Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Spirit of the Law, Letter of the Law


It seems to be an accepted thing these days that people will always look for loopholes in laws. A law will get created, people will find loopholes to get around it to their own advantage, then the law will be updated to close the loophole (sometimes), and the cycle begins again.

People often consider themselves clever for finding loopholes, and treat it like a reasonable pursuit. Some people even go so far as to say that it's the job of lawyers to find loopholes, and that it's completely reasonable to expect this as normal behavior by both companies and individuals.

We all end up doing it because everyone else does it, and if you know people around you are exploiting a loophole to get ahead and you don't, you feel like a sucker. And no one likes to feel like a sucker.

This is one of the things that has made Greece, for example, have so much trouble recovering from the global financial crisis. Tax avoidance is such a social norm there, that now they need the money they're having a terrible time trying to actually get people to pay.

The end result of all of this is that our laws get more and more complicated as they need to handle more and more special cases to close loopholes. Or the loopholes are left, and the social wisdom gradually shifts to everyone doing it, and it becomes the norm.

The funny thing is, I think that in the vast majority of cases, people know that this is a loophole. They know full well that they are circumventing the intention of the law. In other words, they are fully aware that they're violating the spirit of the law, while complying with the letter of the law.

Spirit of the Law

So the question is this: what would happen if we made the spirit of the law the legally binding definition rather than the letter of the law? What would happen if a judge could effectively say, "Look, you knew damn well that this thing you did isn't what the law intended, and you just exploited a loophole to do something you knew you shouldn't. Tough shit, you broke the law."

The plus side to this would of course be that laws could become much simpler, and we would no longer have a legal arms race that rewards people who spend time trying to find ways to violate laws while technically obeying them.

My favorite example of this is how Goldman Sachs fucked over the aluminium commodities market by exploiting a loophole to their own advantage, and absolutely no one else's. Basically, they bought up a bunch of aluminium to affect the trading price, but regulations required a certain amount of this aluminium to be shipped every day (I forget the precise wording). So to comply with this, they would load it on trucks and move it each day from one depot they owned to another one they owned, keeping it stockpiled while still technically moving it. This made them obey the letter of the law, while obviously violating its intent completely, and costing consumers billions of dollars as a result (you can read more about it here).

In this case, doesn't it seem reasonable for a judge to be able to just say, "Fuck you, Goldman Sachs, you clearly violated the spirit of the law here, any reasonable person can see that. That means you broke the law. End of story."

The big problem here is then, how do you define what a reasonable person thinks, and can you really base laws off that?

A Reasonable Person

The answer turns out to be that, yes, you absolutely can base laws on what a reasonable person thinks, and we do it every day. It is a common feature of criminal negligence cases to use what a reasonable person would think is negligent in order to decide if a person is guilty. I don't know the definite history of this, but I'm betting it came about because in practice it's pretty much impossible to list every possible scenario and say whether it constitutes negligent behavior, so they chose this practical shortcut instead.

Regardless of the reason, it demonstrates that the concept is clearly legally feasible, so to base more laws on it might not be so crazy. At the least you could have the law state that if a reasonable person would think something violates the spirit of the law, then it does, but if it's too subtle for a reasonable person to be able to confidently decide either way, then you have one of the cases where you maybe can just follow the letter of the law or have some other process to figure it out.

It's interesting to note that the legal system generally argues that ignorance of the law is not an acceptable excuse for violating it, which means that the more complicated laws get, the less confident anyone can be that they're not inadvertently breaking the law in some way. This disproportionately affects individuals who are not rich, and also small businesses, because rich people and large companies can generally afford legal counsel to figure this out for them. The average person typically does not have the time or money for this except in exceptional circumstances. They also have less ability to scour all the laws looking for loopholes to exploit.

So the current situation disproportionately benefits rich people and big companies. If the spirit of the law became the norm, it would almost certainly level the playing field. Sure, the little guy probably can't get away with bullshitting on his tax return, but this is small fry compared to companies like Apple and Google doing things like exploiting the Double Irish tax loophole to avoid paying billions in taxes every year.

And, honestly, a world where everyone stops trying to game the system and pat themselves on the back because they think they're so fucking clever for violating the law in a technically legal way, wouldn't that kind of be a nice place to live?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Future of Human Labor

Brao Couple Planting Food by BigBrotherMouse - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As we see more and more jobs becoming obsolete due to automation or computer technology changing the way we do things, it's natural to ask where this will eventually lead. How much will society change in the long run if these trends continue?

The conventional wisdom has always been that some jobs will never be replaced by machines, and that for the jobs that do get replaced, new higher skilled jobs appear in their place. But the real answer stems from a simple concept that is almost certain to be true, provided we don't destroy ourselves in the meantime:

At some point in the future, there will be no job that a human can do better than a machine.

If you're already on board with that idea, then you won't need me to try and convince you, but it constantly surprises me how strongly most people seem to object to this idea, as though somehow the identity or intrinsic value of human beings depends on it.

So if you object to this idea, the first thing to do is to stop and genuinely, honestly ask yourself if you object because of some evidence that you think refutes it, or if you object because you don't like it. I suspect that most people simply don't like the idea of humans becoming effectively obsolete, or that they need to believe that humans have something special about us, some soul or spirit or spark that makes us different to everything else, and that could never be replicated by a cold, calculating machine.

And so you hear all the things that machines can never do, in their opinion. And while, right now, there are still plenty of things that machines can't do yet, every day there are more and more things that they can do. If you recognize that the human brain is incredibly complicated, but still just a physical object, you can see that, theoretically, there is no reason why that kind of complexity can't be replicated artificially. And without the constraints of evolution via natural selection, it can probably be done better and more efficiently, since you don't necessarily need a sequence of incremental improvements in order to get there. This opens the door to a lot of alternative processes when designing and building things.

It's interesting just how similar the "there are things machines will never be able to do" argument is to the "science can never explain everything" argument, and I think they're both fueled by the same need. A lot of people want their religious beliefs to be true (obviously), and they see scientific explanation of everything as removing the need for a creator. So they list things that science can't explain, and over time science explains more and more, and so they keep sticking to their "god of the gaps" arguments and trying to identify things that science hasn't yet answered. But this is just being led by what you want to be true, not what is true. Reality doesn't care about what you want, it is whether you accept it or not.

As with the god of the gaps, so to with the 'human ability of the gaps', and these gaps will keep on disappearing over time, until eventually there are none left.

So, without belaboring the point further, let's say that machines keep on improving, machine intelligence gets better, robotics gets better. What jobs are safe from that?

Think about how aircraft pilots have gradually had more and more responsibility replaced by computers, and at least under ideal circumstances, planes can take off, fly, then land all on their own. Over time, they'll be able to handle more and more of the less ideal circumstances, until the only reason to have a person at the controls is to comfort passengers. The same is true for self driving vehicles. These were a fantasy 10 years ago, and already it's become pretty clear to most people that they're going to happen.

People are only comforted by humans controlling things when the automated versions aren't very good. As soon as automated versions outperform people, humans at the controls immediately seem like a liability. How many young people insist on going to physical banks and using a bank teller because they just don't trust their online banking to do as good a job?

You could argue that jobs involving social and human aspects can never go. This is certainly interesting. We definitely need human contact. But consider, for example, just how much people's social patterns have changed over the past 10 years. How much do people happily have their faces glued to their computer/tablet or smart phone rather than interacting with the actual physical people around them? Don't underestimate the ability of people to adjust socially when technology lets them trade one aspect of social interaction for others. In this case, the actual physical presence of another person is traded for the ability to communicate with lots of people at once, and to drop in and out of conversation based on their interest, in a way that would be socially unacceptable in face to face communication.

So where does this lead us, in the long run?

The limits on providing a higher standard of living for all human beings come down to the availability of physical resources, and the availability of labor to turns those physical resources into useful tangible goods or provide services. The more of these you can get for free, the more you can improve the average quality of life for free.

So imagine more automated machinery to get those resources. Imagine machines to refine those resources and turn them into useful items. Imagine if you could go from digging up minerals through to the creation of, say, solar panel arrays or wind turbines, without any human involvement. Imagine if you could build and deploy water desalination plants and pipelines without any human involvement. Imagine if you could collect, sort, and recycle waste without any human involvement.

One possible future, if we humans could get out of our own way, is a future where our basic needs are provided for us, and where no one actually needs to work. If everything could be done better by machines, you wouldn't need or want humans doing those things. Sound crazy? Sure, but there's really no good technological reason why it couldn't happen. If it doesn't happen, it's because we fuck it up for ourselves, because that small minority of people who need to be richer and more powerful than everyone else will do their best to stop something like this happening.

Now, you might say, if machines could do everything better, then what would be the point of living? What would people do? To which I would say, do you need to be the best author in the world to enjoy writing a book? Do you need to be the best athlete in the world to enjoy playing a sport? Do you need to be the best cook in the world to enjoy making a meal? Do you need to be the best lover in the world to enjoy sex?

A future where no one needs to work is a future where people do things because they want to, not because they need to. Think of all the things you never get around to because you don't have enough time. All the things that you'd like to do someday. Think of all the people you'd like to catch up with or spend more time with. Think of all the hobbies you've never even considered taking up because of time. Think of all the books, movies, TV shows, games, music, plays and works of art you wish you had time to enjoy.

Right now we live in a world where the vast majority of people are less well off and suffer more than you do. People are dying all the time due to lack of basic resources and medicine, and struggling their whole lives just to survive. If you could live in a world where all these people could enjoy a reasonable standard of living, without fear or desperation, and no one ever had to work a day in their lives if they didn't want to, and the only real cost is that a tiny fraction of us might have to give up being super rich assholes, would that really be such a bad tradeoff?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On Scottish Independence

Source: Twitter

Living in Scotland, the upcoming independence referendum is obviously of interest to me. Not just because being here on a UK work visa the outcome could have direct implications for me, but also because I'm actually entitled to vote if I want.

I've chosen not to vote though, since having only lived here for a couple of months, I don't think it's really appropriate for me to be directly affecting the outcome of an issue that has been brewing for a long time. Maybe if I really strongly felt that one of the options was truly terrible I would change that stance, but I can see both Yes and No votes being reasonable here, and so I leave it up to the Scottish to decide for themselves (I'm sure they're all extremely thankful that they have my permission!).

Having said that, I do think the best choice is for Scotland to not become independent, and so I thought I would write a few words on why I hold this opinion.

Political Choice

I worry about the UK become more conservative, in the same way that I worry about this in Australia and the US. On the whole, I want to live in a society that takes care of the basic needs of everyone, whether we might think that they deserve it or not, partly because people can fall into misfortune through no fault of their own, and partly because I'm happy to pay some tax dollars to have the peace of mind that those around me are enjoying some basic level of existence, and not being fucked over so that I can be comfortable.

Now, some people, particularly conservatives, will argue that this is best left to charity and donations rather than the government, to which I would reply that people are generally terrible at knowing where money is most needed, and how best to get that money to where it will provide the best bang for buck. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a perfect example of this. The ALS Association experienced a huge increase in donations due to it. This is probably a worthwhile charity that puts its donations to good use, but how many people do you think actually researched to find out? People just jumped on a bandwagon because of funny shit on the internet. How many other charities lost money because people donated to the ALS Association rather than where they might have otherwise been donating money? The point is that people often donate money for dumb reasons and to whatever charity attracts their attention (usually by the charities having to spend lots of money; free virals campaigns are not the norm), while in theory, a government can take a pool of money and allocate it where it's actually needed and can do the most good.

So, long diversion aside, I think countries should tend towards a more socialist left than a conservative right. And this is where Scotland comes in, because it's one of the main areas in the UK with a lot of left wing support, pushing against the increasingly right wing majority. If they leave the UK, I'm sure they will be fine, but what about the rest of the UK?

When I look at the current conservative government in Australia, I shudder to think what would happen if half of Australia's left leaning voters were to leave and form their own country. Or imagine the consequences to not just the US but the entire world if half of the US democrats left and formed their own country, leaving a majority who tend towards wanting to start wars, fucking over the poor, ignoring climate change, and refusing to believe in evolution?

Australia turning to shit would not have much effect on the world outside of Australia, while the US turning to shit could have huge global implications (we saw from the global financial crisis just how much stupid laws and lack of regulation enforcement can affect the whole world). I see the UK as being somewhat in between. They probably wouldn't go around drone striking everyone who lacks oil and/or a nuclear arsenal, but the world would probably not be the better for it.

So I see Scotland as an important part of keeping the political balance in the UK in check, and leaving would probably make the UK a worse place. Of course, this shouldn't necessarily be Scotland's problem, but it would be nice if they could see the power that they have and fight to make the UK better rather than just looking out for themselves.

Increasing Globalisation

Looking at the bigger picture, the world is becoming more interconnected. Countries are ever more reliant on each other to survive and thrive. Most individuals now communicated daily with people all over the world thanks to the internet and social media. We have global threats like climate change that require everyone to take part in solving. Diseases can spread globally more easily than ever before. And technologies like nuclear power can make one country's screw up affect everyone.

We need to look ahead to a world with less local and national focus, and more global focus. We're heading in that direction whether we like it or not. And so, like it or not, we need to keep heading in the direction of unification rather than separation.

Think about a simple thing like purchasing a product online from another country. Chances are you do it via a credit card. Imagine if every country had it's own credit card system so you couldn't do this. Imagine if you had to arrange international bank transfers or something similar to do this. Instead you can use your Visa or Mastercard with everything behind the scenes virtually transparent to you, knowing that you have legal protection if something goes wrong. And notice how much better this makes things, how many new options it opens up. How much more efficient it is.

It's hard to imagine this extrapolated to everything, but it should help give a glimpse as to how unification of laws and governing bodies in the long term could be a great thing. People joke about the ineffectiveness of, say, the UN, but we should be trying to fix it to make it more effective, not walking away from it. It's like when people are unhappy with their medical system so they turn to alternative medicine as though it's a viable alternative, rather than trying to fix the problems.

We need to look towards fixing systems, not walking away from them. And Scotland has the choice to look outward and fix things, or look inwards and only care about itself.