Geo-privacy (an idea)

“Geo-fencing” refers to a program that enables (or disables) some function based on physical location.

“Privacy” is something we tell people we care about but don’t really defend against violation.

It’s a fact that many mobile phone apps track our location to harvest and sell our geo-data to anyone.

(It’s also fact that mobile phone companies sell this data in some places, and that some stores track us via bluetooth pings. I’m not talking about these dubious practices here.)

So I think mobile phone operating systems (i.e., Android or iOS) should allow you to “geo-private” yourself within x km of various places you specify. Then geo-data is not collected (and thus not available) to any and all apps on your phone.

Example: I live in Amsterdam. I tell my phone to not track me within 15 km of my home. That, more or less, turns off all tracking while I am in the city, which is fine by me.

This system will resotre power to those whose data is being harvested and sold: you and me.

My one-handed conclusion is that mobile phone manufacturers/operating system owners should make it easy for us to protect our privacy.

The 90/10 rule of motivations

Since 2009, I have talked about a 20/80 rule of motivations, e.g., “My rule of thumb is that about 20 percent of people conserve [water] because it’s the right thing to do, and 80 percent conserve because it’s expensive NOT to [because prices are high].”

My point is that far more people (80%) are motivated by price (extrinsic incentives) than doing the right thing (intrinsic incentives).

This rule can apply to many areas where personal action has collective consequences, e.g., eating meat, flying, littering, cheating, etc.. (Read my The Little Book of The Commons for more 🙂

The trouble is that my 80/20 rule is easy to confuse with other “80/20 rules,” such as 80% of profits (or problems) come from 20% of products or customers.

So I am renaming mine the 90/10 rule, for two reasons:

  1. Less confusion (other 90/10 rules are not common).
  2. 90/10 has more empirical support than 80/20.

Let me explain the second point:

In my research on the provision of public goods (this or this) I used games to understand people’s behavior.

In these games, around 10 percent of people are cooperators (helping others, unconditionally), 10 percent are defectors (helping themselves, unconditionally), and 80 percent are reciprocators (help others or themselves, depending on what others do). In this article [pdf], for example, 4% and 12% of students behaved as cooperators and free-riders, respectively.

So the share of cooperators is “small” (4 is around 10 percent, right?), which means that they do not dominate, but neither do free-riders.

So the question is how to motivate the reciprocators, and whether they will be convinced to pursue good or bad policies/behavior, by cooperators or free-riders, respectively.

In my opinion, reciprocators will follow the lead of cooperators if “social mechanisms” support cooperation and punish defection. Such mechanisms (or “institutions”) are composed of informal norms and formal rules, and they are the key to a group’s survival, prosperity, and perhaps downfall.

Are rules necessary for cooperation? No. We share in social situations; we cooperate against common dangers.

Do rules hinder freedom or block innovation? No. Rules help people with different tastes and goals collaborate, by setting expectations in some areas while allowing exploration, innovation and diversification elsewhere.

Are rules elitist? No. Rules assist the weak against the rich and powerful who use their independence to dominate others.

My one-handed conclusion is that rules are useful for getting along in a 90/10 world.

Ceteris is not paribus

(Economists often evoke ceteris paribus — “holding all else equal” — when proposing that an idea from one place can be used elsewhere. They forget that place, people and time matter.)

I start teaching a course on institutional evolution tomorrow.

The main focus is on how institutions (“the rules of the game”) change — or not — over time, either due to outside (exogenous) or inside (endogenous) pressures and actions for change.

Cultural evolution is one such force that can be seen as exogenous or endogenous towards one institution or another. It’s “the secret of our success,” but also hard to direct or control, since it takes place over decades or centuries.

What I find most interesting (and daunting) — in terms of understanding institutional evolution — is how (1) the rich and powerful try to avoid or co-opt institutions, and (2) institutions vary from place to place. Let’s look at these in turn.

(1) The Rich and Powerful

The rich, as F Scott Fitzgerald explained in The Great Gatsby, are different:

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

This famous quote covers two important elements: the way the rich grow up different and the way that the rich cynically look after themselves rather than trust others.

These differences are obvious when looking at the commons, since the rich tend to (a) set themselves apart from others when it comes to cooperation and (b) ignore the value of the commons in a world where they can buy whatever they want.  (Here’s a post on these issues.)

These facts mean that the rich are often “defectors” when it comes to the commons, whether they are evading taxes or hiring private guards to protect against public chaos. (The poor — as with this Brazilian example — must cooperate to protect themselves.)

Such anti-social behavior should be condemned by the non-rich, but it’s often accepted — and even applauded — by “poors” who (c) prefer might over right and (d) support the rich because they think — via a Dunning Kruger delusion — that they too will be rich some day. (“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires” — Ronald Wright, 2004.)

So we get a difficult situation in which the rich take advantage, the poor support them, and civilization decays.

Place to place

It takes effort to create, enforce and obey rules. Everyone tries to avoid such costs, so social norms need to reinforce obligations as well as protect rights because no community can afford to protect rights while ignoring obligations. (Even anarchists depend on reciprocation.)

In tribal and “primitive” societies, the rules are old, well-known and vigorously enforced. Local people can count on those constraints, which makes it easier for them to cooperate in the expectation of reciprocation or act freely in the knowledge of which rules constrain or oblige. Such “culture” allows everyone to get along.

In “modern” societies where anonymity and free-movement makes it hard to build a reputation or avoid cheaters, cooperation and punishment are harder to encourage and enforce (respectively). The rich insulate themselves and the poor cope. Since neither has much faith in collective action, inertia (path dependency) dominates.

So people just leave — like I did for the Netherlands from the US or like others facing a much harder road from poor and failed states like Syria, Venezuela, et al.

It’s not easy to find a place in a new land, people, culture and institutions, but plenty of people take those risks with the hope of reaching “a better place.”

(The Dutch are sharp dealers, and they are hardly as friendly as Italians, but the Dutch can tolerate an individualistic culture on top of their mostly functioning institutions while the Italians need solidarity to deal with their domestic chaos.)

My one-handed conclusion is that it’s important to recognize the blessings and challenges of one’s culture, as well as the choices of “exit, voice or loyalty” when one’s culture is not providing the quality of life you want.

Those who live by the sword…

“…find themselves impaled.”

Wall streeters are buying land to get the water rights, which they can flip for profit. Farmers are terribly upset:

“They’re trying to suck the very lifeblood out of these communities for their own financial benefit,” Mueller said. Water Asset Management owns at least 3,000 acres in Western Colorado’s Grand Valley, where Mueller works to protect Colorado’s share of the river. He said the full scale of the land grab is difficult to track because investment firms use different names to disguise ownership.”

But what’s this (pots calling kettles black?), with these farmers, many of whose ancestors robbed First Nations, the Environment, and poorer farmers?

  • These are the guys who benefitted, nay, cheered, when “Indians” were moved from their traditional lands onto reservations in the 19th century?
  • These are the guys who declared “waste” whenever a drop of water made it to an ocean or ecosystem?*
  • These are the guys who regularly, and with government connivance,  exceeded their 640 acre allotments for “reclamation” and/or subsidized irrigation?

Now they are upset that someone is using the system to profit from water that’s been mismanaged for decades?

My one handed conclusion is that they need to read the Bible a bit more often, as I think it’s got the answer every farmer would understand:

“Be not deceived, God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” — Galatians 6:7

H/T to DL

* Watch this space lakebed: Tulare Lake (formerly the largest west of the Mississippi) is coming back, whether they like it or not… (some history)

Learning is struggle

ChatGPT excites people who think (I use this word with caution) that they can use GPT to do less work/impress people/advance their careers.

This ideal may be true for those who already know how to do the work they are asking GPT to do (e.g., writing a blog post), but it won’t work for learners who admire GPT output without being able to do it themselves. They will pass GPT’s work as theirs, but they will not be able to explain “their” logic or conclusions. “GPT-cheats” will get caught. Hopefully they will just be disciplined, but others will do far more damage in their assertive ignorance (a human version of hallucinating). I am reminded of the massive damage caused by Bush’s loyal-but-incompetent agents in Iraq.

In the meantime, GPT users will be busy trying to fool each other into getting paid for work that GPT has done while non-GPT users will find the entire situation frustrating.

Non-augmented humans will take hours to do what GPT can do in seconds; they will struggle to understand complex ideas and integrate them into reasonable thoughts. They will question the point of going on. But then they will be the ones to spot the errors, to suggest novel alternatives, to add value.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

With GPT, we will see adults losing their analytical skills. Students will not even acquire them. Average IQ will drop, as will productivity.

(The only exception will be the few people who use GPT as a “Socratic sparring partner” to push their knowledge and/or skills. They can benefit from GPT, but the vast majority will fall for an “apple of knowledge” that is rotten inside.)

My one handed conclusion is that GPT will take the jobs of anyone who uses GPT to do those jobs, let alone study for them.

Too much bread, too many circuses

We humans have mastered survival and adaptation. We’ve gone further, to thrive, by developing religion and states, bureaucracy and markets.

Now we have easy access to the sugar highs and social signals that were rare and valuable in the survival and social eras, respectively. But the mass market version of these pursuits means that everyone’s party is disrupting everyone else’s. We’re hearing more cacophony than music. We’re experiencing more destruction than development.

And we’re not gonna stop. We’re addicted to gluttony. Poor people are obese. How can a poor person get fat? By living in a system where you trade debt for calories and pay billions for insulin.

And then there are the bells and whistles of over-consumption: formal dining (never used), collections (never touched), three-car garages (no space for cars), and parties that burn down forests, blow out kitchens and bankrupt the hosts.

At the polls, we vote for more of the same: Populists promising that the party can go on, that consequences are for suckers, that we can have all the rope we want… to hang ourselves.

Roman emperors had a policy of pane e circu — or bread and circuses — that kept the masses busy with stuffing their faces and laughing at tragedy while the elites did what they wanted. The emperor paid a lot, but everyone preferred parties to hard work or self-denial.

In these modern times, many of us have the buying power of emperors and the discipline of children. We’re fat and unsatisfied. Influencers and saviors are everywhere, promising a good time for $19.99, but we remain unfulfilled.

Money can’t buy you love — and it can’t replace the ecosystems that allow us to live — let alone party.

We — petty, drunken emperors — are going to have a very bad hangover when the bread runs out, and the circus is washed away.

Be careful what you ask for.

Don’t take water for granted

In his 1987 hit, “Diamonds on the soul of her shoes“, Paul Simon sings:

She said, “You’ve taken me for granted
Because I please you
Wearing these diamonds”

This lyric, although a bit paradoxical, has always resonated with me, and I’ve applied it in many “taking-for-granted” situations.

One of them concerns clean water, which most of us have certainly taken for granted, and in a way that is naive (to people who do not have access to affordable, clean water) as well as dangerous (the value of water in our lives is so high — relative to its price — that we do not think of the disastrous consequences of losing access to that water).

Well, it’s worth thinking about, as the end of abundance starts to bite into our water consuming habits.

We have less and less clean water because our actions — direct in terms of mining ground water or polluting surface water and indirect in terms of climate change and water embedded in animal products — are making it so.

And those actions rarely consider what would happen if we had no clean water — let alone no water at all.

“You’ve taken me for granted because I please you, flowing this water”

My one-handed conclusion is that a lot of people are going to be surprised and upset as “their” water disappears in volume, decays in quality and increases in cost, until we no longer take it for granted. Beware.

Climate loss, grief and migration

The climate we grew up with is leaving. International action to slow climate chaos is not really working. National action and market innovations are having some useful impacts, but they are far too few on the mitigation side and far too weak on the adaptation side. We are going to face consequences with weak defenses.

When I moved to Amsterdam in 2010, I joked that it was going to get “California weather” due to climate change. 

For me, these climate-change impacts are somewhat mitigated by my history of living in different places (in California, traveling, in the Netherlands), but I bet you homebodies have noticed that the climate of your youth is changing:

  • The flowers and trees are responding differently.
  • The rain and cold are coming in stronger or weaker.
  • The heat is more intense, for longer.
  • New animals are arriving while old ones disappear.

These changes are affecting holidays, foods, work, play and even chores.

Do you notice these changes? Which are good? bad?

My one-handed conclusion is that all of us will need to give up on some of our values and expectations, while some of us will need to move, either for comfort or survival.

Is this the first step in our return to a nomadic life?

Environmental justice

Back in the 19th century, economists were condemned as “dismal scientists” due to their support of equality (or freedom) for slaves. The economists argued not from justice (sorry!) but efficiency, i.e., that slavery was inefficient because it subjugated people to the will of others rather than to their own free will — and productivity.

This story is not romantic, but it illustrates how economists might “think different” on some issues, even as they come to similar conclusions.

No risk here, neighbors. Carry on!

When it comes to environmental justice (EJ), the questions are (a) “how to define EJ?” and (b) “how to deliver it?”

On (a), I would say that citizens to a particular political jurisdiction receive EJ if they are treated (or face risks) equal to others, i.e., equal risks from air, water and land pollution.

Consider a few examples to flesh out this definition:

  • Does EJ mean they are protected from harming themselves? No — assuming that they do not need special knowledge or technology to understand risks.
  • Does EJ mean that people who buy a house near an airport, pig farm or fracking operation should be protected from risks due to those activities? No, since those risks pre-exist their purchase.
  • Does EJ mean they should be protected from new risks from new or expanded operations? Yes, absolutely.
  • Does EJ mean that citizens in a different political jurisdiction have the same rights or protections? No (for good reasons) due to the realities of nation-states. No (for bad reasons) because rich states may prioritize differently than poor states or (more likely) because rich states can afford more protections.

In terms of (b), the main idea is “internalizing externalities,” i.e., using prices or regulations to reduce or prevent pollution (the threat to EJ). For economists since Pigou (1920), this prescription has been commonsense. But it’s also commonsense to pretty much anyone familiar with “don’t shit where you sleep,” which is why the problem is usually people shitting where other people sleep.

And that brings us to rights.

EJ is basically about rights — the right to not be forced to deal with air, land, light, sound, water, or other pollutions.

We have the right to not be assaulted by someone wielding a weapon, as that causes bodily harm. We do not have the right to not be assaulted by someone wielding words, as there is no agreed way to assess mental or physical harm.

My one-handed conclusion is that EJ requires the definition and enforcement of our right to be free from the pollution of others.

The long shadow of apartheid

Apartheid in Dutch/Afrikaans means “apartness,” and it was the (un)official  policy of the Whites ruling South Africa for most of the 20th century.

They were not alone in seeking to separate people by race or color.

Race is  a superficial concept [it’s melatonin melanin, subject to fads] that was invented to facilitate slave trade. The Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator was a slave trader, and he paid an academic to justify his natural and moral right to ignore the differences among hundreds of African tribes, and group all these peoples into a “Black” race that deserved exploitation as a different species. (That’s “science” in the 15th century!) Listen to the “Seeing White podcast series” to learn more.

As you may know, Nazi Germany borrowed many ideas on racism, segregation and concentration camps from White Americans eager to take advantage of Non-Whites. The White rulers of South Africa also borrowed those ideas, but their British and Dutch ancestors were “inspiring” (in all the wrong ways) to Americans and Afrikaners, respectively. (Here’s a paper on the history of racism in S Africa.)

The meaning of “Africaner” has changed many times, but there’s a heavy overlap between racist rulers and people calling themselves “Africaners.”

So, that’s quite an introduction of a extremely complex topic, but what about Apartheid?

The short answer is that it was a legal system of separating “races” in terms of living, working, socializing, and other elements of normal life. People from different races were not allowed to date (let alone marry!), work as equals, go to the same schools, and so on. From what I understand, it was similar in the Jim Crow south, but reached deeper into people’s lives (southerners could move away; South Africans could not) for longer (apartheid ended in the early 1990s).

That long, cruel history matters today.

We visited Capetown and Johannesburg. In both places, people are no longer legally separated by race, but socio-economically separated by past definitions of race. You cannot just move house to a safer neighborhood to get a better job and send your kids to a better school if your parents were poor and uneducated. And you cannot get much help from the state to reduce these challenges when the state is run by a corrupt and incompetent African National Congress, and the rich are unwilling to contribute to a broken system that they are fighting to insulate themselves from. As a result, there is massive poverty and multiple development failures with respect to water, electricity, schools, health, safety, housing — pretty much anything you can imagine necessary to a good life.

A comment that sticks with me came from a White doctor: “You will enjoy the highest quality of life in the world, living in Cape Town — until you get beaten in front of your house.”

So it’s hard for many many people, and it will take decades to overthrow the ANC and build sound institutions. (The Comrades race shows that progress is possible.)

What I find interesting, given history, is how Namibians, which was colonized by S Africa for decades and also has a rich-White, poor-Black demographic reality, seem to get along better. I attribute that to their multi-decade struggle to free themselves from S. African rule. In an “us against them” contest, people on one side tend to forget their differences when facing a common enemy. (I have a paper on this dynamic!)

That was not the case in S Africa, where enemies (Whites favoring apartheid) not only live among them, but still control significant economic power. The ANC, by presenting themselves as liberators of non-Whites, have won consistent majorities in elections without showing any competence or hesitation in looting the state.

My one-handed conclusion is that apartheid left deep scars that will take decades of effort to convert into saamhorigheid (togetherness).

To get some US-centric views on S Africa, watch Trevor Noah here, here and here.