Book review: Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity, by Daniel Deudney.

Dark Skies is an unusually good and bad book.

Good in the sense that 95% of the book consists of uncontroversial, scholarly, mundane claims that accurately describe the views that Deudney is attacking. These parts of the book are careful to distinguish between value differences and claims about objective facts.

Bad in the senses that the good parts make the occasional unfair insult more gratuitous, and that Deudney provides little support for his predictions that his policies will produce better results than those of his adversaries. I count myself as one of his adversaries.

Dark Skies is an opposite of Where Is My Flying Car? in both style and substance.

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Book review: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow.

This book is about narratives of human progress. I.e. the natural progression from egalitarian bands of maybe 20 people, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states, with increasing inequality and domination by centralized bureaucracy. That progress is usually presumed to be driven by changes in occupations from foragers, to gardeners, to farmers, to industry.

Western intellectuals focus on debates between two narratives: Hobbesians, who see this mostly as advances from a nasty state of nature, and those following in Rousseau’s footsteps, who imagine early human societies as somewhat closer to a Garden of Eden. Both narratives suggest that farming societies were miserable places that were either small advances or unavoidable tragedies, depending on what you think they replaced.

Graeber and Wengrow dispute multiple aspects of these narratives. The book isn’t quite organized enough for me to boil their message down to a single sentence. But I’ll focus on what I consider to be the most valuable thread: we should be uncertain about whether humanity made (is making?) a big mistake by accepting oppression as an inevitable price of material wealth.

The Dawn of Everything asks us to imagine that humans could build (and may have been building) sophisticated civilizations without domination by powerful states, and maybe without depending on farming.

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Book review: Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by J. Storrs Hall (aka Josh).

If you only read the first 3 chapters, you might imagine that this is the history of just one industry (or the mysterious lack of an industry).

But this book attributes the absence of that industry to a broad set of problems that are keeping us poor. He looks at the post-1970 slowdown in innovation that Cowen describes in The Great Stagnation[1]. The two books agree on many symptoms, but describe the causes differently: where Cowen says we ate the low hanging fruit, Josh says it’s due to someone “spraying paraquat on the low-hanging fruit”.

The book is full of mostly good insights. It significantly changed my opinion of the Great Stagnation.

The book jumps back and forth between polemics about the Great Strangulation (with a bit too much outrage porn), and nerdy descriptions of engineering and piloting problems. I found those large shifts in tone to be somewhat disorienting – it’s like the author can’t decide whether he’s an autistic youth who is eagerly describing his latest obsession, or an angry old man complaining about how the world is going to hell (I’ve met the author at Foresight conferences, and got similar but milder impressions there).

Josh’s main explanation for the Great Strangulation is the rise of Green fundamentalism[2], but he also describes other cultural / political factors that seem related. But before looking at those, I’ll look in some depth at three industries that exemplify the Great Strangulation.

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Book review: Seasteading, by Joe Quirk, with Patri Friedman.

Seasteading is an interesting idea. Alas, Quirk’s approach is not quirky enough to do justice to the unusual advantages of seasteading.

The book’s style is too much like a newspaper. Rather than focus on the main advantages of seasteading, it focuses on the concerns of the average person, and on how seasteading might affect them. It quotes interesting people extensively, while being vague about whether the authors are just reporting that those people have ideas, or whether the authors have checked that the ideas are correct. Many of the ideas seem rather fishy.

I suspect that seasteading’s biggest need now is businessmen and/or VCs who can start cruise-ship-sized projects. Yet the book seems aimed more at creating broad, shallow support among ordinary readers than it is at inspiring competent entrepreneurs.
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[Another underwhelming book; I promise to get out of the habit of posting only book reviews Real Soon Now.]

Book review: Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott.

Scott begins with a history of the tension between the desire for legibility versus the desire for local control. E.g. central governments wanted to know how much they could tax peasants without causing famine or revolt. Yet even in the optimistic case where they got an honest tax collector to report how many bushels of grain John produced, they had problems due to John’s village having an idiosyncratic meaning of “bushel” that the tax collector couldn’t easily translate to something the central government knew. And it was hard to keep track of whether John had paid the tax, since the central government didn’t understand how the villagers distinguished that John from the John who lived a mile away.

So governments that wanted to grow imposed lots of standards on people. That sometimes helped peasants by making their taxes fairer and more predictable, but often trampled over local arrangements that had worked well (especially complex land use agreements).

I found that part of the book to be a fairly nice explanation of why an important set of conflicts was nearly inevitable. Scott gives a relatively balanced view of how increased legibility had both good and bad effects (more efficient taxation, diseases tracked better, Nazis found more Jews, etc.).

Then Scott becomes more repetitive and one-sided when describing high modernism, which carried the desire for legibility to a revolutionary, authoritarian extreme (especially between 1920 and 1960). I didn’t want 250 pages of evidence that Soviet style central planning was often destructive. Maybe that conclusion wasn’t obvious to enough people when Scott started writing the book, but it was painfully obvious by the time the book was published.

Scott’s complaints resemble the Hayekian side of the socialist calculation debate, except that Scott frames in terms that minimize associations with socialism and capitalism. E.g. he manages to include Taylorist factory management in his cluster of bad ideas.

It’s interesting to compare Fukuyama’s description of Tanzania with Scott’s description. They both agree that villagization (Scott’s focus) was a disaster. Scott leaves readers with the impression that villagization was the most important policy, whereas Fukuyama only devotes one paragraph to it, and gives the impression that the overall effects of Tanzania’s legibility-increasing moves were beneficial (mainly via a common language causing more cooperation). Neither author provides a balanced view (but then they were both drawing attention to neglected aspects of history, not trying to provide a complete picture).

My advice: read the SlateStarCodex review, don’t read the whole book.

Book review: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama.

This ambitious attempt to explain the rise of civilization (especially the rule of law) is partly successful.

The most important idea in the book is that the Catholic church (in the Gregorian Reforms) played a critical role in creating important institutions.

The church differed from religions in other cultures in that it was sufficiently organized to influence political policy, but not strong enough to become a state. This lead it to acquire resources by creating rules that enabled people to leave property to the church (often via wills, which hardly existed before then). This turned what had been resources belonging to some abstract group (families or ancestors) into things owned by individuals, and created rules for transferring those resources.

In the process, it also weakened the extended family, which was essential to having a state that impartially promoted the welfare of a society that was larger than a family.

He also provides a moderately good description of China’s earlier partial adoption of something similar in its merit-selected bureaucracy.

I recommend reading the first 7 chapters plus chapter 16. The rest of the book contains more ordinary history, including some not-too-convincing explanations of why northwest Europe did better than the rest of Christianity.

How can a hospital-like business operating outside of existing territorial jurisdictions avoid harrassment by governments whose medical lobbies want to spread FUD?

Given that these businesses will initially have no track record to point to and less protection than existing medical tourism providers from whatever government provides a flag of convenience to the business, merely providing comparable quality medical care won’t be enough for such businesses to thrive. So I’m proposing practices which could enable those businesses to argue that current U.S. hospitals are more dangerous. I’m not suggesting this just for marketing purposes – I want safe hospitals to be available, and regulatory costs in the U.S. make it easier to start an innovative hospital offshore than in the U.S. (especially for types of innovation that don’t respect doctors’ prestige).

It has been known since 1847 that doctors kill patients by failing to wash their hands often enough. Yet this threat is still common. An offshore hospital could offer patients documentation showing when medical personel who touch the patient washed their hands (e.g. by providing the patient with video recordings of the procedures sufficient for the patient to verify cleanliness), with a double your money back guarantee. There are many other less common errors that patients could use such videos to check for.

The book Counting Sheep argues that hospitals often impair patients’ health by disturbing their sleep. Paying patients if night-time noise or light levels exceed some pre-specified limits should reduce this problem.

Next, I want the hospital’s fee structure to give it increased incentives to avoid failure. For procedures with objectively measurable results, I want the hospital to charge the patient only if those results are achieved, and to pay the patient some pre-specified amount if results leave the patient measurably worse off. (For hard to measure results such as change in pain, this approach won’t work).

The article You Get What You Pay For: Result-Based Compensation for Health Care has more extensive discussion of incentives and of strategies that hospitals might use to reduce the rate at which they harm patients.

I attended about 2/3 of the recent Seasteading conference. There were plenty of interesting people there. But I became less optimistic that seasteading will be implemented within the next decade.

The most discouraging news was that floating breakwaters probably won’t work with using propulsion to control location. They might work if anchored (which needs shallow water that only provides a little usable area outside territorial waters), and should still work with seasteads that drift were the currents take them (only suitable for people comfortable with being isolated).

The medical tourism ship business idea had last year seemed the most promising stepping stone on the way to seasteading. This year’s talk by Na’ama Moran on that subject provided better talking points that might be used to interest investors, but had nothing resembling a business plan. A year ago there was some hope that moderate changes to SurgiCruise‘s business plan could turn it into something viable. The seasteaders who were involved in that gave up on working with SurgiCruise recently, and no progress appears to have been made yet on creating an alternative.

I was also disappointed that she described no plans for dealing with the U.S. medical establishment’s ability to smear competitors. A company with no track record and weak regulation by, say, Panama can be made to sound dangerous to patients even if it provides care as good as U.S. hospitals. Could a medical cruise company hope to get accreditation early enough? There are large uncertainties about how much that costs and how soon it would be needed. I want a medical tourism company to prepare to demonstrate ways in which it provides higher quality care than U.S. hospitals (more on this in a later post).

Kevin Overman presented a vaguely promising idea for using RepRap and products from algae to build (print) structures at a cost that he hopes will be an order of magnitude less than with the materials currently envisioned to build a seastead. If he’s right, he should be able to make a nice profit building things on land before anyone is ready to build a seastead. The one drawback that I noticed is that it requires thicker structures (2X?) to get the same strength.

I also stopped by Ephemerisle for Saturday afternoon. It shows some promise as a competitor to Burning Man, but it’s unclear whether anything people learned there is related to skills needed to hold a festival in international waters. Possibly the design of the main platform can be adapted to the ocean without radical changes, but virtually all the other activity was done without any apparent regard for whether it could be repeated in the ocean.

Book review: The Law Market by Erin A. O’Hara and Larry E. Ribstein.

This book describes why it has become easier for parties to a contract to choose which legal system will be applied to their contract, both in terms of the political forces that enabled choice and why it’s good that choice is possible.

The political forces include the ability of some parties to physically leave a jurisdiction if they have inadequate choices about what law will be applied to them. Often enough those parties are employers that legislators want to remain in their jurisdiction.

The benefits include simple things like predictability of contract interpretation when the contract covers things that involve physical locations associated with multiple jurisdictions where there otherwise would be no reliable way to predict which court would assert jurisdiction over disputes. They also include less direct effects of providing incentives for legal systems to improve so as to attract more customers.

The book mostly deals with contracts between corporations, and is much more tentative about advocating choice of law for individuals.

The book provides examples showing that as with most markets, competition for law produces better law. But is also mentions more questionable results, such as competition for most effective tax shelters or the easiest terms for divorce (for divorce, the book suggests those who want divorce to be hard should try to arrange contracts that allocate assets in a way that discourages divorce; it would be harder for easy-divorce states to justify ignoring those contracts). There’s also a risk that the competition will sometimes benefit lawyers rather than their clients, as clients often rely on lawyers to decide which legal system to use without having a practical way to check who benefits from some of those choices.

The book is often dull reading because it often describes case law to explain quirks of current law that will be of interest to few non-lawyers.

One part that disappointed me was the assumption that the choice of jurisdiction should dictate the physical location in which plaintiffs must argue their case (the travel costs can make some lawsuits unpractical to a consumer suing a company if the company decides the location at which a suit is argued). Why are we trapped in a set of rules that requires travel to a possibly distant court when we have technology that provides reasonable remote communications?

Mike Linksvayer describes a good perspective on why it’s important to have most information in a commons rather than restricted by copyright.
Most economists have a strong bias toward assuming transaction costs are unimportant. Coase has fought this. It sure looks to me like the Coase Theorem ought to be understood as demonstrating that one of the most important tasks for economists is to improve our understanding of how to reduce transaction costs. Economists have invested too much in models which depend on transaction costs being insignificant to easily be persuaded to adopt such a different focus.

Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World describes why having some commons can be as valuable as having some resources protected by secure property rights, and why it matters for science and technology. But his argument style is designed for ordinary political debates, and doesn’t provide the breadth or power that a good economist would produce when attempting to reform economics.

I have little idea whether Creative Commons will put additional money to good use, but the value of its goals should not be overlooked.