28 April 2018

An Argument for Embracing False Positives In Government Policy

In analysis, you have two kinds of errors: false positives and false negatives. [This blog post was inspired by Phil Rosenzweig's piece for Edge.org.]

You will make errors. You'd like to think that you put only guilty people in prison or only buy stocks that will steadily increase your wealth but .... the fact is that we're bad at understanding the past much less predicting the future.

So, given that you will make errors, it is important to ask in which direction you'd rather err. Would you rather put 10 people in prison who deserve to go free or put 10 people on the streets who deserve prison? Would you rather frequently pass on buying a stock that doubles in value again and again or frequently buy stocks whose value collapses? When you adopt an approach to investing, criminal trials or developing policy, in which direction would you rather err?

Rosenzweig points out that the type of error we would prefer depends on the context. When it comes to science, we want to avoid a false positive. The data has to be very clear for a majority of scientists to say, "We have a new theory." You don't rewrite textbooks to accommodate one study. The same thing in a trial. We need to be very certain that a person is guilty before we put them in prison for a decade.

By contrast, in business you may be more accepting of a false positive. "We think this new market has great promise," your marketing team says. An engineer on your team tells you that he thinks he can solve the design problem that has been creating big warranty costs for the company. Even if the likelihood of them being right is low, it could be perfectly rational to invest in that new market or technology. If you lose one million dollars in bad investments 9 times during the year but on the 10th time you crack open a billion dollar market, your company wins. If you wait for proof that the market is profitable ... well, it will be your competition who provides that proof, not you. The data that proves it is a good investment comes too late to inform your decision about whether or not to invest.

You don't want 9 good guys in prison in order to make sure that you keep one bad guy off the streets; you do want to lose $10,000 in 9 bad investments if it means that you make $1,000,000,000 in 1 good investment. Sometimes you want to avoid false positive sand sometimes you want to avoid false negatives.

So where does government policy fall? Do we prefer false positives or false negatives?

Dee Hock was the founding CEO of VISA, the man who dreamed up the modern credit card. He said that every policy has intended effects and unintended effects; you always get the unintended effects. Whatever you try in government policy has a very good chance of leading to some behavior you hoped to avoid. If you make heroin illegal, you drive up its price which can drive up the crime rate as users steal to pay for it. If you force companies to file more paperwork and conduct more studies before allowing them to go public, your community ends up with fewer startups. Even knowing this you may decide it is better to make heroin illegal or save investors from scams masquerading as legitimate startups, but you should anticipate such consequences from policies. Expecting to get policy right on the first attempt is like thinking you can write code without debugging. I think that argues for embracing policy as something more like investments than criminal trials; we want to try 9 things that fail in order to try the one thing that will make our communities better.

Progress does not mean getting rid of problems. Progress means solving better problems. In one century parents face the problem of getting their kids enough to eat to stay alive. In the next century parents face the problem of getting their kids to eat healthy. They are both problems but the second is so very, very much better than the first. Good policy isn't necessarily predictable and it certainly isn't flawless; it can, though, bring us to the point of dealing with a better set of problems. If you don't try new things your problems never get better.

One other reason to treat policy as a place where it is better to have false positives is that, ultimately, our standard of living is a product of our knowledge. In David Deutsch's fascinating book The Beginning of Infinity, he makes the argument that it simply isn't true that the earth is - alone among the places we know in this universe - the one place that is safe for us to inhabit. Or, rather, he points out that the claim is not that simple. As it turns out, most of us live in places where we'd die without knowledge of how to make and wear clothes, shelter, heating or air conditioning. We don't actually live on a particularly friendly planet, he points out, so much as we now have knowledge that allows us to live in hostile places like Fairbanks, Alaska or Phoenix, Arizona. With even more knowledge we can figure out how to live in even more hostile places like the moon or Mars. Where we can live or even how well we live is a product of knowledge. We know how to combat infection now, so our lives are longer. We know how to provide potable - that is, safe to drink - water straight out of a tap to anyone in the country; that simple knowledge may have done more to extend life expectancy than all the very cool drugs discovered in the last century.

One big reason to try things that may not work is that we will create more knowledge. Curiously, the very fact that policies have unintended effects is one more reason to try new things: every test or trial has the potential to reveal new knowledge. Again, it is the accumulation of knowledge that will make our lives better. Experiences that result in new knowledge can fuel progress.

One last thing. Our condition has changed in recent centuries in ways that suggests that we should more actively make mistakes. If all you have is $1,000, you should probably invest that $1,000 cautiously; if you have $10,000,000, you should take some risks with $1,000 increments. When a bad move is likely to result in starvation, it's a pretty good idea to avoid false positives, to insist on certainty and err towards clinging to traditions. You can't blame people from 1500 for wanting certainty. But as we gain prosperity and margin for error ... well, errors are easier to make. Our condition is better than it was centuries ago; that should make us more bold in trying new things.

A huge percentage of scientific research does not result in anything cool or useful. A majority of business startups fail. Yet a prosperous community that is making progress will have lots of both kinds of activity going on, innovation and entrepreneurship that is more likely to fail than succeed. Government policy should be treated more like these domains than the courtroom where we look for overwhelming proof before moving forward. When it comes to progress, it is less about looking at existing evidence than it is about creating new evidence, less about what we have proven than what we might prove.

26 April 2018

Macron May Have Just Emerged as the New Leader of the West

Given that Trump has retreated into fear and nationalism, Macron may emerge as the new leader of the West.

In April of 2016, Macron founded his En Marche party.

In April of 2017, Macron won the election that put him against Marine Le Pen in the May runoff election to become president of France.
In April of 2018, Macron addressed US Congress in the most articulate defense of post-WWII West since Trump was sworn in.

The guy just hit 40 in December.

To appreciate what a surprising character he is, consider this:
The American Macron is 37 and still 18 months away from starting her new political party before winning the 2020 presidential election.

Macron spent a fair bit of the speech articulating his beliefs which should have made most audiences say, "Yeah, well obviously" just 5 years ago but today smack of controversy because of what Trump has forced on us. Here are a couple of passages that deserve consideration.

I believe in democracy....To protect our democracies, we have to fight against the ever-growing virus of fake news, which exposes our people to irrational fear and imaginary risks. ...Without reason, without truth, there is no real democracy -- because democracy is about true choices and rational decisions. The corruption of information is an attempt to corrode the very spirit of our democracies.

I believe in concrete action. I believe the solutions are in our hands.I believe in the liberation of the individual, and in the freedom and responsibility of everyone to build their own lives and pursue happiness.
I believe in the power of intelligently-regulated market economies. We are experiencing the positive impact of our current economic globalization, with innovation, with job creation. We see, however, the abuses of globalized capitalism, and digital disruptions, which jeopardize the stability of our economies and democracies.I believe facing these challenges requires the opposite of massive deregulation and extreme nationalism.Commercial [Trade] war is not the proper answer to these evolutions. We need free and fair trade, for sure. A commercial war opposing allies is not consistent with our mission, with our history, with our current commitments to global security. At the end of the day, it would destroy jobs, increase prices, and the middle class will have to pay for it.I believe we can build the right answers to legitimate concerns regarding trade imbalances, excesses and overcapacities, by negotiating through the World Trade Organization and building cooperative solutions.We wrote these rules; we should follow them....
I believe in building a better future for our children, which requires offering them a planet that is still habitable in 25 years.

The full transcript is here:


Clinton, Dubya, and Trump were all born within months of each other. It seems that we're past the expiration date on that "boomers as leader" model and I'm getting excited about the prospect of turning things over to the younger generation.

Vive la France!

22 April 2018

You'll Always Be an Idiot at Most Things

Jeff Bezos is the world's richest guy, worth $112 billion at age 54.

In his annual letter as CEO of Amazon, he shared some advice about high standards that struck me as valuable. 

It is worth reading in it's entirety here:

One of the questions he asks is 

whether high standards are universal or domain specific. In other words, if you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere? I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest.  

Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It’s critical to be open to that likelihood.

I would go further and word it a little differently. You will always be awful at most things. 

Let's say that you are an eloquent, wonderful speaker. It would be widely impressive if you were a great speaker in two or three languages (most people do well to pull off eloquence in one) but regardless, you will be an absolutely hopeless speaker in the vast majority of the world's languages. You're limited even within your own domain of speaking.

And let's say that you're wonderful at toplologic phases of matter within math theory. Generally speaking, the closer you are to world's best the more specific is your knowledge. If you're an expert in one math domain you are likely only okay at other math theories or speed of computation, say. And of course you will eventually hit academic areas (medieval history, epigenetics, etc.) in which your knowledge and mastery are woefully short of the standards we'd expect of someone earning a bachelor's degree in that subject.

Even baseball players are rarely great hitters and great pitchers; such people come along about once per generation. The Angels have such a player in Shohei Ohtani, an incredible player who has an ERA of 3.6 and batting average of .333. He's amazing, but this is something I know: no NBA or NHL playoff team wants his help right now. Ohtani is terrible at most sports. (Well, terrible by world-class standards. You'd likely still be happy to have him on your team - any team - at a family reunion picnic.)

We're awful at most things, okay at a few, and - if we're lucky - wonderful at one or two.

So what does this mean? First of all, as Bezos points out, be humble. Secondly, know your limitations or trust the guidance of someone who does, someone who can tell you what you're great at and can do for a career and what you might just want to do for fun, what to improve at and what to simply abandon. Third, realize that you will always need other people; they can do well things that you can't do at all. Fourth, be careful about believing that your success in one thing predicts anything about success in another. And that brings me to Trump.

Trump might be the most gifted media magnet of my lifetime. He grabs our attention and holds it. 40% of Americans love him and 60% hate him but everyone stares aghast. He drove up the ratings of the very media outlets he attacks, simultaneously working to undermine their credibility by hollering "fake news!" while driving up their ratings by causing us all to tune in to see what crazy things he's said and done and whether today he has moved closer or farther from criminal charges. He's a natural genius at media.

Sadly for us citizens, high standards are domain specific. Trump doesn't understand how dependent are modern markets on trade, immigration, and disruption. He dismisses science and experts as less credible than his gut or the TV pundits he finds most appealing. This natural genius at media is a natural idiot at policy.

Trump should be both an example and a warning for all of us. We all should aspire to be even 1% as good at something as Trump is at media. And if we should be lucky, talented, and obsessed enough to pull that off, we should immediately remember that no matter how good we are at that one thing, we are still an idiot at most things.

And this is kind of cool. It means no matter how good you are, you can admire someone else - billions of others - as better than you. Even if you are Shoehei Ohtani or LeBron James, you could literally be tutored on millions of topics by other people who have mastered things that you won't do, much less be bad at.

So go do your thing. Become great at it if you can. And then be humble about it because, you're an idiot at most things. As Deming said, "You can trust a man who knows his limitations." And your limitations are nearly limitless. 

17 April 2018

James Joyce, Schrodinger, Multiverses and Virtual Reality

In 1939, James Joyce of Dublin released Finnegan's Wake, a stream of consciousness novel that suggested that each mind was it's own little universe and a community was collection of these parallel universes briefly connected by shared events and then almost immediately fractured again into tiny, independent streams by the different narratives we give to these same events.
In 1952, Schrodinger was in Dublin and after warning his audience that what he was about to say sounded lunatic, he said that his equations suggested that there were a variety of histories that had all happened, which David Duetsch suggests in The Beginning of Infinity was the introduction of the idea of multiverses.
It sounds fanciful but quantum physics suggests that there are parallel universes. Each time there is a choice point - you call either Mary or Prudence for a date - what actually happens is that there are now two universes that branch off from that choice; in one we trace the ripple effect of Mary rejecting you and in the other we trace the ripple effect of Prudence saying, "Yes! I will marry you!" And of course each of those paths has its own set of infinite ripples.
Virtual reality might result in a world where Joyce's notion of personal consciousness as its own virtual world would be given a new dimension. You don't just imagine a different world; you experience it.
Perhaps in that world one person lifts his hand to swing a sword, another to caress a lover, another to pick an apple, and each move is nonetheless synchronized as the players are unwittingly all working the same factory line even while they think they're in their own world. In this particular multiverse, the person who best understands how to create the technology that simultaneously maximizes coordination and individual initiative is the person who has the most wealth and power .... but of course what she will do that wealth and power that makes her feel any more special than her many minions slaying dragons in their world while assembling parts in hers is hard to guess.