The true promise of remote work

Increasingly, our society is transitioning to a knowledge economy, with jobs performed via computers. Combine this with improvements in communications technologies that allow collaboration via the Internet, and suddenly, you have the ability to do your job away from the office. Enter the trend of remote work, or work from home.

When a small percentage of employees work from home, we end up where we are now – most people live in the same city as their employer and occasionally work from home, and a few live elsewhere, fully remote. A small percentage of these remote employees have embraced trends such as digital nomadism, but most simply stay put and live wherever they want to.

Everyone loves being able to work from home occasionally. But remote work opens the door to a new question: What happens as we scale up the number of fully remote employees in society?

What happens when the number of fully remote people increases from 1% to 10%?

To 50%?

What would it look like if everyone in society were fully remote?

The conservative answer is just that more people work from home, saving on commuting costs, decreasing traffic jams, and getting back an extra hour each day. That would be great. I think, however, that the implication is much bigger.

Remote work is going to let us reorganize our cities.

For most all of human history, cities have been organized around economic activity – jobs. Cities were often physically arranged to support the jobs of their residents – large highways led in and out to the suburbs with manufacturing pushed out to the edges. Just as important as their internal organization, though is the way jobs affect city organization on a macro scale.

Cities act as schelling points. They solve an employer/employee coordination problem – workers want to be where the companies are, and companies want to be where the workers are. The answer is for everyone to just stay in the same place, or move to one of a few predetermined destinations.

What happens, then, if all of society can move simultaneously? Suddenly, you’ve solved the coordination problem.

When everyone can relocate easily, it becomes possible for cities to quickly attract a lot of residents. Entire friend groups and communities can move together. The role of the city as a people attractor intensifies tenfold.

As workers become more liquid, cities will compete for residents, with the cities implementing the most innovative, people-friendly policies rising to the top. When they work correctly, competitive processes optimize our society. Market competition results in better, cheaper products. Democracy (when set up correctly) results in leaders implementing policies to benefit their constituents.

Given the outsize impact that local policy has on people’s lives, imagine the innovative policies that will result when cities are competing for residents.

Why stay in the bay area with its complicated housing policy and associated sky high costs, when you can try out a new location with better, cheaper housing that would let you build wealth faster. At the same time, you’ll pick a city that specializes in the things you care about.

Maybe you’ll move to a city for its proximity to nature, or maybe you move to one with really good local voting systems. Maybe you care most about walkability, so that’s how you pick where to live.

More likely though, a truely enterprising policy maker crafts a city that gives you all three, and then a whole lot more.

The government we deserve

Last week at a new year’s party, I was discussing the rather sad state of current politics with a family friend. We chatted about various politicians, fake news and the like before my friend remarked “well, we get the government we deserve. That’s who we voted for after all.” A bit taken aback, I hesitated for a moment before emphatically responding: “No! We deserve a much better government than we get.”

This is not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment, that because we are the fools who voted for our politicians, we don’t deserve anything better. With a bit of research, I traced the quote back to 19th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre, who apparently said “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” This attitude is poisonous for one major reason: It puts the blame for electing bad politicians on the voters, rather than faulting a convoluted, unfair election system that even an outside perspective would expect to produce bad outcomes. Consider the following barriers voters must navigate in order to choose representatives:

  • Voters must contend with a first past the post, majority rule voting system, literally the least expressive voting system possible. There is no way to express support for multiple candidates, or to say which candidates you prefer to others.
  • Our voting system has no way to express degree of preference, so the vote of someone who only mildly prefers a candidate counts the same as that of someone who loves a candidate.
  • As if this weren’t enough, we don’t even get an idealized plurality voting system voters are gerrymandered into regions designed to make their votes count even less, and face waves of voter suppression measures such as voter ID laws.
  • Finally, let’s not forget that our system was literally designed to give land explicit political influence.

Let’s not fault people acting rationally within a terrible system. Instead, we should seek reformation of the voting system itself, drawing upon new advances in information technology and mechanism design to build systems we can actually expect to lead to the society we want. This isn’t a fantasy – there are real, better options out there. Ranked choice voting. Approval voting. Quadratic voting and liquid democracy. If you haven’t heard of these, look them up.

People as a whole are great. When we work together effectively, we’re even greater. A good voting system – and by extension, good societal systems in general – incentivizes cooperation, so that my actions lead to your flourishing. Let’s build that system – the one we deserve.

Book Review: Radical Markets

Rio — a city beautiful enough to host the Olympic games, yet home to enough crime to make it one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Rio is massively unequal, and Brazil itself is the most unequal country in the Western hemisphere. Natural abundance overflows, yet most of its wealth is controlled by a few families, the last president was ejected for abuse of power, and her predecessor jailed for corruption. What is the solution from the Left? Egalitarianism — tax the rich to provide for the poor. And from the Right? Such taxation would lead to Venezuela — better to enforce property rights, lower taxes, and get the economy moving enough to help everyone along. What say Radical Markets’ authors Glen Weyl and Eric Posner? Such arguments are outdated and uninspired. Instead, we should put the entire city up for auction.

What, you might ask? Good question.

In any city where many people all want to be in the same relatively small space, one gains immense wealth via ownership of land, which is scarce. This is ethically shady for a few reasons — land ownership generally has to do with who got there first, and the wealth often derives from partially privatizing a public good (apartments near Central Park are valuable, but their owners didn’t create nor own the park). In essence, land ownership seems to constitute a monopoly problem. It seems such a scarce and valuable resource as land, created by no one, should belong to the public, but as soon as you nationalize land, you destroy incentives for private production, and with the government owning all the land, you run into all the central-planning failure economies of 20th century communist states.

Thus we’re stuck. Or are we? Consider a third alternative.

Every landowner names the value of their land + property, and pays a tax on it. The proceeds of the tax are distributed to society, ideally through a UBI. Simple enough, but there’s a catch: you must sell it at the price you named to anyone willing to pay. Thus capital owners are incentivized to report at least semi truthfully — too low of a price and someone can buy your property for less than its worth. Too high, and your wealth gets taxed away too quickly to society.

Weyl and Posner call this a Common Ownership Self-Assessed Tax (COST), and its implications are radical. Consider San Francisco, where homeowners refuse to sell, watching their house values skyrocket as rents eat away at everyone else’s income and thousands descend into homelessness. With a COST, many of those houses could be bought and replaced with multi story apartment buildings capable of housing far more people. If you really want to keep your house, you can name a high enough price to prevent anyone from buying it, but then you must pay the tax, distributed to those from whom you are hoarding land.

A COST solves the land monopoly problem while preserving property rights and incentivizing good economic output. In fact, it creates a new market — one liquid in land, where the land can flow to whomever is most capable of generating economic value with it, thus maximizing economic output. All the while, the tax ensures the benefits are redistributed to society in an incentive-compatible manner.

Where did they get this? Their answer comes from the field of mechanism design, a sort of reverse game theory, engineering-inspired political economics in which you start with the outcome you want and rigorously design a system that gets you there, rather than just playing according to the rules you were initially given.

The spirit of the intro carries throughout the book, as Weyl and Posner propose five mechanisms (four after the COST) to deal with modern day monopoly problems, simultaneously subverting and unifying the Left and the Right to gain the best of both worlds. They believe that markets are the best tool we have to promote human flourishing, yet contend that the most important markets are either monopolized or missing altogether. Posner and Weyl agree with the Right that markets should be supported and strengthened, yet toss the Right’s market fundamentalism out the window out the window as outdated and incorrect. They agree with the Left that the current structure of society is unequal and unfair, yet condemn the Left’s reliance on government bureaucratic elites, envisioned as altruistic neutral entities, who in reality are often corrupt, incompetent, or both. This leaves them advocating a more radical approach that is neither Left, nor Right, but something much much better, in which we design mechanisms to promote markets and more fairly distribute their benefits in a ferociously positive-sum game. They call this approach Radical Markets.

In addition to the COST, Weyl and Posner propose 4 mechanisms. In short:

Quadratic Voting (QV), to solve the tyranny of the majority problem in democracy. Everyone gets a certain number of vote credits. You can vote multiple times, but you must pay quadratically as the number of votes increases.

The Visas Between Individuals Program (VIP), in order to increase immigration while extending its benefits to the host country beyond those to cities and corporations. Any individual can sponsor a temporary immigrant and capture some of the value created by bringing that immigrant over.

Data as Labor (DaL), which means compensating individuals for data produced as labor expended. Everyone is scared that artificial intelligence will take their jobs. Often, however, modern artificial intelligence systems require well-labeled data, which are usually generated by the consumers of the digital economy. If companies profit from this data, should not the data creators (all of us) be compensated for the value we produce? Weyl and Posner argue that by treating Data as Labor, we can both compensate people more fairly and incentivize new development in the digital economy.

Eliminating monopolies in public corporations by forcing institutional investors to choose one company to invest in within each industry in which they invest. Look at the airlines — Delta, United, and American all compete against each other, but Vanguard owns a 7% stake (or higher) in each of them. Weyl and Posner point out that this approaches horizontal integration. Vanguard could surreptitiously induce anti-competitiveness by calling up each CEO and asking them to raise their prices. Consider that at least 40% of US public companies (88% of the SP 500) count either Vanguard, BlackRock or State Street as their largest shareholder, and the idea of subtle monopolies across public companies starts to seem scary indeed.

To be clear, Weyl and Posner’s proposals are not a perfect panacea for society’s ills. They tend to paint in broad strokes, arguing for overall mechanisms while acknowledging that many more policy details are needed to bring their proposals to life. These implementation details matter and will likely be front of mind for readers, many of whom will say: “But I don’t want someone to be able to buy my house while I’m living in it!” However, I implore readers to pause on detail scrutiny, just for a minute, while reading Radical Markets. The authors offer a strikingly different vision of the future, and it would be a shame to be so caught up in chopping down their trees that one misses their forest altogether.

There is meaning in our universe after all!

The Earth as seen from 6 billion kilometers
The Earth as seen from 6 billion kilometers

In 1990, 13 years after leaving the Earth on a journey to interstellar space, the Voyager 1 space probe looked backwards, capturing a glimpse of the planet from which it had come. Reflecting on the image, Carl Sagan delivered the following piece:

We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam…Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

That paragraph makes me shiver. It should give you pause, too, for to meditate on the fragility of humanity is to understand that all the love, the beauty, the happiness and the sorrow, everything that gives meaning to the lives of ourselves and our civilizations, arose accidentally and might be swept aside just as randomly. This is not new information, of course. I think a lot of people are secretly terrified of the apparent meaninglessness of everything. Hell, it’s the driving point behind Rick and Morty. It seems that the more we learn about the universe, the more meaningless everything feels.

Here’s the good great amazingly fucking fantastic news: In the midst of this empty void, we exist, and we matter. For 14 billion years, fermions and bosons rearranged themselves into meaningless patterns, moving in a rhythmless dance with no one there to watch it. Until one day, those fermions and bosons rearranged themselves yet again, and this time, they formed us – not entities separate from the Universe, but rather pieces of the Universe capable of recognizing themselves and their surroundings. Suddenly, literal existence itself began to have meaning. Sunsets transformed from just a scattering of photons through the atmosphere into beautiful works of art as humans began to observe them. Replication processes, previously performed through the mindless transcription of RNA, turned into love, an emotion powerful enough to inspire, like, every artist in the world. As civilization began to take shape on Earth, so too did meaning begin to take shape in the Universe.

Big deal. There’s got to be other intelligence…right?

The common response to the above is that while intelligent life might not have existed on Earth until we evolved, it surely existed, and continues to exist, elsewhere. The universe is giant – how hubristic would we have to be to believe that humans are the only intelligent beings? Surely there must be hundreds, thousands, millions of intelligent alien civilizations out there, somewhere. They’re simply too far away to communicate with us, or we’re too stupid to understand how to communicate with them – while SETI searches the skies for radio waves, everyone else is talking past us with their alpha wave matter transmitters, or whatever.

There are a few problems with this response. The first is that it hand waves away what should be a rigorous probability calculation. The universe is big, but that doesn’t mean small probability events will necessarily occur. For instance, let’s think about the chances of two people randomly shuffling a deck of cards into the same order. Without thinking too hard, it seems like this would have definitely occurred – there are only so many orders the cards can be in, and there have been A LOT of card games played over the years. When we start applying numbers, however, this assumption is revealed as naive. There are 52 factorial, or about 10^68, ways to arrange the cards, which means that the chance of any one combination occurring is 10^-68. Let’s be super generous – what if the cards were shuffled every second since the big bang? 14 billion years is about 10^17 seconds – multiply these two numbers together to approximate the chance of getting two different arrangements, which is about 10^-41, or 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. If the odds of intelligent life arising twice were similar to those of card shuffling, we see that it would be exceedingly unlikely that there is actually other life out there. Clearly, “the universe is big” doesn’t cut it.

The second problem is that this argument fails to account for anthropic bias, the notion that the very conditions that allowed for intelligent life to evolve bias us as we reason about this problem. We can’t tell if the prior probability of life evolving on a planet is 10^-3 or to 10^-60 – we’re already here, so these situations feel the same to us. To go back to the card example, this is like not knowing how many cards are in the deck – we can’t tell the odds of getting a certain order in the first place.

Finally, I suspect there is a bit of misguided social humility thrown in. Humans spent so long believing they were literally the center of existence, that now, all the cool kids think humans and the Earth are necessarily just like the rest of the universe – it’s unfashionable to think anything else. Wrap all this together and you get some pretty powerful forces driving people to bad epistemology.

I’m not saying there are no other intelligent lifeforms out there. Rather, I’m pointing out that it’s pretty bad reasoning to comfortably assume that they do exist. Instead, we must come to terms with the alternative: There might be no other life – and no other consciousness – at all. If we screw this up, that might be it. The end of all meaning, forever. Don’t believe me? Many famous scientists and philosophers – such as Enrico Fermi, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegmark – have done in depth research on the potential isolation of humanity and the resulting moral implications.

What is one to do with this realization? To start, we should acknowledge that humanity has the potential to take this accidental meaning that randomly came into existence and spread it throughout the cosmos. If humanity is a boat, the universe is our open ocean – we are free to explore and travel throughout it. In the absence of the existence of others, this might be our deepest moral imperative. There remain many obstacles for our boat to conquer. We need to watch out for the dangers – existential risks such as nuclear weapons, superintelligence, and climate change – that could sink our ship and all the precious hope we carry with us. We need to figure out a way to sail the ship, since our current political structures basically mean there’s no one at the helm. And we need to figure out how to do all this without losing the progress we’ve made thus far. If you’re searching for meaningful problems to work on, there is no shortage. As we do this, however, we can’t forget why we’re doing it in the first place – the love, the laughter, the friendships, and everything else that makes life worth living in the first place.

Us, basically
Us, basically

Let's (not) start a commune

Bet you thought the communes piece would encourage everyone to start a commune, huh? Guess again.

In college, usually after a particularly good hiking trip around Pisgah National Forest, my friends and I would often dream about switching paths, ditching the scary adult world, moving to the desert (or mountains), and starting a commune. There, we imagined, we could live out our days in idyllic bliss, happy in the fact that we all had each other.

The problem with the commune dream was that it was just that—a dream. For what Duke student really wants to give up all they’ve been working towards and move to the desert? My friends with whom I shared this fantasy are now scattered around the world, from San Francisco to Bangkok, pursuing PhDs and starting companies and protesting injustice and doing God-knows-what-else—did we really think everyone would just give all that up and move out to the wilderness, where you have to scale a mountain just to get a decent phone signal?

Lucky for you, this is not a sad piece. I’ve got a way better idea. Instead of starting a commune…let’s start a co-housing community!

What’s a co-housing community?

Basically, the idea is that we get a bunch of awesome, fun people to all live in the same place, so that your neighbors are your friends, and you can build a local community (just like in college!). As young adults, this could look like a bunch of people sharing houses next to each other or getting apartments in the same building. As real adults (aka married with kids), this could look like everyone getting their own house, just all in the same neighborhood. It’s a pretty neat idea, huh? So, cool, in fact, that other people have already caught on. Durham, for example, already has at at least four cohousing communities! And yeah, everything I just linked to was pretty much a place for adults over 50 years, but still—a cohousing community is an awesome and feasible idea, because, unlike the wilderness commune, we can locate the co-housing community in or near a city, drastically lowering the opportunity cost of joining, as people won’t have to give up their jobs and careers. Furthermore, unlike a commune, where you need everyone to relocate at the same time (you can’t run a commune by yourself, can you?), a co-housing community would allow people to move more slowly, a few at a time, grabbing houses and apartments near each other as time went by. Plus, we still get to enjoy all the benefits of modern society, like coffee shops and rock concerts!

I have so much to say about this idea (which I’m absolutely convinced is correct) that there is no way it will all fit into one piece. Therefore, to avoid writer’s block and be able to actually send something, I’m going to spread the arguments out over many different letters. For now, I just ask you to picture this.

Imagine your future, co-housing style. Instead of having your friends spread across the globe, they’re all around you. The late night dorm-room discussions everyone loved so much in college aren’t relegated to the past—they’re the new norm. Instead of coming home to watch Netflix alone after work and only grabbing a beer with your friends on the weekend, you can shoot the shit with them on your back porch all the time. You can save tons of money, since cooked meals together will be way more fun than expensive takeout or restaurant food, and if you want to start a new project, be it founding a non-profit, learning to make your own espresso, or launching an ICO, you’ll always have people around to bounce ideas off of, and potentially partners interested in joining you! What’s not to like?

So many things in the world are difficult. Becoming a doctor is difficult, curing cancer is difficult, and climbing a 5.14, that’s pretty difficult too. Co-housing—and, by extension, happiness—well, that doesn’t have to be so difficult actually, does it?

Friends shooting the shit on the porch
Friends shooting the shit on the porch