretation, but Congress goes and explicitly authorizes it (with minor tweaks), because they’re still pretty close to where we want them. We’re much closer to the edge of the law than a land of surveillance milk and honey, where they can just do basically anything for any (or no) reason. So while I acknowledge that there is a problem to be solved, I think the magnitude of the problem is smaller than people think, so I’m willing to wait and see how the new attempt to solve the problem works in practice.

      3c. “FISC is a rubber stamp.”

      I think it’s far more accurate to say they’re a Rorschach test – you see in them what you already thought. If you’re against the FBI/NSA, you think that the high ultimate success rate of applications means that they’re a rubber stamp. If you’re for the FBI/NSA, you point to the number of applications which were approved only with substantial modifications or additional evidence as required by the court. Furthermore, you think that the success rate should be high. For the most part, FBI/NSA know the standard they have to meet. They should mostly be bringing applications that clearly meet that standard. If your boss said, “I approve of 95% of what [you] have done,” would you say, “My boss is a rubber stamp,” or, “I do my fucking job”?

      IV. Parting Shots

      Wyden/Clapper is not evidence that NSA routinely lies to oversight (Clapper’s staff gave Wyden’s staff the correct, and classified, answer in a secure setting immediately after the public hearing).

      You almost certainly have no clue what CISA actually did, because you probably haven’t read it (start on page 1728; the CISA part isn’t actually that long)… and all the pro-privacy outlets couldn’t stop lying about it.

      You almost certainly have no clue what Burr-Feinstein would have done, because you probably haven’t read it (see a possible update here)… and all the pro-privacy outlets couldn’t stop lying about it. Sigh. Yes, this is a pattern. I know neither of these is actually SIGINT, but they get lumped in, so fitemeIRL.

      • John Schilling says:

        If you’re for the FBI/NSA, you point to the number of applications which were approved only with substantial modifications or additional evidence as required by the court.

        Do you happen to know what that fraction is? Because I agree that it is a really important piece of data, and I agree that most of the media is missing the ball by focusing only on the final outcomes, but because they are missing the ball and because I have finite time for digging through government documents, I’m missing that crucial piece of raw data. You seem like you might have it close at hand.

        For the most part, FBI/NSA know the standard they have to meet. They should mostly be bringing applications that clearly meet that standard. If your boss said, “I approve of 95% of what [you] have done,” would you say, “My boss is a rubber stamp,” or, “I do my fucking job”?

        Speaking as a boss, if I approve of 95% of what any of my employees are doing in my absence, they are getting a promotion as soon as I can arrange it. If I approve of 99.5% of what any of my employees are doing, they are probably playing it too safe, exercising no initiative. And I shoot for about the 95% level with my own boss as well.

        I’m inclined to hold the NSA, and the FISA courts, to the same standards. But again, only with the right data, which is to say the approval rate before the request is reviewed for edit and/or withdrawl.

        • Controls Freak says:

          It varies… a lot… year-to-year and depending on which particular program you’re discussing. In the years that they were fighting the most over the 215 business records program (2011/2012), a whopping 90% of applications that were eventually approved were substantially modified. The 107 report for electronic surveillance requests in 2013 gave that approximately 2% were modified. I don’t think any story can be distilled down to, “FISC is a rubber stamp,” or that we can easily determine whether NSA/FBI are too aggressive/conservative in general by looking at various sets of raw numbers. The numbers just don’t play well for any big narrative like that. Instead, they’re more useful for a program-specific analysis, when we try to tell the story of how much the IC agrees/fights with FISC over particular authorities through the course of time.

      • dragnubbit says:

        @Controls Freak

        I have little to say at this point other than that was one of the best written explanations of how a national foreign intelligence system would and likely does work in the real world. These agencies are staffed by tens of thousands of people who want to follow the law as much, if not more than, the average internet commentator, and are generally far more knowledgeable about that law.

        Thank you for taking the time to write those posts.

        • Reasoner says:

          These agencies are staffed by tens of thousands of people who want to follow the law as much, if not more than, the average internet commentator, and are generally far more knowledgeable about that law.

          Do you think their commitment to the law ever wavers in the face of baseless accusations from “pro-privacy outlets”?

          This is something I’ve wondered about in general. I’m a person who tries hard to do the right thing, but I’m part of a group that journalists frequently write accusatory stories about (in a way that seems unrelated to our actual behavior), and reading those stories saps my motivation to do the right thing.

          So I’m wondering if there’s a more general phenomena where accusing a group of some negative characteristic can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think this may have happened in the US with government employees. The government got accused of being inefficient, so competent people stayed out of it and government employees felt less pressure to be efficient, both of which perpetuated further accusations of inefficiency. This Cracked.com article provides another example: supposedly bankers didn’t start behaving unethically until they were portrayed that way in movies.

          • dragnubbit says:

            I think there are other more salient reasons why government workers are considered inefficient relative to the private sector. The large bureaucracy, the need to work to written policies and regulations for just about everything they do, the entrenchment of employees, etc.

            Federal workers are rule-followers. To think they would participate in some wide conspiracy to break laws is to completely misunderstand them and the Skinner box they work inside.

          • John Schilling says:

            Federal workers are rule-followers. To think they would participate in some wide conspiracy to break laws is to completely misunderstand them and the Skinner box they work inside.

            Sufficiently wide conspiracies are inherently implausible, but narrow ones less so. W/re the intelligence community, the Church Committee in 1975 found clear evidence of at least small groups within the CIA doing things that were explicitly illegal, e.g. opening mail when they were only authorized to record the addresses (aka “metadata”), or maintaining private stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons they had been ordered to destroy.

            There seems to have been a mindset within that community that, since these tools and techniques are Clearly Necessary for National Security, any higher-ups who say not to use them any more must be just posturing for the media, and that nod-nod-wink-wink we are supposed to keep doing them. I am not confident that this mindset has been eliminated, and it is reasonable to suspect that the rules are not being scrupulously obeyed at the lowest levels.

            Which is why it is important to have oversight that works, and is trusted to work, on an ongoing basis. The FISC seems to at least intermittently work, but post-Snowden isn’t widely trusted.

          • dragnubbit says:

            @John Schilling

            The trend at present is to increase the documentation and accountability for information and activities, and this trend has continued almost unabated (except for a brief pause for several years after 9/11) since the mid-1970s. The CIA in 1975 is not representative any longer.

            The mail thing was joint with the FBI and was shut down shortly after J Edgar Hoover’s death (and prior to the Church Committee’s investigation). I think there was a period right after 9/11 where rules and laws were becoming devalued (see Abu Ghraib and related actions), but the pendulum has swung back again and Snowden has only accelerated it towards accountability. FISC is an important piece of that puzzle, but even more significant is the working culture within the various agencies. An unfiltered window was provided into that with the Snowden leaks, and it did not reveal an attitude of lawlessness or recklessness.

      • noghostnomachine says:

        Having read your screed, I still applaud Snowden, and fear NSA overreach. Just saying.

        • Controls Freak says:

          That’s fine. I don’t expect to convince everyone. And given how long my comment was, I’m sure I’m wrong on some things, anyway. I just regret that you haven’t really given me much reason to reconsider.

          • TheWorst says:

            For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think “screed” is an accurate description. Thanks for writing this, especially the parts about the courts. That’s useful information that wasn’t out there before.

      • birdboy2000 says:

        “…spying on Brazilian President’s communication. Spying on German PM’s communication. Joint UK-US spying program on Israeli military drones. UK’s GCHQ intercepting communication of foreign politicians visiting Britain. US govt bugged other countries diplomats, offices, etc. US govt spies on foreign embassies. NSA spying on Indian nuclear program. Budget of US intelligence agencies. And on it goes…”

        “These are all programs aimed directly at foreign governments and militaries. They are the core of what we want NSA to do”

        Spying on democratically elected leaders running non-rogue states is emphatically not what I want the NSA to do, and “everyone does it” is hardly a defense. Honestly I get the reason to do some of the spying on nuclear programs in the interests of non-proliferation, or rival powers under a theory of tit for tat, though I don’t really agree with it, and injecting malware into Chinese computers strikes me as a needless provocation.

        But Brazil? Germany? Really? America needs to accept that not everywhere in the world is their playground. We didn’t vote for a massive collection program targeting every country in the world, no matter how friendly to the US or how spotless their treatment of their own people. I’m not sure if it would’ve been approved if a vote was called on that issue.

        The collateral damage is more than enough reason to abolish the program in my opinion, but I’m far from convinced even the “legitimate” uses are justified. This stuff may very well be good for the small elite on top of the US government, or advance “America” in the same great power games that have seen the CIA topple elected governments and boost Islamists and the far-right around the world.

        This does not convince me it’s moral, justified, or a wise use of the average American’s tax dollars. And other countries doing it is hardly an excuse.

        • Controls Freak says:

          I think it would be troubling if they’re just meddling around in relatively-friendly foreign governments’ business for no good purpose. That being said, even if a government is mostly friendly, there may still be good reasons to perform espionage against certain elements of that government. Look no further than our “major allies” Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. And even incredibly friendly countries may hold specific positions/information that is important for one particular state interest (…and we have a lot of state interests).

          That being said, there is another constraint on targeting that I haven’t mentioned yet. Usually, people miss the “foreign power/agent of a foreign power” constraint, but they also have to be targeting “foreign intelligence information”. In 50 U.S. Code § 1801, that is defined as:

          (e) “Foreign intelligence information” means—

          (1) information that relates to, and if concerning a United States person is necessary to, the ability of the United States to protect against—

          (A) actual or potential attack or other grave hostile acts of a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power;
          (B) sabotage, international terrorism, or the international proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power; or
          (C) clandestine intelligence activities by an intelligence service or network of a foreign power or by an agent of a foreign power; or

          (2) information with respect to a foreign power or foreign territory that relates to, and if concerning a United States person is necessary to—

          (A) the national defense or the security of the United States; or
          (B) the conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States.

          While one could then go on to argue about how much leeway these particular items give, I think it provides at least some constraint to the sense of just spying on friendly governments for no reason whatsoever.

          injecting malware into Chinese computers strikes me as a needless provocation

          Hoooooo, boy. We’ve been going back-and-forth with China in the physical and cyber worlds. I really have no idea what the current tit-for-tat score is…

          I think that if you can write a meaningful legal constraint to embody your first idea, it could be interesting… but I think the standard route is to rely on policy constraints at this point. The executive generally doesn’t want to start wars with friendly governments. If you want an executive that is even more isolationist in policy… that’s probably more a matter for who you vote for.

          • “they also have to be targeting “foreign intelligence information””

            Given your description of the rules, I don’t think that provides any constraint at all. The internal politics of Germany are relevant to U.S. national defense–after all, if someone is elected who wants closer relations with Russia and less close relations with the U.S. that weakens the U.S. position. Similarly for all allies.

          • dragnubbit says:

            The practical constraint is the need for utility and finite resources. There are presidential intelligence priorities and helping domestic industries is generally not one of them. There are more above-board ways to subsidize chosen winners in the US economy that involve a lot more cold-hard cash (tax breaks, government contracts, etc.) and influence in writing regulations. As for foreign governments, it is the duty of the executive to understand the means and intentions of all major states. Obviously you need to use espionage for that purpose only so much as the blowback does not exceed the value, and that is a shifting balance equation with very imperfect information.

          • Controls Freak says:

            Yea… like I said, we can quibble over how constraining it is… but I do think it’s constraining. There’s a magnitude of how close to different types of power a person is. Flip it around and think of how our laws would hypothetically constrain a foreign power spying on our officials. Cabinet-level and up? Almost certainly fair game for almost anything. Pretty much everyone in the military is fair game. Like I said, I’m a civilian employee within DoD, and even though I don’t actually do anything very interesting, I’m a legitimate target. In fact, it’s already likely that China has my information (from the OPM hack). Michael Hayden came out and said that OPM was, “Shame on us, not on them,” because that’s a legitimate target. I’m low enough on the totem pole that I wouldn’t buy an argument that they have a legitimate interest in my policy preferences (because they have literally zero impact on the course of USG policy), but they could target my knowledge of our security procedures, budgets, infrastructure, areas of research interest, or any classified information I may have access to. (I have mandatory threat awareness and reporting training, because they consider us legitimate targets of foreign espionage.)

            In sum, I think people are imagining that you can target anyone with any relation to the government for no reason whatsoever. I’d like to see the look on the face of the judge who says, “So you’re telling me that you want to figure out what type of fish is in Control Freak’s office… how, again, does that relate to foreign intelligence information?”

            And to reiterate, I think that we shouldn’t have much legal constraints on this.. mostly just policy constraints. It’s usually said that the only thing scarier about a president who has access to the nuclear codes is a president that doesn’t. Similarly, I think it’s better for the president to be able to determine that there are matters of foreign governments worth spying on… and it would be scarier if the president didn’t have that power… even if we have a general impression that some governments are relatively friendly.

        • TmTherion says:

          Spying on democratically elected leaders running non-rogue states is emphatically not what I want the NSA to do

          Why? Spying is not an act of hostility, it is a regular part of how great powers and international actors (both allies and rivals) interact.

          and “everyone does it” is hardly a defense.

          In fact it is. You see, countries having strong and effective intelligence services is important for international peace and security. One of the biggest causes of war is that there are information asymmetries and incentives to misrepresent private information between countries.

          In other words, countries have an interest in misrepresenting their own military capabilities and strategic intentions in order to enhance their bargaining position in international disputes. Having intelligence services who can provide a clear picture to policy makers is very important, as it helps prevent strategic miscalculations that can lead to costly wars and military confrontations with other states.

          But Brazil? Germany? Really? America needs to accept that not everywhere in the world is their playground. We didn’t vote for a massive collection program targeting every country in the world, no matter how friendly to the US or how spotless their treatment of their own people. I’m not sure if it would’ve been approved if a vote was called on that issue.

          You’re probably wrong, because the public is roughly evenly split on the PATRIOT Act, which is directed at US citizens.

          At any rate, what makes you think the general public is qualified to judge the minutiae of specific intelligence programs ad their associated tradeoffs between security and ethical principles such that a referendum ought to be held? To you think should be done for every intelligence program? What about specific operations?

          This stuff may very well be good for the small elite on top of the US government, or advance “America” in the same great power games that have seen the CIA topple elected governments and boost Islamists and the far-right around the world.

          Well this is now a more general argument that American influence and engagement in the world has mostly pernicious effects. Vague allusions to the far-right and “Islamists” is not sufficient to substantiate this argument.

      • Gazeboist says:

        In terms of the law, I direct most of my concern towards how the members of FISC are selected. Taking to heart your statements about knowing the law, I went and looked up the process. (But please point me towards the right thing, if this isn’t it)

        First, subsection (a), which deals with the court itself:

        The Chief Justice of the United States shall publicly designate 11 district court judges from at least seven of the United States judicial circuits of whom no fewer than 3 shall reside within 20 miles of the District of Columbia who shall constitute a court…

        This is much better than I thought it was. Somehow I came under the impression that the CJ was free to select absolutely anyone to serve on the court (as is the case with most appointed judges). I hope we agree that that would be pretty terrible from an oversight perspective. One question I have: does the pool include the Fed Circuit? In any case, the “seven circuits” rule should result in at least one judge with experience in a court outside the general influence of the Acela corridor (or two if the Fed circuit is not in the pool), which is good.

        Nevertheless, I’m still a little sketched out by the fact that the decision is solely in the hands of the CJ. I would propose that the judges either be nominated by the circuit chiefs and confirmed by the CJ or nominated by the CJ and confirmed by the Senate judiciary and/or intelligence committees, just to get more people in the process.

        On to subsection (b).

        The Chief Justice shall publicly designate three judges, one of whom shall be publicly designated as the presiding judge, from the United States district courts or courts of appeals who together shall comprise a court of review which shall have jurisdiction to review the denial of any application made under this chapter. If such court determines that the application was properly denied, the court shall immediately provide for the record a written statement of each reason for its decision and, on petition of the United States for a writ of certiorari, the record shall be transmitted under seal to the Supreme Court, which shall have jurisdiction to review such decision.

        I’m a little less ok with this. I think it would probably be appropriate to route the appeals through the Federal Circuit (and remove that court from the pool of FISC judges), rather than establishing a separate panel. Obviously this means more people need a security clearance, and the diversity of claims before the Fed Circuit would go up, but is there any other reason why it would be a bad idea?

        Other notes:

        – Subsection (d) provides a hard limit on the tenure of FISC judges. That’s good.
        – Subsection (i) provides for amici curiae who, among other potential qualifications, “possess expertise in privacy and civil liberties”. It might be good to require that at least one such amicus curiae be appointed as a general advocate against surveillance orders.
        – Throughout, records of decision reasoning are generally only required if the application is denied. I think it would probably be good if recorded opinions were also required for approvals (though obviously it wouldn’t be necessary to send them anywhere immediately), in case the court drifts away from what legislators consider “acceptable” interpretations of the law. I’m not sure how such records should be declassified; obviously “at the end of the program” isn’t necessarily the right time, but I don’t think the wait should be too long either. Maybe a default of release after the end of the program, with longer-term sealing available on request, would be a workable idea?

        • Jordan D. says:

          I don’t think you’d actually have to classify the records- if you just gave them into the holding of a court, the right of access to judicial records applies, and that right is subject to the court’s determination as to whether a record needs to remain sealed, or if it’s redactable or releasable in full.

          I like the idea of a statutory advocate to dispute each filing to a FISC court.

      • j.28724 says:

        I mostly agree with this, but there are a few problems you didn’t really cover fully:

        1. My understanding is that FISA courts allow 99% or more of requests. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t know if this is because all requests are really well-investigated and supported before presented before a court, or if the courts aren’t doing their job, or if the evidence burden required is too small.

        2. NSA’s breach of Petrobras suggests they’re not beyond economic espionage. Most countries engage in regular international espionage and domestic surveillance, but I bet not all engage in economic espionage. I think this carries more ethical issues than pure “security” espionage.

        3. You touch on this, but the problem does lie with the President and Congress. We need to find ways to get them to care about privacy more than they currently do, I think. I think NSA can and should stick around, but I think all the branches of government need to rethink the ethics of warrantless surveillance and need to consider the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution.

        • ThirteenthLetter says:

          Most countries engage in regular international espionage and domestic surveillance, but I bet not all engage in economic espionage.

          How would you know? Who’s the Edward Snowden of Brazil, revealing all their signals intelligence secrets?

          That’s a major problem with all of the agonized rending of garments over American misdeeds. American signals intelligence history has been spread all over the world. Other people’s haven’t. I wouldn’t be shocked if the result of all this is that American signals intelligence is tied in knots while everyone else gets to spy all they want. I also wouldn’t be shocked if that was deliberate.

        • Gazeboist says:

          re 3: Yes, I remain convinced that the general right to privacy that’s been read into the 4th amendment needs to be made explicit.

        • Controls Freak says:

          My understanding is that FISA courts allow 99% or more of requests.

          Not sure if you made it to this section, but see III.3c. People tend to read whatever they already thought into the stats. John Schilling and I discussed the rate of modification in this follow-up. If you have anything further, let me know.

          2. NSA’s breach of Petrobras suggests they’re not beyond economic espionage

          I agree that economic espionage is more troubling than security espionage. I’m also not sure I find the USG distinction tenable (they claim that they don’t give information to private firms; instead, they gather general economic information for gov’t use in things like trade negotiations). Drawing the line where they do is certainly self-serving, but we don’t really have strong international norms yet… so I imagine they’ll fight it out on the international stage. I don’t particularly like any of the options here.

          That being said, there are conceivable alternative explanations for some particular behaviors. Most people have little problem with NSA going after sources of terrorist financing (NYT had a great editorial decrying that USG should “follow the money” after they had previously broken the story on NSA’s SWIFT program). Petrobras, in particular, is currently embroiled in a money laundering scandal… so it’s at least plausible that NSA could have been following a reasonable thread. Again, given all these possible complications, it’s difficult to find norms that we can agree to… and which can be verified (“We weren’t trying to steal IP, honest! We had some other information (that we’re probably not going to tell you about) which indicated X.” “Riiiiiiight.”).

          I think all the branches of government need to rethink the ethics of warrantless surveillance and need to consider the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution.

          The Judiciary has a strong role to play here, as well. Gazeboist alludes to a right to privacy, but the main bedrock for warrantless surveillance (of non-content information or third-party business records, mind you) is a combination of Smith v. Maryland and US v. Miller. Even as a matter of pure domestic law, this interplay between what things can be collected via subpoena and what requires a warrant is a complicated problem.

      • sflicht says:

        Personally I agree most of what you wrote. But I strongly disagree that the “outcome” of the post-Snowden discussion has been whittle-around-the-edges changes, showing that everything was fine all along. Instead, I would argue that we remain in deeply unsettled legal territory regarding metadata specifically and internet surveillance more generally. I am convinced, particularly after reading Steven Bellovin et al, that a lot of pre-internet surveillance law (and post-internet interpretations thereof) is obsolete and potentially being misapplied today.

        The only *specific* thing Snowden revealed (maybe it was actually followup reporting by the NYT?) that I found deeply problematic was the Dual_EC_DRBG backdoor in the NIST standard introduced as part of BULLRUN (and the associated shady dealing with RSA to keep this as a default). This has nothing to do with the mass surveillance aspect, but rather the offense/defense balance of the NSA’s mission (something the agency is still clearly struggling to get right). I also don’t like the idea of any covert operation that misuses NIST. Finally, the fact that this particular backdoor was introduced in a dumb way (my understanding is that no smart person would have been using this particular RNG because better, faster alternatives were available etc) doesn’t speak well of NSA’s competence.

        • Controls Freak says:

          I agree that the metadata/content line is fascinating and troubling… but I think it had very little to do with Snowden… or even the internet. We were heading for this problem even in situations where domestic law enforcement is monitoring phone calls. The issue is post-cut-through digits, which seem to straddle the line between metadata/content. The Third Circuit has made an interesting attempt to try to thread this needle in a particular case… but yes, this is a fascinating area for future development.

          I think it’ll be interesting to see how the offensive/defensive missions relate now that we have fully stood up Cyber Command. I’m less troubled by implicating NIST in an offensive operation than I would be if we used things like UN peacekeepers (or like when we used Doctors Without Borders). Harming NIST’s mission mostly just harms us, so you’d really hope that the people in charge are weighing that potential damage against the potential benefit. I’m much more skeeved by harming the reputation of international humanitarian groups.

      • PeterBorah says:

        Wyden/Clapper is not evidence that NSA routinely lies to oversight (Clapper’s staff gave Wyden’s staff the correct, and classified, answer in a secure setting immediately after the public hearing).

        Source for this? It isn’t mentioned in the relevant Wikipedia article, and in fact seems contradictory to his statements. He apparently said:

        My response was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize.

        Wyden apparently claimed to have received no such confidential answer afterwards:

        What’s more troubling is after the hearing was over, they made a conscious and deliberate decision not to correct the record.

        • Controls Freak says:

          Read Wyden’s statement carefully. It was technically correct – he didn’t “correct the record” where “the record” is “the public record of the public hearing”. We should expect that the head of DNI is not going to publicly reveal a classified program. Note that after the Snowden revelations effectively declassified the program, he did correct the record publicly. Do you have any reason to disbelieve the claim that his staff provided the correct response in a secure setting immediately after?

          Frankly, Senator Wyden has shown himself to pander on the issue of NSA worse than just about anyone in Congress. He consistently makes misleading or outright false statements… and at this point, I often just shake my head when he’s quoted.

          • PeterBorah says:

            Do you have any reason to disbelieve the claim that his staff provided the correct response in a secure setting immediately after?

            I don’t have direct evidence against the claim, but you stated it as if it were an uncontroversial fact, so I’m asking if you have evidence for the claim.

          • Controls Freak says:

            It’s pretty much a he said/she said. This article has most of the blow-by-blow. It’s important to read down to the update that contains Clapper’s letter. Wyden’s staff doesn’t seem to dispute that Clapper’s staff gave them the correct answer… and all of Wyden’s statements are carefully worded to allow for this reality, but sound damning. The good Senator would never let a chance to grandstand out of his grasp.

            EDIT: If the events went down as Senator Wyden says, then there is a good case for real sanctions on Clapper. Since no one has proposed this, it also lends credence to CLapper’s story of the events.

          • Brad says:

            So maybe he didn’t lie to Senator Wyden, but he certainly did lie to the American public.

            In general the system of Congressional oversight is pretty weak. Important information is often imparted to only a few members of Congress which is totally useless and just serves to co-opt those members. Even when the information is presented to all of Congress, it is information they can’t do anything with.

            Given that the representatives of the Executive branch are the ones imparting the information we can surmise that the President is on board. So the only way Congress can do anything if they don’t like what they are hearing is to pass a law over the President’s veto. That’s quite difficult to begin with, but near impossible if they can’t build public support because the information they have that leads them to think that reform is needed can’t be shared with the public.

          • dragnubbit says:

            If a Congressperson asks for a classified fact during a public hearing, the executive branch is put into a bind. In this case Clapper chose to preserve secrecy AND inform Congress privately of the truth. He was trying to have his cake and eat it too, but it was not his fault. Congress has leaked a horrifying amount of classified information over the years, sometimes just to sound impressive to a newspaper reporter about how they are in-the-know about national security stuff.

          • Controls Freak says:

            So maybe he didn’t lie to Senator Wyden, but he certainly did lie to the American public.

            Next time someone asks you a question that implicates classified information in front of a camera that is broadcasting to C-SPAN, let’s see if you lie to the American public or are willing to go to jail for disclosing classified information. Frankly, this is what we want our spies to do. We need solid oversight to ensure that they’re doing good things and not bad things… but we need them to have a strong culture of protecting state secrets (unless something is really wrong, in which case, they should blow the whistle). They shouldn’t be so weak as to just blow the lid on a classified program because a Senator wants to grandstand (or become some guy on the internet is going to whine about “lying to the American public”). You may not see how this particular secret falls in the category of protecting American lives/interests… but that is the type of information we build that culture for.

            Do you think the Congress just happened into a structure that has intelligence committees and armed forces committees? It was a deliberate choice, coming out the Church Committee. Rather than being a tool to facilitate a runaway IC, it was designed specifically for the opposite purpose. They’re able to specialize, spending a large portion of their time focusing on a really important topic. Both parties take these committees very seriously. And again, given that the entire Congress continues to reauthorize programs that were considered questionable (but approved by the committees), I think the committees are showing a better track record of estimating what the entire Congress thinks about these edge case questions than you have.

            All of this is ignoring the fact that there is also oversight from the other two branches. Let’s put the cards on the table. Do you think there is any form of oversight that could possibly be considered sufficient?

          • Brad says:

            Just look at what happened with the Senate torture report and then try to tell me that Congress has strong oversight over the national security state.

            They run roughshod over Congress and there’s very little Congress can do about it. Any time a Congressman tries to reign them in, they run screaming to the press about how venal Congressmen are just grandstanding against our noble men and women trying to protect America from the big bad world terrorists (this time, last time it was communists).

            The only way anyone can get anything done in Congress is by building public pressure to overcome the inertia of their fellow Congressmen. And there’s no way to build public pressure using secret information.

            We should all, liberal and conservative, be unhappy about a weak Congress. It means an ineffective government. But national security hawks don’t care because they don’t want to answer to anyone.

            Not even the President really — they know the limits of the presidency over the gigantic bureaucracy that has ideas of its own. And the public, which could provide the muscle and backbone needed by politicians from time to time to confront the self appointed guardians is kept perpetually in the dark.

            The Ben Wittes* type attitude that treats the public as children that need to be protected by unelected civil servant “adults” is totally insufferable. The people are sovereign. They make the decisions. To make those decisions they need sufficient information. If that means taking more causalities than if we were ruled by a technocratic elite, so be it.

            *I too read lawfareblog and have since it was launched.

          • Controls Freak says:

            I have paid less attention to the torture report. What do you think of, say, the PCLOB 702 report? Or any of the FOIA’d OIG reports? What actual SIGINT issue do you have a problem with? This started just with the Clapper/Wyden complaint, and now you’re just going off on how you hate anyone who works for the government. Take a deep breath and start over.

          • ” let’s see if you lie to the American public or are willing to go to jail for disclosing classified information. ”

            If the answer had been, “that’s a complicated issue, and I can’t give a precise description of what we do or don’t collect in a public meeting without revealing too much to our enemies,” what critical information would have been disclosed to our enemies? Don’t you think they already assumed that the NSA was engaged in various unknown amounts of surveillance? Do you think they believed that the Director of National Intelligence would be unwilling to lie, hence that they were now safe from any extensive surveillance?

            Isn’t it obvious that the objective was not concealing information from our enemies but concealing it from the American public? The implication that the NSA does collect some sort of information from millions of Americans doesn’t help our enemies but it would produce strong political pressure to reveal, restrict, or end such collection.

            I can well believe that the DNI thought it was his patriotic duty to conceal from the voters what the NSA was doing in order to avoid political consequences that would make his job harder, but that’s a very different issue and raises serious problems for those who believe in democracy.

            Do you think government actors are entitled to lie under oath to the American public for the purpose of misleading not foreign enemies but American voters?

            And, a related question, do you approve of the government declining to prosecute people who have clearly broken the law if their crimes are ones the government approves of?

          • paulmbrinkley says:

            David Friedman writes: If the answer had been, “that’s a complicated issue, and I can’t give a precise description of what we do or don’t collect in a public meeting without revealing too much to our enemies,” what critical information would have been disclosed to our enemies?

            Not much, IMconsideredO. Although I could see there being value in answering the question in a way that makes it look like one might be lying or stressed – it generally muddies the situation, making adversaries wonder who believes what. But I have a hunch the DNI isn’t that good an actor. (Does he play poker a lot? Does he have a habit of faking a tell in order to disarm interrogators during a testimony?)

            Isn’t it obvious that the objective was not concealing information from our enemies but concealing it from the American public?

            I think this is more plausible, although it’s important to note that this is not out of contempt or ill will toward Americans. I get the strong impression that US military expect the public to trust them to have the nation’s defense firmly to heart, because they firmly believe they do. Since telling the public things means telling our enemies things, the correct action is to lie when cornered, and then avoid being cornered in the future.

            Congressional testimony is different – oaths are a serious matter – so they won’t lie there, either. But a new factor comes in: protected information is best protected when the enemy doesn’t know what’s protected. You don’t show them where the safe is, even if it’s strong, if you can avoid it. Saying “I can’t say that in public” is understandable to the average Congressperson, but it’s acknowledging the safe. So there, the correct action may be to seek any ambiguity in the wording of the question to avoid giving a straight answer.

            There’s an extent to which Congress itself is culpable. They should not ask questions of someone under oath to which the answer jeopardizes security, if they can get the answer another way. They’re frankly supposed to be better about that, although in their defense, they’re under great political pressure as well.

          • Brad says:

            But a new factor comes in: protected information is best protected when the enemy doesn’t know what’s protected.

            Please. There’s no plausible way the answer David Friedman suggested would compromise security. It’s exactly as he suggested, Clapper doesn’t want pushback from the American public on programs he knows they wouldn’t approve of.

            I think this is more plausible, although it’s important to note that this is not out of contempt or ill will toward Americans. I get the strong impression that US military expect the public to trust them to have the nation’s defense firmly to heart, because they firmly believe they do.

            I don’t see why that’s important to note. The actions are contemptuous of the American people, even if the self appointed guardians think it is justified.

          • paulmbrinkley says:

            I did say that Clapper was unlikely to be that good of an actor. But you can’t discount the benefit of the enemy not knowing more about what information the government deems valuable enough to keep classified.

            Another factor I didn’t mention is sensitivity about what’s inferable from what’s said. Answer a question in a way you think is innocuous, and suddenly the enemy has the keys to the kingdom because they put what you said with something some other official said in some other hearing you forgot or didn’t even know about, or worse, they put it together with something they learned from a spy in your system. This is why people who work with protected information are notoriously tight-lipped, even about stuff that seems safe.

            I don’t see why that’s important to note. [Withholding information from the public is] contemptuous of the American people, even if the self appointed guardians think it is justified.

            One: they’re not self-appointed. Two: they’re typically first in line to get shot at if intelligence gathering fouls up, and tend to be better at remembering that than the average civilian. Three: whether it’s contemptuous seems to depend largely on whether the average civilian is aware of why they do it. For example, I’m aware of it, and don’t take their willingness to risk their lives on their intel policies as being in contempt of me. If some other civilian gets offended, well, the fact that the military risk their lives is one fact they’re not withholding from civilians.

          • Controls Freak says:

            Isn’t it obvious that the objective was not concealing information from our enemies but concealing it from the American public?

            Honestly, no. I’m rather comfortable with the idea that I really don’t know what was going on in his head in that moment. I’ve listened to that exchange multiple times, and I can just see it going too many different ways to have the same outrage that others have. I even think it could be a Johnson/Aleppo-esque brainfart. He was talking about content and “dossiers”, and his rapid response may just not have engaged the right track. The amount of our brain power devoted to 215 as a portion of NSA-related topics is vastly oversized compared to the amount I imagine his is. It was really a small part of the many, many things they do (as the Snowden leaks made abundantly clear).

            With that answer to the prior concern, I don’t think there is a response needed to your penultimate question.

            do you approve of the government declining to prosecute people who have clearly broken the law if their crimes are ones the government approves of?

            I think I’ve said this to you before, but (like I said about civil disobedience above), I think a lot of people have inconsistent stances on prosecutorial discretion and commutation/pardon power. I believe you’re a pro-pot, pro-open-borders libertarian. Do you approve of the government declining to prosecute or pardoning/commuting-sentences-of people who are clearly guilty of drug or immigration crimes?

      • Dabbler says:

        @Control Freak

        I’d be curious to know your views in particular on the WikiLeaks claims regarding the Clinton emails. Since they are two separate questions, (a) in terms of whether they should have been leaked in particular and (b) In terms of how much you think a voter should adjust their view of the election given the situation as it is now.

        My personal view is undecided on (a), but disclosing my biases I admit that although I’m not an American citizen nor live in the United States I felt angry regarding what happened. People presumably expect some degree of impartiality from the media, and the way they correspond with the Clinton campaign suggests that hasn’t happened.

        • Controls Freak says:

          I’m not a huge fan of leaks. As much as I’ve surely come across as being anti-privacy, I’m not. I like privacy – I just think that we sometimes have good reason to allow governments to invade privacy in certain ways with certain justifications. I’m really not on board with what I see as the popular method of determining whether a leak is good or not – people seem to identify whether the target of the leak is good/bad and conclude that the leak is bad/good based purely on that. In a startling number of leaks, we’ve seen a rather perverse type of argument. “The AshleyMadison/OPM/PanamaPapers/etc hack was good, because those people are cheaters/gov’t/wealthy.” “Actually, there are good reasons to do [item]. There are a lot of good people who are going to be hurt by this.” I am not a fan.

          I generally don’t like indiscriminate leaks. I’m really not a fan of illegal hacking in order to get this data for indiscriminate leaking. As I mentioned in III.2b, leakers need to be incredibly sure that they have The right analysis of the matter. Ideally, they’d only leak the specific information that is directly related to lawbreaking… and ideally, they’d release it just to law enforcement. Otherwise, it’s rather difficult to draw lines again that prevents things we don’t like such as routine doxxing (without doing the “find the witch” dance). I think there’s a unique justification available for whistleblowing, but much of the popular discourse right now is ignorant of current whistleblowing law and rather devoid of suggestions for improvement besides, “It should cover this one case I want it to cover.”

          As far as what to do now that it’s out… well, it’s hard to just ignore it. I don’t have a neat, bow-tied opinion on the whole thing, and I’d prefer not to comment. The public disqualified Howard Dean for yelling, “Rah!” and Rick Perry for saying, “Oops,” so I’m sure they’ll take a reasoned perspective on the Clinton leaks.

          • Dabbler says:

            Got it. Thank you for your views. And I understand your contempt for the general public.

            If you don’t mind me asking, how much has your view of Clinton as a person changed now that you know the information from the email leaks?

          • Controls Freak says:

            No offense, but I don’t want people (on either side) to have a political reason to discount my perspectives on SIGINT. I’d like to avoid politics… especially in late October of an election year. Maybe ask me again in a couple weeks?

          • JohnWittle says:

            Surgical, as opposed to broad, leaks have a significant disadvantage too, though. From a Bayesian perspective, if an advaersary has a huge pool of information and is selectively filtering a very small amount of that information to you, it generates a suspucion that action you would take by simply acting on the information as given is not how you would act if you had access to the entirety of the information.

            How less credible would the podesta leak be, how much more suspicious of Putin would we be, if he had only released a couple of the worst emails?

          • Controls Freak says:

            @JohnWittle

            This is actually why the Snowden revelations are uniquely bad. He took a ton of stuff. The Guardian and The Intercept decided to release it slowly, seemingly for maximum negative impact on US interests. If they had dumped it all in one shot, there might be really bad negative impacts from things that they even realize are too important to leak. As it is, they’re still somewhat chasing the tail.

      • Sebastian_H says:

        It seems that you’re glossing over a lot with “incidental collection is a thing”, your allegation that the focus is on foreign governments, and your summaries of the Snowden links. Additionally you are combining those three glosses in ways that obscures the limitations you say are in place.

        A) Lots of the programs aren’t ‘incidentally collecting from 3rd party citizens’. The NSA was collecting all of the email meta data from everyone in the United States. That wasn’t incidental collection. The NSA was collecting data from internet searches from all people in the United States. That wasn’t incidental collection. Nor was that targeting foreign governments. These are also the programs that caused the most consternation among privacy advocates.

        You’re essentially ignoring half the field, including almost all of the most troubling programs.

        B) Snowden revelations about the NSA laundering non-security revelations to the FBI and the FBI lying about where they got the revelations in their applications for warrants.

        Did you mention that somewhere? Doesn’t it problematize quite a few of your base assumptions (particularly the ‘incidental’ assumption and the ‘post collection constraints’ assumption).

        C) Your whole secret courts thing is difficult to square with practical reality about how non-secret courts operate. Over-broad warrants in non-secret courts get signed all the time. We know this via inspection. The leaks from the FISA courts SHOW that the FISA courts have in the past authorized extremely over-broad warrants. (cue your dislike of leaks….) So given that secret courts have less oversight than open ones, and open ones have over-broad warrants all the time, and that we’ve seen case of over-broad warrants from the FISA courts, why exactly are we supposed to trust them more than open courts?

        • Controls Freak says:

          A) First, some facts. The bulk domestic email metadata program was ended in 2011; they said it wasn’t worth it. The bulk domestic telephony metadata program was ended last year following the passage of USAFA. You’re right that these don’t fall under incidental collection, and I didn’t intend them to. I am personally happy that bulk collection is now specifically illegal.

          That being said, privacy advocates have a point when they say that the shift in methodology seems minor. In the old program, there was great consternation about the two-step. Collection was mostly unfettered, but querying the data was subject to a reasonable articulable suspicion standard. Now, they have to have RAS in order to collect. Subject to the constraint of data which is deleted by the telco prior to the court order and the differential of risk of abuse, there’s little meaningful difference on what they can access. This is where the privacy advocates throw their hands up and decry the fact that NSA gets access to anything at all.

          I didn’t actually directly address this in my prior comment, so it’s good that you brought it up. I tangentially addressed it, mostly describing the principles that shape how our laws should look. According to the principles I presented, the current law is superior to the old law, and I embrace the change.

          B) The ‘parallel construction’ boogeyman. This is not really unique to intelligence, either. In regular criminal cases, there are often accusations that police leveraged illegally-collected information in order to construct a case. The legal result is about the same in my mind – if you can show that it actually came from the fruit of the poisonous tree, then it should be suppressed.

          Notice that rather than problematizing my principle about post-collection constraints being important, it highlights my point! As soon as we let NSA exist and gather any information whatsoever, we can imagine scenarios where NSA passes on information illegally. If being able to imagine it is sufficient to scuttle the whole idea of SIGINT, we’re running afoul of my first and most important principle. Instead, post-collection constraints are meaningful! When can FBI search databases created by NSA? What can they look for? Relating to who? What’s the evidentiary standard? We can get into those details (and there are some details that I think could be better), but as soon as we do that, we’re fighting on the exact ground where I said the fight was.

          C) You’re not supposed to trust a court that has a sealed proceeding more than a court with an open proceeding. That’s just a ridiculous framing that doesn’t accomplish anything. I mean, it sounds like you’re just saying, “We can’t have classified information in courts, because they’d have to keep it secret, and I don’t like anything being secret in a courtroom.” If that’s what you’re saying, just say it. Otherwise, please point out what you actually mean to say.

          • Sebastian_H says:

            “if you can show that it actually came from the fruit of the poisonous tree, then it should be suppressed.”

            But barring leaks (which you’ve said you disapprove of) we can’t EVER prove it because because the NSA won’t respond to subpoenas. Right? So we seem to have a rather large exception swallowing whole your points about ‘limited collection’, ‘foreign targeting’, and ‘post-collection constraints’.

            And in actual fact, even when we have leaks showing that the FBI used ‘parallel construction’ (which by the way is completely illegal under any definition under the last 80 years) you still can’t get the evidence suppressed because the NSA won’t confirm the leak, won’t answer questions about the leak, and the FBI won’t answer questions about the sources. [Never mind the other time honored technique of pretending that it was an ‘anonymous’ tip when you don’t want to reveal the illegal NSA sharing of information].

            All of these things are illegal now, have been illegal for at least 50 years, and we have strong indications that they were happening as recently as 3 years ago. Isn’t that a problem for your ‘trust them’ stance?

            How do you square that circle?

          • Sebastian_H says:

            There is a difference between keeping the underlying information secret and keeping the reasoning secret. FISA courts do both.

            The main reason they seem to have needed to keep the legal reasoning secret is (as revealed by the leaks you don’t want to have happening) that the underlying programs were illegal.

          • Controls Freak says:

            But barring leaks (which you’ve said you disapprove of) we can’t EVER prove it because because the NSA won’t respond to subpoenas. Right?

            Distinguish this from unprovable accusations of parallel construction in typical domestic law enforcement.

            ‘parallel construction’ (which by the way is completely illegal under any definition under the last 80 years)

            Exactly. So what do you propose we do? We’re back to, “Abolish SIGINT.”

            Isn’t that a problem for your ‘trust them’ stance?

            Good thing that has never been my stance. Perhaps you should re-read my comments and try again… this time, without imputing ideas to me that I don’t hold.

            There is a difference between keeping the underlying information secret and keeping the reasoning secret. FISA courts do both.

            III.3b

            The main reason they seem to have needed to keep the legal reasoning secret is (as revealed by the leaks you don’t want to have happening) that the underlying programs were illegal.

            Why do you think you’re more correct than the majority of federal judges? Bonus point: Your point is moot, because Congress explicitly made the new version of the program legal… because it turns out that you were more wrong about what Congress approves of than the NSA, President, senior executive branch lawyers, FISC, and both intelligence committees.

          • Anonymous Bosch says:

            When can FBI search databases created by NSA? What can they look for? Relating to who? What’s the evidentiary standard? We can get into those details (and there are some details that I think could be better), but as soon as we do that, we’re fighting on the exact ground where I said the fight was.

            According to Bob Litt, NSA general counsel, any USP data “incidentally” collected as part of a haystack-collecting Section 702 or EO 12333 program such as MYSTIC, XKEYSCORE, MUSCULAR, etc., can be searched by an analyst using US person identifiers and disseminated to other agencies without any sort of court permission or even a Reasonable Articulable Suspicion standard (which is the standard for the phone metadata under Section 215). And this is un-minimized data per the 10/11 John Bates opinion.

            One can believe that SIGINT should exist and still be extremely worried about the implications of parallel construction for civil liberties. I’m particularly troubled by the consistent use of the phrasing “evidence of a crime” by Litt and Raj De. I personally would like to see a kind of Chinese wall between the NSA and domestic LE agencies where these databases can only be consulted as part of investigations into terrorism or espionage. Not “crime” full stop.

          • Controls Freak says:

            Empty Wheel is doing what Empty Wheel does – taking verbal statements instead of written documents and imagining fascinating machinations within them. This was slightly excusable in 2013 (when this article is taken from), but it’s absolutely inexcusable to think that these conclusions hold after later information came to light.

      • Brad says:

        Courts of special jurisdiction *are* a problem even leaving aside the FISA court. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, for example, is widely considered to be captured.

        The FISA court has that general problem of regulatory capture and the additional problem of a highly unfortunate appointment mechanism, viz. appointments are made at the sole discretion of the Chief Justice. Since 1986 that’s been someone appointed by a Republican President (Rehnquist and Roberts). Of the current 11 judges on the FISA court, only 4 were appointed to their district court seats by Democratic Presidents, which does not reflect the composition of the district court judges as a whole.

        These cases should go into the hopper at the DC District Court, then the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, then to SCOTUS.

        • Controls Freak says:

          …that would still be assigning special jurisdiction to the DC courts (rather than, say, going to a district court in southern California to request a FISA order for a company in Silicon Valley).

          I’m sympathetic to concerns of appointment. I’m not sure I’d want to get the other branches more involved in the process. Yes, the Judiciary is appointed by nomination/confirmation, and that process is becoming more political, but SCOTUS is still an independent branch. I want them to be strongly responsible for an important court like FISC. If you’re concerned about partisanship, I’d open it up so that all of SCOTUS is involved in the process. I wouldn’t die on this hill, though… and I’d be alright with Gazeboist’s suggestions above, too. I think the far more important reform was giving representation to pro-civil-liberties advocates in FISC/FISCR… but I think the absolute best thing would be to give them the ability to appeal. I’d let your preferred President pick the next 20 FISC judges if I could get that.

          I honestly am not married to a particular process for FISC appointments, and I’m not going to defend the current appointment process as the best possible one. This falls solidly in the realm of, “Now that we’re at least in the same state, we can proceed to the ballpark.” Most of my original comment is aimed at the (substantial) number of people who don’t seem to even be in the same state.

      • wintermute92 says:

        First: I agree with most of this, and I think the factual components provide a lot of sorely missing context. Much of what the NSA has been (revealed to be) doing falls between “obviously their job” and “unsurprising and probably good, if not actually their charter” (the industrial espionage stuff gets complicated). A lot of the common attacks like “secret court” and “rubber stamp” are a bit absurd – there’s a huge difference between a court with clear rules and a high approval rate and no court at all.

        Second, though: I think you’re engaging with the most rabid opponents, and then neglecting a middle ground of reasonable critiques which are still more negative than your conclusions. I’ll try to make those in brief below; I think you’ll recognize them.

        Rogue agency “Rogue agency” seems like a charge that I would only expect from some pretty radical writers. You can go quite far without that; personally I would refer to regulatory capture, deep state theory, and moral hazard rather than saying ‘rogue’. The plausible narrative here seems more like “the NSA and its overseers have strong incentives to care more about collection successes than privacy harms, and if that’s the case we should have low confidence in their chosen balance”.

        Role of law I agree that we can’t go anywhere if we say that the law is irrelevant. But again, I think this neglects a narrative of “the law is relevant, but the NSA systematically exceeds the intent or standard interpretation of the law by a limited amount”. You touch on this with secret law, but there’s also a case for actual law-breaking that’s still scaled by “what we can do without serious consequences”.

        Snowden/Leakers On the basic legality point, I would only make an aside that the NSA’s history (and recent disclosures) all suggest that the internal whistleblowing system is nonfunctional. On the ethical disclosure, I’m not convinced that “almost all legal” is a sensible standard to apply here. If you’re supporting/producing these leaks, you’ve pretty much acknowledged that the legal structure around these programs is in some way broken. I do think Snowden leaked material about reasonable NSA activities, and it troubles me, but I don’t consider ‘legal’ a good standard there.

        Reforms Again, my concerns here aren’t alleviated by “we seem to have been close to the right balance on these programs”. That assumes that the people striking this balance aren’t massively misaligned with the public on where ‘right’ would fall, so “no change means they were fairly good” seems like question-begging as badly as “no change means the game is rigged”.

        (As an aside, though, I think two hops is actually huge. Probably not to core NSA function, but to the ease of building collateral profiles like we don’t want.)

        Parting Shots and Missing Topics A few things stood out as absent here.

        The NSA’s history gives rather limited reason for confidence about their honesty with oversight. The Puzzle Palace is the canonical work here; the main highlight is the NSA telling the Church Committee – behind closed doors – that their foreign listening sites had been shut down a year earlier. That was simply false, and the sites were closed for real only after a whistleblower revealed their existence to Congress – again behind closed doors.

        In related history, the Justice Department investigation coming out of the Rockefeller commission raised what they described as “questions of criminality”. They eventually declined to prosecute, citing not a lack of wrongdoing but an inability to pursue a case without political interference and obfuscation of records. This does not inspire confidence in the idea that the agency, even if not actually rogue, is being held accountable when misdeeds do occur.

        Finally, it seems worth referencing the reports of frequent employee misuse of data, and the OPM (tangential, but relevant) and Equation Group hacks. This is the big rebuttal to the idea that incidental collection is low risk and system compromise is what we want the NSA doing. There are a bunch of recorded accounts of NSA employees misusing databases for personal matters; more alarmingly, leakers like Snowden could easily have dumped far more harmfully than he appears to have.

        Between that and the Equation Group content (which had apparently been held at length before being burned), there’s real reason to believe that NOBUS (the idea that the NSA balances attack and defense by finding exploits no one else can abuse) is being severely misapplied.

        (Also, can you source the Wyden/Clapper claim? I looked but can only find Robert Litt saying Clapper had forgotten the existence of 215, which doesn’t preclude his office remembering it but does seem totally at odds with “he was censoring for a classified hearing”. Your explanation would also make sense, I just can’t find anything.)

        Conclusion I haven’t really disagreed with your claims, and certainly not with your facts. But I think you only show that the NSA isn’t systematically ignoring the law or the desires of the executive branch; I don’t think that’s enough.

        There’s evidence suggesting that the people running and overseeing the NSA don’t really care about privacy until they’re forced to, and will choose reliable collection over personal privacy in a way the public (or even retired agency directors) wouldn’t support. There’s also evidence suggesting serious hubris on the part of the NSA, which looks like they struck a balance on incidental collection and exploit nondisclosure based on a badly incorrect assessment of foreign capabilities and internal security.

        It’s a moral hazard issue you don’t really address: the NSA can be guided by the law and responsive to FISC, and still be pathologically misaligned with what’s desirable or best for the country.

        I’m not sold on the accuracy of that narrative, so I’d love to see you address it more directly.

        • Controls Freak says:

          You’re totally right that I was engaging the most rabid opponents. As I said elsewhere in this thread, you have to be in the same state before you can proceed to the ballpark, and I genuinely feel like a high percentage of people aren’t even in the same state as me on SIGINT.

          “the NSA and its overseers have strong incentives to care more about collection successes than privacy harms, and if that’s the case we should have low confidence in their chosen balance”

          I agree 100% that the NSA does, however, as far as overseers go, it’s much more difficult. You mention regulatory capture, which is the nice way of saying, “FISC is a rubber stamp.” While I hit this point harder than I really feel (because I think there are legitimate concerns with FISC), I genuinely don’t think the argument is good that they’re actually captured. Other overseers are Congress, and here I think our response actually made the problem worse. In our zeal to yell at the NSA, we just adopted any CongressCritter who would yell at them, too… often ignoring solid evidence that they did know about the things they’re now yelling about. Congress is The most important oversight. If they don’t work at all, it’s basically impossible to make any program (not just SIGINT) work. If we don’t want them to be able to approve programs we don’t like with impugnity, then we need to hold their feet to the fire.

          That’s the case for the new iteration of the law, as well. Most people get hot and bothered about secrecy, so I usually point out how Congress reauthorized programs with only minor tweaks… but honestly, if you still think it’s a problem, that’s your beef with Congress!

          “the law is relevant, but the NSA systematically exceeds the intent or standard interpretation of the law by a limited amount”. You touch on this with secret law, but there’s also a case for actual law-breaking that’s still scaled by “what we can do without serious consequences”

          I think this is a legitimate concern, and I don’t know how we can eliminate it. It’s why I try to focus on scale – what’s the ratio of what they can get away with to the consequences they’d receive if discovered? So, it’s not just that it’s a limited amount, it’s how limited. So far, we’ve mostly seen actions that are limited pretty closely within the range of things Congress is willing to explicitly authorize publicly. I genuinely think that’s not something to sneer at… but I’m absolutely open to suggestions for how to reduce it further.

          NSA’s history (and recent disclosures) all suggest that the internal whistleblowing system is nonfunctional

          I completely disagree, at least on the basis of evidence we have. I would really need a fleshing out of facts that you think support this claim… as well as a discussion of relevant law. As far as I can tell, there are a lot of misunderstandings here. For example, I think the extent to which you think protections only cover “internal” whistleblowing may be incorrect. Internal to the government doesn’t mean internal to NSA, for example.

          If you’re supporting/producing these leaks, you’ve pretty much acknowledged that the legal structure around these programs is in some way broken.

          I don’t think this is necessarily true. You can leak something for which you think oversight or compliance efforts have failed to make actions conform to a correct legal structure. Honestly, I don’t think most leakers really even understand the legal structure well enough to make a reasoned argument that it has failed. At least, I haven’t seen one to date.

          I do, however, think that some leakers have thought that the legal structure had failed. A key claim of Snowden, for example, is that the programs were unconstitutional (which is a claim that something within the legal structure is broken). If you go this track, it goes right to what I had said – you better be damn sure you’re right. Otherwise, you’re very open to criticism.

          The final possible interpretation would be that the legal structure, itself, is perfectly fine… but the legal result is abhorrent. You better be really REALLY right about this one. Like, stupidly right. And you better be planning on going to jail. It’s in the class of civil disobedience to me – you better be so confident that you’re willing to get punished with only the hope that you sway opinions. Since what I care about here is structuring the law (including whistleblower law) in a way that improves the world, I don’t have much else to say… because there’s not really a way to write a law that accounts for this (as I said, in this case, the legal structure is assumed to be perfectly fine). One of the reasons I like prosecutorial discretion and pardon/commutation powers is that it allows someone to say, “Ya know, public opinion really moved to their side; I better pardon that person and fix this mess.” If you have any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

          That assumes that the people striking this balance aren’t massively misaligned with the public

          That’s a matter for the electoral process. I take the electoral process as a given to be the best method to align those two groups (ok, maybe not “the best”, but better than all the alternatives). At the point that we’re saying all three branches are wrong, we either just need to vote better or accept that our democracy is fundamentally broken in a way that is far deeper than SIGINT.

          NSA’s history

          I’m sympathetic to lots of concerns here, but I’m not a fan of putting the sins of the father on his son. I think any government agency with sufficient scope and longevity will have deeply troubling events in its past. If it continues to have longevity, it will probably have deeply troubling events in its future. Your first example actually shows the real power we have created with whistleblower protections in order to correct problems. I’m not familiar enough with your other example to know the extent of how bad it was or whether such a problem is likely persistent.

          And to have a moment of frankness, I don’t think any legal/oversight structure will hold all bad actors accountable – this is a known problem from standard criminal law theory. Sometimes, we genuinely have to say, “Yep. That guy got away with something. There’s nothing we can really do about it.” Again, I’d have to have more details to know if we can make preventative changes going forward.

          reports of frequent employee misuse of data

          I’m completely on-board with proposals to encourage these reports and punish misuse.

          OPM (tangential, but relevant) and Equation Group hacks. This is the big rebuttal to the idea that incidental collection is low risk and system compromise is what we want the NSA doing

          OPM really isn’t relevant at all except to say, “We’re not perfect (we’re actually really bad a defense right now).” Yea, I agree on that. I don’t know how incidental collection can be differentially risky compared to targeted collection when considering an adversary trying to steal what NSA has (targeted collection was hit by the Equation Group hacks, not incidental collection). I agree that collection and performing system compromise have risks. I almost never see a full-throated explanation of why these risks are actually too high compared to the benefits of having a SIGINT agency.

          Between that and the Equation Group content (which had apparently been held at length before being burned), there’s real reason to believe that NOBUS (the idea that the NSA balances attack and defense by finding exploits no one else can abuse) is being severely misapplied.

          There is no perfect NOBUS, because there is no perfect security. There are risks to NSA holding information, just like there are risks for any government agency holding information. Again, I almost never see a full-throated explanation of why these risks are actually too high.

          This article has a nice breakdown of Wyden/Clapper. I really don’t know what was going through his mind when he gave the answer he did, whether he actively chose not to divulge classified information or just had a brain fart. Reading down to the update is important, because it appears everyone agrees that Wyden got the correct answer in a secure setting.

      • Kevin says:

        The 215 domestic metadata program may be the only genuinely problematic program exposed by Snowden.

        Uh… no. MUSCULAR is definitely more problematic. But it leaked later, after news organizations were developing NSA fatigue, so all the attention went to PRISM.

        • Controls Freak says:

          Considering that we have approximately zero information on MUSCULAR (either for how the targeting/collection really works or the legal authorities/constraints involved), that’s a pretty bold statement. It’s much more likely that you’re seeing just a tiny part of a program and then letting your mind run wild imagining how bad it could be.

          Your claim that news organizations developed NSA fatigue is pretty demonstrably false if you lived through the last three years.

    • J says:

      Thank you for sharing your perspective. It’s well-written and clear.

      Your claim that SIGINT is inevitable and that we want them spying on foreign embassies is where we diverge.

      The you can’t handle the truth scene captured it pretty well. Spending too long under the cloak of secrecy, well-meaning people tell themselves stories about what their job is and how it’s good that they’re doing things the public would detest. They believe strongly in their own chains of command, but have distorted relationships with the parts of the system outside the cloak, so that people like Snowden or Tom Cruise’s character have to make huge personal risks to have any hope of holding them to the nominal standards.

      • dragnubbit says:

        I can see an argument along those lines that applies to torture (or ‘enhanced interrogation’). Are there specific programs in SIGINT that you believe the American public detests (beyond a small minority)?

        • J says:

          My criticism is about secret government in general, and SIGINT is a bit more abstruse than, say the CIA atrocities of the 20th century, so I’d expect the public to have more opinions on the latter. (Although I get the sense that the public used to get quite upset about wiretapping in the pre-internet era. Sad that we seem to value privacy less over time).

          (I’m also decreasingly confident in reports of what “the public” supposedly believes, since I keep seeing outright admission in the news that the government is actively trying to alter our perceptions of what everyone believes. It’s another case where government seems to be tending to its own interests rather than expression of the public will.)

      • Controls Freak says:

        Your claim that SIGINT is inevitable and that we want them spying on foreign embassies is where we diverge.

        Man… we can’t even really get past the first idea with some agreement. How do you think we get to this world you imagine? Sun Tzu and Clausewitz were a long time ago… and even they preached the benefits of intelligence programs. On incredibly small scales, we see that even simple games of asymmetric information provide massive benefits to intelligence gathering/analysis. I mean, just think about the game of poker – if you’re able to gain information from another players disposition that allows you to analyze their situation/desires, it’s a massive benefit! Do you deny that this mechanic operates at the level of nation states? Or do you just want to propose a No Spying and We’re Super Serious, Guys Treaty? …do you have any idea how nations would go about enforcing such a treaty?

        I think the rest of your comment is concerning the pitfalls that may arise after we decide to have a covert foreign signals intelligence agency. I agree completely that it’s a potential pitfall. That’s a big part of why we have multiple routes of oversight. Again, unless you convince me on your first point that we can just abolish SIGINT, I’m not sure what you’re proposing here.

        • J says:

          Germany was publicly very upset that we were spying on them, presumably in mock outrage. But if everyone is in on the game, who is the outrage for?

          just think about the game of poker – if you’re able to gain information from another players disposition that allows you to analyze their situation/desires, it’s a massive benefit!

          Fantastic example. Games are how society reminds itself that consistently enforced rules are what allow us to excel at things other than violence. Cheating at poker does indeed grant massive benefits, which is precisely why we punish it so severely. And the cheater’s excuse is always that everyone else is doing it.

          You bring up Sun Tzu, and indeed the Art of War is what you need for wars, when trust has broken down and we are left with violence. But taking advantage of friends is how wars get started in the first place, so as games remind us, we have to be careful to confine our violence to the bounds of a specific conflict, and stop when the conflict ends.

          Having a Department of Getting Away with Cheating fundamentally undermines the system it’s intended to serve. Oversight is for making sure that the rule of law is maintained, but if the point is to circumvent the rule of law, then the overseers are not custodians of the law, but laws unto themselves.

          • dragnubbit says:

            Not everyone is in on the game. The german public is as easy to manipulate with anti-Americanism as any other. Under normal circumstances, the complaints might have been made behind closed doors and kept from the press. But it is getting more difficult both practically and because of the temptation for political expedience to constrain these types of disagreements to closed forums.

          • Controls Freak says:

            Cheating at poker

            I wasn’t even talking about cheating. There’s no prohibition on observing your opponent’s mannerisms and coming up with an intelligence assessment concerning what he’s thinking. I’m getting at the nature of asymmetric information… not the rules involved. The game of international relations has some norms, but very few inviolable rules. It’s the reason why I quoted Michael Hayden above saying that the OPM hack was, “Shame on us, not on them.” He knows that the rules allow them to target our storehouse of security clearances – it’s a legitimate intelligence target… and literally no one is pointing at some rule that China might have broken in the process.

            You bring up Sun Tzu, and indeed the Art of War is what you need for wars, when trust has broken down and we are left with violence.

            I also brought up Clausewitz, who correctly stated that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Furthermore, both the authors suggest the opposite of what you’re saying. If you do intelligence well, it can enable to you accomplish your political goals without things breaking down to violence. Sub-violent actions certainly can cause escalation to violent actions… but if no sub-violent actions are possible, then there will be a stronger pull toward violent actions to accomplish said goals.

            And yes, the Germans spy. Obama once dropped a gigantic president slam: “We will not apologize because our services are more effective.” Some authors on Lawfare occasionally write about European hypocrisy on surveillance. I don’t pay as much attention to those articles, because I really care more about domestic law… but my general impression is that other nations have even more permissive surveillance laws – they just haven’t had their dirty laundry waved in front of everyone.

          • ThirteenthLetter says:

            Germany was publicly very upset that we were spying on them, presumably in mock outrage. But if everyone is in on the game, who is the outrage for?

            The outrage is for low-information voters who aren’t in on the game, and can therefore be manipulated into hating the governments whose spying has been leaked while continuing to love the governments whose spying remains under wraps.

          • J says:

            I wasn’t even talking about cheating.

            The game of international relations has some norms, but very few inviolable rules. It’s the reason why I quoted Michael Hayden above saying that the OPM hack was, “Shame on us, not on them.”

            Obama once dropped a gigantic president slam: “We will not apologize because our services are more effective.”

            Lots of people died so that we could hold elites to written-down rules that we all get to see, instead of fluid norms that serve their interests from day to day.

            If Hayden can admit in public that he’s okay with China stealing personnel files and Obama can admit he’s proud of eavesdropping on Germany, then those don’t need to be unwritten rules.

            Let everybody vote on whether it’s okay for China to do that, and let’s reveal how many tax dollars we’re going to spend to give Obama that shiny service he’s so proud of that lets him undermine the tax dollars Germany spent to keep him out.

            Maybe that way when NSA fucks up their backhoe dig and knocks out internet service for half of silicon valley, or a bunch of people die because some DEA cowboy wanted a backdoor into a microcontroller that ended up in your pacemaker, or you go to jail because the cops parallel-constructed the evidence against you but you couldn’t subpoena the NSA’s database of cell phone records that would have exonerated you, you might actually be able to get some justice.

          • John Schilling says:

            Let everybody vote on whether it’s okay for China to do that

            So, all things are forbidden until the citizens of some democracy somewhere – if necessary half a world away – vote to allow them? That seems a poor basis for a system of ethics, and even worse as an actually winning strategy.

            The peoples and nations of the world have spent quite a few centuries developing both codified and customary rules regarding what is not allowed in international affairs. The various sorts of eavesdropping have never made the list, I suspect because of verification and enforcement issues. So, either we can eavesdrop on China and they on us, or we can chose not to eavesdrop on China and they (and everyone else) will still eavesdrop on us. By law, custom, and default, it is OK for them to do so whether we like it or not.

            Or we can try to convince the world to sign up to a no-SIGINT treaty, and try to enforce it. Good luck with that one.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      This comment is hard to parse. I can’t tell which of your commentary is meant as normative, which as descriptive… sometimes it seems like you’re replying to normative complaints with descriptive replies, or vice versa… it seems very confused. Actually, it seems like you barely (if at all??) recognize the difference!

      In other words: of what you’re saying, what is intended as “this is how it should be”, what is “this is how it’s supposed to be”, and what is “this is how it is”?

      • Controls Freak says:

        Sometimes, I honestly think that people make normative claims without a descriptive understanding of how SIGINT works. In fact, that’s one of the most common problems. I am constrained in my own normative positions by the facts of reality (see I.1; I would be perfectly happy in a world with zero SIGINT… but it’s simply not going to happen).

        If you have any specific examples of where you think this divide has led me astray, I’d love to hear them.

    • “If NSA, for the most part, is at least trying to follow the law and orders from the President, then the law matters. ”

      What if the NSA is following the orders from the President in violation of the law?

      That is not merely a hypothetical question. My understanding of the relevant history is that for a considerable while the NSA was intercepting communications which required a warrant from the FISA court without such a warrant, which means that the President (who knowingly used the information) and lots of people in the NSA were deliberately committing a felony.

      Am I mistaken? If not, what are the implications of that situation?

      It’s hard to imagine a plausible scenario in which the military would drop a nuclear weapon on a U.S. city for political purposes. It’s quite easy to see a scenario in which the ability to intercept communications would be politically useful to a politician in power.

      • hlynkacg says:

        What if the NSA is following the orders from the President in violation of the law?

        You impeach the president.

        An employee of the executive can cite the alleged legality (or lack there of) in their own defense, but final responsibility lies with the person who issued the order.

        • Controls Freak says:

          Also this. I focused more on the “but how do you even find out” aspect in my response below… but once you find out, this is absolutely the correct course of action.

      • Controls Freak says:

        What if the NSA is following the orders from the President in violation of the law?

        In short, this is why we have internal/external oversight via all three branches. In general, this is as problematic as any other executive authority. While you’re right that it’s hard to imagine dropping a nuke on a city for political purposes, there are approximately infinitely many gradations of violent activities which the President could command his armed forces to commit domestically. The major constraining factor is that nuking a city is insanely visible, and it would be difficult to spin a story that doesn’t result in a revolt. Many other violent activities may not reach this threshold. Nevertheless, we don’t abolish the military any more than we abolish SIGINT. Instead, we try to make sure that oversight/training is sufficient to reduce the risk of them following the orders of the President in violation of the law. A core part of my argument is that the Snowden revelations were uniquely good in validating that we’ve done approximately that! Even the worst of what he revealed really isn’t that bad.

        And really, the ultimate constraint on, “Can the President get a group of thugs to operate outside the law,” has very little to do with the legal powers of the presidency and much more to do with how easy it is for anyone to get a group of thugs to operate outside the law. It’s a little easier to get people to comply when you show them a legitimate federal ID… but at that point, you’re moving down the path of destroying operational secrecy, and you’re going to get found out.

        My understanding of the relevant history is that for a considerable while the NSA was intercepting communications which required a warrant from the FISA court without such a warrant

        I think you’re going back to the early 2000s. This falls under the “murky” bit I discussed in II.3a. The Bush administration was claiming inherent Article II powers to collect foreign-to-domestic calls that involved a foreign source known to be connected to a terrorist group that was implicated by the 2001 AUMF. The NYT had the story in 2005, and it was all the rage in the news for a couple years until the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

        Frankly, this is a really difficult question that sidesteps the major fights over explicit legal authorities for regular foreign espionage purposes. It goes to the core of wartime powers, and I think this context is important for your point. Wartime powers (especially when we have a moderately-well-defined enemy) are somewhat harder to use purely for domestic political purposes than if we had evidence that they were just blithely ignoring the law and doing things like tapping purely domestic calls without a warrant… and especially without even a feign toward wartime powers. I’m left a little uneasy by the former (and I’d like to see some legal developments), but I would be outright angry at the latter.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      So, there’s one big thing I notice missing from your two comments, and that’s anything dealing with the sort of argument made in the infosec community that the NSA’s attempts to gain advantage from computer security vulnerabilities are essentially futile (we can’t actually consistently pull ahead in this arms race) and the negative externalities put everyone in more danger; therefore, in this arena, we’d be better off practicing anti-SIGINT rather than SIGINT, since that would help people be more secure and the arms race is a wash anyway. (See e.g. here and here.)

      This doesn’t cover all SIGINT obviously, just the SIGINT conducted by exploiting computer security vulnerabilities; I don’t think any of what Snowden revealed falls under this for instance, or at least not the famous stuff. (Though it does indirectly, in that it applies to cracking or getting around any encryption on anything encrypted they may turn up with it.) But, it is a big thing that people complain about regarding the NSA and their SIGINT activities.

      • dragnubbit says:

        It is Christmas morning right now for exploiting computer vulnerabilities. This is not the time to unilaterally disarm, if for no other reason than not researching these things will automatically give the upper hand on tradecraft, techniques, and capabilities to other nations and leave the US pwned.

        • null says:

          Sure, but that doesn’t mean the NSA should intentionally compromise parts of computer security in order to exploit it. Sniffoy appears to be going farther than this and suggests that the NSA should actively promote better computer security even when it runs counter to their own goals.

          • dragnubbit says:

            I believe Sniffnoy’s position (as represented by the Schneier articles he linked) is that the NSA should be disclosing all the vulnerabilities it finds rather than saving some of them for its own use. Disclosing them on a case-by-case basis is a position which seems reasonable to me.

            I think some people object to decisions being made when they are not privy to the alternatives, the criteria, or the results. It is inherently a non-transparent process. Unfortunately in such situations we are left to examine and judge mainly on whether the authorities of the responsible agencies are appropriate and what few examples come to public attention.

            Unilateral disarmament in cyber-warfare is a policy that can be debated publicly and implemented via executive order. Blaming the NSA is ignoring the fact that it is acting with the full support and concurrence of the three real branches of government and the public. The NSA is merely a tool. Cyber-warfare policy is set by the President and the laws passed by Congress.

          • Brad says:

            It’s not unilateral disarmament, it’s mutual disarmament. Any vulnerability disclosed by the NSA and patched by the vendor can’t be used by anyone — whether government or criminal.

          • dragnubbit says:

            It’s not unilateral disarmament, it’s mutual disarmament. Any vulnerability disclosed by the NSA and patched by the vendor can’t be used by anyone — whether government or criminal.

            Where is the mutual part? Are China and Russia going to disclose the vulnerabilities they find? Are they going to avoid taking advantage of vulnerabilities we reveal before they are fixed or on unpatched systems? I missed that treaty.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            There’s this myth that if we just fix the last 3 bugs that the NSA is hoarding, we will have perfect software.

            The Chinese and the NSA each have stockpiled lists of vulnerabilities which do not overlap perfectly. The NSA releasing their own merely disarms the NSA’s weapons, not the Chinese’s.

          • hlynkacg says:

            This is incorrect. If the Chinese are planning to exploit some vulnerability or another and the NSA reveals it, it’s the Chinese who have lost out, not the NSA.

          • dragnubbit says:

            This is incorrect. If the Chinese are planning to exploit some vulnerability or another and the NSA reveals it, it’s the Chinese who have lost out, not the NSA.

            That does not argue against a case-by-case judgment of that possibility as well as other factors. A vulnerability that is believed to be easily discoverable by the Chinese is probably far more likely to be disclosed than one that is more subtle or disproportionately affects overseas users (such as a vulnerability in a foreign software product).

          • Controls Freak says:

            Not only do a lot of known vulnerabilities not get patched anyway (companies are lazy unless it’s getting exploited enough to piss off a lot of customers), vulnerability profiles are not identical. Common vulnerabilities in China are not the same as common vulnerabilities in the US. If we make an across-the-board, ex ante decision to disclose all vulnerabilities, we’ll be disclosing some that only manifest in China. It makes more sense to do a case-by-case analysis of the pros/cons.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Furthermore, if the law doesn’t matter, we can set up a reductio as mentioned in (1) – if the law cannot provide any meaningful constraint on SIGINT activities, then the only solution possible is to abolish SIGINT activities.

      You’re assuming that a solution is possible.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        You’re assuming that a solution is possible.

        Not quite. Since abolishing SIGINT altogether is his reductio ad absurdam it suffices to support his argument if no solution is in fact possible. He’s already pretty much saying that abolishing SIGINT is itself impossible.

    • Deiseach says:

      Not one bit happy about “of course we’re spying on friendly foreign governments” because that seems like a great way to drive them to hard-line positions; if instead of diplomacy, you’re hacking their private communications to find out what they really think about Position Q, then it’s to their benefit to be as hard-line as possible on Q – else the US administration will say “In public they say ‘not an inch’ but they’re really willing to concede, so we can pressure them on this”.

      Anyway, about this part:

      Even in those areas controlled solely by the President… the NSA is almost certainly controlled by the President. Just like it would be bad if a random Army battalion engaged in a military action (against either a foreign nation or the domestic population) without the President’s knowledge/consent, if NSA was actually rogue it would be bad. The President would be pissed, because such rogue behavior can easily cause foreign relations nightmares.

      So what about the allegations that for Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, both Washington and London wanted analysis backing up the position that “we have to strike because he can hit us within half an hour!” and so the various intelligence bodies dutifully handed over “yes sir, our analysts say this is real evidence”? Can that work the other way – the agencies hand over cherry-picked data to steer the President into taking a course of action they’d like him (or her) to take?

      And if everyone is spying on everyone else, and there is no such thing as perfect security, what about Hillary’s private server(s) – great idea or worst thing ever? Great, because if she’s not using the official channels, the spies haven’t hacked that yet, or terrible because no-one knows what she’s doing on her own and it could be riddled with holes?

      • Controls Freak says:

        if instead of diplomacy, you’re hacking their private communications to find out what they really think about Position Q, then it’s to their benefit to be as hard-line as possible on Q

        Misinformation is a classic method of counter-SIGINT. If they can all get together on a more secure communications system in order to plan an elaborate fake hardline policy position on a less secure communications system, then they deserve to win that round. Governments are going to posture. Something something asymmetric information.

        what about the allegations that for Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, both Washington and London wanted analysis backing up the position that “we have to strike because he can hit us within half an hour!” and so the various intelligence bodies dutifully handed over “yes sir, our analysts say this is real evidence”?

        In the most in-depth report on Saddam’s and WMD , there was no evidence of any pressure placed on the IC to conclude that he had them. They just got it wrong. Instead, the example you’re looking for is that the White House did pressure them on an Al Qaeda link… and they dutifully bent over backwards to say, “No! There really isn’t any link!”

        if everyone is spying on everyone else, and there is no such thing as perfect security, what about Hillary’s private server(s) – great idea or worst thing ever? Great, because if she’s not using the official channels, the spies haven’t hacked that yet, or terrible because no-one knows what she’s doing on her own and it could be riddled with holes?

        Security through obscurity is frowned upon in the security community.

    • bean says:

      Thank you for this. It’s a much more coherent statement of why we need SIGINT than I have, and covers several points I hadn’t even thought of.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I’ve only skimmed through the replies, so maybe this point had been raised already, but still:

      Let’s look at this from the perspective of a rank-and-file American resident, such as myself (although not really; as an immigrant, I probably fall under a higher level of scrutiny).

      As far as I understand, until recently, all of my email and phone call metadata was collected in bulk recorded in perpetuity (and it still might be, I’m not sure). In addition to that, the NSA and other agencies have agreements in place with all major social media and telecom companies, granting access to varying amounts of my personal correspondence (ranging from “all of it” to “bulk metadata”). In addition, the NSA possesses a wide-ranging suite of hacking tools they can deploy to gain access to anything I’ve ever posted, at will. In many cases, these tools were developed by undermining the underlying protocols that power the Internet, in order to make them less secure.

      Two questions immediately spring to mind:

      1). Given this enormous amount of power, and given that humans are involved at every stage of the process, what is the probability that my personal information is not, at this very moment, being abused by some unscrupulous actor ? What is the probability that this will not occur in the next, say, 20 years ?

      2). Let’s imagine that, at some point in the future, our society decides to criminalize, or perhaps heavily stigmatize, something that we consider entirely innocuous today. Something like “looking up the names of all major Smurfs” or “posting comments on Slate Star Codex”. Given that this does occur, what is the probability that all of that data and metadata will be used to destroy my life ?

      • Controls Freak says:

        as an immigrant, I probably fall under a higher level of scrutiny

        Good news! The actual relevant classification for heightened protections is “US persons”, and you fall within it.

        As far as I understand, until recently, all of my email and phone call metadata was collected in bulk recorded in perpetuity

        Maybe. Probably.

        it still might be, I’m not sure

        That would be in direct violation of the law.

        In addition to that, the NSA and other agencies have agreements in place with all major social media and telecom companies, granting access to varying amounts of my personal correspondence (ranging from “all of it” to “bulk metadata”).

        With court orders supported by individualized evidence.

        In addition, the NSA possesses a wide-ranging suite of hacking tools they can deploy to gain access to anything I’ve ever posted, at will.

        Aye. They’re shooting to have the capability to hack Vladimir Putin… so they can probably get at your facebook pics.

        In many cases, these tools were developed by undermining the underlying protocols that power the Internet, in order to make them less secure.

        If you had said, “In a few cases,” then I’d probably agree.

        Given this enormous amount of power, and given that humans are involved at every stage of the process, what is the probability that my personal information is not, at this very moment, being abused by some unscrupulous actor ? What is the probability that this will not occur in the next, say, 20 years ?

        Probably extremely low. Does someone who holds a TS security clearance and works for the NSA have enough of a grudge against you that they’d risk a lifetime in prison just to get access to your pictures of fluffy? Why would they choose you instead of any of the other 7 billion people on the planet?

        et’s imagine that, at some point in the future, our society decides to criminalize, or perhaps heavily stigmatize, something that we consider entirely innocuous today. Something like “looking up the names of all major Smurfs” or “posting comments on Slate Star Codex”. Given that this does occur, what is the probability that all of that data and metadata will be used to destroy my life ?

        Probably not.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Does someone who holds a TS security clearance and works for the NSA have enough of a grudge against you that they’d risk a lifetime in prison just to get access to your pictures of fluffy?

          Why does there need to be a grudge involved ? If you were a really bored desk jockey at the NSA, how long would it take you before you’d type “hot girlfriend” into your surveillance database search engine ? What if my girlfriend happens to be super-hot, and I was stupid enough to upload her naked photos to some cloud storage ? If you downloaded those photos, how would anyone ever know ? After all, we only found confirmation of LOVEINT by accident…

          Probably not

          Yeah, I bet that’s what Trumbo’s friends told him, too…

          • dragnubbit says:

            Finding pictures of naked hot women is about the easiest thing to do on the internet. Some say the internet evolved as it did primarily to fulfill this demand. Anyone looking for pictures of hot girlfriends does not need an NSA.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Ok, replace “naked hot women” in my example with any other piece of information that you wouldn’t want a random stranger to find out about. If your answer is, “no such information about my life exists”, then congratulations ! But unfortunately, not everyone can be as boring as you are…

          • dragnubbit says:

            The larger truth is that, really, the lives of ordinary people ARE incredibly boring to strangers. Anyone who has a need to be a peeping tom into another’s life has reality TV, facebook, celebrity mags, and lots of other ways to self-gratify that impulse legally.

            Of course I have things I want kept private. But that does not mean I oppose the ability of courts to subpoena or issue warrants. Often arguments against the NSA fail to distinguish between things they can do without a warrant and things for which FISC oversight is required and sought.

          • Controls Freak says:

            If you were a really bored desk jockey at the NSA, how long would it take you before you’d type “hot girlfriend” into your surveillance database search engine ?

            I don’t know if you mean “hot girlfriend” to be a stand-in for a name of your actual girlfriend (so you’re trying to find hidden nudes or something) or just a generic search term. If it’s the former, my response is that it’s highly unlikely they’d find anything. The only thing NSA collected in bulk was metadata, so you’re not going to get pictures from that. Instead, the desk jockey would have to be dating someone who is sending nudes to a lawful target of a foreign intelligence information. This is really unlikely. Said desk jockey would know that it’s extremely unlikely and if their actions are found out, it would result in major sanctions. I don’t think he’s likely to do something so stupid. Of course, if he is, I hope he’s fired, stripped of his clearance, and possibly thrown in jail.

            What if my girlfriend happens to be super-hot, and I was stupid enough to upload her naked photos to some cloud storage ? If you downloaded those photos, how would anyone ever know ?

            Do I have probable cause that you are an agent of a foreign power (and not a US person) and reasonable articulable suspicion that the data in your cloud storage is relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation? I’m going to be blunt – I’m simply not outraged at the possibility that NSA can get pictures of hot women. In fact, as distasteful as I find many espionage techniques, I know that they’re used regularly by everyone in that world (it’s one of the reasons why I would never personally want to enter that world). I know for a fact that China will contact Chinese civilians living in America and threaten them… maybe threaten their families directly, maybe threaten to send pictures of their secret hot girlfriends to their family… in order to get them to perform some task of espionage. I really don’t like that tactic. However, using such coercion against government/military targets is something that has been done by literally everyone since time immemorial. In the same way that I sometimes hold my nose and say, “Our government sometimes sends men with guns into foreign countries in order to kill them… and they sometimes kill civilians in the process,” I hold my nose and accept that our government may do distasteful things in the course of performing espionage.

            In order to do those distasteful things, they need to be able to do things like get the pictures of the secret hot girlfriend of Russia’s deputy undersecretary for defense. That is, they need to be able to sometimes get pictures of hot women. I don’t like it, but I mostly accept it (and think it will be highly unlikely that our government will ever unilaterally quit using classical coercion techniques in espionage). I think explicit laws have a place in reducing the chance that these capabilities will be turned against US citizens or blithely used against innocents, but I think we have to rely on hope that the leaders who are appointed to run these agencies will foster a culture that is more, “We do what we have to, but are otherwise honorable,” rather than, “Hehe… let’s make sure all the guys get to see this hot Russian girlfriend.” If you have any proposals for how we could enforce this (other than “abolish the NSA or traditional espionage techniques”), I’d really love to hear your suggestions… because I don’t like having to hold my nose, either.

            Also, I think dragnubbit is completely right that the lives of ordinary people are stupidly boring to strangers.

    • Jiro says:

      I tuink the whole idea of getting mad about the NSA spying on foreign governments is a red herring. It’s the NSA’s job. It just gets a lot of press because foreign governments have good access to the media and can get mileage out of complaining about it.

      The real problem is domestic spying and gag orders, and I do think the NSA is entirely out of control here.

      It is unlikely that NSA is actually a movie-esque “rogue agency”.

      All right, the system “NSA + FISA court + president” is a rogue agency. Yeah, rogue behavior of some types would cause foreign relations nightmares. So we won’t be getting that kind of rogue behavior. That doesn’t mean we won’t get any rogue behavior.

      The law matters.

      The law matters less when the catch-22 is that since everything is secret, there is no way for an ordinary person to challenge it. It’s not just that novel interpretations of the law are a problem, it’s that the normal checks and balances we have in our society to prevent novel interpretations don’t apply when the agency’s activities are secret and they can’t be taken to court using the normal court system.

      US Strategic Command has the capability to wipe your entire city block off the map

      If the US Strategic Command were to wipe my entire city block off the map, everyone would know about it. That serves as an inherent brake on the US Strategic Command’s ability to wipe my block off the map. Furthermore, if they did that, my heirs would be able to go to a court to try to get the government to stop these unconstitutional attacks. The NSA’s spying activities are done where nobody can see them, and you can’t go to normal courts to object because of the secrecy.

      And the Strategic Command is not going to force my landlord to build a bomb into my apartment to make it easier for them to bomb the city block, and then prosecute my landlord if he dares tell me about it.

      Post-collection constraints are meaningful.

      People complain about post-collection constraints because making the constraint post-collection removes a safety factor. We all know the saying that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Post-collection constraints mean that the NSA can spy on Americans and ask for forgiveness. I want the NSA to have to ask for permission.

      What makes Snowden more qualified to make the decision that it was actually problematic than an elected President, senior executive branch lawyers, ranking members of Congressional Intelligence Committees, and the fifteen different federal judges who approved the program during their respective tenures at FISC?

      Saying “look at all the people on my side” is meaningless when the program is secret and the people who would be on the other side are not allowed to find out about it.

      • Controls Freak says:

        the system “NSA + FISA court + president” is a rogue agency.

        …because they had a program that was right at the edge of the law… which was then explicitly authorized in slightly modified form by Congress? At some point, we have, “The system ‘Executive + Judiciary + Legislature’ is a rogue agency”… which I view as almost false by definition.

        there is no way for an ordinary person to challenge it

        Are those ordinary people foreign powers or agents of foreign powers? I don’t think any country would let agents of our government go into their courts to challenge their espionage powers.

        But, really, I covered this in III.3b. I think secret legal developments is a problem. That’s why I like the civil liberties advocates that USAFA established. I’d go so far as to give them the ability to file appeals. I also want to see how the requirement to review any decisions involving significant interpretations for declassification goes. I don’t see any solutions (or even acknowledgement of solutions I’ve embraced) in your comment.

        The NSA’s spying activities are done where nobody can see them

        This is why we have oversight. A core part of my argument is that NSA is not likely a rogue agency. Even if you think that “NSA + FISC + POTUS” is a rogue agency, they are doing things where people can see them! There are plenty of eyes, and someone is career-minded enough to expose obvious lawbreaking.

        Strategic Command is not going to force my landlord to build a bomb into my apartment to make it easier for them to bomb the city block, and then prosecute my landlord if he dares tell me about it.

        I literally don’t see how this has anything to do with anything. Engaging in illegal activities is engaging in illegal activities. You just made your own position worse by adding an additional party (who can challenge the order in court)… which gets a little bit in the way of it being secret forever and for always.

        People complain about post-collection constraints because making the constraint post-collection removes a safety factor.

        Post-collection constraints are in addition to pre-collection constraints, so this is just wrong on its face.

        I want the NSA to have to ask for permission.

        In that scenario you posed above about your landlord… does the NSA version of that involve a court order? How is that not asking for permission?

        Saying “look at all the people on my side” is meaningless when the program is secret and the people who would be on the other side are not allowed to find out about it.

        That’s why I also referred to the fact that federal judges came down 2:1 on my side after the Snowden revelations. Oh, and Congress explicitly reauthorized a substantially similar program. Saying, “Look at all the people on my side,” is meaningful when it encompasses literally all the dutifully elected/appointed officials that have the relevant authorities.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The question of whether they are a “rogue agency” seems to me to similar to the recent hullabaloo over “the system is rigged.”

          Is it the duty of our institutions to earn our trust, or is it the duty of citizens to trust their institutions?

        • J says:

          The landlord was a nice analogy, but the man himself is more instructive: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Nacchio
          http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB119240248793758652

          While AT&T and the rest were happily bending over backwards for the NSA, the Qwest CEO turned them down. So they cut Qwest out of federal contracts and sent him to jail for 4 years on trumped up charges. Or maybe he just made that up, because we’re not allowed to know things like that.

          • Controls Freak says:

            While AT&T and the rest were happily following the law, the Qwest CEO turned them down.

            FTFY. I’m sorry, but you’re just arguing at the wrong stage. If we structure domestic law in a way that allows the government to execute a warrant (even with a coincident gag order), then we expect private actors to comply. This is no different than requiring a telco to tap Tony Soprano’s phone. I literally do not care about, “Oh, but look at people who got punished for violating the law.” Argue for what the law should be and why.

          • “If we structure domestic law in a way that allows the government to execute a warrant (even with a coincident gag order), then we expect private actors to comply. ”

            You are opposed to civil disobedience in general?

          • suntzuanime says:

            Well, you’re not supposed to trump up unrelated charges. That is not how Punishment for Violating the Law is supposed to work in a functioning society. That’s retribution, not justice.

          • Controls Freak says:

            You are opposed to civil disobedience in general?

            Generally, when people participate in civil disobedience, they get punished for it. I’ve done it, myself (…was successful in getting the sympathy I was going for, too).

            Most people don’t have a consistent stance on civil disobedience, either. Suppose someone was here decrying how horrible SSM was and said, “Just look at the horrible things the jackboot gov’t is doing for SSM! They’re putting people like Kim Davis in jail!” The reply was, “Yea. We expect clerks to comply with legitimate orders to produce marriage certificates for same-sex couples.” Would you jump in with, “You are opposed to civil disobedience in general?”

            Well, no. But she’s going to get punished in the process, so she better hope she’s successful in getting people to make a change in the law.

            Well, you’re not supposed to trump up unrelated charges.

            Having read the articles (but not the court documents), I have no actual reason to believe that this is a reasonable story. It could be, but right now, it’s on the level of, “Everyone who is in jail right now says they’re innocent and that the evil prosecutor was just out to get them.” If there was a little more to go on, I might be more concerned.

          • John Schilling says:

            Well, you’re not supposed to trump up unrelated charges. That is not how Punishment for Violating the Law is supposed to work in a functioning society. That’s retribution, not justice.

            That’s plea bargaining, and it’s part of at least one unambiguously “functioning” society. If you disapprove of the practice, you’ll need to use the right adjective to say so.

          • “Generally, when people participate in civil disobedience, they get punished for it.”

            How do you feel about law breaking that the government approves of? Should the Director of National Intelligence have been prosecuted for perjury after lying under oath to a congressional committee? Should the NSA members who intercepted messages requiring a FISA warrant without such a warrant have been charged with violation of FISA, a felony punishable by up to five years and ten thousand dollars? Going back a bit, should the Chicago police officers who opened fire on an apartment full of sleeping Black Panthers, killing two of them, have been tried for murder?

            The first of those is the clearest analogy. Clapper surely believed that what he did was in the national interest–concealing from the public the extent of NSA surveillance because revealing it would cause public pressure against policies he thought desirable. He surely knew that he was telling a flat lie under oath, hence committing perjury. Should he have been punished for it?

            Going back to the case of the phone companies. Assume the facts as J stated them are correct–I don’t know if they are. The NSA orders the phone companies to do something arguably legal but arguably remaining legal only because the public doesn’t know about it. The CEO of Qwest declines. The government could prosecute him for declining, but doing so would reveal the existence of a program that the government wants to keep secret. They instead punish him “on trumped up charges.”

            Is it the CEO or the people who prosecute him who, on your principles, ought to be sent to jail?

          • “This is no different than requiring a telco to tap Tony Soprano’s phone.”

            If I correctly understand the situation, it is different in an important way. Everyone, including Tony Soprano, knew that the government had the legal and practical power to tap the phone of a suspect with a warrant. Not only did almost nobody know that the NSA was engaged in mass surveillance, government actors were prepared to commit perjury (Clapper) and deliberately misrepresent the source of their evidence in multiple court cases in order to keep the public from knowing.

            “If we structure domestic law in a way that allows the government to execute a warrant ”

            Except that, in this case as I understand it, the NSA was demanding surveillance without either a court order or approval from the FISA court.

          • Controls Freak says:

            They instead punish him “on trumped up charges.”

            If they actually do this, I disapprove. Those facts are not in evidence.

            If I correctly understand the situation, it is different in an important way. Everyone, including Tony Soprano, knew that the government had the legal and practical power to tap the phone of a suspect with a warrant.

            Everyone knows that the government has the legal and practical power to look through the communications of agents of foreign powers for foreign intelligence purposes. They even knew that they didn’t need a warrant in order to do this for metadata. The only difference is the collection/query two-step. This has been changed in USAFA, and now most pro-privacy organizations are saying that this isn’t ‘an important way in which they are different’. Are you saying that they’re wrong in their assessment?

        • J says:

          What would it look like if, instead of functional oversight, the secret agencies and the overseers were playing power games amongst themselves?

          Because to me, it would look a lot like the CIA attacking the computers of the Senate committee tasked with their oversight, and the chairman of the committee, who long reassured us about how great everything was, suddenly doing an about-face and demanding more oversight. (Say, did anyone lose their job and go to jail for life over that?)

          https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/03/12/feinstein-doesnt-like-the-cia-spying-on-her-committee-but-shes-fine-with-nsa-bulk-data-collection/

    • [I thought I posted this a day or so back, but it doesn’t seem to be here]

      “If NSA, for the most part, is at least trying to follow the law and orders from the President, then the law matters. ”

      What if it is willing to follow orders from the President that violate the law?

      That is not merely a hypothetical situation. As best I understand the facts, it describes what actually happened. The NSA intercepted communications that required a warrant from the FISA court without having such a warrant and the resulting information went to the President. That means that both President Bush and lots of members of the NSA were committing a felony whose penalty is up to ten thousand dollars and five years in prison.

      “Second, by way of analogy, “US Strategic Command has the capability to wipe your entire city block off the map.””

      It’s hard to imagine any plausible situation in which the incumbent administration would benefit by arranging a nuclear attack on a U.S. city or in which pilots would obey such an order. It’s quite easy to imagine situations in which an incumbent administration could benefit by access to the communications of Americans, such as opposition politicians or journalists, and providing such information would be much less obviously objectionable to the NSA staff involved than dropping a nuclear weapon on a U.S. city would be to the Air Force staff involved.

    • eh1 says:

      A couple of thoughts, not all of which are direct responses:

      There is no such thing as perfect security. There is no such thing as perfect privacy. Nor do these things directly trade off for one another.

      In the same way that laymen [0] who read pop science articles about quantum physics often incorrectly confuse it with fuzzy logic, laymen who read that perfect security doesn’t exist often believe that no security exists. This is often used as a justification. “There is no such thing as perfect security… so I can do my internet banking over HTTP.” “There is no such thing as perfect privacy… so I can read my girlfriend’s text messages.” In reality, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and while perfect security is non-existent, security believed to be “good enough” is widely used.

      When applied to SIGINT in general and the NSA in particular, this concept suggests that they shouldn’t deliberately weaken security below a certain level, lest they lower the sophistication necessary to defeat a given measure so far that it weakens critical infrastructure in their own country. Examples of deliberately compromised security include Dual_EC_DRBG and A5/1. The former was cracked by the EFF and the latter was cracked by some Black Hat speakers.

      If NSA is developing the capability to spy on Vladimir Putin, do you think they have the capability to spy on you?

      Spying on Putin is probably pretty expensive: you might need 0-days, or bribes for Boris the friendly IT bloke at the Kremlin to go plug your USB stick in, or some rather expensive equipment to intercept a live run of fibre, or a lab where the NSA nerds can build a bugged typewriter. Plus, all those schemes come with a significant risk of getting caught.

      You could probably spy on me as an individual for less than a thousand dollars: bug my kitchen, stick a keylogger into my laptop, attach a car battery to a raspberry pi and hook it up to the copper phone line running into my house. Maybe a few people who get this treatment notice it, but the government would only spend the money on people it reasonably believed were guilty, so who cares?

      In contrast, capturing and analysing communications metadata for everyone in Australia [1] cost about $6.50/head [2] to set up. There’s absolutely no sign that a specific individual is being spied on, and it’s financially possible to cover the entire country. Under current laws surveillance of metadata isn’t applied from the time the police get permission, it’s applied from the time the collection starts, which could be years in the past. Even further, this kind of surveillance would be useless against a determined adversary like Putin, or even against the average Wickr-using [3] drug dealer.

      This is not exactly the same as the situation in the US. However, it bears meaningful similarities, particularly as most public criticism in the US is of metadata collection. Mass surveillance and Putin surveillance are two radically different capabilities for an intelligence agency to possess, and there are areas of mass surveillance which have absolutely no overlap with Putin surveillance. The difference matters a great deal. Concessions like notifying parties after an investigation ends, or requiring warrants for requests that aren’t time-sensitive, could ease concerns.

      These are all programs aimed directly at foreign governments and militaries. They are the core of what we want NSA to do.

      As mentioned above, I am Australian. I neither want the NSA to spy on my government nor want the ASD [4] to spy on the US government. This is because politicians must have private communication channels to collaborate and reach a consensus internally. It is in the interests of both of us that our governments act quickly and cohesively.

      we find NSA targeting key foreign governments in order to determine their respective dispositions concerning the President’s flagship foreign relations effort on nuclear proliferation. Let that sink in for a second. Regardless of whether you agree with the President’s effort, you have to hope that when he asks his NSA what those governments are thinking, they’re able to tell him.

      Since part of Australia’s contribution to nuclear disarmament could well consist of telling America to fuck off when it wants access to our military installations in order to encircle China, I have to hope that the NSA has zero access whatsoever.

      You are probably coming from a position of inherent trust in the goodness of your country and government which I do not share. Perhaps it would help to reflect on whether Xi Jinping should have access to our Prime Minister’s private opinions on nuclear armament and military vulnerability, and whether such access makes nuclear war more or less likely, then compare it to your thoughts on Barack Obama’s access.

      [0] Laymen like me. This isn’t meant as an insult. I believed quantum physics was magical fuzzy logic for a distressingly long time.

      [1] Where I currently live.

      [2] http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/metadata-retention-changes-explained-20151011-gk6m7p.html

      With better oversight or lower labour costs this could probably have been cents.

      [3] Based on completely anecdotal second-hand evidence. Apparently in the US drug dealers use burner phones, but you can’t get those here.

      [4] Roughly equivalent to the NSA.

      • Controls Freak says:

        laymen who read that perfect security doesn’t exist often believe that no security exists. This is often used as a justification.

        I definitely don’t subscribe to the idea that no security exists. In fact, I had stated, “The question is always whether you have enough practical security/privacy.” I definitely wouldn’t use this poor concept as a justification for terrible security practices.

        security believed to be “good enough” is widely used.

        I agree completely.

        When applied to SIGINT in general and the NSA in particular, this concept suggests that they shouldn’t deliberately weaken security below a certain level, lest they lower the sophistication necessary to defeat a given measure so far that it weakens critical infrastructure in their own country.

        I agree in general. Particulars are more difficult. Theoretical trapdoors are often of the type, “We don’t know for sure that this is in there, but it could be… unfortunately, it probably takes about as much effort to reverse-engineer the actual trapdoor as it would to just break the encryption in the first place.” That is, Dual_EC_DRBG isn’t so much “cracked” as they are thought to be weak to certain highly sophisticated actors who might have some special information (I’m not sure if it’s known that A5/1 was “deliberately compromised”). Anyway, I definitely agree that when NSA wants to do something that could weaken our systems, they need to perform a realistic analysis of the benefits/dangers. Unfortunately, this certainly has to be done in secret… which makes it incredibly difficult to comment on from the outside. It’s akin to watching military actions from afar… or even just watching football on TV. We can sometimes see a portion of the result of the commander/coach’s decision, but we don’t generally have access to the information they were considering and the process by which they made the decision. It’s tough.

        Mass surveillance and Putin surveillance are two radically different capabilities for an intelligence agency to possess

        I agree with your discussion about the relative difficulties/expense, and in one sense of the word “capabilities”, these are different capabilities. However, I was using the word “capabilities” to describe the common sense of, “But they could get my X data!!” For any value of X, they’re developing more expensive techniques to get Putin’s X data.

        That said, I agree that the differences are meaningful. I care almost not one whit about TAO, because going after hard targets is a core part of NSA’s mission and the additional expense makes it unlikely to be turned on ordinary citizens. I’m personally quite glad that bulk collection has been ended.

        Concessions like notifying parties after an investigation ends

        I’m 100% on board with notification for domestic law enforcement. However, it just doesn’t really compute for me in context of a foreign intelligence investigation. Domestic LE wiretaps are focused on a particular charge or set of charges. It generally makes sense to think that if they don’t bring charges within, say, six months of the end of the period for which a judge is willing to authorize the wiretap, then they’re probably just not able to bring those charges. The investigation is essentially dead.

        Foreign intelligence just doesn’t work like that. Boris has worked in the Russian embassy in Cairo, and there’s reason to believe he’s engaging in espionage against the American embassy. There’s probably not a defined end-point for the information gained in this investigation. Ten years goes by; they couldn’t prove the allegations of espionage (not that they would be able to actually bring charges, anyway… just try to mitigate whatever method he was exploiting); Boris is now back in Moscow, working directly in the Kremlin. He’s still an agent of a foreign power… maybe he even has a higher position. However, he’s not specifically the target of any particular investigation. Do we send him a letter, “Boris, ten years ago, the NSA spied on you by tapping phone number X and gathering other data Y and Z”? I mean, in this context, it would just be silly.

        There is one domain where I think you could make a case for it. The more recent amendments to FISA have basically rolled powers to investigate international terrorism into the FISA schema. While I think there are good reasons to legally distinguish between international terrorism and regular mass murder, the lines are often more murky. We already have various legal prohibitions that attach to geography as well as citizenship/residence (i.e., if you’re a foreigner located in the US, even temporarily, you have greater protections than foreigners abroad), but there are still more issues in the terrorism realm. I’d be on board with attempts at either making this distinction sharper or separating out rules for terrorism investigations from more typical state-on-state espionage.

        requiring warrants for requests that aren’t time-sensitive

        There are very few exceptions to the warrant requirement based on time-sensitivity. They’re definitely not the issue when it comes to any of the major surveillance programs that people generally talk about. Instead, we’re usually talking about domains where the Supreme Court has said that the warrant requirement just doesn’t apply in the first instance (rather than an exception), such as for business records held by third-parties or data relating to foreign actors for intelligence purposes.

        I am Australian. I neither want the NSA to spy on my government nor want the ASD [4] to spy on the US government.

        Good luck with that. I definitely don’t come from a position of inherent trust in the goodness of my country or government. I come from a position of acceptance that international espionage is going to be a thing. We’re not going to get rid of it in the near future. There’s just too much distrust among countries and too much to be gained/lost. The only real method of creating a strong legal body that could punish defectors would be via treaty, and I just don’t see any countries out there who would be likely to sign on. It would be an absolutely Herculean effort, and while I would welcome any attempt to do it, I just don’t think it’s worth my time to entertain arguments against intelligence wholesale.

        • J says:

          Good luck with that. I definitely don’t come from a position of inherent trust in the goodness of my country or government. I come from a position of acceptance that international espionage is going to be a thing. We’re not going to get rid of it in the near future. There’s just too much distrust among countries and too much to be gained/lost. The only real method of creating a strong legal body that could punish defectors would be via treaty, and I just don’t see any countries out there who would be likely to sign on. It would be an absolutely Herculean effort, and while I would welcome any attempt to do it, I just don’t think it’s worth my time to entertain arguments against intelligence wholesale.

          Replace “espionage” with “war” or “torture” or “corruption” or even “slavery” and that paragraph works just as well. And in a sense it’s true for all of those things. But for none of those things does it justify the status quo.

          Treaties are important, especially when countries are committed to enforcing them and don’t try to cheat on them. Since the US spends so much on being the best at espionage, we should expect friendly countries to be quite happy at the prospect of us proposing to not spy on each other.

          • Controls Freak says:

            I’m on board with John Schilling’s reply to you above. Good luck with trying to abolish espionage. If you can, I’ll like it, but you almost certainly can’t. Of your examples, corruption and slavery almost certainly don’t count – they’re handled domestically. We’ve tried two major international organizations to stop war… how’s that going for us? What’s left is torture.

            I think a big reason why Geneva was passed is because it was viewed in context of total war. Sure, everyone wants their own guys to not be tortured… but what they’re really concerned about is that they might lose a war. At that point, the victors come in and punish everyone mercilessly as revenge for the torture they committed during wartime. Since the losers lost the war, they no longer have a state protecting them from any revenge the victors desire.

            With espionage, they’re not really thinking of it in terms of the outcome of total war. They expect that even if they get caught in an act of espionage, they will still have a functional state which is protecting them. Sure, if an individual is caught red-handed, he’s in for trouble (he knows that going in), but even then, he has a state who may be willing to attempt an extraction mission or trade prisoners to free him. This difference in setting makes a No Espionage, and We’re Super Serious, Guys Treaty even more Herculean than Geneva.

            Since the US spends so much on being the best at espionage, we should expect friendly countries to be quite happy at the prospect of us proposing to not spy on each other.

            Since the US spends so much on being the best at espionage, why would friendly countries expect that they could catch the US doing it, definitively attribute it, and then effectively sanction the behavior? …and why would the US even think about signing such a treaty? Finally, while the US is likely the best at espionage among countries with which it is friendly, the gap is much smaller wrt unfriendly countries (and the US may be behind in subsets). They’re going to put in all the same effort into developing the capabilities anyway, so a treaty will only be possible for countries the US is really friendly with. Honestly, Britain or Canada may be the only plausible partners… and even then, the existing level of spying is likely low enough that it’s hard to motivate going through all the bollocks of a complicated negotiation. Worse, once you’ve agreed upon harsh punishments, you’re stuck to publicly escalating later if you do find anything. I think most countries would prefer to have the option of, “Well, they got us on that one; we’ll get them back… maybe in private, maybe later,” or even the option of just using a stern gaze to inspire an apologetic concession on a different matter. As Obama learned recently, once you start setting things like “red lines”, lots of people get upset if you think it’s best to respond in a sub-total-war manner.

          • John Schilling says:

            Replace “espionage” with “war” or “torture” or “corruption” or even “slavery” and that paragraph works just as well.

            No, it really doesn’t. “Make a treaty outlawing [X]” is not a one-size-fits-all solution into which we can plug whatever X outrages us. Treaties between sovereign nations, because of the difficulty of effective enforcement, are tricky affairs practical only in a limited set of circumstances.

            In particular, they depend on people (particularly the sort of rich, powerful, establishment people who run nations) being inherently risk- and loss-averse. The treaty has to be roughly symmetric, with costs and risks shared fairly, or you won’t get everyone to agree. But some treaties can still be seen as a net positive by everyone, because the opportunities they forgo by signing weigh less on them than the consequences of not signing or getting caught cheating. See, e.g., pre-WWII naval arms limitation treaties:

            Cost of signing: You might get blockaded or invaded in time of war, particularly if you are fighting one of the great naval powers (we all know who those are, and it’s not going to change any time soon)

            Cost of not signing: Exactly the same as the cost of signing, and you have to spend a metric fuckton of money on some very expensive ships or you’re sure to be blockaded/invaded in wartime.

            Cost of cheating: Exactly the same as the cost of not signing, because you can’t build secret battleships.

            Risk of the other guy cheating: See above.

            Sometimes they very much aren’t. To take your examples:

            War: Cost of signing the treaty, you don’t get to conquer anyone, benefit of signing the treaty, you don’t get conquered, no-brainer obvious that’s a win provided there’s no risk of your being easily conquered when the other side cheats. Result, we get lots of treaties that naively forbid wars or at least wars of conquest but whose practical result is just that everyone renames their “War Department” the “Department of Defense” and proceeds as usual.

            Torture: You don’t get the emotional satisfaction of torturing your enemies, but you don’t risk being tortured or having people you care about tortured. That’s a clear win, and since torture doesn’t really make much difference in the outcome of a war even if only one side does it, there’s no great risk from the other side cheating. These treaties usually work pretty well.

            Corruption: You don’t get to collect bribes, you don’t have to pay bribes, zero-sum game so the loss-averse will always agree to sign an anti-corruption treaty. But the cheating occurs in secret until the corruption is too entrenched to remove, so the treaties are inconsequential.

            Slavery: Owning slaves isn’t a huge win over hiring minimum-wage employees, but the down side if you wind up being the slave is huge, and it’s hard to profit from slaves you have to keep hidden, so this one is pretty easy.

            Espionage: Up side of ubiquitous spying, your enemies can’t launch sneak attacks that conquer and enslave you, or maybe just terrorize and kill you. Down side, you don’t have as much privacy as you want. Risk of cheating: You’ve just signed away the one thing that might have let you know whether the other guy was holding up his end of the bargain.

            If naval arms control is a textbook case of Treaties Can Make This Better, your implied suggestion of an anti-espionage treaty is a textbook case of Don’t Make Me Laugh.

          • bean says:

            Cost of cheating: Exactly the same as the cost of not signing, because you can’t build secret battleships.

            Not exactly. There was a lot of cheating around the edges, particularly by the Germans and Japanese. But even then, it constrained both to cheating around the edges of the treaties. The most cheating ships were (IIRC) 20-30% over tonnage, which did lead a British constructor to say of one “they’re either cheating or building their ships out of cardboard”. Of course, the US wasn’t blameless. My favorite was the (IIRC) 50 round-per-gun reduction in ammo allowance on the South Dakota-class. Of course, they left space for a 450-round ‘mobilization allowance’, but that didn’t count under the treaty.

            (This shouldn’t be read to undermine your larger point. I just like some of the stuff that went on around those treaties.)

    • cassander says:

      First let me just say wonderful write up.

      My problem with the surveillance state is not the typical one. If everyone was in the panopticon, I don’t think this would be a problem. If everyone’s browser history was on display, we’d have a few awkward years when we learned a lot of things things we’d rather not about the people we know, but eventually we’d get over it and learn to deal with a transparent world. The trouble is, we’re never going to get there. there is too much popular attachment to the notion of privacy, too much legal tradition from a pre-digital era. There are going to be rules about what can and can’t be looked at. And that would be fine if those rules were going to be enforced equally in all cases, but they won’t be.

      We’re all guilty of something. Historically, that hasn’t been a problem because of the inability to track down solid evidence for that guilt without serious amounts of legwork. As more things become digitized, though, that stops being the case. People admit their guilt all the time, and once those admissions are digitized and archived, they become enormously powerful weapons in the hands of those with access to them.

      Now, you say there are rules governing how this data can be used, and you’re right, there are, but that’s part of the problem. Because we are all legitimately guilty, the rules will be of little protection for the average person. Once someone comes under the eye, evidence of something is bound to come up. what the rules will do, in practice, is protect the powerful and powerful and well connected. We see it already with Hillary’s emails where an FBI clearly disinterested in prosecution was able to find plenty of excuses not to do so. Had someone they wanted to get done, they’d be desperately trying to get access to those NSA email archives to find something damning.

      Basically, surveillance makes the problem of different spanks for different ranks becomes much, much worse. I have no problem punishing the guilty, I have an old testament mentality in that regard, but I worry about the effects of making our already weakly accountable elite even less accountable.

      • Controls Freak says:

        This sounds very similar to a type of argument I despise (no offense). It happens a lot in inequality arguments. People say, “X allows more benefits to wealthy people than poor people, so X is bad.” The problem is that we can almost always stuff anything into X. The existence of cars allow more benefits to wealthy people, because wealthy people can afford nicer cars which provide a more comfortable environment, better protection from the elements, and more safety in crashes. Therefore, cars are bad. It just doesn’t compute for me. (Some other time after the election, ask me about how this plays out in politically-charged macroeconomics.)

        I’m getting that kind of feeling here. I don’t think there is any law that could possibly be immune to the vague idea that it can be used by “the elites” (however broadly you feel like defining them for the object issue de jour). I don’t think your idea of the panopticon hits, either. An analogy to “there is no perfect privacy” is “there is no perfect transparency”. One could equally have the vague idea that “the elites” would be the only ones able to grab bits of privacy in your panopticon utopia.

        We see it already with Hillary’s emails … Had someone they wanted to get done, they’d be desperately trying to get access to those NSA email archives to find something damning.

        I’m going to again try to skip an object-level discussion of Hillary’s emails (at least for the next two weeks) and try to keep this mostly about SIGINT. That being said, I think we can interpret this the other way. In an election year, a ferocious opposition party (which is typically over-identified in the nat sec establishment) furiously pursued every avenue available to acquire damning information on a major presidential candidate. The fact that NSA has apparently kept their data out of the fight is an indication that they are more strongly attached to the distinction between their foreign intelligence mission and whatever domestic matter is preoccupying “the elites”.

        I would anticipate a counter along the lines of, “They can stay out of an elite-on-elite battle, but they’ll surely roll over for an elite-on-peon battle.” I suppose, but this is right back to the land of, “What doesn’t this argument apply to?” I mean, think of the most banal investigatory powers governments have had for centuries – subpoenas and search warrants. Is there a reason we can’t also imagine that the gatekeepers to these powers (generally judges) will stick to principles when elites are trying to misuse power against other elites, but acquiesce when it’s turned on ‘the little guy’? If not, is there any reason to say, “This chunk of powers can be protected by laws/norms, but that chunk can’t”?

        • Jiro says:

          I mean, think of the most banal investigatory powers governments have had for centuries – subpoenas and search warrants.

          Subpoenas and search warrants in non-espionage cases are normally executed in the open and have to be defended in court where the public can find out about government overreach. That acts to prevent the norms from slipping.

          • Controls Freak says:

            This is why oversight is extremely important in espionage cases. Again, we’ve known this lesson well since the 70s.

            The Snowden revelations showed oversight mostly working well, and NSA mostly doing things squarely within the norms we expect. The only questionable aspects were then defended in court… and again, to date, the record is 17:1 in favor of the proposition that NSA was within the norms we expect.

            I think there is a good theoretical argument here that we need to be careful with foreign intelligence powers. I think there is an even stronger practical argument that we *have* been very careful. As I’ve stated, I’m amenable to particular arguments for ways we can be more careful… but I’m not ok with jumping from a theoretical argument about needing to be careful all the way to, “..and thus, we should abolish SIGINT.”

        • cassander says:

          > People say, “X allows more benefits to wealthy people than poor people, so X is bad.”

          I agree that that’s a bad argument, but I don’t think I’m making it. This is my fault, the point I was trying to get at was that rather than look to traditional institutional safeguards to protect against the excesses of surveillance, you need a fundamentally different approach, and that, in certain circumstances, more traditional protection makes the system worse, not better. In particular, focusing on transparency is more important than privacy.

          >If not, is there any reason to say, “This chunk of powers can be protected by laws/norms, but that chunk can’t”?

          Not so much this particular chunk can or can’t be protected, but the that combination of everyone being guilty plus massive surveillance means no one is really protected against anything unless they are politically influential.

          • Controls Freak says:

            in certain circumstances, more traditional protection makes the system worse, not better. In particular, focusing on transparency is more important than privacy.

            I’m not sure this makes sense. Traditional protection is oversight, because covert foreign signals intelligence necessarily must be kept secret. Increasing oversight is brethren to increasing transparency – more eyes on the process reduce the likelihood of abuse, but increases the likelihood that OPSEC will be broken. I don’t see how this really functions differently than transparency… it’s just a matter of extent, and the extent necessary for what I think you mean by transparency would by definition kill the covert nature of foreign SIGINT. I’m just not sure what you’re going at that doesn’t get back to “kill SIGINT”.

            combination of everyone being guilty plus massive surveillance means no one is really protected against anything unless they are politically influential

            I kind of get what your original idea here is going for, but I really think it’s just starting from a position that I’m not arguing for. I don’t think anyone is really arguing for a panopticon. I think they’re arguing for specific authorities for specific government actors to invade privacy for specific purposes. I agree that if we count up the number of discoverable actions out of the total number of actions, the fraction is getting higher over time. I don’t necessarily think this is because of SIGINT. It’s more just because people willingly carry a camera and microphone with them everywhere, and they go places where lots of other people have cameras/microphones/other sensors (and there are just more people, period). I totally agree that we need to set careful rules for how law enforcement or intel agencies can access all that data (just like we need to be careful about giving google/facebook/etc so much access), but I think the core of your concern is far broader than SIGINT. If we tease out the SIGINT component, then we’re kind of just back to the discussion I wanted to start – what actual authorities do they have? Do we have reason to believe they’re following/breaking the rules? Are those rules sensible?

  2. Mammon says:

    I wish I could use my Facebook or Google accounts to authenticate here. Creating yet another password, meh.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Again, if someone helps me or shows me how, I’ll make it happen.

    • Placid Platypus says:

      I find it helps to have a standardized, easy to remember password shared among all accounts where losing it wouldn’t be that big a deal.

      • Anon says:

        If you have a password shared among all your accounts, losing it would be a very big deal in bold and italic.

        When I need real security (e.g. financials, personal info), I prefer a core passphrase followed by a site-specific passphrase. When I don’t, I use one of a few passphrases I’ve used over the years, occasionally modifying it to fit the site requirements. Using the same password everywhere, no matter how good it is, is a death sentence, because if any place has a plaintext leak you’re f-u-c-k-e-d FUCKED.

        • Exa says:

          What I do, and what I interpret Platypus as saying that they do, is use a single password for everything where I wouldn’t actually care if it was compromised.
          So if my “I don’t care if these things are compromised” password is compromised, I… by assumption, don’t really care.

          • j.28724 says:

            That’s an option, but why do that when password managers are so simple? You might end up with more personal info on your supposed throwaway accounts than you think.

            I haven’t used a password I actually remember in years, and as a result my accounts are much safer and much easier to log into.

          • Anon says:

            @j, I personally don’t believe in password managers, but that’s mainly because I’ve watched too many people get burned by exploits before. I prefer the XKCD “correct horse battery staple” passphrase approach; it’s about as cryptographically secure and I can remember my passwords myself rather than relying on a program to do it for me.

          • Anonymous says:

            Password managers have a single point of failure, which is my objection against them. You lose your one password you need to know? Tough shit, you’ve lost everything it managed.

            Hell, if you store your passwords locally, you’re one disk failure away from losing all your passwords. (Mind: some don’t rely on storage, AFAIK, which obviates that objection.)

            My solution is to keep a deadtree list of passwords I don’t care to remember, be damned to remember the critical ones, and have a 2-step authentication with real-world verification-recovery for the hubs that make it possible to set up new passwords in case of loss of the deadtree list.

          • bradssc says:

            One diceware password (currently six to seven words are recommended) is fine. But no way I’m going to remember the 7-8 secure passwords I need at a minimum.

            The deadtree list is a fine idea.

            On the subject of account recovery, the US phone companies are terrible about social attacks. See if the company you use has the ability to add a verbal password before they will talk to you and a lock of porting.

      • Anon. says:

        This is a super bad idea. All your accounts become as secure as the least secure service you’re using. Which is almost certainly highly insecure. Breaches happen all the time and you can’t trust developers to properly secure your password. You can check if your details have been leaked at https://haveibeenpwned.com/

        The optimal approach imo is a password manager, and unique passwords for each site.

  3. suntzuanime says:

    I’m skeptical of requiring registration. I’m not sure how well it’s going to stop dedicated trolls, and the inconvenience is going to keep away people who have interesting comments to make on individual articles but aren’t yet full members of the community, which then means the community never gets new full members, because that’s where they come from.

    Also it no longer links to my blog in my username, which for someone who actually updated their blog would be non-ideal.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m also skeptical, but after years of wondering whether I should try it I’m just going to jump in and do the experiment.

      If someone (Bakkot) can tell me how to let users keep links in their names, I’ll make it happen.

    • MarginalCost says:

      Frankly, there are so many comments anyway, I can’t read them all. I’m going to triage the comments I read anyway, and this doesn’t seem to be an obviously worse way of doing it than my default strategy (of a combination of whoever posts firsts, who replies to early top-level comments, and occasionally ctrl-f’ing for a particular keyword). If a decrease in comment volume is the price of stronger community norms, I’m willing to make that tradeoff.

      The lack of website linking in the username does seem a serious problem though.

    • AndyMcKenzie says:

      Long-time reader, very rarely comment, but I made an account just to say that if this change saves Scott time and/or energy, leading to either

      a) slightly more or highly quality top-level posts, or
      b) a lower probability of him quitting blogging,

      then I strongly support it.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      To link name, go here and search for “website.”

      • suntzuanime says:

        test

        OK, that didn’t work. I assumed you meant I should go to my own wp-admin, since I don’t have admin privileges on SSC yet, but maybe you meant something different?

        • Douglas Knight says:

          My link works for me. It’s just for regular accounts, not administering the whole site. If it doesn’t work for you, it’s probably because you linked the accounts. Maybe going to your own wp-admin will work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      Yes, I really hate this registration. There’s no way I would have gone through this trouble if I wasn’t already committed to SSC. I suspect this will seriously limit new commenters here, which is a bad thing. I keep hoping we will get some new blood from the Left, and this will seriously inhibit that. Although I must say it seems there are more left leaning comments the last couple of weeks from already existing contributors, so maybe the lefties are feeling more confident that we want to hear their political views.

      I sure hope there is some benefit, Scott. I am not too tech savvy, so I don’t understand the need for this; it appears others do.

      • Evan Þ says:

        +1. If I wasn’t already a somewhat-regular commenter, or if I didn’t value this site quite as seriously as I do, I would’ve walked right away. I consider anything requiring email confirmation, like this, a relatively serious burden.

      • Deiseach says:

        I hate, loathe and abominate WordPress because it keeps telling me “no you can’t have two accounts with the same email address” and when I want to delete that account so I can change my details for here, it tells me I have to do sixty steps, besides various other inconveniences. It is not user-friendly and between it and Disqus, I can’t tell which is worse.

        Anyway, after ten minutes’ struggle and pouring imprecations on their heads, here I am!

    • BBA says:

      Annoyingly, being forced to use a real email changes my gravatar (and outs me as having used a fake email in the past).

      But if I have to register, might as well take advantage of it and give myself a real picture – and coincidentally my usual avatar is appropriate to this thread’s title, dood.

  4. Alyosha says:

    Some time ago I discovered the nootropic Modafinil through SSC, and began using it on occasion. I find it very useful–particularly for easing the negative effects of not sleeping enough.

    I have recently started a far more demanding job than anything I have had in the past, and I’m regularly working 70+ hours per week. This has had an impact on the amount of sleep I’m getting, and my usage of Modafinil has increased to compensate. I’m not using it daily, about 3-4 times per week is typical.

    I get the impression that Modafinil use is common among this community, so I am hoping to get some advice about whether I’m being reckless with my health. Is it a terrible idea to use it 3-4 times per week to compensate for routinely sleeping fewer than 6 hours per night?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      (disclaimer: not medical advice)

      Probably, in the sense that it doesn’t actually compensate for sleep, just makes you feel okay anyway. A pill that suppresses hunger can have no side effects but still make you starve to death.

      I’ve heard some anecdotal evidence that truly crazy amounts of modafinil can cause people to build up a tolerance, although it’s harder than I would think.

      And of course any not-completely-understood drug might have rare hard-to-detect long-term side effects like increasing your risk of Alzheimers 50% or something.

      But I don’t think there are any really well-known specific side effects of overusing it.

      • j.28724 says:

        I received symptoms very similar to OCD after months of daily modafinil use, usually between 25 – 75 mg. I strongly suspect the OCD-like symptoms to have been tied to either modafinil use, modafinil withdrawal as it was wearing off, some combination of that and daily cannabis use, and/or some combination of that and the sleep deprivation caused in part by the modafinil. The symptoms went away about 2-3 days after I cut the modafinil cold turkey.

        I still use it once per week on average with absolutely no issues, but I began pushing my bedtime later and later without properly compensating, and in general noticed weird mood changes after months of use.

        If only for the sleep disruption alone, I think daily use is probably not worth it (unless you have a lot of self-control when it comes to sleep habits and hygiene). And if you do use it daily, take it as early as possible and in the lowest effective dose. Its ability to effectively erase sleep deprivation is a blessing and a curse when you have a drawer full of 50 pills.

    • keranih says:

      A thought on trade offs –

      What are your health risks if you don’t take the drug? I mean, it’s one thing if not taking modafinil leaves you feeling lousy and sluggish all day as you sit at your desk and peck at the keyboard (*), and another thing entirely if you’re going to spend the day driving on the freeway or defusing bombs.

      A second thought – what are you trading for those hours of sleep? If you’re using the drug so that you can care for your child or put in more hours inventing a briefcase desalination unit, okay. If you’re doing something like reading novels or getting into Tribal Signalling fights on Tumblr or –

      – to pick an example completely at random –

      – playing Civ VI (or any version of any other video game), then that’s probably not worth the risk.

      (This isn’t medical advice, either, just a suggest for how to weigh pros & cons of a course of action.)

      (*) the side effects of sedentary lifestyle should probably also be taken into account, so if taking the drug means you have the energy to go to the gym, and do so, that should be put on the plus side, imo.

    • Corey says:

      I learned from my sleep-apnea diagnosis and treatment, the biggest risk of sleep deprivation is falling asleep at the wheel, which can ruin your whole day.

  5. keranih says:

    Several OTs back, we were discussing the impact of selective pressure on the human genome (ie, if parents started using donor sperm, or opting for gene manipulation). I suggested that selective pressure could have tremendous effects on the population by magnifying effects of subsequent generations, and David Friedman disagreed with my math, if not my main point.

    Here is the discussion of the impact on the national herd of a mutation in a particular, popular, dairy cow stud.

    Frankly, because I’d heard this before, my main take away was the staggering advances we’ve made in gene sequencing. Running a complete breakdown of a particular organism in an afternoon – I find this staggering.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Either you’re misinterpreting the article, or I’m misinterpreting your takeaway? They’d already sequenced the bull’s genome; they were analyzing it for nonsense mutations.

  6. Anyone have personal experience using drugs–in particular beta blockers or benzodiapenes–during public performances? (Often phrased as for “performance anxiety”, but as a semi-professional performer I like to think I’m not anxious, just not as relaxed and loose as I could be.)

    On the advice of my voice teacher I’ve started drinking a little bit before shows sometimes, but I’ve heard some very good reviews of more aggressive pharmacology…

    • suspendedreason says:

      You could, but you run the risks of 1) memory loss (in the moment, eg forgetting your lines) and 2) lowered inhibitions. Obviously, high doses of alcohol can cause these effects as well, but it’s easier with benzodiapenes than with alcohol to accidentally overdo it.

      If you end up giving a shot, absolutely give it a trial run ahead of time and err on the side of caution when dosing.

      • S/R says:

        Update: Have read a fair amount of anecdotal reports that beta blockers, and potentially benzos as well, take away not just the anxiety but also the chemical rewards of performing. Might be something better reserved for important performances (as opposed to regularly), though obviously even if this effect is real, it likely varies person-to-person. Something to keep in mind at least.

        • Creutzer says:

          Have read a fair amount of anecdotal reports that beta blockers, and potentially benzos as well, take away not just the anxiety but also the chemical rewards of performing.

          What are those, actually – the chemical rewards of performance? I’m curious, because it’s not obvious to me that they exist.

          • S/R says:

            I’m sure I could dig up literature supporting this, but–

            I think there’s a pretty clear relationship (in my personal, anecdotal experience; not extrapolating) between the adrenaline/anxiety which causes pre-performance nerves, and (when a performance goes well) the post-performance “high” commonly reported by most everyone who competes seriously in athletics or public performances. I guess you could summarize this as “emotional investment in a risky situation causes pre-event anxiety but also yields high post-event pay-off if successful.” A drug which numbs the emotional rollercoaster that is high-stakes performances seems likely to, and has in my own experience with such substances, truncate both the highs and lows of the experience. Sometimes this is necessary, such as when the external, tangible rewards of high performance substantially outweigh its internal, more intangible rewards. In other scenarios, this might not be a worthwhile sacrifice.

          • Creutzer says:

            Thank you. I wasn’t aware that there is such a thing as a ‘post-performance high’. I can see how that might work as a motivating reward.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Another advantage of booze over prescription meds is that we know the long-term effects of use and overuse. Alcohol is a known quality.

        • wintermute92 says:

          …I can’t believe I’ve never seen this point made before.

          Alcohol’s chronic symptoms suck, yes, but we know about low and infrequent dosing better than maybe any other depressant.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Plus, I think most people have a better idea of how booze affects them (except the chronically un-self-aware) than how a prescription medication affects them. Its effects are so easy to see that it’s hardly “oh, I’m stumbling and slurring my words and telling things I really shouldn’t to people I barely know – must be that ol’ placebo effect!” territory.

          • wintermute92 says:

            I definitely worry that things like Benadryl cause people subtle symptoms that they don’t account for.

            I don’t take Dayquil when I need to be sharp, because it makes me feel totally normal but think like I’m wading through mud. We all know not to drink and drive, but if cold medicine makes you clumsy or slow to react it’s just as concerning. Alcohol is, if nothing else, unsubtle.

    • Acedia says:

      If your problem is excessive physical tension, beta blockers could help a lot since all they do is reduce the physical symptoms of elevated adrenaline (trembling, increased pulse, hyperventilation etc). They’re not psychotropic so if it’s mental anxiety you’re looking to deal with then they won’t be particularly useful, except to the degree that knowing your nervousness is invisible makes you calmer.

    • jonm says:

      Can’t speak to benzos, but I found beta blockers very effective for performance anxiety. My anxiety was primarily about the anxiety, so breaking the loop in terms of physical effects was enough to turn presentations into something I could enjoy. I actually found that I didn’t need them after a while because I no longer had the same levels of anxiety expectations before giving a talk.

      (not medical advice obviously)

    • wintermute92 says:

      If you’re willing to take good one-remove data: I’ve known more than one doctor who embraced this solution for beta blockers. I generally don’t see benzos as something to play with, but I don’t know how they operate at low and infrequent usage.

      It’s also something I wouldn’t want to do all the time – some people below are suggesting that it takes away the emotional high of performance also – but I can see testing it out and then using it for key events.

  7. Danielfrank says:

    Technological and societal transformations are things that everyone can observe over a period of time (and even predict), but rarely is one aware of these changes as they are happening, and specifically, at the moment the trend become a reality.

    For the next 7 months, I am working 12KM from my house.
    By car, this trip takes between 35-50 minutes (depending on traffic) and by public transit, it takes an unpleasant 1:10+ with 3-4 different bus transfers.

    At any point before this year, I would have almost certainly purchased a car. My annual expenses on transportation would be something along the lines of:
    $10,000 per year on car expenses (cost of buying/renting car, insurance, gas, repairs etc).
    $350 on public transit
    $200 on taxis

    This year is different.
    Every day, I am taking Uberpools to and from work at a cost of $6 per trip). The Uberpools take on average 10 minutes longer than driving, but in addition to being far cheaper than driving, are less stressful and more enjoyable.

    My annual transportation expenses now look like this:
    $3500 Uber
    $400 on public transit
    $0 for cars)

    If Ubers pricing continues indefinitely, it is very likely that I won’t have to buy a car this year. If I make it through this year without buying a car, with the advancements in autonomous vehicles, the probability that I will have to buy a car going forward drastically diminishes. For the first time, I now believe that I will never own a car in my lifetime. That is a serious technological and sociological shift in our world.

    • keranih says:

      Is a bike not an option for you, on this commute?

      (For me, the fastest route by auto is distance longer than a better bike route, but both are under 30 minutes, and I alternate.)

      • Danielfrank says:

        My city isn’t particularly bike friendly, plus experiences a very snowy/icy winter. If I was at this job for a long time, I might decide that bike was a good option, and become better/more comfortable with it. As of now, it’s not in the cards.

    • Civilis says:

      How did you work out that you would be spending $10,000 in annual expenses on a car?

      I usually work it out that I spend about $2500 annually on my car, including gas, maintenance, insurance, and taxes, and that for a work trip of 17 miles one way (plus other driving). To include the price of a car, with a $15,000 car over 10 years (the original price and current age of my car), that’s about $4000/year. My car should be good for another couple of years without major maintenance, and it would be longer if I hadn’t spent the first couple of years with it with a 55 mile one way work trip, plus frequent work travel.

      • Danielfrank says:

        I’m not American, so prices might be a bit different.
        But insurance is already close to $5000 per year + gas + maintenance + the cost of buying the car.

        • John Schilling says:

          Where do you live that insurance on a utilitarian automobile comes to $5000/year? And why are the prices so insanely high there, when American insurers can make a profit selling insurance at maybe one-fifth that price in a notoriously litigious society with a warm-body standard for issuing drivers’ licenses.

          • Joeleee says:

            I live in Australia and we’re not too far off from that once registration costs are taken into account, especially if you’re under 25. You need to have compulsory third party insurance for ~$1,000, then if you have comprehensive insurance it’s ~$1,500 and then registration is another ~$1,000. That excludes any repairs that might need to be done to make the car roadworthy. Admittedly you could not get the comprehensive insurance, but then if something happens to your car that’s your fault you get nothing back.

          • CatCube says:

            Jesus Christ. I pay $560/year for comprehensive insurance, and $43/year for registration ($86 paid for a 2 year period). Everything above that is gas, oil, and maintenance. I know insurance is more for under 25, but I don’t think its twice.

            I probably should drop the comprehensive insurance, now that I think about it. It was required for the loan, but I paid it off. That’d be only a few hundred, I think.

            Edit: I think my insurance bill is less than $560, now that I think about it. I’ve got my renter’s insurance from the same company, and I think that’s rolled up in it.

          • Joeleee says:

            Interesting. Another thing is that cars in general cost a lot more in Australia – I don’t know how much of the increased insurance costs are because of that. Also, the numbers I listed are more of a worst case, so the average driver probably pays a bit less than that, but even without comprehensive insurance, all drivers would be paying $1,000+ each year just to get the car on the road.

          • Cheese says:

            Which state Joeleee? Those costs seem very out of whack to me.

            WA is: Registration which includes compulsory 3rd party injury/disability insurance is a bit over $550 for a small/medium. Non-compulsory (but insane not to have) 3rd party property damage insurance costs me a bit under $200 (I am over 25 but my main costs when I wasn’t was on the excess side rather than the premium). That’s the extent of my non-car related on-road costs when you consider how small the licence fee is.

            Our car cost is absolutely higher than the US, but that’s what you get when you’re a small population island comparing yourself with the largest single country (possibly being overtaken currently though) market for automobiles. Insurance wouldn’t have any impact on that, even vehicle transfer stamp duty isn’t that much really as a %.

          • Joeleee says:

            Hmm, I might be misremembering and projecting how much it feels like I paid as opposed to how much I actually pay haha. I’m in NSW and after a quick Google, it looks like rego is actually ~$300 for me. My comprehensive is definitely quite a bit higher than that, but I still haven’t ticked over the age where it really drops (which is 28 now). I’m also pretty sure CTP is separate to rego in NSW, but I think NSW is renowned for being the most expensive state to get a car on the road, and WA is considered very cheap. It’s why in NSW you will see a lot of rental cars with QLD & WA number plates.

        • Civilis says:

          What’s interesting to me about this is I assumed you were American because I didn’t bat an eye at the Uberpool pricing; if anything, I thought it was low. It’s odd that Uber’s per-mile price would be low and the annual expenses for car ownership would be high, because I would think anything which would increase the annual expense of owning a car would increase the Uber pricing.

          The American government-defined mileage reimbursement amount is $0.54/mile, which to me marks a reasonable approximation of how much it costs to drive. For my commute, that works out to about $4500. A quick search suggests the base UberPool rate for Washington DC may be twice the mileage reimbursement rate.

          • wintermute92 says:

            I’ve suspected for a while that Uber pricing doesn’t properly track vehicle costs and depreciation. Most of their drivers are new-ish, and come to the job with vehicles they own regardless. So annual ownership costs actually don’t count, and mileage depreciation is not an obvious or upfront cost.

            Given Uber’s ongoing pricing changes, I assume they’re pricing for usage/driver rates in new markets rather than long term sustainability.

  8. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    SSC SF Story of the Week #25
    This week we are discussing Manna by Marshall Brain.
    Next time we will discuss The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect by Roger Williams.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      I left a long comment when this novella was posted to LessWrong, but it didn’t get any responses then, so I guess I’ll repost it here and see if anyone has anything to say this time:

      My biggest problem with this story is that Jacob, the narrator, has no assets to sustain himself after he loses his job. He doesn’t have funds in his bank account, he doesn’t own anything that isn’t rented, and when the robot asks him if he has any means of support unknown to the system, he replies “no”.

      Well, why the fuck not? He has been working as an administrator for 20 years, on top of his previous work as a teacher and as a fast food employee. What in God’s name has he been doing with all his money? The cost of living can’t possibly have increased when the whole point of Manna and the robots is that they are more efficient than human beings, hence why they replace them. Even land should get cheaper once people start being shipped off to the Terrafoam projects, which we know from Burt’s case was already happening 10 years prior to the date Jacob gets fired. It should be cheaper to live in the 2050 the story presents that it is right now.

      I know people often make financially stupid decisions because humans are not automatically strategic and because a lot of their choices are motivated in large part by status rather than by solely fiscal considerations, but this is too much to be plausible. Jacob has known for at least 10 year that people who can’t sustain themselves end up on welfare and get shipped to Terrafoam, yet he hasn’t been keeping a savings account, a retirement plan, an investment portfolio, or even a property of his own? What did he do, blow through his entire paycheck every month by living like a millionaire and renting stuff he couldn’t afford to buy until the day he inevitably lost his job and got corralled into the lowest rung of society? Is that the fashionable thing to do in 2050? And very fashionable it must have been indeed, since the story implies that everyone from the poor to the middle class, except for a relatively small number of “rich”, have all ended up on the projects.

    • keranih says:

      I found this less a story and more a lecture on how people ought to live, with a good dose of wish fufillment mixed in.

      The concept is, imo, pretty much an examination of the different paths a GBI could take, but I think one of the major weaknesses was a lack of failure points early on. For instance, Manna is given rilly rilly awesome manager capabilities early on – never wrong, always right, priorities always in order, never able to be overridden by the floor staff. *Of course* the franchise makes money – as would any franchise with a human manager that was half that good.

      (And whose customers were always compliant and decent. Seriously, they’re using customer feedback about the bathrooms?)

      Likewise, in Australia, everyone is decent and wise and compliant, and no one settles in to fuck with the system just because they can. Which is completely not at all like any a) Australians I’ve ever met and b) humans I’ve ever met.

      I am hoping that the implication that the Australia project is just another version of the American scheme, just better done with more drone human by-in, is intentional.

      Finally…kids? Where are they?

      Seriously, if we are this malleable, then we deserve to be owned by the robots.

    • Loquat says:

      My main objection to the concept of “Manna” is the idea that the workers would enjoy being constantly told in excruciatingly fine detail how to do their jobs. Maybe a newly hired 16-year-old on his first job would want detailed step-by-step instructions telling him how to take out the trash, but someone who’s been working in fast food for 5 years I suspect is more likely to find it annoying and patronizing. Plus, since Manna replaces all the fast-food managers and assistant managers, there’s no longer any opportunity for workers to be promoted, meaning jobs at any fast-food joint that uses Manna are genuinely dead-end. Result: the most competent workers are driven away, and the business is left with primarily people who like being “robots” – ok as long as Manna is working as implausibly well as it does in the story, not so great if it breaks down or gets abused by, say, bored teenagers pressing all the help buttons all afternoon.

      • nancylebovitz says:

        Things won’t be *quite* that mellow in Australia. One of the things compete for is the opportunity to work on high status/interesting projects.

      • Corey says:

        the idea that the workers would enjoy being constantly told in excruciatingly fine detail how to do their jobs

        I don’t recall if it was stated that they enjoyed it, though I can see certain types of people liking that they can zone out during work.

        Anything that every employer does, it doesn’t matter if workers enjoy, they have to suck it up. Nobody enjoys JIT scheduling, for example, even managers, but everyone (in certain industries) does it.

        • Loquat says:

          From Chapter 1: The employees were told exactly what to do, and they did it quite happily. It was a major relief actually, because the software told them precisely what to do step by step.

          And sure, once EVERY minimum-wage employer is using Manna, the employees just have to deal with it (though note that there’s been some pushback against JIT scheduling in real life, with San Francisco and some other regions enacting laws against it) – but I was talking about the early stages, when Manna was only used in the one burger chain and all the other fast-food places still had human managers. Why wouldn’t Burger-G’s highest-quality employees all flee to non-Manna-using competitors within a few months of Manna’s rollout? And why wouldn’t that result in major problems when, as often happens with computer systems in real life, Manna crashes or runs into a situation it can’t effectively deal with, and the remaining employees are all drones who don’t know what to do without Manna’s guidance?

    • Adrian says:

      Things that really bugged me:

      1) A billion $1000 tickets have been sold, and the narrator never heard of the Australia Project?! How am I supposed to believe that?

      2) How come there never seemed to be any civil unrest or riots before The Rich (TM) completely took over the country? Were there no more elections after the early stages of Manna, when things were starting to get very unpleasant for a lot of people, but total oppression was still nonexistent?

      3) How did the Australia Project manage to be a perfect utopia before robotic AGI? A general problem for a UBI is that people are not content with the most basic essentials (sufficient nutrients, running water, sanitation, simple clothes, a small room to live in). Most people want some combination of a big house/appartment with a view, a car, a large TV, a smartphone, unlimited Internet access, fashionable clothes. They want to go to restaurants and on vacation to nice places. The story does not address any of this.

      4) Total surveillance is good and accepted by everyone and totally does not lead to any dystopias. No need to debate this obvious fact.

      5) Probably the biggest insult of all is that computers can completely control your body and all sensory input to your brain through the Vertebrane implant, but there’s not need to worry about hackers or viruses (or even software bugs), because the Vertebrane system is apparently perfect and infallible…

      I don’t think the story was meant to be enjoyed, but it also fails as exploratory literature, because it skipped the critical parts (especially the transition phase, before perfect AGI robots are available), and it was pretty uncritical about its message and assumptions.

      • Nevermore says:

        5) Probably the biggest insult of all is that computers can completely control your body and all sensory input to your brain through the Vertebrane implant, but there’s not need to worry about hackers or viruses (or even software bugs), because the Vertebrane system is apparently perfect and infallible…

        To be fair, the hero was told that he doesn’t need to worry about it, we don’t know if it’s really like that, and the person telling him that admitted that they are not technical.
        for the entirety of last act of the novel I had the feeling that something must be wrong – there wasn’t really a reason for the Australia Project citizens to not be plugged-in to matrix like reality with their real bodies controlled by Manna (especially with miraculously fast technological progress that could just be faked), but in the end it turned out to be “look out for AI” ( and this, I feel, was why the transition state was skipped. The story wasn’t about how nations move from one state to another, but rather what coming of AI and robots can mean for capitalist society) and “Burt was right, people don’t really care about what they can’t see”.

    • phil says:

      I feel like there’s an odd Trump connection to Manna that maybe I’m having trouble truly fleshing out

      I feel like it goes something like this – if the general premise of Manna is correct, that massive automation is coming, and the big question about what to do it about that is how do we value humans separate from their economic worthwhile-ness

      Sort of the general free market libertarian ideology will age poorly in an era massive automation

      ————–

      From Peggy Noonan in the WSJ:

      Mr. Trump’s great historical role was to reveal to the Republican Party what half of its own base really thinks about the big issues. The party’s leaders didn’t know! They were shocked, so much that they indulged in sheer denial and made believe it wasn’t happening.

      The party’s leaders accept more or less open borders and like big trade deals. Half the base does not! It is longtime GOP doctrine to cut entitlement spending. Half the base doesn’t want to, not right now! Republican leaders have what might be called assertive foreign-policy impulses. When Mr. Trump insulted George W. Bush and nation-building and said he’d opposed the Iraq invasion, the crowds, taking him at his word, cheered. He was, as they say, declaring that he didn’t want to invade the world and invite the world. Not only did half the base cheer him, at least half the remaining half joined in when the primaries ended.

      http://www.wsj.com/articles/imagine-a-sane-donald-trump-1477004871

      ——————–
      ——————–

      If the premise of Manna is correct, what it warns us against is the reflexive “It is longtime GOP doctrine to cut entitlement spending”

      If Trump loses, who will win the ideological heart of the GOP after him? Is it likely that they’ll share his disregard for the “longtime GOP doctrine to cut entitlement spending”?

      if not, is this a unique opportunity to win a victory against the “longtime GOP doctrine to cut entitlement spending”?

      a victory that we’ll wish we had won if Manna is actually good at predicting the future?

    • Corey says:

      I read it long ago, I think some of the clunkiness comes from the ideas (AFAIK) being original to Prof. Brain. It was my introduction to post-labor-scarcity literature, and I’m guessing that Prof. Brain hadn’t seen a lot of it either before writing this story.

      It struck me that Australia was basically applying the principles and methods of open-source software to physical things.

      Manna itself I thought was interesting because when people think about automating away jobs, they tend to assume it will happen from the bottom up, where in this case it was from the middle out.

      The part where approximately nobody has any assets, because all things are licensed/rented, is just an extension of then-current trends. I worked at a startup in 1999/2000, for example, that rented *desktop computers* so as to keep CapEx off the balance sheet. Every business would rather have their income be a predictable stream, after all.

    • eh2 says:

      Some things tripped me up. First was the comparison between third-world poverty and Terrafoam poverty. I would have thought that the hopelessness, loss of control, and alienation of living in a gigantic cube with nothing to do all day and still being well-behaved were maybe comparable to subsistence farming or living in an active war zone, but that life in the average developing nation would at the very least give you some hope for the future.

      Second, the Australian government wouldn’t sell land which hosts a mining industry with an annual income of about $150bn for $250bn. In all probability, it wouldn’t sell the land for any price at all, especially not to a private American investor, without a very good reason. If it worked like that, nobody would have been excited about seasteading.

      Third, if the borg people decided to assimilate Australia with compulsory central nervous system surgery to stop us from committing crimes by overriding our brains, there’s maybe a 20% chance that I would find a friend with a nice big gun safe and start taking potshots at anyone who looked important. If I got fired by an annoying talking box for turning up late three times in a year, and knew I’d be consigned to the permanent underclass, there’s maybe a 10% chance I would smash the damn thing. Has anyone decided to fight back? How would the AI deal with that?

      Having said all that, total surveillance was very interesting. How would people living within such a society think? We by Zamyatin has the One State provide privacy for sex and bodily functions, despite the regime’s otherwise total oppression, because Zamyatin probably couldn’t imagine anything else; maybe we can’t imagine what it would be like to have no privacy because we’re too blinkered by our vices and hangups. On the other hand, maybe we’d reach a consensus under which everything was either obligatory or forbidden, with everything about us made public and opened up for analysis.

      • Corey says:

        Yeah, removing privacy makes adultery impossible, which probably makes it a non-starter.

        My assumption was that uprisings were prevented and people kept well-behaved through infinite automated guard labor. That is, the important people you take potshots at are all robots, who never stop coming. I don’t know if this is supported in the text though.

        I used to despair about that, actually; I assumed we’d inevitably get “eliminationism” from Jacobin’s “Four Futures” – the rich no longer need us to build / do their stuff, and have killbots, so into mass graves we go! But some discussions here in OTs led me to a fifth possible post-labor-scarcity future – basically Elysium. As long as the rich give us a reasonable reservation to live on and don’t screw with it internally too much, we can just have our own economy like before, and they go do their thing.

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          How’s that parallel economy thing working out for Sub-Saharan Africa?

        • Loquat says:

          The author cheats heavily to keep humans from fighting back. Initially there’s about a 10-year gap between the introduction of Manna and the introduction of robots able to replace retail workers, so that leaves a good few years for Manna-box-smashing, rioting, etc before infinite robot guards become a thing. After the robots arrive, not only do people have to fear the robots, but any form of protest is impossible because due to fear of terrorism America has basically become a totalitarian state, with universal surveillance and instant arrest for anyone who speaks out against the status quo. And while elections continue to be held, and Terrafoam residents still get to vote in them, “the rich” control politics so thoroughly that no politician who wants to give Terrafoam residents the slightest bit of help can get on the ballot.

          Maybe years of working for Manna just conditioned everyone to be incredibly passive.

  9. danpeverley says:

    Longtime fan of the Civilization games, I’m wondering what people’s impressions are of the newest game in the lineup. I wasn’t too taken with V, I think it got “one unit per tile,” random events and a bunch of other stuff wrong. Favorite 4x games are Alpha Centauri (no expansion), Civ IV with Warlords, and for fun Civ IV with Fall from Heaven II for dueling death-stars type gameplay.

    Civ V still does one unit per tile, have they managed to fix the AI issues that caused?

    • Anon. says:

      have they managed to fix the AI issues that caused?

      No. The AI is moronic. There were great AI mods for V though, so if you’re willing to wait ~a year I’m sure they’ll make some AI mods for VI as well.

      The districts system is great.
      Overall tuning of research/civics/production speed feels off. By the time you make a unit, it will frequently be “behind” on tech. All production costs feel a bit too high.
      The religion system is pretty bad. Simplistic and dull.
      Lategame combat feels good, a lot of interlocking systems.
      UI is garbage.

      Overall the game feels complete at launch, unlike V it won’t need two expansions just to reach a baseline of features.

      • Randy M says:

        I confused why there are mods that provide better ai in V, without it being incorporated into VI. The ai in BTS expansion for IV was from a mod originally. Some people didn’t like it as much, because the ai stacked units like, well, expert players playing to win and it made it harder to just piddle around, but the point is that Firaxis has shown admirably willingness to take from the fan community before.

        • wintermute92 says:

          The AI for V was pathologically bad, in ways that imply either a total failure of testing and dev time or a system too calcified to remedy obvious issues without causing worse ones. Mods that scraped off even the worst of the stupid were massive improvements because they had so many knock-on effects.

          Two winners:

          – AI had negative time preference and risk assessment. You could loan them 9 gold per turn over 10 turns, for 100 gold now. Sheer profit aside, you could then go to war and pay them nothing.

          – AI peace treaties. There was a 10-turn minimum war, obviously implemented to stop the AI starting and stopping wars too often (especially since that comes with a warmonger penalty). Unfortunately, that meant that the AI would consistently fight stupid wars for a minimum of 10 turns, rejecting both abject surrender and fair terms from superiors. It showed worst when you were crushing someone and wanted peace to do something else – across one turn they would go from “war at any cost” to “take all our stuff”.

          So I would guess that the AI still sucks, but without the specific contortions of stupid from V. It’ll take some time for mods to fix all the new stupid that came in this time, which focuses on belligerence.

      • DrBeat says:

        What do you mean the religion system is “simplistic and dull”? It has the most complexity of any religion system in any Civ game.

        • Roxolan says:

          As far as I can tell (I didn’t go heavy religion on my first game), it’s just a cruder version of the standard combat system. Build [religious] units, move them on the map, have them attack other [religious] units or suicide-bomb on cities.

          …Which admittedly does not contradict your statement, that *is* the most complexity of any religion system in any Civ game. But as it does not add anything that the game doesn’t already have, I question its purpose that wouldn’t have been served better by a simpler system.

    • nelshoy says:

      I really like it so far. Of course there are issues with a new game, but it’s amazing how much work they put into this basic release. All in all, it’s like a slightly more detailed and less annoying Civ V. The districts, eureka system, and new policy system are all great, and require you to do a lot more planning ahead and decision-making than their previous equivalents.

      Diplomacy, government, and happiness are always a challenge, but IMO the best they’ve ever been since I started with III.

      Like every Civ game, the AI is terrible.

    • Sandy says:

      I like that I can play wide as India now. One of my biggest grouses with Civ V was that India’s UA penalized playing wide, or at least forced you to do so in an unorthodox manner if you wanted to play wide. Localized happiness is much better. Also Civ V just forgot to include my birth city in the list for India, so I’m glad Civ VI corrected that.

      I dislike that it’s so easy to piss off other leaders now. You don’t even have to do anything, just remaining isolated and turtling away in some corner of the map will piss off Trajan because you’re not plopping down cities everywhere, or will piss off Harald because your navy isn’t as large as his (when I didn’t even have a coastal city). And some times the AI doesn’t seem to understand its own agenda — Harald praised me for my mighty navy once when I had literally just one ship. I dunno, I’d prefer the AI agendas kicking in at a certain interval rather than right from the start. Like the Medieval era or something.

      • Rebel with an Uncaused Cause says:

        I always found India to be good for wide play, but it expands more slowly than other wide civilizations. If you start in a later era with zoos and so forth available, or if you play on a large and sparsely populated map, you can go tall-wide.

    • paulmbrinkley says:

      Every time a new Civ comes out, I end up buying it, playing one or two epic-length games, and then never getting around to playing again.

      While I’m playing, I inevitably find myself longing for a Civ with more realism. Like, a lot more realism. No hexes; full 3D terrain with realistic population of animals, plants, and minerals. Leaders live a human lifespan, and are replaced by new leaders with different personalities. Currency works like actual currency. (Ever notice how, long before you’ve acquired the eponymous tech, you’re earning gold coins to do stuff? And so are all the other civs? Same gold coin.) In fact, the entire interface should grow increasingly more capable as you acquire tech.

      Perhaps most importantly epistemology should matter: your head-of-civ should be a person at one of your cities, and know only what’s there, and give orders there most directly, and have to send messengers to other cities, and wonder if those messengers made it or if the orders were followed. Your leader sends scouts, but doesn’t get to know what they found until they return – if they return – and if they do, the map is as sketchy as maps were in history.

      This would get around a lot of the more niggling immersion breakers for me, such as the Infinite City Sprawl problem that Civ players are familiar with. Large civ size affords huge benefits that break the game unless you weigh them down with some mechanic such as unhappiness or size-based corruption. With a leader relying on a messenger network, size-based inefficiencies make more sense. Later, messengers become spies, with the problems those bring. Your leader doesn’t get to see their empire unless they travel. And if another force invades, you have to worry about whether your leader should effect an escape, avoid assassination attempts, rule from exile, etc.

      I’m quite sure that hardware and software are insufficiently advanced to provide what I’m looking for. Raw computation is required, as well as much better AI for those messengers and scouts, not to mention military. Also, there’s a strong argument that this would be a boring game – getting around that would require other immersion breakers like zooming forward in time, and pretending you’re a spirit inhabiting a leader’s head and able to leave for another. (Rather than playing Washington or Elizabeth I or Catherine, the conceit is that you’re playing Uncle Sam or Britannia or Mother Russia.)

      I do wonder if I’m the only one who feels this way.

      • Anonymous says:

        You should look into Paradox Interactive games. Possibly Dwarf Fortress also.

      • Gazeboist says:

        Yes, you seem to be looking for Crusader Kings (though CK II is extremely expensive with all expansions).

        • Anonymous Bosch says:

          Don’t tell him about the Sunset Invasion DLC!

        • Protagoras says:

          Also, too many event armies that are exempt from attrition rules. They should have come up with a less cheaty way to make the events challenging.

        • Mark says:

          I don’t think the mechanics in CK2 are much fun – when I want to assassinate someone, it doesn’t feel like I’m actually *doing* anything, except sitting around waiting for some random event to trigger.
          I think it would be far better if they had more of the choose your own adventure style stuff, and maybe a bit more to do in the battles.
          Someone needs to make CK2 + King of Dragon Pass + Total War.

          • John Schilling says:

            When I want to assassinate someone, it doesn’t feel like I’m actually *doing* anything

            If you want assassination to be a bit more active (and effective), play the honey trap game. Recruit alluring, capable, devious young women into your court, and offer them in marriage to any and every bachelor in your target’s court. Then invite them to join your plot, until your army of dagger-wielding femme fatales(*) gets you to +200% or so plot power and your enemies are falling every few months.

            Particularly useful if you have multiple targets in the same court. For extra fun, once you’re done with that court you can have them start offing each others’ husbands, freeing some of them up for recruitment and remarriage to your next target.

            Requires a bit of effort, matching traits so that your potential agents like you, are at least tolerable to the liege of the target court (he’s the one who approves marriages), but will hate the target and/or be sufficiently greedy and dishonorable as not to care as long as you cough up the standard $15 bribe. “Envious” is a particularly useful one as it makes one strongly dislike their current liege but not vice versa, working in your favor for all three steps of the process.

            Also, if your desired target is relatively assassin-proof at the outset, see if his spymaster is more vulnerable. Or his wife, which both penalizes his spycraft and leaves a grade-A opening for one of your agents.

            (*) You can change the settings to allow gender-neutral honey traps, but the historical default is that unlanded women move to their husband’s court and not vice versa. And you really don’t want these women in your court for more than a quick matrimonial turnaround.

          • paulmbrinkley says:

            CK2 Does indeed sound like it’s in the direction I’m seeking. The downside is that it sounds mostly like a political sim – it’s missing the tech and empire planning side. (If only they combined CK with Cities Skylines…)

            This is another element of why the game I have in mind would be Too Much. It’d be epic to the point of dull, because I’d effectively be impersonating an actual ruler. After I’m done doing that, the fun part – seeing the fruits of my labors – is impossible due to the game mechanics (I would have to tour the empire). Alternately, I’d be allowed to get a true god’s eye view of what happened by setting the “sim” part aside and seeing actual people’s minds (“okay, here’s why your orders to build a dam over here really weren’t working – this local boyar over here was thoroughly corrupt and sending your stones to help build his girlfriend’s chateau”), and I want a real civ sim to deliberately make that hard to do, and after I’m done ruling for a year as king, I’m frankly too tired to care about analysis.

          • Gazeboist says:

            Yes, the tech in CK2 and related games is quite bad: boring and not particularly sensible. I know somebody here was complaining about anti-Eurocentrism stuff, but the westernization mechanic in EU4 is just ridiculous.

          • Montfort says:

            Gazeboist, you may not have noticed, but the westernization mechanic has recently been replaced by institutions. Of course, it’s still mostly a penalty for picking non-western nations, just a little less onerous now.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          I really liked CK2 when it first came out, but increasingly I came to find it a bit meh. There’s not a huge amount to do when you’re not at war, and warfare itself is a simplistic game of “Gather all your troops together, fight him, whoever wins the battle wins the war”.

      • Nyx says:

        I think there’s a place for “ruler simulator” where you’re just a dude that has to talk to his advisors, but Civ isn’t that, and in fact I don’t really appreciate the focus on charismatic famous people.

        Although, one game that does make a stab at “ruler simulator” is Mount And Blade, wherein there is no sharp gameplay difference between being a lone dude running around doing RPG quests and being the mightiest King in all the realm, except that you have the option to give orders to people you meet in the latter.

  10. dndnrsn says:

    Free market people: How do you account for the existence and activities of the advertising industry?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but generally, free market thinking takes the view that people are by and large rational decision makers who are decent at making choices and at maximizing their utility. I am not much of a free market type, and honestly it’s one of the intellectual Turing Tests I would feel least comfy doing.

    How does the existence of an industry that is based around convincing people to buy things they didn’t know they needed/wanted, convincing people to buy more expensive name brand goods over generics, etc align with that?

    • sflicht says:

      I don’t see the tension you seem to see. Can you elaborate?

      • dndnrsn says:

        Well, advertising is based around exploiting people being irrational and bad at making decisions. If, as I have gotten the impression – and I am expecting that this is where it is most likely I am wrong – that free market thinking is based around people being rational and good at making decisions…

        Let’s put it another way. There is generally zero difference between the store brand of an OTC medication, and the name brand. With the latter, you’re paying for the advertising. Why does the name brand exist? If people were rational and good at making decisions, nobody would buy Advil or Tylenol or Aspirin at normal price, because it’s just throwing away a couple extra bucks.

        • Controls Freak says:

          If people were rational and good at making decisions, nobody would buy Advil or Tylenol or Aspirin at normal price, because it’s just throwing away a couple extra bucks.

          In general (the non-mathematical sense), this is true. However, there may be specific cases where it’s not true. This has little to do with your or my positions on advertising… and more to do with the fact that I learned something relatively recently that I want to share. I have a relative with Celiac disease. She was telling me that she can’t just buy random store-brand OTC painkillers, because while they have the same active ingredient, they may use different fillers and things that she would react to.

        • Timothy says:

          In the Tylenol example the theory is that you are paying a premium for trust, that Johnson & Johnson is less likely to screw up and poison you to death. Personally I do “take my chances” with the generic stuff but there was a real incident in 1982 when someone snuck Tylenol bottles with added cyanide onto the store shelves around Chicago, and Johnson & Johnson went all out with the response, including recalling ALL the Tylenol.

        • dndnrsn says:

          @Controls Freak:

          This is true. There are definitely cases where the name brand is superior to the store brand.

          For an example that’s even more clear-cut: frozen vegetables. I have noticed zero difference between a name-brand bag of frozen vegetables, and the store brand, except the price difference. It’s not even as though there’s heavy advertising for most brands.

          @Timothy:

          The safety measures that J&J brought in are industry standard now, though. Plus, if drugstore-brand acetaminophen was poisoning people, that would probably hurt the drugstore as much as Tylenol poisoning people would hurt J&J (intentional poisoning, or due to screwups in manufacturing, not ordinary liver problems).

        • Urstoff says:

          Rational decision making doesn’t prohibit the use of heuristics, and the recognition heuristic is can be pretty useful if you don’t want to waste time looking into the various merits of different products.

        • dndnrsn says:

          I will admit to having the kind of mind that enjoys things like categorizing which products are best, where money can be saved, where it’s worth spending the extra money, etc.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      I think “free market people” is too vague, so I’m not really sure who you are aiming this at.

      You appear to be offering what I understand to be a standard critique of the “efficient market hypothesis”, said hypothesis being summed up in a nutshell by the joke about the two economists and the $20 bill.

      I think the standard answer would be that marketing is providing a) information, and/or b) is part of the value of the product. Drinking Coca-Cola is a signal that you are like the people whom Coca-Cola portrays in their adds.

      Economists also get around this by meaning something different by rational than the non-economist does. To a large extent they assume that, by definition, what people do is rational. I don’t know if an economist would put it this way, but I think they regard biases as part of what you “want”, therefore acting in accordance with these biases is rational because it is what you want to do.

      • jimmy says:

        “[…] joke about the two economists and the $20 bill”

        I was in that position once as a middle schooler, only it was a one dollar bill and I didn’t have an economist to talk to. I did think to myself that it was odd that no one else had picked it up yet given that there were other kids standing around, and decided to trust the market. A minute later some other kid picked it up, clearly not understanding the efficient market hypothesis. He immediately dropped it.

        “Ew! There’s shit on it!”

      • Aapje says:

        @HeelBearCub

        To a large extent they assume that, by definition, what people do is rational. I don’t know if an economist would put it this way, but I think they regard biases as part of what you “want”, therefore acting in accordance with these biases is rational because it is what you want to do.

        The problem is that this completely undermines any claims that markets act optimally, because any influence by markets on how people behave gets defined away as ‘rational behavior,’ rather than the market making people behave a certain way.

        Imagine having one bonus system A that rewards employees that spend most hours at work and bonus system B that rewards employees that produces most tchotchkes. People will behave quite differently in reaction to each system, yet from an employer’s perspective, either can be optimal. In a ‘building secretary’ kind of job, being present may be most valuable and making tchotchkes can just be a fixed amount of work that can be done when not dealing with visitors. In a ‘production’ kind of job, making tchotchkes may be all that matters.

        So I’d argue that efficiency isn’t and cannot be an objective feature of a certain system, but is always a comparison between the (subjective) desired outcome and how close the system gets you to that.

        When people call a market system ‘efficient,’ they are declaring their own (subjective) desired outcome to be universal, which is dogmatic.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          I also take the position that the assumption of rationality is a “big problem” for economics. One area is simply in communication, where the lay person and the economist frequently won’t have the same understanding of what is being said.

          From a modeling perspective, there is the phrase “it takes a model to beat a model” and AFAIK no one has come up with a way to model irrational agents. Once someone can come up with such a model that has more explanatory power, presumably we would see the science change.

          But I also think it’s a problem that some economists think that their definition of rational is “true” and don’t grapple at all with, say, the success of a product like Enzyte.

          • Aapje says:

            But I also think it’s a problem that some economists think that their definition of rational is “true” and don’t grapple at all with, say, the success of a product like Enzyte.

            There is evidence that economy students are more selfish than the average person, probably due to self-selection. I expect that examining markets all day also changes one’s decision making. It’s likely that they suffer from projection of their own motives/choices on others.

            I also suspect that within the profession there is also self-selection, with the more scientifically minded & modest going into econometrics and the like, while the more ‘creative’ go into macro-economics, where most claims are unfalsifiable.

            The economists that I’m upset with are mostly in the latter category.

          • nancylebovitz says:

            It’s clear to me that the market is composed of semi-rational players.

            I gather that loss aversion has been quantified. Has anything comparable being done with other sorts of common biases?

          • Gazeboist says:

            @Nancy

            From the WP page on behavioral economics:

            Reference dependence, non-linear probability weighting, and diminished sensitivity are three effects that were analyzed along side loss aversion to generate “prospect theory”, which has more explanatory power than classical economic choice theories. Hyperbolic discounting and similar issues with time-dependent utility form another area of research, and there are other less unified topics.

            @HBC

            From a modeling perspective, there is the phrase “it takes a model to beat a model” and AFAIK no one has come up with a way to model irrational agents. Once someone can come up with such a model that has more explanatory power, presumably we would see the science change.

            It sounds like you’re looking for behavioral economics? Which I don’t think has a single coherent model of a real human economic actor, but does have lots of interesting stuff on human decision making. It still makes assumptions about information which I think are flawed, but I don’t know if there’s heavy research on how humans gather and evaluate information in an economic context. Such would probably have to wait for psychology to sort itself out.

            I think the next phase of a lot of things, including economics, is to bring in time dependence. I think it’s clear that markets are neither perfectly efficient nor perfectly inefficient, and that a perfectly efficient market cannot exist in reality. But *how* efficient a real market can be is not obvious to me.

            EDIT – I just realized that in that last paragraph I conflated two very different meanings of “efficient”: economic efficiency and computational efficiency. My question is really about their combination. I want to know how long it takes a market composed of several agents to compute an efficient price for a good, given an inefficient price. Equivalently, how fast do prices change to reflect new information? And most importantly, how does the rate at which prices change compare to the rate at which the agents in the market gain new information?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Gazeboist:
            Thank you for the reference to behavioral economics. That is indeed along the lines of where I think the field could change assuming that models incorporating those kinds of findings over perform other models.

            But, even there, I think we still don’t see a mapping of what the economists think about markets in general and the success of products like Enzyte (completely fraudulent on many levels) or the lottery (sold not as entertainment, but as a way to win money). Especially when you take into account the actual stated motivations and reasoning of people who are buying those products.

            I don’t think this is actually anything like a deal breaker for the field of economics, I just think it shows one mechanism for an easy, obvious, and very damaging failure mode of laissez-faire policies.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @HeelBearCub:

            It looks like the makers of Enzyte were charged with mail fraud … I’m surprised there wasn’t a charge of male fraud.

            (Sorry)

      • dndnrsn says:

        By “free market people” I mean … well, not just ancaps, because as I understand it they’re pretty rare on the ground in real life, but in general people who would entrust much more to the free market than is already done.

        That way of defining rational seems … kind of a tautology. “This person values drinking Coke, therefore they value drinking Coke!” You can model anything as a preference, but it seems a bit weird to say “Alan blows all his money at the dog track and keeps getting the utilities shut off, so clearly he is making a rational decision to blow all his money at the dog track instead of pay his utilities bill”.

        • onyomi says:

          I think perhaps you are hoping for too much from markets for goods and services. Free markets in goods and services are great at providing people with the things they are willing to pay for, not at making them have good priorities.

          As for making people have good priorities, probably the best thing is education: teach people about nutrition and the demand for healthful food will go up. The function of markets in goods, services, and advertising is to produce what people want, not make them want the right things.

          Might there not be a perverse incentive for companies to e. g. incite desire for cheap, tasty, unhealthful food instead of healthful food that is expensive to prepare and deliver. Sure. But that incentive exists in terms of the production of such food and not just in its advertisement. But you couldn’t make people buy it if they weren’t already inclined to like fattening food.

          Being an ancap, on some level my answer is always “no, this idea for a government program is illegitimate because the government is illegitimate,” but that doesn’t mean I think a society with no rules is ideal, either. In theoretical ancap world maybe your neighborhood association decides there will be no ads for cigarettes or alcohol in the neighborhood where children are likely to see them. I don’t see a problem with that. Maybe people voluntarily sign the kids up for enrichment classes where they learn about nutrition and art, causing them to desire and demand better food and media.

          The ancap’s argument is that even law is best provided by a market. It’s not that no conceivable regulation about how you advertise could have a good effect, nor that no conceivable educational campaign teaching children how to make healthy choices could have a good effect, but about which system is more likely to find the right regulation or produce the right campaign.

          My contention is that a system with, in some sense, a market for systems, is most likely to get it right.

          • Spookykou says:

            Free markets in goods and services are great at providing people with the things they are willing to pay for, not at making them have good priorities.

            As for making people have good priorities, probably the best thing is education

            In Ancap world though, the Education systems is run by the markets though right. Why would they be teaching good(read: less profitable) priorities to people?

          • onyomi says:

            Conceivably there might be school you pay for, where your kids get taught the things you think are good for them, but also “School! Brought to you by Coca Cola,” which is free, but includes mandatory soft drink appreciation class. (similar to the bundling effect of ads and content in general)

            I’m sure this sounds horrifying and dystopian to some, but given there would likely be a lot more competition and innovation in ancap world school, I would personally predict the options for even the poorest to get a good education would be better than today.

            (Also, consider: we’d all find it highly suspicious if “School” by Wal Mart taught an unusually pro-Wal Mart version of history, but when public schools teach history… part of the benefit of ancap world, paradoxically, is that we don’t give private companies the benefit of the doubt to the same extent many do for government).

          • Spookykou says:

            @onyomi

            I would be more worried about subtle influence over time, for the express purpose of making us less suspicious of what companies say. Only those with higher education ever even hear the words Cognitive Bias…

            Wait, was I talking about Ancap world or our world?

            But more seriously, Moloch waits, bound by chains of red tape and magic runes of ancient regulations.

            Wait, I think I got less serious?

          • Furslid says:

            Spookykou: The markets aren’t one abstract entity that acts in the interest of big business. Do you expect Walmart to advance the interests of Target? No. Walmart would throw Target under the bus for more money.

            Then why do you expect “Educorp Brand Schools” to advance the interests of Walmart? Educorp would throw Walmart under the bus for more money.

            There are a lot of people like you who are concerned about a school teaching it’s students pro-corporate bias. That makes being conspicuously free from bias a marketing point. There’s more money for some schools in providing quality education than in providing poor education to help out other companies.

          • Jiro says:

            There are a lot of people like you who are concerned about a school teaching it’s students pro-corporate bias.

            As onyomi hinted, schools today already teach kids pro-government bias. If you’re happy with that, why would pro-corporate bias be any worse?

          • Bugmaster says:

            This may be a little off-topic, but still:

            In practice, what would be the difference between an ancap world, and our current world — assuming that we give the ancap world about 200 years to develop ?

            As far as I understand, ancaps advocate for increased local control over all major policy decisions (though I’ve never met anyone who actually identified as an ancap until now, so I could be wrong). However, given the obvious market advantages of consolidation, are there any mechanisms that prevent ancap mom-and-pop mini-corps from eventually aggregating into GovCo, your friendly international government services provider ?

          • Spookykou says:

            @Furslid

            Well I was mostly joking, I think our current education system does a poor job of teaching people ‘good priorities’ as Onyomi put it.

            But I assume the biggest risk with Ancap world is ‘megacorps’.

            When the conglomerate also owns the schools, then they can take small profit loss in their school division if it means huge sales of their sugar water. The option isn’t ‘good school’ for 1000 dollars or Coke school for free. You are looking at Coke school for free or Pepsi school for free or Coke Academy for Gifted Students 1000 dollars or Pepsi Institute for Higher Learning 900 dollars.

            Who is going to have the published PHD’s at their top end Academy, the Coke school family that also owns the universities or some random other organization that tries to compete with the insane capital and built in advantages of the mega corps by offering a course on Cognitive Bias, a concept half the parents haven’t even heard of.

          • onyomi says:

            “In practice, what would be the difference between an ancap world, and our current world — assuming that we give the ancap world about 200 years to develop ?”

            In a democracy, the currency is votes and success is measured by getting reelected. In ancap world, the currency is… well, currency and success is measured by making a profit.

            Making a profit requires efficiency, especially when you don’t have the power to tax. Economies of scale result in efficiency up to a certain point, but only up to a certain point, after which the problem of coordination kicks in. The biggest corporations are big today in no small part due to their ability to decentralize how much of the day-to-day gets done (look at Amazon). Certain corporations may get very big in ancap world, but they will tend not to get inefficiently big, as that will leave them open to competition.

            In a democracy, by contrast, efficiency is not particularly rewarded. In fact, it tends to be disincentivized, except insofar as voters actually vote for thrift qua thrift, because the game isn’t to see who can make a profit, it’s basically a popularity contest, and being thrifty doesn’t usually win you a popularity contest.

            Moreover, markets tend to funnel more resources toward success through, e. g. stock markets, whereas governments tend to funnel more resources toward failure because if e. g. public education is poor, that must mean the public schools need more money; if your department consistently comes in under budget, conversely, that may be a sign you don’t actually need so much next year.

            When the currency is votes, you vote to devote more resources to whatever seems to need more resources; when the currency is currency, you buy more of what works and stop buying what doesn’t work.

          • Spookykou says:

            @bugmaster

            They will form things similar to GovCorp the difference is they will make more money and all the people will be more miserable. Ancap is very good at making money, but making money =/= happy people.

            @onyomi

            I imagine Ancap would quickly generate ‘megacorps’ I am not sure I understand your argument against bigger companies under ancap. It seems obvious to me that, much like in AI risk ‘global conquest’ – controlling as many different parts of the market as you can, is an instrumental goal of making as much money as you can in a regulation free environment.

            It also seems to me that some industries are high profit and some are low profit but as long as there is some profit people will engage in them. As much as we would all love the margins that Coke sees on sugar water, there is market saturation, so we gotta do other stuff. If your megacorp owns a high profit industry, like sugar water manufacturing, and a low profit industry like school (assuming they can even make good for profit schools at every grade level??) then a 50% loss in profits from your school for a 5% growth in sugar water sales, would still be worth it. The other schools, also low profit, are owned by other mega corps. They all make more money working together on their low profit industries, like schools and news. *Letting them manipulate information in their favor*

            Maybe you have a knock down argument against megacorps in Ancap though that could change my mind?

            *edit

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Spookykou:
            I believe that one thing at least some AnCap’s want is the abolition of corporations altogether. Force everything to personal ownership,where the owner is personally liable for the actions of their business. None of this limited liability stuff, either. That probably put at least some downward pressure in company size and scope.

            But I think there are plenty of examples of people creating massive individually owned companies. I’m not sure when LLC’s came into being though.

          • Furslid says:

            @Spookykou. I don’t like megacorps as an argument against AnCap. AnCap may have a problem with megacorps. However, does it have a worse problem with megacorps than alternate systems? No.

            The various world governments are megacorps more powerful than any theoretical AnCap corporation could be.

          • Spookykou says:

            @HBC Yeah I could see arguments for an Ancap system that doesn’t have corporations, it starts getting really weird though!

            @Furslid That is strange to me, Megacorps seem like a really strong argument against ancap(meaning just our world with no governments).

            First, equivocating between governments and corporations doesn’t seem right to me. If you could, then what is Ancap getting you exactly?(as per Bugmaster’s question earlier)

            Second, a theoretical Ancap megacorp could (at least in theory!) own 100% of the earths production, which would make it more powerful than any current organization of humans*. Even smaller mega corps could be incredibly powerful entities.

            Third, it seems obvious to me that megacorps in a zero regulation system become worse than megacorps as regulated by a government.

            Also the value of being a megacorp goes way up as far as I can tell. Consider the value to Walmart of owning a legal firm, vs owning the court system through which most of their customers would attempt to sue them? Oh no it is corrupt I am going to start paying for Apple courts, the only other court system available in your service area. Of course, Apple Courts and Walmart Courts have already cross negotiated the highest possible fee that they can pay out in a wrongful death case, and its not very much.

            I mean, we have problems with monopolies, ancap world would be nothing but monopolies.

            *Except the illuminati maybe*

          • Bugmaster says:

            @onyomi:
            I’m not sure what you mean by “efficiency”. In our current world, large corporations are able to leverage economies of scale in order to significantly reduce their costs. This makes them arguably more efficient, in the sense that they can produce the same goods at a lower cost as compared to everyone else. This also serves to effectively shut out any competition: sure, you can start the Onyomi.com online store tomorrow, if you wanted — but you’d never beat Amazon’s prices. But perhaps you meant something else when you said “efficiency” ?

            Furthermore, I’d argue that sufficiently large corporations no longer need to worry about making a profit in the conventional way. For example, if you are a large telecom company, and you manage to push everyone else out of a major metropolitan area, then you no longer need to worry about improving quality of service or customer support. You have monopolized all access to what is arguably a basic service; people have no choice but to buy from you. From this point on, you improve your profits by reducing costs or moving into other markets, and not by improving the quality of your product.

          • cassander says:

            @ugmaster says:
            October 24, 2016 at 8:35 pm ~new~

            >Furthermore, I’d argue that sufficiently large corporations no longer need to worry about making a profit in the conventional way. For example, if you are a large telecom company, and you manage to push everyone else out of a major metropolitan area, then you no longer need to worry about improving quality of service or customer support. You have monopolized all access to what is arguably a basic service; people have no choice but to buy from you. From this point on, you improve your profits by reducing costs or moving into other markets, and not by improving the quality of your product.

            John Galbraith made this argument 50 years ago when he said that GM could never conceivably go bankrupt. It was wrong then and it is still wrong.

          • Spookykou says:

            @cassander

            Gm had a utilities monopoly?

          • cassander says:

            >Gm had a utilities monopoly?

            The only way to get a utilities monopoly is to have a government get you one. criticisms of them are, almost by definition, not criticisms of capitalism.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @cassander:

            The only way to get a utilities monopoly is to have a government get you one.

            What is the mechanism that, under the ancap system, allows corporations to get monopolies on anything except utilities ?

            I do agree that, in our current system, it is very difficult (though obviously not impossible, e.g. in the case of ye olde railroad companies and modern telecoms) to achieve a utility monopoly without governmental support. But note that, in order to obtain this support, would-be monopolists have to spend some money on bribing politicians (even though their actions do not fit the strict legal definition of “bribery” in most cases). Under an ancap system, couldn’t they overtly buy whatever support they needed ?

          • cassander says:

            @Bugmaster says:

            >I do agree that, in our current system, it is very difficult (though obviously not impossible, e.g. in the case of ye olde railroad companies and modern telecoms) to achieve a utility monopoly without governmental support.

            Both of those institutions have MASSIVE government support for their monopolies.

            >couldn’t they overtly buy whatever support they needed ?

            Buy support from whom? there’s no an-cap congress to bribe. To get a monopoly they’d have to buy, from every single person in the area they want the monopoly, all possible rights to the service in question. And while they could try to do that, doing so would cause a precipitous rise in the rights in question, ruin being the perennial fate of those who try to corner the market.

          • onyomi says:

            Besides some of the inherent difficulties in creating and maintaining a “free market monopoly,” others have mentioned, one other point: there’s nothing wrong with having a monopoly or a small number of providers per se if the way it is maintained is by providing a high quality good or service at a low price. It’s only a problem if they start charging too much or producing low quality goods and services. At which point they leave themselves open to competition.

            Also even if “Justice by Wal Mart (R)” has an unfortunate tendency to be biased in cases when you sue Wal Mart, if it provides good results in all other cases, it’s still probably better than what we have now, which I’d say is… mediocre-ish in general and highly biased against you if you are, e. g. suing the government. But if the downsides of Justice by Wal Mart start to obviously outweigh the benefits they will, again, leave themselves open to competition.

            The bigger point about megacorps vs. governments is that governments right now have a very big advantage corporations and private groups (as HBC says, there is a certain sense in which limited-liability is a government-conferred advantage for corporations; without it they’d definitely be weaker; I am somewhat agnostic as to whether some similar way of limiting liability would arise in ancap world) do not, which is political authority (see pp. 5, 13-14 for Huemer’s definition of this idea (pp. 9, 17-18 of the pdf)).

            Corporations and private organizations do not have these features Huemer ascribes to governments and if they grew over decades to somehow possess them then they would, in fact, be governments. But I don’t think they would, since getting to ancap world in the first place depends on a large percentage of the population thinking political authority is illegitimate.

            Even with this huge advantage (and with it, the all-important power to tax, which denecessitates profitability) governments have, we still have something like 190 independent governments in the world today and countless subsidiary governments. If governments haven’t yet achieved world domination with these advantages on their side, I don’t think megacorp would without them (and without any government-sponsored benefits they now enjoy either).

          • “In our current world, large corporations are able to leverage economies of scale in order to significantly reduce their costs. This makes them arguably more efficient, in the sense that they can produce the same goods at a lower cost as compared to everyone else.”

            This has not been true in the past and I see no reason to expect it to be true in the future. Up to some size being bigger gives more economies of scale, but not up to any size, and being bigger also produces diseconomies of scale–more layers between the president and the factory floor. We don’t actually observe that, absent regulation, industries automatically become monopolies.

            Consider the case of U.S. Steel, which was formed by Morgan consolidating a number of large firms into one with a market share of about 67%. “One hundred years later, its shipments accounted for only about 8 percent of domestic consumption.” That was without it ever being broken up by antitrust action.

          • Spookykou says:

            @cassander

            I think we are talking at two different ideas here.

            I agree that setting up any utility from scratch in an ancap society would be… honestly it seems nearly impossible? I am not sure how ancap handles public goods? Public goods bargaining companies that go around taking collections? I am not assuming building a new society from scratch, I am assuming you take modern america with its basic infrastructures and wealth distributions and then cut out the government. It is not clear to me who would then own the infrastructure, if the government sells it off and then reimburses all the citizens with a fat check, or divides the infrastructure of america up and gives it to all the citizens? If they sell the infrastructure then any company that buys it has an effective monopoly on that utility in that area, the cost of building new infrastructure to compete with them is prohibitive so they can exploit everyone. If everyone owns their own chunk of the grid, then massive coordination problems? Maybe those bargaining companies can try to set up a contract in the best interests of the people to insure they don’t get shafted by whoever ends up providing them power?

            @onyomi As far as I can tell our biggest disconnect is,

            But I don’t think they would, since getting to ancap world in the first place depends on a large percentage of the population thinking political authority is illegitimate.

            It is hard for me to wrap my head totally around the implications that would have on society. My assumption for megacorps is that they would instantly start to look a lot like governments only with no nationalism at their core and their only concern making profit. Well positioned to merge into larger and larger conglomerates to abuse the advantages inherit in those arrangements and amass assets.

            The government serves as a form of coordinated public power, and it is able to rein in corporations. Strip away the government and it seems obvious to me that the corps would be better at coordination than the writhing masses. But again I think there is the disconnect between ancap utopia and my model of America with the government suddenly gone.

            That being said, I really was joking from the beginning, I have never even thought about mega corps in this context before. Meditations on Moloch is much closer to my true concerns with ancap and ancap like things.

          • cassander says:

            @Spookykou

            >I agree that setting up any utility from scratch in an ancap society would be… honestly it seems nearly impossible?

            I think “nearly” is being generous. I’m not by any means an anarchist, too much death eater in me to be that optimistic about people. I am, however, very much a defender of a red in tooth and claw capitalism.

            > If they sell the infrastructure then any company that buys it has an effective monopoly on that utility in that area, the cost of building new infrastructure to compete with them is prohibitive so they can exploit everyone.

            They can exploit everyone for a while, sure. But part of the reason free market monopolies are so hard to maintain is that the more success they have, the more incentive they create to undermine them. Say you pull off a carlos slim and manage to buy all the cable in a given area, then start charging several times the going rate. That creates a massive incentive for people to build infrastructure on the low cost peripheries of your monopoly. And since we now live in Anarchistan, there are no zoning restrictions, EPA reviews, or other rules preventing me from, say, offering to pay the rent of strategically located grad students if they let me run fibre optic cables through their living rooms.

            This is actually the story of a lot of what we now think of as robber barons. the great barons were often simply the first people to apply modern business techniques to their particular industry, and thus grew to to enormous size. Soon, though, their methods were copied and they started to lose dominance. Standard Oil owned something like 91% of the oil production in the country at its peak, by the time it was broken up, it had fallen to 64%.

            >It is hard for me to wrap my head totally around the implications that would have on society. My assumption for megacorps is that they would instantly start to look a lot like governments only with no nationalism at their core and their only concern making profit. Well positioned to merge into larger and larger conglomerates to abuse the advantages inherit in those arrangements and amass assets.

            I think you greatly exaggerate the advantages of scale. Economies of scale are rare. 100 people working on an assembly line can make many more cars than 100 people making cars individually, but 10 of those factories in a single company are by no means certain to outproduce 10 operating individually.

            >The government serves as a form of coordinated public power, and it is able to rein in corporations. Strip away the government and it seems obvious to me that the corps would be better at coordination than the writhing masses.

            Why do you assume the corps share common interests? Apple and google think of each other as the enemy, not potential allies against the masses.

          • Spookykou says:

            @cassander

            First, I agree with everything you said.

            My idea on corporations banding together is mostly speculative for their behavior in the power vacuum/regulation free environment.

            Similar to the idea that a power vacuum created isis, with the governments gone, then put together a strong coalition and you are in charge. The only way to analysis this historically in comparison with known corporate behavior would be to find an example (I don’t know of any) when a corporate entity knew that it was potentially the highest authority in the land.

            The gains of coalition forming in our system just can’t compare to the value of coalition forming in this theoretical no regulation system. Look at the history of gangs in America to see rapid coalition forming from local neighborhood gangs into international entities. These are deregulated industries setting their own business standards. They achieved this kind of growth in 20 years while operating totally illegally in a country with a government.

            This is largely speculative and I make some ( I think ) largely unfalsifiable claims, but these are my just so stories. Since so much of ancap and similar ideas have just never been tested anywhere, the arguments fundamentally need similar but obviously different just so stories, about how private police forces, etc will just work out.

          • cassander says:

            @Spookykou says:

            >Similar to the idea that a power vacuum created isis, with the governments gone, then put together a strong coalition and you are in charge.

            Oh, of course. Once again, we are in violent agreement. The fundamental problem with anarchism has always been what to do when when someone remembers that coercive power is an option. The best answer the anarchists have for the problem is the promise of a stable, nonviolent equilibrium out there somewhere, but empirical evidence for the claim is, as you say, somewhat lacking. That’s a failure of anarchism in general, though, it has nothing to do with capitalism or corporations.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @cassander:

            Both of those institutions have MASSIVE government support for their monopolies.

            This is not true in the case of the original railroad monopolies, who ended up essentially being the local government in many cases, to the extent of setting up their own currency.

            Modern telecoms obviously enjoy massive government support, but that does not immediately imply that this support is the only reason (or, perhaps, the main reason) that allows them to maintain their monopolies.

            Buy support from whom? there’s no an-cap congress to bribe.

            Ok, let’s say that your electric power company is significantly larger than mine, but we service the same area. You offer to buy me out at a fairly impressive price. First of all, why would I refuse ? Presumably I like money, and you are about to make me rich, right ?

            Second of all, if I do refuse, what prevents you from upping your price, or starting a massive disinformation campaign against me (thus ruining my business), or simply muscling me out by force ? As you said, there’s no congress, so there’s no mechanism that prevents the use of such tactics.

          • cassander says:

            @Bugmaster says:

            >This is not true in the case of the original railroad monopolies, who ended up essentially being the local government in many cases, to the extent of setting up their own currency.

            Because they were GIVEN, free of charge, the land next to the track they laid.

            >Ok, let’s say that your electric power company is significantly larger than mine, but we service the same area. You offer to buy me out at a fairly impressive price. First of all, why would I refuse ? Presumably I like money, and you are about to make me rich, right ?

            sure. And? THere’s nothing wrong with free exchange of goods,and I’ve already discussed what happens should a monopoly actually form.

            >Second of all, if I do refuse, what prevents you from upping your price, or starting a massive disinformation campaign against me (thus ruining my business), or simply muscling me out by force ? As you said, there’s no congress, so there’s no mechanism that prevents the use of such tactics.

            disinformation campaigns are legal now. You see them on TV every day.

            >or simply muscling me out by force ?

            It’s ancapistan, there is no force. Now if you want to object to this stipulation, fine, but that’s objecting to the anarchism side of things, not the capitalism side.

          • Furslid says:

            @Spookykou

            If governments are treated as corporations, then what you get from AnCap is weaker megacorps. As bad as AnCap Walmart might be, I don’t expect it to have some powers that USgov has.

            I don’t expect it to have it’s own court system and outlaw any competition in courts. I expect that even if it has it’s own courts, Walmart would agree have another reputable court system try cases involving it to avoid bias and appearance of bias.

            I don’t expect it to have taxation power, where they can take X% of someone’s income regardless of how they use or value Walmart’s services.

            I don’t expect it to arrest and try people for crimes of morals.

            I don’t expect Walmart security to have universal jurisdiction. They couldn’t enter the property of other corporations and people to arrest at will.

            I don’t expect it to claim standing in every criminal case. An assault case wouldn’t be tried as Walmart vs Doe.

            Etc.

          • Spookykou says:

            @Furslid

            Yes at this point it seems clear that we are just talking about two different things when we say Ancap, and my model is admittedly made at least partially from straw. I can imagine other forms of Ancap where megacorps would not be a problem.

            @cassander

            I shudder to think that my position appeared to be anti-capitalism or anti-corporations in general. I am all for capitalism, the anarchy is where they lost me.

          • Bugmaster says:

            @cassander:

            Because they were GIVEN, free of charge, the land next to the track they laid.

            Even assuming that this were true, how would that be different in an ancap world ? If there’s some land that is sitting around, not being used by anyone, why wouldn’t they just come and take it ? Of course, in our modern world land is incredibly scarce; but that’s a function of our technological development and population size, not our economic system.

            sure. And? THere’s nothing wrong with free exchange of goods,and I’ve already discussed what happens should a monopoly actually form.

            Ok, so firstly, it seems we both agree that monopolies will inevitably form under the ancap system (since there are many incentives for this and few detriments). But, once a monopoly does form, I am not convinced that you can do a lot to dislodge it (in an ancap world, that is). They have more money than anyone else, so they can outbid you on anything they want. You could try competing with them, but they’d either buy you out, cut out your suppliers, or employ one of the other strategies I mentioned. Doing so is in their best interest at all times, so I don’t see why they wouldn’t.

            It’s ancapistan, there is no force.

            Wait, what ? Where did it go ? I guess I could be totally wrong about the world you’re proposing. I was assuming that this was a world where governments were completely nonexistent; but perhaps you meant a world where governments maintain their monopoly on force, but stay out of all the other market segments ?

          • Spookykou says:

            @bugmaster

            I think you are making the same ‘mistake’ that I was making, of speculating on our world just without government.

            It seems Ancap proponents assume that everyone in ancap world will just agree to not use force to get what they want. I have heard some of this idea before, I think it is supposed to work because there is an incentive for a peaceful system(more profitable on net?) so everyone just agrees to one. This seems like magical thinking to me, and doesn’t fit at all with my model of how people would act in such an environment.

            Cassander assumed that we both understood this ancap assumption that everyone peacefully agrees to not use force to get things and so we were arguing that corporation would grow exponentially and be horrible and evil even with third party arbitration. So Capitalism itself must be the problem, since ancap hand waves the An part away.

            I don’t know about you but this was not really my position, I was just assuming, a power vacuum, corporations next largest consolidation of power, they band together to secure their rule and form megacorps that are generally pretty horrible for everyone not at the top.

            Basically my problem was the Anarchy, not the Capitalism.

            To be fair to Ancap, basically everything I know about Ancap has come from random Onyomi comments on SSC so I am probably straw manning or confused on some or most of their position.

            edits

          • onyomi says:

            Ancap isn’t about everyone becoming a pacifist–it’s just dropping the double standard Huemer calls “political authority” which exists in most peoples’ minds with respect to the legitimate use of force.

            For example, almost anyone can think of cases of legitimate use of force by private citizens. If you are a privately employed mall cop, for example, you’d be within your rights to forcibly eject someone from the mall for stealing or defacing property, or in taking back any stolen property you found on them. You might even be justified in shooting someone if they open fire on patrons in the mall. And, of course, if you get beaten up by a mall cop for no good reason you can sue the mall.

            As to when and how and to what extent force may be justified or was justified is open to negotiation; ancap simply insists that force doesn’t gain any extra legitimacy simply by virtue of being deployed by an agent of the state.

          • CatCube says:

            And, of course, if you get beaten up by a mall cop for no good reason you can sue the mall.

            See, this is where the ancap (or any variety of anarchy) falls down for me. Sue the mall in what court?

          • onyomi says:

            There are different views on how exactly it might work. One proposal is that most people and virtually all businesses in ancap world will subscribe to one or more insurance/protection/rights enforcement agencies.

            In the “I got unjustly beaten up by a mall cop” example, you might actually get paid by your own insurance company who would, in turn, go after the cop and/or the people who employed him to recoup the cost of paying out your claim.

            How does the insurance company go after the mall for its money? Maybe they both use the same company with a procedure for investigating and arbitrating cases. Maybe they have different companies but which, by virtue of frequent dealing, have some pre-arranged agreement about how disputes will be arbitrated. Maybe they haven’t dealt with each other before but can come to some agreement like “we will abide by the decision of arbitration firm x, which has a reputation for fairness.”

            What if the mall is super recalcitrant and refuses to either pay up or defend themselves in court? Well, to some extent maybe ancap has a problem with this, but then, so does non-ancap world. In most cases of disputes over e. g. bills, the government doesn’t actually get involved. The party who thinks you owe them money sends you a bill and another bill and a threatening letter and then they sell the debt to a collection agency and if you still don’t pay the collection agency tells the credit reporting agencies which ding your credit which hurts your ability to buy a car… and so on.

            One imagines in ancap world reputation would be even more important, with the result that for most businesses and individuals it wouldn’t be worth the hit in terms of future ability to do business and get jobs and be insured in order simply to refuse to any settlement over any given case.

            It gets a little harder when someone has little to lose: say a vagrant murderer who doesn’t care about being unable to rent a home or get a job or get a credit card or get utility bills in his name. One ancap solution might be simply to exile this person entirely from whatever ancap territory knows about his murders and refusal to stand trial for them. In such a case someone might voluntarily accept imprisonment in preference to being forced to live away from all civilization, for example.

          • CatCube says:

            What if the mall is super recalcitrant and refuses to either pay up or defend themselves in court? Well, to some extent maybe ancap has a problem with this, but then, so does non-ancap world.

            In the non-ancap world, if you sue the mall and they elect to not defend themselves, you get a default judgement. They can’t just “opt-out” of the court system.

            Similarly, every bill collector has the option of suing your for your bill, it’s just that it often is cheaper and easier for them to pester you than to try to get a judgement. Even so, sometimes they *will* get a judgement against people and garnish their wages. In places where the loan is secured, they’ll move to seize the security (Yes, yes, I know you’re going to respond that they can contract with Ancap Repo, but the downside is that even if you pay your bill they can contract with Ancap Repo and dare you to stop them.) Their actions are always backstopped by the courts; in return, they can’t send somebody to your house with a baseball bat. It’s notable that lenders who *don’t* have access to courts will resort to this.

            One imagines in ancap world reputation would be even more important…

            Yes, and some people in societies suffering breakdown *do* do what you fondly hope and try to build positive reputation. Others elect to develop a reputation for killing your whole family if you cross them. History has shown that either can be effective for ensuring that people pay you the money they think you owe them.

            It gets a little harder when someone has little to lose: say a vagrant murderer who doesn’t care about being unable to rent a home or get a job or get a credit card or get utility bills in his name.

            I think you might be radically underestimating the circumstances under which somebody will default on bills because then they can’t get “insurance”. These people will band together and take what they need. (Yes, yes, your “insurance” groups will form security to prevent theft or destruction of your supply convoys. I think you are radically underestimating how difficult and expensive that can get.)

            One ancap solution might be simply to exile this person entirely from whatever ancap territory knows about his murders and refusal to stand trial for them. In such a case someone might voluntarily accept imprisonment in preference to being forced to live away from all civilization, for example.

            Taking the last point first, I think you’re radically underestimating the fraction of people who’ll voluntarily sign up for prison. You do understand there’s a reason we guard those, right? You’re making this way too hard, anyway. Just kick him to his knees and shoot him in the back of the head. There’s no law to put you in prison. Of course, if you end up being falsely suspected yourself, due process of law might be nice thing to have.

            You posit that voluntary groups will come together to enact all these rules and enforce them. This, frankly, looks like the Anarchist States from S.S.D.D., which is nominally anarchist but really has a government that huffily insists it’s not one. (We don’t have laws, we can only give advice. We advise you not to enter that secure military area. You don’t have to take this advice, but note that we’ve advised the guards to shoot any intruders on sight.) And even then, that Anarchy is only stable because it’s secretly backstopped by a superintelligent AI that uses it as a cover for its own insane purposes. There’s not really much daylight between where these “voluntary” systems will evolve to do the same functions we have now and what we just call government.

          • Spookykou says:

            @onyomi

            I am admittedly new to the finer points of this topic, but I tried thinking about it in the terms you set rather than my own terms.

            This idea in particular set the wheels turning.

            Ancap isn’t about everyone becoming a pacifist–it’s just dropping the double standard Huemer calls “political authority” which exists in most peoples’ minds with respect to the legitimate use of force.

            It reminded me of the recent political discussions here on SSC, in particular the more nuanced elements of Americas alliances/defense treaties.

            A major point was that the nuclear defensive agreements the US signs with other nations has a number of less obvious effects, to the purpose of greatly reducing nuclear proliferation and the risk of nuclear war.

            I mostly buy into these ideas, and I think they translate nicely into a general policy of centralizing the authority to use force to prevent the use of force.

            As for “political authority” is there more to this idea then just a population agreeing to a system of laws. It seems to me that people are constantly forming systems where they all agree to a set of ‘laws’ and then the population as a whole enforces adherence to these ‘laws’. This can exists without any governments, hierarchy, or anything else more complicated. In situations where there is no government then these pact laws are still enforced, with actual force, by the population. Governments are not an exception to this communal law system, they are just an extrapolation and growth out from this innate human behavior to form these kinds of systems, maybe this is ‘the problem’ Huemer is talking about.

            I am going to go and read that link you posted Onyomi and hopefully that will help shed some light on these ideas.

          • onyomi says:

            @Catcube

            See this, this, and this, especially 22:00 and 34:30 of the video and pp. 139-141 of the pdf.

          • Spookykou says:

            @onyomi

            I followed all the links you just posted, watched the referenced portions of the video and pages from the PDF. I think I understand where I disconnect from anarchy.

            The basic idea as I understand it, is to recognize that everything that a society does could be handled by markets, and markets tend to be more efficient then governments. I can agree with the first part, but the second part seems to be doing some equivocating of all society goals as being equally well handled by markets, when I have no evidence of this.

            In the video the speaker tries to equivocate between a monopoly on using force, with a monopoly on shoe manufacturing. He does not even try to address the ways in which using force to settle disputes and enforce agreements might be different from making and selling shoes. It seems to me that the best system for performing one task might not be the best system for performing another task with pretty seriously different qualities.

            In the PDF, the David F. quote is trying to equivocate between the legislating and execution of the united states government with car manufacturing. While I would agree that there might be more competition in a manufacturer market then in the democratic process for electing government officials. Again I am confronted with the default assumption that, since markets are good at making cars, clearly they would be good at this very different task.

            This seems like a pretty big assumption, but it might be true, i’m curious about the arguments for this position. My best guess is something like, competition pushes the best to the top in markets for goods and services, so if everything could be done by markets, then competitive markets would be better at doing everything.

          • “but the second part seems to be doing some equivocating of all society goals as being equally well handled by markets, when I have no evidence of this. ”

            I don’t think that’s the claim, at least in my form of the argument. There are some things that markets are worse at than others, most obviously where problems of market failure, which I define as situations where individual rationality does not produce group rationality, are serious.

            But the same logic that makes ordinary markets work poorly also makes the political market work poorly. Market failure comes from situations where an actor does not bear most of the net cost of his action, hence there is a substantial divergence between his interest and our interest. Such situations occasionally occur on the private market (externalities, public goods, adverse selection), but they are the norm on the political market.

          • Spookykou says:

            @DavidFriedman

            I can see this line of reasoning.

            Do you think it is at least possible for some other fundamental element of markets, beyond market failures to create negative outcomes? Basically that the political system does not allow for much at all in the way of competition, which in many cases could be a bad thing, is in this situation a good thing. That for the particular system of using force, I think it is at least reasonable to argue that competition might in and of itself be a net negative. I single higher arbitrator to dole out force if and when it was necessary having some inherent advantages. Again I am reminded of all the arguments for Pax America as a deterrent to nuclear proliferation and war of the last several decades.

            The growth of America as ‘world police’ MIGHT be responsible for the prolonged peace, in the same way that a central government(or government like thing) working as the police in general MIGHT be responsible for prolonged civil peace.

            I think your position is interesting, but find myself stuck on this singular issue of who controls the use of force, and how that particular ‘service’ strikes me as deeply fundamentally different from shoe manufacturing.

            Edit: some words

          • cassander says:

            Bugmaster says:
            October 25, 2016 at 9:27 pm ~new~
            @cassander:

            >If there’s some land that is sitting around, not being used by anyone, why wouldn’t they just come and take it ? Of course, in our modern world land is incredibly scarce; but that’s a function of our technological development and population size, not our economic system.

            Because it would be owned by someone. In the US case, it was owned by the federal government, who gave it to railroads.

            >Ok, so firstly, it seems we both agree that monopolies will inevitably form under the ancap system (since there are many incentives for this and few detriments).

            There are many detriments. Getting a monopoly in a free market requires, effectively, cornering the market, something that almost inevitably leads to failure.

            >But, once a monopoly does form, I am not convinced that you can do a lot to dislodge it (in an ancap world, that is). They have more money than anyone else, so they can outbid you on anything they want.

            they can out bid the first guy, maybe the first 20 guys. But every person they outbid just bids up the price of the next guy.

            >so I don’t see why they wouldn’t.

            They will try, they will also fail, for all the reasons market corners fail.

            >Wait, what ? Where did it go ? I guess I could be totally wrong about the world you’re proposing. I was assuming that this was a world where governments were completely nonexistent; but perhaps you meant a world where governments maintain their monopoly on force, but stay out of all the other market segments ?

            See Onyomi’s response above. I am not an anarchist, I do not advocate anarchism, but we are debating the likely path of capitalism within an anarchist system, so I am assuming a functioning anarchist system for the sake of debate.

          • “Do you think it is at least possible for some other fundamental element of markets, beyond market failures to create negative outcomes?”

            Two different responses:

            One problem, which I discuss in the current edition of Machinery of Freedom, is that there might be economies of scale in the use of force by one agency against another even if not in providing the service of rights protection to customers. That gets back to the issue of industry concentration. The system I described should work fine with a hundred agencies, but with only two or three it would be vulnerable to cartelization to recreate government, possibly a worse government than we now have. That’s still an issue of market failure, since monopoly is one of the standard situations in economics where individual rationality does not produce group rationality.

            There are a number of other reasons why the market for law and law enforcement might produce suboptimal results, such as individual irrationality. But I think all of those impact the government alternative at least as much. The irrational consumer gets stuck with a product he doesn’t like, whether a car or a private rights enforcer. The irrational voter very slightly increases the chance that everyone will get a government they do not like. So the incentive to be rational is much higher in the private market.

          • Spookykou says:

            The system I described should work fine with a hundred agencies, but with only two or three it would be vulnerable to cartelization to recreate government, possibly a worse government than we now have.

            This is a perfect statement of my concern, with the addition that in my estimation even if you start with a large number of agencies, there would be an incentive for them to merge for the express purpose of creating a government, with the initial mergers as leaders.

            I forget the book I read this in but the basic idea was, you create a wizards guild by going to a wizard weaker than you, and threaten to kill him if he does not join your guild, then the two of you go find a third wizard, and threaten to kill him if he doesn’t join, and so on and so on, and there is a better than random chance that if you got in first you might end up on top.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Others have pretty much covered my points regarding monopolies and violence, but still, here is my take on it.

            I think that ancap-ists (ancaps ? ancapites ? ancapodes ?) are making the same mistake as Communists: they innately assume that, in their world, people would value radically different things than they do in ours. Communists believe that people would be exceptionally altruistic (due to the removal of classist oppression); while ancapodes ((c) Bugmaster 2016 !) believe that people would be exceptionally more rational (due to the removal of governmental oppression).

            Unfortunately, based on what I know of history, I am convinced that neither proposition is true. In an anarchistic society (such as e.g. Somalia) violence would not be the last resort — it would be the first. If you have a bushel of apples, you’d better sleep with one eye open, because there are going to be lots of people around who are perfectly willing to shiv you and take the apples. You could argue with them, and explain why such actions would be detrimental to the social good in the long run; but you’re still getting shivved, because they don’t care about social good, they care about getting your apples.

            But violence is a service, just like any other; as such, it is subject to market forces. As with any goods or services, consolidation and economies of scale allow people to deliver violence much more efficiently: you can kill a lot more people with a gun than with a shiv, but now you need someone to manufacture guns for you (as opposed to just whittling a shiv by yourself).

            In our current world, we are outsourcing violence — as well as lots of other essential services — to a large organization called a “government”. Nothing I’ve read on this thread so far had convinced me that, in an ancap world, this would not also be the case (except we’d be calling this organization by a different name, perhaps).

          • onyomi says:

            “while ancapodes ((c) Bugmaster 2016 !) believe that people would be exceptionally more rational (due to the removal of governmental oppression).”

            Representative democracy assumes more rationality on the part of citizens than ancap, because it requires that people do a lot of research and really care about a decision (whom to vote for) that, on the margin, has no effect on their lives.

            In ancap world you get what you pay for and so have a much better incentive to do your research and choose based on criteria other than sex scandals, who has better hair, etc. This is why people currently make more rational decisions about what car to buy than who should lead the free world.

            Ancaps just say: “let’s pick our lawmakers and enforcers like we buy our cars.”

            As for “outsourcing” our violence, as mentioned in the Roderick Long video, to say that we need not have a monopoly provider of x in no way implies that each person will have to provide their own x (or defense against x).

          • “I think that ancap-ists (ancaps ? ancapites ? ancapodes ?) are making the same mistake as Communists: they innately assume that, in their world, people would value radically different things than they do in ours. ”

            I can’t speak for others, but that certainly isn’t my view. I think markets and political systems should be analyzed using the same assumptions about people. One of my main objections to the usual arguments for government is that they assume self-interested behavior by individuals in private markets but a government that simply does whatever benefits the people it governs–instead of a government that is the outcome of the interaction of self-interested individuals.

          • Aapje says:

            @cassander

            There are many detriments. Getting a monopoly in a free market requires, effectively, cornering the market, something that almost inevitably leads to failure.

            they can out bid the first guy, maybe the first 20 guys. But every person they outbid just bids up the price of the next guy.

            I consider your understanding of monopolies very flawed.

            Imagine that a product has big benefits of scale. One company runs all competitors out of business by undercutting them, even accepting temporary losses. Then once they have a monopoly, they increase the price way above manufacturing cost. This then allows the company to build up a huge war chest. If a new competitor comes along, the ex-monopolist can undercut the competitor. Even if the competitor has a strong backer and manage to achieve the economies of scale (unlikely), the ex-monopolist can use their war chest to keep them unprofitable for a very long time. The new competitor could try to keep at it until that war chest is empty, but this creates huge losses. A truly competitive situation doesn’t generate the extreme profits that allow them to earn back these huge losses, especially as building up the same benefits of scale as the ex-monopolist results in huge overproduction.

            So no rational actor will take on the monopolist, unless there is government protection of competitors, because it’s a recipe for losing your money.

          • Aapje says:

            @onyomi

            Representative democracy assumes more rationality on the part of citizens than ancap, because it requires that people do a lot of research and really care about a decision (whom to vote for) that, on the margin, has no effect on their lives.

            It’s actually the opposite of what you claim.

            A representative democracy implicitly assumes that people make decisions that they care about & are knowledgeable about, so the people who get most votes get support by various groups of experts who each boost the politicians who are best on that topic. Of course, this works far from perfectly in practice, because many people care deeply about things that they still know little about & on some topics, the actually ‘right’ people are a small minority of the people who care. Nevertheless, the system tends to work better than most alternatives we tried and does create better outcomes than averaging the knowledge of citizens, IMO.

            In an ancap world, you don’t choose a package deal for all topics combined, but instead, pick different providers. This is actually the argument that you guys keep using as the main advantage (that people pick what they want themselves rather than get decisions made by government). The logical consequences is that people then must be experts on many more different topics, as they need to pick a different provider for each of them, rather than trust in the ‘package deal’.

            In ancap world you get what you pay for and so have a much better incentive to do your research and choose based on criteria other than sex scandals, who has better hair, etc.

            Here you are making an argument that it’s more important for people to be rational in an ancap world, which in my eyes conflicts with your previous statement that ‘representative democracy assumes more rationality on the part of citizens than ancap.’ Perhaps the disconnect is that you think that ancap will magically create far more rationality in people, rather than require it. However, this assumption is unproven by you and probably incorrect, so I think it is fair to characterize your position as assuming more rationality on the part of people.

            I find your optimism unwarranted, as there is evidence that people don’t actually do that research. For example, in my country several things have been privatized over the last decade, but these markets are extremely static with very few people switching providers. If reality worked as you claimed it would, consumers would have responded by doing research and making smart decisions. In practice, it’s pretty clear that most people have limited time to do research and make decisions, so at a certain point they just give up. Probably way before you assume they do.

            There is a small minority of people who absolutely love shopping and I strongly suspect that ancap advocates consist mostly of this minority and who suffer from a frequently made flaw: assuming that others are like you.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            One of my main objections to the usual arguments for government is that they assume self-interested behavior by individuals in private markets but a government that simply does whatever benefits the people it governs–instead of a government that is the outcome of the interaction of self-interested individuals.

            I certainly assume neither and the evidence points to people being neither purely self-interested (unless you torture the definition to define altruism as selfishness), nor purely altruistic.

            The assumption behind representative democracy is not that politicians are altruistic, that is the assumption behind monarchy (& the like), where the monarch has absolute power. In a representative democracy, politicians are temporarily granted power through voting, which redirects their self-interested behavior (as they get/maintain their income, power, etc; by making voters sufficiently happy) and also selects for people with popular altruistic desires.

            I find it unfortunate that you go for this simplistic dichotomy (altruism vs self-interest), because thinking in such a dichotomy demonstrates that a person doesn’t understand the complexity of human nature and instead, predicts their behavior through one aspect of human personality, rather than a more realistic model.

            All theoretical economic theories inherently suffer from simplistic assumptions about human nature, which is why I consider them to have very little persuasive power, unless they have actually been tested in reality. Without that reality check, they usually tell us more about the things that the advocates want to happen, where those biases tend to creep into the assumptions, determine what gets included & left out, etc.

          • onyomi says:

            “Here you are making an argument that it’s more important for people to be rational in an ancap world, which in my eyes conflicts with your previous statement that ‘representative democracy assumes more rationality on the part of citizens than ancap.’ Perhaps the disconnect is that you think that ancap will magically create far more rationality in people, rather than require it.”

            No, my point is that ancap better incentivizes rationality, and it isn’t magic which incentivizes more rational choices, it’s the fact that people enjoy the benefits of good decisions more directly and suffer the consequences of bad decisions more directly.

            My point about democracy is that it requires people be rational about something which it does them no good to be rational about, since a single marginal vote almost never makes a decisive difference as to the outcome. Little wonder people actually vote mostly to signal tribal membership.

            As for the idea that people in ancap world will need to do a ton of research all the time in order to make good decisions: if you follow this logic backward it means that too many things are already produced by the market: why confuse people and force them to do their own research by having multiple car companies? Maybe the government should make one standard issue car for everyone?

            People prefer having options in every area where they do; I’m not sure why law and order would be an exception. You might say that it would require people to be legal experts, but no. Having competition among providers of law and order no more requires customers to be legal scholars and security experts than having a choice among car companies requires people to be car experts.

            Choosing politicians, by contrast, is an almost impossible proposition even for the small minority who choose to do a lot of research before voting. When you buy a new car or, say, a new insurance policy against violent crime and theft in ancap world, you are buying that particular service and deciding largely on the basis of a company’s reputation for providing that service. When you vote for a politician, you generally aren’t voting for them to do a very specific job (though there is a greater degree to which you do so at the local level, where the knowledge and incentive problems aren’t so great; to the extent ancap might resemble a bunch of tiny government-ish HOA-type entities, this is also in its favor). You’re usually voting for some kind of generalist who will then appoint all the bureaucrats who do the day-to-day work of the government.

            It’s the difference between asking a consumer to buy his own car and asking him to vote for the CEO of General Motors. The latter is much, much harder and requires a lot more industry-specific knowledge.

          • Bugmaster says:

            In our current world, people routinely make terrible decisions when shopping. This is partially due to the fact that there exists an entire industry whose purpose is to influence their decisions; but also due to the fact that most people can’t really be bothered to perform extensive research on each little shopping choice.

            In response, product manufacturers and service providers move to satisfy the demand as efficiently as possible, by doing things like applying lead paint to children’s toys, or claiming that cigarettes can cure your cough. In our world, it took government intervention to stop things like that. Some businesses suffered serious financial harm as the result, but the world arguably became a better place.

            If the ancap proponents are right about their views on free market and consolidation, then it would seem that we would still have lead-painted toys in the ancap world. But personally, I think that the ancap world would naturally transform into a more traditional governmental system (all but in name), and that government would still use its monopoly on force to ban lead paint.

          • cassander says:

            Aapje says:
            @cassander

            Economies of scale are not infinite, and there are large dis-economies of scale. As I believe I said elsewhere, 100 guys in a factory can make a lot more cars than 100 individuals going at it solo, but a company with 100 of those factories is not more efficient than 100 individual companies. In fact, it’s probably less.

            Most goods are mobile, so to achieve the sort of monopoly you’re talking about, you’d have to build a global monopoly, something that’s never been achieved for anything. if you managed to build you built such a colossus, simply keeping it from collapsing under its own weight would be a significant achievement on its own. Undercutting leaner competition would be a pipe dream.

            Utilities are an exception to the rule, which is why they were being discussed earlier, because they aren’t really mobile but instead bring services to a geographic area. But they’re even less suited to the sorts of economies of scale you described, precisely for that reason.

            @Bugmaster

            >If the ancap proponents are right about their views on free market and consolidation, then it would seem that we would still have lead-painted toys in the ancap world. But personally, I think that the ancap world would naturally transform into a more traditional governmental system (all but in name), and that government would still use its monopoly on force to ban lead paint

            Lead paint wouldn’t be illegal in the Ancap world, that’s true. There’d probably be more of it. But there’d also be a lot less asbestos because there would have been no government mandating its use to comply with fire codes at the turn of the century. Your cost/benefit analysis of the virtue of regulation is leaving out the cost side entirely.

          • Spookykou says:

            @cassander

            I am not sure how accurate you are with the asbestos and regulation in general. Asbestos is an amazing material in every way except one, the US government might have helped it along but in counterfactual ancap world I imagine it would have gotten around, and then never been banned. Just like lead paint, leaded gas, CFC’s, etc, etc.

            Counterfactual ancap world starting 100 years ago would almost certainly have cause unrecoverable damage to the world. Humanities advances in Chemistry happened to work out very nicely with our understand of its dangers such that we were able to stop ourselves, through government regulation. Without such a powerful tool for collective bargaining, ancap world would have been in a sorry state.

            It seems obvious that you can only even consider an ancap society moving forward from the information we have now, and pray that there is never another CFCs situation in the future.

            Edit: I mean in general we should hope that there is not another CFCs situation, even in a democracy, but in Ancap world stuff like that is basically a world killer.

          • “Imagine that a product has big benefits of scale. One company runs all competitors out of business by undercutting them, even accepting temporary losses. ”

            This is, of course, the usual urban legend about Standard Oil. The only problem is that it isn’t true.

            If economies of scale go up to the size of the market you have a natural monopoly. If they don’t, then a smaller firm can produce at the same cost as the monopolist–lower cost if by the monopolist’s size there are net diseconomies of scale. In the competition between a firm with 95% of the market and a firm with 5% of the market, the former trying to drive the latter out by selling below cost, the big firm is losing at least nineteen dollars for every one dollar the small firm is losing.

            It’s probably losing more, because at the lower price customers buy more, and if the big firm wants to hold the price down it has to expand production to do so. The smaller firm, on the other hand, has the option of reducing output to whatever level minimizes its losses, in which case the larger firm has to produce even more to hold the price down.

            This is a very old argument. You can find the points I just made in chapter six of my Machinery of Freedom.

          • glenra says:

            One company runs all competitors out of business by undercutting them, even accepting temporary losses.

            Being big in terms of market share makes pricing below cost ruinously expensive.

            Also, the nature of the economies of scale in an industry tend to change over time; the minute some new technology comes along to make widgets better and cheaper, the biggest existing players have a massive investment in older ways of doing things so a scrappy small upstart can often pull the rug out from under them faster than they can reposition to take advantage. (This is how the mini-mills replaced Big Steel and how airlines like Southwest with newer planes and less senior crew stole market share from United and American.)

            A smaller firm can also compete by specializing. They can go after any specific subclass of customer not adequately served by the bigger firm’s one-size-fits-all product.

            In a free market, being the market leader is a tenuous position. You have little competitors constantly nipping at your heels. One wrong move, and you lose.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            In the competition between a firm with 95% of the market and a firm with 5% of the market, the former trying to drive the latter out by selling below cost, the big firm is losing at least nineteen dollars for every one dollar the small firm is losing.

            This depends on many assumptions, like the product not being geographically bound, there not being an oligopoly among resellers, the costs of production being equal, etc. Take gas stations, the monopolist doesn’t have to lower the price at all their gas stations, just the ones near the new competitor. They most likely can still run an overall profit while making losses locally.

            If there are just a few resellers, the monopolist can sign exclusive contracts with the resellers, threatening to pull their products from the store if they don’t comply. The reseller would then probably make a greater loss on no longer having the products of the monopolist (especially if they have an assortment of goods) than they earn from being able to sell the new product.

            You are also weak manning the shit out of my argument. In many cases, the monopolist doesn’t have to make a loss, because they already have such a big margin above their production costs. I said that they do have the option to go below costs, but never said that it is necessary. Furthermore, the new competitor often has had to make huge investments to start of with. So they are generally weak, while the monopolist is very strong. So even if you get the very unlikely scenario of 19 to 1 losses (which is pretty much the worst case for the monopolist and generally not true), that can still be quite sufficient, assuming that these attempts happen rarely, so the benefits from the period that the monopoly is not under attack outstrips the costs of the defensive moves.

            Example of an (IMO) very reasonable possibility: monopolist produces 1 unit for 1 dollar, but sells for 5. New competitor produces for 1.1 dollars and sells at 2. Monopolist now lowers the price to 1 dollar, which they can do indefinitely, especially if they are a multinational that makes profits on other products. The best case scenario for the new competitor is that they merely have to match the price of the monopolist, so that they make 0.1 dollar loss per sale, which is going to end one day. Then the monopolist increases their price to 5 again. Of course, in reality the new competitor probably has to undercut the monopolist by a decent margin to make people be willing to take the risk of moving to a new product.

            Note that in this scenario, the reward for the monopolist winning this ‘war’ is a profit of 3 dollar per unit (their current margin of 4 dollars would go down to 1 dollar profit per unit), while the reward for the competitor achieving it’s goal is 1 dollar per unit (as they can only hope to achieve a competitive market). Basic economic logic dictates that the party whose end goal is more profitable, can afford to spend more to achieve their goal.

            The smaller firm, on the other hand, has the option of reducing output to whatever level minimizes its losses

            In my example, that would be producing zero units.

          • Aapje says:

            @glenra

            Also, the nature of the economies of scale in an industry tend to change over time; the minute some new technology comes along to make widgets better and cheaper

            That’s true, but R&D is strongly disincentivized in a pure free market, and government R&D would obviously not happen either. So you would be more or less correct for the kind of R&D that consists of a single guy in his basement making an invention, but many inventions require much more work and probably would no longer be done. So you’d have far fewer disruptive inventions.

            Furthermore, the monopolist could simply buy up the invention and use it to increase their margins even further or shelve it.

            A smaller firm can also compete by specializing. They can go after any specific subclass of customer not adequately served by the bigger firm’s one-size-fits-all product.

            That is true, although it generally matters little to the monopolist. Bespoke products tend to be so costly to make that they are way more expensive than even monopoly prices. Bespoke manufacturers actually reduce the ability for new competitors to come along with a slightly different product, to try and split the market, so they can help the monopolist more than hurt them.

            In a free market, being the market leader is a tenuous position. You have little competitors constantly nipping at your heels. One wrong move, and you lose.

            True, but an ancap world will probably have a less competitive market than we have now, so then it will be easier for market leaders to stay on top.

          • @Aapje:

            It’s useful to distinguish between a natural monopoly and an artificial monopoly, and you are not doing so–you go back and forth between arguments that depend on the assumption that the large firm has lower costs and ones that don’t.

            I don’t think anyone denies that if a firm producing for the entire market has lower costs than any smaller firm, the market equilibrium is monopoly–that’s the standard natural monopoly story. But it’s a situation that is very uncommon save for small markets–the one general store in a small town far from other small towns–or very specialized niches.

          • Spookykou says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Would it be possible for an artificial monopoly to become a natural monopoly if, any point of their production process is vulnerable to a natural monopoly, and they move into and take over that industry and deny that important production process from any would be competitors to their artificial monopoly?

            Can an artificial monopoly use it’s market share to demand exclusivity contracts, making it difficult for any would be competitors without a place to sell, or buy from?

            I am curious to learn more about how monopolies work, if you don’t mind I would appreciate a book/blog/something recommendation where I could learn more.

            Thanks

          • @Spookykou:

            It’s easiest for me to point you at stuff I’ve written which sketches the standard theory of monopoly but is not directed at your particular questions.

            Chapter in my Price Theory.

            My Machinery of Freedom isn’t webbed as separate chapters, but the relevant material is in Chapters 6 and 7.

          • Spookykou says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Thank you, I will read through both.

          • glenra says:

            @aapje:

            So you would be more or less correct for the kind of R&D that consists of a single guy in his basement making an invention, but many inventions require much more work and probably would no longer be done.

            Furthermore, the monopolist could simply buy up the invention and use it to increase their margins even further or shelve it.

            I think we’re thinking of different kinds of invention. One example I gave above was airlines. Planes are certainly in the huge, complicated class of invention; they tend to get better over time, and not due to the efforts of one guy in a basement.

            So: United Airlines started up in the 1930s by combining smaller firms that were using the best planes available at the time. As newer, better planes were invented, they added new planes to their fleet and gradually phased out older planes.

            Motivated by the need to serve the entire market, the United fleet and route structure becomes complicated. Pretty soon they have newer planes and older planes, big ones to cross oceans and small ones to take skiers to Jackson Hole. They are paying a pretty big complexity tax. Their pilots, engineers, and cabin attendants need to deal with the idiosyncrasies of a varied and aging fleet. This is inefficient and kind of expensive.

            Then Southwest Air comes along. They build a fleet of 550 planes ALL of which are Boeing 737s. They pick routes optimized for the plane they have and buy planes optimized for the routes and the staff they have. Having one type of plane means their engineers know that plane really well, always have the parts they need, and can fix stuff quickly. Having one plane means they can optimize boarding and refueling procedures for the exact plane they’ve got and reduce turnaround time. It means if a plane is broken and they swap in a different one, nothing else in the process or crew needs to change.

            Southwest’s advantage over United is that they started later. They can outcompete United on the kind of routes for which a Boeing 737 is (now) the best plane, leaving United with all the routes for which it’s not.

            (JetBlue did the same thing a little later; their fleet started in 2000 with 130 Airbus A320s)

            You really ought to read Friedman’s book. The strategies you suggest have counterstrategies he discusses (and gives examples of) in print.

            Regarding lowering gas prices in a particular area, does anything stop other nearby competitors from sending their refueling trucks to buy your below-cost gas to sell at their gas stations? (Standard Oil tried some similar tactics which failed in predictable ways)

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @dndnrsn:
          It’s not kind of tautological, it is tautological.

          Here is a round-up written by Tyler Cowen where he addresses various treatments of rationality by economists. Tautologically is not the only way economists define it, but, given an assumption of rationality by all actors in the market at all times, it strikes me as the actual underlayment of any model.

          I haven’t read that whole document, FYI, so I am not endorsing it (and I don’t know when it was written).

        • Wrong Species says:

          Who are you to tell people their preferences aren’t rational? What does that even mean? Preferences are arational. If I know that binge drinking alcohol will kill my liver, but continue to do it anyways, that doesn’t mean I’m irrational. It just means I value drinking more than my long term health.

          The only person who truly knows each persons preferences is themselves and since we can’t read people’s minds, we measure their preferences by what they do. We could also try surveys but those aren’t foolproof either and if we wanted to capture all preferences, that would be so many questions that it would be impossible to complete. Revealed preferences isn’t perfect but what is?

      • Deiseach says:

        Drinking Coca-Cola is a signal that you are like the people whom Coca-Cola portrays in their adds.

        I very much am not like the people Coke portray in their ads, no matter what decade you pick the ads from, and I drink Coke – not because of the advertising, but because I prefer its taste. So some people may indeed buy goods because of the aspirational nature of advertising (sophisticated/with-it/popular/happy/clever people eat/drink/wear this!), but not everyone does.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          @Deiseach:

          You, clearly, aren’t the target market for those kinds of ads.

          But, I’m pretty sure, given enough people “like” you, the marketers could figure out a way to bias you even more towards choosing not to drink Pepsi, or influence you to drink more Coke, or make you go farther out of your way to get Coke instead of substituting water/tea/coffee/etc.

    • sketerpot says:

      I’m a free-market person, so here’s a simple reply: the advertising industry can cause people’s decisions to be quite a bit more irrational than they’d otherwise be, and that sucks. It’s a problem.

      No human system is without flaw. If serious problems are all it takes for you to reject a proposed economic system, then you’ll reject every system I’ve ever heard described. But the show must go on, in some form or another, so the trick is picking the best of the flawed options. What alternative would you propose?

      • Aapje says:

        @sketerpot

        If serious problems are all it takes for you to reject a proposed economic system

        They don’t cause me to reject the system as a possibility, but rather the people who declare that system ‘optimal’ or ‘efficient’ or don’t recognize how their benchmark is somewhat arbitrary (like a bigger GDP being better).

        Most discussions about economic systems are utterly dogmatic and thus offer little information, other than revealing the biases of the debaters.

        But the show must go on, in some form or another, so the trick is picking the best of the flawed options.

        Well, right now the people running the show are steering the ship towards an iceberg while cheerily declaring that this is inevitable and the optimal choice (but to be fair, this has more to do with the choices within the ‘market’ system than the system itself).

      • Dabbler says:

        @sketerpot

        Just of curiosity, what about a free market system with a government that outlaws advertising? I think a government which regulates it heavily would be very hard but as another alternative what if there is some historical precedent out there to base it on?

        Neither would be my first choice. But despite their suboptimalities I think they’re worth thinking through simply to remind ourselves that it’s more than simple alternatives like “Free Market” or “Not Free Market”.

        • Aapje says:

          it’s more than simple alternatives like “Free Market” or “Not Free Market”.

          Actually, we don’t have an option of a true free market (the prerequisites of a free market are incompatible with reality). We only have an option of choosing the amount of regulation, where it’s even subjective which regulation makes a market more or less free.

          • Dabbler says:

            Question one- How do you define true free market? I just want to make sure we’re clear on our terms. I suspect you’re wrong, but to be fair at this stage I don’t know that.

            Question two- This sounds like the idea of “positive liberty”, which is deeply flawed.

            Most importantly, the linked with an ideal of fulfillment. If you define fulfillment as what a person desires, then it is nonsensical to talk about it as better than negative liberty. If you don’t, then you’re straight out imposing something on people for their own good.

            It’s also worth pointing out that it’s a contradiction in terms.

          • Aapje says:

            Question one- How do you define true free market?

            A market where prices are purely set by supply/demand & where there are no barriers to entry for suppliers or buyers.

            This is false in any reality where:
            – Property ownership exists (& there is not infinite property) and certain resources are thus owned by A, but not by B.
            – Suppliers and buyers are not in the same location and transportation isn’t free.
            – There is information asymmetry, like trade secrets.
            – Acquisition costs are not zero.
            – People don’t actually choose the lowest price or sell to the highest bidder, but have free-market incompatible desires (like a willingness to buy local goods, even when the price is higher; or an unwillingness to sell to people they dislike).
            – Etc, etc.

            Question two- This sounds like the idea of “positive liberty”, which is deeply flawed.

            That is an assertion, not a question. I consider it a meaningless assertion, because the two are linked strongly: negative liberty without positive liberty is meaningless. It matters not to a mute if you ban him from shouting, nor does it matter to a tree if you remove a fence so it can freely roam the lands.

            When people already differ in their positive liberty and you establish maximum negative liberty, then the people with more positive liberty will be more able to take advantage. Hence that ‘upper class’ will generally increase their positive liberty faster than others*.

            * Unless positive liberty is mostly non-transferable, which is clearly false.

            If you define fulfillment as what a person desires, then it is nonsensical to talk about it as better than negative liberty. If you don’t, then you’re straight out imposing something on people for their own good.

            I am quite lost in what you are arguing and how it pertains to my words.

            Again, my simple assertion was that a free market is impossible in non-simulated reality, which is something that seems like established economic theory.

        • Autolykos says:

          Outlawing advertising probably wouldn’t work. If there’s profit in doing it, there simply would be an arms race in finding ways to “advertise” that aren’t covered by the laws.
          This is also one of the stronger arguments in favor of a free market: No matter how good an idea it would be in theory, regulation can only have limited effect as long as there is supply and demand for something. You can make trade more expensive and less efficient to some extent, but you can’t stop it (see also: Prohibition, War on Drugs).

        • IrishDude says:

          what about a free market system with a government that outlaws advertising?

          Sounds like a great way to protect incumbents. How would anyone who creates a new product or service let other people know they exist?

      • dndnrsn says:

        It’s not so much that any flaw causes me to reject a system – you are completely correct that this would mean rejecting all systems – but it might undermine claims that a system is better than another one.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      here is a different theory of advertising

      • Anon says:

        That’s a very nice article. Thank you for posting it.

      • Aapje says:

        @Douglas Knight

        That article is a bit irritating, as it just offers up a straw man, where the argument for emotional manipulation is reduced to a Pavlov reaction. Then it gives another example of emotional manipulation, which it calls ‘cultural imprinting,’ and then argues that emotional advertising works that way and not in any other way.

        That is a very silly argument that assumes that people can be emotionally manipulated in only one way, for which the article provides zero evidence (and which is quite a dumb claim, IMO).

        I believe that multiple types of emotional manipulation exist. For example, people prefer ‘known’ over ‘unknown’ (this is also why people tend to value the opinion of people they know over unknown experts). Merely showing the product is one of the primary methods of emotional manipulation, causing people to pick the known brand over the unknown brand (of course, in competitive markets you have multiple known brands, so then other manipulation makes the difference).

        • jimmy says:

          This seems like a straw man of the article, which itself strikes me as obviously correct. Though I already had that view before reading it, so maybe it wasn’t very clear to someone who didn’t already share those views.

          Different people mean very different things by “emotional manipulation”. Is there a negative connotation to you, or do you use it neutrally? Do you differentiate between manipulation from the reference frame of the manipulated, manipulator, and third parties? Do you distinguish between trivial effects, temporary effects, and effects that actually persist beyond attempts to extinguish them?

          If you expand on what your view actually says, I can expand on why I think the article actually has the correct solution.

          • Aapje says:

            This seems like a straw man of the article, which itself strikes me as obviously correct.

            The article claims that a meme that they describe is ‘virulent in educated circles.’ There is zero proof of this assertion (all their examples are in popular media). The proof they offer shows a major discrepancy with their claim that the meme is that ads works through Pavlovian condition. For example, they quote this:

            “advertising rarely succeeds through argument or calls to action. Instead, it creates positive memories and feelings that influence our behavior over time to encourage us to buy something at a later date.”

            This is not an accurate description of Pavlovian conditioning, which doesn’t work by creating positive memories and feelings, but rather, a direct expectation. Of course, they use this discrepancy to knock down their own straw man:

            “Even Pavlov’s dogs weren’t so easily manipulated: they actually received food after the arbitrary stimulus. If ads worked the same way — if a Coke employee approached you on the street offering you a free taste, then gave you a massage or handed you $5 — well then of course you’d learn to associate Coke with happiness.”

            The article claims: “Ads, I will argue, don’t work by emotional inception.” Again, the only argument for this is that they argue that ads use other mechanisms. Arguing that A exists is not a proper argument to argue that B doesn’t exist, when the two can coexist. It’s a failure in logic.

            which itself strikes me as obviously correct.

            So you are victim of accepting the poor reasoning in the article, because it matches your preconceived notions. This is unsurprising, as it is a well-studied form of irrationality.

            One that some advertising takes advantage of as well.

            Different people mean very different things by “emotional manipulation”. Is there a negative connotation to you, or do you use it neutrally?

            I mean willful acts that cause people to act in ways that the actor wants (manipulation), by methods that appeal to human emotion, rather than rationality (this part makes it emotional, rather than another type of manipulation).

            Like all tools, they can be used for good and for ill, although the method inherently works by circumventing rational thought processes and thus can fairly easily be used for ill.

            Do you differentiate between manipulation from the reference frame of the manipulated, manipulator, and third parties?

            In this context, we are talking about the willful kind (ads), where the manipulator doesn’t do it by accident.

            Do you distinguish between trivial effects, temporary effects, and effects that actually persist beyond attempts to extinguish them?

            How is this relevant? I feel that you want me to get into an discussion about irrelevant details, while my objections are really very high level.

          • jimmy says:

            Look, I’m sure you can shoot a bunch of holes in what you perceive to be the author’s argument. I’m not interested in hearing what you think is wrong with the article because as I stated before, I think you are attacking a strawman, not the author’s actual argument. I was offering to give you my perspective on what the author was trying to convey because I thought this strawmanning might have been unintentional. It seems that you aren’t interested.

            At this point I’m convinced you’re deliberately uncharitable (and therefore won’t engage further), but if you want you can convince me that you’re not, these words would do it: “I honestly cannot find any meaningful distinction between the statement ‘A exists therefore, by logic, B can not exist’ and ‘People think B is what does it. However, A exists and I’d argue that the effect is from A, not B’. Even when genuinely doing my best to give the author the benefit of the doubt, I was unable to realize that he meant ‘A exists, and I assert [without evidence in this sentence, just follow along for a moment] that A does all the heavy lifting. Let me show you how well A explains things [because I expect it to be clear to you that B has obvious flaws, and so when you realize that it doesn’t *have to be* B, you’ll start to realize that B explains a lot less than what you thought it did]’”.

      • nimim.k.m. says:

        First things first, the post seems a bit silly because it does not even mention any research on how ads work. I find it likely that such a research is a thing, advertising has been around long enough so that some research should be there. Considering all the stuff psychology knows about irrational and easily influenced “system 1” behavior (Kahneman wrote a very popular book about that), but then again some of those findings might have been bunked by replication crisis?

        But the reasons I’d like it to reference research is that I can make similar arguments myself for argumentative purposes, but I’m not sure if reading these posts facilitates any significant learning in any parties.

        The post is also a bit boring read, so I skimmed some parts, but the main argument seems to be that advertising brand-name products does not work because of emotional “hijacking” of the brain but because when products are advertised buying those products allows us, the consumers, to do rudimentary tribal signaling (“I drink Corona, I’m certain kind of person”), and thus it appeals to rational “Homo Economicus” behavior, not our irrational self.

        Firstly, in my personal experience, fast-food adverts work for me probably even a Pavlovian sense that I’d might salivate more when seeing pictures of hamburgers or soft drinks. However, while it’s unlikely that they work because Coke ads have happy people drinking Coca-Cola, but because drinking sugary drinks really feels nice. The reward part for those kind of products isn’t done by the advertisement, it’s done by the physical act of consuming the product itself. Nevertheless, the adverts can be part of the “Pavlovian” cycle, a sort of reinforcement part, constantly tickling us with the question “Do you remember how good it tastes? Yeah, your local store probably has more of that around…”

        Similar stuff is going in the other kinds of ads (e.g. the ones featuring sexy scantily clad human females): the Pavlovian reward isn’t in the ad itself, it mostly works by reminding us of the reward. (If you are a human hetero male and rich enough to signal your wealth by buying an expensive sports car, you probably have better chances of marketing yourself at the promiscuous beautiful human females. Or all the sporty advertising: good-looking, i.e. fit people have better chances.)

        Speaking of this effect, my local supermarket has speakers playing the audio track of opening a bottle (you know, the “Pop! whizzz-hsss…” sound) in the drinks section. It certainly evokes a non-rational response. It’s also very annoying, I don’t visit that store if I can avoid it. So “Pavlovian” stuff is there. It exists. So, contra the title, some ads do work that way…

        Second, “cultural imprinting” is not separate from “emotional hijacking”, also not more rational behavior.

        All the possibilities of the tribal signaling advertising creates are unneeded, unnecessary: it entices our minds to spend resources in a game they otherwise wouldn’t. Yes, it does not change our priorities in sense that humans would still want status even if ads weren’t there, but it introduces new status games we and the environment probably would be better off without.

        It certainly is also an emotional game: if advertising plays on stuff like the peer group pressure, fear of not being respected, and other similar emotions, etc, I find it difficult to say that it targets us as “Homo Economicus”, not as emotional humans. After all, when you see an ad, the reality does not change, but it still evokes those emotions and influences your decisions when you act in the said reality.

        • houseboatonstyxb says:

          @ nimim.k.m.
          First things first, the post seems a bit silly because it does not even mention any research on how ads work. I find it likely that such a research is a thing, advertising has been around long enough so that some research should be there.

          My impression, perhaps from mid-century, is that advertising companies do quite a lot of research, but don’t tell Gimbel’s. That is, whatever techniques they learn, they don’t publish, but keep them as trade secrets you might say.

          Advertisers certainly have objective real world data: which ads sold more products.

    • onyomi says:

      At the very least, it sometimes serves the very useful purpose of letting people know about the existence of products/services which may actually improve their lives.

      I am a bit more suspicious (and negatively inclined toward) commercials which serve the function not of letting you know anything exists (new product, new deal, new feature, new reason to buy), but simply of adding to your well of positive association affect about e. g. Coca Cola. No one forgot Coca Cola existed, but by showing a bunch of images of people enjoying life and then an image of Coca Cola they try to get you to associate Coca Cola with good times. But then, maybe this actually causes people to enjoy their Coke more? Or reminds them “oh yeah, I was thinking of having a beer, but a Coke right about now sounds good!” In such a case it’s not really serving an “efficient” function per se, but then much of the competition inherent in a market economy (where a marginal Coke drunk is a marginal Pepsi or beer or juice not drunk) isn’t strictly efficient. But it’s much better than the alternative of having say “government cola.”

      More generally, the complaint about the “waste” of advertising reminds me of a complaint I once heard about insurance: private insurance is inherently wasteful, this person said, because the point of insurance is to pay claims and insurance companies hire whole teams dedicated to figuring out how not to pay claims. In a world of no errors or fraud on the part of insurance customers, people whose job it is to investigate the validity of claims would, indeed, be a net negative. But we don’t live in such a world and these people are serving the useful function of keeping the premiums down for others. And dentists have an incentive to increase tooth decay, etc.

      In a kind of idealized, static world, consumers would know what they really need and be very rational about choosing it. They wouldn’t pick a product because it had a cute logo on it that made them feel happy. They wouldn’t pick a more expensive sugar water just because it reminded them of grandma. And so on. But consumers aren’t like that and most of what we buy today isn’t strictly about fulfilling basic survival needs and the economy is always changing to offer new products and services in new ways, so advertising does, in fact, provide a useful function, both in the basic sense of providing information, and at the more emotional level.

      • Aapje says:

        @onyomi

        One problem with using the argument that advertising makes people happy, to show the value of the ‘free market,’ is that research shows that too much choice makes people less happy. People actually buy less and are less happy with their purchase if they do buy, if they have multiple products without clear differences in value (to them).

        So if you count emotional manipulation as a benefit of the ‘free market’, then you must also admit that negative emotions that the same market produces, is a downside.

        so advertising does, in fact, provide a useful function, both in the basic sense of providing information, and at the more emotional level.

        Assume that people are irrational and can be manipulated. Assume that businesses then manipulate people in a way that benefits them, but hurts humanity as a whole. For example, they cause people to make choices that they believe make them more happy, but which actually makes them less happy. Or they cause huge waste of resources which undermine the long term prospects of human survival.

        If such hypotheticals are true, would you admit that one can reasonably argue that certain advertising is bad?

        private insurance is inherently wasteful

        It is, for anything that you cannot afford to replace/pay for out of your reserves. Insuring such risks generally means that you spend more on insurance than if you’d increase your reserves with a sufficient amount to pay for a replacement (as the insurance has overhead).

        There are people with sufficient reserves, who still buy insurance, because they suffer from emotional pain when suffering a loss and prefer to compensate this by pretending that the replacement is paid for by a third party (ignoring that in most cases, their own premiums have more than paid for this).

        However, humans are not static beings and can be taught to be a bit more rational. For instance, one can imagine teaching people about how to deal with the replacement of goods that last a while; which can then possibly make them much happier to pay for replacements out of their reserves; as they understand that they still paid the minimum overall.

        One can argue that such education is the moral choice, not to take advantage of people’s stupidity. Although that’s more of a education failure than a issue with the free market in itself.

        • onyomi says:

          “If such hypotheticals are true, would you admit that one can reasonably argue that certain advertising is bad?”

          I certainly wouldn’t claim that the overall effect on humanity of any given advertisement is necessarily a net good. Many are probably a wash and a few are probably bad. But I think the net effect of being able to advertise freely, as opposed to a hypothetical world in which advertising must prove itself “socially useful” before being approved by the media board, is good.

          It’s sort of like asking “is short selling bad?” Some short sales are surely mistakes with respect to the seller and/or society at large, but the alternative of not allowing people to make that mistake is worse.

          • Aapje says:

            as opposed to a hypothetical world in which advertising must prove itself “socially useful” before being approved by the media board, is good.

            Who is demanding that?

            When people claim ‘there are downsides to X,’ you can’t just pretend that they said ‘we should ban X.’ The two are completely different assertions, where one can meaningfully decide to argue the downsides independently of possible solutions.

            Banning is also merely one option and the most extreme at that. It’s a false dichotomy to reduce the options to complete liberty vs harsh policing.

          • onyomi says:

            The OP seems to imply that maybe advertising is a big waste–like maybe it’s the equivalent of everyone standing up at a concert. We’d be better off if there were a rule making everyone sit down, but once you allow some to stand up, everyone has to stand up to see. In other words, it sounded to me like, if not a call for strict regulation of advertisement, then, at least, an implication that strongly curtailing it would have a good social effect. The question seemed to be a binary (“is advertising a waste?” as opposed to “how much is the right amount to regulate advertising?”), so I answered in terms of a binary.

            As I say below though, I don’t mean that any conceivable regulation of advertisement would be bad for society, but rather that there is also a market for the systems themselves which produce regulation, and that having a free market for law would, to the extent possible, solve the problem which markets supposedly have with producing the right kind of advertisement.

          • Aapje says:

            I saw it more as an attempt to expose a flaw in the free market argument. As in: Free market theory generally assumed rational decision making, but X provides strong evidence that people don’t. On the contrary, suppliers strongly influence the decisions of buyers in non-rational ways.

            I didn’t see this as a specific call to ban ads, but more as a far more generic attack on the foundations of free market ideology.

            a free market for law would, to the extent possible, solve the problem which markets supposedly have with producing the right kind of advertisement.

            We already buy regulation with votes. How is your ‘free market for law’ different?

            I find your proposal impossible to debate due to its vagueness, right now.

          • onyomi says:

            I’m not really sure where the idea comes from that pro-market arguments assume rational behavior or perfect knowledge. I don’t think anyone claims that. The claim is that markets are best at harnessing diffuse knowledge (see Hayek), not that they require or create perfect knowledge or rationality.

            As for what I’m proposing, it’s simply ancap of the kind proposed by e. g. Rothbard, the Tannehills, and regular poster David Friedman.

            The basic idea being that production, enforcement, and arbitration of disputes over law are themselves services which can, and should, be provided on a market, for all the same reasons markets do a better (but not perfect) job of producing everything else.

            Like I say in the other post, markets for goods and services are good at producing the goods and services people desire, not at inducing them to desire things which are “good” for them according to some other standard. To the extent controlling advertising in some way might induce people to demand better things, my point is that a free market for law itself is more likely to hit upon those controls than the current system.

            You are right that there is currently a very weak, highly restricted and distorted “market for law” in the sense that people can donate to political campaigns. But that is a market for law in the same sense which I would enjoy a market for groceries if I were not allowed to buy any food myself, but allowed to donate money to a democratically selected council which determined which bundle of groceries everyone gets.

            The argument that, because markets for goods and services can theoretically be improved upon by adding a layer of regulations designed to rationalize choices is itself a strike against markets fails because regulations themselves are best provided by a market.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Some advertising serves to make people aware of a product, or to present its advantages. On the other hand, there’s a lot of advertising that is just emotional manipulation, and for a lot of brand-name products you’re just paying for the advertising.

            I suppose I’m thinking about it this way: if people will spend 2 extra bucks on a sack of name-brand frozen vegetables because they’ve seen charming ads of a smiling parent serving a lovingly home-cooked meal to their brood, with the sack noticeably displayed, how much more will bad decisions be made on things where differences really do matter?

            Government as it is is full of stupid cost overruns. Imagine if you could buy generic fighter jets that are just as good as the name brand, but doesn’t have spiffy ads in publications targeted at the people making the buying decisions, and cost several million less per unit.

            If the market would deal with, say, courts. What happens when people start making their decisions based on which justice provider has better ads, higher quality coffee in their waiting rooms, etc?

            Of course, the problem of people being people doesn’t disappear if there’s one person, a thousand people, or a million people making decisions. But when one of the arguments is “a million people make better decisions, on aggregate, than smaller numbers of people”…

          • onyomi says:

            In terms of people making choices for dumb reasons, I think markets fair much better than democracy because people more directly enjoy the benefits of good decisions and suffer the costs of bad decisions. Most people probably put more rational thought and consideration into which car to buy as compared to whom to vote for for president, for example.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I’m not really sure where the idea comes from that pro-market arguments assume rational behavior or perfect knowledge. I don’t think anyone claims that.

            Do you really actually want to stand on that hill, onyomi?

            This seems like a very strong (and careless) statement, but I don’t particularly want to spend the time on counter-argument if it was really just careless.

          • Spookykou says:

            @HBC I think somebody else already mentioned it, but at this point I just assume when economist talk about people being rational they just mean, the things that people do in the real world are ‘rational’. The expected behavior is just the expected behavior of the american consumer, not a Rationalist.

            I can’t suspend disbelief that such a large number of intelligent and well educated people simple don’t understand cognitive biases or the ways in which people are predictably irrational.

            EDIT: Hah, I am an idiot, it was you who said that thing that I was repeating, sorry HBC. In any case I assume Onyomi was making a similar claim, that economists don’t think people are Rationalist. So, when they don’t ‘assume rational behavior’ as defined by the commentariat of SSC

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Spookykou:

            For the record, I meant “rational” in the general sense, not the internet-subculture sense.

            I’m now amusing myself thinking of what ads and products targeted at rationalists would look like. It would probably involve “poly” added as a quantity option for various consumables, a step above what’s usually marketed as “family size”.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Spookykou:

            But there absolutely are some who who view that every action in the market is a “revealed preference” that is rational in a utilitarian sense.

            Trying to tease that away from the position that “the market is tautologically rational” is a little difficult, as you will see some motte-bailey style argument on that question. But I have definitely had conversations (with economists, here on SSC, even) where people maintained that the bailey was most definitely true.

          • Spookykou says:

            @HBC

            Honestly I don’t travel in the most august circles and I don’t think I have ever had a conversation with a real economists. My assumption just came about naturally as I was exposed to various ideas.

            People are pretty irrational, economists constantly talk about ‘rational actors’ but they are well educated and smart so they must mean something else?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Spookykou:
            Let’s look at something simple, just so you can see an example of how one might talk about it. And let me be clear, I’m only the son of economist, so take everything I say with some salt (to taste).

            Gambling, specifically the lottery, is an example of something where playing is, strictly speaking, irrational as the expected payoff is sharply negative.

            Some economists might simply say “market actors are rational, therefore we can assume that people playing the lotto are acting rationally” and just stop right there. That’s a tautological definition.

            Some economists might talk about the lotto players “revealed preference” for paying money for a lotto ticket (and most likely losing) and conclude that those who play reveal a preference for losing money at lotto (with a tiny chance to win) over not playing. They don’t even need to answer why it is. It just is.

            Others might go even further and conclude that the value of playing lotto lies in the anticipation of potential winnings and that actually winning is secondary.

            But, dndnrsn (the OP) is asking the question “why would you need to continually advertise for the lottery, then?” Once people are aware of the lottery existing, why should advertising make any difference to a rational actor?(outside of simply reporting the current payoff, which is novel information).

            And then if you talk to people who actually play the lotto, lucky numbers and conviction of being “due” to win, and all sorts of other things seem to show that … the economic theory doesn’t seem to match the reality on the ground.

          • Spookykou says:

            @ HBC

            I can see that position for some of the more ambiguous cases, but this Savannah ape* brain of mine is just so easy to trick! Although I guess it is not so strange, one of my friends has a really hard time accepting the idea that he is not a perfectly rational actor. I guess in general people hate the idea that they are not in perfect control of their actions.

            *Im an aquatic ape theory crackpot*

          • Aapje says:

            @onyomi

            Sorry that it took a while to respond.

            I’m not really sure where the idea comes from that pro-market arguments assume rational behavior or perfect knowledge.

            Because without those your ‘free market’ will end up with monopolies and other crap that the people then will fight by banding together and forming…a government. Your ‘free market’ ideals are not a stable end point without those things being true.

            Any sane producer seeks to use any means available to prevent a true free market from forming, as those have tiny margins.

            The basic idea being that production, enforcement, and arbitration of disputes over law are themselves services which can, and should, be provided on a market, for all the same reasons markets do a better (but not perfect) job of producing everything else.

            Sorry, but this just shows a basic misunderstanding of laws & markets.

            A market consists of the ability for people to make two party agreements, with a buyer and a supplier. However, dispute resolution is inherently a three party problem. When persons A and B have a dispute, each party wants to contract a judge & enforcer that takes their side. They have no reason to join together to contract a ‘compromise’ judge, unless their economic power is exactly equal, which rarely is the case. In an ancap world, only control over the enforcer role really matters, in practice. The person with more money buys the biggest army and then can make the laws himself. See warlords in Somalia.

            The only way to prevent this is to separate law making & enforcement from two party markets and use collective power to prevent strong individuals from dominating.

            Like I say in the other post, markets for goods and services are good at producing the goods and services people desire, not at inducing them to desire things which are “good” for them according to some other standard.

            This is obviously false. The demand for diamond engagement rings was clearly induced by DeBeer through a manipulative campaign that ‘hooked into’ gender norms to make men prove their ability to provide.

            Of course, one can argue that those gender roles are proper desires, but buying and gifting a ring that loses 95% of it’s value after leaving the store seems an incredibly dumb way to prove these things.

            I think markets fair much better than democracy because people more directly enjoy the benefits of good decisions and suffer the costs of bad decisions.

            Externalities!!!!!!!

            We currently have a hybrid system, because the market is good at solving some issues, but horrible at solving others.

            Your argument for abandoning the solution to market failure is to simply forget about it. This is really rather typical of free market advocates and simply reconfirms my opinion that free market advocates generally argue from ignorance.

            @Spookykou

            I guess in general people hate the idea that they are not in perfect control of their actions.

            And ironically, that itself is a mechanism that allows for manipulation.

          • onyomi says:

            @Aapje,

            As David Friedman is fond of pointing out, market failure is the exception in the private market, but the rule in the political market.

            As for the issue of how to provide e. g. dispute resolution without government, see his book, the book by the Tannehills I linked above, etc.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @onyomi:
            I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about “market failure” in politics, however, I’d say mostly that people who don’t get what they want aren’t capable of paying the market price.

            Looked at one way, politics is a little like the market for Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. Many people might want to own it, but only one can. It’s not market failure that everyone cannot own it.

            Looked at another way, politics is like the employment market. You might want to be employed as a gigolo, but but then you find that no one wants to hire you on your terms. It’s not market failure that other people don’t want to pay you money to have sex with them, especially not the clients you want to have.

          • Jiro says:

            Of course, one can argue that those gender roles are proper desires, but buying and gifting a ring that loses 95% of it’s value after leaving the store seems an incredibly dumb way to prove these things.

            If the ring retained its value it would be useless for signalling purposes.

          • IrishDude says:

            @Aapje

            Externalities!!!!!!!

            We currently have a hybrid system, because the market is good at solving some issues, but horrible at solving others.

            Your argument for abandoning the solution to market failure is to simply forget about it. This is really rather typical of free market advocates and simply reconfirms my opinion that free market advocates generally argue from ignorance.

            Market failures, where individual rationality leads to suboptimal outcomes for the group, occur in government as well. As David Friedman states here, there’s reason to think market failure is the exception in markets and the norm in governments.

            People who cite externalities (!!!) as an argument against markets and for government, without adequately understanding that government also creates externalities, seem to me to be arguing from ignorance.

            Edit: I hadn’t refreshed from loading the page this morning, but after posting realized Onyomi had already made my point. I’ll leave this comment here as it provides a link to a nice talk from David Friedman that discusses market failure in depth.

          • Aapje says:

            @onyomi

            As David Friedman is fond of pointing out, market failure is the exception in the private market

            I believe that it is the rule, you just choose to not recognise issues such as externalities, which actually arise in the vast majority of market transactions. Of course, the most egregious externalities don’t happen because….

            We have set up a system to minimize the private market failures through government intervention. I understand that it is hard to see the things that are prevented from happening and that there is the temptation for you to pretend that these things wouldn’t happen in an anarchist world. However, there is a reason why you cannot point to any working ancap society: they are inherently unstable. Whenever anarchy briefly happens, the most horrible outcomes occur (see Iraq after the ‘liberation’ and subsequent large scale violence, after which warlords and militias filled the power vacuum).

            As for the issue of how to provide e. g. dispute resolution without government, see his book, the book by the Tannehills I linked above, etc.

            I don’t have time to read it right now, but assuming the wikipedia summary is correct, then “Chapter 7, Arbitration of Disputes, argues that governmental arbiters are not necessary, since a man who agrees to the settlement of disputes by a third party and then breaks the contract would suffer harm to his reputation and be ostracized, thus solving the problem of noncompliance. […] It promotes the concept of insurance companies as a substitute for government as the institution used to pursue claims; in the event a person were defrauded, they could file a claim with their insurance company, and the insurer would obtain the right of subrogation. Insurers who, themselves, committed abuses would suffer loss of reputation and be at a competitive disadvantage to more reputable insurers.”

            The first part is absurd, as warlords are not currently ostracized or ‘suffer harm to his reputation’ (which seems like a very weak force to prevent people from taking what they want). It’s rather obvious that a powerful person can just buy respect and company. If he abuses most people and gives favor to a few, the latter will support him.

            The latter part covertly establishes a private form of government, where a huge amount of (police) power is transferred by the people to insurance companies. Yet there are no checks and balances to prevent these companies from doing the logical thing: realizing that their police powers can be used to oppress the people, rather than actually spend their time to serve others. The former is clearly much more profitable and in a truly selfish capitalist world, it is an inevitable outcome.

            The book claims that these checks and balances are unnecessary without government, but that makes no sense if one simply places those same powers in a centralized oligopoly or monopoly, for which checks and balances are needed for the exact same reasons as for a democratic government.

            It’s all classic Utopian thinking, X needs to happen for my desired outcome to come about, so X will happen. Any lack of X in actual reality is because the evil people are suppressing it. It’s really a repeat of the same basic fallacies that make communism so flawed.

            @Jiro

            If the ring retained its value it would be useless for signalling purposes.

            That makes no sense to me. If an actual valuable good becomes the possession of the future wife or her family, then the future husband is effectively forced to prove the same thing: that he can afford to lose X dollars.

            The American habit is actually an outlier anyway, AFAIK, all other cultures with a ‘bride price’ system, use goods that actually retain their value. If you were correct, these other cultures would not do that and would destroy the ‘bride price,’ yet they don’t.

            @IrishDude

            My argument is not that government is perfect, but that there are some major issues that can only be solved through government, as markets fail spectacularly at them (like policing). Similarly, there are some major issues that can only be solved through markets, as government tends to fail spectacularly at those (like matching supply and demand, although even there, government intervention can improve the outcomes).

            So I’m not claiming that the government doesn’t create failures, but rather, that a hybrid market/government system produces less overall failure than either a pure market system (which, again, is unstable and cannot exist long term) or a pure government system (which is pretty much also unstable).

            Again, we’ve had situations where government disappeared suddenly and those didn’t result in ancap paradise. The normal result is that people start demanding government very quickly again.

            Note that I don’t believe in perfection, the current hybrid systems are far from perfect, especially the American system, which suffers from severe lack of maintenance.

          • Jiro says:

            If an actual valuable good becomes the possession of the future wife or her family, then the future husband is effectively forced to prove the same thing: that he can afford to lose X dollars.

            The future wife has to signal too. If the ring were actually valuable, she’d be able to take the rihg, then defect by not going through with the marriage and keeping the ring.

            In the cultures with bride price systems, the bride can’t just take the bride price and refuse the wedding.

          • Aapje says:

            @Jiro

            That is why the bride price generally has to be returned if the bride cancels the marriage.

            Apparently, most US courts also rule this.

          • IrishDude says:

            @Aapje

            My argument is not that government is perfect

            And I don’t see ancaps argue that markets are perfect. You can’t just say externalities (!!!) as an argument against markets without considering the externalities government creates, such as tariffs, regulation to protect incumbents, taxation, environmental pollution, and laws against victimless crimes that locks peaceful people in cages. These are extraordinarily large negative externalities from government and any argument for government has to do careful accounting of this to effectively argue that government comes out ahead of markets.

            some major issues that can only be solved through government, as markets fail spectacularly at them (like policing).

            I think government fails spectacularly at policing. It cages and steals (through fines) from peaceful people for engaging in consensual activities such as gambling, prostitution, or drug use. The drug war is a particularly bad black mark, as it makes criminals out of people who are otherwise law abiding, making it difficult for disadvantaged people with a record to gain employment, and causes gang warfare in inner cities with a high body count. Police also engage in civil asset forfeiture (stealing people’s property without charging them with a crime) and use traffic tickets to treat people as a piggy bank.

            The monetary and human cost of government policing is massive.

            Similarly, there are some major issues that can only be solved through markets, as government tends to fail spectacularly at those (like matching supply and demand, although even there, government intervention can improve the outcomes).

            Supply and demand exist for all products and services, including law, security, and charity, and I agree that government fails spectacularly at matching supply and demand.

            Again, we’ve had situations where government disappeared suddenly and those didn’t result in ancap paradise. The normal result is that people start demanding government very quickly again.

            Government tends to disappear in places that suck with or without government. The examples I see tend to be in very poor places with a corrupt, oppressive government that extracts from the population. I don’t think those people do well under government or markets, and have a lot of institution building, wealth accumulation, and cultural progress that needs to happen before they’d do well under a state or in ancapland.

            What would happen if government started to wither away in a 1st world country with strong institutions and cultural norms, advanced markets, and massive wealth? It’s never happened, but my guess is that it would not descend into chaos but there would be a few kinks to work out. Here’s a nice post from Bryan Caplan about how changing expectations allowed stable democracies to form, and how expectations continuing to change could allow anarcho-capitalism to be a stable system: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/04/crazy_equilibri.html

          • Jiro says:

            That is why the bride price generally has to be returned if the bride cancels the marriage.

            You are violently agreeing with me.

            Apparently, most US courts also rule this.

            That doesn’t count unless the groom gets to return the ring to the store for a refund after the bride refuses to marry.

            A rash of court rulings saying that the store has to take the ring back (or a rash of stores who voluntarily take the ring back) would make the custom useless, but just one or two cases wouldn’t affect it.

          • Aapje says:

            @Jiro

            You are violently agreeing with me.

            Well, there is the issue that the American system is extremely costly, as the value of the bride price is almost completely destroyed.

            The evidence is pretty solid that this inefficient system came about as the direct result of a marketing campaign.

            I think it’s fair to call it a market failure when people are manipulated into a system where people feel obligated to buy from a monopoly, while far more rational alternatives exist.

            That doesn’t count unless the groom gets to return the ring to the store for a refund after the bride refuses to marry.

            Not really, as the ring retains its value as a token to the next woman that the man proposes.

            Effectively it does save him the cost of the ring, even if the ring isn’t actually worth that much.

            It’s a bit counter intuitive that an item can be worth more than it is worth on the market, but that is exactly because of the market failure that exists here.

          • Aapje says:

            @IrishDude

            You can’t just say externalities (!!!) as an argument against markets without considering the externalities government creates, such as tariffs, regulation to protect incumbents, taxation, environmental pollution, and laws against victimless crimes that locks peaceful people in cages.

            It’s a lot more complex than that because tariffs (can) both solve and create externalities. The overall effect depends on how you weigh these against each other. Furthermore, a huge factor is that tariffs are very much a prisoner’s dilemma, where countries often win if they create tariffs while other countries do not. So there is pressure to increase the tariffs, which can only be properly countered by agreements between countries.

            An ancap country wouldn’t actually have the option to threaten more tariffs to force other countries to keep theirs low, so it would suffer from high tariffs on their products, while having a huge trade deficit.

            Because of this, tariffs are actually mostly a pro-government argument, as only a government can keep tariffs low when other governments exist (unless you ban all other governments, of course). Simultaneously, they are a very weak anti-government argument, since there is zero requirement that governments impose tariffs. That is purely a choice that a government can make. So it’s an argument against policies of existing governments, far more than an argument against government itself.

            regulation to […] environmental pollution

            You cannot be serious if you call it ‘creating externalities’ when governments price externalities into the costs of products. That is the opposite.

            laws against victimless crimes

            Even though I oppose most drug laws, your argument is weak as the pro-drug law people argue that drug abuse hurts innocents (and for some drugs like alcohol, that is very hard to deny). The same rationalizations that your side would use to go after a person who builds a nuclear bomb in his back yard could be used to go after drug users.

            Reality is simply too messy for simple solutions to result in good law.

            I think government fails spectacularly at policing. It cages and steals (through fines) from peaceful people for engaging in consensual activities such as gambling, prostitution, or drug use.

            That is not true for certain countries. Again, you are blaming choices that are allowed in a system on the system. That is deeply anti-freedom, because such logic demands that only a hugely oppressive systems that disallow choices are valid.

            It’s also weird that you assume that if people are doing bad stuff in a system of compromise and checks & balances, they will suddenly act much smarter without those things. Again, this goes back to my accusation of Utopian thinking, where the existing system is blamed for it’s failures, yet it’s simply assumed that the proposed new system will have greener grass.

            Police also engage in civil asset forfeiture (stealing people’s property without charging them with a crime)

            In America. Yes. One country. My condolences that you live in a fairly shitty country.

            The monetary and human cost of government policing is massive.

            And the benefits are enormous, if you see the horrible things that happen when policing is not done.

            Government tends to disappear in places that suck with or without government.

            Convenient. ‘Those places where my system has been (more or less) tried would have failed anyway.’

            I actually have more respect for communists, because they actually put their theories to the test by living in small communes under communist rules, to see if it worked. My respect would be even greater if they would have accepted the resulting failures, rather than stick to their guns.

            What would happen if government started to wither away in a 1st world country with strong institutions and cultural norms, advanced markets, and massive wealth?

            This is so vague to be unanswerable. Furthermore, it is based on the assumption that the forces that maintain the government are weaker than the dissolving forces, which appears to be the opposite of reality if you look at the gradual increase of government.

        • sourcreamus says:

          The finding that people are less happy with more choices has failed to replicate.

          • Aapje says:

            Wow, thanks.

            Although the article makes me think that there are both mechanisms that makes people like and dislike choice (depending on the way the choice is presented), so the issue should be studied in more detail.

    • phisheep says:

      Even the most rational of decision makers can only make decisions based on information available to them. The world won’t beat a path to your door if you build a better mousetrap, not unless the world (or some of it) knows where your door is, that you have a mousetrap, that it is better, and what your asking price is.

      That’s the basic value of advertising, that it *creates* the free market in the first place.

      I have a shop. It is in the centre of a small town, it has a big sign outside, it has a big display window showing the goods, I take column-inches in local newspapers, I have a Facebook page and a G+ page and business cards and flyers. All of that is advertising, and what it does is bring in enough customers so that my marginal unit cost is low enough to have competitive prices.

      Without advertising I wouldn’t be a firm, I would be a hoarder.

      • James Picone says:

        I think the point is that the model of the market where perfectly-rational all-knowing actors make perfectly-rational economic decisions is wrong; and maybe some of the economic arguments that derive from that model are wrong.

        For example, employee’s imperfect information about the job market almost certainly reduces their wages relative to if they had perfect knowledge about what other companies would pay them, and that effect is probably stronger for people who aren’t very wealthy and aren’t paid much (because they have less of a safety net). So regulations around safety and minimum conditions in jobs might push the market to a state it would have reached if everyone had perfect information, but that it’s not in now because there isn’t perfect information.

        • onyomi says:

          Most free marketers aren’t arguing that markets alone provides perfect information or that producers and consumers always act rationally. But I am highly skeptical that regulations will improve the knowledge or rationality of consumers or producers because those making the regulations will usually have less relevant local, dynamic knowledge than those involved and will be subject to the same biases and irrational tendencies as anyone else.

          It’s just substituting the irrational judgment of a human with less local, dynamic knowledge and less incentive to get it right for the judgment of an irrational human with local, dynamic knowledge and a strong incentive to get it right.

        • Urstoff says:

          Fortunately, no one actually believes that model is representative of the world. Economists definitely don’t.

        • Civilis says:

          The virtue of the market is not that it is flawless, but that the flaws are almost always self correcting. The decisions made aren’t perfectly rational, but the irrationality is something that works its way out of the system over time. If someone is acting on imperfect information, there’s a profit to be made in helping them, if they’re willing to seek help.

          That’s what advertising can be. People don’t know your soda is out there, and you’re sure they’ll like it better than the cheap local stuff, so you provide them information that your soda exists. People don’t know your better job is out there, so they take the lower paying, less safe job. Advertising is providing consumers information about products. The problem (if it is one) is that there’s too much information, and we’ve generated an arms race in making sure your information is what the consumers see.

          • rlms says:

            But much, probably the majority, of advertising (by cost) is of the form “Cool people use our product because it’s good” rather than “Our product has x, y, z advantages over competing products”. This seems like a waste of money.

          • Civilis says:

            But much, probably the majority, of advertising (by cost) is of the form “Cool people use our product because it’s good” rather than “Our product has x, y, z advantages over competing products”. This seems like a waste of money.

            As someone that tries as much as possible to avoid the cult of celebrity, I’m rather biased, but I agree that it’s likely a waste of money. Still, with all the advertisements out there, it seems to be the best way to get people to pay attention to your advertisement in particular. I mean, what’s the difference you could put on an advertisement between Coke and Pepsi? The difference is in taste, which can’t really be expressed in an ad. You need to get people to try your soda so they can know if it’s better than what they currently drink. And despite trying to stay away from the ‘cult of celebrity’, I still occasionally find myself doing stuff like watching foreign ads with American celebrities on YouTube, which suggests that the advertisements have some pull taken entirely as entertainment.

            In part, I suspect that advertising itself is a product purchased by producers, and sharp advertisements are also selling the advertising agency to other potential advertisers. (“Remember the such-and-such ad at the Super Bowl? We did that!”). There’s also the media which has the advertisement. A super exciting TV advertisement might not sell a product, but if you don’t change the channel, the TV station keeps its viewership up; in that case, the ‘potential consumer’ that viewed the ad is the product, and the TV network or station is the producer, trying to get people to buy more advertising space.

            The Super Bowl has to be the best example of the extremes of advertisement in a market. You have a guaranteed draw of people that will be watching, so you can sell advertising space at a premium, so merely paying for an ad at the Super Bowl is a statement that you’re a major player (so the mere knowledge you bought an ad is an ad). If you’re going to pay a premium for advertising, you may as well make the most high impact advertisement that you can. Since everyone else is going all out, there’s an arms race of advertising buys. Because of this premium for ad space and advertising arms race, some people watch the Super Bowl just to see the best advertisements… the advertisements themselves are a product.

            The unique nature of advertisement as both information and product leads to a really odd market. But, like all markets, it will sort itself out over time whether or not an outside force interferes with it.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @rlms:

            One thing I’ve noticed is that old-timey ads, like from the early 20th century, do take that form. They’ll just say “ours is the finest product, it does such-and-such better than any product before”.

            The virtue-by-assocation “look at all these sexy young people eating Doritos and having a good time” thing is fairly new.

          • onyomi says:

            “In part, I suspect that advertising itself is a product purchased by producers”

            This is an important point, I think: though consumers appreciate advertising to a certain extent when it is entertaining and/or lets them know about something they didn’t know about, advertising is typically perceived as a net negative in terms of utility for the consumer. Which is why the companies and not the consumer pay for them.

            The bundling of something the consumer wants (e. g. to watch the Super Bowl) but which costs money to provide with something the producer wants (to have consumers see their ads) is itself a clever way hit upon by markets to overcome the free rider problem inherent in broadcast media.

          • Jiro says:

            If someone is acting on imperfect information, there’s a profit to be made in helping them, if they’re willing to seek help.

            Yet people pay more for name brand vegetables than store brand vegetables. They’re acting on imperfect information and the market hasn’t corrected it. Unless you think that making decisions based on product associations of smiling people in ads don’t count as imperfect information.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            It seems pretty clear that lots of advertising occupies the same role that big patent portfolios do, in playing a “tragedy of the commons” game.

            Companies would in general be better off if they just make what they make and sell it on the merits, but in that environment any company that builds a big patent portfolio can use it as a club against the competition. So all companies build big patent portfolios, so that if A says to B, “You are infringing on P”, B can say, “Oh yeah? Well you’re infringing on Q” and they cross-license and go on doing what they were doing.

            If Coke advertises and Pepsi doesn’t, Coke is gonna win even if the lack of advertising lets Pepsi sell cheaper. Pepsi’s only choice is to run the arms race. So we get a lot of advertising that is, sure, a waste, but what’s the alternative?

          • Civilis says:

            Yet people pay more for name brand vegetables than store brand vegetables. They’re acting on imperfect information and the market hasn’t corrected it. Unless you think that making decisions based on product associations of smiling people in ads don’t count as imperfect information.

            The problem is that you don’t know they’re making an irrational decision when they pay more. There are a lot of reasons people might pay extra for a national brand rather than a store brand.

            Partly, it’s a matter of time and multiple ‘costs’ for things, some of which is non-monetary. (I phrased this unartfully as “there’s a profit to be made in helping them, if they’re willing to seek help”). Most people don’t want to spend the time finding out if an unrecognized store brand is as good as the national brand they know, especially when the difference in cost or quality is minimal. Buying national brand instead of store brand vegetables isn’t going to break most people’s bank, so they value the time they would otherwise spend worrying about the quality of the store brand goods more than they value the small amount extra they pay for national brand goods. And this is a rational decision on their part. If you’re low on money, you likely value the money more, and make a different decision. The information is available to people, but the time spent finding that information is a cost that needs to be considered.

            The internet has completely transformed the business of providing things to people. I can now compare costs in the comfort of my home for goods, and have them delivered to the door. I can also determine how much I am willing to pay to have the item now as opposed to later. I’m not getting ripped off if I choose to pay for next day shipping as opposed to taking the 5-8 business day free shipping option, because it’s a rational decision on my part to pay to have it now. In that same respect, information is a good that can be produced. Angie’s List and its rivals have made a business out of providing information to consumers, which has changed the market for many services (and the advertising used to promote them). If I choose to pay more to not spend the time doing the research, that’s my business.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I used to think paying more for purdue chicken was silly, but we bought a lot on sale and used it pretty extensively.

            Don’t know why, but it keeps tenderness much better than the store-brand.

            Now keep in mind I am not fucking paying $5.99/lb for chicken, but I can see why some people would. I will keep buying $1.29/lb chicken in bulk on sale, because I am a cheap-ass accountant and worship the dollar (as my Dad would say).

            What other brands are actually worth something?

            Sam Adams is a valuable brand to me. Butterball turkeys are a great brand. I’ve never had a bad Butterball turkey, even when we roasted one to 200 degrees accidentally (poor Turkey).

            Then again, I have bounded rationality. I haven’t done any double-blind studies on chicken, because it’s not really worth my time.

            Another valuable brand to me is Band-Aid. My Wife is a pharmacist and likes to buy medical generics, so she has these things called “Equal line flex patch” or whatever.
            Yeah, no, if a kid has a cut on their arm, I want someone to go into the medicine closet, and grab the thing that says “Band-Aid.”

          • Aapje says:

            @Doctor Mist

            Companies would in general be better off if they just make what they make and sell it on the merits

            No, because that allows new producers to come in and compete on merits. Building up a ‘brand’ produces a barrier to entry, which allows for higher margins.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            No, because that allows new producers to come in and compete on merits. Building up a ‘brand’ produces a barrier to entry, which allows for higher margins.

            Granted. I’d still call that part of the lower end, like the informational aspect of ads. If Moloch would let you stop there, everybody would be better off, but he doesn’t, and the result is a peacock’s tail a mile across.

    • Civilis says:

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but generally, free market thinking takes the view that people are by and large rational decision makers who are decent at making choices and at maximizing their utility. I am not much of a free market type, and honestly it’s one of the intellectual Turing Tests I would feel least comfy doing.

      As a free market thinker, I believe the free market works best regardless of how rational people are as decision makers; the key constraint is that the people in a non-free market system are just as bad at making decisions. Somebody is going to make the decision, and value is maximized the closer the person making the decision is to the effects of the decision. The person in the market buying the product is closer to the decision than anyone else.

      How does the existence of an industry that is based around convincing people to buy things they didn’t know they needed/wanted, convincing people to buy more expensive name brand goods over generics, etc align with that?

      I have something new I want people to try. It could be a completely new idea. It could be a simple refinement of an existing idea, like a new flavor of soda. Let’s assume it’s the latter. It may or may not be better than the soda currently being sold. The soda currently being consumed is a known quantity. How do I let people know my new soda exists so they can try it to see if they like it better when they don’t know it exists?

      People like things for different reasons. The soda I like you may despise. You may be more attracted to the taste, while I might not care about the taste and only want the cheapest soda. Someone else may like a specific soda only because someone famous likes it. It’s not for me to judge which is correct.

      In order for everyone to be able to find the product that works best for them, people need to be free to introduce new, different versions of products, and people wanting to purchase the product need to know those versions are available. That requires advertising.

      • rlms says:

        “I believe the free market works best regardless of how rational people are as decision makers”

        I think that claim is far too strong. There are quite a few cases where it is commonly believed that certain people aren’t rational enough to interact with the market, children being the most obvious example.

        • Civilis says:

          All theories break down at the extremes. I wouldn’t want kids making economic decisions in a non-free market, either.

          As a kid, did you ever ask for a cool toy you saw someplace that turned out to not be as cool as you thought it was? Perhaps you even saved your chore money for it and felt like you got ripped off. Great, you learned an important life lesson, one that is much better learned with toys than with, say, your first car. If kids are old enough to make decisions as to what they want, they’re engaged in the market. It’s important to teach them to understand what trade is. In fact, it’s good to get started while the stakes are low and they still have parents as a fallback measure.

          I’ve seen markets spontaneously form in trading cards, salt packets, and pokemon. Yes, there were initially some teething troubles as the market first started up, and a couple of times adults had to step in (as a quasi-minarchist, I believe one legitimate purpose for governments is dealing with theft by force and fraud, which is basically what the adults were needed for). Once the initial hurdles were passed and people learned that trust needed to be reciprocated, the markets were pretty robust, even for self-organizing elementary school kids.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Advertising is a value-added industry given bounded rationality and humans valuing symbols.

      Marketing
      is not based on deception, it’s based on engagement with the consumer, and figuring out what the consumer wants. You tailor your product and your message to create a value proposition valuable to the consumer.

      The last Marketing MBA class I attended talked about managing Twitter feeds for an hour and a half, particularly managing criticism and blowback from customers. And how to spin that into a positive for the brand. The example was a troll shit-poster whining on the McDonald’s feed about unhealthy food options, which McDonald’s took as the opportunity to talk about their healthier food options.

      A lot of powerful brands are powerful because consumers trust them, and you can’t do that without Marketing.

      Obviously, markets are not perfect. People have bounded rationality. That does not mean markets are bad.

      And just because market failure exists does not mean government failure is better.

      EDIT:
      Also, in general, the existence of a market failure rarely brings people arguing for targeted policies. It brings people whining about how evil corporations are and how we need to tax them to provide more money to poor people/sick people/whatever people.

      Also, “education,” because we all know College Students are invulnerable to marketing, which is why no College Student has an apple product.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I’ve never attended an MBA class, but I’ve worked with marketing departments in the software industry. While it is true that they engage with the consumer, their engagement often takes the form of the following:

        * The customer wants X. Our software doesn’t do X, but it does Y, which is similar. We will tell the customer that we support X; if they every complain, tell them that Y is the same as X.

        * The customer wants X. We have X on our roadmap, but there are no plans on implementing it in the near future. Tell the customer we fully support X; make Bobby the Intern pull a couple all-nighters to hack something for the demo. By the time the customer signs a contract, a month will go by; this is enough time to fully implement X.

        * Customers are posting bad reviews of our product. Hire 10 interns to post 100 positive reviews each (from multiple accounts).

        You might argue that none of these strategies are outright lies; still, IMO they are at least somewhat unethical.

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Yup, sounds quite pretty standard for a high-pressure sales environment, especially in the IT realm. This happens pretty consistently in the B2B world, especially when companies are looking to buy something on the cheap.

          Happened pretty consistently to us at the old job: most of our IT was contracted out to fly-by-night operators with almost no reliability, bloated software, no support, no updates, no expanded features….

          Keep in mind B2C marketing is a different beast than B2B relationships, and word about these shoddy practices gets around in the B2B world really damn fast. Business people talk. And consultants talk a LOT.

          • Bugmaster says:

            I see, so when you said, “marketing is not based on deception, it’s based on engagement with the consumer, and figuring out what the consumer wants”, you meant to restrict this statement to B2C, and to explicitly exclude B2B ? I suppose this does make sense; however, I am not sure why marketers would restrict their (obviously effective) unethical practices to B2B only…

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            No, I’m letting you know that B2B marketing and B2C marketing are not the same and the repercussions for “lying” are different. For instance, if your client has any brains, they have certain SLAs built into their contract, which you are liable for, and which you will be taken to court for if you do not meet.

            I don’t have an SLA with Coca-Cola and cannot sue them because I cannot literally give the world a Coke.

          • Bugmaster says:

            How is that different from saying, e.g., “if the consumer had any brains, he’d know that our cereal is no better than any other, even though we said that it was” ?

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            One’s a business contract and the other is a marketing pitch.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Ok, but if a client doesn’t have sufficient brains, and signs a contract without sufficient SLA protections, then marketers would have no problem with selling them vastly overpriced services, right ?

            Similarly, if a customer is stupid enough to believe that some brand of cereal cures obesity, then the marketers would have no problem with selling them overpriced sugar puffs, right ?

            So, what’s the difference ?

      • HeelBearCub says:

        Marketing is not based on deception

        Sounds like something someone in marketing would say, or, “the difference between sales and marketing is that sales knows they are lying”.

        On a more serious note, marketing can absolutely be based on deception. What do you think Enzyte was doing?

        • A Definite Beta Guy says:

          Question: do you think Enron reveals that all Accounting is based on deception?

          Then why believe the same about Marketing?

          Also, I’m an Accountant, so I have to hate Marketing on principle, along with HR. But since I am an Accountant, and have to deal with people who literally think I do nothing but commit fraud and help rich people evade taxes, I am sympathetic to Marketers, for obvious reasons.

          EDIT: This is coming across nastier than I intended upon re-reading. There’s a LOT of malicious people in business, especially on the sales side. I absolutely agree with you on that front.
          However, Marketing seems plagued because people seem to think it can ONLY function by playing on people’s Irrationality.
          That’s not really fair.
          Marketing is necessary and value-add BECAUSE of bounded rationality. And not just for the consumer, but for the business, too!

          Businesses have no idea what to sell without engaging with customers and figuring out what they actually want and who is excited about the brand. A lot of new marketing is building up a brand community just to figure out who is actually receptive to products, and how to reach them.

          I think Marketing is a great thing, and am happy for companies that have strong Marketing teams.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “Can be” != “Always”

            You said marketing is not based on deception. If you said marketing is frequently not based on deception I would have agreed. But you don’t seem to be allowing for the idea that a great deal of marketing is, in fact, deceptive, and deliberately so.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I feel like it should be assumed any art can be deceptive in nature and that should be assumed, but that’s a fair point.

          • Bugmaster says:

            That’s a good analogy, actually.

            I would argue that most accounting is based on at least some degree of deception; the goal of accounting is to maximize profits, and one of the ways of accomplishing this goal is to e.g. pay as few taxes as possible, pay your workers as little as possible, etc. This doesn’t mean that all accountants are some sort of moustache-twirling villains; it just means that the good ones know how to wield the system to their full advantage.

            Similarly, the goal of marketing is to maximize demand for your product. One way of accomplishing this goal is to find people who might be genuinely interested in your actual product. Another way is to make your product look a lot more attractive than it really is, by lying about it, suppressing negative sentiment, etc. A good marketer will apply as many of these techniques as possible.

            The purpose of government regulation to to limit (though obviously not eliminate) the scope of possible techniques, thus increasing the cost of using those techniques that are likely to cause long-term harm.

          • Aapje says:

            I would argue that most accounting is based on at least some degree of deception

            A lot of multinational accounting is certainly based on creating a ‘paper reality,’ as we call it in my language. When Starbucks pays royalties to another Starbucks company that is located in a place where royalties are barely taxed, they pretend that a market transaction took place between different actors. In reality, it is really a transaction within their company, but the current laws allow them to pretend that is not the case.

            Basically, they are threading the needle of fraud, which IMO is amoral behavior, as it shows a mere commitment to not being prosecuted, rather than a commitment to the ethical behavior that the laws try to enforce (which can never be done perfectly).

          • Bugmaster says:

            I would argue that the entire goal of the accounting profession is to maximize exactly this kind of amoral behavior (same goes for marketing). That doesn’t mean that accountants/marketers are somehow inherently evil (though some are, of course, being human and all); it’s a systemic problem, not a personal one.

          • A Definite Beta Guy says:

            I would argue that most accounting is based on at least some degree of deception; the goal of accounting is to maximize profits, and one of the ways of accomplishing this goal is to e.g. pay as few taxes as possible, pay your workers as little as possible, etc. This doesn’t mean that all accountants are some sort of moustache-twirling villains; it just means that the good ones know how to wield the system to their full advantage.

            The goal of accounting is to properly track a company’s finances. You’re basically one logical leap away from assuming anyone with ANY sort of incentive is engaged in fraud.

            Work is based on fraud. The goal of workers is to do as little work as possible while still earning as much money as possible. That doesn’t mean all workers are terrible, it just means the good ones know how to make it look like they are doing lots of work while actually not doing anything.

            I am sure we all know shirkers, and I am sure we can all agree that this isn’t enough to justify saying “all work is based on deception.”

            Most Accountants are not engaged in paper reality. Most are engaged in boring work that involves paying bills, cutting paychecks, collecting money, setting budgets, and monitoring variances. And a fair few do prepare taxes, but that’s mostly for the tens of millions of Americans that file standard tax returns.

            When you start your company, you are free to not hire any accountants or marketers because it’s all just “applause lines” and “paper reality.” I imagine it will end badly, but it’s no skin off my back! 🙂

          • Aapje says:

            @A Definite Beta Guy

            Work is based on fraud. The goal of workers is to do as little work as possible while still earning as much money as possible.

            Some workers do this. Other workers do substantially more than the minimum required not to be sacked.

            Very, very few use elaborate schemes to pretend that they do more work than they do.

            I am sure we all know shirkers, and I am sure we can all agree that this isn’t enough to justify saying “all work is based on deception.”

            For one thing, there is no legal way of shirking where employers cannot fire shirking workers, unlike businesses, who can shirk paying taxes and even proudly state so.

            Most Accountants are not engaged in paper reality. Most are engaged in boring work that involves paying bills, cutting paychecks, collecting money, setting budgets, and monitoring variances. And a fair few do prepare taxes, but that’s mostly for the tens of millions of Americans that file standard tax returns.

            And most bankers do boring stuff as well. Yet their reputation was destroyed by the evil done by a few, while the majority in their profession refused to stand up to them. That the fallout reflects on the ‘shirkers’ is not that unfair, as they chose to stay quiet.

            When you start your company, you are free to not hire any accountants or marketers because it’s all just “applause lines” and “paper reality.” I imagine it will end badly, but it’s no skin off my back!

            That makes no sense, as the law requires accounting to certain standards. So one cannot escape doing accounting. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with accounting in itself, the issue is how it is done.

            What one can do, is instruct accountants to behave morally, rather than amorally.

          • Jiro says:

            Aapje: By your reasoning, employees should voluntarily ask for their salary to be cut for the same reason that companies should voluntarily use fewer tax breaks than they legally can.

            Money is exchanged for work, but money is not work. The ability for employers to ask for extra work is self-limiting in a way that the ability of the government to ask for extra money is not, so the dynamics of shirking work are not the same as the dynamics of “shirking taxes”.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            Complaining that accountants take advantage of legal fictions is, to borrow a phrase from one of Stephen Fry’s characters, rather like complaining that 101 Dalmatians has a lot of dogs in it. The pension check that the feds send me every month is income by any commonsense understanding of the word; the only excuse I have for nefariously omitting to declare it as income on my state tax return, is that state law says I don’t have to declare it. I mean, aside from the fact that I’m sitting at home in my study as I do this, rather than in a corporate office being all corporationy.

            I’m used to thinking of taxation as purely a creature of the law: that is to say, assuming you have an obligation to pay taxes, that obligation comes 100% from a general obligation to obey the law; it’s not one of those things like murder or rape which exist as both moral and legal categories. We can intelligibly accuse a man of raping his wife even if he lives in a place where the law says that isn’t rape; there’s a pre-legal obligation there which we expect the law to track. Accusing a company of failing to pay a tax the law says it doesn’t owe is a lot harder to make sense of.

          • Aapje says:

            @Jiro

            By your reasoning, employees should voluntarily ask for their salary to be cut for the same reason that companies should voluntarily use fewer tax breaks than they legally can.

            Well, I actually object more to the unfairness of entities not paying their fair share. (Big) businesses get all kinds of government benefits, which logically ought to be (in decent part be) paid for by their taxes (especially if you are a market person, who believes in quid-pro-quo transactions being important, rather than wealth transfers)

            If businesses fail to pay sufficient taxes, the tax burden must move to citizens, which then results in an even greater divide between the very wealthy and the common workers, which then brings us back to the ‘class’ days when it was very hard to advance in life based through effort and fairly easy for the rich to just coast along by investing wealth. Such a society is anti-meritocracy.

            It’s also unfair between businesses, because some types of business have way more opportunity to dodge taxes than others, which is very unfair and creates market inefficiencies.

            Anyway, I don’t see how you can compare this situation to worker’s wages, because my wages certainly depend on how the employer rates my wage and they can choose to fire me. So it’s their own choice where to set the minimum productivity level as well as how much more to compensate workers who go a certain level above that.

            The government doesn’t get to ‘fire’ businesses in that way, although they do more or less have the ability to make laws to ban certain loopholes, which can be more or less compared to setting a minimum productivity level. I’m certainly not excusing them and am very critical of the performance of my and other countries in this regard (but a government that performs sub optimally reflects flawed humanity and I believe that any ‘human’ system is always flawed to some extent. So we can only choose the best system to minimize that as much as possible, not avert it*).

            * Unless we create some hyper-rational AI and manage to give it the right goals. Of course, programming the AI with ‘human’ goals is almost guaranteed to reflect flawed humanity.

          • “If businesses fail to pay sufficient taxes, the tax burden must move to citizens”

            The tax burden is always on people. A business can’t pay taxes by reducing its consumption and giving the extra to government because a business doesn’t consume anything, it’s just a middleman. A tax on business is paid by some combination of customers, employees, and business owners–stock holders for a joint stock corporation.

            Where else would the tax be coming from?

          • Aapje says:

            @David

            I miswrote, it should say ’employees’ instead of ‘citizens’.

            There is a difference between taxing them vs companies, for example, the latter taxes capital providers. Taxing companies also incentivizes R & D investments, which benefits society in the long term.

            The last decades have produced record profits and stagnating wages, which brings us closer to a kind of society that I very much dislike. Furthermore, it creates stagflation, so it’s economically destructive.

          • Jiro says:

            Well, I actually object more to the unfairness of entities not paying their fair share. (Big) businesses get all kinds of government benefits, which logically ought to be (in decent part be) paid for by their taxes

            I don’t think you realize how big a concession this is. There’s a big difference between “businesses should voluntary pay more tax than they are required to” and “businesses should pay more tax than they are required to, if the business benefits from government”. With the latter, a business owner can reason that he would be better off in a society with a smaller government and conclude that taxes above a certain level are not taxes that he must voluntarily pay if he doesn’t have to.

            Furthermore, if some people benefit from taxes (compared to the market), it follows that other people are harmed by taxes (comnpared to the market). The people who are harmed don’t get to voluntarily pay negative tax and take some extra money from the government, so concluding that the people who benefit should voluntarily pay extra positive taxes is one-sided. It is absurd if the government transfers a million dollars from party 1 to party 2, and the result is that party 2 has a moral obligation to pay a million in taxes, leaving party 2 screwed, party 1 no better than before, and the government possessing a free million.

          • Anon. says:

            >(Big) businesses get all kinds of government benefits, which logically ought to be (in decent part be) paid for by their taxes

            Doesn’t this position preclude all wealth transfers?

          • Aapje says:

            @Jiro

            I don’t think you realize how big a concession this is. There’s a big difference between “businesses should voluntary pay more tax than they are required to” and “businesses should pay more tax than they are required to, if the business benefits from government”.

            The thing is, I never actually argued that “businesses should voluntary pay more tax than they are required to.” I merely argued that they are acting amorally. It was you who interpreted my words this way, even though that wasn’t what I said. It’s a bit silly to argue that I changed my mind after saying something that is inconsistent with your straw man.

            Personally, I would prefer to see these purely paper realities classified as fraud and prosecuted (although I realize that this would end up with businesses setting up barely plausible schemes instead of unplausible schemes, but it would still make it harder to do so). Furthermore, certain international loopholes should be closed. Companies have only started doing this crap relatively recently, so it must be doable to get back to a situation where it is no longer feasible.

            With the latter, a business owner can reason that he would be better off in a society with a smaller government and conclude that taxes above a certain level are not taxes that he must voluntarily pay if he doesn’t have to.

            Fine. I’m perfectly happy if Apple moves to Somalia and only sells their stuff to Somalians and only pays tax in Somalia. But once they start producing and/or selling in another country, they benefit from the infrastructure and other benefits that the country offers; so then they have a moral obligation to pay taxes for those benefits.

            And tax systems should roughly match the moral obligations that society agrees on.

            As for your last paragraph: I am unable to parse your words unambiguously. What do you mean by ‘harmed by taxes?’ The mere fact that people pay more for certain product/services than if the market would handle it? If so, my answer is that I don’t see the price that a ‘free market’ would set as necessarily the correct price, given my belief that most markets experience market failure without intervention. So if government intervention results in higher costs, that is not automatically unfair.

            @Anon.

            Doesn’t this position preclude all wealth transfers?

            No. I believe that the default position should be that you (roughly) pay tax in proportion to the benefits than you enjoy. I do believe in wealth transfers to achieve certain societal goals, however, those cases need justification, as they would be exceptions to the default.

            For example, some technology has huge benefits to society and will probably offer a better value for price than the entrenched alternatives when developed further, but is not viable in a free market in the current state of development. Then it can be sensible to temporarily subsidize the new technology to make it viable right now. This helps solve one of the flaws of markets, where first mover products have an advantage and can block alternatives that would be better at similar stages of development, but aren’t immediately better.

            Another example is that most people believe that humans have certain minimal (‘human’) rights. A wealth transfer is then justified for people without the ability to provide this for themselves. This same argument is not true for businesses, because they are artificial constructs that can dissolve or be created in ways that are substantially different from human death and birth.

            And you can argue that pretty much all wealth transfers provide benefits to the person paying the tax. If my tax money goes to help people in Haiti, I get a nice feeling inside how nice a person I am and I also reduce the chance that the Haitians will migrate to where I am and bother me. So if the majority of voters decide that tax money should go to Haiti, then the collective has decided to provide this benefit for all citizens (regardless of whether they would want that benefit, but that is a consequence of collective decision making).

          • “There is a difference between taxing them vs companies, for example, the latter taxes capital providers.”

            Taxing income taxes capital providers too. And taxing companies doesn’t simply tax capital providers. Depending on the various elasticities, it taxes capital providers, employees, customers, and providers of other inputs.

            “Taxing companies also incentivizes R & D investments, which benefits society in the long term.”

            Why would it incentivize R&D more than any other investment? Given that the point of an investment is to eventually produce profits, which will be taxed, why do you expect that taxing firm profits incentivizes investment?

            “Furthermore, it creates stagflation, so it’s economically destructive.”

            I don’t know what your “it” here is and have no idea what economic theory you are using to draw your conclusion.

          • Aapje says:

            @DavidFriedman

            Why would it incentivize R&D more than any other investment? Given that the point of an investment is to eventually produce profits, which will be taxed, why do you expect that taxing firm profits incentivizes investment?

            It incentivizes in-company investments over non-investments and external investments, like paying dividend or putting the money in the bank or trying to reinvest it in other businesses (IMO too many people are doing the latter things right now).

            And the point of investments is not just to produce profits! One reason to do R&D is to reduce the risk of being out competed. It’s rational to make more R&D investments than can be justified by the profit you get from them, if that helps protect your current profits. The higher the tax is on profits, the greater the justification for doing R&D defensively.

            Owners of companies are also not necessarily (purely) profit driven, so they can spend money to achieve other goals. It’s much cheaper to spend company money on a good cause, than to pay out dividends or give yourself a bigger salary, pay tax on that and then spend the money on the good cause.

            “Furthermore, it creates stagflation, so it’s economically destructive.”

            I don’t know what your “it” here is and have no idea what economic theory you are using to draw your conclusion.

            A lack of R&D investments reduces spending by consumers and businesses, which is part of stagflation.

            If median wages are stagnant, demand stagnates, again causing stagflation.

            You also get a feedback loop where businesses become less willing to invest in R&D because the demand is not there, where the lack of R&D causes less demand, which then causes less R&D to happen, etc.

          • “It incentivizes in-company investments over non-investments and external investments, like paying dividend or putting the money in the bank or trying to reinvest it in other businesses (IMO too many people are doing the latter things right now).”

            If the company can get a positive return on investments and the bank pays zero interest, the company has an incentive to make investments even without corporate taxation. If the bank pays interest, that means it is lending the money out to other people who are using it in some useful way.

            The company has an incentive to invest in other businesses only if they can use the capital more productively than it can, in which case we want it to.

            Aapje wrote:
            “Furthermore, it creates stagflation, so it’s economically destructive.”

            I responded:

            “I don’t know what your “it” here is and have no idea what economic theory you are using to draw your conclusion.”

            Aapje responds:

            “A lack of R&D investments reduces spending by consumers and businesses, which is part of stagflation.”

            Why? If the firm doesn’t invest in R&D it either invests in something else or pays the money to its stockholders as dividends, either of which give people money to spend.

            Stagflation is the combination of inflation, typically due not to lack of R&D but increases in the money supply, and a high unemployment rate, something whose causes economists have been arguing about for a very long time.

            The corporate income tax results in double taxation, once as income to the corporation and a second time as income to the stockholders, the latter complicated by different rules for dividends and capital gains. The sensible approach would be to attribute all corporate income to stockholders and tax it as ordinary income, thus eliminating a good deal of the malincentives and complications of the present system.

            Why, by the way, do you focus on R&D? The arguments you are making, true or false, are about incentives to invest, not incentives to invest in R&D in particular.

          • Aapje says:

            Stagflation is the combination of inflation, typically due not to lack of R&D but increases in the money supply, and a high unemployment rate, something whose causes economists have been arguing about for a very long time.

            Sorry, I used the wrong term. I meant deflation + stagnation. I thought there was a term for that and mixed words up.

            Why? If the firm doesn’t invest in R&D it either invests in something else or pays the money to its stockholders as dividends, either of which give people money to spend.

            Not really, people don’t spend just because they have money, they choose between spending and investing. The money has more and more been going to people who invest a large portion of their wealth, while at the same time, investment opportunities have become scarce (because more and more money has been going to people who invest a large portion of their wealth, rather than consume).

            The end result is lots of investment bubbles, which cause fake growth followed by implosions, followed by fake growth, etc.

        • Jiro says:

          The thing is, I never actually argued that “businesses should voluntary pay more tax than they are required to.” I merely argued that they are acting amorally.

          …But once they start producing and/or selling in another country, they benefit from the infrastructure and other benefits that the country offers; so then they have a moral obligation to pay taxes for those benefits.

          If you think they have a moral obligation to pay the tax, then you think they should pay the extra tax. That’s no straw man; that’s what “should” means. (And it means you consider failure to pay these extra taxes to be immoral, not amoral. Amoral would mean that they no more should do it than they should prefer chocolate ice cream over strawberry.)

          And it is still plausible that they benefit from some of the infrastructure, so they should be paying some taxes, but the maximum taxes that they could voluntarily increase their bill to are much more than the taxes used to pay for the beneficial things and may even include things that are actively harmful to them.

          As for your last paragraph: I am unable to parse your words unambiguously.

          You yourself must have some idea of what it means to benefit from taxes, or you wouldn’t be talking about companies benefiting from taxes.

          And if one party benefits from taxes, that implies that the party is better off than if they were not taxed and spent the money themselves instead. That extra benefit must have been paid for by some other taxpayer. The other taxpayer is harmed by taxes.

          The point is that if you demand that beneficiaries of taxes pay for the benefit, you aren’t also demanding that negative-beneficiaries of taxes pay negative-taxes for being harmed, so you’re basically turning any redistribution into a one way money transfer to the government. The government takes money from me and gives it to you. You gain a benefit, so you have to pay the government for it. End result: I’m harmed, your net benefit is zero, and the government gets free money.

          • Aapje says:

            I never said it should be voluntary.

            I also used the word ‘amoral’ rather than ‘immoral’ on purpose, because I do think that many of these people cannot distinguish between good and right anymore and society has to help them with that.

            you wouldn’t be talking about companies benefiting from taxes.

            I wasn’t talking about that, I said that they benefit from government spending.

            End result: I’m harmed, your net benefit is zero, and the government gets free money.

            The government is us, so this makes no sense.

            Furthermore, the money doesn’t disappear, so it goes back into society and benefits people.

          • “Furthermore, the money doesn’t disappear, so it goes back into society and benefits people.”

            No. This is one of the standard mistakes that comes from people trying to invent economics for themselves.

            When a firm sells a product, it exchanges (say) a hundred widgets for a hundred dollars. The result is not that it is a hundred dollars better off, because the widgets cost something to produce–about a hundred dollars if it’s a competitive market. That cost isn’t merely a flow of pieces of paper. It’s a measure of real human costs–people working making widgets when they could have been posting on SSC or growing apples or … . Land used for a widget factory instead of housing or growing crops.

            The government collects a million dollars and spends it, to take the extreme case, paying companies to build cars and dump them in the Atlantic ocean. The money is still there–but a million dollars worth of inputs that could have been used to produce something for the taxpayers has been diverted to a useless activity.

            The government can always print more money, but money isn’t valuable for itself, it’s merely a tool used in allocating resources. Think in terms of the flow of resources–labor, use of land, raw materials, whatever–not the flow of money.

          • Aapje says:

            I’m confused, since you seem to be making my argument and attacking your own. You claimed that the money went to the government without acknowledging that they spend it again.

    • onyomi says:

      Another more general comment re. advertisement as a failing of markets:

      Campaigning in general and political ads in particular seem to function in the political realm as advertising does in the business realm: at best it serves to to inform you about a candidate’s existence, positions, etc. and offer good reasons to vote for him/her. Far more often, like many other sorts of ad, it serves just to add applause lights to your candidate and boo lights to the opposing candidate.

      So if the political mechanism also involves this “waste,” this potential for obfuscation and confusion and anti-rationality, then it can’t be taken as a uniquely wasteful or pointless aspect of markets. In fact, it seems to me that most politicians spend a far greater proportion of their time, money, and energy campaigning than do private entrepreneurs advertising, relative to the actual work of both sorts of job.

  11. dndnrsn says:

    Does anybody have words that they continually get the meaning of wrong, and continually find themselves catching it, or learning over and over it doesn’t mean what they think?

    I always think that “vivacious” is a physical descriptor, rather than a personality descriptor. This is probably because it sounds similar to “curvaceous”.

    I always get confused when something yellowy-green is described as “chartreuse” – for some reason, I find myself thinking that chartreuse is a sort of purple colour. I have no idea why this is.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Wow. I always think of chartreuse as purpley as well. Also puce seems like it should be name of the color chartreuse is.

      I find myself having to relook up words that I don’t use in conversation. Sanguine was one I got wrong for a long time, knowing I was getting it wrong, and then needing to look it up… again.

      • onyomi says:

        Apparently chartreuse is one of the favorites of people who subscribe to a bizarre theory that, because they clearly remember certain things wrong (“Looney Toons” instead of “Loony Tunes,” for example), therefore there are glitches in the time-space continuum or a conspiracy or something.

        • Anon says:

          I find those people adorable. You remember Nelson Mandela dying in prison? Have you ever considered that you might not know your history?

        • dndnrsn says:

          Google tells me it’s Looney Toons. Are you from the no-e alternate universe?

          I always thought it was Berenstein Bears, too…

          • onyomi says:

            Yeah, the Berenstain Bears is one of the most common; I think the problem is just that lots of last names end in -stein, and few, so far as I know, end in -stain, so people just see what they expect to see.

            It’s not just the no -e, it’s the word “tune” as in a musical tune, as opposed to “toon” as in “cartoon.” The old cartoons would always say “Merry Melodies Presents Looney Tunes.” I’m not sure if the pun on cartoon was always intended, but I think since most people think of these as works of animation, not music, they just remember “Toons” instead of “Tunes.”

      • J. Mensch says:

        Have the exact same experience with sanguine, where I always think it means the exact opposite (with the same knowledge every time that I was getting it wrong). I used to think I was confusing it with saturnine, but now I just thing that the word itself just sounds quite sad.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Sanguine is actually one of those self-antonymic words, because you can use it to describe a bloodily violent situation about which you should not be sanguine.

          • Cerebral Paul Z. says:

            I’m more used to seeing “sanguinary” used in that situation. Some of the word-pairs I find hardest to keep straight are the ones formed by applying two different suffixes, both performing the same function, to the same root. I dimly recall there being some sort of difference between “sensual” and “sensuous”, but I could never be arsed to remember what it is.

        • Montfort says:

          Clearly the solution is to become much more fluent in humorism. As a bonus, it helps out with phlegmatic, too (and choleric and melancholic, if anyone needs help with them).

          • onyomi says:

            See, I know that “sanguine” comes from Latin for “blood,” but when I think of blood rushing to someone’s face, I think of someone angry and stressed, not someone happy and healthy, as, I guess, humourism does.

        • onyomi says:

          Oh yes, I totally have that problem with sanguine.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Yeah, puce “sounds” like the colour chartreuse is, although not vice versa.

    • keranih says:

      It took me forever to understand that cyan means “turquoise” because the name “sounds” red gold to me.

      Also, “firmament” *clearly* means “landscape” and not “starscape.” I mean, seriously, wtf?

    • onyomi says:

      I remember thinking the word “odyssey” was a synonym for “oddity” until I was probably well into my teens.

      Until somewhat recently I thought the word “unwieldy” was “unwieldly.”

      I never had this problem myself, but I’ve noticed many people who think the word “remuneration” is “renumeration.”

      A horrifying new development seems to be people who think “penultimate” means “really, really ultimate.”

      • null says:

        Was the first thing caused by confusion between 2001 and the David Bowie song?

        • onyomi says:

          Haha… I think it was more just an incorrect guess which I didn’t hear used correctly often enough to notice. If I were a non-English speaker and you taught me the words “better” and “best,” I might guess that the word “bet” meant “good.” “Odd” means “weird” and “heresy” is a heretical thing, so an odyssey sounds like it might be a weird thing.

    • suntzuanime says:

      If it’s a reddish purple maybe you’re getting confused with “scarlet”, which is pronounced somewhat similarly even if spelled totally different?

      Personally I find I have to concentrate very hard not to confuse “peremptory” with “preemptive”.

      • onyomi says:

        It also sounds a little like cerise, which is a shade of red, coming from the same etymology as “cherries.”

        Incidentally, I’m always interested to learn about etymologies based on mistakes like the one Douglas Knight links. Singular “cherry,” for example, is based on (singular) French “cerise”–>”cherries,” which sounds like a plural in English, allowing for the creation of the singular “cherry.” “An alligator” means “a ‘the lizard'”… there was a cute youtube video with a bunch of these which I can’t find at the moment.

    • BBA says:

      If everyone gets a word wrong, it becomes the word’s new meaning. “Nimrod” used to mean a hunter, but now everyone thinks it means a fool. Humorously, this confusion apparently arose because Bugs Bunny called Elmer Fudd a nimrod, which he is under both definitions.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      I always used to get confused by “inflammable”, which sounds like it ought to mean the exact opposite of what it actually does mean.

    • Tristan Haze says:

      I find it hard to accept that ‘gambit’ doesn’t mean ‘risky, bold attempt’.

      • Montfort says:

        It doesn’t have a literal meaning that exactly matches that, sure, but popular understanding of chess gambits should usually allow you to use that definition as a metaphor, at least.

        • God Damn John Jay says:

          Just checked the definition, gambit has the implication of being more calculated than risky. I was convinced that it meant ‘risky, bold attempt’ until today.

    • Silverlock says:

      I have a few words like that — “ontology,” for instance, will not stay in my head for more than a few days. What has struck me is some of the words I have known for most of my life but didn’t know how to pronounce properly. I didn’t know until I was in my twenties that “awry,” for instance is not pronounced “aw-ry” but “uh-wry,” and I just found out a couple of days ago at age 55 that “ague” is pronounced “ay-gyoo” rather than “aig.”

      Fortunately, I had never had cause to speak either of those aloud, so I luckily avoided some embarrassment, but still.

    • paulmbrinkley says:

      I imagine Alanis Morissette did people no favors with regard to the word “ironic”.

      • Silverlock says:

        You don’t know what irony is, do you, Baldrick?

        Sure I do! It’s like goldy or bronzy but made of iron.

  12. Anon says:

    A few thoughts:

    1) The “report comment” button has disappeared for some reason. Assuming this is an actual design change and not just my computer being screwy, why is it gone and is it coming back?

    2) I think Turn-Based Strathreadgy works better than Threadegy, but hey, it’s your blog.

    3) Speaking of “hey, it’s your blog,” the e-mail I use to comment here is from one of those temp-mail burner sites. I tried to register with it anyway, thinking that WordPress would filter it, but apparently they don’t. While I think this is good because it allows me to maintain continuity with my old posts (or at least some from after The Great Gravatar Swap Of 2016), it does set the bar for “real e-mail” much lower than you’d probably expect.

    4) Civ VI looks alright from what I’ve seen online so far. The UI has issues and the various game mechanics seem too decoupled (e.g. using Envoys as a separate resource for currying city-state favor rather than gold makes balancing diplomacy versus your other goals a complete non-issue and makes diplomacy way too easy), but other than that it looks pretty great. Early game stops being a dreary slog, Wonders require actual planning and thought, and the Eureka system makes progress a lot faster while making Great Scientists less broken. Actually, the way Great People have been reworked so that each of them have unique affects is a major plus.

    (As an aside, I can’t stand the people who complain about the new cartoony artstyle and want more realism. Because we all know that the Civilization games are known for their gritty realism, like when the great Japanese scientist Leonard Euler discovers the radio in 1350 AD.)

    • thad says:

      I’ve only played a few hours of Civ VI, but I’m not a fan of the new map style. It will probably take me a few games to really get a good feel for the gameplay.

      With respect to art style, cartoony isn’t a bad thing per se, but the particular style they chose is not something I find appealing.

    • Loquat says:

      Have you tried saying “strathreadgy” and “threadegy” out loud? I did, and the latter is way easier to pronounce.

      • Anon says:

        I’m making the ‘d’ silent, like “judge”, so it’s “strathregy” versus “thredegy”. I think the first works better. To each their own.

        • Gazeboist says:

          Wait, you don’t pronounce the ‘d’ in “judge”?

          edit:

          After posting this, I tried both pronouncing and not pronouncing the ‘d’ in “judge”. I couldn’t actually tell the difference, but I remain convinced that the ‘d’ is pronounced.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            The d shortens the u before it. Without the d, the word would be pronounced more like “jooj” or something.

          • Vojtas says:

            It should sound the same, the final phoneme of judge is the affricate /dʒ/, which sounds very similar to [d] followed by [ʒ].

          • The original Mr. X says:

            The final phoneme would sound the same, but without the double -dg- consonant the u would be longer.

    • bakkot says:

      “Report comment” is gone due to technical issues; I haven’t had time to look much into fixing it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Report comment breaks the blog for some reason. I think Bakkot is working on it.

      The art is really the main thing I’m liking about Civ6 at this point. Too much of the rest of it still seems raw and unbalanced, or too boring and micromanagy (man, sure do love reassigning spies and traders every couple of turns for no reason)

      • Anon says:

        Reassigning spies and traders makes sense to me. You don’t want a spy doing the same thing all the time, otherwise it would get caught when someone noticed the pattern. And since the traders are what create roads between the cities, being able to move one around to a new place makes sense. There probably should be an automation option on the traders, but I think putting something like that on the spies would be harmful.

        I agree that some things are boring as hell (e.g. promotions and religious boosts) but the policy card system is well-done (could use more slots though) and I really like the civics tree. I also really like how each city-state has unique buffs (e.g. Zanzibar gives Cinnamon when you become Suzerain) and how each of the Great People have unique effects. It’s these little details, and how well-integrated and thought-out the District system is, that seem to give the game a lot more flair than the earlier games had.

        Also I’m happy about it because Civ VI is a complete game that doesn’t require 2 expansions to get a basic featureset together, unlike its predecessor.

        • suntzuanime says:

          I mean, when you sell a game for $60, I don’t know how much you can applaud it for being a complete game. $60 is a “complete game” sort of price to charge.

          (Yeah, I bought Civ 5 on release. I’m not making that mistake again.)

          • Anon says:

            That sidenote should be read less as “actual compliment” and more as “congratulations on not fucking up enormously twice in a row”.

            (You poor thing. I bought it in a Steam sale a couple years ago for like $15.)

          • Dabbler says:

            Aren’t there plenty of $60 games out there with bad reputations showing that nowadays that is unusually good behavior? Sad though it may be, such behavior at least notes comment nowadays. It’s not like we can put the norms back where they were.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Not with that attitude we can’t.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I don’t mind ability to reassign traders, but it seemed like half my time was pointless clicking to tell traders that yes, I still wanted them in the same city. Why can’t there just be a window where I can go to reassign traders every so often when I feel like it, and otherwise they just keep going where I tell them?

          Same with spies – I eventually deleted all my spies to avoid constantly having to tell them to keep doing listening posts, no, I didn’t want to provoke a war with Russia by stealing the one tech they had above me, stop asking me.

          • Spookykou says:

            Seconded. I only use spies traditionally as counter espionage and they in particular seem to have really short mission lengths or something.

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      I wish Civ would bring back the era-specific leader costumes from Civ III. Fur-hat Abe Lincoln and three-piece suit Smoke-Jaguar were the shit.

  13. Wrong Species says:

    Anyone interested in discussing a new Black Mirror episode per open thread?

  14. stucchio says:

    I’d like to see what SSC thinks of the following idea.

    Currently, human systems often have human biases embedded in them. It’s a fairly pervasive feature. One obvious way to fix this is to take humans out of the system and replace them with machines. The machines can then work in a generally unbiased manner towards achieving an explicitly stated goal.

    Here’s an article I wrote on why this works well: https://www.chrisstucchio.com/blog/2016/alien_intelligences_and_discriminatory_algorithms.html

    However, the cathedral is generally hostile to this approach. The most recent example I’ve seen is this buzzfeed article (scroll down to where the reporter talks to Sebastian Thrun): https://www.buzzfeed.com/nitashatiku/vanity-fair-silicon-valley-donald-trump There is just an assumption – almost religious in nature – that an algorithm created by humans must inherit their biases. Cathy O’Neil (aka Mathbabe, in spite of having no math on her blog) recently wrote a book about this.

    Most examples they cite consist of machines discovering that not all goals can be simultaneously achieved. For instance, you can minimize crime, or you can have racial equity, but you can’t have both. The tradeoff is well explained here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/17/can-an-algorithm-be-racist-our-analysis-is-more-cautious-than-propublicas/

    I postulate that the hostility towards algorithms comes from this last fact. With human systems – e.g. “holistic” college admissions – the cathedral could pretend to achieve palatable goals (admit the best students) while secretly working towards their real goals (racial equity). Using algorithms force them to openly admit their real goals, and this is why the cathedral dislikes algorithms.

    I’d be curious to hear counterarguments to this theory. What does SSC think?

    • null says:

      Disregarding your use of ‘the cathedral’, a learning algorithm is only as good as the training data it receives. Considering crime, since you brought it up, it is already believed that there is significant bias in crime data, where people are incorrectly arrested, convicted, etc. due to racial factors. The algorithm does not know any ground truth; it must work with the data it is given. See for example the problems that facial recognition software has run into w.r.t. race.

      With regard to your example, colleges never claimed to admit only the students who would be most likely to graduate. Also, I am sure many people in this so-called cathedral would be happy to admit that they want racial equity.

      EDIT: If liberal journalists believe algorithms perpetuate racial bias, then it is clear why liberal journalists do not like them, and there is no need for a ‘real’ explanation.

      • stucchio says:

        See my blog post on the topic. Learning algorithms actually have the tendency to fix bias in training data, provided biasing features are available (either directly or via redundant encoding). In the blog post of mine I link to, I describe both toy examples (simple linear regression) and I also link to real life examples (e.g. a college admissions process that discovers SAT/GPA are biased in favor of blacks).

        If I built an algorithm for advertising, and the algorithm fixed a mobile vs desktop bias in the input data, you’d never think twice. Why do you feel that black vs white bias is inherently unfixable?

        Bias is just a pattern in the data. ML algorithms are designed to find patterns. Why would they not find a specific pattern that hurts the objective function?

        • PeterBorah says:

          I read your blog post. While it’s quite interesting as far as it goes, it misses the most important question: whether the output variable is a good operationalization of the outcome we want to optimize for.

          Consider null’s example of crime. If blacks are disproportionately targeted for arrest, then “black” is a legitimate predictor of “arrested”, and probably also “convicted of a crime”, and a machine learning algorithm will therefore learn those associations. But presumably we actually want to predict crimes committed, not arrest or conviction rates. The algorithm will then be biased with regards to the actual policy question, even though it is behaving correctly when measured against the data it was given. There’s no way for the algorithm to correct this bias, since it doesn’t have access to the “true” crime rate.

          This is a pretty unavoidable problem for anything that tries to optimize complex processes using simple measurements, as described in Seeing Like a State. It’s also pretty much the friendly AI problem.

          It’s a bit of a tangent, but the blog post also mentions AlphaGo as an example of an “alien intelligence”. This is very misguided. A core part of AlphaGo’s architecture is predicting human-style moves, and it uses that as its main filter for which moves to consider. The result is that AlphaGo’s play is extremely human-like. AlphaGo uses standard openings, standard fighting tactics, etc. The quotes by Go professionals praising AlphaGo’s surprising play are discussing the exceptions that prove the rule: AlphaGo found a few unique– though not shocking– moves which pushed our understanding of Go forward. This is exciting, but not particularly surprising, given that human players at the top level have done the same thing many, many times.

          • stucchio says:

            Peter, it’s true that an algorithm trained with the wrong objective function might get the wrong answer. So will a human system; just watch season 3 of The Wire for a fictional illustration of this.

            But the fix here – for humans or machines – is to fix the objective function. Use crime complaints instead of convictions, for instance. Declaring machines “racist” because they are tainted by the original sin of being touched by humans is not a solution to any problem.

            Also note that many of the critics of AI – e.g. ProPublica and their dishonest criticism of recidivism prediction – are not raising this issue at all.

            What you describe about AlphaGo is interesting. I didn’t follow AlphaGo too closely – can you link to more?

          • Robert Liguori says:

            Of course, if blacks also commit crimes disproportionately to their numbers (especially in conjunction with other factors like gender, socioeconomic class, and so on), and this fact is not acknowledged due to fears of being accused of racism and other -isms, a human learning algorithm will be likewise biased.

            The answer in both machine and human cases is to get access to the actual data. It is, as you say, not a trivial problem, because getting data on intelligent being runs headlong into the problem of people optimizing that data for their own purposes at every step from collection to dissemination, but that just means it’s that much more important to use all of our available tools to look at problems.

          • PeterBorah says:

            > But the fix here – for humans or machines – is to fix the objective function. Use crime complaints instead of convictions, for instance.

            You make it sound so easy, but this ultimately reduces to the friendly AI problem. If you have a general method for turning abstract human concepts like “preventing crime” into measurable statistics, that’s the most important scientific breakthrough in a hundred years.

            Regardless, even if it’s solvable, we would still need to actually solve it, and therefore we can’t ignore the possibility that our algorithms are producing wrong answers.

            > Declaring machines “racist” because they are tainted by the original sin of being touched by humans is not a solution to any problem.

            Neither is pretending that human-written algorithms using human-gathered data to achieve human-specified goals have nothing to do with humans. We can certainly use algorithms in beneficial ways that reduce bias, but we can just as easily use them to reinforce and obfuscate bias.

            > What you describe about AlphaGo is interesting. I didn’t follow AlphaGo too closely – can you link to more?

            The architecture is discussed in the Nature paper.

            The analysis of AlphaGo’s play as “human-like” is my own synthesis as a (very) amateur Go player who followed the games closely. You can read some professional commentary on the Deepmind website. I’ll freely admit that you have to read between the lines a bit. It’s easier to find pullable quotes saying stuff like, “a human would never play this move,” than the opposite. But notice all the sections where the commentators say stuff like, “the last 17 moves were joseki.” That means that those 17 moves were exactly what you’d expect a human to play. There are a lot more of those “dull” sections than moves where the commentators are impressed.

          • roystgnr says:

            Worsening the tangent, but:

            The first stage network used in making AlphaGo was trained to predict human-style (well, human-expert-style) moves, but this was just the first stage of training.

            The second stage was trained by playing against itself, and the third stage was trained via a data set generated by the second stage. At this point “predicting human-style moves” isn’t so much a “core part” of the outcome as it is an “initial guess”.

            The final version can use predictions from the previous stages to help choose and evaluate moves in a Monte Carlo tree search. They got the best performance by using a weighted mix of all three, so I guess humans are still sort of in the loop here… but if you think that evaluating tens of thousands of sometimes-human-inspired games per second doesn’t sound like an “alien intelligence”, then at this point we just have very different definitions of the word “alien”.

          • Furslid says:

            @PeterBorah

            The data fix isn’t that easy. How do you know that a certain set of data is unbiased?

            If it’s generated by a world that contains biased actors, it could be biased. To use the criminal complaints example. What if a subculture has a code of Omerta or Snitches get Stitches? They don’t report crime, and you get bad data. What if people report different races differently. Black people may be reported for behavior that white people don’t, and you get bad data.

          • cassander says:

            >This is a pretty unavoidable problem for anything that tries to optimize complex processes using simple measurements, as described in Seeing Like a State. It’s also pretty much the friendly AI problem.

            With an algorithm, what you’re measuring is completely transparent. That doesn’t solve the seeing like a state problem, but neither does not using algorithms, it just obfuscates the process. You’re completely correct, but it’s not an argument against using algorithms.

          • stucchio says:

            >You make it sound so easy, but this ultimately reduces to the friendly AI problem. If you have a general method for turning abstract human concepts like “preventing crime” into measurable statistics, that’s the most important scientific breakthrough in a hundred years.

            Building an objective function like “decide which loans will be repaid” or “reduce crime reports by choosing where to deploy police” is not remotely comparable to the friendly AI problem.

            The friendly AI problem is to define an objective function that satisfies human goals across all possible choice sets, not the extremely constrained choice set of “show ad X or ad Y”.

            >We can certainly use algorithms in beneficial ways that reduce bias, but we can just as easily use them to reinforce and obfuscate bias.

            No, it’s actually significantly harder. As I noted in my post, the tendency is for machines to reduce bias in achieving whatever the stated goal of the system is.

            So if the goal is a good goal, machines will reduce bias (relative to humans). If the goal sucks, machines will achieve that bad goal in an unbiased manner.

            The only way machines will be worse than humans is if somehow multiple human biases (in inputs AND in the objective function) cancel each other out in some desirable way, and the machine turns around and fixes only the bias in the inputs.

      • stucchio says:

        Also a reply to your edit. In fact, I don’t think journalists really believe algorithms perpetuate racial bias. I use the term “bias” in the sense of “make the wrong decision in a systematic way”.

        Algorithms are regularly attacked based on outputs that no one has any reason to believe are inaccurate, systematically or otherwise. For instance loan algorithms which say blacks won’t pay them back, adtech which suggest women won’t click as much on high paying job ads, etc.

        All these algorithms do is reveal that you can’t simultaneously offer loans to people who pay them back, and also offer loans to blacks at rates comparable to whites. This isn’t “perpetuating racial bias”, it’s simply revealing that that bias is actually an accurate prior.

    • suntzuanime says:

      I don’t see any reason you couldn’t program a computer to be just as hypocritical as a human. You just have to renormalize whatever target outcome you have in the training data to be equal between the black and white data points (or whatever equality you want to enforce).

    • gronald says:

      I think a lot of these problems are really hard to write algorithms for. One of the examples you use is that of trying to “admit the best students”. But what algorithm can you use for that? One student has a 450-word essay describing their leadership of their high school debate team; the essay has three spelling mistakes. Another student has an exactly-500-word essay about one time they volunteered in a soup kitchen. A third wrote something like that famous Hugh Gallagher essay. What algorithm are you going to write that will read those essays and decide who gets admitted to your college?

      Some problems are easier, of course. You linked to the COMPAS article, but isn’t that really a victory for the algorithm writers? They wrote an algorithm, some people said it might be racist, they explained why it wasn’t actually racist, and it’s still actively being used. The people who said it might be racist wrote another article admitting that the issue was complicated and maybe it wasn’t racist after all. It sounds to me like the system works.

      • Evan Þ says:

        The problem really seems to be that we can’t quantify our standards for “best students.” If we want academic success, we could give the program all the applications and performance data from the past decade or more and have it chew through that. If we want to optimize for starting salary after graduation, we can do that. If we then want to practice affirmative action for any given minority, we can have it favor those candidates by whatever amount we want.

        And on your particular example, I’d just throw out the essays altogether. How well does it predict success in college, after all?

      • dndnrsn says:

        College essays don’t seem to me to be much more than the equivalent of incredibly minor traffic offences that cops use as excuses to pull people over they want to pull over. They’re a pretext to approve or deny a prospective student for reasons that have nothing to do with their past performance as a student.

        • PeterBorah says:

          This seems unnecessarily cynical to me. At the very least, you can tell a lot about someone’s writing skills by reading their essays. With a good prompt, you can also tell something about their reasoning skills, personality and point of view, etc. At least at good schools, admissions takes a much broader view than just trying to accept the top x% according to some standardized criteria. Their job is to build a student body that will meet their school’s unique goals and provide the atmosphere they are aiming for.

          As a non-traditional student (I was homeschooled/unschooled my whole life), I’m very glad for essay questions on college applications. I didn’t have any past performance to speak of, so standardized tests and essays were pretty much the only thing admissions officers had to go on.

        • dndnrsn says:

          @PeterBorah:

          Acknowledged that stuff like that is probably helpful for homeschooled kids.

          However, I don’t know what you would learn about someone’s writing skills you couldn’t tell from looking over the marks of a kid who had been through the ordinary school system, from standardized testing, etc.

          I’m not sure I like the idea of students being judged on their personality and their point of view. At the school I went to, at one point at least, existing students played some role in “marking” applicant essays. This probably played a major role in making the place into an echo chamber.

          I also think the argument that top schools do it to meet “unique goals” and “provide the atmosphere they are aiming for” runs into the problem that this way of doing things was introduced to discriminate against Jews. Now it’s used to discriminate against various groups, primarily Asians, especially East Asians.

          I disapprove of admissions methods intended to keep out people who are academically worthy but are the wrong religion, colour, political affiliation, not legacy, poor, etc, especially when it’s done by stealth because at least if some kid is told “sorry, too many of your sort already” they’ll know that they’re dealing with bigotry instead of some failing on their part.

          Example:

          In 1938, Pembroke admissions dean Eva A. Mooar revised the form again to include “language spoken at home” and “race.” In a stack of index cards of notes that Mooar took during personal interviews in s “Can’t tell whether Jewish or not”; “Father has wavy hair, few front teeth and a marked accent. Says they speak German at home. Germans or Jews? Are blond, so probably the former”; “Color just off-white. Mother, white — deceased. Father black”; “Looks Italian,” and “Nice, ‘money’ people.

          If anything, I don’t think I was being cynical enough.

        • Brad says:

          There’s seems to be a huge disconnect between

          1)
          those that think that basically every high school senior in the country can be ranked by some objective metric of academic ability and every school ranked by some objective metric of academic quality and then each list should be used to figure out where everyone should go to college

          2)
          and those that think the problem is more complicated than that. That different schools have different goals, that sometimes those goals involve more than getting the “best students” (whatever that means), that students themselves have different goals, interests, preferences, strengths and weaknesses. That all that inherent messiness is okay.

          I’m in the latter camp. I don’t think there’s anything wrong whatsoever with a college, especially a private college, deciding that it doesn’t want an entire class made up of the members of the applicant pool with the highest SAT scores (or SAT score + some metric involving class rank and school difficulty).

          There’s a certain “good student” mentality where people internalize the artificial grading system of k-12. You can see it also in dating where some think that they deserve to have a particular other person love them because they have X or Y positive qualities. Same thing with a particular job. That’s not how life works.

          • stucchio says:

            Regarding (1), I claim that if you have a consistent and objective decision process, then (1) is true. Consistency means “if X is better than Y and Y is better than Z, then X is better than Z.” In fact, I have a mathematical proof of this statement:

            https://www.chrisstucchio.com/blog/2014/topology_of_decisionmaking.html

          • Brad says:

            You are assuming an atomized decision making process. Take drafting a football team for example, picking the best available players in each round may well land you with no linebackers. That wouldn’t be a very good team, would it?

          • stucchio says:

            If that’s the case, then X would be the entire team composition rather than an individual player. Either way, if your decision process isn’t totally broken, it is equivalent to maximizing some objective function.

        • dndnrsn says:

          @Brad:

          Obviously, looking at kids’ test scores and previous marks isn’t perfect. But it’s a bulwark against discrimination. The solution to “this measurement is not objective enough” is not to bring in less objective measurements.

          If an institution wants to come out and say that, for example, they’re going to make it harder for Asians to get in because they don’t want too many of them around, well, I think that’s repulsive. I think it’s not only repulsive but insidious to hide that behind some fluff about “community involvement” or whatever, because it both denies to students who are rejected the actual reason as to why, and prevents the general public from knowing that the administration are bigots, and acting accordingly.

          Private institutions should have fewer restrictions on their behaviour than public, but how many truly private institutions (that get no government money at all) are there? Plus, there are countries where most/all universities, or at least top universities, are public. My point about insidious discrimination being worse (of course, assuming that the actual discrimination is the same – getting beaten to death is worse than not getting into university, obviously) still stands.

          • Brad says:

            The solution to “this measurement is not objective enough” is not to bring in less objective measurements.

            There is no objective measure and there doesn’t need to be any objective measure. It isn’t a contest and there aren’t winners and losers. It’s a matching problem, like dating and jobs.

            That’s the major disconnect. You are trying to substitute your own values about why these institutions exist and what they should strive to be for their own preexisting values. Which is fine as far as it goes I guess. But don’t pretend that’s not what you are trying to do, that your preferences are somehow natural and neutral, and that any deviation therefore is insidious.

          • dndnrsn says:

            So, are you saying that “keep out Jews” is as legitimate a way for a university to decide who to let in as “look at their marks”?

            And, when it’s getting into the best universities – the ones with the best education, the ones where you make the best social connections, the ones that look the best on your resume – there absolutely are winners and losers.

            I do, in fact, think that upholding wealthy WASP social supremacy in the early to mid 20th century was a shitty set of values. I will acknowledge my priors, such as thinking that it’s shitty to discriminate against individuals for their ethnic group. I would at least ask that universities do the same, so that when somebody doesn’t get into their top choice, it’s damn clear it’s because they just didn’t have the right shape of eyes or texture of hair. I want the Dean to come out and admit, yeah, the university discriminates based on ethnicity. Instead of some vague bullshit about how someone “isn’t right for the community”.

          • Brad says:

            You seem to want to insist that any other metric than your preferred one must be a pretexual excuse to racially discriminate.

            Is that because you are unable to conceive of values other than your own and racial bigotry? If you are feeling uncharitable forget fomenting an intellectually exciting atmosphere, how about maximizing future donations?

          • dndnrsn says:

            I am not saying they are not the only thing. I personally have benefited from admissions standards intended to liven up the place. During my undergrad, I was far better at being socially involved (read, “drunk”) than at schoolwork. Joke was on the grad college I got into – upped my marks and was not that present socially. Suckers!

            I don’t think, however, that it is uncharitable to point out that anti-Semitic bigotry played a huge part in bringing these admissions standards to the Ivies, or that they currently play a role in penalizing Asian applicants.

          • suntzuanime says:

            I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call valuing a particular culture and not wanting to let in people who seem likely to damage or change that culture “bigotry”.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @suntzuanime:

            If that’s what they’re going to do, then they should at least say that openly. Given that the culture at the Ivies and other top universities tends to be one where racial discrimination is abhorred, in word if not necessarily in deed, it is incredibly disingenuous that they discriminate against Asians.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Didn’t they openly say that? You dismissed it as fluff about “community involvement” or whatever but most colleges are pretty clear that they’re trying to shape a community and that’s why they look beyond test scores.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I meant, if that community includes locking out unassimilated immigrants, they should openly say that. They don’t feel comfortable openly saying “we don’t want people who can’t speak English well”, let’s say, so they throw up a smokescreen (as was the case with Jews) or have vague criteria that end up being used partially as a cover for discrimination (as is the case with Asians). In the case of Jews, the discrimination was the point of the policy; in the case of Asians, the discrimination is an effect of the policy (additionally, AA and other positive discrimination policies to boost the numbers of under-represented groups have to result in fewer students from other groups, and that hurts Asians too).

            “We want community involvement” or “we want people who will fit into our institutional culture” could mean anything. It means, in this case, that people who pride themselves on their anti-racist bona fides can commit racist acts and feel clean.

          • Brad says:

            Again, your baseline for discriminatory impact is assuming that your preferred metric is natural and neutral and any deviation is discrimination.

            Unless the claim is that Asian-Americans are underrepresented with respect to their overall population?

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Obviously, looking at kids’ test scores and previous marks isn’t perfect. But it’s a bulwark against discrimination.

            Looking only at test scores discriminates against pupils who went to poorer schools, who tend not to receive as good exam prep as pupils in better institutions and hence generally do worse in exams than they would have done with better teaching.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Brad:

            I will acknowledge there are other metrics, which as I said I have benefited from myself. But I think that if you’re running an academic institution, intellectual aptitude and past academic performance seem like fairly obvious metrics to start with.

            Asians are not underrepresented. They’re overrepresented, to the point that people worry about a given school being “too Asian”, and find some way to address that, in the same way was done to Jews back in the day. They are overrepresented because, by metrics that primarily measure academic testing and past academic performance, they do considerably better than the average, at least in some subjects. Being Asian means, essentially, that your SAT score will be counted as lower than it would for others.

            @The original Mr. X:

            The effects of exam prep are disputed. The effects of their worse educations hurt them across the board: if you take two students of equivalent intelligence, one who went to a bad high school and one to a good, the student who went to the good high school will have better marks, better standardized testing, and better ability to deal with university. The solution to this is to deal with the difference in quality of the elementary and high schools they went to, not try to compensate when much of the damage has already been done.

          • stucchio says:

            >You seem to want to insist that any other metric than your preferred one must be a pretexual excuse to racially discriminate.

            Back to the original topic, I claim that the main reason liberal types dislike algorithmic decisionmaking is because it forces these choices to be explicit rather than hidden in a “holistic” human process. You can’t hide behind vague platitudes like “different schools have different goals” – you need to actually explicitly write your goals down in the form of an objective function.

            Out of curiosity, what do you think the goal of university admissions is? And why do you think universities tend to totally revamp their admissions process whenever laws/court decisions tell them they are not allowed to discriminate in a specific manner? (E.g., after U-Mich was told it can’t use an explicitly racist point system, they immediately switched to “holistic” admissions.)

          • Brad says:

            Out of curiosity, what do you think the goal of university admissions is?

            Are you even reading what you are quoting? It’s right there in black and white “different schools have different goals”. How could I possibility tell you what the goal of university admissions is given that?

          • Aapje says:

            @Brad

            Does that mean that any goal is as valid as another; or do you think that colleges have certain obligations to society?

          • Robert Liguori says:

            Brad, a hundred years ago or so, every serious school had the admissions criteria “Admit students who we think will do well, but not too many of the races we don’t like.”

            Is this a good, respectable set of admissions criteria?

            A strict majority of colleges practice significant racial discrimination in admitting students. To the extent that structural racism describes things usefully in the world at all, it’s there in college admissions. Is this a bad thing now like it was about a hundred years ago?

          • Brad says:

            @Aapje
            Depending on exactly how they are incorporated and what government programs they participate in, I do think there are some obligations to society. But the parameters are very broad. I don’t have any problem, for example, with a college that sees as a core part of its mission turning out graduates who are and will stay good Christians.

            @Robert Liguori
            Your post is frustrating to me because dndnrsn made the exact same points, I responded to them, and your post gives no indication that you read or considered those responses.

            That’s the bad kind of dogpiling.

          • Jiro says:

            Asians are not underrepresented. They’re overrepresented, to the point that people worry about a given school being “too Asian”, and find some way to address that, in the same way was done to Jews back in the day. They are overrepresented because, by metrics that primarily measure academic testing and past academic performance, they do considerably better than the average, at least in some subjects.

            “Overrepresented” means “overrepresented with respect to applicants of similar qualifications and other races”, not “overrepresented with respect to the general public”. By this measure, Asians are underrepresented.

          • Robert Liguori says:

            With respect, Brad, you replied to his posts, and didn’t respond to his (and my) points.

            What are some of the values you are imputing for Ivy League colleges, if not to get the best, most likely-to-succeed students and give them a great education? You keep saying that colleges have different values, but seem to be very coy about admitting that some of those values were and are extremely racist.

            Which goes back to the root of this discussion; people need cheaty holistic criteria when it comes to distinguishing between people, because looking at objective metrics like “What kind of people score highest on standardized tests which correlate well with academic and life success?” means offering opportunities to too many unfavored minorities, and too few favored minorities.

            Colleges should not be racist. Colleges with racist values in admissions should not be respected for their decision to be racist, and should not be supported with public funds. Colleges which embrace values which require racism should have this pointed out, and condemned, because racism is bad.

            Is anything here controversial? Are you really arguing that colleges should be racist? I mean, I feel like the points you have brought up are aggressively tangential to my own, so I can’t really tell what argument you actually are advancing here.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Jiro:

            Brad specified underrepresented relative to the general population.

            @Brad:

            Christian schools do this. But they come out and say it openly. To my knowledge, there are no Christian colleges who pass themselves off as being open to other religions, Christians of other denominations, atheists, etc, then ask people what their religion is on the application, and decide “holistically”.

            If private institutions want to practice discrimination, they should make it clear what they are doing – they should come out and say, to give an example, that they don’t want more than 20% Asians, or first generation immigrants, or people who can’t pass a spoken English test, or whatever, on the campus, and explain why. This way, people can decide whether or not to apply to a given university, frequent a given business establishment, can decide whether or not they want to protest outside, they can decide whether or not they want to write letters to their legislative representative saying “do not give University X research money!” (and public money should have strings attached, a “private” institution dependent on private money isn’t really a private institution). And kids who get turned away will know why, instead of wondering if their marks or extracurriculars just weren’t good enough.

            Under a century ago, many people would have approved of a university saying they wanted to keep the number of Jews down. Nowadays, a university saying they want to keep the number of Asians down would probably catch a huge amount of flak. I think this is a positive social change. I think discriminating against individuals based on group membership when they can be considered as individuals is wrong. Not everybody agrees with me, of course.

            Vague, catchall, “holistic means whatever we decide” admissions criteria enable the people making decisions to hide prejudice and discrimination from the public and even from themselves – the admissions dean who pats themself on the back for their commitment to fighting prejudice and discrimination, and then acts in a prejudiced and discriminatory fashion, should not be allowed to lie to others or themselves in such a fashion.

          • Brad says:

            @Robert Liguori
            Your evidence for contemporary racism rests inextricably on question begging. You assume that SATs and a GPA metric are the natural and neutral baseline. From this baseline, which you just assumed, you measure discrimination. That’s bad reasoning.

            What are some of the values you are imputing for Ivy League colleges, if not to get the best, most likely-to-succeed students and give them a great education?

            What does best even mean? Best at what? Most likely to succeed at what, and measured how?

            Again this pervasive question begging seems like the result of internalizing a k-12 mentality that everything is nice and neat and can be represented by a GPA. That all you need to do to be a good student and (implicitly) a valuable person is make sure you do well on tests. That’s not how the world works, it’s not how the world should work, and it isn’t how colleges should work.

            Suppose Harvard admitted all and only the students with highest SATs and more than 50% of them wanted to study Computer Science and Biology. Should that tail be allowed to wag the entire university? Ought they layoff all their English professors because the admitted class doesn’t have anyone that wants to major in English? Or rather should they take into account the fact that they have all these great English professors and admit some students that want to study under them?

            Similarly, suppose Princeton looks at its alumni pool and finds that graduates of the school that ended up marrying people they met at Princeton stay significantly more involved with the school. They donate more, they are more likely to act as mentors to undergraduates, and so on. Further, suppose they have data that shows that colleges with gender ratios more skewed than 55/45 are far less likely to produce marriages. What’s wrong with them taking gender into account when building out their class?

            Finally, suppose the Brown administration spoke to many alumni and discovered that many of them said that the most valuable part of the Brown experience was living and learning with people from many different background. That while so many of their high schools were quite homogeneous, Brown was a place where people from various economic, geographic, social, religious, intellectual, and yes ethnic backgrounds were all thrown together. What’s wrong exactly with Brown deciding that they want to take this thing that people get so much value out of and keep on doing it?

            As I said above, it isn’t a contest, there aren’t winners and losers, and it isn’t about your worth as a human being. It’s a matching problem. Life isn’t an RPG where you can find out whether or not you are going to kill the monster by looking at THAC0.

            @dndnrsn
            You are repeating yourself. Again, you need to look at your premises. You seem unwilling to consider that any deviation from your preferred criteria could be honest disagreement over values — it has to be rank racism. And you insist on reifying those preferred criteria as the baseline from which any deviation requires public justification.

          • Anon. says:

            As EvolutionistX put it, “People discuss Affirmative Action as though universities had some sort of obligation to–or interest in–providing education for the good of the general populace.”

            They don’t.

          • Robert Liguori says:

            Brad, are you arguing the converse, that GPAs and SATs don’t correspond to intelligence and aren’t correlated with college and life success, as defined by, oh off the top of my head as a crude metric, getting a middle-to-upper-middle-class salary and being able to contribute back to your alma mater?

            Because if you’re arguing that a set of carefully-vetted-and-scrutinized questions graded multiple-choice by machines are racially biased, and that the results of that test correlate with life success, you’re essentially saying that reality itself is racist.

            If you’d like to argue against the correlation between SAT scores and life success, I cheerfully invite you to do so; I actually haven’t checked the strength of the correlation in a few years myself, so I’d welcome new data on it.

            And again, private institutes can discriminate however they like, for any number of perfectly legitimate causes. But we should be massively distrustful of any public institute which uses holistic, unaccountable measures which end up drastically out of line with observed reality.

            Again, I think that we’d get great gains just by getting the institutes to say “Yup, we’re discriminating against these students in these protected classes by this percentage because there are other students in these other protected classes we want more.” If a college wants to maintain a specific gender or racial balance, it should have the right to so, and we should have the right to know that they’re now discriminating on protected classes, and not give that institute public money.

          • Brad says:

            Brad, are you arguing the converse, that GPAs and SATs don’t correspond to intelligence and aren’t correlated with college and life success, as defined by, oh off the top of my head as a crude metric, getting a middle-to-upper-middle-class salary and being able to contribute back to your alma mater?

            What about propensity to donate back to your alma mater, isn’t that important to? Do you have any data whatsoever that correlates SATs or high school GPA and donations to alma maters?

            Also, are you now saying that maximizing donations is the one and only proper goal of a university?

            You want to talk about vague, what’s concrete about “correlating to life success”. Not to mention a definition of life success that is so bourgeoisie it is almost a parody of itself.

            You seem completely unwilling to engage with the fact that your values are not universal. There is nothing at all obvious or natural about the idea that schools should want to admit those from the applicant pool with the highest scores that maybe correlate to some extremely narrow definition of “life success”.

            Your entire argument boils down to massive is-ought confusion. Just because you strongly believe in the correctness of your tastes doesn’t transmogrify them into facts of the matter.

            But we should be massively distrustful of any public institute which uses holistic, unaccountable measures which end up drastically out of line with observed reality.

            Observed reality of what? You are begging the question.

            Yup, we’re discriminating against these students in these protected classes by this percentage because there are other students in these other protected classes we want more.”

            This is just your very stubborn assumption of what’s going on. You’ve provided no evidence except deviation from your preferred metrics (which you’ve failed to justify).

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Brad:

            Evidently you’re not reading what I’ve written. I’ve said 2 or 3 times now that I recognize that there are other criteria than “marks” or “racism” because I’ve benefited from those other criteria. It’s a bit rich that you’re the one dressing me down for being uncharitable because you are straight up ignoring what I’ve written.

            My position, which I have again expressed probably twice here, is that if academic, educational institutions want to use criteria other than academic testing and educational achievement they should bloody well say what they are, so that people know what the game is.

          • Brad says:

            @dndnrsn

            My position, which I have again expressed probably twice here, is that if academic, educational institutions want to use criteria other than academic testing and educational achievement they should bloody well say what they are, so that people know what the game is.

            And my position which I’ve written up at least two or three times is that your position is privileging something as a default that has no business being privileged.

            Schools should be somewhat transparent about their values, and as far as I can tell they are. That you don’t find it detailed enough because it can’t be reduced to code is your problem, not theirs.

            If a particular school wants to only use SATs and UGPA and tell the world that they do so, they should feel free to do so. Then you and those like you can apply to, donate to, or vote to support only those schools that comport with what you think is important. The rest of us can do likewise for schools whose values comport with our own.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Brad:

            I think that academic testing and educational achievement is a pretty reasonable Schelling point for admissions into academic, educational institutions.

            Further, I don’t think most schools are very transparent. How many schools say that they put a thumb on the scale to keep the number of Asian students down? How many schools explain how they choose who doesn’t get in to make space for AA admissions?

            I got into a graduate college based on heavy undergraduate student community involvement (which was explicitly mentioned as something they were looking for), legacy status (I don’t think explicitly mentioned but it was as close to an open secret as something can be), and possibly sex (there is speculation that they keep the male-female ratio close to 50-50, which means essentially AA for men, and they probably do this to keep the community harmonious – I did undergrad at a place that was/is about 2/3 women, and things were very acrimonious and still are – and also to make sure there’s lots of legacy babies). I definitely would not have gotten in on marks alone, because I was an unhappy screwup for most of undergrad. It was good for me, and the place was probably better than it would have been if they just took the top however many people based on undergraduate GPA.

            None of these are illegitimate. There are good reasons to support student community stuff. Ensuring legacy situations is very good for the place, and ensures the lights are kept on, because donations. Likewise, I think that relations between men and women were so much better than at my undergrad institution that, legacy babies aside, it was worth it: at the place I did my undergrad, women resented men for their disproportionate representation in (democratically-elected) student positions, and men resented women because a lot of them didn’t feel women really belonged in dorms that had once been men-only, clubs that had once been men-only, a dining hall that had once been men-only, etc.

            However, one was an official policy that was acknowledged, one was a policy that was all but acknowledged, and one was something that might not even have actually been a factor, but a lot of people thought it was.

            I just want the college to say what it is doing and why. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. If a private institution wants to say “right handers only” for whatever reason, I mean, their roof, their rules … but they should come out and say it, instead of just telling left-handed kids “sorry, you aren’t quite right for our community, but I’m sure there are plenty of places that would be glad to have you”, coupled perhaps with whispers about how that place doesn’t let people in who are too … sinister, if ya know what I mean.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            How many schools say that they put a thumb on the scale to keep the number of Asian students down?

            That seems to be to referring to complimentary sets of facts in a deliberately uncharitable way.

            Given a matriculation pool of a fixed number of students, attempting to raise the admission rate of one set/cohort of students necessarily lowers the admission rate of others. Unless you think they want to lower Asians to as low a participation rate as possible, that their end goal is motivated not by some other goal, but animus towards Asians, your framing seems incorrect.

          • Brad says:

            dndnrsn
            Not sure if we are convincing each other or what, but I agree with much of what you wrote in this last post other than the first two paragraphs.

            The disagreement with the first paragraph should be obvious. As for your second paragraph, I continue to be puzzled as to why you are so completely confident that Asians are being discriminated against on the basis of racial animus. Given that you acknowledge that other considerations exist and can at least in principle be valid, I don’t see why you keep coming back to this idea that they are just a smokescreen for keeping Asians out.

            In terms of specificity, I certainly think colleges could and should be more open about their desire for gender equality and legacy enrollment (assuming they desire them). But I don’t think they need to be made into mechanically apply-able standards.

            My sense is that if you go read the recruitment websites they do disclose that they are looking for more than just good grades and good SAT scores. Here’s some copy from Princeton’s website:

            Princeton’s admission process goes beyond simply looking for academically accomplished students. For each freshman class, we bring together a varied mix of high-achieving, intellectually gifted students from diverse backgrounds to create an exceptional learning community. We care about what students have accomplished in and out of the classroom. The process is highly selective. In recent years, we’ve offered admission to less than 10 percent of applicants.

            As you prepare your application, help us to appreciate your talents, academic accomplishments and personal achievements. We’ll ask for your transcript and recommendations, and we will want to know more than just the statistics in your file. Tell us your story. Show us what’s special about you. Tell us how you would seize the academic and non-academic opportunities at Princeton and contribute to the Princeton community. Above all, please write in a style that reflects your own voice.

            I could agree with putting in something about legacies, athletes, development cases, and gender balance.

            Beyond that, what more do you want them to say (other than that they have a ceiling for Asian applicants, unless you can prove they do)?

          • Robert Liguori says:

            Huh. I wasn’t aware that there was serious doubt about Ivy League colleges discriminating against Asian applicants these days.

            There are many complaints; here’s an article about a relatively recent one.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Brad:

            I don’t think it’s pure “racial animus” that keeps Asians out. They don’t hate Asians. It’s a fear that too many of them will get in, the place will be a monoculture, etc. I went to a school for undergrad where periodically people would express fears that it was “too Asian” – the idea being that there were all these foreign/first generation/unassimilated second generation immigrant students who didn’t speak English well, didn’t participate in campus life other than clubs focused on interests particular to Asians or clubs focusing on individual Asian nationalities, were only interested in a handful of subjects, etc.

            First, this ends up unfairly discriminating against Asian kids who would contribute to campus life outside of the Korean Students’ Association or whatever. I met plenty of assimilated Asian kids who, contrary to the general concept of “they’re different from us and they don’t understand or like us and we don’t understand or like them”, were “us”. Those people shouldn’t be shut out because of their last names. Plus, this was a public school, and some of the people who would just sit in their rooms and study were still citizens, and should not be discriminated against by an institution of their own country.

            Second, if foreign students who don’t speak English well, or immigrants who aren’t assimilated, are going to be discriminated against, or they’re going to cap the number of science and engineering students, or whatever, I think that should be said openly. Otherwise you end up with Asian kids thinking the problem is with them, wasting their time and money on applications where they won’t get in, etc. I don’t think that’s particularly fair or kind.

            Plus, the fact that holistic standards were brought in specifically to discriminate against Jews does make me suspicious of holistic standards.

            As for the Princeton stuff you quoted, my problem is with things like this:

            … a varied mix of high-achieving, intellectually gifted students from diverse backgrounds to create an exceptional learning community …

            This doesn’t really mean anything. Varied how? From what kind of diverse backgrounds? What’s an “exceptional learning community”? It’s so vague.

          • Aapje says:

            @dndnrsn

            I don’t think it’s pure “racial animus” that keeps Asians out. They don’t hate Asians.

            I don’t really see why it matters. Either you agree that born-traits are fair reason for discrimination or you don’t. If you don’t, then it is unfair, regardless of whether the cause is hate, love for the other, SJ ideology that pretends that these people actually have equal ability where they don’t, etc.

            I consider collectivist treatment of groups and valuing collective ‘fairness’ over individual fairness to be unethical in itself; as being inherently unfair and also incredible dangerous, as the worst crimes of humanity have been due to collectivist ideologies.

            This doesn’t really mean anything. Varied how? From what kind of diverse backgrounds? What’s an “exceptional learning community”? It’s so vague.

            Interestingly, as the heterodox academy fairly convincingly argues, colleges have become hugely less diverse in the last decade.

            This happened at the same time that ‘diversity’ became very important, although my observation is that many advocates of that ideal define diversity in a very non diverse way (basically, they want people who all share the same belief, just with a range of skin colors and genders).

          • dndnrsn says:

            @Aapje:

            Isn’t discrimination defined as unfair, based on group membership rather than individual merit? Of course, there are times when group membership is relevant – if I’m hiring someone to be the student coordinator for the campus LGBT centre, I’m probably going to give more consideration to LGBT people. It’s group membership, but it’s relevant to the job.

            Personally, I take the view that the smallest unit in a given situation possible should be considered, down to the individual. Sometimes you can’t do that – there’s no time, the information is not available, and so you accept the ride from the woman instead of the man on the basis that women get into accidents less. But when you can you should.

            And, yeah, my college experience was that diversity of income and diversity of opinion were quite rare. Lots of affluent kids with opinions ranging from mainstream left to far left (but not so far left as to deny themselves anything). A few lower-middle class kids. Very few actually poor kids. A handful of right-wingers, but they tended to make noise out of proportion to their numbers, probably as a reaction to the environment around them. Lots of people shouting about being silenced when in fact they were the ones shutting other people down.

          • Aapje says:

            @dndnrsn

            Isn’t discrimination defined as unfair, based on group membership rather than individual merit?

            That depends on whom you talk to. The regressive left certainly doesn’t use such an objective definition and instead defines it as an exclusive property of certain groups. Very often, they call it discrimination when merit based treatment has unequal outcomes for different groups (only when the unequal outcomes happen to the groups that are consider oppressed, of course).

            And in many colleges, they are in control.

            Of course, there are times when group membership is relevant – if I’m hiring someone to be the student coordinator for the campus LGBT centre, I’m probably going to give more consideration to LGBT people. It’s group membership, but it’s relevant to the job.

            I would disagree there. A person who is not LGBT but has personal reasons (like a LGBT family member) can be