Monday, May 29, 2006

If you’re so smart, why do only politicians pay attention to you?

Politicians can’t live without economists. Every policy needs an economic rationale, and there are platoons of theoretical economists in think tanks and universities ready to opine at a moment’s notice. National well-being is measured in money, and economists are a convenient proxy for business.

Business people do fine without economists, thank you very much. Executives work hard to avoid the dismal science and its practitioners. Economists have directed some stellar business failures, like Long-Term Capital Management. LTCM’s board included two Nobel Prize winners in economics; it folded four years after its formation with losses of $4.6 billion.

Why is economic advice so essential in politics, but considered pointless in business?

First, politicians have learnt that wrapping themselves in science adds to their credibility. Conveniently, economists learned the same thing when they appropriated the mathematics of classical mechanics in the 19th Century. Economists and politicians happily conspire to stage a theater of scientific decision making about the economy.

Day-to-day business is, in fact, far more scientific than government policy making. The scientific method of trial and error works, since business moves rapidly enough to perform many parallel experiments. One can try ideas out in the market, and/or watch competitors doing it. When government makes law, the experiment takes longer to play out, and there are usually no controlled trials. Theoretical economists are needed to fake the experiments using their models.

Second, politics is about moral choices. Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, was a professor of moral philosophy, and his heirs have stayed close to their roots. Economics is a curious science; when its predictions are contradicted by how people behave in practice, economists usually declare that the people are wrong, not their theory. It a theory doesn’t describe how people behave, they assert that it determines how people should behave, were they truly rational.

Since politicians love making moral judgments, they find economists to be convivial bed-fellows.

Third, politicians of every stripe can always find an economist to agree with them. Economics attempts to describe complex systems using simplified models where the assumptions make a huge difference. One can always find a plausible justification for any choice of model and assumptions, since the space of possibilities are so large. That model and those assumptions can then provide “economic proof” for the whackiest of policies.

There is really only one reason for businesses to take the advice of economists seriously: when they have to deal with artifacts constructed by economists, or deal with the government. The more esoteric instruments in financial markets are constructed on the basis of neoclassical economic models. Government spectrum auctions are the two-fer: one theoretical economist designs the auction for the government, and then all his/her buddies work as consultants to the bidders to exploit any weaknesses and loopholes that their friend had missed.

Update 5/31/06: Today's has a story from Chris Knauter about bidding in the FCC's upcoming spectrum auction. It's mostly an interview with game theorist Darin Lee. Excerpt:
"Anyone bidding in the FCC auction, which will sell off more than 1,100 licenses, will need deep pockets--and the help of game theorists, who specialize in a branch of math that studies how different players act and react to each other in complex situations: If X makes a certain move, how are Y and Z likely to react?"

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The real tragedy of the spectrum commons

Advocates of licensed spectrum warn darkly that unlicensed spectrum suffers from the Tragedy of the Commons – that is, the over-exploitation of a shared resource because individuals get the benefit of anti-social over-consumption, while everyone suffers the cost.

The true tragedy of the spectrum commons arises from the collective action dilemma. When all benefit from the existence of a good, and every individual’s contribution to creating it is small, everyone will wait for someone else to do the work of production. Less of the good – unlicensed spectrum, in this case – will be produced than would be optimal.

Many companies (not to mention the citizenry at large) would benefit from generous unlicensed spectrum allocations. However, the impact that any single entity can have in making the case is relatively small. Further, since no-one would have exclusive access to this spectrum, any successful lobbying to get such spectrum would benefit the world at large, particularly those who sat on their hands and did nothing.

Licensed operation, in contrast, is the preserve of relatively few players. Any lobbying they do to increase the amount of flexible-use spectrum is to the advantage of a relative small group of spectrum owners.

One would predict that there would be much less unlicensed than licensed spectrum; and that unlicensed would lose out from licensed in a lobbying fight. Jim Snider provides this data in a paper making the case for unlicensed allocations in the TV bands:

  • There is more than six times as much spectrum allocated to flexible licensed use as to unlicensed below 3 GHz (683.5 MHz vs. 109.5 MHz)
  • Reallocations of spectrum since 2002 have been biased against unlicensed: licensed gained 489.5 MHz, and unlicensed lost 20 MHz.

A regulator like the FCC should therefore allocate more to unlicensed than the lobbying record might justify, to make up for the under-provision that’s inherent in such collective goods.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Free as in Kitten

The Free Software community has long argued that free/open source is “free as in speech, not free as in beer.”

The proponent, sorry, proponents, of proprietary software has, um, have tried to change the subject and talk about the Total Cost of Ownership.

A salutary lesson in countering a catchy slogan with boilerplate PR-speak only a marketdroid could love.

They should try this: Free Software is Free as in Kitten.

I owe this insight to Bruce Sterling. He writes in his 2005 design book, Shaping Things (Ch. 9, p. 71):
"A price as low as literally free can mean the economic equivalent of a free kitten -- I may get a free kitten, but then I have to deal with the consequences, with no exit strategy."
(I'm not the first to use this phrase. Google turned up one earlier example, in an August 2002 CNet opinion piece by Sun's Simon Phipps.)

Monday, May 22, 2006

Prayer and mirror neurons

Research into the impact of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery has found no discernible benefit (Benson & Dusek et al. 2006, reported in Science & Technology News).

This work looked at the effect on the ‘prayee’. While there were no benefits there, I think that there are likely to be demonstrable impacts on the ‘prayor’.

Prayer that asks for something good for someone else (intercession, metta) reminds me of mirror neurons. It seems that doing something, and watching someone doing something, both activate the same brain region; at some level we don’t distinguish between doing, thinking, and watching.

I suspect that intercessory prayer activates the “handing stuff over” center in the brain. The metaphors we use when talking about generous acts provide some support for this guess. For example: “Give her my best wishes,” “He extended his sympathy,” and “My heart went out to him.” One could test this by measuring the activation of mirror neurons in humans while praying, and comparing it with activation when giving something, or watching a gift.

Doing good makes us feel good, and if the mirror neuron hypothesis is sound, thinking about doing good is almost as good as doing it. This suggests that intercessory prayer should activate both mirror neurons for motor activity, and brain centers for emotional well-being.