Tag Archives: Information

The Case Against Democracy

In the New Yorker, Caleb Crain reviews the case. It’s a difficult case to make if most voters are uninformed.

Jamming the stub of the Greek word for “knowledge” into the Greek word for “rule,” Estlund coined the word “epistocracy,” meaning “government by the knowledgeable.” It’s an idea that “advocates of democracy, and other enemies of despotism, will want to resist,” he wrote, and he counted himself among the resisters. As a purely philosophical matter, however, he saw only three valid objections.

First, one could deny that truth was a suitable standard for measuring political judgment. This sounds extreme, but it’s a fairly common move in political philosophy. After all, in debates over contentious issues, such as when human life begins or whether human activity is warming the planet, appeals to the truth tend to be incendiary. Truth “peremptorily claims to be acknowledged and precludes debate,” Hannah Arendt pointed out in this magazine, in 1967, “and debate constitutes the very essence of political life.” Estlund wasn’t a relativist, however; he agreed that politicians should refrain from appealing to absolute truth, but he didn’t think a political theorist could avoid doing so.

The second argument against epistocracy would be to deny that some citizens know more about good government than others. Estlund simply didn’t find this plausible (maybe a political philosopher is professionally disinclined to). The third and final option: deny that knowing more imparts political authority. As Estlund put it, “You might be right, but who made you boss?”

Pawn Shops, Information Insensitivity, and Debt-on-Debt

In a BIS working paper (January 2015), Bengt Holmstrom summarizes some of the implications of the research on information insensitive debt. He cautions against moves to increase transparency in debt markets and defends the shadow banking system. He explains why opacity and information insensitivity are valuable and argues that debt-on-debt arrangements are (privately) optimal.

It all started with pawn shops:

The beauty lies in the fact that collateralised lending obviates the need to discover the exact price of the collateral. …

Today’s repo markets … are close cousins of pawn brokering with similar risks for the parties involved. … the buyer of the asset (the lender) bears the risk that the seller (the borrower) will not have the money to repurchase the asset and just like the pawnbroker, has to sell the asset in the market instead. The seller bears the risk that the buyer of the asset may have rehypothecated (reused) the posted collateral and cannot deliver it back on the termination date. … the risk that a pawnbroker may sell or lose the pawn was a big issue in ancient times and could explain why the Chinese pawnbrokers were Buddhist monks. …

People often assume that liquidity requires transparency, but this is a misunderstanding. What is required for liquidity is symmetric information about the payoff of the security that is being traded so that adverse selection does not impair the market. …

… stock markets are in almost all respects different from money markets …: risk-sharing versus liquidity provision, price discovery versus no price discovery, information-sensitive versus insensitive, transparent versus opaque, large versus small investments in information, anonymous versus bilateral, small unit trades versus large unit trades. … money markets operate under much greater urgency than stock markets. There is generally very little to lose if one stays out of the stock market for a day or longer. This is one reason the volume of trade is very volatile in stock markets. In money markets the volume of trade is very stable, because it could be disastrous if, for instance, overnight debt would not be rolled over each day. …

… debt-on-debt is optimal … . It is optimal to buy debt as collateral to insure against liquidity shocks tomorrow and it is optimal to issue debt against that collateral tomorrow. In fact, repeating the process over time is optimal, too, so debt is in a very robust sense the best possible collateral. This provides a strong reason for using debt as collateral in the shadow banking system. …

Panics always involve debt. Panics happen when information insensitive debt (or banks) turns into information-sensitive debt.

How Does the Blockchain Transform Central Banking?

The blockchain technology opens up new possibilities for financial market participants. It allows to get rid of middle men and thus, to save cost, speed up clearing and settlement (possibly lowering capital requirements), protect privacy, avoid operational risks and improve the bargaining position of customers.

Internet based technologies have rendered it cheap to collect information and to network. This lies at the foundation of business models in the “sharing economy.” It also lets fintech companies seize intermediation business from banks and degrade them to utilities, now that the financial crisis has severely damaged banks’ reputation. But both fintech and sharing-economy companies continue to manage information centrally.

The blockchain technology undermines the middle-men business model. It renders cheating in transactions much harder and thereby reduces the value of credibility lent by middle men. The fact that counter parties do not know and trust each other becomes less of an impediment to trade.

The blockchain may lend credibility to a plethora of transactions, including payments denominated in traditional fiat monies like the US dollar or virtual krypto currencies like Bitcoin. An advantage of krypto currencies over traditional currencies concerns the commitment power lent by “smart contracts.” Unlike the money supply of fiat monies that hinges on discretionary decisions by monetary policy makers, the supply of krypto currencies can in principle be insulated against human interference ex post and at the same time conditioned on arbitrary verifiable outcomes (if done properly). This opens the way for resolving commitment problems in monetary economics. (Currently, however, most krypto currencies do not exploit this opportunity; they allow ex post interference by a “monetary policy committee.”) A disadvantage of krypto currencies concerns their limited liquidity and thus, exchange rate variability relative to traditional currencies if only few transactions are conducted using the krypto currency.

Whether blockchain payments are denominated in traditional fiat monies or krypto currencies, they are always of relevance for central banks. Transactions denominated in a krypto currency affect the central bank in similar ways as US dollar transactions, say, affect the monetary authority in a dollarized economy: The central bank looses control over the money supply, and its power to intervene as lender of last resort may be diminished as well. The underlying causes for the crowding out of the legal tender also are familiar from dollarization episodes: Loss of trust in the central bank and the stability of the legal tender, or a desire of the transacting parties to hide their identity if the central bank can monitor payments in the domestic currency but not otherwise.

Blockchain facilitated transactions denominated in domestic currency have the potential to affect central bank operations much more directly. To leverage the efficiency of domestic currency denominated blockchain transactions between financial institutions it is in the interest of banks to have the central bank on board: The domestic currency denominated krypto currency should ideally be base money or a perfect substitute to it, directly exchangeable against central bank reserves. For when perfect substitutability is not guaranteed then the payment associated with the transaction eventually requires clearing through the traditional central bank managed clearing mechanism and as a consequence, the gain in speed and efficiency is relinquished. Of course, building an interface between the blockchain and the central bank’s clearing system could constitute a first step towards completely dismantling the latter and shifting all central bank managed clearing to the former.

Why would central banks want to join forces? If they don’t, they risk being cut out from transactions denominated in domestic currency and to end up monitoring only a fraction of the clearing between market participants. Central banks are under pressure to keep “their” currencies attractive. For the same reason (as well as for others), I propose “Reserves for All”—letting the general public and not only banks access central bank reserves (here, here, here, and here).