The problem with Nobel laureate Richard Thaler’s nudgonomics

With Sinclair Davidson

Economists have spent the last 240 years – ever since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations – trying to understand how decentralised economies work. In that time they have established that the price mechanism does a pretty good job of coordinating economic activity, and that profits provide excellent incentives to stimulate human action.

In the course of understanding how economies operate, economists have had to develop a working model of human behaviour, and various simplifying assumptions have been made. An example of such an assumption is that people are pretty smart, and best know their own self-interest. That is the so-called rationality assumption.

But, of course, there are many rationality assumptions. Standard economic theory maintains what can be described as ‘strong-form’ rationality. In this view of rationality, the human brain is an unlimited resource and can easily and quickly compute all outcomes and make choices that maximise satisfaction and well-being.

Then there is a ‘semi-strong form’ of rationality – bounded rationality – associated with 1978 economics laureate Herbert Simon. He suggested that people intend to be rational but that there are limits to rationality. Finally ‘weak-form’ rationality, associated with the Austrian school, suggests that people economise on their brain power as they would any other resource and make use of rules of thumb and heuristics to make choices and decisions.

So the notion that economists have a single dogmatic view of human behaviour and rationality is something of a straw man, if not actually a whipping boy when non-economists debate economists.

Enter into this milieu Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, and the latest economics laureate awarded for his work in behavioural economics. Thaler is a worthy Nobel winner. He has successfully challenged the mainstream and standard assumption of strong-form rationality. He has brought respectability to what would have been heresy as recently as the 1970s. Many of the insights of his research agenda and his followers have been profound, others have been trivial. That is to be expected from any productive scholar and intellectual movement.

What is unexpected is how successful behavioural economics has been in a policy sense. Popularly and politically, Thaler is best known for his book Nudge, written with Cass Sunstein. This remarkable book both established a new theoretical framework for government intervention and successfully marketed it to the governing class.

Nudge was published in 2008. By 2010, the Conservative government in Britain had established a ‘nudge unit’ within the Cabinet Office. Many other governments have followed suit. The rapid leap that nudge theory made from seminar room to law-of-the-land has been unprecedented.

These days, lots of policies are routinely described as ‘nudges’, and the word is as much a political branding exercise as anything. But Thaler and Sunstein were very specific about what they meant by a nudge. As they describe it, we all have two ‘semiautonomous’ selves: the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’. The doer is irrational – thinking only about the short term and gratuitous pleasures. The planner is rational – thinking about the future, focusing on getting healthy and saving money.

The planner makes the best choices; the planner makes the choices we don’t regret and would make again. In nudge theory, government should design systems that allow us to favour what our planner selves would rather do, rather than our reckless doer selves.

In this way, Thaler and Sunstein avoid one of the central critiques of the nanny state – the nanny state wants to impose its own preferences on others. Both the planner and doer’s preferences are our own. We still get to choose. Thaler and Sunstein describe nudge theory as ‘libertarian’ paternalism.

But it has some serious practical and conceptual problems.

Rather than just leaving choice to the market, nudge theory says the government should try to discern a set of best preferences from our worst ones – but not impose its own. Then it should regulate the economy so it favours the choices of our planner selves, but doesn’t force us into any specific choice. This sounds like hard work for a government.

More fundamentally, is it true that we have two separate, distinct selves? Nudge theory needs there to be two distinct systems so the government can choose between them. ‘Dual systems’ theory, as it was known in the psychological literature, has now been replaced by theories that describe our cognitive processes as a continuum or graphical space. The upshot is that it is not meaningful to say we have two sets of preferences – good ones and bad ones – but an infinite number of sets of preferences.

With this shift, psychologists seem to have coalesced around the weak-form Austrian view of rationality: that rationality itself is a matter of trade-offs and choices. One could even say this was Adam Smith’s view. People are a rich mix of passion, interest and sympathy – not all-knowing, rational calculators.

Thaler’s contribution has been to help return us to that understanding. But it’s a big leap from the observation that ‘people are not always perfectly rational’ to ‘bureaucrats can make us rational’.

Is science the answer?

With Michael Keane. Published in BJA: British Journal of Anaesthesia, aex334, 4 October 2017

Abstract: Nearly ten years ago, Tobin described the irony that evidence-based medicine (EBM) lacks a sound scientific basis. A sentinel paper concluded that most results of medical research were false, and now the same author, a well-lauded EBM proponent, argues that even if true, most clinical research is not useful and now concedes that EBM has been ‘hijacked’ by ‘vested interests’ including industry and researchers.4 The community expends vast resources on research, yet it has been estimated that there is an 85% ‘waste in the production and reporting of research evidence’ … Should we continue with the same paradigm and expect better results? In this counterpoint, we argue ‘no’.

Available at Oxford Academic

The Blockchain Economy: A beginner’s guide to institutional cryptoeconomics

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Originally a Medium post.

The blockchain is a digital, decentralised, distributed ledger.

Most explanations for the importance of the blockchain start with Bitcoin and the history of money. But money is just the first use case of the blockchain. And it is unlikely to be the most important.

It might seem strange that a ledger — a dull and practical document associated mainly with accounting — would be described as a revolutionary technology. But the blockchain matters because ledgers matter.

Ledgers all the way down

Ledgers are everywhere. Ledgers do more than just record accounting transactions. A ledger consists simply of data structured by rules. Any time we need a consensus about facts, we use a ledger. Ledgers record the facts underpinning the modern economy.

Ledgers confirm ownership. Property title registers map who owns what and whether their land is subject to any caveats or encumbrances. Hernando de Soto has documented how the poor suffer when they own property that has not been confirmed in a ledger. The firm is a ledger, as a network of ownership, employment and production relationships with a single purpose. A club is a ledger, structuring who benefits and who does not.

Ledgers confirm identity. Businesses have identities recorded on government ledgers to track their existence and their status under tax law. The register of Births Deaths and Marriages records the existence of individuals at key moments, and uses that information to confirm identities when those individuals are interacting with the world.

Ledgers confirm status. Citizenship is a ledger, recording who has the rights and is subject to obligations due to national membership. The electoral roll is a ledger, allowing (and, in Australia, obliging) those who are on that roll a vote. Employment is a ledger, giving those employed a contractual claim on payment in return for work.

Ledgers confirm authority. Ledgers identify who can validly sit in parliament, who can access what bank account, who can work with children, who can enter restricted areas.

At their most fundamental level, ledgers map economic and social relationships.

Agreement about the facts and when they change — that is, a consensus about what is in the ledger, and a trust that the ledger is accurate — is one of the fundamental bases of market capitalism.

Ownership, possession, and ledgers

Let’s make a distinction here that is crucial but easy to miss: between ownership and possession.

Take passports. Each country asserts the right to control who crosses its borders, and each country maintains a ledger of which of its citizens have the right to travel. A passport is a physical item — call it a token — that refers back to this ledger.

In the pre-digital world, possession indicated ownership of that right. The Australian passport ledger consisted of index cards held in by the government of each state. Border agents presented with a passport could surmise that the traveller who held it was listed on a distant ledger as allowed to travel. Of course this left border control highly exposed to fraud.

Possession implies ownership, but possession is not ownership. Now modern passports allow the authorities to confirm ownership directly. Their digital features allow airlines and immigration authorities to query the national passport database and determine that a passenger is free to travel.

Passports are a relatively straightforward example of this distinction. But as Bitcoin has shown: money is a ledger, too.

Possession of a banknote token indicates ownership. In the nineteenth century the possessor — ‘bearer’ — of a banknote had a right to draw on the issuing bank the value of the note. These banknotes were direct liabilities for the issuing bank, and were recorded on the banks’ ledger. A regime of possession indicating ownership meant that banknotes were susceptible to be both stolen and forged.

In our era fiat currencies a five dollar bill cannot be returned to the central bank for gold. But the relationship remains — the value of the bill is dependent on a social consensus about the stability of the currency and government that issued it. Banknotes are not wealth, as Zimbabweans and Yugoslavians and Weimar Republic Germans have unfortunately learned. A bill is a call on a relationship in a (now synthetic) ledger and if that relationship collapses, so does the value of the bill.

The evolution of the ledger

For all its importance, ledger technology has been mostly unchanged … until now.

Ledgers appear at the dawn of written communication. Ledgers and writing developed simultaneously in the Ancient Near East to record production, trade, and debt. Clay tablets baked with cuneiform script detailed units of rations, taxes, workers and so forth. The first international ‘community’ was arranged through a structured network of alliances that functioned a lot like a distributed ledger.

The first major change to ledgers appeared in the fourteenth century with the invention of double entry bookkeeping. By recording both debits and credits, double entry bookkeeping conserved data across multiple (distributed) ledgers, and allowed for the reconciliation of information between ledgers.

The nineteenth century saw the next advance in ledger technology with the rise of large corporate firms and large bureaucracies. These centralised ledgers enabled dramatic increases in organisational size and scope, but relied entirely on trust in the centralised institutions.

In the late twentieth century ledgers moved from analog to digital ledgers. For example, in the 1970s the Australian passport ledger was digitised and centralised. A database allows for more complex distribution, calculation, analysis and tracking. A database is computable and searchable.

But a database still relies on trust; a digitised ledger is only as reliable as the organisation that maintains it (and the individuals they employ). It is this problem that the blockchain solves. The blockchain is a distributed ledgers that does not rely on a trusted central authority to maintain and validate the ledger.

Blockchain and the economic institutions of capitalism

The economic structure of modern capitalism has evolved in order service these ledgers.

Oliver Williamson, the 2009 Nobel laureate in economics, argued that people produce and exchange in markets, firms, or governments depending on the relative transactions costs of each institution. Williamson’s transactions cost approach provides a key to understanding what institutions manage ledgers and why.

Governments maintain ledgers of authority, privilege, responsibility and access. Governments are the trusted entity that keeps databases of citizenship and the right to travel, taxation obligations, social security entitlements, and property ownership. Where a ledger requires coercion in order to be enforced, the government is required.

Firms also maintain ledgers: proprietary ledgers of employment and responsibility, of the ownership and deployment of physical and human capital, of suppliers and customers, of intellectual property and corporate privilege. A firm is often described as a ‘nexus of contracts’. But the value of the firm comes from the way that nexus is ordered and structured — the firm is in fact a ledger of contracts and capital.

Firms and governments can use blockchains to make their work more efficient and reliable. Multinational firms and networks of firms need to reconcile transactions on a global basis and blockchains can allow them to do so near-instantaneously. Governments can use the immutability of the blockchain to guarantee that property titles and identity records are accurate and untampered. Well-designed permissioning rules on blockchain applications can give citizens and consumers more control over their data.

But blockchains also compete against firms and governments. The blockchain is an institutional technology. It is a new way to maintain a ledger — that is, coordinate economic activity — distinct from firms and governments.

Blockchains can be used by firms, but they can also replace firms. A ledger of contracts and capital can now be decentralised and distributed in a way they could not before. Ledgers of identity, permission, privilege and entitlement can be maintained and enforced without the need for government backing.

Institutional cryptoeconomics

This is what institutional cryptoeconomics studies: the institutional consequences of cryptographically secure and trustless ledgers.

Classical and neoclassical economists understand the purpose of economics as studying the production and distribution of scarce resources, and the factors which underpinned that production and distribution.

Institutional economics understands the economy as made of rules. Rules (like laws, languages, property rights, regulations, social norms, and ideologies) allow dispersed and opportunistic people to coordinate their activity together. Rules facilitate exchange — economic exchange but also social and political exchange as well.

What has come to be called cryptoeconomics focuses on the economic principles and theory underpinning the blockchain and alternative blockchain implementations. It looks at game theory and incentive design as they relate to blockchain mechanism design.

By contrast, institutional cryptoeconomics looks at the institutional economics of the blockchain and cryptoeconomy. Like its close cousin institutional economics, the economy is a system to coordinate exchange. But rather than looking at rules, institutional cryptoeconomics focuses on ledgers: data structured by rules.

Institutional cryptoeconomics is interested in the rules that govern ledgers, the social, political, and economic institutions that have developed to service those ledgers, and how the invention of the blockchain changes the patterns of ledgers throughout society.

The economic consequences of the blockchain

Institutional cryptoeconomics gives us the tools to understand what is happening in the blockchain revolution — and what we can’t predict.

Blockchains are an experimental technology. Where the blockchain can be used is an entrepreneurial question. Some ledgers will move onto the blockchain. Some entrepreneurs will try to move ledgers onto the blockchain and fail. Not everything is a blockchain use case. We probably haven’t yet seen the blockchain killer app yet. Nor can we predict what the combination of ledgers, cryptography, peer to peer networking will throw up in the future.

This process is going to be extremely disruptive. The global economy faces (what we expect will be) a lengthy period of uncertainty about how the facts that underpin it will be restructured, dismantled, and reorganised.

The best uses of the blockchain have to be ‘discovered’. Then they have to be implemented in a real world political and economic system that has deep, established institutions that already service ledgers. That second part will not be cost free.

Ledgers are so pervasive — and the possible applications of the blockchain so all-encompassing — that some of the most fundamental principles governing our society are up for grabs.
Institutional creative destruction

We’ve been through revolutions like this before.

It is common to compare the invention of Bitcoin and the blockchain with the internet. The blockchain is Internet 2.0 — or Internet 4.0. The internet is a powerful tool that has revolutionised the way we interact and do business. But if anything the comparison undersells the blockchain. The internet has allowed us to communicate and exchange better — more quickly, more efficiently.

But the blockchain allows us to exchange differently. A better metaphor for the blockchain is the invention of mechanical time.

Before mechanical time, human activity was temporally regulated by nature: the crow of the rooster in the morning, the slow descent into darkness at night. As the economic historian Douglas W. Allen argues, the problem was variability: “there was simply too much variance in the measurement of time … to have a useful meaning in many daily activities”.

“The effect of the reduction in the variance of time measurement was felt everywhere”, Allen writes. Mechanical time opened up entirely new categories of economic organisation that had until then been not just impossible, but unimaginable. Mechanical time allowed trade and exchange to be synchronised across great distances. It allowed for production and transport to be coordinated. It allowed for the day to be structured, for work to be compensated according to the amount of time worked — and for workers to know that they were being compensated fairly. Both employers and employees could look at a standard, independent instrument to verify that a contract had been performed.

Complete and incomplete smart contracts

Oliver Williamson and Ronald Coase (who was also an economics Nobel prize winner, in 1991) put contracts at the heart of economic and business organisation. Contracts are at the centre of institutional cryptoeconomics. It is here that blockchains have the most revolutionary implications.

Smart contracts on the blockchain allows for contractual agreements to be automatically, autonomously, and securely executed. Smart contracts can eliminate an entire class of work that currently maintains, enforces and confirms that contracts are executed — accountants, auditors, lawyers, and indeed much of the legal system.

But the smart contracts are limited by what can be specified in the algorithm. Economists have focused on the distinction between complete and incomplete contracts.

A complete contract specifies what is to occur under every possible contingency. An incomplete contract allows the terms of the contract to be renegotiated in the case of unexpected events. Incomplete contracts provide one explanation for why some exchanges take place in firms, and why others take place in markets, and provides a further guide to questions surrounding vertical integration and the size of the firm.

Complete contracts are impossible to execute, while incomplete contracts are expensive. The blockchain, though smart contracts, lowers the information costs and transactions costs associated with many incomplete contracts and so expands the scale and scope of economic activity that can be undertaken. It allows markets to operate where before only large firms could operate, and it allows business and markets to operate where before only government could operate.

The precise details of how and when this will occur is a challenge and a problem for entrepreneurs to resolve. Currently, oracles provide a link between the algorithmic world of the blockchain and the real world, trusted entities that convert information into data that can be processed by a smart contract.

The real gains to be made in the blockchain revolution, we suggest, are in developing better and more powerful oracles — converting incomplete contracts to contracts that are sufficiently complete to be written algorithmically and executed on the blockchain.

The merchant revolution of the middle ages was made possible by the development of merchant courts — effectively trusted oracles — that allowed traders to enforce agreements privately. For blockchain, that revolution seems yet to come.

Whither government?

The blockchain economy puts pressure on government processes in a whole host of ways, from taxation, to regulation, to service delivery.

Investigating these changes is an ongoing project of ours. But consider, for instance, how we regulate banks.

Prudential controls have evolved to ensure the safety and soundness of financial institutions that interact with the public. Typically these controls (for example, liquidity and capital requirements) have been justified by the fact that depositors and shareholders are unable to observe the bank’s ledger. The depositors and shareholders are unable to discipline the firm and its management.

Bank runs occur when depositors discover (or simply imagine) that their bank might not be able to cover their deposits, and they rush to withdraw their money.

One possible application of the blockchain would allow depositors and shareholders to continuously monitor the bank’s reserves and lendings, substantially eliminating the information asymmetries between them and the bank management.

In this world, market discipline would be possible. Public trust in the immutability of the blockchain would ensure no false bank runs occurred. The role of the regulator might be limited to certifying the blockchain was correctly and securely structured.

A more far reaching application would be a cryptobank — an autonomous blockchain application that borrows short and lends long, perhaps matching borrowers with lenders directly. A cryptobank structured algorithmically by smart contracts would have the same transparency properties as the bank with a public blockchain ledger but with other features that might completely neglect the need for regulators. For example, a cryptobank could be self-liquidating. At the moment the cryptobank began trading while insolvent, the underlying assets would be automatically disbursed to shareholders and depositors.

It is unclear what regulatory role government should have in this world.

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have argued that much government regulation appears to be designed to resolve asymmetric information problems — problems that, in a world of information ubiquity, often do not exist any more. Blockchain applications significantly increase this information ubiquity, and make that information more transparent, permanent, and accessible.

Blockchains have their uses in what is being called ‘regtech’ — the application of technology to the traditional regulatory functions of auditing, compliance, and market surveillance. And we ought not to dismiss the possibility that there will be new economic problems that demand new consumer protections or market controls in the blockchain world.

Nevertheless, the restructuring and recreation of basic economic forms like banks will put pressure not just on how regulation is enforced, but what the regulation should do.

Whither Big Business?

The implications for big business are likely to be just as profound. Business size is often driven by the need to cover the costs of business hierarchy — in turn due to incomplete contracts and technological necessity of large scale financial investment. That business model has meant that shareholder capitalism is the dominant form of business organisation. The ability to write more complete contracts on the blockchain means that entrepreneurs and innovators will be able to maintain ownership and control of their human capital and profit at the same time. The nexus between operating a successful business and access to financial capital has been weakening over time, but now might even be broken. The age of human capitalism is dawning.

Entrepreneurs will be able to write a valuable app and release it into the “wild” ready to be employed by anyone and everyone who needs that functionality. The entrepreneur in turn simply observe micro-payments accumulating in their wallet. A designer could release their design into the “wild” and final consumers could download that design to their 3D printer and have the product almost immediately. This business model could see more (localised) manufacturing occur in Australia than at present.

The ability of consumers to interact directly with producers or designers will limit the role that middlemen play in the economy. Logistics firms, however, will continue to prosper, but the advent of driverless transportation will see disruption to industry too.

Bear in mind, any disruption of business will also disrupt the company tax base. It may become difficult for government to tax business at all — so we might see greater pressure on sales (consumption) taxes and even poll taxes.


The blockchain and associated technological changes will massively disrupt current economic conditions. The industrial revolution ushered in a world where business models were predicated on hierarchy and financial capitalism. The blockchain revolution will see an economy dominated by human capitalism and greater individual autonomy.

How that unfolds is unclear at present. Entrepreneurs and innovators will resolve uncertainty, as always, through a process of trial and error. No doubt great fortunes will be made and lost before we know exactly how this disruption will unfold.

Our contribution is that we have a clear understanding of a model that can be deployed to provide clarity to the disruption as and when it occurs.

Bitcoin investors should be taxed like any other investor

By Chris Berg, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Despite its name, cryptocurrency isn’t just money. It could also be debt or equity and so it should be regulated and taxed in the same way as other finance.

The tokens investors get when they buy a cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, can be used to buy into blockchain startups (businesses that use the same online ledger as cryptocurrencies). When blockchain startups issue shares in their businesses using cryptocurrency, it’s called an initial coin offering. For investors, this is like any other equity investment.

Cryptocurrency can also be used to finance specific assets, like debt. So what we have is a single financial instrument that has the advantages of both debt and equity.

So startups issuing their own tokens for investment purposes should have to comply with the same rules and regulations that startups issuing more traditional instruments must comply with. Cryptocurrency investors should be taxed on the same basis as traditional investors.

Why cryptocurrency is a mix of money, debt and equity

Money is very often defined by its functions: a medium of exchange, a unit of account (used to represent the real value or cost of any economic item), and a store of value (that can be saved, retrieved and exchanged at a later time). The early consensus about Bitcoin among economists is that it’s not money.

At best cryptocurrencies are a medium of exchange. But many economists doubted that Bitcoin, given its volatility, could ever serve as a unit of account, let alone as a store of value.

So if cryptocurrency isn’t money, is has to be something else. It could be an asset of some sort.

Usually if investors acquire or sell an asset, it would be liable to tax, such as the GST. This means people using Bitcoin would be taxed twice when using it.

It would be taxed when the person buys the Bitcoin and taxed again when they used it to buy something. Luckily the federal government realised this was a bad idea and moved to repeal the double taxation of Bitcoin.

Clearly the federal government’s view is that cryptocurrency is not legal tender – so don’t try pay your income tax in Bitcoin anytime soon. And there are important differences between money, specifically legal tender, and cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrencies tend to strictly rules bound. How they’re created, when they can be earned, how they’re distributed and how many there ever can be, is all determined by rules. In fact, users like strict rules.

By contrast government controlled money is not rules bound. Government employs substantial discretion in exercising control over money. So while the US dollar has the words “In God we trust” printed on it, this system actually requires substantial trust in government.

This trust has been repaid by a substantial reduction of value over the past century. It seems that government-backed money may also be a poor unit of account and store of value.

Debt and equity are financial instruments used to raise money to finance economic activity. It is something of a puzzle to financial economists why firms use debt in some instances to raise finance while using equity in other situations.

An important 1988 paper by the 2009 economics Laureate Oliver Williamson provides a possible answer to that question. Williamson argues that debt, being a strict rules bound financial instrument, is best used to finance general assets, while equity is best used for so-called specific assets. Specific assets are those assets that cannot be cheaply or easily redeployed from their current use to alternate uses without a substantial loss of value.

As it turns out Williamson had speculated about the existence of such an instrument (that he labelled “dequity”) and then rejected that instrument as being unworkable. The reason dequity was unworkable was due to opportunism – investors simply could not trust dequity issuers.

The ledger that cryptocurrencies use – the blockchain – is a actually “trustless” technology because it’s decentralised. It allow users to see each other’s ledgers and transactions, negating the need for a trusted third party to manage risk. Instead it relies on cryptographic verification.

With the absence of the ability for investors to game the system, cryptocurrencies are the dequity Williamson first imagined and it could become an efficient financing mechanism.

How dequity should be regulated

The idea of regulating or taxing cryptocurrency finance may not be to the liking of many crypto-enthusiasts who are likely to argue that traditional rules and regulations are very onerous. They are correct, of course. Yet the solution to over-regulation is not a carve-out for special interests but rather regulatory reform that reduces the burden for all business.

The good news for crypto-enthusiasts is that some governments appear willing to engage in genuine regulatory reform and tax competition to attract investment in this space. For example, the Singaporean government is relaxing existing regulation to accommodate cryptocurrency. Its proposed framework would require applicable companies to obtain a license from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and divides payment activities into several categories.

But regulators should really regulate cryptocurrencies in much the same way as they do existing financial instruments. It shouldn’t be given special treatment.

Despite all the complexity of cryptocurrency it really is simple: it’s a financial instrument that combines all the advantages of money with debt and equity. It’s none of those well known concepts in isolation, but a viable and workable hybrid of all three.

Institutional Cryptoeconomics: A New Model for a New Century

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

While cryptoeconomics is already a vibrant research field, the study of the blockchain must not be left solely to computer scientists and game theorists.

The rollout of blockchain technology raises complex questions in economics, public policy, law, sociology and political economy. What we call “institutional cryptoeconomics” starts from a simple premise – the blockchain is not just a new general purpose technology, it is a new institutional technology.

This may sound like a pedantic distinction, but the difference between these two conceptions is profound. General purpose technologies allow us to do what we already do better, faster and cheaper. Economists understand general purpose technologies (like steam power or the semi-conductor) as great engines of economic growth.

There is no doubt that the blockchain is a general purpose technology, but it is much more.

Rather, the blockchain is a new mechanism to coordinate economic activity and to facilitate cooperation between individuals. It opens up new opportunities for exchange, for collaboration and for building communities that were previously closed off due to high information costs and transactions costs.

As a new institutional technology, we expect that blockchains will disrupt and transform both economic activity and social organization. Institutional cryptoeconomics is a new analytic framework to study that evolutionary process.

In the very first instance, we believe that the transaction costs approach of Oliver Williamson – who won the Nobel in economics in 2009 – is the ideal theoretical framework to understand the blockchain. Williamson was primarily interested in understanding the ‘make’ or ‘buy’ decisions that firms have to resolve.

Is it better the buy inputs on the open market or produce them in-house?

That choice defined the limits of the firm, which in turn determined the incentive structures that decision makers faced.

A key determinant of the limits of the firm is “opportunism” or “self-interest seeking with guile” as Williamson described human behavior.

The combination of opportunism and asset specificity (which refers to how easily an investment can be resold or repurposed for another use) meant that complex economic behavior had to take place in large corporations. This in turn implied the need for substantial financial capital investment.

Thus, we saw the dominance of shareholder capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The blockchain breaks this relationship between size, opportunism and asset specificity.

By substantially eliminating opportunism (that is, being a ‘trustless’ technology), the blockchain allows specific assets to be deployed in small businesses supported not by large amounts of financial capital but by large amounts of human capital. It allows market incentives to deeper penetrate into firm structures resolving problems of team production.

For many industries, the blockchain will radically redefine the boundaries of the firm, allowing individuals to trade their talents and skills in an environment devoid of big business.

The eclipse of the large public firm has been predicted before, of course, but this time we believe those predictions will eventuate for many, if not most, industries.

The decline of shareholder capitalism will have ricochet effects across the economy and society itself. It will put new pressures on employment, inequality, political power and the regulatory state. And it opens up vast new opportunities. The Williamson framework can also help us understand how the blockchain changes – and enhances – the provision of insurance, the provision of public goods, and the provision and protection of identity.

It is often said that we are at the start of a “blockchain revolution.” Institutional cryptoeconomics offers an exciting way to understand what features of the ancien régime we’re about to lose, and what might take its place.

Submission to the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Collection Models for GST on Low Value Imported Goods

With Sinclair Davidson

Introduction: The Productivity Commission (PC) Discussion Paper, Collection Models of a GST on Low Value Imported Goods, suggests that the inquiry that the PC has been directed to pursue is somewhat of a fait accompli. The legislation enacting this policy change (Treasury Laws Amendment (GST Low Value Goods) Bill 2017) has already passed the parliament with broad parliamentary support.

However, the parliament’s decision to delay the implementation of this policy by one year (the original legislation introduced to parliament was scheduled to begin in July 2017) provides an opportunity for the PC to make clear the practical and philosophical problems with the legislated scheme. A clear statement that this scheme is not in the interest of consumers, is unlikely to be effective, threatens Australia’s participation in the global internet commerce economy, and casts Australia as a bad global actor in international taxation, would, in our view, have a concrete public policy impact. The parliament is capable of amending the legislation in response to this investigation, and the government has significant discretionary power to adjust or mollify its implementation.

Available in PDF here

Opening statement to Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism

A free press underpinned by laws and norms that respect freedom of speech is one of the foundations of liberal democracy. The fact that freedom of speech in the press has an important role in our democracy does not mean that parliament should take it upon itself to support journalism, whether it is publicly interested journalism or not. The question of how to fund journalism is a question for entrepreneurs, not the parliament. The reason I argue this is that government is not an uninterested participant in the public debate. Governments have an interest in favouring journalists and media outlets which are sympathetic to their world views and attacking those they do not. We saw how perversely this dynamic could play out during the media reform debate in 2011 and 2013, and of course we see it in our regular debates about the ABC. Further government involvement in the press would mean that governments have more leverage over the press.

With this in mind, I would like to briefly address two issues that have been raised in debate over public interest journalism so far. Right now, the government directly provisions journalism through the ABC and it has been suggested that this provision be increased, but, as Professor Sinclair Davidson at RMIT and I will argue in a forthcoming book, the ABC is not an independent media organisation.

CHAIR: What’s the name of the book?

Dr Berg: It’s at the moment called ‘Against public broadcasting’, but we haven’t actually finalised the title.

Senator XENOPHON: Senator Dastyari is good at book titles.

Dr Berg: We’ll open that up for recommendations, of course, as we would. The ABC is the only media outlet dependent entirely on the government for its operating expenses, it’s the only media outlet regularly dragged in front of parliamentary committees to answer for minor programming decisions and the ABC is regularly accused of bias by the Left and the Right. This bureaucratic one billion-dollar government owned television and radio network is not the ideal vehicle for the sort of journalism that would suit our digital age.

The second issue that I’d like to raise is the proposal to give public interest journalism outlets deductible gift recipient status. This has much to recommend it, in my view. DGR status would be available to media outlets professing any political slant. DGR status would encourage media firms to self-fund, to be accountable to their supporters and readers, and it would not constitute a direct call on public revenue. One concern with this model, however, is that it would require an authority to decide which media outlets are legitimate public interest journalism outlets and which are illegitimate ones. Poorly designed, this could easily transform into a de facto licensing body through which the government may be able to exert some influence over the press. If the committee recommends this sort of reform, it should think very clearly about how that would be done. There are concrete things the parliament could do to help journalism in the digital age. For instance, the government should review limits on the freedom of speech. You probably don’t want me to talk any further about 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, but I would draw the committee’s attention to the heavy burden of defamation laws and our lack of fair-use exception for copyrights. I welcome the Senate review announced into the law of contempt.

More generally, media outlets will benefit from regulatory reform that reduces the burden of red tape on the Australian economy. The policies which help firms thrive in the general economy would be the same policies that help media firms and, ultimately, help public interest journalism thrive.

Government must leave encryption alone, or it will endanger blockchain

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

If we could give Malcolm Turnbull one piece of economic advice right now – one piece of advice about how to protect the economy against a challenging and uncertain future – it would be this: don’t mess with encryption.

Earlier this month the government announced that it was going to “impose an obligation” on device manufacturers and service providers to provide law enforcement authorities access to encrypted information on the presentation of a warrant.

At the moment it’s unclear what exactly this means. Attorney-General George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull have repeatedly denied they want a legislated “backdoor” into encrypted devices, but the loose way they’ve used that language suggests some sort of backdoor requirement is still a real possibility.

Hopefully we’ll discover more when the legislation is introduced in the August sitting weeks. Turnbull did say at the press conference “I’m not suggesting this is not without some difficulty”. The government may not have made any final decisions yet.

But before any legislation is introduced, the government needs to understand what the stakes are in as they strive against encryption.

Anything the government does to undermine the reliability of encryption could have deleterious consequences for what we believe will be the engine of economic growth in decades to come: the blockchain protocol.

The blockchain is the distributed and decentralised ledger that powers the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Blockchain constitutes a suite of five technologies: cryptography, a database that can be added to but not altered, peer-to-peer networking, an application of game theory, and an algorithm for ensuring a consensus about what information is held on the ledger.

Taken separately, these are long established technologies and techniques – even mundane ones. But taken together, they constitute an entirely new tool for creating political, economic, and social relationships.

The possibilities far exceed digital currencies. Already banks and other financial institutions are trying to integrate blockchains into their business structures: blockchains drastically reduce the costs of tracking, recording, and verifying transactions. Almost any business or government organisation that is done with a database now can be done more efficiently, more reliably, and cheaper with a blockchain – property registers, intellectual property, security and logistics, healthcare records, you name it.

But these much publicised blockchain applications are just a small taste of the technology’s possibility. “Smart” self-executing contracts and massively distributed organisational structures enabled by the blockchain will allow the creation of new forms of business structures and new ways to work together in every sector and every industry.

In fact, we think that the blockchain is so significant that it should be treated as its own category of human organisation. There are firms, there are markets, there are governments, and now there are blockchains.

But the blockchain revolution is not inevitable.

If there is one key technology in the blockchain, it is cryptography. There are lots of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs playing around with lots of different adaptations of the blockchain protocol, but this one is a constant: the blockchain’s nested levels of encryption are built to ensure that once something is placed on the blockchain it is permanent, immutable, and only accessible to those who own it.

Blockchains only work because their users have absolute confidence that the system is secure.

Any legal restrictions, constraints or hurdles placed on encryption will be a barrier to the introduction of this remarkable new economic technology. In fact, any suggestion of future regulatory challenges to encryption will pull the handbrake on blockchain in Australia. In the wake of the banking, mining and carbon taxes, Australia already has a serious regime uncertainty problem.

Melbourne in particular is starting to see the growth of a small but prospective financial technology industry of which blockchain is a central part. The Australian Financial Review reported earlier this week about the opening of a new fintech hub Stone & Chalk in the establishment heart of Collins St. What’s happening in Melbourne is exactly the sort of innovation-led economic growth that the Coalition government was talking about in the 2016 election.

But the government won’t be able to cash in on those innovation dividends if they threaten encryption: the simple and essential technology at the heart of the blockchain.

Malcolm Turnbull’s Super Ministry

The new Home Affairs Ministry will be an administrative behemoth. It is unlikely that it will bring any great national security dividends. It is very likely that it will have undesirable consequences for Australia’s immigration program.

The Home Affairs Ministry takes the federal police, ASIO, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission away from the Attorney-General. It takes the Office of Transport Security away from the Infrastructure Minister. It gives them all to the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who already has his own quasi-security agency, the Australian Border Force.

The politics here are obvious. Dutton is a senior conservative in a government that conspicuously lacks senior conservatives. But as a policy matter, there’s little public evidence to suggest that we our federal agencies are struggling to coordinate on security matters – although the 2014 Sydney siege did reveal weaknesses in federal-state security coordination, which the government has rightly moved to repair.

Where agencies sit on the ministerial map can have significant policy consequences. The creation of the Home Affairs Ministry locks in this government’s recasting of immigration as an economic opportunity to immigration as a security threat – a threat to national security, biosecurity, even economic security. Malcolm Turnbull has begun to use Julia Gillard’s old formulation: “Australian jobs are for Australians”.

Immigration and security are only a good fit if you squint very hard. For the most part Dutton’s day job has been the mundane work of supervising and approving or denying marginal visa applicants. The immigration minister is vested more discretionary powers than anyone else in the cabinet. Now that his focus is on security – taking constant briefings from ASIO and the AFP about domestic threats – security is how Australia’s immigration program will now be framed.

Medicare details available on dark web is just tip of data breach iceberg

Modern governments use a lot of data. A lot. Our social services are organised by massive databases. Health, welfare, education and the pension all require reams of information about identity, social needs, eligibility, and entitlement.

A major investigation is underway into how patients’ Medicare details are being sold on the dark web by cyber criminals.

Our infrastructure is managed by massive databases holding information about traffic flows, public transport usage, communications networks, and population flows.

Our security is maintained by complex information systems managing defence assets, intelligence data, and capabilities and deployment information.

We should be thinking about these enormous data holdings when we read the news that thieves have been selling Medicare numbers linked to identities on the “dark web” – a mostly untraceable anonymous corner of the internet.

That last detail is what has made this such a scandal for the government, as Human Services Minister Alan Tudge and the Australian Federal Police have scrambled to identity the systems’ weaknesses.

But the fact that the Medicare numbers are being sold is the only thing that makes this an unusual data security breach. Australian government databases are constantly being accessed by people who are not authorised to do so.

Here’s just a taste. Last year the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission revealed it had laid 81 criminal charges and 11 disciplinary recommendations in the space of 12 months for unauthorised access to confidential information by police. One of those was a police officer who had been trawling through crime databases looking for information about people he had met on a dating service. He was convicted of 50 charges of unauthorised access.

A Queensland police officer was disciplined in May this year for using the police database to share the address of a woman with her husband who was subject to a restraining order.

The Victorian government’s police database was wrongly accessed 214 times between 2008 and 2013, by “hundreds” of officers.

Earlier this year 12 staff were fired from the Australian Taxation Office for accessing tax data on celebrities and people they knew.

We could go on. These of course are the instances we know about because they have been detected and reported on. There are undoubtedly others.

Governments manage a lot of data because we ask them to do it a lot, and to do what they do well.

They run thousands of complex systems. Many of these systems have been jerry-rigged and adapted from earlier systems, a series of politicised, over-budget and under-delivering IT projects stacked on top of each other over decades.

But these repeated episodes of unauthorised access show that these complex systems are in dire need of reform.

It is clear that the “permission” structures on these government databases are deeply broken.

In the debate over mandatory data retention one of the big questions was whether law enforcement and regulatory agencies should have to obtain a warrant before accessing stored data. In the end the government decided no warrant was necessary – because warrants could only slow down investigations.

This is exactly the sort of loose permission structure that leads to abuse. Just two weeks after data retention officially came into effect this April, the Australian Federal Police admitted one of its members had illegally accessed the metadata of a journalist.

This breach was entirely predictable. Data retention opponents repeatedly predicted it.

Last week’s Medicare breach has been made possible because thousands and thousands of people – bureaucrats, health professionals, and so on – can access the Medicare database. Most police officers, bureaucrats, and health professionals are trustworthy. But it only takes a few bad actors to wreck a system built on trust.

Rather than leaving data access up to the discretion of thousands of people, we need stricter codified rules on data access. Government databases need to be restructured to prevent, not simply penalise, government employees from going on fishing expeditions through our data.

The point isn’t to provide a legal or technological fix to the problem of unauthorised access. Rather, we should completely reimagine who owns the information that the government keeps on all of us. We ought to own and control our information, not the state.

New cryptographic technologies increasingly being applied to blockchain and cryptocurrency applications allow for even greater personal control over information. If applied, they would only allow government agents to know exactly what they need to know.

And it would move us from a system of surveillance and big data, to one of personal disclosure and privacy.

In the past, economic reform was targeted at big sectors like banking, telecommunications, and trade.

As Australian governments evolve inevitably into complex information brokers, the next wave of reform will have to focus on data management.