Political bugs: six fixes to the US budget deficit

A couple of months ago, in the midst of the hype around the US government debt crisis, someone on a mailing list posed the following question: what are some of the "real" things that can be done to solve the problem?

The premise of the question is that the politicians were not proposing rational solutions but rather, were speaking tactically, with ulterior motives, in other words being craven, pandering, demagoguing, etc. Indeed, the US deficit is one of those things where there are a few clear "right things" that the majority of rational informed people would agree with, and yet, wrong things keep happening over and over again. Much like the "design bugs" I like to occasionally rant about, these are political bugs. I don't mean the fundamentally difficult issues where reasonable people can sincerely disagree: a carbon tax, medicare for all, a flat-tax, consumption tax, etc. etc. Those aren't bugs, rather they are unsolved problems, or new "features" to be designed. But for this post, I'm only taking about no-brainers, the bugs.

So coming to the US budget deficit specifically, here was my list of bugs (originally written on July 1, 2011):
  1. Eliminate mortgage interest deductions. Why should renters subsidize owners? No good reason.
  2. Eliminate corporate healthcare deduction i.e. count employer provided benefits as income. Why should employees of larger companies that provide health benefits be subsidized by people who get their health insurance in other ways? Why would society want to encourage linking health insurance to employment, as opposed to say children's education? No good reason. 
  3. Abolish payroll taxes and shift that all into income tax. Payroll taxes ostensibly pay for social security and medicare but really are just a regressive extra income tax, why not roll it into the overall progressive income tax? 
  4. Reduce social security by making it means tested. Why should anyone above the median income get any additional income from the government? If the purpose of a social safety net is to have the fortunate help the less fortunate, what's the point of helping the rich? 
  5. Reduce social security by raising the threshold age. The retirement ages were set a long time ago, when people aged earlier. Sixty five years old in 1930 was like being 75 or 80 today. If the population distribution shifts older, retirement age should rise. The ratio of retired people to working people has to be kept more or less constant otherwise a) it obviously won't work, and b) it will be clearly unfair. 
  6. Reduce military spending to a level where it can be called a "defense budget" as opposed to an "offense budget": 50% would still leave it twice as big as the next biggest military budget, and still greater than the next 5 countries combined
The combination of the above would easily eliminate the structural deficit. Not only that, none of these points fundamentally challenging any principles or stated societal goals, nor are they suggesting qualitative change These are straight quantitative adjustments that, in principle, libertarians, leftists, fiscal conservatives, and most mainstream economists would probably agree with. They should be no-brainers.

And yet, they can't happen. The reality is that regulatory capture makes these things almost impossible. So the debate goes on and on about tiny meaningless slices of spending that are easy to demonize, but have no impact on the real problem. Maybe something will bump the political economic system out of this miserable Pareto optimum. Unfortunately it looks like for now, the main lesson of the last three years of economic crises remains that the first casualty is causality.


Cognomics: what is the market price of your mind?

Last year, I came across a post about a very interesting study of CAPTCHA economics (in fact, this post is a slightly expanded re-post of an email I sent to a mailing list in Agust 2010).  CAPTCHAs are the little boxes you see on login pages across the web. They are meant to prevent software bots, run by spammers, crackers and other Internet bad guys, from pretending to be real users and abusing web services.
The key feature of a CAPTCHA is that it's a puzzle that is very easy for humans to solve but very hard for computers. So to defeat the CAPTCHAs, the bad guys have created online "farms", platforms where people are payed to solve the CAPTCHAs for them.

Leaving aside the nefarious nature of the application, it is fascinating to note that this is one of the first large scale instances of humans renting out their brains for a few seconds at a time. It raises the question: what is the market value of your mind? Or more precisely, of your ability to think? In a sense, of course, billions of people are renting out their brains every day by doing cognitive work in exchange for a salary. But normal employee/employer relationships are complex in ways that are not fully captured by price alone, in other words it's not a commodity. But with the CAPTCHA farm, you get as close as possible to cognition as a commodity.

Note that I said "one of the first" instances... There's another bigger one that's been around much longer: advertising. When advertisers pay for ad placement, they are paying for your attention, so in a sense they are renting your mind. Particularly with Internet advertising, the advertiser literally buys a few seconds of a person's attention, one person at a time. This was a big meme during the dot-com era, the "attention economy".

So, if indeed there's a market for cognition, how do the prices compare across these two sub-markets?
  • Spammers* pay O($1) per thousand CAPTCHAs solved.
  • Advertisers pay O($1) per thousand impressions
First observation: In both cases, they are paying to get your mind for O(10seconds). So the mind is really a commodity worth the same whether you are renting it out to store and propagate a commercial message or to do some computation!

Second, if you draw a little diagram of the flow of value, the cognitive supply chain as it were, the two are like mirror images of each other, with the same values circulating in opposite directions. Like electrons and anti-electrons in the same circuit! Here's what we get clockwise for the advertising business:

Advertiser → $1 → Publisher → (payload) → User → (profit from product) → Advertiser

And here's what we get, anti-clockwise for the web-spam business:

Spammer ← (profit from scam) ← Publisher ← (payload) ← User ← ($1) ← Spammer

Funny stuff. Spammers are like the anti-matter to the matter of advertisers, the evil twin from the underworld.   Fortunately, they are not quite symmetric in size. It's a lot harder for the bad guys to grow the same size as legal ads/content ecosystem!

Note: of course, the main difference between the minds rented for ads and the minds rented for solving CAPTCHAs is wealth... Rich people's minds are valuable to advertisers,  poor people's minds are useful to spammers. But despite this split along wealth lines, the prices are of the same order of magnitude.


Rent splitting mechanism

I just came across this blog post on "How to split the rent?". Most people split the rent equally between apartment mates. The problem is that not all rooms are equal. How do you value their differences in size, light, accessibility. How do you value the shared areas? Further, different people have different preferences. So it's an interesting problem... so how do you find a fair price and allocation of rooms?

It reminded me of a solution my roommates and I came up with many years ago. It's basically an auction. Say there are 4 apartment mates, 4 bedrooms, and the total rent is $1000. Each roommate writes a bid with prices for each room, with the condition that the total has to be $1000. So the bids might look like
- person 1: ($200, $250, $250, $300)
- person 2: ($100, $250, $300, $350)
- person 3: ($250, $250, $250, $250)
- person 4: ($150, $200, $250, $400)

Then you gather all the bids and you assign each room to the person who has the highest value for it and they pay the average price of that room in all bids. You start with the highest priced room and go down (so that if a person wins two rooms you give them the one with the higher price). If you have a tie for first place on two different rooms with the same two people, you flip a coin. In the above case, no coin flip needed, the solution is:
- room 1 goes to person 3, for a rent of (200+100+250+150)/4 = $175
- room 2 goes to person 1 for $237.50
- room 3 goes to person 2 for a price of $262.50
- room 4 goes to person 4 for a price of $325

The beauty is that the solution guarantees that each room goes to the person who values it the most, and the room prices add up to the correct total rent.

We did it for one year with a 4 bedroom apartment with 4 co-tenants. The biggest room went for about 31% of the total rent, and two rooms of smaller size but with the most light went for 25%, 24% and the dining room converted into a bedroom went for 20%. The second year we were down to three tenants and for a variety of reasons, we did a direct adjustment rather than rerun the auction...

But the moral of the story is that mechanism design works in every day life! Surprisingly not many people do this.