Categories
Miscellany

Getting Asabiya into Chess

Ibn Khaldun famously observed that asabiya (social cohesion) explains the arc of history, and Peter Turchin has done a marvelous job of showing how modern statistical analysis supports this view. Peoples caught at the focal points of conflict develop strong social bonds that eventually propel them to dominance, but dominance and the associated lack of threats erodes cohesion, and over time these groups are replaced by new groups forged in the cauldron of conflict.

The game of chess does a great job of modeling conflict. No other game captures the way circumstance (the juxtaposition of pieces on the board) can create positions of great power and then wipe them away in the blink of an eye.

But while individual chess players learn over time from playing the game, improving as their strategies are tested under conflict, the rules of the game themselves do not take asabiya into account.

One small tweak that would take the game in the right direction would be to upgrade pieces based on the amount of pressure to which they are subject from other pieces on the board. In particular, I would suggest that any piece that could be taken by any one of more than three other opposing pieces on the following move be automatically upgraded one level in value.

So, for example, if white’s pawn could be captured on the next move by black’s bishop, rook, pawn, and queen, then white’s pawn could be replaced with a knight or bishop (the two pieces traditionally considered to be immediately higher in value relative to pawns). If the piece subject to attack from those four pieces is a bishop, then white could substitute a rook for the bishop, because the rook is the next level up in power relative to the bishop, and so on.

The idea behind this substitution rule would be to model the way subjecting a particular group to pressure and conflict–placing it at the center of battle–makes the group stronger. The rule might also help solve the problem of boredom in modern chess, by discouraging the buildup of pressure on particular pieces and encouraging capturing and sacrifices for positional advantage, a la the 19th century era of romantic chess.

There are admittedly some shortcoming to this rule as a step toward modeling asabiya. For one thing, the rule doesn’t really strengthen cohesion between the pieces, unless you think of more powerful pieces as being better able to coordinate with others because more powerful pieces have more freedom of movement under chess rules. The rule seems more to model increases in individual strength. But the rule does do a good job of modeling the power-increasing character of nexuses of conflict.

Perhaps a better rule from the standpoint of modeling asabiya would be to allow any piece subject to attacks from four or more adversaries to swap positions with any laterally or diagonally adjacent piece, as a reflection of the way people in proximity to each other work together to repel threats. But that is too complex to be a good rule for chess.

Categories
Miscellany Regulation

The Streets Should Be Free. Let’s Decongest While Keeping Them That Way.

In her column on congestion pricing, Emily Badger exhibits the unquestioning acceptance of the legitimacy of the price system that lamentably characterizes so much work by progressives today. She argues that because driving has a cost, drivers should be asked to pay that cost through congestion pricing, and she suggests that our current system, in which driving in the city is free, was the uneconomic product of lobbying by the car industry. Hence the title of her column: The Streets Were Never Free. Congestion Pricing Finally Makes That Plain.

In fact, the elimination of bridge and road tolls that took place alongside the popularization of the automobile sat on a sound economic foundation: when the marginal cost of adding another driver to the roads is low, you should encourage as many drivers to use the roads as possible. Charging a price for access discourages use, and therefore unnecessarily limits the number of drivers on the roads.

Accordingly, argued Columbia economist Harold Hotelling in 1938, the proper way to pay for the cost of building and maintaining bridges and roads is to make people pay for them regardless how much they use them — because that way the price won’t limit use — and the only way to do that is to pay for roads and bridges through taxes, rather than by charging tolls. Of course, traffic was not a thing unknown to economists in the early 20th century. But they thought cities would eliminate congestion by building more and bigger roads — expanding supply to meet demand — not by rationing supply, and the efficient way to do that was again by paying for bigger roads through taxes and granting drivers access to them for free. The car industry may have helped the process of de-tolling along, but it was sound economics.

For the time. What everyone missed was that there are more costs to roads than just those of their creation and maintenance: they also destroy the climate, by enabling energy-inefficient driving, as opposed to energy-efficient public transportation. And it turned out that roads simply could not be built big enough to eliminate congestion. So it was not efficient to maximize the number of drivers after all, and the marginal cost of allowing an additional driver onto the roads was therefore not always near zero.

That has led Badger, and the climate movement more generally, to the conclusion that we should have been charging a price for access to roads all along. But that does not follow at all. As Badger points out, congestion and climate concerns make driving a scarce resource, meaning that no matter how high the price charged for access to the resource, more cannot be brought online. So the price system here isn’t needed to stimulate supply; the only work it would do is to winnow down demand to match the fixed level of supply of the resource. That in turn makes price here no more than a rationing mechanism.

And not a necessary one at that. For there are an infinity of ways to ration scarce resources. By birth year. By height. By how early you wake up in the morning. Etc. Price rations based on wealth, and that’s why progressives interested in solving the congestion problem should reject price as the means to that end.

Badger seems unaware that there are alternatives to the price system when it comes to rationing. She observes that:

If we had that problem with other kinds of infrastructure or commodities, we’d charge people more for them. If airline tickets were particularly in demand, their prices would go up. If there were a run on avocados, grocers wouldn’t respond by keeping them as cheap as possible.

All true, but those are all markets in which the goods in fixed supply are sold by private enterprise. Of course private enterprise will use price to ration access, because rationing with price is profitable. But roads and bridges are owned by governments, and governments both have goals other that profit maximization — such as ensuring that everyone has access to basic infrastructure, regardless of wealth — and other ways than price of raising revenue — such as through the tax system. Why is the behavior of markets in the face of shortage a good model for the way governments should behave in the face of shortage?

Moreover, in all the markets Badger mentions, higher prices are capable of calling forth greater supply. When airline prices rise, new airlines enter the market. When avocado prices rise, Mexico sends more avocados. But we aren’t trying to encourage private firms to flood the market with other ways to drive to work. We just want to limit use. We don’t need price for that.

In the information age, non-price approaches to rationing are easier to implement than ever before. I’ve argued that New York should just create an app to grant access to roads during busy periods, routing users to public transportation when congestion is bad. But that doesn’t have to be the only way. A little imagination and attention to technological alternatives could certainly reveal more.

But what we don’t need is unquestioning acceptance of the neoliberal playbook as the solution to our climate problems, or the sacrifice of our values — like the civic value of equal access to public space — that the playbook requires.

To her credit, Badger does seem concerned about the classism of charging for access to the city. But the solution she suggests, subsidized rates for the poor, just can’t work. Any subsidy that truly puts the poor on an equal footing with the rich will defeat the purpose of congestion pricing, by failing to price drivers out of the market. The utilities that subsidize rates to the poor, to which Badger points as a model, don’t use their rates to ration access, as congestion pricing would do, but rather use their rates to cover the fixed costs of maintaining the utilities, so the utilities don’t mind if the subsidy increases demand. Congestion pricing advocates often suggest that the class consequences of congestion pricing can be solved with an administrative tweak; but these tweaks work only to salve guilty consciences.

Categories
Miscellany

A Tale of the Tail

Legal forms that were well adapted to a world in which wealth was zero sum, and borrowing against an estate could serve no purpose other than to carry out a slow transfer of it to others, were poorly adapted to a world in which wealth could be created, and borrowing against an estate could fund investment that would improve its productivity:

In Hitel Széchenyi argued that Hungary’s agriculture remained unproductive because of its reliance on the unpaid labor of serfs. If they wanted to raise production, landowners should instead employ wage labor on their estates. But in order to afford large numbers of wage laborers or the luxury of experimenting with new technologies, Hungary would also have to rid itself of the legal tradition of entailed estates. Entail prevented the estates of the magnates—the highest aristocrats—from being partitioned or sold. It required that land be passed down undivided according to specif‌ic inheritance rules. An entailed estate could not be used as collateral for raising mortgage loans, nor could any of it be sold off to raise funds. These laws made it impossible to use land as a resource for raising the money needed to invest in new technologies or to develop a system that paid wages to free peasant laborers. Széchenyi pointed out that while nobles owned more than two thirds of the arable land in Hungary, a surprisingly high percentage of that land remained uncultivated. And this in a time where 920,000 peasant families in Hungary were registered as “landless.” If nobles could sell or mortgage their lands for credit, they could invest in new technologies of production, and they could pay wages to peasant workers. If they could raise credit, nobles could also fund new manufactures that could employ landless peasants. Széchenyi criticized many other aspects of the feudal system in Hungary, especially the nobles’ continued immunity to taxation, the inability of most peasants to own land, the restrictions that the guild system placed on the free development of manufactures, and the lack of legal equality for the vast majority of the population.

Pieter M. Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History 111 (2016).


Categories
Meta Miscellany World

Infinity

Nine are enough.

Categories
Miscellany

An Intuitively Sufficient Statistic

You have a set of samples and you are interested in learning something about the probability distribution from which they are drawn. That something is the parameter of interest. It might be the mean. If you do something to the samples, add them together, for example, then you might lose some piece of information that they contain regarding the parameter. But you also might not. Whether you lose information or not by manipulating your samples depends on what you do to them.

For example, if you are sampling from a binomial distribution for which success has value 1 and failure value 0, then adding up the results of the samples won’t destroy information about the mean of the distribution (i.e., the probability of success). That’s because the mean is expressed in the number of successes, rather than their order. You know just as much about the mean of the distribution if your first nine samples are successes and your tenth a failure as if your first is a failure and the next 9 successes. In other words, when you add up the results, you lose information on the order with which the successes occurred, but the mean does not determine that order, and so you don’t lose any information relevant to determining the mean.

When the mean increases, the sample results change because you end up with more successes. So a statistic that counts successes changes too. Both the sample and the statistic change in the same way. That is what happens when a statistic is “sufficient.”

That’s why for a sufficient statistic the probability of drawing a particular sample, conditional on a particular result for the statistic, is independent of the parameter. As the parameter changes, both the sample and the statistic change in the same way. So their relationship to each other remains constant regardless of what happens to the parameter. In a sense, the sufficient statistic transforms the sample, instead of altering it. So any change to the parameter doesn’t change the relationship between the samples and the statistic. Sample and statistic are just different ways of expressing the same thing about the parameter.

The sample conditional on the statistic is just the ratio of the probability of the sample to that of the statistic. This means that if the statistic is sufficient, the probabilities of the sample and the statistic must both be products of the parameter, so that the parameter will cancel out and therefore have no effect on this conditional probability.

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Miscellany

A Sign of Excess

Raise taxes until philanthropy disappears. Why should the unelected rich decide how your taxes are spent on public projects?

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Miscellany

Adverse Selection in Insurance

Saying that adverse selection in insurance is a problem to be eliminated because it frustrates marginal cost pricing is like saying that R&D fixed costs leading to innovation and product improvement are a problem to be eliminated because they frustrate marginal cost pricing.

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Miscellany

Atlanta Botanical Garden

If you are going to put monumental plant sculptures in the botanical garden they ought to be made entirely of plants.  That includes the skeleton.  It might take 50 years to raise a tree to look like a cobra and grow appropriate plants upon it in a symbiotic mix.  But so much the more for wonder.

And the sculptures themselves should not be stereotyped representations of gorillas and frogs and such.  They should be beautiful and original.   Imaginary Worlds is disappointing: unremarkable sculptures papered over with plants.

(Note: I don’t prefer topiary; pruning a bush to look like a squirrel is just as superficial an art as wallpapering a squirrel statue with herbs.)

And if you’re going to give me Arcimboldo’s vegetables portraits in the flesh, they’d better be made with real vegetables.  Anything else is a monument to disappointment.

I’d much rather not have these tasteless distractions in what is an otherwise wonderful garden.

I do, though, like the Chihuly.

Categories
Miscellany

A Buck Is Just Another Ration Card

The price system, like queuing, is just another way of rationing access to resources.  And it’s perfectly reasonable for the government to prefer to impose a queuing system over a price system in certain circumstances.  For example, if you don’t want the rich to take all of a fixed resource.

So it’s perfectly reasonable for San Francisco to prefer that parking spaces go to the lucky, persistent, or fleet, rather than to the highest willingness to pay.

And perfectly reasonable too for San Francisco to put a stop to attempts to circumvent its preferred rationing system.  Attempts like this.

Categories
Miscellany

Stevinus

Stevinus's wind chariot for Prince Maurice of Orange.
Via Wikipedia, Stevinus’s wind chariot for Prince Maurice of Orange.