Thursday, September 27, 2012

Billionaires Per 10 Million

The US tops the list of countries with the most billionaires but who cares about the raw numbers? I'm much more interested in the number of billionaires per person. Or per ten million people in this case. That makes it easier (though some countries on this list don't have ten million people...but that just highlights how billionaire-friendly they are). Here's where I got my countries by population data. I removed Hong Kong's population from China's as I assume that their billionaires weren't included in China's billionaire count.

CountryBillionaires per 10m
Hong Kong91.4
United Kingdom22.6
United States15.3

Friday, September 21, 2012

A World Without Greed

Suppose we lived in a world without gravity. How would we feel about that? (For now, ignore the fact that without gravity our atmosphere and oceans would dissipate, suffocating all life on earth.)

How we feel depends on what we're talking about. No one could fall to their death and flying around would be really easy. Launches to space could happen almost accidentally. But at the same time liquids would get in all sorts of electronics and ruin them. Hydroelectric dams won't work. Plumbing, irrigation, and natural gas lines would fail. Assemblies lines would be chaos. Drinking would be hard.

Our civilization is built with gravity in mind. This counts not just preventing the bad stuff that comes with gravity (we have rails to prevent falls) but leveraging its reliable existence into something that benefits us. The constant gravitational pull lets us generate enormous quantities of power very cheaply. We'd be fools to ignore it.

Why then are we so reluctant to build our world assuming greed is as consistent as gravity? Why do we often assume that we live in a world without greed, where teachers, politicians, labor unions, and even companies will not act in their best interest? It is particularly tragic because we could rely on that consistent force of nature (and if you've ever seen a plant turn its leaves to light, you've seen greed as a force of nature) to transform that force into something productive.

Instead of relying on benevolent governments to determine the best way to reduce pollution, tax pollution and give people the incentive to find the best solution.

Instead of relying on good feelings to ensure we have good teachers, let there be a marketplace for education so the good teachers are rewarded and the bad ones are punished.

Instead of forcing experience and credentials to ensure everything from doctors to hairdressers make a quality product at a low price, remove barriers of entry and allow consumer sovereignty and competition to encourage a better world.

Instead of capping liability damages and relying on a regulatory agency to make sure firms don't skimp on safety, let's instead make sure that the firm will swallow the full cost of its carelessness.

If you think it's hard to change laws, you are absolutely right. But it's as impossible to repeal greed as it is to repeal gravity. Best to learn to live with it.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Ethics Are Incentives

It is not enough to know what's the right thing to do; one must also have the incentive to. If your back is to the wall, you'll do unethical things (even if you may justify it as ethical while you're doing it). But it is hard to blame people for doing bad things if they are just responding to incentives. Consider this passage from Nothing to Envy describing life in North Korea during the famine.
...[Hunger] targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. It was a phenomenon that the Italian writer Primo Levi identified after emerging from Auschwitz, when he wrote that he and his fellow survivors never wanted to see one another again after the war because they had all done something of which they were ashamed.

As [North Korean] Mrs. Song would observe a decade later, when she thought back on all the people she knew who died during those years in Chongjin, it was the "simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told--they were the first to die."
If you refuse to give a starving child your food when you are starving, are you really a bad person?