Friday, June 29, 2012

A Theory of Optimal Retweeting

Tyler Cowen complains on Twitter:

New idea: retweeting is unethical, inefficient intellectual pollution, you already decided not to follow them,  (non-endorser)

Can't say I agree. 

1. I agree with @TJ_Lynn saying that retweets give new ideas for followers. For most people, it's hard to know who to follow without some information and retweets are a good way to provide that information.

2. I DON'T follow the prolific Matt Yglesias because of how much he tweets. Instead, I rely on the couple hundred people I am following to RT his best thoughts (and he has plenty that are great!).

3. A RT can serve as a "Like" (Facebook) or "+1" (Google+); Twitter doesn't have any other equivalent. Yes, I can favorite tweets, but that is personal. If I want to publicly affirm my agreement with an idea or interest in a link, the RT is the most efficient way to do it.

4. If you take breaks from Twitter lasting longer than an hour, there are often hundreds of tweets clogging your timeline. A RT can draw your attention to an interesting link that you miss when skimming old tweets - if you skim them at all. It helps links transcend time, which is a non-trivial issue in the Twitterverse.

5. Every RT does impose an externality on all of your followers (which is, I think, the basis of Tyler's complaint). However, the externality is very small (140 characters) and you have a simple exit option: Unfollow! As long as there's an exit option, I can't fret over externalities.

How to determine the optimal amount of retweets?

1. Use the market test. Retweet everything interesting until you lose a follower or a few, then back it down a notch.

2. Set limits on how often you RT the same person. Assume that after 5-10 RTs, your followers get the point and will follow the person if they find the links interesting. Note: This undermines my strategy of not following prolific tweeters and using others as my filter. Furthermore, it assumes that your pool of followers is relatively stable over time, which it probably is not.

3. Only RT with commentary; use the quote tweet feature and RT only if you have something to add.

How do you handle retweets?

EDIT 10:00 AM: My friend Ravi offers the solution to excess retweets: Turn them off for specific users.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

$5000 Bullets

Nick O'Boyle asks on Twitter: What are the unintended consequences of $5,000 bullets? I guess the inspiration is here.

1. Crime scene investigation gets harder. Bullets are more likely to be removed by a perpetrator, and that leaves less evidence available for investigating violence. Corollary: violent crime is still committed, but with other weapons which are harder to track. I'm thinking immediately of knives, but there are plenty of items that can be converted into weapons.

2. A black market in bullets develops. This is no good, because black markets are often marred by low quality standards (note illegal markets for drugs, which are rarely pure). Bullets are sold which backfire more often, making it more dangerous for a shooter to wield a gun.

3. Sportsmen are "protected" by allowing bullets to be sold at minimal cost at rifle ranges for use at the range only. Working at a range suddenly becomes very dangerous.

4. What about hunters? Game hunting becomes a much less popular hobby because it is suddenly ridiculously expensive. Many hunters take up the crossbow as an alternative.

There's probably more, but that's what I have for now.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

College Majors: Technical is Better

For at least the past few months, Bryan Caplan has been subjecting the Twitterverse to an onslaught of tweets describing college education as little more than signaling. I'm still not convinced; I'll outsource some of my doubts to Noah Smith.

But in my infrequent conversations with the absent co-author of this blog, I have come up with one hard rule of thumb for young people considering college: major in the most technical thing you can stomach. It doesn't matter if you enjoy it. In fact, it's probably BETTER if you don't enjoy it.

As a student, you will have nearly infinite free time to pursue things you enjoy. These could be social activities, intramural sports, playing or performing music or dramas, or even reading about a subject you could have majored in. I can promise you that you will never use that infinite time to do something like "acquire more skills."

I personally got hired outside of my major (economics), based entirely on the skills I had acquired in my more technical minor (math). I have a very close acquaintance who is working outside her major and expressed significant regret that she lacks any tangible skills. Her major prepared her to be a college professor, but of course that career path would require another 5 years of school that she is not prepared to undertake today. So until then, she is underemployed.

Whether or not Bryan is right, my theory works. If signaling is the main function of college, it is a much better signal to have a technical major (math, statistics, or engineering) than a non-technical one (music, literature, government). If it is something else - human capital or otherwise - technical majors provide you with more skills that others do not have and make you more desirable to employers. They set you apart, which is one of the biggest battles for young people with sparse resumes.

Hail technicality!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Caplan on Extreme Injustice

Bryan Caplan posts six theses on extremely unjust laws and dares his readers to dispute them. Challenge accepted.

1. Extremely unjust laws are conceivable. No dispute here.

2. Extremely unjust laws exist today. This one is all about definitions, which Bryan does not provide. As we have seen on Twitter, without definitions this one is pretty much indefensible. There may be extremely unjust laws. There may not. It all depends on your definition of extremely unjust. Bryan cites the Holocaust and slavery as historical examples; those laws do not exist today.

Even if immigration laws are the MOST unjust laws today, that doesn't make them the equivalent of the Holocaust or slavery. Most unjust may not even be extremely unjust.

3. It is morally permissible to break an extremely unjust law. I can't disagree with this. It was morally permissible for those harboring slaves through the underground railroad; it was morally permissible for those who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

4. It is morally permissible to evade punishment for breaking an extremely unjust law. By agreeing to 3, I am also agreeing to 4. And I feel fine with it.

5. It is  morally impermissible to enforce an extremely unjust law. This makes me uneasy. The moral permissibility of evading a law says nothing about the moral IMpermissibility of enforcing it. Also, moral permissibility does not OBLIGATE action by a person. Yes, it may be morally permissible to help slaves flee to the north; however, this does not require all people to do so. Statement 5 suddenly obligates action and I don't think the prior 4 statements give ground to make this leap.

6. It is morally permissible to punish a person for enforcing an extremely unjust law. Again, there are obligations for action here that cannot flow from earlier statements about moral permissibility. In order for there to be action, there must be a moral REQUIREMENT, and Bryan never takes his theses to this level.

I don't mean this to be a defense of immigration laws, but there is something incorrect about comparing them to slavery. They are probably the most unjust laws today; nonetheless, this does not make them necessarily as unjust as the most unjust laws in history. Justice seems to be an area where we are growing, slowly but surely, beyond the limits set by our ancestors. I don't think extreme statements help that progress continue, and thus I offer my critique of Caplan.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Foolishness of Owing it To Ourselves

Back in March, on EconTalk, Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts took on the notion of "owing it to ourselves" in the context of public debt. Their arguments revolve around the idea that the citizenship of the bondholder is irrelevant; this is correct, but it doesn't get at the heart of what the "we owe it to ourselves" (WOITO) crowd believes.

Following the example of Boudreaux/Roberts, let's assume there is a war between the USA and a brutal dictator (Hitler or similar) trying to enslave us. It is indisputable that government will put the money to its highest-valued use by deposing of said dictator. It sells me a war bond for $1,000 and promises to re-pay with 4% interest 10 years later. This is a free lunch for government right now, because they have traded me a piece of paper promising stuff later for money which they use to fight the dictator. I voluntarily make an investment I believe will pay off later and everyone is better off.

So far, so good. But what happens when the bond comes due? This is where Boudreaux/Roberts misunderstand the WOITO argument. The argument goes as follows: it is 10 years after the war. The bond is due. Government owes me $1,000 plus interest - wouldn't that be $1,480? - and in order to pay off the debt they raise taxes. As Boudreaux/Roberts point out, I am the taxpayer, so when they raise taxes they ultimately are raising them on me.

Here's where you need to keep your eye on the ball. For arguments' sake, let's suppose the government raises taxes on me by $1,480 in order to pay me back $1,480. Boudreaux/Roberts approach this; they talk about citizen A repaying citizen B; but they never use the example where taxes are raised ON THE SAME CITIZEN who is being repaid.

This is a crucial example because the WOITO crowd sees this as a free lunch. Here's why. From the perspective of my own personal accounting in this calendar year, I have been taxed for an amount but receive the exact same amount as payment for my bond. So my net expenses for this year are 0. FREE LUNCH!

The problem is, the WOITO thinkers took their eye off the ball. This isn't a free lunch, because the $1,480 I received in payment for the bond is the credit for the $1,000 payment I made ten years ago. If you believe the taxes taken from me and the payment to me "cancel out" and make a free lunch, then you are ignoring my original $1,000 expenditure, which is never repaid in this scenario.

The idea that "we owe it to ourselves" is a case of failing to keep your eye on the ball. It looks a little bit like two free lunches: one when government gets to fight the war on the strength of my bond, and one when it takes money from me to repay me later. The repayment isn't even painful for me, because I am receiving money from the government that exactly matches the extra taxes I owe them! However, this logic completely neglects the fact that I made an initial expenditure, and therefore I have two expenditures (one now: the bond purchase; one later: higher taxes) and only one revenue stream (later: the bond repayment).

Wish Don & Russ had more neatly made this point; I agree with their conclusions but think they misunderstand the actual error made by those who believe that it's no big deal when we owe debt to ourselves.

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty