TOC On the level Your Turn

October 13, 2009

These fillips have excoriated the Federal Trade Commission in the past for its supine attitude towards advertising networks. At least David Vladeck's recent declarations show the FTC is not blind to the issue. And while its behavior with respect to privacy is still in need of significant reform, it is pulling all the stops to promote responsibility (1).

The title of David Gelles' article conveys the whole story. "Celebrities face crackdown on ad endorsement" (*). As popular fame turns celebrities into authorities, forcing them to disclose their recommendations had been a quid pro quo is necessary to help us assess their credibility. Of course in our friends' circle, we all are celebrities. Not for nothing did David Gelles picked the story for the Financial Times, where he is in charge of following Facebook and Twitter (2). For social network companies addicted to Mr Micawber's business model, this is a wakeup call.

The choice of word for a follow up article adds a new twist. "Online morality poser for FTC" (**). Guilty by association with the Victorian Age and its excess of apparent piety, morality has long been replaced by ethics unless in a condescending context. "It is easy to encourage morality. It is less easy to enforce it." David Gelles methinks confuses enforcement with prevention.

Sponsors are free to ignore prudence but, knowing every utterance is recorded and erasing the record routinely interpreted as an obstruction of justice (3), will they want to run the risk? When one lives by brand alone, uncovering underhanded hucksterism exacts a heavy penalty. Years after the fact, I still cannot pass by a Sears autoshop without remembering how Sears mechanics used to recommend unnecessary repairs. Am I alone?

Other arguments can be made against the FTC. Arbitrariness for instance, as many offenders will escape. True, but who expects the police to catch all those who drive above the speed limit? "Many in the blogosphere are inclined to self-policing". True again, but except in Hollywood westerns vigilantism and self-regulation are no substitute for the rule of the law. When wolves claim to care for the sheep as Facebook does in a way, they only protect their food supply. Lastly, as Choire Sicha puts it so picturesquely (***), "stealth marketing [...] works only on the clueless, and our immersive, hippo-like wallowing in the marketplace serves only to make us resistant to these viral contagions".

Biology captures our imagination, does it not? For Professor Andrew W. Lo, the way to free economics from the cooling mud of the efficient markets hypothesis is to be found in evolution theory (****). Were markets truly efficient, Choire Sicha would be right and recommenders on the take faking independence would wither in the wild. In reality "a sucker is born every minute" (4) and current markets have proven quite apt at extracting so-called economic rents from the clueless. Should one blame the FTC for its attempt at making markets more efficient?

Inspiration can advance science but scientific truth still requires logical rigor and experimental verification. While Andrew Lo's adaptive markets hypothesis is yet at an early stage, it is fit for some constructive criticism. He looks at species of similar minded individuals who compete for survival where classical microeconomists consider their subjects as individuals bent on maximimizing some fixed, all encompassing objective.

Since economic reality is highly dynamic, the improvement is obvious. Andrew Lo however fails to illuminate how steep the price to pay in increased complexity. Evolution happens either, according to Darwin, during individual reproduction, or, according to Lamark, through individual striving. By stating "individuals learn and adapt", Andrew Lo comes down in favor of Lamark and rightly so. But then, if individual can become noticeably wiser, must we abandon the idea species exhibit homogeneous behaviors?

For practical reasons species should remain defined by the behavior common to their members. Accordingly Andrew Lo's modeling entails two features even Lamark had never dreamt about. In their lifetime, individuals can jump from species to species and economic assets can be inherited across quite unrelated species. Let us then avoid the word "species" altogether in favor of the more neutral "population", also used by Andrew Lo.

Behavior is assumed by economists to be driven by individuals' preferences. In reviewing this concept, Andrew Lo uncovers another source of complexity. Whereas classical microeconomists subsume preferences into a single utility function, "investors have multifaceted objectives when formulating their investment decisions". Wouldn't by any chance the investment market be what I call a value market, on which a transaction is determined by matching multiple criteria instead of a lone variable, called "risk" in the instance rather than price?

Such a value market would reveal trade-offs and thus help individuals to make better informed decisions. Interestingly Andrew Lo thinks consultants have an important role to play in this regard. Our modest experiment on finding rentals for Boston students (5) has shown that indeed the more personalizable the matching process, the more scope there is for personalized advice.

As a source of adaptation, Andrew Lo singles out innovation. Readers will remember how, in its name, collateralized debt obligations were recently promoted to unfortunate suckers. The issue of course is not with innovation itself but how it is used. As last year's financial crisis made clear, CDO's became toxic because they destroyed information, hiding real assets behind flawed averages backed by the best endorsements money could buy.

In denouncing "official" statistics, in promoting value markets, in considering individuals' "trajectories" from population to population, I believe I am not distorting Andrew Lo's vision. His program further promises to account naturally for social mimesis, the force which stabilizes populations in a way classical microeconomics would consider irrational (6). "We thought we were all economic agents, as the economists told us. How foolish we were", Rob Minto writes in his review of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler's recent book on this very subject, "Connected" (*****).

I suggest Andrew Lo starts instead with Gabriel Tarde (7), the pioneer of imitation whom Bruno Latour invites us to rediscover (******). This XIXth century prophet of the world fashioned by Facebook may have lacked experimental data but his approach offers both depth and breadth.

Being neither a celebrity nor having received any compensation from Bruno Latour nor Gabriel Tarde, I am on the level with you, dear reader. But please alert the FTC all the same. I would welcome its freely endorsing my proposals on eprivacy (8).

Philippe Coueignoux

October 2009
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