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The Gig Economy Makes Karl Marx’s Dreams Come True And It’s All Capitalism’s Doing by Max Borders

When Joe Average steps out of his car after completing his shift for Lyft, he does so on his own terms. Nobody tells him when to start. Nobody tells him when to stop. The siren song that is prime time pricing might have coaxed him off the couch, but ultimately it was his call. And with the rest of his day, he’s going to go fishing. You see, Joe loves to fish — even more than he loves making money. After dinner, he might take some time to criticize the second season of True Detective.

Would ole Karl Marx have been happy with this result?

In The German Ideology, Marx wrote,

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Marx should be delighted — oh, except that it’s capitalism, not communism, that’s allowing Joe to be a fisherman and a critic on his own terms.

The sharing or “gig” economy is not only disrupting the way people live and work; it’s dividing the left considerably.

On the one hand, you have the nostalgic leftists who want Joe to work a nine-to-five job and skip the fishing. You know, like people did in the 1950s. As Freeman columnist Steve Horwitz writes, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton

longs for a time like the 1950s when workers had the structure of the corporate world and unions through which to lobby and negotiate for pay and benefits, rather than the so-called “gig” economy of so many modern freelance employees, such as Uber drivers. “This on-demand or so-called gig economy is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation,” Clinton said, “but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protection and what a good job will look like in the future.”

Joe already told us what a good job looks like. It’s one that lets him spend time fishing and criticizing.

More confusing (or confused, perhaps) is Paul Mason’s writing in the Guardian. He lauds “postcapitalism,” which has all the hallmarks of a society Clinton is worried about:

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.

Bingo. The gig economy. But does it make sense to give capitalism a different name? I suppose one could. After all, Marx coined the term. But Marx’s definition of capitalism is a system based on private ownership of the means of production. Has that dynamic fundamentally changed?

Far from it. The sharing economy is simply decentralizing power by allowing ordinary people to use their own small-scale means of production. By solving coordination problems and lowering transaction costs, technology is augmenting capitalism.

When Joe drives for Lyft, for example, his car is still his car. And now more of his time is his, too. Capitalism, even as Marx defined it, hasn’t fundamentally changed. But the use of technology to awaken sleeping private capital is allowing the system to evolve — and rather nicely if you’re Joe Average, or one of thousands of other workers like him.

Now, I’m not saying that there is nothing interesting going on in the electronic commons. Ideas are being configured and reconfigured in the networked economy. Many of those ideas are being taken out of the intellectual-property regime, thanks to open sourcing, and this can be a good thing. There are fierce debates about whether intellectual property (claims to property in ideas and in nonscarce goods) is justifiable. But passing over those debates, more and more open-source technologies are coming online for exploitation by everyone.

Do open sourcing and the creative commons take us to postcapitalism?

I don’t know. But fundamentally, as long as the process is voluntary and carried out peacefully by a community of cooperators, who cares what you call it? Should we be upset that the guy who founded Lyft is getting rich from the tech? Some people are, because they see the accumulation of wealth as taboo. But Joe’s life is better than it would have been in the absence of Lyft. The company allows him to live more of the life he wants to live.

As long as Joe Average is happier, who cares what Hillary Clinton thinks?


Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also cofounder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Clinton’s Startup Tax Will Crush New Businesses by Dan Gelernter

Hillary Clinton has announced that she will, if elected, raise the capital-gains tax to a maximum that equals the highest income tax bracket. She hopes to promote long-term investments by penalizing short-term ones with a tax rate that gets lower the longer an investment is held, reaching the current 20% rate only after six years.

This, Ms. Clinton says, would allow a CEO to focus on the company’s true interests rather than just making the next quarter. It is, unfortunately, exactly the sort of plan you would expect from someone who has never started a company — and who doesn’t seem to know anyone who has.

The CEO of a startup is unlike the CEO of an established business. He is not the head of a chain of command: he is the spokesman or agent of a few colleagues, entrusted for the moment to represent them. The startup CEO has one primary job, which is raising money. It is the hardest thing a young company has to do — and it is an unending process.

Most germinal startups never raise any money at all. The ones that get seed funding are already breathing rarified air, and can afford perhaps a day of celebration before they start pursuing the next round.

The picture is especially tough for tech startups. A startup that builds software doesn’t have any machinery or physical supplies to auction off if the company fails. This means that banks won’t make the kind of secured business loans of the sort small companies traditionally get.

As a result, tech startups are wholly reliant on a relatively small number of investors who are looking for something more exciting than the establishment choices and are willing to take a big gamble in the hope of a big, short-term payoff. Though Ms. Clinton’s proposal would only affect those in the top income bracket, she may be surprised to learn that those are the only people who can afford to make such investments.

Professional investors think in terms of risk: they balance the likelihood of a startup’s failure against the potential payoff of its success. Increasing the tax rate reduces the effective payoff, which increases risk. Investors can lower that risk by reducing the valuation at which they are willing to invest, which means they take a larger share of the company — a straightforward transfer of risk from investors to entrepreneurs.

Ms. Clinton’s tax therefore will not be borne by wealthy investors: it comes out of the entrepreneur’s payday. The increased tax rate means a risk-equivalent decrease in the percentage of the company the entrepreneur gets to keep. And that’s just the best-case scenario.

The other option is that the tax doesn’t get paid at all, because the investor decides the increased risk isn’t worth it — the startup can’t attract funding and dies.

That sounds melodramatic, but it is no exaggeration. A startup company never has more offers than it needs; it never raises money with time spare. Even a slight change in the risk-return balance — say, the 3.8% which Obamacare quietly laid on top of the current capital-gains — kills companies, as investors and entrepreneurs see the potential upside finally shaved past the tipping point.

A tech startup has short-term potential. That is a major part of the attraction to investors, and that makes Ms. Clinton’s proposal especially damaging. In the tech world, we all hope we’ll be the next Facebook or Twitter, but you can’t pitch that to an investor. A good tech startup takes a small, simple idea and implements it beautifully.

The most direct success scenario is an acquisition by a larger company. In the app world — and this is the upside to not having physical limitations on distribution — the timescale is remarkably accelerated. A recent benchmark example was Mailbox, purchased by Dropbox just two months after it launched.

Giving investors an incentive to not to sell will hurt entrepreneurs yet again, postponing the day their sweat equity finally has tangible value, and encouraging decisions that make tax-sense rather than business-sense.

If Hillary Clinton really wants to help entrepreneurs, she should talk to some and find out what they actually want. A lower capital-gains tax — or no capital-gains tax — would be an excellent start.

Dan Gelernter

Dan Gelernter is CEO of the technology startup Dittach.

Who Is Doing More for Affordable Education: Politicians or Innovators? by Bryan Jinks

With a current outstanding student loan debt of $1.3 trillion, debt-free education is poised to be a major issue leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has come forth with his plan for tuition-free higher education.

Senator Elizabeth Warren supports debt-free education, which goes even further by guaranteeing that students don’t take on debt to pay other expenses incurred while receiving an education.

Democratic Party front-runner Hillary Clinton is expected to propose a plan to reduce student loan debt at some point. And don’t forget President Obama’s proposal to provide two years of community college to all students tuition-free.

While all of these plans would certainly increase access to higher education, they would also be expensive. President Obama’s relatively modest community college plan would cost $60 billion over the next decade. What makes this an even worse idea is that all of that taxpayer money wouldn’t solve the most important problems currently facing higher education.

Shifting the costs completely to taxpayers doesn’t actually reduce the costs. It also doesn’t increase the quality of education in a system that has high drop-out rates and where a lot of graduates end up in low-paying jobs that don’t use their degree. Among first-time college students who enrolled in a community college in the fall of 2008, fewer than 40% earned a credential from either a two-year or four-year institution within six years.

Whatever the other social or spiritual benefits of attending college are, they don’t justify wasting that so much time and money without seeing much improvement in wages or job prospects.

Proponents of debt-free college argue that these programs are worth the cost because a more educated workforce will boost the economy. But these programs would push more marginal students into college without any regard for how prepared they are, how likely they are to graduate, or how interested they are in getting a degree. If even more of these students enter college, keeping the low completion rates from falling even further would be a challenge.

All of these plans would just make sure that everyone would have access to the mediocre product that higher education currently is. Just as the purpose of Obamacare was to make sure that every American had a health insurance card in their wallet, the purpose of debt-free education is to make sure that every American has a student ID card too — whether it means anything or not.

But there are changes coming in higher education that can actually solve some of these problems.

The Internet is making education much cheaper. While Open Online Courses have existed for more than a decade, there are a growing number of places to find educational materials online. Udemy is an online marketplace that allows anyone to create their own course and sell it or give it away. Saylor Academy and University of the People both have online models that offer college credit with free tuition and relatively low examination fees.

Udacity offers nanodegrees that can be completed in 6-12 months. The online curriculum is made in partnership with technology companies to give students exactly the skills that hiring managers are looking for. And there are many more businesses and non-profits offering new ways to learn that are cheaper, faster, and more able to keep up with the ever-changing economy than traditional universities.

All of these innovations are happening in response the rising costs and poor outcomes that have become typical of formal education. New educational models will keep developing that offer solutions that policy makers can’t provide.

Some of these options are free, some aren’t. Each has their own curriculum and some provide more tangible credentials than others. There isn’t one definitive answer as to how someone should go about receiving an education. But each of these innovations provides a small part of the answer to the current problems with higher education.

Change for the better is coming to higher education. Just don’t expect it to come from Washington.

Bryan Jinks

Bryan Jinks is a ?freelance writer based out of Cleveland, Ohio.

Government Ruins the Dishwasher (Again) by Jeffrey A. Tucker

The regulatory assault on the dishwasher dates back at least a decade. For the most part, industry has gone along, perhaps grudgingly but also with a confidence that dishwashers would survive. Surely government rules wouldn’t finally make them useless.

But the latest regulatory push by the Department of Energy might have finally gone too far. The DoE says that loads of dishes can’t use more than 3.1 gallons. This amounts to a further intensification of “green” policies that are really just strategies to wreck the consumer experience.

The agency estimated that this would “save” 240 billion gallons of water over three decades. It would reduce energy consumption by 12 percent. It would save consumers $2 billion in utility bills.

But as with all such estimates, these projections have three critical problems.

First, saving money and resources is not always an absolute blessing if you have to give up the service for which the resources are used. Giving up indoor plumbing would certainly save water, just as banning the light bulb would save electricity. The purpose of resources is to use them to make our lives better.

Second, the price system is a far better guide to rational resource use than bureaucratic diktat. If the supply of water or electricity contracts, prices go up and consumers can make their own choices about how to respond. This is true with one proviso: There has to be a functioning market. This is not always true with public utilities.

Third, the bureaucrats rarely consider the possibility that people will respond to rationing by using resources in a different way. A low-flow toilet causes people to flush two and three times, a low-flow showerhead prompts people to take longer showers, and so on, with the end result of even more resource use.

What does breaking the dishwasher accomplish? It drives us back to filling sinks or just running water over dishes for 10 minutes until they are all clean, resulting in vastly more water use.

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which has quietly gone along with this nonsense all these years, has finally said no.

“At some point, they’re trying to squeeze blood from a stone that just doesn’t have any blood left in it,” said Rob McAver, the lead lobbyist.

The Association demonstrated to the regulators that the new standards do not clean the dishes. They further pointed out that this can only lead to more hand washing. The DoE now says it is revisiting the new standards to find a better solution.

All of this is rather preposterous, since dishwashers are already performing at a far lower level than they did decades ago. Even when I was growing up, they were getting better, not worse. You could put dirty dishes in, even with stuck-on egg and noodles, and they would come out perfectly clean.

I started noticing the change about five years ago. It was like one day to the next that the dishes started coming out with a gross-me-out film on the glasses. I thought it was my machine. So I bought a new one. The new one was even worse, and it broken within a year. Little by little, I started hand washing dishes first, just to make sure they are clean.

It turns out that this was happening all over the country. NPR actually discerned this trend and did a story about it. The actual source of the problem was not the machine or the user, but something that everyone had taken for granted for generations: the soap itself.

The issue here is phosphorous. The role of phosphorus in soap is critically important. It is not a cleaning agent itself but a natural chemical that unsticks the soap from fabrics and surfaces generally. You can easily see how this works by adding phosphorus to a sink full of suds. It attacks the soap and causes it to bundle up in tighter and heavier units, taking oil and dirt with it and pulling it down the drain. It is the thing that extracts the soap, making sure that it leaves surfaces.

Painters know that they absolutely must use phosphorous to prepare surfaces for painting. If they do not, they will be painting on a dirty, oily surface. This is why the only phosphorus you can now find at the hardware store is in the paint department (sold as Trisodium Phosphate). Otherwise, it is gone from all detergents that you use on clothes and dishes, which is a major reason why both fabrics and dishes are no longer as clean as they once were.

Why the war on phosphorous? It is also a fertilizer. When too much of it is dumped into rivers and lakes, algae growth takes over and kills off fish. The bulk of this comes from large-scale industrial farms in specific locations around the country. Regulators, however, took on the easy target of domestic soaps, and manufacturers faced pressure to remove it from their soaps.

Now it is impossible to get laundry or dish soap with phosphorous as part of the mix. If you want clean, you have to physically add your own by purchasing trisodium phosphate in the paint department and adding it to the mixture by hand.

Welcome to regulated America, where once fabulous consumer inventions like refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, and dishwashers have been reduced to a barely functioning state. The reasons are always the same: 1) phosphorous-free detergent, 2) a fetish with saving water, 3) weaker motors that use less electricity, 4) more tepid water due to low default settings on hot water heaters, and 5) reduced water pressure in general.

Put it all together and you have an array of products that no longer function in ways that make our lives better. There is an element of dystopia about this, especially given that these household appliances were first invented and widely deployed in postwar America. This was the country where women, in particular, first started to enjoy the “freedom from drudgery.” It was machines as much as ideology that began to enable women to cultivate professional lives outside the home.

No, we are not going to be forced back to washboards by the river anytime soon. But suddenly, the prospect of having to hand wash our dishes does indeed seem real. If the regulators really do get their way, functioning dishwashers could become like high-flow toilets: contraband to be snuck across borders and sold at a high black market prices.

It seems that the regulators can’t think of much to do these days besides ruining things we love.


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Is Politics Obsolete? How People Outpace Politicians by Max Borders and Jeffrey A. Tucker

Hillary Clinton talks of cracking down on the gig economy. Donald Trump speaks of telling American corporations where they can and can’t do business abroad. Bernie Sanders says we have too many deodorant choices. They all speak about immigrants as if it were 1863.

What the heck are these people talking about?

More and more, that’s the response many people have to the current-day political speeches and rhetoric. It’s a hotly contested election, somewhat like 2008, but this time around, public engagement is low, reports Pew.

That’s no surprise, really. Whether it’s the leftists, the rightists, or everyone in between, all of these politicians seem to be blathering about a world gone by — one that has little to do with the 21st century. If they’re not tapping into people’s baser instincts of fear and nativism, they’re dusting off 20th-century talking points about creating “good jobs.”

Maybe there was a time when the political culture seemed to keep up with the pace of innovation. If so, those times are long gone. The rhetoric of electoral politics is exposing the great rift in civic life.

The tools we use every day, the technologies we love, the way we engage each other, the means by which our lives are improving are a consequences of innovation, markets, community, and globalization — that is, by the interactions of free people. Not by politics. And not by the systems politics creates.

The political election is a tired old ritual in which we send our hopes and dreams away to distant capitals. Why do we outsource them to politicians, lobbyists, and bureaucrats: people who are trapped in a system that rewards the worst in people? What’s left of governance is logrolling, spectacle, and unwanted interference in the lives of everyone else.

Politicians seem more concerned with putting the genie of innovation and entrepreneurship back in the bottle than doing anything meaningful. After the election, we try our best to ignore them and get on with life.

Politicians seem more concerned with putting the genie of innovation and entrepreneurship back in the bottle than doing anything meaningful.

In 2012, US voters reelected Barack Obama, and now we’re gearing up to elect someone else. Candidates will talk about their visions and their wonderful plans for the country. But in the last three years, virtually none of the incredible, beautiful upheaval we’ve seen has had anything to do with the presidency or with anyone politician’s plans.

In fact, when you think about what government has done for us in recent years, only one new program comes to mind: Obamacare. Opinions vary on whether that program has been deeply disappointing or an unmitigated disaster.

Now, take a step back and observe the evolution of commercial society and how it is bringing us unprecedented bounty. The digital sector of emergent, market-generated, people-driven, technology-fueled innovation is fulfilling human aspirations and spreading useful services to people in all walks of life. National borders seem ever more arbitrary. Surprises await us around every corner. Our political systems can claim credit for none of it.

And yet, we are once again being asked to turn to politicians to drive progress.

Consider how much our lives and technologies have changed since the last presidential election. Smartphone ownership has gone from 300 million to 2 billion, meaning that most of the population of the developed world — and large parts of the rest — now have access to a wireless supercomputer in their pockets. As a result, we are more in touch than ever.

There are now dozens of ways for anyone to keep in contact with anyone else through text messaging and video, and most of the services are free. Transportation in cities has fundamentally changed due to ridesharing and app-based systems that are outcompeting municipal taxis. Traditional travel lodging has been disrupted through mobile applications that turn every empty room into a hotel, and finding permanent lodging is easier than ever. You can find the ratings for any service or establishment instantly with a click or a tap, long before you purchase. You can feasibly shop for and buy a house without ever having stepped inside of it.

Cryptocurrency is becoming a viable alternative to national monies, and payment systems on distributed networks are being customized for peer-to-peer exchanges of property titles.

The mass distribution and availability of mobile applications with maps means that you are never lost, and, moreover, that you can be intensely aware of everything around you, wherever you are or wherever you are planning to be. Extended families that are spread out over large geographic regions can stay constantly in touch, chatting and playing games.

The way we help our neighbors and communities is improving. We can contribute to charitable causes with just a click. We are closer to our neighbors and their needs — whether it’s a missing cat, a call for a handyman, or childcare for Saturday night. We can be on the lookout after a break-in and share video of the perpetrators instantly.

The way we consume music has fundamentally changed. We once bought CDs. Then we downloaded particular tracks and albums. With Internet everywhere, we now stream a seemingly endless variety of genres. The switch between classical and indie rock requires only a touch. And it’s not just new music we can access, but vast archives and recreations of music dating to antiquity. Instantly.

Software packages that once cost thousands are now low-cost downloadable apps. Many of us live in the cloud now, so that no one’s life is ruined by a computer crash. Lost hardware can be found with built-in tracers — even stealing computers is harder than ever.

Where we work no longer matters as much. 4G LTE means a powerful Internet connection wherever you are, and WiFi on airlines means staying in touch even while above the clouds. Online document signing means total portability and the end of the physical world for most business transactions. You can share almost anything — whether grocery lists or whole writing projects — with anyone and work in real time. More people than ever work from home because they can.

News is now crowdsourced through Twitter and Facebook — or through mostly silly sites like BuzzFeed. There are thousands of competitors, so that we can know what we want to know wherever we are. Once there was only “national news”; now a news event has to be pretty epic to qualify, and much of the news that we are interested in never even makes old-line newspapers.

Edward Snowden revealed ubiquitous surveillance, escaped prosecution, and now, thanks to technology, has been on a worldwide speaking tour, becoming the globe’s most famous public intellectual. This is despite his having been censored and effectively exiled by the world’s biggest and most powerful state. He has a great story to tell, and that story is more powerful than any of the big shots who want him to shut up.

Pot has been effectively legalized in many American cities, and the temperature on the war against it has dropped dramatically. When dispensaries are raided, the news flies all over the Internet within minutes, creating outrage and bringing the heat down on the one-time masters of the universe. There is now a political risk to participating in the war on pot — something unthinkable even 10 years ago. And as police continue to abuse their power, citizens are waiting with cameras.

Oil prices have collapsed, revealing the fallacy of peak oil. This happened despite pressure in the opposite direction from every special interest, from environmentalists to the oil industry itself. The reason was again technological. We discovered better and cheaper ways of drilling, and, in so doing, exposed vastly more resources than anyone thought accessible.

At the very time when oil and gas seemed untouchable, we suddenly saw electric cars becoming viable options. This was not due to government mandates — regulators tried those for years — but due to some serious innovation on the part of one remarkable company. It’s not even the subsidies, such as they are, that are making the difference; it’s the fine-tuning of the machine itself. Tesla even took it a step further and released its patents into the commons, allowing innovation to spread at a market-based pace.

We are now printing houses in one day, vaping instead of smoking, legally purchasing pharmaceuticals abroad, using drones to deliver consumer products, and enjoying one-day delivery of just about everything.

In the last four years, the ebook became a mass consumer item, outselling the physical book and readable on devices within the budget of just about everyone. And despite attempts to keep books offline, just about anything is now available for download, putting all the world’s great literature, in all major languages, at our fingertips.

Here we go again, playing “let’s pretend” and electing leaders under the old-fashioned presumption that it is politics that improves the world and drives history forward.

And speaking of languages, we now have instant access to translation programs that allow us to email and even text with anyone in a way he or she can understand regardless of language. It’s an awesome thing to consider that this final barrier to universal harmony, once seen as insuperable, is in the process of melting away.

These are all ways in which the world has been improved through markets, creativity, and free association. And yet, here we go again, playing “let’s pretend” and electing leaders under the old-fashioned presumption that it is politics that improves the world and drives history forward.

Look around: progress is everywhere. And it is not because we are electing the “right people.” Progress occurs despite politics and politicians, not because of them.

Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also cofounder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

Paul Krugman Is Clueless about Bitcoin by Max Borders

In this video clip, Paul Krugman demonstrates once again that prizes don’t make you an expert on everything. Indeed, his poor prognostications happen so frequently that one wonders if Krugman is an expert on anything. I don’t say that to be unpleasant. If you’re going on TV and enjoying a lavish lifestyle by pretending to know what you’re talking about, shouldn’t you be held to a higher standard?

Let’s pass over for a moment how woefully wrong Krugman was about the Internet. What about the internet of money?

Krugman first says: “At this point bitcoin is not looking too good.”

It is true that investment often follows the Gartner hype cycle. So bitcoin has indeed fallen from great heights and is probably just now making its ascent out of the “trough of disillusionment.”

But so what? There is nothing inherently wrong with bitcoin. In fact, some very savvy, patient people are building an unbelievable set of technologies within and around the blockchain. And if you believe Gartner, most really interesting tech goes through this cycle.

Let’s look back at the Internet. When the dotcom bubble and subsequent burst looked like this:

Do we conclude that because in 2002 the Internet wasn’t “looking so good” that TCP/IP was not viable? That would have been a very short-sighted thing to say, particularly about a system that is a robust “dumb network“ like the internet.

Bitcoin is also a dumb network. But don’t let the “dumb” part fool you, says bitcoin expert Andreas Andronopoulos. “So the dumb network becomes a platform for independent innovation, without permission, at the edge. The result is an incredible range of innovations, carried out at an even more incredible pace. People interested in even the tiniest of niche applications can create them on the edge.”

Then Krugman goes on to ask, “Why does a piece of paper with a dead president on it have value?” Answering his own question he says “Because other people think it has value.”

And this is not untrue. But the problem with this line of thinking is — subjective value notwithstanding — the value of money is also contingent. You might say the value of fiat money is too contingent — especially upon political whims, upon the limited knowledge of the folks at the Federal Reserve, and upon the fact that its unit of account is no longer anything scarce, such as gold.

By contrast, bitcoin has standard of scarcity programmed into it. So, bitcoin is in limited supply, thanks to a sophisticated algorithm.

In a fully decentralized monetary system, there is no central authority that regulates the monetary base. Instead, currency is created by the nodes of a peer-to-peer network. The bitcoin generation algorithm defines, in advance, how currency can be created and at what rate. Any currency that is generated by a malicious user that does not follow the rules will be rejected by the network and thus is worthless. (To learn more about this algorithm, visit “Currency with a Finite Supply.”)

Perhaps you don’t trust this algorithm. Certainly Paul Krugman does not. That’s okay, because digital currencies compete, so you can find one you do trust. One crypto currency is backed by gold and funnily enough, it’s called “the Hayek” after the Nobel laureate who wrote about competing private currencies.

Now, what shall we make of the magic of the dollar? Krugman says it is “the fact that you can use it to pay taxes.” That’s sort of like saying that the Internet works because of eFile. Let’s just assume Krugman was kidding.

But Krugman thinks, without irony, that bitcoin “levitates.” That is to say, he’s okay with the idea that the dollar has value because other people value it, but he’s not okay with the idea that bitcoin has value because other people value it, which is a rather curious thing to say in the same two-minute stretch. He goes on to argue that bitcoin is built on libertarian ideology, and that it doesn’t do anything that digitizing the dollar hasn’t done.

And that’s when we realize that Krugman doesn’t have any earthly clue about bitcoin.

But Freeman columnist Andreas Antonopoulos does:

Open-source currencies have another layer that multiplies these underlying effects: the currency itself. Not only is the investment in infrastructure and innovation shared by all, but the shared benefit may also manifest in increased value for the common currency.

Currency is the quintessential shared good, because its value correlates strongly to the economic activity that it enables. In simple terms, a currency is valuable because many people use it, and the more who use it, the more valuable it becomes.

Unlike national currencies, which are generally restricted to use within a country’s borders, digital currencies like bitcoin are global and can therefore be readily adopted and used by almost any user who is part of the networked global society.

What Krugman also fails to appreciate is that bitcoin and the bitcoin network is disintermediated. That’s a fancy way of saying it’s direct and peer-to-peer. This elimination of the mediating institutions — banks, governments, and credit card companies — means bitcoin transactions are far, far cheaper. But that also means these institutions could be far less powerful over time. And that’s precisely why it’s being adopted most quickly by the world’s poorest people and countries with hyperinflation.

Hey, look, I understand. In many ways, Krugman is a twentieth-century mind. Keynesian. Unhealthy obsession with aggregates and dirigisme. He believes in big central solutions to problems that robust, decentralized systems are far better equipped to tackle. And he’s not terribly plugged into tech innovation. In fact, here’s that well-played Internet quote in case you forgot:

The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law” — which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants — becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other!

By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.

To grok the power decentralization, you have to have a twenty-first century mind.

Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also co-founder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

Should We Fear the Era of Driverless Cars or Embrace the Coming Age of Autopilot? by Will Tippens

Driving kills more than 30,000 Americans every year. Wrecks cause billions of dollars in damages. The average commuter spends nearly 40 hours a year stuck in traffic and almost five years just driving in general.

But there is light at the end of the traffic-jammed tunnel: the driverless car. Thanks to millions of dollars in driverless technology investment by tech giants like Google and Tesla, the era of road rage, drunk driving, and wasted hours behind the wheel could be left in a cloud of dust within the next two decades.

Despite the immense potential of self-driving vehicles, commentators are already dourly warning that such automation will produce undesirable effects. As political blogger Scott Santens warns,

Driverless vehicles are coming, and they are coming fast…. As close as 2025 — that is in a mere 10 years — our advancing state of technology will begin disrupting our economy in ways we can’t even yet imagine. Human labor is increasingly unnecessary and even economically unviable compared to machine labor.

The problem, Santens says, is that there are “over 10 million American workers and their families whose incomes depend entirely or at least partially on the incomes of truck drivers.” These professional drivers will face unemployment within the next two decades due to self-driving vehicles.

Does this argument sound familiar?

These same objections have sprung up at every major stage of technological innovation since the Industrial Revolution, from the textile-working Luddites destroying looming machines in the 1810s to taxi drivers in 2015 smashing Uber cars.

Many assume that any initial job loss accompanying new technology harms the economy and further impoverishes the most vulnerable, whether fast food workers or truck drivers. It’s true that losing a job can be an individual hardship, but are these same pundits ready to denounce the creation of the light bulb as an economic scourge because it put the candle makers out of business?

Just as blacksmithing dwindled with the decline of the horse-drawn buggy, economic demand for certain jobs waxes and wanes. Jobs arise and continue to exist for the sole reason of satisfying consumer demands, and the consumer’s demands are continuously evolving. Once gas heating devices became available, most people decided that indoor fires were dirtier, costlier, and less effective at heating and cooking, so they switched. While the change temporarily disadvantaged those in the chimney-sweeping business, the added value of the gas stove vastly improved the quality of life for everyone, chimney sweeps included.

There were no auto mechanics before the automobile and no web designers before the Internet. It is impossible to predict all the new employment opportunities a technology will create beforehand. Countless jobs exist today that were unthinkable in 1995 — and 20 years from now, people will be employed in ways we cannot yet begin to imagine, with the driverless car as a key catalyst.

The historical perspective doesn’t assuage the naysayers. If some jobs can go extinct, couldn’t all jobs go extinct?

Yes, every job we now know could someday disappear — but so what? Specific jobs may come and go, but that doesn’t mean we will ever see a day when labor is no longer demanded.

Economist David Ricardo demonstrated in 1817 that each person has a comparative advantage due to different opportunity costs. Each person is useful, and no matter how unskilled he or she may be, there will always be something that each person has a special advantage in producing. When this diversity of ability and interest is coupled with the infinite creativity of freely acting individuals, new opportunities will always arise, no matter how far technology advances.

Neither jobs nor labor are ends in themselves — they are mere means to the goal of wealth production. This does not mean that every person is concerned only with getting rich, but as Henry Hazlitt wrote in Economics in One Lesson, real wealth consists in what is produced and consumed: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in. It is railways and roads and motor cars; ships and planes and factories; schools and churches and theaters; pianos, paintings and hooks.

In other words, wealth is the ability to fulfill subjective human desires, whether that means having fresh fruit at your local grocery or being able to easily get from point A to point B. Labor is simply a means to these ends. Technology, in turn, allows labor to become far more efficient, resulting in more wealth diffused throughout society.

Everyone knows that using a bulldozer to dig a ditch in an hour is preferable to having a whole team of workers spend all day digging it by hand. The “surplus” workers are now available to do something else in which they can produce more highly valued goods and services.  Over time, in an increasingly specialized economy, productivity rises and individuals are able to better serve one another through mutually beneficial exchanges in the market. This ongoing process of capital accumulation is the key to all meaningful prosperity and the reason all of humanity has seen an unprecedented rise in wealth, living standards, leisure, and health in the past two centuries.

Technology is always uncertain going forward. Aldous Huxley warned in 1927 that jukeboxes would put live artists out of business. Time magazine predicted the computer would wreak economic chaos in the 1960s.

Today, on the cusp of one of the biggest innovations since the Internet, there is, predictably, similar opposition. But those who wring their hands at the prospect of the driverless car fail to see that its greatest potential lies not in reducing pollution and road deaths, nor in lowering fuel costs and insurance rates, but rather in its ability to liberate billions of hours of human potential that truckers, taxi drivers, and commuters now devote to focusing on the road.

No one can know exactly what the future will look like, but we know where we have been, and we know the principles of human flourishing that have guided us here.

If society is a car, trade is the engine — and technology is the gas. It drives itself. Enjoy the ride.

Will Tippens

Will Tippens is a recent law school graduate living in Memphis.

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The Ghosts of Spying Past by Gary McGath

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration fought furiously against privacy and security in communication, and we’re still hurting from it today. Yet people in powerful positions are trying to commit the same mistakes all over again.

In the early days, the Internet was thoroughly insecure; its governmental and academic users trusted each other, and the occasional student prank couldn’t cause much damage. As it started becoming available to everyone in the early ‘90s, people saw the huge opportunities it offered for commerce.

But doing business safely requires data security: If unauthorized parties can grab credit card numbers or issue fake orders, nobody is safe. However, the Clinton administration considered communication security a threat to national security.

Attorney General Janet Reno said, “Without encryption safeguards, all Americans will be endangered.” She didn’t mean that we needed the safeguard of encryption, but that we had to be protected from encryption.

In a 1996 executive order, President Clinton stated:

I have determined that the export of encryption products described in this section could harm national security and foreign policy interests even where comparable products are or appear to be available from sources outside the United States, and that facts and questions concerning the foreign availability of such encryption products cannot be made subject to public disclosure or judicial review without revealing or implicating classified information that could harm United States national security and foreign policy interests.

The government prohibited the export of strongly secure encryption technology by calling it a “munition.” Putting code on the Internet makes it available around the world, so the restriction crippled secure communication. The Department of Justice investigated Phil Zimmerman for three years for making a free email encryption program, PGP, available.

The administration also tried to mandate government access to all strong encryption keys. In 1993 it proposed making the Clipper Chip, with a built-in “back door” for government spying, the standard for serious encryption. Any message it sent included a 128-bit field that would let government agencies (and hopefully no one else) decrypt it.

But the algorithm for the Clipper was classified, making independent assessments impossible. However strong it was, it would have offered a single point to attack, with the opportunity to intercept virtually unlimited amounts of data as an incentive to find weaknesses. Security experts pointed out the inherent risks inherent in the key recovery process.

By the end of the ‘90s, the government had apparently yielded to public pressure and common sense and lifted the worst of the restrictions. It didn’t give up, though — it just got sneakier.

Documents revealed by Edward Snowden show that the NSA embarked on a program to install back doors through secret collaboration with businesses. It sought, in its own words, to “insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems, IT systems, networks, and endpoint communications devices” and “shape the worldwide cryptography marketplace to make it more tractable to advanced cryptanalytic capabilities being developed by NSA/CSS.”

The NSA isn’t just a spy agency; it’s one of the leading centers of expertise in encryption, perhaps the best in the world. Businesses and other organizations trying to maximize their data security trust its technical recommendations — or at least they used to. If it can’t get the willing collaboration of tech companies, it can deceive them with broken standards.

Old software with government-required weaknesses from the nineties is still around, along with newer software that may have NSA-inspired weaknesses. There are still restrictions on the exporting of cryptography in many cases, depending on a complicated set of criteria related to the software’s purpose. Even harmless file identification software, used mostly by librarians, may have to carry a warning that it contains decryption code and might be subject to use restrictions.

With today’s vastly more powerful computers, encryption that was strong two decades ago can be easily broken today. Some websites, especially ones outside the United States that were denied access to strong encryption, still use the methods which they were stuck with then, and so do some old browsers.

To deal with this, many browsers support the old protocols when a site offers nothing stronger, and many sites fall back to the weak protocols if a browser is limited to them. Code breakers have found ways to make browsers think only weak security is available and force even the stronger sites to fall back on it. Some sites have disabled weak encryption, only to be forced to restore it because so many users have old browsers.

You’d think that by now people would understand that secure transactions are essential, but politicians in the US and other countries still want to weaken encryption so they can spy on people’s communications.

The FBI’s assistant director of counter-terrorism claims that strong encryption gives terrorists “a free zone by which to radicalize, plot, and plan.” NSA Director Michael S. Rogers has said, “I don’t want a back door. I want a front door.” UK Prime Minister Cameron says,

In extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to mobile communications. The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not.

In 2015 over eighty civil society organizations, companies, and trade associations, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Adobe, sent a public letter to President Obama expressing concern about such actions. The letter states:

Strong encryption is the cornerstone of the modern information economy’s security. Encryption protects billions of people every day against countless threats — be they street criminals trying to steal our phones and laptops, computer criminals trying to defraud us, corporate spies trying to obtain our companies’ most valuable trade secrets, repressive governments trying to stifle dissent, or foreign intelligence agencies trying to compromise our and our allies’ most sensitive national security secrets.

In the United States, we have a tradition of free speech, but in many countries, even mild criticism of the authorities needs to travel in secret.

A country can pass laws to weaken its law-abiding citizens’ access to cryptography, but criminals and terrorists exchanging secret messages would have no reason to pay attention to them. They can keep using the strong encryption methods that are currently available and get new software from countries that don’t have those restrictions.

Governments would gain increased ability to spy on people who follow the law, and so would free-lance data thieves, while competent criminals would still be able to communicate in secret. To crib David Cameron, we must not let that happen — again.

Gary McGath

Gary McGath is a freelance software engineer living in Nashua, New Hampshire.

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Celebrate Independence With a Revolution Against the Surveillance State by Ryan Hagemann

In the decade before 1776, British courts began issuing “writs of assistance” for the general search and seizure of colonists’ documents. The intention was to permit British troops to inspect properties for smuggled goods, but these writs gave officials broad power to enter private homes to search for, and seize, anything and everything that might be considered contraband by the British Empire.

Such general warrants were among the many complaints the colonists levied against the crown and played no small part in the American Revolution.

This Independence Day, it would behoove us all, as Americans, to reflect on the motivations for the colonists’ revolt against Britain. In a 2013 piece at the Huffington Post, Radley Balko spoke on the core meaning of the Fourth of July:

Independence Day isn’t for celebrating the American government and whoever happens to be currently running it, but for celebrating the principles that make America unique.

And in fact, celebrating the principles that [animated] the American founding often means celebrating the figures who have defended those principles in spite of the government.

The list of modern Americans who have stood as stalwart guardians of the principles of liberty is regrettably short. More concerning, however, is what has happened in the years since 9/11, as fear and paranoia over terrorism gripped the American electorate and absconded with many of the basic liberties that the founding generation fought and died to uphold. America just isn’t what it used to be.

But the tides of unrestrained surveillance seem to be receding.

A few weeks ago, thanks to a vibrant and broad coalition of civil libertarians, grassroots organizations, and cross-aisle partners, America finally took the first step in reining in the secret surveillance state that Edward Snowden revealed to us almost two years ago to the day. The USA FREEDOM Act, for all its flaws, stands as the most significant piece of surveillance reform legislation since 1978 and signals Congress’s willingness to work on surveillance reform.

While there is much to do in preparing for upcoming battles over government surveillance, a look back at recent events can help shed light on how we as libertarians can best move forward.

Not surprisingly, the debate left some dissatisfied that the reforms did not go far enough, while others considered anything short of a full USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization to be an unacceptable compromise.

Filled with riotous rhetorical broadsides, the debate featured civil libertarians supporting reform against civil libertarians backing a complete, uncompromising end to the surveillance state, pitting Republican hawks against centrists and Democrats, and Sen. Rand Paul against pretty much everyone.

In a story of strange political bedfellows, Sen. Paul joined hawks such as Sen. John McCain and Sen. Richard Burr in voting against the USA FREEDOM Act. While Paul criticized components of the bill for not going far enough (all criticisms being perfectly fair and true), the political reality was such that this bill, however imperfect, was by far the best chance for reform in the near term.

As Cato’s Julian Sanchez noted prior to its passage: “While ‘Sunset the Patriot Act’ makes for an appealing slogan, the fact remains that the vast majority of the Patriot Act is permanent — and includes an array of overlapping authorities that will limit the effect of an expiration.”

In other words, the limitations of USA FREEDOM would actually be more effective than simply letting a two or three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (temporarily) expire.

The heroes of this debate were a broad coalition of civil-society groups, technology firms, and nonprofits dedicated to moving the ball forward on reform, no matter how small the gain.

However, even as some are celebrating this small but important victory, there are troubled waters ahead for privacy advocates and civil libertarians. The upcoming Senate vote on the Cybersecurity and Information Sharing Act (CISA) is the next battle in the ongoing war against the surveillance apparatus. If passed, it would be one step forward, two steps back for the small victories privacy advocates have won over the past month.

I’ve written quite a bit on the issues that many civil libertarian organizations have with CISA, which is little more than a surveillance Trojan Horse containing a host of “information-sharing” provisions that would allow intelligence agencies to acquire information from private firms and use it to prosecute Americans for garden-variety crimes unrelated to cybersecurity, due process be damned.

A broad coalition of organizations has once more come together, this time to oppose CISA, to continue the battle against expanding the surveillance state.

In public policy, the Overton window refers to the spectrum of policy prescriptions and ideas that the public views as tolerable: the political viability of any idea depends not on the personal preferences of politicians, but on whether it falls within the range of publicly acceptable options.

That is why a willingness to compromise is so vital in public-policy discussions. Marginal reforms should be seen as victories in the slow but consistent effort to rein in the excesses of our Orwellian security order.

USA FREEDOM is far from ideal, and the expiration of provisions of the PATRIOT Act, such as Section 215, will not stop government surveillance in its tracks. The government can still use National Security Letters (NSL), and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act can still be creatively interpreted by the intelligence community to justify continued mass surveillance, to say nothing of Executive Order 12333, which covers surveillance conducted outside of the United States.

Nonetheless, the new law is an important first step towards tearing down the most onerous provisions of the PATRIOT Act in a piecemeal fashion. This may seem a daunting and less-than-ideal approach for many libertarians, but the alternative is merely symbolic gesticulation.

So where do we go from here?

Libertarians need to start working with nontraditional allies to support, on an issue-by-issue basis, real, practical reforms to the surveillance state. If we do not, we cannot hope to be effective and valuable partners to those individuals and organizations working tirelessly in support of the same values and freedoms that we all hold dear.

We must also recognize that there are limitations to compromise, and we should never forsake our core principles in favor of political expediency. But, on the margins, we can make significant contributions to civil liberties, especially in the ongoing surveillance reform debate. Recognizing the reality of what is achievable in the current political landscape is necessary for identifying and taking advantage of the available opportunities for restoring liberty.

We have a choice in the upcoming surveillance-reform fights: We can be positive contributors to a legacy of liberty for future generations, or we can continue to fancy ourselves armchair philosophers, ignoring public-policy realities and taking comfort in the echo chamber that never challenges our worldview.

Given political realities, marginal reforms constitute the fastest path forward. The American people are owed their civil liberties; hence, we must fight to move, however incrementally, towards a freer, more civil society.


Ryan Hagemann

Ryan Hagemann is a civil liberties policy analyst at the Niskanen Center.

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Driverless Money by George Selgin

Last week I was contemplating a post having to do with driverless cars when, wouldn’t you know it, I received word that the Bank of England had just started a new blog called Bank Underground, and the first substantive post on it had to do with — you guessed it — driverless cars.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried that Bank Underground had stolen my fire. The post, you see, was written by some employees in the Bank of England’s General Insurance Supervision Division, whose concern was that driverless cars might be bad news for the insurance industry.

The problem, as the Bank of England’s experts see it, is that cars like the ones that Google plans to introduce in 2020 are much better drivers than we humans happen to be — so much better, according to research cited in the post, that “the entire basis of motor insurance, which mainly exists because people crash, could … be upended.”

Driverless cars, therefore, threaten to “wipe out traditional motor insurance.”

It is, of course, a great relief to know that the Bank of England’s experts are keeping a sharp eye out for such threats to the insurance industry. (I suppose they must be working as we speak on some plan for addressing the dire possibility — let us hope it never comes to this — that cancer and other diseases will eventually be eradicated.)

But my own interest in driverless cars is rather different. So far as I’m concerned, the advent of such cars should have us all wondering, not about the future of the insurance industry, but about the future of…the Bank of England, or rather of it and all other central banks.

If driverless cars can upend “the entire basis of motor insurance,” then surely, I should think, an automatic or “driverless” monetary system ought to be capable of upending “the entire basis of monetary policy,” as such policy is presently conducted.

And that, so far as I’m concerned, would be a jolly good thing.

Am I drifting into science fiction? Let’s put matters in perspective. Although experiments involving driverless or “autonomous” cars have been going on for decades, until as recently as one decade ago, the suggestion that such cars would soon be, not only safe enough to replace conventional ones, but far safer, would have struck many people as fantastic.

Consider for a moment the vast array of contingencies such a vehicle must be capable of taking into account in order to avoid accidents and get passengers to some desired destination. Besides having to determine correct routes, follow their many twists and turns, obey traffic signals, and parallel park, they have to be capable of evading all sorts of unpredictable hazards, including other errant vehicles, not to mention jaywalkers and such.

The relevant variables are, in fact, innumerable. Yet using a combination of devices tech wizards have managed to overcome almost every hurdle, and will soon have overcome the few that remain.

All of this would be impressive enough even if human beings were excellent drivers. In fact, they are often very poor drivers indeed, which means that driverless cars are capable, not only of being just as good, but of being far better —  90 percent better, to be precise, since that’s the percentage of all car accidents attributable to human error.

Human beings are bad drivers for all sorts of reasons. They have to perform other tasks that take their mind off the road; their vision is sometimes impaired; they misjudge their own driving capabilities or the workings of their machines; some are sometimes inclined to show off, while others are dangerously timid. Occasionally, instead of relying on their wits, they drive “under the influence.”

Central bankers, being human, suffer from similar human foibles. They are distracted by the back-seat ululations of commercial bankers, exporters, finance ministers, and union leaders, among others. Their vision is at the same time both cloudy and subject to myopia.

Finally, few if any are able to escape altogether the disorienting influence of politics. The history of central banking is, by and large, a history of accidents, if not of tragic accidents, stemming from these and other sorts of human error.

It should not be so difficult, then, to imagine that a “driverless” monetary system might spare humanity such accidents, by guiding monetary policy more responsibly than human beings are capable of doing.

How complicated a challenge is this? Is it really more complicated than that involved in, say, driving from San Francisco to New York? Central bankers themselves like to think so, of course — just as most of us still like to believe that we are better drivers than any computer.

But let’s be reasonable. At bottom central bankers, in their monetary policy deliberations, have to make a decision concerning one thing, and one thing only: should they acquire or sell assets, and how many, or should they do neither?

Unlike a car, which has numerous controls — a steering wheel, signal lights, brakes, and an accelerator — a central bank has basically one, consisting of the instrument with which it adjusts the rate at which assets flow into or out of its balance sheet. Pretty simple.

And the flow itself? Here, to be sure, things get more complicated. What “target” should the central bank have in mind in determining the flow? Should it consist of a single variable, like the inflation rate, or of two or more variables, like inflation and unemployment? But the apparent complexity is, in my humble opinion, a result of confusion on monetary economists’ part, rather than of any genuine trade-offs central bankers face.

As Scott Sumner has been indefatigably arguing for some years now (and as I myself have long maintained), sound monetary policy isn’t a matter of having either a constant rate of inflation or any particular level of either employment or real output. It’s a matter of securing a stable flow of spending, or Nominal GNP, while leaving it to the marketplace to determine how that flow breaks down into separate real output and inflation-rate components.

Scott would have NGDP grow at an annual rate of 4-5 percent; I would be more comfortable with a rate of 2-3 percent. But this number is far less important to the achievement of macroeconomic stability than a commitment to keeping the rate — whatever it happens to be — stable and, therefore, predictable.

So: one goal, and one control. That’s much simpler than driving from San Francisco to New York. Heck, it’s simpler than managing the twists and turns of San Franscisco’s Lombard Street.

And the technology? In principle, one could program a computer to manage the necessary asset purchases or sales. That idea itself is an old one, Milton Friedman having contemplated it almost forty years ago, when computers were still relatively rare.

What Friedman could not have imagined then was a protocol like the one that controls the supply of bitcoins, which has the distinct advantage of being, not only automatic, but tamper-proof: once set going, no-one can easily alter it. The advantage of a bitcoin-style driverless monetary system is that it is, not only capable of steering itself, but incapable of being hijacked.

The bitcoin protocol itself allows the stock of bitcoins to grow at a predetermined and ever-diminishing rate, so that the stock of bitcoins will cease to grow as it approaches a limit of 21 million coins.

But all sorts of protocols may be possible, including ones that would adjust a currency’s supply growth according to its velocity — that is, the rate at which the currency is being spent — so as to maintain a steady flow of spending, à la Sumner. The growth rate could even be made to depend on market-based indicators of the likely future value of NGDP.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t any challenges yet to be overcome in designing a reliable “driverless money.” For one thing, the monetary system as a whole has to be functioning properly: just as a driverless car won’t work if the steering linkage is broken, a driverless monetary system won’t work if it’s so badly tuned that banks end up just sitting on any fresh reserves that come their way.

My point is rather that there’s no good reason for supposing that such challenges are any more insuperable than those against which the designers of driverless cars have prevailed. If driverless car technology has managed to take on San Francisco’s Lombard Street, I see no reason why driverless money technology couldn’t eventually tackle London’s.

What’s more, there is every reason to believe that driverless money would, if given a chance, prove to be far more beneficial to mankind than driverless cars ever will.

For although bad drivers cause plenty of accidents, none has yet managed to wreck an entire economy, as reckless central bankers have sometimes done. If driverless monetary systems merely served to avoid the worst macroeconomic pileups, that alone would be reason enough to favor them.

But they can surely do much better than that. Who knows: perhaps the day will come when, thanks to improvements in driverless monetary technology, central bankers will find themselves with nothing better to do than worry about the future of the hedge fund industry.

Cross-posted from Alt-M.org and Cato.org.

George Selgin

Why Is Snapchat More Secure than the Federal Government? by Andrea Castillo

Cyberhawks have seized upon this year’s massive hack of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to shove a wolfish surveillance bill in a sheepish cybersecurity bill’s clothing down America’s throat.

But the “Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015” (CISA) would have done nothing to stop the hack that exposed as many as 14 million federal employees’ personnel records. The pro-NSA crowd’s arguments are obvious nonsense — if anything, the OPM hack clearly demonstrates the danger of trusting incompetent government bureaucracies to manage huge datasets of sensitive personal information.

But amid all of the hubbub, these self-styled champions of strong cybersecurity — who also just happen to be anti-private encryption and pro-surveillance — have neglected to raise one important question: Why did a goofy picture-sharing app implement basic security measures before the central repository for all federal personnel data did?

This week, Snapchat announced that the private picture messaging service was offering two-factor authentication for its users. This basic measure of security helps to verify that the person logging in is indeed the legitimate owner of their account by sending out a text message with a special access code to the owner’s cell phone.

That way, a hacker must obtain both your password and your mobile phone to access and control your account. It’s simple, but simple security solutions can sometimes mean the difference between a foiled infiltration and a very, very bad day for a Snapchat user.

Of course, it is too much to expect the chief steward of federal employee information to implement such a simple policy. As the beleaguered office’s Inspector General reported last fall, OPM does not require multi-factor authentication to access its information systems.

If a careless OPM employee chose a weak and easy-to-guess password, or emailed it in plain text across an insecure channel, or merely left it on a sticky note on his or her desk (as is common practice in the federal government), than any common hacker could potentially access vast amounts of federal data.

In other words, an application for sharing pictures of wild parties and funny cats has better authentication standards than the federal government’s primary steward of millions of current and former federal employees’ and contractors’ addresses, Social Security numbers, financial information, and health records. Oh, and that of our military leadership and intelligence contacts — several of which are embedded deep undercover in dangerous missions — as well.

Hackers also accessed the feds’ cache of Standard Form 86 files for the aforementioned groups, dragging countless family members, friends, and colleagues into the databreach crossfire.

To call this a huge mess would be the second biggest understatement of the year. The biggest? That OPM’s substantial information security vulnerabilities are entirely unacceptable and directly at fault for the hack.

The OPM’s annual information security reports to Congress have admitted “material weaknesses” and “significant deficiencies” for years. The department lacked an IT team with “professional security experience and certifications”until 2013. Disgruntled employees could have merely walked off with this data if they wanted to, since OPM does not “maintain a comprehensive inventory of servers, databases, and network devices.” Nor did the OPM encrypt any of the data that the hackers stole — they might as well have just invited our forward friends in China to sweep in through the front door!

As Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher concludes, “Considering the overall condition of OPM’s security, it’s no surprise that an attacker — almost any attacker — could gain a foothold inside the agency’s network. But attackers didn’t just gain a foothold, they had practically a free run of the networks.”

It’s true that Snapchat has hardly been a paragon of good cybersecurity in the past, as previous security vulnerabilities, breaches, misleading marketing, and the infamous “Snappening” testify. However, there is another important difference between Snapchat and the OPM that puts the humble app ahead of the mighty federal office: Snapchat has to learn from its mistakes.

As a private service provider in a hotly-competitive market that must keep its users happy to stay afloat, Snapchat moved quickly to get its security house in order after their big mistakes. They hired the former social network security leader for Google and started to build a “culture of security” within the firm.

They may still have a long way to go, but these investments and cultural prioritization are important first steps that demonstrate a proactive sense of ownership in their platform’s security. And of course, if they keep screwing up, they’ll be sued out the nose and go out of business for good.

We see no such sense of urgency with OPM. The agency received what could have been a saving wakeup call in last year, when it was discovered that Chinese hackers had accessed OPM databases in March of 2014.

OPM had the opportunity to implement simple encryption and authentication measures, tighten up their ship, and increase employee education about good data and security practices. No such luck! The office more or less continued on its merry way.

No one was fired back then and it looks like no one will get fired now. It’s government work, after all.

Unfortunately, OPM is hardly the only sucker on cybersecurity in the federal government, as my research for the Mercatus Center has found. This kind of unbelievably poor cybersecurity posture is the norm rather than the exception.

In fact, it’s hard to pick what is scarier: that the federal government operates under the digital equivalent of leaving all of their doors and windows unlocked and wide open, or that these same federal agencies want more power to manage your personal data through CISA.


Andrea Castillo

Andrea Castillo is the program manager of the Technology Policy Program for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and is pursuing a PhD in economics at George Mason University.

AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” Is Capitalism’s Finest Hour by Keith Farrell

AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire is a brilliant achievement. The show is a vibrant look at the emerging personal computer industry in the early 1980s. But more than that, the show is about capitalism, creative destruction, and innovation.

While we all know the PC industry changed the world, the visionaries and creators who brought us into the information age faced uncertainty over what their efforts would yield. They risked everything to build new machines and to create shaky start-ups. Often they failed and lost all they had.

HCF has four main characters: Joe, a visionary and salesman; Cameron, an eccentric programming geek; Gordon, a misunderstood engineering genius; and Gordon’s wife, Donna, a brilliant but unappreciated housewife and engineer.

The show pits programmers, hardware engineers, investors, big businesses, corporate lawyers, venture capitalists, and competing start-ups against each other and, at times, shows them having to cooperate to overcome mutual problems. The result is innovation.

Lee Pace gives an award-worthy performance as Joe MacMillan. The son of a never-present IBM tycoon and a negligent, drug addicted mother, Joe struggles with a host of mental and emotional problems. He’s a man with a brilliant mind and an amazing vision — but he has no computer knowledge or capabilities.

The series begins with his leaving a sales job at IBM in the hope of hijacking Cardiff Electric, a small Texas-based computer company, and launching it into the personal computing game.

As part of his scheme, he gets a low-level job at Cardiff where he recruits Gordon Clark, played by the equally talented Scoot McNairy. Enamored with Gordon’s prior writings on the potential for widespread personal computer use, Joe pleads with Gordon to reverse engineer an IBM-PC with him. The plot delves into the ethical ambiguities of intellectual property law as the two spend days reverse engineering the IBM BIOS.

While the show is fiction, it is inspired in part by the real-life events of Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq. His book, Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing serves as a basis for many of the events in the show’s first season.

In 1981, when Canion and his cohorts set out to make a portable PC, the market was dominated by IBM. Because IBM had rushed their IBM-PC to market, the system was made up entirely of off-the-shelf components and other companies’ software.

As a result, it was possible to buy those same components and software and build what was known as an IBM “clone.” But these clones were only mostlycompatible with IBM. While they could run DOS, they may or may not have run other programs written for IBM-PCs.

Because IBM dominated the market, all the best software was being written for IBMs. Canion wanted to build a computer that was 100 percent IBM compatible but cheaper — and portable enough to move from desk to desk.

Canion said in an interview on the Internet History Podcast, “We didn’t want to copy their computer! We wanted to have access to the software that was written for their computer by other people.”

But in order to do that, he and his team had to reverse-engineer the IBM BIOS. They couldn’t just steal or copy the code because it was proprietary technology, but they could figure out what function the code executed and then write their own code to handle the same task.

Canion explains:

What our lawyers told us was that not only can you not use [the copyrighted code], anybody that’s even looked at it — glanced at it — could taint the whole project. … We had two software people. One guy read the code and generated the functional specifications.

So it was like reading hieroglyphics. Figuring out what it does, then writing the specification for what it does. Then once he’s got that specification completed, he sort of hands it through a doorway or a window to another person who’s never seen IBM’s code, and he takes that spec and starts from scratch and writes our own code to be able to do the exact same function.

In Halt and Catch Fire, Joe uses this idea to push Cardiff into making their own PC by intentionally leaking to IBM that he and Gordon had indeed reversed engineered the BIOS. They recruit a young punk-rock programmer named Cameron Howe to write their own BIOS.

While Gordon, Cameron, and Joe all believe that they are the central piece of the plan, the truth is that they all need each other. They also need to get the bosses and investors at Cardiff on their side in order to succeed, which is hard to do after infuriating them. The show demonstrates that for an enterprise to succeed you need to have cooperation between people of varying skill sets and knowledge bases — and between capital and labor.

The series is an exploration of the chaos and creative destruction that goes into the process of innovation. The beginning of the first episode explains the show’s title:

HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF): An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could be regained.

The show takes this theme of racing for superiority to several levels: the characters, the industry, and finally the economy and the world as a whole.

As Gordon himself declares of the cut-throat environment in which computer innovation occurs, “It’s capitalism at its finest!” HFC depicts Randian heroes: businessmen, entrepreneurs, and creators fight against all odds in a race to change the world.

Now into its second season, the show is exploring the beginnings of the internet, and Cameron is running her own start-up company, Mutiny. I could go on about the outstanding production quality, but the real novelty here is a show where capitalists, entrepreneurs, and titans of industry are regarded as heroic.

Halt and Catch Fire is a brilliant show, but it isn’t wildly popular. I fear it may soon be canceled, so be sure to check it out while it’s still around.


Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell is a freelance writer and political commentator.

Bed Bugs Are the New Plague by Jeffrey A. Tucker

It must have been pretty rotten to sleep in, say, the 12th century Europe. Your floor was dirt. Your mattress was made from hay or bean husks. The biggest drag of all must have been the bed bug problem. It’s not so fabulous to lie there asleep while thousands of ghastly critters gnaw on your flesh. You wake with rashes all over your body.

They heal gradually in the course of the day, but, at night, it starts all over again.

No, they don’t kill you. But they surely make life desperate and miserable. They know where you are. They sense the carbon dioxide. They are after your blood, so they can stay alive. No wonder some people have been driven to suicide.

It stands to reason that among the earliest priorities of civilized life was the total eradication of bed bugs. And we did it! Thanks to modern pesticides, most especially DDT, generations knew not the bed bug.

That is, at least in capitalist countries. I have a friend from Russia whose mother explained the difference between capitalism and socialism as summed up in bed bugs. In the 1950s, capitalist countries had eliminated them. The socialist world, by contrast, faced an epidemic.

But you know what? They are back with an amazing ferocity, right here in 21st century America.

There is a new book getting rave reviews and high sales: Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World.

You can attend Bed Bug University, which is “an intensive four day course that covers bed bug biology and behavior, treatment protocols and explores the unique legal challenges and business opportunities of bed bugs.”

You can browse the Bed Bug Registry, with dozens of reports coming in from around the country. You can call a local company that specializes in keeping them at bay.

Welcome to the post-DDT world in which fear of pesticides displaced fear of the thing that pesticides took away. Oh, how glorious it is to embrace nature and all its ways — until nature begins to feed on you in your sleep.

The various restrictions and bans from the 1970s have gradually brought back the nightmares that wonderful, effective, killer chemicals took away. Some people claim that today not even DDT works because the new strain of bed bug is stronger than ever.

Forget innovating with new pesticides: the restrictions are just too tight. There is not a single product at your local big box hardware store that can deal with these blood suckers. And the products that more-or-less work that are available online, such as Malathion, are not approved for indoor use — and I know for sure that everyone obeys such rules!

In our current greeny ethos, people are suggesting “natural” methods such as: “take all of your laundry and bedding to the Laundromat and wash and dry it at high temperatures.”

Why not do it at home? Well, thanks to federal regulations, your hot water heater is shipped with a high temperature of 110 degrees, which is something like a luxurious bath for the bed bug. Add your detergent — which, by government decree, no longer has phosphates — and your wash turns into Mr. Bubble happy time for Mr. Bed Bug.

So you could stand over gigantic pots of boiling water in your kitchen, fishing beddings in and out, beating your mattresses outside with sticks, and otherwise sleeping in plastic bags, like they do in the new season of “Orange Is the New Black.” You know, like in prison. Or like in the 12th century.

No matter how modernized we become, no matter how many smartphones and tablets we acquire, we still have to deal with the whole problem of nature trying to eat us — in particular, its most wicked part, the man-eating insect. There is no app for that.

Google around on how many people die from mosquitos, and you are immediately struck by the ghastly reality: These things are even more deadly than government. And that’s really saying something.

But somehow, starting in the late 1960s, we began to forget this. Capitalism achieved a wonderful thing, and we took it for granted. We banned the chemicals that saved us, and gradually came to prohibit the creation of more. We feared a “Silent Spring” but instead created a nation in which the noise we hear at night is of an army of bugs sinking their teeth into our flesh.

A little silence would be welcome.

So here we are: mystified, afraid to lie down and sleep, afraid to buy a sofa from Craigslist, boiling our sheets, living in fear of things we can’t see. It’s the Dark Ages again. It gets worse each year, especially during summer when the bed bugs leave their winter hibernation and gather en masse to become our true and living nightmare.

How bad does it have to get before we again unleash the creative forces of science and capitalism to restore a world that is livable for human beings?


Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.

The Feds vs. Reason.com Commenters by Ryan Radia

Our friends over at the Reason Foundation, a venerable libertarian think tank and publisher of Reason magazine, recently received a grand jury subpoena from a federal prosecutor in New York, reports Ken White at Popehat.

The subpoena demands that Reason disclose “all identifying information” it has regarding six pseudonymous users who posted comments about the death and afterlife of a federal judge on Reason’s Hit & Run blog.

These comments came in response to a May 31 post by Nick Gillespie about the trial and sentencing of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted in February of running an Internet-based narcotics and money laundering platform known as Silk Road.

In late May, Judge Katherine Forrest, who sits on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison. This sentence was met with mixed reactions, with many commentators criticizing Judge Forrest for handing down what they perceived as an exceedingly harsh sentence.

A few Reason users, some of whom may have followed Reason’s extensive coverage of the fascinating trial, apparently found Ulbricht’s sentence especially infuriating.

One commenter argued that “judges like these … should be taken out back and shot.” Another user, purporting to correct the preceding comment, wrote that “it’s judges like these that will be taken out back and shot.” A follow-up comment suggested the use of a “wood chipper,” so as not to “waste ammunition.” And a user expressed hope that “there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

Within hours, the office of Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, sent Reason a subpoena for these commenters’ identifying information “in connection with an official criminal investigation of a suspected felony being conducted by a federal grand jury.”

This doesn’t mean a grand jury actually asked about the commenters; instead, in federal criminal investigations, it’s typically up to the US Attorney to decide when to issue a subpoena “on behalf” of a grand jury.

The subpoena demands from Reason information about the six users, including their email and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses — which, if disclosed, could enable the government to uncover the true identities of the commenters, perhaps after another round of subpoenas are sent to the users’ respective Internet Service Providers.

Popehat’s Ken White is quite troubled by the government’s decision to issue this subpoena. Ilya Somin, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, also objects to the subpoena. So do the Cato Institute’s Tim Lynch and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, among many others.

I too find it quite concerning. Even if this subpoena is valid under current law — more on that angle in a bit — the government made a serious mistake in seeking to force Reason to hand over information that could uncover the six commenters’ identities.

Unless the Department of Justice is investigating a credible threat to Judge Forrest with some plausible connection to the Reason comments at issue, this subpoena will serve only to chill hyperbolic — but nonetheless protected — political speech by anonymous Internet commenters.

And if Reason decides to stand up for its users’ rights, the resulting court battle will amount to a waste of federal law enforcement resources that could instead help bring actual criminals to justice, as Tim Lynch reminds us.

To be sure, I have no problem with the feds seeking to locate and prosecute people who actually threaten to commit murder — which, if transmitted in interstate commerce, is a federal crime under Title 18 USC. § 875.

Threatening to kill a federal judge is especially problematic; assassinations of federal judges do happen from time to time. As such, it’s only natural that law enforcement takes such threats seriously.

Yet, while the comments identified in the subpoena are undeniably vile, they’re also protected by the First Amendment, and rightly so. Hyperbolic political statements have a long history in the United States.

For instance, Ken Shultz notes that Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” Sound familiar?

As for the comments about shooting a federal judge, consider the Vietnam War-era prosecution of Robert Watts for “knowingly and willfully threatening the President.”

At age eighteen, Watts said that if he were forced to join the military and “carry a rifle,” then the “first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” The Supreme Court reversed his conviction, finding that Watts had merely “indulged” in a “kind of political hyperbole.” Id. at 708.

Although these statements, like the Reason comments quoted above, are understandably offensive to many listeners, causing offense alone is no basis for outlawing speech. To the contrary, “a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute,” as the Supreme Court has noted. Indeed, speech can sometimes “best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

As for the hyperbolic comments posted on Reason about Judge Forrest, they are plainly not “true threats,” but mere “angry bluster,” as Ken White explains in detail.

The remarks, he notes, were not directed to the Judge, or reasonably calculated to reach her; instead, they appeared on a libertarian political blog notorious for its trash-talking commentariat. The comments lacked any specifics about a specific person’s plans to actually carry out an act of violence; instead, they merely expressed a general desire that a particular person be killed.

And while courts have held on occasion that hoping for someone’s death without evincing a desire to personally kill them can be a true threat, this requires some “causal connection” between the statement and the desired outcome. Again, the Reason comments don’t come close to meeting this threshold.

In short, even if the six Reason users are indicted on federal criminal charges, the First Amendment means the government is all but guaranteed to lose (barring the unlikely scenario the US Attorney’s office is sitting on some damning evidence it hasn’t disclosed).

If the commenters didn’t break the law, then, why can the government use its subpoena power to force Reason to hand over whatever personal information it’s collected about them? Because, as Ken White frets, the US Attorney’s power to issue grand jury subpoenas is so broad that, in most cases, they can be quashed only “when they are irrationally burdensome … or for an improper purpose.”

Moreover, a grand jury — which, again, is typically just another word for “federal prosecutor” — is afforded “wide latitude” in investigating potential crimes, and the “law presumes, absent a strong showing to the contrary, that a grand jury acts within the legitimate scope of its authority.”

And when a grand jury subpoena is “challenged on relevancy grounds the motion to quash must be denied unless the district court determines that there is no reasonable possibility that the category of materials the Government seeks will produce information relevant to the general subject of the grand jury’s investigation.”

What about a grand jury subpoena that implicates First Amendment interests?

In theory, “where values of expression are potentially implicated,” a district court should act with “special sensitivity” to “prevent the chilling effect” of “prosecutorial abuse,” in the words of the Fourth Circuit.

In practice, however, courts are extremely reluctant to quash a federal grand jury subpoena on First Amendment grounds. For instance, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in 2011 that “merely issuing a subpoena to uncover the identity of the speaker so that the police can ascertain whether a threat is valid cannot be deemed a Constitutional violation.”

Where does all of this leave us? Reason could move to quash the subpoena — or at least petition the court to limit its scope to identifying information about the more threatening commenters — on the basis that, absent additional evidence that its commenters’ identities are related in any way to some criminally actionable threat, enforcing the subpoena would undermine Reason commenters’ constitutional interest in anonymity while generating information of “negligible value to the government.”

However, because Reason probably could not show the US Attorney is acting in bad faith, or that complying with the subpoena would be unduly burdensome, Reason’s chances of prevailing if it chooses to fight back are not good. That’s a problem for all of us.

This piece first appeared at CEI.org.


Ryan Radia

Ryan Radia is an Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He focuses on adapting law and public policy to the unique challenges of the information age.