One person, ax²+bx+c votes

William Freedman
May 27, 2018 · 5 min read
James Gillray, “Middlesex-Election,” 1804. Courtesy: British Museum

So this happened for the second time in about a month. I’m just about done with an economist’s book intended for general readers (I know, I need to get a hobby) and the author makes blockchain news.

As you might recall, Your Humble Correspondent was finishing up Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, when the Nobel laureate himself showed up on the PBS Newhour describing bitcoin as “a bubble”. Not that the case can’t be made, and not that others haven’t expressed similar sentiments, but correspondent Paul Solman used the B-word as the entire premise of his report and evidently cherry-picked the most authoritative voice he could find to back it up. And I find that kind of journalism at best disingenuous, at worst deliberately misleading and most likely just plain lazy.

This time, the occasion is more consistent with my confirmation bias — which I freely admit is different from being more correct. But let me enjoy some good news for a change.

As I read the last chapter of the newly released Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, one of its co-authors, Glen Weyl (second billing to University of Chicago law professor Eric A. Posner), writes a post right here on Medium with Vitalik Buterin. With Vitalik. Freakin’. Buterin.

Glen Weyl
Vitalik (OMG!) Buterin

If you’re unfamiliar with the Princeton-educated Dr. Weyl’s work, you need not fake it. (He has 81 followers on Medium. I’m one. And Vitalik … wait for it … Buterin is another.) At 33, he’s still a zygote in economist-years and splits his time between Microsoft, Yale and a start-up called Collective Decision Engines. Much of his economic work is steeped in history — I like him already —with an emphasis in 19th-century political economy. Weyl is an enthusiast of the teachings of Henry George, an American thinker whose economic claim to fame is the suggestion that wealth, as opposed to income or commerce, ought to be taxed. This would curtail inefficiencies, his theories go, that today lead to homeless people and people-less homes. This, among other elements of his 1879 treatise, sounds very Marx-y, and yes, Upton Sinclair and Leo Tolstoy were considered Georgists. But so were Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley Jr., Sun Yat-Sen and Winston Churchill.

Many of his followers today still emulate Henry George’s facial hair. There’s one sitting here in this Starbucks now. (Is Hank wearing a man-bun in this photo?)

That said, the Georgists today are a marginalized bunch. They’re viewed, perhaps unfairly, as the leftist mirror image of the Austrian School — the economic church of the libertarian political movement.

But back to Weyl and his startup. CDE provides commercial application for his decision-making algorithm, quadratic voting (QV). Fast-forward past the math, it’s a way to make sure that the weight of your vote is predicated on the weight of your passion for the issue — and likewise predicated on there being limits on your passions. QV forces you to essentially budget how much of a voice you want to have on one debate at the expense of how much of a voice you have on other debates. If there are no pressing causes riling you up this year, you can roll over votes like phone minutes.

This meshes with work that I’ve been doing of late. I’m part of the team that’s developing Collective Wisdom Technologies, a new way of picking startups that are most likely to succeed. Although my colleagues at CWT have a different approach to voting that Weyl proposes, it has the same goal: to improve the way decisions are made by informed, judicious, popular consensus. So I’m liking this Weyl guy even more.

He and Posner made a lot of statements in their book that I considered magical thinking, but I did like the social and political concepts behind it. If you want to make the world a better place, after all, you have to present a vision — otherwise you’re just finding more accurate ways to measure how much the world today sucks.

But my greatest concern with Radical Markets is one of omission. It was published just this month and yet almost totally ignores blockchain. There are any number of references to artificial intelligence, machine learning, social media data mining and the history of the internet, but how does a book on economics written in 2017–2018 barely mention cryptocurrencies in passing?

This is especially galling considering that Weyl’s central thesis is about a better way to come to consensus — which was exactly Satoshi Nakamoto’s point in 2009.

So I’m scrolling through my Medium feed yesterday (I know, hobby) and I come across a five-minute read called “Liberation Through Radical Decentralization” By Vitalik Buterin and Glen Weyl.

Read it yourself. I’m just here to steer you toward it. And don’t be disappointed to learn that it’s basically a getting-to-know-you piece, albeit one in which two of Your Humble Correspondent’s favorite thought leaders introduce themselves to each other. That being said, they do offer some use cases for working together “to find ways to harness markets and technology to radically decentralize power of all sorts and shift our reliance from authority and to formal rules.”

They suggest a starting place.

“One particular example of a possible area for collaboration … is the use of QV to address the substantial governance problems blockchain-based communities have faced,” the co-authors write. “There have been many attempts to use votes to gauge community sentiment when deciding on potentially controversial protocol changes, but so far they have been criticized either for being too vulnerable to manipulation by sockpuppets (fake accounts) and malicious voting by non-community-members or for being too skewed toward reflecting the views of a small group of wealthy coin holders. Some form of QV could present a moderate alternative.”

William Freedman

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Hard-working, fact-based journalist on the FinTech beat