Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bitcoin mining pools attacking each other for profit?

So after posting our new Bitcoin book, my buddy Tim Swanson alerted me to the problem of Bitcoin mining pools attacking each other.

Reminds me of the recent Tax Interaction Effect post, where I had to unearth the core of a counterintuitive result: in this case, the claim that not redeeming some of your solutions can increase your return.

I don't think I'm entirely there, but I at least have an analogy to understand the mechanics of the attack.

Bitcoin mining model:As you might know, mining is like buying a bunch of (positive sum) lottery tickets. A fixed reward is given out every hour, then divided equally among the winning tickets. Some people join into pools, where they buy tickets with the proviso that *if* it's a winning ticket, they share the winnings equally among all the tickets in their pool.

The attack: You use some of your money to buy tickets for someone else's pool (call it the "attacked pool", but hide and destroy the winning tickets for that pool.

The effect: There are fewer total wins per period. Each (non-destroyed) ticket gets a larger fraction of the hourly reward. The attacked pool gets a smaller fraction the reward.

My response/confusion: This increases the return to all winning tickets, not just those of the attacking pool, so the attacking pool effectively subsidizes all the others, and dilutes the value of its own tickets across the set of all players.

But maybe I'm missing something here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Our new Bitcoin eBook is up!

Phew, been a while, eh? Well, Bob Murphy and I have a new free eBook up about the economics and mechanics of Bitcoin! Check the site for it, or, if you're too lazy, just go straight to the book itself.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tax interaction effects, and the libertarian rejection of user fees

Phew! Been a while, hasn't it?

I want to come back to the tax interaction effect (TIE) issue from previous posts, and go over what I think has been bothering me about the TIE-based argument against the carbon tax shift.

So, a high-speed review of why a carbon tax shift (CTS) is inefficient. The CTS, remember, involves a revenue-neutral reduction of taxes on capital (including land) and labor, replaced by a tax on carbon emissions -- specifically, those fuels that, when used, release carbon dioxide, in proportion to how much CO2 they release per unit.

Review of the argument

And why could it be inefficient? Well, the harm of a tax increases faster than its rate. To have a revenue-neutral CTS, you have to "focus" the tax -- i.e. raise the same revenue from a smaller class of goods. This necessarily means a higher tax rate on the "focused" goods, and therefore higher induced inefficiencies (compared to the broader tax). When you further note that these taxes will, in effect, "stack on" to the existing labor and capital taxes, then the inefficiencies are even higher -- that's the TIE -- and could even swamp the environmental benefit from the emissions reduction."

But hold on. Those very same steps are a case against any correspondence between "who uses" and "who pays", whether or not the payment is a tax! That's because you can always point out how "concentrating costs" leads to disproportionate inefficiencies, even and especially for textbook "private goods".

That is, you could likewise say, "if people have to -- gasp! -- pay for their own cell phones, at $300/each, then that scares away all the people who can't pay $300 (after paying labor taxes, remember!), so you can an efficiency loss there. Plus, anyone who can steal the phone has a $300 incentive too, so people invest in ways to steal them, and you have to pay for countermeasures. Those go up quickly with the price of the good.

"Therefore, the government should just tax everyone to cover the cost, and then hand out the cell phones for free."

Wait, that doesn't sound right ...

What's wrong with that argument? Well, a lot. So much that you probably already know the answer. It's for the very same reasons that many advocate user fees for any good that's excludable. Generally, whoever benefits should be the one to pay. ("Cuius lubido, eius sumptum." -- "Whose desire, his expense.")

As with those reasons in favor of user fees, you can make the exact same argument regarding the purported inefficiency of a CTS:

"Yes, you get inefficiencies every time you concentrate costs like that. And yes, they disproportionately stack with whatever taxes you already had. But you need the fee structure to work that way in order to align incentives. The one who uses the scarce resource -- whether a cell phone, or atmospheric dumping capacity -- should be the one to pay for it, as this leads them to economize on the use of that resource, and if possible, route around it. That remains doubly so when exempting them from the expense would lead to further penalization of every other class of socially-useful activity."

And that, I think, goes to the core of my original balking at the CTS/TIE argument.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Liberty vs efficiency: The real conflict

Liberty: Being free of constraints

Efficiency: Raising the state of the world as high as possible on everyone's preference ranking (or some aggregate measure thereof)

You might have heard of Amartya Sen's Liberal paradox, which purports to show that the two necessarily conflict. Of course, as I said a while back, it does no such thing; it only shows a problem with preventing people from waiving their liberties when they find it preferable to do so.

However, there is a real sense in which those two conflict, and it becomes most apparent in discussions of taxation, and how to make it better.

The conventional economist's view is that "The ideal tax system is the one that hurts efficiency the least."

But there's another view, exemplified by the Murphy article that I linked in my last post: "The ideal tax system is the one that's easiest to opt out of."

Naturally, these really do conflict. Why? Because generally speaking, if you want to levy a tax that merely transfers purchasing power to the government without also forcing people to bear other hardships, you have to do it by taxing goods with inelastic demand, like energy, as people will not respond to the tax by buying less of the good, which would indicate a reduction in efficiency.

But the harder a tax is to avoid, the harder it is to "opt-out" of!

So if you think it's good for people to be able to legally reduce government revenues by abstaining from a product at relatively little cost to themselves, then "economically efficient taxes" are no longer an unvarnished good, as they come at the direct expense of the goal of making it easier for people to change their behavior in a way that routes around taxation.

This, I think, is the true conflict between efficiency and liberty, as it doesn't hinge on confusing rights and obligations.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

I explain tax interaction effects (because I think the experts can't)

So it turns out there's a serious argument (HT and text summary: Bob Murphy) that a "green tax shift" may be welfare-worsening rather than welfare-improving. (The green tax shift is where you cut taxes on labor and capital while raising them on environmental "bads" like CO2 emission.)

Huh? How can a tax shift off of bads and onto goods be welfare worsening? It seems the argument is somewhat subtle; even Bob Murphy dismisses clarification requests in the comments, pleading that "it’s hard to point to 'what’s driving the result' except to say, 'Adding the carbon tax drove the result.'"

Well, it's actually not that hard, but the standard expositions don't make it explicit. After reading another of Murphy's articles, it finally clicked for me, although the better explanations still hid the true mechanism in unstated assumptions. Here's how I explained it in the comments (cleaned up a bit and sourced).
I think I have an explanation that conveys the intuition.

Insight 1: the harm of a tax is more-than-proportional to its magnitude. (This is the assumption that the writing on this seems to assume and which I wish was made explicit here and in your article.) Mankiw gives the rule of thumb that the deadweight loss of a tax increases with the square of the tax rate. Thus why you want to raise a given amount of revenue from as “broad a base” as possible -- to lower the rate each tax has to be.

Insight 2 (most important): Because of the above, each increase in tax above the Pigovian level is more harmful than the same increase from zero.

Insight 3: Taxes on anything chase back to their original land/labor/capital factors. So a carbon tax amounts to a tax on land, labor, and capital, divided up per their relative supply/demand curve elasticities (slopes).

Given the above, the intuition becomes a lot clearer: a tax on carbon is like an income tax (with different levels for different kinds of income). Levied at the Pigovian rate, it merely cancels out the carbon harms. But if you have an additional (direct) income tax, you get a disproportionate harm for each (potentially) taxed dollar above the Pigovian level (compare to taxing from the first dollar) — *that* is the tax interaction effect.

Furthermore, since the “green tax trade” tries to raise the same revenue on a smaller base (i.e. only those income sources touching carbon), the tax rates have to be much higher than they would be if they were on all income. This then causes major welfare-harming changes in behavior, far out of proportion to the assumed harms from carbon.
Problem solved, right?

Well, no; Bob insists that Insight 1 is irrelevant to the argument. But I don't see how this can be; you can only get the bad "tax interaction effects" if the tax's harms are more-than-proportional to ("superlinear in") the tax rate.

If it's merely proportional, the taxes don't "interact" at all -- raising taxes by 1 percentage point (on any kind of income) does just as much additional harm, regardless of whether it's on top of a 6% existing tax, or a zero. But when it's more than proportional, then that extra point of tax is (badly) "interacting" with whatever other taxes got it to that level. This is the key insight: that having income taxes in addition to the (implicit income tax resulting from a) carbon tax means those taxes are doing more harm than they otherwise would.

Likewise, if the harm (deadweight loss) of a tax were less than proportional to (sublinear in) the rate, then they would interact in the opposite way. It would make sense to have as few distinct taxes as possible, on a small a base as possible, with as high a rate as possible -- because in that case, each additional increase in the tax rate hurts less than the previous. (Obviously, we don't live in that world!)

I note, with some irony, that this point ultimately reduces to the reasoning behind standard mainstream economist's tax advice to "lower the rates, broaden the base", a mentality Bob actually criticized in another context...

Thursday, November 7, 2013

No politician has ever lied

Because gosh, you'd have to be an idiot to believe them in the first place, says Steve Landsburg.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

My discovery of "semantic security"

One interesting thing I forgot to mention in the previous post about homomorphic encryption: the concept of semantic security.

It was actually a major stumbling block for me. When I got to the passage that mentions the concept, the author casually remarks that "semantic security is an expected feature of public key cryptosystems", and then defines the term as follows: a system is semantically secure if, given two plaintexts and the ciphertext of one of them, an attacker cannot do better than chance in guessing which plaintext goes with that ciphertext.

That didn't make sense because I had always assumed that the defining feature of public key cryptography was that the attacker is permitted unlimited chosen-plaintext attacks, which -- I thought -- means that the attacker always gets to know what ciphertext goes with any plaintext. So how can you make it so that the attacker can -- as required for public key encryption -- produce valid ciphertexts from arbitrary plaintext, and yet still have a semantically secure cryptosystem? Couldn't the attacker just encrypt both plaintexts to figure out which one corresponds to the given ciphertext?

What I missed was that you can use a one-to-many cipher: that is, the same plaintext corresponds to many ciphertexts. What's more, it's actually trivial to convert a plain-vanilla one-to-one public key cipher into a one-to-many semantically secure version. Here's how: just before applying the encryption step, generate a random number (a "nonce") and append it to the plaintext, with the proviso that the recipient with look for it in that position and strip it off after decryption.

This way, in order for an attacker to try to guess the plaintext in the game above, it's no longer enough for them to simply encrypt both plaintexts: a random number was inserted in the process. This means that in order to find a match between a plaintext and a ciphertext, the attacker must encrypt each plaintext with every possible nonce, which requires resources that increase exponentially with the size of the nonce used. (That is, an n-bit nonce can have 2^n possible values.)

The more you know (tm).