Art, success, and rewards

I recently read a story where an artist sold a recording for a flat fee, and then the song went on to become hugely popular, but the artist didn’t receive any royalties. It’s a familiar story of exploitation, especially of Black artists who systematically receive less credit than they are due in American music.

However, I was distracted by an alternative interpretation that came to mind. To some extent, the rights to royalties for a song is essentially a lottery ticket. Song popularity follows a power law distribution (I presume, based on how these things usually work), so that a few songs become extremely successful while the vast majority remain in obscurity. It makes sense to want to sell your lottery ticket–provided that you get a fair price for it. If you have a losing ticket–as most people do–then selling that losing ticket is a way to still make money.

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A 2D voting sim

I made a Monte Carlo voting simulation. No particular reason, I just think it’s neat.

Okay, so I was thinking about the Median Voter Theorem, which says that the winning position in an election is the position of the median voter. Of course, this conclusion only holds under certain assumptions, and none of those assumptions are actually true. And yet the conclusion is approximately correct in many situations. That’s why we care disproportionately about the median congress members (like Susan Collins), the median Supreme Court Justices (like Roberts), and the median “swing” states (like Pennsylvania).

But it should be obvious that the median voter fails in a lot of ways. In particular, it doesn’t predict the political polarization that occurs in US politics. And there are plenty of possible explanations: voter turnout, third parties, primary elections, politician’s charisma factors, multidimensional political spectra, and so on. But I’m not sure which among those explanations are most important.

The voting simulation won’t answer any of these questions, I’m just setting the context. One of the assumptions of the Median Voter Theorem is that political preferences exist along only one dimension. I thought I’d try running simulations with two dimensions to see what would happen, and to make some pretty graphs.

Plot showing all the voters and candidates along a two dimensional spectrum.

Voters and candidates in a 2D space

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Election meta

cn: more board gaming than election politics, really

Usually around election time I write up a post about what I’m voting for on the ballot. Most things on the ballot are local, and not relevant to most of my readers, but I think it’s important to highlight and normalize the research process for smaller elections. The presidential election is important and all, but in all likelihood you’ve already made that decision so surely you can spare some time to research the smaller elections?

Unfortunately my last ballot didn’t really have any interesting local votes, so I guess we’re stuck talking presidents. Well shoot.

You know what, I want to talk about board games instead.

In games with three or more players, players are often presented with a choice to attack one of their opponents. This opens up a fair amount of strategic space, which board gamers sometimes sometimes refer to as “politics”. Common political strategies include:

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Ethics of accuracy

Andreas Avester summarized Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. Now, I’m not sure how many readers remember this, but I’m a professional data scientist. Which doesn’t really qualify me as an authority to talk about data science, much less the ethics thereof, but, hey, it’s a thing. I have thoughts.

In my view there are two distinct1 ethical issues with data science: 1) our models might make mistakes, or 2) our models might be too accurate. As I said in Andreas’ comments:

The first problem is obvious, so let me explain the second one. Suppose you found an algorithm that perfectly predicted people’s healthcare expenses, and started using this to price health insurance. Well then, it’s like you might as well not have health insurance, because everyone’s paying the same amount either way. This is “fair” in the sense that everyone’s paying exactly the amount of burden they’re placing on society. But it’s “unfair” in that, the amount of healthcare expenses people have is mostly beyond their control. I think it would be better if our algorithms were actually less accurate, and we just charged everyone the same price–modulo, I don’t know, smoking.

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Intrinsic value of choice

I know that this question has practical and political implications, but for now, I’m treating it as a “just for fun” philosophical question.  Just wanted to be upfront.

What is the value of freedom of choice?  Does it have intrinsic value, or is its value purely instrumental?

A thing has “intrinsic value” if it is valuable in itself.  It has “instrumental value” if it is valuable because it is a means to get something else of value.  For instance, suppose we have a choice between mushroom and cheese pizza.  This choice has instrumental value, because it’s a means for people to have the kind of pizza they most prefer.  But does the choice also have intrinsic value?

Under an initial analysis, I thought the answer was “no”.  If I’m presented with a one-time choice between A and B, and I choose A, did the other option B do any good?  At least within a consequentialist ethical framework, it sure doesn’t seem like it.  After all, option B had no bearing on the consequences.

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The economic theory of rainbow logos

Let’s talk about these rainbow logos that big companies tend to adopt during Pride month.

Rainbow versions of 15 corporate logos

Source: Buzzfeed

Many people have described rainbow logos as an example of “virtue signalling”.  “Virtue signalling” is a buzzphrase among pundits and internet commentators, used to mean “lip service” or “empty gestures”.

And this is so frustrating, because “virtue signalling” is a legitimate economic concept that legitimately applies to the situation.  But virtue signalling does not mean what people think it means.  What virtue signalling actually refers to is good.  And if people understood virtue signalling correctly then it would provide a useful tool to distinguish gestures that are meaningful, and gestures that are empty.

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Social Reproduction

In my series discussing capitalism and socialism, I want to discuss another Marxist idea: the social reproduction of labor.  Basically it refers to a collection of social activities needed to maintain a labor pool.  An introductory article (suggested by Coyote) has a good description of how social reproduction occurs:

1. By activities that regenerate the worker outside the production process and allow her to return to it. These include, among a host of others, food, a bed to sleep in, but also care in psychical ways that keep a person whole.

2. By activities that maintain and regenerate non-workers outside the production process–i.e. those who are future or past workers, such as children, adults out of the workforce for whatever reason, be it old age, disability or unemployment.

3. By reproducing fresh workers, meaning childbirth.

It may be noted that social reproduction is essentially unpaid labor, and is disproportionately performed by women.  Thus, social reproduction theory draws a connection between Marxist and feminist theory.

However, I would fault the introductory article for failing to offer any good explanatory narrative.  Why is social reproduction unpaid, as compared to more “ordinary” labor being merely underpaid?  “Capitalism”, “neoliberalism”, and “sexism” don’t cut it as explanations.  So in this post, I’m going to offer a basic explanatory narrative, based on externalized costs.

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