Graph Jokes

Let’s start here:

In case it’s not immediately obvious — I know, it’s not; I can’t figure out how to trick FRED into letting me name the entries in the key whatever I want — blue is Spain, red is Italy, purple is the UK, orange is France, and green is Germany.

There are a lot of stupid things that could be said about this graph, but I’ll try not to say them. A retrospective on the last twenty years would lead you to expect a graph that looks about like this one. The long-term interest rate of government bonds and securities reflects expectations about short-term interest rates and a risk premium, so the Maastrich Treaty (Feb 1992), which required countries to maintain exchange rates within a certain window relative to the Deutschmark and control inflation, should have had the effect of decreasing long-term rates. It would be stupid, of course, to require countries to meet low inflation targets and a narrow exchange rate window if you didn’t think they could do it, so Maastricht signers must have had those tools up their sleeves somewhere. Fine, so investors demanded less of a risk premium.

Then the mid-90s crisis of confidence in the Euro happened, the UK opted out/elected to stick with the pound, Germany and Italy missed some inflation targets, and investors responded by demanding higher interest rates to hold government debt from any of the countries listed on this chart. Because all of them except the UK were anticipating being under the same monetary authority, it makes sense (for now) that their expectations about short-term rates plus risk premiums would stay convergent. Of course, signatories to the Maastricht Treaty survived this crisis of confidence by changing the rules and telling everyone that things would be fine, so long-term interest rates stayed close and the interest rate didn’t jump that much.

That convergence lasted through the early 2000s (except for the UK again, more on this soon) with downward trending long-term rates because, you know, interest rates would stay low and everything was going to keep getting better forever. Those two beliefs together anchored expectations about short-term rates and risk premiums at extremely low levels — compare to the beginning of the series — until the 2008 recession hit, which is where things finally get interesting.

The divergence at the end of the series is also exactly what you’d expect if you knew from the outset that bailouts or any kind of economic support from the EU would require fiscal cooperation that was never part of the original deal. Germany and France are in relative terms doing fine, while Spain and Italy both have huge unemployment — 24.3% for Spain and 10.2% for Italy as of April — that’s trending upward, and a single monetary and fiscal policy has to serve all of them. France’s unemployment is also hanging out at about ten percent, but the key differences between France and Spain are that no one has arbitrarily decided1 that France has been spending irresponsibly and that France’s unemployment hasn’t destabilized its banking sector, so France doesn’t yet need help.

1 – (from a class lecture, Dr. Arslan Razmi, April 2012)

The divergence at the end of the first chart reflects the inability of Spain and Italy to design policies to fix their own economies and uncertainty over whether Germany — the last Eurozone core to hold the line on austerity — will step in with needed funds. I chose Italy and Spain in the first charts because those economies have been widely described as “too big to bail,” so perceptions of their riskiness matter more than perceptions about Greece or Portugal.

What’s interesting, though, is that the UK, which had either higher interest rate expectations or a higher risk premium for the entire period leading up to the recession, suddenly has rates closer to Germany’s than even France’s rates. What explains this is not only that the UK has its own currency; it also bailed on the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which gives it absolute control over what it wants to do with the pound sterling. In that sense, the UK’s arsenal isn’t yet empty, while Spain and Italy find themselves without any more guns or ammo to throw at their economies. The UK can devalue to stimulate exports and decrease imports; Spain and Italy can’t. The UK can print as many pounds as it wants; Spain and Italy are stuck with the European Central Bank’s money supply decisions.

But Spain’s and Italy’s inability to design their own economic policies aren’t new. They’ve been present for the entire lifetime of the Euro, and the risk that a recession would hit and different Eurozone countries would require different policies has also been present for the entire period. Whence the convergence in the 2000s now? It’s likely that investors just did a bad job estimating risk. We systematically underprice risk on new assets, and the Euro was born in 1999. Now investors seem to be doing a better job — over 20% unemployment is a pretty easy signal to read — but this is something to keep in mind for the next time we’re not in a global recession, long-term interest rates are converging around a low value, and we start to talk about how we’ve “made it” and the market will take us all away in a unicorn-drawn chariot into the moderated business cycles future.

EDIT: The convergence in the mid-2000s is what you’d expect to see if you believed in economic integration and cooperation in the Eurozone, which is something we kind of decided as a group was true. Brad Plumer notes that this was ridiculous though, with a comparison of the Eurozone to some arbitrary hypothetical currency unions including every country in the world beginning with the letter “M.”

Maupassant? Mo’ Passant! (Guest post for Josh Divine)

(originally appeared on The Divine Perspective, which, if you’d like to follow, you can add to an RSS reader or subscribe by email)

Josh Divine asked me to write about “5 Things Everyone Should Know about radical economics, How Economics Departments Lie to College Freshmen, Forgotten Insights from Marx, 5 Vital lessons from forgotten economists, whatever,” but I want to talk about art for a minute first.

It turns out this is a thing:

I think it’s very modern in an unusual way. I think it’s modern mainly because it looks at the past and says things like “now a major motion picture.” I think it’s modern because it looks at the past and says “we should write our own ideas of cultural ascendancy onto this Thing.” Congratulations, Guy de Maupassant; you’ve made it.

That’s weird for two reasons. First, Guy de Maupassant has been dead since 1893. The Lumiere brothers’ first moving picture screenings were in 1895. Maupassant never could have had an idea what a moving picture was and was obviously decades away from the idea that making a book into a movie could legitimize it. I mean he really couldn’t have had any idea. It’s not like he was snobbish and into books instead of movies; it’s that movies weren’t even in the public imagination. Even science fiction from the period doesn’t imagine movies (as far as I know; I could be entirely wrong about this, but it’s a little difficult to tell).

The second reason is the stranger one. “Now a major motion picture” is asking you, the consumer, to believe something. I’m not sure exactly what it’s asking you to believe, but that might be the point. It tells you a few things. It lets you know that the story contained in the book isn’t so complex that it couldn’t be presented in a major motion picture. It tells you that the book is important — because why else would it have been made into a movie? — and also that movies are important, because why else would we use them to portray important books? It tells you that if you see the movie and have to talk about it afterward — you are going to see the movie with someone with whom you’ll talk about it afterward, aren’t you? You’re not a loner? — you’ll be able to say “I don’t know, I think I liked it better as a book” and sound cultured. “Now a major motion picture” tells you that this book is unpretentious social capital, so go ahead! You can read it without being an elitist. Now, here’s how you pronounce “Guy de Maupassant” in a way that will really impress your friends…

At which point you could stop and ask: why do I care if a book is unpretentious social capital?

I think that’s where I’d like to start with heterodox econ. It is not possible to say of any Thing* that it is “good” in neoclassical microeconomics. You can talk about optimal bundles, efficiency, and rates of substitution, but there’s nothing normative in the neoclassical story. What is “good” is the best, and what is the best is what maximizes utility. If you want to get deeper than that, you’ll have to ask a neoclassical economist what utility means. He’ll say something about pleasure and then start talking about GDP.

We could ask for different things though. We could ask our economic system to increase happiness rather than maximize it, which might result in a completely different view of things. We might not, with such a request, be as impressed with more of everything. Consider, for instance, that the current real US GDP is higher than real US GDP from before the crisis, but in 2007 people were convinced everything would be wonderful forever, while now… Well, you know, they’re not.

We could ask our economic system to distribute benefits to producers rather than to managers. This would be a break with neoclassical economics as well. Marx, arguing from the labor theory of value, developed the idea of a “rate” of exploitation, which was the ratio of the capitalist’s profits to the worker’s wages. We don’t think value comes from labor anymore, but rather that the value of labor comes from the efficiency with which it produces, but, from both perspectives, we would think productivity increases should result in higher wages. If we thought that, we might look at the three charts in this Krugman article with alarm.

We could focus on feminist economics, and argue that GDP accounting excludes women in a serious way (it does). We could claim that neoclassical economics never really acknowledges families (also true) and believes only in individuals, states, and firms. We could argue with James Galbraith that even the critics don’t get it, that those who think neoclassical economics was seduced by mathematical beauty are significantly overestimating the mathematical beauty while ignoring the salient problems that neoclassical economists have continuously ignored.

The point, in general, is to criticize, to sit behind a podium looking disappointed like Scott Brooks in a press conference after any game played in Miami in the 2012 NBA Finals…

…and want things to be different. I’m not sure whether political efficacy is actually important. Given the density of Lukacs and the gang, it doesn’t seem like political efficacy is too important for that branch of the heterodoxy, but that’s different, I think, for feminist or environmental economics. If the ice caps melt, I don’t know if becoming harder to read, sounding angrier, and growing larger beards is a viable alternative for environmental economists the way it was for Zizek when deregulation and the Washington Consensus took over the world.

I think I’m going to pretend this brings me back to Maupassant, because it kind of does, and that’s good enough. Heterodox econ offers the freedom to be upset about all kinds of things and to ask all kinds of interesting questions, but it should be noted that most of these questions are about orthodox economics. Still, it’s acceptable to ask the question “why do I care if a book is unpretentious social capital?” instead of “Given a level of pretense, does this book provide the most social capital?” which is the question you’d ask if you were a rational maximizer.** If you’re feeling particularly rebellious, you can even ask “Granting that this book provides the most social capital for a given level of pretense, is it any good?

In that sense, heterodox economics relies heavily on aesthetics, ethics, epistemology, etc., etc. It doesn’t really have a choice, and as a result, it’s tempting to commit the error of limiting the scope of economic thinking to a very small set of problems (see Galbraith, above). We shouldn’t do that. If we only want one thing — Utility! Pleasure! Now! — we could be, as Sheila Heti says,

like little Buddhas, meditating and masturbating and watching TV. And we could imagine ourselves to be brilliant, and kind, and good lecturers, and good listeners, and utterly loving—and there’d be no way to prove it otherwise.

But we want a lot of things, and we shouldn’t tell ourselves that certain ways of thinking about how to get them aren’t economic and aren’t economics.

*Or any alternative, since really what we’re talking about in neoclassical econ when we talk about Things is not-other-Things. No, but really. When you simplify in microeconomics, you talk about your quantity of one good on the x-axis and your quantity of all other goods on the y-axis. Moving from (1,1) to (1,2) shows you how much happier you’d be if you had one more unit of everything-else, which is I guess the economic equivalent of allspice and is about as distinctively flavorful.

**Please, let me know if you ever actually ask yourself this question.

Romney, In Media Res

Steve Kornacki wrote this at the bottom of his article today:

Romney is sure to cover a lot of ground in his speech, and more than likely will spend the bulk of it decrying the devastating effects of “the Obama economy” on the Latino community. But there’s really only one thing reporters will be looking for: an answer to the question Romney has been ducking since last Friday.

It’s, um, confusing. The article was about the strategic options Romney had in his speech today to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, since Obama executive ordered work permit eligibility for 800,000 children of illegal immigrants. Romney fumbled the repeal question with Bob Schieffer — in the sense that he didn’t really answer what he’d do with the order and instead pretty reasonably described the timing of Obama’s order as political tactics — on Friday, but we should be clear about one thing here: the federal government’s no longer seeking to deport the children of illegal immigrants isn’t really that big of a deal. Romney probably missed the point though. The Obama administration has deported almost 400,000 undocumented immigrants in each of the last two years. If the announcement was playing politics, it probably had more to do with cover with Latino voters for those numbers without actually having to change much.

Assuming a starting population of 11.2 million illegal immigrants, and assuming that the deportation rates for children and adults are not significantly different, we would expect about seven percent of the 400,000 deportations each year to be children, or 28,000 children each year. The order does nothing to change the designation of “illegal” or “deportable” that the rest other 10.4 million undocumented immigrants face, nor does it really change that designation for the children; it just says “look, we know you’re illegals, but this is all really fairly tedious, so whatever.”

But let’s go back to Steve Kornacki. Reporters, according to Kornacki, don’t really care what else Romney says today. They want to hear about what Romney would do with this policy of not deporting 28,000 children a year.

Let’s first consider a world in which he’s right. This world probably involves underwhelming coverage of whatever else Romney says because reporters are, in a manner of speaking, covering their ears until they hear what they want to hear. If this is the sexy issue right now, then that’s what reporters will report, nevermind whether Romney says anything insightful about how economic hardship has been disproportionately born by minority communities (which is what Kornacki suggests he might prefer to do).

Further though, what Kornacki suggests is that it’s important for Romney and the public — at what point do I get to refer to everyone as “voters?” — to know what reporters want to hear, because why else would he include what reporters want to hear in an article that reaches thousands of people? The game here is obvious: news media makes clear what it wants to hear, politicians speak on those things, news media reports on what it originally wanted to report. So, later today, when Romney invariably says something that makes it sound like he thinks the Latino community is just brimming with illegal immigrants, keep in mind that it’s probably not entirely his fault. There’s a chumminess to this kind of forewarning that’s similar, I think, to the White House Correspondents Dinner. The press, as fourth estate, isn’t supposed to make things easier for the political class or to act like, after a hard day of making each other look bad, everyone goes out for bowling and beers. Romney shouldn’t have to care about what the press wants to hear. The only group to whom he should be worrying about selling his soul is voters, but we seem to have a little bit of a middleman problem.

And, you know, on top of all of this, we’re talking about a policy that insulates 28,000 people out of 400,000 that may be deported in the coming year from that pressure.

Let’s consider the world in which Kornacki is wrong though. What if the press wants to hear about something else entirely? The thought that not reporters, but Steve Kornacki wants to hear about Romney’s plans for Obama’s order, were Romney to become president, is worth considering. Claiming that “reporters” are really looking for this one thing may be just an effort to make his own request sound like it has broader support. In that case, do we interpret it as grasping for more influence, or as an attempt to build a fake consensus about The Important Issues? If you’re another reporter and see that that’s what Reporters want to hear about, identification with the group may make you want to hear about that as well. I mean, I’m not a reporter and I don’t want to hear about it, so have some contrapositive for breakfast and see where that takes ya.

The Short Line

Start here. It seems like an accounting trick, but it makes sense. $X in direct spending and $X in tax cuts should have the same multiplier, but of course leaving the tax rate constant instead of reducing it changes the revenue side, which results in the “Bang for the Buck” concept. If we care about the deficit, yeah, that’s important.

Next, go here if you don’t already know that our supposedly massive federal stimulus in 2009 was offset by state budget contractions that resulted in a chain of government near-shutdowns and shutdowns at the state level last summer.

Finally, go here. If you sort by categories, you can see that about a third of the total stimulus was in the form of tax credits and tax breaks, which left about $500 billion for direct spending. After that, the state contractions were offset. Christina Romer, of course, asked for $1.2 trillion, then had to settle for $800 billion because, you know, Congress, etc., and there never having been a stimulus as large as what she’d requested or what she received. The projections for the economy with the Recovery Act may have been conditioned by an expectation of getting the stimulus she and everyone else were recommending instead of the neutered version, but instead, they were $400 billion short, and the Republican house has kept more stimulus from happening since then.

A national high speed rail network would cost about $500 billion by the CATO Institute’s accounting, which I think we can use as a standard candle for pessimism. So, assuming we built it, we’d be in the neighborhood of $1.2 to $1.3 trillion of stimulus, which is what was originally requested, and we’d have a high-speed rail network afterward. How is this not the best idea?

Before that happens though, we need to revise our ideas of what constitutes “high speed.” This CNN mythbusting article is a good place to start. There’s a noticeable difference between foreign high speed trains and the Acela, which is last in the slide show. Japan, South Korea, the Eurostar, and Spain all have high speed trains that average at least 180 mph between their terminuses. The Acela travels “at speeds up to 150 mph,” but most of the route is much slower than that. Regardless, “up to 150 mph” still puts the Acela’s ceiling 30 mph lower than the average for foreign high speed rail. This is a sign that we can imagine better than the Acela, especially in the flat midwest and south. From Philadelphia to New York, the Acela averages 75 mph, or, you know, about 20 mph short of what the refurbished 1930s Zephyr train housed at the Illinois Railway Museum can manage.

It’s pretty, but surely we can outperform 1930s rail tech.

Instead of serious discussion of high speed rail or really any spending-based stimulus, for some reason the economic discussion continues to focus on gas prices (exogenous) and taxes, neither of which has the potential for transformative change that high speed rail does. Even if the Bush tax cuts counted as $500 billion of stimulus — which they don’t — and hadn’t already been built into people’s expectations about future tax rates, making them no more than holding the line on current tax rates instead of any kind of stimulus, high speed rail would still provide more stimulus because of the simple “Bang for the Buck” argument Krugman makes.

The mythbusting article also does a good job showing bipartisan understanding of the benefits of high speed rail. Their “experts” include research fellows from the Brookings Institute and the House GOP. I’m not asking for mag lev, but really, if the cost is right, and there’s agreement about high speed rail’s having value (even if there’s disagreement about what the particular value may be), why is it not a more serious project?


Here’s a crudely drawn IS-LM-BP graph showing the effects of fiscal stimulus in a liquidity trap with relatively open capital accounts.

From the initial equilibrium (Y sub-0, i sub-0), fiscal expansion leads to a short-run increase in income and a trade deficit, which depreciates the dollar, which bumps IS out again and improves the balance of payments, giving the initial fiscal stimulus an export-led boost and raising income to Y sub-2. You know, in case you were worried about rising interest rates through crowding out or something. With the Fed’s unprecedented balance sheet actions since 2008, it’s likely we’re even further into the liquidity trap than my crude drawing represents, but this drawing is meant to be conceptually descriptive rather than quantitatively analytic (which should be clear from the absence of numbers).

Ticket to Ride

The best thing in the Houston Chronicle this morning, narrowly edging out an op-ed impugning both parties for failing to question whether the national constitution serves us well and a desperate attempt from a high-ranking state-level Republican to appear literate by using “whomever” as a subject, was a brief letter to the editor titled “Don’t tear down dome.” It read:

Regarding “Study: Fix Dome, replace arena” (Page A1, May 24*), as I drive into Houston every day on a crowded Texas 288, with an open media, I wish the Astrodome would be converted into a major train station with heavy rail lines from the suburbs and light rail and Metro buses to other parts of the city.

The Astrodome could be converted into a transportation venue similar to Grand Central Station in New York City.

Our city continues to grow and is not landlocked, so it seems that the public transportation system needs to be developed. It is way behind other world class cities, and our air quality continues to decline as well.

High-speed rail from Dallas and Austin/San Antonio could also be funneled to the Astrodome.

There is probably room for commercial/hotel development and convention areas in addition to the rail lines feeding the Astrodome.

– Leo Lapuerta Jr.

While Grand Central is a good comparison from a cultural perspective and because of its connection to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a more appropriate model might be Penn Station, since it’s directly under Madison Square Garden, and with its rail service on Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit, it may also provide a better model of what Leo Lapuerta Jr. envisions.

Regardless, transforming the Astrodome is a brilliant plan, and tacking on hotel/convention space makes a ton of sense, but nevermind immediate benefits like, for Lapuerta, clean air, less traffic, and an opportunity to expand high-speed rail in Texas. It’s even better as a long-term plan.

Houston’s had a Super Bowl (2004, with a wardrobe malfunction), thanks to the construction of Reliant Stadium and in 2011 hosted the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, but Reliant Stadium hasn’t been adequate to attract other events, like the Olympics. The reason Houston falls short is almost always the same: not enough hotel space and awful public transportation. The latter has improved, and the Hilton Americas Hotel added 1,200 rooms, but these are marginal improvements. It’s still impossible to travel into the city on rail, which leaves transit into and out of the downtown area subject to traffic patterns on I-45, I-10, and the loops. Even in the downtown area, current light rail provides the option of traveling in a straight line from Reliant Park to the University of Houston Downtown Campus, or roughly half the diagonal distance across the inner loop. That’s pathetic.

While an Astrodome transportation and hotel center wouldn’t immediately address all of Houston’s traffic problems, it might help with Olympic bids, for which Houston is habitually turned down, and do something to respond to articles like this one in the San Francisco Chronicle that claim that Houston’s biggest problem isn’t a particular infrastructural lack as much as it is being Houston.

A second advantage would be normalizing rail travel for people off the East Coast. While the midwest, generally speaking, may not have the population density and small space between cities that make intercity rail on the East Coast viable, the Texas Triangle (Houston, San Antonio/Austin, and Dallas-Fort Worth) might. By car, Google maps estimates a two-hour, fifty-four minute trip from Houston to Austin covering 162 miles for an average of about 56 mph. Houston to Dallas averages 59 mph. The Acela (Amtrak’s high-speed train) averages about 75 mph between New York City and Philadelphia including stops and limitations from old rail infrastructure along the route. With new rail infrastructure designed with high-speed trains in mind, intercity rail in the Texas Triangle could better accommodate the Acela’s top speed of 150 mph and substantially decrease travel time and traffic between and in cities. Decreasing travel time should increase leisure time at both ends of a trip, while riding in a train doesn’t require the attention that driving a car does and frees the passenger to move around during the journey.

Third, high-speed rail is a perfect, erm, Really Big Thing. The important consideration for any BFT, especially one presumably subsidized with sizable public monies, is that it generate revenue. With Lapuerta’s suggestion of the hotel and convention space on top of the transportation hub, branching into Lewis Black’s “BFT restaurant, the BFT hotel and casino, the BFT spa” would be easy because they’d all be originally part of the plan. They’d only be half of the revenue stream though. The value of attracting more downtown investment, of collaborating more easily with nearby cities, of schools traveling more quickly between cities for extracurricular competitions, of the work (engineering, contracting, construction, provision of train service) required to construct a rail system that would serve 13.8 million people would ensure that potential providers would have competitively and that the service would be used. Each city, in turn, would of course then have a massive incentive to expand and improve public transportation within its limits, since suddenly people’s arriving without their own transportation would require that other transportation be available to them. Compare the job creation potential of running a much expanded public transportation network with people driving their own cars, and there’s a boost to each city’s local economy as well as the intercity boost.

Admittedly, all of these benefits are possible without using the Astrodome as Houston’s rail hub, but there would be something poetically symmetrical about using an historical engineering marvel to house a futuristic one.

*Link targets article that may be the online equivalent or may be something else entirely. There may be some disconnect between print and online editions of the Houston Chronicle. That’s the best explanation I can come up with for why a Google search of the exact title of the article referred to wouldn’t bring it up.

Three Laws Safe

This is an Economist article about the ethical obligations robotics programmers have.

There’s a lot embedded in it.

Starting at the beginning, the article refers to HAL’s “problem” in 2001: A Space Odyssey; to fulfill his obligations to keep the mission secret from the humans onboard and fulfill the mission, he decides to kill them. The blogger claims this shows that “Society needs to find ways to ensure that they are better equipped to make moral judgments than HAL was.” The HAL comparison and the later argument that robots may need to be able to act on better than pre-defined rules argue in favor of an heuristic approach, but there’s a good reason to doubt the value of heuristics: we’ve been trying heuristics (kind of, at least if you believe that even the pure reason Enlightenment philosophers still took The World as an experience input before they started reasoning) for centuries, and we don’t know what ethics to teach our robots.

Referring to HAL’s decision as a “problem” in his programming is unfair though (and makes any balance the writer shows later in the article moot). It’s clear that the writer believes that robots should have the same implicit standards — killing is bad, theft is bad, willful deception is bad — that we do, while one of the biggest advantages of machine intelligence could be its ability to think either without any intuitive biases or with a different set of intuitive biases. Oh, critics of philosophical thinking can never be outside of the philosophical system they hope to examine? That wouldn’t need to be true if we weren’t so obsessive about making sure robots thought like we do. The issue is of course that we’d teach robots sets of biases that, even if different, would take our own as reference points, so its alternative biases would be heavily filtered through our metabias (which I guess already means something in statistics). We could solve that problem with diverse programming groups in terms of occupation and ethical background and combinatorial ethical programming of thousands of robots.

The above assumes that we even ought to teach robots ethics. While teaching a robot that, to use another example, there are ethical complexities involved in destroying a house with three terrorists inside and one civilian (or any non-zero quantities of terrorists and civilians) may be difficult, it’s less unreasonable to expect a robot to understand political complexities. A robot may be better able to answer the question “Should we stop using robots that randomly kill children?” with something better than a snarky “Accidentally bombing children with our super army of automated missile firing bots may have worked at the start of the war, but conditions on the ground have changed.” With enough complexity programmed into its rules — a reasonable goal however amorphous “enough” may be, given the improvements in processing power, memory density, etc. since 2001: ASO — drones and other combat robots could equally likely determine that particular attacks aren’t necessary.

Let’s go back to the three terrorists and a civilian inside a house example. If, for example, the long-run security or strategic backlash of killing the civilian outweighed the risk of attack from those three terrorists, the robot would not attack. Better still, robots don’t condition their risk estimations in an environment of fear; with realistic probabilities programmed in, instead of the sweeping fear that every terrorist will blow up the White House tomorrow if we don’t kill him today, the drones would decide that most attacks just aren’t worth it.

This advantage would show up in two places. First, drones with clear decision rules would be better able to react to an enemy’s being away from civilians. Rather than “minimizing” civilian casualties, an intelligent robot could eliminate them. If it takes a certain consistent amount of time for a high-ranking enemy’s vulnerability to be communicated to those who can authorize an attack, enemies can plan travel between inhabited areas that takes no longer than that window. That strategy would leave shot-callers with a continuous choice between killing civilians and passing on the shot, and considering the surge in drone strikes during the Obama administration (it looks like we got the tough on terror president after all), passing on the shot is unlikely. It’s easy, then, with the human element, for enemies forcibly to erode whatever ethical mandate the US may have had at the beginning of an operation.

The second place the advantage shows up is the avoidance of stupid battles. Nevermind who fired first in Fallujah, the claim that drones/robot combatants “would not commit rape, burn down a village in anger or become erratic decision-makers amid the stress of combat” is important. A drone with decision rules would not have opened fire on a crowd of civilians in Fallujah because, as far as I can tell, there was nothing important in Fallujah. Then, with nothing important to defend, that same drone would not have entrenched and fought an eight month battle. During the eight month battle that the drone wouldn’t have fought, it also wouldn’t have tied up 21 Iraqis, blindfolded them, cut off their legs, executed them, and thrown them in a mass grave (again, if that is what occurred, but even if it is not, think of it as a stand-in for other atrocities).

I’m not thrilled that we’ve killed an important someone else by drone strike, especially because I feel like we kill Al Qaeda’s number two in Afghanistan once every three months. But if we’re going to continue to “fight terror” in Afghanistan, I guess I prefer doing so with five foot Hellfire missiles to stationing tens of thousands of trained killers from a different culture on the ground and asking them to please only shoot at bad guys.

The flip side of all of this, of course, is that robots with risk calculations for everyone in the world and who kill subjects whose risk to some stable order or particular security interest exceeds acceptable levels would be the most terrifying thing that has ever been. We’d basically set ourselves up for this:

But that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for this:

The blogger makes two (boring) recommendations for improving robot ethics. First, laws about accountability, programmers, etc., etc. Ok, we get it, accountability is big right now. Why we would introduce accountability in this ethical grey area when it’s noticeably absent in so many others (private equity, for instance, or US fopo) remains a mystery, but whatever, accountability is fine. Second, “where ethical systems are embedded into robots, the judgments they make need to be ones that seem right to most people,” you know, because usually when people agree on a thing it’s ethically and justified instead of just democratically justified. For apparently being into high-minded ethical rules, the blogger took the easy way out on that one.

What’s exciting about the blog post isn’t particular points though as much as the reality that we live in a world in which it’s important to think about what kind of ethics we teach our robots. Imagine an autonomous one of these following Aristotle around. Admittedly, it would probably have to follow around Žižek or Sandel today and would thus only learn how to be exceptionally angry or impressed with its own idea of distributive justice, but that would just be the beginning. Teach two autonomous robots Rawls and Sandel, two Badiou and Žižek, and two Dworkin and Nozick, leave them in a room, write down the synthesis they produce, and (go away, Gödel) suddenly, the question of what the result of such an attempted reconciliation of beliefs would be becomes answerable. I won’t say “knowable” because there are some obvious biases towards particular types of knowledge present, but even answerable would be a great leap forward.