30 June 2011

operator== must be defined

EconLog | David Henderson | Is Equality Before the Law Always Good?

In an article today in The Freeman on-line, economist Steven Horwitz makes a case for allowing same-sex marriage. In doing so he makes the following statement:
Government must treat all its citizens equally, and nothing paid for with tax dollars may involve invidious discrimination.
I hasten to point out that I agree with his bottom line about allowing same-sex marriage. What I'm not sure of is his general principle quoted above. What one person regards as "invidious discrimination," another will regard as justified discrimination.

Consider an example that my co-blogger Bryan Caplan and I have argued about and that he has convinced me on: means testing for government benefits. [...]

Means testing means explicitly violating equality before the law. Equality before the law is not as straightforward a principle as Steve seems to think.
(1) "Discrimination" is a fancy way of saying a decision is being made. What people complain about when they say they object to discrimination is a decision being made based on dimensions they think are inappropriate. What we argue about when we argue about discrimination is actually what dimensions we think are legitimate to include in a decision making process.  We can change what dimensions are used, but it is impossible to eliminate the decision all together.

(2) "Equality before the law" requires us to define what equality is. This is not always straightforward, as anyone who has done enough programming could tell you.

Say you're writing an equality operator for vehicles. You could decide two vehicles are equal if
  • they have an identical VIN
  • they have the make, model, year, trim, and color
  • they have the same make, model, year, and trim
  • they have the same make, model, and year
  • ...
  • they are in the same class of vehicle (eg trucks under 3 ton GSW with engines less than 4 liters)
  • ...
  • they have the same make, model and year, and are driven the same distance each year in roughly the same ways by the same types of people
  • ...
None of those is the "right" or "wrong" way to define vehicle equality, so it's wrong to make a blanket assertion that treating a 2008 Honda CR-V SE differently than a 2008 Honda CR-V EX is unjust discrimination. Similar the entire argument about whether it is unjust discrimination to treat two retirees with different incomes differently is useless unless you've defined an equality operator for retiree finances.

29 June 2011

What infrastructure in particular?

Time | Fareed Zakaria | Are America's Best Days Behind Us?

The problem with the U.S. government is that its allocation of resources is highly inefficient. We spend vast amounts of money on subsidies for housing, agriculture and health, many of which distort the economy and do little for long-term growth. We spend too little on science, technology, innovation and infrastructure, which will produce growth and jobs in the future.
This article is all over the place, but this passage in particular stood out to me as an example of something I hear a lot which bugs me. Lots of people tell me the key to growth (or one of them, to be generous) is infrastructure. What infrastructure are we talking about here?

I understand in general how infrastructure can create growth. If I live in some one-cow-town in India I'm not going to start making ... I dunno, awesome footstools shaped like integrated circuits .... unless I have some way of receiving parts, and orders, and electric power, and sending products out. So yeah, I would appreciate some more infrastructure to make that possible.  Pretty much any infrastructure improvements in a place like that would probably improve growth.

But we're not that place.  What do you think of when I say "infrastructure"? Bridges and highways and phone lines and ports and things, right? What specifically are we lacking in America that is holding people back from starting and growing businesses?

Something like WiMax? Or driverless cars?  Those would result in plenty of growth opportunities. But if that's what you want, say we need more spending on wide area wireless internet or automated vehicles, not just infrastructure in general.  If you mean we need money for electric vehicle charging, or updated air traffic control, or better electric grids, then say so.  When people try and sell me on "infrastructure" in the abstract, I'm pretty sure we'll end up spending my money repaving sidewalks and giving better pensions to bus drivers and building light rail lines which will never cover their operating expenses to say nothing of capital costs and planning 55mph trains that proponents will call "high speed" between two podunk towns no one goes to in the middle of California.

Are there some some places we could use a wider bridge or an extra highway?  Sure.  But there are also a lot of places where we'd build those things wouldn't cause any growth at all.  I'm not so confident Congress could tell the difference between one and the other.  Infrastructure isn't some silver bullet to spur growth.

"Infrastructure" isn't some monolithic pile of stuff.  We can't throw money at it to make the pile grow.  Infrastructure is a collection of discrete things, some of which may be worthwhile and some of which won't be.

27 June 2011

Sin Nombre

I'm submitting a paper to a conference, and their submission system has had the following warning three times now
Note: leave first name blank if you do not have one.
Are there people out there without first names?  Are there academics following in Madonna or Prince's footsteps?  Is there someone submitting to this who has never come across Western naming conventions and has never had to normalize their name into given name and surname before?

War Powers Act 180

It's amazing what getting your hands on a little power will do to one's opinions.


"The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."  — Barack Obama, 2007

~ ~ ~



"Under the joint decision model, presidential power to use force in the absence of statutory authorization derives from the concept of emergency: the need to repel an attack on the United States or its forces, to forestall an imminent attack, or to rescue United States citizens whose lives are imperiled. Conversely, a policy involving a sustained use of force must derive from an affirmative decision of the entire government, including Congress." Joe Biden, 1988

Change

Reason | A. Barton Hinkle | Obama's War on the Rule of Law: The Bush administration's worst policies live on in Obama's White House.

The brief against Bush encompassed numerous charges: his use of signing statements to provide a pretext for disregarding parts of certain legislation; the indefinite detention without trial of suspected enemy combatants in Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay; the use of military tribunals; the Patriot Act; his administration's use of warrantless wiretapping and extraordinary rendition; the use of national-security letters to comb through private information; and so on. Policies such as these "evoked the specter of tyranny," put America on the slippery slope to fascism, and were generally bad for children and other living things.

With Obama's election, the nation supposedly said goodbye to all that. The clouds broke, the fog lifted, and the sunlight of civil liberties once again bathed the nation in its golden hue. Except: Nothing like that happened. Instead, the Obama administration adopted every single one of the policies listed above. Some of the more principled progressives have voiced outrage and a sense of betrayal. The more partisan types have politely averted their gaze.

But Obama has not confined his disdain for the rule of law to the Bush inheritance. He has carved out new realms for it.
"Doing the same thing but more of it" was not the "change" people had in mind.

The Rule of Law is the single most important institution we have. It is more important than jury trials, or elections, or free speech. There's no point in getting to influence what the rules are if the rules aren't followed.

~ ~ ~
NY Times | Charlie Savage | 2 Top Lawyers Lost to Obama in Libya War Policy Debate

President Obama rejected the views of top lawyers at the Pentagon and the Justice Department when he decided that he had the legal authority to continue American military participation in the air war in Libya without Congressional authorization, according to officials familiar with internal administration deliberations.

Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel, and Caroline D. Krass, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, had told the White House that they believed that the United States military’s activities in the NATO-led air war amounted to “hostilities.” Under the War Powers Resolution, that would have required Mr. Obama to terminate or scale back the mission after May 20.

But Mr. Obama decided instead to adopt the legal analysis of several other senior members of his legal team — including the White House counsel, Robert Bauer, and the State Department legal adviser, Harold H. Koh — who argued that the United States military’s activities fell short of “hostilities.” Under that view, Mr. Obama needed no permission from Congress to continue the mission unchanged.

Presidents have the legal authority to override the legal conclusions of the Office of Legal Counsel and to act in a manner that is contrary to its advice, but it is extraordinarily rare for that to happen. Under normal circumstances, the office’s interpretation of the law is legally binding on the executive branch.
Lawyers are like psychics: you ask enough of them the same question, and eventually you'll find one who'll give you the answer you want to hear.

Actually, administration lawyers like Koh have more in common with courtiers than they do with the typical attorney.

(See also Glenn Greenwald)

~ ~ ~
Businessweek | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | A twist in Obama's health care law

President Barack Obama's health care law would let several million middle-class people get nearly free insurance meant for the poor, a twist government number crunchers say they discovered only after the complex bill was signed.

The change would affect early retirees: A married couple could have an annual income of about $64,000 and still get Medicaid, said officials who make long-range cost estimates for the Health and Human Services department.
Pass the bill then find out what's in it. That's great for transparency.

I'm not particularly surprised by this. Between the unnecessarily rushed way this was put together and the fact that a majority of the "expanded coverage" comes from dumping more money and people in Medicaid we should expect that there are going to be a lot of these predictably "unintended" consequences.


~ ~ ~

Speaking of transparency, even the Washington Post says Obama lied about the auto bailouts:
Washington Post | Glenn Kessler | President Obama’s phony accounting on the auto industry bailout

We take no view on whether the administration’s efforts on behalf of the automobile industry were a good or bad thing; that’s a matter for the editorial pages and eventually the historians. But we are interested in the facts the president cited to make his case.

What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.
When the Post admits you're dishing out "chicanery" and "sleight of hand" you've got a problem.

~ ~ ~

Hell, when on of your own advisors thinks you're dropping the ball on transparency and executive power then there's trouble:
NYTimes | Geoffrey R Stone | Our Untransparent President

AS a longtime supporter and colleague of Barack Obama at the University of Chicago, as well as an informal adviser to his 2008 campaign, I had high hopes that he would restore the balance between government secrecy and government transparency that had been lost under George W. Bush, and that he would follow through on his promise, as a candidate, to promote openness and public accountability in government policy making.

It has not quite worked out that way. While Mr. Obama has taken certain steps, notably early in his administration, to scale back some of the Bush-era excesses, in other respects he has shown a disappointing willingness to continue in his predecessor’s footsteps. [...]

The record of the Obama administration on this fundamental issue of American democracy has surely fallen short of expectations. This is a lesson in “trust us.” Those in power are always certain that they themselves will act reasonably, and they resist limits on their own discretion. The problem is, “trust us” is no way to run a self-governing society.

~ ~ ~

Here's some more change:
Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Banality of Evil

I am afraid we are on a path to thoroughly eviscerating the Fourth Amendment simply because police forces find it too big of a hassle to comply. Just look at almost every case of abuses of search and seizure rules or of missing search warrants and you almost never see a time-based urgency that is often used as an excuse to end-around the rules. What you almost always see is just, well, laziness.

Here is yet another example (bold added):
Now comes the news that the FBI intends to grant to its 14,000 agents expansive additional powers that include relaxing restrictions on a low-level category of investigations termed “assessments.” This allows FBI agents to investigate individuals using highly intrusive monitoring techniques, including infiltrating suspect organizations with confidential informants and photographing and tailing suspect individuals, without having any factual basis for suspecting them of wrongdoing. (Incredibly, during the four-month period running from December 2008 to March 2009, the FBI initiated close to 12,000 assessments of individuals and organizations, and that was before the rules were further relaxed.)

This latest relaxing of the rules, justified as a way to cut down on cumbersome record-keeping, will allow the FBI significant new powers to search law enforcement and private databases, go through household trash, and deploy surveillance teams, with even fewer checks against abuse. The point, of course, is that if agents aren’t required to maintain a paper trail documenting their activities, there can be no way to hold the government accountable for subsequent abuses.
Speaking of which, the FBI stole one of Instapaper's leased servers because it was on the same rack as one they had a warrant for. They couldn't be bothered to figure out which one they were actually granted the power to seize, so they just took a couple dozen. Banditry.

~ ~ ~

But fibbing about bailing out your buddies and letting your constabulary steal servers with private information are small change. The biggest "change" is launching a couple more wars. The direction of the vector is the opposite we were promised, but the magnitude of change is pretty big! That's bound to count for something.
Crisis Magazine | Steve Chapman | Obama and the pursuit of endless war

When historians sit down decades from now to address the events of the early 21st century, they will have no trouble explaining why Americans elected Barack Obama president. They elected him out of a firm conviction that the United States was not involved in enough wars.

Problem solved. Today, American forces are fighting in four different countries.
Oh, and this drawdown of troops in Afghanistan Obama just announced? Don't get too excited. There will still be more men deployed there than there were when he took office. More men, but he gets to call it a reduction anyway.

26 June 2011

I'm on Ken's side

Popehat | Ken | Hillary Clinton Asks Libya War Opponents Whose Side Are You On; Ken Answers

Whose side am I on?

You vulgar, upjumped, snake-oil-selling, midway-barker huckster. You venal, amoral, mendacious harpy. You vile, preening, scheming hack. Whose side am I on? I’m on the side of f*** you, bitch. I’m on the side of the Constitution, limited government, limited executive power to kill people, limited executive power to put our armed forces at risk, and the rule of motherf***ing law. I can’t believe there was a time when I couldn’t grasp why people despised you. Whose side am I on? You Senator, can you name a nanosecond when you’ve ever been on anyone’s side but your own?

That’s whose side I’m on. What’s it to you?
This is me starting a slow clap by myself in my apartment. Bravo.

24 June 2011

Advocacy

National Review Online: The Agenda | Reihan Salam | Non-Washington Solutions

What I find interesting is pervasive American fatalism regarding non-government collective action. The United States is know for the richness and diversity of its voluntary sector, yet many of our largest philanthropic organizations are geared primarily towards influencing legislative outcomes and shaping government policy by funding “beta testing” for the public sector. We often hear talk of how foundations can leverage social resources to achieve change, yet the resources in question tend to be public resources. This strikes me as a failure that merits our attention, particularly as new technological tools emerge that, in theory at least, lower the barriers to collective action.

Not surprisingly, I tend to think that this failure derives from the fact that as the democratic state expands its purview, it tends to shrink the imagination of citizens and neighborhoods regarding what they can and should do collaboratively.
Doing something you think will be helpful: thumbs up.

Convincing others to do something you think will be helpful: okay.

Convincing politicians to force others to do something you think will be helpful: stop it.

22 June 2011

Libertarian reflection

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Libertarianism: How, not Why

The game that I call "trolling for libertarians" seems to be quite popular this week. I guess it's a slow summer. So you make straw-man attacks in order to draw hits.

Do you want to dissuade people from taking a libertarian position? Then you need to convince me that I should expect the institution of government to outperform individuals in making decisions. That is a tough sell.
I agree this should be the milestone, but I find in practice it rarely is. I run in to a lot of people, including some otherwise smart and fair people, who have some odd flavor of status quo bias that prevents them from doing this. They don't want the libertarian reform to be better than the existing government proposal, they want it to be flawless.

So, for instance, I see people saying things like "we can't have charter schools because some will be better than others and some kids won't get in to the good ones, so outcomes will be unequal." Now there are some good criticisms of charter schools, but this one applies just as well (better, even) to the existing public schools.

Example two: I see a lot of people (eg these commenters) saying we couldn't ever contract out certain government operations to private enterprises because either (1) the government employees don't have an incentive to keep the cost of the contract down, or (2) don't have the expertise to write the contract properly. It's very hard to get these people to realize that if the bureaucrats are going to be incapable of doing that then they'll be equally incapable of running the service themselves.
Broadly speaking, individuals can make prudential errors, and they can make moral errors. I can fail to act in my best interests. Or I can fail to act in others' interests when it would cost me little to do so.

Contrary to straw-man representations, I believe that individuals make prudential and moral mistakes all the time. However, the institution of government is not some magic correction fluid for wiping out these mistakes. [...]
I call this Fairygodmotherism. In the context of foreign policy, it is greenlanternism. The State is powerful, but there is no such thing as a Care Bear Stare.
I actually think that the best point at which to engage libertarians is over how, not why. In the real world, how can the potential harms of the institution of government be minimized? It is on the how questions that I see libertarians divided among ourselves, evading difficult issues with hand-waving, and engaging in wishful thinking.
1. True. We do tend to hand wave. Of course, I see a lot of hand waving from all ideologies.

2. Perhaps if we had to do less "why" we would be better at "how." Less effort spent convincing people we're not crackpots and deserve to be heard might lead people to have both more time for and more interest in the details.

3. Any hand waving is too much, but it is particularly unwelcome for adherents of an ideology which tends to put a lot of weight on rigor and rationality.

21 June 2011

Unlicensed Lemonade

A news story from my neck of the woods:
Yahoo News | Zachary Roth | County shuts down kids’ lemonade stand, fines parents $500

A more wholesome American scene could hardly be imagined: a bunch of kids selling lemonade on a summer's day.

But local authorities in Montgomery County, Md., saw things differently. They shut down the kids' venture and ended up fining their parents $500.

The Marriott and Augustine kids had set up their stand Thursday right next to the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland, where the U.S. Open golf tournament has been taking place--bringing thousands of thirsty fans to the neighborhood. The kids planned to send 50 percent their profits to a charity that fights pediatric cancer.

But a Montgomery County inspector said the children needed a vendors' license to run the stand, according to a report from local TV station WUSA9. And after the stand proprietors allegedly ignored a few warnings, the inspector slammed the kids' parents with a $500 fine.
Kids: remember this. The county is not your friend.

paper and pencil computing

bdunbar: WRONG

When I learned how to write code we were expected to flowchart, then write the code down on graph paper, then enter it into the terminal. I can see the wisdom of that approach. On the other hand, it's easy to write fast, make mistakes, then move on. On the gripping hand it's easy to jam along and and not learn anything.
Dunbar is learning some flavor of Scheme* which I applaud heartily.  Anyway, it seems like everyone who codes has strong opinions about paper-and-pencil programming, so I thought I'd put my thoughts online as well.

All the best coders I know learned by paper-and-pencil. A lot of them have moved on to the make-mistakes-but-make-them-quickly school where you just dive in head first and iterate your way to a good solution.** I do that a lot myself.*** But we all started being able to trace the value of a variable, or figure out how many times a loop would execute, or determine the output of a weird function on paper. I strongly believe you need to learn that first in order to be able to implement the rapid iteration style later.

I see too many undergrads who have gone through a year or more of programming and still get completely befuddled when they have to interpret some code printed on a piece of paper. The simplest things like resetting a counter back to zero are too complicated for them. And as a result they're bad at iterating their code to a better solution. I've watched them debug, and without the ability to interpret code themselves they're reduced to randomly changing lines until it does what they want. So if it was up to me, and all my friends who TA intro classes, everyone would start with pencil and paper. (Are you listening, AP exam writers? We need fewer questions about the specifics of Java's inheritance rules, and more "What does this code do?" questions.)

The sin qua non of good programming is being able to put yourself in the position of the compiler or interpreter and see the code from its point of view. Working on paper forces you to do that. You must be able to see your code not as you intend it to be or as you think it will work, but as it actually is and actually does.



* Perhaps the same one I was taught in my undergrad intro CS course, but now rebranded as "Racket."  I suspect as much, but the LISP family tree is a hoary thicket I'm not going to try to navigate right now.

** See: Solving the wrong problem.

*** Though I don't get the opportunity often. When you're trying to create software based on a particular model that you can later express in equations and diagrams in an academic publication, you have no choice but to start with the model on paper. AI programming -- and graphics, from what I understand -- is a little different from other programming in that respect.

20 June 2011

Step 1: Move to Fort Smith

Ideas | David Friedman | Thoughts on the Economics of Self-Publishing

What about the [print on demand] alternative? How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes is available on CreateSpace for $9, paying us about $4 in royalties for each copy sold—less for copies sold through Amazon and only about a dollar for any copies sold through brick and mortar stores. As best I can tell it has so far sold about three copies. My guess, from past self-publishing experience within the medieval recreation hobby, is that we can expect to eventually sell a thousand or so into that market, probably over a period of several years. Again a significant amount of money, but nothing close to enough for an author to live on, at least in this part of the world.

Emphasis mine. Makes me think that step one for someone who really wanted to support them self as an author would be to move to Asuncion or Belfast or somewhere else with a low cost of living. Of course this is easier said that done, but I suspect many people would rather live in Brooklyn and complain about how they can't make a living as artists rather than move to Arkansas where there would be a lower hurdle to actually doing so.

16 June 2011

H. Reid, Senator for the Fifth Time, Fecit

ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | Banning naming stuff after congressmen

Prompted by this WSJ story:
A 2009 study of the EDA [Economic Development Administration] by the nonpartisan Cato Institute collected numerous government oversight reports and documented widespread abuse of taxpayer dollars. The study noted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is familiar with the EDA process. In 2008, he hand- delivered a $2 million EDA check to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) Research Foundation to begin construction of the "UNLV Harry Reid Research and Technology Park."
Greg Mankiw proposes the following rule:
No institution receiving government funds should be able to name itself (or any part of itself) after any government official who had a hand in providing those funds.
As Mankiw aptly asks, "isn't it fair to say that Senator Reid received some nonpecuniary compensation from this recipient of government funding?"
I see this as our legislators trying to return to a pre-modern governmental system. It's not quite a patron-client arrangement (though you can see that elsewhere in our politics). Reid is trying to bolster his own prestige the same way Augustus or Sixtus IV did.

I'll do Mankiw one better — no public buildings or organizations named after anyone alive. There are plenty of deceased people who deserve to have their names on a building. If someone's accomplishments are so great that they deserve their name on things then surely we'll still remember those accomplishments in a decade or two. No need to rush things. If, on the other hand, their accomplishments consist mostly of having their fingers on the purse strings right this minute then they don't need these honors anyway.

15 June 2011

Magic Wand Inflation

Speaking of the difficulty of measuring prices where technology is concerned:
The Great Ephemeralization | Timothy B Lee | Bottom-up:

If an economist at the BLS circa 1961 wanted to know how much the television industry was contributing to GDP, he simply added up the prices of all televisions sold to consumers.

Of course, economists aren’t only interested in measuring national output at a single point of time; they want to measure how the standard of living changes from year to year. If total spending on televisions falls, statisticians need to figure out whether this is because consumers are buying fewer televisions or because televisions are getting more affordable. The distinction is crucial because the former represents a decline in national output, while the latter amounts to an improvement in the standard of living. And of course, economists have to be careful about making apples-to-apples comparisons. For example, the switch from black-and-white to color pushed up average television prices, but it would have been a big mistake to record this as a sign of televisions in general getting more expensive.

There are many important subtleties to measuring changes in economic output, and official statistics have tended to overstate inflation (and hence understate growth rates) to some extent. But the important innovations of the industrial era had some common features that made such problems manageable. They came embodied in discrete physical objects with a fixed feature set. And the value of new innovations was roughly reflected by the prices consumers were willing to pay for them. If consumers were paying twice as much for a 60-inch television as a 40-inch one, it’s reasonable to infer that the former is twice as valuable.

Now imagine an alternate universe in which industrial products did not work this way. Suppose we lived in the world of Harry Potter, and one day in the late 1950s RCA hired a wizard to wave his magic wand and transform all of the world’s black and white sets into color sets. This would clearly represent a large increase in the standard of living—a larger increase, in fact, than the non-magical process whereby people have to buy new, more expensive, televisions. Yet the government in the alternate universe would almost certainly have recorded a smaller increase in GDP. Our own BLS would see consumers buying more expensive televisions while in the Harry Potter universe consumers would be happy with the old, cheap ones. Hence, consumers circa 1970 would be wealthier in that universe than in ours, but official GDP statistics would show just the opposite.

Ephemeralization offers an alternative explanation for the puzzling growth slowdown of the last decade. Every time the software industry displaces a special purpose device, our standard of living improves but measured GDP falls. If what you care about is government revenue, this point might not matter much—it’s hard to tax something if no one’s paying for it. But the real lesson here may not be that the American economy is stagnating, but rather that the government is bad at measuring improvements in our standard of living that come from the software industry.

"Apple's Retail Secrets Spilled"

Business Insider | Jay Yarrow | Apple's Retail Secrets Spilled: Don't Correct The Customers, Abide By The A.P.P.L.E. Code

Employees are not supposed to sell products, just help customers. A quote from the training manual: 'Your job is to understand all of your customers' needs—some of which they may not even realize they have.'
I understand why they do this. I don't like being sold to. I like to be left alone to shop, and I'll let a retailer know if I need help.

But as a customer, Apple's policy actually infuriates me. They take "don't sell products" philosophy way too far. It's an actual hassle to try and spend money in an Apple store. Every time I've gone in to buy something I end up standing around waiting, one time for 20 minutes, until someone would let me give them money for a product on their shelf. And because they're too chic to have something as bourgeois as a cash register, I just stand there with a product in my hand, wandering around, asking random employees to please ring me up so I can be on my way. I've never been in another retail outlet that makes me pester them to let me pay. It shouldn't take longer to pay than it does to pick out what you need from the shelf.

Measuring Prices

Forefront | Brent Meyer | Interview with Mark Bils

Meyer: What type of prices do you think might have been overestimated?

Bils: Services and healthcare. When you look at healthcare expenditures, you see that inflation is extremely rapid, much more rapid than other inflation rates. But we have no idea what the inflation rates for health expenditures really are. We don’t know! You can’t measure quality of healthcare very well.

If I compare healthcare costs today versus in the year 1800, well, I could go out and buy a bunch of leeches today for almost nothing. And I could have the healthcare I had in 1800. If you had a certain condition and you had $10,000 to get treated at today’s health prices, or $10,000 to get treated at 1960s prices with 1960s technology, I don’t think it’s so obvious that people would want to go back in time to get their important health conditions dealt with. In that sense, you say, I don’t know if there’s inflation. It’s pretty hard to say that there’s been a lot of inflation over the long haul in healthcare.
Good thought experiment. I think healthcare (and even services generally) is far from the only area where it's unclear you'd be better off with the same number of dollars in the past.

I think technology is the real issue.

I would take $100k of housing in 1965 over $100k in housing now. But I wouldn't take $10k of appliances to put in my house in 1965 over now. I would rather have $20k for a 2010 car than $20k to import a car from 1965.

Regardless, I think Bils is on to something important. We are much too confident in our ability to measure prices than we deserve to be.

(Via EconLog)

13 June 2011

Tom Friedman is a caricature of himself

I was at the gym today and someone had left one of those CNBC market watching shows on, with closed captioning. And for whatever reason instead of showing up at the bottom of the screen, they were showing up right where all the talking heads' eyes were. It was fairly creepy.

Here's my interpretation.


That's a line from a recent Tom Friedman column I came across listening to a recent EconTalk with William Easterly which critiqued (disproved?) the theory that autocrats are good for economic development. They opened with this quote of Friedman's:
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.
Easterly responded none too gently:
Tom Friedman is almost too good to be true. He's like a perfect caricature of the arrogant intellectual who thinks that his ideas are the key to the success of the society that he's living in. And the reason that he likes autocrats so much is that they have no political constraints on following the advice of brilliant intellectual like Tom Friedman.
Of course, as Easterly and Roberts point out, autocrats only operate without constraint in theory. Even Hitler had to change his plans for the disposition of the Jews and Poles and Soviet POWs to account for public opinion. And if Hitler couldn't do whatever he wanted, who could?

Driverless cars

I was talking last night after dinner* with some guys in my CS program about driverless cars. My friend asked me when they'd be ready and said he thought 10 or 15 years should do it. I told him 10 or 15 years to get past the technical problems, but an unknowable amount of time to get them past the social and legal problems.

We decided there were two things you ought to do to get people ready to buy self-driving cars.

First, don't try to sell people a car with a big red autopilot switch on the dash. Ease people in to it a feature at a time. We've already got things like self-parking and increasing intelligent cruise control that can do things like follow but avoid the car in front of you. Keep adding features to those sets until the car is doing most of the driving for you, with your assistance, and then people will be more willing to turn over control more fully.

Secondly, people are really bad at assessing risk.** They will demand that automated vehicles be "safe" period. But insurance companies are smart enough to only demand that automated vehicles be safer than human-driven vehicles.  You can convince an actuary that something is safe with facts and demonstrations and numbers.  Such methods don't work on normal people.

Consider this:
One German organic farm has killed twice as many people as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Gulf Oil spill combined.
People demand nuclear plants and oil platforms and airplanes to be safe period. But they only demand coal plants and mines and wind turbines and highways and organic farms to be safe enough. Insurance companies are the lever to use to try and shift automated vehicles from the "needs to be safe" to "needs to be safe enough" category because their incentives are in the right place.  The marginal driver who does not want to turn over some (more) control of their vehicle to a computer will think twice if GEICO will charge them $200 less if they do so.



* Side note: I need a meat grinder. The burgers we had were great, I think because my buddy ground his own beef.

** See, for instance, the unfounded brouhaha about Toyota's "sudden acceleration" that turned out, predictably, to be nothing but PEBKAC.

10 June 2011

iNASA

Remember when I posted this morning about how the space shuttle is a big white elephant mainly used to carry near-useless but good-for-PR junk like some third graders' crayons and US senators?

This just happened:
MSNBC: Cosmic Logic | Alan Boyle | iPhones head for final frontier

The last space shuttle mission will be the first mission to send iPhones into orbit [...]
ZOMG this is pointless.
SpaceLab for iOS will be used for four experiments on the station:
  • Limb Tracker lets astronauts snap pictures of Earth's horizon and analyzes the shape of the planet's arc, or limb, to estimate altitude as well as flight angle.
We don't have snapshots we could test that from on Earth?
  • Sensor Cal uses a series of reference photos to calibrate the phone's gyro and accelerometer for subsequent measurements.
Standard NASA M.O. — a study to study the possibility of future studies.  This is not an "experiment;" this is just getting your tools in working order.
  • State Acq enable astronauts to estimate their spacecraft's latitude and longitude by matching up iPhone photos with a wireframe of Earth's coastlines.
Again, can't this be done from the ground?
  • LFI checks the effects of space radiation on the iPhone by monitoring certain areas of the phone's memory for single-bit upsets —flipped bits that can scramble a spacecraft's brains. Bit flips have been blamed for space glitches affecting NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Voyager 2 probe, as well as the Toyota accelerator glitches on Earth.
This is the best piece of machinery to study the possibility of flipped bits?  And it's taking them until now to bother measuring this?

No.  No no no.  I'm in favor of NASA moving towards COTS tech, but the purpose of this mission to enable NASA to write "iPhone in space!" press releases.

New York City Marathon

I'm going to have to read more Idle Words stuff. That NASA article I just posted about was great, and this one about the NYC marathon is equally good.
To a first approximation, the NYC Marathon is all about standing in line. There's the line to pick up a race number, the line for the chemical toilets, the line to get out of Central Park. The only unusual thing is that, for four or five hours in the middle, the line moves really quickly.
As a former high school lineman, I am prohibited from liking long distance running.  For reasons of both natural inclination and advice of medical professionals, I refrain from participation in any such foolish endeavor as running. However, I see no reason not to read about running. And this is as fine a piece to read as any is likely to be.

"A Rocket To Nowhere"

I came across a great essay at Idle Words that was written about five years ago about the Space Shuttle. Fantastic stuff. You should read the whole thing, but I can not resist posting several highlights:
In a pattern that would recur repeatedly in the years to come, NASA managers decided that they were better off making spending cuts on initial design even if they resulted in much higher operating costs over the lifetime of the program.
Sounds like every mass transit project I can think of. Not a coincidence really, since the incentives of a bureaucrat should expect us to anticipate this outcome.
Having failed at its stated goal, the Shuttle program proved adept at finding changing rationales for its existence. It was, after all, an awfully large spacecraft, and it was a bird in the hand, giving it an enormous advantage over any suggested replacement.
Again: standard institutional incentives at work.  White elephants should be the mascot of the bureaucracy.
In a narrow sense, they succeeded [in predicting, simulating, and designing for high reliability]. In both cases where a shuttle was lost, NASA had extensive warning of the failure mode in question, and had not addressed it for systemic and organizational reasons. But those organizational failures themselves represent a point of failure, one that lies outside the scope of an engineering analysis, which has to assume that procedures for checking critical components will work as reliably as the components whose reliability the procedures are supposed to safeguard.
I wish I had written that paragraph in my Engineering Risk Analysis course. It is perfect.

All engineers should meditate on this passage.  Actually, financiers should as well.  Your model can be flawless, but if the organizational structure causes it to be misused, misinterpreted or ignored it would be better if it did not exist.
Along with these craggy summits of basic research, the astronauts performed a raft of prepared experiments in metallurgy, medicine, fluid mechanics, embryology, and solar wind detection, all of which had one thing in common - they were designed to minimize crew interaction, in most cases requiring the astronauts to do little more than flip a switch.*

(*The experiments could not be made fully automatic because NASA policy requires that experiments on manned missions involve the crew)

This brings up a delicate point about justifying manned missions with science. In order to make any straight-faced claims about being cost effective, you have to cart an awful lot of science with you into orbit, which in turns means you need to make the experiments as easy to operate as possible. But if the experiments are all automated, you remove the rationale for sending a manned mission in the first place. Apart from question-begging experiments on the physiology of space flight, there is little you can do to resolve this dilemma. In essence, each 'pure science' Shuttle science mission consists of several dozen automated experiments alongside an enormous, irrelevant, repeated experiment in keeping a group of primates alive and healthy outside the atmosphere.
Someone used "beg the question" correctly! There is hope for the English language yet! Civilization lives!

NASA does not exist to operate the shuttle. The shuttle exists to give NASA something to do.

The superfluity of the men in manned space flight is a repeated theme.  Check out this footnote:
The landing gear switch on the Shuttle is not connected to the flight computer by special request of the astronauts. This is the only impediment to fully automated landing
Just like the shuttle generally, the astronauts are not there to operate the shuttle or perform missions. The missions and shuttle only exist to allow astronauts to exist.

I am reminded of the circular reasoning for using SWAT raids for non-violent offenders: you need to use military tactics to keep officers safe; officers aren't safe because military-style raids are dangerous.
Launched in an oblique, low orbit that guarantees its permanent uselessness, [The ISS] serves as yin to the shuttle's yang, justifying an endless stream of future Shuttle missions through the simple stratagem of being too expensive to abandon.
The shuttle is needed to service the ISS, and the ISS is needed to service the shuttle.  Self-reinforcing white elephants!
In the thirty years since the last Moon flight, we have succeeded in creating a perfectly self-contained manned space program, in which the Shuttle goes up to save the Space Station (undermanned, incomplete, breaking down, filled with garbage, and dropping at a hundred meters per day), and the Space Station offers the Shuttle a mission and a destination. The Columbia accident has added a beautiful finishing symmetry - the Shuttle is now required to fly to the ISS, which will serve as an inspection station for the fragile thermal tiles, and a lifeboat in case something goes seriously wrong.

This closed cycle is so perfect that the last NASA administrator even cancelled the only mission in which there was a compelling need for a manned space flight - the Hubble telescope repair and upgrade - on the grounds that it would be too dangerous to fly the Shuttle away from the ISS, thereby detaching the program from its last connection to reason and leaving it free to float off into its current absurdist theater of backflips, gap fillers, Canadarms and heroic expeditions to the bottom of the spacecraft.
Send in the clowns.
The NASA obsession with elementary and middle school participation in space flight is curious, and demonstrates how low a status actual in-flight science has compared with orbital public relations. You are not likely to hear of CERN physicists colliding tin atoms sent to them by a primary school in Toulouse, or the Hubble space being turned around to point at waving middle schoolers on a playground in Texas, yet even the minimal two-man ISS crew - one short of the stated minimum needed to run the station - regularly takes time to talk to schoolchildren.

Colin Firth: stick to your knitting

Smithsonian: Surprising Science | Sarah Zielinski | Colin Firth: Actor. Writer. Academy Award Winner. Scientist?

Ideas for scientific experiments come from all sorts of places (and fewer of them originate in the lab than you might think). A study on political orientation and brain structure, published in Current Biology, for example, got its start when the actor Colin Firth—credited as a co-author on the paper—was guest-editing a BBC Radio 4 program called “Today.” “This struck me as an opportunity to explore things which compel me…but about which I’m perhaps not sufficiently informed,” he told host Justin Webb. “I…decided to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don’t agree with me and see what scientists had to say about it.” Or to put it a bit more nicely, to see if the brains of people with different political leanings were truly different.
What's "wrong with people who don't agree with me"? I understand that despite this co-authorship, Firth is no scientist, so perhaps he doesn't know any better. But that's not language I would ever want associated with one of my papers. That's language phrenologists use. I want my papers to describe what is True, not why some people are "Right" and others "Wrong."
Ryota Kanai and Geraint Rees of University College London took that idea and ran with it. They performed MRI scans of 90 college students who had been asked about their political attitudes, and then looked at various structures in the brain. They found that a greater amount of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex was associated with liberalism and a greater amount in the amygdala was associated with conservatism. They confirmed the finding in a second set of 28 participants.

These findings are consistent with previous studies showing greater brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex of liberals. One of the jobs of that area of the brain is to monitor uncertainty and conflicts. “Thus, it is conceivable that individuals with a larger ACC have a higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views,” the scientists write.
I have read a fair number of papers about the ACC and the conflict monitoring hypothesis. This is not how it works.  The ACC does resolve conflicts, but it does so in things like the Stroop task, not grand moral judgements.


It's a far cry from mediating between the parts of your brain yelling "say blue!" and the parts yelling "say red!" from mediating between complex moral, economic and social concerns involved in politics.

Secondly: wow, how about that question begging!  I love neuroscientists, but they are not qualified to make claims like "liberal political beliefs are more tolerant of uncertainty and conflict."  Frankly poly sci researchers are barely able to make such claims, because they are far too dependent on how you want to define what "real" liberal beliefs are and how you decide how much tolerance and uncertainty and conflict is embedded in them.  What you see as a nuanced position which embraces conflict I see as a dissonant mess of self-contradiction and doublethink.  There are plenty of dogmatic positions on both left and right.  Who's to say where there are more?
The amygdala, on the other hand, processes fear, and previous studies have shown that conservatives respond more aggressively in threatening situations. “Our findings are consistent with the proposal that political orientation is associated with psychological processes for managing fear and uncertainty,” the researchers write.
Again, who is to say which ideology is more dependent on processing fear? Is there no (amygdala-processed) fear amongst liberals of nuclear power, or GM crops, or trade with foreigners, or economic change in general?

You can frame almost every issue in terms of fear of something, so merely having an opinion could mean the amygdala becomes relevant.

I won't say any more because the first commenter destroys this "big amygdala --> FEAR" conclusion by citing other things a large amygdala has been associated with which aren't convenient stereotypes of conservatives, like larger and more complex social networks.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go write about and build models of the prefrontal cortex.

(Via 3qd)

09 June 2011

"Who said taxes are fair?"

The Economist: Free Exchange | A.S. | Who said taxes are fair?

Perhaps fairness also requires that the tax code account for the higher cost of living in some areas. The income cut-off for tax increases floated by President Obama is $250,000. That sum buys you a lot more in Fargo than it does in Manhattan. Most high earners live in expensive areas. They command such high salaries, in part, to offset their high cost of living. So if by fairness we mean targeting a certain benefit from consumption, it seems federal taxes need to account for geographic disparities. University of Michigan economist David Albouy found that workers in high-cost cities pay up to 27% more in federal taxes than workers with similar skills in low tax cities. Is that fair?

Unless the government has taken the view that living in Texas is a normal good and California is a luxury good. Perhaps income taxes are actually consumption taxes in disguise.
(1) I like that AS acknowledges "fairness" is a slippery-to-meaningless concept when it comes to taxation. The above quote is the end of his(?) post; the beginning 80% is unobjectionable and handles this issue well.

(2a) I think it borders on futile to discuss the fairness of various taxes, since "fair" has so little meaning. Until we can agree on "The Parable of the Well Tax" or "The Parable of the Bar Tab" how can we possibly grapple with the fairness of the entire US tax code?

(2b) Disregard (2a) -- I obviously can not resist blogging some commentary about this, even though I think it is futile.

(3a) Income taxes are certainly not "consumption taxes in disguise." If they are it is only on this one narrow dimension of urban cost of living.  For them to really be "consumption taxes in disguise" you would have to assume all spending is practically mandatory, and people will spend whatever they earn, which ignores away pesky little things like savings.

(3b) You could say that living in California very much is a luxury.
Luxury (n):
1. Something inessential but conducive to pleasure and comfort.
2. Something expensive or hard to obtain.
3. Sumptuous living or surroundings: lives in luxury.
Living in California is inessential, it is conducive to pleasure and comfort, and it is expensive and hard to obtain (relatively).  We would have to unpack the definition of "sumptuous" to address the third definition, which will lead us down a long chain, but "suggesting great expense" seems to be the operable phrase in that definition, and I think it fair to say that applies for the purpose of this discussion.

(4) Is it "unfair" for someone in Manhattan to pay more in Federal taxes than someone with the same skills in Fargo? Why would it be? Living in Manhattan is not a natural right, or state of nature, or existential requirement. It is a conscious choice. It will entail certain consequences including paying higher prices for goods and services (mostly), and also (typically) commanding a higher price for your own services.

Let's say Albouy is right about Manhattanites paying more in Federal taxes than Fargoans. (And I have no reason beyond the typical background levels of skepticism to suppose he isn't.) It seems almost certain that Manhattanites also earn more and spend (i.e. consume) more than Fargoans as well.

Our tax system takes a bite out of transactions going both ways: both you paying others and others paying you. If you decide to live in an area which will have you doing more of both why would you expect your tax burden wouldn't be higher?

I don't see any reason to structure the tax code to insulate people from the costs of the decision to live in more expensive areas. In fact I think this aspect of our tax code is a feature, not a bug.*

(* You may disagree with me if you have different opinions about the net externalities of denser living and think that we should actually be encouraging people to live in denser areas.  Fine. But if that's the goal then let's set up a system to encourage density specifically, rather than tinkering with the inefficient levers of the income tax code and using mean cost-of-living as a proxy.)

(5) Why are we limiting this discussion to Texas vs California or Big Coastal City vs. Small Interior City?  I could live fifteen miles away from where I do and pay one third less in rent.  Does this entitle me to receiving a subsidy from the people who live further out?  I made the decision to spend more money so that I could consume the set of goods encapsulated in "living close to things in Silver Spring" rather than consuming "living close to things in Greenbelt."  Why should someone in Greenbelt, or Salisbury, for that matter, be required to help me do that?

08 June 2011

Farm-to-Fork Fail

Reason: Hit & Run | Ronald Bailey | Organic Folks Don Their Tin Foil Hats To Explain Outbreak of Deadly E. Coli Bacteria

Nearly a score of people have died from infections from a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria in Germany. Thousands more have been sickened. German health authorities at first blamed Spanish cucumbers and more recently organic bean sprouts. Both appear to have been exonerated and the search for the source of contamination goes on. [...]

In an email, one biotechnologist notes this
Europe's vaunted 'farm to fork' labeling and traceability system, which increases consumer confidence by allowing end user freedom of choice, and tracking to quickly identify and remove from the system any problematic foods, is only applied to GM foods, for which there have never been any documented cases of harm.
That is tragically funny to me.  Funny as something with a body count of innocent people can be, anyway.  But then, I have always loved the black humor, and this particular irony is outright fuliginous.

I must second Ilkka's call for imagining the holy hullaballoo zee germans would be raising had 13 people died from nuclear power.  They're already claiming they'll be shuttering ever reactor in the country in favor of  — wait, in favor of what? pixie dust turbines? I don't think they sorted that part out yet.  But just imagine what they would do if plutonium was half as deadly as bean sprouts.


PS I can only assume that the GM-only food tracking system is the result of a combination of luddism, Green pseudo-religious observance, anti-business sentiment, nostalgia for a non-existent past, and a deep, deep confusion about what "chemicals" are.

This sort of confusion:
I also get very interesting responses when I ask if children have allergies. Not long ago I had parents refuse to give their wheezing boy any asthma medication because he was allergic to chemicals, like in medicine, but not allergic to anything organic. I refrained from discussing organic chemistry and that almost all modern medications are organic compounds. There was no future in that conversation.

I did, however, review the results of their son's allergy tests showing reactions to moulds, house dust mites, and the organic family cat. These concerned carbon-based life forms replied that all the results REALLY showed was an allergy to the chemicals used in making the needle used for skin prick testing.
That's from the blog of Doctor Grumpy, who I have recently added to my feed reader at the suggestion of Randomscrub.

07 June 2011

"Seaside Canon"

3quarksdaily | Julia Galef | A crab canon for Douglas Hofstadter

Seaside Canon, for Douglas Hofstadter

by Julia Galef

The ocean was still.
In an empty sky, two gulls turned lazy arcs, and
their keening cries echoed
off the cliff and disappeared into the sea.
When the child, scrambling up the rocks, slipped
too far from her parents' reach,
they called to her. She was already
so high, but those distant peaks beyond --
they called to her. She was already
too far from her parents' reach
when the child, scrambling up the rocks, slipped
off the cliff and disappeared into the sea.
Their keening cries echoed
in an empty sky. Two gulls turned lazy arcs, and
the ocean was still.
Just wonderful.

This is actually the second time in under a week someone has reminded me of Hofstadter and Bach and the canon form. I went to a practice talk last week by a guy who had developed a genetic algorithm system for composing canons around a given theme. I don't really have the music background to really grok it, but it was solid work.

...open the book and read it...

Dr. Boli's Celebrated Magazine | Albertus Boli | Ask Dr. Boli

Dear Dr. Boli: How can I progress from ordinary sleep into slumbering dogmatically? —Sincerely, “cs.”

Dear Sir or Madam: Dogmatic slumber, that easy and comfortable state of resting on one’s unexamined assump­tions, has been shown in multiple studies to be greatly desirable for promoting health of mind and body. Fortunately most people have little trouble achieving this state, and indeed many are seldom roused from it. If, however, you are one of those miserable unfortunates who suffer from dogmatic insomnia, or a perpetual restless examination of what most people take for granted, only a change in habits is likely to bring relief.

The works of David Hume are frequently blamed in cases of dogmatic insomnia, but unjustly so. The problem is not in the works themselves, but in our employment of them. In particular Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, a weighty tome in every sense, is often misused. The mistake most sufferers have made is to open the book and read it, exposing themselves to the disturbing ideas in the text. If, however, when you retire for the evening, you instruct one of the servants to smack you forcefully on the head with the book, you will be virtually assured of a good eight hours of dogmatic slumber.
Hahahahaha. HUME JOKES! You don't get those everyday.

(Via Megan McArdle)

book length

Charlie Stross has a good explanation of "Why books are the length they are - Charlie's Diary." It's a good read.

He uses his "Merchant Princes" series as an example. I actually just finished book 6 of the series a couple of weeks ago. I liked it, but was thinkign throughout the whole story that it seemed very oddly paced. Now I know exactly why.

Office of recycling

I did some pistol shooting this past weekend — a new experience for me — at the house of the friend of a friend out on the Eastern Shore.

This FOAF had a rather clever way of holding up paper targets in front of the berm in his back yard: taping them to campaign signs.


I found this to be no end of clever, with the combination of durability, low weight & effort required, low price, and extra joy from punching holes in the ads of politicians. Is this a common way to hold up targets and I just don't know about it? (Totally possible.)

Anyway, I rather enjoyed my firearms experience. I'm going to have to do some more of that when I get a bigger balance in my cash and free time reserves.

Sidenote: Quintana... that creep can roll, man.

02 June 2011

Anti-pollution taxes

The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | Taxing the bad stuff

Also at Ezra Klein's place, Brad Plumer writes an excellent post summarising a new IMF paper on environmental taxation. It includes this telling graph:



Among OECD members, America does the worst at raising revenue through taxes designed to discourage pollution. I suspect that a big part of this is due to America's remarkably low petrol tax, but that in itself is worth noting. Ideally, one would like to tax bad things rather than good things, and pollution is a bad thing. In a country that dislikes income taxes and frets over its deficit, a bigger role for environmental taxes, including a carbon tax, seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, America's politicians have failed to come up with an effective way to sell the idea.
I'm definitely in favor of "taxing the bad stuff," or at least "stuff we want people to do less," to take less of a judgmental stance.  (*Ahem* we should be taxes consumption not saving and earning *ahhhrrrrrrrm*.  Excuse me.)

But be careful with this chart. Note that the y-axis is "percent of total tax revenue" attributable to pigovian pollution taxes. There are two ways less obvious ways America could push itself further to the right in this chart, and I don't think most people who want to tax pollution more would like either.

The first is to cut other taxes. If we had a lower corporate income taxes, like, say, every single other country on this list, America would have a higher proportion of tax revenue from anti-pollution taxes.

The other is to loosen environmental controls and then tax the formerly prohibited actions. Much of the US's environmental policy is very top down, mandating exactly the sorts of devices and techniques and processes that must be used to control pollution. We would raise more revenue anti-pollution if, for instance, we taxed vehicles on any NOx emissions over a certain standard rather than refusing to license those vehicles period.

I'd be fine with both of those things, but I doubt many other people who worry our anti-pollution taxes are too low would be.

I wish DC was a person so it could hear me when I told it to go screw itself

Via Coyote Blog:
Reason | A. Barton Hinkle | Political Hacks

Suppose you’re the owner of a taxicab company in a largish metropolitan area. One day you notice some taxis tooling around town—and they’re not yours. They belong to an upstart competitor. His cars are newer, his drivers are nicer, and his fares are lower. Pretty soon your profits start shrinking. What are you going to do about it?

You have a couple of choices. Option A: Invest a lot of money in new vehicles, customer-service training for your drivers, GPS systems to map faster routes and so on. A lot of expense. A lot of effort.

So you go for Option B: Invest a little money in a few politicians, who adopt a medallion law: Only licensed operators with city-issued taxi medallions may operate cabs. The oldest cab companies get first dibs on the medallions, at the lowest rates. Only a few medallions are left over for the new guy, and he can’t afford them anyway. Bingo—your competition problem is solved. The customers might not like it, but what are they going to do—walk? [...]

Now it’s the District of Columbia’s turn. Four members of the D.C. City Council have introduced a bill that would create a medallion system for the nation’s capital. Medallion prices would start at $250 for the most established taxi companies and, for the newer entrants, run as high as $10,000. At least initially. As time wore on, it’s likely that the price of a medallion would go up for everyone. That’s what has happened in places such as New York, where a government permission slip to drive a cab costs about $600,000. In Boston, which initially capped medallions at 1,525 in the 1930s—and more than a half-century later had added only 250 more—a medallion will cost you $400,000.

At present the District has more than 10,000 licensed taxi drivers; the proposed legislation would establish only 4,000 medallions. Needless to say, such artificially imposed scarcity also drives up prices. A study by Natwar Gandhi, the District’s chief financial officer, found that fares in cities with medallion systems are 25 percent higher than in cities with open taxi markets.
I shouldn't expect anything less from these empty headed halfwits. DC politicans are always overflowing with rhetoric about protecting the little people, but every single time it comes down to it, it's screw-the-people-let's-help-our-friends. Only the knuckleheads who run this town could think they're helping people with this, and the asinine hoop-jumping bullshit they're putting between me and shopping at a damned WalMart.  In what goddamned universe does a supply cap on a service help people?

I'm adding this to the pile of reasons I think DC's bid to get voting representation in congress is a bad idea.  They get to vote for the city council, and their council still passes self-destructive laws like this.  Why in the name of [something you hold dear] should they get to vote on even more important legislation?  Get yoru own damn house in order and then we'll talk.

Oh wait, I haven't even starting to get upset at this town yet. Not until this came up:

Remember Brooke Oberwetter getting arrested at the Jefferson Memorial a couple of years ago for silently dancing at midnight? It was one of the first things I posted about here — one; two; three.

Well this happened last weekend:
Reason: Hit & Run | Mike Riggs | Federal Park Police Under Investigation for Choking, Body Slamming Dancer at Jefferson Memorial

Federal Park Police hassled, tackled and arrested five people on Saturday for dancing at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. The group, led by Iraq War veteran and TV host Adam Kokesh, was protesting a May 17 ruling in a case that dates back to April 2008, when a group of young libertarians organized by the now kaput Bureaucrash decided to rendezvous at the memorial for a silent celebration of TJ's birthday. Here's the Spectator's writeup of the 2008 event: [...]

On May 17, 2011, the D.C. Circuit "affirmed there is no constitutional right to dance at the Jefferson Memorial," so this weekend, Kokesh et al. decided to go dancing. They announced the plan on Facebook, and showed up at the memorial on Saturday in broad daylight. This is what happened:



According to the AP, the cops in question are now under investigation for their rough behavior:
The U.S. Park Police is investigating whether its officers were too aggressive in arresting five demonstrators who were dancing in protest over the weekend at the Jefferson Memorial. Videos posted online show the officers forcefully arresting the protesters Saturday afternoon. One officer is seen with his hands around a protester’s throat, and a demonstrator is also shown being slammed to the ground.
As Radley Balko reported in 2008, Park Police weren't especially kind the first time around, either. When asked what Oberwetter (a past Reason contributor who now works for Facebook) was being charged with, the arresting officer told the other dancers to "shut the fuck up."
Here's a longer video:



Whatever you think of police conduct and violence, or whether free speech (at a monument dedicated to a champion of free speech — no fighting in the war room!) includes silent dancing, or whether police should be the judges of what is and is not expression or disturbance, this is asinine because the arresters caused more disturbance than the arrestees.  If someone calls in a noise complaint about their neighbor, you don't send a dozen squad cars with their sirens on to ask them to turn down the stereo.

Just the other day I was thinking that when my lease is up I want to think about moving downtown.  14th St has got this nice new hot dog shop and a noodle place and some nice new art galleries.  I could get used to that.  They're finally tearing out that disused, rusted used car dealership.  It would be a nice place to live while I'm still young.  But no.  I'm not moving into a town that has so little disregard for its citizens.  (Not that my county is much better, but the devil you know...)