Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Garrett Jones on Cooperation

Sunday, March 8th, 2020

One early insight [from Gary Miller’s Managerial Dilemmas: The Political Economy of Hierarchy] is that Arrow’s impossibility theorem applies to any kind of decision within a firm. If you have three top managers who are trying to decide the strategy of the company, and they disagree slightly on where the company should be taken — wow, that can lead to classic preference cycling, a classic Condorcet paradox.

“The only thing that can solve this problem is to realize that firm culture is basically an equilibrium to a repeated prisoner’s dilemma, a long-run cooperation game.”

why are smarter groups of people more cooperative, on average?

Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation really had a huge influence on how I think about the hive mind. The three traits that turned out to be especially crucial are what I call the three Ps of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, the RPD. It turns out that intelligent people are more patient, they are more pleasant, and they are more perceptive.

In order to get good cooperation in groups, it helps to have people who are focused on the long run, who are willing to take a little risk today in order to get back some return to their cooperation in the future, so they need to be more patient.

They need to be more pleasant. They need to be more willing to start off cooperating, to take a chance on cooperation early in the game. It turns out, experiments showed that they, in fact, do that on average. And they need to be more perceptive. They need to keep track of the fact that they’re playing a game and that there are payoffs happening. Remembering the history of a game — and life is a game in many ways — is important to generating cooperation.

So smarter people tend to have all three traits in greater degree: more patient, more perceptive, more pleasant. And those three Ps of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma are crucial for group cooperation.

COWEN: In some studies, the personality psychology trait called conscientiousness doesn’t seem to predict cooperation at all. Why is that? How do you make sense of that result?
JONES: I think, partly, it’s because it’s none of the three Ps of the RPD. But to go beyond that to real substance, it’s that cooperation is pretty dangerous. A person who’s conscientious in trying to make sure that they’re watching out for their themselves or their loved ones should be a bit reluctant to just jump into a pro-social, pro-cooperation relationship because a lot of people get ripped off.
So a prudent person who isn’t able to tell whether you’re dealing with someone who’s trustworthy, should best respond in an untrustworthy way. If I don’t know whether I’m surrounded by scoundrels or saints, it’s probably a little safer to assume that I’m surrounded by scoundrels. And a person who is conscientious will be more likely to just notice that fact.

I think part of this is that the way jobs are constructed is that jobs are constructed to be, in many ways, foolproof, so that a person can’t screw it up that much. So being the very smartest person in a particular job category might not make you that much more productive than being the worst person in that job category, but that’s partly because that job category was created so people couldn’t screw it up that much.

Low interest rates are bad for fundamental analysis

Monday, October 7th, 2019

Investors price an asset by predicting the free cash flows (FCF) that the asset generates. Even if you expect to sell the business at some point, if you commit to the decision rule that you never sell unless the returns from a sale are greater than that from the FCF, then the FCF analysis is all you need to proceed – you do not need to worry about what other people think the asset is worth. The asset is priced as if held to maturity.

Speculators price an asset without such a simplifying assumption. It’s just buy low and sell high. Speculators care intimately about what other people think an asset is worth. Speculation is a shorter-term activity because in the shorter term the net present value (NPV) of carry is small relative to that of the sales event.

Interest rates can change what it means to be short-term. When interest rates are low, the carry matters a lot less. When carry matters less, it is not possible to rely purely on FCF analysis, because the uncertainty in your predictions of what happens in ten years doesn’t get discounted away, and has material impact on the NPV estimate. We are all speculators now.

Minimum wage and overtime pay regulations

Sunday, June 18th, 2017


The Minimum Wage and Overtime Pay have opposite effects. Minimum Wage laws encourage concentrating work in less people, while Overtime Pay penalises the concentrating of work. For overtime pay laws to help the worker, you have to believe that businesses benefit from concentrating work. This could be due to labor productivity and experience curve effects – overtime laws would then be decreasing labor productivity in order that more of the gains go to the worker instead of the business.

Minimum Wage

Supply and Demand

By mandating that the hourly wage be above $5 dollars, the government affects businesses that are currently paying workers $4 an hour. Within the framework of supply and demand curves, where price and quantity are the only considerations, businesses can either

  1. Pay workers $5 instead, and make less profit
  2. Fire those workers

(2) is a negative effect, while (1) is a zero-sum effect.  (1) is the desired effect, and (2) is the cost of achieving that goal.

Other possibilities

Outside of supply and demand, there are more possibilities. Businesses can find ways to increase wages, by either investing in training or in more automation.

Assuming that businesses were maximising profitability before the change, in the immediate term the profitability of businesses is expected to go down – otherwise the business would have been irrational to not have invested in training or more automation before the regulatory change.

However, I can imagine a scenario in which this leads to a better longer-term outcome. If the low productivity environment is a coordination problem, where everyone wants to invest in productivity but the first to invest is severely punished by poaching and copycats, then you might find that adding a constraint ends up boosting productivity in the longer run. Let’s say a factory wants to train its workers better, but knows that those better workers would then be stolen by competitors – then yes it would be possible for a raise in the minimum wage to cause everyone to invest in education and training at the same time and help the companies get out of that trap. This is the more complex scenario, however, and if you choose to believe this will happen then that burden of proof is on you.

Overtime Pay

Supply and Demand

Minimum wage regulations concern the absolute level of wages. Overtime regulations are about the relative levels of wages for regular and overtime work. Before wages adjust, it acts as a higher price floor for overtime work. Wages will adjust – we expect regular wages to go down and overtime wages to go up, and regular employment to go up while overtime employment to go down.

Overtime pay laws have an effect opposite that of the minimum wage. Whereas the minimum wage encourages you to concentrate labor costs in less people, overtime wages encourage you to spread the labor out amongst more people. Thus

  1. Pay workers overtime and maintain the same level of work concentration
  2. Hire more workers and spread out the work amongst more people

Other possibilities

For the same reasons as above, in the immediate term profitability is expected to go down. Spreading out work decreases productivity – experience curve effects run in the other direction. You are forcing businesses to pay more in order to hold on to labor productivity. A manager that wanted to invest in training one employee to be more productive might now choose to employ two untrained employees instead, as having the trained employee work longer and make more money at a higher rate is now no longer an option. With regard to experience curve effects, (1) is the desired effect, and (2) is the cost of achieving that goal.

Given that overtime pay penalises the concentration of work, I can’t imagine a scenario in which it encourages investment in labor productivity. Training is a fixed cost per person, and its benefits accrue to the company on a per person basis – overtime pay forces each person to have a lower utilisation than before. This means that in every scenario, training has now become a less effective choice than before.

We can teach children to be more effectively empirical

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

We can teach children to smell bullshit – Vox

A good critical thinker is able to keep track of assumptions made when evaluating evidence, and over time builds up a collection of powerful and general assumptions that accelerate their accurate modelling of reality.

Double-blind tests make the least assumptions, but are not the mechanism by which most knowledge is obtained. Teaching children to avoid assumptions altogether is misguided – what they need is to introspect and make more aspects of their own thinking explicit and hence improvable.

Introspecting into motivations and detecting unrealistic wishful thinking is a large part of this. For example, someone with a privileged background has to account for their own propensity to adopt meritocratic world views that tell them they deserve what they have, and someone with a disadvantaged background has to be cautious about attributing too much to bad luck.

Powerful implicit motivations feed the spread of bullshit. Why is bullshit so attractive? What makes something feel like a good explanation? Confirmation of existing beliefs? Simplification of reality? These have to be balanced against “changing your mind” and “accepting that the world is complex and messy”, depending on the strength of the evidence.

Nested condition variables are fun!

Friday, May 19th, 2017

That release and acquire surrounding the wait are how you allow one of the timelines to start slipping relative to the other one.

Condition variables

Managing cost centers by making them profit centers

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

Why Amazon is eating the world

Amazon benefits not only from the revenue from externalising its internal services,  but also from the efficiency and oversight induced as a result.

This is similar to the export-driven growth described in Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works – East Asian countries gave domestic industries protected markets, conditional on their ability to export and hence prove that they were making goods that were competitive in international markets.

Housing transaction costs are really high!

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

For Singapore, it’s around 5%. In Taiwan, it’s north of 10%. This is a ridiculous hurdle for an investment. If you bought an apartment in Singapore and pay a 20% downpayment, transaction costs wipe out 5% of asset value right away, setting you back 25% of your equity.

Cython is awesome

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Wrote a Cython program to analyse a board game. 2 trillion combinations counted in ~30min on one 4GHz i7 core. 113 lines of Cython code. I’ve forgotten how fast C is.

Corporate Intellectualism

Saturday, November 19th, 2016

Corporate Intellectualism is a bizarre imitation of Academic Intellectualism, embracing badly constructed abstractions and peddling platitudes which confer a vague sense of insight and understanding but do nothing to improve the quality of judgments.

Popular business education overemphasises Thought Leadership, the addition of structure to problems and facilitating effective analysis. It’s pretty high up the Maslow’s hierarchy, and rarely what is most needed. There are many more basic yet more important activities involved in running a business:

  • fostering a culture of accountability, with explicit commitments and commensurate payoffs
  • defining job responsibilities more robustly
  • formulating clear policy about day-to-day actions
  • encouraging goal ownership and intrinsic quality control
  • being aware of the nature of engagement and motivation

All those are difficult to get right, more explicit, addressable, and more directly connected to success.

Low-cost passive ETFs and magical thinking

Thursday, October 13th, 2016

Reduced activity, low fees and tax efficiency are reasons given for why passive investing is low-cost for the investor. This logic is wrong. Those are reasons why passive investing is low-cost for the fund management company. The reason those cost-savings get passed to the investor is because the product is standardised by virtue of tracking a standard, named index like the S&P 500, and multiple companies compete to provide the same product.

Without competition, there’s no reason for an ETF to be low-cost. Companies offering unique ETFs have no directly, easily comparable competition, and you should not expect them to be as efficient as SPY, IVV and VOO are.